This sermon was preached on 3/25/12 at First Unitarian, in Brooklyn. It addresses the tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin, while wrestling with the spiritual implications of Whiteness.
We have a sometimes problematic tradition here where ministers need to post their sermon titles four to six weeks in advance – and still be expected that our subject matter is timely and relevant. I’m very sad to say that this week’s topic “White Rage” is tragically both timely and relevant. I will still speak about how we often talk about race dynamics in terms of oppression, abuse and power while attempting to speak to the perspective of victimized people. I will still take a hard look at the spirituality and psychology of Whiteness.” But along with the focus of our prayer this morning,I feel we need to begin with the death of Trayvon Martin. This great crisis in our country is tied to the reality that if Trayvon’s death weren’t in the news this week, my sermon on White Rage would have still another story to focus on. It was always going to be sadly, very timely. Racism in theUnited Statesis not merely about prejudice. It’s the source of pain, death and sorrow for millions – if not hundreds of millions.
On the night of February, 26th, 17 year old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed while walking home from a store with a bag of skittles and some iced tea, in his hometown ofSanford,Fla.The LA Times wrote on Friday about the death threats his assailant George Zimmerman has been receiving. Zimmerman apparently has gone in hiding because of those death threats. Note that he’s not hiding from the police – he’s not being sought for arrest. He continues to claim self-defense.
The LA Times article ends with this: ““For at least eight years, Zimmerman seems to have been part of a neighborhood watch group, based in his Retreat atTwinLakescommunity. During that time he called the police department at least 46 times with reports of various sightings such as open garages and suspicious people, often African American, it was reported. It was such a call that police released last week. Zimmerman told the 911 operator that he saw a suspicious teenager.
“Something’s wrong with him. Yep. He’s coming to check me out,” Zimmerman told a police dispatcher in a 911 call released Monday. “He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is. Send officers over here.”
The teen started to run, Zimmerman reported. When Zimmerman said he was following, the dispatcher told him, “We don’t need you to do that.”
Shortly afterward, neighbors began calling 911 to report a fight, then a gunshot. By the time police arrived, Trayvon Martin was dead.””
Now when I read this, I’m sure we will learn more and more in the weeks ahead about the life of Zimmerman. I will not use this pulpit to convict a man. But I will use it to seek to come to terms with this tragedy in the face of how our country wrestles with the facts as they come in. We held a moment of silence during our prayer today for the life and family of Trayvon Martin. In a sense we are helpless in the face of their loss – and words may feel empty. And yet, we can allow this story to demand that we call out the horrors of violence and prejudice wherever they are rooted. Some of this is based in race dynamics. Some of this in power. Some of this in fear. Some in ignorance. But it’s also rooted in apathy. It’s rooted in gun laws that make it easy for civilians to pretend they’re heroes in their own minds. (…The teen started to run, Zimmerman reported. When Zimmerman said he was following, the dispatcher told him, “We don’t need you to do that.”) But he did it anyway. It’s rooted in always giving the benefit of the doubt to the assailant when the victim is a person of color – knowing the reverse seems rarely true.
Does anyone here doubt for one second, that should this horror story befall one of our white teens in this congregation, that their assailant wouldn’t be behind bars? Would we ever rest before justice was found? For that matter, would our white teen even be seen to be suspicious in the first place? We should hold a moment of silence in the face of this dreadful inequality.
The race dynamics are complicated here. Zimmerman was first described by the police as white. But his own family identifies as hispanic. Regardless of the perceived color of the assailant, the civic, legal and political responses here are typical for how those bodies deal with many Black Americans. I am no longer shocked by the inhumane responses we’ve heard from pundits and leaders alike defending the gun laws. Geraldo Rivera said, “I’ll bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way…”. That nutty neighborhood watch guy… Or Glenn Beck’s web-based attempt to link Trayvon Martin’s suspension from school to a fantasized criminal record – implying but not directly saying he may have deserved to be killed. Or Newt Gingrich’s attempt to turn this into a political moment for himself by falsely claiming President Obama was playing a race card – calling the president’s off-the-cuff words “disgraceful.”
The Rev. Sean Dennison (a UU minister inCalifornia) writes, “One way that racism works: tell people that telling the truth or even talking about race is “disgraceful.” We should all pretend that racism doesn’t exist. If you mention it, you’re somehow in the wrong.” Sean’s words are very apt. There’s a desire to pretend this tragedy would have played out the same way regardless of the color of the victim. I don’t believe that to be true.
Pulling back from the story of Trayvon Martin, where do all these reactions come from? Why is there a desire to pretend we treat all victims the same? Why do we feel the need to say folks who dress a certain way are inherently more dangerous? Why do white pundits try to fabricate criminal records for black children? Where does the rage come from in some white people?
I believe it’s in part sourced in the crossroads between the myth of the American Dream, and the pain we feel when things that used to go our way stop seeming to go our way. Then we project onto the world the drama that’s going on inside our heads. The American Dream says that if you work hard enough, you’ll achieve financial success, a house, and 2-point-something children. For some people that’s still true. But I’m willing to wager that if I were to ask for a show of hands (and I pointedly will not today) who here feels they have both worked hard and achieved financial success that we’d have less people than who could fit in a single row of pews. And yet, we still want to believe that if we work hard enough, we’ll get there. All on our own.
Or for those who have succeeded by working hard, there’s a inclination to want to say, “Well, I did it. So could you. And if you haven’t yet succeeded, it’s just because you didn’t work hard enough.” And sometimes that’s true. Sometimes, misfortune is tied to lack of effort or skill. But there’s a whole range that’s in between. It’s not always, or even often, either/or. Then there’s what I call the shifting landscape. The financial realities of working-class Americans is different now than when this American Dream was fabricated – or even in it’s heyday. And it directly affects how those who were raised with privilege react when they no longer seem to have the same opportunities their parents had. We often hear this described by conservatives as the decline of family values, or the collapse of the morals of plain old hard work.
