Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Too Fast

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation here in Charlottesville -- which I have the privilege of serving -- on Sunday, May 28, 2017.

For Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan began on this past Friday evening.  Ramadan is so central to Islam that it is considered one of the “five pillars” of the faith, and fasting is central to Ramadan.  With only a few exceptions (which I’ll get back to in a moment), every Muslim is expected to fast during the month of Ramadan, taking no food or water from sunrise to sunset.  (I’ve read that the actual timing is described as being from the moment when you are first able to discern the difference between a black hair and a white one, until the last moment that you can.  I don’t know why, but I love that.)

And while the prohibition against eating and drinking between those times is highlighted, that’s not the only aspect of the fast.  Wikipedia’s article about the Ramadan fast notes that:

During Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam by refraining from violence, anger, envy, greed, lust, angry/sarcastic retorts, gossip, and are meant to try to get along with each other better than normal. All obscene and irreligious stimuli are to be avoided as purity of both thought and action is important.

This is important to keep in mind.  The Ramadan fast -- as is true of all religious fasting practices, actually – is about a whole lot more than not eating.  As the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: "The one who does not give up false speech and evil actions, Allah does not need their refraining from food and drink."

Yet it is the “refraining from food and drink” that is the most obvious element of the Ramadan fast – and all religious fasting – so I think it’s worth looking at those exceptions I’d mentioned earlier.  Islam requires all Muslims to fast, except for those for whom it might be unsafe or unwise.  Specifically mentioned are pre-pubescent children; those with medical conditions such as diabetes; elderly people; pregnant or breastfeeding women; and those who are traveling or ill.  In other words, and these are my words, you’re expected to fast unless doing so would be harmful.

I find this especially important, because the last time I preached about fasting was during my first two or three years as a preacher.  It was, as I recall, a decent sermon, but what I remember most is that afterwards a member of the congregation called me, very upset, and asked if she and her daughter could come to meet with me.  When they did, the mother explained that her daughter struggled with an eating disorder, and that on the way home from that service the daughter had said, “You know mom, the minister just gave me permission not to eat.”  They provided me with a lot more information and insight about eating disorders than I’d had, and I’ve since tried to always be clear that when I’m talking about fasting, and particularly when I’m talking about fasting from eating, one should never fast if doing so would be harmful.

But why do it in the first place?  Why choose to give up something?  Why choose to do without something that we like, that we enjoy, maybe even that we need?  There are lots of reasons.  Some are purely health related – a cleansing fast would be an example, and I might do that because of all the junk I typically eat, or to try to reduce some of the stressors on my body from living in the toxic atmosphere of a 21st century city, or because I’m going to have one of those medical procedures for which you need to be “cleaned out” beforehand.  But I’m thinking about religious fasting, fasting as a spiritual practice, and there are many reasons for that, too.

I don’t think it’ll come as any kind of shocking surprise to anybody, but life can get pretty hectic.  Or, for many of us, life is pretty hectic, and it can get hectic-er.  There is so much going on, and the pace can be exhausting.  We have access to more stimulus of more kinds, from more directions, with more intensity, than perhaps at any other time in history.  And so much of it, really, is entirely unimportant, is just fluff, noise.  Someone has said that said the hardest thing to explain to a time traveling visitor from the 1950s would be that we have in our pockets devices that give us near immediate access to virtually all of the information we humans have ever encountered, and we use it to share pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.  And there are a lot of cat pictures, and a whole lot of people on the internet who are wrong.

Put simply, for so many of us our lives are often crammed to overflowing, with more and more being added all the time.  How many of us have found ourselves trying to find the time to add a meditation practice into our day so that we can experience a little peace and simplicity?   Trying to find the time to set a little time aside for nurture and self-care, yet we just can’t seem to find the time for it?  And making the time to do something to reduce our stress just adds ... a whole lot more stress.

This is one of the reasons for fasting – it takes something out.  And not just something, not just any old thing, but something that matters to us, something that is part of the fabric of our lives, something that is so integral to our days that we hardly ever even really think all that much about it.  In the case of food we so often eat on autopilot, at our desks at work, or in the study carrel, or in the car on our way from one thing we need to do to another thing we need to do.  But fasting makes us stop; makes us think about it.  Fasting makes us stop, makes us get off autopilot.  This thing most of us in this society take for granted – eating – fasting make us take a look at it.  Ironically, it makes us look at it by making us not do it.  Where normally we might reach for a bag of chips, or an energy bar, without thinking, we now have to think about not doing so.

I am certainly aware that not everyone in our society – not even everyone in our congregation – is able to take food for granted like this.  Some people, some people here right now, many people, struggle hard to figure out how to get food on the table.  The numbers of people who make use of our first-Friday food pantry are testimony to this; the numbers of people who need the Thanksgiving baskets we work with the Ebenezer Baptist Church to make, or the Christmas food drive we do here; the numbers of people who come to my office, sometimes with some regularity, to ask if the ministers’ discretionary fund might help them afford to buy groceries for another week is proof that not everyone in our society, or in this community (however affluent it might seem), can take food for granted.  I want to be clear that I am clear that fasting from food – intentionally abstaining from eating – is something of a luxury we all can’t afford.   For some of us, it’s not an option, not a spiritual practice, it’s a near-daily reality.

So this is a good time to say again that fasting is really about more than not eating.  We can fast from anything that matters to us, that is part of the fabric of our lives, that is so integral to our days that we hardly ever even really think about it all that much.  It could be checking in each day with Rachel Maddow, or checking your twitter feed every 23 ½ seconds.  It could be stepping away from Facebook for a time.  Or it might be, as in the Muslim tradition, refraining from “angry/sarcastic retorts [or] gossip.”  (Which for some of us might be well-nigh impossible.)  You can fast from anything, really, that’s become a habit, that’s become such a habit that you don’t really notice it anymore.  Because so much of our lives are lived habitually, and that’s one of the gifts of a fast – it makes you notice.  Fasting can help us to notice the ways our living has become “habitulalized.” 

Many of us, most of us, fill up so much of our time with things that we don’t even ever really experience, because they’ve become a habit, so fasting opens up a space.  And then we get to ask ourselves – what shall we do with this open space in our lives?  In most religious traditions, the answer is that the time we would normally have been spending in unconsciously preparing – or driving up to a window and buying – food, and the time we would normally have spent eating it, can now be spent thinking about, and connecting with God.  As I said earlier, “during Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam,” and a Muslim can expend this extra effort precisely because they are not expending effort on all that goes into eating.  (And the same would be true, of course, of whatever kind of fast we might make.  The time we might spend on Facebook, the energy we might spend tweeting and retweeting, consciousness we spend on binge watching something on Netflix or Hulu – all of that time and energy is freed up to consider, if not God for you, then what your life is really all about, the choices you have made (or are in the process of making), the things about yourself that are worth loving, and the parts of you that are worth loving if you could let go of your old voices and tapes that tell you that they’re not.  Fasting – whether from food or anything else – is really, essentially (meaning, in its essence) not about what you’re not doing, but about the space that not-doing creates and what becomes possible in that space.

