Monday, September 7, 2015

Black Lives Matter

My favorite entertainer is British comedian Alan Carr.  Alan has an evening chat show on BBC called Chatty Man and as he enters the stage at the top of the show he says, “What a week it has been!” and then makes light of headlines.

I say to you this morning, “What a week it has been.” In early summer thousands of Unitarian Universalists from around the country attended a conference in Portland, Oregon. The conference takes place in an American city every summer and is called General Assembly. At this particular General Assembly all Unitarian Universalists received a call to Action of Immediate Witness.

I quote:
  • The 2015 General Assembly calls congregations to action, in order to become closer to a just world community . . urges congregations to engage in intentional learning spaces to organize for racial justice with recognition of the interconnected nature of racism coupled with systems of oppression that impact people based on class, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and language . . .; encourages congregations and all Unitarian Universalists to work towards police reform and prison abolition, which seeks to replace the current prison system with a system that is more just and equitable; and . . . recognizes that the fight for civil rights and equality is as real today as it was decades ago, and urges congregations to take initiative in collaboration with local and national organizations fighting for racial justice against the harsh racist practices many black people are exposed to.

What a week it has been.  Having sat with that call to witness, I made the decision to relay the call to action to our Congregation in a sermon entitled Black Lives Matter, just as our sign advertises. I had prepared a homecoming sermon entitled Gather the Spirit, but scrapped it because we have more urgent matters at hand.

We advertise the sermon title each week on our sign by the street and when Black Lives Matter was placed I wondered if we would be victim to vandals as many other Unitarian Universalist congregations had been across the country, their Black Lives Matter signs defaced, torn down, and mangled. The concern was smaller than the message that we needed to share so the title went up. 

We were doing just fine until this past Friday morning when our office administrator, Barbara, discovered our sign vandalized. Vandals broke into the sign damaging the locks and other mechanisms and placed a sign that read WHITE over the word BLACK making the sign read White Lives Matter. The police were called and were concerned and offered us much support. Then came the Palm Beach Post, Newscenter 5, and CBS which became a whirlwind of telling our story.  It is most troubling that the vandals placed the word WHITE over the word BLACK. Usually signs are changed to read ALL Lives Matter. Using the word WHITE was blatant racism. 

The whirlwind of press was important to us because we are the liberal voice in South Florida and we are Unitarian Universalists, which gives us the responsibility to speak up and out and to tell the story of oppression. We were handed that legacy by those who came before us. I mention that legacy because I needed to call on my Unitarian and Universalist ancestors this week to guide me, to hold me, and remind me to be brave.

In times like these I ask myself, What would Theodore Parker do?  Parker was an outspoken 19th-century Unitarian minister followed by many and ostracized by his Boston colleagues.  More remarkable is his brave position as an abolitionist who sheltered slaves seeking freedom in the North.  Under the rug under his desk where he wrote his sermons was a door leading to a space where slaves would hide when their southern masters came looking for them.  Parker eventually needed to keep a weapon on his desk as he received so many threats for standing for justice. Parker did the right thing knowing it wasn’t popular, it would be difficult, and his well-being was at risk.  He stayed true to his call to ministry and to justice.

And so despite the hate emails and phone calls, warnings from the police, and being labeled cop killer and racist, I decided to stay true to my call to ministry and honor my promise to this Congregation to lead us through difficult times and to let our community know we are a justice-seeking people.

Many of you probably wonder why do we have to say BLACK LIVES MATTER? Why can’t we say ALL LIVES MATTER ... because they do. Black lives matter doesn’t mean that we think that black lives are more important than other lives.  It’s not to be viewed as a threat to the lives of others. It is a rallying call of black people to no longer be devalued or dismissed as they have been for centuries in our country.  All lives matter co-opts powerful language and diminishes the voices of color that have gone unheard for so long.

I wondered why people were so threatened by the slogan?  What would cause someone to believe that black lives mattered more and that they were under attack?  Yes, its racism but that’s too easy of an answer. That's when I returned to a book I’ve been studying entitled The Compassionate Mind by Dr. Paul Gilbert.  Dr. Gilbert explains that compassion is seen as a weakness in societies that encourage us to compete with each other. Striving to get ahead, self-criticism, fear and hostility toward others seem to come naturally to us. The book reveals the evolutionary and social reasons why our brains react so readily to threats.

Our brain gives more priority to dealing with threats than pleasurable things. We are hard wired to a system of self protection. Threat can be activated for us if a goal or something else we want is perceived to be blocked. We begin to fear being hurt or destroyed, fear of having no control over our life, meaning, or purposes, and the fear of being unwanted, marginalized, ignored, excluded or isolated. Such fears live within us. Remember that your threat and self-protection system was designed to protect you. That primitive design, which has served many species for millions of years, is powerful. But we live in a modern world and we need “new minds” to contain them. Societies have evolved, but our hard-wired systems have yet to catch up and prepare us for the modern world. We may even feel under attack but have forgotten the reasons why we respond with self-protection and fear of being marginalized, producing a hostile response. And so to understand why people feel threatened when we say black lives matter it is because they are experiencing a primitive response and primitive responses help you buy into oppression. A new mind, adapted to the world of today is called for.

