Friday, January 29, 2016

Riding Into The Sublime

It's been a while since I last posted about someone who had done something so delightfully odd that it gives me hope for humanity.
  • The guy who rode cross-country on his Torro mower;
  • The guy who tied enough helium balloons to his lawn chair that he was able to fly on it for nearly 200 miles;
  • The guy who only managed to fly ten miles on his lawn chair ... but at a height of three miles (an airline pilot spoted him and reported seeing a man on a flying lawn chair!);
  • The guy who made a lifesize statue of the crucifixion ... entirely out of chocolate.
These people inspire me because they've done something so outrageous that it puts my everyday life into an odd kind of perspective.  Sure, I may be caught up in the myriad of things that make up the day of a husband/father/clergyperson, but I inhavit the same world as people who are flying on lawnchairs!  In his book The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine wrote,
The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately.  One step above the sublime, makes the ridiculous; and one step above the ridiculous, makes the sublime again.
My new hero of the ridiculously sublime is Heinz Stücke.  In 1962 Mr. Stücke was 22 years old and working in a factory, something he didn't particularly enjoy doing and most certainly didn't enjoy imagining himself doing for any length of time.  He'd always liked bicycling long distances, though, so he decided to get on his bicycle and ride it around the world.  (Who hasn't, right?)  He figured it would take him a few years, and that alone puts him in my pantheon of peculiar people who remind me how remarkable we humans can be.  But, in the words of reporter Ron Gluckman, "He simply forgot to stop."

Stücke continued riding until he'd ridden through 193 countries.  (The fall of the Soviet Union was apparently particularly exciting for him because of all the "new" countries he could now add to his list!)  He rode his bike for approximately 138,000 miles, which is something like ten times around the globe.  But all good things must come to an end, of course, and, so, Heinz Stücke finally stopped his ride ... three years ago!

Let that sink in.

Heinz Stücke rode his three-speed bicycle for 50 years!  He was 72 when he decided it was finally time to settle down!  Like I said, let that sink in for a moment.   I was born just two months before Stücke began his odyssey.  He has quite literally riding his bicycle for more entire life.

In Gluckman's article, "Bikeman's Amazing Adventure," there's this wonderful passage:
Stucke scoffs both at the critics who cannot see the purpose of his pedaling and the admirers who romanticize it. "I just do what I do. As to happiness, you can never just be happy. One moment you are, and the next you're not. There's happiness and sadness as you go. 
"Why?" he ponders. "Why not? Every human endeavor is irrelevant in some ways. It's up to each individual to achieve their own objectives. I got into this and don't want to stop."
Wire walker Philipe Pettit, when asked why he had walked between the World Trade Towers, is reorted to have said, "Why?  There is no why."  All those who worked with him to make that walk possible apparentl felt the same way.  Why?  Why not.  Why not do the improbable, the impossible, the inceonceivable?  Why not do what can't be done?

Heinze Stücke said, "I just do what I do."

And I am so glad he has.  So may we all.

Pax tecum,


Monday, January 18, 2016

Resisting Injustice

This is the sermon I preached at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on January 17, 2016.  As always, you can listen to it if you prefer.

You’ve probably never heard the name Ephraim Nute.  (But it is a pretty cool name, isn’t it?)  You’ve also probably never heard about the 2011 book that Skinner House published about him:  The Incredible Story of Ephraim Nute: Scandal, Bloodshed, and Unitarianism on the American Frontier.  (And how’s that for a title?)  I was on the Editorial Board of Skinner House when the manuscript for The Incredible Story was nearly passed over, and I was one of the people who argued – somewhat passionately, as I remember – that we simply had to publish this book.

Ephraim Nute was a Boston-born Unitarian, ordained to the ministry in 1845 at the age of 26.  He served congregations in Massachusetts for about a decade before feeling the need for a new adventure.  He followed that urge by volunteering to go to Kansas to start a new church there.  The year was 1854, Kansas was still a territory, and it was the year that Congress passed the now infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act which said that as these territories were admitted as new states in the Union the settlers would decide for themselves whether or not to legalize slavery.  As you may remember from a U.S. History class, these disputed territories were one of the matches that ignited the Civil War.  In Kansas, in 1854, the struggle between anti-slavery activists and pro-slavery proponents was so fierce that this period is referred to as, “bleeding Kansas.”   Starting a congregation in that context is the “adventure” Ephraim Nute signed on for.  When he left, one of the gifts given to him to help with his new ministry was a revolver.

The story of “scandal, bloodshed, and Unitarianism on the American frontier” is a pretty exciting one.  If anyone knows a screenwriter looking for a project, I’ll happily loan them my copy.  It’s that amazing.  An example:  There’s a chapter in the book titled, “Bibles and Breechloaders.”  When Nute would go back East to visit family, and friends, and the office of the American Unitarian Association, he would return with his wagon loaded with cases of books for his community.  Only … the cases were actually filled with the Sharps breech loading rifles. 

These were the rifles some called, “Beecher’s Bibles,” because of something the famous New England clergyman Henry Ward Beecher was reported to have said (and I’m quoting here from an 1856 article in the New Your Tribune):

"He (Henry W. Beecher) believed that the Sharps Rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles. You might just as well. . . read the Bible to Buffaloes as to those fellows who [support slavery]; but they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp's rifle."

The Incredible Story of Ephraim Nute recounts his harrowing journeys with those crates of “books” in his wagon, as well as all of the times he was beaten, shot at, arrested, imprisoned, nearly lynched …  All I can say is that the parish ministry has certainly changed some since then!  That, and that there’s no question that this was a preacher who put his faith into action.

And he wasn’t alone.  Among our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors are people who risked much in their support of the cause of abolition.  In fact, at least one historian of religion suggests that one of the reasons we see such slow growth in Unitarianism in and around this period is because of the number of radical Unitarian preachers who were so public in their opposition to slavery.   Not every one of our forebears would make us proud, of course – the President who   signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, Millard Fillmore, was a Unitarian, for instance.  Yet in 1845, 170 Unitarian clergyman published an anti-slavery declaration in William Lloyd Garrison’s magazine The Liberator, and a list of some of the most active and well-known abolitionists would include quite a number of Unitarians and Universalists.  And our ancestors were involved in less public ways as well:

  • The belfry of our congregation in Olmsted, Ohio was a station on the Underground Railroad.
  • Our congregation in West Roxbury, Massachusetts gave sanctuary in their building to several escaped slaves and Freedmen.  Their Pastor, the Rev. Theodore Parker, kept a pistol in the pulpit, letting it be known that he would shoot anyone who tried to forcibly remove them.  He kept a sword by his writing desk as well, because his home was a sanctuary also.
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an African American woman who drew huge crowds of New Englanders to her lectures on the anti-slavery circuit.  Some say she was the most popular of all the abolitionist speakers of her day.  She was also a Unitarian.
  • The Rev. Samuel Joseph May, who served our congregation in Syracuse, New York, was known to take up collections during the Sunday service explicitly for the purpose of aiding fugitive slaves.  (He also encouraged the Free Blacks in his congregation to sit up front rather than in the segregated back.  But that’s another story.)
  • In Pennsylvania, our congregations in Meadville and Philadelphia, along with a seminary the Unitarians established in Meadville, were all known stations on the Underground Railroad, as were the Universalist congregations in Indiana County and Girard.
I could keep going, of course, but this could easily turn into a history lesson.  (If it hasn’t already done so for some of you!)  In my research I did come across a history paper written in 2002 for a course at Starr King School for the Ministry.  It’s called, “Unitarian and Universalist Denominational and Individual Involvement in the Anti-Slavery Movement Prior to the U.S. Civil War.”  Not quite as catchy as Scandal, Bloodshed and Unitarianism on the American Frontier, but it’s quite an interesting paper nonetheless (even though the author doesn’t even mention our dear Ephraim Nute even once!). [For those who are interested I’ve printed out some copies that you can find in the Church Office, and I’ll make sure that there’s a link to it when this sermon is published online.]  As I said earlier, a list of those most active in the cause of abolition would include a number of Unitarians and Universalists.

This is true of the women’s suffrage movement as well.  Judith Sargent Murray?  One of ours.  Elizabeth Cady StantonSusan B. Anthony?  Yep.  Them too.  Jane Addams?  Lucy Stone? Olympia Brown?  Mary Rice Livermore?  Julia Ward Howe?  Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.  In fact if you look at both the leaders and the rank and file of pretty much all of the movements for justice in U.S. history you’ll find Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists well represented.  Resisting injustice is not something new for us; we’ve been at it for a long, long time.

That’s actually the reason I advocated for Skinner to publish Bobbie Groth’s book about her great-great-grandfather, Ephraim Nute.  I saw it as providing proof, if proof were needed, that our modern movement’s strong anti-racism, anti-oppression emphasis is not new but has roots that go deep.  I remember saying that the “incredible story of … scandal, bloodshed, and Unitarianism on the American frontier” offered an explanation of why we 21st century Unitarian Universalists see this work as so important.  Simply – it’s part of the makeup of who we are; it’s part of the truth of who we’ve been. 

Yet even though realizing that resisting injustice is part of our faith tradition’s genome may point toward an explanation of why we are engaged in such work today, I am not sure it says all that much about why we are, and have been, engaged in such resistance.  We’ve been there, we’ve been doing it, but why have we been there doing it?

This week I stumbled upon a pretty cool resource, a rather long page on the website of our congregation in Albion, NY that contains … well … I lost count of how many pithy quotes from Unitarian Universalists it has.  One that sprang out at me is by the Rev. Forrest Church,

“Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a common source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.”

This is part of the answer to that why.  From their beginnings, the theologies of the movements that merged into us emphasized the unity of our human family and the universality of human experience.  You know the saying, “until all of us are free, none of us is free”?  That sense of interconnectedness, of mutual responsibility, has been a part of our theological understanding since the beginning.

Fundamentally, Unitarian Universalism is, and always has been, a humanist faith.  By this I don’t mean that we are atheists at heart, although, of course, some of us are.  Humanism has taken many forms – from a religious Christian humanism to a secular transhumanism.  So, saying that a person, or a faith tradition, is “humanist” doesn’t really tell you all that much about their understanding of, “the sacred and the holy.”  Well, actually, that’s not completely true.  All forms of humanism stress that here – this place, this world, this universe, this “sphere of human experience,” if you will – is in-and-of-itself both sacred and holy, needing nothing out there to bless all that is right here.  There’s a great line in a litany about what our faith does, and doesn’t, affirm – “it is more important to get heaven into people now, than to get people into heaven later.”  Whatever may or may not come next, this world is where the action is.  That’s humanism, and that’s foundational to our movement.

And it’s because our faith tradition teaches that “this world is where the action is” that we, as a people, have always been drawn to the work of resisting injustice.  We look around us and see all the work there is to do.  To paraphrase the words of the poet Adrienne Rich (that you can find in the back of our hymnal at #463):
[Our hearts are] moved by all [we] cannot save:so much has been destroyed
[we] have to cast [our] lot with thosewho age after age, perversely,with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.
So much has been destroyed – so much is being destroyed – and looking around ourselves we and our forebears have seen this and are compelled to act.  And we are compelled to act because of one other aspect of our faith tradition’s teachings – that Love is our foundation, our “ground of being.”

So when we look around us at all that we cannot save, all that has been destroyed and is being destroyed, we do so through eyes of Love and we are compelled by Love to do something.  We are compelled to resist the injustices we see – it’s what we’ve always done and what we’re doing now, and what I fully expect Unitarian Universalists will keep doing as long as we last.

Now … there are those who say that every sermon should end on an uplifting note, or a charge to action, or, as Arthur likes to put it, a “so what?”.  I guess I’d have to say that this sermon is going to end on an “I thought you ought to know.”  I thought you ought to know that our Unitarian Universalist tradition has a long and storied history, an incredible story of a people who can inspire and make us proud.  I thought you ought to know that we are part of something, friends, that’s larger than any of us, larger even than TJMC.  This community is part of something larger than itself – a community that stretches far into the past and will extend far into the future.  And that community has always been on the frontlines, always been resisting injustice, always been striving to create a world of freedom and justice for everyone without exception.  We are a part of that.  We are a part of that.

Pax tecum,


Monday, January 11, 2016

Resistance to the Dominant Culture

This is the sermon I preached at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, January 10, 2016.  As always, you can listen to the podcast if you prefer.

If Unitarian Universalism were to have a pantheon of saints, right up there among them would be Ralph Waldo Emerson.  That’s what I usually call him, actually – St. Ralph.  While Unitarian Universalism has roots that go way, way back to the earliest days of the Jesus movement – even before it had taken the name “Christianity” – for the casual observer it might appear that our movement had its origins in the early nineteenth century with the Transcendentalist movement.

Transcendentalism, as some of you no doubt know, was a philosophical, literary, and religious movement that stood in contrast to more traditional schools of thought at the time.  People like Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Walt Whitman, and, of course, St. Ralph himself trumpeted the triumph of the individual.  “Transcendentalists believed that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupted the purity of the individual. They had faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.”  That’s from Wikipedia; this is from the pen of St. Ralph himself:

“There is a time in [everyone’s] education when [they] [arrive] at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that [they] must take [themselves] for better, for worse, as [their] portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to [them] but through [their] toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to [them] to till. The power which resides in [them] is new in nature, and none but [she or he] knows what that is which they can do, nor does [she or he] know until [they] tried.” 

That’s from his essay Self-Reliance.  (And yes, I updated the gender-specific language.)  The Transcendentalists bemoaned the state of things as they looked around and saw them – people had lost faith in themselves, in their own innate wisdom and power.  In earlier sermons I’ve quoted a marvelous passage from the writings of Emerson’s friend Thoreau about how the proper people of his day would much prefer talking about the prophets of old than to have a prophet at their own table.  But the call of the Transcendentalists was to ignore all outside influence, no matter how well entrenched, and to rely only on oneself.  “Self-reliance” was more than the name of one of St. Ralph’s essays; it was the rallying cry of these revolutionaries.

Emerson admonished the 1838 graduating class of Harvard Divinity School to, “first of all, go alone; … refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination.”  Elsewhere he wrote, “Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession.”  And, of course, Thoreau gave us the idea of listening to the beat of a “different drummer.”

So we have here one kind of resistance.  (You knew I’d get around to that eventually since that’s our month’s theme – what it means to be a people of resistance.)  Our Transcendentalist ancestors called on the people of their day to resist the pull of the crowd, resist going along with tradition and expectation for their own sake, and, instead, to listen to their own inner wisdom and the pull of their own hearts, minds, and consciences.  It’s a call that still resonates with us today.  When Newsweek magazine dubbed us “the quintessential baby boomer church” this was, no doubt, a part of what they were referring to.  Like the Baby Boomer Generation in general, we have made an idol of the individual and a fetish of our freedom.

It’s part of the DNA of who we are.  Many of us are here for precisely this reason – because here we can each be free to be ourselves with no external coercion.  To many, this is the great thing about our movement – that we’re all dancing to the beats of our own inner drummers.  (Actually, some of us aren’t even all that particularly into percussion … and that’s okay too!)

And yet …

I haven’t used that two-word transition in a while, but here it is.  All that I’ve said so far is true, and yet …

The Opening Reading came from an article in UU Word magazine written by the Rev. Cheryl Walker.  It’s called “Power of community; the peril of individualism.”  In it she describes her movement from her childhood involvement with the Nation of Islam to her discovery of Unitarian Universalism in her adulthood.  She describes the joy of this discovery in words that many of us will feel very familiar with:

I fell in love with being an individual in a faith community. I was like a kid in a candy store. Me, me, me. My faith, my journey, my religion. It’s all about me. This religion was created with me in mind, just waiting for the day that I would show up and make it complete. Of course I didn’t say this, but I sure felt it. I could breathe again, I could sing, even if I didn’t know any of the tunes—and I did read ahead to make sure I wasn’t going to sing anything I didn’t agree with.

