Something My Grandfather Seemed to Know About Race and Class

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I want to share with you some stories about my father’s father, Stanley J. Pawelek.  Grandad Pawelek seemed to know something about race and class that feels extraordinarily important for this moment in American history.

He was the oldest of nine children born and raised in Thorp, Wisconsin. He was the son of Polish Catholic immigrants who didn’t speak English. Thorp was a farm town, and the Paweleks were subsistence farmers. They owned two acres of land and some animals—mostly chickens. My father remembers visiting Thorp with his parents when he was young. He loved Thorp. He loved the land. He loved eating fresh eggs for breakfast. He says his extended family was lovely in the sense that they were tight-knit and still practiced Polish culture and traditions. I get the impression from my father they were ‘salt-of-the-earth’ people. When he was with them he was one of them. He belonged. He felt loved. But there was a shadow side. They were racist. Like so many European immigrants who would eventually lose their hyphens and become White Americans, the Paweleks very quickly picked up American racism towards Blacks and other people of color. In fact, picking up and expressing that racism was part of becoming White. My grandad was no exception. My father remembers him using racist jokes and slurs. He believed Blacks were inferior to Whites. He didn’t have much contact with Hispanics, Asians, Arabs and Native Americans; but I suspect if he had he would have held racist beliefs about them too.

My grandad also held deep admiration for what he called “the working man,” specifically people who worked with their hands. “A man doesn’t need a college degree to achieve the American dream,” he would often tell my father. A man could work with his hands—build things, manufacture things, repair things—and earn a good living, good enough to support a family, purchase a home and retire with enough savings to maintain a decent standard of living. He saw the working man as the proud, heroic heart of American society.

Oddly, he did not possess the gift of working with his hands, which may be why he developed a very specific vision for his life. He wanted to be the director of an industrial arts program for a major urban school system. He wanted to help train the next generation of working men. He knew this by the time he reached high school. He went to college to learn how to teach industrial arts and eventually earned a Ph.D. in vocational education from the University of Minnesota. In the early 1940s the Baltimore, MD board of education hired him as Supervisor for Industrial Arts, a job he held for over 30 years. He retired in the mid-70s for health reasons related to diabetes and died soon after that.

Baltimore desegregated its schools soon after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. As was the case in many towns and cities, White parents boycotted. They kept their children home. Grandad Pawelek refused to participate in the boycott. He went to work and he sent his kids to school. My father has vivid memories of White parents lining the walkway to the school entrance, taunting and spitting at him and the small handful of White students whose parents weren’t boycotting. We aren’t sure what my grandfather thought about integration or the boycott. The message to my father was crystal clear: your education is more important than whatever I may think or say about Black people.

In the pre-segregation era when my father was in elementary school, he and my grandad had an interesting Saturday morning routine. They would visit the schools under Grandad’s supervision. They would drive first to a White school, get out of the car, enter the shop wing, remove the best tools and equipment, load up the car, drive it across the city to a Black school, and replace what my father calls the ‘crappy’ tools and equipment at the Black school with the high quality tools and equipment from the White school. While they did this, my grandad would talk to his son about the working man. He didn’t talk about the White working man. It was just the working man. As Supervisor for Industrial Arts for the City of Baltimore, he understood it was his job to insure that every student received an education that would enable them to take their place in that proud, heroic heart of American society. If the Black schools under his supervision did not have adequate tools to successfully educate Black students, it reflected poorly on his leadership and he would do what he could to make things fair.

What I find so fascinating and confusing about this story is that despite his racist beliefs, he behaved in a principled way. He believed Blacks were inferior to Whites, but somehow his racism did not eclipse his sense of obligation to every school, teacher and student under his supervision. His racism did not eclipse his commitment to equality of opportunity. His racism did not eclipse his vision of who America is for, who could enter the working class, get a good job, support a family, purchase a home. His principles were bigger than his racism. His America was bigger than his racism.