Let us move on to Black Lives Matter as a movement or campaign. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” was created following the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer in 2013. It gained national attention after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Black Lives Matter has also called attention to the death of Eric Garner in New York in 2014 and the killing of Tamir Rice in 2014.  Black Lives Matter has gained the most attention for protests against police brutality and concerns about the justice system and other issues that affect communities of color. The work of the movement, or campaign, was a match for our Unitarian Universalist values at its inception.  Since then it has lost some credibility, being accused of promoting anti-law enforcement messages.

Those claims were not real. Not until the Minnesota State Fair protest this summer where a leader of the Black Lives Matter campaign was videotaped chanting, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon” which then became the chant of the group of activists. Activists claimed it was an inside joke between them and the police. The perceived reality was that the activists were advocating violence against law enforcement. I’m neither judge nor jury, but if I am to be honest the incident raised an eyebrow for me. Could I lead a congregation to align itself with a movement that is perceived to have evolved into advocating for violence?

I sat with that question and decided that the Black Lives Matter campaign has become the scapegoat and is unfairly being characterized as cop killers when it is against police brutality, not law enforcement. Again, against police brutality not against law enforcement. That’s an important distinction. However, the Minnesota State Fair incident happened as the Huffington Post explains, “the Black Lives Matter campaign or movement has no formal leadership structure and is subject to the buffoonery of free speech.“  Author Torri Stuckey had this response to the pigs-in-a-blanket incident: “A large part of me wanted to scream "IMPOSTERS!" But who am I that I may denounce a group's authenticity? I'm not at liberty to speak to their struggle. I am no more entitled to the Black Lives Matter movement than any other person who feels connected to its intrinsic value.” The issues are so much deeper than just the institution of law enforcement.

Racism is deeply embedded in our criminal laws and law making, which precipitate bias in our judicial system. Yes, activists are angry and their anger cannot be dismissed as illegitimate; for doing so would be a direct denial of the black experience in our country. Does Black Lives Matter have a public relations problem? Absolutely, but not one that should water down their message. The movement has a problem with police brutality. They should make it clear through their speech and behavior just as they expect from law enforcement. The movement is imperfect.

Now… to acknowledge, as I think we must, that there is a serious racial discrimination problem in American policing, as well as in other aspects of the American judicial system, is NOT -- and please hear this loud and clear friends –- this is NOT to single out the brave men and women who serve our society in law enforcement as somehow being uniquely racist or wrong … they are not. There surely are countless law enforcement officers –- the overwhelming majority certainly -- who regularly apply the law fairly, justly and equally to all.  And I, as all of you, have been profoundly shocked and saddened by the recent cold-blooded murders of several police officers over recent days, as they were working to protect the communities they bravely serve.  I join hearts with those who say “BLUE LIVES MATTER”, for they most certainly do.

How do we begin to purposefully address this pressing social and cultural problem that has become so obvious with all the recent deaths?  We answer the call to action. Unitarian Universalists strive for justice, equity and compassion in human relations; have a goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all and allowing injustice to go unchallenged violates our principles. We continue to support Black-led racial justice organizations. We answer that call to action to become closer to a just world community. We commit to engage and organize for racial justice with recognition of the interconnected nature of racism coupled with systems of oppression that impact people based on class, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability and language. We recognize that the fight for civil rights and equality is as real today as it was decades ago and take initiative in collaboration with local and national organizations fighting for racial justice against the harsh racist practices to which many black people are exposed.  

No matter who you are, black lives matter, and a system of fair, transformative, and restorative justice that is accountable to communities is something to which each of us has a right. Unitarian Universalists and our greater society have the power to make this happen. We are Unitarian Universalists for whom every person is a person of interest. Regardless of race, color or background, everyone has inherent worth and dignity we must cherish and protect.  The very center and soul of our faith revolves around the affirmation of the irreducible worth and beauty of every human being, no matter how different from us they might at first seem. 

What a week it has been.  I leave you with the words of Audette Fulbright Fulson:

  • Do not think we are finished — oh no we will never be finished, never just done until the light of justice is lit behind every eye. Do not think we will be silent— no there will not be silence until the world has sung the names of the dead with full throats, and still we will sing on.  Do not think fear is the end of us — oh you are broken in mind and heart if you even imagine that our fear is the end of this story. We are braver than you have ever conceived and you will not be the end of us. We have come to take back the world, the world that is the inheritance of better children, better lovers, better days. There will be love again, but justice is our demand now. You will not take us down.  We are endless, firelit, and determined.
May it be so.

Text of a sermon entitled Black Lives Matter, delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Sep 6, 2015.

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