Tuesday, May 26, 2015

They Shall Beat Their Swords Into Plowshares

This is the text of the sermon delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  You can listen to the podcast if you prefer to hear a sermon rather than read it.

Opening Words:
On this Memorial Day, as even those who abhor war pause to recognize those who’ve died in service to their country, we offer these as opening words.  They are adapted from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of chapter 31 of the Tao te Ching.

In a relatively recent movie that explores the potential dangers involved in too single-minded a pursuit of security no matter the cost, there’s a scene in which two battle-weary soldiers are talking.  They’ve both seen too much … been through too much.  They’re both questioning it all.  And one says to the other, “Isn’t that the mission?  Isn’t that the ‘why we fight’?  So we get to go home?”

Okay, so this was Iron Man talking to Captain America in the newest Avengers movie, but it sounds about right, doesn’t it?  My dad didn’t talk much about his service in World War II – he was a radar technician in the Navy – but he did say that the guys on the ships, and in the air, and on the ground weren’t thinking all that much about the big picture of the war.  It wasn’t geopolitics that had their attention, it was trying to survive … trying to survive this firefight or that long bout of boredom. 

Yes.  Absolutely.  No question.  The men and women who served in World War II wanted to defeat the Axis powers – they believed that they were the good guys and that they were trying to stop the bad guys – but mostly they just wanted to be able to go home.  They wanted everyone to be able to go home.  Not everyone could, of course.  Not everyone did.  That’s why we have Memorial Day.

“The War to End All Wars,” that’s what World War I was called.  President Woodrow Wilson is often credited with the phrase but it’s really H.G. Wells we have to thank.  A collection of articles he’d written in the Times of London was titled, The War That Will End War, and later he used a shortened version, calling the campaign “the war to end war.”    British Prime Minister David Lloyd George is reputed to have been a little more pessimistic, saying, “This war, like the next war, is the war to end war.” 

Sounds a little oxymoronic when you say it that way, doesn’t it?  But don’t you think that that’s somewhere in the minds of most of the people who are doing the fighting?  (And the dying?)  This war will bring peace in our time.  This war will put a stop to all those unconscionable atrocities.  This war will ensure that our nation is safe.  (And maybe all nations?)  This war … and then I can go home.  Then I can go home and we all can go home.  And we’ll never have to do this again.

Maybe that’s one of the ways faith, our theme for the month, gets into our conversation this morning.  The soldiers’ faith that the war they’re fighting has meaning.  That the danger they are putting themselves into is worth it.  The faith that if they were to die in this battle, in this war, they would not be dying in vain.

And there’s the faith too, I suppose, that those around them have their back.  Faith in their comrades, faith in their training, faith in the skill of their leaders, faith that they will somehow get out of it all alive.  Faith that they’ll ultimately get to go home.

Which is certainly the faith on the home front.  Anyone who has seen a loved one go into war knows that they can’t let themselves think too much about the dangers she or he will be facing.  It would be too much, unbearable.  So they hold on to the faith that they will see their daughter, mother, sister, son, brother, father, friend again.  Faith in the face of war.

I think we can agree that at least among the people who are actually called on to fight our wars, nobody – or, at least, next to nobody – really likes war, really wants war.  Even those who concede a need for war are, in the final analysis, hoping for peace. 

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.”  It’s found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Isaiah, in a passage where the prophet is describing a future in which the people of the world all come to God’s holy mountain to seek out the guidance and leadership of the God of Jacob: 

“And [God] will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

Let’s “unpack” that a bit.  First, notice that a reason for the change that’s being described here is that God is now in the driver’s seat.  God, a higher authority, will be settling disputes among peoples.  No more petty squabbling and limited self-interest.  Nations won’t any longer be trying to save face, or protect strategic oil reserves, or show the world how tough they are.  Instead, God will be judging between nations and will be settling disputes among peoples. 

