Justice as a Spiritual Practice

This past week was a difficult one for me. Watching the state house accepting lies as facts in their passing HB 57 shutting down a women’s ability to have dominion over the fate of her body by restricting access to clinics was difficult to bear. It was also difficult to learn the Accountability Act has the negative impact of reinforcing and securing segregation once again of our schools. Alabama Senate also passed the open carry gun law allowing people to carry guns anywhere even at places of employment against the employer’s policies. This on top of the ongoing draconian actions taken against migrant and immigrant families and the Governor’s refusal of accepting an expansion of Medicaid that would potentially save the lives of 550 people annually. An expansion that would be paid in full by the Federal government the first 3 years and then gradually increase Alabama’s share to cover a mere 10% of the cost by 2020. These actions by our state will increase the suffering our citizens experience.

But our state wasn’t the only state considering and passing laws that were void of any sense of justice. Tennessee sought to specifically create their voucher program for private schools to exclude benefiting Moslem parochial schools and to deny welfare benefits to families whose children are doing poorly in school. The voucher program was killed in session but the welfare benefits in exchange for good school grades passed the TN house on Wednesday.

Then there is the town of Nelson, Georgia that passed an ordinance requiring every head of household, unless a felon or mentally ill, to own a gun and ammo . It isn’t the first town in Georgia to have such an ordinance; the town of Kennesaw has had such an ordinance, albeit unenforced, since 1982.

Our country claims to have a moral compass but I am having difficulty finding true north on this compass. It only seems to point at those things that seem expedient, that seem to support pharisaical righteous indignation and not anything resembling the core teachings of our major religions.

At the same time, our denomination seems to be very active in a variety of social justice issues. Last week there was a very strong presence in Washington DC for the Supreme Court hearings on marriage equality. And Unitarian Universalists are preparing to join thousands this coming week for the Immigration march on Washington to push for humane immigration reform. Unitarian Universalists have joined the protests against the building of the Keystone Pipeline—some even pledging to participate in civil disobedience. At the School of Americas Watch protest every fall, Unitarian Universalists join in seeking closure of this international military training camp that has resulted in millions of lives lost and displaced in Latin America.
These are in my mind important issues but how does one keep from being swallowed up in the search for justice for all. How does one keep from becoming bitter and sardonic in the face of so much pain and suffering these injustices cause?

There are three people who I believe can provide some insight into how Justice can be a spiritual practice. These three people are Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But first we need a working definition of what defines a spiritual practice. Venerable Deo Kwun gave a dharma talk to Unitarian Universalists in Grand Rapid Michigan. He was looking for a definition of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice and came to understand spiritual practice for us as being: a repeated action coupled with clear intention to connect with all things in a way that rests in wisdom, love, kindness, compassion, and joy.

Leave it to a non-Unitarian Universalist to come up with a viable working definition of what we do as a spiritual practice. That is another sermon topic.

I am going to use this definition to present some ideas regarding creating Justice as a spiritual practice. I begin with Bishop Desmond Tutu.
For those who may not know Desmond Tutu. He is the first black Anglican archbishop from Capetown, South Africa. He fought for the end of apartheid. He insisted not to become bitter in the face of his adversaries. Bitterness, one might think, would be a justified reaction given the pain and suffering he and his people have endured under apartheid. He chose not to go there.

In order to do the work for freedom and justice he followed this daily routine: He sought to think positive. He would remember all the positive and loving actions he experienced from others and think about those actions. He would seek to recognize present moments of positive and loving actions in his day to day life. These memories and present encounters would motivate and provide direction for his life. He awoke each morning with quiet time, a walk, and prayerful reflection. Now his prayerful reflection because he is Christian included reading and reflecting on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as a parallel to what was happening in his life. And because he is Christian, he sought to hear his god’s voice in the midst of all that was happening around him to aid him in guiding his journey.

Reflection is important in doing Justice work. I believe that it is essential regardless of the faith doctrine one hangs their hat. Without it, creating justice becomes another exterior action that has no central conviction behind it. Creating justice should be expanding the realm of freedom and liberation and not forging steel bars of anger, resentment, and bitterness exchanging one prison cell for anther one.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. followed a practice of ‘Satya-graha’ or soul force. Soul force was created by Gandhi from his study of many religions. He took the Hindu concepts of Ahimsa—non-violence and Anaskati- detachment, the Christian concept of loving your neighbors as yourself and redemptive suffering and Jainism’s anekantavada—the many-sidedness of truth to create this notion of Soulforce.  Martin Luther King adapted Soulforce for his non-violent resistance through out the 1950’s and 60’s.

Gandhi and King had their followers in various marches sign pledges of Soulforce action. For both Gandhi and King, Soulforce was not just a tactic in order to win victory but rather a way of life that transforms first the individual engaged in it and secondarily the world around them. For them the goal was not victory but justice and reconciliation. To achieve justice, it was important to live justly. Both men sought this level of commitment in the people who marched with them.

There is a quote in the Movie Gandhi that has him saying something along the lines of “when the British leave India we want to see them off as friends.” And this attitude of reconciliation was at the heart of his message and his commitment.

