Sermon: On The Side of Love

2016 October 16
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

When a straight, white, male, able-bodied billionaire can claim with a straight face on national television that the system is rigged against him, we’ve got a problem. And when hundreds of thousands of supporters nod their heads in sympathetic assent, when his words strike them with the resonance of recognition, when he can be cast as a martyr for a people under siege, we’ve got a huge problem. This country is adrift right now. In pain. We’re rowing in an ocean where truth undulates and facts swell and break like waves. Where is land? Where is something solid that we can all agree on? Is there any such thing? Was there ever? The 19th-century Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson used this metaphor: “Captain Franklin, after six weeks travelling on the ice to the North Pole, found himself two hundred miles south of the spot he had set out from. The ice had floated; and we sometimes start to think we are spelling out the same sentences, saying the same words, repeating the same acts as in former years. Our ice may float also.”

It is a central mission of Unitarian Universalist congregations to stand on the side of the oppressed and the disenfranchised. But our ability to act on that faith in the real world hinges on our ability to know — who exactly are the oppressed and disenfranchised? Who are the victims and who are the aggressors? Who benefits and who loses from private prisons, public schools, private health insurance, public space? It’s easy when our values live in the sparkly world of ideas. But when they hit the real world – especially this real world today – it’s another thing entirely. The fault lines in our society have cracked wide open. We have “othered” one another like maybe never before. The camps of war have been sharply defined, creating clarity in some ways but in other ways, complete obfuscation. When one person tries to correct an imbalance in society, someone else invariably cries that that person is just putting their thumb on a scale that was previously balanced.

Last winter, this congregation voted to hang a Black Lives Matter banner outside of our building. This is an act that many Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country are taking to stand in solidarity with the civil rights movement of our era. This movement is shining a spotlight on the horror of racism today – the disproportionate violence inflicted on black men by the law enforcement and criminal justice systems, the environmental racism that foists the most polluted of our food, water, and air on communities of color, and the everyday racial bias that touches everything from schools to hiring to housing markets. The message shaped by this social climate is that the lives of black people do not matter, at least nowhere near as much as those of white people. By hanging a banner outside of our house of worship, we intended to affirm what should be absolutely non-controversial: that in fact, they do.

The Black Lives Matter movement started after the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black high school student who was shot by a private citizen in 2012. It then gained more media attention two years later in Ferguson, Missouri when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who had just graduated high school, was shot by a white police officer. Since then the tragedies have mounted and the Black Lives Matter movement has come under intense criticism from some, not surprisingly, white people. Other congregations have made this decision to hang a banner with some trepidation, fearing retaliation from their surrounding conservative community. They have had their banners vandalized and torn. But we thought that surely here in liberal, enlightened Brooklyn this banner will be the non-issue that such a self-evident statement should be. We were wrong. Shortly after we hung the banner with a brief installation ceremony, it mysteriously disappeared. We replaced it, and the replacement disappeared as well. This kept happening. For months, the thief or thieves were silent; there was no inkling of motive. It was a mystery. Every Monday we would post a banner or sign, and every Sunday night, they would remove it. Then, two Mondays ago, there was something new: next to the Black Lives Matter sign appeared a “Blue Lives Matter” sign. “Blue” refers to police.

Wearing my pastor hat, I first need to acknowledge that there must be great pain behind the posting of a “Blue Lives Matter” sign. Someone who loves a police officer or who is a police officer feels under attack. Indeed police are under a lot of pressure these days. Feeling the rising anger toward them in city after city; having their every move scrutinized. The Justice Department just decided to track the use of force by police across the country. And police are killed in the line of duty – most recently the tragedy in Palm Springs that killed two officers, one a week away from retirement and the other a new mother just back from maternity leave. Police have dangerous jobs – willingly undertaken – and deserve great honor and gratitude for their service. And so someone, feeling underappreciated, embattled, maybe even scared, decided to protest our protest. To say, “Hey! We matter too!”

And we at First U I think would be inclined, on the face of it, to agree. Except that it’s not that simple. To post a “Blue Lives Matter” sign next to (and in response to) a Black Lives Matter sign is not only to equate importance of black and police lives, it is to equate the need for the two signs. It is to say that the value of police officers’ lives needs proclamation just as urgently as that of black lives at this moment in history. It is to suggest that police as a class are targets of discrimination, humiliation, and violence somehow on a par with people of color. To suggest this is to muddy the waters deplorably. There is no comparison. One third of all policemen are not incarcerated at some point in their lifetime; police are not earning wages 26% lower than their non-police counterparts; police do not need to sit their sons down for “the talk,” praying desperately that they be safe from police violence …unless, of course, their sons are black.

Looking from any objective angle, there is no comparison. But the “blue lives matter” response to the Black Lives Matter movement is absolutely textbook. If we look at the history of what happens when any oppressed group rises up and demands equality, the “Blue Lives Matter” sign goes up every time. The dominant class gets so used to being the dominant class that they (or we, as the case may be) don’t even see it. It comes to feel normal, neutral, natural, balanced, and fair. There’s also the phenomenon of what Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a professor in multicultural studies, termed “white fragility.” White people – a group of which I and many of us in this room are members – don’t like to be reminded that we’re white. Among our privileges is the privilege to be racially comfortable, which is to say that race doesn’t matter and that racism is other, bad people’s problem. When an individual behaves badly within the system, they’re just seen as a bad apple, but the system is fine. And so when a movement comes along and says, “No, things are not fine and it’s because of race,” the people of privilege, the dominant class, sometimes can’t handle it. They (or we) feel attacked; they (or we) feel besieged; and they (or we) fight back with fury. They (or we) just want things to be great… the way they were… again.

No sooner than Jim Crow laws were abolished in 1964, New York State passed 15-year to life mandatory minimum sentencing for the possession of certain drugs. Then came “three strikes you’re out” laws. The engines of the criminal justice system shifted into high gear incarcerating black people. Now over 745,000 black men are in prison. The election of Barack Obama was immediately followed by a dramatic uptick in hate crimes toward racial minorities and a surge in white supremacist groups. (And in a parallel way, the nomination of the first woman candidate for president of the United States has been answered with the nomination of the most flaming misogynist ever to run for president.) This is not a coincidence. None of these are coincidences. They are classic backlash, sometimes violent, but often couched in the more genteel rhetoric that positions the dominant group as the actual victim.

To me, it is this false appropriation of victimhood that is most insidious. It’s gaslighting the entire nation. It has the effect of re-silencing people just as they come out of silence. It makes everyone lose our bearings. It makes the ice on which we’ve been hiking forward for centuries float backwards. What I believe we need at times like this is the outside, big picture perspective found in communities of faith. And not just any communities of faith, but ones accountable to progressive traditions like ours – traditions with a special concern for the poor and the oppressed. This concern is built into our Seven Principles. It’s built into our deep religious heritage. We try to look at the world through the steady lens of faith, which is to say through the lens of how the world could and should be. We don’t accept that our current economic inequalities are inevitable, we don’t believe that current power structures are “natural” or unchangeable, we don’t buy the idea that our social differences reflect essential human differences. These are solid landmarks that help us keep our bearings when everything around us is shifting.

These, at least, are our theological principles. But it takes work to bring those principles into the real world. For those of us who are white, it takes a willingness to address our white fragility, to sit with the discomfort of race as a social reality that benefits us. It takes a willingness to quiet our opinions and listen to the experiences of people of color. Some of this listening happens face to face and some of it happens through social media and the written discourse of the Black Lives Matter movement. One activist, when asked how people could connect with Black Lives Matter if they weren’t on Twitter, responded, “By getting on Twitter.” All of us in this room, white people and people of color can become more empowered to confront these issues. At a Forum we had here a few weeks ago, an idea came up of running a training for people to learn how to counter racism when we encounter it in daily life. That would be enormously helpful. The UUA Common Reads for the last two years have addressed racism – I hope we’ll read and discuss each of those books. The UUA board just this weekend voted to allocate $5 million to the Black Lives of UU – a movement of black people within Unitarian Universalism. Maybe through our share-the-plate program, we could also contribute.

We took down the “Blue Lives Matter” sign. And it was absolutely not because police lives don’t matter. It was because this movement is not about police lives or about any other worthy lives that also matter. It is specifically about the lives of black people – people like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, black mothers and fathers and children and friends, people in this room and people far away, teachers and attorneys and the homeless, and yes, black police officers. To proclaim that these lives matter is to try to still the floating of the ice for just a moment; to utter one simple, unassailable truth on behalf of those whose truths have been pulled out from under their feet time and again. Our faith calls us to respond to the sites of greatest pain, ignorance, and spiritual constriction in our society. Racism is one of those sites today. We don’t stand on the side of black communities because they are black; we stand on the side of the oppressed because they are oppressed. This is how we try to live our faith as Unitarian Universalists. We stand on the side of love.

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