Dreamfast With Me
September 20, 2019, Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee of the UUA, Boston, Massachusetts
Imagine a world where the sinister machinations of a culture of supremacy were obvious and embodied: withered, birdlike, grasping creatures decked out in shiny armor and lavish lace, wizened by age yet surprisingly vigorous in their greed for power, and in their zeal for bending others—and the earth itself—to their will. So it is in the fantastical world of Thra, from Jim Henson’s film The Dark Crystal. This 1982 film, beloved by many Gen Xers and millennials in their childhoods, is enjoying a renaissance thanks to the new Netflix series Age of Resistance. These iconic and frightening creatures of supremacy and oppression are the villainous Skeksis.
The Skeksis share their world with another race called the Gelfling. In Age of Resistance, the Skeksis and Gelfling exist in an uneasy—and unequal—political arrangement. Throughout the series, the Skeksis embody many of the behaviors that Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun list as symptomatic of white supremacy culture, from power hoarding, to “everyone for themselves” thinking, to the idea that progress means more. The powerless Gelfling vastly outnumber the Skeksis, and yet the Skeksis maintain an iron grip of control over them by leveraging fear and threats, while pretending to be protective and benevolent. This arrangement is for the good of all…and besides, the military and technological might of the Skeksis is such that a tiny, insignificant Gelfling would need to be mad to resist them: or so the Skeksis say.
Indeed, even in our own world, sometimes it feels like resisting the ongoing march of supremacy culture, at work in our minds, bodies, and every echelon of our society from finance to government, is an act of what some might callously call madness.
Today, the UUA has encouraged Unitarian Universalists around the country to join in a global general strike for climate action, in solidarity with 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. Her passion has lifted up the work of other teen activists worldwide. She names that those of her generation will bear the greatest pain and tragedy from the coming ecological catastrophe. Our own Unitarian Universalist youth have stakes in this fight, and have urged wide participation in today’s strike.
Greta Thunberg has become a global rallying point for climate activism in a way that many before her were not. It’s true that she is a child of some privilege: her parents are wealthy; she speaks English and is white, both of which automatically amplify her voice. But there’s more to this story. It’s impossible to talk about Greta Thunberg’s clarity of purpose and conviction, her gift for bluntly cutting to the heart of matters, or her mature grasp of the facts and figures of climate change, without mentioning that she is autistic.
Autism has long been a widely misunderstood human trait. Since doctors began formally observing and classifying behaviors associated with autism in the 1930s, it’s been discussed in the context of “high” versus “low” functioning—a dichotomy which autistic people roundly reject. Autism, rather than a pathology, can be thought of as a kind of cognitive difference: no more or less disabling than ADHD, dyslexia, or other common but less stigmatized neurotypes. Much of the ministry I’ve done in my teaching congregation has centered around engaging the concept of neurodiversity: an idea proposed by autistic activists that there are many inherent and natural types of human cognition. Just as there are many different ways of having a physical body—one can be tall or short, fat or thin, dark- or light-skinned, Deaf or blind or hearing or sighted—there are many ways of processing the world neurologically. The movements we did during our chalice lighting are common to those on the autism spectrum. They might look odd to onlookers, but this is a form of sensory regulation that allows for participation in community without being overloaded.
And yet, there are still people who denigrate those of us who live with one or more of these atypicalities. As Greta Thunberg talks about the convictions, focus, and unique sensory perspective that come to her through the lens of autism, climate change deniers who would write off her clarion call to action have called her “unstable,” “disturbed.” These are reflections of a larger misunderstanding: autism is still treated as pathology in many circles. Autistic children are sometimes told not to interact with others like them, for fear that it would exacerbate the behavior that society sees as a “problem.” These accusations of madness are familiar to most people on the spectrum—and they’re as old as mistaken ideas about the condition itself. But neurodivergent people are resilient, and in community we are sharing new ideas about ourselves all the time, if only the larger culture would tune in and listen.
In The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, the Gelfling engage in a powerful practice called dreamfasting. The Gelfling share a psychic connection to the world of Thra, and to a collective dreamspace. By holding their hands up to one another, palms facing, the Gelfling are able to share memories with one another, enabling them to literally see through the eyes of another and know their experience, and thus discern the truth of things. The oppressive Skeksis rightly understand the power of this practice, and know its danger: if the Skeksis’ cruelty was known, the Gelfling might rise in opposition, and there aren’t enough Skeksis to stand against them. If a witness to Skeksis cruelty dreamfasted with other Gelfling, the Skeksis way of life would end. They hide their weakness by spreading the lie that sicknesses of the mind—madness and instability—can be spread through the practice of dreamfasting. It is only when the Gelfling are able to overcome their fear that madness might overtake them, that they can dreamfast, and in doing so, share the damning truth of what goes on in the Skeksis’ fortress.
Now, this is not Thra. We here may not be Gelfling. And the avatars of oppression in our world may not look like literal Skeksis. But in coming together, in sharing worship, story, and experience, we can dreamfast, in a way. What is collective worship, if not many people sharing one temporary dreamspace?
In worship at its best, hearts are poured out and shored up. Eyes are opened and bodies are readied. In worship, we can share one another’s minds. But whose minds do we deem worthy of sharing in our space? Who may be invited to dreamfast with us? Are we giving in to the lie told to us by supremacy culture, that only some minds are pure? Or do we, instead, have the courage to reject the fear that we may be harmed or tainted? Dare we share a vision of a world transformed?
On this day when so many are striking to make a statement against those who would threaten our very well-being in the name of profit and expediency, I feel a charge in the air. Now is our moment. Come now, if you dare: I ask you to dreamfast with me.
Between us here, and the cloud of witnesses that surround us; between us in this room and those striking; all of us sharing one dreamfast, looking through one another’s eyes, sharing one another’s memories and stories. We dreamfast now with Greta, the tiny autistic prophet. We dreamfast now with the youth who stand to lose so much. We dreamfast with the water protectors; with those who would heal the earth rather than despoil it; with those whose atypical vision is clearly not one of madness, but clarity and truth.
In this moment, in this time of powerful dreamfast, let us be connected to them and to ourselves. Let our work become one, and together, we shall dream our way into purpose.
Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, "Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture," 2001 https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html