In search of an Honest Person by Rev. Fred L Hammond
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
January 15 2012 ©
In our story for all ages, we heard the story of Clementine Hunter, an artist from the mid 20th century who lived the first half of her life working a plantation in Louisiana. She found her voice as a painter creating her canvass from various items found around the house. Her paintings depicted life on the plantation; the good and the hard life.
The prophetic is also a voice that gains expression from the events that surround our daily life. It is also an art form of sorts that paints on the canvasses of people’s hearts. It has the ability to soften the heart of those who want change and to harden the heart in those who do not. It is the prophetic voice so desperately needed that will stir the heart towards freedom.
I have been reflecting back four years ago and the message of hope that then Candidate Barack Obama offered the American people. The people responded to this message of hope in a visceral way. And then what seemed like a cruel twist of fate, the markets collapsed, the deepest recession this country has known became rooted into the infrastructure and hope seemed to fade away like fog in the morning sun. Was the hope that was offered merely rhetorical or was it real and delayed in delivery?
In the four years since that message of hope was spoken we have seen a hardening of the heart of America. We have witnessed an attack on the fundamental freedoms this country has valued since the revolution of 1776. The hardness of heart has been severe and it is filled with fear.
It did not start four years ago. It is not the result of this current administration despite what opponents are attempting to state. It started way before this time in policies that our government has instituted, many before any of us were born. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. still reverberate as true today as they were 40 years ago. Here is a section from his Beyond Vietnam– A Time to Break the Silence, given on April 4, 1967:
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”
We have witnessed the sad fulfillment of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s warning forty some years later. We are no longer approaching spiritual death as a nation but have indeed experienced our spiritual death as a nation. What we are witnessing in this country today is the putrification of white values that have failed this country. Our arrogance, our policies of manifest destiny have run their course and what remains today is a dead corpse that is in need of burial.
Without a resurrection of spirit, this country will only be able to revisit the policies of yesteryear which sought to secure white supremacy and privilege over the other. While we are seeking to fulfill the American dream we are stomping over everyone else, forgetting that the dream of freedom, the dream of social uplift is universal and embedded into the foundation of this nation’s most sacred texts. In pursuit of this dream we have lost our way by exploiting others, we may not call them slaves, but we treated these workers as subordinates and not worthy of the dream. We failed to see that when we care for the least of these we care for ourselves as well. We saw them as cheap labor, as slave labor that we could exploit and pocket the profits into the silk linings of the one percent. Our greed, our disregard for others through our short sighted policies have destroyed the American economy at home causing the widest gulf between the richest and the poorest among us since the days before the crash of 1929.
We have sent our young men and women to fight a war designed on deceit and deception and now these soldiers are coming home with the severest post traumatic stress syndrome ever seen in our people. These men and women will need years of treatment that is already being denied to them ensuring that our nation will deteriorate in violent behaviors. Our death as a nation has already occurred. It is time to grieve for America. America is dead. Long live America.
Martin Luther King, Jr. voice still rings out today as purely as it did when it was spoken. One could despair and say that nothing has changed. Humanity is still as recalcitrant as it always is. There is nothing new under the sun as King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes. It is the same ole, same ole; same stuff, different day. But this is where the prophetic voice comes in and perhaps more importantly the purpose of religion, and to narrow that phrase even further, the purpose of Unitarian Universalism.
There is a story from First Unitarian Society in Chicago from 1948 when that church, although located in a predominantly black neighborhood, did not allow people of color to join. The minister, Rev. Leslie Pennington and Theologian James Luther Adams, who taught at Meadville Lombard Theological School across the street and sat on the board, decided the time had come to change the by-laws of the church. While most board members supported the idea, one was opposed stating that this proposal makes desegregation into a creed. Debate at the board meeting ensued, each side believing that they were in the right. The board meeting continued into the early hours of the morning. After everyone was exhausted from arguing, James Luther Adams remembered that listening was also an important piece of our faith and so he asked the person who was most opposed, “What was the purpose of this church?” The person responded, “The purpose of the church is to get ahold of people like me and change them. [i]“
Before religion can shape and influence society it needs to first shape and influence you and me. So since we are Unitarian Universalists, the purpose of Unitarian Universalism is to shape and influence us in our lives within these four walls so that we in turn can shape and influence society beyond these doors.
Walter Brueggemann in The Prophetic Imagination writes, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” This means that that the purpose of religion is not to preserve a culture, or to save people for some future heaven or to make a culture adhere to some legalistic standard found in a text thousands of years old but rather to find the liberating spirit that frees the heart and allows that heart to soar.
Brueggemann talks about the freedom of God that is to move where it wills and not contained in some box in a temple or in some book on a shelf. The freedom of God is found in the manifestation of unfolding love and compassion, of increasing justice, and within humility in the interactions of humanity with one another. Now this might be uncomfortable language for some of us but I encourage us to listen beyond the words to the heart of what this means for, I believe, this is at the center of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. We must again, reclaim this spirit when we seek to live our faith in the world; unfolding love and compassion, increasing justice, and within humility in the interactions of humanity with one another. Another way to say this is found in the call to Abraham “to extend the boundaries of righteousness and justice in the world.[ii]”
Our faith calls us to do this work. It is a prophetic call.
The prophetic voice of Martin Luther King aimed towards a different way of being in this world. A way of being that embraced a core value of worth and dignity for all persons. It is far different to the voices we hear demanding banning same sex marriage, or defining personhood as beginning at conception, or claiming not enough resources for Medicare or social security, not enough hospitality to be shared with the other.
The god of this culture is the god of self-indulgence, it is the god of white privilege, it is the god of I-get-mine-first. It is the god of mindless consumerism that sedates a people into numbness unaware that they are being molded into sheep for the slaughter.
The policies that are being proposed claiming religious grounding are not representing the liberating message of Jesus but the imprisoning message of law and order to maintain an orderly submissive culture to a hierarchy of privilege. This is a message where the rich can have life saving abortions but the poor are sent to jail for the same. If the churches actually preached the true liberating message of Jesus, then the dream that Martin Luther King preached would forty years later be closer to manifesting in our midst. But this is not what most churches preach in this country and it makes me afraid for our nation.
I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh[iii]
I ain’t afraid of your Allah
I ain’t afraid of your Jesus
I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your God …
That’s it isn’t it. We gather here as Unitarian Universalists afraid of what others do in the name of their god. That is not what we are called to be. We are not called to huddle here in Alabama in some enclave, safe from the onslaught of religious fanaticism, safe from the insanity of political rhetoric that scares quite frankly anyone who actually stops and listens to what is being said.
We are called to be that prophetic voice in the wilderness. We are called to be the leaven in the dough that makes the world delicious and edible to the taste. We are called to make this world a more just, a more humane, a more hospitable, a more sane place to live. And that takes a prophetic voice.
It doesn’t mean that we do crazy things like Diogenes and walk around town with a burning lantern in the middle of the day looking for an honest person. But it does mean that we speak out when crazy comes to town. It means we engage our community by listening to what is happening around us.
Tomorrow is the day we honor the dream and vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And while I hope that everyone here will participate in some fashion in honoring the legacy of this man by attending any of the several events happening tomorrow, including marching, this is not what I mean by engaging our community. Engaging means to listen to what is happening in our community with an ear towards justice.
I met yesterday with Somos Tuskaloosa, the organization I helped found here. The Latina women who are working in their communities to overturn HB 56 want to do something more than just repeal an unjust law. They want to have Tuscaloosa realize that they are very much a part of this community. They want the schools to realize that their children, many of whom come from families who are of legal status in this community are in pain after the double trauma of the tornado and passage of HB 56. They lost their homes in an instant. They see that their neighborhood is not being attended to in the rebuilding efforts while the neighborhoods of the white children are being prepared for rebuilding. The children are traumatized and are acting out and there is no understanding by the schools as to why this would be happening.
Children are refusing to go to school; good studious children are refusing to go to school because they are traumatized by the tornado and by the passage of this heinous law. They are being bullied in school by xenophobic students and teachers. There are no substantial translation services enabling the parents to be able to communicate with the schools regarding these issues. These children are invisible.
These are our children too. All of the children of Tuscaloosa are our children. We can engage in the prophetic work in the community to make Tuscaloosa more hospitable to our neighbors by speaking up, by engaging in the creation of multi-cultural events where we learn the values, the expression of common values where we can share and hear their stories and listen to where the freedom of god may be leading us to act.
Clementine Hunter shared her story by painting on the everyday objects she found around her. Our story can be told the same way by listening to the world around us and then asking ourselves what can I do with what I am hearing that will reveal a different way to be? What can I do with what I am seeing that will spread love into this church, into this neighborhood, into this community and create a new way of living? Be the change you wish to see in the world and in doing so we will experience the resurrection of love. Blessed Be.
[ii] Genesis 18:19
[iii] I Ain’t Afraid, Holly Near