Posts Tagged White Supremacy
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/22/17 as part of our annual service for UN Sunday. This year’s focus is on militarization, peace and the hidden lies ingrained in our conscience.
Last April, about six of us from our Fellowship attended the annual UU-UNO Spring Seminar, in NYC. It’s a two day learning retreat for youth, and adults; for both lay leaders and religious professionals. It was held at a very challenging time – both within our broader world and from within our own denomination. Just a few days earlier, our former denominational president, Peter Morales, chose to resign amid a public discussion around hiring practices at our UUA Headquarters, that appeared to preference white men. The Interim Co-Presidents that followed would indicate we have much work and reflection to do on our denominational hiring practices – and that work is being done with deliberation now. …The Spring Seminar was focusing on demilitarization in the world – guns, chemical weapons, use of drones, and the history of the nuclear disarmament movement – with the spirit that the more we know and understand, the more effective we can be in achieving a more peaceful world. While we were hearing a talk by a former military chaplain on the threat of nuclear proliferation, President Trump was just beginning to escalate nuclear tensions with North Korea.
We learn in context and story. Those lessons on organizing for peace, locally and globally, will grow and be informed from a time where visible leadership was missing from the top; but much leadership was clearly happening on the ground. Although I’m very much an institutionalist at heart, I recognize that the “institutions” we value most are strongest when the whole of the community is engaged. I learned a lot of facts about militarization at the seminar, but the most important lesson was one of perspective. The Peace movement of my parents’ generation isn’t gone; it just changed.
We learn in context and with story. What stories do we tell about peace and war? When I was a kid in school, I was told the story that in World War II, dropping the atomic bomb saved countless lives because the war would have gone on for years otherwise. That’s a pretty close paraphrase of what was written in our expensive history textbooks. I wasn’t told the part of the story that Japan was planning to surrender before the second bomb was dropped. As a kid, I never asked the questions: Why were we ok with dropping the atomic bomb on Japanese civilians, but not ok with doing so to German civilians? Why did we need to take the most drastic action to speed up the conclusion of one front of the war, and not another? What’s the value of a life; and whose life matters more? Our principles of worth and dignity – of respect and peace – go arm in arm. The more we diminish those we choose to feel as different, the more that peace is at risk.
And this story, this context, is an old one for humanity; we prop ourselves up at the expense of another’s humanity. This is the point in the debate around war or peace where public discourse usually gets sidetracked by discussions of just war theory. “What’s the intellectual line demarcating when use of force is ethical?” We’re not going to do that today. We’re going to stay present to the harder truth hiding in plain sight – militarization impacts along racial lines in Western Civilization. The peace movement didn’t disappear, it just changed. Today, the peace movement is focused on dismantling white supremacy.
And to be fair, even that really isn’t any change at all. Martin Luther King, Jr was a prominent peace activist who diligently made the connections for a broader white populace that was trying hard not to find those connections. “And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home they can’t hardly live on the same block together.” But I also wasn’t taught this in school. When I was a kid, our history lessons ended with the Civil Rights era. We were taught that black protesters were protesting for black rights. And the peace movement was solely made up of hippies. That’s certainly what all the photos looked like in our new history textbooks. Well as untrue as that was then, it’s still untrue today, for this generation. The Peace movement of my parents’ generation isn’t gone; and maybe it didn’t even materially change; but I’d like to think that we’re at least learning to talk about it more honestly.
But we are not all learning to do so, honestly. When athletes across our nation protest police killings of civilians, and our wider militarization of the police, folks fabricate an imaginary disrespect for our military – rather than address the fact of so many civilian deaths. The freedom of speech is somehow not relevant to the story tellers. When we endure yet another mass shooting, gun sales skyrocket, and we’re told it’s never time to talk about it. But the right to bear arms somehow matters though to the same storytellers.
We learn with story and context. What’s the story we choose to tell? We learned of the death of 4 of our soldiers in Niger. The tragic loss has mostly focused on whether or not the President was callous in his condolence call to one widow. I’m going to stay away from the politicization of these deaths, and reflect more on the nature of peace in this globalized world. There’s another aspect to this tragedy that’s just starting to get attention. It’s a lesson on how race and peace are intertwined. In a September 25th New York Times article, “The addition of Chad to Mr. Trump’s travel ban took that country’s government by surprise and bewildered analysts of Central Africa. In a statement, the government expressed “ incomprehension in the face of the official reasons for this decision, which contrasts with Chad’s constant efforts and commitments in the fight against terrorism.” It called on President Trump to rethink the decision, “which has seriously affected the image of Chad and the good relations maintained by the two countries.” This travel ban took effect on October 18th. According to Reuters and NBC, Chad began withdrawing troops they were using to support our soldiers against Boko Haram in Niger right before four of our soldiers were killed. Will we take this tragic lesson to heart, and stop weakening our long standing partnerships with allies? Our principles of worth and dignity – of respect and peace – go arm in arm. The more we diminish those we choose to feel as different, the more that peace is at risk.
In Western Civilization, the roots of such discord run deep. If we teach our kids that the history of the world is cleaner than it’s been, that we’re more innocent than we are, and that everything can be simplified into the good guys and the bad guys, history will repeat itself until the very literal end of days. We need to foster a new kind of courage – the courage to self-reflect with honesty.
There’s an easy escape for us when we start to talk about our history. It’s the common philosophy that haters gonna hate (to quote the popular theologian, Taylor Swift.) We ease our guilt by believing that some people are just filled with hate in their hearts, and we’re helpless to change that. And to be sure, there are folks all over this globe that are likewise convinced that we’re all just filled with hate in our hearts. As Ben spoke of earlier in the service, that perception has given terrorist groups a windfall in recruiting. How could drone strikes on civilian targets ever be done by a compassionate people? We could debate that for hours in our comfortable chairs, but I doubt it would convince a family that lost an innocent parent or sibling to our efficiency.
There are some lies that get free rent in our heads. Bad ethics that remain alive in our worldview because we forgot they were ever there, let alone informing our values and perceptions. I’m going to talk about two of them now, and ask us to reflect on how they still impact our lives today. The courage to reflect, honestly, is the next movement we can make to head toward a world that chooses to center peace as a value.
Manifest Destiny first entered our US conscious in 1845, when a newspaper writer by the name of O’Sullivan coined it in response to a border dispute with Britain over what is now known as Oregon. “And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Monroe, wrote, “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.”
The 19th century US would be colored by this deadly ethic. In the name of our “special” American virtues, we would clear ourselves of the sin and the horror of genocide. The thinking went that it was our divine fate, so we ought to expand without limit, regardless of the consequences. It’s the classic fallacy that the ends justify the means. We diminish those we choose to feel as different, and peace is at risk. We center greed, and the world expands its weaponry.
The idea of Manifest Destiny came about over a land dispute between two colonizing powers over who had the right to claim stolen lands of people we murdered. But we would tell a different story. One famous piece of art depicts Manifest Destiny as a beautiful woman in a white flowing gown floating in the air inspiring the westward expansion of American farmers; peaceful, virtuous and prosperous. That’s the story we would tell instead of the honest one. When we coach what is ugly in terms of beauty, we empower brutality. All of us now would overtly condemn Manifest Destiny as a failure of a prior generation, but we repeat it still to this day. It wasn’t even a year ago that our militarized police showed up in force to Native Americans peacefully protesting an oil pipeline on their own land. That would end with water hoses being used on Native Americans in the freezing Winter. All of it completely legal. Why as a nation would we not unanimously retract in horror at that abuse? It’s the unreflected lie that remains hidden in our collective psyche.
The second hidden lie that informs our ethic is similar, but goes back further in our history. Unlike Manifest Destiny, this lie is formally sanctioned in our judicial precedents – the Doctrine of Discovery. European monarchies would use it to validate conquest outside of Europe. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas would say that this only applied to non-Christian lands. “In 1823, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. M’Intosh that the discovery rights of European sovereigns had been transferred to the new United States: The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They hold and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or conquest; and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.” Associate Justice Joseph Story, a Unitarian, (1779-1845) later wrote: “As infidels, heathens, and savages, they [the Indians] were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations.”
I’m not sure how we ever go back now, and that’s not the focus today, but let’s sit with this reality for a moment. We have ensconced, in the highest court of our land, that justice doesn’t mean justice…. And in 2016 we are aiming water hoses, in freezing temperatures, on Native people when they’re on their own land – their own land.
We’ve been speaking a lot this season about how small actions can lead to big change. Violence, war, militarization – are huge crises. It’s mostly true to say that we individually can’t impact this, and not quickly. But we have a commitment our Fellowship made as a site of peace. If you head out our main doors, you’ll notice a peace pole with peace written in numerous languages. We dedicated that here as part of our denominational process around committing to the work of centering peace in our communal lives. The next small thing for us all to do, is to strive toward putting on a new pair of glasses when we look out into the world. When we read the news, when we talk with extended family over awkward holiday meals. We learn in context, and with story. How do we let some stories get told, and retold?