I’d like to lift up one more gift that fasting – that “intentionally giving up, consciously choosing to go without” – offers: faith.   Especially for those who have made fasting a regular part of their spiritual practice – like Muslims during Ramadan, or devout Christians during Lent – fasting reminds us of the truth “we can get through this.”  From all I’ve been told – and I admit that I’ve never done it myself, so I can’t say first-hand – refraining from eating and drinking for a day, thirty days in a row, is not easy.  But always there is iftar, the meal that breaks the fast each evening right after sunset.  I have done shorter fasts, and can say that that first piece of sweet pepper with which I return to eating is the sweetest thing I’ve ever eaten.  There is another side to this seeming deprivation, however difficult it is.  And this experience of renewal, this direct, first-hand experience of resurrection (if you will) can be generalized to other dimensions of our lives.

As with most spiritual practices, when honestly and deeply engaged, the practice of fasting leads to a greater sense of trust, of faith, in life.  So much of the busy-ness with which we fill our lives comes from fear – fear that we’ll be missing out on something good or important, fear that what we have won’t last, fear of scarcity, that we don’t have enough (of whatever we fear we don’t have enough of), fear that we are not enough and that we must constantly prove ourselves by all that we do and have.  These truths are among the things that people who regularly fast say that they discover in that space that is opened up by their fasting.  And their practice or fasting, over time, helps them to realize that these supposed truths are not really true at all.

So much of our lives are lived from a place of fear.  So many of our choices are made in response to our fear.  So much of who we are, and who we can be, is wasted by fear.  Perhaps this is the greatest gift fasting can offer us – the lived experience that enough is enough, that our lives, that we, don’t need to be always full, always stuffed, always moving, always doing ... that we are enough.  And when we know that we are enough, those fears fall away.  And as those fears fall away, courage emerges.  And when we live our lives with courage, all things are possible.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

But I'm not a ...

Yesterday I promised that I would return to one of the most frequent responses people who identify as white have to the use of the term "White Supremacy" as the way to describe the dominant culture in which we, to borrow a phrase, "live, and move, and have our being.'  For those outside the "bubble," the Unitarian Universalist Association, the denomination in which I serve, is being asked to examine how its hiring (and other practices) perpetuate a culture of white supremacy.  And there is, predictably, an uproar in response.  Primarily from people who identify as white, we are hearing things like:

  • How can you paint us with the same brush as the KKK?
  • We're committed to anti-oppression work.  How can we be "white supremacists"?
  • If we use the term "white supremacist" for us, what do we call people like David Duke and Richard Spencer?

Yesterday I addressed the "appropriateness" of using the term -- both because it is actually a more clear and accurate way of describing the systems and structures of racism, and because it is the term that a great many People of Color are asking that we use.  (Since People of Color are, after all, far more intimately effected by racism than are we white folk, they probably have a more clear understanding of what it is, how it works, and how it should be described.)

Yet even with all that said, there still is the issue of what it means to use the same term to describe we large-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white folks that we use to describe Neo-Nazi, torch-carrying, alt-righters.  My answer may disappoint some of my friends and colleagues of color who, until now, have generally found my writing to be a fairly useful distillation of the things they have been saying for decades ... for generations.  (I believe that as a white person I can develop an intellectual understanding of the way racism infects the dominant culture and all that is touched by it, but I realize that I will never have the in-my-cells, present and generational, experience of it.*  That means that pretty much all I know and, therefore, all I can say, I have learned from People of Color who have given voice to their experiences and their learnings.)

With this post, though, I may well disappoint some, because I am going to say that for me the answer to the apparent dilemma is to say that I don't think we should use the same word to describe the average Unitarian Universalist -- or other well-meaning white person -- and the Grand Dragons of the world.  I would say that those folks are, without doubt or question, white supremacists.  I would not say that about folks like me and (hopefully) most of you.  I would say that we all participate in, and (even if unconsciously and unwittingly) we unavoidably perpetuate, the culture of white supremacy.  In other words, I make a distinction between white supremacy, and white supremacists.

Here I do break with some of the voices I have heard from People of Color who say that we should use that same, later, term -- white supremacist -- to refer to any person who identifies as white who, by virtue of that identity, perpetuate the systems and structures of the culture of white supremacy, even when we don't realize it, even when we try to actively work against it.  And I think I do understand their point.  I recoil from it, not surprisingly, but I think I do understand it.

Nonetheless, though, I do make this distinction.  It's possible, of course, that I make it because of my own discomfort -- I do, after all, have a lifetime of hearing and understanding those words in a very particular way, and I have spent my life trying to be the antithesis of what I've known those words to mean.  So I also recoil at the thought of them being used to describe me.  Yet I have learned that there are a millions of ways each day that I do and say things that reinforce the systems and structures that perpetuate the elevation of whiteness as "supreme."

I've redrawn the graphic that's often called the "White Supremacy Triangle" to hopefully more helpfully make it clear that it's also a "White Supremacy Iceberg."

Above the waterline there are things that are clearly and unambiguously part of what I've known as "white supremacy" -- the klu klux klan, neo-nazis, cross burnings, etc.  Yet as with any other iceberg, what's on top is supported by what's below.  So I know that there have been times that a Person of Color has described an experience and I've instinctively questioned whether their interpretation of events was right.  (Was it really a racist act, or did that cab driver really simply not see you?)  And I was definitely raised to think that a "colorblind" approach to combating racism is the way to go.  (Let's not see any difference but, instead, focus on our common humanity!)  And I absolutely have in my head all sorts of inaccurate information about, for instance, U.S. history, because I was exposed to a Euro-centric curricula that presumed white experiences were more important than those of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Indigenous People (and, for that matter, all other historically marginalized groups).

I know that I have -- unconsciously and unintentionally -- silenced People of Color by responding to their stories with my own as if they are the same.  I've insisted that the way I see things, and my analysis of a situation and how to respond to it -- including what words to use -- make the most sense, even when what I'm talking about truly is outside the realm of my experience.  I know that I have often -- and even still recently have -- responded to a situation with what I thought would be the most helpful thing, without even pausing to consider that maybe I should first ask the people I'm wanting to help what they think would be the most helpful way of responding.