The original title of this sermon was “What About All That Rage?” There are two underlying sources of White rage in the United States. The first is legitimate and the nation—including communities of faith—needs to address it: rage at rising economic inequality, economic neglect, the disappearance of traditional blue color jobs, a related deterioration of communities where those jobs were prevalent, and a prevailing sense of alienation, cynicism and loss in those communities. Though this rage is most closely associated in the public mind with White communities in the American rust belt—the declining manufacturing centers of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin—it exists everywhere in the country. It existed long before the 2016 presidential campaign, and people feel it across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders spoke to this rage on the political left as much as Donald Trump on the right. During the party primaries it was fascinating to note a significant overlap among Sanders and Trump supporters. On the Democratic side in particular, often voters weren’t choosing between Sanders and Clinton. They were choosing between Sanders and Trump. In my sermon on the Sunday after the election I said if this election result was truly “a cry for economic renewal; if President-elect Trump and his supporters understand he has just been charged with dismantling the forces driving the nation’s industrial decline, driving the stark, immoral and unsustainable rise in income inequality, driving the erosion of workers’ rights, wages and dignity … that’s a movement I want to be in.”[1] Principle, not party.

But there’s a second source of White rage which dashes my hopes for this movement: the rage of White supremacy, White nationalism and xenophobia mingled with an alarming embrace of misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. This rage is also not new, but it has been given new life with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I do not believe everyone who voted for Trump supports White supremacy. I am heartened when I see Trump voters, Republicans and conservatives trying to distance themselves from White supremacy and from Trump’s more egregious statements. Nevertheless, this rage is misguided, dangerous and un-American. It is a form of evil, and the nation—including communities of faith—need to counter it resolutely.

These two sources of White rage became entangled during the campaign. Trump’s rhetoric enabled the entanglement. Legitimate White rage over the effects of globalism, factory closures, job losses, workplace automation and income inequality became entangled with illegitimate racist calls for border walls, Muslim bans, law and order, stop and frisk policing and the continuing roll-back of voting rights. Illegitimate and immoral White American racism hijacked legitimate, moral anger at the nation’s economic condition. White American racism trumped America’s principles of fairness, justice and equality. It will be enormously important in the coming months and years to disentangle these two sources of White rage. The church must send us forth to engage with the rage for economic renewal, and to confront, challenge, and turn back the rage for White supremacy.

Grandad Pawelek said racist things and held racist beliefs. But from what we can tell, his racism didn’t become entangled with his vision of who could occupy that proud, heroic working class heart of America. While his racism was wrong, his understanding of the working class was right. Even before desegregation, even before the civil rights movement was in full gear, the American working class was never a purely White class. It has always been multiracial, multicultural, multi-ethnic. And it has always included women. It has always experienced racial tensions. It has its own history of racial and gender segregation, but it has always been a diverse class. It’s not that there’s no such thing as a White working class. There is. It has a history, culture, traditions, expectations. But when politicians and the media use this term to refer to a racially-identified group of voters with current and historic ties to American manufacturing, it gives a misleading impression of how diverse the working class really is. A brief glance at data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals there are Black, Hispanic, Asian and women workers in virtually every type of working class job.[2] And a 2016 study by Valerie Wilson, [3] director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, estimates that the American working class will be majority people of color by 2032.[4]

I’m pointing this out because it’s not just White workers who are angry about the impacts of globalism and income inequality. People of color workers have been enraged about these problems far longer than White workers have. Industrial manufacturing jobs left cities first, decimated Black and Hispanic communities first.[5] The Movement for Black Lives economic justice demands call for economic renewal designed primarily to benefit Black people, but if implemented would actually benefit all working class people. They’re calling for, among other things, a progressive restructuring of the tax code, federal and state jobs programs that provide a living wage, the right for workers to organize, restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act to break up large banks, renegotiation of all trade agreements to prioritize the interests of workers and communities, and protections for workers in unregulated industries—domestic workers, farm workers, tipped workers and incarcerated workers.[6]

It was weird. Donald Trump kicked off his Presidential Campaign on June 16th, 2015, and even then I could sense the White working class rage he was channeling. Exactly one week prior to that I was arrested in Hartford at a Black Lives Matter action. I remember thinking, first, Donald Trump, you’re the 1% of the 1%–you don’t get to be angry. We’re angry. Black Lives Matter is Angry. Immigrants’ rights activists are angry. Voting rights activists are angry. You don’t get to be angry. But then as that legitimate White rage at globalism and “the rigged system” became more clear, I kept wondering, perhaps naively, why does the White working class like him? Why isn’t the White working class supporting the Black Lives Matter economic justice agenda? Why isn’t the White working class making the connection to all workers, to what’s happening in urban centers, on Indian reservations, to the environment, to militarism? Why can’t all of us who care about these things be angry together in a multifaceted movement for black liberation, gender justice, worker rights, immigration reform, environmental justice, demilitarization, criminal justice reform, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights?

