Finding Courage

In the early evening on December 1st, 1955,

a woman leaving work sat on a bus in Montgomery.

In the early evening, a tired woman leaving work

sat down on a seat on a bus in Montgomery.

In the early evening, a tired black woman left work

and took a seat in the “colored” section of a bus in Montgomery.

In the early evening, after a long day of work,

a tired and weary black woman

took a seat in the “colored” section

behind the white section on a crowded bus in Montgomery.

 

In the early evening, on December 1st 1955,

after a long day of work making clothes for white people,

a tired weary black woman took her seat

in the “colored” section behind the white section

on a crowded, standing room only bus in Montgomery.

When all the white seats were taken,

this tired weary black woman was told to stand

so white people could sit down.

 

In the early evening, on December 1st, 1955,

after a long day of work making clothes for white people,

a tired weary black woman took her seat in the “colored” section

behind the white section on a crowded,

standing room only bus in Montgomery.

When all the white seats were taken,

she was told to stand to make room

so white people could sit down,

this tired weary black woman,

named Rosa Parks, said

“No.”

 

 

Four days later, the Women’s Political Council initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott lasted 381 days and when it ended, the buses were no longer segregated.  Rev. King’s home was fire bombed shortly after the boycott began which led to the decision to not just overturn Montgomery’s Bus policy but to seek the overturn of the Alabama segregation law. On December 20 1956, the US Supreme Court upheld the state’s ruling that this state law was unconstitutional and Rosa Parks then sat in the front seat of a bus.

This was not a random act that Rosa Parks took. Her finding courage to remain in her seat was not done on a spur of the moment in the vain hopes that her community would rally to her side. No, Rosa Parks was already active in her community.

The Women’s Political Council formed 9 years earlier precisely over this issue of black people being arrested because they sat down in empty seats that were not designated for black passengers. This event was 9 years in the making building coalitions across Montgomery.   In March of 1954, The Women’s Political Council meets with Mayor Gayle about ending the pay-in- front-and-enter-in-the-rear policy of the bus company. With no response from his office, they write to warn him that there are 25 organizations preparing for a city-wide boycott of the city busses.

Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, in 1987 wrote about the Montgomery boycott and said: We organized the Women’s Council and within a month’s time we had over a hundred members. We organized a second chapter and a third, and soon we had more than 300 members. We had members in every elementary, junior high, and senior high school. We had them organized from federal and state and local jobs; wherever there were more than ten blacks employed, we had a member there. We were organized to the point that we knew that in a matter of hours we could corral the whole city.[i]

When she told her chapter heads that Rosa Parks had been arrested, she was told, “You have the plans, put them into operation.”  She stayed up creating the stencils to print out 35K flyers calling for the boycott to begin on the 5th.  There was no social media in those days to make an instant announcement—there were mimeographs.

Rosa Parks joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in the 1930s.  She served as secretary of the chapter. She and her husband would have meetings in their house.  These were dangerous times with numerous executions by the KKK. Young black men were falsely accused of raping white women and were given the death sentence.  The chapter fought to assist these individuals. She is quoted as saying, “I remember 1949 as a very bad year. Things happened that people never heard about because they never were reported in the newspapers. At times I felt overwhelmed by the violence and hatred, but there was nothing to do but keep going.[ii]

As a member, she attended the Highlander Center in the summer of 1955 to receive training.  Rosa Parks once remarked to Studs Terkel that this training had “everything” to do with her ability to remain seated on December 1.  The form of training was called Popular Education which is defined as the empowerment of adults through democratically structured cooperative study and action, directed toward achieving more just and peaceful societies, within a life sustaining global environment.[iii]  

She was invited back to Highlander in March of 1956 to talk about the boycott her arrest sparked.  She was asked by Myles Horton, co-founder of Highlander Center, this question.

What you did was a very little thing, you know, to touch off such a fire. Why did you do it; what moved you not to move? I’m interested in motivations – what makes people do things. What went on in your mind; Rosa?

Rosa Parks answered: Well, in the first place, I had been working all day on the job. I was quite tired after spending a full day working. I handle and work on clothing that white people wear. That didn’t come in my mind but this is what I wanted to know; when and how would we ever determine our rights as human beings? The section of the bus where I was sitting was what we call the colored section, especially in this neighborhood because the bus was filled more than two-thirds with Negro passengers and a number of them were standing. And just as soon as enough white passengers got on the bus to take what we consider their seats and then a few over, that meant that we would have to move back for them even though there was no room to move back.[iv]

How would we ever determine our rights as human beings?  Parks in her autobiography would later state she wasn’t overly physically tired that fateful day, as she was more tired of giving in.

 

Donny Hathaway—wrote a song Tryin’ Times. The version I remember is the one by Roberta Flack–

Tryin’ times. That’s the world is talkin about. …

folks wouldn’t have to suffer
If there was more love for your brother
But these are tryin’ times …

A whole lot of things that’s wrong is going down,

I don’t understand it from my point of view
I remember somebody said do unto others
As you would have them do unto you

Then folks wouldn’t have to suffer
If there was more love
But these are tryin’ times,

 

Today, we are in need of courageous hearts again.  We need those who are willing to sit down, when told to move to the back; willing to stand, when told to sit and obey; willing to organize, when told to wait and see.

These are tryin’ times. Different perhaps from the days when Rosa Parks decided to sit, but as I look around me, I smell those days rising again.  It is intoxicating and like the field of poppies on the way to the Emerald City, it will lull us to sleep.

