Finding Courage

In the early evening on December 1st, 1955,

a woman leaving work sat on a bus in Montgomery.

In the early evening, a tired woman leaving work

sat down on a seat on a bus in Montgomery.

In the early evening, a tired black woman left work

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

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

a tired and weary black woman

took a seat in the “colored” section

behind the white section on a crowded bus in Montgomery.

 

In the early evening, on December 1st 1955,

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

a tired weary black woman took her seat

in the “colored” section behind the white section

on a crowded, standing room only bus in Montgomery.

When all the white seats were taken,

this tired weary black woman was told to stand

so white people could sit down.

 

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

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

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

behind the white section on a crowded,

standing room only bus in Montgomery.

When all the white seats were taken,

she was told to stand to make room

so white people could sit down,

this tired weary black woman,

named Rosa Parks, said

“No.”

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Fred L Hammond 2016

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The Subtext was Racism

Last week, Pastor Thomas Linton of Bethel Baptist Church called for all Christian Clergy to gather in prayer because of the racial tensions in the city and in the nation.   Tuscaloosa News reported the following:

Linton, the Rev. Schmitt Moore and William Scroggins say they fear racial tensions in Tuscaloosa might be on the verge of exploding.

So the three preachers — two black, one white — are asking their fellow clergy and Christians in Tuscaloosa County to pray not once but in a ceaseless and unified prayer for all of Tuscaloosa.

They said they believe through the power of prayer, race relations in Tuscaloosa County will finally be what they should.

“Fifty, 60 years ago, we were facing similar problems as we are today,” said Linton, 83, the pastor of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. “The Lord reminds us, ‘if my people turn from their wicked ways and come to my house to pray, I will heal their land.’ I think too many times we leave him out. He’s depending on his people to unify this division. We’re hoping that the government, the president, Congress, the mayor, or someone does it. But God said if ‘my people come together, I will heal their land.’ ”

Last night, about 50 clergy and lay people gathered to pray at Bethel Baptist Church.  And while I am not Christian Clergy, I decided in the spirit of unity to join them in prayer.  I am not sure they accomplished what they set out to do.  Racial tensions were not mentioned once in the prayers offered from the pulpit.  I am not sure why they feared to address it head on–it seemed to be subtext. There were good things said and to see a group of white and black clergy together in one room praying was huge.  HUGE.  The most segregated hour is still Sunday morning.

Rev. Joel Gorvette of First Wesleyan Methodist spoke and gave a good analogy of the Christian body.  He spoke of the pro-bowl games where the best players play a game.  They each wear the same jersey but their helmets are different.  The helmets reveal their true allegiance to the team that pays their way.  He asked where were our allegiances.  Since this was a Christian crowd, he said the jersey people wore declared they were on team Jesus but the helmets revealed their denominations–First Wesleyan, Bethel Baptist, Church of God, etc.  All with different doctrines and beliefs.  But the jerseys worn declared something else.  Were we going to play with our full heart on this team or were we going to hold back because our allegiance was to our denomination?    I understood this to mean that we had to place our values, our core values, our core faith, above our doctrines if we were to come together and end racism.  This was stated explicitly but the purpose for our gathering and the reason why we needed to focus on Team Jesus was  buried in the subtext.

Rev. Randy Fuller of New Beginning Family Worship Center spoke.  This man.  He started out well, “Where is our [clergy’s] burden?  Where are our tears in what is happening in this city, nation? What has to happen to get us to pray–we don’t cry out anymore–we don’t rend our hearts / our garments.”  I was right with him.

If the clergy are not crying out against racism then how can we expect our congregations to cry our against racism. Again, no mention of racism but it was in the subtext, right?   We have not cried out as a community regarding the atrocities against young black men.  We have not stormed the gates of heaven or city hall for racial justice in our criminal justice system.  A report recently came out that stated black jurors were 82% more likely to be dismissed in Henry and Hale Counties in Alabama when the death penalty was a possible outcome.  We have prisons beyond their maximum capacity and the majority are disproportionately black.   Where are our tears!?  Our burden?  We, whites, are seemingly unaffected so it does not occur to us that families are in deep emotional turmoil over the blatant racism against their members.  There is an air of resignation/ of acceptance that violence is the way of the world. How many times have we heard folks state, “They must have done something wrong otherwise the cops would not have shot them.” How many times our silence gave assent. We must become affected by the plight of others being trampled upon.  We must feel the burden and the raw rubbing against our necks caused by the yokes of white supremacy and privilege. If we do not feel the pain and the heart wrenching that racism has caused in our nation then how can we pray?

