“The Nature of the Beast”

Speaker: Rev. Taryn Strauss, UUCA Acting Senior Minister

Services: 9:30 am & 11:00 am

Like monsters of ancient folklore, the nature of evil transforms, eludes, constructs elaborate illusions and hides in secret.  What is the historical and cultural root of the concept of “gaslighting,” how does it infiltrate our psyches today, and what is a theologically sound response to this insidiously tricky monster?


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Sermon Text:

You have Don Milton to thank for this sermon not being a complete downer. Last night I had the joyful opportunity to attend the Gay Men’s Chorus of Atlanta’s concert Queens adn Queen. It was the epitome of making a joyful noise.

To see over a hundred men on stage so free, so fierce, fanboying out to artists who got them through difficult times, well, it was a moment for dancing in the aisles if there ever was one, and my spirit is still dancing. She hasn’t quite caught up with me yet.

But with the exception of last night, I’ve been feeling Lentish. Maybe you’ve been feeling it too. When that groundhog said may there be six more weeks of winter, he really meant it.
As it turns out, it may become more than six weeks. I’m really, really glad you are here. And I am grateful to those who are watching from home.

It’s a little ironic that even as I tell my children not to look for the monsters under their beds, not to heed the robber that chases them in their dreams, pay no mind to the shuffles they think they hear in the dark house, come Sunday morning, I’m telling you just the opposite.

For as long as there have been humans, there have been stories of heroes, and who do the heroes have to fight, but villains. Even God had an entourage of monsters up in heaven, who God would dispatch at various moments when God needed chaos to reign down to see what humanity might do, what innovative solution the humans might concoct, or simply how they would react, all of us, fish in a bowl.

Some monsters like the Leviathan, were primordial and predated the act of creation, recurring throughout the narrative and wholly destructive. Perhaps it’s because I am the mother of boys, but I end each night with stories of dragons, and robbers, Orcs and anti-heroes, all devising tests of courage, strength, will, and most of all, creativity.

For this reason, I have devised an absolutely pedestrian storyline, highlighting the adventures of Prince Maka-Maka. The stories have such titles as, “Prince Maka-Maka goes to the bank.” “Prince Maka-Maka goes out for ice cream,” and “Prince Maka-Maka gets picked up from school and arrives safely home in time for dinner.” These too, are nightly requests. Nothing much happens in Prince Maka-Maka’s suburban landscape, and we all like it there just fine.

Both stories are true. Both, the lilting, meditative meanderings of a young prince who takes trips to the bank and arrives home from school unharmed, and the stories of monsters who lurk in dark caves, who prey on our fears and our vulnerabilities, be they because we are chlidren, or women, or we are black, or Latinx, or we are queer, or transgender, or less powerful, or meek.

Everyone has a villain. An enemy, a demon, who can become overgrown and take up all the space in your psyche, until someone returns you to a perspective that can be found only in relationship with others.

Right now, one villain looms large for many of us. This is kind of helpful, and establishes a clear order.
We relish our stance as the good ones, united against one true monster. You know the one. The one in the red hat. The one with skin that seems to glow orange and the toupe that reveals a bald head, like that of Lex Luthor, another villain who was fun to hate. More on him later.

Not only are we well into Lent, but Today is International Women’s Day, it’s the day when throughout my twenties I directed productions of The Vagina Monologues. On International Women’s Day, I connect to the violence women must survive across the world. I’m glad the word “gaslighting” has taken hold and captured the American imagination during these days of apocalyptic unveiling, in this world where more and more women have proclaimed, me too.

Gaslighting is a term derived from a play that premiered in London in 1938.

The play is set in fog-bound London in 1880, at the upper middle class home of Jack Manningham and his wife Bella. It is late afternoon, a time that Hamilton notes as the time “before the feeble dawn of gaslight and tea.”
Bella is clearly on edge, and the stern reproaches of her overbearing husband (who flirts with the servants) make matters worse. What most perturbs Bella is Jack’s unexplained disappearances from the house: he will not tell her where he is going, and this increases her anxiety. It becomes clear that Jack is intent on convincing Bella that she is going insane, even to the point of assuring her she is imagining that the gas light in the house is dimming.

Technically, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes such as low self-esteem.

This particularly monster is a shapeshifter, and this makes it very difficult when doing battle.

So where do we go looking for the Jersey devil today, in 2020?

We have monsters for a reason. The lore of the Jersey devil is a woman who was overrun by children, who perhaps uttered a blasphemous curse upon her own family, out of exhaustion, conjuring a devil in those woods.

Though women have most often been the ones being gaslit and tortured by monsters, stolen away by dragons or giant apes, they are also blamed for conjuring them across legend and history. Which is why, after a week off letting go yet again of that dream, the one that tells us girls that maybe if we persist beyond all expectation and devise concrete plans to save the country from doom, that maybe we will be more than mere afterthoughts in an election for a national lead, women everywhere are feeling exhausted.

Yes, we will persist.

We are the search party for the monster because once it is known it can be named, it can be unmasked, hunted, and we can have it out, have that reckoning.

This means we must attune ourselves to different energy. Not always attuned to hope, but to deep commitment. Commitment to wisdom, and to each other most of all.

