Politics and Blame

Rev. Meredith Garmon, Liberation, part 1

READING: “Please Call Me by My True Names” by Thich Nhat Hanh
Don't say that I will depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin a bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his "debt of blood" to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.

Hardly even looks like me.
After President Obama announced his Supreme Court nomination on Wed Mar 16, I received many congratulations from friends and acquaintances. I went along with the joke and posted on Facebook that I was a little surprised to be nominated, but more surprised that newspapers were so consistently misspelling my name "Merrick Garland."

Alas, neither Merrick Garland nor Meredith Garmon appears likely to get a Senate hearing. The Senate majority leader says, “let the people decide,” to which the answer – to repeat what everyone with a grasp of the obvious has said -- is: they did decide. The people decided in 2012, understanding that the term of that decision was four full years. Ah, but it is an election year – and this Supreme Court hold-up is only a small part of the shall we say surprising developments of the campaign season thus far.

I want to talk today about liberation, and I want to talk about it in the context of the issue that, one way or another, underlies much of the campaign rhetoric with which we are inundated. That issue is responsibility, fault, blame, the cause of inequality.

If some group of people is having a hard time, to what extent is that their own fault, and to what extent can we expect that, acting collectively and compassionately, we can establish the conditions for better lives for all our neighbors?

How much of the quality of your life right now is a product of your individual virtue – or your personal flaws – and how much of it is a product of the way the social system is set up?

One line of thought has it that poverty is the fault of the poor. If minorities or women succeed less well, it’s because there’s something they aren’t doing that white men do. Lately we’ve been seeing that now it’s certain sectors of white men who are having a harder time. Mortality rates for white, middle-aged Americans are on the rise – their suicide rate is up, as is their alcoholism and drug abuse, notably prescription opioids. “Life expectancies of non-college-educated white Americans have been plummeting in an almost unprecedented fashion.” (Kevin Williamson, National Review, 2016 Mar 28)

Some writers can at least claim the virtue of consistency. They are sticking to the “it’s their own fault” line, even when the group in question is white men. Kevin Williamson, for example, writes in National Review about “the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy” that is besetting the small-town white working class. He says,
“It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington,... It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico. It wasn’t any of that.... The economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America.... Nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.” (Kevin Williamson, National Review)
So that’s one approach. People just need to get themselves together; do what they need to do. If people aren’t doing that, it's a crisis of values, not of opportunity. They don’t value hard-work. Gumption and determination is all it would take for them to make more of their lives. “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” they say. This is, it’s worth remembering, actually a physically impossible thing to do.

The thought that you could pull yourself up by your own bootstraps is a failure to see the whole picture. In the case of literal bootstraps, it’s a failure to see all of the physics at work. It’s easy to see the upward pull of the hands, but when you tug on bootstraps there’s also, necessarily, an equal and opposite downward push of your feet. In the case of metaphorical bootstraps, it’s a failure to see all of the social system at work.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Liberation"
See also
Part 2: Fault Line
Part 3: The Proper Beginning


What Will Save Us

Rev. Meredith Garmon, Acceptance and Resistance, part 3

While Christianity may often seem to be predominantly concerned with private, individual salvation, there have been, within Christianity, counter movements to the privatistic version. The Social Gospel movement of the 19th century, and liberation theology in the 20th have aimed to reclaim Jesus' social revolution. Those are positive developments.

The temptations of private salvation can also afflict Budddhists. Withdraw from the world, do intensive meditation, attain enlightenment, nirvana, satori. The rest of the world doesn't matter. Take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, and have a turtle life.

"The view of Buddhism as a mystical religion far removed from the realities of the workaday world has been a major part of the faith's appeal in the West." (Brazier)
To be sure, the message also spoke of Buddhist compassion to one another. Buddhist compassion, however, like Christian love, has too often been taken to mean being nice to people with whom we are in face-to-face contact rather than the faceless people far away who sew our shirts, or work the fields of our sugar and coffee. There is, within Buddhism, a counter movement to the privatistic version. Liberation Buddhism aims to reclaim Buddha's social revolution. This is a positive development.

And it has always been a part of Buddha’s teaching. Social transformation is an intrinsic dimension of Buddha’s – no less than Jesus’ -- original goal.

Socially engaged Buddhism looks a great deal like Unitarian Universalism. Engagement on behalf of justice, equity, and compassion. World community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Buddhists in the west and east alike have in recent decades been recovering social engagement:
"action in society rather than reliance upon meditation and devotion alone;
-nonviolence and ecological awareness rather than monasticism;
-interreligious dialogue and a willingness to find allies among followers of other faiths;
-a search for a new economics at least to abate the destructive effects of wealth disparity and environmental degradation;
-a gender inclusivity;
-a concern with institutional as well as personal reform." (Brazier)
But how exactly do we get from a blissful acceptance of things exactly as they are to this kind of activism on behalf of changing things? How do those things which seem to pull in opposite directions turn around and become the same direction? For the beginning of an answer to that, let me turn to Ruben.

Ruben Habito was my Zen teacher for 10 years, up until a couple years ago. Ruben is a slight Filipino man now almost 70 years old. As a young man, he became a Jesuit priest, got stationed in Japan, and found himself practicing Zen at a monastery there for 16 years before coming to the states and taking a faculty position at SMU’s Perkins Theological School. In one of his books, Healing Breath: Zen Spirituality for a Wounded Earth, Ruben wrote:
“To see the natural world as one’s own body radically changes our attitude to everything in it. The pain of Earth at the violence being wrought upon it ceases to be something out there, but comes to be our very own pain, crying out for redress and healing. In Zen sitting, breathing in and breathing out, we are disposed to listen to the sounds of Earth from the depths of our being. The lament of the forests turning into barren desert, the plaint of the oceans continually being violated with toxic matter that poisons the life nurtured therein, the cry of the dolphins and the fish, come to be our very own plain, our own cry, from the depths of our very being.”
With deep acceptance of our world and of our selves comes a seeing through of the artificial boundary between what is me and what is other.