But that is not where Randy Fuller was going.  He then stated the unconscionable. He called our trans-children confused and tormented by Satan.  He called them tools of Satan and demon filled.  Tears welled up in my eyes. My heart broke.  Here is my burden.  Children created by a loving God being called demon possessed.  I thought of Jesus’ saying, “Let the Children come unto me.”  I thought,  how do we love the least of these?  How do we create unity when we are quick to tear down and demonize those we choose not to understand?

Rev. Fred Schuckert of Grace Church spoke about the need for repentance.  He echoed that we had to know our burden in real heart rendering ways before we could repent–turn to go in a different way. And since I was focusing on the subtext, the true text that shall not be named aloud in this forum, my thoughts went to Martin Luther King who stated we  become adjusted to the injustices. We must become maladjusted to our religious bigotries.  We must become maladjusted to white supremacy.

Martin Luther King called out to people to stop being adjusted to the civil rights injustices of his day.  We have our injustices today.  And it is easy to be adjusted, to think these are normal acceptable behaviors from our police shooting unarmed black men to the dismissing of black jurors, to the extraordinarily harsh and prolonged sentences in prison.  It is easy to be adjusted.  But we must be maladjusted to these injustices.  We must see how our being adjusted to religious bigotry and hatred is harmful to our beings as well as those we inflict it upon.  We must see how our indifference to the violence committed by our police  system has contributed to increased violence in the streets. We must not adjust to this as the new normal.  We must not seek to silence those who speak up about our being adjusted to this systemic onslaught against Black America.  We must listen to our present day Prophet Amos’s, and Jeremiah’s and Elijah’s who come in the form of Black Lives Matter, Presente, NDLON, SONG. We must listen.

As Rev. Schukert stated in order for us pray from the heart of our beings, we must repent [subtext: of our own complicity to the system]; only then can we truly intercede in prayer to find the solutions in word and deed to heal our city/our nation.  And I believed him.

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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In search of an Honest Person

In search of an Honest Person by Rev. Fred L Hammond

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

January 15 2012 ©

 

In our story for all ages, we heard the story of Clementine Hunter, an artist from the mid 20th century who lived the first half of her life working a plantation in Louisiana.  She found her voice as a painter creating her canvass from various items found around the house. Her paintings depicted life on the plantation; the good and the hard life. 

The prophetic is also a voice that gains expression from the events that surround our daily life.  It is also an art form of sorts that paints on the canvasses of people’s hearts. It has the ability to soften the heart of those who want change and to harden the heart in those who do not.  It is the prophetic voice so desperately needed that will stir the heart towards freedom.

I have been reflecting back four years ago and the message of hope that then Candidate Barack Obama offered the American people. The people responded to this message of hope in a visceral way.  And then what seemed like a cruel twist of fate, the markets collapsed, the deepest recession this country has known became rooted into the infrastructure and hope seemed to fade away like fog in the morning sun.  Was the hope that was offered merely rhetorical or was it real and delayed in delivery?

In the four years since that message of hope was spoken we have seen a hardening of the heart of America.  We have witnessed an attack on the fundamental freedoms this country has valued since the revolution of 1776.  The hardness of heart has been severe and it is filled with fear.

It did not start four years ago. It is not the result of this current administration despite what opponents are attempting to state.  It started way before this time in policies that our government has instituted, many before any of us were born. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. still reverberate as true today as they were 40 years ago.  Here is a section from his Beyond Vietnam– A Time to Break the Silence, given on April 4, 1967:

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”

We have witnessed the sad fulfillment of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s warning forty some years later.  We are no longer approaching spiritual death as a nation but have indeed experienced our spiritual death as a nation.  What we are witnessing in this country today is the putrification of white values that have failed this country.  Our arrogance, our policies of manifest destiny have run their course and what remains today is a dead corpse that is in need of burial. 

