preached at First Parish in Milton, Unitarian Universalist on July 21, 2013
This morning’s sermon is a reflection on the question: what does it mean to be present to justice? If you have been here for either of my last two sermons you might remember that for the month of July I am offering a sermon series on Unitarian Universalism as a religion of presence. Last week we reflected on the question: what does it mean to be present to each other? Next week we will conclude by asking: what does it mean to be present to the holy? This week though is justice…
The events of the recent weeks prompt me to reflect on our question as it relates to race in the United States. I could easily pick another area to focus on, struggles for reproductive, environmental or economic justice, but the last month’s news has been such a clear reminder that, as theologian James Cone would say, “racism is America’s original sin” that focusing on any those topics seems irresponsible.
The Supreme Court decision to overturn part of the Voting Rights Act and the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case have been powerful reminders that this original sin remains as present as ever. The election of a black President has not brought about a post-racial society. The news program Democracy Now reported this past week that in 2012 alone there were 313 documented extrajudicial killings of African Americans by police, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes like George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin’s murder was horrifying, in part, not because it was exceptional but because it was ordinary. Almost once a day a similar scenario to Zimmerman’s murder of Martin plays out some place in the United States. And when it does the justice system often responds in a similar way, the murderer is not held accountable.
We could spend the rest of the morning talking about how the justice system, which should really be called the injustice system, oppresses and violates people of color. The system frequently grants impunity to their killers, as long as those killers have light skin. The injustice system also incarcerates people of color at much higher rates, and for longer periods of time, than white people. If you have not read it yet, you should read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” which documents how the injustice system has in the past few decades been used to disenfranchise, oppress and violate African Americans. In Alexander’s telling, a telling which is backed by a plethora of data, the injustice system has replaced Jim Crow. The United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In some communities of color as many as 1 out of 3 adult males are either in jail or on probation. In most cases these people have had of their rights as citizens, including their right to vote, stripped away from them.
I could spend the rest of my sermon going into Alexander’s thesis in greater detail and dissipating the illusion of a post-racial society. I could explain how Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin is but the latest outrage in a society that values the lives of young men of color much less than it values the lives of young white, and light skinned, men. I could quote to you an op-ed by Mac D’Alessandro, a member of this congregation, at length and observe “that unless we act quickly, there are going to a lot more Trayvon Martins out there.” I could tell you that Mac’s parents taught him, no matter how humiliating the situation, to always respond to the police “Yes, sir” and not offer “the slightest bit of expressed indignation” if he, as a black man, did not want to end up “physically assaulted or worse.” But if I spent all morning doing that I would be delivering more of a lecture than a sermon and I expect that many of your eyes would glaze over, and your hearts would harden, in a haze of depressing statistics and horrifying narratives.
The purpose of this sermon is to aid us in thinking about how we can be present to justice. I want to advance the thesis that being present to justice isn’t so much about being aware of injustice but learning to act in a different way. President Obama made a similar point this week in his statement on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case when he said, “…in families and churches and workplaces… ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”
The Martin case and the Supreme Court decision have both had me thinking about the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement. Many of the leaders and activists in that movement understood that while it is important to change racist and unjust laws it is more important to change racist attitudes. Martin Luther King, Jr. claimed that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” He believed that without that a revolution in values “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” would continue to reign. No matter what the law, if people do not change their behavior towards each other racism will continue to be fact of life.
Among the civil rights leaders who advocated this view is Staughton Lynd. Lynd is not one of the most well known or important of the civil rights activists. But he was present at, and was involved with, many of the crucial events of the movement. He taught at Spellman College in Atlanta in the early 1960s. He was an advisor to the Student National Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, there and throughout the South. He was most notable for his involvement in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, during which he served as one of the two co-chairs of the Freedom Schools. He achieved his greatest notoriety a few years later when he was fired from Yale for his political activism and black listed from the academy. Since then Lynd has written a dozen books on the history of the civil rights, labor and anti-war movements and been a tireless activist for social justice. His books balance the scholarly and the personal. Like many a great teacher, they are illustrated with numerous parables. This one comes from Freedom Summer and is found in the memoir “Stepping Stones” which he co-wrote with his wife Alice: “One morning that summer I woke up early in the room I had rented near the Summer Project headquarters. I went over to the office. Someone was already there. It was Jim Forman, national chairperson of SNCC. He was sweeping the floor. He is the only person in a similar position of authority whom I have ever encountered performing such a task. Alice and I attempt to act likewise.”
