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