Many years ago now, I joined Rev. Mel White in a similar venture for justice. He is the founder of Soulforce, an organization that seeks justice and reconciliation within the conservative faiths regarding gender and sexual diversities. We engaged in a 17 week course of reflection on being gay and oppressed in the context of Soulforce with the goal that we would sit down to dinner with the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

We too had to sign a pledge similar to the pledge that Gandhi’s and King’s followers were asked to sign. We also were asked to take five vows as life long commitments. Some of them are harder to keep than others.
The vows were the following :

Five Soulforce Vows or Promises
1. Vow to Truth
I promise to seek the truth, to live by the truth, and to confront untruth wherever I find it.
2. Vow to Love
I promise to reject violence (of the fist, tongue, or heart) and to use only the methods of nonviolence in my search for truth or in my confrontation with untruth.
3. Vow to volunteer suffering
I promise to take on myself without complaint any suffering that might result from my confrontation with untruth and to do all in my power to help my adversary avoid all suffering, especially that suffering that may result from our confrontation.
4. Vow to control passions
I promise to control my appetite for food, sex, intoxicants, entertainment, position, power that my best self might be free to join with my Creator in doing justice (making things fair for all).
5. Vow to limit possessions
I promise to limit my possessions to those things I really need to survive and to see myself as a trustee over all my other possessions, using them exclusively to help make things fair for those who suffer.

The first vow was based in the notion that we all fall victim to untruth. Jerry Falwell was not my enemy, even though he said hateful things about my character as a gay man, he was instead a victim to untruth just as I had been a victim of the same untruth. The interactions we had with him were not so much as to reach a victory as it was to find reconciliation and end the sharing of untruth about us.

The second vow to love was to refrain from all forms of violence; of the fist, tongue, or heart. I served as a peacekeeper for the celebration of Lynchburg Virginia’s first gay pride event. We were told that the protesters  including some of Westboro Baptist folks, were to be on the opposite side of the road from where the event was taking place. I and other peace keepers created a human shield between them and the festivities. The police did not keep their word to keep the group on that side of the road and soon they were up against our backs, saying all sorts of vile things in our ears hoping to get a rise out of us. They were leaning into our bodies hoping for us to make a move in which all hell would break loose. We remained steadfast in our restraint. We said no words, we used no fist, and I hope I was keeping a calm heart as well.

The Vow to voluntary suffering means acceptance of any consequences that may arise from my keeping the first two vows. There is a powerful scene in the Movie Gandhi where there is an attempt to shut down the salt mines. Row after row of men lined up to move in and the police and guards hit them hard to keep them from advancing forward. The sheer volume of men coming forward to insist on closing down the mines is overwhelming. Vince Walker, in reporting this scene says: Whatever moral ascendancy the West once held was lost here today. India is free, for she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give and she has neither cringed nor retreated.
They accepted the consequences of their actions. To work for justice means to be willing accept the consequences in the process, not to complain about the consequences but to accept them and to take the next step forward. The forces of untruth are often virulent in their desire to maintain prominence in a culture.

One only needs to see the virulence of untruth as it swirls around the reality that we have a black president. It has struck with a vengeance and so many people in the US today are being forced to reckon with the idea that their prejudices and racist beliefs about others are false. A reelection to office has not tempered the vile untruths being spouted. But Soulforce would ask us to have compassion on those who are so trapped in the prison cells of untruth because they are victims just as much as those who suffer from their racially charged laws and judgments.

It could be argued that the first three vows are specific to causes of justice and the last two are more life style choices; to control passions and to limit possessions. But consider that if passions are allowed to run free how might that impact on the justice we seek to create? How many people in religious or political settings have been destroyed because they have allowed their passions to control them instead of them their passions? Trying to live up to these two vows as Mel White suggests is a personal decision. They cannot be standardized or quantified. Therefore, how I might live these would be vastly different from how you might choose to live them.

Here in the south we see all too frequently what happens when a group of people attempts to quantify or set up a behavioral standard as to what these might look like in our lives. It results in imposing one’s will or one’s doctrine onto another person or group. That attitude results in suffering and oppression instead of reducing suffering.

So to take on these last two vows is to commit to the hard work of discerning the parameters of passion and the parameters of living simply. It is hard work. And Gandhi and King were no saints in this regard, far from it. They each have stories circulating around them where these two vows were clearly broken. But that fact does not undo the justice they attempted to create in the world. It does keep them human and hopefully away from the iconic images of saints being above reproach.

To live with Justice as a spiritual practice is to allow oneself to be transformed in order to change the world. Rep. John Lewis in an interview stated: “… hate is too heavy a burden to bear. And if you accept nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living, then you must be true, you must be consistent. Because if you only accept nonviolence as a technique or as a tactic, it becomes like a faucet. You can turn it on and turn it off. You have to go around deciding who you’re going to hate and who you’re going to love today, who you’re going to like or dislike, and I can truly say that I don’t have any ill feeling or malice or hatred toward anyone that attacked me or had me arrested or jailed during that period. I saw the men and women that engaged in the violence and the mob, whether it was a Bull Connor in Birmingham or a Sheriff Clark in Selma, as victims. We all were victims.”

Justice as a spiritual practice is not like faucets that can be turned on or off, you have to decide that this work is important to who you are in the world. It means extending love to all we meet. Even those who are adamantly oppositional to us, we are called to love with justice. May we begin again in love. Blessed be.

“Justice as a Spiritual Practice” by
Rev. Fred L Hammond  was offered on 7 April 2013 ©  to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

[1] http://thecontributor.com/medicaid-expansion-could-save-over-500-lives-year-alabama

[1] http://thinkprogress.org/education/2013/04/03/1815461/tennessee-may-deliberately-exclude-muslim-schools-from-new-voucher-program/

[1] http://www.tennessean.com/article/20130404/NEWS0201/304040068/TN-bill-linking-welfare-benefits-grades-passes-House-committee

[1] http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/02/17567999-georgia-town-passes-law-requiring-citizens-to-own-guns-and-ammo?lite

[1] http://grzen.org/talks/What_is_Spiritual_Practice.pdf

[1] http://www.archives.soulforce.org/1998/01/01/take-the-five-soulforce-vows-or-promises/

[1] http://paceebene.org/nvns/nonviolence-news-service-archive/hate-too-heavy-burden-bear-interview-rep-john-lewis-0

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