Without a resurrection of spirit, this country will only be able to revisit the policies of yesteryear which sought to secure white supremacy and privilege over the other.   While we are seeking to fulfill the American dream we are stomping over everyone else, forgetting that the dream of freedom, the dream of social uplift is universal and embedded into the foundation of this nation’s most sacred texts.   In pursuit of this dream we have lost our way by exploiting others, we may not call them slaves, but we treated these workers as subordinates and not worthy of the dream.  We failed to see that when we care for the least of these we care for ourselves as well.   We saw them as cheap labor, as slave labor that we could exploit and pocket the profits into the silk linings of the one percent.  Our greed, our disregard for others through our short sighted policies have destroyed the American economy at home causing the widest gulf between the richest and the poorest among us since the days before the crash of 1929.

We have sent our young men and women to fight a war designed on deceit and deception and now these soldiers are coming home with the severest post traumatic stress syndrome ever seen in our people.  These men and women will need years of treatment that is already being denied to them ensuring that our nation will deteriorate in violent behaviors. Our death as a nation has already occurred.  It is time to grieve for America. America is dead. Long live America.

Martin Luther King, Jr. voice still rings out today as purely as it did when it was spoken.  One could despair and say that nothing has changed.  Humanity is still as recalcitrant as it always is.  There is nothing new under the sun as King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes.  It is the same ole, same ole; same stuff, different day.   But this is where the prophetic voice comes in and perhaps more importantly the purpose of religion, and to narrow that phrase even further, the purpose of Unitarian Universalism.

There is a story from First Unitarian Society in Chicago from 1948 when that church, although located in a predominantly black neighborhood, did not allow people of color to join.  The minister, Rev. Leslie Pennington and Theologian James Luther Adams, who taught at Meadville Lombard Theological School across the street and sat on the board, decided the time had come to change the by-laws of the church.  While most board members supported the idea, one was opposed stating that this proposal makes desegregation into a creed. Debate at the board meeting ensued, each side believing that they were in the right. The board meeting continued into the early hours of the morning.  After everyone was exhausted from arguing, James Luther Adams remembered that listening was also an important piece of our faith and so he asked the person who was most opposed, “What was the purpose of this church?” The person responded, “The purpose of the church is to get ahold of people like me and change them. [i]

Before religion can shape and influence society it needs to first shape and influence you and me.   So since we are Unitarian Universalists, the purpose of Unitarian Universalism is to shape and influence us in our lives within these four walls so that we in turn can shape and influence society beyond these doors.   

Walter Brueggemann in The Prophetic Imagination writes, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”   This means that that the purpose of religion is not to preserve a culture, or to save people for some future heaven or to make a culture adhere to some legalistic standard found in a text thousands of years old but rather to find the liberating spirit that frees the heart and allows that heart to soar.

Brueggemann talks about the freedom of God that is to move where it wills and not contained in some box in a temple or in some book on a shelf.  The freedom of God is found in the manifestation of unfolding love and compassion, of increasing justice, and within humility in the interactions of humanity with one another.  Now this might be uncomfortable language for some of us but I encourage us to listen beyond the words to the heart of what this means for, I believe, this is at the center of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist.  We must again, reclaim this spirit when we seek to live our faith in the world; unfolding love and compassion, increasing justice, and within humility in the interactions of humanity with one another.   Another way to say this is found in the call to Abraham “to extend the boundaries of righteousness and justice in the world.[ii]

Our faith calls us to do this work.  It is a prophetic call.

The prophetic voice of Martin Luther King aimed towards a different way of being in this world. A way of being that embraced a core value of worth and dignity for all persons.  It is far different to the voices we hear demanding banning same sex marriage, or defining personhood as beginning at conception, or claiming not enough resources for Medicare or social security, not enough hospitality to be shared with the other.