And what has been hard for me to hear, and hard for me to really even understand, is that each of these things -- and so, so many unnoticed more -- serve to reinforce the culture of white supremacy.  So I understand that I am part of, participate in, and unwittingly perpetuate this white supremacist culture.  Yet I also do think that it is helpful to make a distinction between the David Dukes and the ... well ... me.  "Above-the-line White Supremacist" and "Below-the-line White Supremacist" makes clear our relative positions on the iceberg, but they are sort of a mouthful.  "Overt White Supremacist" and "Covert White Supremacist" is a little easier to say.  Yet I do understand the need to include the words "white supremacy" when talking about either the above-the-line or below-the-line kind.

For now, the best I can come up with is that the torch bearers are White Supremacists, while I participate in and perpetuate a culture of White Supremacy (or, a White Supremacist culture).  As I said, this may be because of my own discomfort, or the limits of my understanding, but it's the best I can do at this time.  And none of us -- we who identify as white -- will ever do this work "perfectly."  All we can do is keep trying our best, keep stretching ourselves, keep moving into places that feel uncomfortable and make us struggle, and keep learning to see the world through the voices of those who have lived in a world so very different than mine.

Pax tecum,


* -  It's been pointed out to me that saying, "I will never have the in-my-cells, present and generational, experience of it" could be used as an excuse not to do the hard work daily of increasingly making this a real part of my life.  As the person wrote on Facebook, this "gives permission to not try to get it into our cells by demanding of ourselves to see the every act of our lives as part of white supremacy and to learn to disrupt it."  In other words, it could be read in a kind of defeatist way:  I'll never get this, so why try?

That's actually the opposite of my intention.  I'm glad to learn that those words might confuse my message, so that I might attempt to be more clear.  I would stand by the statement that I will never have a "cellular" understanding of the way(s) white supremacy works in the world, and the way(s) it works in and through me.  Yet that doesn't suggest to me that I shouldn't try, but that I should try harder.  So much of the culture of white supremacy is invisible and inaudible to me because the experience of it, and its effects, are not already in my cells.  That means I must engage in a herculean and never-ending effort to learn to see it, and to listen to those voices to which I have been preciously deaf.

And recognizing that "I will never have the in-my-cells ... experience of it," also insists that I never fool myself into thinking that I've become some kind of "expert," that I can claim some kind of complete understanding.  I can't.  I can speak first-hand about what I am learning about how the culture of white supremacy effects me, as a white person, and the ways I am coming to see that it works in and through me.  And I can try to help other white people come to see this in their lives, too.  (Which is why I do so much writing and speaking primarily to white people.)  What I can't do, though, is fall into the trap of centering my own voice.  Because I will never have the "in-my-cells" experience of the way(s) the culture of white supremacy has effected People of Color, I must always make sure that I center their voices over mine, that I listen carefully and deeply to their analysis, their perspectives, and the stories of their lived experience.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Words, words, words ...

During the years I served the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine, I regularly had lunch with a colleague from the United Church of Christ congregation across the street.  I don't remember what prompted this particular exchange, but Peter once made the observation that Unitarian Universalists, as a whole, were the most literal people he'd ever seen.  This struck him as ironic, since we often rail against those who, for instance, insist on the literal truth of the Bible, or the traditional creeds.  There's a joke that makes this same point Peter was making:  

Why are Unitarian Universalist congregations such bad singers?  Because everyone is reading ahead to see whether they agree with the lyrics!

Right now the Unitarian Universalist Association -- and the member congregations that comprise it -- are being charged to take an unflinchingly honest look at the way(s) the systems and structures of the dominant racist culture are embedded in, and perpetuate themselves thorough, our own institutions.  It doesn't surprise me overly much, then, that so many of us -- and by "us" I mean, predominately, those who identify as, or are identified as white -- are arguing, instead, about words.

White supremacy.  Those two words, for many, are the problem that must be addressed.  As is true in the wider discourse about racism today, the words being used to describe those "systems and structures of racism" are "the white supremacy culture."  In a recent column  I noted that the analysis today is that the term "white supremacy" is a more accurate term than simple "racism."  I wrote:
Racism is defined as, "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior."  Few would disagree with that.  Yet here's the problem with this definition, it doesn't specific which race is being considered "superior."  It speaks about this "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" in general, almost neutral terms. 
"White supremacy," on the other hand, is defined as "the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society."  This is certainly a more harsh definition, yet it is also more particular and specific -- the scourge we face as a nation is not "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" against any old race, by any old race believing itself to be "superior."  What has infected our nation since before its inception is, specifically, a culture that promotes the notion of white superiority and which generates "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" toward People of Color.  Racism is not generic; it is specific.  The phrase "white supremacy" captures and reveals that specificity with greater clarity.
Greater clarity, and greater accuracy.  Those who do anti-racist work have long noted that while everyone can have racial prejudices, only whites can be racist, because "racism = prejudice + power," and the systems and structures of racism in the dominant culture of the U.S. have historically give more power (and privilege) to people who identify as, or are identified as, white relative to People of Color.  (I'm talking about systems here -- yes, an African American Senator, for instance, has "more power" than, say, an out-of-work coal miner in Appalachia who is white.  Yet just last year South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott spoke on the floor of the Senate about his own experiences of having been racially profiled, something that that coal miner doesn't have to worry about.)

Even so, many white UUs are saying that the words "white supremacy" are too harsh, too inflammatory, too confrontational, and are inaccurate given that they have long been understood to refer to white supremacists like members of the KKK, or the people who held a torch-lit rally in my own city of Charlottesville a few days ago.  "We are not the KKK," many UUs are saying, "and to use the same words to describe us as we use to describe them is unacceptable."  Some say that it creates a false equivalence; others that it "waters down" the words so as to render them essentially meaningless.  Either way, these -- overwhelmingly white -- people are saying that those are the wrong words to use ... and a battle over words ensues.

In a post from April I offered the parable of a man who didn't want the serious diagnosis his doctor was giving him, asking that she instead give him a less serious one.  "[C]ancer is such a scary diagnosis.  I don't want to have cancer!  Can't we just say I have indigestion?"  Today I want to offer two more ways of looking at this issue of which words to use.

Define Your Terms

When I was in my second year of college I had the great good fortune to take several philosophy courses with the Dean of the department.  He told us that it is customary for philosophers to being their papers by saying, essentially, "for the sake of this paper I'm going to define this word to mean, precisely, this."  The reason, he said, is that it's so easy to argue over the words being used, rather than the ideas those words are being intended to convey.  By defining your terms at the beginning, you at least greatly lessen the chance that someone will come back to argue about the words you're using.  (I have often explained this with the quite ridiculous example that I could say, "for the purpose of this article I'm using the word "table" to mean, "'a red thing with three legs that hovers four feet off the ground.'"  That's pretty obviously not what "table" means, but there can be so many interpretations of the word "table," so many different ways it can be understood, that I'm asking you to bear with me and assume, for the moment, that my definition is the way to use the word so that we can then look at what I'm going to say about red things with three legs that hover four feet off the ground.)

So, while it is true that in common usage, the words "white supremacy" are understood to refer to the beliefs and actions of those who profess the unquestionable superiority of whites and all things white, we could agree that, for the purposes of our current discussion as an Association, we will accept the assertion that "white supremacy" refers to the same things that the term "systemic and institutional racism" does.  If we were all to make this semantic agreement, we could stop arguing over words and focus, instead, on the things those words are trying to convey: the systems and structures inherent in the dominant culture -- and in our own institutions -- that perpetuate the supremacy of white experience, white perspective, white norms.  And that is the problem that we need to address, not what words we should use to describe it.

Who Gets to Define Them?
"Okay," I can imagine some (white) people saying, "if we're going to agree on a common term for the purpose of facilitating a more meaningful dialog, why not use the terms we're suggesting?  Who says that we should have to use the definitions that they want us to?"

Well, besides the hopefully obvious division of we/they, us/them inherent in those questions, I have two responses.  First, one of the ways that the systems and structures that perpetuate the culture of white supremacy works is to make central -- and to consider more important -- the thoughts of whites as opposed to People of Color.  For hundreds of years, it's been the words white people have wanted to use to describe reality that have been used to describe reality.  The words People of Color want to use have been ignored or denied.  For we who identify as white to once again insist that our choice of words must be the ones used is itself -- however unconscious and unintentionally -- a perpetuation of the culture of white supremacy.  More than a little ironic.  I find myself returning often to words attributed to Albert Einstein about the impossibility of changing anything using the mindset that created the thing in the first place.  For whites to insist on the words to use for describing the condition of white being able to call all the shots is, at the very least, incredibly ironic.  More than that, though, I would say that it is incredibly counter-productive -- a reinforcement of the thing all agree needs to be rejected.

My second response is in the form of an analogy.  In what is often called the "first wave" of feminism, women noted that much of the language in common usage was, in itself, an example of patriarchy and sexism.  However well-meaning, when a man asserted that the word "mankind" was generic, women insisted that they could say from their own lived experience that it was not, in fact, generic and did, in fact, exclude them.  There are countless other examples, but that one should suffice as a specific, and the more general notion here is that men were not the appropriate people to determine what language women should use to accurately describe their experience.  Women, whose voices had been so long silenced, demanded that they be the ones to define the terms of the discussion, because they were the ones who had to most intimate experience of the thing being discussed.

Many men, of course, resisted strenuously.  They said -- and some still do -- that the language women were demanding was "anti-male," and that the discourse of feminists amounted to man-hating.  And many well-meaning, large-hearted liberal men felt hurt that they were seemingly being lumped together by language to those who were seriously misogynist.  While by no means universally accepted even now, there is a large portion of men who recognize the ways the words they had been using limited and dis-empowered women, and that the words women had said more accurately expressed their experience are the words we should use.

I would suggest that there is a similar situation at play here.  People of Color, who have the most intimate experience with the way racism effects their lives, are saying that the phrase white supremacy more accurately describes the realities they experience than the "softer" word, racism.  As a cisgender, white man, I feel no more entitled to disagree with them than I am to disagree with the way(s) women describe their experiences.  I mean, of course, I do feel more entitled to disagree, because I am also swimming in the sea of white supremacy, but I have learned how that feeling is not the same thing as a fact.  I may feel more entitled -- consciously or not -- but I am not in fact more entitled.  Actually, I have come to recognize that no matter what I may feel is true, the truth is that I am less entitled to define the terms of the discussion because I am less directly effected by the thing we're discussing.

I've now used a lot of words to talk about words, so I will end here.  Yet there is another argument that is often made when the words white supremacy are being resisted or rejected.  "But I'm not a white supremacist!"  I'll try to address that in my next post.

Until then, one last thought.  While writing earlier about the way(s) that the definition of "racism" is too vague and generic, I was thinking about how this lack of specificity opens up the seeming importance of the concept of "reverse racism."  "Reverse Racism" appears to be a possibility within the definition of "racism," while no one would ever think of talking about "reverse white supremacy."  The comedian Aamer Rahman address the issue of "reverse racism" in a most brilliant monologue (while also giving an incredibly concise history of how the historic roots of racism have grown into what we live with today).

Pax tecum,


Sunday, May 14, 2017

From Torches to Whispers ...

According to my local paper, The Daily Progress, last night:

"Several dozen torch-wielding protesters gathered in Charlottesville’s Lee Park just after 9 p.m. Saturday, chanting “You will not replace us,” “Russia is our friend” and “Blood and soil.”"  

Lee Park has been in our news a lot lately, since the City Council voted to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee after a hotly heated debate about whether or not to do so.  It was a high school student who got things started after she made a speech about how unwelcoming that gigantic statue made her, and other people of color she knows.  The community quickly divided into factions -- keep the statue (keep our heritage!), remove the statue (recognize that there is more than one heritage to honor!), and those who tried to find some kind of balance.

But let's not lose sight of the headline --  "Several dozen torch-wielding protesters gathered [...] chanting “You will not replace us,” “Russia is our friend” and “Blood and soil.”

While this blatant attempt to intimidate is infuriating on its own, I can help but also see it through the lens of the conversation going on within the denomination -- and congregation -- I serve.  The Unitarian Universtalist Association is embroiled in a heated conversation about participation in, and perpetuation of, systems and structures of racism within our own institutions.  The fact that our institutions are also infected by the cancer or racism that permeates every facet of the dominant culture -- "the water we swim in" -- is not, or should not be, surprising.  

Naturally, good-hearted, well-meaning liberal's as we UUs generally are don't want to think of our institutions as being caught up in the systems and structures that support racism.  Yet even many who recognize that this is simply an undeniable fact are reacting to the words being used to describe this:  white supremacy.  Those "systems and structures that support racism" are being called "systems and structures that support a white supremacist culture," and even many people who recognize the first are rejecting the second.  

"White supremacists," they say, "are folks who wear hoods, or go to the downtowns of quiet little cities like Charlottesville with torches in their hands."  It makes no sense, then, they say, to use those same words to describe something like the Unitarian Universalist Association which has been long dedicated to a vision of an anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural Beloved Community.  To paint us with the same brush as members of the KKK is both to unfairly malign us, as well as to unhelpfully dilute the meaning of the term and its power when directed at its proper targets.  I imagine that the events of last night at Lee Park here in Charlottesville will only serve to bolster this argument.