Cultivating a love for what is turns out to also cultivate awareness that what is -- is me. “Mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars” – they are all me. The earth’s forests, deserts, oceans are my own body. When I stop believing those thoughts that judge everything in light of my own separated, isolated interests, then I start recognizing that I’m not separated or isolated. Loving the world and loving myself become the same thing.

And when that happens, I naturally reach out to soothe suffering. Resistance to social injustice, to the despoiling of our planet, doesn’t so much feel like resistance anymore. It feels like simply being carried in the flow of love for what is.

To put it in one word, the force which turns acceptance and resistance around so that they pull in the same direction rather than in opposite directions is this: compassion.

Of course, there is a great deal of resistance in this world that isn’t grounded in compassion. That’s the kind of resistance to practice letting go of – that’s where last month’s theme comes in: letting go. Resistance grounded in compassion rather than in the illusion of a separate self: that’s the kind of resistance that is also known as love and that, in public, goes by the name justice.

Social activism fueled predominantly by anger, by resentment, by condemnation of the evil other will burn out, will be counterproductive, will fail us. Social activism fueled predominantly by acceptance, by compassion, by loving all that is and therefore naturally moving to care for all that is – social activism that, while attentive to effective strategy, is not attached to results – that is what will save us.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Acceptance and Resistance"
See also
Part 1: Creating the Better, Accepting the Real
Part 2: Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional


Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason

Rev. Meredith Garmon, "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason," part 3

When zombie stories spread and began to be told and modified by the middle and upper classes, zombies represented a different sort of horror. These stories featured zombies terrorizing the oppressors -- which is to say, normal middle-class Westerners like you and me. Middle- and upper-class people in the developed world maintain a lifestyle that is possible only through considerable oppression, often tantamount to slavery, of large parts of the world who labor to feed our voracious, insatiable appetite for stuff.

In modern zombie stories, the zombie is still the living dead, as in the Haitian original,
"but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias....The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea." (Amy Wilentz, NY Times)
We push this uncomfortable fact out of our minds as much as we can, yet we who are the oppressor fear what we have oppressed and enslaved. These perfect workers we exploit and deny autonomy to may yet come after us. We have forced others, for our material gain, into a state of unthinkingness, yet we recognize, consciously or unconsciously, that that very unthinkingness puts them out of relationship with us, gives them a certain power to threaten us unconstrained by the mores our class takes for granted, the mores we call "rationality."

What began as stories expressing the fears of oppressed people have now become stories expressing the fears of the oppressors. Our own consuming appetite, we project upon the zombies. In our fearful imaginings, they come to consume us -- just as providing for our material comforts and conveniences has consumed so many of them. They want to eat our brains, for independent thought is exactly what we have sought to strip them of.

Can it be coincidence that the contemporary boom in tales of zombie apocalypse coincides with alarming income inequalities that have been worsening since 1980? We know our world is out of balance. We sense it even if we don't say it. We are afraid of what that imbalance will lead to, and our zombie movies and tales express that fear.

The story of reanimation of the dead from 2000 years ago is very different. Jesus was no zombie. His resurrection represented the opposite: a liberation of mind and spirit. He comes into his full power as a spirit-being who can appear and disappear in our material world at will. Freed of the need to calculate – to solve problems, to advance and defend ideas any more – the resurrected Jesus is freer than ever to just be and to love. There are no more sermons on the mount or on the plain, no more parables and teachings to try to persuade, no more money-changers to chase out of the temple, no more exasperation over "ye of little faith."

The resurrected Jesus mostly simply appears to people. He shows his wounds to Thomas. He has a meal with the disciples. He tells Peter to “tend my sheep.” Mostly it’s just appearing: just being there, and shining a light of love. That’s not the activity of reason and rationality. It represents instead the liberation from the insatiable need to figure out this, and then figure out that, develop a strategy for accomplishing some purpose – all the things that reason is good for. The resurrected Jesus simply sees, and is seen, and his being itself blesses.

Zombies represent the loss of reason. Jesus' resurrected state represents the transcendence of reason.

Zombies are pulled out of the half-way house of reason into complete enslavement. Jesus transcends the half-way house of reason into complete liberation.

For zombies, death and reanimation represents the loss of the autonomy that comes with reasoning ability. For Jesus, death and resurrection represents the loss of the ego, that oh-so-rational part of us that marshals concepts, advances claims, and works so hard to preserve its self-identity.

Living in the rational mind is a half-way house, for, again, reason does liberate us from many of the chains of the mind. The zombie stories, told first by oppressed and then by oppressor, illustrate the ways that without autonomy, without being able to think for ourselves, to reason for ourselves about what to do, and the freedom to act on our rational decision-making, we are undead: alive yet not alive, the living dead. And forces of oppression that deprive others of that freedom risk triggering unreasoning, brain-eating reprisal.

Yet life in the rational mind is what I call a half-way house – which is a term from our correctional system. A half-way house is not as constraining as prison, but isn’t fully free either. Rationality cannot get us the rest of the way to freedom. We use rational concepts to cut through certain chains, but then we become attached to those concepts, and end up bound and limited by them.

Only love gets us the rest of the way to liberation: unreasoning, uncalculating, unstrategic love. Without reason, we are undead. Without love, we are also undead, alive yet not alive, the living dead.

May we, too, be risen. Maybe, as the Easter story suggests, it takes a kind of death -- a death of the ego, a death of the identified self with all its attachments, a death of what we thought our life was all about, a crumbling away of all the rational reasons we have constructed for living the kind of life we've been living. With that death, a resurrection into a liberated, liberating life of love becomes possible. May we be risen indeed.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason"
See also:
Part 1: Unitarians, Universalists, Reason, and Love
Part 2: Can We Talk About Zombies for Easter?


Can We Talk About Zombies for Easter?

Rev. Meredith Garmon, "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason," part 2

Love has subversive power, and I prefer subversion to open battle. I prefer, and recommend, for the sake of our own emotional and spiritual well-being, looking for ways to make connection with people of more traditional Christian faith. Let us connect rather than denounce and vilify.

Reason is very good at denouncing and vilifying. However, when it comes to my inner demons, the better strategy is to embrace, befriend, and then re-direct that energy -- and, likewise, when it comes to outer demons -- who are not demons at all, but people whose cognitive rational functioning is typically as high as mine is -- the better strategy is embracing and befriending.

A wise life recognizes the limitations of reason. A full life honors and celebrates all of who we are, including all our nonrational tendencies. Enjoying music, delighting in beauty and poetry, enjoying good food, falling in love -- these are not rational things. If those of us who do not identify as Christians can connect better with those who do, then we’re part of the conversation. We can introduce various alternative directions that those stories point. But we have no chance of subverting the dangerous ways of interpreting the gospels if we refuse to talk about the gospels at all. So, let Unitarian Universalists not be shy about knowing and referencing gospel stories.

Like Easter. There are four Easter stories – a different one in each of the four gospels. (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – which I mention for you just so you’ll know, because surveys are showing that only about half of Americans today can name even one of the gospels. Indeed, one article noted, "Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition.") Jesus, a charismatic teacher and healer was executed by crucifixion on a Friday. By the time his body was brought down from the cross it was late in the afternoon – with Sabbath beginning at sundown. Since there’s no burying allowed on Sabbath, his body was placed in a temporary tomb, a cave, until it could be buried on Sunday. Mary Magdalene, either alone or with other women, went to the tomb carrying spices to prepare the body for burial. At that point the four stories become quite different.

If we are interested in historically what actually happened, we don’t have much to go on. In the Gospel of Matthew, there’s a tantalizing clue. Some of Jerusalem's rulers, says Matthew, bribed the guards to affirm, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep” (Matt 28:13). So maybe some disciples really did come by night and steal away the body. Maybe Matthew was trying to discredit the guards’ inconvenient testimony by saying the guards had been bribed to lie.

But historical accuracy is not the point. It doesn’t matter. The point is that each of the four different stories – whether they are history or fiction -- have something to tell us about loss and death. The dead are with us. Those who are gone continue to live in memory, where they are not merely stored but also grow and change, for every time the brain recalls a memory, the memory is changed through association with the situation in which it is recalled. Those who are gone from us are not merely entombed in memory, they are actually growing and changing there – living, we can say.

I do think this is funny. But, no,
Jesus was not a zombie.
So I was thinking about the Easter story, and how it’s a story about reanimation of the dead, and that reminded me of a very different sort of story about the reanimation of the dead: zombies. I am not comparing Jesus to a zombie. I am contrasting, because the contrast will illustrate how rationality is a half-way house.

Zombie stories, like the Easter story, come in many different versions. Zombies have become huge in popular culture – movies, and TV shows from World War Z to the Walking Dead to iZombie depict endless variations on the zombie concept. Zombie stories originated in Africa and were further developed in the voodoo culture in Haiti in the 19th century and probably earlier.

In the mainstream Haitian tradition, before Hollywood began making its modifications of the story, zombies are “undead” – animated, yet entirely under the control of the bokor, a sorcerer.

Zombie stories originated as an expression of the fears of an enslaved and oppressed people. Zombies represent a loss of cognition, of independent thought -- of rationality and of free will. As slavery and oppression led people to feel the loss of their minds, their freedom, their humanity, they told stories of zombies that represented what they felt like. It was a way for the enslaved and oppressed to depict what they feared they were becoming, and also a way to remind them that they weren’t quite zombies yet. Though their conditions deprived them, they could hold on to self-respect and dignity and refuse to be like zombies in the story.

Zombie scholar Amy Wilentz explains:
"In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery. For the slave under French rule in Haiti — then Saint-Domingue — in the 17th and 18th centuries, life was brutal: hunger, extreme overwork and cruel discipline were the rule....To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand. It is thought that slave drivers on the plantations, who were usually slaves themselves and sometimes Voodoo priests, used this fear of zombification to keep recalcitrant slaves in order." (NY Times, 2012 Oct)
Zombies never get tired. For Haitian slaves, that was about the only kind of hell worse than the one they were living -- nothing but constant toil, without out even the possibility of death as respite.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason"
See also
Part 1: Unitarians, Universalists, Reason, and Love
Part 3: Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason


Unitarians, Universalists, Reason, and Love

Rev. Meredith Garmon, "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason," part 1

"He is risen! She is risen! They are risen! We are risen! OK, everybody up? Excellent. Now what?"

I posted that on Facebook early this morning, as I have every Easter morning for the last five or six years. This year, the first comment I got was: “Dance party!”

The second comment I got was: “Now we get to work healing this messed up world.” Which made me think: “Before or after the dance party?”

But then I thought, “Duh! The dance party is part of the healing.”

I’m thinking about Easter this morning, of course. What does Easter mean for Unitarian Universalists? I’m thinking about our Unitarian tradition of rationality.

The 1819 sermon by William Ellery Channing called “Unitarian Christianity” served as the manifesto of Unitarianism – a declaration of independence as a new American denomination. Channing emphasized the use of reason in Biblical interpretation. A generation later, Theodore Parker’s sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity,” expressed doubt about the miracles Jesus was supposed to have performed. It was the teachings that mattered, said Parker, not the magic tricks. Our form of Christianity was following the road of reason.

In the 1920s, Unitarian ministers John Dietrich and Curtis Reese followed that road of reason and began dispensing with everything that was supernatural – anything outside the well-ordered laws of nature and of logic – including God. The cross came down from the wall of Rev. Dietrich’s church, and of Rev. Reese’s. In the 1930s, the crosses came down from a few more Unitarian churches. In the 1940s, the rate of purifying our denomination’s temples of crosses had gained speed and momentum, and by the time our congregation moved into its current home in 1959, no cross was ever installed.

Unitarians and Universalists began as Christian Protestant denominations, but we followed the reason road to a different place. And that was good. It was necessary.

Religion, by and large, is so often irrational and actually harmful. Studies find that countries that measure higher on religiosity also measure higher on violence, drug and alcohol addictions, teen pregnancies, imprisonment rates, and high school drop-out rates. For all that we try to do to formally separate church from state, when magical thinking is encouraged on Sunday, people are somewhat more prone to magical thinking on social and political issues the rest of the week, and the consequences are disastrous.

We need rationality. We need the openness to data that doesn’t fit with our expectations and the willingness to follow where the facts lead, rather than where either our own ego needs lead or where prior ideological commitments lead. We need reason. As this campaign season reminds us almost every day: we badly need some reason.

So what does Easter mean for us rational Unitarian Universalists? When it comes to liberation (our theme of the month for March, which you have been exploring in your Journey Groups) much as we need reason, living in the rational mind is a half-way house. I call it a half-way house because reason does liberate us from many of the chains of the mind -- but not all of them. Rationality cannot get us the rest of the way to liberation. Only love gets us the rest of the way: unreasoning, uncalculating, unstrategic love.

That is my Easter message.

So I do particularly want to remember the Universalist side of our heritage. Our congregation here in White Plains was Unitarian. In 1961, when the two denominations consolidated, our congregation went from Unitarian to Unitarian Universalist, but we did not add Universalist to our name until just last June. So on this Easter Sunday, in the very first Easter sermon to the Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains, let us remember our Universalist side.

The rising rationality I was talking about was a Unitarian phenomenon. The Universalists always had comparatively more emphasis on love and comparatively less emphasis on reason. The name “universalist” comes from the teaching of universal salvation, that there is no hell, that everyone goes to heaven, that a loving God would not condemn creatures of his own making to eternal damnation. God’s love saves all of us.

A few years ago Rob Bell, the influential pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, had an epiphany and converted to a universalist theology. He no longer believed in hell. He wrote a book about it in 2011 titled, Love Wins.

Now, our progenitor, the great Universalist forebear Hosea Ballou, had written a book about this idea back in 1805. We beat Rob Bell to the punch by 206 years. Ballou’s book was titled A Treatise on the Atonement. Now, I ask you: which one are you more likely to pick up, A Treatise on the Atonement or Love wins?

We have never been good at catchy titles: If only Ballou had thought to title his book “Love Wins,” the popularity of Universalism might have been much greater. But whatever its popularity, the victory of love has always been the central message of the Universalist side of our heritage. We Unitarian Universalists today are, as I like to say, the children of the marriage of reason and love.

* * *
This is Part 1 of 3 of "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason"
See also
Part 2: Can We Talk About Zombies for Easter?
Part 3: Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason


In the Light of the True Narrative

Just Mercy, part 4

“Make me to hear joy and gladness,
that the bones which thou has broken may rejoice.”

(Psalm 51:8. KJV.)

In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson weaves a narrative that illustrates the power of narrative to control us, even when the narrative isn't true. Here’s a sample – one of so many.

When Stevenson, an attorney, first begins to work on Walter McMillian’s case, Stevenson gets a call from the judge who had convicted McMillian: Judge Robert E Lee Key.
“Bryan, this is Robert E. Lee Key. Why in the hell would you want to represent someone like Walter McMillian? Do you know he’s reputed to be one of the biggest drug dealers in all of South Alabama? I got your notice entering an appearance, but you don’t want anything to do with this case.”


“This is Judge Key, and you don’t want to have anything to do with this McMillian case. No one really understands how depraved this situation truly is, including me, but I know it’s ugly. These men might even be the Dixie Mafia....”

“Dixie Mafia?”

“Yes, and there’s no telling what else. Now, son, I’m just not going to appoint some out-of-state lawyer who’s not a member of the Alabama bar to take on one of these death penalty cases, so you just go ahead and withdraw.”

“I’m a member of the Alabama bar.”…

“Well, I’m also not going to appoint you because I don’t think he’s indigent. He’s reported to have money buried all over Monroe County.”

“Judge, I’m not seeking appointment. I’ve told Mr. McMillian that we would . . .”

The dial tone interrupted my first affirmative statement of the phone call. (Just Mercy 20-21)
As the reader learns more about Walter, his humble home, his small trucking pulpwood business, the ideas that this judge has gotten in his head seem out of touch with reality to the point of mental illness. Drug kingpin? Dixie Mafia? Money buried around the county?

As the book unfolds, we see a number of powerful people deeply invested in a story of African American depravity and untrustworthiness. They really want to believe Walter McMillian is guilty. They want it so bad they coerce witnesses to lie. The local press and the community want to believe they’ve got the killer. When Walter is finally exonerated after six years on death row, it’s not safe for him to return right away to his home because community sentiment so strongly wants to believe that a black man, who was having an extramarital affair with a white woman, just had to be utterly depraved.

We get stories in our head, and get attached to the story, and then all we want to hear is evidence that confirms our story. We get further out of touch with what is.

Here in New York, it might be tempting to tut-tut about those benighted Southerners. I understand. I’m a Southerner, born and raised. I was born and grew up as a liberal and a Unitarian Universalist Southerner, so I was never in thrall to that story, but I certainly recognize it.

We all have our stories, and they distance us from compassion: whether it’s the story certain white Alabamans tell themselves about black people so that mercy, compassion, and human recognition and connection may be withheld -- or whether it’s the story certain New Yorkers tell about white Alabamans so that mercy, compassion, and human recognition and connection may be withheld. The story makes us want to believe it.

One story makes a person believe that his troubles are black people’s fault, makes him project upon that “other” everything he doesn’t like about himself. Another story makes a person believe that racism is a Southern thing, makes her project upon that “other” the fear and anger she doesn’t like about herself.