We, too, might not say it out loud, but let’s be honest … I’ll admit that that’s pretty much what I was feeling the first time I discovered a UU congregation:  “My faith, my journey, my religion. … This religion was created with me in mind …”  Some of you probably felt this way, too.  Some no doubt still do.

Yet the passage Adam read, and even just the title of the piece – “Power of community [and] the peril of individualism” – notes that there is a downside to this Worship of the One.  And it seems to me that this downside is being investigated more explicitly in recent years than I’ve heard before, especially when addressing questions like, “Why aren’t we growing more as a movement?” and “How come people visit our congregation and don’t stay?” and “Why can’t we attract more … ?”  (And you can fill in your own favorite group that you’ve observed not being well represented here.)
Let’s listen again to the Rev. Walker:

While I loved this faith, and still do, I wondered about its people. It took a long time for me to decide to sign the membership book. I love the promise of this faith, but when I, as a person of color, look at us I wonder, How can we say we affirm our Principles and yet fail to accomplish the most simple yet difficult task: creating a community where everyone can come and be who they are? We love our individuality so much we cannot make room for someone else’s. [Let me repeat that:  We love our individuality so much we cannot make room for someone else’s.]  We are unwilling to give up even a piece of our individuality to create a community where all truly feel welcome.  [My italics.]

Even more challengingly, she writes the words we heard earlier:

True community doesn’t happen unless everyone is willing to give up some of their identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group. If this doesn’t happen, then we are merely a group of individuals sharing common space but not becoming a community. It doesn’t mean that we go to the extremes of everyone wearing the same clothing, praying the same way, if at all, or believing the same things. However, it does mean that we move individualism from the center of our focus and replace it with a new concept of shared community, in which everyone gives up a little so that we can gain a lot.

“True community doesn’t happen unless everyone – [And that means me and that means you, you know.  “Everyone” means specifically me and you and isn’t some nebulous abstraction.] – is willing to give up some of their identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group.”  I think that I can say in all honesty that I’ve never met a Unitarian Universalist – or, to be fair in case I’ve forgotten someone, more than a small handful of Unitarian Universalists – truly willing to make that exchange, even though we all talk a lot about the importance of community.  Be honest –  how many of us would say that we’re really, truly “willing to give up some of [our] identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group”? 

I believe it was my colleague Tom Schade who suggested some time back that the real legacy of our Transcendentalist forebears is not their celebration of the individual, it’s their resistance to the culture of their day (which most certainly did not honor the importance of the individual as an individual).  What we need to see in their example, Tom said (and if it wasn’t Tom I apologize to whomever I’m not giving credit to), is the stance of critical resistance to the demands of the dominant culture, resistance to the crowd’s call to conformity.

And if that’s their true lesson, then today we should absolutely be trumpeting the importance of community.  And not the kind of community that’s really just a bunch of individuals coming into the same place from time to time and calling itself “a community,” but the kind of deep, rich, interconnected community in which part of our identity as individuals is our identity as part of the community. 

Now … I think that one of the reasons this is so hard for us is that many of us, maybe even most of us, don’t really feel comfortable bringing our whole selves, being our whole selves, when we come through these doors.  A lot of us are holding part of ourselves back because, even here, we don’t really believe that we would be fully accepted for the totality of who we are:  “I’m a Trinitarian Christian,” maybe or, “I’m a fiscal conservative.”  “I’m not a registered Democrat.”  “I don’t have a Master’s Degree.”  “I use Food Stamps.”  “I’m an atheist.”  “I have guns.”  “I don’t believe that abortion should be so accessible.” “I’ve been diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder.”  “I can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods so I get my groceries at Wall-Mart.”  “I don’t particularly like Batman.”