I would actually suggest the opposite.  About a week or so ago I posted, "A Toxic Cesspool by Any Other Name ..." in which I tried to make the case that no matter what we -- especially we who identify as white -- feel about the words "white supremacy," we should not let our reaction to the words deter us from hearing the underlying diagnosis of our infection.  Last weekend we took part -- with well over 600 other Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities -- in an event known as the UU White Supremacy Teach-In.  (Here's a link to the service we did here -- "Listening Even When We Don't Want to Hear" -- in case you'd like to see it.)  And I've shared widely a graphic that's sometimes called the White Supremacy Triangle.  (It's at the bottom of this post.)

You can also think of this image as an iceberg, with the kinds of behaviors and groups that we'd usually think of when hearing the words "white supremacy" above the "water line."  These are overt, one might say explicit, behaviors ... like bringing torches to a park with a statue of a Confederate General and chanting, "blood and soil."  These are instantly recognizable, and I don't think there are any of my well-meaning, good-hearted, liberal, white kin who would disagree that those words -- white supremacy -- apply to those behaviors.

Yet the metaphor of an iceberg is instructive, because just as the "tip of the iceberg" is supported and sustained by the far-greater mass of ice beneath the water, so, too, white supremacy is supported and sustained by the far-greater mass of behaviors that are less visible, less overt, and less obviously troublesome (to many white folks, at least).

Before going further, let me engage in a moment of semantics.  Racism is defined as, "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior."  Few would disagree with that.  Yet here's the problem with this definition, it doesn't specific which race is being considered "superior."  It speaks about this "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" in general, almost neutral terms.  And yet it has also been accepted for decades is that "racism = prejudice + power."  And in the United States -- historically and presently -- it is white people who have the power.  

Lots of people talk about "reverse racism," yet the definition of racism as "prejudice + power" argues that there really is no such thing.  (Although the comedian Aamer Rahman has a brilliant routine in which he suggests that reverse racism could well be possible if ...)  People of color can be prejudiced, but they have no, nor do they have now, the institutional and structural power necessary to make that prejudice "racism."   Yet defining racism as "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior" is generic enough to blur this distinction.

"White supremacy," on the other hand, is defined as "the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society."  This is certainly a more harsh definition, yet it is also more particular and specific -- the scourge we face as a nation is not "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" against any old race, by any old race believing its own race is "superior."  It is, specifically, a culture that promotes the notion of white superiority which generates "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" toward People of Color.  Racism is not generic; it is specific.  The phrase "white supremacy" captures and reveals that specificity with greater clarity.

"But I don't believe that 'white people are superior to those of all other races'!," some might say.  "My beloved UUA doesn't believe that white people should 'dominate society!"  That is no doubt true, and yet, simply put, the dominant culture in which we live -- "the water we swim in" -- does.  I could give a million examples of the ways in which the dominant culture of the United States prioritizes, and elevates as superior, white perceptions, which perspectives, and white experience, but here are three:

  • We need a "Black History Month" because the history that's been taught the other 11 months of the year is so white.
  • We seem to feel the need to identify a Person of Color as such in articles, let's say, yet can safely assume that if we don't identify race, the person is white.
  • As we read the previous two examples we assumed that the "we" refers to "everyone" when, in fact, it refers to primarily people who identify or are identified as white.  It is white people, by and large, who believe that when we say "we" we mean to include everyone; People of Color know all too well that they aren't.

So no, good-hearted, well-meaning liberal (white) folks are not engaging the same kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as those who bring torches to a "candlelight march."  And yet, that oh so obvious behavior is supported by all the ways -- overt and covert, above the water line and below it, visible and easily recognizable and not -- that we all -- truly all -- who swim in the water of the white supremacy culture participate in and perpetuate that culture.  It's not just the torches, but the whispers that have a role to play.  To fail to recognize and understand that is to make it virtually -- if not entirely -- impossible to cure what ails us.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Listening Even When We Don’t Want to Hear: UU White Supremacy Teach-In

This is the text not only of the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve -- the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charlottesville -- on May 7, 2017, but the text of the entire service.  I don't usually do this (if for no other reasons that that copyright restrictions allow the use of copyrighted materials within the context of a service of worship but in no context outside of that -- like posting online).  But this service was created as an integrated whole, even more than most.  

Ringing the Chime

Good morning, and welcome to Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist.  Ours is a congregation in the liberal religious tradition, and we welcome all who would work together to make this a world in which all are welcome.  As a part of that welcome I would encourage each of us to do what we need to in order to be fully and authentically present.  You might need to squirm a bit, or doodle on your Order of Service, or quietly knit, but be aware that the people around you have their own needs as well, so do try to balance yours and theirs.  If what you need is a more quiet, less stimulating place to be, we have a Comfort Room out those back doors and to the right.  The sound from the service is broadcast into the room, so you won’t miss anything.  I am going to encourage all of us to take out our electronics at this time and set them to silent.  You don’t need to turn them off – some people need to be able to connect to the outside world in order to be fully present – yet none of us wants to be that person whose phone breaks a powerful silence with its default ringtone.

I want to call your attention to three things this morning.  First, I want to thank everyone who made last night’s auction the incredible time it was!  Also, as this is the start of a new month we have a new art exhibit around us – these are the works of Susan Patrick  And I want to welcome Törok Karöla, who is here visiting Charlottesville this weekend.  Karola’s father, István, is the minister of our partner congregation in Gyepes, Transylvania.  István, his wife Melinda, and Karola were all here 2013, and she has been back in the states this year as part of a fellowship.  She’ll be in the Social Hall to greet friends old and new.  Szia, Karola.

Finally, I want to say up front that this service will not be comfortable for all of us – me included.  But I hope it won’t be, because if we can examine racism, really look deep into its foul maw, and especially if those of us who think of ourselves as white can do this honestly, and it isn’t uncomfortable, then we’re doing it wrong.   Between last Sunday and this, over 600 Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country – and around the world – have been looking, deeply, at the issue of white supremacy, and not just how it operates “out there,” but how it is alive and all too well “in here” – within our Association, within our own congregations, and within our own souls.  This morning we’ll be exploring it here in the sanctuary, and all of our children’s and youth’s religious education programming – except for OWL – will be looking at issues of racial justice in age appropriate ways as well.

If you identify as a person of color, I’d like you to know that there is a space for you to caucus with others who come to these issues from a different perspective than do those who look more or less like me.  You are certainly more than welcome to stay here, of course, but the people who have developed the resources for this UU White Supremacy Teach-In realize that you may have unique needs.  This safe caucus space – which is for people of color only – is downstairs in Lower Hall 3.  I would say to anyone, however you identify, that there are people at the Racial Justice Committee table in the Social Hall with further resources for you, and that that’s a good place to go for further conversations.  (And keep your eyes open to all the ways we communicate things, because in the coming weeks and months we will be offering other opportunities to continue to explore these issues.)

All that said, as always, it is good that you – you specifically, you particularly – are here this morning.  Each of us brings something unique to this gathered community, so each of us is essential.  It is good that we can be together.

Words of Welcome
Let us say together these words we say each week, words that describe the kind of community we strive to be:

Whoever you are, Whomever you love,
However you express your identity;
Whatever your situation in life,
Whatever your experience of the holy,
Your presence here is a gift.
Whether you are filled with sadness,
Overflowing with joy,
Needing to be alone with yourself,
Or eager to engage with others,
You have a place here. 
We all have a place here.
We all are welcome here.                                      


Chalice Lighting
Please stand close together so your shoulders or arms are touching.   Let’s read the chalice lighting together.

We are the Chalice.
I light the flame of justice in covenant with you.

We are the Chalice.
I light the flame of justice with my love.

We are the Chalice.
I light the flame of justice knowing I have much more to learn. 

We are the Chalice.
I light the flame of justice with my hope.

We are the Chalice.
I light the flame of justice with my determination.

We are the Chalice.
I light the flame of justice supported by our Unitarian Universalist faith.

(written by Kate Fraleigh)

Opening Hymn:  #119 Once to Every Soul and Nation
The original lyrics, “Once to every man and nation …,” were taken from a much longer poem by the white poet and abolitionist James Russel Lowell, titled, “The Present Crisis.”  It’s a poem about the need to bring slavery to an end and for America to free itself from its past so that it could become what it was meant to be.  The version we sing addresses the problem the poem’s gender-specific language, but after singing it one Sunday a parishioner suggested that the title should be changed again, this time to say, “Oft to every soul and nation.”  This looks to be one of those times.  It’s #119 in our grey hymnal.

First Reading
Our first reading is an excerpt from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  While in jail, an ally of Dr. King’s smuggled in a newspaper which contained a piece titled, "A Call for Unity."  It was a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods. The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response on the newspaper itself. King writes in Why We Can't Wait: "Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”  In this section, he wrote:

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

First Reflection – Establishing a Context
To those of us in this room who identify as, or are identified as, white, I encourage you to take a deep breath and to do what, at its best, our Unitarian Universalist faith calls on us to do – to open our minds to the possibility of encountering truth in ways, places, and forms we hadn’t expected, and to open our hearts to hear the voices of those who have different stories than the ones we know and tell.  To those here who identify as people of color, I am grateful for both the support, as well as the suspicion, I expect you bring with you this morning.

I must say that I have rarely stepped into a pulpit with more trepidation than I do this one this morning.  Stepping, blindfolded, onto an electrified tight rope strung over a minefield built on a quicksand pit seems more appealing right about now. 

Some people are calling what’s been going on recently within our Unitarian Universalist Association an “upheaval,” an “implosion,” “chaos,” a “crisis.”  I would note that most of the people who are saying these things are people who identify as, or who are identified as, white.  It is, by and large, white Unitarian Universalists who are expressing fear at “what we’re doing to one another,” who are outraged that words like “white supremacy” and “Unitarian Universalism” are being uttered in the same breath, who are counseling taking care not to “push people away,” who are already talking about “healing” and “building bridges,” and who keep reminding anyone who will listen that the real fight is “out there.”

Black and brown Unitarian Universalists … not so much.  At least those I know personally, and those I have some connection to – no matter how many degrees of separation – aren’t saying that stuff.  None of this is some kind of shocking revelation to them; it’s been their lived experience.  None of this is all that surprising, except, perhaps, surprise at just how surprised (and threatened) so many white UUs are.  Oh, UUs of Color are expressing anger –that the things they’ve been saying for decades are being met with so much dismissive disbelief.  And they are expressing fear, too, but it’s not so much the white fear that this is going to tear our Association apart.  It’s the fear that once again what looks like a possibility for a real awakening, for real change, is going to – once again – turn back on itself and renew the slumbering status quo that is required by the dominant, white supremacist culture.

But let’s take a look at those words, those two words – white supremacy.  They’ve seemingly become the magnet, drawing to them all the anger, guilt, fear, denial, rage, disorientation, and discomfort that go along with any honest examination of race in this country.  People are saying – the vast majority of them white people – that those words just aren’t appropriate to use to describe us.  Those words, people are saying (the vast majority of them white people) are too divisive, too inflammatory.  A lot of white UUs are saying that the insistence on using those words, those particular words, is going to tear us apart and spell the end of Unitarian Universalism as we know and love it.  To this last point, my dear friend Aisha Hauser has said (and this is in your Order of Service), “If the words “white supremacy” – that accurately describe the water in which we swim – are going to be the reason that Unitarian Universalism will fall apart, I invite you to think about what exactly is holding us together.”
One of the things we know without question about the way racism works – beyond, of course, the conscious and intentional racist acts of individuals and groups – is that it creates a system, a culture which makes white perspectives, and white attitudes, and white experience, central and normative.  We know, incontrovertibly, that one of the ways racism works is to subtly, and not so subtly, conflate “white” with “normal” … with “human.”  It makes it so that we – both whites and people of color, too – come to believe, even without realizing it, that the assumptions white folks have about the way things are and the ways things are supposed to be – based on what we’ve been taught and on our own experiences –  are true, are reality.  (The white anti-racist author and speaker Tim Wise has said that one piece of white privilege is the ability to define reality and have that definition stick.)

The white scholar of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, famously said that the stories other cultures tell about how the world works are called “Myths;” the stories our culture tells about the way the world works are called, “The Way The World Works.”  On my door there is a poster with a quote from the white anthropologist Wade Davis which says, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you ...”  To me, these two are helpful here, because one of the ways the culture of white supremacy perpetuates itself is to try to convince us –all of us – that its racist assumptions and assertions are simply “The Way The World Works,” and that anything – any practice, any perspective, any perception – anything at any variance from that is simply “a failed attempt at being [normal],” (where “normal” is defined – even unconsciously – as being synonymous with “white”).

None of this is new.  For more than a decade we’ve offered workshops and classes, book studies and discussions, film series, and my predecessors in this pulpit and I have preached on it all frequently.  But it’s hard to hear.  It’s hard to understand.  I know, because no matter how many times I hear it, no matter how many times I say it, I know that I can’t yet – hopefully, “yet” – fully grasp it.  Because it is only natural for me to think, for you to think, for any of us to think that the world as we’ve seen it, and experienced it, and known it is the way things are.  Yet this analysis of white supremacy culture is that we – we all, to some extent, but particularly the “we” who identify as, or are identified as, white – we have to not only understand with our minds, but fully and deeply realize with all of our senses and the very fiber of our beings, that “the world in which [we] were born is just one model of reality.”  “Up” is not necessarily “up” just because that’s how we’ve always experienced it to be.  “Down” is not always “down.”  “Fair” and “right” are not always “fair” and “right.”  And it doesn’t matter how well-meaning, and good-hearted, and liberal we are.  How “woke.”  Because the culture of white supremacy doesn’t care about how well-meaning, and good-hearted, and liberal we are; it cares only that “whiteness” – and all things “white” – remain regarded as supreme.

And really, the words “white supremacy” are no more – and no less – judgmental than “systemic racism.”  To say that our own beloved Unitarian Universalist Association, even our own beloved TJMC, participates in and perpetuates the culture of white supremacy is no more of a condemnation that it is to say that they are as infected by systemic racism as is everything else in the United States.  How could it be otherwise?  As Aisha put it, and others besides her, it’s “the water we swim in.”  The culture of racism, the culture of white supremacy, is the air we breathe.  It’s in the very DNA of everything – and everyone – whether we want it to be or not, whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we are consciously working towards its eradication or not.  To deny this is like denying climate change – it has simply been much to clearly established to be argued with.  It simply is true.

So what are we going to do about it?  And in this case the “we” I’m talking about, and to, is primarily the “we” who identify as, or are identified as, white.  What are we – we white UUs – going to do about having been clearly, forcefully, unambiguously shown that the institutional containers of the faith of Unitarian Universalism – the Association and its congregations – are part of, participate in, and perpetuate the systems and structures – the culture – which keeps “whiteness” supreme … what are we going to do about it?

We could argue about what words to use.  We could argue about the “strategy” being employed to call for this examination.  We could blame the people who have been, and continue to be, hurt by the systems, and structures, and practices of the UUA for daring to speak of it out-loud and demanding to be taken seriously.  We could condemn those who are calling for change, who are, as we put it here, “lovingly calling each other back into covenant when we have fallen short.”  (Even though that love is decidedly “tough love.”) 

All of these things have been happening, with a vehemence and an ugliness that most of you might not believe and that I find exceedingly more disturbing than any declaration that the UUA is a white supremacist institution.  (This morning I saw a graphic a Unitarian Universalist made that puts the flaming chalice over a rainbow … confederate battle flag.  A Unitarian Universalist did that!) We could respond in any of these ways – and we are – but are these the ways we are called to behave by the Unitarian Universalist faith which these institutions exist to support?  I don’t think so.

I’m not sure who said this first, but I know it was a UU of Color (and I’m paraphrasing here):  Instead of arguing over what words to use, why not ask what pain caused someone to feel the need to use them?   Can we who identify as, or are identified as, white step out of our own assumptions about how things are to listen to, and really hear, what’s being said by UUs of Color whose experiences are not “failed attempts” at being us, at being … white and all that that means?  Are we willing to not only recognize –  but really believe – that our “up” is not the only “up,” and that our “down” is not the only “down,” and that our “fair” and “right” is not the only “fair” and “right?  And that, in fact, our “fair” and “right” might actually be “unfair” and “wrong.”  If we are willing to try to do that, we need to know that we will be changed.  We will have to let go of things, even things we take for granted … even things we love.  But we simply have to be willing to be changed, if our society is ever to be transformed into Beloved Community we dream about.

Musical Response:  #127  “Can I See Another’s Woe?”
The words to this hymn are from a longer poem by the white poet William Blake, titled, “On Another’s Woe” from his book Songs of Innocence.  It’s #127 in our grey hymnal.

Second Reading
The author of the piece we’re about to hear self-identifies as Vietnamese American … and Unitarian Universalist.  This is, “Dear Liberal Allies,” by Trungles

Dear Liberal Allies,

You and I learned very different things in very different ways. If you didn’t live an experience, then step aside.

We students of color, gay students, trans* students, children of immigrants and refugees
knew this stuff before our professors told us what to call it. We learned it from the bottom up.

You learned it another way. You received a set of key words and a list of definitions. Your learning was, in all likelihood, “Here is this word. This is what this word means.”

For you, it was “Xenophobia: a strong fear or dislike of people from other countries.”

For us, it was “Xenophobia: the time that boy in my kindergarten class spat on me because I couldn’t speak English yet. Or when I saw that clerk yell at my mom in the grocery store because her English wasn’t clear enough.”

For you, it was, “Racism: unfair treatment of people who belong to another race; violent behavior towards them.”

For us, it was, “Racism: that one time I saw that manager tell that sales girl to follow my dad around at Kohl’s. Or that one time my neighbor’s kid got shot by the police and they tried to cover it up by convincing everyone he was in a gang because he was Hmong, but we knew he wasn’t. Or the time my dad told me I shouldn’t rollerblade to the library because I’m not white and it’s not safe for me.”

For you, it was, “Homophobia: a strong dislike or fear of homosexual people.”

For us, it was, “Homophobia: that time in the sixth grade when Ryan shoved me against a glass door and banged my face in it while yelling, ‘faggot!’ at me until the teacher stopped him. Or when my Catholic high school’s president told me that, though he loved me as a child of God, he still believed I was sinful.”

For you, it was: “Classism: prejudice or discrimination based on social class.”

For us, it was: “Classism: the time when my best friend came over to hang out and her parents didn’t want her to come over again because they didn’t like our neighborhood. Or that one time when my friends had no idea what food stamps looked like and I was too embarrassed to explain what they were.”

So while you were learning that these academically-framed phenomena were real problems, we were getting figurative nametags for awful things that we already knew. Your weekly vocabulary list was, to us, just a hollow shadow of our lived experiences.

When you step out of class, you get to say, “Oh, awesome. I’m learning how to be a good ally and a better human being. This will help me.” For us, it’s more like, “Ah, so that’s what they’re calling it nowadays. When exactly did they say change was going to come for us?”

A Time of Silence
Let us take a moment of silence – to sit with what we’ve heard; to be with what we’re feeling; to sink into the realization that what we see, what we know to be true, is not as true as we believe; and to seek the courage to risk losing some of who we’ve been to become who we need to be.

Musical Response:  Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom
Reverend Osby of Aurora, Illinois created this revamp of an old gospel song “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus” while spending time in Hinds County jail during the freedom rides. The song spread and became part of the civil rights movement as did many others during the time, this song being one of the more notable pieces.  I hope that even as a predominantly white congregation we can hear in it what People of Color must hear, and sing it in honor of their struggles.