Now, for those of us who don’t find the word “God” all that relevant or meaningful, remember that our Universalist ancestors would remind us that God is Love – “God” is just another word for “Love.”  So Isaiah could have been saying that it’ll be Love that is judging between the nations, and Love that will be settling disputes.  Love will be in the driver’s seat.  And as Jimi Hendrix told us, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”

But there’s something else going on here, too.  As Adam and I were bouncing ideas around we noticed what seemed to us to be an important word – they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  It doesn’t say that their swords and spears will magically disappear or somehow be transmogrified into plows and pruning hooks.  No, the passage says that the people will beat them into their new form.  I looked at nearly twenty different translations, and the verb to beat is used in all but six of them.  Two use hammer – they shall hammer their swords into plowshares – which is much the same thing; one says that they will forge their swords into plowshares; and two simply say that the people will turn the one into the other. 

Yet whether the people hammer, forge, or beat their swords to turn them into plowshares it is clear that it is not going to be an easy process.  It’s going to be work.  Hard work.  Call up in your mind the image of a blacksmith – the forge hot and smoky, the hammer heavy, and the metal hardly malleable.   Listen to the clanging of the hammer and anvil, the sound of the bellows as they blow air into the fire, the crackle as the coals are heated, and the shhhhhhhh as the hot metal is put into the cold water to harden it.  Feel the heat and the ache in your arms and back; smell the smoke and the sweat.  They shall beat their swords into plowshares.  It’s not going to be easy.

Adam caught still one more nuance – they shall beat their swords into plowshares.  This vision isn’t of a world in which people have put down their swords and taken up their plows.  They haven’t created a cache of weapons “just in case” even though they’re now focused on their farming tools.  This is the end of all wars because the people will have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  There are no more weapons.  They’re gone.  No longer needed.
Adam shared with me a lyric from a song in the musical Rent: "The opposite of 'war' isn't 'peace', it's 'creation'."  Listen to that again:  The opposite of war isn’t peace … it’s creation.  The absence of war isn't enough in itself. It's simply a foundation upon which to build other things.  New things.  Life-giving things in the place of life-taking things.  Creation in place of destruction.  The swords have been re-forged, beaten, into new forms, and these new forms are tools of creation.

But that’s not what we see happening around us, is it?  It seems, instead, that we are turning our plowshares into swords.  And we’ve been doing so for more than a while.  It was over 60 years ago that Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech, only three months into his Presidency, that has come to be known by the name “A Chance for Peace.”  It includes these now nearly immortal words:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this [and remember that this was in 1953]: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

And yet we continue to turn our plowshares into swords.  And we keep on studying war.

There’s one cost, though, that Eisenhower left out.  The most important, really.  Humanity’s hunger for the tools of destruction costs not just the sweat of laborers, the genius of scientists, the hopes of children – it costs the lives of the women and men who are called on to use those tools as they fight our wars.  Young women and young men, mostly, who should have had long lives ahead of them.  “Virgins with rifles,” Sting calls them in his song Children’s Crusade.  And far, far too many never come home.

Even many of those who do come home do so with such devastating physical and mental wounds that the person they were when they left is not the person who comes home.  And you know that you only have to turn on your TV, radio, or computer for just a little while to learn about some new study revealing ever more inexcusable treatment – or, maybe better, non-treatment – of the women and men who have given so much – and had so much taken – in the service of our country.

However much you or I want to live in a world at peace, we live in a world at war.  There’s a factoid that’s been making the rounds saying that the United States has been involved in war for 222 out of the 239 years since 1776.  That means we’re at war 93% of the time, or that we’ve only been at peace for a total of 21 years since our founding. However much you or I want to live in a world at peace, we live in a world at war. 

Yet we needn’t give up hope.  We can choose to renew our faith; renew our efforts.  In the 8th century BCE a Jewish prophet gave us a vision the fulfillment of which can fuel our aspirations:

“The people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

On this Memorial Day let us remember those who were never able to get back home, and pray for the day when no one will evermore have to.  And let us fire up the forge – we’ve got some beating to do.