In a Feb 10th opinion post, NY Times economist, Paul Krugman talks about this perception. He writes, “For lower-education working men, however, it has been all negative. Adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent.” He goes on to point out that, “much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas.” He concludes with the rhetorical question, “you would expect something similar to happen if another social group — say, working-class whites — experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has.” I’ll save you all the mathwork Krugman has done. If you’re interested you can follow the links to it when this sermon is live on-line. But assuming that this Nobel Prize winning economist’s numbers are accurate, the White Working Class sector is suffering financial hardships in ways it hasn’t in generations (not that any other working-class group is doing well.) And I notice that at the same time, there is an influx of conservative outrage over the agency of women’s bodies, the definition of marriage, and now, the right of individuals to chase teenagers with hoodies down the street with a gun despite 911 saying “We don’t need you to do that.”
All this financial decline for the working class since 1973, the same year as the landmark decision of Roe. v. Wade. It’s a social conservative fantasy that if only we went back to that world where certain people were in charge (men, whites) all this would get better again. Ignoring all the safeguards and parameters that were once in place back then – Unions, better benefits, shorter work weeks, less disparity between the richest and the poorest, less need for the expense of graduate education to succeed or even be employed, and the list goes on. And the white working class – which these days some would say feels the same as the white middle class – is wrestling with a rage we don’t exactly understand. “I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, and it’s just not working anymore. And you say you have problems!” And we get filled with rage. Rage because things that were once easy aren’t any longer. Rage because we’re experiencing financial hardships that other racial groups have had to live with generationally. Rage because we might be coming to realize that our own success may have less to do with our own actions, and more from the privilege of our skin. And we just don’t want to be told that.
Religion can be of help here. We don’t need to feel like we have to go at it all alone. Likewise, when we’re successful, we don’t have to feel like it’s us against and over the world. Rage is rooted in this sense of separateness. We are left broken when we allow rage to uproot us from that web of life of which we are a crucial part. Feeling rage is not wrong. Allowing rage to indignantly convince us that we stand apart from that web, our family, is the source of crisis. When it rears its angry head, acknowledge it for what it is… and let it go. It’s not real – only our actions are real.
Sometimes that’s hard to believe. For me, that’s where faith comes in. There’s a certain point where we just need to tell the mind – the part of us that repeats the tired old story that we’re not loved, or that we don’t care, or that the world stands against us so we should stand against the world – tell that voice to settle down. Even if we can’t see the other side, we may need to find a sense of faith that allows us to believe that there can be another way. We may not be thinking logically, and then logic isn’t going to help all too much.
If this is too ephemeral – or you feel like you have no sense of rage in your life – or you’ve got a good work/life balance – or your everyday problems are well in hand. (Bless you, and teach me how you’ve managed so well.) Take a look at congregational life. Our nation is not the only group that is experiencing massive cultural changes. We’re going to go through some changes ourselves – not only in this interim year, but with a new minister who brings with her a whole different set of life experiences. When you find yourself saying, “But this is how we’ve been doing this for 20 years,” ask yourself to slow down. The world as it was, is not the world as it is. That’s a hard thing to say out loud. And it’s a very hard thing to hear.
We all know that some things ought to be honored. And some things need to change enough to allow new folks, new faces, and new visions room to grow. We ought to be wary whenever our actions seek to control the views, expressions, and habits of others. That tendency is as much a male tendency as it is a white tendency. Patriarchal is only one step away from Colonial – and both are demeaning. They are not tendencies that are reserved only for men or only for white folk, but us white fellows have excelled at both.
I don’t mention these challenges around change to make a connection between them and the violence we see in the world. I mention them because how we manage our fears around change, influences how we manage our anger, and how we foster this sense of rage that can build up inside any of us. It also influences what our community can come to look like, and who it can come to represent.
Consider our young adult membership. Over the past four years we’ve seen a young adult community here that has grown from about 35 folks to about 135 folks. There have been moments of tension, as power and involvement have stretched and grown. All good things. But whether it’s obvious to you or not, we do things differently now in some ways than we did even five years ago. And because of these cultural changes, we’ve allowed a young adult community to thrive here in what is otherwise a smaller-sized congregation. Likewise, if you find yourself lamenting why more people of color aren’t in our pews, but you regularly restate, “But this is how we’ve been doing this for 20 years…” you have to be careful. Are you saying it because we’re not properly honoring a tradition? Or is it a way to maintain a sense of control over something when you feel out of control of a changing world? This is a very hard question I ask with no sense of accusation. The world can be a hard place, and our religious community can be a beautiful island amidst the storm. But it can’t be just your or just my island. It has to be one for all the people around us now, and it has to be for all the people who are not yet here. That’s what a community of faith is about. If we can get this right here, in this house of hope, then maybe we can figure out how to get it right out there too. But if we can’t figure it out here, we are not going to figure it out there.
When you encounter feelings that tell you things are unfair, or harsh – use that as an opportunity to foster compassion for others in a similar situation. Don’t use it as a chance to fortify your sense of righteousness. Be present to the difficult feelings. Honor them for the truth they offer. The rage we sometimes feel, or sometimes hide, can be fuel for a very long road. It becomes problematic when we rely on it, or become addicted to it. And it’s sometimes helpful when we would otherwise succumb to apathy. A faith centered life, is one where we recognize that at our core we are standing in solidarity with life. We are a force for compassion, possibility, and hope in this world. Whatever our career, our central vocation is one. We are all called to respond to the world with care and with a vision for wholeness.