Apr 1, 2020
as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 29, 2020
I do not know about you, but in these strange days, I have found myself doing many new things. In the last couple of weeks, I have been invited to virtual dinners, virtual dance parties, and virtual cocktail hours. Recently, I was even invited to a virtual tea-time. There was a story on NPR about virtual first dates. My son is starting online--which is to say virtual--school on Tuesday. And, of course, right now you are joining us for virtual worship.
In essence, we are doing new things but calling them by old names. We are in a time of metaphors. “Metaphor,” Aristotle wrote many centuries ago, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” We use metaphors when we say that one thing is another thing. A metaphor is something that represents something else. Metaphor is essential to art and poetry. “And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Love is a stone / that settled on the sea-bed / under grey-water,” scribed Derek Walcott. “[V]erdad del río que se va perdiendo;” “the truth of the dying river,” we find in our morning’s reading by Amanda Berenguer. The sun is a bucketful of gold. Love is a stone. The river is dying. Each is a metaphor where one thing is said to be another.
I have come to realize, that for me, virtual worship is a metaphor for life as it used to be. This is our third week of recording our service in an empty sanctuary. There are only a handful of us here. We are practicing appropriate physical distancing.
We are also cleaning the pulpit, microphones, piano, and other equipment each time a different person uses them. In order to safely offer an online worship service, we are filming everything out of sequence. Alma and Scott recorded their portions of our liturgy prior to me recording mine. Mark recorded much of the music in his home studio. This week, he is not even here for the sermon.
Christian and Alma take this out of sequence audio and video and splice it together so that we can provide you with an approximation of our regular Sunday morning service. We want to offer our regular Sunday morning worship participants a continuing feeling of connection to the religious community that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And we want those of you who are joining us online without ever having entered either our sanctuary in Houston or sanctuary in Richmond to know that when we gather again in person you will be welcome among us. But we do so with the knowledge that virtual worship is not the same as in person worship. You are not sitting in a room filled with people. You are not joining your voices with a crowd of others in song--though I hope that you are singing along with Mark’s excellent arrangements of our hymns.
We do all of this in the hopes that our virtual worship will provide you with a sense of connection and comfort during these strange days. Our hopes for these online worship services remind me of a fable from the Hasidic tradition. In one of his books, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recounts a version of it that he found in the work of the Jewish mystic and scholar Gershom Scholem.
The Hasidic tradition was founded by the Baal Shem Tov--the Master of the Good Name--in early eighteenth-century Europe. He was reputed to have been a pious, wise, and compassionate man. He was also supposed to have been a great worker of miracles.
It is told that when he had an insurmountable problem before him, he would go into the woods to a special place. There he would “light a fire and meditate in prayer.” And then the problem he had sought out to solve, the miracle he was hoping to perform, would be done.
After the Baal Shem died, his successor went to the same special place in the forest. He had forgotten a little about the ritual. He said, “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” And then he was able to work a miracle.
The Baal Shem’s successor died. And the day came when the Rabbi of the next generation was faced with a great task. So, he went to the special place in the woods and said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.
The fourth generation came into being. And the Rabbi of that generation was called upon to perform a great task. But he did not even know the place in the woods. And so, he said, “‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all of this.’ And, once again, this was sufficient.”
Our online worship services make me feel like we are somewhere inside Gershom Scholem’s tale. We cannot kindle the fire of our faith together. We cannot meditate together. We cannot go to the woods--or gather in our sanctuary--together. But we can offer you a video, a story, about what worship might like if we were to gather.
And we can hope that it is sufficient.
Most of the metaphors we are offering each other these days are offered in the hope that they will be sufficient. We provide each other the metaphors of virtual schooling, virtual dance parties, virtual dinners, virtual dates, and virtual tea times in the hopes that they will be sufficient to see us through these strange days.
But, in these strange days, we need to be careful of our metaphors. Some of them can be dangerous. It is unwise to let some things stand in for others. And here we come, at last, to the title of our service: illness is not a metaphor. Illness does not stand in for something else. Illness is just illness. It is not something that should be freighted with moral weight or political valence. It should be for what is, a global health crisis, and not imagined as something else.
For the virus is not a metaphor. The virus is only a virus. It does not represent something else. It is, like all viruses, a small organic infectious agent that replicates within living cells. It replicates and it spreads, from host to host, and bringing suffering to those who it encounters.
The virus is not a metaphor. It does not have consciousness that imagines, that dreams, that tries to discern truth from lies, or that refers to one thing by calling it by another name. The virus does not write poetry or create the metaphors of music, painting, and photography.
What is more, the virus does not care about human metaphors. It does not respect national boundaries, or religious beliefs, or race or ethnic identities. It is not, as some would say, a Chinese virus. It can potentially infect everyone. There is no cure. There is no vaccine. And while we must pray that these are found soon, we must also recognize that until they are everyone is vulnerable.
That, indeed, is one of the lessons of the hour. That we humans, no matter how great or powerful, weak or marginalized, we might be are alike in our human mortality. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has tested positive for the virus. Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks have tested positive for the virus. The basketball player Kevin Durant has tested positive for the virus. The playwright Terrence McNally has died from the virus. Indeed, many people--rich and poor alike--have been stricken ill and died from the virus: people in Italy, in New York, in China, and here in Houston.
There is a way in which the global pandemic reminds me of a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was a verse beloved by many of our Universalist religious ancestors. It bespeaks the idea that God loves everyone, no exceptions, an idea that lies at the core of the theology of our Universalist forbearers and Unitarian Universalism today. It suggests a fundamental, non-metaphorical, truth: there is only one human family and we are each a part of it.
Today, we might consider re-casting the words from Galatians as there is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither Italian nor New Yorker, neither citizen nor undocumented migrant, for all are alike to the virus. There are some religious leaders who are saying that the virus must be understood as God’s judgement upon this country and the world. If it is, then the only interpretation that I can find is that we are being reminded, in the words of the Christian New Testament, “that God is no respecter of persons”--words meant to suggest that the divine does not care about human status but instead loves, and calls upon us to love, everyone the same. We are being reminded, in the sense of the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that we all part of the same interdependent web of existence. That we are each, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, a part of the great family of all souls.
Yet, historically, people have often draw, precisely the opposite lesson from pandemics. They have turned illness into metaphor. One of the oldest ideas in human history is to view pandemics--which we sometimes call plagues--as forms of collective punishment. In such a narrative, one group of people, usually the powerful, label another group of people as responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, during the Black Death, Jewish people were often blamed for outbreaks of the plague. As a result, many Jewish communities were destroyed and many Jewish people were killed. And, of course, the truth was that Jewish people had no actual connection to the plague. They were just blamed for it because they were different from the rest of the population.
Some years ago, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, before there was a treatment for HIV, the philosopher Susan Sontag wrote insightfully about the dangers of using illness as metaphor. She observed three dangerous things about illness as a metaphor. The first two I have already alluded to. The pandemic is cast as a form of collective, and sometimes individual, punishment. Responsibility for it assigned to “a tainted community.” And, finally, “the disease invariably comes from somewhere else.”
Over and over again, human history has shown each of these ideas to be false. Illness is not punishment. It has the potential to impact all alike. Cancer, one of the diseases that Sontag wrote about, can strike anyone. People across the world have been infected by HIV--babies have been infected with it by their mothers; and, though it was once cast as “gay cancer,” everyone must practice safer sex if they want to reduce their risk of contracting it.
Illness happens because we have organic, permeable, human bodies that can host viruses and bacteria. Illness happens because to be alive is to be mortal and subject to the possibility of pain and suffering. Illness is not a metaphor.
Responsibility for illness cannot be borne by a single community. The virus that causes COVID-19 might have started in China but it is not a Chinese virus. It does not recognize the imagined human community of nation. Instead, it reveals the truth that human beings are far more alike than we are different. Whether you live in Italy, China, New York, Houston, or Fort Bend County, you are vulnerable to the virus. Little can be accomplished by assigning blame for it to one group of people. Illness is not a metaphor.
The disease might have started in Wuhan, it might have come from there, but the virus is teaching us, again, that disease cannot be contained. Quarantines may slow the spread of the virus--and staying home continues to be one of the best things that non-essential workers can do--but they will not stop it. China has paused the spread of the virus and is now trying to prevent its resurgence by isolating anyone who visits from outside the country. This may slow the spread of the virus. But it will ultimately prevent it from continuing to inflict people in China.
Eventually, the virus will reach every corner of our globe. The virus is no respecter of nations, just as the scripture says God is no respecter of persons. It can only be slowed. Pathogens have always spread across humanity--smallpox might have started someplace in the Mediterranean but it eventually spread throughout the globe; syphilis could have originated in the Americas but it is now found everywhere. Every lifeform can become sick. Illness is not a metaphor.
Illness is not a metaphor. Illness is simply illness. But we can learn from illness. It can teach us that the entire human family is in this together and that each of us is vulnerable. All of us are mortal and our bodies are vulnerable to the virus. The threat of the virus will only end when a vaccine is found--not a vaccine for some of the people of the world but a vaccine for all of the people of the world. The spread of the virus will only be slowed when we all act together--engaging in only essential work and practicing physical distancing.
And that will only be possible when we recognize that in these strange days, when all but essential work must stop, most of us are economically vulnerable. I already know of people who are members of this congregation who have lost jobs. I have friends who are wondering if they are going to have to make the choice between paying rent, paying for medical bills, and eating. Some economists are anticipating that the unemployment rate will soon hit twenty, or even thirty, percent.
Such a high level of unemployment threatens massive social disruption. Many people who might, in other times, think of themselves as economically secure will suffer--I know of scientists with PhDs who have already lost their jobs. At such a time, we cannot afford to think of illness as a metaphor. The virus is not a respecter of persons. And the disruptions it brings do not care about your level of education or your current level of economic security. If this pandemic continues for twelve or eighteenth months--as many think it might--it will most likely upend the lives of many people.
At such a time as this, when illness is not a metaphor, we are challenged to rise to meet the situation with compassion. As Scott told us at the beginning of the month, “Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain.” “And empathy is the ability to... experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor, we come to understand that the only response to the global pandemic is a compassionate one. We do this, in part, because we recognize that we must protect the most vulnerable among us. It is the moral thing to do but it is also the necessary thing to do. In some cities, but not in Houston, homeless people are being given shelter in closed hotels so that they do not spread the virus. Such an action protects both the homeless and everyone else. For the virus does not recognize rich or poor.
The disruptions can impact everyone. And because of this, the disruptions will only be mitigated if we work to provide for all people during this time. And, here, I am reminded of another passage from the Christian New Testament, this time from the Gospel of Matthew. There we find Jesus say, “Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of... [the people] here, no matter how insignificant, you did for me... A curse is on you... [if I can say] For when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when thirsty, nothing to drink; when I was a stranger, you did not welcome me; when I was naked, you did not clothe me; when I was ill and in prison, you did not come to my help.”
Those ancient words speak a truth in a time of crisis like this, when illness is not a metaphor and when all of us are vulnerable. And that truth is this: we can only address the health and economic dimensions of this crisis by acting together and protecting everyone. That means that everyone is vulnerable. Everyone must be protected--and that everyone who needs them be given access to personal protective equipment. Such equipment is now, to slow the spread of the virus, a need for all people and something that federal government should be mobilizing to produce on a mass level. If it will not, then local cities and counties must step into the gap.
Here in Houston, we had a troubling illustration of what happens when we personal protective equipment is not available to all. On Thursday and Friday, the Houston Independent School District had to shut down its food distribution sites. A lack of personal protective equipment made them unsafe for both people distributing and collecting food.
At a time when people are food insecure at greater rates than every before a lack of equipment, here in the richest country in the history of the world, made it even more difficult for people to get food.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor we also recognize that the only way the virus will contained is if we have a coordinated health care policy that makes treatment and testing available for all. And that the state of Texas is wrong for declaring that some essential health care services, such as abortion and family planning, should not be available at this time. Such actions will prompt to travel. And that brings the risk that they will spread the virus further. If we do not treat health care as a human right, in this time when illness is not a metaphor, then it will be impossible to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of the virus and, eventually, find and distribute a cure.
It is only by recognizing that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to end this time of living primarily in metaphors. It is only by acknowledging that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to return to actual shared dinners, dance parties, tea times, and cocktail hours. It is only by rejecting illness as a metaphor that school and non-essential work will resume. And it is only be casting off illness as a metaphor that we will be able gather together, as a religious community, in worship and in fellowship and physically unite in the difficult, though rewarding, work of building the beloved community.
These are my words for you, offered to you from Houston, Texas, in the midst of a pandemic, as part of a virtual worship service, that is a metaphor for religious community. In this time of anxiety and illness, I pray that they are sufficient. And so, I invite you, wherever you are, to say Amen.
Feb 3, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, February 2, 2020
Today we launch our annual stewardship campaign. It is the season in congregational life when you decide how much money you will pledge to support First Houston in the coming fiscal year. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, churches are owned and governed by their members. Making an annual financial commitment is an affirmation of membership that signals that you have made a personal, spiritual, and monetary commitment to be part of this congregation, build the beloved community, and uplift Unitarian Universalist values.
The theme of our stewardship campaign is “Loving the Hell Out of the World.” The phrase comes from Joanna Fontaine Crawford. Some of you might know her. She was on First Houston’s ministerial staff for a couple of years in the early part of the last decade. She moved on to serve a congregation in Austin. She drew inspiration for the phrase from the theology of our Universalist religious ancestors.
You might remember that Universalism was founded on a simple theological proposition: God loves people too much to condemn anyone to an eternity of torment in Hell. My friend Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the late Gordon McKeeman to describe this doctrine. He once heard McKeeman “say, ‘Universalism came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty.’”
Mark continues, “What a graphic, prosaic picture—a divine kidnapping. The last sinner being dragged, by his collar I imagined, into heaven. What kind of a God was this? ... This was a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not, and cannot, consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal salvation--the reality that we share a common destiny--is the inescapable consequence of Universal love.”
One of the earliest and most important advocates of this doctrine was Hosea Ballou. In the early nineteenth-century, he was a circuit rider who traveled widely spreading the message of God’s universal, unconditional, love. Ballou is reputed to have had a quick wit. There are a number of stories that have been preserved about his encounters with orthodox Christians who rejected the idea that God loved everyone without exception. One such story was collected by Linda Stowell.
It seems that once when Ballou was out circuit riding, he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. Over dinner Ballou learned that the family’s son was something of a ne’er-do-well. He rarely helped out with chores or did work on the farm. He stole money from his parents. He spent it late at night carousing at the local tavern. The family was afraid that their son was going to go to Hell.
“Alright,” Ballou told them, “I have a plan. We will find a spot on the road where your son walks home drunk at night. We will build a big bonfire. And when he passes by, we will grab him and throw him into the fire.”
The young man’s parents were aghast. “That’s our son and we love him,” they said to Ballou. Ballou responded, “If you, human and imperfect parents, love your son so much that you would not throw him into the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect parent, would do so!”
It is a pretty fun story. It exemplifies the logic of universalist theology. God loves everyone, no exceptions. So, we should love everyone no exceptions. But as I have been thinking about the story I have come to recognize that it is not without its flaws.
It presents Ballou as a sort of lone hero--traipsing about and spreading the gospel of universalism. This portrayal elides a larger truth. Ballou did not spread universalism alone. He was but one of many early preachers who discovered the doctrine, a doctrine that is found in the Christian New Testament and in the theological works of early Christian theologians.
Someone like Ballou read a verse such as “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive,” to mean literally what it said. Ballou and others interpreted this verse from First Corinthians to hinge upon the word “all,” which appears twice. All were condemned to mortality by Adam’s disobedience to the divine in the Garden of Eden. All will be given immortality through Christ. Not some. Not only the believers. Not just the righteous. But all. Every last sinner dragged screaming and kicking into heaven.
Ballou was not the first one to discover universalism in verses like First Corinthians 15:22. Origen of Alexandria was an ancient Christian theologian who lived in North Africa. Almost eighteen hundred years ago he taught that all would eventually be united with God. Taking a slightly different position than Ballou, he wrote “and there is punishment, but not everlasting... For all wicked men, and for daemons, too, punishment has an end.”
Ballou and Origen lived close to two thousand years apart. Their similar theological perspectives suggest one reason why Ballou and other circuit riders like him were so successful in spreading the Gospel of God’s Success. Lots of people believe that God is love and that a loving God does not punish. However, since this belief is held to be heretical by orthodox Christianity many people think that they are alone in their belief. Encountering someone like Ballou in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century did not convince them of universalism. It gave them permission to profess universalism. It helped them to recognize that they were not isolated in their beliefs.
I suspect Ballou’s circuit riding was a bit like the contemporary phenomenon of discovering people who are Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. Have you had this experience? It is a somewhat common one for Unitarian Universalist ministers. And I think it is a relatively common one for Unitarian Universalist lay folk as well. It runs something like this: You go out to coffee with a relatively new acquaintance. You chat about your friends and your families. Maybe you tell them about the foibles of your cat. Perhaps they share with you gardening tips. At some point, the conversation turns serious. You might not know how you got on the subject but suddenly you are discussing your core beliefs. You tell them you are a Unitarian Universalist. They say, “I have never heard of that.”
You explain. You might tell them that Unitarian Universalism is religious tradition that celebrates the possibility of goodness within each human heart, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying force of reason. You perhaps share that we offer to be a religious home for all wish to join us: welcoming the GLBT community, declaring that love has no borders, proclaiming that black lives matter, toiling to address the climate crisis, and struggling for democracy. It could be that you quote Unitarian Universalist author Laila Ibrahim:
It’s a blessing you were born
It matters what you do with your life.
What you know about god is a piece of the truth.
You do not have to do it alone.
Or perhaps it is that you cite Marta Valetin. She reminds us our world contains the good and the holy when she writes:
The golden present ever reaches for you
and wonders if you’ll come
to unwrap its gifts.
Whatever the case, your friend says to you, “Hey! That’s what I believe. I guess I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.”
Now, what comes next? Do you invite your friend to come with you to First Houston?
I wonder what happened next in Ballou’s story. Did the farm family start a universalist church? Did they gather their friends together and form a small community of people who proclaimed, “God loves everyone, no exceptions?”
We do not know. But what we do know is that belief is not enough. We are called not just to believe in the power of God’s love. We are called to love the Hell out of the world. And if we serious about heeding that calling, we are called to build and sustain institutions like First Houston that empower us in our efforts to love the Hell out of the world. We cannot love the Hell out of the world by ourselves. We need others to do it with us.
I will return to the subject of the importance of building and sustaining institutions like First Houston at the end of the sermon. But, first, let us be honest, there is a lot of Hell in the world right now. For many of us, the current political situation seems bleak. The last several years have witnessed a steady erosion of democratic norms. And, as I have told you before, I fear the country to be sliding towards totalitarianism. Totalitarian states are organized around the personality of a charismatic leader who personifies the state’s power and projects a totalizing view of society. Totalitarian leaders might gloat, as the current President does, of leading a country with “unmatched power, strength, and glory” and boast to their enemies “if conflict comes—we will dominate the battlefield, and we will, win, win, win.” They might propose, as the President has in reference to immigration courts, “we should get rid of judges.”
Rather than respecting the rule of law, totalitarians concentrate power in the head of state--often following the maxim of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” In efforts to consolidate power, pit the populace against itself, and stoke a climate of fear, totalitarian leaders identify a racial or minority group who are cast as representing an existential threat to the social order. They claim this group must be purged from the body politic for the health of the country.
Such logic has been present in the current administration’s Muslim ban and immigration policies. This past week the federal government extended it to seven new countries as part of the President’s policy of, in his words, creating “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has portrayed Muslims as purveyors of terror who threaten the safety of country and who must be excluded to ensure its security.
He has further brutalized this country’s policy towards migrants launching what he has called a “zero tolerance” approach. This has been manifested in a family separation policy that has removed least 5,400 children from their parents--babies, toddlers, and adolescents all torn from their parents’ embracing arms. It has also been manifested in the expansion of what many scholars of totalitarianism have disturbingly named the concentration camps along the border. Concentration camps are not necessarily extermination camps, where people are sent to be killed, they are places where, in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt, “The human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody.” They are locations where migrants are put out of sight so that their suffering will remain out of mind. And suffer they do, with more than thirty of them dying in governmental custody since the President took office.
At the same time, white supremacist terrorism has dramatically increased and there have been numerous mass shootings. The situation is a stark reminder that in a totalitarian regime no one is ever secure. People who live in a totalitarian society never know when or where violence will erupt. They only know that it is always possible for them to meet a terrible end at the hands of agents of the state, paramilitaries, or, today, supposedly lone actors whose violence is fueled by a shared white supremacist ideology. Arendt describes the phenomenon this way: in a totalitarian regime, “Terror strikes without any preliminary provocation... its victims... objectively innocent... chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” In such a society, “nobody... can ever be free of fear.” It is hard to find better words to describe the epidemic of gun violence. In 2018 firearm deaths reached a fifty-year high, costing almost forty thousand lives. Meanwhile, as mosque shootings, synagogue massacres, temple invasions, and other hate crimes have shown, white supremacist violence has reached historic levels.
All of this has formed the background for what can only be described as an assault on democratic norms. Foreign actors have been invited to interfere with federal elections by the President himself. Ample evidence--including accounts by some of his former advisors--exists that he pressured the Ukrainian government to influence the upcoming election by investigating one of his political opponents. This evidence led to the House passing two articles of impeachment. A Senate trial has now taken place--a trial without evidence or witnesses, a trial whose results appear to be foreordained, a trial in which the President’s acquittal seems to be guaranteed.
