I’m Gonna Stay on this Battlefield Called Life

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek –

Sonia Sanchez has inspired and challenged me for many years. She inspires me because her call to work for a just society, for a peaceful, loving world, is powerful and immediate, inviting and hard to ignore. “come. i say come, and return to the fight. this fight for the earth / this fight for our children / this fight for our life / we need your hurricane voices / we need your sacred hands / i say, come, sister, brother to the battlefield / come to the rain forests / come into the hood / come into the barrio / come into the schools / come into the abortion clinics / come into the prisons / come and caress our spines / i say come, wrap your feet around justice / i say come, wrap your tongues around truth / I say come, wrap your hands with deeds and prayer.[1] Inspiring words on this weekend when the nation celebrates the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

She also challenges me more than any other poet. She writes and speaks so vividly and viscerally about her body, her sexuality, rape and violence, men, sexism, and what it is like to experience oppression as a black woman. So much of her poetry is not for me; is not written to affirm me; does not describe my experience; does not give comfort and solace to me as a privileged, white, heterosexual man. It is an honor to read her work and, for a moment, view the world through her eyes, feel the world through her body, assess the world with her intellect. But sometimes I feel like an intruder. I stop reading out of a sense of respect for a conversation that clearly needs to happen but doesn’t need to involve me. I felt this way when I first read her 1987 poem “Song No. 2,” addressed to young girls caught in the cycle of poverty and prostitution. In it she writes, “step back man.”[2] I stepped back.

Sometimes I feel she is unmasking me, naming desires, impulses, assumptions and privileges in me that are linked to structures and systems of oppression and which, frankly, I’d rather not think about—though I know I must if I want to participate in movements for social justice and liberation. Sometimes I’m reading her work and I realize I have not prepared myself spiritually. I have not breathed deeply enough. I have not opened my heart far enough. I cannot do this right now. I cannot encounter her truth right now because she writes with such wrenching clarity about terrible things that should never have happened, that would never have happened had we lived in a more just society; had we achieved already a just distribution of the fruits of the earth [that] enables men (and women) everywhere to live in dignity and human decency.[3]

In the end I have continued reading Sonia Sanchez, knowing it is not sufficient simply to feel inspired by this poet. She has higher expectations of her readers. She asks—as Dr. King asked—that each of us—no matter who we are, no matter our social location, race, class, gender, age or sexual orientation—she asks that each of us looks closely at our relationship to the injustices of the world, that we not shy away from hard truths, but rather that we let our hearts be broken, and then healed, so that we may participate in the transformation of the world.

I believe this is what she means when she says, “I’m gonna stay on this battlefield called life.”[4] I’m not just going to survive. I’m not just going to stay alive. No matter how difficult or easy my life may be, I’m going to use it for a purpose. I’m going to work on behalf of my values. I’m going to struggle—hopefully with integrity, hopefully with compassion and empathy—with those whose values conflict with mine. “I’m gonna treat everybody right / I’m gonna treat everybody right til I die,”[5] but I’m gonna stay on this battlefield called life. How do we do that?

There are many ways to answer this question. This morning, for me, it comes down to authority. Do we feel authorized to come to this battlefield called life? Do we feel authorized to struggle for our values? Do we feel authorized to speak and act for social, economic, religious, racial and sexual justice? This sermon is about that authority. As some of you know, authority is our theological theme for January. A number of you came to me and said, “What?!? How is that a theological theme for Unitarian Universalists?” In fact I have yet to encounter anyone here who has said, “Authority, awesome. That’s what I really want to dig my teeth into! In January. When it’s cold and blizzardy. I can’t wait.” I get it. For those of you who hear this word and don’t get excited, it makes sense. It’s not a moist word like faith, hope, grace, surrender, even salvation. It’s a dry word, like institution, structure, governance, rules. It doesn’t seem to point us in a spiritual direction.

Worse, you may make any number of negative associations: authoritarian, autocratic, dictatorial, imperious, commanding, supremacist, oppressive, powerful, orthodox, conservative, absolutist, overbearing, domineering, fascist, arbitrary, torturer, inquisitor, and so on. If you make any of these associations then I suspect you are definitely wondering why authority is a relevant theme for Unitarian Universalists who are traditionally and typically highly anti-authoritarian in religious matters; who bristle when told what to do, how to live, whom to love, what to believe; Unitarian Universalists who abide by the principle of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, rather than the authority of creeds, doctrines, scriptures and church traditions; Unitarian Universalists who abide by the principle of the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process, rather than take orders from a religious hierarchy; Unitarian Universalists whose congregations are free and independent rather than bound in lock-step with each other. What does authority have to do with our liberal religious life—with our questioning, our seeking, our freedoms, our individuality?

