“Let Freedom Ring”
Photo by Rev. Jessica Clay.
A month or so ago when I first began to conceive of what my July sermons might contain, I thought about freedom given the holiday weekend. I thought I might explore the meaning of that in light of so much talk about individual freedoms – freedom from what, freedom to what, freedom for what? And perhaps I will wind my way back around to that as I write, but suffice it to say that in the intervening time life has happened and calls me to respond. My focus has shifted or has been honed, would be the more apt description.
I come before you today grieving and angry, emotions you may well have experienced in the past week, and I am sure there are others. Shout them out if you wish. There is power in naming. I come before you grieving the loss of something so basic as the freedom to choose what happens to one’s own body. Angry that in a country that espouses freedom in its founding documents – equity, justice, liberty, peace, human dignity – and these for the good of the whole, that in a country so situated we would be facing such an egregious trampling of civil and human rights. Angry at the far right whom I might have expected would move in this direction, but angry at our own progressive selves for our complacency in believing that the fight was over, and we were home free.
I was sixteen years old when Roe v. Wade was first decided and so for all of my adult life I have known choice. I know it was won at a price having taken a deep dive in the pursuit of a Women’s and Gender Studies degree. But there it always was for me. There for me not quite two years later when I was faced with the choice to carry a pregnancy to term or not. And out of my naivete I chose to go forward, but CHOSE to go forward. I look back on that decision now and wonder what my adolescent brain might have been thinking, so unaware of the complexities of life that would ensue. And I have a beautiful daughter, the love of my life, and I am grateful for that as much as I am horrified at the world now in place for her. And my journey has given me a sense of the truth that these freedoms we espouse are now and have always been freedoms for a select segment of our society, freedoms to choose reserved for those whose color and class permit their exercise. I am grateful for the experiences that have given me this connection to those whose freedom was never ensured, even while my own color and class of origin are likely what saved me from worse ends.
I talked to you earlier this spring about reproductive justice and about our Unitarian Universalist faith as being aligned with this concept and it bears repeating. Just to be clear, it is the belief that every person has the right – the freedom – to have the children they want to have, to not have the children they don’t want to have, to raise their children in safe and healthy environments and to express their sexuality without oppression. It is a human rights-based stance as opposed to the choice argument. Our UUA 2015 Statement of Conscience affirmed our congregational support of reproductive justice for all. The justice framework broadens the scope of advocacy for women, making it more inclusive. It argues that the choice framework doesn’t begin to answer the reproductive oppressions that affect the choices that women of color have faced in their lifetimes – things like the sterilization of Native and other women, the lack of adequate sexuality education in marginalized neighborhoods, the deportation of immigrant mothers or the lack of legal rights afforded LGBTQ parents. The reproductive justice movement says that the government should have a central role in eliminating these inequalities, that because the needs of marginalized communities in the US – immigrants, people of color, the young and the poor and the disabled – are rarely addressed by our current political system, that changes in our overall cultural and political power structure are called for.
Marge Piercy’s words in our reading are sharp and cut to the chase as is her usual approach. The fact that our reading this morning was penned in 1980 and has proven itself prescient today, some 42 years hence, is chilling in my estimation. I read the dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale back when I was pursuing that degree I mentioned and found it a stunning warning then. Now, as we see the cavalcade of Supreme Court decisions in just the past week and hear about those planned for review in the coming months, I wonder how we could have been so sure of ourselves, how removed from the realities of life we have been in our safe conclaves of white, affluent privilege, so as to let this struggle fall by the wayside. I am angry at myself for letting that happen!
My time at General Assembly last week was full to the brim of talk about freedom – too much to be expressed today alone and so it will be woven into upcoming talks and sermons, but some thoughts that rise up for us this morning – the Rev. Mykal Slack, in their Berry Street Essay, said that we need to be willing to interrogate and disrupt the mythologies we hold about our culture and our faith in order to achieve broader freedoms. They said that Unitarian Universalism lives where people are actually living it. This idea of aspirational principles as opposed to something we are engaged in anathema to them, introducing the notion of accountability into the conversation. Not as a punishment, but as an opportunity.