The situation could be described as one of permanent emergency. This permanent emergency is a struggle over who shall rule. The coming years may well witness the further undermining of liberal democratic norms, the continuing erosion of the Voting Rights Act, an increase in gerrymandering, the appointment of two more reactionary Supreme Court justices, and the complete the normalization of white supremacist anti-human immigration policies. They might even pose an existential threat to humanity in the form of an administration that is committed to a denial of the climate emergency as the brief window to address it closes. The historical moment is evocative of George Orwell, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
The temptation in such a situation is to prepare, as more than one partisan has suggested, to go “all in” on the upcoming election. Now, I do not want dissuade anyone from mobilizing or participating in voter turnout and registration efforts. In fact, in the coming months I will be urging First Houston to participate in the campaign for the 2020 election that the Unitarian Universalist Association has named UU the Vote. But I also want to remind you that “going ‘all in’ is a gambling term” where, as activist Andrew Sernatinger warns, “you either win big or leave with nothing.”
Whatever happens in the upcoming election, and whatever side of the partisan divide you might fall on, we should not leave 2020 with nothing. Whoever wins the presidential contest the forces of love and justice should complete the year stronger than before.
One of the best ways we can do this is to live into the vision of our Universalist religious ancestors and commit ourselves to loving the Hell out of the world. It is to devote ourselves to building a beloved community that offers a foretaste of the world we dream about, a world where all are accepted and love is the organizing principle of the hour. Love has the power to create communities where isolation is vanquished. Love creates empathic bonds and inspires ideals that prove totalitarian narratives false. Loving bonds and loving communities, along with the loving truth that, to cite William Ellery Channing, we are each a “member of the great family of all souls,” are targeted by the totalitarians’ narratives of fears. But never yet, not in all of human history, have they been fully successful in completely breaking the traditions that foster love.
Khia’s moving testimonial of being welcomed by this congregation as a queer woman of color is a testament to the possibility of First Houston to live out a theology of love. Such a theology of love is why I am asking you to participate in this year’s stewardship campaign and support First Houston. As I said at the beginning of my sermon, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition churches are owned and governed by their members. Your financial gifts account for more than 75% of our annual income. This year we are hoping to raise $550,000 in pledges at the Museum District campus--a 10% increase from last year--so that we can continue to grow the congregation and our collective capacity to love the Hell out of the world. Committing to sustain and grow First Houston is one way that you can help ensure that no matter who wins the 2020 Presidential contest, no matter if the country as a whole continues its slide towards totalitarianism, there will continue to be religious communities where we teach that love is more powerful than hate. Where people can dream what historian Robin Kelley calls freedom dreams, visions of “life as possibility” in which exist “endless meadows without boundaries, free of evil and violence, free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism... just free.”
Just free... the theme of worship this month is imagination. It is imagination that reminds us that however imprisoned we might feel by the historical moment there is always the possibility of casting a larger vision where we might, in the words of our choral anthem, dream of “[s]oaring and spinning and touching the sky” like the “boy who picked up his feet to fly.”
It is the imagination that helps us envision what our congregation and Unitarian Universalism can become: a place where, in the words of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, we can go “when the task feels too great, when life is too much, and it’s all too heavy, we can stop, breathe and lean into each other.”
Imagination is tied to stewardship because it inspire us to envision how we can transform and sustain our religious community across time into a place devoted to loving the Hell out of the world, inspiring collective liberation, and dismantling white supremacy. Where we can come together and constitute here, in the city of Houston, a different sort of vision for the world than the one pedaled by hate mongers and white supremacists, a community where all are loved and welcomed be they migrant, Muslim, transgendered, cis-gendered, white, black, Latinx, indigenous, or any other member of the human family. In such a place we can embody a kind of democracy that inspires the rest of society. Such a vision is not absurd. The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams observed our religious ancestors “considered their free church to be a model for a democratic” society. We might foster such an ideal again and love the Hell out of the world.
Is such a vision foolishness or unwarranted? Perhaps the boot that Orwell predicted will soon come grinding down. Perhaps we will prove incapable of imagining our community thus and living as the beloved community. I cannot answer that question. I can only assert that amongst the purposes of religious community is the gifting of hope. And it is my hope that somehow, somewhere, maybe even now, maybe even here, as we consider our annual stewardship drive, a new vision for this country and our world will arise among us. It may grow from the smallest of seeds and in the most unlikely of places: the streets where we mass to protest, the neighborhoods we live in, or in religious communities like ours.
In that spirit, I close with a parable about that old metaphor for the beloved community, for creating a space for loving the Hell out of the world, the Kingdom of God, as attributed to Jesus: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered… Other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Whoever has ears, let them love the Hell out of the world.
Let the congregation to say Amen.
Jan 6, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District, January 5, 2020
Happy New Year! I was not supposed to be in the pulpit with you this morning. But plans change, people get sick, and I find myself with you today on the first Sunday of a new year and a new decade. It is good to be with you. It is good to be with even though the news at the opening of this, what will perhaps be the most important decade in human history, is bitter and harsh. It is good to be with you precisely because it is when the news of the world is bitter and harsh that we need religious community the most.
The assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by a United States military drone strike on sovereign Iraqi soil has pushed the Middle East into crisis. Soleimani was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi military leader whose political party controls almost fifty seats in the Iraqi Parliament. These illegal acts of war violate both international law and the United States War Powers Act. They may lead to war between the United States and Iran. They have already led to further destabilization of the Middle East. Hundreds of people will almost certainly be killed because of the decision of the President of the United States to authorize Soleimani’s illegal political assassination. Thousands or tens of thousands or possibly even hundreds of thousands of people will die horrible violent deaths if this country goes to war with Iran.
I cannot help but wonder about the timing of the President’s decision to have Soleimani killed. He will soon be on trial in the Senate. The House has passed two articles of impeachment and he could, theoretically, be removed from office. Of course, there is every sign that his allies in the Senate will prevent witnesses from being called or from a serious trial taking place. The Senate Majority Leader even claims that he is coordinating the trial with the White House in order to facilitate a speedy acquittal. The position of the President’s Senatorial allies is clearly concerning. In his year-end report Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., warned “we have come to take democracy for granted.” Roberts will oversee the trial in the Senate. It appears that the Senate Majority Leader’s position has him worried about his ability “to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.”
Drawing the United States military into a conflict abroad will almost certainly make it more difficult to have an honest debate and trial on the House’s articles of impeachment. There will be calls for national unity. For the many, the President will be transformed from a divisive figure to a unifying head of state. It will be harder to criticize him. War dissenters and pacifists will be castigated for being unpatriotic. There might even be calls to delay the President’s trial. This country’s liberal democracy may move closer to a defining crisis.
Over a hundred years ago, as the United States entered World War I, the writer Randolph Bourne warned that war is the health of the state. He wrote, “The moment war is declared... the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy... with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, [and] revives all his military memories and symbols... Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.” When war is the health of the state it is challenging to be a critic of either the President or the actions he directs the military to take. It is no wonder then that the current President is not the only one to authorize dramatic violent action during the impeachment process. President Clinton did the same thing in December of 1998 when he launched air strikes in Iraq as the House stood poised to impeach him.
Over a hundred years ago the Unitarian minister, pacifist, and first friend in the United States of Mahatma Gandhi, John Haynes Holmes stood before his congregation in New York City and told them, in the idiom of early twentieth-century Unitarianism: “War is an open and utter violation of Christianity. If war is right, then Christianity is wrong, false, a lie. If Christianity is right, then war is wrong, false, a lie...”
Today, I believe that the same thing can be said in twenty-first century words. Unitarian Universalism upholds the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Not some people. Not only citizens and residents of the United States. All people. Speaking only for myself, I can rephrase Holmes words: War with Iran is an open and violation of Unitarian Universalist values. If such a war is right, then Unitarian Universalism is wrong, false, a lie. If Unitarian Universalism is right, then such a war is wrong, false, a lie...”
You may have other views. We affirm the right of conscience and the search for truth as central to our tradition. These are mine and they mean that I will never pray nor preach for victory through arms or pretend that the people of Iran are any less human, any less worthy of my love or the love of the divine, than any of you.
And so, this morning, I find myself gravely concerned for the future of this country and this world. I find myself gravely concerned because not only do the President’s military actions represent a political crisis and a crisis in democracy, they are a distraction from what must be the central focus of the next decade: addressing the climate emergency.
The next ten years or so will determine whether or not humanity chooses to address the climate crisis. What we do now will impact the lives of not only our children and our grandchildren but the lives of those thousands of years from now--if there are humans thousands of years from now. At such a moment in humanity history, I find myself often reflecting upon the words of James Baldwin in the closing passage of his magnificent essay “The Fire Next Time.” Baldwin’s essay was written during the civil rights movement, that historic movement to overturn Jim Crow and defeat white supremacy. He saw that movement for racial justice as something that would determine the future of country--whether it would be a liberal democracy or a white supremacist apartheid state. Baldwin wrote: “And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we--and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others--do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
We are on the precipice of the fire next time. We are on the precipice because we, as a country, have been unable to overcome white supremacy. The current President is a white supremacist populist and many of his supporters have made it clear that their highest loyalty is to the maintenance of a white supremacist racial order and not liberal democracy.
We are on the precipice of the fire next time. Literally and figuratively, while the world is distracted by the threat of war Australia is literally burning. Figuratively, because the racial conflagration that has raged since Europeans arrived on the shores of this continent is threatening, once again, to consume the country.
The fire next time, in worship we have been focusing on the spiritual and religious tools that are necessary to live through such times of crisis. Today, and for the month of January, we will be focusing on what I believe is one of the most important of these tools: the cultivation of friendships. The philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that the cultivation of friendships was a crucial tool for those who survived the brutalities of totalitarianism. The creation and sustaining of friendship in such times is a sign that “a bit of humanness in a world become inhuman had been achieved.” And in such hours of crises as the ones we now face maintaining our own humanness and recognizing it in others is one of our crucial tasks. It is difficult to kill others whom we recognize as humans. Killing, especially on a mass scale, often requires the abstraction of human being into a categorical other: the human being who is a friend, a lover, a parent, a child, a sibling, or a neighbor becomes the Jew, the migrant, the black person, the indigenous person, the queer person, or the Iranian.
And so, now let us turn to friendship and consider the alchemical power it provides to make us human to each other.
The image of an elderly Emerson, perhaps resting in dusty sunlight on an overstuffed armchair, asking his wife, “What was the name of my best friend?” is moving. It suggests that Thoreau's name faded long before the feelings his memory evoked. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are not exactly the type of people I usually think of when I think of friends. Thoreau, the archetypical non-conformist, sought to live in the woods by Walden Pond to prove his independence. His classic text opens, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself... and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” For Thoreau solitary life was permanent while life amongst his human fellows was but a sojourn, a temporary condition.
Emerson was equally skeptical about the social dimensions of human nature. In his essay “Self-Reliance” he claimed, “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against... every one of its members.” He believed that self-discovery, awakening knowledge of the self, was primarily a task for the individual, not the community. When he was invited to join the utopian experiment Brook Farm, Emerson responded that he was unwilling to give the community 'the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself.'”
Yet both of these men sought out the company of others. Emerson gathered around him a circle of poets, preachers, writers, and intellectuals whose friendships have become legendary. And whose friendships sustained them through the struggle for the abolition of slavery and their work for the liberation of women. That circle contains many of our Unitarian Universalist saints. I speak of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also the pioneering feminists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, the fiery abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the utopian visionary George Ripely. What we see when look closely at Emerson and Thoreau is not two staunch individualists but rather two men caught in the tension between community and individuality, very conscious that one cannot exist without the other.
Emerson wrote on friendship and in an essay declared, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.” Margaret Fuller drowned at sea at the age of forty. Her tragic death prompted Emerson to write, “I have lost my audience.” Emerson thought that Fuller was the one person who understood his philosophy most completely, even if they sometimes violently disagreed. Of her he wrote, “more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent... magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles...” Of him she wrote, “that from him I first learned what is meant by the inward life... That the mind is its own place was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind.” Perhaps Fuller's early death is why Emerson recalled Thoreau, and not her, in the fading moments of his life. But, no matter, a close study of their circle reveals an essential truth: we require others to become ourselves.
The tension between the individual and the community apparent in the writings of our Transcendentalists leads to contradictory statements. Emerson himself placed little stock in consistency, penning words that I sometimes take as my own slogan, “...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Let us consider Emerson the friend, rather than Emerson the individualist, this morning. If for no reason than when Emerson was falling into his final solitude he tried to steady himself with the memory of his great friend Thoreau. Emerson himself wrote, “Friendship demands a religious treatment.”
Have you ever had a good friend? A great friend? Can you recall what it felt like to be in that person's presence? Perhaps your friend is in this sanctuary with you this morning. Maybe you are sitting next to them, aware of the warmth of their body. Maybe they are distant: hacking corn stalks with a machete, sipping coffee in a Paris cafe, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or hustling through mazing, cold, Boston streets. I invite you to invoke the presence of your friend. Give yourself to the quiet joy you feel when you are together.
Friendship is an experience of connection. Friends remind us that we are not alone in the universe. We may be alone in the moment, seeking solitude or even isolated in pain, but we are always members of what William Ellery Channing called “the great family of all souls.” If we are wise we learn that lesson through our friends.
Again, Emerson, “We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables.” Such dreams and fables can become real, they can become, “the solidest thing we know.” Seeking such relationships is one of the reasons why people join religious communities like this one.
When I started in the parish ministry it took me awhile to realize this. In my old congregation in Cleveland we had testimonials every Sunday. After the chalice was lit a member would get up and share why they had joined. Their stories were often similar and, for years, I was slightly disappointed with them. The service would start, the flame would rise up and someone would begin, “I come to this congregation because I love the community.”
“That's it?,” my internal dialogue would run. “You come here because of the community? You don't come seeking spiritual depth or because of all of the wonderful justice work we do in the world? Can't you get community someplace else? If all you are looking for is community why don't you join a book club or find a sewing circle? We are a church! People are supposed to come here for more than just community! Uh! I must be a failure a minister if all that these people get out of this congregation is a sense of community!”
Eventually, I realized that community is an essential part of the religious experience. The philosopher William James may have believed, “Religion... [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude,” but he was wrong. Religion is found in the moments of connection when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Life together, life in community, is a reminder of that reality. People seek out that experience in a congregation because of the isolating nature of modern life. In this country we are more alone than ever before. A few years ago, Newsweek reported that in the previous twenty years the number of people who have no close friends had tripled. Today at least one out of every four people report having no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing an important matter.
Congregations like this one offer the possibility of overcoming such a sense of isolation. When there are crises in the world, or crises in our lives, a religious community like this one can be a place to discover that are not alone in our struggles. We offer a place for people to celebrate life's passages and make meaning from those passages. Friendship requires a common center to blossom and meaning making, and breaking isolation, is are pretty powerful common centers.
Aristotle understood that friendship was rooted in mutual love. That love was not necessarily the love of the friends for each other. It was love for a common object. This understanding led him to describe three kinds of friendship: those of utility, those of pleasure and those of virtue, which he also called complete friendship. Friendships of utility were the lowest, least valuable kind and friendships of virtue were the highest kind. Erotic friendship fell somewhere in between. Friendships of utility were easily dissolved. As soon as one friend stopped being useful to the other then the friendship dissipated.
It took me until I was in my twenties to really understand the transitory nature of friendships of utility. I spent a handful of years between college and seminary working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked for about a year at on-line bookstore. When a recession hit there were a round of lay-offs and, as the junior member of my department, I lost my job.
Up until that point I spent a fair amount of social time with several of my colleagues. We would have lunch and go out for drinks after work. I enjoyed the company of one colleague in particular. I made the mistake of thinking that he was really my friend. He had a masters degree in classical literature. Our water cooler conversations sometimes revolved around favorite authors from antiquity, Homer and Sappho. “From his tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey,” said one. “Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart,” said the other. Alas, when I lost my job a common love of literature was not enough to sustain our relationship. My colleague was always busy whenever I suggested we get together. Have you ever had a similar experience? Such friends come and go throughout our working lives. Far rarer are what Aristotle calls friendships of virtue. These are the enduring friendships, they help us to become better people. Congregational life provides us with opportunities to build such friendships.
The virtues might be understood as those qualities that we cultivate which are praiseworthy. They are qualities that shape a good and whole life. A partial list of Aristotle's virtues runs bravery, temperance, generosity, justice, prudence... Friendship offers us the opportunity to practice these virtues and, in doing so, helps us to become better, more religious, people. The virtues require a community in which to practice them. That is one reason why as we have been considering the spiritual and religious tools we need in this era of crisis we have speaking of the virtues in worship.
Let us think about bravery for a moment. The brave, Aristotle believed, stand firm in front of what is frightening not with a foolhardy arrogance but, instead, knowing full well the consequences of their decisions. They face their fears because they know that by doing so they may achieve some greater good.
Seeking a friend is an act of bravery. It always contains within it the possibility of rejection. Emerson observed, “The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.” I have often found, when I hoped for friends, that I need to initiate the relationship. I need to start the friendship. I am not naturally the most extroverted and outgoing person. Many days I am most content alone with the company of my books or wandering unescorted along the urban edges--scanning river banks for blue herons and scouring wrinkled aged tree trunks for traces of mushrooms.
But other people contain within them possible universes that I cannot imagine. My human fellows pull me into a better self. And so, I find that I must be brave and initiate friendships, even when I find the act of reaching out uncomfortable or frightening. Rejection is always a possibility. I was rejected by my former colleague. Rejection often makes me question my own self-worth. When it comes I wonder perhaps if I am unworthy of friendship or of love. But by being brave, and trying again, I discover that I am.
Bravery is not the only virtue that we find in friendship. Generosity is there too, for friendship is a giving of the self to another. Through that giving of the self we come to know ourselves a little better. We say, “I value this part of myself enough to want to share it with someone else.”
We could create a list of virtues and then explore how friendship offers an opportunity to practice each of them. Such an exercise, I fear, would soon become tedious. So, instead, let me underscore that our friends provide us with the possibility of becoming better people. This can be true even on a trivial level. A friend visits. I take the opportunity to make a vanilla soufflé, something I have never done before but will certainly do again. We delight in its silky sweet eggy texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. A friend calls and inspires me in my commitment to work toward justice. He reminds me that we can only build the good society together. We can only do it by imaging the possibility of friendship between all the world’s peoples.
How have your friends changed your life? Emerson and Thoreau certainly changed each other's lives. And I know that the two men, whatever their preferences for individualism, needed each other. I half suspect that Emerson's tattered memory of his friend, “What was the name of my best friend?” was actually an urgent cry. As Emerson disappeared into the dimming hollows of his mind Thoreau's light was a signal that could call him back into himself.
I detect a similar urgency in Elizabeth Bishop's poem to Marianne Moore: “We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying.” Whatever was going on in Bishop's life when she wrote her friend the most pressing matter, the strongest tug of reality, was that she see her friend. Surely it is an act of bravery to admit to such a need. Truly it is an act of generosity to wish to give one's self so fully.
Let us then, be brave, and seek out friends. Such bravery can be a simple as saying, “Hello, I would like to get to know you.” Let us be generous, then, and give ourselves to our friends, saying, “I have my greatest gift to give you, my self.” Doing so will help us to lead better, more virtuous, lives and may draw us to unexpected places and into unexpected heights. Doing so will help us to recognize the possibility of friendship, the community humanity among, inherent in all peoples. Doing so will equip us to thrive in an era of crisis and remember the promise of our faith tradition: someday, somehow, we will remember that we are all members of the great family of all souls and, so united, we shall overcome war and hatred to build the beloved community.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Jan 5, 2020
I would like to extend to you a personal invitation to join me and Rev. Scott today at 3:00 p.m. at a peace rally on Discovery Green. We will be joining with allies to raise our voices against War in Iran. We will demonstrate our solidarity with the people of the Middle East and against violence that would endanger millions of lives.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has issued a statement against a possible war with Iran in conjunction with several other faith organizations including the American Friends Service Committee, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, and several Catholic denominations. It reads in part:
As people of faith, we condemn the United States’ dangerous aggression towards Iran, including the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the deployment of additional troops to the region. We urge the Administration to step back from the brink of war.
Our faith communities see the futility of war, and its power to dehumanize. We know that human flourishing entails breaking cycles of violence, being courageous peacemakers, and focusing on the root causes of conflict. Violent conflict is a path of mutual destruction...
As communities of faith, we renounce the escalation of violence, and call on the United States to work towards lasting peace with Iran.
I will be one of the speakers at this afternoon’s rally. I hope you will attend. If you do, and if you can, please wear one of your yellow “Side with Love” shirts. It is important today that all of those who are opposed to war and the use of assassination as a political tool make our voices known.