This story encapsulates Lynd’s vision of justice. In it a black man, Forman, and a white man, Lynd, are working side-by-side to create a better society. Both are sufficiently dedicated to the vision to risk their lives. The Civil Rights activists were frequently threatened with violence. Freedom Summer went ahead even after, just as it was beginning, three of its volunteers were murdered. Despite this existential threat Forman and Lynd continued to work together. The society that they sought to create was more radical than one which simply contained racial equality. They wanted a society filled with such a sense of egalitarianism that the national chairman of important organization could be found sweeping the floor. In such a society all work would understood to be important. In the society where every kind of work is seen as important every worker has dignity. The slogan of the garbage workers strike that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed supporting was “I am a Man.” The society that Lynd wants is one in which all people, be they garbage workers or important leaders, have value. Lynd’s parable suggests that the way in which to bring about that society is not to talk about it. It is to act as if it already exists. And that means that everyone, even the most important person, lends a hand in cleaning the office.
So, that is Lynd’s vision of justice. What is yours? My friend Chris Crass, from the anti-racist organizing collective the Catalyst Project, has developed a fantastic guided meditation to help people imagine just world. If your congregation is like most groups that I have worked with you have not had many opportunities to do such imagining.
This is unfortunate. We know that every movement for justice begins with imagining that the world can be different than it is. The abolitionists who fought to end slavery were bold enough to imagine a world where slavery did not exist. This despite the fact that until the Civil War slavery had existed in some form in every human civilization. This despite the fact that slavery was the bedrock of the United States’s economy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders like him had, in King’s words, “the audacity to believe” that the world could be free of racism and violence. They imagined that world and then set about building it. Today in this country slavery is outlawed and the overtly racist laws of the Jim Crow South have been overturned.
What do you have the audacity to believe? If tomorrow, the world you are working to create was brought into being, what would it look like? I invite you get comfortable. Close your eyes. Notice your body. Notice how it feels to sit in your chair. Take a deep breath. Feel the air as it enters your lungs, bringing with it the life force. As you exhale, feel your body releasing your stress and any negative emotions you have. Feel that negativity drain into the ground. Stay with your breath and focus on it as you inhale and exhale five times. Now, give yourself permission to think creatively and expansively about: The world you are working toward creating. What is your vision for social justice? We all see a lot of violence and harm institutionally and interpersonally. If we could re-imagine all of that shifting, all of that hate and fear disappearing, what would the world look like? What would it look like in your family or in your home? In your neighborhood? How would people relate to each other? How would people relate to resources and to the planet? In this new vision, what is valued, who is valued and how? What kind of institutions or resources would be in your neighborhood? What kind of services would there be? What would they look like? What would the values of the economy be based on? How would decisions get made about things affecting your neighborhood? How would conflict be dealt with? What kind of activities might be going on? Can you think about other countries or communities? Do the ways they are organized and the values they share inspire you? Are there things that you draw from your community or family that inspire parts of your vision? When you are ready, bring yourself back to what is happening in our sanctuary. Hold onto your vision. As you do, I invite you to consider these words from Arundhati Roy, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Your vision, however, tenuous is part of the better world’s quiet breath.
As we move to the close of the sermon, I want to share with you two of the most enduring images of the better world that is coming. The first of these is present in Allen Ginsberg poem “Psalm III” which we heard a little earlier this morning. Ginsberg commences his piece: “To God: to illuminate all men. Beginning with Skid Road.” He concludes: “I feed on your Name like a cockroach on a crumb — this cockroach is holy.” The beginning and the conclusion of the poem invert the normal order of things. The holy is found first in the cockroach and on skid row. It does not exist solely in the delicate flower.
This sense of inversion, the standing of the presumed order of things on its head is one of the most enduring tropes about justice. Throughout the Bible we find images of the world turned upside. In that world, as Jesus would have it, “the last will be first, and the first last.”
Maybe the most radical statement of inversion are found in another set of words by Jesus, often called the beatitudes. I imagine that you have heard them before. Whether you have or you have not, they bear repeating. The verses that people are most familiar with appear in the Gospel of Luke as: “Blessed are you who are in need; the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who now go hungry; you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now; you will laugh.” Most people, however, forget the next few verses, probably because they are more challenging to the standing social order. It is all good and well to say that those in need will be satisfied or those who weep will soon laugh. It is more difficult to hear: “But alas for you who are rich; you have had your time of happiness. Alas for you who are well fed now; you will go hungry. Alas for you who laugh now; you will mourn and weep. Alas for you when all speak well of you; that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.”
