There is an ancient Buddhist and Hindu story that tells of a wondrous net that hangs in the palace of Indra, God of the Heavens. The vast net is wondrous because it is delicate like a spider’s web, strong and beautiful as it stretches infinitely in every direction.
The story says that at each crossing point of the strands hangs a glittering jewel, whose polished surfaces are like a mirror that reflects all the other jewels in the net. Because the jewels are infinite, the reflection is infinite as well.
We are all jewels in Indra’s net, supported by the web. We reflect each other and, because we are all connected, we influence each other. When we act, our actions not only affect us, but they affect all others in the infinite web that holds us all.
This story reminds us that we are all connected and that we depend on each other. It also reminds us that what we do matters. We realize that we need each other and that the survival of all of us is connected in ways that we may not even know.
I often tell the story of Indra’s net as a way to illustrate the 7th of our Unitarian Universalist principles. That’s the one where we affirm and promote the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.
The theme of this Justice Summit is another kind of connection, intersectionality. When Kimberle Crenshaw teaches about intersectionality, she brings yet another perspective to our infinite web. She reminds us that when we damage one strand, we damage ourselves and others. The strands of the web will convey evil as well as good. Ms. Crenshaw helps us learn that when the strands of injustice intersect, there isn’t a jewel at the intersection, there is oppression, and that intersecting injustice is often invisible. When race intersects with gender, African-American women are killed and we don’t even know their names. When transphobia and sexism intersect, transwomen are killed and it doesn’t make the news. When racism and xenophobia intersect, brown families are separated at the border and brown children are kept in detention camps. Just as good can be reflected through the net, so can evil.
The strands of the net have the capacity to transmit both good and evil, because humans have the capacity for both good and evil. With each action, we make a choice. We choose to see oppression or not. We choose to name oppression or not. We choose to resist oppression or not. We choose to learn or not. This tension between good and evil in our net reflects the tension within us.
There are times when I really don’t want to acknowledge that there is also the capacity for evil in our wondrous net. I want the net to remain magical and wondrous, and I want to ignore the capacity for evil in myself and others, which is itself an evil, but that’s another story. It is my privilege as a white, educated, middle class person that even allows me to entertain the idea that I can choose not to acknowledge our capacity for evil and injustice; many people experience it in their daily lives. I’d rather not learn this, I’d rather someone else took care of it. As Elizabeth Nguyen reminds us, learning means letting go of certainty, of knowing, of control, of comfort. And it is our most important work. Being a learning people, being willing to open our eyes, ears and minds, being willing to try new things, fail and try again.
A colleague once gave me a lifeline when I was feeling especially discouraged and overwhelmed by the state of the world and the state of humanity. She reminded me of Indra’s net, that we are all connected. Just as evil can travel through the strands, so can good. “So, just pick a strand in the web and pull it toward justice,” she said, “it pulls everything else toward justice, too. When you work for immigrant justice, it impacts economic justice. When you work for LGBTQ rights it impacts women’s rights. When you work to combat climate chaos, it impacts everything because it is all connected. So, just pick something to work on, it doesn’t matter what you feel called to work on. Do your part, pick something to work on, and pull the strand toward justice.”
So, today as we learn about intersectionality and how oppressions are connected, let us remember that we are all connected. Let us remember that we choose our actions, the only things in our sphere of control. Let us heed the words of Yadenee Hailu, assistant minister at All Soul’s Unitarian Church in Tulsa, preached this past June at our Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly:
“All isms are terribly woven into the fabrics of each of our lives, and it demands vulnerability laced with courage to admit this, explore this, and address this in ourselves and in our communities. It’s one thing to peek at the ever expanding web of connections we are bound in and it’s another to be in relationship with it. We aren’t “woke” by simply acknowledging it briskly and moving along. We don’t elicit justice or equity by staying unmuddied and unbruised on the sidelines, protected by the illusion of otherness and purity. We are revolutionaries when we dare to be proximate and cultivate healthy relationships.”
Let us commit to open eyes, ears, minds and hearts. Let us commit to being courageous and vulnerable. Let us commit to letting go and to the possibility of transformation. Let us commit to picking a strand in the net, any strand, getting proximate, and pulling it toward justice.
May this be so. Blessed Be. Amen.
Rev. Mary Gear
This homily was the centerpiece of the opening worship at the 2019 Justice Summit “Navigating Intersectionality.” The 2019 Justice Summit was held on October 12, 2019 and was co-presented by Justice Washington and Olympia UU Congregation. Rev. Mary Gear is the minister of that Olympia UU Congregation. Learn more about Rev. Mary here.