In 2008 a congregation was gathered, like we are here this morning, in the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. The children were up in the front putting on a performance of the musical Annie Jr. Suddenly, in the middle of their service, a man in the back of the room took a shotgun out of a guitar case and began shooting into the congregation. One of the ushers, in an effort to protect people, jumped in front of the shooter and was killed. A visitor from a neighboring congregation was also fatally wounded, and several more people were seriously injured before the man was wrestled to the floor and held down until the police could get there. It was a terrifying experience for everyone in that community. And it was a hate crime. The man who wielded the gun targeted that church for its progressive views. He had walked into the building that Sunday morning intent on killing “liberals,” whom he blamed in a four-page manifesto for the country’s ills and his inability to hold onto a job. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Tennessee Valley UU was embraced by the surrounding community.
Neighboring churches came forward and offered the traumatized congregation their love and support. People from the somewhat more conservative Presbyterian Church next door announced that they would be serving lunch every day for a week to members of the UU congregation so that they could be together in their confusion and grief. Children from the Knoxville elementary schools folded origami paper cranes with messages of peace. The paper birds were strung together in long streamers which were suspended from the rafters forming a beautiful display of colored paper around the sanctuary. Cards and flowers came pouring in from UU’s around the country.
The Standing on the Side of Love campaign was inspired by the 2008 shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, which was targeted because they are welcoming to LGBTQ people and have a liberal stance on many issues. The Knoxville community responded with an outpouring of love that inspired the leadership at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to launch our campaign in 2009, with the goal of harnessing love’s power to challenging exclusion, oppression, and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, religion, or any other identity. The Standing on the Side of Love campaign elevates compassionate religious voices to influence public attitudes and public policy. Through community activism, social networking, and media outreach, people across the nation are equipped to counter fear and make love real in the world.
The holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel prize winning Elie Wiesel tells us “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” Of course, indifference can be tempting -- more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away. It is so much easier to avoid interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person's pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbors are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.
Wiesel writes “Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor -- never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.” For me indifference is not unlike saying that you are colorblind. I constantly find myself challenging statements like: “I’m color blind” or “I don’t even notice if people are black, have a disability, are impoverished, gay” and on and on. If you are not noticing these things you are denying someone parts of their identity that should be noticed and celebrated. These are the very things that enrich our experiences and communities. I wonder if we are afraid to take notice. We’ve been taught that spotting difference means we are being exclusive and at risk for being racist or oppressive. It is only when we do not desire to learn more about and honor our differences that we are at risk. We are at risk of ignoring injustice and hate, and so because of our blindness we are at risk of becoming indifferent.
A theme that winds through Wiesel’s writing is that of the need to overcome indifference. Wiesel believes the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. He says, and I really like this idea, that we humans are defined by what troubles us, and that the response of a moral society, or of a moral person is getting involved with what troubles us. He reminds us that indifference means, “makes no difference” and that to remain silent, knowing that people are suffering and to have it “make no difference” is the greatest sin of all. Rather than be indifferent, Wiesel says “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
Wiesel responded to the tragedy of 9-11 by speaking out against fanaticism. The fanatic is one who is so committed to a cause or belief that they do not care about others and they don’t want to think about another perspective. To the fanatic, everything is curse or blessing, friend or foe, nothing in between. Tolerance is seen as weakness, and there are no doubts and no dialogue. How can we fight fanaticism? Wiesel asks. How can we bring killers back to the fold? Wiesel doesn’t know, but he believes we must at least fight indifference to evils when they occur. We fight indifference through education and we diminish it through compassion. Education — knowing what is going on, listening to victims and believing them. What are their memories? What are their stories? How have they seen their lives? What is their view? And we diminish indifference through compassion — presence and assistance for victims. Education and compassion, sounds like our SAC and Adult programs to me.
Wiesel also writes much about the need to protest. He says in his Nobel Prize (December 11, 1986) acceptance speech: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that by saving a single human being, we can save the world. We may be powerless to open all the jails and free all prisoners, but by declaring our solidarity with one prisoner, we indict all jailers. None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness. War leaves no victors, only victims. Humankind needs peace more than ever, for our entire planet, threatened by nuclear war, is in danger of total destruction. A destruction only we can provoke, only we can prevent. Humankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to creation, it is our gift to each other.”
I love that line “there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” To “protest” is to bring forward our testimony. What does this mean for us? It means that we need to act out our religion, to witness, to give testament to our values. At a minimum in this democracy we must testify in three ways: we must vote — not letting the times and cynicism discourage us; we must write our legislators and congresspeople; and we must join and support organizations whose values we support, supporting them with our name and with our money. Beyond these minimums we can do more, depending upon our courage, our health and our other responsibilities. We can join demonstrations and marches, we can take leadership positions in human rights organizations, and we can travel to those places where humanitarian actions and assistance is needed.
In all these acts, faith is central — faith that our protest, when combined with the protests of others, can make a difference, can nudge this world closer to more love and more justice, and more compassion. Our protests can be responding and criticizing what we see as crimes against human dignity, or our protests can be in the form of acts to promote what we value. Our choices tell us some interesting things about ourselves.
Though Wiesel was condemned for not demonstrating the courage to speak out about Palestine while under rule of Israelis and their soldiers, his writings still are good lessons for me, and his flaw -- if we agree it is a flaw -- makes me identify with him all the more as a human being. How many times have I not spoken the truth, for fear of a consequence coming back to me, for fear of offending someone? How about you? Wiesel is not perfect, And his challenge is still valid that we should not be indifferent; there should never be a time when we fail to protest.
Let us heed the words of poet Judy Kraft “Imagine it and listen and you will hear a nightsong” and build resilience just as the morning glories. Listen to the words of the choir singing the Unitarian Universalist theme song if you will: The promise of the Spirit: Faith, hope and love abide. And so every soul is blessed and made whole; The truth in our hearts is our guide. We are standing on the side of love, Hands joined together as hearts beat as one. Emboldened by faith we dare to proclaim We are standing on the side of love. Sometimes we build a barrier to keep love tightly bound. Corrupted by fear, unwilling to hear, Denying the beauty we've found. We are standing on the side of love. A bright new day is dawning when love will not divide. Reflections of grace in every embrace, fulfilling the vision divine. We are standing on the side of love. We are standing on the side of love.
For truly we must remember that peace is not a gift of the gods, but a gift we give each other.
May it be so.
Standing on the Side of Love, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Feb 23, 2014.