Mar 9, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 8, 2020
This month in worship we are focusing on compassion. Rev. Scott got us started last week with a sermon in which he affirmed the psychotherapist David Richo’s claim, “Compassion is love’s response to pain.”
“Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain,” Rev. Scott told us. “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.
Compassion is a core Unitarian Universalist value. Our tradition claims that love is the most powerful force in human life. Love beats hate. In theist terms, we argue, God is love. Love is God. God loves everyone, no exceptions. In humanist terms, we recognize that love, more than anything else, is what knits human life together. And as Unitarian Universalists we strive we be a loving community, instantiating among ourselves what Josiah Royce, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, called the beloved community. We struggle to be a space where everyone, without exception, can find their place and be encouraged, and supported, in living into their full human potential. And then we work to take that vision of the beloved community into the wider world.
Compassion, having sympathetic thoughts and feelings for others and then seeking to put those thoughts and feelings into action. Compassion, love’s response to pain. Compassion, it is something I suspect we are all going to be called to exercise in significant amounts in the coming weeks. The coronavirus is spreading throughout all of humanity. It is here in the United States. It has reached Houston. And our religious tradition calls us to be compassionate as we, collectively, respond to the viral outbreak.
This compassion should take several forms. We should demand that our public officials allocate adequate resources and take shift appropriate action to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We should not stigmatize or shun particular groups of people--people of Asian descent, for instance--because we irrationally blame them for the virus. The virus has the potential to impact everyone and people of all ages and ethnicities have been infected with it.
And we should each do our part to limit the rate at which the virus propagates. Wash your hands frequently, with hot water and ample soap--hum Happy Birthday twice the way through. Do not shake hands, I have been encouraging people to bump forearms instead. Cover your cough with a kleenex and then throw that kleenex away. If you feel ill stay at home--we offer paid sick leave to our employees here at First Church, if your workplace does not and you are sick and worried about missing a paycheck contact me or Rev. Scott and we will see how we can help you. Clean surfaces like doorknobs that people frequently touch. And hardest of all, avoid touching your face.
They might seem banal, but these are compassionate actions. They are ways we put our concerns for others--concerns that they might be stricken by the virus--into action. If the viral outbreak reaches epidemic portions here in Houston the staff and I are prepared to continue to offer Sunday services and pastoral counseling online as part of our compassionate efforts to help the community weather the viral storm.
Compassion, looking around our sanctuary am I sure you have noticed that it looks a bit different this morning. We have close to sixty photographs on our walls here and in the Fireside room because of my belief that art can stir sympathy, empathy, and, ultimately, compassion within us.
This year our congregation is part of FotoFest. FotoFest is the longest-running international Biennial of photography and lens-based art in the United States. It is one of the largest photography festivals in the world. It has an audience of around 275,000. We are serving as a Participating Space. That means that we are one of about eighty venues from around the city who have chosen to be part of FotoFest and exhibit art throughout the festival. Some of the other venues include the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Menil Collection, the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University, the Houston Museum of African American Culture, and the Houston Center for Photography. So, we are in pretty good company.
FotoFest opened yesterday. That is why, I should note, that we are focusing on it today and not Women’s History. We will observing Women’s History throughout the month by drawing our readings exclusively from women. With the exception of today, when Zsófia invited us to support the International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women, we will be supporting Planned Parenthood through our shared offering for most of the month. And at the end of the month, I will give the sermon drawing explicitly from feminist and womanist theology that I would normally have given on the Sunday nearest March 8th.
