This Land is Your Land? — UUS:E Virtual Worship, September 20, 2021

Friends: You can view the entire September 20th service on our YouTube here:

You can read Widening the Circle of Concern, the report from the UUA’s Commission on Institutional Change on the UUA Website.

Read: Marsha Howland’s brief testimony on the life of the late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

A Hebrew phrase from the Book of Deuteronomy is framed and hanging in the office of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This is the English translation: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

And she did – with determination, scholarship and fierce devotion. Our country is so much better for what she accomplished in her entire career, not just during her 27 years as a Supreme Court Justice.

We all know well some of the key pieces of her life story: That, despite graduating at the top of her class at Columbia Law School, she couldn’t get a job at a law firm (women were excluded) or an interview for the Supreme Court clerkship for which she had been recommended.

That, when she was finally a practicing attorney, she argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five. Cases that advanced the cause of equality of women in this country.

That, over her career, she also was important in the expansion of rights for many marginalized groups – from people of color to the LGBTQ community.

That, despite several bouts with cancer, she returned each time to her work at the Supreme Court with extraordinary speed and determination.

That, after all this and much more, she died Friday at her home in Washington.

That she is an icon, a role model and what some might call a rockstar of justice.

And that she should forever be associated with those words: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

*****

“This Land is Your Land?”

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I feel like I’m tied up in a complicated knot. I feel like our Unitarian Universalist faith is tied up in a complicated knot. I feel like our country is tied up with multiple lines of rope, segments of string, various fibers, wire, yarn—loops, bights and elbows—all bound together in an exquisitely complicated knot. What makes it complicated is one strand running through all of it, tying us up in the most devious of ways: white supremacy culture. We Unitarian Universalists, we residents of the United States, we human beings are called to untie this knot. Our principles call us to untie this know. Our basic sense of right and wrong calls us to untie this know. Our human decency calls us to untie this knot. The sacred power in our lives call us to untie this knot.

I’m addressing white supremacy culture this morning because this is my first official homily of the new congregational year—the year in which the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) will begin implementing recommendations from the Commission on Institutional Change. As background, many of you will remember that in the winter of 2017, UU leaders of color raised concerns about white supremacy culture operating in hiring practices at our UUA headquarters in Boston. In response the UUA’s Board of Trustees established the Commission on Institutional Change to “conduct an audit of the power structures and analyze racism and white supremacy culture within our [denomination.]”[1] Their report, published in June, offers a comprehensive assessment of how white supremacy culture operates (often subtly and despite our best intentions) in our faith.

I would love it if every adult in our congregation would read the report with open hearts and minds. It’s called Widening the Circle of Concern. You can read it online.[2] You can purchase a hard copy, download the audiobook. The UUA is working really hard at untying the knot of white supremacy culture. If our leaders speak and we don’t pay attention, it’s our loss. I am so grateful to the members of the Commission for their love and dedication, for their faith in us. Let’s not let them down. They name hard, painful truths; they offer paths toward healing, justice, beloved community and redemption. They invite us to understand ourselves differently, and to live our faith in new ways. None of it will be easy. It will take all of us, working together, to untie this knot.

One of the underlying recommendations is centering the voices of Black people, Indigenous people and people of color. The report says we “can’t dismantle systems of oppressive behavior without leaning into the knowledge and perspective of those most affected.”[3] That’s centering: prioritizing the voices, experiences, and world-view of the people most harmed by white supremacy culture. On the surface it seems simple, but the knot is tight.

What happens when the institutional practice of centering Black, Indigenous and other People of Color comes into conflict with our favorite traditions, rituals, music? For example, I used to gift our graduating high school seniors with a copy of the Jefferson Bible. I saw it as a symbol of the liberal religious spirit both in our nation and our faith. But Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, and as president he created conditions that led to the stealing of land from and the murder of Indigenous people along vast swaths of our young nation’s western borders. He was a towering national figure in advancing freedom of religion and conscience, and he was a towering national figure in tying and tightening the knot of white supremacy. Clearly his bible is not a good gift for our graduating seniors, but we still inherit his legacies. How do we honor his contributions to religious freedom while struggling against his contributions to white supremacy?

I call this sermon “This Land is Your Land?”  Woody Guthrie was part of a 20th-century folk music movement grounded in protest and keenly aware of racism and other forms of oppression. Many UUs, myself included, regard his music as part of our sacred canon. Earlier you heard Pat, Dan and Kate sing Guthrie’s “All You Fascists.”[4] ‘Fascist’ was the term Americans used to identify authoritarian leaders in Europe, but Guthrie understood it applied to racist US leaders. “Race hatred,” he sang, “cannot stop us, this one thing I know / Poll tax and Jim Crow and greed have got to go.”[5]

Our beloved Woody Guthrie song is “This Land is Your Land,” which he wrote in 1940 as a retort to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”[6] It has become an alternative national anthem for many Americans. UU congregations regularly sing it in worship.

Nevertheless, for a few years now I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with the words “This land was made for you and me.” I understand what Guthrie meant: everyone regardless of race, religion or culture is included in America. But the literal words don’t ring true. We know this land—this United States of America—was made by and for propertied, White European men, many of whom held slaves or benefitted financially from slavery; and virtually all of whom supported the idea that the land, from sea to shining sea, was theirs for the taking by any means necessary, that it was their manifest destiny to rule, own and exploit this land, despite the fact that tens of millions of people already lived on it and had done so for more than 10,000 years. [As an aside, this week we learned the president thinks it’s unpatriotic to speak of American history this way. Frankly, I think it’s unpatriotic to teach American history as if slavery, land theft and genocide never happened.]

Today, when police shoot unarmed Black people while jogging, sleeping, barbecuing, playing in the park, and sometimes while in the midst of mental health crises, it’s understandable that Black people may not agree that this land was made for you and me. When ICE separates children from their families at border crossings and bans Muslims from entering the country, it’s understandable that immigrants may not agree that this land was made for you and me. When the federal government attempts to take land from Native American nations to benefit energy companies, it’s understandable that Indigenous people may not agree that this land was made for you and me. Last March the Trump Administration revoked reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag nation on Cape Cod, stating essentially that their land—the land they were living on when the Pilgrims first arrived—is not their land.[7] It is understandable that the Mashpee Wampanoag people may not agree that this land was made for you and me.

A group of us have been reading and discussing Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Dunbar-Ortiz points out that songs like “This Land is Your Land” actually reflect “the unconscious manifest destiny we live with.”[8] As I read those words last spring, my discomfort with the song crystalized. I expressed in our discussion in June that I would like us to pause and have a community conversation about the song before we use it again in worship. At that point a Native American member of our congregation acknowledged that the song is painful.

There’s the knot. Right there. A beloved song, a hurting member of our congregation.

I don’t want to lose “This Land is Your Land.” It’s important to me. But I also don’t want to cause pain, especially to Black, Indigenous and other people of color and their allies for whom the lyrics are problematic.

How do we untie this knot? We start with communication and dialogue. Our Adult Religious Education and Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committees will host an online dialogue about the place of this song in our congregational life on Tuesday evening, October 13th. There will be advanced reading. Watch the eblast for information.

I don’t know where this conversation will lead. If we pull on one thread, what happens? Will the knot loosen? Will it tighten? And this is only one small section of the knot. There are so many others. We have to talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. We have to talk about Spanish language resources, cultural misappropriation, contracting with people of color vendors, supporting antiracist organizing in the larger community. All of this is part of untying the knot of white supremacy culture as a congregation.

We have to talk about the impact of white supremacy culture on women. And here’s where I want to say a few words about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. One of the implications is that there will be an attempt to ram through a supreme court nomination and selection process before the election. I won’t repeat the litanies citing the boldfaced hypocrisy and lack of integrity and disregard for precedent. But I will say there is clearly a cadre of powerful white men in charge of this process. Certainly important decisions impacting women should not be made without women present, yet there don’t seem to be any highly visible women involved in this process. This is one of the underlying dynamics of white supremacy culture operating in our nation: powerful white men believe they have the right, believe they are entitled to make these kinds of decisions. This is a raw power grab. Power over. That’s white supremacy culture operating. There’s no talk of an open, transparent and carefully considered process. There’s no talk of cooperation. There’s no talk of letting the people decide as there was when Justice Scalia died ten months before an election.  There’s certainly no consideration given to protecting women’s reproductive health. This is all part of the knot of white supremacy culture. It is painful, heartbreaking and even terrifying to watch it unfold in real time.

We need to talk about the impact of white supremacy culture on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people. We need to talk about its impact on housing, healthcare, education, corrections, policing, mental health, and a host of other issues. The knot is exquisitely complicated. We begin by centering the voices and experiences of Black, Indigenous and people of color. In the very least, when we learn that something we’re doing is causing pain, we have to pause. We have to take it seriously. We have to believe it.

Please trust this practice of centering is not political correctness run amok or coddling snowflakes who are easily offended. This isn’t cancel culture. We’re not cancelling “This Land is Your Land.” This is us attempting to untie the knot of white supremacy.

I don’t know where it leads. But I do take heart from the story Gina read earlier, Imbram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby: “Antiracist baby is always learning, changing and growing. Antiracist baby stays curious about all people, and isn’t all-knowing.”[9] And I take heart from the words we heard earlier from Commission on Institutional Change chairperson, the Rev. Leslie Takahashi: “The day is coming when all will know / That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than monochrome, / That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, stubborn rocks in its course, / That the margins hold the center.”[10]

I don’t know where it leads, but I am glad to be untying this knot with all of you.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Commission on Institutional Change, Widening the Circle of Concern (Boston: UUA, 2020) p. vvii. See: https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/cic/widening/introduction.

[2] https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/cic/widening

[3] See: “A Word About Centering” in the Introduction at https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/cic/widening/introduction.

[4] As an aside, Rolling Stone Magazine recently published its list of the top 40 most significant protest songs in American history. “All You Facists” is the first song on the list.

[5] Listen to Woody Guthrie’s “All You Facists” on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwcKwGS7OSQ. For an awesome, updated version by Wilco and Billy Bragg, check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40ila3Rh9lQ.

[6] Spitzer, Nick, “The Story of ‘This Land is Your Land’” National Public Radio, February 15th, 2012. See: https://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land.

[7] Taylor, Rory, “Trump administration revokes reservation status for Mashpee Wampanoag tribe amid coronavirus crisis” (Vox, April 2, 2020) see: https://www.vox.com/identities/2020/4/2/21204113/mashpee-wampanoag-tribe-trump-reservation-native-land.

[8] Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014) pp. 2-3.

[9] Kendi, Imbram X, Antiracist Baby (Kokila, 2020). See: https://www.amazon.com/AntiRacist-Baby-Ibram-X-Kendi/dp/0593110412.

[10] For the full text of Rev. Takahashi’s meditation, “Marginal Wisdom,” see: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/marginal-wisdom.