Nov 7, 2019
A few people from the congregation I serve and from the broader Unitarian Universalist community have been asking me for more information on Rojava, the autonomous region in Northern Syria now under attack by the Turkish military and the reactionary Islamic militas that aligned with it. I have compiled this brief list to aid those who would like to learn more. I intend to update it as I find more useful materials. Here are some of the resources I have found useful:
To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution, ed. Dilar Dirik, et al (New York: Autonomedia, 2016)
Thomas Schmidinger, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava (Oakland: PM Press, 2019)
Web-sites and Periodicals Covering Rojava
Rojava Information Center, an organization devoted to providing journalists, politicians, and others with up to date information about what it is happening in Rojava
Emergency Committee for Rojava, an organization “to encourage and help facilitate coordinated action to end the occupation of Afrin and support autonomy for Rojava”
Organizations in Rojava
Kongra Star Diplomacy Rojava, a confederation of women's organizations in Rojava
Syrian Democratic Council, Rojava’s political organization
Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella organization for the aligned military forces of Rojava
People’s Defense Units, also known as the YPG, the main, primarily Kurdish, military organization in the SDF
Women‘s Protection Units, also known as the YPJ, the autonomous women’s military organization in the SDF
Organizations in Houston and Internationally
Kurdish American Foundation of Houston, a local organization celebrating Kurdish culture and community
Kurdish Red Crescent, a humanitarian organization with offices in Germany and Kobane providing medical aid to the people of Rojava. It is currently the only NGO remaining in the region
Dilar Dirik, Political Sociologist and PhD student at the University of Cambridge, active in the Kurdish women’s movement
Kongra Star Diplomacy Rojava, official account of the women’s movement in Rojava
People’s Defense Units, also known as the YPG
Nuri Mahmoud, official spokesperson of the YPG
Rojava Information Center
Elif Sarican, Anthropologist based at the London School of Economics, active in the Kurdish women’s movement
Oct 21, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 20, 2019
When I was twelve or thirteen one of my friends showed up to church in a suit. It was crisp and navy blue. It was paired with a lightly starched white shirt and a butter brown leather shoes polished to a glossy shine. With it, he wore a tie with a classic four in a hand knot that he done up himself.
This confused the rest of us. We were a group of perhaps half a dozen Unitarian Universalist kids. It was the late eighties. Typical Sunday morning garb consisted of the least sloppy tie-dyed shirt or punk rock pin festooned jacket that our parents could force us into. If we were going to be in the sanctuary for a special service--Christmas or Flower Communion--we might be strongly encouraged to wear jeans with no visible holes and some kind of shirt with buttons. But a suit? Who in our Middle School group ever wore a suit?
My friend, it turned out, had found religion. Or, more accurately, he found another religion besides Unitarian Universalism. He was at the beginning of his conversion process to some kind of fundamentalist Christianity. One Sunday it was his suit. Another Sunday found him enthusiastically talking about Jesus. A subsequent Sunday he told us that he had been “born again.” And a few Sundays after that we did not see him anymore.
He left and began attending a conservative Christian church with a grandparent. His parents and older sibling stayed in our congregation. Years later, I talked with them about why my friend had left Unitarian Universalism. They told me that he seemed to like the clear answers and structure that his new church provided him. It was organized around finding salvation through Jesus. The church leaders taught that the Bible had the answers to all life’s questions. Their preaching and teaching consisted of sharing these answers. And they claimed that the afterlife was more important than present life.
Our congregation was completely the opposite. In our religious education program we were never offered an explicit salvation narrative. We were never told that the Bible had all the answers. We were taught that our religious journeys consisted of asking questions and seeking answers. We were on a search for truth and meaning. We were not given clear definitions of either term. And we were told that our present life was more important than the afterlife. For, as Shakespeare wrote, death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” At best we can only speculate about what happens after we die. We are immersed in life.
Over the years, I have found myself thinking about my friend and the path he chose. In Unitarian Universalist circles it is far more common to find people who convert from some kind of fundamentalism to Unitarian Universalism than the other way around. Comedian George Carlin’s old joke, that he was Catholic “until I reached the Age of Reason” resonates for a lot of us. How many of you came to this congregation from a more rigid faith? And how many of you have a close friend or family member who left Unitarian Universalism for a variety of strict orthodoxy?
The nineteenth-century religious dissenter Francis W. Newman claimed, “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born.” He went on to describe the once-born this way, “They see God, not as a strict Judge... but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmony.” Building off Newman’s dichotomy, the philosopher William James placed our tradition firmly within the category of the once born. He complained that we generally suffered from “an inability to feel evil.” And that we lacked an understanding of the religious experience of conversion.
Is that why my friend left Unitarian Universalism? Did he feel evil sharply and need assurance that it could be conquered? Did he think he could be born again and escape it? I do not know his answer. But I am unsympathetic to James’s claim that we do not feel evil. I do not think that most of you would accuse me of suffering from an inability to feel evil. If anything, I have been accused of being too “doom and gloom” and not optimistic enough to be a good Unitarian Universalist preacher.
It is certain that I am once born. I have never had a conversion experience. Nor have I left Unitarian Universalism for another faith tradition. I have found within our tradition resources sufficient to help me weather the crises of my life--of which there have been more than a few--and to help me come to terms with the tragic. I have found resources sufficient to help answer one of the key religious questions: What does it mean to lead a good life?
It is one of the oldest questions in religion and philosophy. My friend who left my youth group found a certain answer to it by looking into the metaphysical realm and discovering his connection with, and salvation through, Jesus. My own answers have been less certain. It was, in part, that ambiguity that made my friend uncomfortable. What truth I have discovered I have discovered precisely by embracing ambiguity and placing myself amid the rich mess that is a worldly life. This is why the words of humanistic poetry, like this snatch from Alejandra Pizarnik, resonate with me:
dice que el amor es muerte es miedo
dice que la muerte es miedo es amor
dice que no sabe
She says that love is death is fear
She says that death is fear is love
She says that she doesn’t know
I find a similar sentiment in these beloved words from the Chinese poet Tu Fu:
Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a little
While, why should men cross each other?
It is also present in my favorite verse from the Greek poet Glykon:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens
There are no certain answers to be found in these poems. There is no suggestion that we should be born again. There are just questions and a certain humility: “She says that she doesn’t know;” “We enjoy life such a little / While, why should men cross each other?” “No reason why it happens.”
The orientation of these poems is worldly. In their worldly orientation we find a hint of a Unitarian Universalist response to question: What does it mean to live a good life? Our tradition teaches that we are to root ourselves in the here and now. We are not to place our hopes in some unspecified future when we shall be dust.
But Unitarian Universalism teaches something more than that. That something lurks in the background of these poems. And it lurked in background of my friend’s departure from the congregation of my childhood. Unitarian Universalism teaches that we are shaped by the communities of which we are members. When my friend left our youth group he left one narrative about the good life for another. His new community made that narrative explicit. Our congregation was less clear, but the teaching was there.
It was not present in words. It was present in deeds. It was found not by looking to Jesus for salvation. It was found in the lessons we could discover in sharing our lives with each other. I do not remember anyone telling me that as a child. But as I have studied Unitarian Universalist theology over the years, I have come to realize that the teaching was present all along. Usually, it was offered implicitly rather than made explicit.
Early generations of Unitarian Universalist theologians used the phrase “salvation by character” to summarize their understanding of our tradition. This phrase signifies that we are to judge each other not by our creeds--what we say we believe--but by our deeds--what we do. Over time the choices we make, the things we do, eventually add up to who we are.
This conception of the good life, that we are what we do, was something that my home congregation gave us the opportunity to discover on many occasions. One Sunday morning from my youth group made a particular impression. By then I think I was fourteen or fifteen. We had a guest in our class that morning--someone who was a member of the church but who I knew only vaguely.
He was an out gay man. He was there to share with us his coming out story. This was Lansing, Michigan in the early nineties. At the time, the city only had one gay or lesbian bar. There was no pride parade. The local newspaper still occasionally “outed” local civic figures who were living in the closet in an effort to damage their careers.
Unfortunately, I only remember the outlines of the man’s story. He had attempted to live the “straight” life for years. He had come out after several years of being married to a woman. He told us that he had lived a lie. That he had pretended to be someone he was not. While he did, he suffered immensely. He was depressed. He considered self-harm. He engaged in dangerous behaviors. And then, finally, once he left the marriage, and he found himself. He was living a life where he was authentically himself. He had even found a man who loved him. And he and his partner had recently moved in together. And they were happy.
The story had an impact on us. We talked about it afterwards. A couple of the kids in my youth group identified as queer. The man’s story gave them permission to be themselves. And it gave all of us a role model, a resource, we could turn to if we were questioning our own orientation.
The religious path of salvation by character can be found in my vignette about my youth group. There are moral exemplars in the world. We can learn from them. We can model our lives after them. And maybe, just maybe, if we do, we might be able to become something like them.
The man whose story I recounted was undoubtedly far from perfect. I am sure he had struggles beyond his sexuality that he did not share with us. I imagine that, like most of us, he had his petty moments, that he sometimes spoke harshly to his children or his partner or that he held grudges. Salvation by character does not mean that we are perfect. It comes from an understanding that we can do things to make our lives and the lives of others better. We can make choices that lead us to live lives of authenticity.
We need a community to do so. My Unitarian Universalist community provided that man a place where he could share his story. And it provided us with the opportunity to listen to him. In those days, there were few other places in Lansing where we could collectively question the social norm that to be happy people had to be in heterosexual relationships. In those days, there were few places where that man could feel accepted and loved by his community, live his authentic life, and offer what he had learned to others.
Salvation by character, the life story he shared was not a clear path to salvation. It did not offer the neat narrative of the born-again Christian--which my friend had turned to. It did not tell us that there was a single solution, a single path that we all should follow. Yes, it did contain an element of transformation, the man left a life where he could not be authentically himself for one in which he could. However, his story was about embracing who he was in this world--not rejecting it. It was not a story about confessing his sins and seeking salvation through Jesus. It was a story about admitting to himself who he was and then having the courage to be himself.
Our lives are short and fleeting things. The words we had from Jimmy Santiago Baca are meant to remind us that we have only one life that we know and how we live it matters. Baca tells us:
Who we are and what we do
appears to us
like a man dressed in a long black coat
Lo que somos y lo que hacemos
se nos aparece
como un hombre de abrigo negro y largo
That man, presumably, is death. He warns us we must bring our lives to account, must constantly cash the promissory notes that are our actions until they become our very being. We each have only one life. Time is short and so, the man tells us,
“I have many others to see today.”
“Tengo muchos otros qué ver hoy.”
Salvation by character, we are what we do. We learn how to live a good life in relation to a community. These are ideas are very old. They are much older than our tradition--something I hinted at in my invocation of seventh century Chinese and ancient Greek poetry. We might look back to Aristotle to find an early systematic treatment of them. He taught that the salvation we find in character is best expressed through the virtues. These are the elements of a good life, the things that we do which are praiseworthy--which we would hold up as examples to others.
The bravery of the man who visited my youth group was praiseworthy. He had been brave enough to leave an inauthentic life to discover one in which he was authentically himself. And that bravery was something he could help us discover in ourselves through his example.
Aristotle taught that these virtues were shaped by and informed by the community to which we belong. There was an element of what is called moral luck to this. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be born into a community or born with the circumstances to pursue a good life and sometimes we are not. Sometimes, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, things “just happen to” us. It is difficult to, in her words, “make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck.” Even as we seek to build a community where we might develop virtue--create a space where someone might share and live their authentic life--we find ourselves constantly buffeted by forces beyond control.
This, I suspect, is one reason my friend found comfort in his experience of becoming born again. It offered a permanent experience of salvation. Our once born humanistic path offers no such assurances. It, and the communities that sustain it, are vulnerable and can be lost. The good life of this world is not permanent, death, Baca’s man “in a long black coat” comes to all of us. Whatever salvation we achieve by character is at most secure for the span of our effervescent lives.
And here, as we near the close of the sermon, I am going to offer a final example of a community in which it is possible to pursue the humanistic virtues. What is happening with that community highlights the vulnerability of the good life. My transition is jagged; one of those moments when I like a jazz musician or house DJ, inelegantly switch between songs in the middle of a set. So, forgive me, as you might forgive the saxophonist who melody suddenly becomes discordant or turn tablelist whose record skips, as I jump from one thing to another.
I am going to talk about what is happening in Syria for a moment. Syria has been heavy upon my heart. In Northern Syria we find an example among the pluralistic community of Rojava of a place where it has been briefly possible to begin to pursue, to imagine, the good life. The people who live in Rojava are often called Kurds in the news. In truth, they are a multi-ethnic community of Arabs, Kurds, Yazidi, and others have spent the last several years imagining how they can create a space where they might be able to build a society where the good life is available to all people.
Following the withdrawal of the Syrian government from Northern Syria, the people of Rojava have attempted to build a community organized around three principles. These are direct democracy, ecology, and the liberation of women. Few accounts have made to the United States of exactly what this new society is starting to look like. The accounts that have emerged suggest that the good life imagined by those in Rojava is radically different than the one propagated by the oppressive, anti-ecological, patriarchal, regimes that normally reign in the region.
The people of Rojava have mandated that women must have a central role in society’s leadership. All leadership positions must be occupied by co-chairs--a man and a woman. There is also a man’s army and a woman’s army. Decisions are made at the local level, by those most impacted by them, and then coordinated across different communities. They attempt create ecological, democratic, and what we might call feminist consciousness in all that they do. This community is not perfect. Some reports suggest that while LGBT people are more welcome in Rojava than they are elsewhere in the Middle East they do not yet feel fully free to be themselves. But seven years is only a brief time to try to build a new society and invite people into a new way of being. I suspect that if Rojava survives it will, in time, become a society in which members of the LGBT community can be open about who they are and who they love. The openness to and encouragement for women’s leadership suggests that the people of Rojava are willing to make radical change.
Let me offer a brief pastiche of words from Rojava that hint at their new social vision. Here a few from Evren Kocabicak, a leader of Rojava’s women’s military wing. Three quotes: First, “nature is... a power that enables humans to achieve self-consciousness.” Second, “We have a system where every action, education or meeting is collectively evaluated; a system where such direct democracy is exercised.” Third, “Women may have a free personality and identity only so far as they have emancipated themselves from the hands of male and societal dominance and have gained power through their free initiatives.” Here are a few words from Dilar Dirik, a young Kurdish PhD student who left the region to study at the University of Cambridge. First, “All is sacred because it belongs to me, to you, to everyone.” Second, “Giving power to people who never had anything requires courage, requires trust, requires love.” Third, “Knowledge is everywhere, it needs to be valued and shared.”
I suspect that many of you hear resonances of Unitarian Universalist values within these words--of a conception of the good life that says that we must orientate ourselves to this world because we do not know what might happen in the next one. It is the society that has produced such beautiful visions that is now threatened with collapse. The United States withdrawal of troops from Northern Syria has given Turkey permission to invade. It has prepared the way for ethnic cleansing, a polite term for mass murder and dislocation. It has allowed ISIS cells to reactivate. And it has forced the people of Rojava to choose between an alliance with the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad and annihilation by the Turkish military. Their conception of the good life will almost certainly be replaced by something repressive and awful. In the words the Syrian scholar Hassan Hassan, the vision of Rojava is likely to be subplanted with a community ruled by “the worst of the worst.” Woman who have organized will be repressed and likely murdered. Democracy will be destroyed. And an ecological vision will be abandoned.
In the next week or two, we will be having an opportunity, as a religious community, to learn more about Rojava and the conception of the good life its members have. In partnership with the Kurdish American Foundation of Houston we are offering a forum featuring direct eye witness accounts of Rojava. It has not yet been scheduled. Once it is, I believe it will be the first such event in Houston. It will be a chance to learn about this new conception of the good life that after the current President’s betrayal is now under profound threat.
But for now, let us leave the subject of Rojava and attempt to bring our closing chord back into alignment with the rest of the sermon. What I have attempted to articulate, inelegantly perhaps, throughout this sermon is a simple message. We are what we do. We should orient our lives to the present world, which we know, rather the next one, from which we have, at best, scant reports. Whatever salvation there is to find we will find together. We will find it by lifting up what is best, virtuous amongst each other, and living authentically as we can: being brave, being honest, and nurturing the spark of brilliance, love, and hope that resides within each of us.
So that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say “Amen.”
Oct 10, 2019
I was asked to repost this open letter from the administration and faculty of the University of Rojava and Kobanê. This is a university started by the people of Rojava to create their radical educational institution devoted to serving the needs of the region’s people. You can read more about the University here.
For universities and associated academic and intellectual institutions
These eight years there has been a revolution taking place in Rojava/Northeast Syria, with gains in the areas of democracy, tolerance, a culture of fraternity of peoples, respect for diverse religions and beliefs, gender equality, and individual liberty, a unique example growing in the Middle East. Despite all the radicalism in the region, we can live together, and both support and accept each other. We in the university also want a democratic social order that can strengthen modern science.
We wanted to become a centre of enlightenment and revitalisation of universal moral and social values that humanity has gained over its long history, preparing for free and peace loving future generations. But unfortunately, our university in Rojava, which is a garden of democracy, finds itself under the boot of the armies of the Turkish state and their thugs.
You know that Turkey, for the entirety of the Syrian war, has supported ISIS, and their hand is found in every massacre which has been carried out against the people of Syria. Today Turkey is trying to breathe new life into the Caliphate of ISIS, which had been brought down thanks to the resistance of the people of this region, and this dark force has helped it to organise itself anew.
All the so-called opposition forces of Syria which have a fanatical and radical, the Turkish state embraces them, lets them grow, and supports them so they may be employed as tools of war for them. Most of them are former members of ISIS and al-Qaeda, and Turkey now provokes them and lets them loose against our democracy and our advances.
Doubtless, the ignoring of rights, the censorship of our views, mean the acceptance and approval, the green light of great states such as Russia and America. On behalf of all the states that seek to benefit, Turkey will again carry out a significant massacre against the peoples of the region.
If there is a great threat and danger upon us now, if Islamic radicalism can move forward and amass forces with ease, if Turkey can organise massacres and slaughter as the largest terrorist organisation in the world, it is our belief that a historical role and responsibility rests upon the intellectual and academic communities of the world.
After the massacres of the Holocaust that were committed by Hitler, Adorno, in criticising the lack of responsibility shouldered by the intellectual community of his time, said “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”.
Now too, in the particularity of Rojava, where the armies of Turkish fascism and Islamic radicalism have brought down every value and virtue of humanity, we hope that the scientific and intellectual community of the world will immediately take action against massacres such as those that have occurred in the Holocaust and in Şengal, which are still occurring, and will uphold their duties and responsibilities to humanity.
In this letter, we are writing to you so that you, among your own people, help resist against these armies which have tasked themselves with tearing down science and the work of the university, in the name of the defence of existence and honour.
Greetings on behalf of the administration and faculty of the University of Rojava and Kobanê
Sep 9, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, September 8, 2019
Some years ago, I found myself in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. I was there with a group of Unitarian Universalists--clergy and lay folk--who had been arrested while protesting Arizona’s newest anti-human immigration law. Most of us were from out of town. We had come to Phoenix to participate in the protests against Arizona’s vile legal code at the invitation of the senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who now serves as the President of our Association. She had been urged to ask Unitarian Universalists from across the country to travel to her state, and participate in protests, by a coalition of local immigrant and indigenous activists who had come together in opposition to Arizona’s latest anti-immigrant legislation.
Broadly speaking, the law authorized state law enforcement officers to demand to see the immigration or citizenship documents of anyone they stopped. The consequences of the law went like this: Imagine that you are an undocumented immigrant. You have a broken taillight on your car. The police pull you over for this minor traffic infraction. They force you to reveal your immigration status by demanding to see your papers. And you quickly find yourself on the path to deportation.
The law also criminalized people who provided shelter to, hired, or offered transport to undocumented immigrants. Imagine this: Your neighbor is an undocumented immigrant. They ask you for a ride to the grocery store. You drive a little too fast and get stopped for speeding. Your neighbor is forced to reveal their immigration status to the police. They find themselves headed for deportation. You find yourself headed to jail for transporting an undocumented immigrant.
The law was, in essence, the precursor to the draconian, anti-human, immigration policies of the current President. It also served as inspiration for similar anti-human legislation here in Texas. This summer the current President attempted to take the law nationwide. He has praised its chief Arizona enforcer, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for offering “admirable service to our nation.”
The protest organizers asked those of us who had citizenship status, and were willing and able to take a risk, to commit civil disobedience and get arrested. On the day the law went into effect, we attempted to shutdown both Maricopa County Jail and downtown Phoenix. We did this by blocking the major city intersections and the entrances to the jail.
I was part of a group that committed to occupy one of the intersections. We were about a dozen strong. We linked arms. We walked into the middle of the street. And we sat down, and we sang songs until the police came and dragged us out of the intense summer heat and off to jail.
I was photographed, fingerprinted, charged, and briefly placed in a general holding cell with a mixture of protestors and folks who been jailed on other charges. There was one young man, maybe twenty, who was wearing his soccer uniform--baby blue shorts and a baby blue short-sleeve shirt with white stripes. He had been stopped that morning driving back from practice. He was undocumented. He had come to the United States as a young child. His minor traffic infraction was likely to be translated into deportation to a country he barely knew. He despaired. There were others who were in a similar situation. I did not get much of their stories. Those of us who were in the jail for protesting were soon removed from the general population. We were placed in a cell together.
It was then that I met Arpaio. He came to gloat. Accompanied by a solid half-dozen stout Sheriff’s deputies, he entered the cell we were being held in and asked us questions like, “How do you like my jail? Would like to stay for awhile?” To be honest, he reminded me of one the cartoon villains I used to watch on television when I was a kid. They had names like Snidely Whiplash, sported absurd moustaches and ridiculous cowboy hats (Arpaio was wearing a large black one), and had penchant for tying people to railroads and chortling at their victim’s fate. Of course, in the cartoons the villain was always foiled. Not so with Arpaio. He was given a presidential pardon after he was convicted of breaking the law in his efforts to deport immigrants.
Things got tense in the cell. A couple of the younger protestors tried to argue with him. His minions bristled. I was afraid there was going to be physical violence. A few of us managed to defuse the situation, largely by praying. Arpaio got bored and left. And we were stuck in our cell.
Jail is fine place for theology. Paul of Tarsus wrote at least two of his letters while in prison. Henry David Thoreau penned his famous essay on civil disobedience after spending the night in jail for failing to pay a war tax. Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks are some of the most important works of twentieth century political theory. Martin King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” And, of course, Piper Kerman wrote “Orange is the New Black” following her prison stay.
It might not surprise you that we choose to honor the tradition of jailhouse theology. We began by reflecting on our encounter with Arpaio and his henchmen. We thought about the nature of jail and what it exactly it was that we were protesting. Soon, I found myself talking with one of the local leaders of the protests, a Nahuatl-Xicano organizer by the name of Tupac Enrique Acosta.
Tupac and I found that we agreed that white supremacy was at the root of Arizona’s immigration law. We speculated that it provided the motivation for Arpaio’s behavior. White supremacy is a belief. The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily summarized it this way, “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
Race is not a natural category. It has little biological reality. Skin color has about as much to do with someone’s overall genetic makeup as their eye color or hair color. There is no such thing as the white race. Whiteness is an idea that been created over time to justify the power that some people exercise over other people. It is a belief that is used to justify the violence that people who believe themselves to be white enact upon people with brown and black bodies as they despoil land to create white wealth.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has described this process clearly. He writes that whiteness is “a modern invention.” Before people “were white” they “were something else... Catholic, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish... the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; [and] the destruction of families.”
In that jail cell, Tupac and I talked about the political moment we were in and the process by which whiteness was created. He explained the purpose of Arizona’s anti-human immigration legislation succinctly. Its “purpose,” he told me, “was to consolidate the perceptions of some white Americans around the idea of an America that is white in a continent that belongs to them.” If we were going ever defeat the legislation in Arizona and prevent families from being ripped apart and end the violence men like Arpaio inflicted upon society then we had to disrupt and deconstruct these beliefs. We had to disrupt and dismantle white supremacy. We had move past the idea that there was such a thing as the white race. We had to prove lie to the thought that America belonged to white people.
Now, you probably know that I carry around a fair amount of history, theology, and philosophy in my head. The same is true for Tupac. Together we traced out the history of whiteness. We talked about its origin points and the moments when the belief that there are such things as separate races came into existence. We talked about how it was that some people came to believe that they were white, and that whiteness was superior to blackness, brownness, redness, yellowness, or any other skin color. We talked about how colonizers came to believe that they were better than indigenous people. And we talked about all these ideas were lies. And that the truth was that there is only one human race. And that we are all indigenous to Mother Earth.
It was a very long conversation. We began it there, in jail, and continued it for many months afterwards, once we had been released. It was filled with lots of technical details, fancy terms from philosophy and theology, narratives of historical events, and discussions of the relationship between the human imagination and human reality. It would take me hundreds of pages, dozens of hours, to fully recount or accurately reconstruct. So, let me just share with you the four major points.
The human imagination is the most powerful force in human life and human culture. We imagine our reality into being. Race, religion, economics, politics, begin as stories that we imagine. We use these stories to organize our communities and our lives. We use them to create things that had not existed before. This is true on a mundane and a profound level. On the mundane level, let us pretend that you are hungry. You decide that you want a sandwich. You get some bread--I prefer crusty sourdough. You get a tomato--there are still a few in season if you know where to look. You get a bit of arugula--I guess this actually my sandwich. Anyway, I get some argula and a bit of eggplant I fried the other night. I put it all together and viola, I have a delicious sandwich. I imagined something and then I brought it into being.
The same is true of all of the great institutions and categories that exist in the world. That jail cell that were we in began as someone’s idea. Some architect imagined and designed it before construction workers built it. Before that some people imagined that there should be such a thing as jails. They imagined things like laws and then imagined a category of people they called criminals who did not live in accordance to those laws. And then they imagined police who would enforce laws and place criminals in jail.
One of the primary expressions of imagination is religion. Religion might be partially be understood as those stories we tell each other about: what it means to be born; the purpose of our time on Earth; and the reality that we must die. There are lots of religious stories in the world, lots of ways that communities attempt to narrate the meaning of this rich mess we call life. One of the most powerful of these is Trinitarian Christianity.
Trinitarian Christianity is organized around the story of sin and salvation. At the heart of the Trinitarian Christian imagination is the idea that we are born sinners and that unless we overcome our sin our destiny is an eternity of torment in Hell. The path to overcoming sin, in this story, is by achieving salvation through Jesus Christ. It is only by having knowledge of Jesus, and the salvation he offers, the story goes, that you can escape eternal suffering—sometimes imagined as the pricks of sharp pitchforks wielded by grotesque demons. It is the historical mission of Trinitarian Christianity to save human beings from such a fate in the afterlife.
More than a thousand years ago, in Europe, this imagined story of Trinitarian Christianity brought into being the idea of the racial other. This happened through a series of events we now call the Crusades. The Crusades were launched to conquer Jerusalem. Trinitarian Christianity had within it ample resources that suggested it was supposed to be a religion of peace. In the Christian New Testament, we find Jesus saying things like, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It was a long-accepted practice that Trinitarian Christians were not to launch aggressive wars.
In order to overcome this theological tendency, theologians created a legal and theological framework to justify the attempted conquest of Jerusalem. They did this by first imagining that since all people did not know about salvation through Jesus were doomed for eternity in Hell they had a moral obligation to spread Christianity throughout the entire world. In their imagination, this moral obligation came with global legal jurisdiction. Only Trinitarian Christian governments, they reasoned, could have legal standing in their political order. All other lands, like Jerusalem which was then ruled by Muslims, effectively did not have governments and were essentially empty until and free the claiming until such time as they were ruled by Trinitarian Christians.
An immediate consequence of this idea was the categorization of Jews and Muslims as “other.” Trinitarian Christians no longer viewed adherents of other religions as humans in the same way that they viewed themselves. They were to be converted and saved. And if they failed to convert they were to be removed from society less they corrupted it, rendered it less Trinitarian Christian, less pure, and endangered it. The first victims of the Crusades were not Muslims in Jerusalem. They were Jews in Europe. The Crusades launched with a massive pogrom directed against Europe’s Jewish population. This attempt to cleanse the continent of Jews resulted in the deaths of about a third of the European Jewish population.
The idea that non-Trinitarian Christian lands were empty and that they were free were taking was codified into something called the Doctrine of Discovery. This is the idea that empty lands, lands without Trinitarian Christians, belong to the Trinitarian Christians who “discover” them.
You have heard, of course, that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas. What that means is that when he arrived the lands that he found were empty of Trinitarian Christians. Without a government that he recognized, the land, by the logic of the narrative that we have been tracing, became Spanish land because Trinitarian Christians from Spain were the first to encounter it.
This process of “discovery” was accompanied by a process of declaring the people who the Trinitarian Christians encountered was a racial “other.” The indigenous peoples of the Americas were imagined to be something other than European and, therefore, something less than fully human. They were not Trinitarian Christians so they were not human in the same way that the Trinitarian Christians viewed Jews and Muslims as less than human. At the same time, Europeans were imagining that people from Africa were not entirely human. The lands that were being “discovered” in the Americas required human labor to exploit them. The indigenous populations were vulnerable to European diseases, refused to cooperate, ran away, committed suicide or took up arms, when the Europeans tried to force them to work the lands. Europeans decided it was easier to create the Transatlantic slave trade than attempt subjugate the local population. They justified all of this by arguing that by taking the lands from the indigenous and enslaving Africans they were able to convert them to Trinitarian Christianity, save their immortal souls, and free them from an eternity of torment. In return for losing their lands or their freedom the indigenous and Africans gained, the Trinitarians told themselves, eternal salvation.
At the core of the creation of race lie religious ideas like the Doctrine of Discovery. And less you think that this is all ancient history let me tell you something that I learned from Tupac. The Doctrine of Discovery forms the basis of United States property law. As recently as 2005 the United States Supreme Court used it to affirm that the United States government, which is a linear descendent of a European power, has the right to control the lands that make up the United States. It is why when you sell or buy a house you own it outright--at least once you are done paying off the bank. The land was empty, free to be discovered, when it was first purchased and, therefore, you can buy and sell all of it. In Europe, in contrast, much of the land is still owned by the feudal order. When you buy or sell a house you are often just buying a long-term lease. The land itself is still understood to belong to some European noble.
Imagination created religious ideas that then were used to justify the theft of the land and birthed the belief of race and racial other. Imagination leads to ways of being. When we talk about disrupting white supremacy, we are talking about imagining new ideas that will lead to new ways of being. Some of these ideas are actually very old ideas. As Tupac told me repeatedly during our conversation, we are all indigenous to Mother Earth. Disrupting white supremacy requires us to develop narratives that remind us we are all part of the same human family. And that we are all dependent upon the Earth, the land, for our continued existence.
Disrupting white supremacy is not about people who are believed to be white like me choosing to be in solidarity with black and brown people out of some noblesse oblige. It is about understanding that we are in a period of profound crisis and that the white supremacist narratives found in the Doctrine of Discovery--the myth that the land can belong to anyone, the myth that we are racially different--must be disrupted if we are to survive that crisis.
This year in worship, we are going to be acknowledging that we, as human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. At the root of all of these crisis lie our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth. At the center of worship this year we are going to place the questions: How can we develop the spiritual and religious resources to face these crises? How can we imagine new ways of being and overcome our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth?
This is deep work. It is scary work. It challenges us to question who we are, how we do things, why we do them, and what we think is possible. But the hour is urgent. As I will be talking with you about next week, the climate emergency is dire. We need to imagine and then create new ways of being or we may well cease to be.
One of the spiritual resources that we will be using in our efforts to create new ways of being is song. As I move towards the close, I want to invite the choir to the refrain from our earlier hymn. We will be using it as a sort of anthem this year, Mark.
We will be taking this hymn as something of an anthem over the year. I invite you to think about a few of its words:
It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
It is time now. We are at a decisive moment in human history. What we do now will resonate through the centuries. And we have the human power, the power of imagination, to make choices to thrive and to lead in love. It is our human power that has created the world that we live in and it is our human power that can change it.
This is why I choose our readings for today. They both are suggestive of other ways of being, ways of being that we must move beyond. The wisdom text of Ecclesiastes, a beautiful text that I love, suggests that the world is permanently as it is. Humans do not change it. Only the divine can change it. While there are many magnificent teachings in the Hebrew Bible, this is one that we need to now reconsider. The world is fluid, not static. The things we do and the stories we tell, matter. We have to accept our responsibility and recognize that our actions impact those who will follow us.
Revelation is a text that suggests that only the divine can bring about justice. It tells the story of a cosmic war between good and evil which ultimately ends with the divine creating the most wonderful of all societies. It is divine action that brings justice or injustice, and not human choices. This, again, is a narrative we must reject.
Instead, as we pursue our new ways of being, we need to recognize that “It is time now.” And what time to be alive. You may know that I am not a particularly hopeful person, but I want us to close on a note of hope. For there may just be a chance, against the odds, that we can disrupt white supremacy, survive the crises that we face, and learn to lead in love. The impossible has happened before. And so, as a reminder of that, I will invite us to sing, shortly, “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that helped inspire the end of the slave trade. A hymn written by a former slave trader who realized that there was only one race, the human race, as he transported Africans along the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, from freedom to slavery, and came to understand that he, like you and me, could find a new way of being.
Let us pray, that now, such realizations may come for all of us. Let us pray, that we will find Amazing Grace, and create new ways of being. And let us pray that we can do that work together.
I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Aug 14, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
This morning’s sermon is a bit unusual. It does not have a single message or a unifying theme. Instead, it consists of my responses to questions from members of the congregation. Thirteen different people submitted questions and in the next twenty minutes or so I will attempt to respond to all of them.
I understand that you do not have a tradition of this kind of service. Among Unitarian Universalists, it is not uncommon. As far as I can tell, Question Box sermons emerged sometime during the 1950s as part of the humanist movement. They were part of our faith’s general movement away from being a primarily biblically based religion--a pattern that began with the New England Transcendentalists of the mid-nineteenth-century. Question Box sermons were, and are, an expression of our theology of preaching. Good preaching is a really dialogue. The preacher listens to the community, observes wider world, connects with the holy that surrounds us, and the infinity of which we are all a part, and reflects back, lifts up, offers some of it the congregation. If preaching does not reflect the concerns of the gathered body then it will fall flat and fail in its task of opening the heart, quickening the mind, moving the hand to action, and expanding our communion with the most high.
With the Question Box sermon the act of listening is more explicit. The preacher responds directly to the concerns of the community. Since ministry is always a shared exercise, I have invited Board President Carolyn Leap up here to be my questioner. I thought it would be good in the service to directly model the shared leadership between ordained and lay leaders that is essential to the vitality of Unitarian Universalist congregations. And so, with that, I would like to invite Carolyn to ask your first question.
1. If we can’t readily be a sanctuary church ourselves, could we support another congregation that does undertake that role?
Shall I answer with a simple yes? Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in the Woodlands recently decided to become a sanctuary church. We could support their efforts. Alternatively, we could reach out to some of the other congregations in the Museum District and see if they would be interested in collaborating with us and to work to collectively provide sanctuary. That is what the First Parish in Cambridge did. Together with three other Harvard Square churches they provided sanctuary in concert. Only one of the four churches felt that they had the facilities to offer a family sanctuary. So, the other three congregations provided them with financial support and volunteers and showed up en mass to rally in support of the family whenever there was any question of a threat from ICE.
If the broader concern is about the plight of migrants, there are lots of other things we could do. We could work to make ICE unwelcome in Houston. We could organize a regular vigil at a local ICE detention center. We could figure out how to support children whose parents have been deported. They need to religious communities to advocate for them.
We can take a trip to the border and work with migrants there. The congregation has organized to do just that. A group of lay leaders are planning a trip to Laredo next week to volunteer at a local refugee center. They are leaving on August 15th and returning August 19th. I believe they still have room for volunteers if anyone is interested in joining in them. I am sure it will be a powerful act of witness and a meaningful expression of solidarity in response to one of the great crises of the hour.
2. Xenophobia is Universal. In the U.S. it is black/white; in Romania, Hungarian/Romanian; in France, rich/poor (black); anti-Semitism (Jew). Xenophobia has deep human roots!
I am unsure whether this is a question or a statement. It seems to me that it is an assertion about human nature. It reminds me of the old religious orthodox claim that human beings are innately depraved. While, xenophobia can be found in many cultures, I am not willing to believe that it is something innate in human nature. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of movements and teachers who sought to transcend it. And we know that sometimes these movements and teachers were successful in moving beyond xenophobia.
Jesus preached “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Now, we might quibble about the theology, but the message is clear: we are all part of the same human family and we all share the same fate. We are born. We die. We have some time in between. That time is better spent bringing more love into the world rather propagating hate.
More recently than the first century, the Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has done extensive research into how teaching children racism might be understood as a form of child abuse. She tells us that people who believe they are white are taught they are superior and racialized by society, by their families, and, unfortunately, by their religious communities.
And so, I think that this is one of the principle purposes of our religious tradition and the other great dissenting traditions. It is push us to move beyond xenophobia and hatred towards love and compassion. It is challenge us to remember the teachings of the great and the ordinary people who allowed love to be the animating principle in their lives. Religious leaders like Jesus or Martin King or Dorothy Day or Rumi or the Buddha... Ordinary people like the gentiles who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust; civil rights workers who bravely committed to nonviolence in the face of the physical, spiritual, and political brutality of white supremacy; the powerful drag queens of New York who fifty years ago inspired Pride; the, well, the list is so long that if I were to try to do it any justice to it we would be here all day.
3. Climate change is worse than we can imagine. Now! I cannot see a practical way forward!
Just this year the United Nations, drawing upon the overwhelming consensus of scientists, told us that we have eleven years to avert catastrophic climate change. General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces warned, “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet.” The future is unwritten. We might be able to avert this damage--and stave off the possibility of social collapse and even extinction that comes with it--if we act now. Will we as a human species do so? I do not know.
What I do know is this. If we are to confront climate change, we will have confront the very meaning of the word practical. A few years ago, the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein wrote a book about climate change titled “This Changes Everything.” Her basic premise was that the climate crisis was so severe that the only way out of it was to move beyond the fossil fuel based capitalism that has formed the basis of the global economy for the last two hundred years. This will mean challenging, and dismantling corporate power, living our lives differently, planning our cities differently, moving towards a different kind of society. Can we, as a human species, be impractical and demand the impossible? I don’t know. What I do know is that in the 1940s people in this country and elsewhere were able to radically sacrifice and defeat the existential crisis of fascism and Nazism. Perhaps we will be able to find the moral strength for such a mobilization again.
4. What led you to the ministry?
Answering this question would take all of the time we have remaining and more. Like a lot of ministers, I have my own story of my call to the ministry. Recounting it, however, takes about ten minutes. So, the succinct answer: I love Unitarian Universalism and think it has the power to change lives, change communities, and change the world. I became a minister because I decided I wanted to live a life of service and help actualize that change. I love people and love the privilege of accompanying members of the congregations I have served through the journeys of their lives. There are few other callings that allow someone to be with people in their most intimate moments--celebrating the birth of a child, the union of love, or death--and at the same time require reflection, study, and a commitment to social action.
Thank you for letting me serve as your minister. It a great blessing to have such an opportunity.
5. Is it possible to choose your beliefs? My friends and family feel like I actively abandoned our faith, but I feel like it was something that happened TO me. I miss being a part of that community, but I don’t think I could ever get myself to literally, earnestly believe in what I used to.
A friend of mine once advised me, “Unitarian Universalists do not believe what we want to. We believe what we have to.” Honest belief is not chosen. It is something we come to through our experiences. For it is religious experience, the connection to or the absence of, the divine that forms the basis of belief. The experience comes first, our interpretation of it, our beliefs, comes second. Try as we might, we do not really get to choose our experiences and so we do not get to choose our beliefs either.
I sense a great deal of pain behind this question. And that is understandable. Many of us connect with religious communities through our families and friends. And so, leaving a religious community can feel like leaving them.
Now, I do not know the fullness of our questioner’s story. So, let me just say this. We are glad that you are here with us and we want this congregation to be a place of healing and joy for you. In this community you are loved, and you are welcome. You and your presence are a blessing beyond belief.
6. The U.U. merger? What was behind it (got anything interesting or unusual to share?) and most of all, what are any theological ramifications. (If they are a perfect fit, why didn’t they merge sooner?)
I have no juicy pieces of gossip to share. Probing the theological ramifications would require a book. The short story, in 1961 the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America realized that they shared a great deal of theological ground and that they would be stronger together than they would be on their own. The somewhat longer story, there had been people who were both Unitarian and Universalist in their theological orientation in both institutions for more than a hundred and fifty years. For example, in the middle of the nineteenth-century the great abolitionist minister Thomas Starr King served both Unitarian and Universalist churches. Going even further back, unitarianism--which uplifts the humanity of Jesus--and universalism--which proclaims God’s infinite love for all--were of the two theological beliefs that were deemed most threatening to the Roman Empire. They were explicitly outlawed in the 3rd and 4th centuries when the leadership of Christian churches aligned itself with the leadership of the Roman empire.
7. U.U. churches – are there any deaf members or deaf pastors? How often are hymns updated? Is there a group for single adults 40’s+?
So, three questions in one! Yes, there are deaf members in some congregations. My home congregation in Michigan actually pays a sign language interpreter to be present for each sermon. And yes, I know of at least two ministers who are partially deaf and who have had successful careers. That said, I do not know of any ministers who have devoted themselves entirely to the deaf community and who preach using sign language. That does not mean such people do not exist. There are well over a thousand Unitarian Universalist ministers in the United States. I only know a small fraction of them.
We introduce new hymns from time-to-time in our worship services. If you would like to suggest one, I am sure that either Mark or I would be happy to receive your input. Personally, I am always looking for new hymns. Singing the Living Tradition, our grey hymnal, dates from 1994. Singing the Journey, the teal one, dates from 2005. And Las Voces del Camino, the Spanish language the purple one, dates from 2009. This year we will be singing at least one hymn a month from it. I understand that the process of compiling a new hymnal is soon to start.
We do not currently have a singles group for people in their forties. If you are interested in forming one please speak with Alma, our Membership Coordinator, and she will advise you on what to do to get it underway.
8. Why are you so political rather than spiritual? (from the pulpit) Why is your focus on racism and anti-oppression so important to focus on? What gives your life meaning? What are good ways to deal with prejudice in ourselves and others?
Four meaty questions! Let me start with the first, why am I so political rather than spiritual? We are at a crucial moment in human history. The next decade may well determine whether humanity has a future. Meanwhile, we face the threats of renewed white supremacy, both inside and outside of the government, and an all out assault on democracy. Such a time as this requires that I preach from the prophetic tradition. The Hebrew prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the like went around the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel pronouncing doom and offering hope. They proclaimed that if people did not change their ways the wrath of God would be upon them. And they said that if they changed their ways God would have mercy for them. And, whatever happened, there was always the possibility of repentance and hope. They also said that ultimately justice will prevail upon Earth as it has in heaven.
I do not think that we need fear the wrath of God. But it is pretty clear that if we do not change our ways then our society and even humanity may well be doomed. Certainly, the federal government’s anti-human immigration policies, the constant threat mass shootings that we all face, and climate change all require us to change our ways.
