Monday, February 9, 2015

Our Passion for Justice

I preached this sermon on Sunday February 8, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks.

Reading: excerpt from Our Passion for Justice by Carter Heyward

Love, like truth and beauty is concrete.  Love is not fundamentally a sweet feeling, not, at heart, a matter of sentiment, attachment, or being "drawn toward."  Love is active, effective, a matter of making reciprocal and mutually beneficial relation with one's friends and enemies.  Love creates righteousness, or justice, here on earth.  To make love is to make justice.  As advocates and activists for justice know, loving involves struggle, resistance, risk.  People working today on behalf of women, blacks, lesbians, and gay men, the aging, the poor in this country and elsewhere know that making justice is not a warm, fuzzy experience.  I think also that sexual lovers and good friends know that the most compelling relationships demand hard work, patience, and a willingness to endure tensions and anxiety in creating mutually empowering bonds.

For this reason loving requires commitment.  We are not automatic lovers of self, others, world, or God.  Love does not just happen.  We are not love machines, puppets on the strings of deity called "love."  Love is a choice--not simply or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile.  Love is a conversion to humanity--a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives.  Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world or as a deity above the world, aloof and apart from human flesh.

Our Passion for Justice

This month we are focusing our worship on putting love into action.  Carter Heyward in our reading today states that to make love is to make justice.  I have in the past used this reading in a sermon on marriage and justice for LGBTQ persons and it was one of the readings Donna and I chose for our wedding.  Heyward tells us that love is a choice, it is a choice to be present with others.  She reminds us that love requires work and commitment.  Contrary to our cultural images of love as a feeling, that we fall in love or in the words of a current pop song “the heart wants what it wants” – love requires far more than this.  Love requires us to risk, to get hurt, to say I am sorry and to say I forgive you.

Our work for justice requires commitment, endurance and love.  For our justice work to be both effective and sustainable it must come from love.  While it is tempting to come to hate and maybe even despise those who oppose the work for justice, hate cannot make justice. Hatred consumes a person and we cease seeing the other person as a human being, as worthy.  Ends can be seen as justifying means and our vision for justice can cease to include everyone.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said “I've seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.... But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

The civil rights movement was grounded in an inclusive vision of equality and justice, it was grounded in love.  The principles of non-violence were not only practical and necessary, they grounded the movement in love. Not in a sappy, sentimental love – no one was asked to like their oppressors.  Rather oppressors were seen as flawed humans, that could be won over and that the full vision of the civil rights movement was inclusive and universal – it included the oppressor.  It was also not a love that excluded anger and outrage.  Oppression is cause for anger and anger is not opposition to love. Rather love calls us to use anger and outrage for the purposes of justice.  While it is possible as Yoda tells us in Star Wars that anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering, anger channeled into resistance, into risk for justice can also lead to love, and lead to justice.  Those putting their lives on the line for justice are angry and they are outraged, yet they pour that into their work for justice, into a fight for a better world.  When we see the anger in communities like Ferguson, New York, Los Angeles, Florida; anger that young black men are being killed by the police that are there to protect and serve we are seeing them pour that grief, anger and outrage into a demand that we do better.  It is a demand to be seen and heard through peaceful protest, through the media, by refusing to remain silent, by making it clear that this is not an acceptable way to live.  They put forth a vison of a world, a society that is beyond what we have now – it is imagining and working to bring in a world transformed, a world made new.

As allies in the work of justice, particularly those of us who have privilege – whether the privilege of white skin, being male, heterosexual, educated, with economic means – it is imperative that we not dismiss or diminish the anger and outrage of those who are oppressed particularly when we get it wrong.  Being an ally is to love – it is to risk and resist and it is to know that sometimes we will make mistakes.  Yet we have to be willing to endure the anger that may come when we are confronted with our privilege.  We have to be willing, to be courageous, to be loving enough to listen, to remain in relationship, to risk being hurt if we are truly to be effective allies and justice makers.

I know for myself, I worry about getting it wrong, about saying the wrong thing.  I worry that I will again assume that what is true for me, privileges that I take for granted are not true for everyone.  I know that too often I do play it safe, staying quiet, taking my cues from others in order to not say or do the wrong thing.  I step back from being a partner in the dance of life in order to stay safe.