Why? Because, in this case, Donald Trump made racism bigger than America. He entangled legitimate White rage with White identity politics, with racist dog-whistles, with xenophobic fear mongering, with the degradation of women. He didn’t strengthen the White working class. He isolated the White working class from its natural allies. He played the White working class, and in so doing, he is now poised to reverse years of civil rights gains, years of environmental gains, years of gains for women’s rights, years of health care gains, and years of regulations intended to protect the very workers for whom he claims to speak. That’s how racism rolls. It’s also how the rich get richer.

In his farewell speech Tuesday, President Obama made the argument that there will not be economic progress for working people if working people remain divided along racial lines. He said “Blacks and other minority groups [need to tie] our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who …has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change…. White Americans [must acknowledge] that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness…. They’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised….  Native-born Americans [must remember] that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles—[they] were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.” [7]

Let’s take his words to heart. Let’s imagine an America for everyone. And let’s fight for it: in the streets, at the marches, in the legislative halls, in the schools, in the media, and maybe even on a Saturday morning when nobody’s looking and the good tools need to be moved. Let’s make America greater than its racism!

When my grandad died, our family made the trip to Baltimore to attend the funeral. I vaguely remember arriving late. And I vaguely remember for a moment thinking we were in the wrong church. Our white Pawelek family walked into a church filled with Black people. Most of them were the teachers and students who had worked with Stan Pawelek over the years. Working men and women. The proud, heroic heart of America had come to pay its respects.

His racism was real. His America was greater.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Josh M., “Sending Forth: Six Reflections on the 2016 United States Presidential Election,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 13, 2016. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/sending-forth/.

[2] See the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey” at https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm.

[3] See biographical information for Valerie Wilson at http://www.epi.org/people/valerie-wilson/.

[4] Wilson’s study is entitled “People of color will be a majority of the American working class in 2032: What this means for the effort to grow wages and reduce inequality.” It was published on June 9, 2016. View it here: http://www.epi.org/publication/the-changing-demographics-of-americas-working-class/.

[5] William Julius Wilson’s 1996 book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Vintage Books) is a definitive resource on this issue.

[6] Study the Movement for Black Lives economic justice platform here: https://policy.m4bl.org/economic-justice/.

[7] “President Obama’s Farwell Speech: Full Video and Text,” nytimes.com, January 10, 2017. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/10/us/politics/obama-farewell-address-speech.html?_r=0.

Living Principles

Public Witness In my sermon following the election of Donald Trump as United States President, I said “the church is not serving you fully if it is not sending you forth into the world to live your principles proudly, resolutely, urgently, lovingly.” But I offered only a very general suggestion of what that might mean in this historical moment. The more I spoke with members and friends of the congregation, the more it felt important to continue this morning exploring what this means, rather than preaching on the sources of rage in American culture and society as I had originally planned. I think this is important. I think the post-election narrative about rage in the nation is far too simple. It ignores many sources of rage, many longstanding grievances that continue to go unaddressed. I’ll preach that sermon on January 15th.  For now, what does it mean that our congregation sends us forth to live our Unitarian Universalist principles proudly, resolutely, urgently, lovingly?

Rehearsing the Beloved Community[1]

I don’t expect any of us, myself included, to know how to live our principles just because we say they are our principles. As we read through the Unitarian Universalist principles on the back of the order of service, we say, “yes, these are my principles, they speak to me, they resonate with me.” But that doesn’t mean we automatically know how to apply them to our lives. We certainly aren’t born knowing how to live them. We have to learn how to live them. And, in fact, we have to constantly relearn how to live them as the world changes. How do we learn and relearn? We practice. We practice here at church. This is, in fact, one of the purposes of church. Rehearsal. Heaven may not have come to earth, but we can rehearse for its arrival here. We may not experience beloved community out in the wider world, but we can rehearse it here. Practice, practice, practice.

Practice respect here. That’s our first principle. Practice acceptance here. That’s our third principle. Practice respect for and acceptance of people who are different from you in some way: people who believe differently than you; people with religious, cultural or geographical backgrounds different from yours; people whose age, ability, gender or sexual orientation is different from yours. Learn another’s perspective, then practice encountering the world from that perspective.

Practice compassion here—that’s part of our second principle. Practice approaching and being present to people who are suffering or in pain. Practice being attentive. Practice listening. Practice caring. Practice empathizing. Practice being supportive and nonjudgmental as others share their vulnerabilities in your presence. And, while you’re at it, practice asking for help from others. Practice accepting help from others. Practice being vulnerable, sharing your fears, your concerns, your anxieties in the presence of others who love and support you.

Practice democracy here. That’s our fourth principle. If you know the congregation is holding a meeting and taking a vote, learn what the vote is about, and then vote. But democracy is more than voting. Practice finding common ground. Practice building consensus. Practice letting everyone speak who wants to. If someone expresses a concern, practice pausing to address the concern, even if it means we might not finish everything on the agenda. If you’re typically quiet and reserved, practice speaking up. If you’re typically vocal and always offer ideas, practice waiting until everyone else has spoken. And if you are a person of privilege, practice making room for those with less privilege.

Practice justice-making here. That’s the heart of our second and sixth principles. Practice being fair. Practice peace-making. Let’s practice together not perpetuating sexism here, not perpetuating racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism and classism here. We’ve made some wonderful strides in recent years, so let’s also practice not taking our success for granted. If we want to move the wider world toward more justice, equity and compassion, then let’s practice moving ourselves toward more justice, equity and compassion.

Practice earth stewardship and sustainable living here, our seventh principle. Practice searching for truth and meaning here, our fourth principle.

Learn what living these principles feel like in practice here. Let the visceral experience of them here seep into your consciousness, your psyche, your heart, your bones. Let the experience capture your imagination for what your community, your town, the nation, the world can be. Begin looking for such experiences in other parts of your life. Begin to notice where they are present in the wider world, and where they are absent. Where they are present, name them, celebrate them, encourage them, build on them. Where they are absent, begin to introduce them, just like you’ve been practicing at church. Let church be rehearsal space for beloved community.

Don’t Take the Bait: Thoughts on the Second Unitarian Universalist Principle

Injustice and inequality don’t happen because individuals hold and profess extreme views. Injustice and inequality happen because those views operate in institutional structures and culture. Here’s an example of what I am talking about. If a company with a sexist culture fires a sexist boss, will that make sexism go away? No. A company with a sexist culture can’t make sexism go away simply by firing a sexist boss. A company with a sexist culture can reduce the impact of sexism by changing institutional structures and culture, by mandating equal pay for equal work, a fair and transparent path to promotion for all employees regardless of gender, a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, a trustworthy reporting process for victims of sexual harassment, and so on. Firing the sexist boss is relatively easy. But changing structures and culture takes time, education, organizing. It takes endurance, resilience and creativity. Firing a sexist boss might feel good—it might feel like a triumph for our values—and it might be the right thing to do, but there’s no guarantee anything will be different afterwards. Changing sexist structures and culture will reduce sexism in the company regardless of any individual’s personal views and behaviors. For me, living our second principle has rarely meant focusing on the things extremist individuals or groups do and say. It has always meant working to change structures and culture.

That’s become a very difficult line to parse recently. Throughout the presidential campaign Donald Trump would offer controversial, hateful statements into the crowd, then sit back with a smirk as the nation spun like a pinwheel around his words. We reacted. We took the bait. He would let it go on for a few days then walk the statement back. “No, we won’t punish women who get abortions.” “No, we won’t commit war crimes.” Later he would criticize the media for continuously replaying the first thing he said but not the second thing. “That’s unfair. You’re being biased.” The end result was nobody knew what he was proposing. The pinwheel ride continues. He’s still using this technique. And now some of his extremist supporters are using it too—provoking, testing, discerning what hateful words and actions they can get away with. Liberals are living in a state of constant reaction. Of course, some of this hate is more than mere provocation. Some of it poses a real threat and we need to respond. But we also need to learn how to recognize the difference between a real threat and an action intended just to get a reaction. The line is admittedly blurry, but we need to stop taking the bait.

Since November 8th I’ve never heard so many people—here and elsewhere—say “I want to get involved” or “I want to crawl out from under my rock and work for a more just society.” I think it’s great that people want to live our second principle more forthrightly. (I hope many of you who feel newly motivated will join our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee at its next meeting on December 6th at 7:00.) But a word of caution: The principle is “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” not “earnest reaction to Trump’s latest tweet.” We’re not taking the bait.

The church sends us forth to dismantle the structures and culture that hold injustice and inequality in place. For more than a decade we’ve been advocating for more humane treatment of undocumented immigrants, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, health care reform, criminal justice and drug policy reform, an end to mass incarceration of people of color, and a reversal of the policies and practices that drive income inequality. More recently we’ve committed ourselves to the Black Lives Matter movement and refugee resettlement work.  Let’s stay focused on these issues that have defined us, rather than reacting to the provocations of extremists. We sought justice, equity and compassion in human relations throughout the Obama presidency. We would be doing it throughout a Hillary Clinton presidency. We will do it throughout the Trump presidency. In the words of the old civil rights song, “keep your eyes on the prize!” Don’t take the bait.

