Posts Tagged Racism
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/9/17 for our Eve of Passover and Palm Sunday service on the power of witness.
The American novelist, essayist and poet, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
We’re entering into the season of Passover and coming quickly to Easter. Both stories speak of such unbelievable travails that culminate with a message of hope. Next Sunday, we’ll focus on the clear vision of hope in Easter, and the following Sunday we’ll look more at the hard days when doubt is our only true response. But today, we’ll take a long, hard look, at what helps us to be in love with life again.
Kingsolver’s words remind me of one of the lessons in the story of Moses that leads the Jewish people to freedom. Liberation didn’t begin with the locusts, or frogs, or rivers of blood; liberation began the moment Moses took a long, hard look. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” The burning bush is an image that we might marvel at as kids – it’s graphic, strange and fantastical. A talking plant, full of fire, but not consumed. Moses finds God in a piece of life that he seems to only fully be witnessing for the first time – alive, bright and bursting.
What if every tree or shrub we came across spoke so strongly to us? What if we strived to take that long hard look at more of what comes before us? What stories of liberation, might the world tell in our wake? The story of Moses is essentially a story of witness; witness leading to action, liberation, and the Passover lessons we have carried with us for millennia.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to look at it either as speaking to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community – like we heard Emmett speak earlier this service; or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. Much of our denominational dialogue these past couple of weeks recognizing long-standing patterns of hiring practices that skew toward men, and toward white men in particular, is a form of witnessing to pain and actively extending compassion. It’s being seen.
Our UUA Leadership council sent out a difficult but beautiful letter to our Board Presidents and religious professionals on Thursday sharing the difficult news that two more senior staff at the UUA will be stepping down in the hope that a new leadership team can come together and move us forward. One portion of that letter I’d like share with us all now:
“While many feel shaken by this change in leadership, UUs around the country have also shared many expressions of hope and resilience. This reminds us that the UUA is much more than a staff and a board striving imperfectly to fulfill our mission.
You and your best values are also the UUA. Your congregations, together, are the UUA. Our children and their curiosity are the UUA. Innovative communities that are imagining new ways of living our values are the UUA. People of Color, people with disabilities, people who are trans, and others who have not always found a welcome in our congregations are the UUA. Your creative ministry and prophetic voice are the UUA.
Thank you for your good ministry and for your support. Your love, generosity, and service are the UUA. Together, we are the UUA. Thank you.” This letter is a form of public witness – recognizing the pain some are feeling, and making it clear that those who feel on the margins are being seen.
Witness, the long hard look, is both seeing and being seen. We find this spiritual notion in other faith traditions as well, although it comes across in a sort of third way. 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.
But as Jan Richardson’s poem said before, “This blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes. It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.”
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 (our 7th principle.) When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give – to take that long, hard look, 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 rooms don’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
Sometimes the long hard look is humbling. (Tell story of the elephant and the blind men.) Now this story is often told to describe how difficult it is to talk about God, the Holy or the Sacred. To my Christian friends, I come off (at best) as an agnostic, to my atheist friends I come across as a raging believer. The story about the elephant is probably where I actually land in the theological spectrum. There’s a there, there, but we each come to it from our perspective and location.
But this story also applies to understanding any truth in the world, perspectives, challenges, hopes and pains. Sometimes it’s Rich’s earlier story about the magic rock that helped bring joy when it was thrown away (skipping along the water), and sometimes it’s in how we approach larger institutional challenges. From where we’re sitting, we experience the world very differently. Witness, the long hard look, can help us be open enough to hear the truths we’re not quite seeing yet.
It’s also the essence of the prayerful words of Dr. King we heard earlier today from his famous sermon, Beyond Vietnam which was preached 50 years ago this week: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Will we forever be so certain that the truth we find from our individual perspective be universal, or will we make space for others who are coming to that same truth from another place? The elephant from our story does have a trunk, and a tail, and legs, but the long hard look helps us to find that it’s more than its separate parts. When we come upon the burning bushes in our lives, will we hurry past and see only a shrub, or will we find that newness of life that burns bright and bursting?
Witnessing is also a way of facing; facing the hard things in life. Sometimes accepting, sometimes wrestling with. James Baldwin famously wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Turning toward, facing, is the first step in building the world we dream about. It’s repeating Moses’ words, “I will go over and see this strange sight” and history will never be the same….
To return once more to where we began, Barbara Kingsolver’s words, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
When we’re down and out, going into another season of Passover and Easter feeling burnt, drained, in despair – what is your single glorious thing? What is your Burning Bush – that which is set afire, but never consumed – that forever draws you forward to purpose, to freedom, to liberating the world from our tendencies to despair?
Find that glorious thing, and write it on the tablet of your heart – return to it again and again. Our lot is not made easily to peace, and ease. I’ll close with the worlds of noted Buddhist author, Jack Kornfield: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/26/17 and looks at how adulthood is defined by the risks we take, and how we own the choices we make.
A few days ago I was chatting with a colleague who was lamenting the pain he was feeling from a likely pinched nerve. He basically asked, ‘is this how you know you’ve turned 30?’ I told him that I knew I had turned 30 when older friends starting saying, “Oh, just you wait…”. Then I knew I was 30. I’ll add now that 40 has the same, “just you wait” but the tone these days imply a healthy dose of “welcome to the club.” Adulthood isn’t for the feint of heart. But aging and growing up, aren’t just a range of pains; they are a series of risks that define a life.
Growing up is a risk. We risk our selves, we risk our comfort, we risk change. Nothing of this we really have a choice about, the river of our lives will keep flowing so long as we are here – but we do have choices over how we respond to it. I think the hardest part of all this is in the lessons we learn for ourselves. We heard a bit about that in our Wisdom story earlier in the service about Nasruddin and the boy who ate too much sugar. How often do we find it easier to tell people how they should live their lives than we do in changing our own behavior? The boy is definitely eating too much sugar, but Nasruddin takes a month to tell him, because he first has to learn to stop eating so much sugar himself. There’s a certain integrity in not giving advice you can’t yourself follow; but if we’re honest with ourselves, we rarely hold back from teaching others what we can’t ourselves do. It’s a sort of projectile-adulting onto others where we can’t ourselves adult. We’ve all seen it, and we’re probably all guilty of it – over and over again.
On Thursday morning of this past week, I attended a collegial breakfast with 20 or so local Huntington area clergy – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and interfaith. Imam Mohammad spoke at length about scripture, its messages and the subsequent choices we make from it. There was an overall focus on remembering one of the hardest lessons in life – that doing what’s right, even if it’s hard, is worth it in the long run. For the Imam, if you follow the teachings of Scripture, God will find a way. What I found profoundly true in his words is the notion of risking our values into our lives. We don’t have control over all things, or even sometimes it feels like control over almost anything, but we can make value-based choices that help build the Beloved Community in our corners of the world. We can also make value-based choices that build rancor and hate. Even when we don’t have control over much in our lives, those are our choices we still have to make.
Part of the Imam’s teaching circled around the tragic misappropriation of the Koran’s teachings to foster terrorism. Even though the Koran specifically teaches against suicides, killing outside of self-defense, and generally calls for being accountable to our neighbors, some will take it to fulfill their own cultural worldview. As I spoke at length last week about how our own national American cultural Christianity sometimes subverts the bible to meet their own ends, Islam wrestles with this same challenge.
But it was also heartbreaking to know the Imam needed to clarify this. He even went on to say that Islam needed to own their problem where some are taking the Koran’s teachings in vain. In that spirit, I would say the same for white Christian men in the US. White Christian men cause most of our homegrown terrorist attacks; the evil of the KKK is certainly rooted in a misappropriation of cultural Christianity. This is far more serious than the cute story of sugar-habits we heard earlier but it remains instructive, before we tell others how to fix their problems, we need to own our own. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that as we point out the faults in others, we still need to attend to our own. We can’t continue pointing a finger at other groups without sorting out our own home, or it becomes a tragic distraction from the crises we cause or allow to go unchecked.
This is heavy on my heart this week – owning our own faults – probably the most critical aspect of real adulthood. If you follow me on Facebook, you probably have already heard this. I am going to take the liberty to share with you part of a public letter 6 of my colleagues and I crafted this week, that impacts our denomination and our relationship to institutional racism. There has begun a major public conversation around this, and it’s important that our Fellowship’s members are fully aware. Here is an excerpt from that letter.
“It is, once again, time for us to recognize how racism defines our own institutions and to work toward the demolition of this dangerous, debilitating system. It has come to our attention that the hiring practices of our Unitarian Universalist Association favor white people. With the recent hiring of a white, [cis] male minister, the entire Regional Lead staff in the Congregational Life department is white. Of the 11 people on the President’s Leadership Council (consisting of all department heads), 10 are white. The one exception is the Director of Multicultural Growth and Witness. Of the entire UUA staff, there are currently only two Latinx religious professionals, one of whom is Rev. Peter Morales whose terms ends in June.
The “Ends Monitoring Report” from April 2016 reports that, of the categories of employment within the UUA, people of color were no more than 11% of any group other those considered “Service Workers”. “Service Workers” represent the bottom of the organizational chart and are therefore the lowest paid and represent those with the least power. People of color represent 84% of that particular group. In no other category are white people fewer than 75% of the total.
The practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming and not indicative of the communal practice to which our faith calls us. It is imperative for the fulfillment of our faith that we strive for the manifestation of a just society. It is in our communal spiritual path that our faith is powerful and the demonstration of that faith is made known insofar as we are able to realize justice in our own institutions, using that as a mirror for society at large.
The ongoing dismantling of white supremacy in our system is difficult. It requires a reimagining of our own culture and an openness to the myriad ways marginalized peoples will challenge the status quo. But, there is a grace found in our willingness to disassemble generations of assumptions found in white culture. It is in this process we might find our greatest joy and the deepest fulfillment of the promise of our faith. Unmasking white supremacy lurking in our system and within ourselves is a necessary first step toward our shared liberation. Without it, we continue to live in the stagnation of white dominance.
The purpose of this open letter is to call attention to current hiring practices of the UUA (recognizing that our own UUMA is not exempt and that we have not fully considered practices of our other major UU institutions) with the hope that hiring practices will change and a system of monitoring the success of creating a multicultural staff will be part of a public conversation. While members of this group have started a dialogue with UUA staff responsible for hiring, we are hoping this letter will ensure transparency in the process. With regionalization, ministers and congregations are that much more distant from the inner working of the UUA making clear policies around hiring practices all the more necessary. In addition to the policies, we require specific metrics to measure the success of those policies and an accounting at each Ends Statement Report. We call on the UUA Board to reconcile the results of each year’s hiring with the goal of increasing racial diversity on our Association’s staff.”
In our denominational election year, this has already become a national conversation- and our group cited above – are only one of many groups of people working to draw attention to the crisis. I am glad that all three of our candidates for UUA President, have already weighed in on action steps they would take – to varying degrees of specificity. The groups and individuals working concurrently to address this issue appear to all hope for open communication. I’ll be encouraging our own Board and Social Justice team to reflect on this. As part of our religious commitment to democratic values, our Fifth Principle, our congregations can weigh in, and communicate concerns to our denominational Board (firstname.lastname@example.org) which will be discussing this issue at length at their April 21st Board meeting.
I’m also mentioning this in relation to our own work toward unlearning racism in our community and our nation. We need to fix our own denomination if we’re going to try to fix the world. Otherwise we come across as strident and pedantic, not transformative. In our own Fellowship, I’m working with our Sunday Programs team to intentionally bring in more preachers who are women and people of color. Too many years we’ve had mostly white men speaking from our pulpit – and our team is working together to change that this year, and in the years to come.
I want to close by telling you a folk tale that I probably shared once before during our wondering portion of the service – maybe about 2 years ago – but address it at length this time from an adult perspective.
(Tell story of The Stream.)
When I talk about this story with kids, it’s a way of approaching change, and trust. But today, we’ve looked at the harder part of the risks in adulthood – owning our own shortcomings, fixing the world around us by starting with ourselves. And that remains as true for ourselves as it does our Fellowship; as it does our denomination, or our nation. But reflecting on adulthood, for me, resonates with an odd sense of looking to what came before, and wondering about what will come next. As we grow up and mature, so many stages in life feel so different than the last. Try to remember back to leaving elementary school and entering into junior high for the first time. Maybe you felt so big, or maybe you felt at such a loss. But there probably weren’t going to be the simple boxes of milk for snack time any more. The world was different. It only got even more complicated as we graduated, maybe we married, or had kids. The aches and pains come as we age, but adulthood is less about growing older, than it is about adjusting to new challenges, tougher risks, and different landscape after different landscape.
The stream remembered a wind that it could trust. Each new stage in life that comes knocking on our hearts, echoes a truth we heard some time in the past. The lessons and memories that came before, we carry with us past every desert, and over every mountain. What may come, surely might not be easy, but we’ve seen newness before; we’ve overcome hardship; we’ve been the new kid in the classroom. Life is a series of landing on distant shores, after so much that changes our visible life – we age, we mature, we weaken, we grow stronger, we break. But the essence of the stream stays true through it all – even if we feel defeated and torn down – our eternal stream runs through it all. Life that has walked, and crawled, and flew through millennia on this planet, is the life that beats in us today. That life can learn to remember, once again, a wind that it can trust, through all the dry times of our lives, until we can run free again, after the next challenge, and the next.
 Rev. Peggy Clark, Rev. Dawn Fortune, Rev. Jude Geiger, Aisha Hauser, Rev. Robin Tanner, Rev. Julie Taylor, Rev. Erik Wikstrom
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington following the shooting death of 9 members of the AME Bethel Church in Charleston.
For some of us today, we have Fathers’ Day on the forefront of our minds. For others, we may be pausing to celebrate Juneeteenth, the day the last slaves in Texas got word that they were free. For others, our minds are celebrating the beginning of Summer while recognizing that the shortening of days and lengthening of nights have begun. This Sunday, like we just celebrated, is often the Sunday where many UU congregations celebrate our Flower Celebration, or as some call it, Flower Communion. And this past Thursday, 9 good people, were gunned down in their church during Bible study by a White Supremacist – a home-grown domestic terrorist.
We often have the knee-jerk reaction to blame this kind of atrocity on mental illness, or gun ownership, or sometimes even simply bad parenting. But as we continue reflecting this month on our theme of honesty – what would it mean to be a people of honesty in response to acts of domestic terror? On one hand, we have a young white man – who confessed to the killings and made it clear that he wanted to start a race war. His own words. On the other hand, we have politicians and media outlets who dither over what the alleged gunman’s motives actually were. One station even attempting to spin this into a “war on Christians.”
I’m not a psychologist. I want to call acts like this crazy, but conflating atrocities with mental illness washes our hands – at least those of us who are white – it washes our hands of the hard work of seeing what got us to where we are. …Muslims can be terrorists, black youth can be thugs, but white murderers just need counseling. It’s not honest, and it let’s a whole group of people get off from doing the hard work of soul searching. Acts like this, are mental illness, only if you consider institutional racism a mental illness; only if you consider white supremacy a mental illness; only if you also recognize that it’s a social disease that can be transmitted from one generation to the next. That would be more honest.
I personally see this as another tragic moment that calls for smarter laws concerning gun control. We are the only Western Nation with this perpetual crisis, and we are the only Western Nation with lackluster laws concerning gun ownership and responsibility. Our Christian heritage teaches us that violence is not the answer. Jesus would not have told that 41 year old pastor, the Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckey, a father and a congressman, that he would have been safer if everyone in the church were armed. In fact, Jesus taught the opposite. Yet, the NRA spared no time in casting the blame for his own death on the good reverend’s work toward gun control.
But this isn’t really about gun ownership, or gun control. This is about White Supremacy. We see pictures of black youth, in bikinis at a pool party, being tackled by police officers, or a black father being strangled to death over selling loosies, but the young white man that killed 9 people in a church is taken into custody by the police and calmly escorted to trial. They even put him into a bullet proof vest for his protection. If we are being honest with ourselves, we would look at those images and say, this is about more than just gun control.
We can say, where was the family in any of these situations? We can lament the changing nature of family structure, or wonder why any family member would ever give their son a gun, a son who poses in pictures with symbols of hate. We can wonder why someone who talks about doing this kind of act, is never reported in time. We can pretend that the nurturing of hate happens only at home, but that wouldn’t be honest. We live in a nation that continues to pretend the Confederate Flag is a marker of cultural heritage, and ignore the fact that it didn’t start flying on government flag poles in South Carolina until the 1960s in opposition to de-segregation. It’s a symbol of hate, lifted up as noble. While the state flag, and the US Flag were flown at half-mast following the shooting at AME Bethel, the Confederate Flag flew high and bold. And we wonder – “where were the parents?” If we were honest, we would wonder, where was our Nation? Have our hearts been hardened, or have we just become numb?
In the Jewish scripture, there’s the classic lesson of the liberation in the story of Passover. It’s a central message of hope for the Jewish people, and one that gets retold in a new light in Christian communities that have faced generations of oppression. We often focus on the parts of the story that are graphic – like the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. There’s another bit that’s complicated, and so we often gloss over it. Plague after plague has hit the Egyptian people, and time after time, Moses returns to Pharaoh and implores – let my people go! Each time the Pharaoh refuses. In most translations, it reads that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart to show the strength of God’s power and God’s promise to the Jewish people that some day they will be free. Conventionally, it’s understood to mean that nothing short of complete devastation would be enough to really ensure the freedom of the slaves, so that the Egyptians wouldn’t follow after them. And true to form, despite it all, the Pharaoh’s army still goes after the escaped slaves, ending in drowning.
Now, I don’t believe in a God that punishes the innocent, or send plagues or storms. I don’t read scripture literally – especially for the fantastical parts like this. But I also won’t throw it out because it’s a hard part to get through. There’s two parts here that are eternally true. When we get into battles of will over our ego – Pharaoh’s ego or will that his way will win out – never changing – pain and misery is forever the story’s end. And the second half is that, hardened hearts lead to loss and strife. Who is the Pharaoh in our nation’s life today?
In our country today, White Supremacy has taken up the mantle of Pharaoh. It is funded by right-wing hate groups that somehow manage to continue to be considered mainstream or normal. We have a news channel that twists the truth in every which way so that White citizens feel embattled and imagine that they are “losing their country.” We will wage war after war, when any of our citizens are endangered by Muslims, but we will wring our hands saying there’s nothing that can be done, when a White American murders Black Americans. And we allow government buildings to wave the flag of Secession and Segregation, and call it noble. Our hearts have been hardened.
We fund for-profit prisons, but we can’t fund education. We’ll readily punish, but we’ll be misers when it comes to nurture. Our hearts have been hardened. We maintain a consumer-driven, profit-driven culture that expects Americans to work hard, but we won’t offer a living wage, and we have a government that has spent more time trying to repeal affordable health care, than do any meaningful work around generating more jobs. We’ll readily blame the downtrodden, and then not care for the sick when they have no means themselves. Our hearts have been hardened. We will twist our spines in every which way to paint black victims as “no saints themselves”, but call white assailants “quiet” and extend condolences to the families of the assailant for their loss (as the judge in the bond trial just did in the Charleston case. Our hearts have been hardened.
After a tragedy like this, our nation has the tendency to try to seemingly change a few things, for a little while, then sweep it under the carpet and move on – without actually changing anything. If you’re feeling powerless right now – maybe you can join the movement to change parts of what is so wrong in our country. There are petitions to take down the Flag of Slavery from any of our government buildings. It will bring no one back, but maybe our children can be raised in a culture that doesn’t lift up hatred and fly it high with pride. Some may be energized to look at smarter laws around gun control. It will bring back no lives, but maybe we can try to catch up with every other Western Nation when it comes to safer laws around gun use. Maybe you feel called to work toward reforming the cradle-to-prison for-profit system we have that is thriving in our nation; or on the flip-side, you might work toward better funding our educational system so that everyone has a fair chance at success. It may not bring back any lives, but either of these could radically transform the scope of our children’s future.
Living in Long Island, we have a unique opportunity to affect change. We are not in a socially progressive bastion. We live in a region that was historically built to look the way it does. Beginning with the planned communities like Levittown, much of Long Island is segregated – neighborhood by neighborhood. But it also means that when you’re at your PTA meeting, or at the counter of the local diner that has Fox news on 24/7 – you can talk with people that may not have the same social views as you do. Our nation may have hardened its heart since our beginning, but we don’t have to continue to do that. We can call out the lies, with love, relentlessly. Relentlessly, but always with love. There’s no use in being a clanging gong with our neighbor, but there is a desperate need for everyday conversation across social or political or religious lines. The social illness of White Supremacy does not need to continue should we actively choose to engage it every time we encounter it. That’s what being a people of honesty looks like. Hatred has no place. Not in our neighborhoods, not in our state, and not in our nation. As people of faith, we are called by conscience and all that is holy, to never be silent, never be silent, never be silent. We sing nearly ever week about the Spirit of Life. Friends, life calls to life, and it is calling us this hour – and every hour.
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.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Hope,
We pause this hour, in witness to the many feelings we hold in light of the Thanksgiving Holiday.
Some are grateful for family and friends close at hand,
for the warmth of home, and a table set full with food.
May we remember these joys in the hard times that come to all of us.
Some are struggling with illness, in body or in spirit,
tired from the weary journey,
season after season;
may we find strength from those around us,
and not lose hope,
so that our hours may still be filled with the preciousness of life.
Some are mourning the loss of a beloved family member, or a friend.
Help us to grieve, for grieve we must.
Help us to honor their life, and to carry on their memory,
so that their presence may live on through our actions and our love,
ever stirring the world for their touch upon it.
We also recognize the pain that has struck our nation this year,
whose Spirit has moved over our land once more,
a sense of injustice for black male youth,
before the power of institutions, and courts,
and the rage of privilege against those with little power.
We pray for the people of Ferguson,
who have lost another child on their streets,
whose police force will need to discern a way forward in a now impossible crisis,
for the national guard who must face rioters,
and for the protestors who must manage their pain and sorrow and civic duty,
while being falsely blamed for the rioting of others,
others who are full of rage in the face of a long history of violence against our black neighbors.
Teach us not to, ever and always, blame the victim first.
Help us to find ways not to repeat this story over and over,
as we have throughout the decades.
May we stay uncomfortable, stay heartbroken, stay in a place of loss,
long enough to commit to helping to affect change and healing.
May we not allow the story of Ferguson to be forgotten by the next sound byte.
May we remember long enough to allow love, and wisdom,
to find a home in our courts and on our streets.
We know that real solutions are not easy;
they require effort,
they require reflection,
and they require change over complacency and disinterest.
Just because the path may be difficult,
is no reason to continue to do nothing.
Black lives matter.
This updated sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/26/14. It reflects on our second principle where we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in our relations. There is a focus on Huntington area affordable rental housing advocacy work as the Huntington Township Housing Coalition begins its latest campaign.
When Brian and I were planning to move to Huntington over a year ago, we initially looked at securing rental housing. We were used to living in Manhattan, didn’t have much stuff that would need storage, had no kids or even pets at the time, and were a little concerned about buying a home in an area before we had even lived there for a year. Totally new to Long Island, many folks recommended renting until we knew the area and would have a better idea of where made the most sense to live.
In NYC, the realtors usually tell you not to start looking for a rental until 2 weeks prior to when you need to move. They go so fast, and there’s such a demand, and such a supply, that it all moves that quickly. (The downside of course, is that if you like a place you better have a check in hand because it won’t be there in an hour.) Out here was a little different. We were surprised to find that our choices largely fell into two categories. Either the rental units were lovely and in nice areas but were as expensive as a Manhattan apartment (or what the rest of us would call “the price of a mortgage”) or they were on a highway, or very small, or surrounded by asphalt.
Ultimately, we decided to buy after all. We could stretch and rely on loans against our retirements to get the downpayment needed to purchase, and the home we bought had a mortgage that was comparable to the rental units that were nice. It reminded me of the old adage, “you need capital to get capital.” In other words, if you want to enjoy the benefits of upward mobility, you need to begin by already being upwardly mobile.
Having rented for the 10 years I lived in Northern NJ before I moved to NYC, I can say from experience that this is very different from suburban areas outside of Long Island. As a single guy, just out of college, I could afford a 2 bedroom apartment in a nice area just 12 miles west of NYC – or a 30 minute commute for those that worked in Manhattan. Now with 17 years professional experience, engaged to be married with two good incomes to our household, renting didn’t seem possible or sensible.
When we were looking for places to live, we did so by driving around a lot. It’s hard to tell who’s living where from inside your car, but within 15 minutes of our Fellowship, there’s a huge diversity of people living here. It wasn’t till we finally put down roots, that we realized that the diversity on the road and in the stores, doesn’t translate into diversity in our neighborhoods. Everyone is visibly segregated by neighborhood.
A month or so after we realized that, we saw an add in a nearby paper that was showing the realtors for a prominent realty company that is maybe 15 minutes from here. Over the two page spread of photo after photo (that looked like an excerpt from one’s High School year book), we noticed there were 2 Asian American women. All the rest were White realtors.
Within the past year, our Huntington Township Board finally reviewed a long standing legal case brought against it for housing segregation as it pertains to affordable housing. Remember that affordable housing is usually defined as 80% of the area median income. In other words, it’s mostly used to protect the middle class from being priced out of an area – the middle class. Despite overwhelming support of the proposal for moving ahead with building affordable housing, and despite the town having lost a ten year battle where the courts said affordable housing had to come in, the Town Board voted it down. The plan they’re apparently moving ahead with is creating affordable housing 1 bedroom apartments for purchase; not for rent. You have to have capital to move here. You also can’t have kids if you want to move here, or someone in the family is sleeping on the couch. We have schools closing down for lack of students, but we won’t easily allow new children to move in, unless they come from wealth. And our adult children move away because, as they start their careers, there’s no place to move into aside from staying at home with their parent or parents. It’s not a long term plan for our communities, it’s not moral to build up barriers to entry for people who may look different, and like our wisdom story from this morning – there’s a certain amount of killing the kingdom to feed the hunger of the affluent few – it’s a fundamental lack of compassion….
So why compassion? Who needs it? Compassion is a virtue that asks us to make our lives a little bit more difficult, a little more complicated, without any obvious tangible benefit. It rarely seems to ask it of us when times are easy. Why should we share in the suffering of others? Give a little more of yourself even when it seems you have less to give. Why should we even feel the compunction to do so? Our second principle (We covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in our relations) isn’t just asking us to do something, it’s asking us to feel like we ought to be doing it.
Our wisdom story this morning explores that very question. A rewriting of traditional Hindu folk tales, we learn of a king who has it all. “There once was a king who thought that everyone should always do exactly what he said and that he didn’t have to care about anyone else. Even the people of his kingdom. What did he care? They existed only to serve his needs – or so he thought.”
Hoarding all the wealth of the people, he closes the coin away and along with it, the prosperity of his kingdom. With its lack of use, schools, hospitals, home and hearth all suffer. The king certainly has all material goods he wishes, the largest army and the most grandiose palaces, but even he can’t use it all. It lays fallow, and so does his kingdom; so does the hope for something more.
Our story revolves around the actions of a trickster figure; Lord Krishna. The wider stories of Krishna appear across a broad range of Hindu theological and philosophical traditions. He appears in these stories in various guises: as prankster, model lover, god-child, divine hero or the Supreme Being. In our story this morning he may be divine, but he is also hero of a sort and certainly a prankster.
In a brilliant play, he feeds the voracious king yet another gift; this time the largest hunting dog the king has ever seen. Only the dog has the propensity for food as the king does for wealth. When asked to take the gift back, Krishna refuses. “I can’t. He’s not my dog…. Besides, I’ve been sent here by those who are greater and far more powerful than you. You’re stuck with it.”
Essentially, this is your situation, your problem and you need to live in it. There’s no one else who’s going to live it for you. This hunting dog is a giant sized emblem of anything we turn into a problem in our minds. There are actual issues going on around him, like hungry people, poor schools, and raging wars, but the king is focused on the “problem” he’s created for himself – one giant, loud, hungry dog. How often are we that king in our own lives? Instead of acting to resolve the pain in and around us, we fixate on thinking about issues that we’ve generated for ourselves. In that way, we might all be able to relate to the character of the king in the story. His actions are very normal human things to do; and probably a little insane.
I feel that the giant hunting dog in this story though, is the practical answer to the questions I posed earlier that asked why we should share in the suffering of others. I say “practical” while promising to get to the spiritual and moral answers shortly. If we understand compassion to mean “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering” then showing compassion is simply outwardly recognizing the inward truth. Whether we are aware of it or not, we suffer along with the suffering of people around us. The king had all he could ask for, but he also had that dog – which the story tells us he at first also coveted. Along with his appetite for more, the king picked up the symbol for that appetite as well. A hunting dog that could not be satiated so long as the king continued to need more.
The king’s opulence, although seemingly pleasant, left him closed off from genuine human contact, and did nothing to cease his craving. Like his people subjected to his rule, he was ultimately trapped by his needs. And ironically, left with no one to be compassionate toward him either. He created and perpetuated a reality for his kingdom that matched his own psychological disfunction. Practically speaking, living without compassion for others blocked the king from realizing his own addictions. In his case, the practical solution was to rectify his voracious and hoarding habits. Likewise, his hunting dog would do the same.
But that solution was difficult to come to. “He called in all of his advisors and councilors and asked them what could be done. They tried to think of something but because of the racket from the dog’s barking they couldn’t think.”
Although it’s a bit of an unkind barb in the story, I can’t help but think it’s so true of our worldly leaders who cut funding for schools, health care and affordable housing while raising spending for military and offer support for big bonuses divorced of actual productivity or competency while refusing to raise the minimum wage. Their hunger for power and wealth makes it so that they can’t think straight. In these cases, compassion helps us to think straight. Practically, it helps us to see the world more clearly so that our actions reflect what is actually going.
That’s a practical or utilitarian argument. Compassion bends us toward facing reality.
To better see the moral arguments we can take a look at the other aspects of our second principle. We covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations (and some of us would say ‘all our relations.’) Our chalice lighting this morning speaks of the singularity of these three. “The world is a single place, and there is a single spirit that blows across its face. And the name of that Spirit is Life. Justice, equity and compassion. Different names for the same thing.”
Different names for the same thing… From our past examples, we already see how compassion reflects the reality of life. In our story this morning, equity is easily the outcome of compassion. The solution to the problem of lack of compassion is equity – allowing folks their fair share. All may not have the same, and we’re all born with differing talents, but this story suggests that severely limiting access to basic human and social needs harms all – not just those so limited.
This notion of affecting all relates morally to ideas of justice or what is often religiously understood as moral righteousness. That term, righteousness, comes up often in english translations of the Hebrew scriptures. However, how we understand the term differs today than it did in biblical days. Another word, solidarity, would be more helpful to our modern sensibilities. Biblical “righteousness”, particularly in texts that refer to right living, really refers to religious teachings that call for a deeper living into community. These scriptures are a series of stories that, among many other lessons and messages, also teach us to be a people. Solidarity, righteousness or justice, are words that call us to consider ourselves in light of others. They fashion us into more than a singular consciousness, but help us to recognize that we are part of something more. “The world is a single place, and there is a single spirit that blows across its face…. May my senses awaken to the touch of that Spirit.”
There’s also a moral sense of responsibility in both our story and our second principle. Practically speaking, only the king could resolve the problem of the hunting dog. But the story tells us that Krishna was sent by those far more powerful than the king to deliver that dog. Whatever we see those forces as, the story tells us that something beyond the king has put this responsibility squarely on his shoulders to bare. Whether this be the demands of the gods, or the implicit expectation of that breath of Life that blows across us, the onus is on the king – the onus is on us.
Our second principle calls for the same thing. We have “covenanted to affirm and promote…”. In other words, we have committed ourselves as a religious people to live into justice, equity and compassion. Will our actions match our words and our promises? We may not all see the same things as the right solution to a given situation, but we are freely covenanting to accept responsibility to live in solidarity; to seek right behavior in response to our human relations. When the giant, loud, hungry dog — which is what we have coveted all along — comes our way, we covenant to take on our fair share of the clean up. It makes sense to do so as it relates to how the world works, and it matches are agreed upon commitments – even though it is often so very tough to do.
Krishna’s reference to those far greater and more powerful than the king hints at a spiritual component. The gods or the Supreme Being is likely what Krishna is referring to within Hindu tradition. It’s also a marker for the reality that the world is not about only us. That’s the fulcrum point to spiritual action. Even when it seems like what’s happening in the world is all about us; it’s not. We may be involved, but we’re never in the spotlight – accept only in our own mind. And when our mind tells us that, it’s a lie.
So if opening up to the “beyond-me” is the spiritual trajectory what’s the spiritual course of action or next step. Our reading this morning offers a spiritual argument as well. The resolution to the story of “The Dog and the Heartless King” is, “…when that day came, the dog stopped barking and lay down quietly at the king’s feet. Everyone was happy and at peace with themselves and with their neighbors.” I love it that the story tells us that everyone was happy and at peace with themselves first… then with their neighbors. So often we seek to remedy internal disquiet by projecting it out onto the world around us. In those fantasies we need to fix others first. Knowing that we can’t really fix anyone else – we don’t have the power to ever do so; aren’t we just delaying real change? We’ll never get to changing our actions if we forever wait for others to do so first.
So maybe a little bit of showing compassion starts with showing compassion to ourselves first. Compassion can be a remedy for lack of self-worth. If we ought to show it to others, we ought to show it to ourselves. In fact, our story suggests that all world solutions originate from self-transformation. With a helpful reminder from the Dalai Lama, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
For me, justice, equity and compassion are expressions of love. My personal theology is love-centered; that is to say God-centered. I find the Sacred in expressions of love; and those expressions lead me toward the divine. They help me to be more present. Christian theologian Carter Heyward writes that, “Love is a choice – not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity – a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life…” She’s got it right. Love, that which I would call the promise of justice, equity and compassion, return us to being human. They situate us as a people. We’re not widgets or cogs to further production; we’re not inherently flawed or evil and thereby destined to worsen the quality of life of those around us; and most importantly – we’re not alone.
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