Mistaken Wisdom

Sermon Delivered at First Parish Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, November 5, 2017*

I bought a Garmin GPS watch this week in an effort to kick start my fitness regimen which has been sidelined by seminary and moving and internship since about 2014.  Its fun.  Olive hates the beep it makes.  I like the fact that it counts my steps and also receives my text messages.  While I was shopping for this, I was brought back to my days as a fitness instructor when the big thing was to have a heartrate monitor built into your watch.  Things have come a long way.

I see a lot of people with FitBits and other devices, reminding them to walk…or reminding them that they have a pulse.  Sometimes I wonder if this is the closest that many people come to actually thinking about their bodies. Technology has become a not so thin veil between us and our experiences. Our devices respond to our voices, our touch, even our body temperature.  Artificial intelligence is becoming less and less artificial and more and more supplementary each day.  But today, I would like to make a case for us to get back to basics so to speak…

So, I have every intention of going a bit off the rails today.  When I say that, it is not to indicate that I’m going to stand on top of the pulpit and crow like a rooster…although, I’d love to see what that feels like.  Rather, I’m going to speak to you in a way that ministers in Unitarian Universalism rarely if ever speak; with demands and an undercurrent of ultimatum…a bit fire and brimstone.  But this is important; the future of our movement and possibly the world as we know it depends on leaders like myself stepping up our game and pushing the boundaries much, much further.  But no matter how uncomfortable or confusing it may be at first to receive, my hope is that you ultimately feel my push as the gesture of love that it is intended to be and not as a selfish directive.  What I say today may also sound like scolding, but it is not. It is intended as a wakeup call to us all.

And with that, we begin…

Mosaic Makers

I love Unitarian Universalism, but Unitarian Universalism isn’t working.  Well, it may be working for a few people, but it is not working in the grand and lofty way that we certainly speak of it.  Indeed, Unitarian Universalism may be working for certain individual and self-focused purposes, but what we’re doing here just doesn’t want to take hold in the wider world.  We have not succeeded in moving the dial in terms of ending gun violence, Nazism, violence against women or racism; we’re even moving backward on abortion rights and healthcare in general.  Our efforts to build the Beloved Community are failing.  Sometimes I wonder if it is because we are much better at building the Beloved Social Club.  We do great at self-improvement among the people we know, but on the whole, we have not cultivated the tools or even the interest in changing hearts and minds beyond our immediate sphere. Even though we may feel good about our contributions to amplifying awareness of the distress of those who are marginalized and placing ourselves into the work on the ground to change individual lives, the Dakota Access pipeline is brimming with oil even as we speak and the Klan is still legal. This is not what I call success.

I love Unitarian Universalism, but Unitarian Universalism isn’t working.

We have the highest ideals.  Inspired by some of the greatest hearts and minds.  Among those hearts and minds is of course Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We are nobly motivated by aspirations such as this quote put forth by the King Center:

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. [1]

And we can even point to more of MLK’s scholarship to describe the lofty philosophical underpinnings of his beloved community as an expression of Agape.  He said in his March 7, 1961 Detroit sermon:

“Agape is more than romantic love. Agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men. Agape is an overflowing love, a spontaneous love, which seeks nothing in return.”[2]

Sounds great!  So, where are the droves of marginalized people flocking to our doors?  I have yet to hear anyone within Unitarian Universalism tell me why anyone outside of Unitarian Universalism should come to us for this message.  We are spectacular at telling everyone what we want as individuals and standing up for our personal sense of right and wrong and making sure that personal agency is at the center of everything we do and say.  But tell me, how is that Beloved Community and not simply the Beloved Self?

Last week, I had the incredible fortune to travel to San Diego for the Mosaic Makers conference.  It was wonderful.  I was there with Alex Taylor, Rashid Shaikh, Susan Leslie and Bruce Pritchard all of whom I think got a great deal out of the experience.  I was so incredibly grateful for their presence and excited for them to see that place, First UU San Diego, that was so instrumental to my formation.  It was certainly one of the most diverse UU settings I’ve seen outside of Finding Our Way Home (the UU gathering for professionals of color.)  From the perspective of a trip that shows what anti-racism and multi-culturalism can look like, it was a huge success.

The weekend presented many examples where we completely de-centered whiteness: a Día de Muertos service that was entirely Latina led in Spanish and English where Spanish was the dominant language and sometimes not translated.  Two black scholars leading very different talks.  Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin speaking about Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism and explaining its purpose as an incubator for cultivating black affirmation, support and retention of African American UUs; Dr. Mark Hicks challenging the conference attendees to explore how white supremacy shows up in language and action.  Rev. Mitra Rahnema sharing her intentions as the editor of the book Centering and making it clear that she wrote the book for people of color as a resource while inviting white UUs to read the book with this in mind and learn from looking through this window and Chris Crass offering an impassioned plea to stay in the work of cultivating multi-culturalism despite our sometimes problematic personal histories.

As a leader, Mosaic Makers was exactly what I needed in many ways.  Still, on the last day when I was there for a separate professional day of reflection where we caucused as POC identified and white identified, I found myself wondering about the distinctly separate Unitarian Universalisms that each of us cultivates and that grow among those of similar social locations.  The dominant one that supports the experiences and needs and expressions of European Americans, another one that speaks to African Americans… another that resonates with Indian Americans…one that lets women see themselves…and another that works for people who identify as Trans*.

On one level, having a “faith” that is this malleable seems ideal.  But looking a bit closer and in particular looking to where the rifts and cracks actually exist in our “beloved community”, and in examining the very real inabilities to communicate, the dysfunctions, the ongoing inequities and our sometimes defiant resistance to appeal to a broader spectrum of populations, what we have created is a loose gathering of people who have no real reason or explanation as to why they should want to be in community together other than working toward a concept of “beloved community” that sometimes looks like rabid individualism when you hold a mirror up to it.

No, and it pains me to say it again, Unitarian Universalism isn’t working.

Anti-Slavery, 1854

Let’s take a journey back in time…

In 1854, Anthony Burns was arrested. Anthony Burns was black.  Anthony Burns was an escaped slave.  He was arrested here in Massachusetts because the legislature supported enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.  Judge Edward Loring presided over the case and handed down the judgement that Burns should be returned as “property.”  As I research the history of slavery in this state, I am learning that the “official records” most likely don’t correlate with the realities of the ongoing presence of slaves and certainly the mentality that actively ignored if not supported the continuation of slavery in the south.

Thankfully though people like William Lloyd Garrison among other abolitionists and Unitarians were outraged.  That year, he was part of a July 4 anti-slavery rally held in Framingham at a place called Harmony Grove.  At the gathering there were addresses by Lucy Stone, Wendell Phillips, Henry David Thoreau, Sojourner Truth and of course Garrison.  Garrison made a powerful case explaining the breadth and potential reach of slavery.  The MA historical society website says that Garrison warned that:

Slavery and its minions jeopardized freedom everywhere and its advocates, […], intended to tighten their grasp over the Caribbean, expand into Central and South America, and even extend the cursed institution into the Pacific. Freedom was disappearing. What could there be to celebrate on July 4? he asked.

The website goes on to describe the dramatic climax of Garrison’s address…

Garrison then produced a copy of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and put a match to it. Amid cries of “Amen” the hated document burned to a cinder. Then he produced copies of Judge Edward G. Loring’s decision to send Anthony Burns back to slavery …As Martin Luther had burned copies of canon law and the papal bull excommunicating him from the Catholic Church for heresy, Garrison consigned [this] to the flames. [Finally] Holding up a copy of the U.S. Constitution, he branded it as “the source and parent of all the other atrocities–‘a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.'” As the nation’s founding document burned to ashes, he cried out: “So perish all compromises with tyranny!” [3]

Clearly, White House Chief of Staff, General Kelly could learn a thing or two about “compromise” from reading this.

Garrison’s act of burning the Constitution was extreme.  Many would regard this as an act of treason…even today.  But let me present it to you this way.  We are very accustomed in UU circles to speaking of “racial justice work”.  Yet in my world as an African American, “racial justice” isn’t something that I can pick up and put down.  It doesn’t sit outside of me for me to look at…it IS me.  It is not “racial justice”, it is my life.  Any document that legitimized the basis for me being regarded as a lesser being should be burned.  “So perish all compromises with tyranny.” Garrison, a Unitarian, was not afraid of radical change.  In this moment, we are called to the same, both outside of our doors and within.

1945…could be today

Fast forward 90 years…

Holding up a copy of the U.S. Constitution, he branded it as “the source and parent of all the other atrocities–‘a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.'” As the nation’s founding document burned to ashes, he cried out: “So perish all compromises with tyranny!”

Unitarian Minister, Peter Samsom referenced the words of Elmo Roper of Fortune Magazine in his May 27, 1945 sermon “If I Were a Negro” saying that  “…racial and religious prejudices are rising to the point where a revival of Ku Klux Klanism threatens the nation.  Feeling against Negroes, Jews, and Catholics is increasing and we face one of the most explosive situations of our entire history.”

Samsom’s words could have been written last week.  He continues:

“[Roper] concluded his statement by pointing the way out.  As he saw it: “give people something constructive to do and they will not have time to hate each other.” There is good sense in both his warning and his solution.  We know from our own experience that race feeling is growing more serious, that tension is increasing, and that violent things are being said, thought and done.  There is no purpose in shielding ourselves from the knowledge that we are in a situation that calls for our best thinking, our sanest vision, and the most courageous cooperation among our whole people.  “Give people something to do…”—here is a suggestion with sound psychology behind it, a suggestion we may interpret quite broadly to include tasks of the imagination as well as of the hand.” [4]

Give people something to do.  How novel.  I do believe that’s what is missing for us Unitarian Universalists today.  We don’t have anything to do.  I’m not talking about marching or volunteering or calling legislators.  I mean we don’t have anything to do in here.  We have nothing that binds us or belongs to us unquestionably without privilege or bias or exclusion, a situation which begs the question over and over again, what is our faith? What is the concrete place where we meet one another stripped of social dictates of superiority and dominance or marginalization and oppression? Too often, our culture of individualism our philosophical hubris won’t let us put down the “I” to see the “we” and that, my friends, is what is sending me off the rails.

Invitation to Embodiment

“Give people something to do”

You know what? I think we do have something we can unite around…something we all can do.

Embodiment.

Before you voted to call me as your minister, you asked about my theology.  I said I would tell you more.  Well, here it comes…

Turning justice work into religion is not enough to build the beloved community.  Gathering with people who come from the same social set and demographic is not enough to build the beloved community.  Singing Christian songs without the word God or Jesus is not enough to build the beloved community. Creating separate and affirming spaces and affinity groups for marginalized identities is not enough to build the beloved community.  You know why, because after we do our individual and important separate things, we must come back together and that’s what’s missing in what is currently espoused as Unitarian Universalism.  Just because our larger organization is set up as an association of congregations, doesn’t mean that loose association is a successful, model for girding a fragile world against the catastrophic forces of human kind on a large scale.  There has got to be more.

My theology is embodiment.  That is, at the core of everything I do and everything I see, every interaction I have, I place the fact that we are in human bodies.  We all share the experience of life through being embodied.  Why can’t we just start there and say that.  We all share the fact that we were born and that we will die.  We all have minds that allow us to think and we all experience something called time.  We are all capable of action of some kind in the world and we all experience being in the context of planet earth.  Every single human being has some experience with the concept of what we call love.  Birth, Death, Thought, Time, Action, Earth, Love…to me, these are embodiment; this is my theology and this is what keeps me in the game.

There are great minds at work in Unitarian Universalism.  I am thrilled that there are more people talking about spiritual practice and ways to ritualize our shared feelings.  And yes, I have also heard more people talking about bodies.  But it is not just about individual bodies, it is about the fact that we are embodied.  My challenge to you, my invitation to you is to not fall into the trap of relegating what I say about embodiment to a “thing” that resonates with only a few of us.  Thinking about our bodies shouldn’t only happen when someone tells us to place our feet on the ground and “breathe in…breathe out.”  Our bodies can’t be put into a task force or a committee.  Like “racial justice” is my life, the fact that we are embodied is quite literally all of our lives and even if you don’t want to think about your body or deal with it, the fact that you are embodied is definitely going to deal with you.

Imagine a Unitarian Universalism that works to cultivate new ways of putting birth and death in context with one another, in the unique world that we live in today?  Every ancient spiritual tradition has always done this for a reason.  Sure, we can cherry pick from the greats, but that doesn’t bring us any closer together.  What could a language of birth and death that transcends our individual stories, that is conscious of the impact of digital life and life in a post-Holocaust world look and feel like?  I challenge us to find out.  What could a spiritual practice of embracing our ability to think mean as we embrace the broad spectrum of cognitive capabilities that science continues to allow us to understand?  Rather than basing our relationship with different mental perceptions on a narrow baseline, we should be able to embrace the whole spectrum and even more.  What if we let the beautiful spheres of science and spirit we cultivate play together…unsupervised?  Who knows what offspring they would produce.  I say, let’s challenge Unitarian Universalism to throw away its colonial, patriarchal, white-centered shackles and find out.

For too many of us the experience of body shaming came from our birth religions.  We were told that our physical desires were sin, we were told that our bodies needed to be used for one purpose…all kinds of things, so we got out.  Even for lifelong UUs including those in the post-OWL world, they were given a great premise for pride and security in the body, but no follow up on Sunday morning, or in any aspect of how we actually come together as Unitarian Universalists.  Our ideas and more importantly our intentional spiritual commitment to how we are embodied is incomplete.  Dis-embodiment is a hold-over of Puritan roots that may be quaint but is ill suited to our functional needs today. What I’m proposing is that in the search for something to propel us to the center of making real and lasting change in this world and in the search for something that people everywhere are trying desperately understand amidst the noise of extremism, technology and greed, we can answer this call by lifting up the shared glory of what it means to simply exist in human bodies that are both completely separate and one.

Embodiment.

I cannot be satisfied with Seven Principles or Six Sources or a Unitarian Universalism that isn’t willing to grow and evolve into a global spiritual tidal wave.

The title of this message is Mistaken Wisdom.  The title comes from Thoreau who spent a lifetime troubling the space between knowledge of nature and knowledge of the self.  How do we know what we know? He literally explored what it means to see the forest for the trees…and vise versa.  The nature of knowledge is a basic question of Transcendentalism and one that still resonates in UUism today, even in our Seven Principles.  But the Seven Principles and the Six Sources are also swimming in Euro-centric priorities and assumptions; the knowing is skewed to one perspective, because that is the context in which they were created and the population they were devised to serve.  How can one affirm inherent worth and dignity when your personal inherent worth and dignity is always systemically denied? How can you sit at the table if you can’t get in the room?  Our vision must expand so that every identity meets as an equal in the middle.  Therefore, we must be willing to consider how even the sacred Seven principles have been complicit and reflective of the systems we are trying to dismantle and willing if necessary to consign them to the flames of history.  “So perish all compromises with tyranny.”

I cannot be satisfied with Seven Principles or Six Sources or a Unitarian Universalism that isn’t willing to grow and evolve into a global spiritual tidal wave.  The ideas and the openness and the empowerment are all here, we just need something to do.  I say that we have an endless sacred text of learning and wonder and affirmation literally at our finger tips…our bodies.  Each chapter is written in the unique ink of our blood and the pages turn each time we exhale.  Let us escape from a stifled history and feel the cool breeze of the future.  Learning to be present with our embodiment can take us there.  Your beautiful, individual, unique, body is more than a heart rate, or steps, or text messages or any app.  Your body is a chapter in the human adventure of embodiment; it is your greatest gift to receive and your greatest gift to give.

A Prayer of Embodiment

May your birth continue to bless this world throughout your life
May your death whenever it comes, be completion of the cycle and not just loss
May your ability to think equally invite comprehension and question
May you and time move as companions, not adversaries
May your actions reflect your authenticity in this world
May your presence on this earth be both gentle and strong
May you always know love in everything you are.
May you always know your own embodiment as a blessing.

*This sermon was delivered before news of the mass shooting in Texas had broken.

[1] – http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy

[2] – https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-detroit-council-churches-noon-lenten

[3] – https://www.masshist.org/database/431

[4] – Archive of First Unitarian Universalist Church San Diego, Courtesy Betty Boone

Pocket Rocket

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” – The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution

These words were written by a group of angry and frightened men in 1791 to enshrine in law their right to protect themselves from perceived tyranny by using lethal force.  Today, every time we face another societal wave of grief over the senseless loss of life due to the easy access people have to guns in the United States, it reverberates in my ear:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…”

In these words, freedom and violence were linked as a consequential pair and presented as an ethical norm.  What is more, when they were written, these words codified a right exclusive to white men with financial means [1].  The Second Amendment was literally a declaration of rights to justify white masculinized violence.  Today, the NRA lobbies the government every day for guns that are bigger, more powerful, higher volume, longer range, and they use the Second Amendment as a protective defense for a macho gun culture that would be adolescent if it weren’t so deeply tragic.

It is hard to tell which might have come first: the projection of virility issues on firearms or firearms projecting virility issues on how men in the United States see their embodiment.  I do know however, that the combination of guns and ideas about how maleness is embodied has left us swimming in a lethal brew that easily conflates male potency with violence.  One look at the number of women (and men) who corroborate stories of rampant male sexual assault (the United States ranks among the highest numbers of rape per capita in the world [2]) alongside the epidemic of gun-based terrorism in this country and it is difficult not to consider a connection.

One problem is that men in the US don’t talk about their penises, something I’ve learned from my own experience growing up in a male identified body with biologically male genitalia. As an adult, I’ve taught sexuality education to youth and studied the impact of sexuality on faith and politics, and it is clear that boys are given a specific rhetoric of shame about their genitals that is tragically entwined with ideas about power.  There is little to no counter narrative to this message and the result is that the shame carves a space for defensiveness and self-styled myths about what is sexually right and wrong.  So, despite men handling them several times a day for a variety of reasons including function and fun, penises are rarely spoken about, never truly understood and most often the subject of performative mockery.  Everything from the casual crotch grab to eating a phallus-ized banana becomes part of the act.  We can joke about penises (thanks a lot Amy Schumer), but we can’t actually discuss them and what they are capable of both positive and negative. Despite being external organs, the profound mystery of the penis is more pervasive than we are willing to culturally admit and undoubtedly more dangerous than we realize.

Negative penis/masculinity narratives are prolific.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the grossly racialized stereotypes of male sexuality in the United States. In these pathetic exercises, black boys are burdened with the assumption of over-sized and threatening ‘Mandingo’ status; Latino men are a disposable ‘walk on the wild-side’; Asian boys are entirely de-masculinized and relegated to a sexual scrap heap, and so on. Meanwhile, all of this unfolds in the shadow of white masculinity as the definitive shining American cultural norm.  Yet when white masculinity is directly linked to violence we are trained to socially accept, endorse or excuse it as “boys being boys” and never, ever allowed to call it terrorism…although it most definitely is.  Personally damaging, false and impossible to realize just like the black stereotype, the white heroic myth of masculinity, becomes the idealized standard of every savior image projected in the US, and is a cornerstone of how we expect to see figures of authority including our modern day “well regulated militia”, the police.  If you consider all of these gendered, sexualized and racialized cultural elements together, the acquittal of white officers for killing unarmed black men and the labeling of non-white terrorists as “animals” takes on an entirely new significance.

For me, fixing the Second Amendment, isn’t just about guns.  It is about de-commissioning the tools that prop up toxic male embodiment and the excuses that enable an almost exclusively white male entitlement to violence.  Gun violence, sexual violence, economic violence, environmental violence are all parts of a culture, fed by a racialized capitalism that cultivates a male embodiment whose only purpose is to dominate and take without being questioned; to relentlessly penetrate everything it encounters with fear and intimidation.

The project of American manhood swinging between rape fantasy porn and a constitutional entitlement to hold the power of life and death in one’s right hand, has made us “dick dumb.”  In this increasingly winners versus losers society, we don’t talk about penises and because we allow ignorance to feed our unspoken fears, too many men are empowered to wantonly misuse their penises and the cultural leverage that is associated with having them regardless of racial or ethnic identity.  Our legal system underscores the misconception that we must live in a world where the only route toward security and freedom is through violence and the penis becomes every man’s most handy surrogate weapon of defense always locked and loaded.

But our government has no tyrant king and does not represent the voice of only one race or class of people.  We are not colonial oppressors trying to fend off slave revolts or Indian uprisings.  Our states no longer require private militia and all aspects of our law enforcement and armed forces are no longer entirely male.  We do not live in a society of duels and honor killings and we are finally willing to recognize that a marriage vow doesn’t include consent to assault.  Gender statistics on mass shootings are a clear indication that gun violence in the United States is a male problem…just like rape. If we are to find an antidote to all toxic masculinity, we need to begin by de-weaponizing male embodiment.  This means the careful dismantling of all the language and social structures that equate the power of masculinity and the penis with lethal force.

We will never fix the fatal flaw of the Second Amendment until we disband the not-so-well-regulated militia in men’s pants.

Cut

Every cry from a child is hunger.
Not just for a hole in the belly,
but for emptiness, lack or abandonment.
Hunger names what we feel
as uncomfortable or raw.
There is hunger for being held…being loved,
and hunger for just being paid attention to.

Every hunger has a sound.
The hunger of pain,
when emptiness is left by safety
stolen from our bodies…
a spank, a fall, a needle,
all the unfamiliar sensations leaving holes in
a newborn sense of world
where there was no abandonment
no stings or burns,
only fullness…safe and alive.

The cry of circumcision is hunger.
A full-throated mortal terror
of being torn
for religion, society, medicine
“for your own good”…for good.
Every male who is cut
carries the phantom ache of this hunger
in sensations he will never know.
The scar he handles is a reminder
of the trade that was made with his flesh:
trust in the world, for someone else’s “div-anity”.

You, cut male child
are told to fill your role.
Penetrate the world with your most wounded self
Through deeds, seeds, desires, passions.
Do as you are told, ignore your basic hunger.
While every day longing for fullness, rarely feeling safe,
forever unable to recall being wholly functional or alive.

If I Had a Bell…

CALL FOR SOLIDARITY AGAINST ALL FORMS OF VIOLENCE: If your spiritual gathering place has a bell, as the minister of First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist*, I encourage you to join a growing number of faith communities and ring it on SUNDAY October 8 between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. EST (or in your local time zone). Ring it intentionally with the purpose of first honoring those who have been the targets of violence in our society but also as a warning to those who would promote, glorify or carry out violence and violent rhetoric. This is one simple act that may unite those of us who believe in a world of peace.

First Parish Cambridge will ring its bell 59 times on Sunday to honor all of those impacted by the shooting in Las Vegas. Our message is clear as a bell: we will not be silent in the face of violence.

In a time when too many live under the threat of governmental, societal, political, social, sexual and personal violence, many in the developed world are at a loss as to what can be done. Although we may not agree on the means, surely people from every walk of life can agree on the goal: peace. A culture of violent action is encouraged by violent rhetoric and aggressive and irrational politics. In such a world there must be voices that call for humanity, unity and love.

Bells in houses of worship and spiritual gathering places have historically been signals to the community…of death, of warning, but also of joy and birth. They call us into relationship with the realities of our lives and our worlds and there is no more stark reality that we face today than the fact that a culture of violence is literally killing us all.

On your day of gathering or worship, ring bells. Whether it is your church bell or hand bells or a singing bowl, ring bells to let the world hear that you still believe in peace. Ring them in the morning, ring them in the evening, ring them all over this land.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1337548363040284/

22256243_1337777396350714_3985573859339272192_n

 

 

 

 

*This event/action is co-sponsored by First Parish in Cambridge

Wounded Knees

Forgiveness Ceremony

Forgiveness Ceremony at Standing Rock Casino (c) 2016 Josh Morgan/ Huffington Post

The poet in me can’t resist the significance of knees in this week’s episode of America: 400 Years of Racial and Ethnic Culture in Conflict.  First there is the gesture itself: kneeling.  This is what people do when they propose marriage, what they do when they surrender, it is a universally accepted gesture of homage.  It is also an image that is depicted of European colonizers when they landed on the shores of this continent, often being described as kneeling in Christian prayer.  When I read Eric Reid’s Op-Ed reflection on why he and Colin Kaepernick landed on this gesture and not something more dramatic like turning their backs, I’m reminded that, like the history of resisting racism in this country, there are many different layers to how it actually works and what it all means in real time.

The poetry continues when you consider the fact that so many people today associate the playing of the national anthem at sporting events with honoring the armed forces.  A colleague of mine reminded me the other day that no one ever asked if anyone minded this association (which saw a big boost post 9/11).  The national anthem isn’t explicitly a battle cry (it is based on a drinking song).  But looking at the origins of the practice of playing the anthem which was recorded as first happening during a WWI era baseball game, it is very easy to understand the association.  Just in case you forgot, until after the end of WWII, both baseball and the US Military were segregated specifically against blacks.  Anyone who tells you that sports, race and military service have nothing to do with each other, tell them to read a book.

A final (but certainly not the last) piece of poetry that resonates with me is anatomical.  When I think of kneeling and conflict in the United States, the first thing that comes to mind is Wounded Knee.  In Western US culture and history, we are aware of the name “Wounded Knee” because of the massacre that occurred at Wounded Knee Creek.  This slaughter of Indian people (including children) may have taken place nearly 130 years ago, but the battle is ongoing.  The Wounded Knee Massacre is considered by American historians as the last armed conflict between whites and Indian people.  But these historians forget about the resistance at Wounded Knee in 1973.  And of course one just needs to think back a short 12 months ago and remember that descendants of the same Lakota Sioux people who were targeted at Wounded Knee were the same people under threat and ultimately forced off of Standing Rock.

Anatomically, the knee is a pretty amazing joint.  It is designed to absorb the most incredible forces that our bodies sustain.  Its strength and suppleness is the key to evolutionary human survival, allowing for us to run fast, jump and climb.  The knee allows the human body to dance and to create shapes and movements.  It is an incredible juncture within the body.

And human beings have also learned to thrive without knees.  Paralysis, injury, amputation have always opened up different ways to comprehend human movement without the knee.  You don’t need knees (functional or otherwise) to have a beating heart or a brilliant brain.  Even the name of the creek “wounded knee” (Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) honors a warrior who has lost use of this joint.

The knee can be used to great advantage by human beings.  It can allow us to reach heights that we cannot reach without it.  At the same time the knee is not essential to human life.  It can be immobilized, absent or even just wounded and we will still survive.  These are parallel lessons that people of color in the United States have demonstrated time and time again in the face of oppression.  Today’s battles are not new, the protests are not novel.  This is the perpetual state of things in a nation built on the obliteration of one people and the monetized subjugation of another.  The resilience of people of color in this country, with and without knees in the face of this status quo speaks to our permanence here and across the globe.

If you are flummoxed by the current state of affairs in this country, maybe you need to consider more deeply where your body can bend to have more leverage in the battle or how you can adapt without that joint altogether.  Some of us prove that both are possible every single day.

These Times

Some folks are in agony wondering
“What can we do and how should we feel ‘in these times’?”
Yet, while they’ve been busy
Creating ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ spaces
And learning about ‘diversity’
And pondering what it means to ‘dismantle’ racism in ‘these times’,
‘These times’ have been the entire context for Africans in “America”
‘These times’ have been the human history of rape
‘These times’ have been the ongoing Indian genocide.
Across the globe, right here at home, historical and modern, physical and social
‘These times’ are and have always been right now.
The only reason one could possibly see any of this as either new or shocking
Is because of  the highly evolved, totally unique United States Brand™ privilege.
It is not just a simplistic privilege of skin color
But the complex construction of an entire privilege culture
Based on race, fueled by fear, multiplied by greed
Locked in systems of opportunity, loaded in government
And fired down the barrel of a very specific social order
Laying waste to everyone in its sights.
The only way to truly deal with ‘these times’
Is to admit that ‘these times’ are business as usual
Face all the signs that say we have to start from scratch
And begin the experiment entirely anew.

Reid Kaepernick

Eric Reid, Colin Kaepernick, kneeling during the National Anthem (c) 2016 Marcio Jose Sanchez/ AP

Dreams Deferred

FullSizeRender

“America’s New Patriot” (c) 2001 Adam Dyer

The president of the United States has worked with the government over the last 7 months the same way he has run his businesses: with total impunity.  His basic assumption seems to be that he was elected to lord over the country, like the CEO of a private company with no accountability other than to the allegiances forged in blood or in a mafia-like system of “you scratch my back….”  In addition, he has taken the Mitch McConnell political agenda from 2009 which was built entirely on erasing Barack Obama and doubled down on its xenophobia, isolationism and flat out ignorance.  Add to this his own special megalomaniac fixation on self aggrandizement and you have what he has peddled as the formula to “make America great…again”.  He is proud to put “America First”, relinquishing the historic and noble aspiration of being a global leader in favor of holding tightly to what he alone defines as “ours” from his dangerously narrow and fearful world view.

But a President, isn’t supposed to lord.  Our government is not by and for one oversized compensatory ego.  The President of the United States is one relatively small part of a government system that, although flawed, has absolute checks and balances on each of its branches of power.  While this president is a petulant, ill qualified, temperamentally unsound neophyte, the current Congress, on the other hand, is grossly and somewhat sadistically negligent in enabling this bull in the china shop.  Congress must start to do their job.

But I am no politician.  I am a minister.  My job is all about how people make peace with the world around them. Some call it spirit, others call it God, and others have no name for it.  What is consistent however, is that in the work of ministry, we are asked over, and over again to reflect what we see and hear from people about their lived experiences.  This could be as they watch a loved one die, or as they look into someone’s eyes and declare that their life will be inextricably linked to theirs.  It could be questioning the path of a life, the loss of a job, or grasping the meaning of the words “cancer free”.  And we do this without judging someone’s politics, religious beliefs, race, gender or any other aspect of what makes them who they are other than first being human.

I have had the opportunity in my brief ministry so far to meet many undocumented migrants.  People from Mexico, Somalia, Ecuador, Ireland, Canada, etc.  I myself had the experience of flying under the immigration radar for an extended period, many years ago in England.  It was an uncomfortable feeling, but being black with an American accent and passport, I knew that ultimately I was in little danger and would probably be given the benefit of the doubt.  What is more, I had come to the UK on a lark and not because I was fleeing violence or starvation.  Going home would never be a bad or fatal thing.  The large proportion of people I have met in recent years however, have largely escaped situations that few of us who were born in the safety of the US would be able to survive.  They escaped violence and persecution, and even more, they managed to find a way to navigate the labyrinthine systems of work, taxes, housing, healthcare and transportation that even those of us born here find to be a burden.

The young people that I have met who have benefited directly from DACA are not criminals.  Indeed they are heroes.  From very early in life, they have been family translators, workers, emotional support and so much more.  These often very young people, have become the eyes and ears and windows into the world for their parents.  We call them “Dreamers” but I think we don’t appreciate the depth or breadth of that dream.  They were brought here not just for their own dreams, but for the dreams of their entire families, who knew that even if they (the parents) died in this journey into the unknown, the dreams in their children still had a chance.  This is what every parent wants for their child, to simply have a chance.

The ministerial reflection I want to offer on the cusp of the next chapter in DACA is this: the president is also a parent.  He is the parent of an eleven-year-old, who he has carried over the wall into the White House.  To our knowledge, the president’s son had no choice in his father’s decision to run for office.  The president has forever changed his child’s future.  He has opened his son up to a level of scrutiny and objectification that only other First Children could possibly understand.  Although there are certainly enormous gifts and privileges that come with being a wealthy First Child, there is equally enormous risk and it will forever impact how his son will be seen in the world.    Of course, the president’s son is no refugee or undocumented migrant, and I certainly don’t know or understand how the president sees his youngest child, but hopefully, this young person will thrive and grow and learn about love and compassion and humanity…as every child should be given the opportunity to do.  Imagine what a different outcome we could see for DACA, if the president, for just one moment, could muster up even a grain of real empathy to see himself alongside parents who simply want to give their children a chance instead of lording over them like a tyrant CEO.

Nightmares

I can’t imagine a worse nightmare
Than to go to sleep with hope one day
And wake up with none the next.
Emerging from the hole
Coming into the light,
Being coaxed out and told I will be safe
To live, to thrive, to grow
Only to have the fat cat pounce
And start playing with me
Like a toy mouse
Forgetting that I am actually alive.
Each swat of his giant paw
Wrenching my joints
And claws gouging my skin.
I fear now that when he smells the blood
He will come in for the kill
Not because he is hungry,
But simply because he can.
I was told to rest easy ‘til the morning
When I would be called into the light of day
My sleep was peaceful
My dreams were free
My future unburdened
Now I see
It was just setting the stage for the nightmare to continue
And a prelude to the end of me.

ALD

Rising Tide

I’ve spent the last few days in quite a bubble of privilege.  I have had the opportunity to move across country (3000+ miles) with an animal, in comfort and ease only being required to do the last 419 miles of actual driving myself; and even that was a sentimental choice based on wanting to see my father before I start my ministerial journey.  I have been able to rent and outfit an apartment in one of the most prime locations in the world for someone with my career and personal goals and I am now within 10 – 25 miles of some of my most cherished family and longtime friends.  I am healthy, I have a personal vehicle, total and easy personal mobility and an entire community of people eager to meet me.  If this is not privilege, I don’t know what is.