I focus on racism and anti-oppression because I think that the principle change that needs to take place is rooting out white supremacy. I understand white supremacy as racial capitalism in which the exploitation of the black and brown bodies is coupled with the extraction of the resources of the Earth to produce wealth for men who believe themselves to be white. We have to overcome it if we are going to have a collective future.
What I am trying, and probably failing, to communicate, is that my decision to be political from the pulpit is not in opposition to spirituality. It is a specific kind of spirituality. And it is rooted in the things that give my life meaning.
And here I would like to invoke my parents, Howard and Kathy. During the political right’s family values crusades of the 1990s, they told me that they objected to all of those who cast family values as inherently conservative saying, “We have family values. We have liberal family values.” As far as I can tell those values boil down to: love your family, treasure your friends, bring more beauty into the world, and hate fascism. I have done my best to live by each of those tenets. Doing so has given my life a great sense of meaning.
I am not going to get into the question of how to confront prejudice in ourselves and others in any depth. Other than to note, that I suggest a hatred of fascism, not fascists. We are called upon to try and love the Hell out of the world. We need to love those we struggle against and proceed with the hope, however fragile, that the spark of love that resides in each human breast might somehow flame up and overcome whatever hate exists in human hearts.
9. How dogmatic are the 7 principles? What should you do if one of them interferes with justice?
The seven principles are not a creed. You do not have to believe in them to be a Unitarian Universalist. They are a covenant between Unitarian Universalist congregations, and not between individual Unitarian Universalists. We have freedom of belief and if you do not believe in one of the principles you are still welcome and loved in this community. We could have a longer conversation about what beliefs you cannot hold and be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation--one could not be a neo-Nazi and a Unitarian Universalist, for example--but that is a different subject.
In order to answer the second question I would need a case, an example, of when one of the principles came into conflict with justice. But my short answer, if there is a conflict between one of the principles and justice, choose justice.
10. How do you reconcile the Christian sentiment of sin with religion/spirituality? For example, is there sin in U.U. or does it encompass following your own ethical code?
Unitarian Universalists could benefit with a more robust understanding of sin. We rightly reject the idea of original sin, that when we are born there is inherently something wrong with us. We think that each human life begins as an original blessing, a joy, a beauty, to celebrated. It’s like the words of our hymn, “We Are...” written by the Unitarian Universalist Ysaye Barnwell:
For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe who we are....
We are our grandmothers’ prayers and
we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.
Original sin is not the only kind of sin. The theologian Paul Tillich defined sin simply as estrangement or alienation. We sin when we find ourselves estranged each other and from the world that surrounds us. We sin when we give into white supremacy and racism. We sin when undermine democracy. We sin when we propagate climate change. And yet, we can overcome this sin. We can seek reconciliation. We can work for racial justice, build democratic institutions, and seek to live sustainable lives in harmony with the Earth. These are all collective projects and collective liberation, overcoming our various forms of estrangement, is the great task before us.
Sin is also a relevant concept in our personal lives. How many of us are estranged from loved ones? We can work to repair broken relationships, and to overcome sin. We can call the child or the parent with whom we have become estranged. We can reach out to the friend who have hurt or with whom we have grown apart. We can do something about estrangement. We can do something about sin.
11. What is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in today’s world? What aspects of Universalism are important for us now?
When I was in my final year at Harvard, the philosopher and theologian Cornel West told me, “Unitarian Universalism is one of the last best hopes for institutionalized religion.” Unitarian Universalism’s purpose today is to demonstrate that religion can be, and is, relevant for the world we live in. And that means both nurturing loving and joyous communities that tend to the human spirit and provide places for free inquiry and organizing ourselves to confront the great crises of the hour. Future generations will ask of us, “History knocked on your door, did you answer?” The purpose of Unitarian Universalism today is really to inspire each of us to answer that question in a beautiful, joyous, affirmative!
As for Universalism, the most important aspect of Universalism today is proclaiming the belief that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love is not easy. It is difficult. Challenging. Transformative. And here I want to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
“...active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one's life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and persistence, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”
12. How can we effectively promote social justice?
Social change happens through the creation of new ways of being in the world and the creation of new institutions. Unitarian Universalist congregations can both be sites for pursuing those new ways of being and nurture new forms of institutional life. Our understanding that salvation is primarily a social, a collective, enterprise rather than an individual one makes us well equipped for such work. It is no accident that the ACLU and NAACP both have roots in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Or that Rowe vs. Wade was partially organized out of one.
When we gather, we are free to imagine a different world, a better world. And we are free to experiment amongst ourselves in bringing that world to fruition. We can be a space that welcomes and loves all in a world full of hate. We can seek to live lives of sustainability. We can practice democracy. And in doing so, we can demonstrate that living in such a way is possible, desirable, enjoyable, and worthwhile. We can save ourselves.
13. In the face of the drift toward totalitarianism how do UU stand to protect democratic values?
I suspect that the person who asked this question heard my Minns lectures on the same subject. My answer took about twenty-six thousand words and I have already been far too verbose. So, instead of answering the question I will just say this: much of our work together in the coming year will focus on trying to collectively figure out how, as a religious community, to develop the spiritual resources to confront the intertwined crisis of the hour. These are the resurgence of white supremacy, the assault on democracy, and the climate crisis. All of these crises are rooted in some form of sin, of estrangement from each other and from our beloved blue green planet. They are at their core religious and spiritual crises. And it is the task of before Unitarian Universalism and all of the good-hearted people of the world to confront these religious and spiritual crises and, in the spirit of Martin King, undergoing a great moral revolution where we move from a thing oriented to a planet and person-oriented society.
Those being all of the questions, I invite the congregation to close with a prayer:
Oh, spirit of love and justice,
known by many names,
the human spark that leaps from each to each,
let us nurture in each other,
a spirit of inquiry,
a desire to seek the truth,
knowing that whatever answers we find
will always be partial,
and that human knowledge
will always be imperfect.
Remind us too,
that the future is unwritten,
and that our human hearts,
and human hands,
have been blessed with the ability
to play a role,
however small and humble,
in the shaping of the chapter
Be with us,
be with this community,
so that we will each have the strength
to answer the question,
“History knocked on your door,
did you answer?”
with an enthusiastic yes.
That it may be so,
let the congregation say Amen.
Jul 20, 2019
Like a lot of other people, I enjoy shopping in Paris. Unlike the United States, there are only big sales twice a year—in July and January. I have learned that if you know where to go you can get some pretty extraordinary deals. As a minister and an academic I routinely show up in all sorts of circumstances wearing a suit and tie—or at the very least a sports jacket and nice slacks–and professional clothes cost a lot of money. A nice suit can easily set me back several hundred dollars.
The summer sales in Paris are good enough that it is possible to actually save a fair bit of money. The place I like to go is Rue de Turenne. It is a famous area for men’s shops in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris that is a center for Paris’s Jewish and LGBT communities, fashion, and art. A lot of the men’s shops are small boutique designers or custom tailors. When the fashion seasons turn over they dramatically reduce their prices.
Three places I like to go are Johann, where I have bought several suits, Sam Daniel, which has wonderful light weight slacks, and Danyberd, where I have bought some nice shirts. The real deals are generally to be found on the suits. Both Sam Daniel and Johann typically have summer sales where they sell their suits for significantly less than I might be able to get them in the United States. Johann, for instance, sells Ermenegildo Zegna for about 25% of the price it would cost in the United States. This year I got a couple of nice suits from them and a really fantastic sports jacket. The pants and suit I got at Sam Daniel would have cost probably two or three times as much in the United States.
This brief rundown of my favorite men’s shops in Paris might come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me well. An interest in high end men’s fashion and a commitment to Left radicalism don’t usually go together. In fact, there’s a variety of pejoratives that are sometimes hurled at people like me for the hypocrisy often supposed to be found in enjoying quality things and partaking of a privileged life—radical chic or champagne socialist to offer two. There is truth in those critiques, but hypocrisy is a fundamental condition that anyone with a moral compass must suffer under capitalism. Though Marx was thinking of the labor process when he wrote about alienation, I think that his insight that alienation is central to capitalism was a crucial one. In a capitalist system, based on consumerism and the exploitation of labor, we are all, in some way, alienated.
One example of this is the way in which churches have to function. Many religious communities aspire to be outside of the capitalist system. Many Unitarian Universalists are to some extent anti-capitalist. Yet in order to run a congregation of any scale, congregations have to hire employees—administrators, sextons, religious educators, musicians, ministers, and the like. As soon as they do this, they become employers and are forced to operate within the logic of capitalist employment schemes. Productive workers—those who further the mission of the congregation—need to be kept happy so that they won’t go somewhere else. Unproductive workers—those who don’t further the mission—have to be encouraged towards greater productivity or fired. But as all of this is happening congregations espouse, struggle to uphold, and advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Except, when it comes to an employment situation under capitalism, they can’t. The logic of the system requires that workers in a church be treated by the church like workers in any other industry—as a means to an end. This a fundamental contradiction that cannot be overcome and it creates an alienation, a distance, between the values of the religious community and the community’s actions.
This brings me back to the question of men’s clothes. My choice is ultimately how I am going to position myself to best advocate for the transformation of the system. As I have written about in the past, I have a certain amount of privilege. One way I can leverage this privilege is by dressing a certain way—wearing a suit and tie for instance. Over the years, I have found that a lot of upper middle-income white people will be more accepting of radical ideas—and might even begin to adopt them—if I present myself as well educated, integrated into upper middle-income culture, and well dressed. My Minns lectures, for instance, both offer a blistering critique of progressivism and liberalism while advocating for Unitarian Universalism to draw more from anarchist, anti-fascist, and radical sources in articulating a theology to oppose the rising neo-Confederate totalitarianism of the current President. So, I buy nice cloths knowing that by putting on a certain persona I can better reach a certain segment of the population. Is this hypocritical or manipulative? Probably, but no more so than anyone else—be they performer, banker, or organizer--who adopts, consciously or not, a persona—a set of cloths, a particular aesthetic—to communicate that they are part of a particular community or advocate for a certain set of politics. Call it champagne socialism, if you like, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment and it seems to make me more effective.
Mar 3, 2018
Kay Jorgensen died on January 15, 2018. She was one of my earliest mentors in the ministry. I met her when I was a young adult living in San Francisco. I moved there in 1998 after I graduated from college to work as a software engineer. Kay and her longtime collaborator Carmen Barsody were just then starting the Faithful Fools, their street ministry in the city’s Tenderloin District.
I lived in the Bay Area through the spring of 2002. Kay consistently encouraged me throughout that time as I transitioned from active lay leader to budding seminarian. I participated in the street retreats she and Carmen led and spent a fair amount of time just hanging out at the Faithful Fools building.
The street retreats are a ministerial model inspired by liberation theology and the practice of accompaniment. They last somewhere between a few hours and several days. Participants spend their time on the street in the same spaces as homeless people: eating where the homeless eat and sleeping where they sleep.
The Fools use the street retreats to do two things. The first is to be present to and minister to the very poor and homeless without judging them. In other words, the Fools see the Tenderloin’s residents for what they are, human beings, and then treat them as human beings. Second, the retreats are opportunities to breakdown stereotypes that people with various kinds of economic privilege such as myself have about the very poor and homeless. By inviting participants into the same spaces as the residents of the Tenderloin we learn that despite whatever stereotypes we might carry in our heads, the people struggling on the streets are just as human as we are. We all need the same things: food, shelter, love, and a bit of work to call honest.
The street retreats are pedagogically structured around praxis. In their efforts to breakdown stereotypes, the Fools ask participants to reflect upon what they expect to see and encounter before they begin their time on the streets. At the end of the retreat the Fools again ask participants on the stereotypes they have about the Tenderloin’s residents. The transformation is often remarkable. I remember people in the first round of reflection focusing on words like shame, poverty, and sadness. My memories of the second round of reflection is that they frequently contained words such as hope, pride, and joy.
I didn’t just learn from the Fools practice of street retreats. I also learned from their generosity. For many years they served as the fiscal agent for and the mentors of the human rights and solidarity organization that Roxanne Rivas and I founded in 2001—the C.A.S.A. Collectives (Colectivos de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Accion).
Based on their own work in Nicaragua, they often gave us pointers on how to be authentically in solidarity with the communities we worked with in Mexico. They wanted us to understand that it wasn’t authentic solidarity unless we were willing to share the same risks that communities we were working with faced. I remember Kay and Carmen once discussing Ben Linder’s death at the hands of an assassination squad in Nicaragua with me at great length. We talked about what his death had meant to the people he worked with there, the solidarity community, and the United States government. Part of the lesson was that it had sparked international coverage of the atrocities that were then taking place in Nicaragua that the massacres of thousands of peasants had not. That was part of the legacy of white supremacy and colonialism, that a colonizer’s life always mattered more to the colonizers than the lives of any of the colonized. Even if the colonizer was in solidarity with the colonized.
I thought about that conversation a lot when a few years later C.A.S.A. had to evacuate our offices in Oaxaca City after death threats were made against our staff over paramilitary controlled radio. It was during the 2006 Oaxaca uprising and Brad Will, who sometimes worked with C.A.S.A. folks, had just been killed. I also talked with Kay a bit about that situation and remember her calm and steady presence.
Perhaps my fondest memories of Kay are from a fundraiser that the Fools held in the late 90s. It was a dinner at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Fransisco. After the dinner was over as we cleaned up the dishes Kay started to sing old Wobbly songs. She seemed to know all the words to “Hallelujah” and “Solidarity Forever.” So, perhaps it is best to close a tribute to one of the truly great ministers in my tradition with a few verses from “Hallelujah,” a song written and sung in skid rows of the early 20th century that spoke of the pride and defiance of an earlier generation in the face of the catastrophes of capitalism and the degradation of poverty.
O, why don’t you save
All the money you earn?
If I did not eat,
I’d have money to burn!
Hallelujah, I’m a bum!
Hallelujah, bum again!
Hallelujah, give us a handout--
To revive us again.
Rest in power, Rev. Kay Jorgensen, aka Oscard, you have blessed the world more than anyone will ever know.
Jan 10, 2018
It was recently announced that the Trump administration has decided to cancel Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans who have been allowed to legally live and work in the United States since 2001 when devastating earthquakes struck El Salvador. There are approximately 200,000 Salvadorans currently living in the United Country under the program. Almost all will try to stay. While some of the country’s infrastructure has been rebuilt El Salvador remains one of the most violent countries on the planet. This should be reason enough to extend TPS for many years to come.
In the summer of 2014 I travelled to El Salvador as part of a human rights delegation with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. Upon my return, I published a theological reflection in the UU World and preached a sermon about my experiences there that I shared with congregations throughout New England. I wrote a third piece that I submitted to several magazines but was never able to publish. It seems like now is a good time to post the unpublished manuscript. My hope is that it will help further an understanding of what life is like in El Salvador and the kinds of situations that the Trump administration is planning to send Salvadorans back to.
Fleeing a Culture of Violence; Migration and El Salvador
After we pass the thick line of waiting family members I notice a white column next to the gate. At least, it was originally white. Now it is covered with a thick hatch of black ink, the remnants of finger-printing. The deportees emerge, one at a time, through the mesh gate and wipe their hands on the column, hoping, I imagine, to quickly leave behind at least one sign of their humiliation. They were heroes when they left, some of them walking for weeks until they reached the U.S./Mexico border. They were heroes while they were there, many of them sending several hundred dollars a month back to El Salvador to support their extended families. But now they are mostly ashamed and afraid.
I have travelled here with NDLON, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, to learn about the experiences of migrants: why they leave and what it is like for them when they are brought back.
We visit two repatriation centers during the week I am in El Salvador. The one at El Salvador’s International Airport, the one with the white column covered in fingerprints, is where deportees from the United States arrive. There are as many as 700 of them in a week. The other center is in San Salvador’s La Chacra neighborhood. It is for deportees from Mexico. The center by the airport reminds me of both a prison and a Greyhound bus station. When the deportees are taken off the planes they wait for processing in a poorly-lit room filled with rows of plastic molded Eames chairs in bold colors. None of the red, blue, black, and beige chairs are empty. In each one sits someone whose face is weighed down with a mixture of exhaustion and trauma. One part of their ordeal, usually months in detention, is coming to an end. Another, confronting their place in Salvadoran society, is about to start.
We are not allowed to bring cameras or audio recorders or cell phones into the repatriation centers. The deportees themselves aren’t eager to share their names. But they are willing to share their stories. At the center for deportees from Mexico, one man tells us he was deported after living in the United States for eleven years. He is almost quivering with anger. His wife and children are still there. This is his second time being deported. The first time he was caught in the United States and flown back to El Salvador on a plane. This time he only made it as far as Mexico; he was shipped back on a bus. He says that as soon as he can he will leave again.
Another man at the center explains why he fled. He is a victim of gang violence. He and two of his friends had operated a bus together. He was the driver, while his friends tended to the passengers and collected fares. One day some gang members boarded the bus and killed the fare collector. The bus driver and his other friend were allowed to live. Shortly afterwards the gang members changed their minds. They let it be known that they planned to kill the two friends, because they had witnessed the murder. The gang murdered the friend while he ate dinner at a neighborhood pupuseria. That's when the bus driver decided to leave the country.
When the deportees arrive they are processed quickly. They are given a soft drink, a pupusa, and sent into a waiting room. After a brief wait they are interviewed by an immigration officer and, if necessary, given a health exam. If any of the deportees have criminal charges pending in El Salvador they are handed over to the police. There are three phones where, afterwards, they are permitted to make a free phone call.
The bus driver says he called his mother. She told him that it wasn’t safe for him to come home. He has no idea what he is going to do next.
Away from the repatriation centers I interview Sandra Elizabeth Borja Armero. She is eager to tell me her story. Before she was deported, she worked with NDLON in Los Angeles, taking part in their Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras (Day Labor Theater Without Borders). Her husband and son still live in Los Angeles. Her son is five. He is named Barack, after the President who oversaw her deportation. "It is ironic," she tells me. Like many Hispanics, she thought that the election of the first black President would herald a better life for undocumented immigrants. Instead, she says, the first black President has deported more brown people than any of the white Presidents who preceded him, to date more than two million. She and her husband named their son after President Obama because of the hope he represented. She says, "I want to be with my son" before repeating, "Barack, it is ironic."
A red mesh bag containing a wallet, a cell phone, maybe a couple of pieces of mail, shoelaces, is all deportees are allowed to bring back with them from the United States. Whether they were caught sneaking across the border or rounded up after living in the States for fifteen years, they bring back the same small number of possessions.
I meet José Efrain Mortimez Rivas at another event organized by NDLON. This man wants his story told. He lived in the United States for six years. He worked hard, got married, and regularly sent money back to El Salvador. Twice a month, he sent $300: $100 for his mother, and $100 each for the mothers of his two children in El Salvador.
His move to the United States was a family investment. Before he left his family raised $6,000 to pay a coyote to smuggle him from El Salvador to the United States. The investment more than paid off. During his time in the United States he sent back over $40,000. There are no other financial instruments available to poor people in El Salvador with six-hundred percent return rates.
Rivas lived in Melbourne, Florida, and worked as day laborer there. He made, on average, $70 to $80 a day. Now that he is back in El Salvador, when he can find work, which isn’t often, he is lucky if he can make $10 a day. He isn’t able to support his mother or his children. His wife, who still lives in Florida, has left him. He is not sure if he wants to risk the return journey, but he knows that his options if he stays are very limited. He is exactly my age, 37, and tells me that the best part of his life is over.
The journey to the United States is dangerous, the deportation process ugly. One young woman I meet outside the repatriation center describes a little of her experience. It took her five weeks to travel to the United States. Before she made it across the border she saw two of her fellow migrants die. Both young men, they drowned trying to cross a flooding river. She was in the United States for ten months: the first five in Los Angeles hustling for all kinds of work; the last five in a deportation center in Texas.
Her story about her time in detention catches my attention. The place was called the Coastal Bend Detention Center. There, she worked everyday from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. She says, she was paid $1.00 a day. A phone call cost a dollar. A bag of chips from the canteen was $2.50. The center, she claims, was privately run.
When we arrive at the repatriation center in San Salvador, there is a small swarm of reporters. They are waiting outside to get interviews with and pictures of families that have been deported. No one wants to talk to them. The families draw shirts up over their heads and pile into taxis in an effort to escape the journalists. The journalists, meanwhile, chase after the taxis like paparazzi pursuing celebrities. Two news anchors, young women caked in make-up and wearing bold single color dresses, have started to work-up a sweat.
Our arrival provides a welcome distraction. Pablo Alvarado, NDLON’s Executive Director, holds an impromptu press conference to publicize the results of a study on migrants that his organization has commissioned with José Simeón Cañas Central American University (which everyone calls UCA). Then the gate opens, the journalists scatter, and the chase after another taxi begins.
Inside the repatriation center a bus with children from Mexico has just arrived. I see a nursing mother whose baby can’t be more than a month old. There are three boys traveling together unaccompanied, the oldest no more than fifteen. The center feels like a refugee camp. It is overrun. There’s no place for the adults to sit or for the children to play. The bathrooms don’t include tables for changing diapers. After seeing the nursing mother I ask someone in my group, "How bad does your life have to be to make migrating to the United States with a tiny baby seem like a good idea?"
