#BlackLivesMatter — a 2015 MLK Sermon

Rev. Josh Pawelek

MLKTomorrow the nation pauses for its annual observation of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It will also be day 368 in Houston, TX, day 355 in Southfield, MI, day 337 in Bastrop, TX, day 332 in Iberia Parish, LA, day 186 in Staten Island, NY, day 170 in Baltimore, MD, day 167 in Beavercreek, OH, day 163 in Ferguson, MO, day 160 in Los Angeles, CA, day 160 in San Bernadino County, CA, day 153 in St. Louis, MO, day 60 in Brooklyn, NY, day 58 in Cleveland, OH, day 48 in Phoenix, AZ.[1] You likely aren’t familiar with all of these references—I wasn’t aware of most of them until I looked them up—though I suspect Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland stand out to you. These are references to police killings of unarmed People of Color—almost all of them Black men and boys—over the past year. Some of these cases, we know, ended with grand jury decisions not to indict the officers who fired the shots or performed the choke holds. Other cases are under investigation or pending. Some of the officers are on administrative leave. In the Bastrop, TX case the officer was indicted on a murder charge. The U.S. Department of Justice is looking for possible civil rights violations in some of the cases. Some of the families of the deceased have filed wrongful death suits. In Ferguson, MO, where community activists have been protesting daily in various ways, in various places since the death of Michael Brown on August 9th, they mark the days. This is day 162. Tomorrow is day 163.

These police killings have exposed the often harsh reality of daily life in urban and even some suburban Black communities that years and years of books, new stories, statistics, documentaries , sermons and newspaper editorials have not been able to communicate fully to people who don’t live or work in these communities. Perhaps we know, intellectually, about mass incarceration, about the war on drugs, about poverty, about failures in the education system, about race-based health disparities, about how all of it impacts People of Color communities negatively—but suddenly on television, or streaming across smart phone and computer screens, is disturbing video evidence of a profound callousness toward people in these communities, an apparent disregard for life, a too-easy-willingness to ‘take him down,’ a too-easy-willingness to shoot and, in some cases, a horrifying lack of interest in obtaining medical care once the “suspect” is lying prone in the street, bleeding, not breathing, dying. Maybe finally we’re ‘getting it’ not just in our heads but in our hearts.

Prayer for Michael Brown

People of all racial identities are waking up to this harsh reality, to the point where there is now an active, organized and growing racial justice movement in the United States. I don’t call it a ‘new’ movement, mainly because there have been racial justice movements ever since Europeans first began colonizing the western hemisphere. This movement isn’t new, but it is in resurgence. It has been re-catalyzed. People all over the country who were silent six months ago are now saying, “no more.” St. Louis and Ferguson, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, Oakland, Los Angeles, New Haven, Hartford and many more have witnessed vigils, marches, rallies, nonviolent demonstrations, disruptions of commerce, especially retail commerce around the holidays, disruptions of traffic—the ‘taking’ of streets—disruptions of campus life, actions at police stations, at city halls, at state capitols, at federal buildings.

The movement has a name: Black Lives Matter. Of course, many Americans now recognize this phrase as one side in a war of competing social media hashtags, with #BlackLivesMatter on one side and #BlueLivesMatter (or #PoliceLivesMatter or #CopLivesMatter) on the other; while at the same time the more inclusive-sounding #AllLivesMatter asserts itself as well. [For those of you who aren’t familiar with hashtags, just know that typing a hashtag (a pound sign) in front of a particular phrase in a message directs that message to a common online space—for example, a common space on Twitter or a common space on Facebook—where anyone following that particular phrase can find and read your message. I find it fascinating—and I suppose it makes sense—that in our era a social media hashtag like #BlackLivesMatter can become synonymous with a social movement. About the creation of this hashtag which is also a movement, Alicia Garza, a community organizer in the San Francisco-Oakland area wrote: “I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. [Remember, that was 2012.] It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements. Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”[2]

There’s a lot more to this story, and I commend to you Garza’s article, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” My point here is that #BlackLivesMatter is a liberation movement emerging in response to Black peoples’ collective experience of oppression in the United States today—not fifty years ago, but today. Although this movement is immediately focused on reforming the ways police relate to urban Black communities—calling for an end to police use of excessive force, calling for justice for the victims of such force, calling for greater citizen oversight of police departments, better cross-cultural and antiracism training for police, body cameras for police, an end to police racial profiling, and an end to the militarization of police—the movement is about much more than police. Garza says, “when we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about [all] the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people … locked in cages in this country—one half of all people in prisons or jails—is an act of state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence.”[3]

As such, #BlackLivesMatter is fundamentally different than #BlueLivesMatter, which is not a liberation movement, but an understandable social media reaction to the criticism police have been receiving in response to the deaths of Brown, Garner, Rice, etc. Blue lives do matter. It is a tragedy every time a police officer is killed or wounded in the line of duty. No reasonable person disputes this. It feels really important to me to name that today is also “day 30” since New York City officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in Brooklyn by a man who had posted earlier on his Instagram page that he was seeking revenge for the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. It feels really important to me to name that 121 police officers died in the line of duty in the United States (including Puerto Rico) in 2014—47 of whom were fatally shot in encounters with crime suspects.[4] And I am mindful that many people who live and own businesses in neighborhoods where police violence is endemic are themselves victims of crime—robbery, rape, etc.—and thus they still appreciate and desire a strong police presence in order to feel safe where they live. #BlueLivesMatter.

BlueLivesMatter

Having said that, it wouldn’t make sense to suggest that police are somehow an oppressed class, or that police are ‘targeted for demise’ in some systemic way. ‘Black’ is a racial identity. Blue is the color of a uniform worn by people of all racial identities. Black people and other People of Color experience elevated incarceration rates, elevated unemployment rates, health care disparities, educational disparities, housing disparities and a long history of state-sponsored, vigilante and drug war violence. Police don’t. #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter aren’t equivalent and don’t belong on opposite sides of our national discourse on race and racism. In fact, I’m convinced that the vast majority of police do not want to perpetuate racism through their policies and procedures. And I’m convinced that including police in concerted and sustained efforts to address racism will ultimately decrease tensions between police and people in urban Black communities, and will thereby make police work safer. Alicia Garza puts it more succinctly: As “Black people get free, everybody gets free.”[5]

Similarly, #AllLivesMatter is not a liberation movement. It’s certainly a true statement. I hear it as equivalent to the first Unitarian Universalist principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” or, as we said earlier with the children, “each person is important.” It’s the principle at the heart of the Biblical admonition to love your neighbor as yourself.[6] But all lives aren’t under assault. All lives don’t have to deal with racism the way Black lives do. The critique of #AllLivesMatter is that, while true, when inserted into the struggle against racism, it erases the unique experience of Black people, and it erases White society’s role in perpetuating racism. Garza says, “Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience and oppression.  In other words, some want unity without struggle. As people who have our minds stayed on freedom, we can learn to fight anti-Black racism by examining the ways in which we participate in it, even unintentionally, instead of the worn out and sloppy practice of drawing lazy parallels of unity between peoples with vastly different experiences and histories.”[7]

A dear colleague of mine—a Black minister pastoring a Black church—summed it up for me when he said, “I’m tired of #AllLivesMatter, and I’m tired of people telling me how everyone’s justice issues intersect with mine. I was with women on reproductive rights. I was with gays and lesbians on marriage. I was with Hispanics on immigrants’ rights. But when we see young Black men being gunned down or otherwise killed by police, vigilantes or gangbangers, by poverty, a broken health care system or the drug war, who is with me? Right now, it’s time—long past time—for #BlackLivesMatter.”

I am committed to the principle that all lives matter. And I am committed to the principle that blue lives matter. But when I prioritize my personal social justice commitments, and when, as your minister, I prioritize the social justice commitments I envision our congregation making, as well as the social justice commitments I envision Unitarian Universalism making; and when I prioritize the social justice initiatives I am committed to supporting, promoting and, when asked, leading in the Greater Hartford region, my accountability is to #BlackLivesMatter.

What might that mean over the next few years? For one, it means that we as a congregation ought to continue the antiracist social justice work we’re already engaged in through the leadership of our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee. We ought to continue specifically with our efforts to reduce the mass incarceration of People of Color through drug policy and criminal justice reform. We ought to continue our work on environmental racism which culminated a few years ago with the passage of Connecticut’s environmental justice law. But what stands out to me the most—and what is new for us as a congregation—is that we can count on organized, nonviolent civil disobedience coming to Hartford, and possibly some of the surrounding towns. It’s just around the corner. Our region has its share of racial disparities. In fact, the Hartford region has some of the worst racial disparities in the country when it comes to education and poverty. It has its own history of police violence against young Black men. And it has young people in urban areas and college campuses, as well as local clergy and community activists, who are beginning to organize. Nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience is coming here.

When I first learned of this I admit I was surprised, and initially resistant because I have invested so much time and energy over the years in working “within the system,” talking to legislators, talking to city leaders, talking to police, advocating for changes in the law, testifying, witnessing, lobbying, organizing prayer breakfasts, holding public meetings, talking, talking, talking, talking. I suppose I have a passion for talking. But someone asked, “with all our talking, have we really made a dent in racism in our region?” Have outcomes for People of Color—Black people in particular—changed in any appreciable way as a result of all our talking? I didn’t have a good answer. I still don’t have a good answer. And because I don’t have an answer to that question, I’m persuaded that non-violent civil disobedience may be precisely what we need at this moment. I’m persuaded that figuring out creative ways to disrupt ‘business as usual’ can make a difference, can bring the right pressure to bear on the people who have the power to make change real.