The god of this culture is the god of self-indulgence, it is the god of white privilege, it is the god of I-get-mine-first.  It is the god of mindless consumerism that sedates a people into numbness unaware that they are being molded into sheep for the slaughter.

The policies that are being proposed claiming religious grounding are not representing the liberating message of Jesus but the imprisoning message of law and order to maintain an orderly submissive culture to a hierarchy of privilege.  This is a message where the rich can have life saving abortions but the poor are sent to jail for the same.   If the churches actually preached the true liberating message of Jesus, then the dream that Martin Luther King preached would forty years later be closer to manifesting in our midst.  But this is not what most churches preach in this country and it makes me afraid for our nation.

I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh[iii]
I ain’t afraid of your Allah
I ain’t afraid of your Jesus
I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your God …

That’s it isn’t it.  We gather here as Unitarian Universalists afraid of what others do in the name of their god. That is not what we are called to be.  We are not called to huddle here in Alabama in some enclave, safe from the onslaught of religious fanaticism, safe from the insanity of political rhetoric that scares quite frankly anyone  who actually stops and listens to what is being said.

We are called to be that prophetic voice in the wilderness.  We are called to be the leaven in the dough that makes the world delicious and edible to the taste.  We are called to make this world a more just, a more humane, a more hospitable, a more sane place to live.  And that takes a prophetic voice. 

It doesn’t mean that we do crazy things like Diogenes and walk around town with a burning lantern in the middle of the day looking for an honest person.  But it does mean that we speak out when crazy comes to town.  It means we engage our community by listening to what is happening around us.

Tomorrow is the day we honor the dream and vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And while I hope that everyone here will participate in some fashion in honoring the legacy of this man by attending any of the several events happening tomorrow, including marching, this is not what I mean by engaging our community.   Engaging means to listen to what is happening in our community with an ear towards justice. 

I met yesterday with Somos Tuskaloosa, the organization I helped found here.  The Latina women who are working in their communities to overturn HB 56 want to do something more than just repeal an unjust law.  They want to have Tuscaloosa realize that they are very much a part of this community.  They want the schools to realize that their children, many of whom come from families who are of legal status in this community are in pain after the double trauma of the tornado and passage of HB 56. They lost their homes in an instant.  They see that their neighborhood is not being attended to in the rebuilding efforts while the neighborhoods of the white children are being prepared for rebuilding. The children are traumatized and are acting out and there is no understanding by the schools as to why this would be happening.

Children are refusing to go to school; good studious children are refusing to go to school because they are traumatized by the tornado and by the passage of this heinous law.   They are being bullied in school by xenophobic students and teachers.  There are no substantial translation services enabling the parents to be able to communicate with the schools regarding these issues.  These children are invisible.

These are our children too.  All of the children of Tuscaloosa are our children.  We can engage in the prophetic work in the community to make Tuscaloosa more hospitable to our neighbors by speaking up, by engaging in the creation of multi-cultural events where we learn the values, the expression of common values where we can share and hear their stories and listen to where the freedom of god may be leading us to act.    

Clementine Hunter shared her story by painting on the everyday objects she found around her.  Our story can be told the same way by listening to the world around us and then asking ourselves what can I do with what I am hearing that will reveal a different way to be?  What can I do with what I am seeing that will spread love into this church, into this neighborhood, into this community and create a new way of living?  Be the change you wish to see in the world and in doing so we will experience the resurrection of love.  Blessed Be.

 


[ii] Genesis 18:19

[iii] I Ain’t Afraid, Holly Near

A Dream Deferred

A Dream Deferred

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

16 January 2011 ©  Rev. Fred L Hammond

Langston Hughes poem was first published under the title “Harlem” in 1951.  Sixty years ago.  Oh how things have changed since then and yet, oh, how things have remained the same.   In many ways, the dreams of people in America remain deferred.

When Langston Hughes wrote this poem, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not yet a household name. Brown vs the Board of Education had not yet been ruled on by the US Supreme Court.  His dream for equality was not yet vocalized to the masses.  Voting rights were denied.  Jim Crow laws were in full force in the south and the slick-smile- to-the-face-and-quiet-stab-in–the-back racism was in the north.  Dreams were deferred and they were drying up like a raisin in the sun and they were festering like a sore and they were crusting over like a syrupy sweet and sagging like a heavy load.  They were about to explode.

Martin Luther King came on the scene and for the first time gave real hope and real promise to African Americans not only of freedom but freedom to achieve the American Dream; where their children would have opportunities of education, of employment, of a life that was unimaginable to their parents.   After years of struggle laws were passed that removed the Jim Crow laws, restored voting rights, and desegregated schools.  Affirmative Action was put into place to remove the institutional barriers to opportunities for African Americans and other minorities.

But something happened along the way.  After King’s assassination, a new despair began to seep into our country. We began to see the destruction of many of the programs that lifted us out of the depression of the 1930’s.  And the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest of us at its narrowest in 1968, the year of King’s assassination, doubled in width by 2009.[i]

Yet America’s productivity has grown during that same time period.  The gains of productivity have gone towards corporate earnings and profits instead of the employees who labored.  So who are the people who have suffered during this widening gap?  The top 20% of Americans earn 50% of the income generated in America. The fastest growing income segment are those in the top .01% of Americans with 22% of the income generated in America[ii]. The bottom 20% of Americans earn 3.4% of the income generated.   These individuals who are earning the least amount of income tend to be those without a high school diploma.  They tend to be people who live in rural areas of the country[iii].

Edward Wolff of New York University when looking at net worth of people in America discovered that 20% of Americans own about 85% of the wealth and 40% of Americans own near zero percent and in fact have a negative net wealth[iv].   I don’t know about you, but I certainly fall into that 40% category.

Martin Luther King’s dream went beyond the abolishment of racism, he saw the abolishment of poverty.  Towards the end of his life, life, poverty became an important piece of his message. He saw the programs against poverty that were in place in 1968 and their current versions 40 years later as being uncoordinated piecemeal efforts.  Housing programs, educational reform, welfare assistance all being done in piece meal fashion and all fluctuate at the whims of legislative bodies.   We saw what the well intended deregulated housing programs have wrought in 2008. It was thought that home ownership was one of the factors that would lift America out of poverty.  The largest mortgage default in American history that nearly collapsed our economy continues at record rates as we enter the New Year.

Martin Luther King stated the simplest solution to abolish poverty would be a guaranteed income.  He stated there are two groups of people in America who currently have a guaranteed income, the wealthiest with their security portfolios and the poor with their welfare assistance.

King wrote that John Kenneth Galbraith, considered one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, estimated that $20 billion a year would effect a guaranteed income, which Galbraith describes as “not much more than we will spend the next fiscal year to rescue freedom and democracy and religious liberty as these are defined by ‘experts’ in Vietnam.”  If my calculations adjusting for inflation are correct, $125 Billion a year in 2010 dollars would effect a guaranteed income which is less than 1/3rd what the war in Afghanistan[v] is costing Americans and 16 % of what the alleged post war costs in Iraq are slated for this budget year.

King believed that such a guaranteed income needed to be placed in the median income of Americans, to place it at the floor level would only continue the stagnation that welfare recipients currently experience.  He believed this guaranteed income needed to be dynamic and be adjusted annually with the productivity of the nation’s total income.

King wrote that a “a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his/her life are in his/her own hands, when [s]he has the assurance that [her]his income is stable and certain, and when [s]he knows that [s]he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.[vi]

Today we see marriage in decline in the United States as people struggle to develop economic viability.  The number of married couples dropped to a record low of 52 % in 2009 as compared to 57% in the year 2000.  And this does not include those marriages that are staying together only because they cannot afford to divorce at this time[vii]. King is suggesting that couples esteem would increase if economic woes did not define who we are as human beings.

King writes: “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.[viii]

In a survey done by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely on income equity in the United States, they found “a large majority of every group … surveyed — from the poorest to the richest, from the most conservative to the most liberal — agreed that the current level of wealth inequality was too high and wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. In fact, Americans reported wanting to live in a country that looks more like Sweden than the United States.”[ix]

The last time such huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor existed in America was during what was called the Gilded Age, the period towards the end of the 19th century.  It was met with labor unrest and political agitation and it was toppled by the second worst depression in American history.  The current time in our society is being called the second gilded age.