Monday, May 11, 2015

We Never Know

The supervisor of my chaplaincy training advised us to never assume that we know, as we enter a patient's room, how that person is feeling about their situation.  I learned this most memorably from a woman who was in the unit of the hospital for women facing some kind of serious complication in their pregnancy.  I entered her room expressing empathetic concern for her situation, asking how she was doing.  "Me?" she said with a genuine sense of happy contentment.  "I'm fine!"  She went on to say that she had three other kids at home, and that this opportunity to put her feet up for a length of time with no one making any demands on her ... well ... let's just say she wasn't complaining any.  She told me that she figured the health issues would work themselves out one way or the other, so she really wasn't too worried about that.  In the meantime, she was going to enjoy the peace and quiet.

Not what I was expecting, and a great reminder that you never know.

As marriage equality becomes ever more the law of the land, many gay and lesbians couples are choosing to get legally married.  And these weddings, as is true of most heterosexual weddings, have been a source of joy for them, their family and friends.  They even bring joy to the hearts of all those who have long advocated for equal marriage rights for all, whether they know the couple or not.  I recently realized, though, that even here I shouldn't assume a simply celebratory attitude about these weddings.  Things are almost always more complicated than that.

Some of my friends have been in committed partnerships for decades.  Some have had their unions blessed by a religious tradition, and for some the blessing has come through their own love and the love of those in their close communities.  These couples are no less "bound together" than any heterosexual who has had their "marriage" recognized by church and state.

So along with the joy, and in some cases disbelief, that these couples feel at the reality that they can now get "officially" married may well be the pain that they have to now get officially married.  And by this I don't mean that they feel compelled to get married in a legally sanctioned way but, instead, that if they want to have their union legally recognized they have to get married again.

The (still new) opportunity to "get married" is also a reminder that in the eyes of many, and of the state, they haven't been.  It was one more reminder, one more example, of the way(s) their relationships have been devalued and dismissed.  I honestly can't imagine what that has felt, and still feels, like, but I do imagine that it is a lot more complicated than a simple, "Wee!  Now we can get married!"

I want to be clear -- the right to be married has always belonged to both homosexual and heterosexual couples.  It's just that that right has long been denied to couples of the same sex.  These couples who have made formal commitment to one another have always been married.  It's just that their marriages have not been recognized by the majority culture.  It's not that same-gender couples are now suddenly free to do something they've never been able to do before, it's that the heterosexual majority has finally caught up with reality.  We -- heterosexual allies -- can be forgiven for merely celebrating this "victory."  But how can we imagine that this is not more complex for our gay and lesbian friends and family?

Those of us who are part of the majority culture, the dominant culture, the culture that sets the rules -- whether by being straight, or white, or cis-gender (and, especially, cis-gender male), or all of the above -- have the privilege of seeing only what we expect to see.  It's important for us to remember that we truly never know what it's like for someone else when we enter their room.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Can UUs Believe Anything We Want?

This is the text of a sermon (and preparatory remarks) delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, May 3rd, 2015.  If you'd like, you can listen to the podcast.

Arthur Rashap's Preparatory Thoughts

“You are out of your mind!” “You are out of your mind!” Think of the times you have said that to others – or someone has said that to you. What did they mean? What did you mean? Probably, that what was said was not rationale. It didn’t make “sense” intellectually to your mind or to the mind of the person who said that to you.

The instructions for doing proper meditation practices these days involve being ‘mindful.’ And, if truly the goal is to let go, to release the involvement with getting lost in what was, with planning for the future – to ‘be here and now’ then wouldn’t a better instruction, a better practice be to be mindless?

Our topic for exploration today is ‘faith.’ In the Worship Weaver discussions with Rev. Erik, it was pretty hard to get our minds, our thoughts, around defining what faith is. When you walk into this Church, the pamphlet rack is full of brochures relating to the faith of a variety of religions and topics. As Erik will discuss, there is a big difference between what you believe and what you end up taking on faith.

