The “Silver Lining” of Racism

If you learn what to look for, systemic racism becomes painfully apparent in even the most well meaning of conversations.

This morning, the first hour of the Diane Rehm show focused on the opiate addiction epidemic.  There was a guest host, as Diane is having medical treatments.

Addiction to opiates has skyrocketed, mainly because of over prescription by health care providers for pain management. The cost in human life has been staggering, with addiction-related deaths skyrocketing.

The Governor of New Hampshire was invited as a guest, as was a mother of an adult child struggling with addiction after being prescribed opiates following a sports injury. There were 2 doctors. The message was clear: we have an unparalleled raging epidemic in this country and something has to be done.

There were strong arguments made against the criminalization of drug addiction and for reclassifying addiction as a health issue. Th guests also asserted that this addiction epidemic is worse than the heroin epidemic of the 70s and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 90s. One guest even stated that the death rate of young white men from opiate addiction has surpassed the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. All of this was held up to impress upon us the uniqueness of this particular addiction epidemic.

I was waiting for someone to raise the concern that the attention being paid to this epidemic is a result of its impact on middle class white communities. Now that it’s middle class white teenagers and suburban moms and middle class white men being brought down by addiction, this is when America pays attention.

It didn’t happen.  No one brought it up.

Finally, someone submitted a question via email. It went something like this: The primary demographic experiencing this epidemic is white. Is this why we are giving this epidemic such attention?  Is racism at play here?

The doctor spoke up.   “Of course racism is at play here,” he said.

“Oh good,” I thought. “This is finally going to be addressed.”

“I hate to say it, but you could say that racism is the silver lining for blacks here. Doctors were more likely to prescribe opiates to whites than to blacks because they were concerned that blacks would sell them on the street. The doctors’ racism created a protective shield around black communities that were left relatively untouched by this epidemic.” (my paraphrasing…)

When is it ever appropriate to identify racism as having a “silver lining”?   I call this paternalism of the most insidious kind.  If the black community has truly been spared this particular addiction epidemic, that is a good thing, but we should never glorify or celebrate or express gratitude for the racism that fueled it.  It is disrespectful and harmful to talk about racism as having a shielding impact on the black community.   When has racism ever been a protective shield or silver lining to those being oppressed? How often have blacks experienced white health care providers distrusting them and then misdiagnosing serious health issues?   While white doctors were refusing to prescribe opiates to blacks, black communities were criminalized, their kids were being pushed through the school to prison pipeline, and white fear of blacks was used to justify militarizing the police and building the biggest prison industrial complex in the world.   And, when community leaders protested, when they advocated for better mental health resources, for educational resources, investment in infrastructure and employment initiatives, who listened?  More often they were disregarded by whites and those with influence and power as lazy and unwilling to take responsibility for their community issues.

Why weren’t their voices enough? They should be been enough.

But it gets better. The doctor and other guests insinuated that an epidemic that is predominantly affecting white communities was helping the black community because “we” are beginning to understand that addiction isn’t a moral failing, it’s a disease.   “We” are now understanding that prison isn’t the answer to addiction. “We” are understanding the complexity of drug abuse.

Apparently it is only through the tragic experience of addiction-related white deaths that “we” are able to understand the reality of addiction.

The deaths of black children should have been enough. The call from black leaders to decriminalize addiction should have been enough.  The epidemic of the criminalization of black communities, which currently lands 1 in 3 black men in prison, should have been enough. The call for massive investment in predominantly black communities should have been enough.

But it wasn’t, and for many white Americans, it still isn’t. A drug epidemic isn’t an epidemic until it hits middle class white communities. The crack cocaine epidemic fuelled the “get tough on crime” prison industrial complex. The opiate epidemic is fuelling reform…

… reform that is years overdue.

White America owes the black community not only an apology, but also reparations for the irreversible damage done to countless communities and families. All “we” had to do was to listen, to believe, to care, and to act.

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Epiphany Reflections for the Black Lives Matter Movement

Today is the Epiphany, the formal end of the Christmas Season. According to the Gospel of Matthew, wisemen from the East who have followed the Star to Bethlehem pay a visit to King Herod, hoping that he is the right person to help them find the new King who has been foretold by the star. King Herod greets them politely, but when he hears the reason for their journey he is terrified and angry. Who is this new King?   Is he a danger to Herod’s throne? He asks the wisemen to let him know the whereabouts of the newborn King so that he can pay his respects. Secretly, he plans to kill this newborn king as soon as he finds him.

The wisemen find Jesus, offer their gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, and return home without paying a second visit to King Herod because they are told in a dream not to. Mary and Joseph, also tipped off by a dream, flee with Jesus to Egypt.

King Herod takes the news of the new King to his advisors who are equally distressed. What could a new King intend? They imagine the worst. King Herod waits for the wisemen to share Jesus’ location. When he realizes they have gone, he  decrees that every Jewish child under the age of 2 in Bethlehem is to be killed. This is done. Mothers wail in the streets as their babes are ripped from their arms, never to return. Their babies’ bodies have born the burden of empire.

Those in our time who would strip Jesus’ birth of its political message do an injustice to its liberating countercultural promise.

Jesus was not a threat to Herod in the way Herod feared. He had no aspersions to political power in its traditional form. Jesus message and mission was a threat in a much bigger way. His purpose on earth was to upend the established power relations of his time, to use a modern phrase, to #shutitdown and create a new heaven on earth where the last were first and the mighty would tumble. “Blessed are those who suffer for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus was the antithesis of empire.   He was the realization of love.

We in the United States are in a powerful and frightening time, witnessing the second Civil Rights movement of the post-World War 2 era. Some of us are actively participating in this movement and allowing our lives to be reshaped by it and our hearts and spirits to be liberated by it. Many of us are learning the true meaning of a life dedicated to compassion.

Ferguson Uprising has planted the seeds of the antithesis of empire.   It has held up the scourge of the modern day extrajudicial killings of black adults and children, their bodies bearing the burden of empire.

The militarized response to the peaceful protests and the misuse of the grand jury process is not unlike Herod and his advisors, reacting in fear and choosing to remove an entire generation of children to preserve their power. What is at stake in St. Louis, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Waller County, McKinney, Los Angeles and across the nation is the empire of white supremacy, a death culture so powerful that even those of us who have thrown ourselves into the movement see its poison alive in us.

We all have a bit of Herod in our hearts. We feel the panic as established ways are questioned. We see our hand in the systems that we seek to dismantle. Is it any wonder that the reaction to this movement is so strong and often so hateful? Is it any wonder that 1½ years after Ferguson Uprising many in the movement struggle with the inevitable divisions that filter across the boundaries we have crossed to unify our resources and compel the powerful to relent. These divisions are the voice of Herod, the voice of fear laced with a powerful self-serving intransigence. What is at stake is nothing less than the Christ child itself.

But we also have a mighty star to follow. In Unitarian Universalism we speak of the divine spark within.   That spark is the Star of the East guiding us into a shared vision of the Holy and the True.

“O Star of Wonder, Star of night, Star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding. Guide us to thy perfect Light.”  

The star’s draw is so powerful that many of us have accepted its invitation and set off across the desert in search of a prince of peace, embodied in no one person but in the vision of justice and renewal that we thirst for.

I have met so many wisemen in the last year and a half, people I would never have known because of the racial stratification and geographical apartheid that shapes our nation.   Some of these people have become good friends. Others are familiar faces that I recognize from attending marches.   Some of these relationships exist on social media. There are also pre-existing relationships that have deepened because of our growing commitment to join this marathon – colleagues, parishioners, friends, neighbors, family.   These relationships are my wisemen and they give me hope for the long journey.  They help me to see when I’ve stepped into Herod’s court and what it might look like to get back to the streets of Bethlehem.

What it would look like, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, to kneel before the Christ child and offer gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense? Perhaps we have money, status, privilege, power, knowledge, wisdom, curiosity and humility. We have our spheres of influence. We have our voices, our hands, our eyes, and our feet. We have our smartphones and our laptops and our cameras. We have our patience and persistence.  We have the ability to follow.  But none of this means a thing if we do not have love, for it is love that fuels the brilliance of the Star of the East; it is love that draws us to one another; it is love that pushes us out from the court of Herod and before the manger in Bethlehem. Let us gather our gifts and bring them to the child.

May you have a blessed epiphany.

 

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A Unitarian Universalist ‘Black Lives Matter’ Theology – reposted

from a respected fellow journeyer: Kenny Wiley.  A Unitarian Universalist ‘Black Lives Matter’ Theology.

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Preliminary Reflections on the Department of Justice Report on the Ferguson Police Department

The theme of the month at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) the congregation I serve, is letting go.  Starting in early February, I began working with the 4th to 7th Grades to create our annual worship service.  I asked them to reflect on the theme of “letting go” and they came up with the topic of forgiveness.   It was incredible to me, the insights they had on forgiveness. We talked about when it’s easy to forgive and when it’s not. What does it mean to forgive and what it does not mean (like forgetting)? What does it take to forgive?

I have found myself thinking a great deal about forgiveness and what it means in the context of justice. I spent considerable time reading the Department of Justice Report on Ferguson, and reflecting deeply on it.  Honestly, it was worse than I had suspected. Even as a dedicated white ally, committed to believing the stories of blacks in our city who spoke of feeling preyed upon by law enforcement, I was shocked by what I had read. I found myself wondering how anyone could have been a party to such overt discrimination and oppression? I wondered if the leaders really understood what they were doing. And if they did, what did that mean?
I found myself wondering about how good people can do evil things and still believe they are good. It was easy to become judgmental reading the report. “‘Those’ people did this to our black brothers and sisters.” But in whose name? Were they really just protecting Ferguson, or were those leaders doing this in our name? It is a common thing to hear during coffee hour after worship that St. Louis is a segregated city. But rarely do we talk about our collective responsibility for that reality.  It is much easier to distance ourselves from the dynamics that created the segregation and the systemic violence that maintains it.

Following the report, many Black Lives Matters leaders reaffirmed what the report shared, that the actions of the leaders in Ferguson were not unique to Ferguson. This is happening throughout our city. Blacks are systemically harassed in the ways written about in the DOJ report, throughout St. Louis. In fact, in the annual report about traffic stops in the region of St. Louis, Chesterfield ranks particularly high as a city that practices racial profiling. So do many of the communities that our members and friends live in. These law enforcement practices, supported by our elected leaders, are also implicitly and unconsciously supported by the residents of our many municipalities.

I have come to believe that one of the ways we start is by acknowledging what we have at stake in the status quo. You have to recognize what you’re responsible for before even considering asking for forgiveness. You have to recognize that you actually need forgiveness because we have helped create what exists now. And then, we have to undo the status quo that continues to damage and destroy so many lives.

When the Ferguson shooting first happened, I was deeply uncomfortable with the slogan “Shut it Down.” I felt it went too far. After reading the Department of Justice Report, I no longer feel this is a radical statement. When systemic racism is so deeply embedded, one wonders whether simple reform could ever be sufficient. I understand more deeply why the new generation of civil rights activists have largely abandoned the politics of respectability that shaped the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, It’s been 50 years since Blood Sunday and the march for voting rights. They are tired of waiting, tired of being polite, waiting for the rest of the country to recognize and understand what is happening to them. After reading the Department of Justice report, I can understand why they are tired and impatient.
So this Sunday we will see a sweet play about forgiveness. But look deeply at the message in the story, and let’s ask ourselves, what does it really mean to ask for forgiveness? What does it ask of us? What are those we are asking to forgive us being asked to let go of?

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Journeying with Grace – A Sermon

The challenge in this religious community has always been:  what will we do with that yearning for home? Will it make us inward focused, thinking only about ourselves and what we need and want, or will our yearning for home and permanence open our hearts up to the world, seeing home in the human heart, seeing home in the spiritual discipline of hospitality, open mindedness, and a deep compassion for the suffering in the world? Like many religious communities, this congregation’s predominant inclination is to focus inwards and we have always struggled with how to put the need for home in proper perspective so we do not become simply about ourselves. The challenge for us is to internalize the abiding truth that when you have an outward focus, you are taking care of the hearth fire. An outward focus will bring inward richness and bounty.

This sermon was delivered at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday January 25, 2014:

Today we’re talking about journeying with grace. Packing our bag, looking toward a horizon, and moving towards it. How do we do that with integrity and with grace? Two weeks ago I talked about the kind of grace that is like receiving peace in complicated times.   Today I want to talk about grace as a way of moving through the world and in our relationships with others, grace as a way of finding new life over and over again.

Twenty-two years ago, I set off on a grand adventure! I wanted to set off on my own, free and independent. I got a job in a college cafeteria in Germany. I borrowed my brother’s knapsack, borrowed money from an uncle to pay the airfare, and set off. I hoped that I would be able to eat in the cafeteria until my first paycheck. I chose not to buy a travel guide, thinking I would save money by finding my way once I got there.

I also didn’t have money for lightweight clothing so my pack was pretty heavy. This became painfully obvious when I got lost looking for a hostel in Frankfurt because I didn’t have a travel guide for directions. Gone went a pair of prized jeans, several t-shirts, an extra pair of shoes, and a bottle of moisturizer, given to the pink haired punk kids who lived outside the train station. On the second day I got food poisoning at a German Chinese Restaurant. You think American Chinese is bad? Try German Chinese! Food poisoning was a mixed blessing. I had not desire to spend my dwindling cash supply on food.

I’m surprised I got to the school. I was saved by English speaking travelers and kind ladies who mistook my odd way of speaking German for being Swedish. I was saved by having parents who answered my collect calls and an ex-boyfriend who mailed a travel guide. I was saved by the cafeteria women, who treated me like a granddaughter. I gained 20 twenty pounds in 2 months.

In other words, I didn’t do my journey alone. I became ever more embedded in a network of relationships spanning continents, cultures, languages, and generations. All I had to do was set aside my pride and ask for help. It was not at all how I had envisioned my journey into independence, but it was how I made it through.

Our particular culture doesn’t always give us this story. The dominant story in the western world, especially for those of us who are white, educated, and middle class, is that going it on our own is morally superior to leaning on others. Self-reliance is a sign of moral strength. This is the story I hoped to live on my adventure. I wanted to be completely independent.  I will readily admit I felt some shame, even years later, for not being able to do that.

What I wonder now, is that perhaps I wasn’t giving myself credit for how strong I was. A foolish person would have kept trying to go it alone. A wise person knows when to ask for help. Perhaps this is a stronger way of being than being stoically suffering.

The word clouds that we saw this morning, created by the visioning process that this congregation is engaging, contain a lot of meaning, too much to examine in one sermon, but I think they show us a way of living in resistance to this dominant story.  I want to focus on four words that came up over and over again in those word clouds: community, children, home, and permanence.

Many of us have come here seeking out community because deep down we have learned that we can’t do life on our own. We are being wounded over and over by trying to live into the story of the self-made person.   What we are yearning for is interdependence, which is very different. Independence is standing alone. Interdependence is standing strong within the web of life, knowing that you are held in so many ways.

The other word that came up frequently is “children”. Many of you come to church for your children, you stay for your children, and even after they go off to college, you continue to stay because this is now your community and you want this community to be strong for those who come after you. Those of us who do not have children at home come to church because we want to be in a multigenerational community.

What is it about having children woven into our community life that is so spiritually nurturing? Children show us, without apology, what interdependence really looks like.   Children have permission to need us. We know that is the deal. When there are children in our midst, we can’t just up and go live our independent adventures. We have to think about our every choice and how it will impact them.

Some churches don’t do this very well. There is a strong generational divide between kids, their parents, and everyone else. We have made a different choice. Sometimes it makes life more complicated, often it even makes life more expensive, but we welcome that as a blessing because we believe it brings us into right relationship with each other. Multigenerational community is one of our spiritual disciplines.

The other two words that came up over and over again were “home” and “permanent”. Most of us know exactly where those words come from in the context of this church. Last summer, we experienced us packing up, selling, and leaving the place that we called home for 24 years. It’s not surprising that there is an emptiness because we don’t have that physical anchor anymore. I know that many of us have had the experience of packing up homes that we have lived in for generations, perhaps the family home when a parent passes away or needs a different level of care.   We will remember how hard it is to make the decisions – what do you keep, what goes to Goodwill, what gets thrown away? Every decision seems to be about how you will honor the history that you have experienced, the love, the memories. It is exhausting.

When you’ve packed the last box, locked the door, and driven away, it can feel like a hole in your heart. An anchor that has always been there, the centering of a physical place, is no longer there. It can be very disorienting and spiritually painful to accept your new normal. How long does it take to get used to this new normal? It can take a long time. There is a reason that the prevailing wisdom about a major loss is that you should make no significant decisions for 1-2 years after the loss. You may simply not be in the right frame of mind to make strong decisions. The loss defines the decisions for you.

It would be easy to assume from the word clouds that the presence of the words “home” and “permanent” is predominantly because of what we have just been through. But I think there is more to it than that.

Two weeks ago I talked about the impact on our psyches of having a very transient society. Most of us have lived in 3 or more states. We assume that our children will live in another city when they grow up. We assume that family may not mean an every day presence in our lives. I think this takes its toll. I know it has taken its toll on me. Living far from my family.   Far from childhood friends, having to recreate a community time after time.   Every new loss brings up echoes of older ones. I suspect that the sale of our building has touched on older losses that are still working themselves out in our psyches.

In every single visioning process this church has done, even before the move, even before I became your minister, home was always way up there. It would still be up there if we had remained in our building because we live in such a highly mobile society that we are managing loss all the time. So the presence of those is words is about more than just what happened six months ago.   It’s always been there, but it is magnified right now because of the move.

The challenge in this religious community has always been what will we do with that yearning for home. Will it make us inward focused, thinking only about ourselves and what we need and want, or will our yearning for home and permanence open our hearts up to the world, seeing home in the human heart, seeing home in the spiritual discipline of hospitality, open mindedness, and a deep compassion for the suffering in the world? Like many religious communities, this congregation’s predominant inclination is to focus inwards and we have always struggled with how to put the need for home in proper perspective so we do not become simply about ourselves. The challenge for us is to internalize the abiding truth that when you have an outward focus, you are taking care of the hearth fire.  An outward focus will bring inward richness and bounty.

As many of you know, we have been holding vigils for racial justice for three months. Every Saturday we stand at the same intersection at the Chesterfield Commons. Doing this has helped us create home in Chesterfield. We are claiming our place in a very different way than Emerson Chapel ever has before, by moving out into the world rather than into a physical building.   We are practicing the spiritual discipline of standing on the side of love. And for me, at least, St. Louis feels more like home than it ever has, because I have anchored in Unitarian Universalist values for my city. Home has happened by creating our sanctuary on a busy commercial drive. Our sanctuary is our bodies, standing together in love in the wind, in the rain, in the cold, and sometimes blissfully in the sun.

We know that it is going to take several years to have a permanent home again, even to rent a space that is only ours. We are going to have to grow as a congregation, quite a lot, and the board is going to look at exactly how much we would need to grow so that we have a realistic timeline for getting there. So, we need to keep that long term goal in front of us, and at the same time, look at how we will create home and permanence right now. With who we are now, where we are now.

When I look at all the faiths in the world, I see so many different ways of creating home. A Roman Catholic has home when they pull out their rosary beads. A Baptist is home when they open up the family Bible. A Jewish person has home when they say the Sabbath prayers. A Muslim is home when they face Mecca.

What is home for Unitarian Universalists? Our home is in our spiritual disciplines of interdependence, compassion, justice, equality, and reverence.

You know what one of my favorite times of the week has become? Sunday from 9- 10 a.m. because that’s when we create our sacred space. We move chairs, hang curtains, wire the sound, and roll in the pulpit and chalice. We make the coffee and set up the greeter table. Everyone is working together to create our sacred place. What we are doing is Unitarian Universalist theology in action.   We are incarnating interdependence. We all need each other, coming together, with our various skills and understandings, to create the vehicle for our community to connect and deepen. And when the chalice is extinguished at the end of worship, its transformative power goes into our hearts. We put all the material trappings of church away in Room 135, and the true center of our faith goes out into the world incarnated in us who have been strengthened and renewed in coming together.

If this is not an act of journeying with grace, then I don’t know what is. Sometimes my heart feels so big I don’t know how I will be able to hold it all, because of what I see us creating together, because of how I see us living our Unitarian Universalism. We often say that Unitarian Universalism is about thinking outside the box, standing against the grain, being creative and open minded, ready for new ideas and new ways of being. We aren’t just talking about that anymore, we are living it.

In this way, we are journeying with grace, remaining open and kind, thankful and generous, anchored in the present and looking to the future. Wherever we land years from now, right now, we have landed here, and we have the opportunity to find home right now. And we will find new life, over and over again.

May the spirit be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.

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What’s Grace Got to Do With It?

It’s time to rehabilitate grace. You don’t have to believe in God or original sin to experience grace. You can be a humanist, you can be an atheist, you can be someone who doubts everything you hear, and grace is still there for us. It can have a place in our thinking, it can have a place in our living and our loving. Grace provides a pathway out of guilt, fear and shame, and a path into new life and healing.

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on January 11th.  A sermon it is meant to be heard rather than read, and that influences the style of its writing.

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I am wondering this morning what grace means at the end of a week that saw 17 people gunned down by religious extremists in France and the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado. That’s two hate crimes this week, two acts of terror.

I find myself looking for grace, wanting some assurance that under all this chaos, under the violence and the fear, under the grief and anger, under the distrust, there is something bigger than this, something that can’t be shaken even by the most horrendous things that happen in the world and in our own lives. I’m looking for something that is stronger and more beautiful and more resilient than the things that create such damage. I’m looking for grace.

This month our worship theme is grace. The grace we receive, the grace we offer, the grace that happens. What is grace?   Where does it come from?   What does it mean?

If you were raised Christian, and I was, many of us received an understanding of grace that we grew uncomfortable with. This understanding of grace is couched in the theology of original sin and it goes something like this:

Way back when the world was created, we humans were created pure and unblemished, placed in the Garden of Eden. However, Adam and Eve could not resist the temptations of the serpent and bit into that apple. Their whole perspective changed and for the first time they felt fear and shame. God figured this out pretty quickly and banished them from the Garden of Eden. Their punishment was that human life would now mean suffering. All of humanity was now stained with that original sin of Adam and Eve and our life would be hard because of it. But, God never stopped wanting us to have more than that. He sent his son Jesus to come and be with us and teach us a new way to live.   God then decided to put all the sin of the world on his son and let him be killed. Our sins were killed with him. This would save us from that original sin of Adam and Eve and give us new life. God’s grace is that we are saved not by our own actions but rather by his generosity. Grace is something we have been given, something that we do not deserve and could not earn.

Many of us turned away from this understanding of grace because we just couldn’t buy into the assumption that to be human should mean to suffer, or that every human carried an original sin. It seemed only to create guilt and fear and shame. It was hard for us to imagine that humanity is beyond redemption, or that a tiny baby could be born with sin.

The sad thing is, that the way we many of us learned to look at grace actually kept us from it. I don’t think that you can get to grace through shame and fear and guilt. These feelings blind us and they imprison us. They put up a wall between us and the grace that is always there for us.

I think it’s time to rehabilitate grace. You don’t have to believe in God or original sin to experience grace. You can be a humanist, you can be an atheist, you can be someone who doubts everything you hear, and grace is still there for us. It can have a place in our thinking, it can have a place in our living and our loving. Grace provides a pathway out of guilt and fear and shame and into new life and healing.

Our children’s story this morning, The Great Ibex, gives us a different paradigm for grace. When the Ibex leaps over that chasm and sees the king thrown off his horse, there is no sense that the king is in this predicament because he deserves it, that some kind of divine justice has happened. Instead, the Ibex’s heart softens. A man is suffering and will surely die if he does not turn around. Grace happens because the Ibex sees the king’s humanity and is moved by it.

It doesn’t stop there. Grace continues because the King is also changed. What I find most interesting is the King’s first response when he sees the Ibex. “I’m a beast!” he says, echoing the kind of shame and guilt that many of us were taught to express in the face of grace. The Ibex doesn’t go for it.  He invites the King onto his back and gets him out of danger.

There are two things about this story that I want to hold up here.

First, when King asks him what he can do in return, the Ibex says, “Stop killing for sport. Don’t use our lives for your amusement.”  The Ibex asked the King to change his life because of the grace he had experienced.

Second, notice that the Ibex didn’t ask the king for anything before he saved him. He could have used the king’s life as a bargaining chip. “I’ll save you if you do this for me.” He didn’t use the king’s disadvantage for his own well being. I doubt that the Ibex would have asked for anything if the King had not offered. He simply would have saved the King because it was the right thing to do. He saved the King with no demands, and only asked the King for what we wanted after the king offered.

There is so much grace in this story: the Ibex, who turned around and offers the King life-saving help with nothing asked in return; and, the King, who accepts the gift. We can use this story as a way to anchor grace in every part of our lives and to save ourselves from some of the ways we are taught to look at each other.

I was reading an article some time ago about changing trends in the ways we understand our relationships with other people. This author, and I wish I could remember her name, remarked that it seemed to her that people determine each other’s worth by how it helps us advance our own agenda. This isn’t new. People have been doing this forever, but she has seen a marked change, in that this is becoming the primary way we have started viewing each other and measuring each other’s worth, by how it benefits us personally. This is a modus operandi not only in our business lives, but increasingly in our personal lives.

I see this happening for us at this time for two reasons. There are probably more, but two come to mind.

Firstly, we see in American society the kind of fragmentation of community and family in a way never seen before.   Most of us live far from our families and many of us have uprooted many times, leaving behind friendships and community. When I was young, I had this feeling that life was infinite, that if I moved on, or someone moved on, there would always be someone to replace them. I don’t feel that way anymore. You cannot simply replace people. There is always something lost that you cannot simply find in a new person. I think that in our highly mobile society there is always some part of ourselves that is grieving, either because we have left or someone has left us. One of the normal responses to that continuous loss is to protect ourselves by holding back from each other’s humanity. That makes it much easier to see people only in terms of what they can offer us.

Another reason is because corporate values have gained the status of religious values in modern American society. The corporate world has gain such hegemonic power that we begin to see all of life through a corporate lens. All of you know that in the corporate world your sole value to the organization you work for is how you benefit that organization. It’s what you do not who you are. That makes sense when there is a bottom line! We all know that all those glossy mission statements and personnel initiatives are really about improving your performance for the well being of the corporation you work for. And that’s o.k. The problem is that by giving that value system such power, almost sacred power, we are carrying those assumptions into our private lives and seeing each other the same way we are seen in our work lives.

My concern is that this represents a decline in the experience of life itself. When you see a person only as a tool for your own path, and when you are seen as a tool by others, the result is a gradual dehumanization.   Instead of seeing the beauty and complexity of human life, we see a myriad of competing agendas whose value is measured only by whether it advances our agenda or stands in the way of it.

We assume everyone has an agenda. When that happens, life becomes a series of power struggles.   There is always reason to distrust. There is always reason to be afraid and cautious, to worry about what lies around the next bend in the road. Everything becomes competitive. I have no problem with competitiveness when it helps us to excel. I am a highly competitive person myself. I also know that there are times when we cross the line and competitiveness no longer becomes about being our best self, but about a ceaseless jockeying for position and power.

When you think about it, what happened in Paris this week and what happened in Colorado are extreme versions of this same dynamic – where people are dehumanized, seen only as chess pieces in a game.   These acts of terror were designed to steal life for the purposes of a larger agenda.

It’s very tempting when something horrible like this happens to demonize those who commit these horrendous acts, to make them as unlike us as possible. I see it a bit differently.   These acts of terror are at the extreme end of a continuum that has changed all of us, where we value people primarily by how they benefit us. Most of us would not consciously take this constant jockeying for power to the place where it includes intentional loss of life. But, I would say we lose our lives in all kinds of ways beyond physical death when we live this way. Seeing others primarily as chess pieces in our own game is a kind of death, for us and for them.   It’s also true that some of the deep systems that shape our world – economic systems, political systems, religious systems, environmental systems – systems that we participate in, are like a massive chess game that ends up in loss of life and loss of hope and possibility.

How can you receive grace when you’re always wondering what the person offering it really wants? How can you offer grace when you’re already planning how it will benefit you?

True grace is when we set aside our agendas, when we let go of the ceaseless search for more power and be in another’s presence, open to the fullness of their spirit and how we might be changed by it. In my opinion, the most effective resistance to acts of terror is to refuse to continue the terror in the way we treat others. Acts of terror are meant to make us respond to life with fear. When we respond to acts of terror with fear-based decisions, the terrorist has won. We have finished the job for them.

Grace happens when we set aside fear and when we set aside the game that values people only for what they can do for us. It’s not an easy thing to do. We are trained to be afraid, trained to distrust. Can you imagine what it took for the Ibex to stop running? He knew he was safe. He had outrun the King and his horse. Why not just keep going?

Imagine this. Imagine that the Ibex kept running and that the King somehow managed to get out of the forest. The King might have gone home frustrated at his unsuccessful hunt, and probably come back out again as soon as his health permitted. The Ibex could very well have found himself once again the object of the king’s pursuit, and maybe this time he wouldn’t have made it. He might have fallen to the cycle of the hunt. Because the Ibex turned around and faced the person who was his enemy, the cycle was broken. The hunt stopped. The Ibex and the King saw each other’s mutual value and broke the pattern.

This is grace.

Theologian Paul Tillich writes that,  “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. …. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.”

Grace breaks the pattern of dehumanization that we are part of.   Each of us is the Ibex, running from an enemy. Each of us is also the King, chasing the object of our desires. Grace happens when we stop running and when we stop chasing. Imagine what life would be like if the hunt stopped?

