This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington following the shooting death of 9 members of the AME Bethel Church in Charleston.
For some of us today, we have Fathers’ Day on the forefront of our minds. For others, we may be pausing to celebrate Juneeteenth, the day the last slaves in Texas got word that they were free. For others, our minds are celebrating the beginning of Summer while recognizing that the shortening of days and lengthening of nights have begun. This Sunday, like we just celebrated, is often the Sunday where many UU congregations celebrate our Flower Celebration, or as some call it, Flower Communion. And this past Thursday, 9 good people, were gunned down in their church during Bible study by a White Supremacist – a home-grown domestic terrorist.
We often have the knee-jerk reaction to blame this kind of atrocity on mental illness, or gun ownership, or sometimes even simply bad parenting. But as we continue reflecting this month on our theme of honesty – what would it mean to be a people of honesty in response to acts of domestic terror? On one hand, we have a young white man – who confessed to the killings and made it clear that he wanted to start a race war. His own words. On the other hand, we have politicians and media outlets who dither over what the alleged gunman’s motives actually were. One station even attempting to spin this into a “war on Christians.”
I’m not a psychologist. I want to call acts like this crazy, but conflating atrocities with mental illness washes our hands – at least those of us who are white – it washes our hands of the hard work of seeing what got us to where we are. …Muslims can be terrorists, black youth can be thugs, but white murderers just need counseling. It’s not honest, and it let’s a whole group of people get off from doing the hard work of soul searching. Acts like this, are mental illness, only if you consider institutional racism a mental illness; only if you consider white supremacy a mental illness; only if you also recognize that it’s a social disease that can be transmitted from one generation to the next. That would be more honest.
I personally see this as another tragic moment that calls for smarter laws concerning gun control. We are the only Western Nation with this perpetual crisis, and we are the only Western Nation with lackluster laws concerning gun ownership and responsibility. Our Christian heritage teaches us that violence is not the answer. Jesus would not have told that 41 year old pastor, the Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckey, a father and a congressman, that he would have been safer if everyone in the church were armed. In fact, Jesus taught the opposite. Yet, the NRA spared no time in casting the blame for his own death on the good reverend’s work toward gun control.
But this isn’t really about gun ownership, or gun control. This is about White Supremacy. We see pictures of black youth, in bikinis at a pool party, being tackled by police officers, or a black father being strangled to death over selling loosies, but the young white man that killed 9 people in a church is taken into custody by the police and calmly escorted to trial. They even put him into a bullet proof vest for his protection. If we are being honest with ourselves, we would look at those images and say, this is about more than just gun control.
We can say, where was the family in any of these situations? We can lament the changing nature of family structure, or wonder why any family member would ever give their son a gun, a son who poses in pictures with symbols of hate. We can wonder why someone who talks about doing this kind of act, is never reported in time. We can pretend that the nurturing of hate happens only at home, but that wouldn’t be honest. We live in a nation that continues to pretend the Confederate Flag is a marker of cultural heritage, and ignore the fact that it didn’t start flying on government flag poles in South Carolina until the 1960s in opposition to de-segregation. It’s a symbol of hate, lifted up as noble. While the state flag, and the US Flag were flown at half-mast following the shooting at AME Bethel, the Confederate Flag flew high and bold. And we wonder – “where were the parents?” If we were honest, we would wonder, where was our Nation? Have our hearts been hardened, or have we just become numb?
In the Jewish scripture, there’s the classic lesson of the liberation in the story of Passover. It’s a central message of hope for the Jewish people, and one that gets retold in a new light in Christian communities that have faced generations of oppression. We often focus on the parts of the story that are graphic – like the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. There’s another bit that’s complicated, and so we often gloss over it. Plague after plague has hit the Egyptian people, and time after time, Moses returns to Pharaoh and implores – let my people go! Each time the Pharaoh refuses. In most translations, it reads that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart to show the strength of God’s power and God’s promise to the Jewish people that some day they will be free. Conventionally, it’s understood to mean that nothing short of complete devastation would be enough to really ensure the freedom of the slaves, so that the Egyptians wouldn’t follow after them. And true to form, despite it all, the Pharaoh’s army still goes after the escaped slaves, ending in drowning.
Now, I don’t believe in a God that punishes the innocent, or send plagues or storms. I don’t read scripture literally – especially for the fantastical parts like this. But I also won’t throw it out because it’s a hard part to get through. There’s two parts here that are eternally true. When we get into battles of will over our ego – Pharaoh’s ego or will that his way will win out – never changing – pain and misery is forever the story’s end. And the second half is that, hardened hearts lead to loss and strife. Who is the Pharaoh in our nation’s life today?
In our country today, White Supremacy has taken up the mantle of Pharaoh. It is funded by right-wing hate groups that somehow manage to continue to be considered mainstream or normal. We have a news channel that twists the truth in every which way so that White citizens feel embattled and imagine that they are “losing their country.” We will wage war after war, when any of our citizens are endangered by Muslims, but we will wring our hands saying there’s nothing that can be done, when a White American murders Black Americans. And we allow government buildings to wave the flag of Secession and Segregation, and call it noble. Our hearts have been hardened.
We fund for-profit prisons, but we can’t fund education. We’ll readily punish, but we’ll be misers when it comes to nurture. Our hearts have been hardened. We maintain a consumer-driven, profit-driven culture that expects Americans to work hard, but we won’t offer a living wage, and we have a government that has spent more time trying to repeal affordable health care, than do any meaningful work around generating more jobs. We’ll readily blame the downtrodden, and then not care for the sick when they have no means themselves. Our hearts have been hardened. We will twist our spines in every which way to paint black victims as “no saints themselves”, but call white assailants “quiet” and extend condolences to the families of the assailant for their loss (as the judge in the bond trial just did in the Charleston case. Our hearts have been hardened.
After a tragedy like this, our nation has the tendency to try to seemingly change a few things, for a little while, then sweep it under the carpet and move on – without actually changing anything. If you’re feeling powerless right now – maybe you can join the movement to change parts of what is so wrong in our country. There are petitions to take down the Flag of Slavery from any of our government buildings. It will bring no one back, but maybe our children can be raised in a culture that doesn’t lift up hatred and fly it high with pride. Some may be energized to look at smarter laws around gun control. It will bring back no lives, but maybe we can try to catch up with every other Western Nation when it comes to safer laws around gun use. Maybe you feel called to work toward reforming the cradle-to-prison for-profit system we have that is thriving in our nation; or on the flip-side, you might work toward better funding our educational system so that everyone has a fair chance at success. It may not bring back any lives, but either of these could radically transform the scope of our children’s future.
Living in Long Island, we have a unique opportunity to affect change. We are not in a socially progressive bastion. We live in a region that was historically built to look the way it does. Beginning with the planned communities like Levittown, much of Long Island is segregated – neighborhood by neighborhood. But it also means that when you’re at your PTA meeting, or at the counter of the local diner that has Fox news on 24/7 – you can talk with people that may not have the same social views as you do. Our nation may have hardened its heart since our beginning, but we don’t have to continue to do that. We can call out the lies, with love, relentlessly. Relentlessly, but always with love. There’s no use in being a clanging gong with our neighbor, but there is a desperate need for everyday conversation across social or political or religious lines. The social illness of White Supremacy does not need to continue should we actively choose to engage it every time we encounter it. That’s what being a people of honesty looks like. Hatred has no place. Not in our neighborhoods, not in our state, and not in our nation. As people of faith, we are called by conscience and all that is holy, to never be silent, never be silent, never be silent. We sing nearly ever week about the Spirit of Life. Friends, life calls to life, and it is calling us this hour – and every hour.