About 11 years ago, I took a year-long course to become an Empowerment Trainer, with the goal to understand how to help guide participants in identifying goals in their lives and processes to achieve such goals – basically looking at the question: “if you could have your life exactly as you want it, what would it look like?” The basic process mirrored nature’s processes in producing a flower or a vegetable – clearing the ground, preparing it, planting the appropriate seed, nurturing it as it grows, removing the weeds, reacting to all those things that come up in the growing process, etc.

Looking back at my notes and to the page that fell open, here are some of the things I wrote:

“The less you do, the more you can accomplish. You need to bring in more of the right brain acknowledging that you still need your left brain to have the information for day-to-day living. The ‘knowing’ we are talking about here is having less of ego/personalization, and allowing other elements to enter and be present. The process is called: ‘getting out of the way.’ To really be empowered or empower another, you come from an implicit faith that the person herself knows the answers – that every human being knows what they need and want.

It is not for the leader, the teacher, the facilitor, the minister to ‘fix’ them. That is the saboteur, the devil in processing. Their function is one of midwifery – to bring into being the answers, the true life that lies within. The facilitator needs to be as empty as possible, while being actively engaged. Meeting the person exactly where they are, showing up to challenge them, to fix them, doesn’t work.

So how to work on our egos? To empty ourselves? To become mindless and take the leap into faith? To begin with, have a spiritual practice, whatever that may be. For a muscle to get strong, it needs exercise and the same goes for spirituality. The goal is to arrive at detached compassion, without this, life you grab you in any way. To become empty requires a lot, to have great courage and dedication.

Rumi wrote: Live at the empty heart of paradox. I will dance cheek to cheek with you there. Reality is a constant juxtaposition. Every system is so fraught with paradox, that you can easily lose your way.

Erik will be exploring this subject in his special way in a minute. Both he and I recently found we have been reading and enjoying the words and approach of a Franciscan Monk named Richard Rohr. He sends out daily meditations that I do recommend to you.
I have edited somewhat the meditation from this past Wednesday which he adopted from two of his books: Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer, and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality:

"Spiritual Knowing Must Be Balanced by Not-Knowing" 
As the Christian church moved from bottom to top, protected and pampered by the Roman Empire, a number of followers of Jesus and some early monks went off to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to keep their freedom and to keep growing in the Spirit. They found the Church's newfound privilege--and the loss of Jesus' core values--unacceptable. 
It was in these deserts that a different mind called contemplation was first perfected and taught. They came to see that they could understand spiritual things properly through contemplation alone. The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence, symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the "cloud of unknowing" or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. 
Deep acceptance of what has been call “ultimate mystery” is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. It really does "work"! Today scientists might call it moving forward by theory and hypothesis. This enables you to be always ready for the next new discovery. 
Admittedly, we do need enough knowing to be able to hold our ground. And the offerings at this Church and in other involvements you have - do provide a container and structure in which you can safely acknowledge that you do know a bit, and in fact just enough to hold you until you are ready for a further knowing. In the meantime you happily exist in what some have called docta ignorantia or "learned ignorance." People in this state tend to be very happy and they also make a lot of other people happy. And we are all burdened by "know-it-alls."
It is amazing how religion has turned this biblical idea of faith around to mean the exact opposite: into a need and even a right to certain knowing, complete predictability, and perfect assurance about whom God likes and whom God does not like. It seems we think we can have the Infinite Mystery of God in our quite finite pocket. 
We know what God is going to say or do next, because we think our particular denomination has it all figured out. In this schema, God is no longer free but must follow our rules and our theology. If God is not infinitely free, we are in trouble, because every time God forgives or shows mercy, God is breaking God's own rules and showing shocking (but merciful) freedom and inconsistency!

Perhaps Brother Rohr is suggesting that when it comes to faith, being ‘out of our mind’ is not such a bad thing.

RevWik's Reflections:
I’m sure that some of what Arthur just said would be very difficult for the average – or, at least, the stereotypical – Unitarian Universalist.  And I’m not talking about the explicit “God talk.”  “Cloud of Unknowing?”  “Balancing knowing with not needing to know?”  “Learned ignorance?”  Oh, we Unitarian Universalists – again, at least the stereotype of us Unitarian Universalist – really don’t do all that well with not knowing, not understanding, not at least trying to know and understand.  The search for truth and meaning and all that.

