This sermon was preached on MLK Sunday, January 19th, 2014 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the difficult social justice lessons of the year past.
The past year has woven a mixed tapestry of social justice progress and heart-breaks. Certainly, this is not a new outcome for any year. To honor one of our nation’s heroes of social progress, I like to take Martin Luther King, Jr’s holiday to reflect on the work of the year gone past. There are ways in which many of the disparate outcomes connect with one another, and it’s important as citizens to understand the interconnectivity of oppressions. Our faith teaches us that all things are interdependent, and this includes all oppressions. Sometimes, when we assess how different issues are connected, we can unravel the solution for them all – or at least better discern the true source of the problem.
June 25th – in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States rules that parts of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional. Even though Congress periodically reviewed the timeliness of the precautions implemented to reduce racially motivated blocks to voting, the majority opinion would claim that the Voting Rights “Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.” In conflict with this assessment, Congress, which according to the Constitution, has wide powers to legislate the voting process, last reviewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006, only 7 years ago. Suggesting racial discrimination is radically diminished, the majority opinion would conclude with the words, “nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” Eighteen days later, on July 13th, George Zimmerman would be found not guilty in the murder of the black teen, Trayvon Martin. In a rare turn of events, the court of public opinion would perversely put the dead youth on trial to defend himself posthumously against a White Hispanic man with a restraining order against him for domestic abuse. Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose.
Within 6 weeks of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, 6 Southern States would pass or implement new voting restrictions. And we need to remember that “(s)ince 1965, the Justice Department blocked at least 1,150 discriminatory voting changes from going into effect under Section 5 of the VRA.” The Rev. William Barber, NAACP North Carolina president, speaking about the assault on voting rights would say, “In some ways, these tactics are not Jim Crow. They do not feature Night Riders and sheets … This is in fact, James Crow, Esq. Jim Crow used blunt tools. James Crow, Esq. uses surgical tools, consultants, high paid consultants and lawyers to cut out the heart of black political power.”
Two days ago, “a Pennsylvania judge struck down the state’s voter ID law Friday, finding it puts an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote…. (due in part from) the law’s challengers (who) brought evidence during the trial that as many as 750,000 Pennsylvanians—disproportionately black and Hispanic—lack a photo ID.” According to MSNBC, Judge Bernard “McGinley also found that the law was not motivated by an effort to disenfranchise minorities–even though a top Pennsylvania Republican said in 2012 that the law would help deliver the state to Mitt Romney.” … Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?
In a recent conversation I and several colleagues had with our national social justice community organizers, the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, we reflected on where we are six months after the Summer rulings. The whole conversation will be available on Monday, but I want to quote my colleague, Rev. Michael Tino briefly. “People of color are “made examples of” by overzealous prosecutors while white people are routinely “given breaks.” People convicted of felonies are denied the right to vote–and thus the basic way American society gives anyone access to power. When the Trayvon Martin case has faded into unfortunately distant memory, people of color will still be facing an inherently unequal justice system. I feel like if we focus on specific cases as if they were exceptions to a larger rule, we miss the broad patterns of injustice that are replicated every day. We need to force ourselves to see the patterns.” Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?
The horror that was the Sandy Hook shooting that left 26 dead happened on December 14th, 2012. In the year that followed, the US experienced 23 more mass shootings where 4 or more people were killed in a single incident. There were “at least 24 school shootings claim(ing) at least 17 lives” in that same time. This past week we have learned of a movie theatre shooting where a retired cop shot a dad for texting his 3 year old daughter during the previews. And on Tuesday, “a 12-year-old boy opened fire with a shotgun at the middle school he attends in Roswell, N.M., striking two among the dozens of students who were gathered inside a gym waiting for the first bell to ring…”. And on Thursday, a supermarket shooting leaving 3 dead, perpetrated by a man with known mental illness yet still able to get a gun. Dalia Lithwick, a court and law columnist for Slate, would write “We just make a decision to treat armed killers in schools as we previously treated fires and tornadoes: as acts of God instead of failures of legislative and moral courage… And so this is what we have tacitly agreed to do now: We ask our kids to pile themselves silently into their classroom closets, and we tell them this is what ‘freedom’ looks like.”