While not visiting the detention centers, we talk with NDLON leaders, attend presentations, and meet with some senior government officials. The main reason we have any access here is Francisco "Pancho" Pacheco, NDLON’s National Director of Organizing. Pancho is a former central committee member of one of the organizations behind Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, better known as the FMLN, now El Salvador’s ruling party. It turns out that many of Pancho’s old comrades in arms are now leading members of the government. During our week in El Salvador we meet with the President of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, the Vice President, the Vice President’s wife, and Lidwina Magarín, the Deputy Foreign Minister for Salvadorans Living Abroad. Lidwina fought under Pancho and took his command when he fled to the United States in 1995, three years after the Peace Accords were signed. In the years between the signing of the Accords and Pancho’s decision to leave El Salvador he survived three assassination attempts.
He arrived in Los Angeles with little English and began shaping up on corners, looking for work, like so many other Salvadorian migrants. A brilliant organizer, he naturally began to talk to other day laborers and became involved in a local workers center. This led, in time, to him becoming part of NDLON’s leadership. In recent years it has become safe for him to travel back to El Salvador. The FMLN has won the last two presidential elections and more than twenty years have passed since the end of the civil war. Politically motivated violence is largely a thing of the past. Now, the danger is gang violence. Despite this change, Pancho doesn’t want to move back to El Salvador. After almost twenty years in the United States it feels like home and he is not confident he could find work in his native country. Still, he tells, he thinks he might move back when he retires.
During the week I spend in El Salvador I only see Pancho get flustered once. The van we are traveling in breaks down in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Quickly, I learn that we are in gang territory. On one side of the road: a coffee plantation. On the other side of the road: sheer rock crowned by crowded foliage, trees draped in tropical greenery.
Pablo, or someone, makes a phone call and two cars appear. There are three white people in our delegation. It is urgent that the three of us leave immediately. As we get into the cars I see that a group of people had begun slowly moving up the highway towards us.
As many as 90,000 unaccompanied children are expected to migrate from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States in 2014. The majority say they are fleeing violence. The murder rate in the communities they are leaving is below only Syria.
Another member of our delegation tells me about a child who successfully made it to her community in Los Angeles. He left because the local gang started threatening the kids on his soccer team, trying to extort money from their parents. When the gang killed one of the team members, he fled. By the time he was safely reunited with family members in the United States, the gang had murdered six more children on the team.
Jul 29, 2017
Yesterday the New York Times brought news that famed photo editor John Morris died at the age of 100. Morris was the photo editor of the New York Times during the Vietnam War and made the decision to publish two of the most famous images of the war on the newspaper’s front page--the informally titled “Napalm Girl” by Huỳnh Công Út and Eddie Adams's "Saigon Execution." He made sure that these images appeared on the top fold of the paper, which meant they were seen even by people who didn't build the Times. He was Robert Capa’s photo editor for many years and the founding photo editor for Magnum Photo. You can read the Times’s obituary of John Morris here. They've also made a nice video tribute.
John was a long time friend of my parents. I believe they met him through their friends Nicole Ewenczyk and Gilles Perrin--my father collaborated on a book with them a few years ago. Last summer, while I was visiting them in Paris, I had the pleasure of attending one of his lectures. John’s talk focused on his century of experience as a photo editor. He spoke about his commitment to pacifism and his belief that photo editing could be a kind of anti-war activism. The selection of images that highlighted the horrors of war, he hoped, could engender empathy for the victims of violence and inspire people to oppose their government’s involvement in international conflicts.
After John’s lecture we all had dinner at the little bistro across the street from his studio. I was seated next to him and we talked about the civil war in Syria. A few years ago I penned a piece for the Huffington Post arguing against military intervention after the Assad government used chemical weapons. I have since had some ambivalence about the question of military intervention and come to support, in principle, the Kurdish anarchist movement, Democratic Union Party. I have never been convicted of absolute pacifism and, as in the case of my longstanding support for the Zapatistas, believe that organized violent resistance to various forms of fascism and totalitarianism can sometimes be the only way to arrest them.
John did not agree. After his experiences in World War II, he felt that violence always beget further violence. Any support of a military movement in Syria, he believed, would only extend the conflict and cause further suffering. I suspect that his position was also tempered by his Quakerism.
Unfortunately, the bistro was too loud for us to converse more in-depth. Nonetheless, it was a memorable experience. It deepened my already deep respect for the photographers, and their editors, who strive to document our world as political and ethical acts. Social documentary photography is an art form and art in all its forms can be a powerful act of resistance to the viciousness of human brutality.
Apr 30, 2017
as preached at Memorial Church of Harvard University, April 30, 2017. The readings for the day were Isaiah 43:1-12 and Luke 24:13-35. The sermon focuses on Luke 24:13-35.
It is good to be with you this morning. I want to begin with a simple note of gratitude for your hospitality and for Professor Walton’s invitation. Rev. Sullivan, Ed Jones, your seminarians, and Elizabeth Montgomery and Nancy McKeown from your administrative staff have all been delightful. Thank you all. Working with everyone has been a pleasant reminder that while I might prepare my text alone, worship, and indeed ministry, is a collective act.
Today is the third Sunday in the Easter season. In keeping with the Christian liturgical calendar, our lesson this morning is an Easter lesson. It is Luke 24:16, a sentence fragment that we read as “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” I want us to use a slightly different translation. It runs, “but something prevented them from recognizing him.”
The fragment comes from a longer passage known as the Road to Emmaus. In the text, we find two of Jesus’s disciples hustling towards a village called Emmaus. It is Easter Sunday, the first Easter Sunday. They are discussing Jesus’s execution, the empty tomb, and all that has happened in the past months. Well, actually, they are not having a discussion. They are having an argument. And they are not out for a casual afternoon stroll. The text suggests that they are fleeing Jerusalem. They are part of a revolutionary movement on the verge of collapse. The movement’s leader has been executed. Its members are scared and confused. They had been expecting victory and experienced defeat. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the text explains.
Into this hot mess steps Jesus. As the two disciples hasten along bickering about, I suspect, everything, up walks Jesus and asks what is going on, “but something prevented them from recognizing him.” In that whole story this is the verse I want us to linger upon, “something prevented them from recognizing him.”
Wrestling with the text we can imagine all kinds of reasons why the two disciples were prevented from recognizing Jesus. The Catholic priest and antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan took a fairly literal approach. Berrigan suggested that Jesus’s disciples failed to recognize him because his body was broken. Jesus appeared as he was, the victim of torture: bloodied, bruised and swollen.
Another interpretation suggests that it was the sexism, the misogyny, of the disciples that prevented them from recognizing Jesus. The initial eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women. In the verses immediately before our passage, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, along with some number of unidentified women, try to convince the rest of the apostles that the tomb is empty. The male disciples do not believe them, call their story an “idle tale” or “nonsense.” Recognizing Jesus might have required these disciples to recognize their own sexism. It would have required them to acknowledge that the women they had chosen not to believe were telling the truth.
Whatever the case, the text tells us this: there were two people traveling a path together; they were joined by a third; and they did not recognize him for who he truly was.
This is an all too human story. It is too often my story. I imagine you are familiar with it too. Think about it. How often do you encounter someone and fail to fully recognize them? Let us start with the mundane. Have you had the experience of thinking you are near a friend when you are actually in the vicinity of a stranger? More frequently than I would like to admit I have my made way across a crowded room to greet someone I know. When I arrive I discover someone who merely resembles my friend. They have the same haircut, a similar tattoo, or are wearing a shirt that looks exactly my friend’s favorite shirt. But beyond the short dark bob, double hammer neck tattoo, or long sleeves with black and white stripes is a stranger.
Such encounters are embarrassing. Blessedly, they usually last a fleeting moment and then are gone. Other failures of recognition carry with them much greater freight than mistaken identity. For another kind of failure of recognition is the failure to recognize the human in each other. And that can carry with it lethal consequences.
When police officers murder people with brown and black bodies they fail to recognize the human in the person who they shoot, choke, or beat. The police officer who shot Mike Brown said the young man looked “like a demon.” That is certainly an apt description of failing to recognize someone as human.
Reflecting on the murder of Trayvon Martin, theologian Kelly Brown Douglas has written we “must recognize the face of Jesus in Trayvon.” She challenges us to consider that Jesus was not all that different from Trayvon. They both belonged to communities targeted by violent structures of power composed of or endorsed by the state. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, the list goes on and on. What would it mean if their killers had recognized the human in each of them? What was it that prevented police officers from recognizing the human in 321 people they have killed thus far in 2017?
I want to let that unpleasant question linger. Let us return to our text. It contains an encounter with the holy. Our two disciples were on the road to Emmaus. They discovered the divine. But they did not realize the divine was amongst them until it was too late, until Jesus disappeared.
One of the principal theologians of my Unitarian Universalist tradition is William Ellery Channing. He taught that each of us contains within “the likeness to God.” Jesus, Channing believed, was someone who had unlocked the image of God within. He did this by seeing the divine in everything, “from the frail flower to the everlasting stars.” Channing might be labelled by more conventional Christians as a gnostic. The gnostics believed that Jesus came not to offer a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world but to teach us how to shatter earthly illusions and find enlightenment.
This suggests a reading of our text that focuses not on the resurrection of Jesus in the body but the resurrection of Jesus in the spirit. Remember, on the road to Emmaus Jesus appeared from seemingly nowhere. The disciples were walking and there he was. Remember, he disappeared immediately, as soon as the bread was broken.
Maybe what happened was this: as our two disciples debated, and argued, and bickered as they fled down the road to Emmaus they finally understood Jesus’s teachings. As they recounted what had happened, the divine became palpable to amongst them. And when they broke bread together they felt the divine stirring within. It was the same feeling they had when they were with Jesus before his execution. They felt Jesus still with them when they recognized the divine in each other. They found each other on the road to Emmaus.
Understood this way, the story is not about what prevents our two disciples from recognizing Jesus. It is about what prevents them from recognizing each other. What was it? What is it that prevents us from recognizing the human in each other?
Let me suggest that failing to recognize the human in each other is an unpleasantly enduring feature in academic life. Think about it. Most of us have participated in the question and answer sessions that follow presentations and lectures. These sessions have a scripted dynamic. Someone from the audience asks a question, the presenter responds. Harmless enough, such exchanges further the collective project of the intellectual community. Except... these exchanges sometimes include failure of recognition.
Do any of these seem familiar: the individual who asks the same question no matter the subject of the lecture; or the person who aggressively repeats someone else’s query as their own; or the comment in the form of a question? Each of these comes from a failure to listen.
Failures to listen are failures of recognition. They often come from failing to imagine someone else as a conversation partner, as an equal, as another person with whom we are engaged in a shared project. If we lift the curtain behind failures to listen we will frequently find insidious cultural dynamics, corrupting structure of power. I have seen, over and over again, an older male colleague restate a younger female colleague’s question as his own. I have seen white academics ignore the words of people of color or try to co-opt their work. I have seen graduate students comment on each other’s work not in the spirit of inquiry but in the spirit of currying favor with their faculty. To be honest, I have done some of these things myself.
When I commit them I am locked in my own anxieties, my need to appear smart, my desire to impress, even my longing to be a hero. Instead of listening to what someone is saying, I focus on my own words. And so, I miss the conversation. I do not fully recognize who or what is around me. What about you? How often are we, like our disciples on the road to Emmaus, oblivious to the holy?
Recognizing the human and the divine in each other is hard. Let us think about race. Race is a social construct. Race is a belief. White supremacy is a belief system. It requires that there are people “who believe that they are white,” in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memorable words, and that those people act in certain ways and believe particular things.
Most people who believe they are white believe in white normativity. This is the idea that an institution or community is primarily for or of white people. The assumption is that normal people in the institution are white and that other people are somehow aberrations. Religious communities are not immune to this. Neither are universities.
The theologian Thandeka came up with a test for white normativity. It is called the “Race Game.” The game is straightforward. It has one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you might tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The guest preacher was an articulate white man. He brought with him his ten-year old son. That little white boy sure is cute!”
The “Race Game” can be uncomfortable. It can bring up feelings of shame. Thandeka reports that in the late 1990s she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or an email describing their experiences. She received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”
Does it require courage to recognize the human and the divine in each other? What was it that prevented our two disciples from recognizing Jesus? What assumptions do each of us hold about what is normal and is not that prevent us from recognizing each other? We could play variations of the Race Game as a test. The Gender Game: “The guest preacher was a cis-gendered straight presenting man.” The Social Class Game: “He was an upper middle-class professional.” The Ableism Game: “The able-bodied man with no noticeable neurodiversity.” Such games might be difficult to play. They reveal the social constructs that prevent us from recognizing each other.
But something prevented them from recognizing him.
But something prevented them from recognizing each other.
But something prevented us from recognizing each other.
What must we do to recognize each other? Again, I turn to the text for an answer. Recall that our disciples were part of a revolutionary movement. Remember, they had given themselves over to a liberating struggle, a common project. Two thousand years ago they did not accept the status quo of the Roman Empire. Today, we can recognize the divine when we join in struggle against the world’s powers and principalities.
Tomorrow’s May Day marches, protests, and strikes demand that the American government recognize the human in every person. The rally 4:00 p.m. at Harvard is a challenge to the University community to protect our marginalized members. Yesterday’s climate march was a call to honor the divine everywhere and in everything on this blue green ball of a planet. This morning’s passing of the peace was briefly an opportunity to recognize the human in the face of each person you greeted.
The first hundred days of the new President’s regime have been a sickening reminder of what is at stake when we fail to recognize the human. The afflicted are not comforted. The comfortable are not afflicted. The brokenhearted do not have their wounds bound. The stranger is not welcomed. People die from the violence of white supremacy, from the violence of military action, from the violence of state sponsored poverty.
Our disciples finally recognized Jesus because they were part of a revolutionary movement that was committed to welcoming the stranger into its midst. A movement that bound wounds, healed spirits, and denounced violence. But more than that, it challenged people to find the divine amid and amongst themselves. For as Jesus said, “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, “Look, here it is,” or “There it is! “For the kingdom of God is among you!”
It is the poets who sum this sermon best.
T. S. Eliot:
“Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
--But who is that on the other side of you?”
Jimmy Santiago Baca:
“the essence of our strength,
each of us a warm fragment,
broken off from the greater
ornament of the unseen,
then rejoined as dust,
to all this is.”
“Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent”
Let us pray.
spark that leaps each to each,
source of being
that in our human language
so many us of name God,
stir our hearts
so that we may have the courage
all that prevents us from recognizing
and the divine that travels amid
our mortal community.
Grant us the strength,
and the compassion,
that we need to go together
down the revolutionary road,
liberating the human within each of us,
binding the wounds of the broken,
welcoming the stranger,
comforting the afflicted,
and encountering the truth,
the holy is never absent when we join together in struggle.
May we, like our two disciples,
find each other on the road to Emmaus.
Gloria Korsman, Research Librarian at Andover-Harvard Theological Library, aided me with the research for this sermon. My understanding of Luke 24:13-35 also benefited from conversation with Mark Belletini. One of my advisors, Mayra Rivera Rivera, helped connect me with the congregation.
Nov 27, 2016
as preached at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, November 27, 2016
I am grateful to be back with you. It now seems worlds ago, but I was last with you the Sunday you installed Sarah Stewart as your twelfth minister. I understand you colloquially know her as M12.
M12’s installation took place, you might remember, a couple of weeks after the death of Freddie Gray. In the days leading up to the service there were large protests in Baltimore against police brutality. People were mobilizing to proclaim Black Lives Matter. Ministers and congregations across the country, I observed, were spending their Sundays talking and praying about the need for racial reconciliation and racial justice. I suggested that I was, at best, skeptical about such efforts. In many liberal religious communities, I complained, serious conversation about racial and social justice only take place against the backdrop of calamity. The crisis occurs. Congregations confront the tragedy with much hand wringing. Little changes. The traumatic event is largely forgotten, or becomes normalized, or fades into the background of daily life.
The only way this pattern would change, I argued, was for religious communities like yours to become sites for conversion. Conversion might be defined, I told you, in the words of James Luther Adams as a “fundamental change of heart and will.” Conversion brings with it a new perspective, a shift in a point of view. After the death of Freddie Gray, and the deaths of far too many others, I offered that most whites in America needed to undergo a conversion process. Those of us who imagine ourselves to be white, I urged, need to shift our point of view to see the United States from the perspective of people with darker skin. Whites must come to understand that white supremacy is not an abstract concept or a political slur. White supremacy is an economic and political system in which white wealth is built upon the dual exploitation of brown and black bodies and the natural environment. Those of us that claim we are white must empathically comprehend that racism is as much physical as it is psychological. For human beings with brown and black bodies, racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “is a visceral experience… it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”
It is only once those of us who believe ourselves to be white imaginatively shift our perspective, I claimed, that we can begin to participate in the work of dismantling white supremacy. Otherwise, I warned, the pulpit would remain silent on issues of racial and social justice except at moments of crisis. Speaking out only when tragedy strikes is a form of idolatry. It allows the pretense that the community uplifts justice when in reality it worships comfort and complicity.
In retrospect my sermon from last year appears quaint. For many of us, the world in late November 2016 feels fundamentally different than it did in May 2015. The United States has been through a desperately polarizing election. A new President has been elected through the undemocratic peculiarities of the American political system. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by more than two million votes. He lost the popular vote by a larger margin than any successful candidate for the national executive since 1876. The man who assumes the executive office on January twentieth will be at the head of what can only be termed a minority government.
He gained that office by what can best be termed bad faith. His tactics were those of a con man: misdirection mixed with outrageous lies. He violated electoral norms. He praised autocrats and called for foreign intervention in the presidential election. He refused to release his taxes. He revealed himself to be a sexual predator. At times, the man who will be the next President stirred base human instinct: fear, hatred, misogyny, and racism. He verbally attacked immigrants, Muslims, women, and anyone who challenged him. He received open support by white supremacists and an endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite all of this he will soon head the most powerful government in the history of the world.
We have now come to a moment when there are calls to unite behind the incoming President. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, urged such unity in her concession speech, “We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” The current President has offered a conciliatory tone. He has enjoined American citizens “to remember that we’re actually all on one team.”
The New York Times columnist Charles Blow responded this week writing, “Let me tell you here where I stand on your ‘I hope we can all get along’ plea: Never. You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything--no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts--to satisfy your ambitions.” Russian American dissident and critic of autocracy Masha Gessen has spent her life writing about the regime of Vladimir Putin. She warns that calls to reconciliation that fail to recognize that “Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election” are foolhardy. In her analysis, he is an aspiring autocrat, a proto-totalitarian, a neo-fascist.
Now me, I’m not much of a political liberal. I place myself in a similar camp to Blow and Gessen. I trust the President-elect. I assume that he will govern like he campaigned. He has already indicated he wants figures whose politics are best described as white supremacist as part of his administration. He has indicated that he will be intolerant of dissent. He intends to round up and deport several million immigrants. He refuses to place his businesses in a blind trust, creating the possibility of conflict of interest and corruption on an unprecedented level. I reject the idea of normalizing our next President.
I suspect that there are a few present here who would like to stop my wind-up to a jeremiad at this point. My litany of woes may seem out of place on a Sunday morning. I imagine that those of you whom I am making uncomfortable desire to remind me that religious communities are not places for partisan politics. So, let me be clear. I am not being partisan. I am offering a prophetic critique. If Hillary Clinton had been elected President, I would be standing before you a warning of the Democratic Party’s complicity in attacking immigrant communities. More people have been deported under President Obama than under any other President. I would be reminding you of Secretary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy tendencies. She was instrumental in pushing for the violent overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi. It was an event which resulted in civil war, the deaths of thousands, and the further destabilization of an already instable region. I would be criticizing the Democratic nominee for her longstanding practice of promoting economic programs that benefit the few at the expense of the many. And I would prod you to remember that she helped oversee the massive expansion of a prison industrial complex that targets human beings with brown and black bodies. In the 1990s she notoriously coined the phrase “super predator.”
But Secretary Clinton did not win the majority of votes in the electoral college. She is not going to be the forty-fifth President. Donald Trump is. And so he, not her, is the subject of my critique. And while Clinton would have represented yet another figure in the long standing, tragic, crisis of the moral bankruptcy of political liberalism, Trump represents something even more sinister, neo-Confederate autocracy. The question before this religious community and each of us as individuals is not to figure how to live responsibly in Hillary Clinton’s America. It is to discern how to live responsibly in Donald Trump’s.
Drawing from the prophetic liberal religious tradition, I suggest that this congregation and other Unitarian Universalist congregations like it have five tasks ahead. We must boldly proclaim our vision of what it means to be and flourish as humans. We have to develop a historical and social analysis that allows us to truthfully describe our present moment. We need to dream freedom dreams of what might be possible and, in the words of Robin Kelley, aid us “to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives.” We are called to translate those dreams into action. We must maintain a spiritual practice to sustain ourselves through difficult years.
We are part of a liberal religious community. These tasks are not tasks for an individual. They are tasks for our collectivity, our gathered community. If we accept them, we will accept them as a community that upholds the inherent worth and dignity of each individual human being; a community that practices democracy; a community that honors the web of interrelation and interconnection of which we are all a part.
Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition with a particular understanding of what it means to be a human being. Close to two hundred years ago your congregation, like other New England Unitarian churches, rejected a theology that taught that human beings were innately depraved. Our religious ancestors instead favored a theology that viewed human nature as predicated upon freedom. We each contain within us, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, “the likeness to God.” The choice whether we will tilt towards that likeness or give ourselves over to baser instincts is ours.
What ultimately distinguishes religious liberals from religious conservatives is that we believe that human nature is not fixed. It is flexible. People can change. This assertion is more a matter of faith than it is a scientific claim. That we uphold it is one of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism a religion. Human freedom has yet to be empirically proven to be true or untrue. Faced with this wager we boldly bet on freedom, on the possibility that we can freely choose who and what we will be.
As a religious tradition we are comfortable with our claims about the essential nature of human freedom. In contrast, developing a historical and social analysis that truthfully describes our present moment is a far more difficult task. White American society--the society that celebrates the Declaration of Independence, worships the Constitution, and lionizes consumer choice--is quite comfortable with abstract discussions of freedom. But historical and social analysis is something that is widely frowned upon. Media outlets like Fox News and the white supremacist Breibart mock rigorous analytics as an egg-headed, liberal, elite activity.
So be it. Our religious tradition is one which is committed to telling truths in church. Describing the world as it actually exists is the most important form of truth telling. Offering a detailed analysis of what happened on November eighth and is happening now would require far more time than we have remaining on this bright Sunday. But allow me to make a few gestures that might help you as a community in your own truth telling. If you disagree with me at the very least my words will give you a helpful data point for the “not that.”
The presidential administration of Donald Trump will be a neo-Confederate autocracy. Like other kinds of neo-fascist, fascist, proto-totalitarian, autocratic, or right populist regimes, it emerges from a failure in political liberalism.
Since its inception a leading strain of thought, culture and economic practice in the United States has been brazenly white supremacist. The Constitution was written to favor slaveholding states. The Electoral College is partially a legacy of slavery. It was designed to ensure that Southern slave states had disproportion power in the new republic. Otherwise, they threatened secession. Indeed, when a split electorate chose an anti-slavery politician as President the South did secede.
The Civil War was a war to maintain chattel slavery and white supremacy. It was also a war to maintain male supremacy. The two substantive differences between the United States Constitution and the Confederate States Constitution were that the second proclaimed that only whites and only males could be ever citizens.
When I label the rising presidential administration neo-Confederate I am explicitly thinking of the Confederacy’s claim to white male supremacy. The appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s Senior Counselor and the nomination of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General can be read as a commitment to an ideology that puts the needs and rights of white males over and against the rights of everyone else. As Senior Counselor, Bannon will push Trump to consider the needs of white voters, the next President’s electoral base, over the needs of all others. As Attorney General, Sessions should be expected to launch a full assault on what remains of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow like efforts of voter suppression will go unchallenged by the federal government. White supremacist hate groups will not be investigated by the Justice Department and police will not be held accountable for violent acts.
I use the label neo-Confederate to place the new Presidential administration within the context of the American history. Neo-Confederate reaction first emerged as a national political force after the Civil War, during the failure of Reconstruction. In the years of and immediately following the Civil War the United States government was largely controlled by a political alliance that the great W. E. B. Du Bois called abolition democracy. Abolition democracy was an alliance between abolitionist and anti-slavery Northerners and Southern African Americans against white supremacy. It was committed to ending chattel slavery and incorporating freed blacks into the American body politic. It collapsed in the mid-1870s when the Northern white elite decided that it had more in common economically with the Southern white elite than it did with African Americans.
The demise of abolition democracy brought about an era of reaction that created the regime of Jim Crow. This regime of legalized racial discrimination was only partially overturned when abolition democracy reconstituted itself in the civil rights era. Again, in the 1950s and 1960s Northern elites allied themselves with African Americans and other people of color to oppose what was then the neo-Confederate state governments of the South. This project reached a great pitch in the mid-1960s with the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. It could be argued that it reached its zenith in the Presidency of Barack Obama. And it might be said that the failed candidacy of Hillary Clinton represents its second collapse.
One way to describe Democrats like Clinton is that they believe that American elites have more in common with global elites than they do the working class. Clinton advocated free trade, possessed a dodgy record on civil rights, and abandoned the Democratic Party’s base in labor unions. She lost for the same reason that abolition democracy fell apart in the 1870s. Working people of all races stopped supporting it in sufficient numbers to maintain it because they felt that liberal elites did not have their best interests at heart.
Knowing what went wrong in the past and what is wrong with the present can aid us in dreaming of a different future. If we want to live in a world where the neo-Confederate vision of white supremacy and male dominance is relegated to the dust bin of history then we must imagine a world that is structurally different than the one in which we live now. We must dream freedom dreams.
One of my intellectual heroes, the historian Robin Kelley urges us to dream such dreams. Drawing from the teachings of his own mother he challenges “us to imagine a world free of patriarchy, a world where gender and sexual relations could be reconstituted... to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives.” We need to dream of a world without white supremacy before we can build one. Poetry can help us.
Imagination is a Magic carpet
Upon which we may soar
To distant lands and climes
And even go beyond the moon
To any planet in the sky
If we came from
Why can’t we go somewhere there?
Diane Di Prima:
Left to themselves people
grow their hair.
Left to themselves they
take off their shoes.
Left to themselves they make love
share blanket, dope & children
they are not lazy or afraid
they plant seeds, they smile, they
speak to one another. The word
coming into its own: touch of love
on the brain, the ear.
I will not tell you what your freedom dreams should be. I just suggest you should cultivate them. Look to your daily life. When do you feel most fully yourself? Gardening? Cooking? Playing with your children? Riding your bike? At work? At rest? With your partner? Your friends? Alone? At a worship service? Perhaps such moments are good places to start looking for freedom dreams. True freedom is about the transformation of everyday life.
I invite you now to pause and complete the sentence: “I dream of...” Take a moment in silence “I dream of...” [Wait a minute.] Now, if you are comfortable turn to a neighbor and share what you dream of. [Wait a minute.]
Our freedom dreams will only become reality if we share them with each other. If we share them not just inside this building but outside of it with members of our family, our community, and throughout the world.
This sharing is the first step towards action. For action is the next task before religious communities in this time of crisis. I am not your minister. I am just a guest that you have generously invited into your pulpit. I don’t want to overstep my bounds. And so while I want to stir your dreams and push your analysis I suggest that finding your path forward is your collective task, not mine.
I can offer you this advice. Action will not be successful if you act alone. The new President will be at the head of a minority government. Actions that succeed in challenging him will come from mobilizing the majority of the populace. So build networks, resist together, not alone. Reach out together. Forge new relationships and strengthen the ones you already have.
The next four years will be difficult. The neo-Confederate agenda is clear. In order to survive and to act it will be necessary to maintain a strong sense of self and a calm center. The last task before us is simply to take care of ourselves, to nurture the spiritual practices that will sustain us again and again in what I know will be disappointing work. Meditate. Pray. Write in your journal. Cook a nice dinner for your family. Tell your partner that you love them. Hug your kids. Go for long walks on the edges of the city, through autumnal forests, or by frozen river banks. Ride your bike across town. As you nurture yourself you will find that you nurture others.
As you nurture yourself you will find strength for the tasks ahead. You will find companionship. You will find joy and, perhaps, a modicum of peace. You will find yourself dreaming. Let yourself dream. For in our dreams we can see a better world, a world that stirs in our hearts. It is a world that no matter how treacherous the path before us we can yet bring into being. So, let us set ourselves to the tasks ahead. And let us dream freedom dreams. And let us share those dreams with others.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 19, 2016
It has been a week and a half since Donald Trump was elected President. In the past ten days he has begun to make clear the direction of his Presidency. He has articulated a plan for his first hundred days and started to make political appointments. The agenda of his administration is a hard right agenda. Here are ten things I expect from it:
1. President-Elect Trump has made it clear he is committed to the project of building and maintaining white supremacy. The appointment of Stephen Bannon and Jeff Sessions should not be interpreted any other way. Under a Trump administration, there will be an increase in racialized violence and an assault on civil rights legislation. Given his track record, Sessions should be expected to launch a full assault on what remains of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow like efforts of voter suppression will go unchallenged by the federal government. White supremacist hate groups will not be investigated by the Justice Department and police will not be held accountable for violent acts.
2. Under a Trump Presidency families will be torn apart and lives irreparably damaged as the President-Elect moves forward with his pledge to round-up between two and three million undocumented migrants. Neighborhoods and police throughout the United States will be further militarized as a result.
3. A Trump administration will likely unleash government suppression of dissent at a level not seen since the 1960s. The rhetoric of law and order and the President-Elect’s complaints about protestors do not bode well for those who oppose him, articulate an alternative leftist vision of American society, or speak out against racialized violence and white supremacy.
4. During a Trump administration any kind of externally triggered crisis, such as a climate disaster or a terrorist attack, will be used as an excuse to further militarize the country and possibly the world. The Bush administration was able to turn the 9/11 attacks into an excuse for launching a disastrous war of choice in Iraq, a massive clampdown on dissent, and the destruction of international human rights norms.
5. The Trump Presidency represents a threat to human existence on two levels. On one level, it will be run by committed climate change deniers at a moment when it is critical that the human species address human fueled global warming. On another level, Trump seems to be in favor of tactical uses of nuclear weapons and supports the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
6. The Republicans plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They have not articulated a clear plan to replace it. It is likely that any plan that they do propose to replace it will include an effort to defund or privatize Medicaid. If the Republicans repeal the ACA without a plan to replace it as many as twenty two million people will lose their health insurance. This will lessen the spans of the people’s lives. It will increase the amount of general ill-health in the population, both reducing many individuals’ quality of life and their ability to contribute to the economy.
7. The appointment of reactionary Supreme Court justices who will almost certainly launch a full blown assault on women’s rights, civil rights, and the rights of the LGBT community. President Trump will most likely make equally reactionary appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, the Environmental Protect Agency, and a host of other federal agencies.
8. The announced Trump tax cuts will increase the federal debt by as much as $7 trillion dollars. This will make future spending on social projects difficult. The Bush tax cuts fueled inequality and were the largest source of the federal deficit during the Obama Presidency. The Trump tax cuts will increase inequality and saddle future generations with even more government debt.
9. The increase in deficit spending from tax cuts will be coupled with increased spending on defense. Again, this will increase the deficit and make the funding of future social projects difficult.
10. Throughout the Trump years there will be unprecedented corruption. He has already refused to place his businesses in a blind trust and will instead hand them over to his children. This will create conflicts of interest on a level unseen before. The President-Elect’s anti-corruption rhetoric should not be taken seriously. He is already attempting to escape press scrutiny. His actions fail to either address his own conflict of interest or do anything meaningful to get monied interests out of politics. For example, he does not support overturning Citizens United. Terms limits on Congress would most likely result in the increased power of corporate lobbyists in Washington.
President-Elect Trump was elected by a minority of American voters. He received less votes than Hillary Clinton. More Americans decided not to vote than voted for either of the major candidates. The hard right agenda of the Trump administration does not represent the views of the majority of the American populace. Combating his agenda will require more than just pointing out all of the things that are wrong with it. It will require developing clear alternative demands such as health care for all, full employment, living wages, affordable housing, an expansion of civil rights, good schools, nuclear disarmament, and then organizing people around and for that alternative vision. Let’s not lose heart. Let’s build a better world.
Apr 29, 2016
The comedian W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America premiered on CNN this past weekend. The show’s first episode focuses on the contemporary Ku Klux Klan. A portion of my dissertation is on the 1920s Klan. I decided to watch the show to get a better sense of the Ku Klux Klan of today. I am glad I did. Overall, I found the program to be informative and, often ironically, funny.
One of the most entertaining moments in the show comes when Bell offers direction to Thomas Robb as he films his video program “This is the Klan.” The black media professional instructs the white amateur on how he might better communicate to his audience. In doing so Bell disproves the whole premise of white supremacy, that people with “white” skin are somehow innately superior to people of color. If there was any truth to that superiority Robb would have been the one offering instructions.
The Klan the Bell portrays in his show shares significant continuities with the Klan of the 1920s. Like its predecessor, it is a white supremacist Protestant Christian organization. Robb and many of the other Klan leaders that Bell encounters are Protestant clergy. The words used at the cross burning Bell witnesses are words of Christian ritual.
Bell’s piece would have been even more compelling if he had highlighted not only the continuities but also the dissimilarities between the epochs of the Klan. This would have meant offering a more nuanced historical background to the Klan. Bell assumes that his viewers know the movement’s history and that the Klan has exclusively targeted black people. This glossing over of history represents a missed opportunity.
There have been three separate Ku Klux Klan movements. The Klan of 2015 is a different organization, or rather set of organizations, than the Klan of 1871 or 1920. Its members have different concerns than their earlier brethren. By examining those different concerns Bell could have demonstrated how white supremacy has changed, and how it has remained constant, over the course of the last 150 years. In doing so, he could have made a statement about our current political moment.
The first Klan was the Reconstruction-era Klan. It was founded in late 1865 or early 1866 by former Confederate soldiers. Under the leadership of the detestable Nathan Bedford Forrest, it terrorized and assassinated black and white radical Republicans and former Union soliders in an effort to reassert white supremacy in the South. It was suppressed by the Grant administration and rendered largely irrelevant by the betrayal of Reconstruction by Northern whites in the mid-1870s. After the 1874 mid-term elections white supremacists in the South no longer needed masks to kill black and white radicals. (For more on the first Klan see my recent lecture at Harvard).
The second Klan was founded in 1915 in Atlanta, Georgia. Its founder, the execrable William Joseph Simmons, was inspired by the W. B. Griffith’s white supremacist fantasy Birth of a Nation. This second Klan grew slowly at first and took until about 1924 to reach its peak. At its height it could claim five million members and held significant political power in nine states.* This Klan lasted until late 1940s by which time it only had a few thousand members.
The second Klan was distinct from the first in three important ways. First, it was as anti-immigrant organization. While the Klansmen (and Klanswomen) of the 1920s certainly terrorized blacks they were mostly concerned with the threat that European immigrants posed to “Anglo-Saxon civilization.”** They feared that “our government would be overrun with undesirables, and instead of being a Nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, become a veritable melting pot for the scum of the earth.”
Second, it was both an anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic organization. One of the primary objections that Klan members had to immigrants was that the undermined the place of Protestantism within the culture of the United States. They supported things likes women’s suffrage and universal public education because they saw them as strategies to both counter the influence of the foreign born within politics and force assimilation.
Third, the second Klan was a national, not sectional, organization. Its leaders claimed they had several hundred thousand members in states like Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon. These claims are believable in that the Klan exhibited significant public strength in these states either through large rallies or the election of public officials who openly supported the Klan.
The third Klan, the Klan that Bell encounters in his show, is more similar to the first Klan than the second in that it is primarily an anti-black and Southern movement. The first Klan owed its origin to white supremacist opposition to Reconstruction. The third Klan began as a white supremacist reaction to the civil rights movement.
If Bell had spent even a couple of minutes tending to the second Klan something would have become clear to his viewers. Its rhetoric is similar to that of the presumptive Republic Party nominee, Donald Trump. Like Trump, Klansmen of the 1920s painted immigrants are fundamentally threatening the nation. Compare this 1924 statement from the Grand Dragon of South Carolina to some of Trump’s utterances:
“The immigrants who come to this country form communities by themselves and congregate in the great cities. Paupers, diseased and criminals predominate among those who land upon American soil. They have a very low standard of morals, they are unable to speak our language and a great majority of them are unable to read and write their own language. They come from countries where they have been accustomed to a lower standard of wages and living and therefore, compete with American labor which is already overcrowded.”
Or contrast this statement about Catholics from Hiram Evans, the second Imperial Wizard of the Klan, to Trump’s words on Muslims:
“In Protestant America we must have time to teach these alien peoples the fundamental principles of human liberty before we permit further masses of ignorant, superstitious, religious devotees to come within our borders.”
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. As the Washington Post and other news outlets have documented his father, Fred Trump, might have been affiliated with the Klan. He has appears to have been arrested at a Klan rally during a time, 1927, when the Klan could hundreds of thousands of white Protestant men as members. It would not have been unusual for the elder Trump to have been a Klan member. A number of prominent Protestant white men at the time either were members or openly sympathetic to the Klan.
Whether or not Fred Trump was ever a member of the Klan is probably beside the point. Far more relevant is that by briefly discussing the second Klan Bell could have shown through his documentary how the ideas of that incarnation of the white supremacist Protestant terrorist organization are at the center, and not the margins, of contemporary American political discourse.
*For membership numbers see Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), xi. The states where the Klan held significant political power were Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Texas (see David Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, third edition (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), 80, 59, 200, 127, 72, 162, 57). I define a state in which the Klan held significant power as a state in which either a Governor or a Senator openly affiliated with the Klan was elected or a state in which the election of a Governor or a Senator was due to the mobilization of the Klan. Chalmers claims that Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, and Indiana were the states where the Klan held its greatest political strength.
**All quotes are drawn from my dissertation research. If you’d like the precise citation feel free to contact me.
Apr 21, 2016
This morning I tweeted “Now that #HarrietTubman is going to be on the #twentydollarbill can we have #reparations for #slavery? #blacklivesmatter.” Someone I knew in high school responded on my Facebook page, “I know this is your big issue, do you have your economic plan/analysis for viewing somewhere?”* My first impulse was to reply to this comment by directing the commentator to John Conyers H. R. 40, “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act” which he has introduced to every Congress since 1989. When I talk about reparations I usually say that I do not know exactly what form reparations will take. I point out that there is a precedent in the reparations that Japanese-Americans were given for their forced internment in camps during World War II. I then say that the first step towards reparations is the passage of Conyers bill. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers.
As I thought about the question I realized I wanted to offer a more detailed response. The United States is a country built upon a system of racialized capitalism. In racialized capitalism that raw resources of the earth are combined with the exploitation of primarily brown and black bodies to form the foundation of mostly white wealth. Chattel slavery was the foundation of racialized capitalism. Since abolition racialized capitalism has continued in alternative forms. I summarized its lasting impacts in a recent lecture: “The average wealth of a white family in this country is close to fifteen times that of the average African American family. Unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of whites. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites. African Americans, on average, live four years less than whites.”
Beyond “the peculiar institution” itself, the roots of these disparities include the failure of the United States government, after the Civil War, to offer any meaningful economic compensation to those who had suffered under slavery. This is why reparations remains an important issue today, 151 years after abolition.
I see reparations as taking place at three levels: the personal, the institutional, and the societal. Whites have benefited and continue to benefit from racialized capitalism at all of these levels. My Facebook friend’s response really only took into account the third of these, the societal. Briefly, here are a few my thoughts on all of them.
White people, no matter, their economic situation, benefit in myriad ways from racialized capitalism. On the personal level reparations require a recognition that race itself is a social construct designed to benefit some people at the expense of others. This recognition should lead to an admission of all the ways in which someone has benefited from being white. In my own case it has meant access to good schools and intergenerational wealth. It has also meant that I have never been targeted by the police.
In religious terms, all of this might be thought of as an act of confession. Ideally, it would also include a recognition of the many ways in which white people are in and of ourselves harmed by racialized capitalism. Du Bois rightly suggested that the existence of white racial solidarity was one of the major reasons why the United States has such an abysmal history of labor solidarity. I believe that undermining whiteness is an important step towards the general project of human liberation. I believe that this project will be partially achieved by the organization of strong democratic labor unions. Such labor unions are impossible to build when labor solidarity cannot trump racial solidarity.
One of the way in which social power is transfered between generations is through institutions. The myriad of benefits that come with, what one of my friends used to call, “the complexion connection” are often transfered through the participation in institutions.
On an institutional level, reparations might take the form of increasing access to people who come from marginalized communities to institutions that perpetuate privilege. Today, there are important conversations going on about how educational institutions like Harvard and Georgetown benefited from slavery. At Georgetown there is a project to track down descendants of 272 slaves that were sold to cover the schools debts. The school is considering a scholarship program for the slaves descendants. Reclaim Harvard Law is demanding the abolition of tuition.
A more radical and transformative approach might be to look at the barriers to entry to such institutions. Those barriers perpetuate various kinds of hierarchy, including, but not exclusively, racial hierarchy. Their abolition would go a long way to undermining those hierarchies.
Again, the first step here is passage of H. R. 40. The second step will almost certainly include some kind of redistribution of wealth. Personally, I suggest this redistribution take place in the form a mixture of institutional and individual ways. The infrastructures in communities that are compromised primarily of people of color have been systematically dismantled and divested in for generations (think Flint or Detroit). Reparations should include a rebuilding of these infrastructures. It might also include one time payments, as was in the case of Japanese-Americans. There are lots of ways such a redistribution of wealth might be effected. U. S. companies are currently hoarding over $1.4 trillion. The United States government could certainly tax a considerable portion of that hoard.
*I am not sure that I would characterize reparations as my “big issue.” It is certainly one of the racial justice issues that I feel strongly about and have been speaking and writing about for a long time. We live in a system of racialized capitalism that has unleashed an unprecedented ecological catastrophe. My big issue is engaging in the project of collective liberation that will ultimately result in the transformation of racialized capitalism into a social and economic system that benefits the majority of the world’s peoples and is ecologically sustainable.
Jun 28, 2015
preached at the First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, June 28, 2015
I have both the great fortune and the great misfortune of being in First Parish’s pulpit this morning. I have the great fortune because this has been a historic week in which we have seen the arc of the moral universe bend more than slightly towards justice. The Supreme Court voted to legalize same sex marriage throughout the country. In an instant same sex marriage went from being legal in some states to being legal in all states. We here at First Parish have a right to feel both joyful and proud of this moment. We should feel joyful because our cherished belief that society must recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all people has come more than a step closer to being a reality. We should feel proud because this congregation has been a pioneer in the struggle for same sex marriage and the rights of the BGLTQI community for not years but decades. More than ten years ago congregants Susan Shepherd and Marcia Hams were the first lesbian couple in the state of Massachusetts, and the country, to obtain a marriage license after this state legalized same sex marriage. Their marriage license was issued by then Cambridge City Clerk Margaret Drury, also a member of our church.