We are – historically, generally speaking – rationalists.  Many of us, if not most of us, believe most firmly, most strongly, in what we can see, hear, taste, and touch.  We like facts.  Hard facts.  [Like this pulpit here – solid.  Real.]  In this year’s Wednesday Wonderings group we’ve been reading our way through a book written in the late 1940s by the Universalist preacher Clinton Lee Scott, which he adapted from radio addresses he’d given.  The book’s title is Religion Can Make Sense – and his fundamental stance is that Universalism is a religion that “makes sense,” that is attuned to the world as it is, and by this he means the world as it is revealed to us by science and not as described in myth.

Yet today, because of science, we know that the “hard fact” of this real and solid pulpit is, in fact, not so hard at all.  What we perceive – see, hear, touch – to be solid is actually a swirling mass of energy with far more empty space in it than matter.  And the same is true of us.  We, too, are a concentration of energy, given solid form by perception, nothing more.  Science tells us that we live in a universe in which particles pop into and out of existence on a quantum foam, and where Schrödinger’s cat can be both alive and dead simultaneously.  What we perceive as empty space all around us is filled with molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide.  And there are light waves, infrared waves, radio waves, and as Richard Feynman said, all of these are really real.

So what do you believe – that this pulpit is solid and that this hand is solid and that each is distinct from the other, or that when I put this constellation of energy (my hand) on this swirling pool of energy (the pulpit) the distinctions between the two blur?  Do you believe that you are distinct, individuated, independent, or that you and I and all that is are dynamically and fundamentally interdependent, made of the very same stuff?

A Buddhist teacher once told me that the waves of the ocean each think themselves separate and unique, yet the ocean knows that there is nothing but ocean. What do you believe?

And I ask that both as something for you to ponder, and as a rhetorical device to lead us into the question I want us to explore this morning:  “Can a Unitarian Universalist believe anything she or he wants to?”  This is something that’s often said of us, you know.  “Unitarian Universalists … well … they can believe anything they want.”  We even say it of ourselves sometimes.  “One of the great things about being a UU is that you can believe anything you want!”  And it’s true to the extent that there is no Higher Authority dictating what we must believe in order to be a UU.  There is no creed or dogma to which we must assent to belong.

This, then, hardly seems like a topic worthy of our examination.  The answer is obvious!  Of course!  Of course a UU is free to believe whatever she or he wants to believe!

And yet …

And yet someone will usually come up with the retort, “But what about a member of the modern Nazi party, or a member of the Klu Klux Klan, or the Westboro Baptist Church?  Could they believe what they believe and still be welcome here?” 

Now that is precisely the kind of conundrum that, as the Oracle said to Neo, will really “bake your noodle.”  On the one hand, people in our faith tradition are freed from the necessity of believing any particular thing, yet it does seem as though we’re not open to just any thing a person might believe.  Where do we draw that line?  How do we draw that line?

How about someone who believes in shamanic journeying?  Of life after death?  Or multiple lives?  Or channeled teaching?  Would people with these beliefs be welcomed here?

How about that Jesus is not just a great guy who had some good ideas but was, in fact, a manifestation of God and that he not just was but still is?  Or that God is real?  Or that there is no such thing as that to which the word “God” is meant to point?

I can tell you from my direct experience that there are UUs, there are members of TJMC, who hold each one of these beliefs.  And I know of folks who think them extremely odd for doing so.  Can you believe anything you want to here?

Let’s step back for a moment and try to clear something up.  A lot of people conflate the ideas of belief, on the one hand, and faith, on the other.  A lot of people use the words interchangeably, as if they were synonyms.  “What is your faith?”  “I believe in God.”  “How strong is your faith?”  “I believe, I believe, I believe …”

The trouble is … they’re not the same thing.  Look at it this way: belief is an intellectual proposition, it’s something that you think; faith, on the other hand, is something that you do.  Faith is living in the world as if you believed what you say you believe.  Let me say that again:  faith is living in the world as if you believed what you say you believe.