Civil Disobedience

Large-scale, nonviolent civil disobedience like the actions we’re seeing in other parts of the country would be new for our region, something we haven’t seen in recent times—certainly not in my memory—though we have seen it on a small scale with the “Fight for Fifteen” movement. As a predominantly White, liberal, suburban congregation, I hope in the very least we can understand why reasonable people would to move in this direction, to cause disruptions, to take arrest if need be, to send a message that all is not well in Black America and we are no longer willing to play the talking game. I would hope in the very least we can understand that far too many Black people and other People of Color feel unheard, disrespected, forgotten, marginalized and penalized by our larger social, political and economic systems and they don’t want to live that way anymore. And not only do I hope we would merely understand, but that, mindful of King’s first principle that nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people, we would be actively supportive, figuring out the best ways possible for us to participate, for us to be part of this resurgent racial justice movement, for us to say clearly, proudly and courageously—not only in word but also in deed—Black Lives Matter.

The movement is here friends. May we care—I know we care. May we understand—I know we understand. May we be supportive. May we find ways to participate. May we be courageous.

Amen. Blessed be.

[1] Juzwiak, Rich and Chan, Aleksander, “Unarmed People of Color Killed By Police, 1999 to 2014,” Gawker.com. See: http://gawker.com/unarmed-people-of-color-killed-by-police-1999-2014-1666672349.

[2] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

[3] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

[4] See Officer Down Memorial Page at http://www.odmp.org/search/year/2014?ref=sidebar.

[5] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

[6] Mark 12:31a.

[7] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

In the Waiting Time

Guest Minister: the Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

The Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

The Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

I am easily hope-impaired.

For whatever reason, I am the kind of person who looks at a glass and is tempted to tell you that it is half-empty rather than half-full.

I tend to borrow trouble long before it happens. Too often, it’s easier for me to play out worse-case scenarios than to hope for the best.

Now perhaps this is not what you want to hear from a minister. Especially not at the beginning of December with the winter holidays on the horizon. After all, we ministers are here to be the “messengers of hope,” aren’t we? Isn’t it our job to call us all ever towards hope, not to admit to our own hope-related challenges? But it is precisely because I can be hope-impaired, that I do the work of ministry. Because your hope rekindles my own. Because we call each other toward hope.

They say that ministers preach what we ourselves need to hear. And especially in this holiday season, do not we all hold out hope precisely because hope is so hard to find? So I confess to you that I am hope-impaired. 

And, I’ll tell you something else, here on what in the Christian tradition is the second Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the second week of anticipatory joy as we pass the deliberate days towards Christmas, as we revel in the wait: 

I really do not like waiting. 

When I’m in a store, I will put something back on a shelf rather than wait in a long check-out line. Better yet, I’ll shop online, choose a different restaurant, come back later, or change my plans altogether to avoid a line. 

I hate waiting for a bus too. Why stand and wait when I can start walking now? Usually, the bus passes me as I am chugging along down the street. This does not phase me. At least I didn’t wait, I tell myself. It’s a funny logic, I know. 

I remember as a child waiting for special days, like birthdays and Christmas, and feeling as though time was moving as slow as molasses. As a teenager, I would count down days until I could visit out-of-town friends or go to summer camp: month after next, week after next, day after the day after tomorrow. It felt like time crawled until finally it was … today! And somehow, the day, the moment had arrived. 

And then something odd would happen, perhaps this has happened to you: we wait. We count down the days, fritter away the time, fill our minds and our hearts and our impatient hands with tasks or TV, with imagining how it will be, envisioning the long-awaited event, and when it arrives, we wonder what happened to that time. Sometimes the event we waited for arrives and passes, and we are left feeling like we missed it all together.

We collect ourselves and prepare for the next count down. 

This time of year, we tell an age-old story of waiting. The Christmas story is the tale of a world waiting for hope, for joy, for the coming of the babe who would bring peace, hold the powerful to account, “lift up the lowly.” As a mother, the person I find most interesting in this story is Mary the mother of Jesus.

And I am incredibly sympathetic toward her: No one else in the story is pregnant! Mary literally carries the weight of the wait. 

The longest wait of my life was the preparation for my own child to be born. And when she arrived just over a year ago, the midwife placed her on my chest, And I whispered to her again and again: “you’re here.” 

I had felt like she would never come; I could barely imagine what her arrival would be like. Though majorly uncomfortable by the end of my pregnancy, I had tried, as so many well-meaning people had suggested, to enjoy the wait, to dwell in the uneasy space of anticipation, of not knowing.

 I practiced breathing in and breathing out, waiting for our family’s life to change irrevocably, for our hearts to be transformed in ways we could not imagine. 

I worked hard to be present in each moment. I was only successful part of the time.

More often than not, I found I was wishing the time away, distracting myself with internet videos and drawn out phone calls and cleaning closets. 

And then, after so much expectation, so much cleaning and organizing and preparing her room, readying our home as well as our hearts, she was here. And our days and our nights were filled with her presence. The reality of our lives was upended – in the most joyful way. 

The first year of a baby’s life, I’ve found, is a blur of moments and days and months and soon a year has gone by, and here we are again at the beginning of the “The Holiday Season” and the season of Advent, an official time of waiting.

The word Advent comes from the Latin, meaning “a coming, an approach, arrival.” In the Christian calendar, Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas – the story from first century Palestine tells us that with him comes hope, love, the undoing of the status quo, a new reign of peace on earth.  

The promise of the babe in the manger is the same as the promise of all new babes: that the reality of our lives will be upended – in the most joyful way. The season of Advent provides the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the new reality. “Let every heart prepare him room…” we sing. 

My colleague Rev. Ashley Horan writes that Advent is the “four weeks when Christians the world over try to sit quietly in the midst of chaos, preparing a place in their hearts where the seeds of love and hope can take root.”  

And doesn’t this ring true this year especially? For we find ourselves these days in the midst of chaos with a justice system that is seemingly anything but just: With no indictment in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and no indictment in the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice dead on a Cleveland playground. So much pain and heartbreak and grief and tears and rage. 

Each day it seems brings a new story of lives lost (we might say stolen), and fear and suspicion ruling the day, a new story of power abused and the ugliest parts of our human nature exposed. 

And still – whether we find meaning in the Christian story or in one of the many other traditions that mark this time of the longest nights of the year – still we are invited in this season to prepare room in our hearts for the seeds of love and hope. 

We are invited, as weary people have done since the beginning of time, the poet Victoria Stafford writes, to “kindle tiny lights and whisper secret music,” to cradle our hopes like newborn children, to wonder what human love looks like in practice, to await a new era with patience and preparation.  

Now is the time for breathing, for being present, for waiting. 

This year, though, we might not feel like waiting for peace is the best move. We may even feel like waiting or telling other people – especially people of color – to wait for justice feels perverse.  

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” Martin Luther King wrote from his cell in a Birmingham jail in 1963. “This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’” We must come to see,” he continued, “that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” 

Once again there is no justice and there is no peace. And we may find ourselves more angry than peaceful this season, more riled-up than calm.

We may feel more ready to take action than patiently prepare. We may feel ready to cry out in lament for lives taken without account, ready to join our voices with those who cry for justice in an unjust land. And, with them, we may feel weary. We may even feel hope-impaired. 

And so this Advent we are challenged to wait actively.

This year, something is happening, and we choose to be present to it.

This year, what we are waiting for is growing on the ground on which we stand. The seed has been planted. Something has begun.

 A fellow Union Theological Seminary Alum, known in the blogosphere as Brother Timothie writes this week at the website “Theology of Ferguson”: “I used to think Advent meant that we wait patiently for Jesus to be born. The kind of waiting we perform at doctor’s offices. I was wrong,” he says. “Waiting in Advent means to be active in creating God’s Realm, which is always full of justice.” 

This kind of waiting – this Advent kind of waiting – requires that all of us carry the weight of the wait. Like a mother anticipating the birth of her child, we may find ourselves uncomfortable, drawing on strength we never knew we possessed, trying to imagine what the new reality might look like, knowing only that our work is to continue, to push forward, to give birth to something new, to wait, actively, until we can whisper (or shout) “you’re here” to a new age: an age when, in the words of Ella Baker, immortalized by Sweet Honey in the Rock: the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons; a new age where “justice for all” is no longer just a dream, and it is finally true that (#)Black Lives Matter. 

This kind of waiting does not mean never. This kind of waiting says “this moment is the moment.”

//

 “Now is the moment of magic,” Victoria Stafford writes of this time of year. Now is the moment. Not some future date, not the end of the advent calendar, not the day that the days begin to lengthen again, or that long-awaited morning of presents, now is the moment of magic. The magic is in the waiting time. 

Now, it’s not always easy to find the magic in waiting time, even when life is treating us kindly and we have things to look forward to: a blessed event or a joyful celebration. 

In these cases, we are like excited, impatient children on Christmas Morning, filled with anticipatory joy.

(Each year I, being the older sibling, would instruct my brother that we had to wait until at least 5am before we could tiptoe down to see what Santa had left.)  

In this kind of joy-filled waiting, we make our best attempts at waiting patiently; we make it a practice; we focus on the moment, we work on being present. Perhaps we breathe in and out intentionally to ground ourselves, to make our days deliberate, to experience the blessings that already exist. 

And what about when life is unkind, when we wait for justice too long delayed, or, worse, when we wait for yet another miscarriage of justice, another life lost?  

What about the times when we wait for word of an injured friend, or a dreaded diagnosis, when we wait for illness to set in, or for a child who does not arrive?  

Sometimes we find ourselves waiting for something we had hoped would never happen, waiting for the worst. In those times, breathing in and breathing out feels next to impossible and proclaiming a coming age of hope and peace feels naïve, laughable even.  

Patience goes out the window and we find ourselves wishing time would pass more quickly so that we might be on the other side of a nightmare. How do we live in that kind of waiting time? 

// 

Finding the magic in this season of waiting can be difficult for many of us not just this year, but any year. 

The holidays can bring stress, emotional triggers, and family strife along with those tiny candles. This time can be filled with painful or bittersweet memories right alongside cheer, loneliness in the midst of celebration – which is the worst kind of loneliness there is. We might find ourselves waiting with heavy hearts for December to be over, wishing for the sun, feeling like it might never return. We may feel hope-impaired. 

In our home, the soundtrack to the month of December includes Handel’s Messiah which tends to play on our CD player on a near constant loop. When you listen to something that often, you hear different things each time. 

It’s early, but we’ve started, and the other day, I heard a word that I had never really noticed before in the music: “abide.” But who may abide the day of his coming? the tenor sings. The quote is from the book of Malachi in the Hebrew Bible (3:2). The prophet writes to the Jewish people about the coming of the messiah, a messenger who would arrive to usher in a new age of righteousness and justice. “Who will wait for him?”, the prophet asks. “Who will prepare themselves for this new reality?” The Hebrew word translated here as “abide” can also mean endure, or contain. Abide comes from the Old English meaning remain, wait, dwell. 

To abide is to wait actively,

To have faith in the seeds,

To make room in our hearts for a new reality.

And that is the secret, Henri Nouwen tells us.

“This moment is the moment.”

 

This is a holy way of waiting.

 

It happens one breath at a time. In and out. Each moment the moment.

We live our lives on, one breath at a time, giving thanks for the blessings of the waiting time, giving thanks for the magic of each moment, giving thanks for the communities that hold out hope when we are weary. 

We join our lives and our breath with all who are waiting: waiting for justice, waiting for peace. 

May it be so this season, and always.

Sunrise

 

Resources

Dr. Briallen Hopper, “Ferguson Sermon at Yale,” November 30, 2014:
http://briallenhopper.tumblr.com/post/103995200459/ferguson-sermon-at-yale?og=1

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Brother Timothie, “What Shall We Cry Out?: A #StayWokeAdvent Lectionary Reflection,” Theology of Ferguson, December 2, 2014 https://medium.com/@FaithInFerguson/what-shall-we-cry-out-a-staywokeadvent-lectionary-reflection-c407e6ffaaab

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, “One Hug Does Not End Racism: An Advent Message,”
The Huffington Post, November 30, 2014 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-susan-brooks-thistlethwaite/one-hug-does-not-end-raci_b_6243670.html

Upcoming Events in Response to Ferguson, Staten Island, Hartford

For all those who’ve been feeling the need to show their support for the people of Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY, there are a number of events coming up that may be of interest to you. 

Hartford Courant photo from the 11-25 Ferguson Solidarity Vigil at Center Church, Hartford

Hartford Courant photo from the 11-25 Ferguson Solidarity Vigil at Center Church, Hartford

Saturday, December 6th, Noon. “Never Forgetting Ferguson” Solidarity March.  Meet at the corner of Main St. and Albany Ave. and then march to Keney Park. Join Rev. Henry Brown, founder of Mothers United Against Violence, Connecticut United Against Mass Incarceration & others! Facebook users click here.

Saturday December 6th,  1:00 PM. “Journey to Justice!” Join the New Britain branch of the NAACP and leaders and activists of the New Britain and the surrounding region who will march and rally in solidarity with protesters marching from Ferguson to Jefferson City, MO. Meet at the Martin Luther King Jr. monument at the corner of MLK Dr. and Smalley St. in New Britain. Rally at Central Park across from City Hall. More info at the New Britain Herald.

Wednesday, December 10th, 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM. “Drop All Charges Against Luis Anglero, Jr.” Vigil outside the courthouse at 80 Washington St., Hartford.  More info at Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

Here are some resources you may wish to review: 

Showing Up For Racial Justice organizes white people to engage in racial justice work.

“A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement” by Alicia Garza is an excellent article about the origins of #BlackLivesMatter, about why #BlackLivesMatter matters, and about the way queer black women have at times been silenced in the movement.

Standing on the Side of Love, the UU campaign for justice has many more resources to respond to Ferguson, Staten Island, etc.

Black moms Tell White Moms about Race by Aisha Sultan.

6 things White Parents Can do to Raise Racially Conscious Kids, by Bree Ervin.

Hartford Courant photo--UUS:E's Rev. Josh leading  the closing of the 11-25 Ferguson Solidarity vigil at Center Church in Hartford

Hartford Courant photo–UUS:E’s Rev. Josh leading the closing of the 11-25 Ferguson Solidarity vigil at Center Church in Hartford

 

Here are some simple action steps you can take for racial justice:

  1. Make a donation to groups working for racial justice in Ferguson and elsewhere. Here is a compilation of suggestions on where to contribute funds.

 

  1. Talk to your family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers about Ferguson, Staten Island and racism.

 

  1. Write a letter to the editor about what the inherent worth and dignity of all people means to you.

 

  1. Come to one of the rallys/marches/vigils mentioned above.
  2. The UUS:E Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee meets every First Tuesday of the month in Rev. Josh’s office at UUS:E at 7:00 PM. All are welcome.

 

Mental Health Ministry: Color Your Holiday!

12-6 MHMFall, 2014 Mental Health Ministry Summit

How Are You Going to Color Your Holidays?

Saturday, December 6th, 9:00 am to Noon at UUS:E

Join us for food, art, conversation, planning and support! All are welcome. The UUS:E Mental Health Ministry Summit is designed for everyone, though it focuses on people who live with a mental illness; people who have lived with a mental illness and are now in recovery; people who live with or care for a family member or friend who has a mental illness; and people who provide caring, support and other services to people with mental illness. This will be a great event to help kick off the holiday season! Questions? Contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at (860) 652-8961 or revpawelek@sbcglobal.net.

2014 Transgender Day of Remembrance

11-20 TDOR

 REMEMBER ** HONOR ** ACT

The 16th Annual (Hartford Area) Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place at 7:00pm, Thursday November 20, 2014 at the Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford, 155 Wyllys Street, Hartford CT 06106 (Parish House, Church of the Good Shepherd, entrance in the back)

Office: (860)724-4605 Pastor: (860)990-1225

www.mcchartford.com

 Guest speakers

Candlelight vigil

Music

Reception


This is a day we reserve each year to memorialize those whose lives were lost due to anti-transgender fear, bigotry and hatred.  Around the world, communities have planned vigils to come together in community to remember those who have died in the past year.  As we gather this year, we remember, we honor, and we commit to action that will prevent more lives being senselessly lost.  Join us for a night of community, compassion, and hope.

 

This event is FREE.

Epicenter Ferguson (A Poet-Preacher Collaboration)

A Letter to My Unborn Black Son

Christopher D. Sims

pregnant bellyDear son, African American warrior, 
Reincarnation of the people of the

Sudan. I hope you understand why
I am writing you this letter. And 
hopefully, by the time you read it
Race relations in America are a lot
better than what they are now. You 
will understand why I will beg you
not to wear a hoodie when you leave
our home. You will understand why
I ask you to be careful outside these
doors.

 

Maybe your best friends will be named
Trayvon and Michael. And they will be the
namesakes of the young men who died
because of indifference, and because of
hate. Dear son, I know you will relate.
Because I will have read the Autobiography
of Malcolm X to you while you were in
your mother’s womb. You will come into
this life knowing that black youth and men
are doomed in America.

 

Son, I hate to scare ya, but your ancestors
were taken from the shores of Africa. They
snatched ya great great great great grandparents
and brought them here. Took away our language
and culture, and in black women and men 
instilled fear. Son I want you to know the truth
of this place here.

 

Dear son, your skin will be the reason why
they call you nigger, why cops will pull up
to your car with their fingers shaking on the
trigger. Ask Trayvon and Michael. They will
tell you what happened to the people they were
named after. They will tell you tales of hell,
each with a sad, sad chapter. 

 

Black boys and men are being killed and 

We are being treated like we don’t matter. 

Like we don’t even matter.

 

Son, I am preparing you for a world that
focuses on race, that moves at an unhealthy pace,
Where your mother and other black women
like her are disgraced. There are people who
will want you to increase the prison population.
They will start early in your education. Son, this
is all truth, and it’s all real. You will learn when
I read to you what happened to Emmett Till. 

 

I’ll stop here now son, don’t want you to be scared. 

I write this letter to you because I want you to
come into this world informed and prepared.

Not So Rank Speculation

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

GriefLast weekend I heard multiple rumors that the St. Louis County Grand Jury considering whether or not to indict White Ferguson, MO police Officer, Darren Wilson for the fatal August 9th shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, was about to deliver its decision and that it would likely not indict Officer Wilson. Maybe you heard those rumors too. I tend to think the Grand Jury will indict Officer Wilson, but I understand why so many people believe rumors to the contrary. On Monday the Prosecuting Attorney, Robert McCulloch, called the rumors “rank speculation.” I think there are more sensitive words than “rank” to use in a situation like this. I’ve always used “rank” to describe the smell of my socks after a long run. I hope that isn’t what McCulloch meant.

When a community that has witnessed the broad-daylight killing of one of its own sons at the hands of a police officer begins to speculate that the Grand Jury’s decision is coming at any moment and that the decision will go in the officer’s favor, such speculation doesn’t strike me as “rank.” After months of living with the bitter, painful memories of that day and yearning desperately for some kind of closure—hopefully a closure that feels like justice—it isn’t rank speculation. It’s grief. It’s part of the grieving process.

When a community that is still reeling from many complicated nights of mayhem in the wake of that shooting—including the deployment by police of an astounding array of military equipment (which has understandably shocked the nation), further police violence, apparent civil rights violations, and violent reactions from some community members, including looting and rioting, though some understand it as resistance and uprising—when that community begins to speculate that the Grand Jury’s decision is coming at any moment and that the decision will go in the officer’s favor, it doesn’t strike me as “rank.” It’s a community-wide expression of anxiety and fear. Are we about to plunge into that same chaos again? Is there any way to prevent that?

Yes, there is. When a coalition of more than fifty organizations—the Don’t Shoot Coalition—holds a press conference to ask police and government officials to agree to rules of engagement for the days and weeks following the Grand Jury’s announcement, such as 48 hours advanced notice of the decision so that they can adequately prepare people for productive, nonviolent protests; such as a demilitarized police presence—no armored vehicles, rubber bullets, rifles, tear gas or riot gear—so that people won’t be provoked into reactive violence; such as respect for safe houses and churches in the midst of protests; such as respect for reporters and legal observers who aren’t part of the protests but who need to be there in order to do their jobs—I don’t think there’s anything “rank” about it. I think the request for rules of engagement displays deeply thoughtful, principled community organizing and a calm attempt to communicate to authorities how they can minimize violence and mayhem.

When a community—and all the people across the country who feel connected and sympathetic to it—all the people across the country who stand in solidarity with it—all the people across the country and across the planet who know the history of American racism, who’ve seen young Black men murdered again and again, who’ve waited for countless Grand Jury decisions, who know this legal pattern intimately—this finding that the young, dead Black man is somehow responsible for his own death and the person who pulled the trigger, often multiple times, was justified in doing so—I don’t think it’s rank speculation when that community names its belief that the decision is coming soon and it will go in the shooter’s favor. We might call it cynical speculation. We might call it despairing speculation. Why might call it speculation marked by a pervasive mistrust of the justice system. But what I think it reveals at its deepest level is a profound experience of betrayal. America betrays young Black and Brown men. It says to them, as it does to all American children, that they can be anything they want to be, but then fails to address social, economic and legal structures that result not only in second class citizenship, not only in a loss of worth and dignity, but far too often in loss of life.

Just because an act is legal doesn’t make it moral. If anything is “rank” in this story it’s the gap so many Black and Brown communities experience between what is legal and what is moral. The Grand Jury may determine that Officer Wilson was legally justified in shooting Michael Brown at least six times—but that won’t mean he acted morally. It won’t mean that the institutions that trained and authorized him have acted morally. It certainly won’t mean Michael Brown deserved to die. Remember, slavery was legal. Segregation was legal. Countless Indian wars were legal. The Trail of Tears was legal. Japanese internment camps were legal. Voter suppression was legal, and there are many who contend the Supreme Court has made it legal once again by gutting significant portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The War on Drugs is legal. Mass incarceration is legal. None of it, in my view, met or meets any criteria for moral. As long as that gap between the legal and the moral exists when it comes to the lives of young Black and Brown men, America will continue down the path of betrayal: communities will continue to grieve, to weep, to mistrust, to rage, to struggle in poverty, to struggle against injustice: and poets will continue to write letters of warning to their children, born and unborn.

 I feel called, I feel Unitarian Universalism is called, I feel people of faith in general are called, and I feel Americans are called, today, to close the gap between what is legal and what is moral when it comes to the lives of young Black and Brown men. The nation’s focus is on whether or not the Grand Jury indicts Officer Wilson. But whether they do or don’t, that gap will remain. Can I be a minister, can we be a congregation, can we be part of a larger UU faith, can we be part of an America that looks beyond the outcome of the Grand Jury’s proceedings and works to dismantle the system that ultimately led to the death of Michael Brown and the ruined lives of so many other young people? I have faith that we can.

On Being: Reborn

Christopher D. Sims

breathingArt, the art of expression, through my poetry
Allows me to breathe, to breathe, to breathe.

And what I conceive is the truth, the truth,
the truth. 

This art form helps me become reborn, reborn,
reborn. I reach the highest of highs when I
perform. My world, your world, my world, your
world, is transformed, transformed. 

As I contemplate on what I create, I’ve connected
even more to who I am, what I am, my faith, my
faith. 

It’s a spiritual connection. I am trying to reach
perfection. It’s a spiritual connection. I am trying
to reach perfection. Perfection. What a blessing! 

I am testing the waters. I am swimming in sound.
I am dealing with something that is so profound.
Profound. Profound. Profound. 

It’s like John Coltrane with his tenor sax. It’s
like Miles Davis with his horn. It’s like Thelonious

Monk with his piano. The words have to flow, to flow,
to flow, to flow. Of energy and electricity of the third

degree I am letting go.

 

This is a pilgrimage on the page, a poet on a stage,
an angry man finding peace within his rage. A caged
bird being freed through words, through words, through
words.

 

Preferred is the pen. I write hip-hop rhymes and poetic
hymns. Poetic hymns.

 

The spiritual release makes me want to clasp my hands
in prayer form. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn. I
perform. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn from

 

The clutches of poverty; the many dreams deferred;

Martin Luther King Jr’s dream hasn’t come true;
In the ghettos in urban communities, we still sing the blues;
The Ebola news on National Public Radio;
What happened to Eric Garner and Michael Brown;
I stopped watching television to drown out the sounds
I stopped watching television to drown out the sounds.

 

I am reborn through my nieces’ and nephews’ smiles;
I am reborn through a blend of activism and Unitarian
Universalism; I am reborn through universal love, the
hugs of friends and strangers; I am reborn through collectives
of people fighting for justice, because it is still Just Us!

And faith is at the very core of my rebirth – from my
poetical ministry to meeting and marching for Earth.
Faith helps me put this all into perspective. Faith pushes
me forward, faith helps me think of a better future, faith
wraps its arms around me and lets me know everything
is going to be all right. Faith is in everything that I say,
and in everything that I write. Faith is in everything that
I say, and in everything that I write. 

I am reborn, I have found my indigenous soul
Maintaining balance, remaining disciplined and in
control. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn. I perform.

May We Have Faith

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

UU WorldAs many of you know, I serve on the board of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. Along with the boards of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, our board has moved the location of its March, 2015 meeting to Birmingham, AL in order to be present during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches. Those marches were a pivotal moment for the Civil Rights movement. As images of police and civilian violence against marchers appeared on countless televisions across the nation, they helped generate massive public support for passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Those marches were also pivotal for what was then a very young Unitarian Universalist Association, as hundreds of UU clergy and lay-people heeded Martin Luther King’s call to join the marchers. Two of those UUs—the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo—were murdered during the marches. For more insight into the significance of Selma to Unitarian Universalism, I commend to you the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed’s new book, Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalisma section of which appears in the Winter issue of UU World Magazine. I feel excited, honored, privileged and blessed to have the opportunity to be present in Alabama 50 years later.

A number of people have said—in a variety of ways—“That’s all well and good, but why aren’t you meeting in Ferguson?” I understand the question. For indeed, Ferguson has become the symbolic epicenter of American racism. What Selma became in the late winter of 1965, Ferguson has become in the summer and autumn of 2014. Indeed, the title of the cover story for that Winter issue of UU World is “Selma Then, Ferguson Now.”

If the St. Louis County Grand Jury decides not to indict Officer Wilson—and possibly even if it decides to indict—there will be a call for clergy from across the nation to travel to Ferguson. I plan to do everything in my power to go to there when the call comes, as do many of my colleagues. The reason for going is not only to bear witness to this particular decision, but to bear witness to the plight of young Black and Brown men in the United States of America. Not just police shootings, not just the gang shootings, not just the daily grind of urban street violence, but the criminalization of too many Black and Brown men, the mass incarceration of too many Black and Brown men, the unemployment of too many Black and Brown men, the failure to educate too many Black and Brown men. As Unitarian Universalist Association President, the Rev. Peter Morales, said after the shooting, “Ferguson is not about Ferguson. It is about the systematic dehumanizing of people all over America.” This reminds me of Dr. King’s assertion that “the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.”[1]

Though Ferguson is the symbolic epicenter of American racism today, and though we need to pay attention to what is happening there, we also need to pay attention to the same dynamics as they manifest here, where we are, where we have a more immediate capacity to work for change. We need to pay attention to violence here, mass incarceration here, failing schools here, achievement gaps here, wealth gaps here, environmental racism here. Ferguson is not about Ferguson. It’s about all of us, about every American, about the health of our democracy, about fairness for all, justice for all, compassion for all, love for all.

Chris Sims offered us his new poem, “On Being: Reborn.” It’s a poem about knowing himself, finding his voice through his artistry, finding the sacred through his artistry, and then living in response to it, living in a way that brings more fairness, more justice, more compassion, more love into the world. He calls this faith.

My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith—that we may know ourselves, find our own voice, find what is sacred to us, and live in response to it. My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith—faith in ourselves, faith in each other, faith in our congregation, faith our nation, faith in humanity—so that we may wake up to the multifaceted human energy coming out of Ferguson—the pain, the rage, the struggle, the persistence, the community, the humor, the love, the caring, the commitment—so that we may wake up to all of it and channel it into our own efforts to make a difference right here, our own efforts to close that gap between what is legal and what is moral in the lives of young Black and Brown men. My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith, faith  that we—this congregation, our Unitarian Universalist Association, our state, our nation—will heed the call coming out of Ferguson, MO and give birth, finally, to a more just, fair and loving society.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Quoted in Morrison-Reed, Mark, “Selma’s Challenge,” UU World (Winter, 2014) p. 33.

Interfaith Thanksgiving Service — November 23rd, 4:30 PM

Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

Manchester clergy and faith leaders will hold an Interfaith Thanksgiving service. All are warmly invited!

When: Sunday afternoon, November 23rd, 4:30 PM

Where: Temple Beth Shalom B’Nai Israel, 400 Middle Turnpike East, Manchester, CT

Questions? Contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at (860) 646-5151.

IFTS

A Sufficient Quantity of Faith

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Faith


In an interview with Krista Tippett for the American Public Media show “On Being,” Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, said, “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”[1] She offers this thought as part of a broader, ongoing, playful yet pointed critique of American Protestantism, which she describes both as “Western individualism run amok in religion” and the “personal me-and-Jesus, how-I-feel, what-my-piety-is, [what]-my-personal-prayer-life-[is]—all of that stuff.”[2] As Unitarian Universalists it is easy to assume this critique doesn’t apply to us because, well, she’s not talking to us; she’s talking to Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc. We don’t get all the jokes about high church Christian theology, but that’s OK. Her message isn’t really for us.

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

Except maybe it is. I actually think Bolz-Weber’s critique applies more to us than any other tradition, mainly because something at the heart of mid-19th-century Unitarianism—160, 170 years ago—something in its liberal world-view, its revolutionary spirit—something in its encounter with the artistry and theology of European Romanticism, something in it led many of our 19th-century Unitarian forebears to prioritize the individual spiritual search over and above the authority of the church. Something led the Unitarian-minister-turned-Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1841 to pen those enduring words, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”[3] Something led Emerson’s poetic descendent, Walt Whitman, in 1871 to contend “that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion come forth at all.”[4] Something led the author and Unitarian minister, John Weiss, also in 1871, to declare that “America is an opportunity to make a Religion out of the sacredness of the individual.”[5]

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

While there were certainly Unitarians who prioritized the centrality of the church in this era, the emphasis on the sacredness of the individual began with us and still lives and breathes in Unitarian Universalism today. It may appear different than today’s American Protestant ‘me-and-Jesus’ individualism, but they share the same historical roots. This isn’t commonly understood, but current-day American Christianity has adapted its forms of individualistic spirituality from the Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendentalists and other liberal religionists of the mid-19th century.[6] So, what if faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals? What if faith is only given in sufficient quantity to communities? What might that mean for us?

Our November ministry theme is faith. The last time we used faith as a monthly theme was November, 2010. I recently re-read a sermon I preached on faith at that time, wondering how my thinking has evolved.[7] That sermon was helpful (I hope) in offering to UUs a more relevant definition of faith than the one the larger culture tends to use. If someone knocks at your door and wants to have a conversation about religion, you kinda know what they mean by faith. It likely has something to do with accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, plus the good news that such acceptance is the path to eternal life. Beneath that good news is almost always a set of doctrines about who Jesus is, who God is, and why their church understands these things correctly. This kind of faith requires us to accept propositions for which we have no evidence other than that “the Bible says it.” It requires us to believe the unbelievable. That’s the common definition of faith in our larger culture. It’s certainly a valid definition—not everything we believe must have a rational explanation.[8] But as inheritors of the 19th-century Unitarian appeal to the sacredness of the individual, we need a different definition.

door knocking

In that November, 2010 sermon I quoted Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, who says that the essence of faith, whetherconnected to a deity or not … lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”[9] Similarly, the 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, suggested that faith is the act of placing our confidence in something. He held no expectation that that something be unbelievable or other-worldly. He said “faith should take into account the realm of fact…. Every person is concerned with a basic fact, something in which one has confidence.”[10] This is a definition of faith that can work for people who don’t or can’t believe the unbelievable, for people who need their religious and spiritual lives to be grounded in a reality they can experience through their senses: through touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling; through raising children, caring for others, working for a just society, or digging in dirt. This is a definition of faith that arises not from religious doctrines, but from the concrete experience of our daily lives, the realm of fact.

James Luther Adams

James Luther Adams

There is much in which we place our confidence. We are deeply faithful people. As I wrote in my November newsletter column, “we have faith in humanity, creativity, nature, love. We have faith in science, democracy, community, fairness, humility. We have faith in gratitude, children, education, diversity, the earth. We have faith in the seasons, the tides, the warmth of the sun, the darkness of night. We have faith in our neighbors, our principles, our interfaith partners, the words and deeds of prophetic people of all eras. We have faith in modern medicine, ancient healing arts, the comforting assurance of family and friends, the kindness of strangers. We have faith in reason, the power of speaking truth, compassion, honesty. Some have faith in God—a deep and sustaining faith. Some have faith in the ancestors—a deep and sustaining faith. And did I mention love? We put our faith in love.

When I invite you, at the beginning of worship, to find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, that place where you may go when you yearn for peace, that place where you may go to commune with whatever is holy in your life, that place where you know your truth, where your voice is strong, I am asking you to remember what is most reliable to you. I am asking you to remember those things in which you place your highest confidence. I am asserting that we are people of faith just as much as those who come knocking on doors, or who stand on city street corners yelling, Repent! or who experience a personal, intimate relationship with their lord and savior. By locating that place inside of you, I am keeping continuity with our spiritual forebears. That mid-19th century tradition of honoring the sacredness of the individual remains vibrant among us. For me, our UU identity is so deeply embedded in this tradition that, were we to give it up, we would cease being who we are.

It’s also important to name that not just our UU identity, but a big part of the American identity is rooted in this individualistic tradition, so much so that, without it, we wouldn’t quite recognize America. It would take a series of sermons to unpack this claim, but if in recent years you’ve felt a shift in the American character, it may have to do not with the loss of this tradition but, as the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt contends, with its cooptation by market forces, with its commercialization, with what some call the “‘Oprahfication’ of American religion and culture…the spread of the feel-good spirituality that [Oprah] Winfrey urges upon her fans,”[11] and with what we might describe as the hyper-expressions of this tradition—narcissism and self-absorption that have eviscerated religious and civic connections[12] and, in my view, have spurred the rise of various religious fundamentalisms in the United States.

As far as I can tell, Nadia Bolz-Weber isn’t criticizing the individualistic spiritual tradition in American religion. In fact, she’s a shining example of it. But she is criticizing shallow, surface expressions of this tradition—“me and Jesus and all that stuff.” She’s criticizing the shadow side—the fact that we pay lip service to the sacredness of each individual but often don’t live as if it matters. She’s rightly wary about what individualism in religion can and has become. She understands how hyper-individualism in spiritual and secular settings has taken a toll on community cohesiveness. So, she asks all people of faith to take a TIME OUT! “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”

faith

You could hear this as a re-assertion of the authority of the church over the individual, a call to doctrinal conformity, but she has too many tattoos for that to be true. She’s offering a course correction to Western individualism run amok in religion. She’s calling for balance. She’s reminding us that individualism can only take us so far. No matter how sacred, precious, worthy, and profoundly beautiful each individual soul is, none of us can make it alone. She uses the example of the Apostles Creed, saying “nobody believes every line of the Creed…. But in a room [full] of people … for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”[13] It’s funny, not because it’s a joke, but because it’s true. As a Lutheran minister, she knows that were she to demand that every Lutheran believe every line of the Creed all the time, she would make Lutheranism inaccessible to people who need church in their lives but can’t believe in that “perfect” way. If I were to demand that each UU embody our principles perfectly all the time, I would similarly make Unitarian Universalism inaccessible to many.

The truth is we don’t bring our best selves to each new day. We don’t always live the ideals we aspire to live, let alone those our church calls us to live. We may come to church in profound pain, feeling wounded, broken, lost, empty, anxious or in despair from a difficult diagnosis, a lost job, lost memory, the death of a loved-one, a struggling child, a raging virus, an endless war, catastrophic climate change. Sometimes our faith fails. Whatever we place our confidence in can let us down, can go missing, can forsake us. Faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals. Sometimes we simply don’t have enough.

angst

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough. This is my evolution since 2010: Together we have enough. Faith is given to communities in sufficient quantities. Bolz-Weber says there are times she can’t adhere to the Biblical admonition to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. But, “if I’m at the point where I cannot pray for someone,” she says, “I will say ‘I cannot pray for this person, I really need you to do it for me.’”[14] That’s the power of community: if I can’t get there, there is someone else who can get there for me. There is someone else who can carry my faith until I’m able to carry it again.

This led me to reflect on the ways we’ve responded in worship to mass shootings. I’m remembering in particular the Hartford Distributors shooting in August, 2010 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, 2012—both so close to us here in Manchester. These were worst-nightmares-come-true—the human potential for evil becoming real before our eyes. Many of us, myself included, felt our faith in humanity faltering in a very specific way. We questioned the validity of our first UU principle—the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In the aftermath of such shootings our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We say their names in worship. But what of the shooters? They have crossed a moral line, have launched themselves beyond the pale, have made themselves enemies in the Biblical sense. Our hearts don’t naturally go out to them. Instead we recoil at the thought of them. Yes, we are admonished to love the enemy. Yes, we UUs affirm the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—but surely that doesn’t apply to these shooters? For so many of us it is enormously difficult to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the perpetrator in the aftermath of horrendous evil. Even the act of just saying their name in worship feels like too much.  And yet there were people in our community in both instances who felt strongly that the names of the perpetrators needed to be said, that in addition to their crimes their deaths also needed acknowledgement. To name them in this way does not condone their crimes. It is simply to remember that they were human too. Though something went horribly wrong, they came into this world surrounded by hope and promise too, and their deaths—though different—are tragic too. These shootings were profoundly difficult moments for me, and I was so grateful to know others were keeping my faith for me.

hands

Someone will remember. Even when we can’t, someone will carry our faith for us. And there will be times when we maintain faith for others who can’t—after the difficult diagnosis, the lost job, the loss of memory, the death of a loved-one, as a child struggles, a virus rages, a war continues and climate changes. That compelling tradition of affirming the sacredness of the individual continues to live and breathe in our congregations. But there are times when it isn’t enough. When we come to those times, may we always remember: faith is given in sufficient quantity to communities. And in the midst of community, may we have faith.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 149.

[4] Whitman, Walt, Democratic Vistas, quoted in Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 4.

[5] Ibid., vi.

[6] My primary resource for making this claim is Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “I Know This Rose Will Open: On Being a Person of Faith,” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT,  November 14th, 2010:  http://uuse.org/i-know-this-rose-will-open-reflections-on-being-a-person-of-faith/#.VFOMF_nF-Sp.

[8] Ibid., third paragraph.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002) p. xiii.

[10] Adams, James Luther in Beach, George K., ed, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 21.

[11] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 285.

[12] Schmidt names this phenomenon in the final chapter of Restless Souls. Another take on what I call the “shadow side” of the American tradition of spiritual individualism is Claude Fischer’s blog-post “Self-Absorbed” at http://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/self-absorbed/.

[13] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[14] Ibid.

A Day With Feminism (or Why Abortion Rights Matter As Much as Ever!)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

First UU Church, New Orleans

First UU Church, New Orleans

Sunday, July 20th, members of the anti-abortion group Operation Save America (OSA) disrupted the worship service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, threatening hell-fire, shouting scripture quotes and lecturing parishioners. OSA was in New Orleans for a week of protests, their primary focus being the construction of a new Planned Parenthood women’s health center. They protested at the construction site, the construction company headquarters, and the offices of contractors. On Sunday, since their regular targets were closed, OSA went to First UU which has been very supportive of the new clinic.[1]

My first reaction to hearing this news was anger that anyone would have the audacity to so blatantly disrespect someone else’s religious observance. Not only was it insensitive and mean, it was un-American. These anti-abortion activists demonstrated a complete inability to live well in a religiously pluralistic society. I disagree theologically, socially and politically with many religious world-views, but I cannot imagine ever disrupting someone else’s worship.

I’ve come to recognize since then that the worship disruption is a minor piece of two larger, related stories. Clearly, one larger story is about the many people who believe with every fiber of their being that abortion should not be legal under any circumstances, or only under extremely limited circumstances such as rape or incest. The Constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy was firmly established with the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. But it turns out there are a myriad of legal and illegal ways to subvert this right, and that is precisely what is happening in many states. A small number of anti-abortion activists will disrupt worship services. An even smaller number will murder doctors and medical staff who perform abortions. Some will engage in civil disobedience, blocking clinic entrances. Many more will protest at clinics without blocking entrances. Still more will lobby for laws that reduce access to abortions. Many more pray daily for abortions to end. That’s the first story: there is a large, well-organized, well-funded movement to contest this constitutional right. It’s been so successful in some states that, though the right exists, it is virtually impossible to exercise it.

I want to ease into the second larger story by naming some of our Unitarian Universalist history related to abortion and also my personal experience with abortion. I begin with a reminder that not every UU embraces abortion. There’s no political litmus test here, though I know it sometimes feels as if there is. Similarly, not every religious or political liberal, not every Democrat supports abortion rights, though it often feels that way because our country has become so politically polarized. The same can be said in reverse of political and religious conservatives, evangelicals, Catholics, Republicans, etc. Not all are against abortion, though it often feels that way. So, I think it’s important to say that it hasn’t always felt this way. A 2012 article by religion scholar Lela Dawson Scanzoni entitled “When Evangelicals Were Open to Differing Views on Abortion,” says, “there was a time in the not too distant past when the majority of Protestant Christians, including … evangelical[s], did not consider the point at which a fertilized ovum or developing embryo or fetus becomes a human being to be clearly defined, indisputable, and settled for all time. There was a time when different viewpoints were accepted and respected and did not serve as a litmus test to determine who was a “real” Christian. A time when many evangelicals thought that the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision might be considered a good and compassionate ruling as it overturned the varied restrictive abortion laws of the states that so often drove desperate women to seek out illegal, unsafe, ‘back-alley’ abortions.”[2] The nation hasn’t always felt as polarized as it does today.

Having said that, it is true: a large majority of religious conservatives oppose abortion today. And it is true: Unitarian Universalists, for more than fifty years, have strongly supported efforts to make and keep abortion safe, legal and rare in the U.S. and Canada. We are a pro-choice denomination. I count at least twelve General Assembly resolutions in support of abortion rights since 1963. I note Unitarian Universalism’s groundbreaking efforts in faith-based sexuality education. I’m mindful of many UUs over the years who’ve worked to strengthen and preserve abortion rights, people such as the late Nancy Lou Lister, a member of this congregation who helped found and then directed the Connecticut affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League. I’m mindful of many Unitarian Universalists across the nation who volunteer as escorts or work as staff in clinics where abortions are performed.[3] I’m mindful of Retired Lt. Col. and Unitarian Universalist James H. Barrett, who was murdered in 1993 at a Pensacola, FL abortion clinic while escorting Dr. John Bayard Britton, who also died in the attack.[4]

We UUs have a vibrant and, at times, tragic legacy of personal and institutional engagement in the struggle for abortion rights. I am proud to inherit that legacy and consider myself firmly pro-choice. I also confess that at times I’ve felt ambivalent about being more vocal in this struggle. At times I’ve felt my pro-choice convictions were not entirely my own; that they were instilled in me by the many loving, pro-choice adults who raised and socialized me; that I didn’t come to them through my own moral reasoning, but rather through the reasoning of others. I was taught to be pro-choice, but not encouraged to question that identity. This absence of my own moral reasoning on abortion was fine when, because I had a car in college, on multiple occasions I drove friends to the city to have abortions. It was fine when I was living in Boston in the early 1990s and attended clinic defense actions with other UUs.

However, it was not fine—not at all—when my girlfriend became pregnant and chose to have an abortion. I was just out of college. I was in no position to start a family. It would have been very difficult to become a father at that time in my life. Though I don’t remember if I voiced it at the time, I know in my heart I hoped my girlfriend would terminate the pregnancy. I remember saying I would be supportive no matter what decision she made. I understood it was her decision and I would not violate the sanctity of that decision. She knew pretty quickly she did not want to continue the pregnancy. We were both relieved when the procedure was over.

I didn’t talk about it to anyone. Though I was relieved, I was also embarrassed. After all, I was raised UU. I had taken the About Your Sexuality class in 8th grade. I knew about safe sex. This was not supposed to happen to me. I also felt shame. Looking back, my pro-choice upbringing had prepared me to honor my girlfriend’s decision, and that’s a good thing. But it had not prepared me to wrestle with the profound and conflicting emotions that arise both in the decision-making process and in the aftermath of that decision. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but there was a part of me that could have benefitted emotionally and spiritually from hearing the voices of people who are morally opposed to abortion, people who believe it really is the taking of a human life—not their ridicule or their judgment, but their heart-felt conviction. In opening myself up to their point of view I would have had more room to engage in my own moral reasoning. I could have come to my own conclusion regardless of what my girlfriend decided. I would have honored her choice no matter what, but I also would have been more in touch with my own feelings. I needed that. All I had learned growing up was that those anti-choice people are wrong, misguided. It’s the woman’s choice and that’s final. Great for political posturing, but not for personal moral reasoning, not for digging deep into what it really meant to me.

debateEpiscopal priest, the Rev. Martin Elfert says our national entrenchment on the question of abortion is a shame. “Both the Christian movement and our wider society are impoverished by the absence of a vigorous and mutually respectful conversation around this question.”[5] The incredibly bitter polarization we experience around abortion serves none of us. Women and their partners who find themselves in the heart-wrenching position of having to decide whether or not to end a pregnancy need to hear all sides of the argument so they can make the best decision possible for them. And if the decision is to terminate the pregnancy, they must be able to do so not with fear of ridicule and judgment, but with room to mourn, space to speak openly about what the experience has meant for them, and support from loving family, friends and spiritual communities. I, for one, promise that my office is a safe space for these things to happen. And I trust this congregation is such a safe place as well. No shame. No isolation. Just love.

I don’t feel shame today, though my grief lingers. I am aware from time to time, that there was an unintended pregnancy for which I was jointly responsible; that that pregnancy could have come to term; that there could be another person in the world today; that I would be their father, and my life would be radically different. Rev. Elfert says, “There are times when we do the right thing but we still need to mourn. That can happen when we name out loud … that a marriage has died…. It can happen when we choose to say ‘no’ to a manipulative loved one. And, assuredly, it can happen when a woman chooses to end a pregnancy.”[6]

I’ve been reflecting here on my personal experience and recognizing a personal emotional and spiritual need for a deeper, more productive conversation between the pro- and anti-abortion moral positions because I believe such conversation, in a non-judgmental setting, will help women and their partners makes the best possible decision for them. But please don’t mistake my call for greater dialgoue at a personal level for the suggestion that the erosion of the constitutional right to have an abortion is somehow OK. It’s not.

The reason it’s not brings me to the second larger story in which abortion plays one role among many other characters. We still live in a culture in which it is OK to question whether or not a woman’s body belongs exclusively to her, and to behave as if it doesn’t. We still live in a culture in which women don’t have complete freedom to make what are often heart-wrenching, deeply spiritual choices about: their own reproductive health, contraception, family planning, abortion, neo-natal care, childcare, dating, getting married, staying married, taking sick leave, taking maternity leave, when and with whom to have sex, reporting rape, spousal abuse or child abuse, and whether or not to stay in a job where they equal payearn less than their male colleagues for doing the same work. That’s just the beginning of the list. We cannot have a real and honest conversation about abortion in our nation because women’s control over their own bodies, their families and their livelihoods is still contested at the highest levels of government and society. We have church invasions, clinic closings, bans on medically proven contraceptives, corporations masquerading as people of faith to deny insurance coverage for contraceptives to their female employees, unequal pay for equal work, widespread rape in the home, on the street and on college campuses and among professional football players because as a nation we still haven’t accepted that basic feminist premise that women are human beings. We haven’t yet had, as our reading from Manifesta proclaimed earlier, a day with feminism.[7]

The idea that abortion is morally wrong should be accessible to anyone who is contemplating the termination of a pregnancy. It will help them make the best decision possible for them. But given the way our culture still treats women, banning abortion or access to it through the courts, statutes, the closing of clinics, or the harassment and even murder of clinic personnel is sexist, an ongoing chapter in the story of American misogyny, because it denies women exclusive control over their own bodies. It is a morally bankrupt strategy to work for the abolition of abortion and lift no finger in support of women, their children or their families. To ban abortion without supporting universal, comprehensive sexuality education is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without making highly effective contraception universally available is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without establishing laws and policies that provide generous parental leave as well as affordable day care is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without demanding equal pay for equal work and a living wage for all workers is a moral contradiction. To ban abortion without first ending the American culture of rape is not only a moral contradiction, it is morally reprehensible.

rape culture

Everything I’m naming here—sex education, contraception, maternity leave, day care, equal pay, ending rape—these are the ways to make legal abortion extraordinarily rare. So here’s my proposal: Let’s work for those things first. Let’s have a day with feminism first. Actually, no; let’s have 25 years with feminism first. And then let’s talk about the legality of abortion. My guess is there’ll be nothing to talk about.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show presented the story of the church invasion on July 29th in the second half of this segment: http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/watch/anti-abortion-extremists-violate-church-313460291585. A year earlier, when the organizers of the clinic’s groundbreaking ceremony had to move the event indoors due to rain, they moved it to First UU. You can find pictures online of Planned Parenthood leaders and city officials wearing hard hats and holding shovels inside First UU at http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/05/planned_parenthood_kicks_off_c.html.

[2] Scanzoni, Letha Dawson, “When Evangelicals Were Open to Differing Views on Abortion,” (Christian Feminism Today, Sept. 2012): http://www.eewc.com/FemFaith/evangelicals-open-differing-views-abortion.

[3] This Center for American Progress interview with the Rev. Kathleen Green is an example of Unitarian Universalist involvement with clinics where abortions are performed: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/religion/news/2014/05/01/88781/minister-and-clinic-escort-an-interview-with-rev-kathleen-green/. This sermon by the Rev. Tamara Lebak is another good example: http://www.allsoulschurch.org/Websites/AllSouls/images/Sermons/2012_sermons/06-10-12_A_Womb_of_One_s_Own.pdf.

[4] The story as it was reported in the Baltimore Sun is at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1994-08-03/news/1994215043_1_annapolis-chapter-barrett-retired-officers.

[5] One of the more beautiful and powerful articles I’ve encountered on the subject of abortion is Elfert, Martin, “How Can I Say I Believe in God and in the Decision I’ve Made,” Religious News Service (Dec. 17th, 2013). See:   http://www.religionnews.com/2013/12/17/father-knows-best-can-say-believe-god-decision-ive-made/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Baumgardner, Jennifer and Richards, Amy, “A Day With Feminism” in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) pp. 315-321.

Four Reflections on Atonement

Rev. Josh Pawelek


leavesA Reflection on Atonement: Teshuvah For UUs?

Our October ministry theme is atonement—making amends for whatever pain or hurt, large or small, we have caused in others; acknowledging our imperfections; correcting our mistakes; offering genuine apology; offering forgiveness to those who apologize to us; moving back across the borders that have kept us separated and isolated from each other; seeking reconciliation with whatever it is we regard as most holy. We select this theme at this time of year in part as a way of seeing and valuing Judaism and Jewish tradition. The Jewish High Holy days—the “Days of Awe”—occur in late summer or early autumn every year. This year they concluded yesterday, October 4th, with Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.” In a message to children about the “Days of Awe,” author and Rabbi Malka Drucker[1] says, “these are delicate days, when people look at the year that has passed and face up to their mistakes, errors in judgment, or wrongdoings. This is called teshuvah, which means return.”[2] I understand return in this sense to mean a return to right relationship, a return to community, a return to God. Teshuvah is also often translated as repentance meaning, again, making amends, offering apology, seeking forgiveness for wrongdoing. 

I also understand the experience of teshuvah during the Days of Awe as an opportunity for Jews to not only repair external relationships, but to repair the relationship one has with oneself—to return to one’s true self, to regain grounding, to regain wholeness, to once again recognize and speak one’s own voice. It seems repairing one’s relationship with oneself and repairing one’s external relationships are intertwined. We might say it is difficult to forgive others if one hasn’t forgiven oneself. I found a poem from Rabbi Burt Jacobsson entitled “Prayer Before Yom Kippur,” which expresses this aspect of teshuvah: “I now prepare / to unify my whole self— / heart / mind/ consciousness / body / passions / with this holy community / with the Jewish people everywhere / with all people everywhere /with all life and being / to commune with the Source of all being. / May I find the words, / the music, the movements / that will put me in touch / with the great light of God. / May the rungs of insight and joy /that I reach in my devotion /flow from me to others / and fill all my actions in the world.”[3]

I mentioned in my October newsletter column that it’s somewhat of a cliché for Unitarian Universalist clergy, myself included, to point out at this time of year that we UUs don’t have a spiritual practice akin to teshuvah.  We don’t have a set of rituals for atonement, let alone a Day of Atonement. In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that we ought to somehow copy what Jews do. Generally speaking, Unitarian Universalists are not rigorously ritualistic in our collective spiritual life, and it may be too out-of-spiritual-character for us to create and engage in such rituals.  But not having such a ritual should in no way imply that we don’t need a practice of atonement in our lives.

It is indeed part of the human condition to find ourselves from time to time—and sometimes for extended periods of time, if not permanently—out of right relationship with family members, friends, work-colleagues, neighbors; out of right-relationship with ourselves;  and indeed, out of right relationship with whatever it is we regard as most holy. It is part of the human condition to find ourselves bearing grudges, unable to let go of past hurts, harboring anger, resentment, hatred. It is part of the human condition to find ourselves feeling isolated, separated, alienated from whatever it is we regard as holy. And, odd but true, we can and do dedicate enormous energy to keeping our broken relationships broken. This is not new to the human condition. It is an ancient human experience. It makes perfect sense to me that the ancient Hebrew priests would place rituals of atonement at the center of their highest holy day. It makes perfect sense to me that we modern Unitarian Universalists would recognize the importance of cultivating religious and spiritual identities that invite us to atone in response to those moments when we falter.  

How can we return to right relationship given our inevitable propensity to miss the mark, to make mistakes, to hurt others’ feelings, to misunderstand, to react out of anger?” That’s the question I feel we are continually called to answer in our own lives, in our congregation, and in the world. It’s a question that has gone missing from the public sphere. An obvious example is the politician who refuses to acknowledge an ethics violation, even as they walk through the prison gates; or perhaps the spate of recent revelations of professional football players behaving abusively towards spouses and children. I wonder if such high-profile unwillingness to admit wrongdoing sets a tone for the wider society, or if the wider society has somehow set an “I did nothing wrong” tone for its leaders and celebrities to adopt. Either way, the question has gone missing. How do we bring it back and cement it in our spiritual lives? How do we say I’m sorry when I’m sorry is what’s really needed?

leavesA Second Reflection on Atonement: On Avoiding Conflict Avoidance 

I’ve mentioned before from this pulpit that I’m an adult child of an alcoholic, an ACOA. As I think many of you know, one of the unfortunate and false lessons children sometimes learn in families in which one or both parents struggle with addiction is that nothing can go wrong. That is, as long as nothing goes wrong, the family system won’t get out of control, won’t become dangerous, won’t become embarrassing, etc. That’s a general statement. It’s always more complicated than that, and I don’t want to suggest for a minute that as I child I never did anything wrong. But in looking back on my childhood—especially my adolescent years—through the lens of ACOA literature, I recognize I was one of those kids who was motivated to do well in school and extracurricular activities in part because I didn’t want to upset the family system. I didn’t want to be the cause of any extra stress. I didn’t want to rock the boat.

I also became the kind of kid and, eventually, the kind of adult, who’s instinct in the event that something did or does go wrong, is to smooth it over as quickly as possible. Make it go away. It’s dangerous. Today I joke that I wish my own kids would be more like this—start showing a little more motivation; stop adding undue stress to our family system; and when something goes wrong, please, please, please show me you’d like to see it smoothed over—at least a little. Please? But I also know that if a child lives in a home where they can’t make mistakes, where they can’t miss the mark, where they can’t hurt others’ feelings, where they can’t be a jerk from time to time, it’s much harder for them to learn the use of those two blessed words, “I’m sorry.” Effective parents don’t raise children who never misbehave. Effective parents raise children who, when they do misbehave, know how to take responsibility for their actions and apologize.

For the person who’s learned to avoid conflict for whatever reason, or the person who has learned to make conflict go away as quickly as possible, it strikes me that this these character traits—at least as I encounter them in myself—make it challenging to accept and live with the inevitability of disagreement and conflict in human communities. I can see this now, though I remember when I began in ministry, despite having conflict management training, I really thought my job was to just make conflict go away. So, instead of always trying to ensure that nobody’s feelings get hurt in the first place, I’ve come to understand it is much more healthy, much more life-giving, much more spiritually sound to embrace the reality that we may hurt each other from time to time. This means that knowing how to apologize is an essential skill. When we enter into conflicts, we need to do so fully expecting that at some point along the way we will either be offering an apology, offering forgiveness or both.

We need the possibility for atonement.

The absence of any possibility for atonement makes human conflict terrifying. The presence of that possibility makes human conflict palatable and even productive.

In the absence of any possibility for atonement, we are forced to conclude that broken relationships will remain broken, separation will remain separation, isolation will remain isolation. The presence of that possibility assures us that broken relationships can be restored, separation and isolation can be overcome.

In the absence of any possibility for atonement, our first chance, it turns out, was our only chance. There is no new beginning. But in the presence of that possibility, we get second chances. We can keep trying until we get it right. We can always begin again in love. 

Autumn BirdsA Third Reflection on Atonement: “Micro-Atonements”

I’m calling this reflection “Micro-Atonements,” but I originally called it “I Didn’t Mean It That Way,” in reference to that gut response we may sometimes have when someone informs us we’ve hurt them or crossed some line they find problematic.

“What you did hurt me.” “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“That’s a racist thing to say.” “Oh, no, not at all. You don’t understand what I mean.”

“That was harsh.” “Well, I didn’t intend to be harsh.”

“You didn’t do what you said you were going to do.” “Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying.”

“Your response sounds sexist.” “Oh please, I don’t have a sexist bone in my body.”

“Stop making fun of me.” “I’m not trying to make fun of you.”

“Ughh, please don’t keep saying that. You’re making me angry.” “That’s not my intent.”

“It just feels homophobic to me.” “No, you’re not hearing me correctly. This isn’t that.”

“Ouch, that stung.” “That’s not how I meant it.”

When you tell me I hurt you, it is quite possible that my gut response will be to deny that I hurt you, to try to absolve myself of any wrong-doing before you’ve had a chance to explain. I don’t experience myself as a hurtful person, so it just isn’t possible that I hurt you. I know I didn’t intend to hurt you, so clearly you’ve misunderstood, misheard, mis-interpreted what I’ve said or done. My intentions are good, so your hurt isn’t justified. Frankly, it isn’t even real. Get over it. Surely, if I explain that I didn’t mean it that way, your hurt will go away.

This gut response comes from multiple sources. In me, it may have something to do with the way our society socializes boys to turn away from emotion. It may have something to do with being an ACOA and wanting to make any negative or difficult emotion vanish as quickly as possible. It may have something to do with being a perfectionist, with not wanting to admit that I, too, can make mistakes. I’m sure it also has something to do with being white, male and heterosexual in a society that privileges white, male, heterosexual people, and thus not fully understanding how deep racism, sexism and homophobia go, or how they are experienced in the tiny things we say and do that we don’t know we’re saying and doing. By the way, the term for those tiny sayings and doings is ‘micro-aggressions.” They are indeed small—“no big deal,” we might say in our own defense—but they add up through the course of a day, a year, a life.

If this gut response to defend exists in you, it may have similar origins to those I am describing for myself. It may have other origins. Regardless of where it comes from, in my experience, most of us say these kinds of things from time to time when confronted with the negative impact we’ve had on someone else, no matter how unintentional. “You hurt me.” Well, that wasn’t my intent.”

But in this gut response lives the seeds of more hurt, the seeds of distance, separateness, isolation. It took me a long time to figure this out—and I am still figuring it out: the fact that I didn’t mean to hurt you, doesn’t mean you weren’t hurt. The fact that it wasn’t my intent to cause you pain, doesn’t mean your pain isn’t real. Telling you “I didn’t mean it that way,” is equivalent to saying “your feelings are wrong.” It’s an attempt to end the conflict without actually doing the work of reconciliation. When someone is hurt, before we explain ourselves, we need to tend to the hurt. Those two blessed words, “I’m sorry,” spoken with love and care, more often than not, will be sufficient to begin repairing the breach. But not “I’m sorry” with sarcasm, not with a rolling of the eyes, not with a huff and a sigh, not with a tone that suggests I’m only saying this because I know you need to hear it but I don’t really feel it; and not “I’m sorry, but….” And not, “I’m sorry that you misunderstood my intentions.” Just two words: “I’m sorry.” Let’s call this micro-atonement.

I know this isn’t a perfect science, but I’ve come to trust that when we acknowledge and honor another’s feelings, when we say “I’m sorry,” they have a much better chance of hearing and believing that causing pain was not our intent. And we also have a much better chance of learning how our words and actions have power beyond our intent.

bombingA Final Reflection on Atonement: If We Must Go To War

The United States of America and its allies are at war with a barbaric and, in my view, pathological enemy calling itself the Islamic State. I won’t rehearse here the events that led to this war as I trust they are widely known in this room. What I hope to do in a few minutes is describe my own struggle to come to terms with the idea that this war is necessary.

I am deeply suspicious of American war-making in our era. My suspicion emerges when I detect the possibility that American or multinational corporations stand to profit from our war-making. I don’t agree that innocent people anywhere ought to suffer—that is, have their cities or villages bombed, lose their homes, lose all their worldly possessions, be driven into mountains, deserts and swamps, driven across borders, driven into refugee camps, experience starvation, dehydration and disease, lose limbs, see friends and family members die—simply because a corporation’s interests are threatened or because a corporation stands to make a profit. Whenever there is a justifiable reason to go to war, i.e., ending fascism in Europe and Japan or stopping genocide, I know there will always be those who profit—some corporate entity must produce the weapons used in fighting the war. But all too often I fear our leaders allow the discernment process to go in reverse: the lust for profit comes first, and the moral (and often thin) justification for war (recall Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction) comes second.

I don’t feel suspicion toward our war against the Islamic State. I feel fear, anger and sadness, but not suspicion.  I feel fear particularly when I learn of the arrest of a cell of Islamic State operatives in Australia who were planning to conduct random kidnappings and beheadings. I wonder: was that really what it was? It’s not completely clear. But if that’s what it was, I wonder further: have such cells already formed in Europe, in the United States? I wonder also about the Khorasan Group—not part of the Islamic State—whose base near Aleppo, Syria the United States bombed last week, citing the presence of an imminent threat to the United States. I want to believe these threats are not so real, that this talk is an inflation of a much more distant threat. The word “threat” raises suspicions for me. Is this just the government and the media attempting to build public support for the war—by frightening us into believing there is a direct threat to us? I also know that when the government and the media talk about threats to the “homeland” from radical Islamist groups, there is almost always an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and a violation of the civil rights of Muslims in the United States. Allegations of threats are immensely complicated. I never quite believe they are as imminent as we hear. But my heart also remembers: it’s happened before. What if the threats are real this time? And I feel fear.

I feel anger at the litany of atrocities the Islamic State has committed—killing, raping, disfiguring, destroying sacred sites, attacking religious minorities, viciously silencing opposing viewpoints, enslaving women, marrying girls to multiple fighters at a time, and lying again and again about the teachings of Islam. I fully accept that people across the Middle East are angry at the United States, other western nations, and corrupt Middle Eastern regimes for a century of colonial oppression. Fight if you must—I get that. But the wonton slaughter of innocents invalidates the grievances you have against perceived enemies; and it demands a principled response from the global community.

I feel deep sadness that we are dropping bombs again on Iraq and anew in Syria—sadness in response to the loss of life, especially the innocents who will become our collateral damage statistics; sadness in response to the money and resources we’re dedicating to war-making that are so desperately needed in our own nation; sadness about the long-term psychological and spiritual damage American war-making does to us, let alone the damage it does abroad; and sadness at the thought that I hate war, that I take to heart Dr. King’s warning that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence.”[4] And yet when I weigh every fact I can learn about this situation—and I acknowledge I don’t know all the facts—I come to the heart-wrenching conclusion that we cannot abandon the millions of people who live in Iraq and Syria to this barbarous tyranny; that there is no solution other than to meet these atrocities not only with every available economic and diplomatic tool, but with resounding military force. I can barely imagine myself saying such a thing; but a chaotic, relentless, brutal and unfeeling spirit drives the Islamic State. I know of no word to name it other than evil. I am not suspicious of our intentions in this new-old war. I am fearful, angry, sad and resigned. The fact that so many traditional antiwar voices on the American left have not spoken out forcefully against this war leads me to speculate that there are many others who feel similarly.  

War, more than any other human endeavor, destroys relationships, creates separation, dehumanizes, murders. What I long to be assured of now is that there will be some way to atone for the violence we are perpetuating.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister and committed pacifist who joined a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler said this about his own embrace of violence to confront evil: “The ultimate question for a responsible [person] to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”[5] I don’t know enough about this quote to say for sure what Bonhoffer meant by it, but it speaks to me today about this war that feels so tragically necessary. If we must pursue it, let us do so in a way that minimizes the killing of innocents—let that be our first principle of engagement. If we must pursue it, let it not define us as a people. Let it not become who we are as a nation. Let it not obscure and decimate our vision of a more just, peaceful and fair world. Indeed may that vision—not this war—serve as the moral foundation for the coming generations; and may we who live now do everything in our power to make it so. In this way, may we begin to atone for all the wrongs that will surely come with this  new-old war.

Amen and blessed be.

hope

[1] Malka Drucker’s website is at http://www.malkadrucker.com/.

[2] Drucker, Malka, The Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1994) p. 5.

[3] Jacobson, Burt, “A Prayer Before Yom Kippur,” is posted at Velveteen Rabbi, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2014/10/before-yom-kippur.html.

[4] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[5] Carroll, James, “Who Is Jesus Today? Bonhoffer, Tillich, and the Future of Jesus Christ” Harvard Divinity School Bulletin (Summe/Autumn 2014) p. 46. See: http://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/summerautumn2014/who-jesus-today.