Monday, January 04, 2016

Resistance … Then and Now

This is the sermon I preached at the  Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, January 3rd, 2016.  It is not the sermon that had been advertised, nor the one I'd worked on with the lay worship weavers.  Instead, as I said in the introduction, "this sermon simply appeared unbidden.  But if you want to keep the Muses happy, you preach what they tell you."  As always, you can listen to it as well.

In 1963 the United States was in the midst of a cultural and moral crisis.   In one of our principle founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, our own Thomas Jefferson had written, “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”  Today, not only would we change the gender specific language of the original, but we’ve found another way of saying essentially the same thing – people will resist change until the thing that needs changing hurts worse than the pain involved in making the change.  Because, after all, as each of us knows all too well from our own experiences, change is never easy and rarely entirely pleasant.

In 1963 the United States was in the midst of a cultural and moral crisis – African Americans had declared, in numbers and vehemence as never before as far as I know – that the system of racism being perpetrated was no longer sufferable.  African Americans were saying that they were no longer disposed to suffer this evil any longer, and they demanded that its form be abolished.  1963 was the year that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the time had come for our country to make good on the promissory note it had written when it had declared that “all men are created equal.”

It’s interesting -- the version of the Declaration that was ratified by Congress is not the one Jefferson had first written.  The biggest difference is a rather long condemnation in the original draft of the British slave trade, but I find an interesting change to the very first line, one which, if adopted, would have made the link between the Civil Rights movement and the vision of our founders even more resonant.  Instead of the, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another …” that we’re familiar with, Jefferson had written, “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained …”  During the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s African Americans were declaring that it had become necessary to “advance from that subordination in which they had hitherto remained.”  The evil of racism was no longer sufferable and it was necessary that it be abolished.

As I said, in 1963 the United States was in the midst of a cultural and moral crisis.  In a very real sense a new American Revolution was underway and for our purposes this morning it provides us an entrée for looking at the idea, and the experience, of resistance.  That’s the theme we’ll be exploring this month – the question of what it means to be a people of resistance – and the Civil Rights movement demonstrates at least two different kinds of resistance.

First, perhaps most obviously, there were those who were rising up against, who were actively resisting, the systems of racist segregation – resisting both those institutions and individuals that passively profited by it as well as those that actively promoted it.  Then, of course, there were those who were resisting this resistance.

I keep coming back to 1963 because of two events that took place that year.  On September 15th some people in Birmingham, Alabama decided to make a show of just how strong their resistance to this racial revolution was.  We’ve come to call this event the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing -- it destroyed a good part of the building, injured 22 people, and killed four little girls – girls who were about the ages my boys are today.  

As a response to this atrocity – which the Rev. Dr. King called, “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity” – the called minister here, the Rev. Walter Royal Jones, draped the outside of the church in black crepe.  Roy Jones had been the head of the  UUA Commission on Race and Religion, so folks here should have known what they were getting, but maybe they thought that his having only been here for three months would have muted his more radical impulses.  But when he took it upon himself to make this public statement of solidarity, the Board quickly asked him to take it down.  

Although I imagine that few of us would ask him to do so today, we should not be too quick to judge them. No doubt there were some who were resisting his ministerial authority to take such an action on his own; and those who resisted putting the congregation into such an uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous position; and those whose resistance grew from the notion that the Civil Rights movement was moving too fast; and, maybe, even those who resisted the idea that change was really necessary – one can be disposed to suffer evils for quite a long time when those evils are being committed against somebody else.

Jump to June of this year, when there was another act of violent resistance to the still overdue payment of our nation’s promissory note.  Much like the four men with the dynamite in Birmingham over 50 years ago, when Dylan Roof walked into the Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church he was acting in resistance to the still ongoing efforts for the full recognition of African Americans as Americans -- hell, the full recognition of people of color as humans.  His action was part of a long line of violent resistance against any effort by Black Americans and their allies to strive to “advance from that subordination in which they have long hitherto remained.”  

In response to this atrocity I preached a sermon several of you told me was the sermon you’d waited four years to hear.  (See link below -- "From Not Again to Never Again.")  I also posted this Black Lives Matter sign behind me, and while I don’t want anyone to infer that I think of myself in Roy Jones’s league I’d simply note that this act, too, has met with considerable resistance and that I’ve also been asked to take down this very visual signal of commitment to the cause of racial justice.

Before addressing this resistance I want to tell you a brief story:

Many years ago, when I was a member of our congregation in Waltham, Massachusetts I was present on the Sunday when it’s Lead Minister – a friend and mentor – delivered a sermon on the need for comprehensive gun control in response to the proposed opening of a gun shop just a few blocks from the church’s building.  As he stepped into the pulpit to preach he took of his robe, saying that he was too upset, too angry, to step into that sacred space, that pulpit, as the Rev. Edwin Lane, M.Div. D.Min.  Instead, he wanted to be clear that it was just Ed who was talking to us.  It was a powerful moment.

I say this because I am not taking my robe off this morning, because I do not stand here now as just Wik.  Five years ago you called me to serve this congregation as its Lead Minister, to provide vision and direction and to preach and teach the truth as I understand it.  

This is the truth as I understand it:  we are, today, in the midst of a cultural and moral crisis the like of which we have not seen since the time of the Civil Rights struggles of the 50s and 60s.  The cancer that is racism has been eating away at our body politic since the first Africans dragged to this continent landed in Jamestown in 1619.  (One hundred years or so earlier if we remember the slave trade to Puerto Rico.)  And we – and I’m using that first person plural pronoun because I am a White American talking, now, primarily to other White Americans – we are seeing it with more heartbreaking clarity that many of us are used to.  And it makes us uncomfortable.  We don’t want to believe that things can be as bad as we are now increasingly unable to deny that they are.  We’d rather believe that we live in a world of colorblindness that is post-racial.  It hurts, having to face the reality that it is still important, still necessary, to affirm that Black lives matter.  It’s painful.  It’s deeply and profoundly disturbing.  

So we resist having to look at it.  That’s only natural.  After all, all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”  And as I said earlier, it is far easier to be so disposed when the evils are directly affecting someone else and I remain relative … safe.  

Saying what I’m seeing, most of us – most White people in the U.S. today – are resisting acknowledging how truly evil the manifestations of racism are, and we resist the truth that until it is eradicated, until it is abolished completely and absolutely, we, ourselves, are suffering.  Many of us, maybe even most of us, resist the assertion that the reality we know is, in many ways, a fairy tale and is definitely and demonstrably not the reality of, soon, a majority of U.S. citizens.  And we so want to believe that if racism still exists it is in the thoughts and actions of a few mean spirited people that we resist acknowledging that the dangerous differences between White America and the America of people of color are systemic, built into the institutions and structures that support our entire society – education, employment, housing, food distribution, marketing, entertainment … even religion.

This resistance takes many forms, many of them completely unconscious.  And this morning, still robed, I say that one of the ways we do this is to insist on our “right” to a safe space of solace, away from the trials and troubles of the world.  One of the ways we do this – one of the ways we support and perpetuate the ongoing systems of racial injustice and oppression – is through our insistence that we are entitled to sanctuary.  You and I, we can close our eyes for an hour or so; I can choose when and where to confront racism and its devastating effects.  And because we can, we believe that it is our right to do so.  So we resist seeing that this freedom not to see is part of our White privilege, and our willingness to create sanctuaries in which to harbor ourselves in safe haven is part of the problem.

So … our question for the month is “What does it mean to be a people of resistance?”  Being a people of resistance means that our Unitarian Universalist faith demands of us that we resist the temptation to take advantage of our privilege (and again, I am using that first person plural pronoun intentionally).  Being a people of resistance means that we must resist the inclination to see problems like racism – that don’t usually affect us tremendously personally – as something “over there” happening to “those people.”  Even those of us who have Black family members and Black friends most often do not fully embrace racism as our problem.  But it must be our problem.  Thinking otherwise simply perpetuates the status quo even as we work to change it.

I do understand that not everyone will agree with what I’ve said here.  I know that some will continue to find the presence of this "garish" black and yellow sign on humble poster board to be an unnecessary and unwelcome reminder, in our sacred sanctuary, of the cruelty and unfairness of the country, the world, we live in.  I know that it is and will always be disturbing and distressful to many of you.  I know that there are some who will be angry as long as that sign stays up here, and I assume that there are those who will be upset enough to leave.  

I know these things, and so I remind you this morning that neither my ordination to the ministry nor your call and installation of me to the office I hold here makes the demand of me that I keep everyone happy and keep everyone here.  Quite the contrary.  “Preach the truth in love” is a command to say what I see in the world as kindly and caringly as I can, but not for a minute to falter from preaching that truth in order to keep the peace or for my own personal gain of your acceptance or appreciation. 

In fact, it’s often been said that the deepest calling of the professional ministry is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”  That is what I have been charged to do.  Our charge, as a people of resistance, is to recognize just how often we put ourselves in the wrong category.  This sign is an affliction to many here; I do understand that.  Yet know, too, that its presence here, in the sacred sanctuary and safe haven of a community that could choose to close its eyes and heart, is a great comfort, as well as a sign of hope, to many whom racism afflicts each and every minute of every day with no possibility of sanctuary or respite.  A friend said to me of our sign, “I just can’t overemphasize the power of that sign in a UU sanctuary….it means safety, warmth, love, commitment to hard uncomfortable work that must be done for us all to be free… a person of color, it makes the space a true sanctuary.”  

That is my message for this morning.

Pax tecum,


If you'd like to read other sermons and blog posts I've written pertaining to racism, here are a few.  (You can also search for "racism" to find more)

  • From Not Again to Never Again” sermon following the shooting in Charleston, SC in which I announced my decision to hang the BlackLivesMatter sign.
  •  “When Horrors Come Home,” sermon on the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham bombings.
  •  “To Wake or Not To Wake” post in response to Ta-Nahesi Coates’s book Between the World Me
  • In Memoriam; In Hope” post on the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO
  • We Should Refuse To Be Comforted,” words spoken at the interfaith prayer vigil following the Charleston shooting
  • My post from a week or so ago in response to the lack of indictment in the case of the shooting of Tamir Rice.

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1 comment:

RevWik said...

On the congregation's blog I just posted a piece that is something of a follow-up to this sermon, lifting up a few of the congregation's strong acts of courage!