There are people who say that they believe in God and that God will never give you more than you can handle, yet when things get rough they act as though there’s no way they could ever possibly handle all that’s come their way.  There are people who say that they believe people are fundamentally good, yet who feel more than a little anxious and, so, cross the street when the see a stranger coming toward them.  Belief is easy.  Faith is hard.

And it’s hard, at least in part, because our minds are smart enough to know that accidents can happen.  We know that we could be wrong about that thing we believe, whatever it is.  I had a philosophy professor who said that a philosopher can only say that she knows something when she is absolutely certain.  How often does that happen?  I mean not a doubt in the world, absolutely no possibility that you’re wrong, 100% solid? How often does that happen?    As a friend of mine used to say a lot, “you could always get hit by a bus on the way home.”

And so our protective little egos – which think that it’s their job to protect us from, I don’t know, death or, maybe even worse, looking foolish – our protective little egos throw up a dust storm of doubt just as we’re about to take that leap of faith.  And so we come to a screeching halt and find ourselves poised precariously at the peak of a precipice, and our sneaky little ego says, “I told you so.”  “You may not have faith,” it says to us a little later, “but at least you can content yourself with all the good things you believe.”

Putting your beliefs into practice.  Trusting your beliefs.  Living in the world as if you believed what you say you believe.  That, my friends, is faith.  And we’ve been told time and time again that faith can move mountains.

So how do we bypass our all-too rational egos so that we might take that leap?  Richard Rohr, in that passage Arthur read earlier, spoke of a kind of knowing that makes use of “silence, symbols, and not even needing to know with words.”  That’s a start.  Going even further, Arthur himself talked about how our being “out of our mind” might not be such a bad thing.  When I was writing my first book – Teacher, Guide, Companion – Mary Benard, the incredible editor I was blessed to have been working with, had a whole lot of suggestions for me of things I really ought to change.  She was usually right.  But I held my ground on one sentence, because I thought that poetry should trump grammar:

“… you must be willing to loose your mind [she’d wanted me to change that to “lose”], to loosen the vice grip of the sensible and rational in order to allow the imaginative and intuitive ways of knowing to come to bear.”

That “vice grip of the sensible and the rational” is what gets in the way for so many of us when we try to live into our faith.  Yet that’s exactly what we need to do.  Because faith trumps belief every time – it’s not our beliefs that matter, it’s the way we live our lives; it’s not what we think that counts most, it’s what we do.

During our newcomer orientations I often say that one of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism unique is that our first question isn’t, “what do you believe?”  Instead, we ask “what kind of world do you want to live in?”  We ask, “how do you – or how do you want to – live your life?”  In other words, we ask about your faith.

And it is our faith that brings us together – our faith that this is a beautiful world, and that all things that live on or in it are deserving of respect; our faith that love is strong and that we should reach out to others, ever widening the circle of inclusion; our faith in hope, that no matter how much to the contrary things might seem, there is always a way.

Can a UU believe anything she wants?  Of course, because to us the question of belief is merely interesting – a chance to get to know one another better and, perhaps, see the world through a different lens.  The real question, what matters to us most, the “so what” of all this is the vision of the world all these differing beliefs point us toward, and the ways we put our oh so lovely beliefs into action. 

None of us will do this perfectly.  I know I sure can’t.  Yet if none of us can then we each don’t have to worry so much whenever we, ourselves, get stuck on the edge, unable to leap.  And that’s why places like TJMC exist – so that we can help each other; and remind each other; and reach out to one another; and support, and celebrate, and encourage one another.  Be there for one another.

So please, own and honor your beliefs – whatever they are and however … odd … they might seem to me or to anyone else.  And then, with me, with us, try to put them into practice.  The world doesn’t need more believers but, rather, more people of faith.  May we, at least some of the time, be those people.

Pax tecum,


Monday, May 04, 2015

Riots or Uprisings ...

In 1784 Thomas Jefferson published his Notes on the Sate of Virginia.  In his chapter on slavery he proposes that slaves should be emancipated and then put on boats and sent back to Africa.  He rhetorically asks himself "Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?"  He then answers himself with these words:
"Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."
Take a moment to read that again.  Isn't this what we're seeing in Baltimore, and Seattle, and Chicago, and Ferguson?  "Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites" coming up against "the thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained," along with "new provocations"?

Malcolm X said:
"If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches, that's not progress.  If you pull it all the way, that's not progress.  The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made.  They haven't begun to pull the knife out, much less heal the wound. They won't even admit the knife is there."
Some are beginning to say that we should really think of these "riots" as "uprisings."  Angry people, with "the thousand recollections of the injuries they have sustained [along with] new provocation," are responding not just to any particular specific instance of injustice, but to all they have endured and continue to endure.  Some are responding with control and strategy; others with unbridled rage run rampant.

I've also seen on the Internet this summation of the situation:  Black people are literally saying "Stop killing us!"  And there are people saying "But ..."  I can't imagine -- as a white person I really can't imagine -- how that feels.  But I can't imagine that it doesn't count as a "new provocation."

So what are we to do?  I guess that depends on who we mean by "we."  On April 29th, Salon.com published Julia Blount's article (originally posted on her FaceBook page) "Dear white FaceBook friends:  I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now."  We -- and by this I mean white Americans -- could begin by reading things like this.  The Unitarian Universalist blogger Kenny Wiley has written some wonderful things on his blog "A Full Day."  (His perspective, by the way, is that of an African American Unitarian Universalist millennial male.)  For a brutally honest big picture view of the background to what's happening pick up Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow:  mass incarceration in the age of color blindness.

Better than -- or, perhaps, in addition to -- reading is talking with people.  Again, to the primarily white folk who read this blog, talk with people of color you know.  And maybe better than "talk to" would be "listen to."  Listen to what they are thinking and feeling about all of this.  (And by "this" I don't mean just Baltimore, nor even just issues of police violence and the inequities of our justice system.  I mean anything having to do with the ways people of color and whites are treated differently from one another -- that thing called "systemic racism.")

If you don't know any people of color, you could talk with other white people.  But don't allow the conversation to fall into easy assumptions.  Question and, then, question again.  Challenge -- both the person with whom you're talking and yourself -- to see things from outside of your experiences of "normal."  Try to imagine the issues from as many different perspectives as you can.  Push yourselves to try to make sense of the things you can't understand and defend things you disagree with.  Broaden your perspective.

If you don't have people of color in your life with whom you can talk about these things ... ask yourself, "Why?"  See if there are things in the way you're living your life that are keeping you from making connections with African Americans, Latino & Latina Americans, Asian Americans (which, of course, encompasses a widely dispirit group of folks!).  Look for ways to begin putting yourself into situations where you can meet folks who don't look like, think like, you.  Tread lightly here, naturally.  You certainly don't want to create a single, token, "Black Friend."  Nor do you want to too soon assume the intimacy and trust that talking about race-related issues with someone of a different race requires.

For a moment I'm going to directly address Unitarian Universalists;  If you're a FaceBook user you might want to check out UUs Resisting New Jim Crow & Mass Incarceration, and Allies for Racial Equity.  (Consider joining that later one!)  For all of us: are you yet a member of the NAACP or the National Urban League?  Things to think about ...

Is what we're seeing in Baltimore and elsewhere a case of "riots" or is it an "uprising"?  I think the answer to that will rest mostly on our -- white -- shoulders.  Our brothers and sisters of color are giving voice to their outrage, their grief, their anger, and their exhaustion.  If it is to be more than that -- if it is to be a full-bodied, long-lasting assault on "the way things are," then it's going to take the involvement of those who most benefit from "the way things are."  As this blog puts it so well:  racism is a white problem.  But maybe, just maybe, we can come together not just to calm this violence but to eradicate its root cause and, so, avoid Jefferson's predicted, "convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."