At the same time, I know some people think of moving as an incredible burden.  They get frustrated by the idea of packing and things maybe getting lost or broken.  They get angry at airplane schedules or deliveries that don’t happen on time.  They are confused by cable vs internet or bundle, cel phone carriers, utilities and how to register to vote.  In the end, they stand there looking at all of their belongings once they are unloaded and think “it will never happen.”

Here in Cambridge, MA I am surrounded by a mix of these different energies.  August and September are times in the United States when people move and transition.  It is the beginning of school for many people.  I have several friends who are with their children as they begin college in other parts of the country.  I have others who are experiencing that very first and sometimes tearful day of school as the small being who was only a couple of years ago too young to use the bathroom themselves, waves goodbye for the first time.  But all of these, the ability to move, to change jobs, to begin new learning…the actual day to day manifestations of freedom…these are the principle privileges in which we live in the United States.  This is why some people still risk everything to get here from abroad and why others risk everything to stay here despite a history that continues to leave them behind or erase them altogether.

Right now in Texas, people are suffering.  Rising water (the very element we need to survive) is threatening life and property and will change people’s lives for years to come.  What is more, too many of these people survived the horrors of Hurricane Katrina as well.  But the real disaster is not just in the rising water.  The real disaster is that it took Mother Nature to wake the rest of us up (again) to those people who don’t have insurance, or ways to escape, or healthcare to heal the injuries and illnesses and their every day suffering.  Why do we only justify providing help to people in need when the help meter reaches our distress threshold?  Why aren’t we listening to these communities in the first place?

I’m sick of rehashing the election, but Trump didn’t win Harris County, Texas for a reason.  The city is 67% non-white with a median household income of $56k.  If he was really interested in making a difference in this “disaster”, he wouldn’t have done what amounted to a campaign stop before the worst of the impact was known or had even hit. Instead, he would wait until the water recedes and then go to the places where people who had the most to lose by having the least to begin with actually are.  In the meantime, he’s much better off making sure his government is functional enough and listening closely enough to people on the ground to actually mobilize useful rescue and medical teams to make a difference.  No tragedy is about baseball caps and stilettos, it is about real life and real death.

As I sit here enjoying a last few days of my privilege bubble giving deep gratitude before embarking on the most difficult and rewarding career of my already wonderful and blessed life, I’m making a list of strategies and priorities that I hope to publicly hold our elected officials to.  Top of the list is demanding that government be aware and accountable to the most vulnerable before that vulnerability has a chance to be fatal.  The number is not yet as high as Katrina, but even one life lost due to the bare vulnerability of poverty in the path of increasingly extreme weather, is too many.  It is our great shame to dishonor any of the people who die from neglect or politicized agendas by simply showing up for a photo op and then turning away once the sun comes out.  We need to address the problems of poverty and housing as the disasters that they are before a hurricane or earthquake makes them catastrophes.  We have the tools in our legislative process and we must use them.

The closing words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address seem a fitting reminder for the principles we as a nation are called to defend:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” – Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863

Jefferson’s Democracy

6ED207C9-2BE7-4BD6-9CE9-692F9708493D-7909-00002CE670FA1CCA

Democracy before decency…
Jefferson’s greatest deed
Sealed in the American creed that
“All men are created equal”
Too often holds these truths to be self-evident:
That “men” exclusively means “male”
And “equal” is only painted from the palette of white skin
And being “created” is synonymous with
an individual right to material wealth.

Democracy before decency…
Jefferson’s “gradual abolition”
Evolved into the prolapse of civil rights
Where what is most basic became most rare
A moral inversion secured in place by law
An ethical hesitation justified by greed
An excuse later celebrated under the blazing lynching tree
Where assumptions of dominance
Were seared into the genetic memories
Of both the “dis” and the “en” franchised class.

Democracy before decency…
Jefferson’s assumptions are
Captured today in words that
Dribble off the lips of those
Who see “both sides” of racial hatred
And try to “defend” free speech and First Amendment rights
To maintain the same status quo that birthed the horrors of
Slavery, genocide, colonial sexual servitude
And the posture that denies its paternity to the progeny called
Holocaust.

Democracy before decency,
Pride before dignity,
Profit before prophetic,
“We” before “all”,
Process before people…
This is history repeating
And failing over and over
and over.

There is no democracy
If the truth of decency makes a mockery of humanity;
There is no democracy
When civil rights are based on moral wrongs;
There is no democracy
In free speech that secures the end of a noose;
There is no democracy that un-sees, un-hears…
That too easily forgets.
There is no democracy in rape.

Mr. Jefferson,
We have learned the hard way
That there can be no democracy
Without truly common human decency first.

– ALD