There’s a question that’s floating around social media that goes, “How did asking white people to pass background checks to buy a gun become more offensive than asking minorities to provide photo ID to vote?” It brings us back to my recurring questions – Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose? Why should we be more restrictive concerning our right to vote than we are restrictive of our right to bear arms? Why is it that minorities’ access to equal power is more threatening to some people than anyone’s access to a deadly weapon? How did citizenship become more terrifying to us than mass murder?
On Thursday, January 9th, “West Virginia schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day’s business Friday after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the cause and extent of the incident remained unclear.” 300,000 people were affected. “According to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries, which owns the chemical tank that ruptured, is exempt from Department of Environmental Protection inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals and does not produce them, The Associated Press reported.” 300,000 people, in our country, have lost access to water. They can’t clean their clothes, wash their dishes, or take a bath because we’ve written legislation that allows a corporation to function without regulation because of a technicality. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy reports that “three in 10 West Virginia kids under age six live in poverty.” The future of this state’s citizens is mired in poverty and we choose to privilege corporations’ short term ease at the expense of our children’s (and thereby our nation’s) long term welfare. What say do those kids, who can’t take a bath, or drink from the faucet, have in the face of the overwhelming power and wealth of unregulated corporations? Why would we further empower the powerful and risk the lives of the weak? Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?
My last example today happened also on Thursday. A leaked UN report on climate change indicates very bleak findings. It reads, “Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a draft United Nations report. Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, the experts found.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008, 42% of the world’s Carbon Dioxide emissions come from China and the United States. With both nations’ proclivity for competition, financial gain, and industrial power – there are many eerie flashbacks to the Cold War and threat of Nuclear annihilation, only this time the risk will come from economic warfare’s spillover effects upon our planet. Which nation will slow down the industrial race first? How do we get both our country and China to “disarm” our weapons of mass greed? All throughout this, the enormously wealthy few decide the environmental fate of a planet. Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?
Those two questions gird the theological question of the morning. The legacy of Rev. Dr. King teaches us that every person is entitled to fair, equitable treatment. Every person is entitled to their voice having a reasonable say. Every person is entitled to safety in our society. Our principles reframe these teachings in our own language around worth, dignity, democratic process and global community. All of these crises can easily be swept aside, and we came blithely blame the lack of public interest, or commitment to civic duty, or proclivity for Reality TV over educational documentaries.
I think in some ways disinterest, misinformation, or denigration of education are to blame. But they’re blimps compared to how systems of oppression dictate allocation of power. We have corporate lobbies, that privilege short term investor gains over long term environmental catastrophes – as if the costs of clean up or the costs of medical treatments were imaginary things. It’s an outbreak of Corporate Affluenza. They’ve never had to deal with the repercussions of their actions before, so they shouldn’t be expected to have the maturity to deal with the fall out of their pollution of our water and air now.
We have a gun lobby that dictates the safety of our children. Although the second amendment is often cited as the main reason for the strength of the gun lobby, I believe it’s more rooted in wealth. In the year following the Sandy Hook shooting, gun makers’ profits went up 52%. There is a financial cost to big business in order for our kids to have safe schools. It’s not profitable – for the select few – to make choices grounded in common sense.
And so long as minorities continue to tend to vote in such ways that support the interests of the working and middle classes, or merely support the interests of common human decency, their votes become dangerous to conflicting special interest groups – groups that are not interested in common human decency. It is horrifying to me, that our nation will lift up the life of Nelson Mandela, a leader who fought to ensure everyone had the right to vote, a leader who strived to help his nation move past a time when voting centers in black communities were dealing with bomb threats and actual bombs – that we would enshrine him and then dismantle our own bill of rights for the very reasons Mr. Mandela dedicated his life against. Freedom does not mean the right to do whatever you may wish, whenever you may wish it, to whomever you wish to do it to. That’s call anarchy. Freedom, in our faith, means recognizing how we are all interdependent and living with compassion in light of that fact. It’s not about removing our inhibitions. It’s not about ignoring our accountability. It’s not about maintaining an ignorance of the ramifications of our actions. Freedom, real freedom, is living and letting others live too. Sometimes freedom means accepting mild, reasonable limitations on our sense of entitlement in order for others to have a fair chance at the same free life. Freedom is another way to say communal maturity.