The legalization of same sex marriage is not only thing we have to celebrate this morning. The horrific terrorist attack on Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina has prompted states across the South to reconsider the display of Confederate flags. This symbol of white supremacy may finally be consigned to the museum. Elsewhere in the South serious conversations are taking place about what it means to have streets named after the white slaveholders who rose up in arms against the federal government to preserve slavery. What does it mean that in Tennessee there are more than thirty public monuments to the slave trader, Confederate general, and leader of the Ku Klux Klan Nathan Forrester? What does it mean that there no public monuments to First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry? The regiment was the first in the Union Army to enlist black men.
The victory of same sex marriage and seriousness of the national conversation about the significance of symbols of the Confederacy prompted one of my Facebook friends to observe, “It's a horrible week to be a racist homophobe.” And so, I have the great fortune of being with you this celebratory Sunday when find ourselves at one of the inflection points of history.
But I also have the misfortune of being with you the Sunday after our senior minister announced his resignation. If you are anything like me I imagine that most of you were shocked by Fred’s decision. Someone told me that when they first heard that Fred was resigning they thought it was an April Fools joke. And so, I know that there is a lot of confusion and that there are a lot of questions out there this morning about what is going to happen next. I know that our Standing Committee, Sue Phillips, the District Executive for the Massachusetts Bay District of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Fred are all working together to ensure a smooth transition. We will have an interim minister starting in October. But more important than that is the fact that our work as a congregation will continue even without Fred. Our work on racial justice and our growth as a multiracial and multicultural community will continue. Our work fighting climate change will continue. Our work on rights for the GLBQTI community will continue. All of the important social service work that takes place in our buildings will continue. I joined this congregation because its vision is bigger than any of its ministers. Fred has been an important part of that vision and he has carried a lot of it. We should mourn his departure. But we should be confident that work of this congregation will continue.
In the spirit of continuing, we now turn to the text for this morning. It comes from Martin King. It is a phrase he said often and included in his last sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He delivered it March 31, 1968 at the National Cathedral. It was the last Sunday morning sermon that he ever gave. On the last Sunday of his life King warned us that we as a human species had two choices, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” Forty seven years after King’s death we are still stuck with those two choices. This is a celebratory Sunday. On a morning like this we can almost imagine ourselves on the mountain top with King gazing into the promised land. But if we are honest then we will admit that the promised land still lies off in the hazy distance. We are very much at risk of perishing together as fools.
We may stand in a moment of national grace but we as a human species are on the brink of an existential crisis. If we cannot use the week’s miraculous moments to help us put aside our petty, willful, self-blinding, differences then there will remain little hope for future generations. We have to learn to finally unite across race, class, sexual orientation, and other human divisor to confront the fact that we are ruining the planet and with it our species long term chances at survival.
Now, I could provide you with a lot of data to back-up this assertion. I could talk about the gathering terror of climate change. I could mention the frightening rate that animal species are going extinct. That the polar ice caps are melting. That the sea level is rising. That fresh water is becoming ever scarcer. That the deserts are expanding. That forests are shrinking. I could mention that these patterns are accelerating. But we are a conscientious congregation. I suspect that you know all of that.
So here is the question we are confronted with: How can we learn to unite so that we can overcome the human created threat of extinction? This is fundamentally a religious question. It has to do with what binds us together. Are we humans more united by petty spite or by the crisis that threatens our continued existence of this planet? What must we do to recognize that, as William Ellery Channing described us, we are all members of the great family of all souls?
I could pretend that I have the precise answers to these questions. I do not. I struggle with them mightily. This week has reminded me that their answers are as much a matter of grace as they are individual human agency. Grace is a word that has been bandied about a lot this week. It was the keystone of President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, senior minister of Mother Emmanuel Church. President Obama said, “As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.”
Grace is usually understood as a gift from God. As President Obama put it, “According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell put it slightly more humanist terms when she preached, “What we have by grace. Grace cannot be earned. It is not deserved. It something freely given, with no price attached.”
Grace for us as individuals shows up as the chance encounters that shift our lives. Grace is the soft rain, the aromatic flower, the glistening refracted sidewalk, the unexpected blue stone, that prompts a subtle shift in perspective, a pronounced change of mood. Grace is that one time you went a party, even when you didn’t feel like it, and met someone, if only for an evening, who reshaped your life. Grace is the smile of an infant that opens the visitas of parenthood. Grace is those extraordinary moments when we respond to the universe around us and recognize that if we are not perish together like fools then everything must change.
Grace for our society is different. It is the unanticipated and unforeseen events that open up the possibility of social transformation. It is Morris Brown leaving the white controlled Methodist church in Charleston, South Carolina to found the African Methodist Episcopal church, a denomination that has struggled for racial justice for two centuries. It is the transformation of the Civil War from a war to preserve the white man’s union to a war to abolish slavery. It is the great senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner, whose statute sits just outside our sanctuary, calling for Reconstruction. He invoked the words of the Declaration of Independence and demanded “now the moment has come when these vows must be fulfilled to the letter.” It is Rosa Parks sitting down and starting the Montgomery Bus boycott. It is the transmutation of the assassinations of Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo into the Voting Rights Act. It is Stonewall sparking the movement for liberation that just brought us same sex marriage. It is Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole outside of the South Carolina State House and tearing down the Confederate battle flag.
There is a secret to this kind of grace, something about it that we often forget. It takes preparation. This might seem like a contradictory statement. It brings about a question. If social grace is the unanticipated and unforeseen how can we prepare for it? My answer: social grace brings hoped for social change. The keyword in this answer is hope. Hope is the belief that our human nature contains within it the possibility of change for the better. That no matter how drear, oppressive, cruel, or unbearable the world is things can be better because our human actions can make a difference. That we can, to invoke Martin King, make a way out of no way. Hope leads us to diligently prepare for moments where grace can erupt and seize upon them as soon as they do. A tragedy may occur but it can be shifted to grace.
Think about the events in Charleston, South Carolina over the last couple of weeks. There was a white supremacist act of terror that took the lives of nine people. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson were murdered. They were not killed just anywhere. They did not die in a shopping mall, a McDonalds, or an elementary school. They were gunned down in Mother Emmanuel Church, the founding congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.
An act of terror transformed into a moment of grace. Why? Because the congregation had been hoping, struggling, working, for that grace for almost two hundred years. It had helped it emerge before. It was a symbol for hope, for grace, for the truth that black lives matter. And so because the tragedy took place within its sanctified walls grace broke forth.
Now, I said earlier that the text for today’s sermon was “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” I should apologize for the dated gendered language. But more than that I should admit that so far I have been talking like we human may yet recognize each as members of the same family. That the danger of perishing together as fools is not a grave threat. But it is.
When I conceived of this sermon my intention had been to preach about the difficulty of doing something about the climate crisis. I was going to admit to you that a couple of years ago I made a resolution. I was going to devote an hour a week to doing something about climate change. It was a modest goal. One I thought I could easily accomplish. All it meant was that I needed to set aside thirty minutes twice a week. But I soon faltered. Why? Because I constantly got caught up in the crises of the moment. Climate change is a slow burning issue. There is always something more pressing. Last summer I planned to do a series of sermons on religion and climate change. Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson. Violence and instability in Central America prompted a massive influx of immigrant children. I spent my time preaching about racial, not environmental, justice.
So, I was going to talk with you about how the constant horrors we inflict upon each other gets in the way of us doing what we need to do to survive as a species. I was going to talk with you about my own despair and my own hope. I was going to confess my own paralysis and ineptitude. But grace got in the way. The events of the week reminded me of two things. First, any attempt at social change requires the social. My own futile attempts committing to work on climate change failed because I attempted to engage in the work by myself. I didn’t do it as part of a community. There was no one to encourage me. No one to hold me accountable. And, second, something about the recent events caused me to remember that white supremacy does not just rest in symbols or in acts of violence. It is about the systematic exploitation of black and brown bodies to produce wealth, wealth held primarily by white men. I also recalled that the symbols of hate can change. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s did not march with the flags of the Confederacy. They marched with the American flag.
It was my re-reading W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America” that prompted this recollection. Du Bois’s text is probably the greatest work of American history ever written. In it he describes the formula for white supremacy. It is a system of racialized capitalism. The formula runs the exploitation of brown and black bodies plus the despoliation of the natural resources of the planet equals the foundation of white wealth. Let me say that again, the exploitation of brown and black bodies plus the despoliation of the natural resources of the planet equals the foundation of white wealth. As Du Bois put it, “the South built... an oligarchy similar to the colonial imperialism of today, erected on cheap colored labor and raising raw material for manufacture.”
Re-reading Du Bois in the midst of both national tragedy and national grace helped me to listen to the words of President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, “As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.” It helped me to see that I had been blind to the links between the violence inflicted upon on black and brown bodies and the violence inflicted on the earth. Slavery exploited and destroyed black bodies. Slavery exploited and destroyed the natural resources of the South. If we are not going to perish together as fools then everything must change. We have to move beyond racialized capitalism. For that change to happen we need to figure out how to prepare for grace so that we can seize the unforeseen and unanticipated. And that is something we cannot do alone.
Before I conclude my sermon I want to give you a moment to think about how you can prepare for grace. And after that moment, I invite you, if you are comfortable, to turn to someone sitting near you and share with them what you can do. It can be something simple. It can be something more complicated. It does not matter. And it does not matter if you cannot think of something. You can listen. We have more wisdom together than we do alone. It is partially by sharing our wisdom that we can prepare for grace. I am going to ring this bell three times. The first time I ring it I invite you to sit in silence and think about how you can prepare for grace. The second time I ring it I invite you, if you are comfortable, to find someone to share with. The third time I ring it will be to call us back together. When I do there will an opportunity for a few you, if you wish, to share.
One thing that I plan to do to help prepare the way for grace is remember that white supremacy is a system of racialized capitalism. When I preach about ending racism I will remember to link racism to the exploitation the environment. When preach about climate change I will remember to link it to the exploitation of brown and black bodies. Is there anyone else who would like to share?
May the words we have spoken together help us prepare the way for grace. Some Sunday may this pulpit be able to declaim about the grace that helped us to change everything that must change. Some Sunday may we celebrate from this pulpit an end to the exploitation of black and brown bodies and an end to the exploitation of the earth. Some Sunday may we celebrate all of that grace as we celebrate the victory of same sex marriage today.
Amen, Aché, and Blessed Be.
May 4, 2015
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.
Jan 19, 2015
Yesterday during coffee hour someone came up to me quite upset about my support of the protestors who blocked off I-93 on Thursday. I was going to try to articulate a response on my blog but I instead found a piece on Dr. Rebecca Haines's blog, "Discrediting #BlackLivesMatter with ambulance concerns is disingenuous. Here’s why," that more-or-less said whatever I would have to say. The key passage, for me, in the post is:
During baseball season, ambulances are routinely prevented from reaching major Boston hospitals in an efficient manner. I wonder whether the people who are attempting to discredit the #BlackLivesMatter protest also speak out against the Red Sox and their fans for blocking traffic? After all, although the intent of the Red Sox fans and these protesters differ, the outcome is the same: Predictable though Red Sox traffic may be, emergencies are by nature unpredictable, and emergency vehicles do become stuck on their way to the Longwood Medical Area on game days.
You can read the balance of the post here. While you're at you might check out "To the People Complaining About the Inconvenience of the Highway Shutdowns" by Patrick M DeCarlo.
Jan 18, 2015
preached January 18, 2015 at the Winchester Unitarian Society, Winchester, MA
There is a particular scenario that I have experienced several times since I left my pulpit in Cleveland, went back to graduate school and started on my career as an itinerant preacher. It runs something like this: I receive an invitation to lead worship for a wealthy, overwhelming white, suburban, Unitarian Universalist congregation like this one. The person issuing the invitation asks me to preach about social justice. 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 Michael Brown 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 always 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 Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Amadou Diallo 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 jury who decides if the police officers that killed Sean Bell are guilty of murder. It is the federal government who determines if the policemen who killed John Crawford III 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 police officers are very rarely held accountable for any of these deaths.
In ethics we make a distinction between the general and the particular. The general, black men and boys are frequently the victims of unjustifiable police homicides. The particular, that police officer murdered that black man. I might be erroneous in stating that Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. I am not erroneous in claiming that police officers frequently get away with murder.
Consider the data. The web site FiveThirtyEight reports that grand juries almost always return indictments. That is, they almost always return indictments except in the case of police shootings. In 2010 U.S. attorneys convened 162,000 grand juries. Only 11 failed to indict. Yet, in Dallas, Texas, from 2008 to 2012, grand juries investigated 81 police shootings. They returned only one indictment. In Huston, Texas, a police officer hasn’t been in indicted since 2004. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, reports that from 2004 to 2011 police officers shot and killed more than 2,700 people but only 41 of them were charged with murder or manslaughter.
The few police officers that do stand trial are convicted at a far lower rate than members of the general public. Their accounts of events are more likely to be believed by juries than the accounts of ordinary citizens. By the time we get to the bottom of the statistics only about half of a percent of police officers that kill someone while on duty are ever held legally accountable. Put differently, a cop who kills someone while on duty has only a 1 out of 200 chance of being convicted for any crime. That suggests that systematically they get away with murder.
Perhaps you do not find such evidence convincing. Perhaps you agree with my coffee hour interlocutor and find my language, my use of the word murder, to be troubling. Perhaps you think that I am being unfair and unsympathetic to the police. They are, after all, public servants. Their job is to keep people and property safe. Well, if you think that then my reply is that it is the job of the preacher to be provocative. If you find yourself provoked I hope that you will ask yourself why. I suggest that it might have something to do with privilege, the color of your skin, your zip code and the contents of your wallet. There is a reason why my coffee hour interrogator is a white male. There are also reasons I have coffee conversations of this type when I preach in places like Carlisle, Lexington, and Milton. Just as there are reasons why no one troubles me about my choice of words when I preach in Copley Square or Dorchester.
I want to trouble you this morning. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin King identified white moderates as one of the greatest obstacles to racial justice. He wrote, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate... the white moderate... is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Elsewhere, he went even further, saying, “riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice.”
I want to trouble you this morning. I want you to consider that even if I might be wrong with the particular I am right with the general. Our justice system sanctions the frequent legal unjustifiable murder of black men and boys. And that has to change.
I want to trouble you this morning. I want you to recognize that our society has developed what Michelle Alexander has labeled the New Jim Crow. This country is the heir to a legacy of racism that stretches back more than four hundred years. That legacy will not disappear if we close our eyes to it. Martin King told us that there are some things in our social system to which we ought to be maladjusted. We ought to be maladjusted to the fact that police kill black men at more than three times the rate they kill whites. We ought to be maladjusted to the fact that poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of European Americans, that the average white family was twenty times the wealth of the average black family, and that African Americans live, on average, four years less than European Americas. The election of the country’s first black President has not ushered in a post-racial era. We ought to be maladjusted.
I want to trouble you this morning to ask the question that people asked Martin King fifty years ago in Montgomery, Alabama. They asked him, “How long will it take?” You might remember his reply, “it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I want to trouble you and suggest that we know better than to give King’s answer. Change might be coming but we are a long ways from the tipping point. King might have seen the mountaintop, he might have seen the promised land, but for us they are still in the distance.
Let us not despair. There are reasons to be inspired. We can take inspiration from today’s new civil rights movement. And we take can inspiration from movements of the past. This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Selma, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act. This year we also celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War and, with it, slavery. Abolitionists, antislavery activists, civil rights organizers, and members of today’s new civil rights movement share an important commonality. They all linked, or link, personal transformation with social transformation. Recast in religious language, they understood and understand that social salvation begins with personal conversion. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams defines conversion as a “fundamental change of heart and will.”
To end racism, white moderates will need to undergo a fundamental change of heart and will. Such a change is often prompted by an unusual event or encounter. We had just such an event here in the Boston suburbs this past week when protesters shut down I-93. I imagine some of you were inconvenienced by the four and a half hour blockage of the highway. Maybe you feel, like Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Deval Patrick, that the new civil rights movement is disruptive. Or you resent the four and a half hours of traffic snarls that the action brought on. Four and a half hours because that was the length of time police in Ferguson, Missouri left Michael Brown’s body on the street after Darren Wilson shot him. You might do well to consider these words from the protestors, “Boston is a city that stops, on average, 152 Black and brown people a day on their ways to work, to their homes, to school and to their families. Is that not ‘disruptive’? Boston is the third most policed city per capita in the country. Is it not disruptive for Black and brown residents to live under this extensive surveillance, under police intimidation and brutality?”
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 Michael Brown, unarmed and shot with your hands up in the air. Imagine that you are Eric Garner, choked to death by a police officer after saying “I can’t breath” eleven times. Imagine that you have to give your son the Talk, the words of warning many black parents offer their children. “If you are stopped by a cop, do what he says, even if he's harassing you, even if you didn't do anything wrong. Let him arrest you, memorize his badge number, and call me as soon as you get to the precinct. Keep your hands where he can see them. Do not reach for your wallet. Do not grab your phone. Do not raise your voice. Do not talk back. Do you understand me?” Imagine these things and you might undergo a conversion.
One of my advisors at Harvard, John Stauffer, wrote a book a few years back called “The Black Hearts of Men.” In it he chronicles of the story of four friends, two black men and two white, who struggled together to end slavery. You might recognize some of their names: John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and James McCune Smith. During his research John discovered that these abolitionists, following McCune Smith, understood that there was key to ending slavery and racism. They believed, John writes, “whites had to learn how to view the world as if they were black, shed their ‘whiteness’ as a sign of superiority, and renounce their belief in skin color as a marker of aptitude and social status. They had to acquire, in effect, a black heart.”
It was Douglass’s confidence in his white friends ability to achieve such black hearts that enabled him to nurture hope in the decades of struggle that led to emancipation. He might admit, “that the omens are all against us,” as he did in the wake of 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which effectively stripped all African Americans, free or enslaved, of their rights. But he could proclaim, as he did in the same speech, “Oppression, organized as ours is, will appear invincible up to the very hour of its fall.”
Conversion has long been a central concern of religious communities. Unitarian Universalists like us are often made squeamish by the term. We dislike the way religious fundamentalists use it to direct attention away from this worldly concerns and onto other worldly concerns. Let me suggest that, nonetheless, conversion should be a principal interest of ours. Our congregations should be sites of conversion, sites for a change of heart. In our religious communities we should challenge each other to develop the empathy necessary to see the world from a different point of view. If you are white, try seeing the world as if you were black.
Conversion is one of the principal reasons why some religious communities have been at the forefront for social change. Martin King understood this. He understood that we have to link our personal transformation to our process of social transformation. Religious communities are uniquely positioned to do so. 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 help you mobilize your congregation. Maybe you already do these things. If you do, keep doing them. If you don’t then consider making a late New Years resolution and trying one of them.
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. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It is never too late to start. There’s a wonderful interracial Afrohouse dance night I attend in Boston called Uhuru Africa. There are regularly people in their seventies on the dance floor. If you haven’t done so already, mobilize your church. Develop a partnership relation with an African American congregation. Do things regularly with them. Join an urban interfaith coalition. Participate. If you put yourself out there you will eventually expand your network. It might not be easy, it might not be comfortable, but it will happen.
In addition, to expanding your perspective you have to ask questions and you have to commit to actions. 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. Can you participate in the new civil rights movement? There’s a march tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. in downtown Boston starting at the State St. Station. What can you do as a congregation? 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?
I know that there is more wisdom in this room than I have. I know you can figure what you need to do. The time for conversion, the time for a change of heart, is now. It is time to say no 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. As you consider my words, I offer you these by Martin King: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
May we hear these words and upon hearing them act.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 25, 2014
In the 1920s and the 1930s the NAACP used to hang a flag outside the window of its offices in Manhattan with the words “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday." The narrative often told in histories of the civil rights movement is that lynching declined and was outlawed in the 1960s. Lynching is often described as extra-legal punishment; that is punishment that takes place outside of the bounds of the law. During the age of lynching the murderers of people of color were frequently exonerated for their actions by courts of law.
The killing of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson’s acquittal fits a pattern. A black man is killed by police, or in Trayvon Martin’s case under legal pretenses, and a court fails to convict the killers. I refuse to believe that the verdicts in all of these high profile cases in recent years have been untainted by white supremacy. I refuse to believe that justice has been served. I want to raise the questions: Is it time to bring back the word lynching to describe the killings of black men by police officers? Can we say that Michael Brown was lynched? What about Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice?
Lynching is an act of public violence. It is legally sanctioned by the society in which it takes place, it does not matter that this occurs after the fact. Lynchers escape legal punishment for their acts. Michael Brown was killed in public. His killer will not be punished. His body was left in the street for four hours. It was put on public display, images of it appeared throughout the media.
Many people might argue that using the language of lynching to describe what happened to Michael Brown is unnecessarily inflammatory. I disagree. By using the word people who care about justice can signal that justice does not reign in the United States and that the civil rights movement did not bring racial justice to this country. We do not live in a post-racial society. There is a direct line of continuity that can, and should, be drawn from slavery through Jim Crow to the present day.
More than fifty years ago, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. made the distinction between unjust and just laws. He wrote, “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” King wrote these words to defend his civil disobedience against white supremacy in the 1960s South. A law that consistently acquits police officers of the killing of black men is an unjust law. It is a law that stands outside of any moral law. It must be overturned. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo... a man was lynched yesterday.