Posts Tagged Michael Brown
This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 29th at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma.
A few weeks back, while I was in Selma for the 50th anniversary of the march that inspired the Voting Rights Act, we had a Sunday service here reflecting back on the justice work of 50 years ago. Our member, Joyce Williams, reflected on her own memories of that time and being there. Her words should be on-line already or will be shortly and I encourage those who missed her talk, to read it when you have a moment.
I’ve heard other Selma Veterans speak before and they always open up parts of history that weren’t really taught in schools. History tends to look at the biggest moments and the rest often blur in memory. One such time I heard a Selma Veteran speak was a story I’ve briefly shared with our Fellowship before, but it takes on new qualities for me in light of my own trip to Selma earlier this month, so I want to share it with you again, and fill in some spots that are less blurry now.
A few years back I attended one of the ministers’ gatherings at our denomination’s General Assembly. In this particular worship service, there were two sermons delivered. One from a minister in their 25th year of ministry, and the second was a minister in their 50th year of ministry. The 50 year minister happened to be the Rev. Clark Olsen. Earlier this month, Joyce spoke at length about him and a few others. But briefly, Rev. Olsen was the minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians at the time of the Selma civil rights march in 1965, when he survived an attack that fatally injured another white minister, the Rev. James J. Reeb; this happening not a month after the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist – the reason for the march. I found his talk incredibly moving and remarkably humble. I always imagined the folks who marched on Selma in this otherworldly light for being the folks that stood up for their convictions, who stood up for basic humanity in each of us – and certainly they were the ones that were far ahead of the common view of the times – with some giving their lives.
I marveled though at how everyday the decision was for this minister. He spoke about how he almost didn’t even go. He wanted to, but the money wasn’t there to make the travel across the country. Then one of his congregants donated the money for Clark Olsen to travel and stand for their congregation. It gave him the opportunity to stand witness, and to be there for the last moments of his colleague and friend’s life. But I don’t even know the name of the congregant that made that possible.
Hearing this part of the story, the part that’s not shared in the history books, helped me to see the broader and deeper connections all our actions make in the work of justice in our world. It transformed it from a history lesson about certain heroes and martyrs, to one about the everyday work of building community. It certainly takes both kinds of justice work, but it reminded me that we each have a part to play. It made the impossible seem a little more probable to my mind and my heart. It’s not about a handful of people. Justice is the turning toward committed action with a concerted effort. It’s the spirit of what we often call Right Relations applied to neighborhoods, and to schools, and to court systems. And it takes all of us, in small ways and in large ways, to bring that about. It’s not reserved for a handful of heroes, but reliant upon our very everyday strivings.
Ok, that’s the recap part I felt was important to lay the groundwork for today’s sermon. While in Selma this month, we heard more stories like this. Some congregations’ Board’s would require their minister to attend. And sadly, some congregations would not approve of their minister going. Why would the church risk its standing in the community by getting involved in other people’s business, or by challenging the perfection of government or the police force in Selma. We think of the issue being so clear cut, but in the midst of tragedy we can often forget right and wrong.
We can all imagine stories alive and happening today where people of good conscious come down on different sides of a crisis for various reasons. I think of Ferguson, and Staten Island most recently centered in the media’s view. I wonder when we come down on differing sides of a situation that folks on both sides may think is crystal clear today, will we see it differently in another 50 years? I wonder how soon we can forget the role institutions and authority had in the violent deaths around Selma of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb, those 4 young girls in the church, and Viola Liuzzo. I recall Rev. Dick Leonard, one of the final 300 marchers who finished the 4 day march in Selma across the bridge tell his story of the National Guard being present to protect the marchers. But he relates that for several days the National Guard were facing the marchers as if they were protecting Alabama from the peaceful protestors. They would eventually be convinced to turn around and face the trees with their Spanish Moss and Ivy – where snipers would easily be concealed, but that’s not what they were inclined to do at first.
And those roads were dangerous. Viola Liuzzo, the young Unitarian white woman from Detroit, was chased down – car to car and shot dead. This happened after the march, after she had dropped some protestors off, when everything was already over. She was just helping out, and was chased down, and gunned down, on our roadways.
We remember the images of our own institutions turning water hoses on peaceful protestors, and local State authorities ignoring Federal rules. And I think of Ferguson, MO, where a court recently had to intervene and tell local police officers that, no, in fact they could not reasonably use tear gas on people who were standing in their own yard. Apparently the courts had to intervene because peaceful protests, including prayer rallies, were being interrupted with no warning and dispersed with tear gas. And the worse part of it, there were cases where there were no points of egress, and they were still gassed. Whatever your feelings may be about the initial case regarding the death of Michael Brown, and the officer who was found to have done no wrong-doing, I think we can safely say that our American institutions should not be using tear gas on prayer rallies or people’s front lawns. But I hear those stories, and I see those images, and I remember the water hoses, and wonder where do we find Selma today? How often do we look back at the civil rights movement and become guilty of thinking it ended 50 years ago, of doubting it’s still a current crisis?
I find that challenge with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In Selma, we heard from Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of that movement. We hear folks around us, and sometimes it’s ourselves, confuse the message of #BlackLivesMatter to mean other lives aren’t as important, or it’s an indictment against all police. But in light of the reality of Selma then, we know that all of us aren’t treated equally. It’s message is to remind us that our nation isn’t acting as if Black lives matter. It’s message is to remind us that Selma wasn’t only 50 years ago. We still see disparity between the wealth and freedom of many people of color and whites. We still see concerted efforts to restrict the rights of minorities to vote, as evidenced by the rapid response in some states of restricting voter access the very day the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. One recent statistic pointed out that we currently have more black citizens in prison than were enslaved prior to the Civil War, often over non-violent crimes. Something is morally broken, and we need to stop pretending that it’s not a blazing crisis today. We can look at any one incident the media makes a flashpoint of and say, well it’s not really that cut and dry, and I think often the critic may be right. But those incidents where polarizations distort fact, don’t change the reality of the broader picture of our prisons, and our jobs and our access to voting, and the deaths on the street.
Our model of journalism has shifted over at least my lifetime to fixate on opposing views, while watching them duke it out as if there was no room for nuance or complexity. And then we try to change our world from the perspective that there are only two positions – one being right and the other wrong. That hasn’t worked for us. Whatever our opinions of the judicial rulings concerning the tragic deaths of so many men and women of color every week and every month in our country – yes every week and every month – a fact that should shock us into action – they are one tragic side of the civil rights crisis. Even if we doubt blame in these rulings, we still have voter suppression, we still have a system of imprisonment, we still have unequal access to education, and jobs, and services. These were all tied to the Selma struggle, and I see Selma still today.
It is with this lens that I challenge us to engage, reengage or renergize our work toward justice. Following the service, Diana Weaving will host a visioning meeting for our Journey Toward Wholeness group here in the Main Hall at 12:15pm. Please come, and lend your vision, and your commitment. At the end of this month, I’ll be attending a talk at Stony Brook to hear once more Rev. William Barber speak about the pressing present needs in the on-going civil rights movement. He is a founding force for the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, and several of my colleagues hope this will be inspire the start of the Moral Mondays movement here in Long Island.
I heard Rev. Barber speak in Selma and he’s a powerful speaker. If you’re available to attend on April 28th at 7pm at Stony Brook University, I would love for you to join me. He eloquently reminds us that our movement for social justice isn’t a political movement. It’s not republicans or democrats. It’s a moral movement.
The platform of this new wave of the ongoing civil rights movement is as follows:
1. EQUAL JUSTICE: Equal Protection Under the Law — Justice Without Regard to Race, Religious Beliefs, Class, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Immigration Status or Physical Disability.
2. ECONOMIC JUSTICE: Policies that support our labor force, including a living wage, access to healthcare, the right of all workers to organize and bargain collectively for pay, benefits and workplace rights.
3. EDUCATION EQUALITY: Provide a well-funded quality public education for all.
4. HEALTHCARE FOR ALL: Safeguard the health and quality of life for all.
5. VOTING RIGHTS: Protect and expand voting rights and ensure equal access for all voters to improve voter participation.
6. ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE & SUSTAINABILITY: Policies that provide clean water, air and food and ensure green spaces, and promote sustainability for all communities.
Selma is today. Most of these 6 talking points were part of the movement led by Martin Luther King 50 years ago. It’s not new. It may be even more inclusive, but it’s beyond political; it’s ethical. The language Rev. Barber would use is the language of sin. Although as UU’s we don’t believe in the concept of original sin, we certainly recognize humanity has imagined countless ways to act from greed, hatred, and indifference. Whether the word sin speaks to you, or not, what it points to is very important. There are things in life that are right and wrong. That’s not just politics. Those six talking points around justice: broader equality, economic, educational, health, democracy and environmental – are issues that neither of our country’s two big parties gets right all the time or maybe at all. We can pretend that it’s just an intellectual game of politics or we can recognize that there are ways in which we as a people are complicit in harm on each other and on our planet. And we can respond with faith, conscience and integrity.
Each succession of the civil rights struggle has echoes of its predecessors. But each turn toward justice is developed upon the efforts of countless unnamed individuals. Look for your place in the history and future of this work, because it truly takes all of us to make this possible. Some of us will be called to travel our country to stand witness, and others will need to stay behind to do the work in the corners of the world in which we choose to dwell – everyday. What corner can you inhabit?
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/7/14. It explores the tragic death of black men and boys by white police officers.
It’s December. The Rockefeller Christmas Tree was lit before a river of protestors marching from Times Square. Anger in the season of joy. The police would barricade them some way along their route so that their peaceful protest would not disrupt broadcast television. And true to form, NBC would nary blink an eye to cover it. Late night news would mourn the delays on drivers. A “die-in” at Grand Central – where protesters, en masse, lie motionless on the floor – delayed train commuting for hours. By the next day, papers would publish sketches of the figure of the Blind Justice on the ground gasping “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner, a black father and a husband, had died at the hands of a police officer who would employ an illegal chokehold on him, and the grand jury ruled no cause for indictment. I can’t breathe.
We know from the video footage that Eric Garner was unarmed. We know he was not attacking anyone. We know he was accused of the petty misdemeanor of selling loose cigarettes on the street. He kept his hands to himself and barely struggled with the police who were slowly killing him. He said, “I can’t breathe” and the police continued to kill him. We know this from the video footage. And still, no cause for indictment. We know this from the video footage. Yet seeing is not enough to believe anymore – to at least go to trial.
Tamir Rice, a 12 year old black boy, was playing on a field with a toy gun. A 911 call was made which mentioned that the gun was probably fake. Police were dispatched and no word of the probably fake gun was passed onto the responding officers. Within 2 seconds of getting out of the car though, Tamir Rice was gunned down. The police would falsify a whole range of things in their press conference, from lying about asking the boy numerous times to drop the weapon, to claiming that the orange tab was off the end of the gun so they thought it was real. The orange tip was removed, but the toy gun was in Tamir’s pants – so it’s really a moot point – there was no tip to see one way or the other – so they lied about having knowledge they didn’t actually have. We know the responding officers didn’t warn little Tamir because we have video footage that shows they gunned him down within 2 seconds. We have footage. Yet, we’ve likely all heard or read of many white apologists blaming the parents for letting their kid carry a toy gun. ‘It’s the parents’ failure of parenting.’ Ohio is an open carry state, but a child with a toy gun in Ohio is the problem, not the police officer who we’ll later learn had a supervisor who said this particular officer was not fit for duty and was fired, only to be hired by another precinct. But we’ll jump to blame the black child, not the adult trained in the use of firearms.
This thinking is truly remarkable. Back on April 12th, 2014, the media labeled Eric Parker a “protestor” when he aimed a loaded assault rifle at a Federal agent of the Bureau of Land Management when they seized cattle belonging to the rancher Cliven Bundy for their illegal grazing on federal land. This white man with an assault rifle pointed at Federal Agents acting in the course of their duty is merely “protesting” but a black boy with a toy gun playing by himself with no one around him requires deadly force.
So when I hear people say in the case of Ferguson that we should give the system the benefit of the doubt, I say, “I can’t breathe.” Where was the benefit of the doubt for the dead victims? And why, why must we perpetually, and with knee-jerk precision, give the benefit of the doubt to the people with the power in the situation?
I know officers have a seemingly impossible job. I know they put their lives on the line. I know I could never do that job. Yet still, how does critiquing one officer’s actions immediately translate into attacking all officers – conveniently – every single time this comes up. And it appears to be coming up every single month, in every single year, of our lives, for generations.
It’s not rationale. It’s victim-blaming. And we don’t seem to put up with it for any other profession. I have power as a clergy person. I have authority; I have influence; I have a larger voice than most of us simply because of the stature of my office. For a long time, our nation allowed clergy to get away with horrendous offenses in the name of covering up what we did not want to see. Thankfully, light has been shown on corners that should never have been allowed to be hidden. That’s the just and right response to abuse of power. I don’t expect any special considerations because of the nature of my job. In fact, I expect to be held to a higher standard because of the power I wield. It is our ethical and moral responsibility to shine the same light on any professional who holds such power. The calling to task of clergy abuse of individual clergy doesn’t call to task all clergy, just the guilty party. So why must we pretend we’re insulting all officers when we challenge the actions of an individual? We’re not insulting officers by questioning flagrant abuse; we’re treating them like citizens, because they still are. We don’t live in a police state, so we shouldn’t act like it when it comes down to black victims. And frankly, I think not holding police officers to at least the same standard we hold other citizens, is an insult to the office of the police.
We do this with police because something else is going on. Individuals officers are responsible for their actions; they must live with it for the rest of their lives; and justice should be served. But it’s not only about them. It’s about a system that devalues black lives to protect white privilege. If you thought white privilege was only about perks and benefits, the death of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice correct us. If you thought being anti-racist begins and ends with not using the N-word, Eric and Tamir correct us. If you thought being anti-racist begins and ends with ensuring equal job opportunities and equal pay regardless of race, Eric and Tamir correct us. Lynchings are alive and well and sanctioned by the justice system, and we become complicit the moment we lose our outrage.
Anger in the season of joy. We should be outraged right now. I remember asking this when I had to preach in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin to my community in Brooklyn, and I will ask it again here in Huntington about the 12 year old Tamir Rice, and the 18 year old Michael Brown: Can you imagine any scenario where one of our 12 year olds, or one of our congregation’s 18 year olds, was killed by anyone and we didn’t lose our minds in sorrow and rage… Take a moment to imagine that horrid reality. Do you actually believe this congregation wouldn’t move heaven and earth to find justice? I can’t. I just can’t. We should apply that reality to the families and communities of Tamir and Michael, and now Eric. Benefit of the doubt language takes on a whole new meaning in that light.
I want to reflect on another story of unjust deaths of children. We talk about it at this time of year, every year, but rarely do the commercials, sermons or politicians of this world focus on this part of the story. It’s the story of the Wise Men. They come to Jerusalem and visit King Herod asking ‘“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened…”. (Matthew 2:1-12) King Herod tries to trick the Wise Men into finding Jesus and informing the King of his location for Herod believes Jesus will be a threat to his reign and intends to kill him. The story of the Wise Men often ends with, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
But the story goes on with a message you will rarely hear at our children’s pageants. “16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Rachel’s wails echo in our ears when we go the path of cool analyzation in the face of a generation of black children being killed before our eyes without recourse or justice. It’s the safe and privileged position, to argue each individual case over our awkward Thanksgiving dinners, or on Facebook walls, or at the water cooler; all the while forgetting that this is happening every month, of every year, for generations. If we remain solely in our heads, perpetually fixated on the myth that there are always two sides to any situation, we remain deaf to Rachel’s wails. I say it’s a myth – two sides. It’s a myth, because we talk blithely about two sides while never allowing the victims’ sides to actually be heard in a court of law. There has been no trial to avenge the death of Eric Garner; his side wasn’t heard. There was no trial to avenge the death of Michael Brown; his side wasn’t heard. There was no trial, so there was only one side.
We pretend the closed-door practice of Grand Jury’s, who only ever hear from an elected Prosecutor, is a fair trial. When the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict was released, the British version of the BBC had to explain to its readers that our Grand Jury’s are secret and that only one person gets to speak with them. Europe doesn’t have this as part of their legal procedures and readers were confused. It’s considered anathema to a democracy. The judicial system should be transparent, and in this way, our system is not. Some would also call into question the political nature of asking an elected Prosector, one who likely benefits from Police Union votes, to ever indict a police officer for such a crime. It’s a complicated conflict of interest that under normal circumstances I would discredit, but baring witness to the near 0 rate of county prosecutors every actually indicting a police officer for the violent death of an unarmed black man, I’m not sure it’s something we should continue to wholly discredit.
The story of the Wise Men is timely and important. Who is Herod today? I don’t believe there’s an evil mastermind organizing the wanton death of black children. But I do see a nation feeling threatened by race reacting in violent ways, without recourse or justice for the victims. Travyon, Tamir, Eric and Michael were all on trial for their own deaths. From carrying skittles, to playing with a toy in an empty field, to saying “I can’t breathe”, to a punch in the face that was falsely reported as breaking the officer’s skull but in fact caused light bruising – we give the death sentence. We can parse out all the ways in which someone should or could have done something different, although in 3 of these 4 cases, I find none of those critiques credible in the face of Rachel’s wail and weeping for her children. Friends, we are in a Modern Western Society. We do not give the death sentence for walking home from a convenience store with a packet of skittles; we do not give the death sentence for playing in a field with a toy, or for selling loose cigarettes. We just don’t.
Herod is in our faceless system that allows this happen. Herod is in our criminal justice process that forces imprisonment for non-violent crimes at a ridiculous rate – one that is higher for people of color than for whites. When you’re imprisoned for a non-violent crime, your chances of ever getting a good job decrease. While you’re imprisoned you also lose your right to vote. It’s like the Jim Crow south all over again. It’s a vicious cycle.
Herod is in the rampant fear whites have of blacks. When Darren Wilson said, “I feel like a 5 year old holding onto Hulk Hogan” we were hearing the fear of Herod come to life. “He looked up at me and had the most aggressive face,” he said to the grand jury. “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Officer Darren Wilson is 6’4” and 210 pounds. He’s about two inches taller than me but otherwise my size; except he had a gun. And he was facing an unarmed 18 year old. Officer Wilson also got to speak to the Grand Jury; something Michael Brown never will get a chance to do.
I know these cases aren’t all the same. I’m not saying we need to convict anyone in the court of public opinion. I am saying that the court of public opinion always seems to rule in favor of the officer at the expense of the dead black boy, teen, or man. I am saying that I find it horrifying in a democracy that in each of these instances there is never a trial – a child is dead and there is no trial. We can send a black man to prison for a non-violent crime at a rate radically out of proportion to white prisoners, but we can’t even hold a trial for the killing of black youth when it’s done by police? When we insist that black youth are treated fairly, while they lie dead on a Ferguson street for 4.5 hours for all the community to see, we keep Herod on the throne.
So yes, not all police are bad. In fact most are awesome. But when you hear another story of another unarmed black man killed by another white police officer over another petty mis-demeanor, hold back from the knee-jerk “it’s not all cops.” When Rachel was weeping in Ramah, over the death of all the infant men of Jerusalem, saying “well, it’s not all kings” says more about you than it does the grieving mother.
Spiritually, we’re called not to blithely dismiss the parents’ pain. We’re called to listen; to act. Democracy is a lively art, and it’s the foundation of our fifth principle. In some of these cases we can lobby for Federal Prosecutors to intervene on civil rights causes. In others we can make our voices heard through joining in protest marches, as some of us already have in NYC this weekend. There will be another opportunity later today at the Amityville, LIRR station at 1:30pm where that march culminates at Holy Trinity Baptist Church at 3pm. But equally important, and I tend to feel it’s even more important, as a predominately privileged community that will likely never have to face the horrors of seeing one of our youth lying dead on Main Street for 4.5 hours, is to listen. Respond with our ears and our hearts first. Be present for a family or a community’s pain – first. Be open to the possibility that if every cop isn’t a bad cop – which no one is saying they are – then maybe there’s room to believe that every black youth isn’t a bad kid deserving of death or imprisonment. If we’re going to stay in our heads, that’s the logic we have to face when we retreat to “all cops aren’t bad”, when no one is talking about all cops. That’s the false logic flipped on its head.
I want to end with the other side of anger in the season of joy. Rage. We’re seeing a lot of photos out of Ferguson showing rioting in response to the presence of Police in military gear and later the presence of National Guard. Remember, protestors were first met with gas masks, tear gas and military grade vehicles. Remember also that the peaceful protestors, and the protest leads are decrying the rioting. In fact the riots are happening at the same time as the legal protests. We’re looking at different people. I wanted to first remind people that the media sometimes sloppily conflates the two groups as the same, thereby indicting the whole community of color for the actions of some.
As a near-pacifist, I can’t condone such rioting. However, as someone who hasn’t just had another one of my people, or community, or family gunned down on the street and left for dead for 4.5 hours – I’m going to choose to remain silent and try to listen. I know that personally, whenever I hear of another gay or lesbian or transgender person killed on the streets – in some ways, I feel like it happened to me too. I imagine many women, when they hear of an attack on another woman, there may be a sense of loss of safety for all women. So too, when there’s a barrage of dead black men and boys on our streets, I think we can all imagine what affect that will have on a community.
I’m going to be real cautious about pointing fingers and blithely exercising my superiority in the face of that tragedy. I’m also going to refer back to my childhood history lessons. When white people riot in the face of oppression it’s called “Patriotic.” In fact, we have a whole political party named after it. The Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party was all about Taxation without Representation, and our forefathers ransacked three ships in the harbor and tossed hundreds of chests of tea into the water. It’s like ransacking the Best Buys of the day, and destroying public property. But they were heroes. They also hid their identities by dressing as Native Americans to do so.
I remember Southern States rising up against the North, in name, over the “sovereignty of states.” 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. That’s only 24,000 less deaths than all other US conflicts combined. And yet, to this day, many Southern Whites will still maintain it was a “just” cause. 640,000 dead. But let’s wag our privileged fingers at the Ferguson community for stealing TV’s and ransacking stores in the face of one of their sons lying dead on the street for 4.5 hours.
I remember Stonewall. For days, several streets in Greenwich village were shut down. Police were barricaded away by Drag Queens and Kings. Windows were shattered with bricks – yes the gay community shattered our own windows. We were tied of the police raping and abusing Drag Queens and Kings. We were tired of the raids that sought to humiliate and keep us down. It only reached page 4 of the papers. But the LGBT civil rights movement was born.
I remember Hanukkah. We focus on the miracle of oil, and seven days and nights of light. But it’s a story about violent revolution in the face of a worldly power that is killing and restricting the lives of Jews in their own land. But we share that story as religious scripture; but another community here, riots in the face of their people lying dead in the street by authority, and we chide them.
Anger and rage don’t always make rational sense. They’re not always helpful. But in the face of seeing one of our children lying dead in the street for 4.5 hours, I’m not sure it’s rationale to expect a neat, clean, tidy, logical response for a very long time.
So we listen. We don’t seek to judge. We don’t seek to quickly hide from the difficulty of a trial. We don’t seek to wash away another’s pain. We don’t condemn a child for their own death. We don’t blame parents for bad parenting by allowing their kid to have a toy gun – again in a state that has an Open Carry law. We don’t accept a system that ignores, time after time, the application of the death penalty for petty misdemeanors. We don’t ignore the fact that European police have a tiny, tiny fraction of the rate of police shootings that we have in our nation (in the single digits in many countries annually) – and we don’t pretend that that difference doesn’t matter.
In our places of privilege we don’t lift up, nurture, defend or protect the Herod of our age – institutional racism – that witnesses the tragic death of black man after black man at the hands of white authority. Some of these cases, the officer may legitimately be found not guilty. Let it go to trial, and we’ll see.
We use our safe positions of privilege to listen. We take the risk that maybe the whole system is unfair and that unfairness means another race of people’s lives are at greater risk. And we allow that possibility to seep in. If we can actually listen, from the place of compassion, we may imagine new ways to live more fairly and more safely. But if we believe the status quo is fair and just; if we believe there are always two sides but we’ll only ever listen to the side of the power and authority, then we’ll continue to see the death of another life, and another life – while we remain safe in our places of privilege.
This sermon was preached on 8/24/14 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the religious discipline of pilgrimage and reflects on what that means to the contemporary UU. In light of the tragedy in Ferguson, MO, this sermon discusses the role of public witness in how it intersects with spiritual journey.
Pilgrimage isn’t a term that we often think about anymore in most of Western society. For many of us, traveling great distances just involves a commitment to buying a ticket online. We can span the globe in hours if we have the wealth to do so. The oracles at Expedia tell me that if I want to travel to California in the dead of winter, I can book it now for less than the price of one night in many hotels in NYC. What took Lewis and Clark a year and seven months, we can do in 6 hours (plus airport security), and they even had a head start, beginning in St. Louis.
For the modern Westerner, pilgrimages are not usually about time or distance. The quality of sacrifice that once defined such journeys, may only really be felt by those of us who may need to skimp to save the money to buy our tickets, unless we go out of our way to set limits and make the trip more difficult by taking a bike or a car or a bus. But even then, there’s not usually the risk of danger earlier generations of humanity experienced.
Yet there’s a spiritual value to the original manner of pilgrimages. The archetypal hero’s journey teaches us that as we go far and wide, we internalize the lessons when we finally return home. When Moses climbs the mountain to find God, he comes to learn that God has been with, and of, the people all along, they just couldn’t see it. What we’re searching for far and wide, is often right at our finger tips. Pilgrimages take us out of our comfort zone to reveal something about our lives that is always true. The new setting, mixed with the sacrifices along the way, help us to see what’s normally clouded. Familiarity hides what’s before us.
UU’s have a few historic sites of note that are certainly worth visiting and learning about, but we have a slim tradition of making pilgrimages to them – aside from maybe our partner churches in various places throughout the globe. Though even those are more about the relationship with a far away community, than a special value on a place. I have begun to feel our form of making pilgrimages is public social witness in the face of flagrant injustice.
We go somewhere where there’s obvious pain in the world, maybe take time off from work when we’d normally just vacation, and go someplace that’s in need, not someplace that’s fun or relaxing. We sacrifice convenience or comfort so that we can lend our hand, our eyes, or our hearts to easing the suffering of others. When I traveled to Phoenix some years ago to witness against the implementation of SB1070, which essentially turned local police into ICE (immigration agents), we were marching and dancing out in the desert. Singing to immigrants detained in prison camps in 110 degree heat for the crime of trying to become Americans without the right paperwork. (And I always remember that my white great grandparents didn’t need paperwork to enter this country.) Almost 5000 people sung to the prisoners who were immorally detained. It brought awareness to the newspapers, and showed solidarity with local ally groups – it told partner advocacy groups that others cared and were willing to make sacrifices to show up. Ultimately, some of the restrictions of SB1070 were shot down, although much more work must be done.
Many of us have made similar trips over the years for a host of causes. Some of you were in Selma, or it’s anniversary 50 years later. Some of our members have long standing commitments abroad, traveling to schools and conservation zones in Africa to help with illness, education and the environment. If you’re here next Sunday, you can learn in particular about all that we have done to build the library, put in water, and build schools in our partner community in Ethiopia.
Next month, world leaders are coming to New York City for a UN summit on the climate crisis determine what steps the international community will take to cease the current trajectory of climate destruction. The meeting begins Sept 23rd.
“On September 21st, we are expecting a million people to arrive in NYC for the People’s Climate March. UUA President the Rev. Peter Morales called on all UUs to join him on September 21 to march for climate justice beginning 11:30 am at Columbus Circle. Afterwards there will be a UU debrief at Community Church (3:30-5:30) and an interfaith worship service at Saint John the Divine (6pm).” I’ll be here preaching that Sunday, but if you’re called to this shorter more local pilgrimage, I very much welcome you to do so. You’ll be able to learn more about it soon online, (and I believe) in our newsletter as well.
In all of these instances, UU’s may not see ourselves as pilgrims. We tend to find the Holy in and amongst people, even if we may personally believe the earth is a sacred thing – which I personally do. Going to a place, without the relationships tied to it, may not be the focus of our pilgrim goal. But pilgrimages aren’t always just that. The Haj in Islam, ties it’s followers into a community of people that’s spanned the centuries. They travel to a place that is not only sacred, but enter into a stream of people that have done just the same. It’s the journey as much as the place. Their path is a process of integration and witness. Being part of something greater and bearing witness to a sense of reverence along the way.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to see it in one of two ways. Either to speak to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community. Or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. There’s another angle to this we find in some Eastern religious circles that relates here. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.
I think in UU circles, we combine all three of these ideas in our religious pilgrimages of social justice. It’s important to witness the pain and suffering in the world while lending our strength and compassion. Where we may have privilege, there is also a responsibility to use that privilege for the common good. If I have a leg up because of the color of my skin, or the scope of my education, I can leverage that for others. But I have to see the problem to know there’s something to be done. And I can’t always see the problem from my couch, however much I might prefer to be sitting there.
That second aspect of Witness, speaking of how our faith, or the Beloved Community, has changed our lives matters here as well. People need to know there’s another way than whatever injustice is going on before us. There are a lot of problems in the world, and sometimes we’re quiet in saying how we’ve seen other ways of doing things. It doesn’t mean imposing your way, or my way of doing things on another community, but it does mean giving voice to more compassionate pathways. Sometimes it means using whatever form of privilege or voice you have in sharing a better way with the oppressors in a situation. Remembering that at different times, we’re all the oppressors, so we ought to use our power with compassion and humility. Doing this work here in the States, with our fellow citizens, should be possible.
The third aspect, Darsan, of being seen; that might be the most crucial. All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence. When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living room doesn’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
I’m thinking of my clergy colleagues, both within our denomination, and those from other traditions, who have traveled this week to Ferguson, MO. Their pilgrimages to a place in pain right now is a sacred duty. One that we may all be called to do in our lives, again and again – as some of us have already, for so many issues. Politics and media spin aside, another black teen was shot dead in the street, six times, from behind when he had his hands up and held no weapon…. By another white cop. The teen is dead, and the cop is on leave of absence with pay. I’ll add that while we’ve seen two black men killed a week by police in this country, “the Economist (a conservative/centrist news magazine) reported last week, in an article on armed U.S. police, that “last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times.” Three times in the past year. Michael Brown, was shot 6 times, while standing unarmed with his hands over his head. We can say that most cops are great. That many precincts have policies that would have prevented this. We have research that shows improved training can correct racial bias in split-second decisions. We can say all those positive things while also lifting up the cultural or systemic differences between our nation and our closes Western culture – Britain. Something’s different here, and it’s not right.
But it didn’t stop there. Then another officer who threatened to kill a demonstrator was removed and suspended after pointing a semi-automatic rifle at a protestor. As of 5am on Friday – about two weeks from the shooting, there still was no police report – as if we can pretend nothing happened. The Wall Street Journal would later cover the release of the heavily redacted police report that finally was released later that Friday, saying it “shed little light on Ferguson shooting.” But lifted up that the St. Louis County detective took 90 minutes to show up on the scene of the crime to investigate the shooting. Mainstream news reporters getting arrested. Police in military gear. Local precincts being relieved of duty and State Troopers taking over. Amnesty International deployed a team to Ferguson, being the first time in its history that it’s sent a team in the US, as the national guard was deployed. The conservative Washington Post even did an article about how foreign newspapers were reporting on Ferguson, and how different it was than our own media. Interestingly, they almost exclusively covered Right-leaning Centrist, to Right Wing papers, and all talked about how bad our race situation has gotten, and that local and state police responses were highly problematic to say it lightly. I admit, I had not expected this from the Washington Post.
But all of this is coming to us second and third hand. I think of my colleagues, and other civically and religiously minded people who have traveled to Ferguson to bear witness, and share the load. To leverage their privilege to ease another’s pain. To hear the people affected, learn from them, and bring their lessons back home, so that the people are still speaking – on that street, in this town, and on and on to the next place and the next place. Bearing witness allows us to help make changes. It also teaches us, and keeps other voices alive for the next problem down the road.
The pilgrim’s journey, like the hero’s journey, isn’t always just about the destination. Our theme for the month, anticipation, speaks to this from both directions. What we anticipate another person’s intentions or actions are, will certainly influence our response. We’ll see things that may not be happening. It would be easy to say the officer, who we know killed Michael Brown, is just a bad person. But we don’t really know that. Split second decisions based on limited information. I think it’s far more likely that our police forces would benefit from more targeted training, like some precincts undergo, that teaches not to anticipate an increased sense of danger from certain races, but to rely on the actual facts that are happening in any particular situation. We’re all guilty of this in our lives from time to time – much like how I spoke about this in my last sermon. We read into the motives of another and create a fantasy world that may be our own nightmare. But in cases like Ferguson, guns and authority are added to the mix. None of this removes the responsibility for this officer’s actions – they are his own – and he and the community must live with the tragic consequences of his decision – whatever the courts may decide. However, we can’t ignore the larger picture either. We can’t ignore the fact that we have an epidemic of these cases. Remember, two black men are fatally shot every week in the US. Michael Brown isn’t the only black man to die last week, or the week before, or the week before.
The other side of anticipation is the expectation of how different the destination will be than our starting point. It’s about bringing the lessons we learn, when we’re away, back home. And in so many of these journeys, like Moses going to the mountain to bring God down, only to find God was there all along – in the people. When we make these trips, maybe to help bear witness to others’ pain, and to affect change, when we bring those lessons home we too realize they are real; they are alive; and those problems are here as well. But changing our scene, going down the road that’s not only less traveled, but may also be a very scary road to walk, gives us a new vantage to see what’s right before us – here. Ferguson isn’t only a place in Missouri. We have work to do at home as well.
 From UUA Announcement