Moral Integrity

There was a recent story in the news about Republican Governor Baker falling in line behind Trump’s administration by not condemning the appointment of Stephen Bannon, a so-called Alt Right politico whose media group publishes white supremacist and white nationalist articles. Governor Baker had previously condemned Trump’s racist rhetoric and now is dutifully falling in line. His defense was that the commonwealth of Massachusetts depends on federal grants and contracts.

I posted this story on my facebook page with the comment that this should not be surprising.  In my comments on this post I stated, “Very few people have the moral integrity to hold fast in the face of evil.”

I want to expand on this notion of moral integrity and why it is vitally important to fortify it in order to save American democracy.  Moral integrity is not a solo action. It is not developed in a vacuum and it cannot be maintained in an isolated realm.  Those who attempt to do so are betrayed, imprisoned, and ultimately killed–sometimes figuratively–sometimes literally.  You can begin to see why Governor Baker reversed course in his stance of condemning Trump’s racist rhetoric to taking the more supportive desire “to have an open dialog” with Trump’s administration. He caved to save his political standing in the new regime that is coming to power in less than 90 days.  He knows that this is an administration that will retaliate with vengeance against any who stand in its way. His response is self-protective.

After the cast of Hamilton spoke out to Mike Pence for their hope in the future of America, Trump condemned such a statement as “harassment.” Once Trump is in power, expect Nixonian style enemy lists and attempts to decimate them. Governor Baker’s cave in was in realization of this new reality, where civil discourse is harassment.

Remember when Jesus was arrested not one of his disciples remained except John, Mary his mother, and Mary Magdalene. Maintaining moral integrity in the face of evil is difficult even for the founders of the Christian faith. The Roman Empire was a cruel and evil force that crushed any who exerted self-differentiation.  The disciples only found their footing again by supporting one another, by affirming their values and nurturing one another to remain firm.

This is the only way one can maintain moral integrity. Just as they supported one another, we must support one another. Just as they met with one another, we must meet with one another. Just as they loved one another, we must love one another. They became the resistance and showed the world another way. That is our task today. To love one another with a radically subversive love that transforms hearts. It means we form collectives and coalitions of love to resist the authoritarian fascism that we see happening.

And even doing all of that, maintaining moral integrity is a hard road to travel.  We only need to look at the history of Christianity to know that most of its 2000 year history has been anything but moral. So to maintain moral integrity also means being willing to call out and call in those who break covenant with one another. We must align ourselves with truth tellers not those who promote truthiness or post-truths; those things that we want to hear and believe because they feed our bigotry and biases. But truth tellers that remind us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Truth tellers who remind us that actions that hurt people who do not look like us, do not act like us, do not live like us; those actions also hurt us as well because we are all one body, called the United States of America.

There is truth in the Christian Scriptures, when my hand is cut, am I not going to grasp it and tend to its wound? I am not going to say, it is only my hand, I can live without it. The leg cannot say to the eye, I am not an eye so I do not need you. We are only strong when all of our different parts are working together, and we are only a force for good when we have the courage to speak up against evil in all of its forms.  Right now we have a section of our body that is hurting and is diseased with hatred.

The hurt is real. The pain is real.  But to appease the pain by supporting the gangrene of white nationalists to move into power is not the way to move forward. That only teaches those in pain that their acting out is validated.  It only reinforces their hateful rhetoric and amps up their behaviors to attack others who are different than they are. We need to be able to resist their attempt to make us cower in fear and rise up to say this behavior is not acceptable in a nation that proudly proclaims, E Pluribus Unum –Out of Many, One.

And that is going to take all of us to strengthen our moral integrity so it will remain strong to act in the dark days ahead. And it means contacting those in political office, who often look to expediency and compromise rather than moral integrity, telling them that we have their back when they act with moral integrity.

All of our bluster today must not disappear when Trump is in full power. That is the temptation awaiting us on January 2oth. The temptation for us to also fall in line and succumb to the new reality of a white nationalist government. We must not, the lives of too many people are at stake. Protecting and strengthening our moral integrity is the order of the day. We must encourage one another to remain strong in the face of evil.  We must encourage one another not to hide and act as if nothing is happening.  We must encourage one another to continue to love one another and support their moral actions of resistance.

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What Now

 

How goes it with your spirit?  I have to say that I have been crushed by this election.  And when I say crushed I don’t just mean disappointed.  I mean my spirit has been pulverized and left gasping for air.  I am still struggling to catch my breath and absorb what has happened.

Last Sunday I stated this election was not about electing a man or a woman, or even about electing a republican or a democrat to the office of the presidency.  It was about ratifying and affirming our nations most sacred values—E pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One.  Our unalienable birth rights of Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty and justice for all.

Apparently, America no longer wants to be an America that celebrates E Pluribus Unum. That value was okay to proclaim when America was 90% white in 1950.  It apparently is not okay when America’s white people reflects 61% of the population in 2016 and is projected to be 49% in less than 30 years.  When America finally begins to look like E Pluribus Unum, Whites get nervous because it will mean they will need to share their power.

I shouldn’t be surprised given how White America treated our first Black president who probably will go down in history as one of the all-time great presidents.  Not by this generation but by future generations.  Abraham Lincoln was hated when he was president[i].  I mean states seceded from the union and millions of people died because he became president. Not exactly how one wins and influence friends.

I still believe these values were the heart of this election.  I still believe that this nation was given an opportunity to make a deliberate choice to embody the values on which this nation stood, albeit imperfectly.  We were given a choice to turn away, even if ever so slightly, from our nation’s original sin of racism.  We were given a choice.

And we chose white supremacy.

I think what stung me the most was the realization that the only demographic that overwhelmingly voted for Trump was the White vote. Of the 70% of White voters, 58% of them voted for Trump.  No other racial demographic overwhelmingly voted for Trump.  No other racial demographic comprised a majority in their support for Trump. Not one.

Now there are many individual reasons why a person might have voted for Trump.  So when individuals begin giving reasons why they voted Trump, the reason is not because they believe that Whites need to stay in power and oppress other groups. No, they believe there are other reasons, but the aggregate reason is racism.  This is an important distinction.  Let me rephrase this point another way.  Trump’s appeal to individual White voter’s is not because individually they supported his racism, but the systemic impact in this election of White voters is racism.

We need to understand the message this sends to marginalized groups when one demographic votes overwhelmingly for a demagogue like Donald Trump. We need to understand that their fear, my fear, is not unreasonable but is based in the history of events over the last 24 months.

We have seen an uptick in hate crimes against Blacks, Muslims, Trans-fulx, Mexican immigrants over the last 24 months committed by White people who support Trump.  Southern Poverty Law Center reports 200 hate crimes[ii] were documented in the 72 hours after the election alone.