Everything. When I entered seminary, the very first required class I took in the very first semester was an introduction to ministry. The very first set of readings in the very first week was about authority. The message was simple: authority is central to any ministry. We must know the sources of our authority. We must know how we are authorized to speak and act. If we fail to understand this we risk the failure of our ministry. You want to come before the congregation on Sunday morning and preach a message? By what authority do you do that? Who or what authorizes you to preach? Who or what authorizes your message? You want to visit with the dying, with bereaved families, with people who’ve just been told they have cancer, with people whose children are going off to war? You want to be a healing presence, a balm in Gilead? By what authority? You want to enter the public square, speak to the governor, the legislators, the mayors, the judges; you want to speak to the crowds, to rally and enthuse them, to move them to action? By what authority? You want to commit acts of civil disobedience or nonviolent resistance? You want to disrupt normal operations, interrupt conversations, speak truth to power, take arrest for your convictions? By what authority? You want to dismantle racist and sexist institutional structures, to end homophobia and heterosexism, to reverse environmental destruction? By what authority? You want to write poetry that inspires and challenges? By what authority? You want to build a better world? By what authority? How do you know the world you’re building is better? Because it feels right? How do you know it’s the right thing to do? How does that knowing come into your life?

I’m not talking about authority as institutional power over human beings, or in terms of those negative associations I mentioned earlier—authoritarian, autocratic, dictatorial, etc.—which is often how we understand it. I’m talking about our sense of our own authority, our sense of agency, our sense of being the authors of our own lives. I’m talking about having confidence and courage to speak and act. I’m talking about having the capacity, the willingness, the desire to promote and defend our values, to come to this battlefield called life. But we can’t easily do that without first having some trust in our own authority. So, where does it come from?

There are many sources. I’d like to suggest three here: our relationship to the past, the present and the future.

             The past. I heard Sonia Sanchez lecture a few years ago. She began her presentation by chanting, for seven minutes, the names of people she called ancestors and living resistors. It was musical, rhythmic, meditative. On and on and on; name after name after name.  Nat Turner, John Brown, Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, WEB DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and hundred of names I did not know. Elders and youth, family and friends, people she knew personally, people she had never met yet whose contributions to freedom struggles had inspired her. This poet in her mid-seventies, small in stature, gathered this great cloud of ancestor witnesses around her; and buoyed by these names she seemed so strong, so powerful, so indomitable. These names, the history they represented, the courage they manifested had so clearly become a source of authority for her. Their lives, their struggles, their sacrifices so clearly authorized her to, “stay on this battlefield called life.” 

            The Present. This week I studied Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April 4th, 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,”[6] his first major speech against the Vietnam war. He had many critics—including some from within his inner circle—who for many reasons told him not to speak against the war. The whole first half of the speech, in my view, is an articulation of why he feels authorized to break his silence despite overwhelming opposition. He names many sources of authority: his commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ; his conviction that he, like all people, is a son of the living God; the authority that comes with receiving a Nobel Peace prize; his concern for the soul of America; his economic analysis of the war and how it adversely impacts poor people.  But what stands out to me most is his description of a specific set of relationships he has recently developed. He describes visiting northern ghettoes. He says “as I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask—and rightly so—what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today –my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.” For the sake of those boys—suffering and struggling in the present moment, King is called to stay on this battlefield called life.

            Finally, the future. This past week our nation has been reacting to the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the murders of six people and the wounding of thirteen others who had come to visit with her at a Tucson grocery store. Among those murdered was nine-year old Christina Taylor Green. I watched President Obama’s speech at Wednesday’s memorial service at the University of Arizona with an eye toward understanding his sense authority. Not the authority that comes with being elected President, but the authority of a leader trying to console a shocked and grieving community and nation, a leader trying to guide and inspire that community and nation to be good, to be gentle, to be hopeful. He draws some sense of authority from scripture—Psalm 46—“there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” He references the democracy envisioned by the founders. But in my experience of this speech, it is the loss of nine-year old Christina Taylor Green, the loss of the promise of her life and the recognition that we must be accountable for our children’s future, that calls him to come to this battlefield called life. He says: “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us: we should do everything we can do to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”[7]

We aren’t Sonia Sanchez. We aren’t Martin Luther King. We aren’t Barack Obama. But we do have the authority to come to this battlefield called life. We can find it in the past—in the voices, stories and sacrifices of our ancestors; in the present—in the pain and suffering of all those who are in need of liberation; and in the future—our enduring dreams for the world our children will inherit.

As you go out from this place and through your week, I invite you to ask yourself: what is the source of your authority? What calls you? Indeed, what demands that you come to this battlefield called life? And know this: Unitarian Universalism has high expectations for you; expectations that you will come to know all the sources of authority in your life, that you will find the confidence and courage to speak and act on behalf of your values, that you will come to this battlefield called life, called life, called life.

            Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Sanchez, Sonia, excerpt from “For Sweet Honey in the Rock,” shake loose my skin (Boston: Beacon Press: 1999) pp. 149-150.

[2] Sanchez, Sonia, excerpt from “Song No. 2,” shake loose my skin (Boston: Beacon Press: 1999), p. 73.

[3] Sanchez, Sonia, excerpt from “Morning Song and Evening Walk,” shake loose my skin (Boston: Beacon Press: 1999) p. 144.

[4] Sanchez, Sonia, excerpt from “For Sweet Honey in the Rock,” shake loose my skin (Boston: Beacon Press: 1999) p. 150.

[5] Sanchez, Sonia, excerpt from “For Sweet Honey in the Rock,” shake loose my skin (Boston: Beacon Press: 1999) p. 149.

[6] See: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence2.htm.

[7] See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztbJmXQDIGA