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Jan 18, 2015

The Omens Are All Against Us

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.

CommentsCategories Human Rights Ministry Sermon Tags Ferguson Michael Brown Eric Garner #BlackLivesMatter Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Police Brutality Anti-racism

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