A lot of us here – and I’d dare say nearly all of us here – have something about ourselves that we hide … even here.  And this isn’t true just here, of course, so despite our movement’s well-publicized and celebrated elevation of the individual the truth is that we do not fully trust these … I was going to say “communities” but I think I’ll go with Cheryl’s phrase again, “group of individuals sharing common space.” 

Always there is a balance, always there needs to be a balance, between the individual and the group.  The Transcendentalists who came before us, as a people of resistance, stood up for the part of that individual/communal equation that was being undervalued.  They saw around themselves a culture of conformity and reminded the people of their time that as important as it is to belong to a group it is essential to be oneself.   They said that the claim of community was a siren song, and they advocated for, and modeled among themselves, a strong and clear resistance to its call.

Today, the culture around us has shifted and it’s all individual all the time.  We’ve lost sight of what true community really is, and what it can do and be.  The balance has shifted.  So now it’s our role as a people of resistance to encourage, and to model, a strong and clear resistance to the idolatry of the individual.  It is our task, now, to remind people that as important as it is to be ourselves, it is essential that we create community.  And the paradox is that it’s essential because, ironically, it is only in real community that we are free to be ourselves.  Only in the kind of real community we’re talking about this morning can I find the kind of trust of one another that gives me the courage to risk being myself, my whole self; and when I can trust enough to take that risk, you feel the trust to courageously do the same.

Cheryl Walker describes this as, “the most simple yet difficult task,” this creating of real community.  It’s what we say over and over that we want to do, and yet as long as we place individualism in the center of our focus it simply will not happen because, as we’ve heard several times now, “true community doesn’t happen unless everyone is willing to give up some of their identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group.”

Over the coming months our pledge drive team will be encouraging us in various ways to consider just what this community means to us.  I would ask, is this community one to which you can bring your whole self?  Is this the kind of community for which you would give up a piece of yourself?  Does it hold for you an identity that you’re willing to take on as yours?  Are you inspired here to value your own individuality a little less so that there is room for someone else’s?  (Especially if that someone is a kind of individual you don’t particularly … cotton to?)

If so … great.  Spread the Good News!  Tell your friends and neighbors, and be as generous as you can be with your time, your talent, and your treasure to ensure that this community can flourish.  And if not, consider what value it would have for you if it were and then, I pray, commit to doing all that it is within your power to do to create it.  As a people of resistance we Unitarian Universalists are called on to resist the ways our culture is unhealthy and to provide a living model of what can be.  We can start right here.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, January 05, 2016

It Makes Some Sense If You Believe It ...

On a friend's Facebook feed I came upon this Washington Post opinion piece -- "The Oregon Standoff and America's Double Standards on Race and Religion" -- by Eugene Robinson.  He's writing about the (armed) protesters that are currently occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. You can see where he's going from his first couple of paragraphs:
What do you think the response would be if a bunch of black people, filled with rage and armed to the teeth, took over a federal government installation and defied officials to kick them out?
 I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be wait-and-see. Probably more like point-and-shoot. Or what if the occupiers were Mexican American? They wouldn’t be described with the semi-legitimizing term “militia,” harking to the days of the patriots. And if the gun-toting citizens happened to be Muslim, heaven forbid, there would be wall-to-wall cable news coverage of the “terrorist assault.” I can hear Donald Trump braying for blood.

He makes the case that there seems to be a significantly different approach to dealing with these (White) armed law-breakers than we've seen in many, many, many recent encounters between police and unarmed African Americans.  He makes a good case, and he's not alone in making it.  The contrast between the way (White) Dylann Roof was treated, for instance, after fatally shooting nine women and men peacefully engaged in a Bible study stands in stark contrast to the way John Crawford III was treated as he lawfully carried a toy BB gun in the Walmart store where he was buying it (in an open carry state, by the way).  The disturbing comparisons are too many to try to go into here.