And these are the ones that are documented as hate crimes.  The hanging effigy of a black man off the apartment balcony above OHenry’s is not considered a hate crime.  The poster displaying Trump with a statement saying, “Obama, You’re Fired” in a math teacher’s class in Northridge High School is not considered a hate crime. The American Latino citizen, who was yelled at by a passerby “to go pack because Trump is deporting your ass” is not a hate crime.  The woman at UA who received anonymous rape threats because of her public support of Clinton. Our congregation’s children being told in school by friends that Trump is going to remove all the gays from Alabama. These have all occurred in the last week here in Tuscaloosa. They may not be hate crimes per the current statutes of the law, but they carry with them pain and anguish.

The KKK in North Carolina is planning on hosting a victory parade in Trump’s honor. The Alabama Klan has come out publicly stating they are going to hold Trump accountable for his campaign promises to deport immigrants, ban Muslims, and repeal LGBT rights. But the White nationalists do not represent the White 70% of the 59 plus million who voted for Trump. But the White nationalists have benefitted from the collective vote that supports their agenda for oppression.

If your vote supports the oppression of others even if you voted your conscience for your personal reasons, then your vote supported racism.  It is that simple and that complex.

I need to sit with that information and realize that I as a white person have some responsibility in these election results.  I did not speak to my relatives of my concerns regarding a Trump presidency.  I did not tell my relatives that if they loved me and supported my life as a gay man, that they should consider not voting for Trump.  I didn’t, because if I did, then I would have to contemplate that my relatives do not in fact love me for who I am.  That fact would be too painful for me to face.  Despite all their verbal assurances that they do, their actions shout no.  So I would prefer not hearing them say the words that they would prefer a Trump presidency over the safety of a gay relative. Did you tell your relatives—that a Trump presidency would endanger the life of your gay minister or your trans friends in this congregation?  Or your friends of color?  Or your Muslim friends? Or your immigrant friends?

But the individuals who voted for Trump are not going to be able to hear that a vote for Trump was a vote for racism. Not going to hear it because standing in their shoes, they believe that Trump finally heard their cry for help. They see their ability to earn a livable wage and to give their children a better life than they had, slipping away. Their concerns are not, in their essence, based in racism; they are based in economic realities. The median income finally rose this year to just over $56.5K[iii] but its buying power is still less than it was in 1999[iv].  The hard truth is that for millions of people in this country, they are hurting. No matter what they have done to try to get ahead they are thwarted in their attempts.  My colleague, the Rev. Daniel O’Connell noted that half of the country ‘finally feels heard and the other half feels a deep and anxious fear for their future.’

I also know there is a desire to self-differentiate myself from the 58% of White voters who voted for Trump.  I don’t want marginalized people, who do not know me, wondering if I voted for Trump because I am white.  My age group voted overwhelmingly for Trump.  So I want to differentiate myself. So I get it when others want to send some sort of signal, some sort of sign that says, I did not vote like the rest of my white family and neighbors. Should you decide to wear some symbol as a sign, a blue finger nail or safety pin, be ready to back that symbol up with some actions.  Don’t wear them and then remain silent when the racist or sexist comment is made.  Don’t wear them and then turn a blind eye when you see a person being discriminated against because they wear a hajib or are Black or Brown.  Don’t wear them and then walk on by when you see someone being attacked.

I don’t know what the future holds. I appreciated Clinton’s concession speech.  I appreciated Obama’s comments on the election and the smooth transition of power that he is in the process of ensuring.  I even appreciated Trump’s acceptance speech which, if that was the first time I heard him speak, I would have thought wow, what a classy guy, praising his opponent and all.  But that was not what he shared on the campaign trail. He made threats to prosecute his opponent if he was elected. He made threats against me and people like me, he made threats against my immigrant friends, those here with visas and greed cards and those undocumented, he made threats against my Muslim friends, and he made threats against my black friends.  I can only assume that he now intends to follow through on these threats.

So what now in light of this turn of events in our nation’s history?  We, as a congregation seek to love one another all the more.  We find ways to differentiate ourselves from every other predominant white congregation in Tuscaloosa County so when people come here to visit, know that they have visited someplace unique and special and most importantly safe. That they will know our principles and our personal creeds are not just lip service but is indeed who we are in our most inner being.

As I stated I do not have a crystal ball to predict what is coming down the pike with a Trump presidency. We live in one of the most conservative states in the union.  But every fiber in my being tells me that we are going to need one another more than ever if we are going to thrive in this brave new world.  This means your support is needed more than ever to ensure that this congregation is able to support you in the days ahead.  Support and nurture your inherent worth and dignity. Support your ability to develop justice, equity, and compassion in your relations.  Support your free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Support your right of conscience and the democratic process.  Support your work towards developing community with peace, liberty and justice for all. And support the well-being of your spirit.  Blessed Be

[i] http://knowledgenuts.com/2014/01/02/abraham-lincoln-was-actually-hated-when-president/

[ii] https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/11/over-200-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election-day

[iii] http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/13/news/economy/median-income-census/

[iv] http://www.davemanuel.com/median-household-income.php

What Now? 13 November 2016 © Rev. Fred L Hammond  delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa.

We attempted to live stream the sermon and discovered that the internet bandwidth was insufficient.  So the video below is severely pixeled but the audio is relatively ok by comparison.

An Open Letter to Chief Justice Roy Moore

 

29 April 2016

Dear Chief Justice Moore:

As a citizen of Alabama, I am rather disappointed in your press conference comments.  Not only did they portray the events on January 12th incorrectly, they expressed defamation of character of a private citizen.

The facts are Ambrosia Starling did not officiate a wedding on January 12th.  I did.  I am an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith and serve the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa. It is part of my religion to honor and bless the covenanted relations that we enter into and with couples that includes the rites of marriage. I do not do mock weddings. To have my faith honored with recognizing the marriages that I officiate is an example of the religious freedom that this country honors and values since the days of the founding of this nation’s constitution.  It is in the Bill of Rights that the government shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion or the practice thereof.

Yet, for far too long, this country has forbade my religion’s right to solemnize marriages of same gender weddings and have them recognized by the state.  You say this is not about religion, but it is, Justice Moore.  It is.  By denying equal marriage rights, you are declaring your faith doctrines to be supreme over all religious doctrines and practices and that is simply not the American way in regards to religious freedom. Religious freedom means being able to practice one’s religion without fear of government censure. Not being able to have couples’ marriages recognized by the state is a form of government censure of religion. For you to declare the wedding I officiated a mockery is a show of profound disrespect of the religion I serve as minister. A religion whose American roots date back to the founding of this nation.

The bills being passed under the guise of religious freedom are privileging a certain sect of Christianity.  It does not represent the whole of Christianity nor does it protect any other religions’ practice.  It is sanctioned discrimination against anyone whose faith does not align with this branch of Christianity. This is not religious freedom.  It is religious oppression.

