Advent: A Time of Preparing

The Christian season of Advent isn’t given its fair due in Unitarian Universalist circles. We honor Christmas and Easter in our own unique Unitarian Universalist manner but Advent isn’t given much heed. Advent comes from the Latin word meaning coming. For Christians it refers specifically to the birth of Jesus and also to the second coming of Jesus. But it is more than just coming, it is a season filled with preparation, filled with expectation, and filled with anticipation, so that when Christmas arrives or when the second coming occurs, the Christians are ready to receive with joy Christ’s arrival.

So what praytell do Unitarian Universalists have to anticipate? What do we need to be expectant about? What would they need to prepare their hearts in order to receive?

Well, some of us are indeed preparing for Christmas, for the birth of Jesus. Some of us find great comfort in the stories of Jesus’ arrival and the hope that his birth contains not just for them but for the world at large if everyone were able to embrace his message of love. But does this season have any merit, any worth to those of us who do not embrace a Christian theology?

I believe Advent has something to offer non-Christian Unitarian Universalists as well. Unlike other religious traditions of preparation like Lent and Yom Kippur where contemplation of ones sins prepares one for salvation or atonement. Advent can be a time of preparation for us to live into our principles. It can be a time that we focus on what Unitarian Universalists have to offer and how might that be offered into the world, starting here and now.

Many people come to Unitarian Universalism because we proclaim our acceptance of various creeds. We tell people it is deeds not creeds that we focus on, so if your personal theology includes the death and resurrection of Jesus, wonderful. If your personal theology is based in the 4 noble truths of Buddhism, fantastic. If your personal theology is in the pursuit of reaching humanity’s potential, have at it. What we will look at, we say, is how your deeds, your actions, the manner in which you live your life is making you a better human being in your relationship with a diverse world.

Sounds wonderful. Sounds Ideal. People are indeed looking for a place where various beliefs are welcomed. People are looking for a place where who they are, is truly welcomed. And they come. And then they meet real live people, us. And we don’t always match the photograph in the brochure.

We have quirks. We have inconsistencies. We have baggage. We are not all on the same page as the UUA website. We are not always the embodiment of our seven principles. We are this group in all of our imperfections. Sometimes we are oblivious of our own actions. Years ago, I met a Unitarian Universalist who when I told them my personal theology responded, “Oh, I evolved beyond that claptrap.” If she was my first encounter of this faith, I would not be Unitarian Universalist today. In other words, we oft times than not, look more like the world out there, than the world we talk about wanting to create with our principles. It is time to be the change we want to see in the world.

So Advent can also be a time when Unitarian Universalists become a bit introspective in preparing our hearts to anticipate how to welcome others here. Just as Advent for the Christian is preparing in anticipation the welcoming of the birth of Jesus, Unitarian Universalists can prepare our anticipation to welcome the other. If we hold that each person has inherent worth and dignity, what does that mean in welcoming the other? If we hold that justice, equity, and compassion in human relations is an important principle and value, how does that translate to the living of our daily lives? How is acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth made visible in your life and in this congregation?

What do these three principles even mean for us in our current context in America?

For starters, not everyone in this room is in agreement regarding the non-indictments regarding Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Non-agreement might mean that these specific non-indictment cases are not good examples of the issue in America and still not diminish the fact that police profiling is a painful reality for millions of people of color. How safe is it to express an alternative opinion on these specific cases? And the counter question is also raised, how many deaths does it take before we have the perfect case that exemplifies the racism in our criminal justice system? This might mean that not everyone has the same understanding of racism in America or understand what it means to be part of an anti-racist faith. If this is true, can we lift up our first three principles and embody them as we work towards increased understanding of racism in America?

I think most of us recognize, whether we agree or not with the recent protests, that racism is still an issue in this nation. But can we have a conversation about race in this congregation and be confident that a differing opinion can be heard in a manner that keeps that person at the table?

We as a congregation are entering a new era of community involvement with coalitions that lift up our values in Tuscaloosa and Alabama. These causes are close to the heart of many in our congregation and will require of us to be able to hear differing opinions, differing theologies, differing world views and to discern respectfully when to speak and when to hold our tongue. The manner in which we represent Unitarian Universalism to our guests and to the greater world is going to reveal how well we embody our principles. It’s that simple and that difficult of a task. How well does each of us embody our Unitarian Universalist principles?

Whether we are ready or not as a congregation, Racism is a conversation this nation needs to address. The UN Committee on Torture on November 28th cited some 30 areas of human rights violations in the US. The committee writes that it “is concerned about numerous reports of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, in particular against persons belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups, immigrants and LGBTI individuals. ”

Another report came out that compared the US to South Africa under apartheid . It lists five areas of similarities and they ain’t pretty.