There is no evil in any human heart that isn’t also in yours and mine, no brokenness we do not all share. I like to think that I manage it better than some people do – better than the law enforcement community in Monroeville, Alabama in the late 1980s, for example – and I like to think that you also manage it better than examples like that – but however we might manage it, it is in there. There is no evil in any human heart that isn’t also in yours and mine – no brokenness we do not all share.

The key step – the most basic step – in managing it is knowing that it is, indeed, there. We make judgments about people’s trustworthiness or lack thereof based on how they look. We look for signs of tribal connection – who is in my tribe and who isn’t.

For me, if you’re wearing a chalice pendant or pin, I know you’re in my tribe. Less reliably, but still functioning in our subconscious if not consciously as sign of tribal connection, is skin color. It’s there. And we are all broken by that. If we recognize our common shared brokenness, then we cannot throw the first stone, or the second, or the third, or any stone.

As Bryan Stevenson eloquently writes,
“So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak – not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others. We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity…. There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and a desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.” (Just Mercy 290)
The true story -- the narrative that leads toward rather than away from mercy, toward rather than away from compassion, respect, recognition, connection -- is the story of our shared brokenness. William McMillian’s brokenness is mine. Sheriff Tate’s and Judge Robert E. Lee Key’s brokenness is mine. All the brokenness of all the pain in the world breaks my bones. It has to. For only in taking that on, taking that in, owning and accepting all the pain, do I have any chance of putting down the stone with which to break the next bone.

Only then do I have any chance of becoming not a stone thrower but a stone catcher, protecting in what ways I can the life around me.

Only then can healing begin, and my very wounds begin to shine with gladness.

Thus in the light of the true narrative do I pray, “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou has broken may rejoice.”

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Just Mercy"
See also
Part 1: 'Just Mercy' Reading
Part 2: Death Penalty and Race
Part 3: Progress. So Slow.


Progress. So slow.

Just Mercy, part 3

The hopeful news is that, since that peak year of 98 executions in 1999 , executions have been declining most years. Last year, 2015, there were 28 executions. That’s bad news for those 28, for their families, for their communities, for all our nation whose spirit is shrunk by killing people – but it is only 2/7ths the number executed in 1999.

In the last 15 years the most egregious, most unfair punishments have been ruled unconstitutional. Fifteen years ago, states could and did sentence to death people with severe intellectual disabilities and children as young as 13. We don’t let them drive or buy alcohol or smoke or vote or give blood because we know their judgment is not well formed, but we have held them responsible for crimes as if they were adults.

In his TED talk, Bryan Stevenson speaks of this as a magical power. The Court can wave a magical wand and suddenly a 15-year-old, or a 13-year-old is an adult for purposes of the trial. Reflecting on this magical power late one night, Stevenson began drafting a motion suggesting that this magical power be used, instead, to try his juvenile client as a 75-year-old white corporate executive. If he can be magically transformed into an adult, why not also transformed into a privileged white adult?
"I put in my motion that there was prosecutorial misconduct, and police misconduct, and judicial misconduct. There was a crazy line in there about how there is no conduct in this county, it's all misconduct. The next morning I woke up, and I thought,'did I dream that crazy motion or did I actually write it?' To my horror, not only had I written it, but I had sent it to court. A couple months went by, and I had forgotten all about it. Finally, I was going to court to do this crazy case....I went into the courtroom, and as soon as I walked inside, the judge saw me and said, 'Mr. Stevenson, did you write this crazy motion?' I said, 'Yes, sir, I did,' and we started arguing. People started coming in because they were outraged that I had written these crazy things. Police officers were coming in, and assistant prosecutors, and clerk workers. Before I knew it, the courtroom was filled with people angry that we were talking about race, that we were talking about poverty, that we were talking about inequality." (Bryan Stevenson, TED Talk)

On the hopeful side, in this century, a series of Supreme Court rulings started to make some changes.
  • 2002: Atkins v. Virginia: The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that capital punishment for people with intellectual disability is unconstitutional.
  • 2005: Roper v. Simmons: Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that capital punishment for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional.
  • 2010: Graham v. Florida. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that life-without-parole for children convicted of any nonhomicide crime is unconstitutional.
  • 2012: Miller v. Alabama. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that life-without-parole for children convicted of homicide is unconstitutional.
It feels like a slow, painfully slow, dawning of humane awareness.

There are now 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, that ban the death penalty. Seven of those 19 enacted their ban within the last 10 years
  • New York and New Jersey in 2007,
  • New Mexico in 2009,
  • Illinois in 2011,
  • Connecticut in 2012,
  • Maryland in 2013, and
  • Delaware in 2016.
[Update 2020: Washington in 2018, New Hampshire in 2019, and Colorado in 2020, bringing the total to 22 states]

Still, our criminal justice system is deeply, deeply broken. Since the 1970s, there have been 156 exonerations of death row inmates. For every nine people that have been executed, there’s one the state had to admit they were wrong about.

And it is no easy thing to get a state to admit an error in convicting or sentencing. While 156 were exonerated, we have no idea how many others were actually innocent but not quite so blatantly obviously innocent, or didn’t have lawyers with enough competence and hours in the day to provide a meaningful defense or appeal.

For every nine executed, one has been exonerated. Would you get on an airplane if one crashed for every 9 uneventful flights?

Bryan Stevenson’s book deals very concretely with specific cases and stories. I want you to read it, if you haven’t. I really only ask you to read one book a year, and this is the book I’m asking you to read this year because it is the book that has been selected for all Unitarian Universalists to read this year -- it’s the denomination’s “Common Read” for 2015-16 -- because it is a heartrending book describing a reality we all need to know about and responding to, because reading it provides a shared experience helping to connect the members of this congregation with our fellow Unitarian Universalists across the country, and because it will grow your soul.

