This is not the sermon I had planned to deliver today.
My plan was much more light hearted – talking about some of our most prized notables in our Unitarian Universalist history and their scoundrel nature – the mean nurse, the secessionist senator, the huckster showman, the tattletale pastor, the murderous daughter, the philandering minister.
My plan was to talk about how we all have – to differing degrees – skeletons in our closets we’d just as soon not have exposed, but how knowing that when our heroes have their own fatal flaws, we can better accept the amazing things they did, and we can better accept our own flaws as simply part of being human.
My plan was a tad challenging to our compulsion to judge others and ourselves too harshly, and to challenge us to consider what it really means to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person, not just those who live blameless lives.
But this morning, I am called to deliver a sermon about a different kind of scoundrel.
The kind that is not racist, but….
The kind that obscures the real reasons for keeping people from all the rights and benefits they are entitled to, keeping history from telling the truth, keeping those we are meant to trust from being trustworthy.
In other words, the implicit, scary kind of liberal privilege that we all experience and have experienced throughout the history of American liberal religion – the kind that is nervous about Baltimore.
In the early 1800s, as men – because they were all men in those days – felt called to Unitarian and Universalist pulpits, they also felt called to a higher calling, that of justice. Theodore Parker especially was moved to speak out against slavery, but not in a polite sort of way. You see, there were, even then, two kinds of liberals – those who felt something was wrong but wanted the system to fix it – and those who knew something was wrong and were ready to go out into the streets to abolish it. Ministers like Parker were kicked out of pulpits because they called for a radical change in how we treated human beings who were being enslaved.
Even William Ellery Channing, who was never one to rock the boat, finally understood what the younger Parker was saying – and when he preached on the abolition of slavery, he was booed from the pulpit. Channing, whose Baltimore sermon defined Unitarianism in America.
For decades, Parker and other abolitionist ministers were called the scoundrels – but were they? Did they not do exactly what their faith taught them to do – speak prophetically from the pulpit? Name the truth that our own Declaration proclaimed – that all are created equal? Call people to action?
I think the scoundrels then were those who were so frightened by the active path that they vilified those who recommended it. They weren’t bad people, and in the end, their beliefs matched. But how these congregations treated Parker, Channing, and other abolitionist preachers, spoke volumes about the flaws they themselves carried.
Of course, not all Unitarians and Universalists were anti-slavery. Perhaps most notable was John C. Calhoun, senator from South Carolina. Secessionist. Slave owner. Unitarian. Calhoun, who convinced the southern states to secede from the Union, who justified his politics through his beliefs.
Yes – even people who adhere to our religious beliefs may sometimes be wrong… A fact no better illustrated than in the treatment of our early black ministers. In his book Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, Mark Morrison-Reed tells the story of Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown.
The account, in a chapter called “A Dream Aborted,” tells of a black minister, sure of his call, sure of his Unitarian faith, being turned away by the American Unitarian Association for fellowship, despite proving that a Unitarian church could grow in Harlem. His is a story of being told to wait his turn, to not ruffle feathers too much. The lack of support from the AUA caused Brown’s family to fall into emotional and financial poverty… and led Brown to compromise in order to secure support that would not come. Yet he was an idealist, who believed that ours is a saving faith.
The story is heartbreaking – the struggles Brown faced as a black minister, the resistance he met within our power structures, and even his own person struggle of putting his ministry before his family or his church. But the story is also instructive. Good people trying to do good work, but running up against their own hubris and fears, and good people running up against a system that has learned how to indirectly discriminate, so much so that it is hard to figure out who the scoundrels really are.
In 2003, a group of theologians within and outside Unitarian Universalism gathered to talk about the dismaying history of racism and classism in our movement, in an effort to understand our way forward so we wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. The words of this gathering were collected in a book called Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue.
In one chapter, William Jones explains that in rejecting classical racism – a form of oppression that operates through direct, institutionalized discrimination – a neo-racism crops up – more subtle, cunning, deceptive, and indirect. Neo-racism operates through policy – creating deficits, defects, disadvantages, and disabilities; then legislating inequality, providing for equal access but not equal opportunity, redefining correctives as affirmative action and reverse discrimination; ending proactive initiatives prematurely; and convincing the public these measures are effective and those who fail in the system are to blame for not doing it right. Rinse and repeat. Those being oppressed get caught in a hall of mirrors, the endless loop of a Catch-22.
And all the while, we think we are doing the right thing, because no one is shouting the N-word or barring the doors.
That isn’t to say and Unitarian Universalists are blindly engaging the system of neo-racism, but I wonder how effective we are at pushing back against it.
Even today, despite a mid-century push for integration in our inner-city congregations, despite many of our number going to Selma in 1965, despite making significant inroads regarding anti-racism and anti-oppression work, we have struggled and we still struggle. We are still a white denomination, and people of color are still pioneers.
The good news is that many Unitarian Universalists – even white ones – have been in Ferguson, and New York, and Oakland, and Detroit, and now Baltimore, standing up for those whose inherent worth and dignity are compromised, sometimes by death. Some have put Black Lives Matter banners on their buildings.
But these same people – called by their faith to say no to injustice, no to hate, no to the conditions that lead to mistrust and violence – these same people are being pushed out of their pulpits and seeing some members flee. “Why can’t we just let the system work itself out” they ask. “Why do you have to talk about privilege and color and poverty and violence all the time” they complain. Some of these good, prophetic people are resigning their ministries, and others are watching their numbers dwindle until the fracas dies down.
But like Parker and Channing, they can do no other, because their faith calls them to do so.
As my faith is calling me today.
Are we scoundrels when we say “why can’t it read ‘all lives matter’?” Maybe…. It could be we have a blind spot to why we might raise up one group despite our belief in the inherent worth of all. But when we realize it’s because one group is NOT seen as mattering, then we have to say something. When we say ‘all lives matter’ we are in fact obscuring the problem – that the system is designed to make sure all lives DON’T matter, and black bodies are dying in the streets – and in the back of police cars. And when the people who love those black bodies rise up in protest, and a handful of the thousands become a little violent, the protesters – not the police who killed those black bodies – are the ones called wrong.
As blogger Kesiena Boom writes,
Racism is alive and well while more and more Black people are not. The end.
They want to tell you that, “Not ALL cops…” They want to tell you you’re being unfair to white people. They want to talk about some sanitized MLK quote. They want to roll out their “Black on Black crime” defense. They want to call innocent teenage boys “thugs” who “deserved it.” They want to ignore your pain and the pain of countless Black people so they can assert their white-centered view of the world, in which Black people just aren’t trying hard enough to not get murdered in cold-blood.
And the system – this neo-racist system – makes it possible.
The death of Freddie Gray – thankfully being treated as murder by Maryland State Attorney Marilyn Mosby – is just one in a long line of deaths caused by this implicit Catch-22 of neo-racism.
Who are the scoundrels?
I say we are scoundrels when we ask people to calm down, and let the system work…because the system clearly isn’t working, and there are millions of people of color who regularly fear for their lives.
I say we are scoundrels when we rest on our laurels and point to abolition and Selma, as though the work has been done.
I say we are scoundrels when we hide our movement’s mistakes around race in harmless little books that grow dusty on our shelves.
I say we are scoundrels when we don’t recognize that our own privilege calls us to make sure all are free, safe, and equal.
This work isn’t easy. I remember when I was confronted by a woman of color about silencing black voices – something I hadn’t even realized I had done. It was shocking to be confronted, more shocking still to be told that I did something racist.
I was a scoundrel, compounding centuries of oppression with my light, white, liberal presumptions.
But instead of being offended and closed, I examined what she said, and I wrestled with the too-long-entrenched lessons that those of us growing up in the 70s learned – that diversity meant that we don’t see color. I’ve learned how damaging that presumption of sameness is, and how much I need to see other people’s culture and understand mine is not the norm. I’ve gotten past the shame, fear, and anger felt when being confronted with my privilege – or at least work through them on my own, not with the person of color who confronted me.
It isn’t easy to admit scoundrelhood – none of us goes through life intending to harm another, to do wrong, to be duplicitous and hypocritical. And yet the system makes scoundrels of all of us.
But there is hope. There are conversations and uprisings and sermons like this one, calling us back into covenant with one another as we admit our flaws and seek reconciliation, and work for justice. There are wake up calls so that every day we do and think a little better.
Our liberal religion calls us to act – to fight for justice and equity, to speak for the voiceless, to honor the inherent worth of all. And we don’t have to do it alone. We are in community because we need to do it together.
And we need to not consider any of these uprisings isolated incidents. Oakland, Ferguson, Detroit, New York, Baltimore, LA – they are connected. The pain, the oppression, and the response – is real, and constant, and we can be part of the solution.
This past weekend, as things began to heat up, Rev. David Carl Olson, Minister of First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, went out into the streets, along with hundreds of other clergy and people of faith, because his faith called him to be part of the solution. I’ll close with his report:
We must not imagine that what’s happening in Baltimore will be ‘over’ for a very long time. There are cries for ‘peace’ in our city – and from outside our city – which imagine that stopping the violence-spree of angry (and organized!) youth and getting back to normal is desired.
I am not sure that this is desired, and I know that it is not even possible. The frustration of the young people in Baltimore is the frustration of a people that have known police harassment their entire lives. The ‘War on Drugs’ created a culture that made it illegal to be poor, to be Black, to live in the neighborhood you live in and to hang out with your friends. This generation has faced a city where the ‘Zero Tolerance Policy’ criminalized childhood, criminalized growing up in East and West Baltimore, and that is not going to change, even when the State of Emergency is lifted and the National Guard goes home.
Baltimore snatched up its streets last night. We occupied our space, with courage, pride and joy. To see the 300 Men March walking in their organized fashion and shaking hands, calling for peace, encouraging boys and young men – this was Baltimore. Watching Baptist churches hold services on the street corners … walking with robed Catholics who know the poor of their parish – this was Baltimore. Witnessing the gangs … claiming their territory and encouraging youngsters to obey the curfew, because they care for each other, and don’t want the police to have any excuse to make additional frivolous arrests – this was Baltimore. …
Tuesday night was an amazing moment.
But there are so many tense moments ahead of us. … There will be quite a few moments in the next month where Baltimore’s peace may be threatened.
And so it should be. There is a generation of folk, among many generations of folk, whose lives have been shaped by this oppressive culture, and the particularly oppressive culture of the War on Drugs. We need to be part of re-making the culture with accountability to the people who are marginalized and oppressed. We must work in accountable relationship so that repair may happen in that generation and in our nation’s soul.
My mantra, every day, as I walk these streets (and then retire to my quite nice, leafy neighborhood) is ‘I have come because my liberation is bound up with yours. May we work together?’
My liberation is bound up with yours. May we work together?