As Donna spoke to us about her experience on Living Legacy pilgrimage and walking on the Pettus Bridge, hearing the stories of those who were there 50 years ago, she talked about how some on the pilgrimage were uncomfortable with the anger coming from some of those in the movement. That some were more comfortable with stories of forgiveness or gratitude for the white allies that were so essential to the success of the movement.  It is easy to see why. We can see how 50 years later it seems so obvious and we can lead ourselves to believe that we would have been one of those to answer Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to Selma. It would be easy to believe that we would have been with the marchers on the bridge and not with those who sought to stop the marchers.  It is easy to get lost in the beauty of King’s dream of a world where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. It can be easy to believe that given how far we have come on civil rights that the work is over, that the laws have been changed and that people are no longer judged by the color of their skin.  We want to believe that and that is understandable. Yet when we deny the anger of the oppressed, when we tell them we don’t want to hear that, that they are making us uncomfortable, that it won’t sell to the general public to see anger and outrage – then we are participating in the oppression.  What has and is happening to women, people of color, LGBTQ persons, those in poverty is outrageous and they all have plenty of reasons to be angry.  To deny that anger or to refuse to hear it is to deny the humanity of those who are oppressed.  Justice is not warm, fuzzy work – justice work is messy and hard.  Justice work requires a vision like those who built the cathedrals hundreds of years ago knowing they would never see the finished project.

That is why our justice work must be grounded in passion and love. It must be grounded by a vision that includes ourselves – a vision of a world where all, without exception are thriving.  Love and justice require imagination and the ability to envision a new world.  Not all of us will like the image – because often justice demands not just expanding the current circle and making it bigger – it requires a whole new circle.  We must remember that while we have created an image of Martin Luther King Jr that makes it seem that all he wanted to do was expand the current circle – he had in fact fallen out of favor at the end of his life for going beyond that notion.  His linking the fight for civil rights to opposition to the war in Vietnam and to unjust economic systems – not just based on race but a systemic problem linked with the economy has been lost.  He was not at all popular for his seeing a vision that was not just about African Americans being given a place at the current table but rather a whole new table.  When I use this reading in my sermon on marriage I say that simply allowing same-sex couples to participate in heteronormative marriage is too small a vision.  One of the gifts that the LGBTQ community possesses is the ability to reimagine family.  Out of necessity and survival, members of the LGBTQ community forged families and homes and lives based on the choice to live and love together regardless of blood and legal ties.  They created families of choice – this ability to imagine family beyond our current nuclear family model can make us uncomfortable. King’s vision, the LGBTQ vision of family can make even members of those communities uncomfortable.

Justice requires that we see the connections – connections between rights for people of color, for women, for the poor, for the LGBTQ community without diminishing the very real unique challenges faced by those communities.  Our other tendency can be to reduce problems to one cause such as poverty or lack of education, and while a more just economy, a thriving education system that serves all will make a difference … we cannot diminish the unique challenges posed by racism, sexism and heterosexism.  It is the temptation that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the circle, it just needs tweaking to include more people.  When justice calls into question the whole system, we can become very fearful and retreat – we can say we didn’t buy into that.  Yet when the connections are made, when I truly understand that my well-being is tied to the well-being of the whole then I cannot help but see that simply making minor adjustments to the current system is inadequate.  That we need a vision of a whole new way of being and living that supports and sustains the life of all of humanity and our fragile planet.

To make love is to make justice Carter Heyward tells us that love creates righteousness here on earth. So how will we here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks make justice? Who needs our love, our commitment and passion to a better world?  What are we doing already to create a more just community here on the Outer Banks?  Certainly this congregation has been a strong supporter of LGBTQ rights and welcoming LGBTQ persons into this community.  This congregation shares its offering each month with organizations that are making a difference in the lives of people and animals here on the Outer Banks.  As this congregation moves forward into the future, what are other ways this congregation can work for justice?  What are the unique strengths this faith community brings to the Outer Banks and where will that be most effective?  Because the work of justice, the work of love, also demands that we know our limits.  No one can do everything. No one congregation can do all the work that needs to be done.  It is imperative to begin with knowing your own strengths and limitations.  It is critical that to be a good ally, that one begin with learning what that means.

In listening to Rev. Clark Olson, who was attacked along with James Reeb and Orlaf Miller, he says how unaware he was of the true danger the three of them were facing. Olson learned that night the true cost of answering Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to Selma.  We may all hope that we would answer the call, be on the bridge, be willing to lay down our safety and our lives.  In the gospel of John, Jesus tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Answering the call to justice is to answer the call to love, to love even those who are our enemies, to love those who hate us, to love those who despise us – most of us will not be asked to lay down our lives but I do wonder how things might be transformed if we were willing to lay down our lives for the more just world of our imaginings.

It also requires that we risk our comfort, that we relinquish our grip on what “normal” means. It means imaging not just making the current circle bigger but to be willing to transform the circle entirely.  As Heyward tells us – “Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world or as a deity above the world, aloof and apart from human flesh.”

May it be so!