Loving the Haters: Thoughts on the First Unitarian Universalist Principle

Love yourself fiercely. I say this because it truly is difficult to extend love outward if you cannot extend love inward. If you struggle with self-doubt, if you carry feelings of guilt or shame, if your confidence and esteem are low, if you feel you don’t deserve the love of others, if you’re wrestling with your privilege, if you’re angry, frightened, immobilized, lost, remember: the inherent worth and dignity of every person applies to you too. I know it can be incredibly difficult to move from self-doubt to self-love. It’s not a straightforward path. There may be wounds that run deep, that have never healed, that still hurt. It may be easy for me to say, but I feel I must say it: Love yourself fiercely. That is the foundation upon which we can offer genuine love to others.

Our first principle has been—and still is—for me, the starting-place for a liberating, anti-oppressive vision of the world. It focuses our attention on the oppressed, the impoverished, the most vulnerable. It calls us to love and support undocumented people, not because we all agree that it’s OK they entered the country illegally, but because they are our fellow human beings, the vast majority of whom are seeking to fulfill the same promises in life so many of us seek—honest work, a chance to succeed, safety for their families, education for their children, peace. It calls us to love and support the transgender teenager before they feel so hopeless that the only path they can imagine is suicide; to love and support Black lives before another young man lies dying in the street or incarcerated for nonviolent crimes; to love and support Muslim women who face the excruciating decision whether or not to wear the hijab and invite ridicule and violence, or to take it off and deprive themselves of a source of spiritual strength; to love and support the combat veteran struggling with PTSD; to love and support the Standing Rock water protectors; to love and support the opioid addict, the person living with AIDS, the homeless person; to love and support everyone now living in fear that their life-sustaining health care coverage is going to vanish.  

This vision of love and support for the oppressed and the vulnerable is the right vision; and it is difficult enough to make real. But it does not exhaust the scope of our first principle. It actually gets more difficult. Respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person requires us, also, to love and support the neighbor or the family member with the political lawn sign that disagrees with our political lawn sign; to love and support the person who wrote that insensitive letter to the editor, not to mention the troll comments further down the page; to love and support those White working class voters who feel not only forgotten and neglected but full of rage; to love and support the police officer who fired the fatal shot; to love and support the people who propose policies that threaten your rights or your well-being; the gun manufacturer who just produced a weapon that will be used to murder; the prison guard who abuses the prisoners; the drug dealer who peddles death in shiny little bags; the oil driller, the pipeline worker, the coal miner, the factory farmer, the rain forest logger—all those people whose livelihoods depend on industries and practices that destroy the earth; the 1% who hoard the wealth of the nations. And yes, it calls us to love the haters, the people who suddenly feel they have license to spread hate and division, to harass and bully—the avowed racists, the homophobes, the sexists. Love them. Love their families. Love their children.

So many have said, “No, I will not do this. I will not love people who hate. I’m sick and tired of the appeal to understand their perspective when they have never respected my perspective. I’m sick and tired of being asked to make nice with racism.” I keep saying some version of “When you hate I have no obligation to love you.  You don’t even want my love. You mock my love. So why should I bother?”

That’s how I feel. It’s an impasse. But I also know that if someone else’s hate has the power to define the scope of my principles, then hate wins. And that cannot happen. The impasse is real, but the power of love is greater. Someone else’s hate may be frightening, saddening, demoralizing, infuriating, anxiety-producing, but that doesn’t mean it has to weaken your capacity to love yourself, your neighbor, a stranger or your enemy. That doesn’t mean you must reduce the scope of our first principle from ‘every person’ to ‘only some people.’ I confess I don’t know how to love people who hate. I know I don’t have to accept hate. I know I still have to hold people accountable for their hateful words and deeds. I may have to forgive, but that does not mean I have to forget. So what do I have to do? I’m not sure yet. This dimension of our first principle requires an examination most of us haven’t done. But right now there is an abundance of hate, so it’s time to relearn how we live this principle. It’s time to come to church to practice loving the haters. That may sound elitist and arrogant to some listeners, but I’m not sure what choice we have. I principles require it.

