“Stop and Smell the . . .”
Sometimes I get my news in lighter ways by calling up the late-night comics and listening to their monologues and interviews. Comedians have long been some of the most observant of social commentators. I came of age in the era of George Carlin and the original ‘Not Ready for Primetime Players.”. You likely have your own memories from whatever decade your social awareness was sparked. These days I am inclined to catch up with the likes of Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers, John Oliver and the current SNL cast of characters. They have a way of directing us to the uncomfortable side of our reality that gets the point across without the harsh abruptness of the nightly news. They state the obvious most of the time, whether we want to accept it or not. And I must admit that they are biased more so in these times than they may have been in the past. Or perhaps our dividedness is just clearer right now, making is seem to be the case. We are not of an age in my house where waiting up until 11:30 p.m. for these enlightening moments is even a possibility. We are thankful that technology allows us to rebroadcast almost anything we want to see or hear about! So there we were on a summer evening watching one of the latest “Late Show” offerings with Colbert and he had as a guest Jon Stewart, another voice crying out in the wilderness, and they were discussing the present state of affairs. It was around the time of George Floyd’s murder and the protest gatherings of thousands upon thousands of folks of all colors and from all walks of life. And they were talking about this phenomenon that was occurring in the streets all around us; and this in the middle of a frightening pandemic that had us all sheltered in place. And Colbert asked Stewart what he thought about what was happening. He hesitated as he began to think aloud about it – about the sea of people, young and old, at risk and not, many of them not people of color, but instead white folks who had suddenly awakened from their slumber. And he said in his wry way that because we were in so many ways shut down – quieted – still – that we were enabled to “Stop – and smell the . . . – he paused here for s second or two – certain and uncertain both about his next word, but then he just stated it – “Stop – and smell the racism,” he said. We have known it was there for so long now and yet, it would seem it took this level of silence in our days to allow us to see deeply enough that we would be spurred into action. It is not the first time, of course. The recent deaths of John Lewis and our own Gene Pickett, among others, call to mind the civil rights era and the uprisings that included people of all colors and religious affiliations. Then, like now, the blatant racism had reached a boiling point and was spilling over the top of the pot in ways we could not ignore. But our lives have become only more involved and hectic and busy in our will to do – do – do, avoiding the mysterious call to simply ‘be’ in our living, whereby we might actually notice what was going on around us. Our view of the circumstances has been widened once again, as if we have donned a new prescription, our lens provides clarity that was missing with the older outdated one. I am making my way slowly through the book, “Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements” by Charlene A. Carruthers. She calls for a new lens for our times – actually an old lens that she believes can be reapplied to the larger movement of 2 liberation as we face it today. It is grounded in a revisioning of the power and use of identity politics because, as she says, “No one experiences the world through a single identity,” a spinoff of Audre Lorde’s “wise declaration that ‘there is no thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.’” She seeks to connect our causes to our values and to the real lived experiences of our lives – all our lives with their unique combinations of intersectionality and those which provide an umbrella for our interconnected living. We need to do some unlearning; reprioritizing; collaborating; recognizing that our work toward justice is “only as strong as the people with whom we work” and that we can only advance transformative change as far as our connectedness with people creates the possibility for it to happen. Carruthers is unapologetic about her stance because it is a frame of reference that she has seen work in other movements, and in this one, if we take the time to get our history straight. There is a movement afoot in our Unitarian Universalist tradition that asks us to do some of this work as well; to re-center from the margins and to take into consideration what we stand for and to inquire if it truly covers all of what we affirm and promote. Back in 2017, Paula Cole Jones, an African American independent consultant specializing in multicultural competencies and institutional change, suggested that the idea of Beloved Community and a more intentional movement toward it, was missing from our UU Principles and Purposes. To me, it seems like it is there in an understated way that is very careful not to offend the masses – the primarily white, Euro-American masses who inhabit our pews and serve in leadership roles. If you take the intent of our various Principles – the inherent worth and dignity of all of humanity; justice, equity and compassion; the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; the interdependent nature of our existence – all of these combined do add up to Beloved Community in the long run. The problem is that it has been a long run. Our Principles as we see them today, were adopted in 1985 at our annual meeting of the General Assembly with the addition of the seventh Principle in 1995. It has been thirty-five years and, in my opinion, if we were going to center Beloved Community as a result of these seven ambitious goals, we would have done it by now. The problem runs deeper than we might have wanted to admit at the outset. But now, as we have quieted our minds and widened our lens, we can see that the larger issue of white supremacy culture has cast an overarching pall on our ability to incorporate real change in our systems. As a larger faith our commitment has waxed and waned with regard to anti-racism work and there is a call to more accountably put ourselves into such an effort. The Eighth Principle was proposed that year at GA. It reads, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” This Principle is a call to action that is explicit in its intention and goal with the result of fulfilling the potential of our existing Principles. It is about personal change, organizational change at the church level, institutional change at the Association level and systemic change on a national level. It was a deep multiculturalism that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached; one that goes beneath the surface things we say and do and roots out racism and its associated inequities across all of our systems. 3 As we view our world through these new lenses, we can better see the ills we have before us. Mass incarceration, largely of people of color, economic disparity, violence perpetrated against, once again, black and brown bodies in our streets, attacks on civil liberties and voting rights in some parts of our nation, unequal access to health care – all of this is commonplace and it would seem that we are somehow desensitized to it – until more recently at least when we woke up again and said, “Enough!” Systemic change is not easy. None of our Principles are easy! And perhaps we need this mechanism of accountability to move us closer to Beloved Community. And you may be sitting there saying, “But what can I do? I am not racist,” and “I don’t behave in racist ways.” There is a thought that I have seen in my study that there is a difference between not being racist and being anti-racist. And there was a time not that many years ago when I subscribed to the former, thinking it sufficient, but I can see now that I was wrong. It is about an active orientation; about taking a stand, taking something apart in order to create the world we hope for; making a difference every day in small and larger ways. It is about checking myself against what black, indigenous and people of color persons say is needed for a shift to occur and aligning my habits and pursuits with those needs. It is about going deep, even if it is personally painful or difficult, because it has been both of those things for the marginalized for far too long. Someone asked me if I would be doing a sermon on my experience of General Assembly this summer and, had a group of us attended, I likely would have arranged a shared service. Instead, being the lone wolf, I have returned to you all with a new prescription in my lenses! My promise to myself and my faith was that I would bring the messages of GA to the fore as many times and in as many ways as I could because they are that important to our nation and its culture; that necessary if we are to ever reach the Beloved Community we all claim to want in our midst; that vital to our faith tradition if it is to remain the valuable force that it has the possibility of being in our world. In a week or so, we will convene a “Social Justice Committee Revival” meeting which I sent out an invitation to this past week. If seeking justice is important to you and if you want to take an active role in it as a member or friend of this Meeting House, you are welcome to attend. Whatever we decide to work on in the coming months, I urge us to think about the work of anti-racism; to be willing to explore what that means for each of us; what it looks like in a small town on Cape Cod; how we can access the tools we need to do this well; how the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House can be influential in its reach in this community and area of the state. May we, in this time of quiet, reflection and fresh lenses awaken to the call of our faith tradition using the present circumstance as an opportunity for preparation to plan boldly for the work that is ours to do as the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Chatham – a piece of why this congregation must exist in the world. So may it be and Amen.