Rates of incarceration of black males under South African apartheid per 100,000 in 1993: 851. Whites under South African Apartheid per 100,000 in 1993 : 351
Rates of incarceration of black males in US per 100,000 in 2010 : 4,347
Rates of incarceration of white males in USA per 100,000: 678

Residential segregation: composite measurements of geographic segregation on a zero-to-100 scale show that South Africa in 1991 measured in the low 90s, while many American cities today rank in the high 70s to low 80s.”

Homicides in geographically concentrated neighborhoods: “Johannesburg has a murder rate of 30.5 per 100k and Cape Town has one of 46 per 100k, comparable to Chicago’s 1992 rate of 34 per 100k.” Chicago’s homicide rate in 2013 was 43 per 100k.

Black- White Marriages: In the US represents 1.6% of all marriages. In post-apartheid South Africa, 1% of all marriages.

Police Violence: In South Africa, “White police engaged in arbitrary violence against and in killing blacks.” As I mentioned, the UN specifically targets US police brutality in its human rights report.

So whether we agree or disagree with the non-indictments that took place over the last two weeks is moot. We need to come around the table on racism. And we need to be there like last year if we hope to have a positive influence in the conversation in Tuscaloosa—a city that has racially and economically segregated its west side schools through nonracial resolutions with racially charged outcomes. Yes, this is that urgent of a matter for our faith.

I have been invited to attend a dinner to hear about the formation of a new coalition called Healing Communities whose purpose is to address the rising violent crime in the West end. This new coalition is spear headed by Trinity Baptist Church. We are being invited because they have heard that we are a people who are concerned about social justice issues. Are we as a congregation ready to accept this call to participate in such a venture?

We need come together on a conversation on race relations. How does your theology as a Christian inform you on this matter? How does your theology as a Buddhist inform you on this matter? How does your theology as a humanist inform you on this matter? Are you anticipating an Advent that has the potential to transform the world?

One of my favorite stories James Luther Adams told goes something like this:

“In the 1950s , while teaching in Chicago, Adams served on the board of the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. The minister had already been outspoken about local issues of racial justice. One night, at a meeting from which the minister was absent, one of the trustees began to complain, suggesting that this was just politics, not religion, from the pulpit; that it was alienating people, including him and his wife; and that both the minister and church should be ‘more realistic.’ When he lapsed into racial slurs, his fellow trustees, including Adams, interrupted.

“What is the purpose of a church?” they asked. Did he want the church to make people comfortable? Only to confirm them in their prejudices and not morally challenge them?

Well, no, …
Then what is the purpose of a church? The others kept asking. “How should I know?” the man said. ‘I’m no theologian.’

‘But you’re a member here, and a trustee of this church,’ said Adams and the others, refusing to let him off the hook.

As Adams told the story, the discussion continues until about one o’clock in the morning when fatigue combined with the Holy Spirit and the man blurted out, “Well, I guess the purpose of a church is, uh, to get hold of people like me and to change ‘em.”

This Advent as many are getting ready for the coming of the birth of a special little boy, may we be getting ready for the birth of a new congregation that deeply embodies our principles and models the change we want to see in the world. Blessed Be.

Advent 2014

This is meant to be a season of great joy
Watching children’s glee grow brighter
With every ornament placed on the evergreen tree
And with every strand of light hung on windows
Shining like myriad of angels on that grassy knoll
singing peace and good will towards all.

I want to protect their innocence
To present the world as it could be
A world of deep mystery and fascination,
The wonder of a star that shown the way
Of possibility with each new life bringing joy.

This year it seems a charade.
I feel no joy in this season
Instead I feel despair.
A bottomless sadness
for another black man’s life taken too soon.
Another life deemed unworthy.
Another life lynched in the light of day
Another life reduced to viral fascination.

Facts need to be gathered, we say.
Facts reveal the truth, we say.
Facts prove the system works, we say.
Facts are dismissed or used to excuse.
Evil is justified by facts.

I want to cry.
I want to rend my clothes and don ashes
I want to howl my grief at the gods

If my tears declare black lives matter;
If I cry out mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa
If my outrage is loud enough, strong enough,
If I repent of my complicity
will the star of Bethlehem appear
To beckon us to follow a new creation,
a new way of being, a new way of loving the world?

 

(c) 2014 Fred L Hammond

The specific vs the system

I do not know if my family discussions at Thanksgiving are typical or not of other families, but this year the conversation trending at the Thanksgiving gathering this year was the no indictment charge for Officer Darren Wilson.  Some of my family thought if they were on the grand jury investigating this that they would have voted for indictment so that a criminal trial could have been pursued and a jury could have decided whether or not the officer was guilty of excessive force that killed Michael Brown.  The role of the grand jury was not to find Officer Wilson guilty or not-guilty but rather if there was enough circumstantial evidence to warrant a trial.  Others felt the grand jury was correct in its assessment that Officer Wilson did no wrong.  The grand jury’s decision not to indict does indeed declare innocence.  I personally wanted an indictment but an indictment, even if the criminal trial resulted in a manslaughter conviction, would still result in something missing in the pursuit of justice.

Not once did I hear the larger ramifications of this case–that there exists in the American justice system a racial bias towards people of color.  This scenario was not mentioned other than what appears to be a blanket dismissal of racism.  As I listened to my family discuss this, it suddenly dawned on me what is missing in this conversation.

White America looks at the specific case as if the specific case lives in a vacuum.  What has happened in Ferguson and in Staten Island are not seen as any part of a larger pattern or system.  They are entities unto themselves and therefore, White America says,  must be treated separately from one another.  And so must the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice holding a toy gun in an open carry state and John Crawford holding an air rifle that he is considering purchasing at Walmart must be held as separate individual cases.  And the young man who was walking down the street with his hands in his pockets on a cold November day.  He wasn’t shot, but as the police officer told him someone called him in as being suspicious because his hands were in his pockets.  These are not, White America proclaims, to be seen as related episodes that develop a pattern over time.

Our justice system is based on individual events not aggregate events.  But there is an aggregate that these cases and the thousands of others like them develops.  And White America does not perceive or think in terms of systems when it comes to justice.  We proclaim we are a nation of laws and that everyone can have their day in court.  This is an individual approach to justice.  It is not an aggregate approach to justice.  Nor a systemic approach to justice. Nothing changes in the system when a guilty verdict is rendered.  Therefore each case of police brutality that is exampled is an individual case and not part of a larger whole.  Every case of a police officer shooting a civilian is an individual case and not seen as part of a larger whole.  Yet, when it is a civilian who shoots a police officer, that, that is seen as confirming the aggregate.  That event in the reverse is seen as a pattern and informs the police and justifies their shoot first, ask questions later approach.

This leads to a false reading of reality.  All societies are systems based.  Whether it is a democratic society or a dictatorship or a plutocracy, societies are maintained by systems.  There is homeostasis that keeps the society at a certain level of tension that enables it to remain intact.  Just as the surface of a droplet of water has a level of tension to keep that droplet of water intact so too does society. If the tension becomes too little or too great the droplet of water will cease to be.  The individual molecules of the water in tension with other individual molecules of water hold that form that we call the droplet of water.  When the tension changes by removing or adding heat, that droplet of water either freezes or boils and becomes steam. Society is held together in a similar manner through the system that is created.

I have heard people say the decision of the grand jury in the Michael Brown shooting was the correct decision.  They state when looking at all the evidence the actions of Officer Wilson were justified.  Wilson felt his life was in personal danger by Michael Brown. They then state the protests therefore were unwarranted.  Even if what they state is true, that Officer Wilson acted correctly in shooting Michael Brown, they fail to see what this individual case represents in the larger system.  They fail to see that the Black community in particular is responding not just to Michael Brown’s death but to every instance of police profiling their community for decades.  It is not just this one case that is at the heart of the protests, it is thousands of them.

It is the accumulation of  hundreds upon hundreds of police stops where young black men are harassed by officers for walking down the street with hands in pockets.  Or driving with a group of friends and being pulled over in ‘a routine’ stop.  It is the immediate suspicion that is aroused when a person of color is seen in a neighborhood that allegedly is white. It is the assumption that a person who was arrested once for a petty crime, say shoplifting, is going to commit other more volatile crimes and therefore must be kept under heavy surveillance and become well known to the police. There is no freedom once a person of color has been arrested and convicted of breaking the law.  They will always be harassed in our system of justice.

I hear the conversations by Whites that the person had it coming.  If they were law abiding they would not have been stopped. If they were not doing anything wrong, they would have no reason to fear.  The assumption is riddled with the belief that blacks are criminals. This assumption is reinforced.   A recent TV news story reported a successful black business man was arrested for cocaine possession and fortunately his store’s video surveillance revealed the undercover cop planted the cocaine in his store.  The TV news story did not show the picture of the white officer who planted the drug but rather showed the black business man symbolically reinforcing that black men are drug dealers.  This black man did not have it coming.  He did nothing wrong.  Yet, time and time again, black men are killed not because they have done anything wrong but because they have stood up to their constitutional rights. This is what is happening in America.  We are taught daily that black equals criminal. It is reinforced by the media.

I hear the retort about Black on Black crime as if that somehow justifies police excessive force.  The assumption is that Black communities are doing nothing about this issue. It is a false assumption. They are addressing the issue, just because the media chooses not to tell that powerful story does not mean it isn’t happening.  And using Black on Black crime in this argument is an easy scape goat for White America to call upon to not face their culpability in the crisis of White police targeting and using excessive force against Black Americans.  What is White America doing about White on White crime?  Nothing. Exactly. We don’t even talk about it. Using the Black on Black crime argument is a ruse and distraction from the issue.

It is not the specific cases here that one needs to look at.  For every specific case that I can state where excessive force was used against a person of color, someone else can site specific cases where the police officer had no choice.  We are not going to get anywhere if we continue to focus on the individual cases.  White America needs to examine the patterns. White America needs to realize that what is happening across America today is of our creation.  We did this.

If we are going to promote America’s values as the best in the world, then we need the current conversation to be on how do we change the system that targets unjustly people of color.  It is okay to state our values and then to state we have miles to go before those values are fully realized.  But we need to be working on having those values fully realized.  Unlike Fox News stating something as so does not make it so.  We have to work on making it so. The system will change, one way or the other.  The temperature is rising and that droplet of water is feeling the tension mounting.  Are we going to do this in a mature manner with honest open dialogue or are we going to do this the hard way as has been our historical pattern with racial issues?  The choice is ours, White America.

Perhaps Love

“Perhaps love.”

“Perhaps love is like the ocean full of conflict, full of pain**.”

It is, isn’t it?  We like to think, oh, no! That is not love.  Love is happily ever after.  Love is all roses and sunshine.  Love is all that and a bag of chips.

We need to face the reality … love contains conflict.  Love contains pain.

Now before I go too much further with this line of thought, let me clarify what I am talking about when I mention conflict and pain as being within love.

Let me separate out the pain and conflict experienced as the result of emotional/mental/physical abuse.  The sort of conflict and pain that arises from abuse is not about love, that is about power—control over another human being. Love is not about power over another person.  So when I state love contains conflict, love contains pain; I am not referring to abusive relationships.

I am referring to the pain that arises when someone is hurting, physically/emotionally/mentally.  I am referring to when a loved one is sick.  I am referring to when a loved one is being harassed.  I am referring to when a loved one dies—regardless of circumstances.

On a larger scale—I am referring to when there is injustice against people.  People who seek to love one another face conflict and pain when there is injustice.  I am referring to when pain and conflict arise because of a systemic condition of the hardening heart in the collective hive.

This has been a tough summer for those who believe that Love wins. I know for me it has made me seriously reconsider my calling as a minister who longs for the day when justice runs down like a mighty stream.  What am I doing here in Alabama?  What am I doing here in the United States? If I, as a minister, am not on the forefront of justice standing on the side of love with the people who are in pain, what am I doing?  I cry for justice to reign in this land.

Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson was only the tip for me.  I listened to my relatives defend his being shot and became nauseated.  His senseless death is an abomination to all of America’s ideals and principles.  But his death is not the only one, and we don’t really know how many others because our police and government do not track violent encounters[i] between police and civilians. A law was passed by Congress in 1994 requiring the Attorney General to collect and track such events and give an annual report[ii].  No such report has ever been submitted in 20 years.

There were at least 4 other deaths of unarmed black men in the month of August—their names must not be forgotten:  Eric Garner—Staten Island, NY; John Crawford—Beaver Creek, OH; Ezell Ford—Los Angeles, CA; Dante Parker—Victorville, CA.  How many more deaths are needed before America wakes up to the evil it is perpetuating?

This is the pain that love contains. The pain is greatest at the epicenter, with their loved ones who grieve senseless deaths at the hands of a corrupt system militarized by fear and racism. But it is a pain that radiates out like an earthquake and is felt far away by those who are sensitive to it.

How does a family live with such pain?  Where is their comfort to be found?  How do we respond to such an earthquake of pain?

There are other pains that love contains.  This past week Save OurSelves hosted a daily Jericho March around the capitol regarding the pains that our current state administration is enforcing on the people of Alabama—in total disregard of the pain and grief it causes their citizens.

These daily marches focused on Immigration Rights, Education & Youth, Women’s Rights/ Equal Justice, Worker’s Rights/Living Wage, Criminal Justice/Due Process, Medicaid Expansion and Health, and Voting Rights.

These issues all intersect with one another. There is a coordinated effort in our state to hold people down from their great potential by denying the ability to organize in the workplace, by removing funding from our educational budget, by taking away a women’s right of agency to address her own needs, by creating laws that unjustly increase incarceration and slavery in our prisons, and the grief experienced by loved ones who died because of no healthcare—when healthcare could be afforded to them with Medicaid Expansion.

Love is like an ocean, full of conflict, full of pain.  What does one do with the ocean so that Love wins?

We expand the ocean.  We support one another when pain occurs. We cry out together.  We let our wails be heard like the mothers in Ramah. We place our lives on the line when others are threatened.

Many of you know that I was arrested within the capitol building on Thursday for attempting to participate in a 24 hour prayer vigil for the expansion of Medicaid.   I spoke with our board president before I made my decision to do this but it was obvious that this was where my heart was leaning.  Too many deaths have occurred that could have been avoided if our governor, a doctor by profession, had agreed to expand Medicaid.  I could no longer be silent on this sanctioned death by denial of healthcare any longer.

The pain and grief he has caused 700 families this past year alone is unconscionable, not to mention the 300,000 people who are struggling and praying that they will not need medical intervention to save their lives.  My heart this summer has broken open and I am compelled to speak out in a way I have not before.

I see his refusal to expand Medicaid to be an evil act against the people of this state, people he was elected to serve.  Many of whom he defined as his brothers and sisters in Christ, since he has made it clear he does see non-Christians as his brothers and sisters in humanity[iii].  With brothers like that, who needs enemies?

Our Governor is a victim of his own lies and deceptions.  And like Governor Wallace before him, he must be convinced of his betrayal against the people he was elected to serve.  The only way I know how to reach him and save him from his own deception is to rip the veil off on white privilege and supremacy which this administration has fought to preserve and strengthen and to fill the capitol with hundreds, even thousands of people demanding to see Medicaid expansion now.  And to insist laws put into place that expand rather than contract a person’s ability to reach their full potential.

This must be a concerted effort and a coalition of people broad and deep.  It means we must be motivated more by love than by fear of the stigma of being arrested. As the Rev. Kenneth Sharpton-Glascow said to me in the Montgomery County Jail, Jesus was arrested for his civil disobedience.  So was Gandhi, so was Martin Luther King, Jr. so was Annie Pearl Avery, who is one of the original SNICK participants in the 1960s and who joined me in being arrested on Thursday.

Ms. Avery is now 79 years old and told the police at the Montgomery jail that it was partly her actions in the 1960s that enabled them to have the jobs they have today. She enjoined them to recognize that we are fighting again for rights that are being denied Alabamans and join us in our struggle—not fight us by locking us up.

But these people I mentioned by name are all people of color.  We live in a nation where people of color are disproportionately arrested even though all people share equally in the crimes committed.  I realize that as a white person, I have been conditioned to believe that only bad people are arrested.  And in this country, bad people are conflated with being people of color because that is what White America is taught to believe.  There should be no shame in being arrested for justice.

I am also aware that in our Unitarian Universalist movement, the temptation is to make an arrest for a just cause to be some sort of an elite status symbol.  Across our denomination clergy arrests thus far have resulted in no time served, a small fine, and some court costs.  In Washington, DC, the arrests of 112 clergy and faith leaders were an orchestrated show against deportation of immigrants.  We knew in advance that we would be released with no further court cases, no threat of prison time. The risk was minimal. It gave us media publicity.  If we are serious in our quest for justice, we need to take larger risks that place our lives on the line, a few hours being arrested is not a personal risk.

While there was some media present at the rally on Thursday, the arrests that happened were no media stunt.  The Governor’s office did not want to arrest us and pleaded with us to leave. We stated we needed to pray for the governor to expand Medicaid and therefore would not leave.  We were charged with trespassing in the second degree which carries a $ 500 fine and /or up to 90 days in prison.  We could have been charged with trespassing in the third degree which carries a small fine.(In delivering this sermon, I misstated the penalties based on a website I found regarding these terms.  It is corrected here to Alabama criminal codes.)  My court date is Sept 15. I cannot predict the outcome.  Our governor does not want to become the next North Carolina with thousands swarming the capitol and over 900 arrests.  He is hoping this will deter others to follow.

We must not be deterred. Love does not stand back in the face of evil actions. It stands firm.  It holds the pain felt and assimilates it into more love.

I am committed to justice for the people of this state and therefore I must be willing to sacrifice the white privilege I am afforded.  If need be, to be arrested and bear the consequences.  The consequences I face do not even compare to the lives painfully lost because of denial of healthcare.

The evil that we face today is the same evil that Martin Luther King faced in the 1950s and 60s.  My actions are not the seeking of a status symbol, they are a call to action, to be willing to put our heart and soul into the belief that people need to be free to reach their full potential.

I realize some of you may not agree with the actions I have taken.  I understand. I have said this before and it bears repeating, I do not desire a congregation that follows their minister blindly. I do desire that this congregation will be informed of the issues.  Study them.  Read up on them.  Consider these issues a matter of faith development importance because they are indeed a serious matter of faith development. The future of our faith is dependent on how these issues play out. There are forces that seek to take away our freedom to practice our free and liberal faith.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the billboard out on University Blvd entering Cottondale.  It is a huge sign displaying the #Secede.  This group wants to recreate the confederacy in the form of a White Supremacist Christian Theocracy.  I have talked with some people who have experienced this group firsthand and they are a vicious and hateful bunch.  They are feeding off this country’s and state’s current hatred for our President. Be forewarned, there is very little difference between this group and the white elected officials in Montgomery with their declarations of a specific Christian theology that places women back into the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant and laws that place black and brown men into slavery through incarceration.

Perhaps love. Perhaps love is like the ocean full of conflict, full of pain.  The ocean is wide and deep. There are many ways to hold that conflict and pain. Some will grieve and wail uncontrollably.  And that witness of love is essential.  Some will share their stories of injustice committed against them. And that witness of love is essential. Some may do so by supporting those who stand on the vanguard. And that witness of love is essential.  Others may march, wave banners, and shout slogans.  And that witness of love is essential.  Others may stand with hands raised in silent protest in front of the guns and tanks pointed at them. And that witness of love is essential.  And others may choose to engage the pain with civil disobedience, risking their livelihoods, their freedom to enable others to be free.  And that witness of love is essential.

Peace is not the absence of violence.  Peace is the ability to remain centered and grounded while the world is raging threatening storms.  It is the ability to move forward in love because of the inner conviction that justice is the victor already. Love ultimately wins.

Love is large enough to contain the conflict and the pain on the journey towards justice.

Blessed Be.

This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on August 31, 2014 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond.

** This quote is from John Denver’s song “Perhaps Love.”

[i] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-ferguson-police-killing-african-americans-20140819-story.html

[ii] http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/12/dispatches-tracking-us-police-brutality

[iii] http://www.towleroad.com/2011/01/alabama-gov-elect-bentley-tells-non-christians-hes-not-with-them.html

Michael Brown

On Monday, August 25th, I conducted a memorial service as an act of solidarity with the Brown family in Ferguson, Missouri. Here are the words I shared with my congregation:

I speak as a white man who, while I believe I am fairly well educated regarding racism and white privilege in America, I confess I am not heart educated.  I could tell you logically and calmly the whats and wherefores of racism and white privilege in this nation.  But I could not tell you emotionally the detrimental effects of white privilege, because I am so well enveloped in it. Sometimes, I do not even know I have received it until much, much later. And only if, I am lucky enough to even reflect upon it.  White privilege is like an anti-body that automatically removes any social discomfort that might exist around me.  I don’t pay attention to the anti-bodies in my immune system until they no longer work.  And then, and only then, do I notice that I had anti-bodies working to keep me isolated from dis-ease.

White privilege is the anti-body for White people in this nation.   This is something that white liberals can talk about but don’t have the heart knowledge to develop the conviction to act against it.  And it is something that white conservatives deny for the same reasons.  When whites are held in the embrace of White Privilege anything that goes against that experience seems like a contrived falsehood.  Events like this are not in white people’s experience.

It is therefore vital for whites like me to listen to the stories and experiences of my neighbors who are people of color. To hear their first-hand accounts of not receiving the privilege that I am so very accustomed to. That is a struggle because human nature says; if it is not in our experience then it must therefore be false. This explains why people, white people in particular, were so quick to look for evidence, even made up evidence, to discredit the story of Michael Brown’s death.  The experiences of the people of Ferguson are not generally the experience of white people anywhere in the country—exceptions aside. It must be false, white’s state emphatically, because that is not our experience.

Michael Brown’s death is not an isolated event. As some would have us believe.  It is not a localized event as if there is some quirk in Ferguson that gave rise to his death. It is not a justified event as the Ferguson Police have tried to indicate by smearing Michael Brown’s character.

This is a frequent event. So frequent that children of Black parents are taught differently in how to respond to police than children of White parents.

One white mother wrote a blog about her white privilege as a mother of her three male sons.  If you are white, imagine if these statements were not true for you and what would you do about it as she describes her experience of white privilege?

“I will not worry that the police will shoot [my sons].

If their car breaks down, I will not worry that people they ask for help will call the police, who will shoot them.

I will not worry that people will mistake a toy pistol for a real one and gun them down in the local Wal-Mart.

In fact, if my sons so desire, they will be able to carry firearms openly. Perhaps in Chipotle or Target.

They will walk together, all three, through our suburban neighborhood. People will think, Look at those kids out for a walk. They will not think, Look at those punks casing the joint.

People will assume they are intelligent. No one will say they are “well-spoken” when they break out SAT words. Women will not cross the street when they see them. Nor will they clutch their purses tighter.  

My sons will never be mistaken for stealing their own cars, or [breaking and] entering their own houses.” [i]

This is the world that Michael Brown grew up in and it is the world that killed him.  This is our world, too.  The whiteness of your skin does not excuse you from responsibility in this world.  Being White is no excuse for not knowing that this is the reality our neighbors of color experience daily. And not just in faraway communities like Ferguson.  These experiences are happening in Tuscaloosa and across the state of Alabama as well.

When the Valedictorian of Central High cannot pass the entrance exam to enter the University of Alabama, we have a problem that screams injustice. When whites enroll their children into private academies instead of Tuscaloosa public schools, we have a problem that screams injustice. When police follow a group of black teens for no apparent reason in the West End we have a problem that screams injustice.  When a black student states that he dropped out of school at 16 because that was normal and expected of him, we have a problem that screams injustice.

It is up to us to determine what will be the legacy of Michael Brown’s disrupted life.  We can mourn his passing, say it’s a shame, and continue on, hardening our hearts to the reality that is demanding redress or we can get angry like the people of Ferguson have gotten angry.  We need some anger about his death.  We need some anger over the fact that he will not be the last unarmed person to be shot in 2014.  There will be others unless we stand up, Black and White, Latino and Asian, together to say no more.

Black lives matter.

Every faith group in Tuscaloosa should be screaming this from their pulpits as a conviction of their faith principles. We can no longer abide with white privilege and racism in this community, in this state, and in this nation.  Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for non-violent action, he did not advocate for calm as the clergy did in Ferguson.  There is a major difference.  One is an act of moral courage to evoke a response and change in the system of oppression and the other is a numbing drug administered by order of the system of oppression.

Which tact shall we take in honoring Michael Brown’s memory?  May we come together as a community to strategize how we are going to address these issues before another unarmed shooting happens and it is here in Tuscaloosa County.  Blessed Be.

[i] http://manicpixiedreammama.com/a-mothers-white-privilege/

Assumptions

Like many across our nation and the world, I am grieving the tragic events that have once again beset our country. The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager by Ferguson, MO police is troubling regardless of one’s position.  I have been trying to make sense of it all–and I admit these shootings in our nation against our own people is increasingly hard for me to understand. I was chatting with a relative of mine who is in law enforcement and they said something that I found interesting. They stated that assumptions are being made before the investigation has played out and now the investigation is tainted.

Assumptions.  They are like the operating system behind this computer program.  They are running always in the background, informing the actions of the person, mostly unaware, until one takes a long hard look at them.  My relative and I are operating from a different set of assumptions. People have experiences and they try to make sense of those experiences. They develop assumptions about those experiences and then use those assumptions to predict / plan how to respond to future events. Sometimes those assumptions are spot on, and sometimes, more times than we would like to admit, those assumptions are wrong.

But it is through assumptions that we act and have our being.  My relative has explained to me countless times that police have to make a decision in a split second regarding their safety.  Is the person a threat or not?  They have to assess what is going on, observe accurately all that is going on and make a decision in a split second.  That split second may be all they have between surviving a violent assault. It is not an easy job being a police officer. How aware the officer is about their own assumptions seems to me to be an important necessary skill that they need in order to do their jobs professionally and ethically.

There have been studies that have shown repeatedly that we see what we want to see.  I haven’t shared those studies with my relative but it is true.  We will see things that weren’t there and we will not see things that were there.  Have you seen the video with the man in the gorilla outfit? We are given instructions to count how many times a basketball is passed.  During the ball passing a gorilla walks their way through the crowd.  Up to 40% of people failed to see the gorilla.  We were not assuming that something strange was about to occur so we didn’t see it.  Or when a traumatic event happens how very disparate the stories are in relating what happened.  Police officers are supposed to be trained to be excellent observers of their surroundings and one would hope of behaviors in order to make those split second decisions.  But even with such training, assumptions are running beneath the surface.

I tell the story of my first time in Georgia.  It is not a story that I am proud of but it clearly indicates how assumptions play in our actions.  This was back in the mid 1980s, I was heading up towards Dahlonega, GA with my friend Glenn.  As we were driving. I am seeing these gorgeous plantation buildings with these shacks next to them.  You could see through the walls better than you could through the windows.  I was in total amazement.  I had no idea that people lived in such poverty in the United States.  I lived in CT at the time, one of the richest states in the nation. I told my friend that I needed to have a picture of these shacks because no one in CT would believe me it I told them.  It was simply beyond my experience.  We find a shack that had stuff strewn all over the yard and hanging from the rafters of the shack porch were these brightly colored dresses.  We stop so I could take a photo.   I get out of the car and I realize that this is a yard sale and on the porch was a woman with a shotgun in her lap. I hesitate and then ask if I could take a picture of her house.  And she gave permission.  I told this story of the woman with the shotgun numerous times but I didn’t have the photo in hand.  Then one day I am going through some photos and there was the photo– the woman on the porch surrounded by these hanging brightly colored dresses.  But where was the gun? It wasn’t in her lap as I recalled it.  The gun was not on the floor of the porch either. It simply was not there. I had an assumption in my mind about folks who lived in the hills of Georgia so firmly planted, that I placed a shotgun into her lap.  Now she may have owned a shot gun but it was not with her outside.

Assumptions change how we see the world and then we shape that world to fit those assumptions.

It is hard to fight those assumptions as well because even when we have the facts that contradict the assumptions, those assumptions are being proved true in our heart of hearts.  Re-read the paragraph above about my first trip to Georgia.  The assumption that I had still plays out in the very last sentence.  I apparently accommodated it to fit the facts but the assumption is still being played out.  I am embarrassed about it as it is not how I want to live my life. We are taught assumptions from an early age by our families, friends, and church.

These assumptions may or may not be true, that is the thing about assumptions. Just because you have one deeply ingrained does not mean it is correct.  Some assumptions some people may have:

1. There is only one true religion. (Funny thing about this assumption is it is always the person’s personal religion that is the one true religion.)

2. There is not enough to go around, so get yours before anyone else.

3. Those people are destroying America.  (those people is whatever the group du jour is. For Westboro Baptists they are Gays, for Tea Party folks they are the undocumented and Obama, for anti-abortionists it is Planned Parenthood, For Democrats it’s the Republicans and the reverse is true.)

4. Racism is a thing of the past.  (If only those Socialist Liberals wouldn’t keep bringing it up.)

There are assumptions being played out in Ferguson.  These assumptions didn’t start with the shooting of Michael Brown.  And that is another assumption that is being made by some people, that this shooting is an isolated event that has no contextual environment in which it grew into being.  My relative wants me to keep this event separate from the hundreds of unarmed young black men who were shot by police across this nation.  There are reasons for attempting to separating out each individual event.  Some of these reasons are good ones.  One good reason is that there may be some unique aspect of this case that would be lost when forced into the conglomerate of all the others.  Some are not so good.

There are also reasons to look at this horrific event in the context of what is happening in the United States. As another blogger wrote:  “There are reasons why white gun’s [sic] rights activists can walk into a Chipotle restaurant with assault rifles and be seen as gauche nuisances while unarmed black men are killed for reaching for their wallets or cell phones, or carrying children’s toys.”  There are assumptions of who is dangerous and who is not.  Whether we want to agree or not, being white in the United States in 2014 still carries privileges.  One of these privileges is carrying an automatic rifle into a Chipotle or a Target and not being seen as a threat despite the fact that all of the mass shootings in recent history have been committed by white men. That is some powerful assumption we are carrying and they are tilted towards perceived race.

Since 9/11 there has been a steady increase of militarizing our police force.  There is also an assumption at work here–what is it?  My hunch is that the assumption is that United States is now a battlefield.  Many cities are applying for federal grants to purchase military grade equipment in preparation of possible terrorist attacks on our soil even in small rural communities where the biggest threat is the pumpkin festival being rained out.  They are using this equipment in SWAT offenses for drug raids, storming houses with a no-knock search warrant in full military garb.  They have used it in ICE raids of factories where suspected undocumented personnel may work.  When the police are militarized it is small leap of thought to begin seeing towns as battlefields to be conquered rather than homes to be protected.  Ferguson is one such community that has militarized their police force and the pictures show they have turned their town into such a battlefield.  But they already saw their town as one long before the shooting of Michael Brown, long before the riots after the police responded with nonchalance and disregard of this event. Is it any surprise that increased militarization of police increases the anxiety level of the citizens.

When you treat people like they are enemy combatants, you are going to get enemy combatants. People do not respond well when their personal safety is threatened.  When peaceful demonstrations are met by militarized police, what is the assumption the police are operating on? The assumption is not that demonstrators are going to remain peaceful.  It is an agitation towards violence.  When police tell demonstrators, like they did last night (8/18/2014)  that they had to return home,  and the demonstrators attempt to do so only to find the way home is blocked by different police, and so they dutiful turn around as told and go back, to be met again by the first group of police telling them to turn around, this is an invitation to escalate. And it did.  The assumption is that the demonstrators are the enemy and not the police officer’s fellow citizens, an assumption that the trapped citizens couldn’t refute by their failed attempts of compliance. And the police would not listen to them when they asked how can they get home when roads are blocked. Such a response was considered non-compliance and arrests ensued.

I realize that I am operating on a set of assumptions as I write this piece. My assumptions tell me that our government is moving towards a police state unless someone speaks up and stops it.  My assumptions tell me that there is fear of the other in this country against one’s documented status, race,  class, sexual orientation and gender identification, and religion.   Prove me wrong.

Set aside fear of the other and begin listening to one another, without judgement, without critique, just listen to the very real pain people have experienced here.  We all share that pain.  Set it aside to listen to someone else fully attending to them.  America, prove me wrong and rise up to your ideals of Liberty and Justice for all.