American Conservative magazine suggests: “In the course of the 20th century, there were several eras of growing economic inequality. On a few occasions, they came to an end in a relatively gentle way, with democratic elections and more egalitarian legislation. More often, however, they were ended by a catastrophe, such as the Great Depression, a violent social revolution, or a world war. When the rich went out, it seems, they normally did so with a bang, and not with a whimper. The way things are now going, it is likely to be so in the future[x].”

So here we have King’s dream of a society that has not only abolished racism but also abolished poverty.  He believed it was not only doable but achievable in his lifetime.  Forty years after his death, we appear to be further away from either part of his dream from being fulfilled.  We have the gap between the wealthy and the poor growing to widths that were pre-cursers to some of the most heinous governments in our world’s history.  We have scapegoated our economic woes on the backs of immigrants and Muslims.

I spoke with [a member] on Friday.  I told her I was doing this sermon and wanted to know her thoughts about Martin Luther King.  [She] said something to me that made me stand up and take notice.  She said her mother used to ask why Martin Luther King couldn’t just write his words and not show up for these events.  Her mother was aware of the physical danger King faced every time he made a public appearance somewhere. As we now know, it was his appearance for the sanitation workers strike in Memphis that culminated in his assassination.  Why not just write and not show up.

Could King have had the same effect if he simply wrote his views and not shown up in Selma, not shown up in Birmingham, and not shown up in Montgomery?  Would his “I Have a Dream” speech be remembered if he had not shown up to deliver it at the March on Washington but merely had it published in the Atlantic Monthly?

Dreams do not come true if we choose not to show up in our pursuit of them.  If we stand back, nod our heads in agreement, but do not show up to place our words into living action, then what have we accomplished?  It is easy to do arm chair justice.  We can sign all the petitions on MoveOn.com or rant all we want about injustice on the Tuscaloosa News Forum but if we hide behind the comfort of our screen name, what have we really accomplished?  We remain unseen.  We remain voiceless.  We remain without strength to make a difference.

Now I do not know if King’s economic justice dream of guaranteed income can be easily applied given our current political tension.  There will be shouts of socialism or worse.  It could be seen as reparations for slavery even though it would benefit everyone.  But imagine knowing that regardless of the work you are doing, you would receive at least a base pay of say $40,000.   Additional salary would be based on the performance of the company producing whatever it is they produce.  For some of us that amount of salary would answer many problems.

But this sort of dream can never come true if people do not show up to advocate for it.  The majority of people in America want some form of equalization of income, so says the survey.  The survey indicates the ideal they want is Sweden.  According to the CIA Fact book, Sweden has achieved an enviable standard of living under a mixed system of high-tech capitalism and extensive welfare benefits. It has a modern distribution system, excellent internal and external communications, and a skilled labor force.[xi] Sweden does not have a poverty level ranking in the CIA Fact book; it is listed as not applicable.

We are called to show up in the pursuit of our dreams, in the pursuit of a just and equitable world.  Mahatma Gandhi is oft quoted as saying, “be the change you want to see in the world.”  In President Obama’s closing words at the memorial for those who were killed in Tucson last week, he said, “I want us to live up to [Christina Taylor Green’s] expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.[xii]” If we seek to do that we will be fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream for all of us.  Blessed Be.

[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/28/income-gap-widens-census-_n_741386.html

[ii] http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06132008/profile2.html

[iii] This information is based on this report: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec10/income_09-28.html

[iv] http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10318/1102841-109.stm

[v] based on military budget figures found at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf

[vi] Martin Luther King  “Where do we go from here?”  as found in the text The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.

[vii] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/21/AR2010032103139.html

[viii] Martin Luther King  “Where do we go from here?”  as found in the text The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.

[ix] Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10318/1102841-109.stm#ixzz1B8foXmFG

[x] as found at : http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06132008/profile2.html

[xi] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sw.html

[xii] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20028366-503544.html

Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 4:21 pm  Comments Off on A Dream Deferred  
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