The work of Rev. Jude Geiger, a Unitarian Universalist minister

Sermon: Living Legacy – Black History Month 2014

It is good to be back in the pulpit again. When last I preached I reflected on the bigger trials of social justice for the year gone past. Those travails don’t stop though, do they. This past month has brought forth many difficult stories. The month we’re in now, in the secular calendar is Black History month. We typically learn about the stories of Black pioneers that we may not have heard of, or folks that we learn and relearn about year after year. This morning I’d like to look at the living legacy of black history alive in our news, and reflect back on the roots of oppression in our nation’s history. In light of our monthly theme, as I talk consider where love is found. Where does fear seem to win the day?

In an interview with conservative columnist Cal Thomas this past Wednesday, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann said, “I think there was a cachet about having an African-American president because of guilt,” Bachmann said.  “People don’t hold guilt for a woman.” She was clarifying why President Obama won the White House twice, and why she didn’t.

We learned this past week that the killer in the Loud Music trial was found guilty of three cases of attempted murder but was not found guilty of murder for the person he actually did kill. The jury was hung, and he may still face another trial for murder. “Dunn, who is white, killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis in November 2012 after having an argument with him over loud music in a convenience store parking lot where Davis sat in an SUV with three young friends. Dunn fired 10 shots, including three at the SUV as it was fleeing. After the shooting, Dunn and his fiancé went to a local hotel, ordered a pizza, opened a bottle of wine, and watched a movie. The next morning he drove two hours away to his home, where he was apprehended. Dunn claimed Jordan Davis, who was African-American, pointed a gun at him and threatened his life. No gun was found by police and no one else heard any threats.” This case was in Florida where a Stand Your Ground law is in place.

According to PBS, “research conducted by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, found that in states with Stand Your Ground laws, “the killings of black people by whites were more likely to be considered justified than the killings of white people by blacks.” Roman concluded that white people were 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than another white person across Stand Your Ground states. [PBS, 7/31/12]

Elsewhere, “the University of Mississippi is offering a $25,000 reward for tips that can help officials identify and arrest two vandals who were spotted draping a noose around the neck of the statue of James Meredith, who braved angry mobs in 1962 to become the school’s first African-American student.”

And my last example this month involves, “A veteran investigator with the Tennessee Department of Health (who) was forced to resign or face termination last month for his conduct during a racially charged case. William Sewell was an emergency medical service investigator, assigned to the Upper Cumberland Region, who had been with the state more than 40 years. Last summer, Sewell began investigating a case involving the Algood Fire Department in Putnam County. In an interview with the man who filed the complaint, Shun Mullins, Sewell began telling a graphic story about a black man who was lynched near Baxter, Tennessee, many years ago. The state claimed Sewell’s conduct in that interview could be perceived as a “form of intimidation” toward Mullins.” The news report further explained that “the three say Sewell finished with a shocking detail, that he still owned a “strap” of the lynched man’s skin, passed down from his grandfather. ‘They made a strap out of his skin, and they used that strap as a knife sharpener,’ Allen remembered.” The original case was based upon Mullins (who) claimed Algood’s deputy fire chief refused to do CPR on his mother because she was black and then falsified medical reports to cover it up.”

Happy Black History month everyone. These stories are why we still desperately need to reflect on our history. The White House, built by slaves, has been home to our first black president for a little over five years now. Poets, Alice Walker, and others, have poignantly noted how we know not where our efforts will eventually lead, nor who will some day reside in the sanctuaries we build this day even in the midst of injustice and pain. We can see a little ahead, and off to the side, but can barely imagine the scope of changes to the landscape that will some day come about. Yet we still have a congressional representative diminishingly say that our president primarily won, twice, because of white guilt.

What can leadership look like? In the American mythology, the answers have always been “anyone.” Of course, “anyone” has always had very specific implications. At one point “anyone” meant land holding straight white men. That was honestly progressive for the time. With it, we successfully moved a bit away from aristocracy and nobility as the places of power. For a decade or two, the American mythology has said it includes people of all races. Although I still feel we have a ways to go in this respect, this presidency (through all its faults and successes) has indicated that our practice has finally met up with our cultural self-conception of what we can be. Racism is not cured, sexism continues to thrive, ageism on both ends of the spectrum is almost a given, and homophobia is often confused with high moral standards. The latest case in point being Arizona, whose legislature has sent to the Governor a bill that would pretend secular businesses are churches, and allow all institutions to refuse services to LGBT folk, in the name of religion.

And yet, we can still find hope that we as a people, can grow past ourselves enough to recognize leadership despite our biases and short-comings. As Martin Luther King Jr once dreamt, we have chosen our president based on the “content of his character, and not by the color of his skin.” Whatever your political affiliations are, this is a remarkable sign of transformation for our country.

Our story this morning talks about the transforming power of leadership. An early Buddhist parable, richly names the spirit of our time. In the midst of the flaming pit of crisis, the Buddha as parrot recognizes his two great gifts; being alive and being able to fly. As the world burns around him he chooses not to panic and succumb to uselessness. He chooses not to use his second gift of flight to preserve his first gift of life. Rather, he employs all that he has to make some difference in easing the suffering of others. His colorful feathers grow black through his efforts to save lives. “What, after all, can a bird do in times like these… but fly? So fly I shall. And I won’t stop if there’s even a chance I can save a single life.”

In contrast, the godly beings are relaxed, bright, covered in white ivory and glittery gold. Well fed, they shimmer and shine and remain clean. All most can do is continue to eat and wax eloquent on the absurdity of the parrot’s efforts. “Trying to put out a raging fire with just a few sprinkles of water from his wings. Who ever heard of such a thing. Why, it’s absurd!”
Where in our lives are we the parrot with greasy black wings who is fed with a mission and destined to make a difference, and where are we the fully entitled god who shimmers and shines and is just well fed? When have you met the well intentioned god on golden wings descend to warn you to stop your efforts because it’s not worth the trouble? When have you been that nay-saying voice? When do you think the mission of our congregation is about serving you as an individual alone? When do you find our congregation’s mission is about serving the world – serving life?

“I don’t need advice. I just need someone to pitch in and help!” cried the parrot. I know I’ve felt that before. Whether it’s combating homelessness, raising children, or struggling through school, it is tough to do it alone, and often times we seem to receive more advice than actual assistance. It would be easy, and a bit triumphant, to preach on how hidden beneath the grime and soot of our efforts are splendid multi-colored feathers that help us soar. But this Buddhist parable seems to indicate that it’s that very blackness, that greasy water that differentiates us from the splendidness of those distant gods. In fact, it’s that blackness that calls one of the gods down from his place of privilege, to do what he ought to have done from the start; use his power to affect change. “All at once, he no longer wanted to be a god or an eagle or anything else. He simply wanted to be like that brave little parrot, and to help.” All gratitude at the story’s end goes to the little parrot, “for this sudden, miraculous rain.” It may have been the god’s tears that put out the fires of this world, but they blossomed from the witness of the action of the parrot – the otherwise dis-empowered, the oppressed, the not-privileged.

That godly nay-saying has woven itself into the fabric of our daily expression. We are burdened down with a difficult economy, the long felt aftermath of enervating wars, mixed successes in LGBT civil rights, and a collapsing environment. Many say they are choosing hope, and yet our collective shoulders seem to indicate spiritual exhaustion. This nagging sap to confidence echoes the sense of impossibility, when so many things seem raw and endless, like a fire that sprung over night and is left by all the world to burn. But I believe there continue to be rivers of hope, and waters of abundance, that eagerly wait for us to dip our wings and dirty our feathers; because there is much work to be done and gratefully many of us here able to do it.

Yes despite the very clear need for action, beyond the call for hope in the face of sorrow and pain, we must reflect on the source of the trauma. Why do we continue to hear horror stories perpetrated upon Black Americans – some of which appear to only be worsening rather than getting better? How can this be while at the same time our nation’s highest office is finally open to someone who isn’t perceived as white by many despite his mother being white? A plantation era engineer named J. D. Smith once noted, “One only needs to go down South and examine hundreds of old Southern mansions, and splendid church edifices, still intact to be convinced of …. the cleverness of the [Black] artisans, who constructed nine tenths of them.” This white engineer was taught his trade by a slave engineer. Yet, the image we often get taught in grade school and high school is that of uneducated blacks during the slave era only doing servile work. Why don’t we share both sides of that painful story?

The German philosopher, Hegel, once noted, “The [slave] consciousness is, for the master, the object which embodies the truth of his certainty of himself. But it is evident that this object does not correspond to its notion; for, just where the master had effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved… The truth of the [master] consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the bondsmen.” Hegel’s point is about the extreme qualities of slavery and slaveholding, but I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to point toward any instance of applied institutional racism. The ego of the oppressor becomes intrinsically linked to the oppressed. What puffs up the powerful, chains their psyche to that which is most base to our humanity. We become less for trying to pretend we’re more. We narrow the scope of our humanity. We are defined by how well we convince ourselves that someone else is less. Or as author and former executive editor of Ebony magazine, Lerone Bennett, Jr would put it, “Out of this system (of slavery) came the Black American, and, though some would like to forget it, the White American…”.

We allow fear, fear of others, fear of our own inadequacy to trump love. We say that which we fear is truth so we must stamp it down anyway we can. We convince ourselves that four teens in a car playing loud music, unarmed, are a real and quantifiable threat that requires us to open fire even though they are unarmed, even though they agreed to lower the music. Fear allows the jury to have four of its members think that this kind of violence is justified. And we remember “that white people were 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than another white person across Stand Your Ground states.” One kind of body is more dangerous than other. Fear trumping love.

Fear teaches us to share stories of lynchings and body parts kept as trophies when a black man dares to sue a fire department for failing to perform CPR on his mother because of the color of her skin. Every part of this story is grounded in fear. Fear of difference, fear of one body touching a different body even if it’s just to save a life, to do the job you volunteered to do for everyone else. Fear teaches dissidents to sit back down quietly. And fear instructs the oppressor on how to keep a hold of his power.

We often think the opposite of love is hate. I am convinced its opposite is truly fear. Love is grounded in compassion, in seeing the connections between one another and saying they matter. Fear is grounded in the antithesis to each of these. What makes us different becomes a danger to our sense of self. And to the fearful among us, our sense of self matters so much more than our sense of interdependence. Interdependence then becomes just another threat to the ego.

But in the culmination of our days, love trumps fear, always. Fear passes away, and love endures in our memories and our hearts…. This Fellowship has lost several long time and very dear members this past year. When each life was remembered, stories of love, stories of compassion, stories of life were what were lifted up time and time again. The rest was secondary. The progress of civil rights movements have time and time again been determined by radical acts of love in the face of fear; in coming to the aid of a stranger because it was the right and compassionate thing to do. It doesn’t mean that danger, or harm, or struggle are not genuine risks. But the essence and scope of our humanity are not rooted in these, nor defined by them in any true way. If it is how we care for others that defines our memory and legacy after we are gone, it’s certainly what defines our lives while we are here. Life is not about you alone, or me alone. Life is about us. It’s about “we.” And as the story of the parrot who saved a jungle from fire goes, sometimes our acts of love change the people who bear witness to them – it doesn’t mean there won’t be tears – but it makes all the difference.


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