I’ve been struggling over the last few days with finding the right words to share with you in light of recent events in our nation. In recent days, we have witnessed the lives of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd being senselessly and unnecessarily taken from this earth. Each one of them, and others whose names we have not heard yet, have been victims of hate and fear unto death.
Should I share with you words of encouragement? Words that acknowledge that we are living in hard times? Perhaps. Yet, you know your work and it is in these times when your work is most essential.
Should I share words of comfort? Words that inspire you as you minister to and serve your communities through these times. A call to us all to deepen the bonds of solitary that co-join us as a faith community as we wait expectantly for the hope of calm after the storm.
Or should I share with you the honest words lodged deep within me, and invite you to sit still for a while with the grief of this moment? The grief of these times is not experienced equally by all, but it is ours to sit with. Honestly, today, this is the only place from where I can speak—from a space of grieving.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his eulogy of Rev. James Reeb, urged us to ask and name not only the who did the killing but also the what of James Reeb. In his words, “When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.” In the deaths of Breonna, Ahmaud, George, and many others, we know the who and we also know the what, and yet we fall short again and again to widen the circle of responsibility. As a nation, we seem to continually fail to resist this evil; as a nation, we opt instead to ask communities of color to remain calm and hold on just a little longer. How long is long enough and who gets to decide? Rebecca Ann Parker reminds us that “resisting evil is not about personal escape from guilt, sin, or punishment. It is about ending the harm that evil perpetuates and creating justice and abundance for all.” This evil is more than personal, it is systemic, and it takes a systematic approach to dismantle it and end the harm perpetrated by systemic racism. Yet, ending the systemic evil begins in the heart.
I want to ask you the questions that W.E.B. Du Bois asked through the main character of his novel, The Ordeal of Mansart. But in light of the moments that we are facing, I want to ask these questions twice. First, I want to address the People of Color in our community. Then, to the white members of our community. My intent in doing this is not to foment division or to seed discord. Instead, I wish that each of us, from our social location, consider the range of possible answers these questions allow AND our potential reactions to those answers, as we discern our faithful responses as a faith community.
I want you to join me as Mansart ponders the following questions:
…how shall Integrity face Oppression?
What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception?
Decency in the face of Insult, Self-Defense before Blows?
How shall Desert and Accomplishment meet Despising, Detraction, and Lies?
What shall Virtue do to meet Brute Force?
There were so many answers, and so contradictory; and such differences for those, on the one hand, who meet questions similar to this, once a year, or once a decade, and those who face them hourly and daily.
Now, to the white members of the audience, I ask these same questions.
James Luther Adams, in “A Faith for the Free,” shared with us a story that happened in a congregation in which congregants challenged their minister’s position that the church must stand fully committed to racial justice. For members of this congregation, “if the church was to remain a free fellowship, these different ideas about race discrimination should be given equal respect. Otherwise, freedom of faith would be violated!” James Luther Adams surmised that what was really happening here was that they “repudiated the ‘faith for the free’ by trying to conceal injustice behind simulated ethical neutrality.” There is no equal respect to be found amongst differences of opinions in which issues of justice are involved. Racism does not deserve a place at the table of justice and advocating its voice and place at the table, is simulated ethical neutrality. This kind of simulated ethical neutrality spells danger to many members in our faith communities and our nation. It spells danger to many that we love and love us back in return. This simulated ethical neutrality puts my life, and others like me, who serve and lead among us in danger. “The faith of free persons,” James Luther Adams conclude, “must tangibly make them free in a community of human dignity and equal justice.” This is central to our responsible search for truth and the meaning of a beloved community, a community marked by equal dignity and equal justice.
If we are ready to truly be “the faith of free persons” and if we are truly committed to resourcing our mutual survive, then we must be ready to change our hearts so that we can widen our circle of responsibility to change our systems. It is only when we open our hearts, that we might allow the true answers to Du Bois’ questions arise and help us find the way to become the faith community James Luther Adam hoped us to be—a community of “human dignity and equal justice.”
May it be so...
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Eulogy for the Reverend James Reeb” https://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2015/03/martin-luther-king-jrs-eulogy-for-james-reeb.html
Rebecca Ann Parker, “Resisting Evil, Reverencing Life,” In A People so Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists. Ed. John Gibb Millspaugh. Skinner House 2010.
W.E. Du Bois, The Ordeal of Mansart. Mainstream Publishers, New York, 1957. (p. 275)
James Luther Adams, “A Faith for The Free,” in JLA: The Essential James Luther Adams, ed. George K. Beach, Unitarian Universalist Association. (1997)
Dr. Elías Ortega started his presidency in July 2019. He is an interdisciplinary scholar, educator, and a UU lay leader. He currently serves the larger Unitarian Universalist movement as a member of the UUA’s Commission on Institutional Change.Read more about Dr. Ortega