Unless we mobilize and organize now, we won’t be able to protect ourselves or our friends—who are immigrants, who are queer, who are black, who are Muslim, who are water protectors. The safe thing, the safe thing is to carry nosegays so we cannot smell the stench and blinders so we cannot see what is happening.  And being white and silent means we could squeak by at the risk of losing our soul.

Do this and our silence makes us accomplices in the hateful cloud that is swirling around us.  Already, Mosques have received threats of genocide coming their way. There have been threats in our schools, and in the market place against those who are marginalized.

Already, gays and trans folks have been warned that whatever rights they have achieved will be removed. The very first bill pre-filed for this next Alabama legislative session is a bathroom bill aimed against our Trans gender friends. With Trump in the White House, Alabama will feel emboldened to pass this and other hate filled bills against its citizens.

The mainstream media will fall in line. In fact, it is already happening. If you look at what mainstream media is reporting it is based on allegation driven news rather than evidence driven news[v]. So instead of making the lack of evidence the news, they are making the allegation the news, which when repeated over enough times is accepted as truth.  We saw that when FBI chief Comey announced there were emails connected to Hillary found on Weiner’s lap top. It was an allegation that proved to be absolutely nothing and the media dug into the allegation and fueled that pile of sticks hoping there would smoke and fire. There was nothing. We have seen people repeat the allegation as fact and do not care there was no evidence for it.  The new word of the year is Post-Truth. Or as one Trump surrogate stated on NPR, there are no facts, facts no longer exist[vi].

We have already seen Trump threaten the media. His tantrum regarding his meeting with the New York Times was both informative and a warning.  Do not cross him as President.  He will retaliate.

So we are living in a different kind of world where Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 are no longer fictional pieces but the new reality—where white supremacists can call protesters un-American, and allegations can be called truth and evidence is called falsehood. We cannot sit back and watch like this is a football game, where we cheer the witty comebacks of our favorite team and then gnash our teeth when they fumble.  No, we need to find the courage to be engaged in this Brave New World.

We need to find the courage to be willing to risk our freedom like Rosa Parks did when she chose to remain seated.  Her action had consequences.  And in this new world order, our actions will have consequences but we must be willing to stand strong to the hate-mongering that is increasing around us.

But finding courage is not done in a vacuum.  Rosa Parks did not do this without any forethought, she did this because she had been prepared for that moment. She was surrounded by a community that supported one another—that mobilized around her action. She educated herself on the issues to understand the power dynamics of what was happening. Others were educated as well.  They worked together to prepare for the opportunity to resist.  We need to be studying up on how to live under a demagogue.  We need to be educated just as Rosa Parks was educated in popular education so when she resisted, she could do so with conviction and moral integrity.  And inspire others to follow her lead.

Describing that first day of the boycott, Martin Luther King writes During the rush hours the sidewalks were crowded with laborers and domestic workers, many of them well past middle age, trudging patiently to their jobs and home again, sometimes as much as twelve miles. They knew why they walked, and the knowledge was evident in the way they carried themselves. And as I watched them I knew that there is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity[vii].

May it be so.

[i] http://www.crmvet.org/info/robinson.htm

[ii] https://the-spark.net/np762801.html

[iii] http://www.reimaginerpe.org/node/1172

[iv] http://www.crmvet.org/disc/parks_mbb.pdf

[v] https://storify.com/jayrosen_nyu/evidence-based-vs-accusation-driven-reporting

[vi] https://www.rawstory.com/2016/12/trump-booster-scottie-nell-hughes-gets-blasted-on-npr-after-saying-theres-no-such-thing-as-facts/

[vii] http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhis55.htm#1955mbbholt

(c) Fred L Hammond 2016

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Changing Our Narrative

 by Rev. Fred L Hammond 7 October 2012 ©

Last spring I delivered a sermon on the Doctrine of Discovery, a 550 year plus old document that set in motion the underlying narrative of the United States of America.  I talked about this doctrine then because our Unitarian Universalist Association was submitting a resolution to our Justice General Assembly in Phoenix to renounce this Doctrine of Discovery and request that all laws that reflect this papal decree be removed from our governing bodies. The resolution passed with an overwhelming majority of those congregational delegates present.

The story of this country is cast with this doctrine as a preamble to our history and the majority of our country’s actions have the spirit of this doctrine imbedded within them.  To remind us what the Doctrine of Discovery states, let me quote again Pope Nicholas V who in 1452 wrote:

” We grant to you (King of Portugal)  full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens (Muslims) and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and wherever established their Kingdoms, Duchies, Royal Palaces, Principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps and any other possessions, mobile and immobile goods found in all these places and held in whatever name, and held and possessed by the same […]and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude. [i]

Pope Nicholas V wrote another edict to protect Portugal from other Christian nations laying claim to lands already claimed by Portugal.  And in 1493, Pope Alexander XI expanded this edict to allow other Christian nations to also lay claim to lands not already claimed by Portugal and gave Christopher Columbus the right to lay claim to the lands he set foot on for Spain.

So the historical narrative of the United States essentially begins in 1492.  We know the poem entitled The History of the U.S[ii]. written in 1919, which begins with the stanza:

In fourteen hundred ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
And found this land, land of the Free,
Beloved by you, beloved by me.

It implies that prior to 1492 this land was uninhabited, unknown to anyone, per se.  Columbus found it and introduced to this land European civility—or so we were taught in school.  Yet, there were people already here with a culture that was long established.  Howard Zinn[iii] writes in A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present   “These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.”

Another poem entitled In 1492 by Jean Marzollo first published in 1948 about Christopher Columbus contain these closing stanzas

The Arakawa natives were very nice;
They gave the sailors food and spice.

Columbus sailed on to find some gold
To bring back home, as he’d been told.

He made the trip again and again,
Trading gold to bring to Spain.

The first American?  No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.

This isn’t exactly what happened after Columbus landed in the Caribbean but it is what we teach our children.  Some histories will make mention that the encounter of Columbus and his crew with the native peoples of the island went according to Columbus’ plan of enslavement and genocide but this mention is equivalent to a footnote.  While these histories do not deny the atrocities they do not make it central to Columbus’ mission. Columbus wrote the following to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand[iv],

I took by force six of the Indians from the first island, and intend to carry them to Spain in order to learn our language and return, unless your Highnesses should choose instead to have them all transported to Spain, or held captive on the island. These people are very simple in matters of war… I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased… They are very clever and honest, display great liberality, and will give whatever they possess for a trifle or for nothing at all… Whether there exists any such thing as private property among them I have not been able to ascertain… As they appear to have no religion, I believe they would very readily become Christians… They would make good servants… They are fit to be ordered about and made to work, to sow, and do aught else that may be needed, …

To sum up the great profits of this voyage, I am able to promise, for a trifling assistance from your Majesties, any quantity of gold, drugs, cotton, mastic, aloe, and as many slaves for maritime service as your Majesties may stand in need of.”

In the short time after Columbus’ arrival the population of what is now known as Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cuba was reduced from 3 million to 60,000.  The people of these islands died; some to European diseases like small pox and others through genocidal killing and suicide for not being able to secure the gold amounts desired.

Howard Zinn in his text writes[v], To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves—unwittingly—to justify what was done.”

And this has been our stance in the Americas ever since. We called it by many names; Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, and today American Exceptionalism. It is a part of our narrative that covers up or hides many sins that we have committed as a nation.  And it is this narrative that we teach our children in schools.  America is best.  America is the greatest.  America is the home of the brave and land of the free.  America can do wrong in its eyes.

Of course the question arises, who is this America.  From the earliest days of this republic it was white men who were America. This is a White supremacist narrative that is presented to the world.

Congress in 1790 enacted this law:  All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof, before a magistrate, by oath, that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to all the rights of citizenship.[vi]

Now in 1790 all the rights of citizenship only pertained to white men who owned property, white women were not granted all the rights of citizenship. And in many states Jews and Catholics were also not granted all the rights of citizenship.  The definition of who was white in America was narrowly determined. Benjamin Franklin gives a definition of whiteness in 1751:  “[vii]That the Number of purely   white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is   black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians,   French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call   a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only   excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People   on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased.”

Today there are texts written entitled How Jews became White Folks and How the Irish became White.  Our narrative as a nation was told from the perspective of Whites as the only sanctioned narrative.  To go against this narrative is considered sedition. That is a strong statement but it is a true statement nonetheless.

Especially if you listen to some of the conservative voices in this country going against the narrative is indeed seditious.  The narrative of America as told is being destroyed by having a Black president.  Te-Nehisi Coates[viii] in his article in Atlantic Monthly proposes that the furor over whether Obama has an American Birth Certificate or proclaiming him to be a Muslim is a means to maintain the white narrative of America.  If Obama is not an American or is a Muslim then he is not really the president of the USA and the white narrative of America is preserved.  There is a photo going around FaceBook of a poster at a Koch Brothers sponsored protest against Occupy New York that reads, “I’m dreaming of a White President just like the ones we use to have…”

Preserve the narrative of America at all costs.  Obey our laws, obey our cultural norms.  Do not disrupt the 550 plus years of white narrative that declares whites as superior over all others.   In 1635[ix], a native person allegedly killed an Englishman in Maryland. The English demanded the native be handed over to them for punishment under English law.  The chief answered how they would handle the native and refused, saying “you are here strangers, and come into our country, you should rather conform yourselves to the customs of our country, than impose yours upon us.”   But to do that would have made the doctrine of discovery invalid.  It would have changed the narrative of supremacy.

Arizona HB2281 which was signed into law and into effect December 2011 banned the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona schools.  The ethnic studies specifically banned were Latino ethnic studies.  This law states that “School[s] in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

  1. 1.    Promote the overthrow of the United States Government.
  2. 2.    Promote resentment toward a race or class of people
  3. 3.    Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

At the heart of this ban is a course of studies that were taught at the public schools in Tucson, AZ. Tucson is a community of about 47% Anglo, 42% Latino and the remaining 11% being Black, Native American, or Asian.  In the public school district the demographics change because many whites attend private or charter schools making Latinos to account for 62% of the student population.

The Mexican American Studies program was considered seditious because it taught the history of the indigenous people of the America’s from the perspective of the indigenous people.  History of the indigenous people did not begin in Europe with the Greco and Roman empires but rather with the Aztec’s and Mayan’s.  Columbus’ arrival was not the heroic event that unfurled the ability of Europeans seeking to breathe free but rather as the beginning of an invasion that destroyed civilizations and enslaved and ransacked human and natural resources. It placed the context of the land of Arizona in its thousands of year old histories of a proud people who lived in this land and had its resources taken away from them, first by the Mexican government and then by the United States government. The bumper sticker of the immigrant rights movement, ‘we didn’t cross the border the border crossed us’ is not just a sound bite it is an historic fact of a people living in the southwest.

Theirs is a narrative that highlighted the values of community that holds itself together. The sharing and generosity that Columbus found in the Taino tribe of the Arawak people is not seen as a weakness but as a strength of their heritage.    Yet, it is this ethnic solidarity in a community value that was made illegal by the Arizona law in favor of the strident American individualism. American individualism where the pursuit of capital gain is not to uplift the society but only to increase the privilege and power of the one receiving the gain.  This is not the society that neither Columbus nor any of the Europeans encountered when they arrived on these shores.  Europeans encountered the culture of Iroquois Chief Hiawatha, who said, [x]We bind ourselves together by taking hold of each other’s hands so firmly and forming a circle so strong that if a tree should fall upon it, it could not shake nor break it, so that our people and grandchildren shall remain in the circle in security, peace and happiness.” A Jesuit priest who encountered the Iroquois wrote, [xi]No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers… their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common…”

And while I am not so naïve to think that the native cultures of the America’s was idyllic, these are narratives that need to be incorporated into the American narrative as a whole in order to sort out and sift the wheat from the chaff.  There are aspects of cultures found right here in these lands that could aid in the redemption of the American narrative that has spawned centuries of white supremacy and violent racism against others.

The Mexican American Studies program was one of those programs that sought American redemption through the telling of a history from the perspective of the native people’s point of view.  These students have the potential to contribute to our society if they are given the tools to understand where they fit in the narrative of this country.  They get to begin to rewrite that narrative to include their achievements, their cultural contributions.

The high school drop out rate of Latino’s nationally hovers around 56%.  The Tucson school district after implementing their Mexican American Studies program found the drop out rate decrease to 2.5% in the school district. Tucson students who attended this program did better in state exams as compared to their peers in other schools.  The students found that they found a reason why education was important for them to pursue. They discovered that education was relevant to their life experiences.

Clergy in Tucson[xii] wrote a letter in support of the Mexican American Studies program.  They wrote:

“As people of faith, we recognize how important our history and stories are to us. Scriptures are nothing more than the passed down stories of people who wanted their children and their children’s children to remember the ways in which God had moved within their lives and in the course of human history to bring forth freedom from slavery, forgiveness from retribution, love from hate, and grace from sin. The history of the people of faith within sacred scripture has never been the dominant history; our history is not the history of Egypt but the history of the Hebrew slaves, not the history of Babylon but the history of those carried away into captivity, not the history of Herod but the history of a refugee family who had to flee to Egypt, not the history of Rome but the history of a peasant named Jesus and his followers.” The same is true of the Mexican American Studies program; it is a history of a conquered people, the indigenous people of these lands.

Howard Zinn recalls a statement he once read that stated, [xiii]The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”

Yes, the story the Mexican American Studies program tells is counter to the narrative of this nation but it’s aim is not to raise up people with seditious acts but rather to honor the lives of those lost.  To glean from their stories the richness of their lives and the lessons their lives still have to offer us.

It may come as a bit of surprise to folks that tomorrow has two names as the holiday.  It is Columbus Day, a day in which Alabama anyway, seeks to honor those of Italian heritage. It is also American Indian Heritage Day, a day to honor the contributions of the native peoples from these lands.  It may seem odd that Alabama is only one of a few states and municipalities that honor the native people of this land officially. I hope Alabama gets why honoring Native Americans tomorrow is so important in our country.

This state also continues to honor Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Memorial Day.  And I think I now get why it is important for Alabama to honor and remember these people from a painful time in our nation’s history when ideologies clashed so brutally.

In order to fully live up to our potential as a people we need to understand our story as a nation. We need to change our narrative to include the fullness of our story; the good, bad, and ugly truths of our story.  It would be easy and it has been easy for parts of our history to fade away because they are too shameful, to painful to face.  We have done this in America.  We have tried to forget the Japanese Interment camps during World War Two. We have tried to forget the turmoil and unrest of the Civil Rights era.  We have tried to forget the brutal murders of sexual minorities like Matthew Shepard and the thousands who commit suicide because their sexual orientation is not viewed acceptable by society. And I am sure there are some of us who would prefer that the Undocumented remain in the shadows of America.

But if this country is to live up to its most sacred creed, then we must do its work to undo white supremacy and white privilege where ever it is established. It does not serve us well, it never ever did.

[i] http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.com/2011/02/dum-diversas-english-translation.html

[ii] http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2274/where-does-that-1492-ocean-blue-thing-about-columbus-come-from  Poem written by Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.

[iii] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 72-75  | Added on Wednesday, October 03, 2012, 04:41 PM

[iv] http://red-coral.net/Columb.html  from the poem Columbus in the Bay of Pigs by John Curl

[v] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 214-16  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:02 PM

[vi] As found in the article “Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/?single_page=true

[vii] http://www.dialoginternational.com/dialog_international/2008/02/ben-franklin-on.html

[viii] “Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/?single_page=true

[ix] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn) – Highlight Loc. 456-60  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:39 PM

[x] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)-Highlight Loc 426-31

[xi] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)-Highlight Loc 431-35

[xii] http://www.tucsonweekly.com/TheRange/archives/2011/06/21/faith-leaders-ethnic-studies-program-is-a-valuable-educational-program

[xiii] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 252-53  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:09 PM

Living Micah 6:8

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

The civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was more than just a demand for equality, it was a journey of living ones faith to the core of one’s being. As such it was transformative work; it was redemptive work beginning with the people doing the work and rippling out to transform the society at large.

As Unitarian Universalists we generally get the ‘act justly’ and ‘to love mercy’ part of Micah 6:8. We can look to our principles –acknowledging the inherent worth and dignity of every person; of seeking to live justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; and working towards the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all—as enhancing our understanding of acting justly and loving mercy. But where do we get our understanding of ‘walk humbly with your god?’ How do we translate that when seeking to create justice as people of faith?

There are many of us who do not believe there is a god, small or capital G, let alone asking us to walk with one. So how do we do this?

We begin with wrestling with what this means because in order to live Micah 6:8 we need to be fully understanding what god means not only in this context of Micah but also in our lives—even if we do not believe that such an entity exists.

Walter Brueggemann in his classic work, The Prophetic Imagination writes: “The liberal tendency has been to care about the politics of justice and compassion but to be largely uninterested in the freedom of God. Indeed, it has been hard for liberals to imagine that theology mattered, for all of that seemed irrelevant. And it was thought that the question of God could be safely left to others who still worried about such matters. As a result, social radicalism has been like a cut flower without nourishment, without any sanctions deeper than human courage and good intentions.”

I believe Brueggemann’s criticism of the liberal religious approach to creating justice is an accurate one in regards to embodying Micah 6:8 especially the third component regarding walking humbly with your god. If we, as a liberal faith, are going to create a powerful prophetic voice addressing the injustices that are happening around us then we need to come to terms with what Brueggemann means by the freedom of god in the context of today’s world.

We need to wrestle with the meaning of the phrase ‘to walk humbly with your god’ in the 21st century especially since it will most likely be this century where the choice to finally dismantle white heterosexual privilege in America will occur. The battle ground is already being developed to maintain white supremacy in America with the enactment of harsh anti-immigration laws targeting a specific immigrant population across this country.

The conservatives in this country have only produced potential candidates who are willing to enforce white supremacy… even Herman Cain was willing to maintain white supremacy through supporting corporate personhood’s desire for complete domination over American politics and economy. The falsehood of privilege diminishes the worth and dignity of all people, negates the golden rule, and elevates the narcissistic illusion of self-importance to a fundamental value worthy of preservation.

Brueggemann also levels on a criticism on the conservative religious: “Conversely, it has been the tendency … to care intensely about God, but uncritically, so that the God of well-being and good order is not understood to be precisely the source of social oppression.”

He later adds that a foundational element to social oppression is “the establishment of a controlled, static religion in which God and his temple have become part of the royal landscape, in which the sovereignty of God is fully subordinated to the purpose of the king.”

From my perspective this is what is happening in America today through out all corners of our society, a systemic wide subordination of a people under the guise of being faithful to god. The shift in society from majority white to majority of people of color represents a threat to this order. Until the recently passed laws in Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, and in other states creating enforcement through attrition this shift was to happen around 2030 and those who would lose their white privilege are fighting this shift through their xenophobia while claiming they are being faithful to our country’s founders’ vision and faith.

There is a false belief that god’s sole purpose is to protect our standard of living and our way of life. The god of well-being and good order as Brueggemann names it has become the god of America. America is the land of too big to fail. This is the god that preaches the American Dream. This is the gospel of prosperity that is dangled like a carrot in front of the poor and then holds them down in submission like a weight around a chicken’s neck to ensure their place as servants of the 1%.

This leads me to wondering once again about the question which I began; how do we as Unitarian Universalists walk humbly with our god? How do we dismantle our own sense of privilege?

Can we as Unitarian Universalists embrace the idea that there are unknown forces at play? These forces need not be supernatural but may simply be the words and actions of others that we are not privy to but have been said and done and are bending the arc towards justice and liberty even while we ponder our next move. Who could have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall or the outcome of the Arab Spring? There was much happening beneath the surface.

Robert F. Kennedy is quoted as saying, “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope… These ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

For me, walking humbly with my god means to feel the direction of the current of change, to sniff the wind of justice and follow it where it leads. It means being willing to change how I live if it will ensure that others will find freedom.

Published in: on January 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm  Comments Off on Living Micah 6:8  
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Five Smooth Stones: A Just and Loving Community

“Five Smooth Stones: A Just and Loving Community” By Rev. Fred L Hammond  14 February 2010 © Delivered at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

Over the last several months we have examined Unitarian Universalist Theologian James Luther Adams Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.  We looked at the first two stones;  Revelation is Continuous—the idea that new understandings of the mystery of life are always unfolding; and Mutual Consent –the idea that relations between people ought to be free of coercion and rest instead on the mutual, free consent of each person.   Today we will explore the third smooth stone: A Just and Loving Community.  

James Luther Adams suggests that there is a “moral obligation to direct ones efforts towards the establishment of a just and loving community.”  He suggests that the meaning of life is found when one participates in the “processes that give body and form to universal justice.”   And Adams suggests that this universal justice is none other than what Jesus proclaimed as the reign of god, which can also be called the reign of love.  As Adams describes it, it is a “sustaining, commanding, transforming reality… a love that that fulfills and goes beyond justice, a love that cares for the fullest personal good of all.” 

He also states that it cannot be achieved through “exclusive devotion to rituals, or by devotion to blood and soil, or by self-serving piety.”  We see all these forms today.  

Devotion to blood and soil perhaps was most widely known as the ideology put into practice within Nazi Germany where there was an emphasis on one’s ethnicity / blood and homeland / soil.  The ideology celebrated a people’s relationship to the territory they occupied and the virtues of rural living.   We see this ideology surfacing in conservative political and religious circles when ever there is a statement along the lines of America for Americans first, or that cities are today’s Sodom and Gomorrah, or that disasters are god’s way of cleansing the evil from a region—think of the statements made about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or Haiti after the earthquakes.  

So we have in our society today the rise of devotion to blood and soil in how certain groups want to handle immigration reform.  These groups believe that our nation would preserve its freedom, would save the economy and their jobs, would preserve the English language, if all immigrants were rounded up like vermin and deported, if they were denied basic medical care and housing.  The phrase “I am not my brother’s keeper” is sometimes heard from members of these groups who believe that immigrants should not only be stopped but shot at the border.  

Ironically, this phrase is from the Genesis story where God has heard the spirit of Abel groaning from the earth where his body has been killed by Cain.  God asks Cain, “where is your brother Abel?”  And Cain responds by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”   The answer to that question was an implied yes and Cain was banished from the land.  

The Jews who wrote this text had a law in Leviticus that went further than just being their brother’s keeper. The law declared that foreigners living in their land would be treated with decency and respect as if the person were them.  “The alien who resides with you shall be as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 19:34)   Not every idea in Leviticus is irrelevant for today’s society.     

This particular passage points to the just and loving community and is referred to by Jesus in his teaching of loving your neighbor as yourself.  It points to a greater understanding of what is our moral obligation. Devotion to blood and soil states moral obligation is only that which serves a nation’s ethnic purity and in America’s case I would highlight its white heritage purity.  The rage against immigrants, particularly those immigrants from Central and South American countries, is racial rage.    

Exclusive devotion to rituals is referring to the shell of religious life.  I use the term religious in its broadest most generic sense.  The practices in and of themselves in a routinized fashion is not what gives life meaning.  It is not the measuring out of our lives with coffee spoons.  Rituals may give life structure and form but they do not give life meaning.  There are many people however that have given over their lives to the routines or the outward appearance of a particular lifestyle and believe that this alone will save them or preserve them as good people. Rituals may point to something greater than ourselves but ritual is not the something greater in and of itself.       

Self-serving piety would be holding a form of devotion in order to be perceived in better lights than others while not living out the basic values that piety belies.  We see it in TV evangelicals who have swindled millions of dollars from common folk by being placed on a pedestal of moral living and then crash with a scandalous affair.   We see it in politicians that proclaim and portray themselves as tough on crime and then are caught in embezzlement or some other illegal activity.  

This is the piety of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the time of Jesus.  Perhaps the best example is in the story of the Good Samaritan where the Pharisee and Sadducee crossed to the other side of the road so as not to be defiled by the wounded man left for dead.  Samaritans, as you may recall, were people who were born on the wrong side of the tracks. They were considered to be less than human in Jesus’ day.  To place this story in context it was told as an answer to the question, who is my neighbor?

All of these positions; the blood and soil, exclusive use of ritual, or self-serving piety, neither deliver a meaningful life nor assist in the establishment of a just and loving community.  So what would a just and loving community look like in the 21st century of the Common Era?  

We live in a nation where the white hegemony that has ruled this nation since its founding is coming to an end.  It is not ending willingly.  The force of institutional racism through partnership with its closely related cousin known as classism has in recent history done much to ensure its survival but it is and surely will be coming to an end.  In less than 25 years, European-Americans will be a minority population in this country. 

We live in a nation that has an increasing pluralism of ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures.  It was a misnomer to call this nation a melting pot, if anything we have become a buffet table of a wide assortment of experiences.  And we tend to choose from that buffet table what we are most comfortable with rather than tasting the full range of delights.  Yet, if we are to survive as a nation of the people, for the people and by the people, we need to become comfortable with our neighbors.   We need to begin to see our neighbors as our selves.  

Ensuring that the freedoms, the privileges that white heterosexual males have in this country are extended to everyone becomes an imperative.  It means that the work that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., that feminist activist Gloria Steinem, that gay activist Harvey Milk, that worker rights activist César Chávez began in the last century; this work must continue to expand the recognition of rights and equality for all people in this century.  

James Fowler in the late 1970’s proposed a series of stages of faith much akin to Piaget’s theory of cognitve development or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.  It is important to look briefly at Fowler’s stages of faith as it pertains to the establishment of a just and loving community.  

Fowler posits that there are seven stages of faith that begin at birth and develop through out our lifetimes.  These stages begin with Stage zero or primal stage, and move through the Intuitive-projective stage, Mythic-literal stage, Conventional stage, Individual Reflective, Conjunctive, and finally stage 6 or Universalizing stage.    

The majority of adults appear to be somewhere between the Mythic-Literal and Conventional stages of faith.  These are the stages where literal interpretations and conformity are valued.  The person or group in these stages believe that their story is the true story. There is a desire to have others conform to their story. A transition to the conventional stage is where the conflict of the creation story and theory of evolution begins.  Throughout this country we have seen a legislative battle over whether or not to teach creationism in schools as a legitimate scientific theory.  I use this example as one indication of where many people are in their faith development.    

Stage Four: Individual Reflective is the stage where many but not all Unitarian Universalists may find themselves.   It is the stage where individuals begin to take responsibility for their own “commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes.”[1]  The notion of individuality is strong. The recognition of one part of our congregational polity is understood in this stage and that is ‘you are not the boss of me.’ The other part of congregational polity may not yet be understood and that is the covenantal relationship with other congregations and with each other.   This stage contains a strength in critical reflection on individual identity and the world outlook but this can also be its weakness with an overconfidence in the mind and critical thought.  

Because many of our members are what we have called come-outers, meaning that they have come out of another faith tradition and found Unitarian Universalism, those Unitarian Universalists in this stage may also experience a disillusionment of symbolism that once held meaning and purpose.  

Stage five: Conjunctive Faith is the beginning of a re-integration and reworking of one’s past.  “Ready for closeness to that which is different and threatening to self and outlook (including new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation), this stage’s commitment to justice is freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation.”[2]

And finally, Stage 6:  Universalizing is rarely realized.  “The persons best described by it have generated faith compositions in which their felt sense of an ultimate environment is inclusive of all being. They have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community.”[3]  Many of these people are killed for their universalizing faith, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, or are honored and revered more after their deaths, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Mother Theresa.  These individuals may be described as simple and lucid in their presentation but also seemingly more alive, more human than the rest of us; Thich Nhat Hahn and His Holiness Dalai Lama. 

So what do Fowler’s stages of faith development have to inform us about the just and loving community?  First let me state that these stages can and have been experienced in any faith tradition.  But it seems to me that if Unitarian Universalists as liberal religious folk are going to seek to fulfill their unifying principles, including “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all,” then we need to willingly allow our development of faith to be stretched to our growing edges to enable more of us to enter Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith.

How can this happen?  I stated earlier that “we live in a nation that has an increasing pluralism of ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures.”  I also stated that in less than 25 years the white hegemony that has ruled this nation will no longer be the dominant culture in this nation.  As a nation, we have been in transition for the last 50 years with the emergence of many leaders advancing many causes for equality and justice.  It has not been easy work. Our denomination has been on the side of love with each of these causes for freedom and equality and we can be proud of our denominations stance on these pluralistic issues.   But it is important and vital work that each one of us must undertake if we are going to not only survive but thrive in this major transition in culture.   

There is going to be, and I am making a prediction here, many, many people who have been in the second and third stages of faith development who are going to find their stage of faith no longer working in the coming paradigm shift.  Where will they go?  Will they simply drop out?  Will they come through our doors and find a place where they are accepted with their questions, their differing cultures, and their differing ways of speaking their truth? 

My hunch is that many will come through our doors.  Will we be ready to receive them?  Jacqueline Lewis in her ground breaking work, “The Power of Stories: A guide for leading multiracial multicultural congregations” suggests that congregations need “to have in common some aspects of indentity, social and psychological factors, which make them resistant to the dominant culture’s views on openess and diversity.  They are able to be empathic, to fully welcome the other, to hold together cultural diversity to manage the conflict and change issues that often accompany difference, and to help others do the same.”[4] 

This means that we need to be able to speak to their cultural backgrounds;  have a “holding environment,” an embracing space for them to explore their faith and transition to another stage of faith development.  Jacqueline Lewis suggests that our faith communities / congregations can become places where our stories are told and re-told in light of the relations we develop with one another.  We shape each other with our stories. 

As of now, we are not predominantly a multi-cultural multi-racial congregation.  We need to begin to listen to others’  journeys of faith.   So one way for us to be ready for this increasing pluralistic society is to listen to each other’s stories.   We need to take seriously our denomination’s call to become a faith that is firmly committed to being a racially equitable, societally liberating, and  and multi-cultural faith.  We still have some barriers in our congregation’ s and denomination’s makeup that hinder this potential reality.   We have some Adult exploration of these issues to be done. 

One of the reasons why I am excited about our friendship with University Presbyterian Church is because it gives us a chance to practice in listening to their stories of faith and for us to tell ours in a relatively non-threatening environment.  We are both liberal religious congregations so there is already some common ground inherent in our make-up.  We are both designated as congregations that are welcoming and affirming of sexual minorities.  Yet, we have a diversity in how we make sense of our world.  It is vital for us to be able to listen to others that we may disagree with doctrinally but can whole-heartedly respect their integrity and expression of their faith. It is important for us to create a space for them here in this place.  This is a universalizing message. 

Can we welcome and embrace the family that arrives from a different faith tradition and perhaps even a minority culture and listen to their story and affirm where they are at in their faith journey?  I want to say yes. 

I want to be able to say that we have embraced the idea that the creating of a just and loving community begins with us here in this place, with one another.  It is our moral obligation as members of a liberal religious faith.  It is what makes us Unitarian Universalists.  Creating the just and loving community is part of our saving message to the world.   Blessed Be. 


Quotes from James Luther Adams are from his essay  The Five Smooth Stones Of Liberalism.  Leviticus 19:34 is from the New Revised Standard Version.

[1] From Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232

[2] From Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jacqueline Lewis, “The Power of Stories: A guide for leading multiracial multicultural congregations” locations 36-42 on Kindle

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 8:44 pm  Comments Off on Five Smooth Stones: A Just and Loving Community  
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Discrimination in any form is wrong

USA Today announced that a Transsexual was awarded $500,000 in back pay and damages for having job offer rescinded after announcing her transition from a man to a woman.   Diane Schroer applied for and offered a position as a terrorism analyst at the Library of Congress while she was still David Schroer.  When she announced to a Library official that she was undergoing gender reassignment surgery the offer of the position was pulled.

The Library of Congress and the Justice Department attempted to argue that discrimination of transsexuality was not illegal sex discrimination under the civil rights act.  They lost their argument.

Discrimination in any form is wrong.  One’s ability to perform a job does not change because one’s sex is re-assigned or one comes out of the closet as gay or lesbian or intersexed.  

My grandmother taught me about diversity when I was a child.  She was a botanist by training and would take me out on walks into the woods on  her land.  SHe would name for me all the different ferns and flowers that grew on the property.  I remember her saying to me that even though I knew what a New York Fern looked like it didn’t mean I knew all there was to know about New York Ferns.  There are natural variations that occur in the ferns fronds and to look and admire these differences.  She would point out the frond that ended in two or three points instead of just one.  Or she would point out how some of the fronds leaves going up to the point would also have two or more points on them.  Each fern had this diversity in them and diversity was part of the natural order of things. 

We see it in the human species as well… this child born with undistinguished genitalia, this other child born with webbed feet.  This child born gay, this one bi-sexual, and this other child a chimera; born with two different DNA patterns in her body.  Transgender is just another aspect of the diversity in the human species.  All of it is to be celebrated.  All of it shows something of the magnificance of creation. 

