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May 4, 2015

On the Silence of the Pulpit

It is a pleasure to be with you today to celebrate the installation of the Rev. Sarah Stewart as your twelfth senior minister. I have known Sarah for more than two decades. We became friends in high school when we were both members of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists in Michigan. I doubt you could have selected a more conscientious, intelligent, and compassionate person to lead your congregation. So, I congratulate you on your wisdom. I thank Sarah for the honor of preaching to her congregation the Sunday morning of her installation.

It is unfortunate that this joyous Sunday is marred by the week’s unhappy events. The death of Freddie Gray and the resulting riots in Baltimore mean that today, across the United States, sermons will wrestle with the same issue. In Worcester, in Boston, in New York, in Detroit, in Chicago, in Atlanta, in Los Angeles, in Washington, DC, and, yes, in Baltimore, ministers will be talking with their congregations about race and racism, white supremacy, demonstrations, riots, and police violence. There will be sermons on the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movements. There will be sermons on the necessity of action, challenging us on seizing the urgent moment. There will be sermons calling for healing, reminding us that whatever the color of our skin we are all living members “of the great family of all souls.”

Most of these sermons will have same general features. They will begin by declaring the death of Freddie Gray a horrid tragedy. They will make some observations about the protests in Baltimore and link those protests to the events in Ferguson. They may mention Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Tamar Rice. They might celebrate Marilyn Mosby’s decision to charge the police officers involved with Gray’s death. They might describe the national epidemic of police violence; 393 people have been killed by police since the start of year. Perhaps they will refer to the vast disparity between white and black wealth. The average white family has twenty times the assets of the average black family. The unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of whites. Maybe they will admit to the racist nature of our criminal justice system. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites.

The majority of these sermons, I suspect, will invoke Martin King. The moderate preachers may quote from safe texts like his famous “I Have a Dream,” “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair... my friends.” A bolder few, perhaps, will cite his sermon at the National Cathedral. They will deplore, “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning... we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” The bravest clergy might invoke his speech “The Other America” to observe, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” They could quote him to assign blame for the nation’s racial problems, “riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice.”

I imagine that whatever quote from King the preacher picks the vast majority of the morning’s services will end on a note of hope. Maybe the minister will decide to offer a prayer for racial reconciliation. Maybe the congregation will join their voices together in “We Shall Overcome.” Maybe the benediction will summon James Baldwin and finish with the encouraging admonition, “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.”

Taken together these sermons come close to a national conversation on race. In this hour, for a few minutes, the reigning white silence is being broken. White clergy like me are preaching about white America’s close to four hundred history of terrorizing, torturing, enslaving, killing, and imprisoning black and brown people. This morning’s rupture in the silence cannot be temporary if we are to have any hope of every transcending our troubled history. The shattering of silence must be permanent. The great poet Audre Lorde challenged people to transform the silence that surrounds suffering into language and action. That is what we must do. White people need to learn to speak about race and white supremacy with the same frequency that brown and black people are violated by institutionalized racism. Pulpits like this one cannot succumb to white silence on those Sundays when racialized police violence is not in the headlines.

Breaking the enduring white silence requires clergy who are willing to preach about racism. More importantly, it requires congregations who are willing to listen to sermons that make them uncomfortable. Often pulpits remain in white silence because ministers are afraid of upsetting their congregants. Preaching is a privilege and a vocation. It is also a job. I am a sometime parish minister. I can attest that many congregants link their support of their church to their satisfaction with the minister’s preaching. I know that too many unsettling sermons can cause some members pledging to go down.

We Unitarian Universalists like to uplift our social justice legacy. But I wonder how willing we really are to engage with the difficult work of transforming white silence into language and action. As an itinerant preacher I visit a lot of congregations. When I visit the settled minister of the congregations often asks me to preach about racial justice. What follows, unfortunately, is a scenario that has become familiar.

The scenario runs something like this. I deliver a sermon about how religious liberals should respond to this country’s racist legacy. I use the word murder to describe the killings of black men like Freddie Gray, Amadou Diallo, and Trayvon Martin.

After the service, during coffee hour, a member of the congregation comes up to me and tells me that he was offended by my sermon. The member usually fits the same profile. He is a straight white male over the age of seventy. He tells me that I was wrong to use the word murder to describe the violent deaths of black men and boys like John Crawford III and Sean Bell at the hands of the police.

His complaint appears in the form of a question, “Did you sit on the trial jury? Where you part of the grand jury? Do you work for the FBI?” This question is followed by a statement, “Because you are talking like you have some access to knowledge that the rest of us do not. It is the grand jury who decides if the police officers that killed Clinton Allen should be indicted for murder. It is the federal government who determines if the policemen who killed Dante Parker violated his civil rights. Your rhetoric is dangerous, incendiary and unfair.”

Perhaps that is true. I don’t know what those juries know. What I do know is that in this country white police officers kill black men at the rate of two, three, or four a week. I know that the rate of police killings of African Americans now exceeds the rate of lynchings in the first decades of the twentieth century. I know that the decision of a state’s attorney like Marilyn Mosby to charge police officers with murder is rare. I know that the conviction of police officers is even more rare. I know that in order for this to change white silence has to be transformed into language and action. All of the silence in the world will not offer protection from the institutionalized structures of racism. It is only by speaking, and speaking often, that we can begin to dismantle them.

A call to transform the enduring white silence is essentially a call to conversion. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams defines conversion as a “fundamental change of heart and will.” Conversion brings about a change in perspective, a shift in a point of view. If you are white and relatively privileged try seeing the society from a black or brown point of view. Imagine that you are Freddie Gray. Imagine that you are arrested, handcuffed and placed face down on the sidewalk. No one answers your request for an inhaler. You are put, head first, into a police van. The cops do not strap you in. They lay you on the floor. The van starts to move. It rattles about. It comes to a stop. You suffer a severe neck injury. You tell the police you need medical attention. They ignore you. By the time you arrive at the police station you are no longer breathing. A week later you are dead.

Such an act of imagination can be unsettling, even slightly traumatizing. It requires that we admit that ignorance of the racialized nature of our society is kind of privilege. We who are white can insulate ourselves from the reality that surrounds us. We can choose to be ignorant of the white supremacist nature of our society. We can surround ourselves with people who look like us. We can pretend the vast disparities of wealth between whites and people of color are accidental, not intentional.

Paul, or someone writing as Paul, reminded us in Ephesians that there is a price to be paid for such willful ignorance, “Their minds are closed, they are alienated from the life that is in God, because ignorance prevails among them and their hearts have grown hard as stone.” The author of this passage had in mind knowledge of God when he wrote it. I invoke it to suggest that choosing deliberate blindness and closing our eyes to the racist nature of our society will harden our hearts.

Softening our hearts requires that our pulpits are not silent on racial issues. Softening our hearts means that white Unitarian Universalists continue to talk about race next Sunday, next month, next year, and until we have finally overcome the racist legacy of the United States. It means that we have welcome words that trouble us. It means that we have to imagine our religious communities as sites for conversion.

Many of people come to Unitarian Universalist congregations seeking some kind of personal transformation. Breaking white silence means that we learn to link our personal transformation to our process of social transformation. To quote David Carl Olson, the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, it means understanding, “my liberation is bound up with yours.” Religious communities are uniquely positioned to teach us this lesson. What other institution in our society can prompt us to both examine our hearts--to ask us how we are seeing the world--and to challenge us to stand together to do something about the pain that we find there when we do?

I am practical person. And so, before I close I want to offer you a few simple suggestions that might prompt you on your way to conversion and becoming more comfortable with breaking white silence. Maybe you already do these things. If you do, keep doing them. If not, consider starting.

For a conversion to happen, you have to expand your perspective. And that means getting to know people who have different perspectives than you do. The Washington Post reports that three quarters of European Americans have no African American friends. Zero. None. Now, I admit that making friends is difficult. Most people I know tend to fall into friendships, they meet people through work, in their neighborhood, or at their church. If you are white and you work at a predominately white workplace, live in a largely white neighborhood and go to a mostly white church then chances are most of your friends will be white.

My suggestion? Get out a more. Nurture an interest in cultures other than your own. Read books by African American authors. Start listening to hip hop, jazz, afro pop... Attend cultural events in African American neighborhoods. Visit a black church.

In addition, to expanding your perspective you have to ask questions and you have to commit to actions. You have to transform your previous silence into language and action. Ask yourself why you are comfortable or uncomfortable in certain situations and with certain people. Ask yourself how and why you benefit from our current social system. Ask yourself who the criminal justice system works for. Ask yourself why police officers so often get away with murder. And as you ask yourself questions think about how you can act. What can you do as a congregation? How can you support your minister to break white silence? How can you mobilize your resources to transform the racist, white supremacist, criminal justice system? Can you urge your lawmakers to spend money on schools rather than prisons? Can you imagine a world without prisons?

If we are to accomplish anything, if we are to truly end white silence, it will require action as a religious community. It will mean that congregants come to expect their ministers to speak about race not only when there has been a riot, or on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, or during black history month, but often. It will mean recognizing that the time for conversion, the time for a change of heart, is now. It is time to say not one more. Not one more unarmed black child shot and killed by a police office while playing on a playground. Not one more unarmed black man shot and killed while shopping in a grocery store. Not one more unarmed black man suffocated in the back of a police van.

May words like things ring across the land. May pulpits stand silent in the face of racial injustice no more. May we say not one more, not one more, not one more, until we truly transform silence into language and action.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Human Rights Ministry Sermon Tags Baltimore Sarah Stewart #BlackLivesMatter Police Brutality Civil Rights Anti-Racisim Freddie Gray

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