As I came to the end of Robinson's piece I found myself thinking, "How could anyone not see both the logic and the truth of this?  How could anyone not read this and both recognize and acknowledge that there's a problem?"

Earlier in the afternoon I'd been listening to the Rush Limbaugh show.  (Something I do from time to time to hear how folks who see the world extremely differently than I do are thinking about things.)  And he was on one of his usual rants, telling his listeners that they know what liberals are like -- all liberals want is power and they're willing to tell all kinds of lies to get it.  Liberals, according to Rush, will tell you that what they're doing isn't what they're doing and that what they want isn't what they want.  (He was, at the moment, speaking about how President Obama's assurances that the Executive action he was taking regarding background checks on gun purchases was in no way an attempt to "take people's guns away."  According to Rush, though, that's exactly what it is and we should make no mistake about it.)

I've written before about the irony I find in the ways that the political right and the political left describe each other in essentially the same ways -- both are deceitful, focused only on their own agendas (which is the gathering of power for themselves), caring about real people only to the extent that it serves their purposes, conspiratorial, so used to lying that they honestly don't even know when they're doing it half the time.  Virtually word for word I have heard pundits of each stripe describe the others this way.  (I've suggest that we should take all the things that the right says, and all the things the left says, and line them up next to each other.  Then, as in algebra, we should simplify things by removing from each side the elements that are the same and what'd be left over might approximate some kind of truth.)

Today, though, as I contemplated this op ed piece and my question of how anybody could fail to see the truth of it, Rush's assertions provided me an insight.  The people who aren't convinced by the clarity and logic of things like this aren't having a problem understanding it ... they simply don't believe it!

Imagine, if you will, that you actually make the assumption that virtually everything that comes out of the mouths of liberals is a lie.  Suppose you actually believe it.  Not every liberal is conscious of and intentional about it, of course.  Some are merely parroting the lies they've heard other liberals tell.   As the old joke has it:  "How can you tell if a [in this case] liberal is lying?  Their mouth is moving."  

So, imagine that you truly and deeply believe this.  Well ... among other things that would mean:
  • Everything that liberals, like Robinson,  have to say about the killing of African American men by the police is either a lie or a distortion.  It's what we want people to believe, but it's not really true.  Michael Brown?  Not the "gentle giant" liberals describe him as.  Even Tamir Rice ... have you seen this kid?  Do you know that neighborhood?  You'd be quick to defend yourself too!
  • Everything that liberals have to say about Mexicans or Muslims or any other minority group is just bleeding heart naivete or, again, intentional obfuscation of the "real truth" about how dangerous these people are.
  • The description of these courageous patriots in Oregon as "terrorists" is just another example of  liberals trying to skew the story so as to make honest Americans look like the bad guys and to further their cause of trying to solidify and increase big government's control over every aspect of our lives.
Trying to convince someone of the merits of an argument, when they fundamentally assume that virtually everything you are saying is a lie, is pretty much a fool's errand.  No amount of evidence is enough when all of the evidence is considered suspect from the beginning.

So ... it seems to me that the task ahead of us liberals is to figure out what we can do to demonstrate that we are not, in fact, manipulative and conspiratorial liars.  While I'm not sure that that's any easier of a task it is a different one, and a classic definition of "insanity" is trying the same thing over and over again hoping each time for a different outcome.  Sometimes the only thing to do is something ... almost anything ... that you haven't done before.

Here's one suggestions for one possible step:  what if we stopped assuming that they are lying (or, possibly worse, stupid)?  If they are like they say we are, then a great many folks on the political right are merely repeating what they've been told and, like a great many of us, they tend to trust their own sources of information.  We do the same thing, don't we?  So I wonder, what would happen if we could see "them" as "us," just a part of "us" that sees the world quite differently?  What would happen if we tried to emphasize their strengths and our commonalty?  And what if, Grumpy Cat aside, we could learn to listen past or through "the sound of how wrong [they] are" to find points of connection?

This is, no question, a long-term strategy.  But it might be crazy enough to work ...\

Pax tecum,


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.