In the very least I know this: as I am sent forth into the world, I will not let hate determine how I live my principles. Abundant love will determine how I live my principles. And abundant love has no limits.

Earlier I read to you Annette Marquis, “Deliver Us to Evil.” I’ll conclude my remarks this morning by sharing her re-working of the Lord’s prayer, a reminder to let love guide us in how we live our principles. She prays:  “Spirit of Life, which exists wherever there is love, / Blessed be all Your names. / Strengthen our will / To create heaven on earth, / And help us embody a peace-filled world. / Give us all our daily bread. / Teach us to forgive ourselves for our failings, / And to forgive those who have failed us. / Deliver us to evil / And give us the courage to transform it with Love. / For Love is the power, and the glory, / For ever and ever. / Amen.”[2]

Blessed be.

[1] This language of “rehearsing the beloved community” is not original to me, though I am not sure who to credit. I first encountered it at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. Since then, I have heard numerous clergy around the country use this language to describe the purpose of the church.

[2] Marquis, Annette, “Deliver Us to Evil” in Montgomery, Kathleen, ed., Bless the Imperfect (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2014) pp. 75-76.

What If? Reflections on the Great Commandment and the Death of Trayvon Martin

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

 

The Great CommandmentThis summer we’re exploring the six sources of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition in worship. It’s my task this morning to reflect on the fourth source: “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” As I said earlier, this is a direct reference to what Christians call the Great Commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  Both admonitions—love God and love neighbor—were central to the religion and culture of ancient Israel. We find them in the Torah, in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Jesus combined them into one, enduring statement which appears in each of the synoptic gospels—Mathew, Mark and Luke. Today we attribute the Great Commandment to Jesus, though it likely wasn’t original to him. It’s quite possible his teachers taught him to express the essence of Judaism in this form. Either way, the Great Commandment was central to his ministry and lies at the heart of Christianity.

When I first offered to preach on the Great Commandment as a source of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition I wasn’t sure what I would say. And although it’s often the case that I don’t know what I will say about a topic two or three months ahead of time—or even a few days ahead of time—one of the reasons I wasn’t sure in this case is because the Great Commandment—known as the Golden Rule in secular society— is so simple, so obvious, so common, so central to the religion, spirituality, morality and culture of the United States, so central to the way we introduce children to moral and ethical reasoning in the United States that it sometimes feels like everything that can be said about it has been said about it; that there’s nothing left to say, no way to break new ground, nothing innovative to do with it that hasn’t already been done.

Trayvon Martin

George ZimmermanAnd then, Saturday evening, July 13th, the jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial handed down its verdict: not guilty. The jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, the unarmed, Black youth he shot to death on February 26th, 2012. Not guilty, despite the fact that he started the chain of events that included Martin fighting back and that ended tragically in Martin’s death. Not guilty, despite the fact that a 911 operator asked him to stay in his car. Stepping back from the trial and reflecting just on the shooting that ended Trayvon Martin’s life, it strikes me that despite how simple, how obvious, how common, how central the Great Commandment is to the moral and ethical foundations of our society, it is still so hard to make real in the world. It is still so hard, for so many reasons, to approach strangers with love in our hearts. 2500 years after the ancient Hebrew prophets and priests first introduced these ideas—“You shall not oppress the alien”[1]—2000 years after Jesus articulated the Great Commandment, it is still so hard to live.

Too often fear, anger, resentment or greed motivate us. Too often we—and by “we” I mean everyone, all Americans—make assumptions, we profile, we misread, mistrust, miscommunicate and things go downhill from there. Too often love seems distant, unreliable, elusive and impractical. Too often a loving response seems like sign of weakness. Maybe it’s obvious, but it needs to be said again and again and again: Love what is sacred to you. Love it with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. If it’s God, love God. If it’s the Earth, love the Earth. If it’s the Human Spirit, love the Human Spirit. If it’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence, love the Interdependent Web of All Existence. If it’s your family, love your family. And love your neighbor as yourself.

7-28 Love Thy Neighbor

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, and now again in the aftermath of the trial, many commentators have speculated on how the outcome might have been different if some critical aspect of the case were different. I call this the What If game. For example, “What if Trayvon Martin were White?” Or, “What if George Zimmerman were Black?” Or, as President Obama asked in his reflections on the verdict on July 19, “What if Trayvon Martin had been carrying a gun?” These what if questions are intended to help us look at the case from a different perspective, to call attention to inconsistencies and double-standards, or to uncover racism and discrimination. They ask us to contemplate scenarios that didn’t happen so that we can gain clarity about the complexities of what did happen.