I am authorized by my church and faith tradition to officiate marriages of same gender couples. The marriage I officiated on January 12, 2016, included the signing of the marriage license issued by a probate judge in Alabama. That certificate was filed according to Alabama statutes and a marriage certificate was issued the couple recognizing them as a married couple. If this marriage was illegal and in defiance of your order as you claim, then I would have expected the probate judge to not have issued the license. Further, I would expect that if this was illegal that you would file charges against probate judges who did not follow your order, making every probate judge who has issued licenses accountable to your ruling.  But you have done no such filing and therefore, you have not enforced the law as you claim exists. Why? Because you know you have no authority to overrule the US Supreme Court ruling that lifted the ban on same sex marriages.

But that is not what you stated at the press conference.  Instead you claimed the complaints were an attack on your character. You claimed you were a victim of the media misrepresenting your orders.  Then you made defamatory statements insinuating the mental instability of a private citizen. You are not a licensed Mental Health professional, therefore you have no authority to diagnose or even publicly speculate on the mental health of another person.

As a judge in the attempts to answer complaints on your defiance of a US Supreme Court Ruling, you have once again violated your own profession’s ethics by making these inflammatory statements against a private citizen. It was an attempt to discredit Ambrosia Starling’s and other’s complaints against your ethical conduct.  It was an attempt to inflict injury on Ambrosia Starling’s reputation. I see you.  I see what you are trying to do and it is offensive, not only personally offensive, but offensive to the citizens of this state.

You defended your orders based on the Alabama Supreme Court ruling which by your own quoting the US Constitution at the press conference revealed that it was over ruled by the US Supreme Court. Your own words convict you. Yet, you insist you are in the right. You have shown repeated disregard for the US Supreme Court which ruled that the bans against same sex marriage are unconstitutional.  Your own colleagues of the Alabama Supreme Court do not side with you in this matter. In fact, your colleagues of the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed on March 4 of this year, a challenge to same sex marriages made by some probate judges and a conservative policy group. The Alabama Supreme Court is adhering to the US Supreme Court ruling.

You state your orders are still in effect.  Yet, even the Alabama Supreme Court by their dismissing the challenge declare your orders are not in effect any longer. If they were in effect still, then they would not have dismissed the challenge to same sex marriage. The federal and Alabama state courts have spoken on this matter.  Your legal opinion has been declared unconstitutional by the highest court in the land.  There is no conflict between the courts as you stated at your press conference. They are now in sync.

If you, in good conscience, cannot abide by the highest court in the land then to protect your integrity you need to step down as chief justice. The tide of change is coming to this country. We will finally live up to our highest ideals of liberty and justice for all.  We will no longer privilege one religion over another in this nation.  We will no longer privilege one class of people over another in this nation. We will no longer privilege one gender over another or one sexual orientation over another. We will no longer privilege one race over another in this nation.  Those days are coming to an end. May they come quickly for people are suffering injustices in this land.

Sincerely,

Rev. Fred L Hammond, MS, MDiv

Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

 

Anti-Racist vs Non-Racist

I came across the following article today:  “I don’t trust white people, even the liberals, and science backs me up.”   It is a good article that exposes the difficulty white people have after 400 years of white supremacy immersion to behave in ways that are non-racist.  The good news is the science this author is citing is behavioral science and not science like the immutable laws of science, such as the law of gravity. This means that white people can change their behaviors and become non-racist.

Non-racist?  I do not see too many people in the anti-racism work talking about being non-racist.  They mostly use the term anti-racist.  So what is the difference?  Actually there is a huge difference.

My taking action as a white ally in a Black Lives Matter protest is an anti-racist action.  I am standing in solidarity against the racism that has been institutionalized in our criminal justice system. (If this statement is new to you; there is a whole body of work out there that documents our criminal justice system as racist, so I am not going to spend time here justifying that statement.)

My reading and researching about institutional racism in the United States of America is equipping me with information to bolster my ability to recognize racism as it has been displayed and continues to be displayed in this nation.  This reading and researching is anti-racism work.  But this work still does not make me non-racist.

As the article points out, there are still unconscious racist messages embedded into my culture that I practice without even batting an eye even as I proclaim anti-racist statements with my mouth and body. To be non-racist in my behaviors means I need to be willing to examine my behaviors in the context of racism. It means that I need to have a wider frame of reference in which to place my behaviors and decisions.

I will give an example.  And it is easier to look at someone else’s behavior than it is my own.  Alabama’s Governor Bentley recently made the decision to close down department of motor vehicles in the most rural counties of the state.  He stated this was for financial reasons because of shortfalls in the state budget. Governors have the unpopular task to make the hard decisions even though it will affect people’s lives. If state budget was the only factor behind this decision, this might seem like a difficult but reasonable decision to make.

However, in the wider context, this decision affects people of color in greater numbers than it does white people.  In the wider context, this decision was made after the state of Alabama passed the requirement that people have to have state issued photo IDs in order to vote in elections. In the wider context, this decision will force people to take time off from work to travel 3 or 4 hours away to wait in line for several hours to get their license and photo ID. In the wider context, the majority of people living and working in these counties do not have positions that pay for personal leave or sick time, so a day off from work is a day’s pay lost.  This may translate in not being able to make rent that month or place food on the table that week.  What first appeared as an unpopular and hard decision to balance a state budget, now begins to look like yet another means to oppress and disenfranchise the poor who also happen to be predominantly people of color.

Now Governor Bentley has stated this decision was not done for racist reasons. On the face of his statements, I believe him. But intention does not negate impact AND look at where he lives. He lives in a state whose state constitution of 1901 was created for the sole purpose to promote and sustain white supremacy. His actions are in line with 114 years of white supremacy codified into the Alabama constitution.

In order for Governor Bentley to be acting from a non-racist place, he needs first to be aware, consciously aware on a daily basis, how the constitution that he swore to uphold is first and foremost a racist document written in such a manner to prevent people of color to fully participate in the governmental process. He also needs to be aware, consciously aware on a daily basis, how his actions affect all of his constituents along racial lines. If he wants to truly be seen as non-racist, then he needs to change his behaviors when making decisions that will negatively impact people of color.

Let me attempt to give a more personal example to distinguish the two terms. I recently shared a sermon with my minister colleagues at our fall retreat entitled:  For Such a Time As This. It was the sermon I gave at the installation of another colleague. In it, I challenge our Unitarian Universalist denomination regarding racism within our faith.  Afterwards, one of my African American colleagues thanked me for stating things that he could not have stated then added ‘with such words comes great accountability.’ My sermon was anti-racist. My accountability to that sermon needs to be non-racist behavior.

It is easier to be anti-racist because that is merely pointing out the splinter in our neighbors’ eyes. The harder work, the aspirational work is to be non-racist, the plucking out the log within our own eye so we can see our own behaviors and change them to be increasingly non-racist. Undoing the ingrained behavior of a 400 year plus white supremacist culture will take concerted effort on all of our parts.

Those who are dedicated to this work need to be both anti-racist and non-racist. The willingness to stand in solidarity with people of color against racism and the willingness to do the hard soul-searching work to change our own behaviors so they no longer oppress others.

 

 

 

What’s a Mother to Do?