I’ll close with these words, from the Rev. Jake Morrill, another UU minister. He was saying this specifically to white UU ministers as a challenge to lean into our privilege. But it’s a helpful meditation focus for this work of centering peace. “Do you know how the Copernican revolution was the insight that the earth revolves around the sun, and that we were not at the center of the universe? Well, a few decades later, Giordano Bruno postulated the universe in which the solar system was not at the center of the universe, either – – but instead existed amidst many galaxies, beyond imagination. So the idea is that we white man, who have been raised to imagine ourselves the center of everything, might begin to inhabit a world in which we are only one perspective.” …Peace will not travail if we continue to all imagine we’re each individually the center of the universe.
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 Thanksgiving sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington following the shootings in Colorado Springs, Minneapolis and the protests in Chicago.
Last Sunday, I was in our large church in Dallas, Texas, celebrating the ordination of a colleague into our Unitarian Universalist ministry. We knew each other from our campus ministry days, and from a few years where she was a student minister at my former church in Brooklyn. It was a privilege and a joy to be there.
It was a whirlwind trip, Saturday through Monday, so I didn’t get to see much of Dallas at all. But the church itself isn’t too far from what’s known as the gay neighborhood, which led to a few conversations about recent local news. There’s been a spate of hate crimes targeting gay people in that area. The Dallas UU church is centered between two larger sections that are quite conservative – so it stands out.
I’m finding the news of the world often very demoralizing of late. I imagine I’m not alone. And hearing first hand about some of these local attacks, was dispiriting. But then we celebrated the ordination of a young, married, Lesbian woman to this 1200+ member church in the heart of conservative Dallas, (and me – a gay male minister is offering the pastoral prayer and laying on of hands) and I began to think – we have come such a long way. Maybe it’s not all that hopeless after all.
The Dallas church has a large quilted art piece hanging from its central wall in their sanctuary. It’s a large square that is made up of four sections – each comprised of smaller squares. They take it down from time to time, and I was told, can rearrange it in various ways. Each square on its own, looks just like a few splashes of paint that begin and end with no sense. But put together, to me, they resembled an artistic rendering of fish-like swirls that was quite compelling. It all depends on where you look, and how they put it together that season.
Our video screen presentation this week has an image of a heart made of up many other images in each tiny quilt-like square. It reminds me of that kind of quilted image in the Dallas church. Looking casually, it’s a heart, but looking more closely, we see the pattern through the particulars. It all depends on where you look.
Amidst the sea of pain in the news, I’m trying to look for the stories of hope, the stories of the helpers, the places of change and healing. But not so much that I fail to see the places where I need to be the story of hope; where I need to take on the role of helper. Many of us can swing too far in either direction. We can lose hope or purpose before the crush of the challenge of it all, or sometimes we can hide behind the ease of just finding the stories of good and forget about the hardship. The spiritual challenge is to not lose sight of the bigger picture, while at the same time, striving to gain strength from the patterns etched by those of good faith and good action.
All of this month, we have reflected on what it would mean to be a people of ancestors. What patterns do we find in our history, that informs the pictures we see today? I’m guessing that many of us may have had Thanksgiving meals with family members who interpret a very different pattern than you might. Why do we often see such different images?
The stories that speak to us, the ancestors that we shy away from or that we are drawn toward, impact the quilted patterns we come to understand today. Take our reading from earlier. The poet is trying to convey that what is good in the world, is in some way eternal. Good intents, or actions – prayers of those who act with good faith, and for good purpose, never quite leave us. It’s language that we often draw from for our memorial services. Like a pebble in a pool, our actions have rippling effects, often beyond where we can see in our own lifetimes. We may no longer be here, but our impact is lasting.
The poem references how we are free to absorb that which is good, not the rules but the spirit, of what came before, and transmit that through our world. Our faith, at its best, strives to do that good work. What did our religious forbears strive for on their better days? Can we carry that on, and learn from their mistakes and their low points?
But that question only works, simply at least, if we are coming from a place where we are not too heavily scarred from a religious past. We can all too easily draw to mind historical atrocities, and current atrocities, done in the name of religion. They ripple on through the world as well, often just as strongly. The poem I read earlier, can we heard as a balm in a difficult time for some, and rose-colored at best for others. It depends on where we view it from; how our life, and our heritage, have arranged the quilted piece.
So maybe it’s both. Places of spirit never lose their power, for good or evil, so long as we choose to carry on their torch – for blessing or curse. And we all make that choice – intentionally or otherwise. We carry and multiply the impact of the work of our ancestors into the world today.
But we must be conscious of that history to understand how we knit our world together; imagine it and reimagine it. As we finish our national holiday of Thanksgiving, we exercise our annual complicated retelling of one of the worst times in our nation’s history. And we often forget the really positive aspects of it, while we try to forget the atrocities done to the Native Americans.
We began as a people who were religious refugees from Europe trying to start a new life, free from religious persecution. We brought war and genocide, so we try to tell the story in a new light. That doesn’t go away, no matter how hard we try to tell a white-washed version of it to our children. We can’t change that history, but we can make new decisions based upon the lessons of the past – if we allow ourselves to remember those lessons.
As we learn of the plight of Syrian refugees, we would do well as a people to remember our nation began with refugees. Slave and immigrants would make up most of the rest of us, but religious refugees were the first. It’s a twisted form of xenophobia to demonize religious refugees seeking sanctuary, considering where we came from.
But it depends on how you look at it. Not all who oppose offering our safer shores to families fleeing terrorists are white or Christian, but it’s safe to say a good many people who are responding with fear and xenophobia are – certainly who we are seeing saying so in the news. …Recently, white Christians ceased being the majority in 19 of our states. White Christians have become a minority in states like Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Lousiana, Florida and Georgia to name the places that might be more surprising to us. I can’t help but wonder what impact this has on our national fears and anxieties? As some of our traditions change, or who we see on the streets change, or how normative our own cultural practices are any longer change – do we become more fearful of difference?
We sensationalize everything into a war of civilizations. We can’t seem to make it through one December without someone crying there is another “war on Christmas.” It’s a tired thing to say. I know folks are responding anxiously to what they imagine is being lost, but frankly, that’s not what war looks like, and we’re not losing Christmas because some silly coffee cup is only red and white, rather than red and white with snowflakes and sleds. We’re not losing Christmas because someone wished you Happy Holidays. It’s not an attack, and it’s probably not about you. And before the Outrage Machine was birthed on Fox News, in my childhood I recall hearing Happy Holidays and no one felt attacked for it. But nowadays, we can make anything into an attack, and make anything into something about us. The casual public outrage even gets rewarded with media attention, viral YouTube posts, or shares and likes via blogs and Facebook. Outrage becomes a sort of false ideal we worship. Maybe outrage is the real war on Christmas – but I’m not going to call it a war, because it’s still not that.
I see it with my own social media usage. You may have noticed that I’ve largely taken a break from blogging for the Huffington Post. I was finding that the more moderate, sensible, middle of the road stances I would take would get close to zero attention. In order to be well read, I would have to make sure to use media buzzwords and current lingo. Bonus points if I could flip some dominant narrative that was pervasive in a sensational way. In some ways, it’s how we’re wired. But I think it has more to do simply with just what sells better. If it’s not provocative enough, why would I bother spending time reading it? Maybe apathy and hyperbole are the real war on Christmas. But I won’t use the word war, because it’s definitely not war.
How we look at it, where we come from, which ancestors most influence our better angels, and who we identify with more, greatly determine how we see that quilt. This past week has been full of so many stories of grief and loss. There were 5 peaceful Black Lives Matters protestors shot in Minneapolis by White Supremacists; one of my colleague’s adult child was standing in between two of the shooting victims when they were shot. It goes from a story on the news, to a story that involves friends and their safety. That affects how I see the pattern on the quilt.
There was a massive Black Friday protest in Chicago by the Black Lives Matters movement in response to a very horrific video that the City was required by a judge to release to the public. And in Colorado Springs, a white domestic terrorist attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic. Three people were killed, including Officer Garrett Swasey who was there protecting civilians. Four more civilians and five more police officers would be injured as well. Even though the gunman was overheard spouting “no more baby parts”, the media would be reticent to say anything more than “his motives were unclear.” (deep sigh.) What stops us from calling a spade a spade when atrocities are committed by white Christian men with guns on our own soil? How does that affect the pattern we see?
Depending on where one comes from, people are describing all these stories in very, very different ways. Are they about social justice? Police brutality? Lone gunman with mental illness? Reproductive freedom? Domestic Terror? Protecting children? Gun rights? Supporting our Police? We as a people need to get better at separating out all the competing political interests. We as a religious community, are called to discernment and action. Ethically, I don’t believe we can wash our hands of it all and pretend it’s happening far away, or that we don’t have a responsibility in changing our nation’s ways and laws. There is a pernicious and deeply disturbing trend where we scrutinize and villianize every action and motive of people who are not white Christians, but we forgive or ignore the most egregious of excesses of those who are white Christians. And when we finally and rarely acknowledge their wrong-doing, they are effectively absolved of being white Christians – as if it didn’t count that time. Why does the white Christian gunman’s life matter more than the lives of their victims?
We all know the story of the Thanksgiving meal with family we haven’t seen since the last Thanksgiving. We see parodies of it on Saturday Night Live almost every year. At the mythic – but real – table is seated every walk of life, every good or bad social position. (For the purposes of this story, you can fill in the good or bad social positions however you like.) Part of our national challenge is recognizing that we all are hearing the same stories; we are looking at the same image, but we are putting the patterns together differently dependent on so many factors. For some, Thanksgiving is bracketed by a fundamental change in cultural practices, a perceived attack on social norms, and a very real loss in power and privilege and dominance.
Thanksgiving for the rest of us, may reflect a growing awareness of how hard we can make life for too many people. Or maybe, we’ve always lived in the reality that things were just not quite equal for us. But like the quilted image of the heart in our service, the image we see is still made up of many, many other snippets of images or stories that craft the whole. When we cover up part of those stories to make sure our impression of the image remains unchanged, we’re just lying to ourselves. When we white wash what happened in Colorado Springs, or we pretend the gunman was a lone actor when he’s Christian, but any single Muslim terrorist is an indictment against a whole people, we are just lying to ourselves. If we need to lie to ourselves over silly coffee cups and a war on Christmas, it’s one thing. But doing it when people are fleeing our enemies and just trying to find a home for themselves, their children or their friends; that goes far beyond lying.
The road our country is walking has been a long one, and many of us are tired; some our comfortable in their lying to themselves; and some are weary from abuse. But our road is not yet over, and we have much more work to do – together. As we close our service this morning, I’ll bring us back to the beginning and the story we heard about the white raven becoming black – their feathers scorched by their sacrifice to save the Sun for all humanity. Beneath the crush of all the world weary stories we hear, we can come to feel hopeless. I recognize that, and I feel that myself from time to time. I’m going to say something unpleasant, but I think true: sometimes feeling hopeless is a luxury we can’t afford.
We have people who need us – and some of those people in need are in fact us. We have refugees in dire need – who factually have zero ties to terrorism beyond the simple truth that they too are victims of terror. Time and time again, we have black civilian youth who have toys in their pockets, and sometimes knives in their pockets, who are gunned down with impunity, while we watch white christian men with guns who shoot civilians and who shoot cops, who are taking into custody to stand trial – sometimes we even protect them with kevlar armor. That clearly is not the same treatment. We have people who need us. We have clinics across this nation – who offer life saving health care to women – literally under fire because demagogues on the right fabricate videos that imagine human baby parts are being collected and sold on some fantastical science-black market. We have people who need us. We may be weary on this long road, but being hopeless is a luxury we can not afford.
On this very difficult Thanksgiving, may we find gratitude for the strength we can draw from one another, and a common purpose in building the world we dream about. Take heart. Be rooted in love, and continue to show this torn world that there is another way. The world needs you to.
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.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We grieve with the Charleston community, and the good people of the Bethel AME church, which suffered tragedy this week. We remember now their names:
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.
Rev. Sharonda Singleton
Mother of Justice, open our nation’s eyes to what is so clear before us.
Open our hearts wide – wide enough to wake our country from it’s place of stupor and complacency.
Teach us that black lives matter;
that all life is sacred,
and that each of us are called to craft communities centered in justice and peace.
In the stunned aftermath of Charleston,
stop us from filling the awkward silences,
with the same old trite answers,
that bring us back to this place,
again and again.
Renew our commitment to the work at hand;
empower us to reach out to our neighbor,
and begin a new day,
with the hope of another way,
and the will to challenge the lies of racism,
in our schools,
and in our Zoning Boards,
and in the halls of our government.
Our nation has come so far along the path of equality,
and yet we are see the long history of racism move among us.
Help us to never confuse the progress we’ve made,
with the illusion that the work is now done.
Tending communities of justice and love,
take the work of the hands, and the heart, and the soul,
day after day, lifetime after lifetime.
We pray for the strength to do such sacred work.