Stevenson relates the stories of the way our criminal justice system mistreats people. He only occasionally goes in for statistics and dates – most of the statistics and dates I’ve given in this series of posts are ones I looked up separately from this book. Many of the stories take place in Alabama, including the main story of the book, the case of Walter McMillian who spent six years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

Walter simply attracted the rage of the racist Sheriff of Monroeville apparently for being a black man and having a romantic relationship with a white woman. So when Rhonda Morrison was murdered in 1986, and the Sheriff’s office was facing growing public pressure to make an arrest – present somebody that the community could get behind in blaming – said Sheriff coerced witnesses to lie and implicate Walter.

We all have a tendency to get caught up in our own stories. Sheriff Tate of Monroesville, Alabama illustrates how that universal tendency can go so horribly wrong. Tate and other law enforcement have a story in their heads. It’s a story about how black people are untrustworthy, a threat. Their story has no acknowledgment of their white privilege, and yet it is the sense of their privilege slipping away that arouses the fear and anxiety which they then direct toward the African American community in an desperate attempt to cling to a way of life that worked for them, or that, in their romanticizing of the past, they believe worked for their parents and grandparents. Stevenson’s narrative shows the power that our guiding narratives can have.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of 'Just Mercy'
See also
Part 1: 'Just Mercy' Reading
Part 2: Death Penalty and Race
Part 4: In the Light of the True Narrative


Death Penalty and Race

Just Mercy, part 2

"Make me to hear joy and gladness;
that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice."

(Psalm 51:8, KJV)

Martin Luther King, Junior, were he still alive, would have celebrated his 87th birthday on 2016 Jan 15. He might have lived this long. People do. I find it good to remember that, though the man was assassinated at age 39, we, today, are, in that sense, still living within his lifetime. We remember and honor the man today by examining some issues that would have very much concerned him. And also by beginning with a text that, as a Christian minister, King would have known well. From the Gospel of John, chapter 8:
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery. And making her stand before all of them, they said to him, 'Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?' They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.'”
Bryan Stevenson references this familiar story toward the end of his chilling and compelling book, Just Mercy. In the Gospel of John, however, when Jesus says this, the accusers “went away, one by one.” Recognizing their shared brokenness, no one could throw that first stone.

In the United States we have a long history of people, acting in the name of the people, as agents of the state, who have thrown the first stone, last stone, or one of the middle stones to put someone to death. Capital punishment.

A little historical context:

A hundred years ago, the death penalty was actually falling out of favor. From 1907 to 1917, six states abolished the death penalty altogether and three more limited it to treason or first-degree murder of a law officer.
  • In the 1920s, however, there was a resurgence as the US went through Prohibition and then the Great Depression. Some states that had banned it, reinstated it.
  • In the 1930s the US averaged 167 executions a year – more than any other decade of American history.
  • In the 1940s, the US dropped to an average 129 executions a year.
  • In the 1950s, down to 72 a year.
  • In the 1960s, down to 19 a year.
Public support for the death penalty was its lowest point ever in 1966, with only 42% of Americans supporting. When the Supreme Court ruled the capital punishment process of the time unconstitutional in 1972, there hadn’t been a single execution since 1967. Then the death penalty came back. States enacted new laws designed to overcome the court’s concerns of arbitrary imposition. After ten years without an execution, state governments began killing people again in the late 1970s – three before 1980. The numbers picked up in the 1980s: an average of 18 a year. Then through the 1990s, there was a rising tide of executions until it reached a peak of 98 executions in 1999.

Since 1976, 1,423 people have been executed by their government. Fifty-five percent of them were white, 35 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic or other. Yes, that’s disproportionate. African Americans constitute less than 13 percent of the population but 35 percent of those executed. But the greater racial bias appears when you look at the victims of the alleged murders. Only 15 percent of the murder victims in cases that resulted in an execution were black. Seventy-six percent of the murder victims in cases that resulted in an execution were white – even though nationally about 50 percent of murder victims are white.

White lives matter in this country: our law enforcement will go after a killer of a white person. Black lives are treated as mattering less.

We have history of oppressing people of color in this country. Before the civil war millions of African Americans were enslaved here. After the civil war, many thousands of African Americans were, essentially, enslaved here. There was the sharecropping trap, for one. There was also “convict leasing.” Former slaves were convicted of some fabricated offense, and then, as imprisoned convicts, their labor could be “leased” to businesses.
“Private industries throughout the country made millions of dollars with free convict labor; while thousands of African Americans died in horrific work conditions. The practice of re-enslavement was so widespread in some states that it was characterized in a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon as Slavery by Another Name." (Stevenson 299)
From the 1880s up into the 1930s regular lynching – and less regular lynching continued until 1964 – was used to subdue, oppress, and terrorize black communities.

It was, in fact, domestic terrorism on a very large scale. When many of the news reports after 9/11 referred to that tragedy as the first case of US domestic terrorism, can you imagine how that sounded coming out of TV sets in African American communities?

There is another country that has a history of murderous animus toward an ethnic group: Germany. Recently, a woman from Germany said,
“We don’t have the death penalty in Germany, and we can never have the death penalty in Germany. There’s no way, with our history, we could ever, in an intentional, deliberate way, set about to execute people. It would be unconscionable.”
Imagine Germany with the death penalty. And then imagine that the executed were disproportionately Jewish, or that murders of non-Jewish victims were taken more seriously.

Actually, I can’t. I can’t imagine that. That would be so unconscionable as to be unimaginable. Germany, with their history, can’t go there.

So how is it that the US, with our history, so easily does? That’s just one piece of why it’s so important in the current context to affirm that black lives do matter.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Just Mercy"
See also
Part 1: 'Just Mercy' Reading
Part 3: Progress. So Slow.
Part 4: In the Light of the True Narrative


'Just Mercy' Reading

Just Mercy, part 1

"Make me to hear joy and gladness;
that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice."

(Psalm 51:8, KJV)

Bryan Stevenson, in Just Mercy, describes his feelings after hanging up the phone with Jimmy Lee Dill just an hour or so before Dill was executed:
“When I hung up the phone that night I had a wet face and a broken heart. The lack of compassion I witnessed every day had finally exhausted me....As I sat there, I thought myself a fool for having tried to fix situations that were so fatally broken....

"For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. I thought of Joe Sullivan and of Trina, Antonio, Ian, and dozens of other broken children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison. I thought of people broken by war, like Herbert Richardson; people broken by poverty, like Marsh Colbey; people broken by disability, like Avery Jenkins. In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice....

"It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there while Jimmy Dill was being killed at Holman prison. After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice.

"I do what I do because I’m broken, too.

"My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.

"We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt – and have hurt others – are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us....

"Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make. Sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion....

"When I was a college student, I had a job working as a musician in a black church in a poor section of West Philadelphia. At a certain point in the service I would play the organ before the choir began to sing. The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say, ‘Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou has broken may rejoice.’ I never fully appreciated what he was saying until the night Jimmy Dill was executed." (Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, 288-291)
* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of 'Just Mercy'
See also
Part 2: Death Penalty and Race
Part 3: Progress. So Slow.
Part 4: In the Light of the True Narrative


Afflicted or Comfortable? Yes.

BLM & UU, part 3

Comfort the Afflicted, Afflict the Comfortable

It has been said that the job of a congregation – and of its minister – is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. When I heard that in divinity school, I thought: "Great! That’s what I’ll do. When I’m a minister, I’ll find out who is afflicted, and comfort them. And I’ll find out who is comfortable and afflict them."

It didn’t take me long to realize that there is no easy way to divide people into the afflicted and the comfortable. The truth is, we’re all afflicted – and we’re all comfortable. We’re afflicted with stress or shame or anguish or loneliness or depression or insecurity or various physical ailments. We’re afflicted with unfulfilled yearnings and undefined anxieties. We all could use some comforting.

And at the same time, we’re all kinda comfortable. We’ve got houses, clothes, food, and we’re sometimes a little complacent. We allow ourselves to ignore other people’s pain – or our own.

Sometimes we find our comfort being challenged, and that’s a little uncomfortable. A faith institution that doesn't occasionally make you uncomfortable isn't doing its job. A certain amount of discomfort is what prods us to grow.

And here’s the amazing magic of faith community: the very thing that afflicts us in our comfort is also the thing that comforts us in our affliction. Are we finding that life is getting narrow and fearful? Are we scared of people’s judgments, or reactivity -- or of our own? That’s an affliction. Finding the courage to risk stepping outside our norm on behalf of better treatment for all our neighbors is the balm for that affliction. At the same time, it is also the antidote to our comfortable complacency.

The third part of our mission statement turns out to also be the first part. Engaging together in service to transform ourselves and our world turns out to also nurture each other on our spiritual journeys. Standing together to build wholeness in our world builds wholeness in ourselves. That’s the Unitarian Universalist way.

Engaging the world around us -- living our faith in our actions -- is a core aspect of what Unitarian Universalism has been for the last century. UU congregations stood up for civil rights. UU congregations stood up to oppose the Vietnam War. UU congregations stood up for reproductive rights. UU congregations stood up for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights. In every case, those congregations also had some members who were uncomfortable about those stands. But we lived our faith and helped bring justice, peace, and healing to our nation – and thereby to ourselves.

Of course, just to clarify, a vote by the congregation to say that the congregation takes a stand on an issue of social advocacy does not require that the members individually take that stand. We don’t do that – that’s NOT the Unitarian Universalist way.

And now UU congregations are standing up for the Black Lives Matter movement. We’re doing it because entering the public sphere as a voice for peace and justice is what we do. It’s our way. It’s how we heal our world and at the same time nurture our spirits.

Why now? Because it really matters now. Some sort of tipping point was reached when Trayvon Martin’s murder in Florida in 2012 was followed two-and-a-half years later by Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson. And then Eric Garner. And Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott, and Sandra Bland and . . . well, the list is too long. Finally, the conscience of a nation stirred. It was long overdue, but it has begun at last.

We stand at the brink of bringing about some real change. Indeed, already, changes have begun. Unitarian Universalists, small in numbers though we are, have a role to play in making sure our country doesn’t go back to sleep -- in making sure our country follows through with much more meaningful progress toward treating all lives as mattering.

Do we agree with everything that every supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement says or does? No. I don’t. Very few of us would. Whoever your favorite candidate for President is, you don’t agree with everything said by every one of that candidate’s supporters. But you agree with the basic principles and agenda of your favorite candidate, and that’s why you support her or him.

Indeed, try this thought experiment. Imagine a list of 50 or so things that most Unitarian Universalists agree with – let’s say each item on the list is agreed with by 90 percent of Unitarian Universalists: general UU-ish statements about religion, karma, God, responsibility, ethics, values, hope, peace, justice. Don’t you think that we would find that very few of us agreed with everything on that list? The vast majority of UUs don’t agree with everything that the vast majority of UUs agree with. But we agree to stand in solidarity together, despite our disagreements. We can share our criticisms of each other, encourage one another to transcend any approaches or tactics that we see as ultimately counterproductive – and still we stand in solidarity together.

Across the country, Unitarian Universalists are not letting fear deter us. Who are we? We are a people of compassion, hearing and responding to the world’s pain. Who are we? We are a people of courage, praying, with Tagore, not to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them. What is this thing that we do here, this thing called Unitarian Universalism? We stand on the side of love – and on the side of justice, which is what love looks like in public.


* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "BLM & UU"
See also
Part 1: UUs and BlackLivesMatter
Part 2: White Supremacy is a Spiritual Wound


White Supremacy is a Spiritual Wound

BLM & UU, part 2

Not Just Unitarian Universalists

Faith institutions are getting involved with the Black Lives Matter movment because white supremacy inflicts spiritual harm. It’s not just Unitarian Universalists.

The United Church of Christ supports the Black Lives Matter movement. Their website declares:
“When a church claims boldly 'Black Lives Matter' at this moment, it chooses to show up intentionally against all given societal values of supremacy and superiority or common-sense complacency. By insisting on the intrinsic worth of all human beings, Jesus models for us how God loves justly, and how his disciples can love publicly in a world of inequality. We live out the love of God justly by publicly saying #BlackLivesMatter.”
It’s not just Unitarian Universalists.

At the national website of the United Methodist Church, I read:
“Protests and riots have erupted in several large cities where unarmed black people were shot or died in the custody of police. United Methodists are joining the voices proclaiming 'Black Lives Matter.'”
In the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, I read:
“That black lives matter should be obvious but unfortunately it is not. Black Lives Matter is not simply a rhetorical expression coined by a few. It is in fact an existential cry with deeply spiritual roots. Born from the depths of centuries of collective oppression (remember slavery, indentured servitude, Jim Crow,) it is an expression of the groans of the Spirit of which Paul spoke, the collective prayer of a people demanding their right to exist, their inalienable right to be.”
It’s not just Unitarian Universalists.

Jews United for Justice flatly declares:
“JUFJ stands against police brutality, and for a world in which Black lives truly matter. We will not stand idly by when Black people are targeted in our cities and our communities. We continue to seek ways to be in solidarity with local Black-led efforts and will keep our community informed. Let's kindle a flame within our hearts that can keep burning as we rededicate ourselves to this struggle.”
The Catholics are a bit more muted, from what I could find, though the National Catholic Reporter ran a piece titled “Everyone wins when black lives matter.”

It’s not just Unitarian Universalists.

The Presbyterians, PC-USA, last July launched an antiracism campaign. Their announcement says:
“The campaign is a churchwide effort to recommit Presbyterians to racial justice and faithfully proclaim that the lives of people of color matter.”
The announcement goes on to quote their director of Racial, Ethnic & Women’s Ministries saying,
“This campaign affirms the Black Lives Matter movement, and will work to raise awareness of institutional racism in our society and the church.”
The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists posted an official Statement in Solidarity with the African American Community.
“Today, the regular, tolerated and societally sanctioned killing of black and brown bodies by police has reignited a rebellion that we, the leadership of the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, support as a “voice” crying in the wilderness. We pray that the marches now happening all across the USA and the world on behalf of those who are subject to injustice at the hands of the ‘justice’ system will awaken the hearts and minds of those with power and privilege to make a way forward from this wilderness into a free and just society.”
The statement goes on to declare their commitment to:
“Stand with the brown and black bodies as they continue to seek equality, freedom and justice in the USA; [and] March in solidarity with the brown and black bodies recognizing that centuries of the obliteration of personhood leaves a unique mark on the soul.”
I have mentioned only predominantly white denominations -- I have not mentioned any of the historically African American denominations. I also haven’t mentioned any of the most conservative, evangelical churches, who don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement -- which is part of the reason that it matters that we do.

It’s not just Unitarian Universalists, but it is especially Unitarian Universalists. UUs make especially central the proposition that faith must be lived, that the values we teach and stand for must be manifested in our public lives, that standing up for what is right is not something we do only within the safety of our sanctuaries.

A Spiritual Issue

There’s a widely recognized spiritual issue here. The spiritual issue is one that Cornel West alluded to when he addressed the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Portland last summer. I was there to hear him say:
"I've got a lot of vanilla brothers and sisters that walk with me and say, Brother West, Brother West. you know, I'm not a racist any longer. Grandma's got work to do, but I've transcended that. And I say to them, 'I'm a Jesus-loving, free, black man, and I've tried to be so for 55 years, and I'm 62 now, and when I look in the depths of my soul I see white supremacy because I grew up in America. And if there's white supremacy in me, my hunch is you've got some work to do too.'"
The assumptions of white supremacy -- tacit, maybe, unconscious, perhaps -- are in every soul in this country. Black or white, we are all taught that white is better. That's a spiritual issue because it wounds our spirits.

Faith institutions are standing in support of Black Lives Matter because spiritual healing is their business. It’s our business. People show up at our door as they show up at the doors of thousands of congregations of many denominations across this country. They arrive heart sick for beloved community, torn inside by the stresses of negotiating a world that demonstratively holds that white lives matter more than black lives.

We come to places of worship seeking inner peace, for there is no peace for our spirits when millions of our neighbors are singled out for mistreatment, and have been for generations. A faith institution concerned with healing spirits that does not turn its energies to address the social causes that wound both white and black spirits is incompetent. It commits spiritual malpractice.

Our congregation, Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains, two years ago, voted overwhelmingly for a mission that says that what we, as a congregation, are here for is, among other things, to "engage in service to transform ourselves and our world." Standing up for justice is part of what that looks like. It’s what we do. It’s our mission.

If the peace of worldwide beloved community is not available to us, then the peace of living lives committed to building that community for future generations is. The service that transforms the world transforms ourselves, as our mission recognizes.

Justice and inner peace go together. Each requires the other. Justice activism without inner peace might succeed in being disruptive but it will ultimately fail to actually build justice. On the other hand, inner peace without justice activism will prove fleeting. For peace to last, compassionate caring for others has got to be a part of the picture -- because we really are an interconnected web and we really are all in this together. And compassionate caring for others includes challenging the systems that are harming those others.

If, week after week, we came here and enjoyed philosophical, spiritual, and reflective worship, but always turned a blind eye to others' pain, it would be hollow. It would fail to truly nourish.

If, week after week, you came here for inspiration and that inspiration never shook you from any complacency, then it wasn’t inspiration. It was a sham. And something deep inside you would know that it was.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "BLM & UU"
See also
Previous: Part 1: UUs and BlackLivesMatter
Next: Part 3: Afflicted or Comfortable? Yes.