The theologian Harvey Cox observes that this second part of the beatitudes, what he calls the “woes” “do not appear in church school materials and they are rarely the text for sermons.” For people with even a modicum of privilege, the prospect of turning the world upside down is a scary one. Scary as it may be, the image remains a necessary. Cox argues elsewhere that “our most potent resource [for building a better world is]… the human imagination.” Imagining the world turned upside down simultaneously awakens a sense of the possible and highlights reigning injustices.
The filmmaker and author Michael Moore penned an editorial about racial injustice that turns the world upside down. It came out more than a decade ago and begins, “I don’t know what it is, but every time I see a white guy walking towards me, I tense up. My heart starts racing, and I immediately begin to look for an escape route and a means to defend myself. I kick myself for even being in this part of town after dark.” Moore goes onto observe “person who has ever harmed me in my lifetime… has been a white person.” It is, of course, worse than that as he reminds his readers that white people have “started every war America has been in,” were responsible for the Holocaust and the genocide of North America’s indigenous peoples. He states, “You name the problem, the disease, the human suffering, or the abject misery visited upon millions, and I’ll bet you 10 bucks I can put a white face on it faster than you can name the members of ‘NSync.”
Moore’s point, and mine, is not to trigger a sense of white guilt. It is instead to prompt the question, “why is it exactly that I should be afraid of black people?” Imagining the world turned upside down can help us ask the right questions rather than focusing on the wrong ones. President Obama engaged in a similar act of imagination this week when he said “I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?”
Part of the answer to our question: what does it mean to be present to justice? is clearly being present to the possibilities, and the truths, that the imagination sparks. A second possible answer can be seen in another passage from the Christian New Testament, one also from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has just healed a group of lepers and he’s being questioned by a group of Pharisees. The Pharisees were amongst the social activists of their day and they wanted to know when the Kingdom of God was going to come. That is to know when and where they could find justice. Jesus answers, “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 within you!”
Jesus’s statement can alternatively be translated, “the kingdom of God is among you!” If the verse is translated as “among you” then it suggests to me that the kingdom of God, which is another way of speaking of the presence of justice in our lives, can be lived right now in the way that we treat each other. If the verse is translated as “within you” it similarly suggests that the kingdom is to be found in the way that we live our lives. It suggests that the kingdom is encountered when we look inside ourselves and discover what Immanuel Kant called “the moral law within.” Whether the verse is translated as “among you” or “within you” it suggests that we need not wait for some distant eschatological event to live our vision of justice. We can start doing so right now. Waiting for justice will only delay it.
If we want to see racism disappear we need to begin by interrogating all of the places where racism exists in our lives and seek to eradicate it there. It is not a matter of simply speaking out. It is a matter of changing behavior. And we each have the power to do that. Do you have a friend or relative who places the blame for urban violence on people of color? Challenge them. Do people of other races and ethnic groups make you uncomfortable? Do you avoid them? Change that. Join the NAACP or another anti-racist organization like Boston’s Black and Pink, which is devoted to supporting BGLT prisoners, most of whom are people of color. Visit an African American or immigrant religious community.
Understanding that the Kingdom of God is within and among us means understanding that we have the power to change the world through our actions. Each of us can take action, whether the gestures we make are grand or small. Staughton Lynd, after all, found Jim Forman’s choice to sweep the office floor just as inspiring as all of his other work for justice.
As a religious community, we Unitarian Universalists have long known this. Our theology has always had a decisively this worldly focus. Instead of waiting for the kingdom of God to arrive we have sought to build it here. Our religious ancestors emphasized the religion of Jesus, his parables, his stories and his example, because they believed, as theologian Rebecca Parker puts it, we are called we called to be citizens “not of of somewhere else but of here.”
Let us continue that tradition. Let us answer the question: what does it mean to be present to justice by seeking to actualize the visions we each found this morning. Let us imagine the world upside down and be present to the Kingdom of God that is both within and among us. Doing so is the only way that we ensure that one day, be it distant or soon, we will be able to say that there are no more Trayvon Martins. Young black men will not believe that they must always say “yes, sir” to the police or fear walking home at night with a bag of candy and container of ice tea. Instead, they will stride through the streets confident that everyone they encounter will see them as children of the divine, just like everyone else. May it be so.
Amen and Blessed Be.