Our freedom of belief is vital and rooted in the concept that revelation is not sealed; we are a people in process, part of a world in process. Our beliefs should challenge us while our faith should hold us accountable, I heard one speaker say. The Rev. Bill Sinkford, former UUA President and opening ceremonies speaker said that Unitarian Universalism has always been an identity crisis waiting to happen, is always happening, actually, as we wrestle with questions that are alive for us in our times, asking what needs to change and what abides. It was a new reflection on Theodore Parker’s famous sermon, The Transient and the Permanent. Look it up if you are not familiar with it! Doing church, then and now, is equivalent to discernment. The belief back then was that we were perfecting Christianity – love of God, of self and of neighbor. How does that look in practice today? How do we make our principles come alive in this present and awful moment? The Rev. Alicia Forde, Director of the UUA’s International Office, asked, “What would love do here?” citing author and activist, bell hooks, who wrote that all facets of our culture and society, “should and could have as their foundation a love ethic. The underlying values of a culture and its ethics shape and inform the way we speak and act. A love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well. To bring a love ethic to every dimension of our lives, our society would need to embrace change.”
Our Unitarian Universalist Association has been embracing change in its focus on incorporating anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural work into its organization and it has not been without controversy and push back, as noted by Rev. Sinkford who recalled our struggles in the 60’s with our commitment and then withdrawal of support for the Black Affairs Council, and our divisions over the Journey Toward Wholeness curriculum, saying that push back won then in both instances. What will we do differently this time? We here have done some of that work, too, have had some of those conversations. Our mission calls us to nurturing inclusion, to seek after justice and equity and to encourage free minds and spirits. The Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray, our Association President, called to us out of holy rage and heartbreak and welcoming our own similar responses, saying we need to ground ourselves in our faith and to be unapologetic in our efforts to leave no one behind, saying that it will take courage and collaboration.
This recent decision in Roe sends the question of reproductive justice back to individual states and some say that is where it belongs. Our founding documents talked about our Union, our oneness as a nation. This decision pits states against one another, pits people against one another, does nothing to further the unity we believe in which affords to all of humanity the same opportunities and freedoms.
What are we to do, then, in this moment in time? If this decision is not a call to action for us, then I fear that we have succumbed to the complacency that angered me at the start this morning. But I believe that we here in Chatham are a people of conscience, a like-valued people who are not ready to lay it all down, give it all away, to relinquish the freedoms we hold dear and those we insist on for all people.
So much is at stake and so much is happening so quickly that it is hard sometimes to know what to do next, how to figure out what love would do. For now, we know that there are states with upcoming votes that are pivotal in the fight for reproductive justice. This is not the time to say that here in Massachusetts we have these freedoms and don’t have to worry. That would be giving in to the divisive nature of the Roe reversal. The UUA’s Side With Love justice arm is offering us opportunities to live into the love and freedom we believe in. Grateful that we needn’t invent the wheel, I have signed up for a three-part webinar teaching series this month and next that will educate and provide tools for us to engage this work. It asks for teams and so I encourage you to sign up as well and let me know so that we can work together in collaboration with UU’s around the country in the coming months. There are points of entry at all levels of this work. It could be as simple as writing letters or if you are comfortable, making phone calls, all the way on up to door-to-door canvassing. There is a place for each of us and we each have the wisdom to decide what is possible for us as individuals. We here in Chatham can make a difference, a meaningful contribution to this work in a most critical time in our nation. A link to register for the webinars will be in this week’s eblast.
Rev. Susan has said from the start of her presidency that this is no time for a casual faith – AND – that we need not go it alone. Dear Ones, in times like this we can feel very alone as persons and as a faith tradition. It is in our coming together week after week, and in between, that we are strengthened for the struggle of justice making in our lives and world, strengthened in our pursuit of true inclusion and equity. We need one another in this moment in time. It is a blessing to be able to gather together, to grieve and to be angry, and to figure out what love would do. May we not forego this holy opportunity to become part of the turning of the tide. May we do so as persons and as a people grounded in love and service to the wider world.
May it be so. Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson