Posts Tagged racial justice

We Can’t Just Wait

I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 26th 2017.

left: white police officers assaulting a black woman in Birmingham, 1963; right: white police officer assaulting a black teenager in McKinney, 2015

left: Birmingham 1963; right: McKinney 2015

I was an impatient child.

I wasn’t very good at waiting for ordinary things, but I was particularly bad at waiting for Christmas and Easter. I’d like to think my impatience for Christmas was a little more noble than mere avarice for presents. It was, after all, a holiday of family and delicious food and beautiful decorations. But Easter… No, I think my impatience for Easter really was all about the chocolate. When Lent started in the early Spring, it was just a way of counting down the days until that glorious morning when we cracked open all those chocolate eggs.

For all that I think impatience goes hand-in-hand with being young, I’m not sure that becoming more patient was something that happened naturally as I grew up. Rather, I had to learn how to wait. Sometimes, I have realized, I still have to work at being patient. But I have also come to recognize that there are some places in which patience is inappropriate, where simply waiting for some things to happen may even be wrong.

The heart of Dr. King’s book, Why We Can’t Wait, is his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Written in 1963 in response to a critical statement by eight Alabama clergymen, Dr. King started writing his letter on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement was published, continued it on scraps of paper supplied by another prisoner, and finished it on a note pad that Dr. King’s lawyers were eventually allowed to give him. Acknowledging that he rarely took the time to respond to criticism of his work and ideas — the irony being that in the jail’s solitary confinement, he had little else to do — Dr. King felt it important to address the charge by the eight clergymen that his activities in Birmingham — particularly the protests and demonstrations — were “unwise and untimely”.

Part of Dr. King’s justification for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s work in Birmingham was that they had followed a reasonable course of action, a series of basic steps, such that protests and demonstrations hadn’t simply come out of nowhere.

First, they had collected the facts to determine whether there was injustice or not. Finding that there was injustice, the black community’s leaders had tried to negotiate with the city’s leaders; the latter consistently refused. They made more progress with local business leaders, but all of the promises that were made — to remove, for instance, the racist signs in store windows — were soon broken. So they prepared themselves for more direct action against injustice. Dr. King called it “a process of self-purification”, holding workshops on non-violence and repeatedly asking themselves if they were prepared to be beaten without retaliating, if they were willing to go to jail and endure further physical and spiritual violence. They even waited for Birmingham’s election for mayor to be over, given that there was chance that “Bull” Connor might be elected, and they didn’t want demonstrations to be used as an excuse for him to win.

Having worked through that process, Dr. King explained to his critics, it was time, in his words, “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Rejecting, always rejecting violence, Dr. King explained that a type of constructive, non-violence was essential for growth, creating “a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

The timing was, of course, part of his critics’ complaint, to which Dr. King responded that there has never been a direct-action campaign that was considered timely by those who were not suffering injustice. But to those who are suffering, the call to “Wait” has almost always meant “Never”.

“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation,” Dr. King explained, “to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your brothers and sisters smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are black, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’ — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time,” Dr. King explained, “when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Today is the fifth anniversary of the killing of Trayvon Martin. Five years ago today — five years ago this evening — the seventeen-year-old was walking home from a 7-11 where he had bought candy and a soft drink when he was shot and killed by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer. At first Martin’s killer was not initially charged by the police, but amidst massive public outcry there was an investigation and eventually a charge was made.

I preached a sermon at about that time, describing something of which so many of us in our white privilege had been completely ignorant up until that time, but which was now part of the public discussion about the intersection of race and fear and violence, thanks to the death of a boy deemed suspicious thanks to his clothes and the color of his skin. Known as “the talk”, it’s the advice that many African-American parents say they feel compelled to give their children, particularly their sons, even before they become teenagers, advice that has been passed on for generations.

A condensed version of “the talk” might go as follows. “Pay attention to where you are and who is around you. If you go into a store, lower the hood on your sweatshirt and keep your hands in your pockets. If you buy something, put it in a bag and be sure to get a receipt. If you’re confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, don’t argue or run away or put your hands anywhere but up.”

That sermon, five years ago, was about the Arc of the Moral Universe, and the idea, originally from Unitarian minister Theodore Parker and amplified to great effect by Dr. King, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. But I have to wonder, looking back over the last five years, has the arc of the moral universe bent any closer to justice since Trayvon Martin was killed?

You might not know that it was the acquittal of Martin’s killer that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Created by three women of color — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — it wasn’t just about the fact that Martin had been killed, but also the fact that the defense dug up whatever they could find that would put Martin in a bad light in an attempt to blame him for his own death, something that has now become standard procedure when a black person is killed. As Garza, Cullors and Tometi explain, “Rooted in the experiences of black people in this country who actively resist our dehumanization, Black Lives Matter is a call to action and response to the virulent anti-black racism that permeates our society. Black Lives Matter goes beyond the extrajudicial killings of black people by police and vigilantes.”

It gained much wider recognition, of course, and this is when most of us became aware of it for the first time, when it became a rallying cry following the killings of Eric Garner in Staten Island NY and Michael Brown in Ferguson MO, both in 2014. We started to see “Black Lives Matter” on signs and banners, and since it was a new concept for white people, we began to work on figuring out what it means.

So, I’ve preached on Black Lives Matter a number of times, and Joanne has preached on it, too. Christina Hockman preached on Black Lives Matter during the course of her internship with us, and Walter has, too. Based on my conversations with people — not to mention the evident willingness to take and wear and continue to wear the Black Lives Matter buttons I purchased — I believe that, as a congregation, we’ve come to understand what it means.

We understand, for instance, that it’s not anti-police. We understand that it’s not saying that only black lives matter. And we understand that responding to Black Lives Matter by saying “all lives matter” is not acceptable. Now that might simply be naïve idealism. After all, as Unitarian Universalists we have promised to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and we’ve been using those words since the 1980s. Obviously we believe that in theory all lives matter. But the actual phrase, “all lives matter”, never existed before Black Lives Matter came into being. It’s a direct reaction to Black Lives Matter, and it’s a deliberate assertion of white supremacy. The fact is, all lives will only matter when black lives matter, too.

But if we’ve been figuring these things out here, well, that’s certainly not the case beyond our own walls.

My quarterly column in the Daily Press last August addressed the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge LA and Philando Castile in St. Paul MN. There’d been peaceful protests across Hampton Roads, many in cooperation with police departments, and they’d been covered by local media. None of that was a problem. The problem was the responses from otherwise anonymous members of the public. Let’s set aside the few twisted souls who fantasized about driving their cars into crowds of protestors. Consider, though, the banality of evil as represented by so many comments about the inconvenience of protests on roadways, displaying ignorance and an utter lack of compassion for an entire swath of fellow citizens who, in their everyday lives, are simply terrified of being killed.

In response to my column, I received an e-mail from a reader. They expressed disappointment that a minister would write what I wrote. They insisted that all lives matter. They instructed me to preach to black people about how not to get shot. They informed me — “incidentally” — that they have many black friends and co-workers. And they told me that I misrepresented Unitarian Universalism.

Well, that person clearly doesn’t know Unitarian Universalism, much less did they know that at the previous Summer’s General Assembly, the Unitarian Universalist Association had adopted an Action of Immediate Witness in clear support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yes, Unitarian Universalism is on public record as supporting Black Lives Matter.

Now thankfully there is work on this — good, productive work — being done in the wider community. Here on the Peninsula, for instance, there’s a monthly meeting known as the Pastors’ Dialogue on Racism, Violence and Poverty. It began, I understand, as conversations between baptist clergy and police, and has broadened into quite an ecumenical gathering. Actually, the presence of Walter and myself at those meetings makes them interfaith, though I’d dearly love to see some rabbis and imams and leaders of other non-Christian faiths there, too.

Through these meetings, I’ve learned about lots of good work that’s being done by the Peninsula Baptist Association and other groups to help young people of color, particularly young black men. They’re good programs, helping people who are otherwise getting the short end of society’s stick, though I am bothered by what seem like occasional parallels with programs that aim to teach women how not to get raped.

Last month’s Pastors’ Dialogue, for instance, was at an office of the Hampton Police Department, with a focus on their community outreach and work with youth. It’s all good work, about building relationships with people, but I was troubled by some of the sub-text, even by some of the expressed motivation for the work. For instance, the police officer making the presentation pretty clearly stated, at one point, that teenagers are destined for delinquency unless police intervene to treat them as criminals if they don’t stay in school. That just doesn’t jibe with my belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

At the end of the presentation, there was a questionnaire for us to complete about how the police and the community relate to one another and what could be done to improve those relationships. I have to say, too many of the questions were focused on individual actions and choices, rather than acknowledging that we’re embedded in a social system that limits our actions and pre-determines many of our choices for us. I mean, maybe if the economy wasn’t increasingly serving the wealthiest, maybe if climate change wasn’t being ignored, maybe if society wasn’t telling our children that they have no future, then maybe they’d see the purpose of staying in school. And you know what I’d like to see as the outcome of good relations between the police and the community? For me, the outcome would be that no African-American family would feel the need to have “the talk” with their children.

