Posts Tagged Homophobia
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.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on 3/16/14. It explores the nature of evil in response to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The video of the sermon can be watched here.
One of the oldest surviving stories in human history is about the birth of murder. In Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures, the story of two brothers – Cain and Abel – teach us about the mythic first atrocity. Brother killing brother. Both brothers are loved by God. Cain is a farmer, and Abel is a shepherd. Both offer a sacrifice to God from the fruit of their labors. The story tells us that God is pleased by Abel’s offering of meat, and that God held no regard for Cain’s offering of grain. At first God noticed Cain was disappointed. He asked Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Shortly thereafter, consumed by jealousy, Cain murders his brother in the fields where Cain toils. When God catches up with Cain and asks him what happened to Abel, Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Am I my brother’s keeper? These words, to the scripturally-minded, would resonate through the eons as the quintessential backdoor confession of guilt; claiming ignorance and deflecting responsibility. Why should I know or care; that other person is their own man (so to speak) and no problem of my own. It’s an ancient story of murder, but it’s also an early story detailing the roots of evil. We divest of our personal responsibility for those around us – especially when we know they are in trouble – whether we’re to blame or not. Implied in the story, we are our brother’s keeper. Or at least we’re called upon to account for the well-being of those around us.
We often get lost in in the doctrines of original sin. These are interpretations that would come much later in time in the Christian Church.. But from early on – the text itself tells us that evil, that sin, is found when we fail to honor our essential interdependence. When we throw compassion away. It’s found both in acts of harm that are obvious to our sense of morality, and in acts of neglect. Sometimes through complicity, and sometimes through apathy we come to witness evil.
But the nature of evil is not indicative of everything bad we do. Humans make mistakes. Sometimes we’re jerks. We’re short of temper. We’re flippant or rude. We forget to recycle the can of soup. We don’t tip our waiters. Evil is a word I prefer to reserve for the bigger crimes against life. The smaller things are the smaller sins or errors of our ways. Moving forward today though, I’m going to stick with using the word sin to describe the smaller human errors – for our smaller intentional errors. Calling a bad deed an error or a mistake is sometimes appropriate. But sometimes it sounds like we’re talking about a math problem and not human crisis. Separated from the notion of Original Sin and Heavenly Judgement, neither of which I believe in as a Universalist, sin is still relevant. Sometimes we wrong life, in small and big ways – intentionally or not – through our actions or through our lack of actions – and that’s sinful.
Our choir music this morning references the acts of genocide central to the horror of World War II. With the dead reaching beyond 12 million souls – Jews, LGBT folk, dissidents, Gypsies and so many others, the mind can not grasp the loss easily. … Germans killing their own for the differences we pretend are bigger than our humanity. … For us, that staggering number would be akin to the death of two thirds of the people who either live or commute through NYC everyday. Most of our family, most of our friends.
When our music director, Richard, first sent me the lyrics to the choir’s anthem today “Written in Pencil”, I wrote him and said, “I think the lyrics are cut off. Can you resend the document.” All I received was, “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway-Car” “here in this carload – i am eve – with abel my son – if you see my other son – cain son of man – tell him that i”…. Richard wrote back and said, “‘Written in Pencil . . .’ isn’t cut off. That is where it ends (poignantly), and it’s as if the writing (in the railway car) has just stopped there. Eve doesn’t have a chance to say anything to Cain. This may be the poet’s way of indicating that the railway car reached its destination and Eve was put to death. It may also be an indication that there is only an unspeakable response to unspeakable horror, even from a mother.” …
And there are no words to finish that thought…. The Holocaust left humanity reeling from what seemed unimaginable before it wheeled into the 20th century. It was grounded in the abject loss of any human sense of interdependence. Evil separates you from I. It teaches us we are alone in this world, and its ok to act from that sense of separateness. On the small scale, being an island to oneself leads to greed, or hate, or fear, or jealousy. Each props up the ego, strengthening the ego’s identity through isolation or group think. Taken to the extreme, these sins lead to horror. It’s a sobering reason to check ourselves when we succumb to the smaller vices lest they rule us.
In Unitarian Universalist circles, we have a propensity toward accepting human goodness in the face of the reality of evil. Even saying “the reality of evil” may get some to raise their eyebrows in polite conversation. We’ve moved away from Original Sin, so we try to throw out all that relates to it, rather than look the difficult parts in their face. This is a great weakness in an unreflective UU theology. One can refuse to believe in an essence to evil, while still recognizing the practice and experience of evil. Hatred that ruins lives, fear that endangers lives – they’re not mistakes. They’re not errors. They’re a perversion of life.
From the big picture, it’s impossible to configure every safeguard, every step along the way, that might have prevented such an atrocity. If war is ever just, war to end genocide is certainly counted amongst the acts of justice. From a practical pastoral level though, we can diminish the roots of evil every day when we offer one simple act.… Being present to one another…. Being present in our messiness, our highs, our lows, and our joys and our sorrows. Being human with one another. This won’t remove the great evils of the day, but it will contribute to reducing the evils of another day – in ourselves, in the people around us. Every act of personal hatred, or fear, or jealously – begins from someone who can’t face the world as it is. They’re either building up their own sense of self by diminishing another, or they’re craving some solace or satisfaction they falsely believe can only be achieved through another’s sense of loss. But with every greed or jealously, the satisfaction of the thing once obtained, rapidly disappears.
The spiritual discipline of Presence teaches us that our souls are not built upon the acquisition of stuff, or in dehumanizing another. Our souls are grounded in the profound reality of being alive, being a witness to life, and being a part of something whose vastness exceeds our imaginations. Presence calls us back to our depth, our breadth, and our essence. It’s opposite, leads us to a road of pain and misery; a road that often drags others along the way. I can’t imagine a form of evil that doesn’t involve ceasing to be present to another’s humanity. Presence may be our most important virtue for this reason. It’s found through openness, and it teaches reverence. All three qualities nurture and respect life.
Our graphic today in the visual presentation depicts an immense pile of shoes from a camp or killing field. The shoes are a testimony to the atrocity that has been committed. They’re also a visible reminder of how evil happens. When each individual’s humanity is relegated to remnants and cast-offs; when we make another’s humanity a number, or a category – we craft evil. When we sit idly by, while the cultural production of evil occurs, we are complicit in its crafting. Evil is not done by acts alone.
Our wisdom story today is probably the best metaphor for my own belief in heaven and hell. I tend not to spend much time on the afterlife. I know it’s an odd thing for a minister to say, especially one who does believe in God. I just don’t find it’s an area that I have much to go on either way, so it’s not very helpful getting caught up thinking about it most of the time. But I do believe our sense of Heaven and our sense of Hell – in this life, and the next (whatever that may entail) is built upon this Jewish Folk story. We create a thousand heavens and a thousand hells in our everyday by how we handle and treat one another. If everyone’s sitting around a warm cooking pot full of nourishing soup, but is stuck with very long handled spoons – the people who care to help one another to the soup will be well fed; those who ignore their interdependence will starve. And those that force others not to help one another will also make the community starve. I think of this when I hear stories of people saying we should cut food stamps; or that people are unemployed because they’re lazy. It’s a profound lack of empathy; it’s a profound lack of being present to the pain of others; and it’s a profound lack of awareness of the actual economic nature of our country. But it’s an easy rallying cry to say, “those people over there! They’re the ones that are the source of our problems.” It’s the nature of evil to do that. And it’s a scary thing.
Heaven and Hell are open to us in every moment, in every way, for every thing. If we retract to our egos when pain or challenge comes along, we will be greeted with further pain and challenge. If we reach out to our neighbors and they do the same, we will nurture a heaven of compassion. It may not end the wars abroad, or violence in the next town over, but it will create pockets of humanity where we have the most influence. And in time, the rest will follow.
This is not the same thing as saying we get what we give, or we get what we send into the universe. I’m not preaching The Secret here, or what they call Laws of Attraction. I’m saying that compassion calls us to reach out – but still – our neighbor has to also reach back. That’s not a given. Reaching out doesn’t earn us or guarantee us a positive response. But spiritually speaking, it’s the only sane thing to do under most circumstances. To put it lightly, in our everyday living, Heaven happens when a group of decent people act like proper humans. Yet, most of the time we don’t do that. Each of us in this room here – each of us – from time to time, we won’t do that.
