Posts Tagged Racism
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 8/20/17. It explores the infection of White Supremacy, Nazis and White Nationalism plaguing our nation.
One of the harder stories I’ve wrestled with in the Bible is the story of Cain and Abel – one of our oldest stories. They were the first children of Adam and Eve. Cain was a farmer and worked the earth. Abel was a shepherd. When it came time for them to offer gifts in sacrifice to the Lord, they gave in turn a portion of their work. God was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice of the fat of the first of his flock, but was not moved by Cain’s gift of the fruit of the earth. Angered by being treated differently, Cain murdered his brother Abel, and when God came to question him where Abel was, Cain responded famously, “What, am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain would be cursed to wander the roads and leave the lands of his family for his sin.
It’s a hard story. Was God unfair in what pleased him? Could he be so flippant in his regard for his children, that one would be driven to murder? I think some of the story is lost to our modern ears. Farming would allow civilization to thrive with more and more people being able to live stably near one another; but meat would continue to be more prized. I think, to an earlier time in our history, the difference in what sacrifices were made might be more readily understood. Each of the brothers may have worked as hard as one another, but one sacrificed more, and the other was jealous for not receiving the same benefits, even though he may have given up less.
The story even has God tell Cain, that he shouldn’t be angry; for if he works harder he will be rewarded. What’s lost in such a simple statement, is that Cain probably already feels like he’s worked hard. But he can’t get into his brother’s shoes, so he doesn’t appreciate that Abel is also diligent in his duties.
…And then it comes to murder. “Am I my brother’s keeper.” It’s probably the oldest story – Claiming no responsibility for the welfare of our neighbor as a defense – when in fact we’ve actively contributed to their ruin; or in Cain’s case – murder.
The Cain and Abel story is near the start of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures – although with slight derivations for each. At the start of scripture we learn clearly that yes, we are our brother’s keeper – we are entrusted with securing the well being of our neighbor. It’s central to the spiritual teachings of each of the Abrahamic faiths. Everything else builds upon that foundation.
Cain could be the poster boy for white nationalists, for white supremacists, for nazis. They might feel they haven’t been given a fair shake, but they can’t get into the shoes of their neighbors. Instead of reaching out, caring for their neighbor, they seek to end the competition. We see this in the rapid spreading of for-profit prisons -which are especially thriving these days. We see this in gerrymandered districts that lead to disparate quality in schools – benefiting whites and the affluent above all others. We see it in how public protests are too often treated: Nazis with semi-automatic weapons are allowed to police themselves in Charlottesville, whereas native Americans protesting the health of their lands and the risks to their children are met with water hoses in freezing temperatures. The White Supremacists are right that we’re not all treated fairly, they just don’t understand how much has already been stacked in their favor.
There’s a blog post that was making the rounds relating all this to game theory so to speak. It’s an over-generalization to prove a point – so it’s far from perfect, but maybe it would help some of us see where it’s getting at. Being a white (cisgender) straight man is like playing a video game on the easiest setting. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to still play the game well, or that it doesn’t take effort, or that you won’t fail at times and have to try again and again. It could still be quite hard. But everyone else is playing on a harder setting. The tricky part is realizing that when you’re on an easier setting, even when it’s hard, others probably have it harder.
I’ll give you an example in my own life. When I began in the ministry 10 years ago, I was working in religious education. It wasn’t too long before I started realizing that a good number of people would feel quite fine speaking to me with what I considered a patronizing tone. I was in my early thirties at the time, and I didn’t recall anyone speaking to me that way at least since my early college days. After talking to a few colleagues who were women, I started to realize that some of us were accustomed to speaking to women this way all the time, and since I was doing women’s work (working with children), they unconsciously treated me the way they treated most women.