I’d like to ask some What If questions this morning. They are questions that help me explain what I would expect to see happen differently if the Great Commandment were operating in the moment before George Zimmerman first encountered Trayvon Martin. As I ask these questions, it will sound like I’m talking about George Zimmerman, and on one level I am, as he was the one who started the train of events that resulted in Trayvon Martin’s death. But please understand that I’m not only talking about George Zimmerman. As many commentators have said, we are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we allow the profiling of young Black and Brown men to continue. We are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we continue to value the lives of young Black and Brown people less than the lives of young White people. We are all responsible for this tragedy because as a nation we continue to look away from institutional and systemic racism and other forms of oppression rather than face them directly. So I’m raising these questions for all of us.

What if?

It’s really hard to love your neighbor as yourself when the sight of your neighbor strikes fear and suspicion into your heart because you believe the prevalent stereotypes about their particular racial group. Well, what if George Zimmerman were antiracist? That is, what if his world-view and values were antiracist? Instead of jumping to the conclusion that a young Black man in a hoodie posed a threat to the neighborhood, what if Mr. Zimmerman recognized that his own gut reaction was a product of widespread racist stereotypes about young men of color? What if he knew that when he has such a gut reaction (which many people of all racial identities admit to having), it is unfair of him to act on it because in truth he has no idea who this person is, what his intentions are, whether or not he lives in the neighborhood, who his parents are, where he goes to school, etc? What if, in that moment when he first saw Mr. Martin, Mr. Zimmerman recognized his own capacity for racial stereotyping ,was shocked at his own thoughts, and said to himself I need to work on that?

What if Mr. Zimmerman knew that when a young Black man dons a hoodie, when he struts and swaggers slowly down the street, when he speaks with bravado in urban youth slang,  and even when he tries to look and act menacing, he is doing so because it’s the only way he knows how to feel powerful in a society that constantly informs him he is powerless, that he will never have power and that his life doesn’t matter? What if Mr. Zimmerman understood that this young Black man—whether he knows it or not—dresses and acts the way he does because he is actually resisting the dominant culture which tells him he ought to dress and act more like a White person, but then simultaneously tells him that he can never be White, that he can never enjoy the full privileges of White society, that he will always be a second class citizen?

What if, instead of calling the police, Mr. Zimmerman knew that young Black men fall victim to police racial profiling far too often, and that even an initially innocuous encounter with police can result in far worse consequences for young Black men than for young White men? What if Mr. Zimmerman was outraged about the mass incarceration of young People of Color in the United States and recognized that the last thing he wanted to do was mobilize public resources and taxpayer dollars to involve yet another young Black man in the criminal justice system, especially when all he was doing was walking slowly down the street?

Antiracist and Proud

What if Mr. Zimmerman knew even a small portion of the way racism in the United States of America still weighs heavily on the lives of People of Color? What if he knew something about the race-based educational achievement gap, race-based disparities in health care access and outcomes, the race-based wealth gap, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, and widespread attempts to disenfranchise People of Color though new voter ID laws? What if he knew something of the legacy of slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, lynching and the racist way in which the GI Bill created segregated White suburbs after World War II? What if knew, whether this kid knows it or not, that racism weighs heavily on his life and, if anything, he needs support, understanding and acceptance, not suspicion and hostility?

Cesar and Delores

What if Mr. Zimmerman was deeply in touch with the Hispanic side of his own racial and cultural identity and heritage and understood that Hispanic people also face racism in the United States? What if he understood that the same forces that conspire to oppress Blacks have and do conspire to oppress Hispanics? What if he knew that the racial profiling of Black people also happens to people who look Hispanic—not just in Sheriff Joe Arpaio Maricopa County around Phoenix, Arizona, but all over the country? What if he understood that young Hispanic men like himself are also far more likely than their White peers to be profiled, arrested, falsely accused, given harsher sentences, incarcerated, denied a job, asked to show ID, prevented from voting, followed in stores, and on and on? What if George Zimmerman understood that when right wing pundits and Tea Party conservatives say they want to “take back the nation,” they mean they want to take it back not only from people who look like Trayvon Martin, but also from people who look like George Zimmerman?

SB 1070 protest

What if George Zimmerman knew that American Hispanics had their own civil rights movement modeled in part on the successes of the Black civil rights movement? What if he knew the history of the United Farm Workers? What if Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta were his personal heroes? What if he identified with the current struggle for immigrants’ rights? What if he identified with the Dreamers?

Cesar and Delores

What if George Zimmerman had looked at Trayvon Martin through an antiracist lens and saw not a threat but someone with whom he could identify, someone with whom he could be with in solidarity? Someone he could call brother and really mean it?

It’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself when you assume your neighbor has no voice worth hearing, no contribution worth making, no value to society. Well, what if George Zimmerman were a community organizer? That is, instead of volunteering for a neighborhood watch and carrying a gun, what if Mr. Zimmerman were working as a community organizer, trying to make his community more welcoming, more accepting, more inclusive, more fair, more just, more loving and more peaceful? What if his primary assumption was that everyone belongs, everyone can contribute, everyone has value? What if Mr. Zimmerman had approached Mr. Martin with an outstretched hand and a clip board? Imagine:

Community Organizer

“Hi, my name’s George, can I talk to you for a minute? I want to ask you a question.” ( Who knows how Trayvon might have responded. He might not want anything to do with this community organizer, but let’s imagine George as persistent.)

“Just one quick question: Are you registered to vote?”

“No, man, I don’t vote.”

“Really? Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you old enough, are you 18?”

“No, man, 17.”

“So, you’ll be 18, which means you’ll be able to vote in the mid-term elections. And you’ll be able to vote in the next presidential election. Doesn’t that matter to you?”

“I don’t know, man.”

“Listen, we’re organizing a meeting at the church down the street. It’s tomorrow night. We’re talking about voting. You know it’s possible there’s gonna be an attempt to make it harder for people to vote in Florida, especially for People of Color.”

[Silence]

“Do you know the Supreme Court just gutted the Voting Rights Act? Do you know there are movements all across the country to make it harder for People of Color and poor people and the elderly to vote? You don’t want that to happen here do you? I don’t. Why don’t you come to our meeting? There’s a lot you could do. Or at least let me sign you up to get updates. Do you have email?”

And if all else fails, George might say, “Hey, do you want to earn $25? I have 300 fliers I need to post around the neighborhood. I’ll pay you $25 to post them. What do ya say?”

Maybe Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have been interested. But I’m asking a serious question. Do we approach teens with suspicion and hostility? Or do we approach them with a sense of hope, with the belief that they matter, with the trust that they can actually understand their social and political context and work to make it better, with the assumption that they can be powerful, that they can contribute to the building of a more just and peaceful society?

Finally, it’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself if you don’t have genuine faith. What if George Zimmerman were a person of deep and abiding faith? What if he were the kind of person who, upon waking in the morning, reminds himself of some version of the Great Commandment, reminds himself to love what is sacred to him? If it’s God, love God. If it’s the Earth, love the Earth. If it’s the Human Spirit, love the Human Spirit. If it’s the Interdependent Web of All Existence, love the Interdependent Web of All Existence. If it’s your family, love your family. And, love your neighbor as yourself.

What if George Zimmerman, when he first saw Trayvon Martin, when he first felt that feeling of fear, anger, suspicion or whatever it was he felt when he saw a young African American man in a hoodie, sauntering slowly through the neighborhood, what if he heeded the wisdom of the Great Commandment? What if he had replaced that feeling of fear with a feeling of profound love for whatever he holds most sacred in his life? And what if, in response to that feeling, he then knew—in his heart, in his mind, in his soul—with every fiber of his being—that this young man is a neighbor—possibly an actual neighbor, but I mean a neighbor in the larger spiritual sense, as in all people are my neighbors, all people are worthy of my love, all people matter.

What if? We saw what happened when hostility and suspicion led the way. I’m putting my faith in love.

Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Leviticus 19:33.

I Tremble for My Country (Rev. Pawelek’s Comments on the Trial of George Zimmerman)

Trayvon MartinI’m not a big fan of laying blame. I think it’s divisive. But I’m going to do it anyways. I blame White America for a racist history and racist present that make it OK in 2013 to kill a young black man even when the police tell you to back off. I blame White America for a racist history and a racist present that make it possible for us to claim to value and live by—and even love—the Biblical Ten Commandments but simultaneously figure out ways to legally violate “Thou Shalt Not Kill” when it comes to the lives of young black men. I blame White America for not caring enough about the lives of young black men. And if I’m being honest, there is a part of me, like Jefferson, that reels from my own ambivalent complicity in this ugly, vile, racist system. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS….