Monday, December 1, 2014

Moving Toward the 6th Principle in Light of Ferguson

This sermon was given on 30 November, 2014, by Rachel Udow. We had an excellent group discussion afterwards, just between the sermon and the final hymn.

 Reading 1:

“The sixth Principle seems extravagant in its hopefulness and improbable in its prospects. Can we continue to say we want ‘world community’? ‘Peace, liberty, and justice for all’? The world is full of genocide, abuse, terror, and war. What have we gotten ourselves into?

“As naïve or impossible as the sixth Principle may seem, I’m not willing to give up on it. In the face of our culture’s apathy and fear, I want to imagine and help create a powerful vision of peace by peaceful means, liberty by liberatory means, justice by just means. I want us to believe—and to live as if we believe—that a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all is possible. There is no guarantee that we will succeed, but I can assure you that we will improve ourselves and improve the world by trying.”

—Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, Tree of Life Congregation, McHenry, IL

Reading 2:
(This excerpt is from the most recent issue of UU World and predates the grand jury’s decision on Ferguson)

“As we tentatively enter the aftermath of this summer’s events in Ferguson, we are all choosing to whom we will listen, deciding which accounts we will believe. Such times of not knowing can be transformative, when something new has happened, or something old has been seen in a new way, and the official story hasn’t yet been written.

Times of not knowing aren’t my favorite. I like to feel well-informed and smart, and it is unsettling to realize how deep my unknowing goes. Right now a lot of white people are saying, “Let’s just wait for the experts to tell us what really happened. I recognize the impulse: to find someone impartial and fair, who knows the truth, so that we can know what ‘really’ happened.

Pew Research statistics show that 76 percent of black people don’t expect official investigations into Michael Brown’s killing to be of any help, while most whites think they will help. How do we move forward, in a nation with statistics like that?”

-       The Rev. Meg Riley, Church of the Larger Fellowship

 Sermon: Moving Toward the 6th Principle by Rachel Udow

This is a different sermon than the one I was planning to give a week ago: “A Grant Writer’s Guide to the Sixth Principle.” Fortunately, I tend to work best under pressure – which is a nice way of saying that I tend to procrastinate – and so I hadn’t gotten very far with my original concept before the grand jury’s decision on Ferguson impelled me to change course.

Our first reading, from the Rev. Sean Parker, begins: “The sixth principle seems extravagant in its hopefulness and improbable in its prospects…What have we gotten ourselves into?” I’m feeling this as acutely as ever after this week’s verdict and ensuing events.

Regardless of where individuals throughout the United States stand on the verdict, I don’t think there’s a person in this country who would argue that the events surrounding Michael Brown’s death and the aftermath have been reflective of a “world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

In the face of the myriad ways one could unpack the relationship between Ferguson and the 6th principle, I’d like to focus on one: the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter.” Black Lives Matter…I’ve been turning this over and over in my mind. To say Black Lives Matter implies that there is a need to say it – implies that we have a situation of Black Lives Not Mattering.  

In last week’s sermon, Emily referenced postcolonial and feminist theorist Chandra Mohanty, who said that “privilege nurtures blindness to those without the same privileges.” In my 29 years, it has never occurred to me to, first of all, think of myself as a “life” attached to one facet of my identity, and, second of all, state out loud that I matter as one of these lives. Let me unpack those two points.

The first point was that I’ve never thought of myself as a life attached to a facet of my identity. I have many “identity markers,” as we all do: White, Female, Daughter, Dog Mother, Friend, Musician, Employee, and Small Business Owner are some examples. Still, I think of myself primarily as “Rachel” and the unique configuration of identity markers that is me; I don’t think of myself as a “White Life” or any other kind of “Life.” Privilege is at work here; none of my identity markers has ever caused me so much trouble as to become particularly defining. As far as I know, nobody reads the visual manifestations of my identity – my skin color, for example – and feels threatened to the point of needing to kill me in order to feel safe.

The second thing that has never occurred to me is that my life does not matter. Of course it matters. Why wouldn’t it? I’m pretty sure this is what Mohanty was talking about when she said that privilege nurtures blindness to those without the same privileges. The statement “Black Lives Matter” is impactful to me because of my unfailing confidence in my own life mattering. While I’m painfully aware that injustice and inequality are rampant, I’m still able to be startled by the need to assert that the very lives of a whole race of people do, in fact, matter.

Yesterday morning, Melissa Harris Perry – writer, professor, television host, and political commentator – asked a diverse group of experts on her show to weigh in on the question, “Do black lives matter?”

Salamishah Tillet, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, responded: “What does it mean to be part of a country that was predicated on black lives not mattering? Or mattering only in the service of property or service of maintaining the power of white, slave-holding society? It’s a founding principle, the fact that black people have been denied humanity as a part of the democratic experience. It’s not just shocking, it’s true, but now we’re at another moment where that same principle is just resurfacing, and we have to deal with it as a nation.”

Another response came from Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: “There’s a fascinating statement circulating on Facebook right now that says, ‘How interesting that we've moved from Black Power to Black Lives Matter.’ The diminishment of a social movement that helped to transform and make possible a black president has become about, ‘How do we save people?’”

We’re trying to make sense of and activate our 6th principle, a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, and our nation is trying to figure out how to save black lives because black children are dying.  This makes me feel the way that Shirley, in one of her recent sermons, described feeling about climate change – despondent, depressed, overwhelmed.  I was steeped in these emotions, feeling both self-indulgent and absolutely stuck, when I opened the most recent issue of UU World and came across the Rev. Meg Riley’s commentary on Ferguson, “Up to Our Necks.” She writes:

As a nation of diverse races striving to be one people, we are buried up to our necks in a history of violence and brutality against people of color. Where do we look for safety, for help, as we try to excavate ourselves from this sinkhole? For a long time I have been one of the mostly silent, but increasingly alarmed, white folks struggling to discern how to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. But standing silently, trying to figure things out may be a life-threatening course of action when you and your neighbors are buried up to your neck. So I’m looking on the local level for practical actions I can take. And I refuse to be silent or still anymore.

Without stating it explicitly, Rev. Riley is essentially saying that, even though we’re all buried up to our necks in a history of violence and brutality against people of color, she’s not giving up on the 6th principle. Giving up would be, quite literally, a life-threatening course of action. So she acknowledges her starting place, holds the end vision in her heart and mind, and resolves to act.

I’m right there with her – and now I’m looking for practical actions. Fortunately, so are many, many others, and more fortunately still, there are people with far more experience and sophistication than I have regarding antiracism whose thoughts I have shared and will continue to share with you this morning. The following is taken directly from an article by commentator Janee Wood titled “12 Things WhitePeople Can Do Now Because of Ferguson.” For the sake of time, I’ve chosen to focus on ten of Woods’ twelve points. Also, for the purpose of today’s sermon, I’d suggest thinking about the following ten points as “Ten Ways to Move Toward the 6th Principle in Light of Ferguson.” 

One: Learn about the racialized history of Ferguson and how it reflects the racialized history of America.  Michael Brown’s murder is not a social anomaly or statistical outlier. It is the direct product of deadly tensions born from decades of housing discrimination, white flight, intergenerational poverty and racial profiling. The militarized police response to peaceful assembly by the people mirrors what happened in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement.

Two: Reject the “He Was a Good Kid” narrative and lift up the “Black Lives Matter” narrative. Michael Brown was a good kid, by accounts of those who knew him during his short life. But that’s not why his death is tragic. His death isn’t tragic because he was a sweet kid on his way to college next week.  His death is tragic because he was a human being and his life mattered. The Good Kid narrative might provoke some sympathy but what it really does is support the lie that as a rule black people, black men in particular, have a norm of violence or criminal behavior. The Good Kid narrative says that this kid didn’t deserve to die because his goodness was the exception to the rule. This is wrong. This kid didn’t deserve to die because he was a human being and black lives matter.