There’s a video that some of you may have seen recently. Entitled “What it’s felt like since the election”, it begins with a man waking up to the sound of his alarm clock. He yawns, then he stretches, then he looks at his ‘phone, then he starts screaming.

As he’s brushing his teeth, he’s screaming. He’s screaming as he opens the door of a coffee shop, and out comes a woman who’s screaming. The cup of coffee in her hand has written on it in marker, “Aaah!”

Later in the video we see him looking at his computer with a friend. They’re both screaming, and it turns out they’re watching the video of the goat whose cry sounds like a person screaming. They both laugh, and then they go back to screaming.

At the end of the video, we seem him walking across a park, screaming. There’s somebody throwing a frisbee, screaming. There’s a couple enjoying a picnic, both screaming. There’s someone reading a book, screaming. And as the camera pans across the park, showing us all these people doing all these things and all of them screaming, we see that there are two black men standing together, watching it all, too, and they are not screaming.

Then two things happen. First, we realize that everyone else we’ve seen in the video up until that point, all the people who’ve been screaming, are white. And second, one of the black men says to the other, “That’s cute.”

The video is called “What it’s felt like since the election”, but the title should really be “White people are finally screaming”.

Now white people — a lot of us, anyway — are starting to get some inkling of the terror that black people have been feeling for hundreds of years.

Understandably, some black people are upset that this is happening now. Where have white people been for the last five years? For the last fifty years? Others, thankfully, are ready to welcome us aboard — better late than never — so long as we follow their lead given that they have been doing this work so much longer than us.

Has the arc of the moral universe bent any closer to justice in the five years since Trayvon Martin was killed? Not that I can tell, but maybe it will now, now that white people are screaming, too.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, the forty days in the Christian liturgical calendar that lead up to Easter. As I’ve said before in regards to both Advent and Lent, they’re not just about passively waiting, whether for Christmas or for Easter. They’re not just about expectation, even hopeful expectation. Rather, they’re about active preparation. These are seasons that demand action.

So I’m taking the opportunity today, offered by the start of Lent on Wednesday, to make the otherwise simple point that we can’t just wait for things to change.

The arc of the moral universe, for instance, doesn’t bend toward justice all by itself. It bends because we push on it, because we apply the weight of our souls to make it bend. And guess what? Not only does it resist bending, but there are special interests which — for reasons of power or fear or money — are trying to bend it away from justice.

Remember how the Voting Rights Act, the landmark achievement of the civil rights movement, had its heart ripped out by the Supreme Court a few years ago? And now, as a direct result, the state of North Carolina is no longer a democracy, with other gerrymandered states doing their damnedest to follow suit? That’s the arc of the moral universe being bent away from justice.

So we can’t just wait.

One way in which we’re not just waiting here, is that we’re about to make own public declaration of support for Black Lives Matter, by putting up a Black Lives Matter banner on our office building, where it will be clearly visible on Warwick Blvd.

Of course, putting up that banner is just the first step. We need to support Black Lives Matter 757, as some of you did yesterday at the demonstration in Virginia Beach. We need to engage other would-be allies, such as through a local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. There’s a Racial Justice Conference for Youth and Adults at the Unitarian Universalist church in Charlottesville next month, centering voices from the margins and facilitated for the most part by women of color. We need to answer Walter’s stirring call to action from last Sunday.

And doing these things won’t be without push-back.

Chances are, our BLM banner will be vandalized. It’s happened at plenty of other churches. It happened to the first banner Walter displayed at his home. So we should have another banner ready in case we need it, and we should be ready to call the press immediately should something happen, and we should not take down the vandalized banner until the press come to take pictures and talk to us about it.

This isn’t about cynicism. This is about taking a hard-nosed look at the reality of the situation and understanding what’s going on. This is about keeping in mind the words of Frederick Douglass, with which I’ll end today:

“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.”

Let’s make our demands known. We can’t just wait.

So may it be.

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