Toya Graham, mother of six, sees son on the Baltimore news throwing rocks at police cars, tracks him down, and smacks him several times in the head for his behavior. A bystander videotaped this altercation and it went viral on social media and picked up on national TV.

Many praised her actions as Mother of the year for teaching her son that rioting is wrong. But to hear her say it, the real motivation was “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray. ”

Freddie Gray is the young man whose spinal cord was severed while being transported by police after an arrest. Gray died a few days later. His death sparked protests and riots in several sections of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. For a mother to live with fear that her son may end up dead like Freddie Gray at the hands of the police, is a fear that no mother should have to live with in her daily life.

What’s a mother to do? About a year ago, she heard gun shots outside her West Baltimore house and found a person who had been shot and left for dead. Her neighborhood is filled with violence. She reports she tries to keep him home but now that he is 16, she knows she can’t do that as often any longer.

West Baltimore is a poor area of the city. The per capita median income is 35% less than the Baltimore average and 56% less than the state’s average. 24% of the Black population is living in poverty. Unemployment is in the double digits and while it is down this past month to 11.5%, unemployment rate among black youth is at 16.1%, triple the national average. 60% of those over age 25 do not have a highschool diploma or GED. Life expectancy is 20 years less than other neighborhoods in Baltimore. A third of the properties are vacant or abandoned. This is the reality that she and her family face every day. This is the larger context to the Black Lives Matter movement. It isn’t just the police shootings of unarmed black men, it is the whole picture of the social landscape in which they breathe and have their being.

The New York Times has been publishing online a series of short documentaries entitled Conversations. There are two that I want to mention here. The first one I watched was about growing up Black. It focused on Black male youth sharing their experiences of racism. The youngest was 10 the oldest was in their 20s. One youth tells the story of walking down the street with his white friend and seeing a group of black teens walking towards them, the white friend suggests crossing over to the other side of the street. Another youth states that he will cross the street if he notices white people having a terror in their eyes as he approaches them. One wife describes all male teens and adults as potentially being seen by whites as a large scary black man. Her husband interrupts; I am not a large scary black man. One young man spoke about attending his school that was in two buildings and being stopped by police while walking to class from one building to the other. He expressed his shame and embarrassment he felt as his white student peers would walk pass him. This was not a onetime event, but one that happened several times. He was told the police were there to make him feel safe. He asks, “How can I feel safe when I feel like I am being hunted?”

The other short film was about parents having the “conversation” with their Black son. In white families, the ‘conversation’ usually refers to sexual behavior and responsibility but in these families the conversation is about how to act when, emphasis on when, police stop you. A father tells the story of placing and keeping his hands on the steering wheel in order to keep the police from becoming nervous about him and realizing that same action made his children in the back seat nervous and scared. A mother states, “It’s maddening that I have to prepare my kids for something that they are not responsible for.” Another parent instructs her children, “Under no circumstances are you to talk/ask questions to a police officer if stopped.”

To have this conversation be the norm in African American families is a terrifying prospect to fully grasp. It counters the white experience in this nation where whites are taught that the police are your friends and if ever in trouble, a police officer can help. Because whites typically do not have this experience with police, many are incredulous when they hear this reality for Blacks.

This is not a new phenomenon in America. This is not something that only began happening when Michael Brown was shot or Eric Garner was strangled. The Black Lives Matter movement is not reflecting on a new never before heard of act of aggression by police. Unfortunately this is a generational issue that dates back hundreds of years.

The issues faced by the black community in the 1870s after the civil war, in the early 1900s, and the 1960s are the same issues that are being faced today in 2015. In the 1870s and early 1900s, the police and vigilantes used lynchings to send a message to the black community; today we use the police and excessive force to the point of death to do the same. And when they are killed there is an immediate vilification and demonization of the victim to convince the public that somehow this death was justified. That somehow in this instance, the police officer had no choice but to shoot, or to hold the person in a choke hold, or slam the person to the ground and kneeing them in the back preventing them to breathe.

The riots that broke out in Ferguson and Baltimore as heinous as they are in their destruction of property and people’s livelihood; they too have a context in which they develop. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave that context:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

I stated earlier the conditions of Toya Graham’s neighborhood of West Baltimore; the high unemployment rate, the high poverty rate, the violence that is already rampant in the streets. These factors have the effect of keeping people trapped in poverty. It does not help to have a system in place to also keep them there.

Alabama State Senator Smitherman stated recently in a public hearing that Alabama is one shooting away from making Baltimore look like a kindergarten outing. The issue of racism and excessive force by police is not just in cities like Baltimore, New York, and Ferguson but also throughout the south.

Here in the south we have statues and schools commemorating civil war leaders who fought to keep the slave economy intact. The statues around the Capitol building commemorates confederate soldiers. It must be painful to be reminded that this state wanted to keep African Americans in shackles. Imagine being a black youth attending a school named for Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. How must it feel to know that the school you are attending is honoring someone who wanted your family to remain uneducated and in slavery? Or to have the Alabama history lessons still honor Jefferson Davis as a great statesman and to honor his treason with a state holiday?

It does not help that Former President Jimmy Carter, a southerner, along with Congress officially pardoned him and restored him to full citizenship in 1978 posthumously. Davis had the opportunity for a pardon while he was alive if he applied for one, but is quoted to have said, to ask for a pardon would require repentance, and he hadn’t repented. There is no reconciliation for a person who did not see they had done anything wrong or immoral. Slavery is immoral. And to exonerate Jefferson Davis sends the message that it was okay after all.

Using excessive force against an unarmed person, especially when they are being compliant to police requests, is immoral. There was a recent video where the young black man under his own volition is in the process of getting down on the ground and a police officer runs up and kicks him in the face, breaking his jaw. This was not justified behavior, even if the person had run away from the cop moments before, it is not justified nor is it moral.

There were two commemorations happening in Selma this year. Bloody Sunday was 50 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement and the Battle of Selma, 150 years ago with the reenactment of that battle on the heels of the Bloody Sunday commemoration. At the reenactment, the KKK and other white supremacist groups were out in full number. Imagine how the predominantly black community of Selma felt to have the KKK once again at their doorsteps proudly waving their confederate flags for an era that while it must not be forgotten, needs to be placed into a new narrative of creating justice and liberty for all Alabama’s citizens. Instead it glorifies the confederacy and its rebellion against the Federal government.

This is the context in which the black community lives and breathes. To say racism is dead or is diminishing because we have elected to the highest office in the land an African American contrasts the vast unevenness of civil rights in this country.

So what is a mother to do? Julia Ward Howe in 1870 called on mothers around the globe to unite for peace and to help prevent the sending of our children to war. That declaration became the advent of Mother’s Day. Somehow the protest, the anger, and grief over the loss of young lives that gave birth to Mother’s Day has been reformed into a quaint hallmark card and flowers.

However, yesterday Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation was again brought to the forefront. Valerie Bell , who lost her son, Sean, on his wedding day, when police fired 50 shots into his car because they thought the occupants had guns but none of them did, joined Mothers for Justice United; a group of women and family members who have lost young men and women to police violence. She writes:

This year we are taking back the original intention of Mother’s Day: a day founded for mothers to stand up together to make collective demands. After the Civil War and the economic turmoil that followed, American abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, horrified by the wars and devastation of her time, penned a proclamation to mothers everywhere:  “Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause,” she wrote. “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience… From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm!”

Howe called on women to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
It’s now a century after the founding of Mother’s Day, and our sons are still being taken from us. Society has not disarmed, but militarized to the teeth. Mothers’ sons everywhere are still killing and being killed. We have had enough.

Yesterday Valerie Bell and other mothers of slain young black men marched in DC to bring attention to their grief and loss. It is not just the few that have made the headlines in recent months that they were protesting. The numbers are staggering.

Between 2010 and 2012, black teens were 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white teens. In order for white teens to be of equal risk, it would require an additional 185 young white teens to be killed during that same time period or 1 additional death a week. The disparity does not stop there. Drug use among whites and blacks are about the same percentage. However, blacks in 2013 data collected by the FBI were 4 times more likely to be arrested for drug use than whites.

For me to stand here and tell you that the system is broken and needs fixing does not bring justice to this American tragedy. It is safe for me to speak. It is safe for me because I am at a distance from this reality. And many of you are also at a distance from this reality that is the nature of our social placement in society as Unitarian Universalists. We are considered a white liberal faith that can safely protest within our four walls, maybe sign a few petitions, and if we are brave, maybe join a rally to shake our fists in the air. But many of us won’t even do that much, we will shake our heads at this sad state of affairs and when this service is over return to our lives, celebrate Mother’s Day with our wives, mothers, and children and have a nice dinner.

But until we decide to listen and honor the first hand stories of people of color in our congregations and in our communities, our in-house actions are meaningless. Our declaring only to each other that we are white allies is really a vapid experience with no ability to make a difference other than to claim separation from those racists. We need to find a way to have heart awareness, a deep empathy that will call us to action, to speak up when our white co-workers proclaim that Freddie Gray got what he deserved or that Michael Brown was guilty or that young 12 year old Tamir Rice should have known better than to be black and playing with a toy gun on his property. Or when our white co-workers mention Brian Moore and other police officers shot and killed in the line of duty as a defense of police actions, we need to stand up and say the death of an officer does not justify the deaths of unarmed black men. This is not quid pro quo killings.

We must begin applying pressure on the system to create change so the deaths in the process of arresting someone ends. There is no call for police to kick a person in the face breaking his jaw. There is no need to shoot a shopper in Walmart because he picked up a toy gun. We need to have as much passion as Toya Graham who would go out in the middle of a raging riot and grab her son by the neck to pull him to safety. What would a mother do to save her children from harm?

What would you do, if you lived in her shoes?

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
10 May 2015 © Rev Fred L Hammond

Alabama Lives Matter!

Alabama lives Matter!  But you wouldn’t know this to be true if you consider the actions and behaviors of our state legislators or governor.  It is time for the people of Alabama with a united voice to rise up and tell our state legislators and our governor that their behaviors and actions are placing Alabama lives in harms way.  Case in point is the continual blockage of medicaid expansion by the State’s Senate and House Republicans as well as Governor Bentley, who ironically is a medical doctor who should know his Hippocratic oath.  The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, allows for the expansion of Medicaid to cover those individuals who 1) do not qualify for current medicaid provisions in their state by raising those eligible for Medicaid to 133% of the federal poverty level and 2) covers those individuals who although are working do not meet the eligibility threshold of the Affordable Care Act.  In Alabama that would cover an additional 300k lives.

The Senate recently passed a resolution forbidding Governor Bentley from expanding Medicaid in the state. It is now before the House and it is presumed it will come up for a vote this coming week.  Governor Bentley has opposed Medicaid expansion since the passage of the federal act against the best interests of the people he is elected to serve. However, in recent months he has indicated that he may finally expand Medicaid because doing so would increase revenue into the state and help meet the budgetary shortfall.  Notice however, he is not thinking of doing this because it would save Alabamian lives but rather his administration.

Every year up to 700 lives, that is 3 lives every two days, are lost because they were unable to get timely treatment for medical conditions resulting in their death.  It has been argued by Governor Bentley and others that no one will be denied health care in Alabama. However, Emergency rooms are not treatment centers for devastating diseases like cancer or diabetes.  Women cannot get mammograms in an emergency room visit. Emergency room care is not preventative treatment. And Governor Bentley of all people should know this; his behaviors in response to this life and death crisis is unconscionable.

The cost of providing emergency room services as treatment centers is causing hospitals in poorer economic regions of Alabama to close.  Since 2011, the first year that Governor Bentley could have expanded Medicaid in the state, 10 hospitals have closed.  There are 12 additional hospitals in the state that are expected to close in the next 12-24 months.

Bullock County in Alabama is one location under the threat of losing their only hospital.  This county has 33% of the population below the federal poverty level and the average income for a family of four is $23k.  It has the highest illiteracy rate in the state at 34%. Its unemployment rate is currently at 7.1%, not the highest in the state per county but significantly above the state rate of 5.8%.   The actions of the State Senate reveal their attitude that the individuals and families of Bullock County are throw-away people, regardless of race. Their lives are not worth saving to our elected officials.  This is the same Senate that passed a resolution declaring the personhood of the human fetus (they have been moving towards legislating this theological and religious doctrine into law). We need to tell them their actions regarding Medicaid Expansion are immoral and violate their own self-professed values for the sanctity of life.  With poverty this high, the people living here are not going to be able to travel an hour plus to a hospital in a bordering county for emergency care let alone treatment for life threatening diseases.  Alabama Lives Matter and it is high time that our state legislators not only know it but act accordingly.

Governor Bentley has campaigned on a promise to create jobs in Alabama.  He has spent millions of dollars courting international businesses to set up shops in Alabama and has marginal success but not as much success as Medicaid Expansion would have. According to a study by the University of Alabama, 30,000 new jobs would result from the expansion of Medicaid.  The Federal government would pay 100% of the expansion cost for the first three years and then reduce that support to 90% in 2020 and thereafter. 30,000 new permanent jobs, not temporary jobs with no benefits like Mercedes is offering in Vance, AL but permanent jobs that have a huge impact on our economic viability as a state. It is projected that over a period of six years the states gross domestic product would increase by $17 Billion and workers’ earnings by $10 Billion.  Job creation through Medicaid Expansion literally saves lives but apparently Governor Bentley doesn’t understand because he has refused to expand medicaid.  Alabama Lives Matter!

Governor Bentley does not need the approval of the State Senate or the State House to expand or deny Medicaid Expansion.  He could begin saving lives today by signing the executive order to expand Medicaid.   He could do the right thing even if the motive is ensuring his party’s continued control of the legislature and not  for the least of his brothers and sisters in Christ. He is going to need encouragement to do so and needs to know that Alabama Lives Matter regardless of their religious convictions.

What can you do?  If you are able come to the State house on Tuesday, April 28.  Moral Monday is having a rally outside the State House at 12 Noon and SOS is having a press conference and prayer vigil on the 3rd floor at 12:30 PM.  We need you to voice your desire to save lives in Alabama by expanding medicaid. People are dying because our state legislature prefers playing political games rather than addressing the needs of the people of this state. This needs to stop now.  Our silence on this issue is condemning lives to death.

Bring this issue to social media. Social media today has become a viable means to create news stories in the mainstream press.  This is a life and death issue that needs to be on the minds of every Alabamian.  Repost this blog on your Facebook pages and Twitter. Post other stories about medicaid expansion on Facebook and Twitter as well. If you or a loved one are among the 300K in Alabama falling in the gap without medical insurance tell your story of emergency room visits not being a mode of treating illnesses like cancer and diabetes.

Tweets can be sent to @GovernorBentley with the #AlabamaLivesMatter and #ExpandMedicaid  and #alpolitics .  The #AlabamaLivesMatter will track how many  the tweets this campaign sends out.  The hashtags ExpandMedicaid and alpolitics will place these tweets before those who are following this issue in Alabama and elsewhere.  Here are few examples:

@GovernorBentley save 700 lives this year by signing on to #ExpandMedicaid #AlabamaLivesMatter #alpolitics

@GovernorBentley Create 30K jobs #ExpandMedicaid #AlabamaLivesMatter #alpolitics

@GovernorBentley #ExpandMedicaid and save 12 rural hospitals from closing #AlabamaLivesMatter #alpolitics

You can also tweet House Speaker Rep. Hubbard  @SpeakerHubbard using these same hashtags and encourage him to  do the right thing regarding medicaid expansion and not pass the Senate resolution to block Medicaid.  Look and see if your state senator or representative is on Twitter or Facebook and let them know that Alabama Lives Matter.

Lives are at stake. We need to send the message loud and strong that Alabama Lives Matter and we will not be silent any longer.

 

Alabama, Equal Marriage is Here February 9th

Alabama is a special breed.  On February 9th the stay that Judge Granade placed on her rulings on two cases that Alabama’s constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage is unconstitutional will expire. The 11th circuit has refused to extend the stay until the SCOTUS rules in June.  The backlash has begun. First we had the the Probate Judge’s Association stating that the first ruling only applied to the couple in the law suit and therefore they did not need to heed her ruling. Attorney General Strange applied for and received a 14 day stay on her decision. Her second ruling clarified she meant the entire state must comply.  Then we have the ongoing chest beating of Chief Justice Roy Moore stating the federal courts have no jurisdiction over the state in matters of defining marriage. And now we have the magistrates and counties stating that they will simply no longer officiate civil unions of any marriages regardless of gender make-up.

“Marriage licenses and ceremonies are not available at the Pike County Probate Office,” the judge’s office said on Facebook Friday afternoon. “Pike County residents who are seeking marriage licenses can do so at any Probate Judge’s office in the state that offers that service and are not required to apply for their license in their county of residence.”

[Pike County Probate Judge Wes] Allen  said in a news release that the decision allows him to obey the law and his Christian beliefs. He cited state law that says marriage licenses “may” be issued by probate judges. “I am choosing to take the Pike County Probate Office out of the marriage licensing business altogether.”

He is not alone.  Several counties in the state are taking similar stances.  And some magistrates have reportedly resigned rather than fulfill the court order leaving a void for Monday’s enactment of the court ruling.

Before this latest protest stance against enforcing same sex marriage, I have been in several debates with colleagues within Unitarian Universalist circles, as well as with gay friendly clergy of other faiths regarding the sanctity of marriage and what we should be doing come February 9th.  Should ministers rush to the court houses to marry gay couples in a civil union when it is not a religious service?   The concern is an ethical one.  Clergy see marriage as a holy union, sanctified by a higher calling and therefore should not be a commitment that one enters into lightly.  They require pre-marital counseling.  The style of counseling varies with faith tradition.

One non-Unitarian Universalist clergy person who has been officiating holy unions between same gender couples for decades stated this is a spiritual journey that requires prayer, contemplation, discernment and the development of a covenantal relationship before entering this path together.  Therefore, on the 9th, they will only sign marriage licenses for those couples who have already under gone a holy union ceremony. This is according to their doctrinal beliefs and the state is merely catching up in recognizing the spiritual reality of their holy covenanted union.   If a couple comes to them on February 9th seeking to be wed in their church, then they will have to under go their traditions prescribed process which takes time. No jumping on the quick-marriage-ceremony-just-because-it-is-legal band wagon.

Many Unitarian Universalist clergy also require some form of pre-marital counseling.  And there have been UU clergy who are concerned with the suspension of pre-marital counseling for same gender couples when equal marriage rights are first enacted. Pre-marital sessions have been used by clergy to get to know the couple and to discern with the couple any areas of potential concerns that might need addressing in order for the relationship to thrive in a legally binding marriage.

I understand the debate.  But here is where I am in my internal debate with myself. There are factors that need to be considered.  I know many same gender couples that have raised and are raising children together. I know many same gender couples who have already spent up to 50 years together. I have a difficulty making a couple that has already proven their commitment to each other over the years  in the face of severe prejudice and down right hatred to go through pre-marital counseling as if this is the beginning of their journey together.  Doing so discounts the reality that their relationship commitment is already further down the journey than most newlyweds. By my denying services unless they jump through our unique hoops is in my mind and heart creating an injustice upon injustice.  Who does this hoop serve–the couple who has been together already through thick and thin or the minister?   For same gender couples already committed to each other for years– my role as officiant is in restoring to them the affirmation that society should have already affirmed.

After this law has been in effect for a few years and those looking to marry have been together for a brief time then yes, I will resume pre-marital counseling for same gender couples.  They are beginning a new journey together and are seeking to deepen the relationship. But it is arrogant of me to insist on this as a requirement of marriage for a couple who already have raised children together and maneuvered through their children’s experience of being taunted for their parent’s relationship.

But we now have counties where courts are saying — ‘fine, the federal courts are making courts give out marriage licenses to same sex couples then this court will not offer the service of a civil marriage to any couple.’ One court said about 42% of the couples receiving licenses have the magistrate perform the marriage. Because I am a minister willing to officiate same gender marriages, should I insist that they have a religious service which includes the pre marital sessions because that is my personal preference religiously?  Especially when they do not want a religious service and a civil service is not being offered to anyone? This is another form of oppressive coercion that is in my mind equally as unjust as Alabama banning same gender marriage in the first place.

Unlike my Non-UU ministerial colleagues, I am not bound by an ecclesiastical doctrine of marriage that requires a series of steps in order for a person to enter into marriage.  I interpret my UU faith to see the sacred in the ordinary.   For me, justice is not served when I mandate a set of religious requirements on a couple who have been denied recognition of marriage status for decades and now have the freedom to marry.  For clergy to do this is what the courts who are refusing to perform civil ceremonies are hoping for. By denying all marriage licenses to couples or denying the service of a civil union is an attempt to prevent same gender couples from getting married because they know that here in Alabama, the majority of clergy will not officiate their weddings as a matter of doctrinal belief.

Yes, Alabama is a special breed.  And I am sure even after February 9th when equal marriage is the law of the state, we will not have heard the end of this.  There will be people who will angrily protest. Judge Moore will  beat his chest some more until he is once again removed for disobeying a federal court ruling.  And the legislature will dream up new ways to circumvent the federal ruling as they have in every federal civil rights issue in the past.  Integration of schools, voting rights, and reproductive rights to name a few.

Alabama, equal marriage is here February 9th!  It is a victory but it is a victory that will come with a price. In Alabama employers can still fire a person for being gay or transgender. If there is any deterrent to marrying on the 9th, it is the injustice of being fired on the 10th.  My willingness as clergy to officiate on the 9th is not going to be one of them.

Is Justice a synonym for Vengeance?

Our second Unitarian Universalist principle reads We … covenant to affirm and promote:  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. On Sunday, I visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo, MS; a small lay led congregation.  The speaker was discussing this principle by asking questions about the meaning of these words.

One comment made was that when we hear people in society demand justice it is usually in the context of condemning the person who has grievously wronged another. Is this justice?  We want justice for Michael Brown.  We want justice for Eric Garner.  We want justice for the hundreds of others unarmed men and women whose lives were cut short by police officers.  Is it justice, true justice, to bring the cops to trial and seek condemnation for their actions?  I understand the emotional surge behind these cries for justice.  I understand the racism behind these brutal acts of violence.  But will prosecuting a handful of police change the system that targets young black men?  Will it bring justice and healing to the heart of the families who lost their children, husbands, brothers, too young and too soon?

I have read that when families watch the murderer of their loved one executed the pain of grief is not abated by the justice meted out.  I have read they feel a bitterness take firm root in their hearts.  Justice in this manner does not always yield to peace of heart for the survivors of such violence.

I believe the police need to be held accountable and prosecuted for their disregard for another’s life. I simply do not believe that doing so is going to create justice with a capital J because condemning others is not a healing justice. When we scream we want justice, we want those who have committed heinous acts to suffer a severe consequence for their actions. It is not justice we want.  We want blood for blood.  It does not prevent another mass shooting, or terrorist bombing, or even another police officer from exerting excessive force (a twisted euphemism for torture and murder) on an unarmed person. Prosecute yes, but this action does not necessarily create Justice in the system.

My heart grieves that in this country we incarcerate nearly 7 times more blacks than whites. Roughly 9% of our Black young men are in prison. Our nation incarcerates 23% of the world’s prisoners. This is a horrendous wrong that needs to be addressed.  But how do we address it so that not one more young black man is targeted simply because he is wearing a hoodie or walking in his family’s neighborhood with his friends? How does this nation of laws enact justice when the system itself supports injustice?

When we target a specific population for alleged crimes, it is no longer justice that is the motivator but rather the motivation is maintaining power over a population. Power over others is how justice becomes twisted and deformed.  It is this perversion of justice that we are seeing in our nation today.  Convicting with inflated felonies and incarcerating a skewed percentage of a population removes the power of the vote from the population.  This is an act of oppression not justice.  We continue to pass new laws that expand the oppressive weight on a specific population.  The unjust revival of debtor’s prison is part of this expansion of an oppressive weight. This is good news only for the for-profit prisons looking to expand their industry.

Creating a for-profit business around incarceration is not providing justice–it is exploitation. For-profit prisons are an insatiable beast that craves more incarcerations.  So those who believe that the answer to our overcrowded prison system would be to be build more prisons, especially those of the for-profit ilk have a very twisted and deformed sense of justice. These corporations have a need to have laws passed that criminalize more people in order to keep their prisons filled to adequate operating levels. This is not justice, this is creating a market for an industry.

When Al Qaeda hi-jacked passenger jets and slammed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killing 3,000 people.  We demanded justice.  And in our anger the United States of America invaded two countries to bring justice to the lives lost. In the seeking of justice American and coalition forces lost 8,259 lives and the number of Iraqi’s lost is over 206,000.  Up to another 20,000 Afghan citizens are estimated to have lost their lives in that long war.  But was this really justice or revenge?  It was the latter.  The ongoing struggle of this region to stabilize and rebuild is not going to end any time soon.  Again, we did not mete out justice, we meted out vengeance and created enormous suffering that will endure for generations. We are seeing the consequences of our vengeance with the rise of ISIS.  We exacted suffering 78 times greater than what we experienced and upon the wrong countries if there even was a country that deserved such retribution.

What does it really mean in one of my favorite hymns, We’ll Build a Land when we sing  “where justice shall roll down like waters?” Are we seeking justice or exacting vengeance on our enemies?  In the context of Iraq it was surely the latter.  Vengeance was indeed a terrible swift sword and it cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives before we found and killed the person responsible for that terrorist act. If justice is a synonym for revenge and condemnation, then we have to find another word for our second principle because I don’t think it means what we think it means.

However, when I read our second principle, I think of what it might mean to love my neighbor as myself.  What does it mean to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?  What does that look like in my daily encounters with others?  I look first to the macro level. Am I being as loving as I can be in this moment?  Am I being generous in thought and deed?  Am I seeking to understand rather than be understood?  From here, I expand beyond those I know in my circle to those beyond my circle.  How do my actions relate to the neighborhood? the larger community?  How might I expand this notion of loving my neighbor to the larger community?  Then I begin to think about the systems I live in.  How do these systems limit the way we live?  How do these systems expand our ability to breathe?  How might I work to change these systems to be more inclusive in the ability to breathe free?

Justice then is not the exacting of revenge on a wrong committed.  Justice is a humble act of living day to day.  What does Life require of you?  But to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with this gift of Life.    (Micah 6:8 paraphrased)

 

Justice as a Spiritual Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in: on April 23, 2013 at 11:32 am  Comments Off on Justice as a Spiritual Practice  
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The God Particle

Back in July, there was a discovery that might be a key to what holds the universe together. I am talking about the elusive Higgs Boson, a sub-atomic particle that if truly has been found as theorists think, it would aid in unifying a theory of everything regarding how matter and energy moves and have their being.

I need to back up a page or two and explain what this is and why we should care.

There appears to be three aspects of the universe; Matter, Force, and Bosons.   We know the universe is made up of matter which can be broken into Mass and Energy. Einstein’s E= MC squared; energy equals matter times speed of light constant squared.  We also know that there are forces in the universe that act on matter.

You might have heard of two of them, gravity and electromagnetism; but there are two more known as strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force.  The strong nuclear force holds the nucleus of an atom together.  The weak nuclear force is what makes a subatomic particle decay into another subatomic particle—think radioactivity as an example of weak nuclear force at work.

Bosons are the link between matter and force.   The best analogy that I have heard is that of a dog leash[i]. The dog sees a squirrel and attempts to run but the owner pulls on the leash and the dog is brought closer to the owner.  The dog is matter, the owner is the gravitational pull on matter, and the bosons are the leash that connects them enabling the gravitational force to act.

There are five currently known Bosons; photons which create electromagnetism; gluons which create strong nuclear force, W and Z Bosons which create weak nuclear force, and Higgs Bosons which creates mass.  Without the Higgs Boson particle there would be no mass and therefore no matter. In other words, we and everything that we can touch and see around us would not exist. There is one other Boson that is only theorized, and that would be the graviton, the particle that initiates gravitational force between the particles with mass and compels them to come together.

The Higgs Boson was theoretical until this year.  The theory was developed by Peter Higgs back in 1964.  He theorized that there was a field of energy that extended through out the universe that when particles cross this field they slow down and create mass.  This field became known as the Higgs Field, and the particle that would instigate this mass, the Higgs Boson.

There is some speculation that what was discovered was not the elusive Higgs boson but rather a Higgs Boson wannabe.  This would be a particle that acts sort of like that of the elusive Higgs boson but not quite.  The Higgs Boson if indeed found would help explain the mass of everything.  Everything.

Leon Lederman who wrote the book The God Particle, explains this quest began about 600 BCE with the Greek philosopher Thales.  “Thales asked himself whether all the varied objects in the universe could be traced back to a single, basic substance, and a simple, overarching principle.[ii]

The nickname for the Higgs Boson, The God Particle, originated as a joke in a speech and was then used as a working title of the book Lederman and Teresi wrote.  The thought it would end up as the title of the book was not considered and as Lederman writes, “the title ended up offending two groups: 1) those who believe in God, and 2) those who do not.[iii]”  Lederman also joked that it really should be called that goddam particle because it has been so difficult to find.

Now it should be no surprise that I would seek to do a sermon on the God Particle because after all, it’s very name oozes with theological nuances.  I looked at what other clergy wrote about this discovery.  The responses were what I would have expected.

Several Christian ministers wrote the Higgs Boson offers the proof of god’s existence, quoting the Letter to the Hebrews that it is by faith that God created the world so that “what is seen is made from things that are not visible.[iv]”  I did not find their argument particularly inspiring for me but I appreciated their need to affirm the existence of god.

A Unity minister[v] saw the god particle as being part of the divine mind, the stream of god consciousness that manifests all creation. For her the Higgs Boson and the Higgs Field was a metaphor for what happens with the thoughts we think. Her point was that our allowing negative thoughts to build would create negative experiences for us.

I found two sermons written by Rabbis on the God Particle, one offered a Rosh Hashanah sermon and the other a Yom Kippur sermon. I found their thoughts to be more compelling than the Christian or Unity preachers.

Rabbi Amy R. Perlin states finding “that “God particle within” that makes us more than mass, weight, protons, neutrons and bosons — that makes us human, breathing beings who love and hate, capable of good and evil; life-givers when we activate the God particle with in us, and tragically life-takers when we ignore the God particle within that teaches us to sanctify life, cherish differences, and embrace the “other” who is also created in God’s image.[vi]

And Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater echoes her on Yom Kippur.  He states, The God particle, the glue that holds us together, becomes visible when we transform our faith into action.  So I ask: Where is the God particle in Syria, as a civil war continues to rage on, with babies slaughtered before our eyes, with the world community sitting on the sidelines?  Where was the God particle when extremists, acting like brutal savages, took the lives of Ambassador Stevens and his staff?  …  Where is the God particle when one in five American children lives in poverty and hunger, where schools are closing, where food is contaminated, where droughts, floods, fires, storms and melting ice caps threaten our planet and all the creatures who call Earth home?  … The God particle remains invisible, remains an elusive and unattainable equation that offers us nothing, if we human beings do not bring it to light, living out our destiny as creatures created in the image of that God particle[vii].”

As a metaphor the god particle is what binds our humanity together and elevates it to actions of compassion and empathy for the other.  We can see the effects of the god particle in the good that is created in the world. It is our highest and best selves being brought to bear on the world. We may not be able to see it directly, but we can feel it and see the results of it in the world around us.

The god particle that creates order and mass, without which the particles of the universe would simply be zooming around at the speed of light, can indeed be a metaphor for that which connects us all in our humanity.  It is what gives rise to compassionate action when we witness the devastation from Tornadoes and Hurricanes in our own communities as well as communities far away.  It is what makes our hearts reach out to care for children who are abandoned or abused.  It is what makes us rescue and assist beached whales and dolphins back into the deep oceans.

It is what inspires the Gandhi’s, the King’s, and the Truth’s of the world to stand up against oppressors to free a people from injustice.  And while Rabbi Grater does not see the god particle in the travesty of Syria’s civil war, or the brutal attack at Benghazi, or even within the poverty in America; there will come forth the stories of incredible bravery, of incredible compassion, of incredible actions even within these travesties.  The stories will come forth out of the northeast where whole neighborhoods were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy or by the secondary causes like the fires that burned uncontrollably. These stories will detail acts of bravery and compassion just as powerful as any recorded in any sacred text.

How can I state this with such confidence?  Because such stories have been told when ever there have been travesties in our history.  We know the stories of brave men and women hiding Jews in Nazi occupied Europe. We know of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the ten Booms who sought to protect Jews and smuggle them out of the country or to speak out against the oppressive regime.  We know of the men and women who created the Underground Railroad here in the US to smuggle runaway slaves to freedom.  And we know of the stories in South Africa and in Rwanda and today in Uganda of men and women who found a way to express compassion and justice when compassion and justice to the other could mean death.

I remember when the AIDS pandemic started; it seemed that the entire world had turned its back on young gay men.  But in the midst of the horror of these men becoming sick with a host of illnesses, there stirred a response of compassion that was so vital to turning the tide of that disease. The metaphor of the god particle that binds us to one another was active and compassion and love became not only visible but palpable to the families and individuals impacted by the specter of AIDS.

We have seen the god particle create massive movements for justice in our nation and abroad.  It was present in the civil rights movement, in the migrant farm worker movements, and I believe it is present in the immigrant rights movement.  We only need to be open to its stirring within our hearts.

The god particle, that elusive divine spark all religions acknowledge yet called by many names, moves upon the face of humanity and binds us together to act justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in the world. May we be the field in which the god particle may gain mass and be visible in our communities. Blessed Be.


[ii] The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, what is the question, Leon Lederman / Dick Teresi  © 2006 Houghton Mifflin Company, NY

[iii] Ibid

[v] Rev. Karen Lindvig as found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wj2RkijjPic

[vi] Rabbi Amy Perlin  Sermon as found at http://www.tbs-online.org/listings/rabbi-study/the-god-particle-rosh-hashanah-sermon-57739-17/

[vii] Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater as found at  http://www.pjtc.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=144:the-god-particle-and-life-yom-kippur-5773&catid=94&Itemid=912

The God Particle by Rev. Fred L Hammond

4 November 2012 ©  Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa