Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memorial Day

I spoke with my brother this week who tells me that in New York, where we grew up, the warm days have begun; the breezes that carry with them the scent of flowers and sweet, soothing rain. Summer is coming, we are promised, with every leaf and birdsong that arrives with the morning light. Long hours of daylight and evenings full of gatherings and games are only days away. This is the glory of Memorial Day and its gifts are many. It holds the promise of an extra day off work or school. It marks the opening of swimming pools and gatherings around the grill for parties with family and friends. There are, of course, the requisite parades of scout troops and baseball or softball teams, local politicians and old fashioned cars, marching bands, and in some towns, the reciting of long-ago written words that may or may not mean anything to the sixth graders who memorized them. Memorial Day has come to represent the beginning of summer with a dutiful, but nominal nod to its original purpose.

Since its official inception in 1868, Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day, for the practice of decorating the graves of soldiers with flowers in honor of their sacrifice) has become year after year, less about those who died in battle and more about the fun and mayhem of the summer months which are waiting just around the corner. The day off has become focused on the logistics of food and fun and our parades have become about determining who walks in what order. For many, Memorial Day has lost much of its seriousness and its magnitude.

“I grew up around military bases,” writes Rev. David Takahashi Morris, “I remember Memorial Day as a time when we went over to the fort for a parade and a picnic, and we kids got to climb around on tanks and little jets. A few years later, I remember playing ‘Taps’ on my trumpet, wearing my Boy Scout uniform, standing on a railing above Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu while a few hundred people listened in the military cemetery on the crater floor. It was a powerful experience, and the solemnity of it resonates for me all these years later.

Things have become complicated since then,” he continues, “Vietnam taught me to look critically at war, and later as I learned about the way in which even the ‘great’ wars were open to question, this holiday lost a lot of its luster for me, as it has for many in liberal circles. For many Americans Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf invasions, and for some even the world wars, don’t represent our country’s best values.”

Maybe Takahashi Morris is right, that things have become too complicated to celebrate Memorial Day with a clear vision and a clear conscience. Maybe we’ve become ambivalent about military service and war in general. Maybe we’ve grown skeptical and uneasy around the idea of young adults, barely adults really, dying in foreign lands for reasons not quite clear to us. Maybe we distract ourselves with sales on grills and wading pools, 2-for-1 deals at the grocery and 0% down at the big car dealership because war itself seems so far away and unreal.

Many of us have no memory, nor a full understanding of what it means to be at war, to live with its reality day in and day out as they do in other parts of the world; where the explosions and gun fire and body count are a daily reminder of how precious and fragile our lives are; where the blood stains take days to wear off the streets or the walls of buildings take years to rebuild. We United States citizens are, many of us, insulated from the gruesome truth of a soldiers’ sacrifice.

Thousands of American lives have been lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but those countries are a world away and,unless we personally know one of the soldiers, their deaths are abstract tragedies. Not that we feel no compassion or sadness or anger at the loss of them, but we are not in the desert with them, we are not hunting for a clear enemy through treacherous mountains, we are not there in the makeshift hospital tending their wounds, we are not there in their last moments of living. We witness their sacrifice only through the technology of our time. We may watch the caskets being unloaded, we may watch the funerals, but the grisly truth of their death has been cleaned up by the time we see it, it has been distanced by video and commentary and the political posturing of both sides. David Blight tells us:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died.
Remember us.
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but
until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they
are yours, they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our
deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we
cannot say,
it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have
died; remember us.

What we have lost in the demilitarization of Memorial Day are the soldiers. We have been diverted into behaving as though this day of memory is more about hot dogs and egg salad than about remembering. Remember we must, for to do any less is a disservice not only to those who gave their lives but to what they gave their lives to protect and to support.

There are many stories that tell of the first Decoration Day. Within the annals of history there are some two dozen cities and towns that claim the origins of the tradition as their own. I share with you two such beginnings.

“This…celebration took place in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865.  During the war the city had converted the planters’ horse racing track into an open-air prison for Union soldiers, and at least 257 men had died from exposure and disease and been buried in shallow unmarked graves.  As the war ended, local blacks and a few white missionaries and teachers organized a memorial for these unnamed Union dead.  David Blight describes this huge event:

“The “First Decoration Day” … involved an estimated ten thousand people, most of them black former slaves.  During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable enclosure for the burial ground at the Race Course.  In some ten days, they constructed a fence ten feet high … and landscaped the graves into neat rows.  The wooden fence was whitewashed and an archway was built over the gate … On the arch, painted in black letters, the workmen inscribed, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

…On May 1, the procession to this special cemetery began as three thousand black schoolchildren … marched around the [graves], each with an armload of roses and singing. The children were followed by three hundred black women… The women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses to the burial ground.  …A benevolent association of black men, next marched in, followed by large crowds of white and black citizens.  All dropped their spring blossoms on the graves in a scene recorded by a newspaper correspondent …

“the holy mounds -- the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them -- were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen…”

“[Another] founding story has it that a teenager, Emma Hunter, and her friend, Sophie Keller, decorated Emma’s father’s grave with garden flowers. Dr. Reuben Hunter had recently died serving the Union Army. Nearby, Mrs. Elizabeth Meyer placed flowers on the grave of her son, Private Amos Meyer, who’d died at Gettysburg.

The women got to talking about their loved ones and tending each others’ graves. They agreed that next year they’d decorate all the graves. The following July 4th, the entire town showed up to honor every grave with blossoms and flags. The community drew a clear, bright festival from shared grief and loss.”

It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all. We have to go back to where it all began; back to remembering the brutality and the sacrifice; remembering that as Unitarian Universalists we believe, even when it is difficult to do so, that all life is sacred and worthy of remembering. No one deserves to be forgotten who gave their life to what they believed in and it is our duty to honor their deaths as the gifts to us they are. Like the cloud in our reading this morning, our soldiers gave something dear of themselves for us. We must rediscover a way to speak for them for they can no longer speak for themselves. We must separate our discomfort, unease and revulsion of war itself and those who send our young men and women to fight from our compassion for those who take up arms to defend their values even if they are not our values.

Memorial Day requires us to take a moment and pause in order to honor and remember all those, no matter which side of battle they fought on, who gave what Abraham Lincoln called, “the last full measure of devotion.” We are called to offer no less than our gratitude and our respect for lives ended on the battlefield regardless of whether we believed the war they fought was righteous or wrong. It is then left to us to give their deaths meaning by living a ‘new hope.’ “Let us rise up…” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in his final speech the spring of 1968, “with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination…Let us develop a kind dangerous unselfishness…And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be.” And to remember.

May it be so.

Memorial Day, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Sunday, May 24, 2015

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Slow Violence: Commit2Respond

Naturalist Diane Ackerman narrates the fate of a Yup’ik settlement on the western coast of Alaska: “Any day now the whole village and neighboring indigenous communities could begin sinking into the melting permafrost, as if it were white quicksand.” Their options?  Well, U.S. and international laws define refugees as “fleeing violence, war or persecution;” federal disaster relief grants money to repair infrastructure in place, not to relieve personal suffering. The state?  In 1958 the Alaskan government mandated that to build a school the Yup’ik had to choose a site at “the farthest point upriver that a Bureau of Indian Affairs barge could navigate.”  Now the Yup’ik must find somewhere to go with only vague state assistance in building a new community.  Otherwise, as Ackerman writes, they will “join the realm of polar bears and narwhals in rich seams of Eskimo lore,” absorbed into towns and cities, economically disenfranchised, enduring traumatic cultural adjustment.

The winters of 2014 and 2015 brought unseasonable warmth to Alaska.  With ice forming later and melting earlier, fishing and hunting may be very lean again this year.

Ackerman’s imagery stirred to memory words from Dr. Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor: “Slow violence – a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence typically not viewed as violence at all.  It shapes our inattention to calamities that are slow and long lasting, calamities that patiently dispense their devastation while remaining outside our flickering attention spans -- and outside the purview of a spectacle-driven corporate media.”

Slow violence – climate change. 

Perhaps we do not imagine the looming future.  We’re facing intersections of ecological and climate justice -- communities shaped in “the human age” as we lurch down one of two paths: one continuing to hurtle through such intersections, the other those caught in the middle -- people, plants and animals “…who have done the least to contribute to our surging crisis, facing the most threatening consequences.” 

In bed tonight, lie very still and listen carefully.  Murmurs of slow violence creep across the night air.  Waking to this truth and engaging it is, to me, at the core of being Unitarian Universalist. 

Yes, it’s complicated and challenging.  News flickers around us about changes unfolding in Earth’s environment: Antarctic ice sheets melting, Siberian methane potholes forming, atmospheric CO2 topping 400 and on and on.  What are we slouching towards and will we survive? 

To begin to understand our world, let’s unpack slow violence.

First, climate change outsources violence on a vast scale -- temporal and geographical.  Shredding our planet’s life-sustaining envelope, it’s mitigated only through deep commitment to safeguarding Earth remote from us in both space and time.  We’re called to actively value all life forms 30, 50, 100, even 1,000 years from now.

Second, what does it mean to re-imagine humanity as a force powerful enough to transform Earth’s very strata?  Asking that question might reframe our understanding of human responsibility not only towards our own species, but the whole planet.  Climate change is a critical indicator of our alarming, often reckless morphological power.

Third, this incubus has been haunting us for over two generations as most so-called leaders run the other way. Yes, we’re called to confront the foundations of modern industrial society. Unnoticed, slow violence steers the back edges of a host of environmental crises underway: species extinctions, collapsing fisheries, soil desertification, dying coral reefs, depleted groundwater, dead zones in the ocean, and on and on. Might we find ways to reshape these facts, to begin reimagining and restoring this fragile planet?

Fourth, it is customary to speak about problems with “the environment” and economic inequality as if they were abstract issues separate from us. But these problems are deep inside us -- in how we relate to the non-human world, to each other, and how we structure institutions -- all notes threaded through our 7th Principle.

Fifth, environmental stresses sharpen as food prices rise and production falters -- added challenges given widespread hunger on a hemorrhaging Earth, much of it due to either wars or distribution systems. And current climate models are not encouraging.

And sixth, from global marketing experience, some will revolt against the same things they have revolted against in the past: injustices in the system. Roman Catholic Pope Francis recently told a meeting of Latin American landless peasants: “Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysm you are suffering.” Affected by higher temperatures, long droughts punctuated by intense rainfall, more resilient pests and plant diseases -- events tied to a one degree average temperature rise in coffee growing areas -- barren trees have put people out of work and led to many of the parentless children crossing our border with Mexico.

Responses to such events typically focus on authoritarianism and threats against the poor, but they’re only attempts to keep a lid on what's already boiling over. The more humane answer: find ways to turn down the heat.  To quote editorialist Bill Maxwell: “To start, we must care about one another.”

In Reclaiming Prophetic Witness, Unitarian Universalist theologian Paul Rasor writes, “…religious liberals have been influential advocates for social reform at least since … the early nineteenth century.” Given that the world we are already facing must be met head-on, we should acknowledge Rasor’s language that we are called to be influential advocates, urged to step into the public square.

Grounding this idea is Jeffrey Lockwood of the University of Wyoming in his article Less More, Please at “Solutions to the world’s environmental problems may not require more of us, but less. We may be required to ask deeper questions rather than seek wider answers…but there is more of one thing that could solve many problems -- humility.”

Acknowledging our contrition, what might we do?  Let’s begin by engaging important and effective resources.

Rooted in the calling Waitstill and Martha Sharp undertook in 1939, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, or UUSC, has for 75 years been a critical component of Unitarian Universalist life. Advancing human rights and social justice around the world, partnering with those who confront unjust power structures, and mobilizing to challenge oppressive policies, UUSC envisions a world free from oppression and injustice, where all can realize their full human rights. Today is an annual UUSC advocacy and fundraising event, usually known as Justice Sunday.  But, understanding the changing world we face, Earth’s dependence on water, and recognizing the inequalities and human rights challenges communities will have to deal with as slow violence marches on, today is Climate Justice Sunday. 

