Advent: A Time of Preparing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The specific vs the system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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