I gave this prayer last week at the Martin Luther King, Jr. day service, but I realize that it is pretty relevant for today as well, all things considered. So I’ve posted it here today for public consumption and the pubic good.
Spirit of Life, God of many names and no name
We come to you in on a day of celebration for the birth and life of one of the many children of God who spoke truth to power for the sake of others
His life meant so much to many who struggled to overcome that we honor him with a day of his own
We also come to you with heavy conscience
We know you are a loving Spirit, a kind Spiritm a just Spirit of love and life
But right now the bastards are winning
We know our world is broken; we broke it
We know our institutions are damaged; we damaged them
We know the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice, but more and more it feels like it is being pushed away from justice
God of many names and no names, right now we need one of two things for you:
To let us know when things will bend back towards justice,
Or give us the will and wherewithal to bend it back ourselves
We are tired, weak, and worn, but we know power conceded nothing without demand
If it is indeed our mission to push our society in the right direction, give us the courage to demand the change we need
Give us the strength to face our challenges head on
Give us the wisdom to pick the right battles, harden our resolve so we may fight them, and give us the good sense to know and remember for whom and why we do it
Spirit of Life, we are tired, weary, and worn, but we are ready
Grant us this wisdom for troubling times ahead
We ask this out of love and revernce for all life and all we hold dear.
At times this blog has been more political than faith based discussion, more populist rantings than modern pastoral care. Part of that is the nature of our mission: we talk about the links between faith and activism; sometimes that balance gets skewed one way than the other. This last year we got caught up in such a shitstorm on politics that spiritual matters got pushed aside by angry political diatribes in order to maintain sanity. I hoped that would change after the election, but I’ve been wrong before. In fact, the atmosphere is even more toxic.
Yet our mission and purpose won’t change, but I hope to rebalance us to better equilibrium. During the Martin Luther King service at my church (see our previous blog entry for that), it reinforced how big a role spirituality plays into civil protests. Any religion worth its salt advocates for human rights and gives a moral cover to a campaign on behalf of all religions. This is different than theocratic authority—the combination of religion and the political rule; this is the moral center of spiritual based activism—speaking truth to power because we need to do right by all faiths in the name of humanity; speaking up so no one suffers. This is churches being sanctuaries to immigrants facing deportation, soup kitchen and food pantries for the homeless and hungry, organizing groups to march in protest, and supporting other protestors. The next four years are going to call on and tax the power of spirituality to deal with the political realities. We need to be up to that call. It doesn’t matter if you love Christ, Allah, Newtonian physics, or human kind itself, you are being challenged to hold up what is best in this world against people and governments doing their worst, and we all need to answer that call.
Find that center within you that gives you strength and nurture it. Then be ready to use it in marches, direct actions, hashtag activism, petition signing, or donations. It’s going to be a long four years ahead of us, but the wind blows hardest the closer you get to the top of the mountain. Keep moving upwards.
One of the sermons I’ve always wanted to do, but knew I never could do as a lay person, is a Martin Luther King Day service–that’s reserved for the senior ministers. A few years ago I did an MLK service the week later and last year I was an integral part of the MLK service, but this year I got to actually do a Martin Luther King service ON Martin Luther King’s birthday. This was pretty special for me and worked pretty hard on it.
How we remember things is funny. As filmmaker Akira Kurosawa showed in his film Rashomon, many witnesses to an event can be seen in drastically different ways. Kurosawa’s intent was to show how ego affects memory: each of the main characters remember events in a way that show them in the best light. Simultaneously, not every account adds up to the entire truth of the incident, even when all put together. Collective memory can be the same way. How a nation commemorates their heroes, and which heroes they commemorate, can speak volumes about that country’s values. Also what we learn history in school is not the complete historical events, and as the saying goes, it is an account written by the victors. Today we are celebrating the birth and life of a man whose accomplishments are oft reveled in history, but not always remembered correctly. We remember a man who dared to dream instead of the man who dared to stand up and fight. He fought by peaceful means, but he fought nonetheless against the very thing we celebrate: an account of history that is only partly told and has not been fully realized. Like any hero’s story, it has pitfalls but he seemingly achieves his goal in the end; however like any national myth, the truth of how and what happened is often glossed over for the sake of pride. The life of Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is absolutely an inspirational one for any nation, especially for an oppressed population, and one worthy of recognition. But with that recognition, we must be cognizant of when that story is stripped of its true meaning and replaced with a view that fits a specific narrative.
As such, this is not a regular Martin Luther King Jr. sermon. Most other services will talk about the man who peacefully organized campaigns to fight segregation and gain minorities full citizenship within their own country. A man who worked hard to bring black and white people closer together and won. A man whose activities have elevated him to into the annals of history and the eyes of many Americans. We won’t do that here. We will not delegitimize his efforts or achievements, but we will put them into a clearer context. We’ll not deify the man, but show the highs and lows of this extraordinary life. And we will not keep him and his relevance in the past, but show what he has to teach all of us 49 years after his death.
For example take his most oft used quote: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It has been a guiding theme in the fight for racial justice through the doctrine of non-violence enveloping the second half of the 20th Century. However if we step back and look at the history of race relations, institutionalized racism, and both racial and social justice, how far have we actually come towards that dream? While we have made strides on racial relations, the work in institutionalized racism and racial justice are still woefully inadequate. Why is this? Because while many leaders have tried to take these words to heart, they take them out of context. King’s vision of racial equality has to be matched with a keen analysis of power dynamics. He never meant “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” as if nothing happened; he hoped future generations would be able to finally live together without the curse of white supremacy hanging over this nation’s head. In fact, earlier in the “I Have a Dream” speech, he says these words:
“ And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
Putting his “dream” in proper context, he himself says we have barely begun to achieve this goal. Working on individual prejudices and diversity are important, but if we have not addressed the racism inherent in the structure of America and done little to dismantle it, these whirlwinds of revolt will remain under the surface of any modern day discussion on race.
This is common if we only look at one aspect of his life: the “I Have a Dream” speech. But throughout his life he has said and done more than that. We heard various quotes and writings spelling out his position on war and self-defense, and tried to put his famous quotes in proper context. Still many myths about the man. That is common, for our society likes to mythologize our heroes; we almost thrive on it as a necessity. But doing so leaves out other items and other people. For instance, we must remember that the civil rights movement wasn’t just King and his marches alone.
He was the most charismatic and effective leaders but certainly not the only one. Dig past the narratives, you will find a group dubbed “The Big Six,” all presidents or chairs of civil rights organizations that were prominent organizers for the March on Washington. This includes James Farmer of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), John Lewis of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and now Congressman for Georgia, Roy Wilkins executive director of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, and A. Phillip Randolph a socialist labor activist who helped organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters a labor union at one of the largest employers of African Americans at the time. Phillip Randolph is important to mention for two reasons. 1) The connection between labor organizing and civil rights organizing are very intertwined and often have parallels throughout their histories. A very specific example is the Highlander Research and Education Center. Highlander was a social justice leadership training school and cultural center, and helped provide training and education for the labor groups in Appalachia and the Southern US, and then trained against civil rights and desegregation in the ’50s. They helped train, among others, Rosa Parks, members of the SNCC, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and King himself in nonviolent methods of resistance and protest strategies. When the black struggle was recognized as a worker’s struggle as well, both groups were able to work towards the common goal of civil rights as raising tides lifts all boats. The second reason I mention Randolph is because he is often written out of the history in his involvement. Because he was a socialist, he was pushed into the background rather than give credence to the enemies calling Civil Rights activism a socialist plot. James Farmer in his autobiography listed Dorothy Height as a member of the Six instead.
That is not to say Height wasn’t important in her own right—a member of the National Council of Negro Women, the organizer of “Wednesdays in Mississippi” and an important council to Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, she was a major help to the cause. What is interesting is Farmer says her involvement in the Six was ignored by the press because of sexism, but there is equal evidence that Randolph is pushed back for his socialist beliefs. This is a part of the struggles among Civil Rights leaders on how to project themselves to the public and make sure the narrative they tell gets through. This is why a lot of names get lost in the crush of history of the Civil Rights movement. People like Septima Clark, James Bevel, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Jo Ann Robinson, and Bayard Rustin don’t get their just due even though they were important to the movement as a whole. This was not a one man operation; it was a broad coalition that brought people across the nation and even across racial and religious lines to help bring about change.
Still once the 1963 March on Washington was done, the celebrating of King’s life ends, as if nothing happened between the 1963 march on Washington and his 1968 assassination. The 1964 Civil rights Act was passed, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and all is right with America, yes? No. There was much more to be done and a lot still on the table to deal with. It’s not that nothing was done about it, it’s that once these major goals were achieved, the directions to go next were as numerous and diverse as they were hazy. During this time, there were events that diminished King’s influence in the short term. King was sidelined by Hoover’s FBI taking advantage of King’s own flaws on one side and then the burgeoning Black Power movement on the other. As we heard from his own words earlier, while personally nonviolent, he believed in self-defense; however, he didn’t see effectiveness coalition building or progressive movement in militancy. Simultaneously he was not on the complete opposite side of Black power. By his own admission, Dr. King said he “tried to stand between two opposing forces within the Black community, saying “that we need emulate neither the ‘do nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” However being caught within those two positions did not help him. As time went on, the black power movement seemed to be the more promising route to take and it grew in influence.
Also at this time King was slowly moving towards issues of poverty, which is a natural progression. Anyone who deals with issues of racism find that the causes and effects of racism are upheld by the causes of capitalism, and that the fighting for national or global economic equality can dismantle a host of other isms. However this is a trickier element to tackle, especially if that fight it doesn’t fit into your original narrative. For proof, look no further than the 1966 March in Cicero.
In 1951, the last time a single black family moved into Cicero, IL—a 100% white Chicago suburb—4,000 people attacked and burned down the apartment building where they were housed. By 1966, 15,000 blacks worked in Cicero, none of whom lived there. King and the SCLC sought to prove that the same organizing methods and tactics can be used against unfair practices all over the country. The SCLC partnered with the American Friends Service Committee and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) to form the Chicago Freedom Movement the largest civil rights campaign in the northern states. They sought to tackle housing discrimination and were planning marches into the white suburbs. However when a young activist with King’s ranks, Jesse Jackson, publicly announced, “I am going to Cicero,” everyone was caught off guard and all bets were off. Fear of further violence led the national activist leaders (including King) and Chicago politicians to reach an agreement on a 10-point plan to deal with open housing laws, and called off the march. However Chicago activists were looking forward to marching on Cicero, and decided to still march on Cicero.
Here is where the growing Black Power movements helped fan the flames. Because of increasing tough rhetoric by younger, more militant activists, white people felt no qualms about being violent with protesters, even if a nonviolent protest. At the same time, many Black protesters felt no need to be nonviolent if they were being attacked. On September 4, Robert Lucas of CORE led 250 marchers into Cicero; they were met by 2,700 national guardsmen and 700 cops trying to hold back the mob of white residents. White residents hurled bottles and bricks at the protesters, protesters hurled the debris back. No one was killed, but the movement itself was wounded. King said himself that even through marches in the South he had never “encountered mobs as hostile and hate filled as those in Chicago.” Failing to replicate in the north what he achieved in the South, King fell into a depression as a huge loss hurt his reputation and distanced him from his allies.
Yet the takeaway of this event was something King said earlier in Chicago that summer. At a march, a reporter asked if King thought Chicago was an open or closed society. He said it was a closed society, but said that his groups will make it an open one and felt “they have to do it in this way in order to bring the evil out into the open so that this community will be forced to deal with it.” Through his actions, he meant to shine light on the evils of institutionalized racism and hold it up for all to see. He took to heart the words of Unitarian transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau that “all men recognize the right of revolution: that is the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.” But he also took to heart these words of Thoreau: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” Though continuing to be nonviolent in his protests, King chose to be confrontational in his demands for justice—if anything please remember this the next time you hear someone say that Martin Luther King would never block traffic to protest.
But what seemed to marginalize King the most was his stance on the Vietnam war. He wanted to speak out on the escalation of America’s involvement in the war in southeast Asia as he himself was antiwar. In Vietnam, as usual, minorities and the poor of all colors were the ones sent off to fight in a country they didn’t know for a country that wasn’t helping them. This was crystalized for Dr. King with the decimation of the Poverty Program—a program set up out of President Johnson’s Great Society as a way to combat poverty within America. Dr. King saw it as a real promise of hope for black and white poor population alike. But with the growing commitment to Vietnam by the same Johnson administration, the Poverty Program suffered a bureaucratic death by a thousand cuts. Dr. King saw this as proof that no program to alleviate poverty or racism would be properly funded as long as resources were being used to fund and fight a war. As King put it, he “saw war as an enemy of the poor and began to attack it as such.” The problem is that was he was criticized and warned by many friends and allies to stick with racial issues and not bring up the war in Vietnam. Using antiwar rhetoric opens up the movement to potential failure and ruin because of the public criticism against it. Remember at this time in the mid-60s, the Vietnam war wasn’t wholly unpopular as it would become a couple of years later.
However, Dr. King was still a man of great virtue. This was a man who held up a slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, as a great radical for equality. He challenged a nation to rise to the best of its words and its promise. How could he hold a nation to rise to the best within them and not hold himself to his own best nature, especially on such a salient issue such as the war and its part in creating economic despair and maintaining white supremacist power structures? So in April of 1967, he gave a speech called “Beyond Vietnam.” In it he gave his most public criticism against America’s involvement and escalation of war in Vietnam. He laid out his arguments against the war and was able to connect the war in Vietnam with the struggle for economic justice for the poor in his usual eloquence:
“What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building?”
It is in this speech where he said that a nation that spends more year after year on military expenses that it does for programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. Yet still he told America to rise to the best within itself:
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from re-ordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood. This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism.”
“Beyond Vietnam” was as equally stunning a proclamation as “I have a Dream” speech, but the content saw him pushed to the sidelines. People thought it best to focus on one core issue—racism and racial justice—not multiple ones, but King saw the two inexorably linked. “Beyond Vietnam” was the start of numerous speeches against the war on behalf of the poor. The criticism against him for this speech and other anti-Vietnam war speeches that followed drove others in the movement to distance themselves from King. King still held great influence within the black community, but it was never as great as it was on the Washington Mall. While eventually time would prove King right on these matters, it didn’t matter to the public at that time. Luckily it didn’t matter much to King either. He said that the focus had to shift from only racial injustice to deal with overall economic justice, a shift from reform to revolution. In his words, “we have moved from the era of civil rights to an era of human rights.” Venturing down this triple path of anti-racial activism, anti-war activism, and economic justice would lead him to the Poor People’s Campaign, as well as his assassination.
In the summer of 1967, Robert Kennedy asked King to help “make hunger and poverty visible” to Americans who were caught up watching Vietnam play out. Plans began with the SCLC to focus on a campaign of civil disobedience in Washington DC focused on jobs and income. As pointed out by Gerald McKnight in his book The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King Jr, the FBI, and the Poor People’s Campaign, King wanted protests and events to be “nonviolent, but militant, and as dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention-getting as the riots without destroying property.” All through the winter of 67-68, there was a push to educate the country about the plight of the poor, show why this campaign was necessary, and build strength, members, and momentum to culminate with a huge march on Washington DC to take place in May 1968 and lobby for economic justice. Despite arguments on how to achieve this ambitious goal, they pushed forward with the plan, until February when the Memphis Garbage Worker Strike happened.
To understand the importance of this strike, you need to understand how it started. Sanitation work is a tough and dirty job. It’s 10-12 shifts in all types of weather and can be dangerous. This was true for a white sanitation worker, but if you were black, you had the added problems of racial discrimination, wage gaps, and one very dangerous rule. Black sanitation workers were forbidden from sleeping or taking shelter inside the cab of the garbage trucks, but also couldn’t leave the trucks unattended. In case of rest stops, workers like Echol Cole and Robert Walker had to make due beside the truck, or in cases of harsh weather, in the back cabs of the truck. And on February 1, 1968, the back cab is exactly where Cole and Roberts lay down to rest between tough shifts when the compacter accidentally turned on. Almost two weeks later, 1,300 black sanitation workers walked off the line in protest demanding safer working conditions and better pay for black employees. Battles between strikers, police, strike busters and scab workers were frequent throughout February and March. The words “I Am A Man” were worn on sandwich boards by striking workers and marched in the streets. “I Am A Man” back then has the exact same meaning as our “Black Lives Matter” banner out front: it says “I am a human being and I do not deserve to die like this!”
This is what brought King to Memphis near the end of March 1968. He saw the whole situation and said the strike was a major part of the Poor People’s campaign. It wasn’t to detract from one to the other or a way to gain the spotlight for his own purpose; the reasons of the strike and demands of the workers were exactly what King was now fighting for, and he wanted to help any way he could. He was there for mass meetings and street actions, including one that turned violent with a teen killed by police. His “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, while containing some soaring rhetoric and personal anecdotes, also gave people marching orders: don’t by Coca-Cola products or Wonder Bread; divest money from Tri-State bank and put into local savings; build up your own economic base and put pressure on others where it hurts. Right up to the very end, he was pushing for economic and racial justice, and giving them the means to do it. And the next morning he was killed. A week later, both sides came to an agreement on the strike.
So how do we celebrate the totality of his life? It would be too easy to uplift what King said in the ’50s bus riding boycotts, marches, the “Dream” speech as all that the good Reverend did and was. When his birthday first became a holiday, I joked that in a decade or so Martin Luther King Day will be another day off to go to the latest white-tag sale. To some extent that has come true. Is this holiday about a day off to remember one or two memorable points of his life, or are we to make something more of it? My hope is that we see many of the things that Dr. King struggled with in our own struggles today. This year even more so, because as we celebrate his legacy this weekend, next weekend we will inaugurate a president who represents everything he fought against. With it we will usher in an era of greed, fear, white supremacy, hubris, and a brazened feeling of entitlement and righteousness. What can we take away from his achievements to help us navigate this new landscape?
Thankfully people are taking notice. Rev. William Barber II says we are coming into what he calls a “Third Reconstruction”—considering the Civil Rights Era to be the second era. This new period uses what he calls “fusion politics”—coalition building across racial, ethnic, religious, and class lines to work for economic and social justice, and not against their interests: the same kind of organizing that King did during the Civil Rights era and tried on a larger scale with the Poor People’s Campaign. Barber says the establishment is scared of this kind of fusion because creating links across various indentities prevents attacks on any specific group while the coalition focuses on the actions that affect all members. Rather than focusing on one moment in time, we take the longview of achievement to build a foundation we can all stand on.
While we may have Dr. King’s legacy of non-violence to look back on, we also have a visionary look at intersectionality in practice. Dr. King did not do what he did alone, and neither can we. Like Dr. King we have to build partnerships with each other locally and across identities to do what is right for all parties. We need to back up street activism with legal advocacy, ensuring our civil rights remain in tact. And we need to stay focused on long term strategies that help all rather than short term goals that help only the few. We must understand that when we work for civil rights, we work for human rights, and vice versa; that is true for every modern struggle against discrimination in the second half of last centurey and the beginning of this one.
One of the many reasons we have not achieved the dream of Dr. King is that we may have been focusing on the wrong dream, or at least the wrong interpretation of that dream. Racial harmony doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but in an environment of economic stability and equitable justice for all. After next week, the work gets much harder. But if Dr. King has taught us anything is that we must call out injustice wherever we see it and in whatever form it appears. We must fight for the rights of everyone and not slide back to where only the few have most. We must organize and stick together on the issues we care about most, and disrupt the system when necessary. Thoreau wrote that the State “can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.” The only way to ensure this progress and stop regression is to rise to what is in the best of us, all of us, rather than succumb to complacency or worse. This is the Martin Luther King dream we need to work towards.
“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”–Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the Twilight Zone episode “The Masks”—written by Rod Serling and directed by Ida Lupino—a wealthy old man gets revenge on his heirs, who are simply waiting for him to die to inherit his fortune, by forcing them to wear grotesque masks through the night or forfeit their inheritance. These masks are supposed to be the opposite of the wearer’s true personality, but upon the man’s death, they find the masks have formed their outward appearance to be exactly like their inner personalities—ugly and grotesque. This presidential election resulted in a similar outcome: we are now forced to wear the face of our own ugliness.
America’s stated values have always been at odds with it’s actions. We state that we are created equal, but did not extend that to women or any person of color. We say we are a melting pot, yet have a virulent anti-immigrant strain running throughout our history. We are about to celebrate a holiday marking the coming together of wayward colonists and Native Americans who helped them survive at the same time Indigenous People’s sacred sites are threatened by construction and security forces. We tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that America is all about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while we do so on the graves of nearly 100 million Native Americans whose land we stole, the backs of nearly five million African slaves until the end of southern slavery (not counting Jim Crow eras), and the vast patriarchy that has always kept women down. While some will argue that’s all in the past, the struggles of the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors, the Black Lives Matter movement, and against rape culture, show it is very much a part of our present. But we’ve always had the mask of our values to cover up the face of our misdeeds. That mask of civility is now gone and we are forced to show the world the face we’ve tried to hide.
The 2016 presidential election gave us the government we deserve, not the government we need. We now have a leader that reflects the worst aspects of this country’s values—arrogance, isolationist, nationalist/nativist leanings (cleverly disguised as patriotism), moral superiority in absence of humility, and almost every “ist” word you can come up with. As much as people will say these are not American values,” history tells us otherwise. This tension between our stated values and the need for power is a constant pull on how America is and will be viewed and understood. From the Salem witch trials to the Whiskey Rebellion; from the Indian Wars to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry; from Juneteenth to the West Virginia Coal wars, this inner war has defined us though we often refuse to admit it. When what is promised to the people by our leaders fails to materialize, people revolt. In days past, that meant violence and armed resistance. Today that can be done through laws and elections, but violence (or the threat of violence) also wins out. In this case, the voters rebelled. Given the choice between a man who fomented bile, hatred, and division, but promised change to our current economic policies and a woman who lives up to what we see as our best values, but embraced the current policies with both arms, voters went for change. Oddly it is a familiar change: a nostalgia for stability even if stable meant racist, sexist, xenophobic, and violence toward the other. “Better the other than me,” one might say.
It might also be that lower class white voters were tired of being considered the other because they know what treating the other is like. President Lyndon Johnson said “if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him someone to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Trump gave white working class voters several populations (and a current president) to look down on and they put him in power. The politics of divisiveness works well because as much as loving your neighbor is a core American value, so is “White makes right.”
Are we doomed to this fate? Like the heirs in the Twilight Zone, is the face of our worst aspects forever the one we show the world? For now, yes. While the extremist right of the political spectrum is in charge here much like it spreading from Europe (Brexit) to Asia (the Philippines), this version of fascism is a symptom of a truly American disease: willful ignorance and cherry picked intelligence for egotistical needs. Ultimately we must deal with this ourselves. How we deal with it is key.
The first thing is we need to own up to the ugliness of our history. We can’t pretend to stand up for a moral good and ignore where we have failed to do that ourselves consistently. All the historical events mentioned earlier, and more that we’d rather not talk about, now have to come out honestly and frankly. These cruel tendencies of ours are a part of us that we need to admit publicly before we can ever hope to change them. The good thing about having the president we have is that not only are they will be on display in in the current government, but in his followers as well, and cannot be ignored. In a good way we will have no choice but to deal with our transgressive past. Next, we have to stop trying to erase the past. Our ability to not learn from the problems of our own past is compounded by our ability to reinvent our image rather than learn from it. Any Alcoholics Anonymous member will tell you that you can’t skip a step and expect to fully recover. This nation and people love to skip over thorny problems and say everything is fine, and are shocked when the same issues crop up again and again. The need to own up to our mistakes is necessary so that we can learn not to make them again. South Africa had to go through an entire truth and reconciliation process before things could start getting better; America has yet to scratch the surface of such a process. Old wounds fester because we won’t let them heal and we won’t let them heal because we act as if nothing’s wrong, thus reinjuring ourselves . The only way we come out stronger under a Trump presidency is if we make the effort to better ourselves during it. Finally we will have to hold up and reaffirm our own virtues and demand that our government live up to it. This can be done in spite of our past as well. Part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s power was that he tried to hold America to the values that it espoused but denied to half its population. He never ignored what America did, but demanded that it do better for its people. In a radical way he didn’t want equality; he wanted America to stand by its promise to all Americans whatever color, gender, or orientation. He wanted justice. We should demand no less.
In Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again,” the voices ring from both the privileged and the underprivileged. Each in turn gets to praise and decry this great country in both its glory and ugliness. At the second to last stanza, we hear:
I say it plain
America was never America to me
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”
It is a pledge to redeem America even from itself. It’s a pledge to work hard and fight for a land that was bountiful for a few to be bountiful for all. As Americans—loyalists and activists alike—we need to work more focused and more diligent than ever. This is also part of our past. It is the ability of the people to demand things of our government that is a great virtue and we will exercise it. We will annoy people by asking them to sign petitions, we will enrage people stuck in traffic thanks to protesters, we will deal with hate for taking a knee during the national anthem, because doing such work improves our society. Yes, we deserve the president we got, but not for long. We can come out of this stronger only if we can work aggressively to recognize the wrongs we’ve made in the past, and keep from regressing and getting worse in the future. We do this by heeding our better angels, adhering to our best virtues, and drag our government—kicking and screaming—to do the same.
I was invited by the Malden UU church to say some words at what I thought would be a service for them putting up a Black Lives Matter banner. It wasn’t really a sermon but a panel talk as an event to go along with putting up the banner. I was asked to talk about what my experiences were like at my church for putting it up. This is what I said:
My name is David Concepcion and I am a member of the UU Church of Medford just down the road of Route 60. I am here today because the Malden congregation, as many others in our denomination nationally in our state and in our cities, have decided to show our solidarity with the victims of police shootings and the call for racial justice and accountability. This is no small undertaking but a necessary one. Unitarianism is a covenantal religion, meaning we practice our faith in the promise of how we treat each other; in some ways that bond IS our creed. As a religion we have always shone a light on injustice and as a beacon of hope. And in 2016, at the rate that Black people are killed at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve the public, they are in need of solidarity and hope.
Last fall, I asked our Reverend, Tess Baumburger, if we could put up a Black Lives Matter banner at the church. I didn’t ask because of any one particular death of a Black person at the hands of the police—despite the many that can still be named: Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland; and the list goes on and is updated constantly. I asked about a banner after what happened to a Unitarian church in Reno, NV. Their minister, Rev. Neal Anderson, is a friend of mine and I heard that, at that time, they were dedicating their third Black Lives Matter banner after their first two banners were vandalized and stolen respectively. Despite each time this majority White church had their banner ruined or taken, they put up another one with the same blessings and commitment as they put up their first one. They did this because it was part of the commitment that church made to support social justice. To me the question was never why don’t we have a Black Live Matters banner, but why haven’t we put one up yet? And so we put ours up with much of the same commitment you are showing today.
Today is a good time for me to come and talk about your Black Lives Matter banner, as recently ours was vandalized. Someone had painted the “V” over in white paint so it read “Black Lies Matters.” This is much like what happened to the Black Lives banner at the church in Arlington: someone had taped the word “All” over the word “Black.” Put into context, we have a more considerate class of vandals in Medford and Arlington. Ours wasn’t stolen, graffitied, or torn apart so we can handle that. At our church, we are in the process of figuring out which is better: removing the paint or getting a new banner (which is a committee decision so that takes a little time, but we love our committees). However, there is no doubt we will be putting ours back up soon. At our church, we took on the responsibility to raise the banner. Part of that responsibility is to put it back up if and when it is vandalized. You are embarking on the same responsibility. I can say it is joy to see the banner each time we come to church, and it will be hard to deal with when the banner is damaged intentionally—and at some point you will have to deal with that as well. But as they say in life, it’s not how many times you get knocked down that is important, it is how many times you get back up. For many reasons, this is a commitment you chose to handle, and we are grateful for it.
It is strange but powerful how some symbols like this banner can be. They can be beacons for those who are oppressed. In 1930s occupied Europe, the Unitarian Service Committee’s flaming chalice was underground symbol for assistance to help Unitarians, Jews and others to escape Nazi persecution. We currently fly the rainbow flag signifying us as allies to the LGBT communities. The Black Lives Matter is simply another way to stand in solidarity with groups that are persecuted. Secondly, it is our way to speak out to an important issue. This banner is a statement in the larger conversation about race and power in this country. Some people fail to see the larger conversation the banner points to and focus only on the statement on the banner. When the statement is a slogan per se, people can misinterpret things. Let me explain. People more often than not see the words “Black Lives Matter” as a complete sentence; meaning they read it as “Black Lives Matter period.” It is not a complete sentence. If it was one, the slogan would actually be “Black Lives Matter comma Also period”—meaning we matter too. As it stands, it really says “Black Lives Matter comma Because” with a space to insert the reasons why. Black lives matter because we are no longer nor have we ever been 3/5 of a person. Black lives matter because we are not, nor should we ever be, considered possessions. Black lives matter because every one of them is meaningful but that is forgotten more often than not—either by stereotypes or innuendo. Black lives matter because not every crime deserves the death penalty meted out on the streets. Black lives matter because in a society that treats all people as cheap commodities, Black lives are often considered the most easily disposable. Black lives matter because we, in fact, bring color to the spectrum of diversity. Black lives matter because we are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews and people who have earned the love of their families and friends, and have given it back. Black lives matter because our lives have worth and dignity and should be honored as all of us with love, respect, and justice.
This banner, much like the chalice and the rainbow flag, are not only our entry into the larger conversations on equality and justice in human relations, but a way to live up to our own values as well. This banner is our own seven principles writ large, all seven of them—the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As such we not only have the responsibility to raise it, but to live it as well. We need to fly it for and with those that need to hear these words, but we also need to engage with those who can’t understand why this needs to be said. Every time one of our churches, or synagogues, or mosques, or individuals wave this banner, the conversation becomes louder for the better, letting all in power know that we are watching and listening and learning and doing our part to dismantle systemic and institutional racism and oppression. And if or when the banner falls, you will raise it once again (every time) to let those people know that the values behind the words are stronger than the hate that wrecked them. This is what you’ve agreed to do by raising this banner today. It doesn’t seem easy, but it really is once you realize everything this banner represents is worth it. And you will soon realize that you have friends and allies that you have yet to meet in your corner. So to the Malden UU Church, I say welcome to the growing number of congregations—be they Unitarian or any other religion—who have made the choice to stand up against oppression, stand with your brothers and sisters, and visibly live out your values.
Blessed be and thank you.
I gave my annual sermon this past Sunday at the UU church of Medford. I had it posted on my personal blog but wanted to make sure my radio listening fans saw it as well. Enjoy.
On Sunday, August 28, I delivered another sermon (an annual thing for me) at my home church of UU Church of Medford, MA. I dealt with darkness in literature and religion. The sermon text is below.
In spring of 2015, I finally put together a small collection of short stories for publication online. I say finally because while a few of the stories were older shorts, one was a new one that was at last on paper in a form I liked. Once that was finished, I gathered all of them together, packaged it with an introduction and a cover image, and posted the collection online under the title “Starry-Eyed Halluncnations.” The title is as much a play on words as it is a state of mind at that present moment. In the introduction, I spoke about dreams as a writer that had been deferred by life, economics, choices both…
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In the course of reading the various articles about the need to vote for Hillary Clinton, I came across this piece by Morgana Visser. She’s a Transgender woman of color from Chicago who gave her reasons she is not voting for Secretary Clinton. A knockout piece or writing and witness as I’ve ever read, I felt the need to share it on this blog. Read it to understand where some people are coming from in their objection to another Clinton Presidency. It’s a MUST read.
I’m a Bernie supporter, I’ve always been blatantly obvious about that on my show, my tweets, my blogs, my Facebook posts. I am however transitioning over to the Jill Stein camp as Bernie’s official run for the Democratic nomination seems to be winding down and Stein remains the best options for me and other progressives. However as the two major parties present their nominees, the battle for votes is heating up. The lines are drawn more narrow, the arguments are pitched higher, and the anger is even more palpable. And with it some dangerous arguments are being made.
An article circulating on Facebook and other interwebs by Olivia Goodwill is about the ethics of voting. In a nutshell, ethics professors point to the utilitarian purpose of voting–voting to produce a particular outcome–over the deontological approach to voting–voting your values and worldview as reflected in a particular candidate–as the way to approach the 2016 US election. The idea is that to vote with your heart and conscience without considering the downside of that outcome is immoral. While I do agree with some of the article in principle, how people are using this article is immoral.
Numerous Clinton supporters are using this article as well as the Dan Savage rant against third-party candidates (Specifically Jill Stein) as arguments against voting for anyone other than Hillary. It’s basically another way to break up those that want to write in Bernie Sanders or vote Jill Stein in November. It’s the same “a vote for anyone other than Hillary is a vote for Trump” argument while using these articles as a bludgeon. In other words, you’ve heard of “slut-shaming” and “fat-shaming’; welcome to vote-shaming. That you should be ashamed to vote for anyone other than Clinton or any third-party candidate. Like slut and fat shaming, I reject that notion wholeheartedly.
Firstly, the assumption becomes that people are “blindly” following Bernie Sanders. While I admit there are more than a few Berners that scare me more than a little, the majority of Bernie supporters I know are lifelong Democrats or progressives that are staunch believers in his message and his policy ideas, They are people of courage and integrity that have come to their conclusions through thought and experience. Many of them are switching to Jill Stein because she is the next best option where Bernie leaves off–also come to through thought and research. They also are voting a political outcome, but it is a different outcome from that of Hillary supporters.
This leads to the second point: while many Bernie supporters won’t back Clinton, they are trying to elect more progressives to office. This election gives them the best chance to take back both houses of Congress. Berners are trying to keep track of those running on a progressive platform (especially those endorsed by Bernie or who endorsed him during the primaries) and contribute to them and vote for them. Getting a firm Democratic hold in Congress can keep a majority of Trump’s platform down if he wins (it’s STILL a constitutional democracy we live in with all the checks and balances in place) and push for more progressive concessions if Clinton wins (she doesn’t want to go more left than she has in the primaries and has said as much). Sanders supporters have been helpful for down ticket ballots where Clinton seems to falter, and they have registered all the new Democratic voters thus far in the primary season (which the DNC didn’t do because new voters broke 2 to 1 towards Bernie). The outcome here would be to push the political spectrum back to the left from how Bill Clinton moved the parties more to the right. So the Bernie supporters voting against the interests of others or without an eye towards outcomes is wrong.
Lastly, however genteel the language, reasoned the argument, or good the intent, trying to shame people into voting for your candidate is in itself immoral. Voting is almost our only way to have a voice in how our country is run. Ultimately how you vote is a matter of conscience and personal political beliefs, and no one has the right to tell you how to think or believe. Anyone who has to have people shame others into voting for them isn’t worth your vote, even if they say it’s supposed to be for the greater good. It’s the same as bullying, using different forms of emotional manipulation and that is as reprehensible as it is immoral.
I may be passionate in my beliefs, but if my persuasion doesn’t work, I can’t force you to you change your mind. You have as much right to your own beliefs and votes as do I, but we haven’t gotten to the point of respecting this anymore. IF people need to change your mind in order to justify their own voice, their point of view has to be highly suspect. If people need to be shamed into voting for a candidate, that candidate is not worth voting for.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from being involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign this primary election cycle, it’s that we all deserve to have our voices and votes heard. With the media blackouts, purged voter rolls and the entire Nevada Caucus debacle, it is obvious that the party elites do not want to hear what the people want; they only care about maintaining power. To counter this, people need choices. To this end I am working on giving people choices in the election.
The Green Party, which has offered Bernie a spot on their ticket if he wants it, is on the ballots in 21 of the 50 states. For them to be viable, they need to get on the ballot in the rest of the states. This means gathering signatures in those states and getting them in on deadlines (that are quickly coming up, some BEFORE the convention in Philly). Go to the Green Party website, find out if your state–or even neighboring state–needs help gathering signatures and get them on the ballots.
I addition to the presidency, all the seats in House of Representatives and 24 seats in the Senate are up for grabs this November. If we are going to help Bernie get more hands on deck to help him in office, we need to get his allies into office. The Berniecrats Network lists all the candidates that endorsed Bernie or are self proclaimed “Bernie progressives” with a list of websites and emails. Check them out and support them, and if you’re in their state, vote for them in the primaries.
Now I say this as a Bernie supporter: I still support him and the cause. We are mature people and can multitask. Yes, go to the convention and protest if you can, but we can also help prepare secondary options, especially if they need to be dome quickly. If we are going to have our voices heard, we need to open as many options for us as possible. Make use of these options and make yourself heard.