Posts Tagged Martin Luther King
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/22/17 as part of our annual service for UN Sunday. This year’s focus is on militarization, peace and the hidden lies ingrained in our conscience.
Last April, about six of us from our Fellowship attended the annual UU-UNO Spring Seminar, in NYC. It’s a two day learning retreat for youth, and adults; for both lay leaders and religious professionals. It was held at a very challenging time – both within our broader world and from within our own denomination. Just a few days earlier, our former denominational president, Peter Morales, chose to resign amid a public discussion around hiring practices at our UUA Headquarters, that appeared to preference white men. The Interim Co-Presidents that followed would indicate we have much work and reflection to do on our denominational hiring practices – and that work is being done with deliberation now. …The Spring Seminar was focusing on demilitarization in the world – guns, chemical weapons, use of drones, and the history of the nuclear disarmament movement – with the spirit that the more we know and understand, the more effective we can be in achieving a more peaceful world. While we were hearing a talk by a former military chaplain on the threat of nuclear proliferation, President Trump was just beginning to escalate nuclear tensions with North Korea.
We learn in context and story. Those lessons on organizing for peace, locally and globally, will grow and be informed from a time where visible leadership was missing from the top; but much leadership was clearly happening on the ground. Although I’m very much an institutionalist at heart, I recognize that the “institutions” we value most are strongest when the whole of the community is engaged. I learned a lot of facts about militarization at the seminar, but the most important lesson was one of perspective. The Peace movement of my parents’ generation isn’t gone; it just changed.
We learn in context and with story. What stories do we tell about peace and war? When I was a kid in school, I was told the story that in World War II, dropping the atomic bomb saved countless lives because the war would have gone on for years otherwise. That’s a pretty close paraphrase of what was written in our expensive history textbooks. I wasn’t told the part of the story that Japan was planning to surrender before the second bomb was dropped. As a kid, I never asked the questions: Why were we ok with dropping the atomic bomb on Japanese civilians, but not ok with doing so to German civilians? Why did we need to take the most drastic action to speed up the conclusion of one front of the war, and not another? What’s the value of a life; and whose life matters more? Our principles of worth and dignity – of respect and peace – go arm in arm. The more we diminish those we choose to feel as different, the more that peace is at risk.
And this story, this context, is an old one for humanity; we prop ourselves up at the expense of another’s humanity. This is the point in the debate around war or peace where public discourse usually gets sidetracked by discussions of just war theory. “What’s the intellectual line demarcating when use of force is ethical?” We’re not going to do that today. We’re going to stay present to the harder truth hiding in plain sight – militarization impacts along racial lines in Western Civilization. The peace movement didn’t disappear, it just changed. Today, the peace movement is focused on dismantling white supremacy.
And to be fair, even that really isn’t any change at all. Martin Luther King, Jr was a prominent peace activist who diligently made the connections for a broader white populace that was trying hard not to find those connections. “And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home they can’t hardly live on the same block together.” But I also wasn’t taught this in school. When I was a kid, our history lessons ended with the Civil Rights era. We were taught that black protesters were protesting for black rights. And the peace movement was solely made up of hippies. That’s certainly what all the photos looked like in our new history textbooks. Well as untrue as that was then, it’s still untrue today, for this generation. The Peace movement of my parents’ generation isn’t gone; and maybe it didn’t even materially change; but I’d like to think that we’re at least learning to talk about it more honestly.
But we are not all learning to do so, honestly. When athletes across our nation protest police killings of civilians, and our wider militarization of the police, folks fabricate an imaginary disrespect for our military – rather than address the fact of so many civilian deaths. The freedom of speech is somehow not relevant to the story tellers. When we endure yet another mass shooting, gun sales skyrocket, and we’re told it’s never time to talk about it. But the right to bear arms somehow matters though to the same storytellers.
We learn with story and context. What’s the story we choose to tell? We learned of the death of 4 of our soldiers in Niger. The tragic loss has mostly focused on whether or not the President was callous in his condolence call to one widow. I’m going to stay away from the politicization of these deaths, and reflect more on the nature of peace in this globalized world. There’s another aspect to this tragedy that’s just starting to get attention. It’s a lesson on how race and peace are intertwined. In a September 25th New York Times article, “The addition of Chad to Mr. Trump’s travel ban took that country’s government by surprise and bewildered analysts of Central Africa. In a statement, the government expressed “ incomprehension in the face of the official reasons for this decision, which contrasts with Chad’s constant efforts and commitments in the fight against terrorism.” It called on President Trump to rethink the decision, “which has seriously affected the image of Chad and the good relations maintained by the two countries.” This travel ban took effect on October 18th. According to Reuters and NBC, Chad began withdrawing troops they were using to support our soldiers against Boko Haram in Niger right before four of our soldiers were killed. Will we take this tragic lesson to heart, and stop weakening our long standing partnerships with allies? Our principles of worth and dignity – of respect and peace – go arm in arm. The more we diminish those we choose to feel as different, the more that peace is at risk.
In Western Civilization, the roots of such discord run deep. If we teach our kids that the history of the world is cleaner than it’s been, that we’re more innocent than we are, and that everything can be simplified into the good guys and the bad guys, history will repeat itself until the very literal end of days. We need to foster a new kind of courage – the courage to self-reflect with honesty.
There’s an easy escape for us when we start to talk about our history. It’s the common philosophy that haters gonna hate (to quote the popular theologian, Taylor Swift.) We ease our guilt by believing that some people are just filled with hate in their hearts, and we’re helpless to change that. And to be sure, there are folks all over this globe that are likewise convinced that we’re all just filled with hate in our hearts. As Ben spoke of earlier in the service, that perception has given terrorist groups a windfall in recruiting. How could drone strikes on civilian targets ever be done by a compassionate people? We could debate that for hours in our comfortable chairs, but I doubt it would convince a family that lost an innocent parent or sibling to our efficiency.
There are some lies that get free rent in our heads. Bad ethics that remain alive in our worldview because we forgot they were ever there, let alone informing our values and perceptions. I’m going to talk about two of them now, and ask us to reflect on how they still impact our lives today. The courage to reflect, honestly, is the next movement we can make to head toward a world that chooses to center peace as a value.
Manifest Destiny first entered our US conscious in 1845, when a newspaper writer by the name of O’Sullivan coined it in response to a border dispute with Britain over what is now known as Oregon. “And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Monroe, wrote, “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.”
The 19th century US would be colored by this deadly ethic. In the name of our “special” American virtues, we would clear ourselves of the sin and the horror of genocide. The thinking went that it was our divine fate, so we ought to expand without limit, regardless of the consequences. It’s the classic fallacy that the ends justify the means. We diminish those we choose to feel as different, and peace is at risk. We center greed, and the world expands its weaponry.
The idea of Manifest Destiny came about over a land dispute between two colonizing powers over who had the right to claim stolen lands of people we murdered. But we would tell a different story. One famous piece of art depicts Manifest Destiny as a beautiful woman in a white flowing gown floating in the air inspiring the westward expansion of American farmers; peaceful, virtuous and prosperous. That’s the story we would tell instead of the honest one. When we coach what is ugly in terms of beauty, we empower brutality. All of us now would overtly condemn Manifest Destiny as a failure of a prior generation, but we repeat it still to this day. It wasn’t even a year ago that our militarized police showed up in force to Native Americans peacefully protesting an oil pipeline on their own land. That would end with water hoses being used on Native Americans in the freezing Winter. All of it completely legal. Why as a nation would we not unanimously retract in horror at that abuse? It’s the unreflected lie that remains hidden in our collective psyche.
The second hidden lie that informs our ethic is similar, but goes back further in our history. Unlike Manifest Destiny, this lie is formally sanctioned in our judicial precedents – the Doctrine of Discovery. European monarchies would use it to validate conquest outside of Europe. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas would say that this only applied to non-Christian lands. “In 1823, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. M’Intosh that the discovery rights of European sovereigns had been transferred to the new United States: The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They hold and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or conquest; and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.” Associate Justice Joseph Story, a Unitarian, (1779-1845) later wrote: “As infidels, heathens, and savages, they [the Indians] were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations.”
I’m not sure how we ever go back now, and that’s not the focus today, but let’s sit with this reality for a moment. We have ensconced, in the highest court of our land, that justice doesn’t mean justice…. And in 2016 we are aiming water hoses, in freezing temperatures, on Native people when they’re on their own land – their own land.
We’ve been speaking a lot this season about how small actions can lead to big change. Violence, war, militarization – are huge crises. It’s mostly true to say that we individually can’t impact this, and not quickly. But we have a commitment our Fellowship made as a site of peace. If you head out our main doors, you’ll notice a peace pole with peace written in numerous languages. We dedicated that here as part of our denominational process around committing to the work of centering peace in our communal lives. The next small thing for us all to do, is to strive toward putting on a new pair of glasses when we look out into the world. When we read the news, when we talk with extended family over awkward holiday meals. We learn in context, and with story. How do we let some stories get told, and retold?
I’ll close with these words, from the Rev. Jake Morrill, another UU minister. He was saying this specifically to white UU ministers as a challenge to lean into our privilege. But it’s a helpful meditation focus for this work of centering peace. “Do you know how the Copernican revolution was the insight that the earth revolves around the sun, and that we were not at the center of the universe? Well, a few decades later, Giordano Bruno postulated the universe in which the solar system was not at the center of the universe, either – – but instead existed amidst many galaxies, beyond imagination. So the idea is that we white man, who have been raised to imagine ourselves the center of everything, might begin to inhabit a world in which we are only one perspective.” …Peace will not travail if we continue to all imagine we’re each individually the center of the universe.
It is good to be back in the pulpit again. When last I preached I reflected on the bigger trials of social justice for the year gone past. Those travails don’t stop though, do they. This past month has brought forth many difficult stories. The month we’re in now, in the secular calendar is Black History month. We typically learn about the stories of Black pioneers that we may not have heard of, or folks that we learn and relearn about year after year. This morning I’d like to look at the living legacy of black history alive in our news, and reflect back on the roots of oppression in our nation’s history. In light of our monthly theme, as I talk consider where love is found. Where does fear seem to win the day?
In an interview with conservative columnist Cal Thomas this past Wednesday, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann said, “I think there was a cachet about having an African-American president because of guilt,” Bachmann said. “People don’t hold guilt for a woman.” She was clarifying why President Obama won the White House twice, and why she didn’t.
We learned this past week that the killer in the Loud Music trial was found guilty of three cases of attempted murder but was not found guilty of murder for the person he actually did kill. The jury was hung, and he may still face another trial for murder. “Dunn, who is white, killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis in November 2012 after having an argument with him over loud music in a convenience store parking lot where Davis sat in an SUV with three young friends. Dunn fired 10 shots, including three at the SUV as it was fleeing. After the shooting, Dunn and his fiancé went to a local hotel, ordered a pizza, opened a bottle of wine, and watched a movie. The next morning he drove two hours away to his home, where he was apprehended. Dunn claimed Jordan Davis, who was African-American, pointed a gun at him and threatened his life. No gun was found by police and no one else heard any threats.” This case was in Florida where a Stand Your Ground law is in place.
According to PBS, “research conducted by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, found that in states with Stand Your Ground laws, “the killings of black people by whites were more likely to be considered justified than the killings of white people by blacks.” Roman concluded that white people were 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than another white person across Stand Your Ground states. [PBS, 7/31/12]
Elsewhere, “the University of Mississippi is offering a $25,000 reward for tips that can help officials identify and arrest two vandals who were spotted draping a noose around the neck of the statue of James Meredith, who braved angry mobs in 1962 to become the school’s first African-American student.”
And my last example this month involves, “A veteran investigator with the Tennessee Department of Health (who) was forced to resign or face termination last month for his conduct during a racially charged case. William Sewell was an emergency medical service investigator, assigned to the Upper Cumberland Region, who had been with the state more than 40 years. Last summer, Sewell began investigating a case involving the Algood Fire Department in Putnam County. In an interview with the man who filed the complaint, Shun Mullins, Sewell began telling a graphic story about a black man who was lynched near Baxter, Tennessee, many years ago. The state claimed Sewell’s conduct in that interview could be perceived as a “form of intimidation” toward Mullins.” The news report further explained that “the three say Sewell finished with a shocking detail, that he still owned a “strap” of the lynched man’s skin, passed down from his grandfather. ‘They made a strap out of his skin, and they used that strap as a knife sharpener,’ Allen remembered.” The original case was based upon Mullins (who) claimed Algood’s deputy fire chief refused to do CPR on his mother because she was black and then falsified medical reports to cover it up.”
Happy Black History month everyone. These stories are why we still desperately need to reflect on our history. The White House, built by slaves, has been home to our first black president for a little over five years now. Poets, Alice Walker, and others, have poignantly noted how we know not where our efforts will eventually lead, nor who will some day reside in the sanctuaries we build this day even in the midst of injustice and pain. We can see a little ahead, and off to the side, but can barely imagine the scope of changes to the landscape that will some day come about. Yet we still have a congressional representative diminishingly say that our president primarily won, twice, because of white guilt.
What can leadership look like? In the American mythology, the answers have always been “anyone.” Of course, “anyone” has always had very specific implications. At one point “anyone” meant land holding straight white men. That was honestly progressive for the time. With it, we successfully moved a bit away from aristocracy and nobility as the places of power. For a decade or two, the American mythology has said it includes people of all races. Although I still feel we have a ways to go in this respect, this presidency (through all its faults and successes) has indicated that our practice has finally met up with our cultural self-conception of what we can be. Racism is not cured, sexism continues to thrive, ageism on both ends of the spectrum is almost a given, and homophobia is often confused with high moral standards. The latest case in point being Arizona, whose legislature has sent to the Governor a bill that would pretend secular businesses are churches, and allow all institutions to refuse services to LGBT folk, in the name of religion.
And yet, we can still find hope that we as a people, can grow past ourselves enough to recognize leadership despite our biases and short-comings. As Martin Luther King Jr once dreamt, we have chosen our president based on the “content of his character, and not by the color of his skin.” Whatever your political affiliations are, this is a remarkable sign of transformation for our country.
Our story this morning talks about the transforming power of leadership. An early Buddhist parable, richly names the spirit of our time. In the midst of the flaming pit of crisis, the Buddha as parrot recognizes his two great gifts; being alive and being able to fly. As the world burns around him he chooses not to panic and succumb to uselessness. He chooses not to use his second gift of flight to preserve his first gift of life. Rather, he employs all that he has to make some difference in easing the suffering of others. His colorful feathers grow black through his efforts to save lives. “What, after all, can a bird do in times like these… but fly? So fly I shall. And I won’t stop if there’s even a chance I can save a single life.”
In contrast, the godly beings are relaxed, bright, covered in white ivory and glittery gold. Well fed, they shimmer and shine and remain clean. All most can do is continue to eat and wax eloquent on the absurdity of the parrot’s efforts. “Trying to put out a raging fire with just a few sprinkles of water from his wings. Who ever heard of such a thing. Why, it’s absurd!”
Where in our lives are we the parrot with greasy black wings who is fed with a mission and destined to make a difference, and where are we the fully entitled god who shimmers and shines and is just well fed? When have you met the well intentioned god on golden wings descend to warn you to stop your efforts because it’s not worth the trouble? When have you been that nay-saying voice? When do you think the mission of our congregation is about serving you as an individual alone? When do you find our congregation’s mission is about serving the world – serving life?
“I don’t need advice. I just need someone to pitch in and help!” cried the parrot. I know I’ve felt that before. Whether it’s combating homelessness, raising children, or struggling through school, it is tough to do it alone, and often times we seem to receive more advice than actual assistance. It would be easy, and a bit triumphant, to preach on how hidden beneath the grime and soot of our efforts are splendid multi-colored feathers that help us soar. But this Buddhist parable seems to indicate that it’s that very blackness, that greasy water that differentiates us from the splendidness of those distant gods. In fact, it’s that blackness that calls one of the gods down from his place of privilege, to do what he ought to have done from the start; use his power to affect change. “All at once, he no longer wanted to be a god or an eagle or anything else. He simply wanted to be like that brave little parrot, and to help.” All gratitude at the story’s end goes to the little parrot, “for this sudden, miraculous rain.” It may have been the god’s tears that put out the fires of this world, but they blossomed from the witness of the action of the parrot – the otherwise dis-empowered, the oppressed, the not-privileged.
That godly nay-saying has woven itself into the fabric of our daily expression. We are burdened down with a difficult economy, the long felt aftermath of enervating wars, mixed successes in LGBT civil rights, and a collapsing environment. Many say they are choosing hope, and yet our collective shoulders seem to indicate spiritual exhaustion. This nagging sap to confidence echoes the sense of impossibility, when so many things seem raw and endless, like a fire that sprung over night and is left by all the world to burn. But I believe there continue to be rivers of hope, and waters of abundance, that eagerly wait for us to dip our wings and dirty our feathers; because there is much work to be done and gratefully many of us here able to do it.
Yes despite the very clear need for action, beyond the call for hope in the face of sorrow and pain, we must reflect on the source of the trauma. Why do we continue to hear horror stories perpetrated upon Black Americans – some of which appear to only be worsening rather than getting better? How can this be while at the same time our nation’s highest office is finally open to someone who isn’t perceived as white by many despite his mother being white? A plantation era engineer named J. D. Smith once noted, “One only needs to go down South and examine hundreds of old Southern mansions, and splendid church edifices, still intact to be convinced of …. the cleverness of the [Black] artisans, who constructed nine tenths of them.” This white engineer was taught his trade by a slave engineer. Yet, the image we often get taught in grade school and high school is that of uneducated blacks during the slave era only doing servile work. Why don’t we share both sides of that painful story?
The German philosopher, Hegel, once noted, “The [slave] consciousness is, for the master, the object which embodies the truth of his certainty of himself. But it is evident that this object does not correspond to its notion; for, just where the master had effectively achieved lordship, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved… The truth of the [master] consciousness is accordingly the consciousness of the bondsmen.” Hegel’s point is about the extreme qualities of slavery and slaveholding, but I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to point toward any instance of applied institutional racism. The ego of the oppressor becomes intrinsically linked to the oppressed. What puffs up the powerful, chains their psyche to that which is most base to our humanity. We become less for trying to pretend we’re more. We narrow the scope of our humanity. We are defined by how well we convince ourselves that someone else is less. Or as author and former executive editor of Ebony magazine, Lerone Bennett, Jr would put it, “Out of this system (of slavery) came the Black American, and, though some would like to forget it, the White American…”.
We allow fear, fear of others, fear of our own inadequacy to trump love. We say that which we fear is truth so we must stamp it down anyway we can. We convince ourselves that four teens in a car playing loud music, unarmed, are a real and quantifiable threat that requires us to open fire even though they are unarmed, even though they agreed to lower the music. Fear allows the jury to have four of its members think that this kind of violence is justified. And we remember “that white people were 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than another white person across Stand Your Ground states.” One kind of body is more dangerous than other. Fear trumping love.
Fear teaches us to share stories of lynchings and body parts kept as trophies when a black man dares to sue a fire department for failing to perform CPR on his mother because of the color of her skin. Every part of this story is grounded in fear. Fear of difference, fear of one body touching a different body even if it’s just to save a life, to do the job you volunteered to do for everyone else. Fear teaches dissidents to sit back down quietly. And fear instructs the oppressor on how to keep a hold of his power.
We often think the opposite of love is hate. I am convinced its opposite is truly fear. Love is grounded in compassion, in seeing the connections between one another and saying they matter. Fear is grounded in the antithesis to each of these. What makes us different becomes a danger to our sense of self. And to the fearful among us, our sense of self matters so much more than our sense of interdependence. Interdependence then becomes just another threat to the ego.
But in the culmination of our days, love trumps fear, always. Fear passes away, and love endures in our memories and our hearts…. This Fellowship has lost several long time and very dear members this past year. When each life was remembered, stories of love, stories of compassion, stories of life were what were lifted up time and time again. The rest was secondary. The progress of civil rights movements have time and time again been determined by radical acts of love in the face of fear; in coming to the aid of a stranger because it was the right and compassionate thing to do. It doesn’t mean that danger, or harm, or struggle are not genuine risks. But the essence and scope of our humanity are not rooted in these, nor defined by them in any true way. If it is how we care for others that defines our memory and legacy after we are gone, it’s certainly what defines our lives while we are here. Life is not about you alone, or me alone. Life is about us. It’s about “we.” And as the story of the parrot who saved a jungle from fire goes, sometimes our acts of love change the people who bear witness to them – it doesn’t mean there won’t be tears – but it makes all the difference.
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.