Hell happens when we institutionalize the clutching and grabbing. It happens when the ego reigns supreme. It happens when decent folk look away. We saw both the clutching and grabbing, and the looking away in the story of Nazi Germany. It’s sobering to know that the two decades prior to the rise of Hitler saw a decade of liberal acceptance followed by an economic downturn. The flow of freedom, turns to an ebb of fear from scarcity – and a people change. It’s easy to say that’s only in them over there back in that decade some 75 years ago. But our Nation’s own history with the depravity of slavery; with the genocide of Native Americans; with the Japanese prison camps; and the Chinese worker-chains; and as our responsive prayer today reminds us – of our actions with the Atomic Bomb.
We have that in ourselves too. Human nature has a profound potential for good. Human nature also has a tendency toward sin when left unexamined. And in some situations – individual – or communal – that sin can be staggering. In each of the American cases of depravity, the people of the time were able to rationalize their actions. Each was based upon the false notion that the other – that the African, or the Native American, or the Japanese or the Chinese – were somehow less deserving of freedom or life because of the arbitrary difference chosen for the moment. We were not present to another human being as a fellow human being. We strengthen our egos through the idolatrous worship of sameness, and we shatter the lives of those that can’t worship our idol because of birth, station or chance.
Some of you may still have a hard time hearing the word sin in reference to our individual actions. Try thinking about it in terms of communal actions for a short time. In society, you might even come to believe in Original Sin, albeit in a new form. Our nation struggles with many institutional forms of oppression. Oppressions that were birthed in another generation, before any of us were alive. Oppressions that were responding to different circumstances in a different time. But they were passed on. Not just in the form of personal bias, but in the form of institutional systems that keep some people down, while lifting others up.
We see it with women who can’t get equal pay for equal work. Is that crisis your personal fault? Yet it continues. It’s inherited in our system, and we have tremendous trouble cleansing our nation of that disparity despite the facts being in the open. You can replace this systematic sin with any other -ism you’d like and it would only strengthen our concern.
God’s words in the early scripture return to us, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” When we do well, and things are going smooth, sin is not that close to us. It’s when times are tough, or we fail at something, or we need a scapegoat, that it runs in through the open door. When the stock market is down, or housing is hard to find, or our schools are underfunded, or we can’t seem to stop going to war, or when people’s sense of power is threatened as demographics shift – that is when we must master what’s lurking at the door. When we succeed we may be vulnerable to pride. But when we’re weak, we’re vulnerable to making others weak as well so that we appear strong. In these times of failure, our faith, or our character becomes committed to the care and feeding of our ego, rather than resting upon the eternal bedrock, that can be found, in every moment, where we take in another breadth. Feed your neighbors with your long-handled spoons, and be ready to be fed in return. Make sure to teach our kids that lesson well. It is here that we craft Heaven.
This sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at how we can reclaim our public voice for social justice.
Our day has finally come! There’s a case right now before the Supreme Court that will rule on the nature of public prayer in civic settings. Specifically, it’s looking at the matter of opening government meetings with sectarian prayers. The local town claims that no bias toward any particular religion is being held despite the fact that almost every public prayer is led by Christian clergy. “In a friend-of-the-court brief filed (a week ago) Friday, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention told the Supreme Court that prohibiting Christian pastors from delivering a prayer to start official town meetings would effectively impose Unitarianism on the nation…. We shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Baptist church (they go on to say) but we shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Unitarian church either, and that’s what some are attempting.”  Our day has finally come.
When I read this, I should have cried, but I couldn’t help but laugh. Imagine it: The Unitarian Theocracy has come to power! The Southern Baptists are taking issue with a secular request not to mix civic duty with religious practices – a request that was based upon the fact that almost no non-Christian traditions were invited to the table – and are equating this with our Unitarian Universalist pluralistic attitude toward public faith. They’ve created a good story. The Southern Baptist Convention are adjusting the facts to suit their preferences. … Imposing Unitarianism… let’s rewrite that story. What would that actually sound like? (1) You will be open to diversity of opinion. (2) You will make room for multiple religious voices at the table (3) You will support, engage, and nurture the democratic process ensuring that all people have a right to vote, access to voting, while faithfully seeking to eliminate obstacles to full inclusion in the democratic process. (4) You will not confuse your desire for unlimited personal freedom to do whatever you want, as a legitimate example of a real limitation on your freedom (5) We are all in this together, so we might as well act like it.
(6) You will not impose your religious views on anyone else as a matter of government – except for every one of these rules of course – which require you to act against your personal and cultural faux-American, faux-Christian tradition of being bigoted toward anyone different. Now that’s my kind of theocracy!
But it’s not. It’s not a theocracy in any real sense. Personal freedoms are not lost to any real religious authority. Just like claiming one’s freedom of speech is impinged upon when mandatory prayer at the start of a civic activity is removed. Mandatory anything – by definition – is what a real loss of freedom looks like. But we’ve allowed ourselves – to take serious – twists in language that tie us up in knots. Freedom begins to mean – only my personal freedom. Theocracy begins to mean – I can no longer impose my religious views on others. East is West, and Up is Down. Science-Fiction authors have been writing about this for at least the last century. It’s why books like 1984 and A Brave New World continue to be required reading in High School. (I sure hope they are at least….)
In short – the Faux Cultural Christian Right in the U.S. is very adept at wielding propaganda. And we need to get better at re-telling the story as it actually is happening. And we need to re-learn how to do this retelling in the moment that doublespeak happens. Not a year later; not in the safety of our dinner tables; not solely on our Facebook walls. When it happens. In the moment.
I call this recent mindset “faux cultural christian right” because as a powerhouse, it’s only a recent phenomenon. It was birthed with the evangelical movements that grew post Billy Graham. Christianity in the U.S., as a political force, was primarily liberal until the 1950’s. In the 1820s-1840’s – the Unitarians controlled the New England court system. In 1850 the Universalists were the third largest denomination in America at 5 million members. The Social Gospel movement of the 1920’s was mainstream Christianity and it was very liberal. Essentially, this movement said that Jesus taught us to care for the poor, so we should act like it. Even the Neo-Orthodox movement that rose out of the horrors of WWII, led by great theologians like Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer, were theologically conservative but socially progressive.
I call it faux and cultural Christianity, because its social message does not reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It’s a simple fact. You can’t find a lesson of hate, isolation or consumerism anywhere in the actual teachings of Jesus. Anywhere. He never said anything like it. One does not need to follow Jesus of course, but if you’re going to speak in his name, you ought to quote him right at least.
Just because the right wing of American Christianity is dominant in public debate for the past 40 or so years, and it’s only been 40 or so years, does not mean that they get to define Christianity, or religion for that matter. But that’s exactly what we allow to happen, when we indignantly sit in our disgust of barbaric views that foster bigotry, racism, homophobia and xenophobia…. And too often we just sit quietly…. As a religious people – we are not called to silence, we are called to voice. Our principles teach us that we have promised to act as though each person has dignity and worth, and to do so with equity and compassion. They tell us that acceptance, inclusion, and responsibility are spiritual matters. The promise we made when we joined this faith included taking democracy very seriously. It’s a sacrament of sorts for us. Because when the democratic process fails – dignity, worth, equity, and inclusion are all at risk. And we can not live the lie that we are alone in this world; that we have earned everything we have ever achieved by ourselves; that the earth does not need us, and we do not need it. The great lie tells us that we are an island unto ourselves, and that’s quite fine thank you very much. That’s not what our religion teaches us, and it’s not what it demands of us. Each of these principles demand a strong voice from us this day. And we need to re-learn to be very public about telling our story. Or we allow others to say Up is Down, and East is West. We become complicit. We become complicit.
Stories have power. They shape us. I want to share another story with you now. I grew up hearing stories about the March On Washington. As a child, this historic moment seemed immense, and far removed in time. Yet, it ingrained itself in my young conscience. Rev. King’s watershed speech galvanized an ethic that not only challenged the institutions of his time, but offered a path for the next generations to mature into. From this grounding, we as a people struggle, grow, and heal. He did so by re-telling the American story. He made The Dream bigger and more inclusive. He basically said – ‘you know all those things we said about freedom and equity – well let’s start meaning them.” And the work must continue.
August 24th marks the 50th anniversary of “The Great March.” Brian and I will be heading down to DC to join one of our largest congregations – All Souls, DC – in Standing on the Side of Love. Our weekly eFlash has more information on how to join. You can also follow that link to read the letter I wrote that the Standing on the Side of Love campaign sent out to the denomination on Thursday inviting us all to DC.
Wherever any of us are oppressed, we are all diminished. Whenever we remain complacent, we are complicit. When we are unmoved, our faith calls us back to a place of compassion. We are all our relations. We still have a dream. May the next generations be inspired by the course of our hearts. I hope to see you in DC at the end of this month and take part in the re-telling of our American Story for this generation.
Just like our nation, what we say about ourselves influences what we become as a faith community and as individuals. If we speak only about ourselves as a thoroughly-reasoned people, and not as an empathetic community, we will sound more intellectual than heart-centered. If we neglect our commitment to the public sector, the public sector will expect us to sputter quietly in the night. If we stew in our terminal uniqueness, we will sit alone at lunch hour.
What are the stories we need to retell in our own congregation? Where are we silent when we ought to speak up? What would reclaiming your commitment to voice in this Fellowship look like? Consider it. You may have different answers than I will, or the person next to you will. I’ll suggest a few, by starting with the most individual and working my way up.
When are you silent when you should speak up in this community? Sometimes folks gossip in life. Sometimes people are critical of one another behind each other’s backs. This happens in our families, in our classrooms, in our social circles and yes, in our religious home. It’s a fact of human interactions, and always continues. I challenge each of you to challenge it, when you witness it, with love and compassion. Not with finger pointing; not with a judgmental tone; without the classic “ah, gotcha!” You can say things like, “Well, Billy’s not here right now, maybe you can bring it up with them directly.” Or, “That’s not my experience of them.” When we’re guilty of guerilla tactics of critique we need to ask ourselves “Is this kind? Is this helpful? Is it even true?” I would further add – “Is this actually what we’re here to even do?” Gossip is the same as behind-the-scenes critique.
Sometimes in our circles we’re called to not remain silent for more serious matters. Someone in earshot makes a racist comment, or a homophobic comment. It could be in this building, or at work, or in home room at school. If we say nothing we are complicit. Anyone hurt by the comment will be further hurt by our silence. We don’t need to enter into an argument. We could just say aloud, “That’s not my view” or “We don’t appreciate hateful words like that here.” We need to make a spiritual practice of responding with compassion – in the moment. Not waiting till later. Not thinking it’s not our place. This is our home, and we make of it what we wish to see.
What about the bigger picture for our congregation and our community? What old stories need retelling? Are we actually broke? People believe in God now! No one believes in God now! Do we really want our parking lot to greet the bottom of our cars every time we enter or exit? Do more people really not want to take part in the leadership of this community? Are children welcome in our religious home? What does membership in our congregation mean? What is our purpose?
Many of these answers will take the better part of the next year to define and redefine. I have some impressions from the many conversations I’ve had already, and look forward to learning more from each of you. The Board began some of these reflections last Sunday with me in our 6 hour retreat after services, and the Board will be intentionally seeking more and more inclusion in the months to come. I can’t answer each of these questions for myself yet, but I would like to look at one right now.
…The Parking Lot… Everyone get comfortable in your chairs. Stretch if you need to. Take a deep breath. Really. Ok, you can keep breathing. I know this has been a challenge for somewhere between seasons and eons. Everyone has a different view about exactly what’s going on. The facts are three-fold: 1) We have a parking lot (can we all agree on that? by a show of hands, how many of us agree that’s true? ok, good.) 2) the parking lot needs to be repaired because cars have been driving on it and parking in it for a long time and the laws of physics and geology remain true even here on our sacred grounds and 3) repairs cost money. What appears to me to be the dominant story is that we are short money. We could probably get enough money to do basic repairs – assuming we can agree on what the word “basic” means – or we could agree on what the word “what” means for that matter. Some in the community weigh environmental concerns more highly than fiscal and are holding out for doing this in the ecological manner. Namely – semi-porous materials that help tremendously with drainage. And the dichotomy that’s created sounds like, “we’d be able to move forward if the environmentalists would just stop blocking the process.” I’ve heard this already, and it’s not the best way to phrase the situation.
We need a new story. We have groups here that are more ecologically minded. We have award-recognized conservationists in our midst and on our Board. We have others that are focused on community gardens to help with the problem of hunger in our community. We have others that specifically are called to upgrading our beloved building to Green Sanctuary status. And we have others who would love to see an eco-friendly driveway. And our religious principles – namely our 7th – tells us that all things are interdependent; that we are part of the world and the world is part of us. What if that became our new story?
What if we allowed the spirituality of environmental stewardship to be a real demand on our lives? There’s certainly the need. We have members who lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy. I remember being trapped in my 10th story NYC apartment with the East River in front of our door (Three avenues, the FDR and the East River Park further in than the East River should have been.) On July 22nd, while Brian and I were busy closing on our new home in Huntington, people were taking photos of The-Day-the-North-Pole-Became-A-Lake. Global Warming will continue if each of us continues to do what we’ve been doing. 99% of scientists agree. When was the last time 99% of people agreed on anything?
We all know the definition of insanity: continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results. Some changes will be easy. Most of them will not be easy. The longer we wait, the more painful it will be. Yesterday was the time for action, but we’ll have to do with today.
As some of you know, I was an Urban Planner before I was a minister. I mostly worked in the area of affordable housing and health insurance outreach, but we all got trained in the basics of everything Planner-related. Like the ministry, Planners are a rare breed of specialized generalists. So with that background known, I say this, the environmental benefit of doing this right, is actually significant. It’s not a token act. It’s meaningful. It’s also good for our collective spirit.
In our social justice and social service work we come together well when we work toward ending homelessness and hunger. I believe we have a critical mass of drive and purpose to do this collective action with environmental stewardship as well. It’s certainly in our religious values. It certainly needs to be done. And we have a real opportunity for local, meaningful impact in an area that affects all of us generally – and an area that has affected some of us tremendously – at the price of our homes.
Sometimes we make good decisions informed by finances. And sometimes we allow money to make us forget our principles. When Brian and I walked into the VW dealership to lease a new car, we walked in with the express intention of leasing a hybrid. Somehow, the agent convinced us not to buy a hybrid. As a lease, we would never make back the money in gas that we would spend in getting a hybrid. Right now, it’s only cheaper if you drive a lot, and we won’t be driving a lot. It’s only small comfort that the mileage on the non-hybrid car is better mileage than I’ve ever had in my life. I went in to make a principled purchase and I walked out doing otherwise. I forgot my center. I hope we can find our center and make a principled decision. And although “no decision” – is a decision – it’s not going to stop the ground greeting the bottom of my new lease every time I enter or exit the parking lot.
Folks can respond – ‘well, where is the money going to come from?’ And I would respond, that’s the wrong first question. The right first few questions are – As a religious community, what’s the principled choice? How will this energize us as a community? How will this define us? Who will join our community because of the potentially very public leadership we show? Will it help us find our voice? What story will we now be telling?
I have faith in this community. I believe we will actualize our center in the years to come; that we have a purpose and we will embody it with life. Because I believe in our story, I will be pledging 5% of my income as your minister to the works and ministry of this Fellowship. It will come directly out of my paycheck before I ever see it. I wish I could pledge more, but with the state of student loans in our country right now, and the crippling cost of seminary and graduate school debt, I simply can not at this time. But I want to make this choice, because it feels right. I want to contribute to our impact on the world in every way I can.
You see, the money will come, if our purpose is right. The money will not come if we focus on wondering where the money will come from. The money will come when we recognize that our religious community is saving lives as well as mending souls. We are helping to house the homeless – in this very sanctuary. We share in the responsibility of feeding the hungry in our community. We can tell our story as the people who show up to witness when advocacy for justice is required. We are literally saving lives, when a teen desperately needs to hear that they are whole, and sacred, just as they are – for who they love. We are literally saving lives, when we respect the choices people make with their bodies – even when the body they are born into doesn’t exactly match the body they feel they fit into. We are literally saving lives when we seek to change the tenor of public discourse. From all the horrifying news stories abounding we know all too well the public lynching trees are far from gone in our country. We have much work to do. We have a purpose. We are a saving faith, in a very literal sense. Go. Tell our story.