On this planet, water is life.  Without it, nothing flourishes.  Even deep ecologists such as myself recognize that my beloved Florida is wholly dependent on water.  Whether standing in reverence as my garden receives a gracious drink from the sky or edging through cattail north of Brahma Island, I merge with life itself.  But climate change, by effecting regional rainfall amounts, creating heat stress events, and rearranging large-scale weather patterns, threatens waters I’ve always known like the back of my hand.

In this environment, UUSC works to advance the human right to safe, sufficient and affordable water in countries from the Americas and Africa to Asia -- and has significant ongoing efforts in Argentina, Chile and Guatemala. Their small staff is engaged in research to drafting law and policy, supporting civil society organizations in campaigns and litigation, and advocating with national and international human rights institutions. Their technical assistance in shareholder advocacy efforts has resulted in the first human-right-to-water policies at major U.S. corporations, including PepsiCo, Intel, Connecticut Water, and Proctor and Gamble. UUSC staff also played a key role in passage of legislation guaranteeing human water rights in California, and are actively engaged in dealing with massive water shutoff rates in Detroit, one of our most economically-challenged cities.

To me, given current projections, their work on this issue is just beginning.  Many climate models suggest several western states could be entering a period of extended drought events. Meanwhile we’re witnessing overuse and depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, a major source of water for wheat belt states; and Florida – my Florida! – already has more homes platted for development than it can provide water.  Meanwhile, decreasing snowfalls in the Himalayas could threaten Bangladesh, India and China – or worse, start international wars.

All of which convinces me UUSC’s commitment to responding to slow violence is critical, that it becomes more important every day, and we best help ourselves and others to become engaged in supporting this effort.  Today, on “blue bucket” Climate Justice Sunday, we must stand up for this cause.

And you need to be aware UUSC is engaged in an emerging, unprecedented coalition.  The most diverse array of Unitarian Universalist groups ever brought to one table has come together in Commit2Respond -- “People of faith and conscience taking action for Climate Justice.” Launched at the People's Climate March in New York City this past September, Commit2Respond unites a number of Unitarian Universalist organizations in multi-year work. We commit to join together to SHIFT to a lower carbon future, ADVANCE the human rights of affected communities, and GROW the climate justice movement. Together we will expand partnerships and deepen collective impact.  We recognize the role inequality plays in current crises, where marginalized communities are often first to experience the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. Yet never forget: no one will be untouched. As British social critic Raymond Williams put it: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” We must address our inherent challenge: to overcome cynicism and hopelessness, and to quicken many possible alternatives awaiting our creativity.

And what might we here do, personally? Well, we can further systemic changes in our communities by influencing local policy and planning. We can begin building alliances and coalitions with diverse stakeholders to help create appropriate conditions of possibility. Mindful of lurking slow violence, we can discover in both ourselves and other faith communities strength and courage to resist and begin dismantling structural elements, practices and vested interests perpetuating challenges to our water supplies. Bit by bit, relationship by relationship, we can work to put in place the building blocks of a new future, and start transforming our communities into more just and sustainable places.

We can survive what Diane Ackerman would call “understanding our rude evolutionary infancy,” growing into responsible, caring adults without losing innocence, playfulness, or a sense of wonder.  But first we must recognize that we are a very young species, blessed and cursed by our prowess.  Truly empowering this understanding requires we see with the widest vision, recognizing that every step forward is rooted in the ground beneath our feet -- that we and Earth are one, that this is our home, and that to continue to destroy this world digs a deep grave. Rather than filling our days with slow violence, plundering and stomping about Earth, we must root ourselves in commitment to UUSC’s vision of a world free from oppression and injustice, then begin to re-establish our natural place, working together to restore and hand forward a living, breathing planet -- a fuller, more diverse, more complete home amongst the stars. 

This is holy work.  It is who we are called to be.  In hope and wonder, amen and blessed be.

SLOW VIOLENCE: Commit2Respond, a sermon by Robert Keim, chaplain, UU Church In The Pines, delivered at 1stUUPPB on April 3, 2015.