Now – I earned my way into the ministry. Two graduate degrees; I paid my way through school (and am stilling paying the debt); spent countless hours in internships and hospital chaplaincy, and so on. This is my calling, and this didn’t come easy. But until experiencing a sliver of what women deal with all too often, I didn’t personally or fully understand, how having that leg up being a guy, changed the proverbial video game setting to “easy”. And to my fellow men – intellectually getting that women are treated differently too often – is different than experiencing it. There’s an emotional part that is demoralizing in ways we’re not necessarily accustomed to, and I can say most of us are not trained (or raised) to cope with.
White Supremacists are sexists too, as they are homophobes. But their flash point is race. In our everyday world, through the news, Facebook, and our schools, we learn a lot about Race. From some people we learn that everything is fair and balanced, and that if only you work hard enough then you’ll be given a fair chance at success and happiness. In that story – class is the real dividing line. From other people we learn that not everyone is treated fairly; that the color of our skin influences how people will treat us. Some of these lessons are taught by other people about the world, and some of these lessons are experienced personally and directly. It’s not enough to come to a conclusion about which view is “correct.” Our UU values teach us to live out a responsible search for truth and meaning. Our fourth principle asks us to continue to examine matters that affect our lives and the people around us. It’s a spiritual discipline that our faith calls us to live up to.
I’m a child of the 80s, white, gay and from a working class background. My Dad was in the navy with a high school degree, and my mom got her GED in her twenties after she had dropped out of high school. I was the first generation in our family to go to college, let alone to graduate school. It would be easy to say that everything is fair and balanced. I worked hard and succeeded in education and in my career. The economic class I was born into didn’t hold me back. Mine is the kind of story that’s often lifted up to say “anyone can make it.” But it would only be part of the picture.
I grew up in an African-American neighborhood. I was the only white kid. I moved away from my parents at 19, and would come back and catch up with friends, or hear stories from neighbors about how folks were doing. By the time I went to graduate school at the age of 28, only one of my childhood peers, from my section of town, had attended higher education. Some were in and out of unemployment. Others had good blue-collar jobs like being auto-mechanics. Some were still living with their parents. Besides my one neighbor who went on to law school, but who had to drop out to care for her dying mother, I heard no stories of folks attending a four-year college. She eventually had a good career as a teacher. Something was different. I felt different in a way that I hadn’t felt as a child.
I think it’s important to consider how our identities shape and impact our lives. Class, gender identity, and sexuality each intersect in important ways with race. But I’ve seen first-hand how much easier I’ve had it, as a white man, to secure educational opportunities and employment over the success of my childhood peers who are black. My faith declares this an injustice that I must work to alleviate. The key to changing this lack of fairness is first to understand its causes. Examining racism – why people are prejudiced and how systems perpetuate disparity – is part of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning and is, for me, a spiritual discipline. Its end result is building a world founded on equity and compassion.
I’m sharing these two personal stories because too often our conversations about racism are either in the abstract or in the extreme. Aside from our President’s inability this week to do so, normally it’s easy to acknowledge that nazi’s are bad, that white supremacy kills. But it’s harder to acknowledge how we benefit from the inequity – for those of us who benefit. We are each our neighbor’s keepers, but too often we turn away from the hard truths when we might be asked to honor that we’re getting too much, or that our hard work – even though it was hard – was held to a different standard than our neighbor.
Most of us here are probably thinking to ourselves, but I’m not the problem, I’m not a racist. Good. We might not be actively causing harm, but ignoring what’s before us can be another way to perpetuate the original sin of racism in the United States. Every time we change the conversation away from race to focus on class, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. Every time we give our forbears a pass on how they immigrated through a much easier system, but hold a higher standard to more recent immigrants, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. When we get more worked up over a silent protest at the National Anthem of a man peacefully bending the knee, but excuse Nazi’s their First Amendment Right to protest with semi-automatic weapons near civilians, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. When we conflate violent white supremacists rioting in the streets and mowing down civilians with their car while armed to the teeth – with pacifist clergy or with other more aggressive protesters who bodily got in the way as human shields to protect the vulnerable – we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy.
