The following is the sermon I gave on September 12, 2015, at the installation service of Rev. Lynn Hopkins, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery in Alabama. May it help inform our faith and help us set the direction for the prophetic witness we are called to in such a time as this.
Text: Esther 4:13-14
We have the story of Esther in the Hebrew Scriptures. Born of lowly birth to a Jewish family, there was not much promise for her status in life. She did have one thing in her favor. She was beautiful. The king becomes enamored by her and marries her. But the king also has an adviser who hates the Jews so much that he convinces the king to have them killed. Esther feels distressed and also helpless in this situation since she is not the esteemed first wife of the king. But her uncle, Mordecai says to her, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
For such a time as this. Haunting words for Esther to engage her destiny and find a way to entice the king to give her an audience and perhaps save her people.
And have we come to our royal position for such a time as this? Our faith as Unitarian Universalists for nearly 300 years has enjoyed the royal position of privilege—white privilege, white supremacy, class privilege. Our spiritual ancestors not only helped create this nation of white supremacy and privilege but some even held the highest office in the land. Some have been seen as prophets—William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker; even as these individuals whose legacies revolutionized Unitarian faith they did so from the framework of white supremacy and white privilege of their day.
Their lives were imbued in class privilege, in white privilege, in white supremacy which continued to influence the direction the Unitarian faith was to follow. And it is that unfortunate legacy that led later White Unitarians to view their liberalism and progressivism as holding them at a safe distance in an enclaved haven. They saw themselves as being that beacon on a hill, high above all the rest. While some deplored the injustices in society, Unitarians, for the most part, were content in their position of privilege. They were arrogant and haughty.
This was evident in the decisions that our American Unitarian Association made regarding people of color who wanted to become ministers of our faith. Examine the sometimes brutal responses the AUA gave to the vision of Rev. Elthered Brown who founded a Harlem based Unitarian Church and the subdued support to Rev. Lewis McGee and his congregation in Chicago. And it wasn’t just the Unitarians, examine the dismissive and arrogant regard the Universalists gave Rev. Joseph Jordan and then his daughter, Annie Willis in their work in providing an education to African Americans in Virginia.
Our history in standing on the side of love has not always been consistent in terms of dealing with our own complicity in racism.
Today, we like to proclaim that we were good in the early 1960’s when pointing the finger at those white supremacists during the Civil Rights movement but we would rather forget that we were not so good when Black Unitarian Universalists began to hold White Unitarian Universalists accountable to our own inbred racism in the late 1960s. We have struggled as a faith denomination with coming to terms with our own white privilege and our propensity to use white supremacy to our advantages. But the process to become not only anti-racist but non-racist in our heart of hearts is going to take an individual commitment of all of our members.
We have seen in recent years, how merely acknowledging the issue is not sufficient to uprooting the weeds of white supremacy in the field planted with Unitarian Universalism. We need to recognize how the wheat, oats, and barley that are also planted in the field support and aid the weeds to flourish. If we are unable to own our complicity, individually and collectively, then we will continue to miss the mark of becoming the prophethood of all believers that we know can be our destiny. James Luther Adams knew this required “something like conversion, something more than an attitude.” People in our communities need to know that we are the people of the covenantal promise of love made real.
It means we have to become comfortable with confessing our own white privilege and feelings of white supremacy. It is no longer good enough to have an intellectual understanding of white privilege and white supremacy as it is displayed in this nation. It is no longer enough to declare we give money to black causes or declare our scorn at those who fly the confederate flag. We need to have a heart understanding of what every black person in America already knows. It means we are going to have to begin living our values in ways we have yet to imagine. It may challenge us. It may seem uncomfortable but when has deepening spiritual awareness and transformation of lives ever comfortable?
We need to develop a spiritual practice of comfortability. Comfortability is a portmanteau of two words combined to create a new word. I define the word as having the ability to be willing to embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable in situations in order to confront a held bias or prejudice. In the context of being confronted on racism, it means not being defensive or deflective in response but able to be held accountable to our complicity with white privilege and white supremacy and then using that skill to transform our hearts and change our behavior.
The spiritual practice of comfortability was recently described by another Unitarian Universalist, Annie Gonzalez Milliken in her blog post entitled, Spiritual Practices for White Discomfort. She lists these possible steps towards the skill-set needed for comfortability.
Sit with the discomfort and acknowledge it with mindful meditation, the art of breathing in and breathing out. Instead of judgment turn judgment into a curiosity. “Where is my discomfort coming from and what can I learn about myself?” In other words take some time for introspection. Read up on the subject—find out the social context for the action taken that caused our discomfort. Process our emotions with other committed allies privately. Focus on the big picture. Practice deep listening and keep quiet. Unitarian Universalists love to share opinions but that is expressing our own sense of privilege and is not always helpful. In fact such sharing before we have fully processed our own stuff can result in deflection away from the focus of ending racism. When people of color spend their energy answering white discomfort it can be ‘especially draining.’
White liberals, all whites regardless of political stripe, need to develop the ability to sit in discomfort of how the system whites created serves to oppress, demean, and destroy Black Lives and other people of color. White Liberals need to recognize how they continue to benefit from this system even when putting on the mantle of being progressives with anti-racist rhetoric. White privilege protects white liberals from these feelings of discomfort.
I have heard some white liberals declare their protestations when confronted with supporting the system of white privilege and white supremacy, to deflect ownership by stating their support of petitions, giving money, marching in unity marches, and having friendships with people of color.
All of these actions are good in and of themselves but these actions become distancing tactics meant to make ourselves feel good when confronted with our complicity. They mean very little if we are not also on the vanguard confronting the system that gives one group protection over and above another group.
We have hid behind our principles without living the spirit of our principles. When Black Lives Matter banners are displayed, the cry from some of our Unitarian Universalist members point to our principle of inherent worth and dignity of every person therefore, the logic goes: all lives matter. This is a deflection because All Lives Matter is the idealized dream but Black Lives Matter is the living reality that they should yet do not. It is a painful reminder that in our society today, we have the walking dead. These are the people who are seen in society as already dead socially so when they die physically, there is no further loss felt. How does a nation grieve the loss of someone who is already dead to society?
But it isn’t just Black lives that are socially dead. The mentally ill are socially dead. The elderly are socially dead. The poor are socially dead. The disabled are socially dead. And now that our society has found the slaughtering of children bearable because our nation has placed 2nd amendment rights as more important than the lives of our children, our children are socially dead.
When the walking dead begin to resurrect and claim their voice; whites with privilege, whites with power, whites who bask in the benefits of white supremacy become nervous and uncomfortable. There is a scramble to enact laws to keep them dead. Voting ID laws, gerrymandering voting districts, laws to prevent municipalities enacting minimum wage standards, laws to limit or destroy unions, welfare reforms, all are geared towards disenfranchisement and all to keep the socially dead, dead. Don’t believe me? Look where we slash our budgets on the state and federal levels?
Medicaid, Mental health services, Aid to families, education services, children services, food stamps. These cuts are allowed because these people are not valued, their lives do not matter. When we are not outraged when a mentally ill person wielding a serving spoon is shot by police because the police officer feared for his life at a distance of 24 feet; when we are not outraged when a Black person is shot and killed at a simple traffic stop; when we are not outraged when Medicaid is cut and lives are lost then we declare these people already dead in society. We do not fund the dead. The only thing left for them is to be buried.
What does our faith call us to do? It certainly does not call us to huddle in our predominant white congregational havens where we can wag our fingers and heads at those outside these doors who shoot Black Lives with impunity. No, our faith calls us to love mercifully, to act with justice, and to walk humbly in our place in the universe. This is not a time to act all high and mighty and laud our liberal faith of acceptance yet do nothing to create substantive change.
It is a time to speak up boldly on behalf of those who have lost their voice or are having their voices constricted. It is a time to stand on the side of love not just along the side of the road in picket line formation but in the office, in the park, in the grocery store, in the daily interactions we have with everyone we meet. Our being in covenantal relationship does not end once we leave these hallowed halls. Rather it begins. It is time to be an anti-racist anti-oppression faith, not just in the ideal pretty words on a page, but in the hard daily reality.
It comes to this. Our faith does not require that we all believe in the same God or in any God. Our faith does not require that we profess a creed of doctrines that would enable us to enter the gates of heaven. Our faith does require us to love one another as we love ourselves in the here and now. Our faith does require us to be stubbornly determined in loving life into society’s socially dead—because black lives matter.
That is our resurrection miracle. Lazarus, a black man, raised from the dead is now seen as crucial to the prosperity and general welfare of the entire community. To remove the blindness from the eyes of those who would oppress to suddenly see Lazarus’s inherent worth and dignity as vitally connected to their own inherent worth. Lazarus’s resurrection and liberation is tied into our liberation and resurrection. We cannot be fully alive and liberated without the liberation of Black Lives.
These are the times in which we are found. Do not think that because you are in a white liberal and progressive faith, that you alone of white liberals will be protected from being held accountable. For if you remain silent in the crisis facing Black Lives, relief and deliverance for liberation will arise from another place, but this faith will be found irrelevant and will vanish from society. And who knows if you have come to this faith for such a time as this?