Posts Tagged American Dream
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/25/15. It reflects on pop culture’s fascination with “Back to the Future” Day on October 21st and what that teaches us about change.
If you watch the late night talk show circuit, or read Facebook, or follow the stories that get covered over and over again on the internet, then you might have heard something this week about the old movie, “Back to the Future 2.” In the movie, they famously traveled forward in time 30 years to the date, October 21st, 2015. That was this week. The movie studio put out a promo with the character, Doc. Brown, coming out and telling us the future is what we make of it. One of the late night talk shows even got the actors Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox to reenact one of the scenes – as if they were finally arriving into the future, in the middle of the talk show.
The running jokes have all been centered around what did the screenplay of that movie get right, and which predictions were wrong. No, we don’t have any flying cars, and the hover-boards we have aren’t really hover-boards. Cars don’t run on trash, and thankfully our fashion sense is 30 years better than what the fashionistas of the 1980’s would imagine – for example, no, few of us are wearing spaghetti strainers as hats. Oddly, they did predict a red-headed casino owner would be seeking power.
It’s a classic 1990’s science fiction movie, but also rather typical for 80’s campiness, so the movie itself isn’t all that deep, though still fun. I have been struck though by all the folks who have gleefully sought out the comparisons to today’s world. Or one notable tweet that chided us, ‘if we wanted to have hover boards and flying cars by 2015, we should have elected leaders who would better fund science.’ Ouch.
I began to wonder if we had a script that was supposed to happen, that we all forgot about, until the day of the play. My fellow former theater folk here may have had that anxiety dream once or twice. I’ve noticed since we crossed the millennial threshold, the big blockbusters have, for the most part, stopped putting dates on the screen for things that happen in the future. But I did marvel at how dates (like today – 2015) used to sound so far fetched and futuristic. I imagine if you grew up earlier than the 1970s, 2015 sounds even more out there. How did we get here? Where did we go right, and where did we go wrong?
…I think most of us recognize, most of the time, that there’s no real script. We do our best and take one step at a time through the years. Life is a mixture of joy, and challenge, hope and grief. Some of us have it easier, and some of us have it harder, but none of us live without stress. That being said, I think most of us also fool ourselves into living like there is a script. It sounds different for each of us. Maybe yours is the standard american dream – graduate from school, get a job, find a spouse, have children, and own a home. It’s a good script to have. It only becomes a problem when we think we should follow it, but life doesn’t match it. Maybe school isn’t for you. Or these days, jobs change far more frequently than they used to. My dad retired after working at the same company for almost 50 years. That kind of security doesn’t really happen anymore.
Or maybe you’re not looking to get married, or to get married again. Or children aren’t in your future for social, biological, or economic reasons. When family doesn’t look like the way we were raised to imagine it, it can be the source of great pain. I know that grief is real and legitimate; it’s good to acknowledge it if it’s a source of pain for you. But I find for myself, that I have to check where is the real sense of loss for me, and where I’m feeling loss from not following that imaginary script. We all deviate from it, but we don’t all have to feel bad when we do.
Or maybe you’ve lived that script and enjoyed the fullness of it, and are now wondering, what next? What does retirement mean for me? Do I become less busy, or more? When I move to be closer to the grandkids, what will become of my long time friends that have meant so much to me? I think this is the hidden secret about the classic script. Even when it’s full, and realized and meaningful, it doesn’t always offer the answers we may crave. At some point, we take a turn, and need to figure it out on our own or with our loved ones. So I’m cautious of scripts. They may be a good framework for goals, but they aren’t full of a lot of answers. I wonder how often we follow those scripts thinking they’ll have answers….
Other than the “American Dream” that I’ve just talked about, there’s another kind of tradition that we often adhere too. I call it, “The way we’ve always done things.” I think this script is probably as guilty, if not more so, of being the source of everyday smaller sufferings for those who otherwise have everything they need. It’s the kind of pain that happens when the only thing that’s “bad” that happens, is that an event, or an action, or a schedule is different than it would have been in the past – and we experience pain. Often, the new event or schedule is just as good, or near as good, or possibly even better – but it doesn’t matter; we’re off script from how things have always been done – so it triggers pain in us. Not real injury, or real grief, or real loss; it triggers imaginary suffering. I say imaginary suffering, because the only pain we’re experiencing is in our heads and not in the actual world.
Some of us may be wondering if I’m being a little unfair to tradition, or not giving tradition it’s fair voice. First, know that many Traditions (with a capital T) have history and meaning and purpose that are valued by communities, and I see that too. We honor holy days and holidays in our religious community for this reason. Likewise, memorial services, weddings and child dedications often are at the top of my priorities. So yes, tradition can be vital and life-saving and affirming. Second, rest easy; tradition always has it’s fair voice. It’s probably the loudest thing any of us ever hear. I think that’s the case, because traditions (with a lower case t) can also pretend-shield us from our daily struggles tied to change.
Why do we face change with such fear and trepidation? In hindsight, it’s probably obvious, but we do it time and time again, and in the moment forget, so it’s important to repeat. We’re growing older, or the world is less secure than I once imagined, or I’ve had enough grief in my life lately – those are all thoughts that are real and true and important to acknowledge. But sometimes, we try to avoid acknowledging change by lifting up the shield of tradition. It’s as if we imagine – if this other thing stays the same, everything else will as well. … but it doesn’t. Life is change. Life is newness, and letting go; day after day. And that’s beautiful and that’s hard. But change is here to stay; tradition or no tradition.
What would we be like if we were a people of letting go in the face of scripts and tradition? Can we be a little easier on ourselves when things don’t turn out as planned? Even if they really don’t turn out as planned can we still go easier on ourselves over it? Can we learn to assess and judge where we are in our lives without needing to compare it to our neighbor, or to our childhood and child-like dreams? When the day comes, if it hasn’t already, when you feel like your religious community wasn’t perfect in some way – can we be patient enough to remember that that’s an eternal truth for human community – we don’t do perfect? That’s probably a tradition with a capital T that we can not change – maybe the only one.
When your Sunday school teacher forgets a kid’s name, or your minister is not all things to all people, or the choir member finally someday misses a note (I know that hasn’t happened ever), or a Board president doesn’t see things exactly your way – can we learn to let go and let live? Can we live into the next today, and not stay stuck in the time of disagreement or disappointment? Many religious communities face this challenge, and it’s a normal thing to wrestle with. I’ve shared this with our Board, and I think it might be helpful for more of us to hear it, so I’ll share it here too. People don’t come here to be happy, and our purpose is not to make everyone happy. If happiness were the main goal, religion would have died out a long time ago, and with it, religious communities. When we fixate on holding onto how things once were, we increase our own suffering. Happiness may be an end result of our search, but striving to be happy usually ends in suffering. We cling for what was, or we grasp for what might be. Neither grant the genie’s wish.
Religious communities, in all our imperfections and our awkward dance between tradition and change, seek not to grant happiness, but to offer hope. That through all the turmoil and the hardship, we can remember the times of solace and joy. That change also brings us out of places of suffering. This pain we feel will someday go away. That the loss of a loved one, does not steal from us the times we shared together; that we are forever changed for knowing them, and the world is so too changed for our passing through. We give hope that this all means something. And it does. When I’ve known times of hardship, religious community has helped me ground myself and find my direction anew – before all the change and all the turmoil. But through that change, something new came about. And we’re living in that something new today.
Can we find hope in letting go? Can we make room for what may come by learning to let be what once was? When we toss the proverbial stone into the waters, hoping it will skip, will we go with it clutching till we soak ourselves, or will we let it sail on it’s own, free of our steering hand?
I’ll close with a return to where we began; “Back to the Future.” Time travels a cute, albeit fascinating, sci-fi idea. We can’t hop into a fancy car or a spinning blue box and travel backwards or forwards in time to the past or the future. But each of us, every single day, travel into the past or wonder about the future. When we cling whole cloth to the old, or to tradition, or make contingent our happiness about things yet to be – we travel in time. We live a life that once was, or a life that may never be. But in both cases, we cease living our one precious life. We may not be able to choose or change certain things about our lives – sometimes pains and grief may not be wished away – but we can choose to live our life. Living into today – saying “no” to our minds’ ceaseless drive to send us forwards or backwards in time -is a precious act of faith. Faith that this moment, this life, is here and sacred and worthy of living. It begins today, again and again.
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.
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.