Posts Tagged Boston

The Oldest Story

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 8/20/17. It explores the infection of White Supremacy, Nazis and White Nationalism plaguing our nation.


One of the harder stories I’ve wrestled with in the Bible is the story of Cain and Abel – one of our oldest stories. They were the first children of Adam and Eve. Cain was a farmer and worked the earth. Abel was a shepherd. When it came time for them to offer gifts in sacrifice to the Lord, they gave in turn a portion of their work. God was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice of the fat of the first of his flock, but was not moved by Cain’s gift of the fruit of the earth. Angered by being treated differently, Cain murdered his brother Abel, and when God came to question him where Abel was, Cain responded famously, “What, am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain would be cursed to wander the roads and leave the lands of his family for his sin.

It’s a hard story. Was God unfair in what pleased him? Could he be so flippant in his regard for his children, that one would be driven to murder? I think some of the story is lost to our modern ears. Farming would allow civilization to thrive with more and more people being able to live stably near one another; but meat would continue to be more prized. I think, to an earlier time in our history, the difference in what sacrifices were made might be more readily understood. Each of the brothers may have worked as hard as one another, but one sacrificed more, and the other was jealous for not receiving the same benefits, even though he may have given up less.

The story even has God tell Cain, that he shouldn’t be angry; for if he works harder he will be rewarded. What’s lost in such a simple statement, is that Cain probably already feels like he’s worked hard. But he can’t get into his brother’s shoes, so he doesn’t appreciate that Abel is also diligent in his duties.

…And then it comes to murder. “Am I my brother’s keeper.” It’s probably the oldest story – Claiming no responsibility for the welfare of our neighbor as a defense – when in fact we’ve actively contributed to their ruin; or in Cain’s case – murder.

The Cain and Abel story is near the start of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures – although with slight derivations for each. At the start of scripture we learn clearly that yes, we are our brother’s keeper – we are entrusted with securing the well being of our neighbor. It’s central to the spiritual teachings of each of the Abrahamic faiths. Everything else builds upon that foundation.

Cain could be the poster boy for white nationalists, for white supremacists, for nazis. They might feel they haven’t been given a fair shake, but they can’t get into the shoes of their neighbors. Instead of reaching out, caring for their neighbor, they seek to end the competition. We see this in the rapid spreading of for-profit prisons -which are especially thriving these days. We see this in gerrymandered districts that lead to disparate quality in schools – benefiting whites and the affluent above all others. We see it in how public protests are too often treated: Nazis with semi-automatic weapons are allowed to police themselves in Charlottesville, whereas native Americans protesting the health of their lands and the risks to their children are met with water hoses in freezing temperatures. The White Supremacists are right that we’re not all treated fairly, they just don’t understand how much has already been stacked in their favor.

There’s a blog post that was making the rounds relating all this to game theory so to speak. It’s an over-generalization to prove a point – so it’s far from perfect, but maybe it would help some of us see where it’s getting at. Being a white (cisgender) straight man is like playing a video game on the easiest setting. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to still play the game well, or that it doesn’t take effort, or that you won’t fail at times and have to try again and again. It could still be quite hard. But everyone else is playing on a harder setting. The tricky part is realizing that when you’re on an easier setting, even when it’s hard, others probably have it harder.

I’ll give you an example in my own life. When I began in the ministry 10 years ago, I was working in religious education. It wasn’t too long before I started realizing that a good number of people would feel quite fine speaking to me with what I considered a patronizing tone. I was in my early thirties at the time, and I didn’t recall anyone speaking to me that way at least since my early college days. After talking to a few colleagues who were women, I started to realize that some of us were accustomed to speaking to women this way all the time, and since I was doing women’s work (working with children), they unconsciously treated me the way they treated most women.

Now – I earned my way into the ministry. Two graduate degrees; I paid my way through school (and am stilling paying the debt); spent countless hours in internships and hospital chaplaincy, and so on. This is my calling, and this didn’t come easy. But until experiencing a sliver of what women deal with all too often, I didn’t personally or fully understand, how having that leg up being a guy, changed the proverbial video game setting to “easy”. And to my fellow men – intellectually getting that women are treated differently too often – is different than experiencing it. There’s an emotional part that is demoralizing in ways we’re not necessarily accustomed to, and I can say most of us are not trained (or raised) to cope with.

White Supremacists are sexists too, as they are homophobes. But their flash point is race. In our everyday world, through the news, Facebook, and our schools, we learn a lot about Race. From some people we learn that everything is fair and balanced, and that if only you work hard enough then you’ll be given a fair chance at success and happiness. In that story – class is the real dividing line. From other people we learn that not everyone is treated fairly; that the color of our skin influences how people will treat us. Some of these lessons are taught by other people about the world, and some of these lessons are experienced personally and directly. It’s not enough to come to a conclusion about which view is “correct.” Our UU values teach us to live out a responsible search for truth and meaning. Our fourth principle asks us to continue to examine matters that affect our lives and the people around us. It’s a spiritual discipline that our faith calls us to live up to.

I’m a child of the 80s, white, gay and from a working class background. My Dad was in the navy with a high school degree, and my mom got her GED in her twenties after she had dropped out of high school. I was the first generation in our family to go to college, let alone to graduate school. It would be easy to say that everything is fair and balanced. I worked hard and succeeded in education and in my career. The economic class I was born into didn’t hold me back. Mine is the kind of story that’s often lifted up to say “anyone can make it.” But it would only be part of the picture.

I grew up in an African-American neighborhood. I was the only white kid. I moved away from my parents at 19, and would come back and catch up with friends, or hear stories from neighbors about how folks were doing. By the time I went to graduate school at the age of 28, only one of my childhood peers, from my section of town, had attended higher education. Some were in and out of unemployment. Others had good blue-collar jobs like being auto-mechanics. Some were still living with their parents. Besides my one neighbor who went on to law school, but who had to drop out to care for her dying mother, I heard no stories of folks attending a four-year college. She eventually had a good career as a teacher. Something was different. I felt different in a way that I hadn’t felt as a child.

I think it’s important to consider how our identities shape and impact our lives. Class, gender identity, and sexuality each intersect in important ways with race. But I’ve seen first-hand how much easier I’ve had it, as a white man, to secure educational opportunities and employment over the success of my childhood peers who are black. My faith declares this an injustice that I must work to alleviate. The key to changing this lack of fairness is first to understand its causes. Examining racism – why people are prejudiced and how systems perpetuate disparity – is part of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning and is, for me, a spiritual discipline. Its end result is building a world founded on equity and compassion.

I’m sharing these two personal stories because too often our conversations about racism are either in the abstract or in the extreme. Aside from our President’s inability this week to do so, normally it’s easy to acknowledge that nazi’s are bad, that white supremacy kills. But it’s harder to acknowledge how we benefit from the inequity – for those of us who benefit. We are each our neighbor’s keepers, but too often we turn away from the hard truths when we might be asked to honor that we’re getting too much, or that our hard work – even though it was hard – was held to a different standard than our neighbor.

Most of us here are probably thinking to ourselves, but I’m not the problem, I’m not a racist. Good. We might not be actively causing harm, but ignoring what’s before us can be  another way to perpetuate the original sin of racism in the United States. Every time we change the conversation away from race to focus on class, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. Every time we give our forbears a pass on how they immigrated through a much easier system, but hold a higher standard to more recent immigrants, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. When we get more worked up over a silent protest at the National Anthem of a man peacefully bending the knee, but excuse Nazi’s their First Amendment Right to protest with semi-automatic weapons near civilians, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. When we conflate violent white supremacists rioting in the streets and mowing down civilians with their car while armed to the teeth – with pacifist clergy or with other more aggressive protesters who bodily got in the way as human shields to protect the vulnerable – we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy.

Friends – many of my clergy colleagues of color – tell me they are exhausted from having to address this, manage this, and preach on this over and over. Their lives are tragically more at risk. And yet they still lead. Too many of my white Christian clergy are remaining silent in their pulpits this week – though thankfully I’m hearing more and more speak up. This is the central work of this time – to speak truth to hate; to limit the damage caused by the worst of us, and to carefully inspect our own internal motivations and actions to reduce the harm each of us contribute unknowingly or unintentionally.

The line in the sand must be drawn when the KKK marches in the light of day without their hoods. The line must be drawn when nazi’s – in our streets – chant “the Jews will not replace us.” We know what that means. We’ve seen that before. For those who lived through WWII – I encourage you once again – to do as Ruth Owen suggested – “So I invite you to pull out the old photo albums, medals and folded flags. Re-tell grandpa’s war stories. (Or your own) We owe it to our ancestors to make sure their sacrifices were not for nothing.”

As Maya Angelou said, “When someone tells you who you are, believe them the first time.” I’m going to believe someone claiming to be a Nazi as someone who is a threat to basic civil discourse – the first time. Now is the time, for those of us who are usually quite comfortable, to throw ourselves into uncomfortable situations. Challenge apologists for white supremacy. Don’t entertain Nazi sympathizers as legitimate viewpoints.  Call sin what it is – sin.

Everyone is entitled to free speech – and that’s being used in a way these days to twist us in knots – as if we can’t respond in kind with free speech – without offending. But what’s worse, is that we’re confusing free speech with incitement to violence – which is not a protected right. We’re confusing free speech with falsely screaming fire in a loaded theater. That which causes or risks bodily harm, is not free speech. Terrorizing a town with lit torches before injuring 19 and killing one woman, is not free speech.

As our grandparents have the duty now to tell and retell the old stories – to vaccinate our next generation from these evils; I strongly encourage our parents to speak with your children. Make sure they understand the threats and risks. They will also mimic your thinking. If you find yourself edging away from engaging in any of this, they may too. If you find yourself avoiding ever talking about race, and shifting always back to class, they may be more vulnerable to the extremism of white supremacy. They need to learn and understand that although economics are not fair for all, racism is alive and well. They need to know that prior to the rise of Nazisim in Germany, they were a fringe movement. They need to know what torches in the streets meant in Nazi Germany. And if we are going to believe someone when they tell or show us who they are the first time, we need to prepare our next generation to know fully the lessons our forebears learned in the most horrid way imagineable.

And it is not too late. Just yesterday, on Saturday, we saw images of tens of thousands of decent citizens protesting the minuscule white power rally in Boston. Our denominational president, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, was front and center in the marches in Charlottesville last week, and very present in Boston. Decent Americans are the vast majority; but we must remain vigilant, loud and clear in denouncement of the worst excesses of hate humanity has perennially to offer. Our oldest story teaches us that we are our brother’s keeper; we are responsible for the well-being of our neighbor. Any other teaching is false. So it is to all of us then, to help us back on the right path – that honors liberty alongside justice. White Supremacy is a failing lie, that continues to kill despite its hollowness.

In the weeks to come, know that our Social Justice team will be offering more trainings and options to continue this work. And our Huntington interfaith clergy group are gathering in two days to discuss what our collective next steps will be – together. And for those who missed the announcement at the start of the service — Mary Beth Guthyer, one of our members, who also professionally works with grassroots organizing on Long Island, has invited us to a vigil today from 4-5:30pm at Bolden Mack Park, 3453 Great Neck Rd, in Amityville that’s being organized by many non-profit leaders in the Black Community on Long Island. Some of the groups include Every Child Matters, Urban League of Long Island, NAACP Islip Town Branch among others.



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A Spirited Life

This sermon was preached on Sunday, April 21st at the UU Fellowship of Huntington, Long Island. It wrestles with the tragedy of the 2013 Boston Marathon. 

A week has not yet passed since the tragedy in Boston on Monday. Over 170 people injured. Many of whom may never walk again. Four dead – including an 8 year old boy, and later in the week, a 26 year old MIT police officer. An impossible end to a day that is otherwise a marker of human perseverance. Some run for sport. Some run as a sign they have turned their lives around. Some run for countless charities – dedicating their effort for good. The event itself is inspired by the fabled run from Marathon to Athens letting the Greeks know they turned back the invading Persian army. The Greeks would rise to influence the course of Western History – arts, culture, and the roots for modern democracy. They laid part of the path for the political experiment we strive to continue today. The Boston marathon is a modern global improbability – 96 nations represented in this act of peace; this tribute to the human spirit. For the families of those affected – it’s an immense, physical tragedy; one that I cannot fully grasp. It’s enough to lose hope.

And we can do that. We can hold onto the moment captured vividly on TV. The bombs exploding in perfect video capture, over and over. As if they are continuing to detonate into this moment. As if the story stopped right there… and there was nothing more to tell. But that’s not how the story ended. The human story went on to show police running toward the victims to help. The story went on to to hear about marathon runners going the 27th mile to donate blood at hospitals. The story went on tell how a well coordinated medical response saved countless lives – lives that would have ended if there were even minutes of delays – but there weren’t those delays. Our emergency responders were prepared. They were ready to give their time to save the lives of strangers – strangers from 96 different countries. It’s enough to kindle our hope once more.

The successes; the ongoing triumphs of the human spirit do not give us back those three lives. They do not heal the scars of the 170 injured and the countless friends and families who know them. But they do take us away from the stalled journalism that fixates on the moment of the explosion. The triumphs do teach us that our actions matter. They remind us that every story doesn’t end on the worst moment, but begins again – it continues throughout our life. And when our time comes to an end, there is another runner to pick up from where we left off. There is always someone there to say – We are not yet through. There is more that can be done. There are lives worth knowing, loves worth growing, and a depth to our purpose on this earth.

The great statesmen of Unitarian Religious Humanism of the early 20th century, the Rev. Curtis Reese, once wrote, “[Humans are] capable of so ordering human relations that life shall be preserved, not destroyed, that justice shall be established, not denied; that love shall be the rule, not the exception. It but remains for religion to place responsibility at the heart of its gospel. When this is done, science and democracy and religion will have formed an alliance of wisdom, vision and power.”[1] Reese asks us to put responsibility at the heart of our religious mission. With all the randomness of life; with all the moments of chaos and pain; he asks us to take responsibility for our responses. He asks us to approach life with a love that is central to our nature, a movement toward justice despite its inconvenience to personal privilege or power, and most of all, that we bring order to a chaos that can overwhelm us. We seek preservation over destruction.

The mission of our liberal faith can be articulated in so many ways, but Reese’s message is central to it. We must center ourselves in a call that cannot be denied – to transform ourselves and our world through acts of love and justice. In the face of tragedies like the bombing in Boston,… or the bombings that continue throughout the middle-east with a frequency we would find numbing should they happen on our own soil,… we can not give into despair or inertia. We have a responsibility to this world, to our people, to our children. We may not be to blame for any one particular thing that happens to us – the 8 year old who died on Monday certainly has no culpability, no blame, for what was done to him – but we have a responsibility to live our lives in such a way that honors the memory of those who no longer have that gift. Will our lives be centered in our principles – promoting justice, equity and compassion in human relations? Will we strive to make sure everyone has a voice; that each life is sacred?

It’s not always a linear connection. Living a life with this type of integrity may reduce the violence in the world. It may inspire others to temper greed, or ego, or violence. Or it may not. For some it surely will inspire, for others it will go completely unnoticed. But it is a worthy ethic to live in response to a world of sometimes random violence. The chaos of terror is antithetical to the compassionate life. We can choose to live our lives centered so, as a form of public witness that there is another way. Those emergency workers running to the injured lived this way. The police whose gut reaction was to turn toward the bombs, not away, lived this way. The runners, running for a cause, or running to give blood – exhausted as they were, lived this way. We can too.

Trying to respond to a particular thing isn’t always easy, or sometimes even possible. It’s further complicated that we don’t have all the information at this time. Perpetrators’ actions could be based upon any number of strained philosophies. With Wednesday’s journalistic debacle where CNN falsely reported a suspect, it’s hard to know what even to trust when information comes out. Or now that we know who the suspects are, we continue to hear from “Chechen experts” that may be going to Wikipedia for their info; or listening to people that confuse the country with the Czech Republic.

And sometimes, we’re responding to sound bytes that are more concerned with personal ideologies than facts. There’s a national tendency to assess the threat of Islam when mass murderers are from Islam. It’s the very definition of White Privilege to know that when a White person commits an atrocity we will not explore the political threats of Whites to the American Way. At this time, we don’t have any clear idea why these two brothers did what they did. By all current accounts, they did not live lives compatible with extremist militant anything. Yet their ethnicity and religion is assumed to be to blame.

“During an appearance on CSPAN’s Washington Journal on Wednesday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) claimed that this week’s bombings of the Boston Marathon should give pause to immigration reform advocates who seek to reform the system….The Tea Party favorite said he feared people entering the country illegally or posing as undocumented Hispanic immigrants could carry out “copycat things.” “We know Al Qaeda has camps on the Mexican border,” he said. “We have people that are trained to act Hispanic when they are radical Islamists.”… On Tuesday, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) also argued that the Boston attacks should slow down the immigration reform effort.[2]” Without giving any credit to the ludicrous “act Hispanic” line, let us remember that the police at this time had no suspects. No suspects. And yet, we’re already talking about a public policy implication that furthers a narrow political agenda of hatred – on the backs of the more than 170 injured, and the four dead. Now that we actually know that the suspects were immigrants from a former Russian provence, some politicians are arguing for more extensive background checks on immigrating children. In other words as one friend of mine put it, “The lesson of the Boston tragedy is that we need stronger background checks for immigrating children in case they someday grow up to perform acts of violence but no background checks for anyone actually purchasing a violent weapon.”

Lest we think these views only come from political extremists, think of the “…twenty-year-old man who had been watching the Boston Marathon (who) had his body torn into by the force of a bomb… he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in “a startling show of force,” as his fellow-tenants described it to the Boston Herald, with a “phalanx” of officers and agents and two K9 units….”[3] Why? Apparently, he was originally from Saudi Arabia….

Twentieth Century Unitarian Universalist theologian, James Luther Adams, once wrote, “In our day we confront also the impersonal forces of a mass society with its technological devices for producing stereotyped opinion. In this mass society the individual is always in danger of becoming lost in the ‘lonely crowd.’ One is attacked by a stream of prepared ‘ideas’ and ‘facts’ that issue from the endless transmission belts of radio, movie and press. These ‘opinion industries’ provide a poor substitute for a community of faith. Insofar as they provide a community at all, it is for the most part the community of support for special interests – the interests of nationalism, racism, and business as usual. In large measure this ‘community’ is an instrument manipulated and supported by central power groups. In short, it is a form of authoritarianism.”[4] Adams crafts an odd explanation. Our freedom to say, or do, or think whatever we want with modern notions of secular liberty, have led us down a path where we’ve become indoctrinated by secular idols. Nationalism for the sake of nationalism; racism for the sake of small egos and addiction to privilege; consumerism, money and power as an end to itself – an end that goes nowhere.  His words seem to speak directly to our times, yet he wrote this in 1953.

I saw a political cartoon this week that had a newscaster frantically crying, “What can we do to lessen the grip of fear from terrorism?” In the following panel we see a person at home turning off his TV and smiling. There’s an urge to silence the sensationalism. We want to know what’s going on, but we don’t need to see a bomb repeating over and over with our kids potentially in earshot. That’s not journalism. It doesn’t inform us beyond the most simplistic – “this tragic thing happened.” It doesn’t educate a new generation on how to build a community centered in justice, equity and compassion. This is left for us to do. This is our task.

In the coming year, our congregation will review its mission and vision. This isn’t a bureaucratic task of paper pushing and language games. It’s a chance to reflect on our purpose; to identify what is utmost in importance; and speak why we do what we do. It’s a chance to ground ourselves so that when the horrors of the world repeat … we know who we are, why we are here, and how we will respond as a community of faith. Reflecting on this every five to the ten years is a healthy thing, and should come up from the congregation itself. It reminds us that we are not just a community that is everything to everybody, but a congregation that has a compass at its center that ever calls us, over and over, to transform ourselves and our world through acts of love and justice.

And this is not easy work. It is spirited work. It asks us to live our lives in such a way that it’s obvious to the world around us that we are here for something. We are here for the common good. There is meaning and value that transcends our individual egos. What goes on in the world may not be about us, but we must be ready to be about the world; to be relevant to the needs of our community. This is what a spirited life is about. It’s finding our compass and following it; even when the going isn’t easy – especially when it brings about little inconveniences. We continue to be blessed with life, knowing full well that others have lost their lives this week, and every week. We can not bring them back, but we can live with the knowledge that this life is precious, and should not be dragged down by the little boredoms, the small problems, the quaint naggings that sometimes attempt to steal our focus.

In the words of our offertory, “We are the flickers of yet unseen times. Life in its glory rushes on-ward. Longing itself into ever new forms. Finding the courage to burst from darkness.” We are what we have been, and what we will become. Life does not rest in the moment of pain, or loss. It draws us unceasingly forward; longing for new forms and new ways. May we be the stewards of our lives; caring for each moment with love as our guide.

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