One of the gifts of our Unitarian Universalist faith -- and of this particular Unitarian Universalist community -- is that it calls on all of us to grapple with the truth of life, even when it's unpleasant, even when it hurts, even when we'd rather not.  But at its best, ours is not a faith that turns its back on “inconvenient truths," nor does it give up and walks out when we disagree.  We are called on to persist in the free and responsible search for truth, even when it’s hard … even when we don’t like what we find.  To support this kind of deep and challenging faith, the ushers will take a financial offering.

Third Reading
Our third reading is from “The Uses of Anger:  Women Respond to Racism,” the keynote presentation Audre Lorde delivered at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in 1981:
Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger at being silenced at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart. We have had to learn to move through them and use them for strength and force and insight within our daily lives. Those of us who did not learn this difficult lesson did not survive. And part of my anger is always libation for my fallen sisters.

Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes do not change. […]

I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.


I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees. If I speak to you in anger, at least I have spoken to you: I have not put a gun to your head and shot you down in the street; I have not looked at your bleeding sister’s body and asked, “What did she do to deserve it?” […]

My response to racism is anger. That anger has eaten clefts into my living only when it remained unspoken, useless to anyone. It has also served me in classrooms without light or learning, where the work and history of Black women was less than a vapor. It has served me as fire in the ice zone of uncomprehending eyes of white women who see in my experience and the experience of my people only new reasons for fear or guilt. And my anger is no excuse for not dealing with your blindness, no reason to withdraw from the results of your own actions.”

Third Reflection:  Listening Even When We Don't Want to Hear
I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. […] my anger is no excuse for not dealing with your blindness, no reason to withdraw from the results of your own actions.”

I have a confession – I really don’t like this.  I am genetically pre-conditioned to try to avoid conflict, and in all of this there’s a whole lot of conflict going on, with a whole lot more to come.  People are feeling ignored, disbelieved, dismissed (both in this moment and for decades, centuries).  People are feeling attacked, and rejected, and misunderstood.  There’s rage, and guilt, and blame, and fear, and all of it makes me want to run to the hills.  And hearing myself and this faith tradition that I love spoken of in the same sentence as the words “white supremacy” makes my skin itch and burn.

But as a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender male, with a comfortable income, and a whole lot of education I don’t have the luxury of running away.  I mean I do – that’s part of the privilege that comes with all those identities I just named.  I have the freedom to do that, but I don’t want to.  No matter how much I want to, I don’t want to, because I know that absolutely nothing is going to change if I do.

That’s not even it, because sure, things might change … a bit … here and there.  But as I said in my Bulletin column last month, if there is ever going to be an end to racism (and sexism, and heterosexism, and ableism, and classism, and all the other “isms” that are used to oppress), if these forms of oppression are ever going to end, there needs to be more than just change, but fundamental transformation.  And I know that I need to give up some of the privileges that I’ve become accustomed to, that I take for granted, that I never even used to be aware of, because whenever I take advantage of those privileges, I become even more complicit in the continuation of those very things I claim to want to end.

And I know that I have to give up my assumption that whatever we do, however we go about doing it, I have to understand the approach and be comfortable with it.  I have to let go of my predisposition toward insisting that I get to approve the words we use, and the actions we take, and the timing of it all.  That I believe – as a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender male, with a comfortable income, and a whole lot of education – that I get to call all these shots is yet another one of those privileges that I have to reject.

In Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he castigates those white clergymen – and through them all those “white moderates” of “good will” he despairs of – for thinking that they get to determine the strategy.  He wrote,

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never."

To their criticism of the strategy of non-violent action as being too confrontational, too inflammatory, too likely to cause possible allies to turn against the movement, he wrote,

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community […] is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. […]  [W]e see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help [people] rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and [kinship].

That is why I said at the outset that I hope this won’t be comfortable for those of us who see ourselves as white.  I can’t help but see parallels, parallels between those calls for patience, for dialing back the tension, for reducing the feelings of confrontation, and those same calls today.  I can’t help but see parallels.  I’m hoping that you can’t either.

I pray, I pray that we white UUs – however uncomfortable we feel, however hurt we feel, however guilty we feel, however angry we feel, however we feel – I pray that we will stay with all that discomfort and keep working toward what we say we want.  I pray that we will not give up, not turn back, not go back to sleep, not absolve ourselves, not make this about us, and that we not fail the call of justice as we have done throughout our history.

Candles of Hope & Remembrance and the Sands of Forgiveness & Atonement

A Moment of Prayer (spoken and silent)
Great and Gracious Spirit – God, to some; Spirit of Life and Love, to others; Call of Justice to yet still more:  This is hard.  Being uncomfortable is hard.  Being hurt is hard.  Being ignored, and disbelieved, and accused, and judged is hard.  Change is hard.  And transformation is harder.  Yet this is the work that Justice, that Love, that Life, that God calls us to – for our world is not yet the Beloved Community we’ve dreamt of for so long, the Beloved Community in which everyone is welcome, in which everyone is free, in which everyone is encouraged and ennobled, in which everyone can flourish.  So we pray for the humility to hear hard truths; we pray for the courage to speak those truths; and we pray for the strength to let ourselves be changed by them, for only with these can we join those who, from the beginning of time, have struggled for liberation of all.

And now, given that there are so many ways of naming and knowing the sacred and the holy, let us each, according to our own understandings and our own traditions, take a moment of silence open our hearts […]

In the name of all that is holy, and in all the Holy Names we have ever known, and those we have never yet allowed ourselves to hear, and today, in the most holy name of Liberation, we say, Blessed be, Namaste, Asalaam Alikum, Ashé, Shalom, and Amen.

Parting Words
For our Parting Words we return again to the Rev. Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.  Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebur has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.  […]

[And] we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension.  We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.  We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.

And the question for us – all of us – here and throughout our Association is, how are we going to deal with it?

Closing Hymn:  We Are Building Up A New World
Dr. Vincent Harding, who was a friend and advisor of Dr. King’s, and wrote Dr. King’s ‘Vietnam’ speech delivered on April 4, 1967, was a legend and a mentor to so many folks worldwide, and especially in the city of Denver.

In Denver circles, he is widely credited with spreading the song “We Are Building Up A New World,” sung to the tune of “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” and it’s used often at activist and spiritual events:

We are building up a new world
We are building up a new world
We are building up a new world
Builders must be strong.

Courage, sisters, don’t get weary
Courage, brothers, don’t get weary
Courage, people, don’t get weary
Though the way be long.

We are building up a new world
We are building up a new world
We are building up a new world
Builders must be strong.