It can all feel so overwhelming. Ministers hesitate to dwell too long on the difficult news of the day because it can so easily instill a sense of dread, or fatalism, that’s contrary to our religious truths. We must be diligent in remembering the words of the great Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker that were made famous to another generation by Rev. Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Despite all the tragedies of the day, people’s concerted efforts, over time, have meaning and substance. They define our humanity, as much as one’s apathy draws fences around our souls.
Both of our stories this morning teach us that our efforts matter. The kids’ story of the mouse and the bird counting the snowflakes. It may take that millionth snowflake to finally fall, but that branch will then come down. Or our second story where there’s always another building that must be built, but it doesn’t mean we stop building because we’ll never finish. It’s the stories we live and breath that create lives of meaning and substance and integrity.
Our hymns this morning reflect the spirit of global civil rights movements. Our first hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, is often called the Black National Anthem. It does not tell a story that expects overnight solutions. It sings of endurance through the long road. And for those of us who may not come from a life situation where this song speaks to our pain, but may come from a heritage that was the source of the strife, it reminds us that we need to be cautious with our power; we need to be mindful of how we choose who keeps their voice and who gets to choose. The choir offertory, Precious Lord Take My Hand, was Rev. Dr. King’s favorite gospel hymn, and we sing it today in honor of him. Siyahamba, was a South African freedom song during the long, painful struggle against Apartheid. We are marching in the light of God, and the song is sung with joy and life! Joy and life in the face of extreme adversity. It teaches us that people can find celebration within themselves even at the worst of times so long as we remain open to the awe at the center of life. It’s another spiritual discipline to foster with care and attention.
Even the act of coming together in community is part of our spiritual work. One of our mid-twentieth century theologians, the Harvard professor James Luther Adams, would often espouse voluntary associations as engines of social progress. Voluntary associations could be congregations or they could be any secular group that further a social good – conservatory groups, educational partnerships, civic groups, etc. The work the groups do is one thing, but there’s something about being in a voluntary group that changes us. When we commit to remaining in relation to the people around us, we continue down a spiritual path. It’s not always easy to work with strangers. The democratic process isn’t always pleasant or even enjoyable. Our neighbors can be frustrating. We might not see eye to eye and still have to come to a consensus. In Unitarian Universalism, that discipline is our religious path. We’re saying that we’re here for the long road ahead. We know it won’t always be easy, but our humanity is rooted in our interdependence and by definition, that is one thing we certainly are not equipped to do alone.
If we live our lives where we only interact with people that look like us, think like us, and talk like us, we are cutting ourselves off from the religious truth of interdependence. If our congregation as a whole does not partner with communities that reflect identities other than our own, then we are cutting ourselves off from that truth. If we act primarily out of self interest and not out of communal health, we are cutting ourselves off from that truth.
We can’t individually tackle each of the major crises I’ve spoken about today, but there are people here who are called to focus on each of these needs. Find each other, and commit your energy to the shared work, even if it’s only 1 thing. On this social justice national holiday, dedicate this coffee hour to this task. Teaching ourselves and our children that our central identity is that of a citizen, or a person of faith, or a human being and not as a consumer, a bystander, or merely self-interest – is the primary task of in our life. It defines our character and the scope and breadth of our dreams.
I mentioned our national community organizing campaign earlier – Standing on the Side of Love. If you check out their website, Facebook page, or twitter account (StandingontheSideofLove.org) you can sign up for their 30 Days of Love campaign. From MLK weekend through Valentines Day, they’ll offer different resources, reflections, family actions and more each day. If you don’t know what to do next, but want to do something, this will be a great place to help discern your call in this work as an individual, as a family, or as a congregation.
We can do this together. Together is the only way anything has ever actually been accomplished. Doing it, or making it alone, is the American lie, not the American Dream. The American Dream is Rev. Dr. King’s dream, and that was no singular vision scripted by privilege or power. And the world needs to see you, so very badly this hour.