[Sermon delivered by Brother Void during convenings of the Church of Skeptical Mysticism and Compassionate Nihilism, national tour, 2002-3]
[SPEAK, DON’T READ] Tonight my sermon is on politics, specifically the dark inner world of the political activist, the poisoned thoughts and feelings seething in the hearts of those working to make the world a better place.
Why speak of politics in a church?, you might ask.
[PACE BACK AND FORTH] Well, because a true politics is about all the things a good church should concern itself with.
Some of you may not know this, but our congregation includes many who are politically active — in the trenches, day after day, struggling for housing for the homeless, a more democratic media, an end to racism, some, even for Revolution — with a capital “R.”
I have spoken at length with many of them—and I can say that behind their can-do spirit, they seethe with inner torment.
[COME BACK TO PODIUM] These lonely warriors for justice carry the pain of the world, but who carries their pain? There is no place where they can go to make their existential confessions.
Tonight, let our church be such a place.
[TURN A FEW PAGES IN BINDER TO THIS ONE, READ.] The title of my sermon tonight: “The conflation of hegemonic anxiety and personal despair at the end of the end of irony — can humor help?” Or for short: “Can hopelessness change the world?”
Having ministered to several of you during my short stay here in [such and such a city], I know that (in spite of the good turn-out on Saturday and the colorful Earth Day celebrations this weekend) that deep down many of you are on the verge of giving up hope—and some of you have given up hope. I feel your pain, and I say: “It feels good,” because hopelessness can be a powerful motivator for political involvement.
Seen through the lens of affliction, not just hopelessness, but all kinds of supposedly “negative” feelings and energies can be harnessed for the greater good of the planet.
As this sermon will soon demonstrate: Selfishness can fuel your idealism. Hypocrisy can inform your compassion. Self-hatred, when understood properly, can help you become more tolerant of others. And paranoia, if channeled in just the right way, can help you care more about the world.
Such is the power of affliction.
To help us see how this is so, I will now ask Devo-T1, T2, and Devo’s T3 through 6 to read the affliction, “Being in it for yourself.”
[ALONG WITH DEVO-T’s, READ THE AFFLICTION:] “Being in it for yourself.”
And so we see that idealistic politics can be a theater for personal growth and a healthy egoism.
There are many ways to grow through politics, some are darker and more difficult to excavate than others. In this next reading, we will look at one of the darkest and most difficult. Brother 2 has the high honor tonight of reading to us directly from the holy book.
[PLACE COPY OF BOOK ON PODIUM, SPINE BENT OPEN TO THE AFFLICTION: “The Inner Bigot.” UN-TELESCOPE POINTER, BECKON DEVO-T 2. OFFER SUPPORT IF HE IS NERVOUS. READ CLOSING LINE WITH HIM.]
Which brings us to the central topic of tonight’s sermon: hopelessness. Hopelessness—and hope. For these two seem to travel together.
Hope is an odd thing. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and I can say for certain that Hope is an odd thing.
Often hope is a false sentiment, if not an out-and-out lie, and yet it is difficult to imagine proceeding without it, politically or personally. Nietzsche called hope both “the worst of all evils” and “a much greater stimulant of life than any realized joy could be,” (which goes to show you that you can’t count on philosophers to clarify anything.)
Henry Miller thought of hope as a kind of spiritual clap. A venereal disease of the soul, if you will. “Hope is a bad thing.” he says. “It means that you are not what you want to be. It means that part of you is dead. It means that you entertain illusions.”
It strikes me that we often turn to hope as we turn to religion: to give ourselves a reason to persist. This is what pissed off Nietzsche, I believe: the weakness of needing a reason, often a false reason, to bear one’s burdens.
But does hope really need a reason?
Most of the time, it’s just there, hanging in there, stubbornly, like the will to live.
Can’t each of us remember some moment when we felt a heedless surge of hope in the most bleak and desperate of circumstances? Yes? (I think most of us probably can.)
“Hope” as Emily Dickinson said, is the thing with feathers
(That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all,)
(Which goes to show you that you can’t count on poets to clarify anything, either.)
On the other hand, haven’t we all had experiences where bleak and seemingly unforgiving circumstances, do make us hopeless.
And certainly, the current state of the world—especially in this dark season, with an impostor frat boy in the White House, the sudden mass murder of 3,000 of our countrymen, a raging global war between McWorld and Jihad (now there’s a choice for you), and now, yet again, the re-irruption of the seemingly insane blood feud between Palestinian and Jew that just when you think it can’t get any worse, does — all this is enough to make anyone hopeless.
And how should we respond?
Should we pretend things are better than they are?
Or should we follow the creed of Kurt Vonnegut who once pronounced “Everything is going to become unimaginably worse and never get better again. If I lied to you about that, you would sense that I had lied to you, and that would be another cause for gloom.”
And I think: yes, yes. It’s this kind of extreme truth-telling that can elevate our spirits beyond needing a basis for hope in “hopeful” things, beyond even the constant seesaw of hope and hopelessness in our hearts, to a state of enthusiastic and liberating, and even compassionate, despair.
But then I think of Martin Luther King and his quiet urging: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
And then, finally (I told you hope is an odd thing) I have to wonder, how far apart, actually, is the total hopelessness of a Vonnegut or Miller and the infinite hope of a Martin Luther King?
Are they not, possibly, flip sides of the same coin?
With these questions in mind — for questions are all I really have to offer — let us read this sermon’s central affliction.
[READ AFFLICTION:] “Hopelessness Can Change the World”
Now, the last time I read this happened to be during a revival meeting of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping — which for those that don’t know, is an evangelical anti-consumerist church in New York. [ELABORATE A BIT HERE] Now, when I was done reading this affliction, someone spoke up and asked: “Couldn’t we just dedicate ourselves to an improbable cause? And even though this seemed to lack that extreme heroic existential cool of dedicating yourself to an impossible cause (because remember: what made Camus’ Sisyphus the absurd tragic hero was that although he knew his task was impossible and hopeless, he was yet somehow able to remain happy, forever rolling that rock up the dark mountains of Hades, only to see it tumble back down again and again forever). Nonetheless, (all extreme heroic existential cool aside) this man’s request seemed — in a prosaic way — quite reasonable, and so I said unto him: sure.
And so, in conclusion, [CLOSE BINDER] whether our cause is, in fact, impossible or just extremely improbable, let us, with all our heart, dedicate ourselves to it.