Our exhibition is called “Now is the Time: Leonard Freed’s Photographs of South Africa’s 1994 Election.” My father, Dr. Howard Bossen, and I curated it together. My Dad is with us this morning. And I would like to thank him and my Mom, Kathy, for their tireless efforts to make this exhibit happen. I would also like to thank First Church’s fine staff. Alex, Alma, Carol, Gustavo, Jon, and Scott all put in--and continue to put in--an extraordinary amount of work for “Now is the Time.” Tawanna, our wonderful Business Administrator, deserves special mention since, on top of all of her other duties, she served as project manager. We also had help from the staff at the Libraries of Michigan State University, CrateWorks Fine Art Services, and Artists Framing Resource. We owe Bill Harrison thanks. Bill printed the images and then he did a rush job to print a second set after UPS lost the first one. And we owe Justin Griswold from CrateWorks particular gratitude. He was here until 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening hanging the show. And, of course, none of this would have been possible without our funders: Michigan State University, Thorpe Butler and Rita Saylors, and Lindley Doran and Charles Holman. And showing the exhibit would not continue to be possible without the assistance of all our volunteer docents. We have a lot of shifts to cover and if you have not volunteered to be a docent there is certainly still the opportunity to do so.
Before we move into the rest of the sermon I want to tell you how the show came about. A key part of FotoFest is its portfolio review program. This is where artists and curators, editors, gallery owners, publishers and other industry professional meet with photographers to look at the artists’ work. My father is a Professor of Photography and Visual Communication at Michigan State University. He has been one of FotoFest’s reviewers for close to twenty years. When I moved to Houston, FotoFest’s Executive Director, Steven Evans, asked my Dad if he would ask me if we would be willing to serve as Participating Space. Apparently, the folks at FotoFest have been interested in partnering with our congregation for many years. My Dad put us in touch and Steven paired First Church with a curator.
This was back in June of last year. We spent about five months working with this curator. And then in late November, I got a call from that curator. They had been unable to raise the money they needed for the exhibit that they were planning. They were backing out. I asked Steven what to do. He told me it was way too late to pair us with another curator. All of the deadlines for Participating Spaces are in early autumn. So, he said to me, “Why don’t you do something with your Dad? We would really like First Church to be part of FotoFest. I can give you a week to figure something out.” A week is not a long time to come up with a plan for an exhibit. But, I called my Dad, and well, here we are.
I am excited that are we able to be a venue for “Now is the Time.” Leonard Freed, whose work we are featuring, was a major American photographer. He was a member of Magnum Photos, the world’s premier photography collective, and for more than fifty years he travelled the world documenting major events. He used his art to stir sympathy and compassion and, during the 1950s and 1960s, break the “almost complete isolation between the races.” His work is in the collections of places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles.
Freed is best known for his photographs of the civil rights movement, particularly the set of images that were included in his 1968 “Black in White America.” It is a beautiful book. It documents African American life in the last days of Jim Crow. And it documents African American life right after the end of legal segregation.
There are lot of powerful pictures in that book. One of the most effecting is of a line of eight or nine African Americans standing in line to vote in a federal election for the first time in Washington, DC. They are in one those utilitarian spaces that often serve as polling places--I imagine it is a school gym or cafeteria or, maybe, a church basement. They are all ages. There is a tall distinguished gentleman wearing what looks like a tweed jacket, well pressed slacks, and perfectly shined shoes. There is a young woman in a long coat and knee length skirt with a large purse under her right arm. In her right hand she is grasping a white slip of paper, presumably documenting that she is eligible to vote. Everyone in the photograph looks like they have been waiting a long time--which, of course, they have been. They have been waiting however long they have been waiting in that line. And they have been waiting however long they have been alive. For this is the first that any of them have been able to vote in a national election. It does not matter that the man is probably over eighty and that the woman is most likely under thirty. They have both been waiting precisely the same amount of time: their whole lives. And they look tired--because I bet that line is a long one--and they look determined--because winning the right to vote was not easy.
Viewed from the vantage of Houston, Texas in the year 2020, the photograph is actual quite disturbing. It could have been taken on Tuesday. It could have been taken here in the Fourth Ward. It could have been taken in Third Ward. It could have been taken in almost any community of color in the state of Texas. Since 2012, the state’s Republican leadership has worked to close 750 polling places throughout the state. The vast majority of them have been closed in communities of color.
On Tuesday, I voted in polling place near Montrose in River Oaks. There were about a half dozen polling places for me to choose from in easy reach of my apartment. Now, I live in an affluent and predominately white area. And when I went to a polling place, I waited about fifteen minutes in line. I have a friend who lives in the Fourth Ward. She waited over an hour and a half to vote. And some people who voted at Texas Southern University--a historically black university--had to wait as many as six hours in line.
Compassion is not just having sympathy for those people who had to wait for hours and hours to vote. It is putting that sympathy into action and organizing to demand that people have easy access to voting.
Compassion, you can find images of people waiting to vote almost anywhere online. And these days, we are inundated by visual images at almost all times. They can overwhelm us. How many of you have a smartphone? And how many of you use Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter? I have them all on my phone. They have a common feature called endless scroll. Endless scroll is what repopulates your phone with images as you move your finger down the screen. No matter how many “friends” you have on Facebook or “followers” you have on Twitter, the social media companies constantly refresh your account so that you never run out of images. Endless scroll is just that--a string that seemingly goes on forever that you can never reach the end of, that is always presenting you with new content, new images, new videos, new sources of stimulation.
Endless scroll can be entrancing. I do not know about you, but I sometimes have the experience of scrolling from image to image on Instagram without even knowing that I am doing it. Sometimes I look up and realize that fifteen minutes have passed. It would be difficult for me to tell you what images I saw or engaged with during that time. They all went by in a catatonic blur.
The social media accounts that I follow come from all over the world. I follow news sources like the New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Guardian, and La Jornada--a very fine daily out of Mexico City. I follow a painter from Japan, anarchist labor union activists from Spain, organizers from Northern Syria, photographers from the Czech Republic, historians, philosophers, theologians, and religious leaders, from well, really, almost anywhere. And then there are my actual friends, who, in our highly connected global society, live on every continent except Antartica.
One of the wonderful things about social media is that is it actually can link people from throughout the world together. I have, through my smart phone or computer, access to the words, sounds, and images from people who live in bustling cities and in remote villages. If I want to, I can actually communicate directly with them and find out something more about their human experience. I share with them some of mine. And maybe our digital interaction can open us up to being compassionate towards each other and help us recognize that truth about the human experience--lifted up in the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association--we are all connected, we are all part of the great web of being, we are all members of the great family of all souls, and what happens to you, in some way, minor or major, happens to me also.
One of the terrible things about social media is that it can make people numb to what is going on throughout the world. I have had this experience myself. I look at my phone and there are images of people dying under Assad’s brutal regime in Syria. I look at my phone and there are images of people suffering from the coronavirus first in China, then in Italy, and now, well, here in the United States. I look at my phone and there’s an image of a young African American man who has been killed by the police. I look at my phone and there’s images of the children who Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have placed in cages. There are images of people who have been deported back to Central America and killed by gangs. There are images of... Well, there are a lot of awful images out there--images that provide a testament to just how terrible we humans can be to each other.
And you know what, I usually think to myself, “I cannot deal with this right now.” And scroll past the world’s horrors to look at pictures of a friend’s dog’s birthday party, a friend drinking beer at the cutest graffiti coated bar I have ever seen, a very nice looking breaking competition, a couple’s anniversary--one partner in a striking red dress, the other in an elegant tuxedo--, a delicious meal of fresh brilliant colored market vegetables, and, of course, cats. Like a whole lot of the world, I like images of cats--running, sleeping, or playing with some kind of improbable object. Cats are cute. Cats are goofy. Cats can easily bring a smile to my face. Cats can help me forgot the brutal things we do to each other.
Do you ever have the same experience? Where you look at the difficult news of the world and think to yourself, “I just can’t?” A bit more than a decade ago, when she was trying to grapple with the constant barrage of images of the Bush regime’s torture policies that were appearing in the New York Times and other places in the then dominant print media, the philosopher Susan Sontag observed, “An ample reserve of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”
I suspect that the constant barrage of graphic images induces compassion fatigue in a lot of us. Compassion fatigue is the anger, dissociation, anxiety, and even nightmares that we experience from feeling powerless to change the world’s ills. It comes from what Sontag called “a quintessential modern experience,” “[b]eing a spectator of calamities taking place in another” place.
