This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/15/17 in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It looks at our cultural norm of silencing our prophets.
Nationally, this weekend we pause to honor the life, the accomplishments and the heroism of Martin Luther King, Jr. We learn about the man, the mission, and the vision. We remember his quest for racial desegregation, his promotion of peace in general, and his widespread expansion of non-violent protesting as a mark of active citizenship in the United States. We encourage civic volunteering as a nation this weekend; we also tend to take a day off from work tomorrow; and our schools will be closed, as will our office. It wasn’t till 2000 that the holiday was observed in all fifty states. Interestingly, “[the holiday] is combined with Civil Rights Day in Arizona and New Hampshire, while it is observed together with Human Rights Day in Idaho. (…) It is also a day that is combined with Robert E. Lee’s birthday in some states.”(Apparently Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi.) …
… We honor his legacy now in ways that we never could honor his life; for when he was still living, we in the States at least, our collective national consciousness – used different ways to single him out. We used dogs, and we used fire hoses (most of us will remember that classic photo, and some of us in this room were active in his call to justice); and finally and tragically a gun. We pick a day, as good as any other, to remind ourselves that we’re not always our best selves when it comes to integrity of character; to remind us of the importance of compassion for our neighbor; and maybe to dream once more that there might be another way; to remember our moral failure as a nation. We take a weekend each year to mark the truth that something great happened on this soil; something that grew from centuries of pain and suffering; something that was most notably brought into pinpoint clarity by this man. Something great that was an appropriate, and fitting, and remarkable and yet a simply necessary response to the torpor our collective consciousness otherwise was mired in at the time (and maybe still is today.)
On this weekend, we thank you Mr. King for your dream; for your vision; for your sacrifice – even as we mourn and regret that such a sacrifice was apparently needed or allowed to occur. And we try to shake ourselves once more to realize that each one of us are the people left to pick up that mantle once more and still. May our hearts come to know a way to celebrate that goes beyond the ready ease of just another day off that otherwise might pass us by unremarkably.
Over the New Year, I went to see Hidden Figures in the movies. It’s a blockbuster hit that beat out Star Wars: Rogue One’s opening weekend – something few thought possible for a historical drama. For those that haven’t heard, it’s based on the true story of the women who helped us get out into space, and ultimately, later to the moon. The story focuses on three African-American women in particular amongst a larger cadre of African-American women who were part of the human computing program at NASA — Dorothy Vaughan, NASA’s first African-American supervisor; Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated the trajectories for Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission; and Mary Jackson, who, according to NASA, “may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field” in the 1950s. I can’t recommend the movie enough – it’s well worth seeing – and if you’re feeling despair at what might be, this movie may rekindle a sense of hope in difficult times. I think I can safely say, without spoilers, that the United States eventually gets out to space.
As a kid, I was a strong science junkie. I loved all things science fiction, all things that involved dinosaurs and all things about space. There’s an old comic that shows a graph of our knowledge of these topics that peaks during our younger child-aged years and then spikes up again when we’re grandparents. I was one of those kids who ate it all up. I would sit glued to any science discovery show on TV; I took every science class my school offered. I wondered if I would turn out to be an astronaut, or a marine biologist or maybe even an archaeologist. Despite it all, I never once heard those women’s names, until I saw this movie.
These three women were impeccable; patient beyond all reason, brilliant, strong and integral to the success of the race to space. And although Katherine Johnson would receive the Katherine Johnsonin 2015 for her 33-year career at Langley, we as a nation waited 55 years to tell their story to the wider public. Actress Janelle Monáe (who played Mary Jackson) said (in an NPR interview), “I was really upset because, as an African-American young woman, I had no idea who Mary Jackson was, who Dorothy Vaughan was, who Katherine Johnson was, who the colored ‘computers’ were. I had no idea. And I’m just like: This clearly had to be a mistake. These are American heroes. Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would have not made it into space. We would have not made it into orbit.” These three women were cultural and scientific saints in their own ways, and we couldn’t tell their story – not for 55 years after. In the 1960s, America wasn’t ready to share the celebration of one of humanity’s shining intellectual achievements with three Black women – stellar individuals or not.
We widely know the story of Rosa Parks who was the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott – and she deserves every credit given to her for her prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of segregated America. NPR writes:
“Few people know the story of Claudette Colvin: When she was 15, she refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white person — nine months before Rosa Parks did the very same thing.
Most people know about Parks and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that began in 1955, but few know that there were a number of women who refused to give up their seats on the same bus system. Most of the women were quietly fined, and no one heard much more….. When asked why she is little known and why everyone thinks only of Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because “she was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look.
“Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” says Colvin. “She fit that profile.”… After Colvin’s arrest, she found herself shunned by parts of her community. She experienced various difficulties and became pregnant. Civil rights leaders felt she was an inappropriate symbol for a test case.”
I don’t bring this up to be critical of the practical decisions of leaders in the Civil Rights movement; rather to reflect on one of our tendencies to find any way to quiet our prophets. Those leaders were making informed strategic choices to address our collective cultural bias – so they shouldn’t be blamed for speaking to the times. If Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson could get us to the moon and back, and we couldn’t speak of them, how would we ever hear the truth coming from a 15 year old girl who didn’t look the part of respectability politics? Our Mary Oliver reading Wild Geese claims, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles, through the desert, repenting.” Mary Oliver is a frequently heard poet in many UU congregations, and an excerpt from that poem is even in our hymnal – so one could say that her poetry informs our lived or practical theology. And yet, some of us do have to be better than good; some of us do have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles – to be heard, to be valued, to have impact on our wider story and to be known for that impact.
In fact, we as a nation have all too often demanded that of our prophets, in order to be heard. It’s one of the tools of oppression to silence our prophets – make them adhere to a perfect standard or invalidate their message by attacking their character. It’s a strategy we’re taught as kids is wrong in Debate class, but one as adults we fall prey to again and again. None of us have to look too far in contemporary news stories to hear this old trick play itself out again and again: 1) The woman, who’s been assaulted, being blamed because she wasn’t chaste. 2) Transfolk being implied to be pedophiles for needing to use a public restroom. 3) Young black teens, gunned down in our streets, being described as thugs in news coverage, when their only “offense” was playing outside their homes.
That woman, that transperson, that teen – are today’s next prophets – crying out in the wilderness for a more just world. When we find ourselves quieting them down, or negating their message of truth over some perceived imperfection, we’re silencing our collective conscience, bit by bit. That which stirs in us unease, should not be confused with being wrong. Too often we become complacent with what is actually wrong in the world and that feeling of unease is trying to tell us something. Complacency can be the death of the spirit; it can also allow threats to our neighbors to go unchallenged – as history is rife with such tragic stories.
Martin Luther King, Jr is such a prophet – who we as a nation have tried over and over to quiet how his story gets retold. We remember his visionary speech about dreams that we can all find our place in, and forget his more challenging messages like this. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (MLK.) He asked us to get uncomfortable. Or his reminder in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963 that read, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In that same letter King would go on to lament, “Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Hearing his words travel ahead 55 years to today, I think of all the protests over the last few years where in one breath pundits would extol MLK’s calls for freedom, but pretend he didn’t shut down roadways in Selma, or demand desegregation in a hundred public ways. It’s another form of doublethink that’s alive and well in our national conscience and we need to nurture that healthy unease to it.
Last Sunday I spoke at length about our first principles in terms of religious promise – the promise of worth. I want to continue that line of thought this week with our second principle where we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. For those that were snowed in last Sunday, I was talking about understanding our principles as religious promises that we make and remake again and again. They’re action statements, rather than creedal beliefs. What does our second principle mean as an action statement? In light of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, how does it challenge us? As we reflect this month on what it means to be a people of prophecy, what does our second principle demand of us?
The promise of justice, equity and compassion in human relations is a promise that humanity may yet to have ever fully seen – for all of our people. I probably could drop the word “may” and just say – we’ve never reached that promise. It’s an aspirational spiritual value that we’re called to live into. As Unitarian Universalists, we are saying we’re obligated to moving our world closer to the realization of that promise. Spiritually – justice, equity and compassion in human relations are fully possible truths; we as a people choose to fall down, again and again, in living them out. But it’s a choice to not live into those values, not a necessity. It’s a choice, and one that our society chooses to make again and again.
Theologically, we say those values are real, central to our spirituality and we commit to the striving. That’s an important distinction. These days, we seem to hear a growing cynicism that those values aren’t possible in the real world; that the world just doesn’t work that way; that if others get more we have to get less so why bother. … Cynicism is a lie. It draws us deeper and deeper back out of our centered spirit; it separates us spiritually from the potential in Creation; and it makes us forget our own holy power. As we come upon our national holiday commemorating one of our world’s great prophets, let us renew our commitment to living the truth of the spirit – the promise of justice, equity and compassion – in our hearts, and in words and in our deeds. Our faith demands that of us; we are all called to birth that promise into our lives and the lives all around us. Let us make a little more room for our prophets to be noisy; to be challenging; to make us uneasy to injustice.