Where do we go from here? Freeing ourselves from the legacy of the past
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
May 1, 2017
Listen to the full sermon here:
Welcome & Announcements
I don’t know how many of you are aware but Peter Morales, the president of our Unitarian Universalist Association, resigned this month, in the aftermath of a controversy around a recent staffing hire. In his wake two other high ranking staff members at the UUA also resigned: Harlan Limpert, and Scott Taylor. This has created, in the words of our regional lead, Sue Phillips, a crisis for the UUA — shaking the organization to its core, even as, as she also said, it is also creating a tremendous opportunity for Unitarian Universalism as a movement. The issue? Race. Racism, in hiring practices. I won’t go into the details of what happened here – you can look it up online. But I will say it’s connected to what has been termed White supremacy in our institution, sometimes invisible, hard to pin down, but like gravity, there all the same. That is a pretty jarring word, white supremacy, and I’ll talk more about that. But today I mostly want to point to the opportunity with which we are presented. Because racism is almost completely invisible to those who are white, its impact often unseen or unfelt, and here we have a chance to revolutionize how we understand race and racism, how it is keeping us blocked off from a world of possibility, as a denomination at the level of the UUA, as a community right here, and in our own lives, every day.
Nelson Mandela has said that we are all imprisoned by racism. The guard and the prisoner are both in jail. But there is a path to a whole new kind of freedom. We are one of now over 600 congregations that have pledged to ask and answer the question in the next few weeks: what is white supremacy, and how can we be part of a movement to be free of it?
By Nelson Mandela, in Long Walk to Freedom (1995)
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.
“. . . the truth shall make you free.” that’s from the book of John chapter 8 verse 32 in the Christian Bible” and it’s the opening line of a blog post by Tony Robinson from the United Church of Christ. I came across it as I was thinking about today’s topic.
“These words from the Gospel of John show up in lots of places.” Robinson continues “On the pediments of college buildings, on university seals, and above library entrances.[“The truth shall make you free”]
[But] When you read them in context (John 8: 31 – 40), it appears that the quotation on buildings and seals omits something important — namely, that before the truth will make you free, there’s a pretty good chance it will make you mad.
At least that is what happens in John 8. Jesus told people that his word would free them. They took offense, saying [paraphrased] “Who the heck does this guy think he is? Claiming he will free us! We don’t have a problem; it’s those other people who have the problem. My family has belonged to this church for five generations!”
“It sounds” Robinson continues, “a lot like someone who is confronted with an addiction, but denies that they have any problem. Like,”What are you talking about, I don’t have an alcohol problem — you’re the one who has the problem.”
“Before the truth frees us,” he writes, “there’s a good chance it will make us mad. Because the truth is, among other things, that we too have some issues to face, some stuff to deal with. The truth is that we are sinners in need of grace, that we miss the mark and need forgiveness, we are all captives in need of liberation.”
“We imagine” he concludes “that we have arrived, that we are the smart, the strong, the good and the successful. But face to face with Jesus, [or, in UU terms: face to face with greater truth, greater love, deep integrity] we find that maybe we have made a little too much of ourselves. We are imprisoned by our self-image, by our complacency, our arrogance. The truth that frees is that we are sinners in desperate need of grace – or in my words: that we miss the mark all the time, and need forgiveness and renewal. The good news is that grace is available in Christ Jesus – or that we are already forgiven and renewal is ever available. That is the truth that frees (after it makes us mad).
I got an email from someone the other day suggesting I might want to read the book “Privilege.” I got excited, thinking this would be a great resource for better understanding how privilege works to block us off from others and ourselves. I haven’t had much luck finding good resources on this that speak to a wide range of people. So I hopped eagerly on over to Amazon where I discovered that the book was all about how we should stop using the term privilege, basically, because, (now, know that I’m summing up a 337 page book in under a dozen words) but basically that we should stop using the term privilege because it makes people mad.
It makes people defensive, the book argued. It divides us more. It’s too PC. And it doesn’t help.
So, that was not the analysis I was looking for. Although I did find it interesting….
Most of us do not like being called privileged. I’ll take a leap and say most of us don’t like being called anything that implies we might have something to look at – whether that is, as Tony Robinson implies, about how much we drink, how we spend, how we relate to other people… Who likes being called out on stuff?
I’m reminded of a time in my life when I was not, shall we say, as tidy as I am now. I had a roommate who was, shall we say, more tidy than I was. And remarked on the difference. More than once. Which I didn’t like. I told her the kitchen counter looked fine to me. She showed me the wayward crumbs. At which point I handily dismissed the whole thing with the assertion that, if she would like the counter to be free of crumbs, then she was free to ensure that it would be. I felt victorious, she looked frustrated, but that is where it stood. She was not gonna make me.
I have since snapped out of that particular one – I am now more tuned in to crumbs on my countertop and less likely to leave them lingering unattended. But I do still know that gut feeling I get when someone asks me to look at something, thinks they know something, or is pointing out something I don’t want to see. Who the blank do they think they are?
So I really like the way that blog post ended. About what happens when we come face to face not just with something we don’t want to hear but also with a kind of overwhelming, humbling, compelling love that can disarm us… Whether that comes in the name of Jesus, or whether that is an attitude we take in our own hearts, that kind of love is a form of grace. That can lead to a softening, an opening of eyes, a fresh honesty. A willingness to snap out of it and say – wait a minute, why am I in standoff mode? What might I be able to hear, if I weren’t feeling defensive? What might I see, if I pulled myself out of this emotional tangle, and imagined a way forward that would bring more satisfaction, connection, and joy? What truth would set me free?
Okay, so a clean counter may not be the thing that brings us joy and sets us free… Metaphors are so limited….
But there’s something here about an emotional dynamic that can keep us trapped.
Because when we react with anger or defensiveness to perspectives that challenge us, it can keep us from looking at things that could free us all.
When I first heard the term white supremacy used a few years ago to describe me and people like me, my initial reaction was, Um. No. The term makes me squeamish, it’s jarring, it’s disturbing, it brings to mind images of white men in white hoods and black & white photos of horrific acts that have nothing to do with me. My mind came up with a dozen reasons why the term is not right and why I should not use it. Everything about it makes me want to recoil and retreat. You could almost say it made me mad.
And when I pull up a UU world magazine article with the headline “Critics see white supremacy in UUA hiring practices” on one browser screen, and a NYT times articles that says “White Supremacists Step Up Recruiting on Campus” in another, I find it, needless to say, pretty disconcerting.
Which, I’m beginning to understand, may be part of the point. I think part of the reason activists of color are using the term is to get my attention, jolt me out of complacency, jiggle my illusion that racism has been fixed already or, even if I know it hasn’t, get me to question my belief that it has nothing to do with me. What I’m beginning to understand is this is not about whether or not I am like David Duke, but about recognizing that we are on a continuum. It’s about recognizing that there are ways that my actions, our collective actions or inactions, intentional or not, are upholding the kind of environment that the David Duke’s out there have been promoting for far too long.
So no, we’re not part of a white supremacist organization, we not recruiting people to rally behind white supremacist causes on college campuses. But we do swim in a white supremacist culture, and all the ways we’ve internalized it, are all the ways we are perpetuating it.
I like the way Jim Key, UUA moderator, explains it in a recent letter to all of us in the association:
“The term white supremacist once referred exclusively to individuals and organizations that openly espoused the superiority of white people. In recent years the term has come to refer to a culture […] that places the needs, desires, stories, well-being, and the very lives of white people over and above those of people of color. It is the water we swim in. It is so much a part of our lives and of the life of our Unitarian Universalist Association that it has just become business as usual. We have chosen to use the term and to endorse the teach-in […] because we are absolutely committed to staying awake to the challenges before us. White supremacy is a continuum. When we refuse to acknowledge our place in that continuum we risk being lulled back into complicity.”
Rev. Karen Quinlan, a white minister in Wisconsin, puts it this way:” Our human tendency is to think that ours is better than theirs. When we are white, thinking that ours is better is supported by the fact that our social and political systems have been built through the same frame through which we are looking. We learn that our way is the right way and the best way. Simply put, this is white supremacy culture.”
She quotes “The Quaker activist and songwriter, Carrie Newcomer, who sings these words of encouragement: ‘Come on and look inside you–it’s the best place to start. The greatest revolution is a simple change of heart.’
Simple, and really really hard to do, all at the same time.
Which is one reason why the waters need to be troubled, why we need people willing to trouble them, why these changes at the UUA, while a crisis for the association, are also an opportunity, for all of us.
Because I think many of us who are white have no idea how limited we are by this cultural water. We have no idea the extent to which we have been compromised, confused, and separated. We have no idea the extent to which the system, as it is, hurts people of color. Or rather, we see the effects of it, but part of the white cultural story is that the damaging effects of racism are somehow the fault of people of color themselves and that there is nothing we can do to change things.
It is hard to change something that is invisible, or looks like business as usual, to those of us who have been raised inside of it. And it is hard to change something when our reaction to having the issue lifted up is to feel accused or to think to ourselves: “no”.
But once we get over the jangly sensation of feeling put out, once we can see there may be some crumbs on our counter that we need to clean up, there is a world of really important understanding, a universe of change, a revolution of love, as someone called it recently, waiting for us there.
I have heard, more than once, that if we, white people in particular, address this – whatever we call it – in ourselves – whether we call it privilege, whether we call it white supremacy culture – if we open it up and turn it around, it will change everything. Ending racism, I have heard, means that we will have healed, in the process, every oppression of our time: mental health oppression, able-ism, age-ism, class oppression, homophobia, our struggling relationship with our earth. Racism is a key oppression, and the process of healing it will require us to re-evaluate how we look at just about everything.
I have read, more than once, that the characteristics of white supremacy culture are not only limiting, detrimental, and hurtful to people of color, they are limiting, detrimental, and hurtful to everyone. Habits of ranking people, as some better, some worse, of prioritizing outcomes over relationships, of pitting people against each other in competition, rather than alongside each other in cooperation. These habits of mind are entrenched, imprison us all, and we all benefit from change.
And I have heard, more than once, the path that leads out of systemic racism includes deep listening, openness and humility, particularly on the part of white people. Those of us who are white are guests in the movement to end racism, we don’t pick the language, we’re not calling the shots – in fact the only way to move forward is if we step back from thinking our way is the only right way. It is a humbling catch 22 for those of us who like to think we know what’s what.
Can the fight to end racism change everything? I invite you to join me in discovering the answer to that question.
To join hundreds of religious leaders signed on to letters appealing to our UUA for change. Our President and 2 other high level staff members of the association felt they needed to step aside due to this controversy and to make room for a new kind of multiculturally aware leadership. 600 sister congregations are holding White Supremacy Teach-Ins this month and next, across the country and around the world.
Of which we are one. You may have seen that there will be a teach-in here, on Friday May 12th. An opportunity to dig into this topic, learn about it, understand more about how we can be part of the movement for greater racial justice, and learn about ourselves.
What’s next? How can we learn more, how can we stand up for our siblings of color? How can we be part of the movement for racial justice? We will have our Teach-in here, on May 12th. We can start a conversation about getting a Black Lives Matter banner. A colleague of mine just shared the name of a book (Unitarian Universalists of Color: Stories of Struggle, Courage, Love and Faith) about UU people of color and their experiences in our congregations – she recommended it as a great book for people who serve as ushers or greeters or anyone who wants to understand how to step out of our own cultural conditioning and be more genuinely welcoming to all. There are great movies about this like “Race: the color of an illusion” “American Denial”, wonderful books like “Waking up White.” We can subscribe to “Safetypin Box” (I just did), we can join local groups like SURJ (Showing up for Racial Justice – note the picture on their facebook page – you’ll see some Westminster faces – it’s from the walk we co-sponsored in 2015!). And come – please do come, to the Teach-in on May 12th . Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Amy Crawford (email@example.com) to sign up.
“The truth is,” Nelson Mandela writes, “that we are not yet free; We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”
May we begin our journey again and yet again. May we learn, grow, and find new freedom, even if, first, it makes us mad.
By William G Sinkford, former president of our Association, and currently one of 3 interim presidents serving until the elections in June.
There is so much work to do.
We have only begun to imagine justice and mercy.
Help us hold fast to our vision of what can be.
May we see the hope in our history,
and find the courage and the voice
to work for that constant rebirth
of freedom and justice,
that is our dream.