Discrimination against our diversity as a human species is at some level giving god the proverbial finger; by creating diversity god  messed up big time.  Who are we to question creation?  Each creation is a gift to all of us, no matter how long that creation is here among us.  Let’s celebrate the differences and honor each other’s worth and dignity.  Blessings,

Published in: on April 29, 2009 at 1:08 pm  Comments (4)  
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Let us begin again for up to now it is as if we have done nothing

The heading is a quote from St. Francis of Assisi who forever chided his followers to not rest on their laurels.  Justice is forever unfolding and sometimes it creases over on itself and looks like it is falling backwards before the next unfolding reveals its success. 

20 months ago the thought that America would even entertain the notion of electing an African American as president seemed surreal given its long history of inbred racism.  Yet, today, this is a reality with President-elect Barack Obama.  The possibilities his presidency offers America and the world are great. 

Yet, there is also the plight of equal marriage in this country.  It looks like Proposition 8 in California will be enacted into that state’s constitution and 18,000 same-gendered couples will have their marriages declared invalid. Arizona, Arkansas, and Florida also enacted constitutional amendments barring same gendered couples equal protection under the law.  The quest for equal rights for sexual minorities remains a long journey ahead. A journey in which the religious right continue to impose their faith constructs on millions of people who do not share their beliefs in direct opposition of our nation’s creed of religious freedom. 

The election of America’s first African American President is historic but it does not mean that our quest for justice in this country is now over.  In fact it is far from over.  We have work to do in striving to form a more perfect union where all people are able to experience their “unalienable rights, that among these are life,  liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

The election proved that we can succeed in having our dreams become realities if we are deligent and steadfast.  But we cannot afford to bask in our victories when there is so much more to be done in living up to this nation’s promise.

Let’s get to it.

Published in: on November 5, 2008 at 4:39 pm  Comments Off on Let us begin again for up to now it is as if we have done nothing  
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When Mississippi– Equal Marriage Rights?

Today, the California Supreme Court ruled in a decision 4 to 3 that California’s same sex marriage ban is unconstitutional.  They wrote: “As past cases establish, the substantive right of two adults who share a loving relationship to join together to establish an officially recognized family of their own – and, if the couple chooses, to raise children within that family – constitutes a vitally important attribute of the fundamental interest in liberty and personal autonomy that the California Constitution secures to all persons for the benefit of both the individual and society.”   (The full summary of the ruling can be found here. All quotes in this blog are from this summary. The complete Supreme Court Opinion is found here.)

A rose by any other name–NOT:  Domestic partnership is not the same as marriage. 

“One of the core elements of the right to establish an officially recognized family that is embodied in the California constitutional right to marry is a couple’s right to have their family relationship accorded dignity and respect equal to that accorded other officially recognized families, and assigning a different designation for the family relationship of same-sex couples while reserving the historic designation of “marriage” exclusively for opposite-sex couples poses at least a serious risk of denying the family relationship of same-sex couples such equal dignity and respect. We therefore conclude that although the provisions of the current domestic partnership legislation afford same-sex couples most of the substantive elements embodied in the constitutional right to marry, the current California statutes nonetheless must be viewed as potentially impinging upon a same-sex couple’s constitutional right to marry under the California Constitution.”

The institution of marriage is not undermined by same sex marriage.

“A number of factors lead us to this conclusion. First, [bold italics mine]  the exclusion of same-sex couples from the designation of marriage clearly is not necessary in order to afford full protection to all of the rights and benefits that currently are enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples; permitting same-sex couples access to the designation of marriage will not deprive opposite-sex couples of any rights and will not alter the legal framework of the institution of marriage, because same-sex couples who choose to marry will be subject to the same obligations and duties that currently are imposed on married opposite-sex couples. Second, retaining the traditional definition of marriage and affording same-sex couples only a separate and differently named family relationship will, as a realistic matter, impose appreciable harm on same-sex couples and their children, because denying such couples access to the familiar and highly favored designation of marriage is likely to cast doubt on whether the official family relationship of same-sex couples enjoys dignity equal to that of opposite-sex couples. Third, because of the widespread disparagement that gay individuals historically have faced, it is all the more probable that excluding same-sex couples from the legal institution of marriage is likely to be viewed as reflecting an official view that their committed relationships are of lesser stature than the comparable relationships of opposite-sex couples. Finally, retaining the designation of marriage exclusively for opposite-sex couples and providing only a separate and distinct designation for same-sex couples may well have the effect of perpetuating a more general premise – now emphatically rejected by this state – that gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respects “second-class citizens” who may, under the law, be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples. Under these circumstances, we cannot find that retention of the traditional definition of marriage constitutes a compelling state interest. Accordingly, we conclude that to the extent the current California statutory provisions limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, these statutes are unconstitutional.”

Unitarian Universalists across this country will perform religious ceremonies celebrating the marriage of same sex couples even though the state will not recognize its civil legality.  Yet, heterosexual religious marriages, even those performed by Unitarian Universalists, are recognized for its civil legality.  I believe to not have these religious ceremonies recognized by the civil government is a violation of our religious freedoms. To deny recognition is a restriction and impingement of our religious principles that seeks compassion, justice, and equity in all human relations.  It amounts to an unequal religious authority to the majority in a country that claims separation of church and state. 

Mississippi equal marriage rights are coming to this state just as inter-racial marriage rights came to this state.  It is no nolonger a matter of if, it is only a matter of when.  May justice and equality be truly for all in this land.  Blessings, Rev. Fred L Hammond