Friends – many of my clergy colleagues of color – tell me they are exhausted from having to address this, manage this, and preach on this over and over. Their lives are tragically more at risk. And yet they still lead. Too many of my white Christian clergy are remaining silent in their pulpits this week – though thankfully I’m hearing more and more speak up. This is the central work of this time – to speak truth to hate; to limit the damage caused by the worst of us, and to carefully inspect our own internal motivations and actions to reduce the harm each of us contribute unknowingly or unintentionally.
The line in the sand must be drawn when the KKK marches in the light of day without their hoods. The line must be drawn when nazi’s – in our streets – chant “the Jews will not replace us.” We know what that means. We’ve seen that before. For those who lived through WWII – I encourage you once again – to do as Ruth Owen suggested – “So I invite you to pull out the old photo albums, medals and folded flags. Re-tell grandpa’s war stories. (Or your own) We owe it to our ancestors to make sure their sacrifices were not for nothing.”
As Maya Angelou said, “When someone tells you who you are, believe them the first time.” I’m going to believe someone claiming to be a Nazi as someone who is a threat to basic civil discourse – the first time. Now is the time, for those of us who are usually quite comfortable, to throw ourselves into uncomfortable situations. Challenge apologists for white supremacy. Don’t entertain Nazi sympathizers as legitimate viewpoints. Call sin what it is – sin.
Everyone is entitled to free speech – and that’s being used in a way these days to twist us in knots – as if we can’t respond in kind with free speech – without offending. But what’s worse, is that we’re confusing free speech with incitement to violence – which is not a protected right. We’re confusing free speech with falsely screaming fire in a loaded theater. That which causes or risks bodily harm, is not free speech. Terrorizing a town with lit torches before injuring 19 and killing one woman, is not free speech.
As our grandparents have the duty now to tell and retell the old stories – to vaccinate our next generation from these evils; I strongly encourage our parents to speak with your children. Make sure they understand the threats and risks. They will also mimic your thinking. If you find yourself edging away from engaging in any of this, they may too. If you find yourself avoiding ever talking about race, and shifting always back to class, they may be more vulnerable to the extremism of white supremacy. They need to learn and understand that although economics are not fair for all, racism is alive and well. They need to know that prior to the rise of Nazisim in Germany, they were a fringe movement. They need to know what torches in the streets meant in Nazi Germany. And if we are going to believe someone when they tell or show us who they are the first time, we need to prepare our next generation to know fully the lessons our forebears learned in the most horrid way imagineable.
And it is not too late. Just yesterday, on Saturday, we saw images of tens of thousands of decent citizens protesting the minuscule white power rally in Boston. Our denominational president, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, was front and center in the marches in Charlottesville last week, and very present in Boston. Decent Americans are the vast majority; but we must remain vigilant, loud and clear in denouncement of the worst excesses of hate humanity has perennially to offer. Our oldest story teaches us that we are our brother’s keeper; we are responsible for the well-being of our neighbor. Any other teaching is false. So it is to all of us then, to help us back on the right path – that honors liberty alongside justice. White Supremacy is a failing lie, that continues to kill despite its hollowness.
In the weeks to come, know that our Social Justice team will be offering more trainings and options to continue this work. And our Huntington interfaith clergy group are gathering in two days to discuss what our collective next steps will be – together. And for those who missed the announcement at the start of the service — Mary Beth Guthyer, one of our members, who also professionally works with grassroots organizing on Long Island, has invited us to a vigil today from 4-5:30pm at Bolden Mack Park, 3453 Great Neck Rd, in Amityville that’s being organized by many non-profit leaders in the Black Community on Long Island. Some of the groups include Every Child Matters, Urban League of Long Island, NAACP Islip Town Branch among others.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/18/17. It explores the heritage of slavery on the 152 anniversary of Juneteenth.
As we mentioned earlier in the service, today’s sermon is different than advertised, even if we’ll try to get to the same place of finding renewed purpose in gratitude for a religious community striving for a better world. This week saw a shooting a congressional practice baseball game – targeting republicans and the capital police officers who were risking their lives to protect their charge. We saw graphic images of a horrendous fire engulfing a poor London apartment complex on a street that had vacation mansions being held for later property value. And we learned that no one would face any punishment for the killing of Philando Castile of Minnesota at a routine traffic stop, while his young daughter watched from the back seat of the car. Our systems are broken. And they’ve been broken before, and been repaired, only to break again. Humanity is imperfect, and we need to keep trying.
Let’s begin with today’s holiday, and see how we can find purpose, meaning, and deep wellsprings for the work for the years to come. “June 18 is the day Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. On June 19, 1865, legend has it while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 3”:”
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.””
What sounds to the modern ear as formal, perfunctory, and a bit horrifying – I couldn’t imagine working at the present home of my former master – was nonetheless cause for rejoicing in the streets. The discord in the language reminds us of how far we’ve come. Slavery had been formally at an end by January 1st of 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect, despite it’s September 22nd, 1862 issuing. It would take ten months, and 2000 more soldiers, to actually come to an end. This country would have such a long road ahead of it to realize Civil Rights, a road we are likely, at best, only about half-way down, but it would be enough to cause freedmen and women to rejoice in the streets.
The end of slavery in the US is no less a cause for celebration now than it was 146 years ago. Our humanity moved forward that day, and takes another step forward, every day slavery is at an end in our hearts. It’ll take another step forward when the for-private-profit prison-industrial complex is torn down. It will move forward when justice is served equally across all races and occupations. With acquittal being the ruling for the officer who killed Philando Castile (a black man who was caught on video, obeying all requests from the officer, who also posed no visible threat, who also had no record, and who also served the community he lived in) we painfully and tragically see that the worth of our lives are still not all treated the same. It’ll move forward when we invest more in our schools than our prisons; when we invest more in opportunities for those who have few and less in retribution against those we see as merely different. Our humanity will move forward when we offer living wages, and not merely minimum wages; when we recognize that the cost of living has increased since the start of the minimum wage in 1938, as has the proportion of rent to salary and cost of food to salary, but the minimum wage has not kept pace with the changing ratios of costs and spending, and of course, living. This last bit has caused much strife in our nation and our political landscape – as white people increasingly feel the burn of what I would call the logical conclusion of capitalism in a world where humanity can be greedy. As fewer people have so much more (as of January of this year, 8 men own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population) we’re seeing folks increasingly blaming those who are different. The thinking goes… ‘If only we closed our doors to the immigrant, or to Muslims,’ and on and on – all fake solutions born of fear and personal loss.
I think of our poor, of our working class, of our freedmen and women from our prisons when I hear of school budget cuts, or hear of the exorbitant costs of an increasingly necessary college education. I remember how often race and poverty are intertwined in our country. Slavery may be at an end. Poverty today is not the same as slavery in the 1800s. Race dynamics have changed. The road may be open for so many, but I wonder if the toll to walk it is too high. I think of the irony of Juneteenth 1865 where Blacks were told, “… that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts” now that they are freed, whereas the military these days are sending recruiters routinely into poor or inner city neighborhoods asking for the exact opposite.
I am drawn back to General Grangers words, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” I’m not sure that that message has gone away. I’m not sure that our society has changed so radically, so drastically, that we’re not continuing to ask certain classes or certain cultures within our community to continue to do this to this day. We all have the freedom to do whatever we wish. We all have access to the American Dream. We can all improve our lives and our lots if we work hard enough. But we might not have access to good primary education unless we live in the right place. But we might not be able to go to college because the prices have gone so high. But we might not have reasonable access to an alternative path to prosperity not involving college because those kinds of jobs have been shipped out of our neighborhoods. But we might be more likely to end up in prison because of the nature of location, birth, and community…. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”
If you will, try to imagine living in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Imagine being a slave. You might be aware of the Civil War. You might know that it’s being won by one side or the other, or you might not. You might know that it’s nominally being fought over slavery, but probably not. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. It would be heroic and noble if that were the case; but that would be too simple a telling – one that we best reserve for our elementary schools alongside other fairy tales – if even there. Then the military arrives – a white military to be sure. And everything changes. Life may not get incredibly better or easier, but you now have a chance to direct your own fate.
Try to imagine this moment in your own life. At what time in your life were you cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low? When did you hear that it no longer had to be like that? Who told you? Or who helped you to see that another way was possible? Or has no one yet told you that it can be another way? Have you never felt cast down?
I don’t mean to suggest that our woes are the same as the plight of slaves in the US in the 1800’s. I don’t mean to attempt to equate the bodily enslavement of a whole race of people, stolen violently from foreign lands or from their mothers and fathers on this soil of ours, with whatever temporary struggles we may currently face. I do mean though, to help find a way to celebrate this day in more than a merely intellectual fashion. I have no idea what slavery was or is like. I have never been taken from my family, or my home. I have never been made to work against my will. I can intellectually imagine the horrors these represent. But our mind’s eye is only one part of understanding how tragic, how inhumane, slavery was and is. And it’s serious enough to command more from us. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and our souls. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and souls, my friends, because its repercussions are alive and well in our country today, and all the thinking and intellectual disdain we can muster for 152 years has not yet gone far enough.
Fourth of July is the day we celebrate freedom with fireworks, but it’s only a comma in our history. The real celebration of America’s Independence happens when that last American became independent. Juneteenth completes that dream; and yet it too, is another comma on the path toward freedom – because all of us are not treated the same.
It is my prayer that if we can come to understand its reality with our hearts and our souls, it may change us enough to make the difference we need to see in the world. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” The answer to the inheritance slavery has given us requires more longing in our souls than thoughts in our heads, than rational responses of a simple, dignified people. The progress forward in our humanity requirements movement – a movement internally – and words in our heads seem to me to be failing us there.
So, again, try to imagine this moment in your own life. That moment in your life where you felt cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low. It may not be the same thing, but it’s the best opening we have to understanding what slavery has woefully given us. When you reflect on systems in our country that foster wealth for some, and poverty for others; when you wonder why some have access to education and others don’t; when you remember the demographics of our prison system – consider all this in light of that moment in your own life when you felt cast down. That moment in your life – that moment is what we foster within our neighbors and our neighborhoods when we keep alive the heritage of slavery. Call it racism; call it classism; call it xenophobia; call it sexism or transphobia or homophobia. None of them are the same as slavery, but the practice of tying privilege to the few is well exercised and each get a glimpse of its affects. We could argue the hierarchies of oppressions to the end of days and it would only serve the prolonging of them. Strive to find where we are connected, without diminishing the struggle of our neighbor, and build places of strength and succor from those connections. Appreciate our differences, while building upon our commonalities.
What this world needs is more comprehension that leads to compassion. Attend to that moment when you felt truly downtrodden, and work diligently, everyday, to not create that feeling or experience for anyone else. Actively challenge those systems as they arise. Be patient with other people’s pain. I said before that it’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. In the intervening 152 years, can we say that that reality has meaningfully changed? Regardless of our background, what risks have we taken to live up to our highest ideals? What modern day slaveries go on unperturbed by our passing?
And it all can be so overwhelming. I felt helplessly at a loss this week as I watched the news cycle. A shooting at a practice session for a congressional baseball game; a horrid housing fire in England that was a story that seemed to better belong to another century; and ending the week with the news about acquittal over the killing of Philando Castile. What has been done, we can’t change. It’s doubtful that the work any of us individually do will affect the outcomes we hold in our dreams. But building a better world is an incremental ministry we do collectively, and it begins at home. If this sermon is about the spiritual internal work we do to grow in compassion, our service is about how we come together to heal this corner of the world. I’ll invite us all to join in song about stoking the flames of our commitment to building this new world; and then we’ll hear from Liza Burby to tell us about what we’ve done in the world, and what we plan to do in the years to come. The work of life is never over, and we do it together.
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 (email@example.com) 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.