What hunt needs to stop in your own life? One of the things that drew me into Unitarian Universalism, perhaps it drew you as well, is that I saw in this faith tradition a way out of some of the cycles in my life that kept me from accepting grace. I was hunter and hunted and I was so tired. I wanted to journey with people who lived a different way. Our whole approach to life is to release to grace, to trust that when you withdraw from that power struggle, life isn’t going to crash in. Instead we are free, liberated. This is how we channel the human spirit. This is how we manifest the holy.

This week, I would invite you to spend some time reflecting on where in your life you struggle the most. What you running from?   What are you pursuing? What would happen if you stopped running? What would happen if you stopped the pursuit? Is it possible that grace is waiting for you?

May the spirit of life, the spirit that frees and liberates, be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.

copyright of Rev. Krista Taves.

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Moving forward as White Moderates

This Sunday, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, we at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel, located in West St. Louis County, will return to our focus on racial justice in our city. Three members of our congregation who either live or work in North County will be sharing their personal experiences of life during the last several months. Tim Martin grew up in North County and has served as a firefighter in that area for 20 years. Kelly Waymire lived in Florissant and her next- door neighbor and friend is Tom Jackson, Police Chief of the Ferguson Police Department.   Megan Demsky and her husband live in the home David’s grandparents own in Ferguson, blocks from the marches that have taken place since August. I chose to ask Kelly and Tim in particular because their understanding of events differs in significant ways from mine. I wanted their voices to have a place in our congregational life. That is what a religious democracy looks like.

We have all changed since August. At the time the shooting of Michael Brown occurred and the community surged into the streets, I would have been extremely uncomfortable using the phrase “police brutality.” It seemed so strident, divisive, inflammatory and extreme. Then through the fall I began to see real evidence of police brutality at the protests. Still, I would not use the phrase. I thought to myself that really, only black people should use that word. It’s their truth, not mine. I have come to the feeling that it is a cop out. Those of us with eyes to see know that police brutality exists and has deeply shaped the black experience. If we wish to be true allies for racial justice, we have to take our black brothers’ and sisters’ word for it. We have to believe them and we have to share that we believe them. I, for one, believe them.

At the same time, I know many police and their families have paid a steep price this fall. Some live in fear of their lives. Kelly Waymire will testify to that in her sharing. In my opinion, there is no room for demonization of the police in this struggle. We do not create justice by creating enemies. We do not create accountability by threatening more lives. There is enough death happening already.

I know that many acts of violence have been committed in these last months, state-sanctioned violence and violence from civilians, and that the type of violence each uses is different. State-sanctioned violence tends to be focused on the bodies of the protesters – beatings, tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, incarceration. The violence used by some civilians tends to focus on property damage – trashing cars, burning buildings, smashing windows, theft.

There is also something important to take into consideration that is very rarely spoken of. Some of the property damage has come from white protesters who often self-identify as anarchists, and yet it is the black protesters as a whole who are often blamed for it in the media and put in jail for it.

We know that 99% of the protesters are committed to non-violent resistance and have spent tremendous time, effort and money training in the non-violent resistance used by Martin Luther King and Ghandi, and then translating those methods into a response to today’s realities. If you want to learn more about non-violent resistance watch the movie “Selma” and read about the history of the labor movement. Every tool that the resistance is using was refined in union activism that raised the standard of living for ordinary Americans for more than 60 years and lead to many labor laws that protect us today.   These same tools of change and liberation are being used by The Movement today.

This fall, I was exposed to a piece of writing by Martin Luther King that not many whites pay much attention to. It has made a deep impression on me and has influenced some of my decision making this year. It comes from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and was read during an interfaith service I attended with Vice-President of the Board Jake Lyonfields in October:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Whenever I wonder what to do next, I go back to this and it gives me the courage to keep on. I don’t want African Americans in the country to keep paying the price because I’m afraid and resistant. Whenever I get tired or afraid, especially afraid of the reaction of other white people, I think about that. What is happening in our city is not a simple story. On one level nothing has changed. Many of us go to work, send our kids to school, shop for our groceries, live our lives. One another level, everything has changed. My hope is that we resist the impulse to return to the status quo. I hope that we have the courage and vision to stay in the complexity and to show up for the long haul.

Some of that complexity will happen this Sunday. I do hope you will join us this Sunday and listen to our people speak. I admire them for their courage and their focus, their willingness to share what is in their hearts. Let us open our hearts to their stories. Let us be willing to be challenged by them.

Yours in faith and love,

Rev. Krista.

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