This concept of gaslighting, of lying and attempting to create a different reality is much older than the 1938 play, of course. It’s interesting, the play was written during a time when masses of people across Europe were being gaslit, were having a new reality constructed around them, one that sought to polarize them, and turn them into either victims or survivors on a mass scale.

It may be time for a revival of that production.

In 2020, we must stay wise to the ways we are being manipulated into polarization.
Krista Tippet suggests
Change of this magnitude acts on us psychologically, and not just electorally.” The truth is, there are so many ways that aren’t about politics, that are just about the air we breathe and, again, how we define our identity and the fact that we’re the generation that’s redefining marriage and community and gender — this human ground beneath our feet, shifting, not to mention the economic ground beneath our feet, shifting —

that makes this such an unsettled time. And sometimes I wonder, sometimes what I feel is that politics has become the thinnest of veneers over this – this human condition in a moment like this.

In the past couple of years — and it was actually at the recommendation of Varshini Prakash, who is the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, the climate change movement and I asked her, what does she do when she thinks about failure?
And she said that every day she reads some of the Tao, the Tao Te Ching. And I thought, that’s a strange answer. And so I read it, I was really, really, deeply struck by its ideas of non-dualism, its challenge to think about everything is also encoding its opposite. And so much of how we are taught to think — I just think in general, but very much in politics — is, things are one way. They are right, or they are wrong. We got it right, or we got it wrong.
This person won, and this person lost. It’s a clean equation that has one answer, every single time. And the deep truth about the Obama presidency is that the Trump presidency was within it …

And the story does not end here. Ezra Klein goes on to say about journalism,

And so I think that there’s a deep way in which we are manipulated into a constant state of — feeling a constant state of emergency. And it would be one thing if that was a productive emotion, but what I think it leads to is a constant state of either exhaustion or hypervigilance, both of which can be bad in their own ways.

When we become pulled into that polarizing narrative, we lose other stories that are also true.
there’s a whole alternative narrative to the story of our time, which is actually people, real people in real places, stitching our country back together, one relationship at a time. It’s very hard to make that into a riveting story the way it’s easy to make something terrible or a disaster or an evil person into a riveting story.
Klein invites us to step back from the narrative of good versus evil and shock and confrontation that we are being drawn into. We can have a much greater impact on our local political system than we can on the national one, no matter who is president. We can build relationships, connections, and a sense of personal empowerment if we change our news diet to local issues, and get involved in the issues that matter to our local community.

So many insidious forces that wish to draw us into the hero and villain narrative.

So, this is an old concept, this gaslighting of people for powerful gain. It is so old, I wondered if it was Biblical.

This week I have been drawn to what was probably the first or second book of scripture written, the Proverbs. Based on Egyptian and ancient Greek sayings passed down ancestrally, I always loved the Wisdom proverbs. Wisdom is generally personified as female, and she warns against various forms of knowledge that are not “of God.” The act of discerning one’s truth is a spiritual discipline, a devotional and sacred conversation with one’s true core.

Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?

At the highest point along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;

beside the gate leading into the city,
at the entrance, she cries aloud:

“To you, O people, I call out;
I raise my voice to all mankind.

To the discerning all of them are right;
they are upright to those who have found knowledge.
Choose my instruction instead of silver,
knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.

Wisdom calls out. Today, we see women calling out their abusers, taking down gaslighters who were once seen as great. Wisdom is powerful when she raises her voice.

If you explore the lyrics of spirituals, you will find great anguish and lamentation within.

My colleague, Nancy Mcdonald-Ladd writes about how in the Black church tradition, the people stand when the Black National anthem starts. They may raise their hands, ball their fists, and grasp their neighbors on the arm while singing the words that are uniquely endowed to Black Americans through their history of oppression and courageous resistance. The lyrics carry on fearlessly and without flinching.

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

These words describing a violent path toward freedom, this is a healing lament. Giving voice to the pain, the slaughter, the gloom of the past, is a significant step to constructing a new future. But the monster must be named, and found out, and lifted out of the silent hiding places where they thrive and wish to remain always.

Every monster needs a search party. With our lamplights, our flashlights and our maps, we can enter the dark woods together. Like those Scooby Doo characters, together we can unmask the culprit, and find the truer, and often scarier thing within our own nature. We can name it, sing it, testify to it, call it by it’s true name.

Then we can pull away the mask and see the monster is not in fact a virus, but the panic combined with an untrustworthy leader, combined with racism and the self-interested hoarding that creates chaos and causes destruction.

If you encounter this particular beast that messes with your reality, shine your light to its face, and share your story. Name your reality, your internal core of deep wisdom. Women’s voices, women’s strength to stop the monster in their tracks and say, “this man is harassing me. This is happening to me, this is real.”
We can all call upon the strength of women’s truth telling, whether or not we are women.

To speak our truth, to confess our wrongdoings, this is the work of Lent. This is women’s work, and it is all of our work. Toward a different kind of hope, a new commitment. We will embark on what my colleague Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter calls moral alchemy, turning a villain into something new. Turning our hero stories around on their heads with our deep inner wisdom that we are more complex than any Marvel movie would have us believe.

Speak your truth, seek deeper wisdom, and join each other’s search parties. In this way, we will connect to a longer, deeper narrative, beyond good and evil, and stay connected to our Ground of Being. This will get us through.