Endless scroll offers us the opportunity to spectate endless and exhausting calamities. It can dilute the power of the image to open us to compassion. And that is one reason why I think exhibits like “Now is the Time” and social documentary photography remain important even when we are constantly inundated with images. The framed image, mounted on the wall, allows us, offers us, the chance to stop and consider the human experience--or the natural world--in a moment of time.
Now, of course, all photographs are curated representations of reality. There is always something outside of the frame. The image is always partial and seen through the lens of the photographer. The photographer’s aesthetics and ethics--their choice of what they represent and how they represent it--is always shaping the image. When they produce an image, they are indicating that this transitory moment in time, this flitting bit of consciousness, matter, and experience, is worth preserving.
Freed’s work in “Now is the Time” preserves impressions of an historic shift, the end of apartheid in South Africa. He travelled there for three weeks to document the country’s first multi-racial election. As a white Jewish man from the United States, a white Jewish man who knew about the Holocaust and Jim Crow and the struggle for civil rights, he created his curated representations of the election that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power.
His images are not the images that would have been made by someone with a different social location--they are not the images of a black South African who participated in the struggle to end apartheid. And they are not the images of a person who had suffered the social stigma of apartheid or Jim Crow. Nonetheless, they are designed to open their viewers to the fullness of the human experience--to remind us that there is joy and friendship and wonder. That human society can shift. That apartheid ended.
The title of the exhibit comes from one of the African National Congress’s slogans during the 1994 election, “Now is the Time.” The slogan is evocative of Freed’s photograph of the people waiting in line to vote. Now is the time for change. It has finally come, after all these years of suffering and struggling and waiting and waiting. Now is the time, it has arrived. Now is the time to be compassionate towards each other and act together. Now is the time, if you want to learn more about the exhibit, my father will be offering a lecture about it next Sunday at 7:00 p.m. And I will be doing at least one gallery talk between now and when the exhibit closes at the end of April.
I hope that you will take time after the service or during the exhibit’s hours to study the photographs. There are a few that we have placed behind a curtain because they are not appropriate for Sunday mornings. But all them will offer you an opportunity to interrupt the endless scroll of visual imagery and look carefully at transitory moments of time, constructed representations, that, will do a little to help you with whatever compassion fatigue you might be experiencing. As you do, I invite you to remember words from Nikki Giovanni that we heard earlier in the service:
we must believe in each other’s dreams
i’m told and i dream
of me accepting you and you accepting yourself
Such words remind us of the possibility of compassion.
As you view Freed’s images, I invite you to consider these words by Nelson Mandela, words that he offered in his inaugural address as President of South Africa:
“We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success.
We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.
Let there be justice for all.
Let there be peace for all.
Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.
Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”
We would do well to hear Mandela’s word. They challenge us to be compassionate--to take our sympathy and empathy for others, sympathy and empathy that are rooted in our shared human experience, and transform them into the action of compassion.
We would also do well to pause, and look, and see if we can be stirred to compassion by all the rich visual imagery on display throughout the city of Houston during FotoFest. Our faith calls us to be compassionate. And the art which surrounds during these festival months has the possibility of inspiring us to greater depths of compassion--to transform our sympathy and empathy into action.
We are one human family, one world community, whether we like it or not. If we are to survive and thrive we must be compassionate towards each other. Let us remember that and, in doing so, let us recognize that now is the time to act--to work for voting rights, to do what we can to combat the coronavirus (no shaking hands after the service), to seek justice, and to build the beloved community.
Now is the time.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Jan 22, 2019
“...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” is one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous quotes. Former President Barack Obama liked it so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. We Unitarian Universalists like to make much of the fact that the quote is not entirely original to Martin King. A slightly longer version of it originates with Theodore Parker, a famous nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister.
The quote expresses a sentiment that historians sometimes label as Whiggish. The label comes from the old British political party the Whigs. They viewed themselves as champions of progress. In a Whiggish view, history is an inevitable march forward. Sure, there might be temporary setbacks, even catastrophes, but humanity is consistently becoming more democratic, more free, more prosperous, more equal, and less violent. “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” we might not know when it will dawn but the better world is coming. It is always on the horizon.
This is the classical Unitarian Universalist conception of history. It rests upon our ancestral refusal to give into the orthodox Christian notion that humanity is innately depraved. Instead, our religious progenitors believed that each of us contain within the likeness to God. With such a likeness inside of us, we cannot help but ultimately grow in collective wisdom. We cannot but help watch the world improve generation to generation.
Like Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke was a significant nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister. He boiled the theological position of the Unitarian abolitionists of his day down to five points, a sort of seven principles for the late nineteenth-century. Unitarians, he argued, believed in: “the Fatherhood of God... the Brotherhood of Man... the Leadership of Jesus... Salvation by Character... [and] the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.”
The language is highly gendered, Christocentric, and theistic. There is a lot in it that many of us would object to. However, it is the last point, human progress “onward and upward forever” that we are... well... we are wrestling with today. The words are just a slightly different way of saying “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It is another articulation of a Whiggish, of a progressive, view of human history.
Advocates of such a view might well select the triumvirate of Parker, King, and Obama as proof of the enduring validity of Whiggish history. Parker, the abolitionist fought for an end to chattel slavery. Chattel slavery was ultimately defeated. On June 19, 1865, right here in Texas the Union army announced the total emancipation of the enslaved people of the state. They were the last people mislabeled as slaves in the rebellious states that had formed the Confederacy. Their emancipation represented the extinction of chattel slavery in the United States. Slavery had existed in one form another throughout almost all of the societies in human history. Its destruction in this country and this state was a major human achievement.
King, the nonviolent prophet of the civil rights generation. King, the prophet of a generation who at the highest personal cost cashed the promissory note written into the Emancipation Proclamation. King, who saw the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. King, a leader of a movement that could eventually sing, in the words of the incomparable Nina Simone, “Old Jim Crow don’t you know / It’s all over now.” King, who died in Memphis, Tennessee while extending the struggle for civil rights to a struggle for economic rights, dignity, and a share of the world’s prosperity to poor and working people everywhere. King, whose last words to us were, “I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know... that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
And Obama, the first black president. Obama, the man whose election to the world’s most powerful office seemed a major blow to the enduring structures of white supremacy. Obama, the politician who could talk confidentially about the Moses generation and Joshua generation. He spoke this way during his first campaign for President. Invoking the biblical narrative found in the book of Exodus, Obama drew a comparison between the Moses generation and Joshua generation and the civil rights generation and his generation. The Moses generation was the generation who escaped bondage in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The Joshua generation was the generation that arrived in the promised land. In the former President’s analogy, the civil rights generation was “the Moses generation [who] pointed the way” to freedom and a land filled with justice. And his generation was the Joshua generation who was tasked to build the promised land and “to finish the journey Moses had begun.”
Jay-Z remixed this narrative in a track called “My President is Black” which he released shortly before Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth President of the United States. Eliding the abolitionists, Jay-Z said, “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.” You might prefer the earlier version: “the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Either way, it is Whiggish history.
Now, you might be all feeling a little suspicious right now. If you read the blurb for this sermon or you have listened to me before you might realize that I am kind of setting you up. I am not a big proponent of Whiggish history. This may make me a bad Unitarian Universalist. It might even make me a bad minister. There are those, like Martin King, who say that one of the primary tasks of the minister is to remind the people that there is “a power that is able to make a way out of no way.” That it is my job to tell you, as Kendrick Lamar puts it, “Do you hear me, do you feel me, we gon’ be alright.” That I am supposed to follow the charge in our hymnal that reads, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage; / preach the kindness and / everlasting love of God.”
You may noticed that my own rhetorical style leans towards the jeremiad. The jeremiad is a literary form, often but not always a sermon, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society, the decay of morality, and predicts impending social collapse. The term comes from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. In the biblical narrative, Jeremiah is described as living in the last years of the ancient kingdom of Judah. During his lifetime, the text tells us, the kingdom fell to the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem. He saw the people of Judah exiled into the kingdom of Babylon. The text that carries his name records him consistently pronouncing doom and gloom upon the land. He is always trying to get his people to change their ways before it is too late and the wrath of God is visited upon them.
The words attributed to Jeremiah suggest that goodness has gone from his land:
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
The words ascribed to the prophet predict God’s vengeance:
I will make an end of them
-- declares the Lord:
No grapes left on the vine,
No figs on the fig tree,
The leaves all withered;
Whatever I have given them is gone.
The words imputed to the prophet are compassionate and frequently hopeless:
Because my people is shattered I am shattered;
I am dejected, seized by desolation.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Can no physician be found?
Why has healing not yet
Come to my poor people?
The federal shutdown, endless partisan bickering, the acquittal of three Chicago police officers for trying to cover up the murder of the black teenager Laquan McDonald, the rising threat of totalitarianism, children in cages, the closing of hearts, the closing of borders, the existential threat of climate change, these are bitter days. “Assuredly, thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to feed that people wormwood and make them drink a bitter draft,” the book of Jeremiah claims. These are bitter days and in these days the words: “You will not find a man, There is none who acts justly;” “No grapes left on the vine, / No figs on the fig tree;” and “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Can no physician be found?” all resonate with me more than the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” or any other notion of Whiggish history.
This may be something of a congenital defect on my part. I confess that on the Sunday following Barak Obama’s 2008 election I preached a sermon, invoking Martin King, titled “Drum Major for Justice or Drum Major for Empire?” I am going to let you guess the direction I took that sermon.
I have a habit of critiquing this country’s political leaders no matter what their party affiliation--deflating the balloons of optimism even when the days do not seem particularly bitter. I am skeptical about Whiggish history even in the sweetest of times. Like Jeremiah, I look at this country’s history and I see the tragic. I worry that the bitter days that have come will stay more than a little while. That progress is temporary, fleeting, at best, and that there are no permanent victories over even the most wicked sins. That William Cullen Bryant, who King loved to quote, was wrong when he said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” That emancipation was followed by Jim Crow, that the civil rights movement was followed by the New Jim Crow of mass incarnation. That the Joshua generation was followed by a neo-Confederate political regime. That the bitterness of oppression is an enduring part of the human experience.
There are, of course, those who in the midst of this present bitterness would offer us some kind of Whiggish history. Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. This morning we are celebrating this country’s greatest prophet. I suspect that there are a number of religious communities you could visit this weekend where you might hear a more optimistic message. And I know that if you listen to the radio or watch television or turn on a podcast or look at your social media stream sometime this weekend you are going to hear Martin King’s most famous words. They are not “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” They are “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by content of their character.” And if you go to wrong worship service or turn on the wrong radio show, you might even find someone foolish enough to say that King’s dream has been accomplished today.
But we know that is not true. These last few years it has been hard, if not impossible, to feel like “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” These are bitter days. And it seems like the bitterness is growing day-by-day. Time might even be running out for humanity. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we squabble about building fences on borders. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we cannot overcome white supremacy, war, police violence, poverty, or any of the other lesser human made woe. Bitter days.
But Martin King also lived in bitter days. His times were such that he warned us, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must learn to live together as brothers -- or we will all perish together as fools.” Before he was brought down by a white man’s bullet, he lived to see the murders of numerous civil rights workers and leaders for liberation. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Harry and Harriette Moore, the Unitarian minister James Reeb, the Unitarian laywoman Viola Liuzzo... So many lives cut short for the crime of striving for justice.
Amid all that bitterness, Martin King… well… Martin King was prone to jeremiads himself. In some of his last sermons he warned, just like Jeremiah, “The judgement of God is on America now. America is going to hell too, if she fails to bridge the gulf” between the rich and the poor, between people of color and whites. “If something doesn’t happen soon, I’m convinced that the curtain of doom is coming down on the U.S.” He observed that the nation was in the grip of the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. He understood that the choice was ultimately between overcoming them and human extinction.
And he knew that we all were complicit in feeding the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. King spoke directly to us Unitarian Universalists twice. Once, in 1966, he gave the Ware lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The other time was in 1965 when he gave the eulogy for James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was murdered by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama. He told us that the question, Who killed James Reeb was the wrong question to ask. His eulogy is worth quoting at some length:
“What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sherrif and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every [and here I have to apologize for the dated language] Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.”
Can you hear the echoes of Jeremiah?
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
Theodore Parker lived during bitter days too. He died in 1860 before the war over slavery--which we call the Civil War--brought emancipation and an end to inhuman bondage. We Unitarian Universalists like to lift up Parker as an exemplar of our tradition. Yet, many of his actions would probably make most of us uncomfortable today. He counseled armed resistance to slavery. He hid people fleeing from slavery in his home in Boston. He wrote his sermons with a gun on his desk to defend them against the kidnappers called slave catchers in case such vile men were stupid enough to come to his house. He helped arm John Brown for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Not surprisingly, Parker was hardly popular among the Unitarians of his day. Most of his fellow ministers refused to exchange pulpits with him. Many of the Unitarian elite were involved in the textile industry and had business dealings with slave holders in the South. He almost came to blows with Ezra Stiles Gannett, the President of the American Unitarian Association, over slavery.
And so, you probably will not be surprised when I share with you that Parker too was prone to the jeremiad. Here a few words of his taking to task other members of the Unitarian ministerial conference in Boston:
We see what public opinion is on the matter of slavery; what it is in Boston; nay, what it is with members of this Conference. It favours slavery and this wicked law! We need not go to Charleston and New Orleans to see slavery; our own Court House was a barracoon; our officers of this city were slave-hunters, and members of Unitarian churches in Boston are kidnappers.
“You will not find a man, / There is none who acts justly.”
Martin King and Theodore Parker, these men were not fools. These men gave their own jeremiads. And yet, they believed “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
They were able to make this statement because they were both theists. They believed in a God who was ultimately on the side of the oppressed. A God who, in Parker’s gendered nineteenth-century words, “continually commands us to love a man and not hate him, to do him justice, and not injustice.” A God who, in King’s gendered twentieth-century words, made it so “there are just and there are unjust laws.... 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 moral law.”
And here I offer you a closing confession. My problem with the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” is not primarily my skepticism about human progress. Though I am skeptical. Nor is it even my own tendency towards the jeremiad. My problem is that for the moral arc to inevitably bend toward justice it requires some that there be kind of divine, theistic, force in the universe that is able to make a way out of no way. And I must admit that really, truly, in my heart of hearts, skeptical about the existence of such a force. Often when I go looking for what many of us label God I experience absence rather than presence. And I suspect that since we are in a Unitarian Universalist church this morning you might well feel the same way. You might find that humanism or atheism or agnosticism or whatever label you want to put on it resonates with you more than any kind of theistic position. And if you do, you might well be skeptical about the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I suggest we rephrase the words just slightly. Instead of “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” I suggest, the arc of the moral universe is long but we can work to bend it toward justice. And I suggest that when, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, we look to the life of the country’s greatest prophet we can see someone who strived to bend the moral arc. The bending was not inevitable. It took great work and it came at the greatest cost. It was something that happened because an entire generation--Martin King and Diane Nash and Ella Baker and James Reeb and Malcolm X and all the names known and unknown--struggled to make it so. And that it if it is to bend again, if the sermon is to be more than a jeremiad but to end on a note of hope, then that will be because there are those in this generation, those living now, who put their faith in our human ability to bend it.
The arc of the moral universe is long but we can bend it toward justice. This Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday let us look to the lives of the great prophets—people like King and Parker. When we look at them we will see that if the arc is to bend that it will be because we humans bend it. This is our calling and our challenge this day and all the days of our lives. May we rise to it.
Let the congregation say Amen.