Three: Use words that speak the truth about the disempowerment, oppression, disinvestment and racism that are rampant in our communities.  Be mindful, political and socially aware with your language. Notice how the mainstream news outlets are using words like riot and looting to describe the uprising in Ferguson.  What’s happening is not a riot. The people are protesting and engaging in a justified rebellion. They have a righteous anger and are revolting against the police who have terrorized them for years.

Four: Understand the modern forms of race oppression and slavery and how they are intertwined with policing, the courts and the prison industrial complex.  We don’t enslave black people on the plantation cotton fields anymore. Now we lock them up in for profit prisons at disproportionate rates and for longer sentences for the same crimes than white people. And when they are released, they are second class citizens stripped of voting rights and denied access to housing, employment and education.  Mass incarceration is The New Jim Crow.

Five: Examine the interplay between poverty and racial equity. The twin pillar of racism is economic injustice but do not use class issues to trump race issues and avoid the racism conversation. While racism and class oppression are tangled together in this country, the fact remains that the number one predictor of prosperity and access to opportunity is race.

Six: Diversify your media. Be intentional about looking for and paying close attention to diverse voices of color on the tv, on the internet and on the radio to help shape your awareness, understanding and thinking about political, economic and social issues. Check out Colorlines, The Root or This Week in Blackness to get started.

Seven: Adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence as you resist racism and oppression. Dr. Martin Luther King advocated for nonviolent conflict reconciliation as the primary strategy of the Civil Rights Movement and the charge of His Final Marching Orders.   East Point Peace Academy offers online resources and in person training on nonviolence that is accessible to all people regardless of ability to pay.

Eight: If you are a person of faith, look to your scriptures or holy texts for guidance. Seek out faith based organizations like Sojourners and follow faith leaders that incorporate social justice into their ministry. Ask your clergy person to address antiracism in their sermons and teachings. If you are not a person of faith, learn how the world’s religions view social justice issues so that when you have opportunity to invite people of faith to also become allies, you can talk with them meaningfully about why being a white ally is supported by their spiritual beliefs.

Nine: Be proactive in your own community. We are not limited to being reactionary and only rising up to stand on the side of justice when black people are being subjected to violence very visibly and publicly. Moments of crisis do not need to be the catalyst because taking action against systemic racism is always appropriate because systemic racism permeates nearly every institution and community in this country. Some ideas for action: organize  a community conversation about the state of police-community relations* in your neighborhood, support leaders of color by donating your time or money to their campaigns or causes, ask the local library to host a showing and discussion group about the documentary RACE: The Power of an Illusion, attend workshops to learn how to transform conflict into opportunity for dialogue. Gather together diverse allies that represent the diversity of backgrounds in your community. Antiracism is not a liberals only cause. Antiracism is a movement for all people, whether they be conservative, progressive, rich, poor, urban or rural.

Ten: Don’t give up. We’re 400 years into this racist system and it’s going to take a long, long, long time to dismantle these atrocities. The antiracism movement is a struggle for generations, not simply the hot button issue of the moment. Transformation of a broken system doesn’t happen quickly or easily. You may not see or feel the positive impact of your white allyship in the next month, the next year, the next decade or even your lifetime. But don’t ever stop. Being a white ally matters because your thoughts, deeds and actions will be part of what turns the tide someday. Change starts with the individual.

In closing, I’ll return to our first reading, a reflection on the 6th principle by the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison. He wrote: “As naïve or impossible as the sixth Principle may seem, I’m not willing to give up on it. In the face of our culture’s apathy and fear, I want to imagine and help create a powerful vision of peace by peaceful means, liberty by liberatory means, justice by just means. I want us to believe—and to live as if we believe—that a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all is possible. There is no guarantee that we will succeed, but I can assure you that we will improve ourselves and improve the world by trying.”

If we truly believe in the ideal of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, let us leave here today and show, by our words and by our actions, that Black Lives Matter – and let us work for a world in which this sentiment is so innate that it no longer makes sense as a rallying cry.

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