Silence = Death

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson on October 15, 2017

One of the blessings of community, whether a family or a church, a neighborhood, a city, or a nation, is that you end up being thrown together with people you might not otherwise come into contact with. You find yourself with people who are different, whom you didn’t get to choose, and this can stretch your ideas of what is good and acceptable and true.

It’s our human nature to seek out those who are similar. To join in groups of people who look and act alike, because it feels comfortable and safe. We forget the greater truth, that the wonder and genius of creation is in its diversity. In the holy Qu’ran Allah says, “O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” Remember the creation story in Genesis, which says we are created in the image of God? Aren’t we compelled to see the diversity in our human family as blessing, and not as curse?

There’s a new energy stirring in our denomination. It started last spring, when people of color in our faith pointed out the uncomfortable truth that our structures and many of our practices are based on a culture of white supremacy. At General Assembly in New Orleans in June, I was moved to hear my colleagues of color talk about how hard it can be to serve in our churches, where most folks are unaware of how white-centered our culture is. The group Black Lives of UU has challenged us to do our own work, to look at how we participate in a culture of white supremacy. To start to see it, so we can start changing it.

Do you remember when our country elected its first black president, and some people said we’d become a “post racial” society? They said, “Racism is behind us.” But I think they were folks who just didn’t want to see any systemic change. The events of the past few years—so many unarmed black men killed by police, who are never convicted; the murder of black church members and their pastor by a white supremacist in Charleston; the hatred and violence his summer in Charlottesville, and the fact that our president said there were “fine people” among those neo-Nazis and white supremacists—and we could name more. Isn’t it painfully clear that our country has a race problem it has never adequately dealt with? Hasn’t the ugly rhetoric of the last year, the way our current president talks about “real Americans,” as if some of us don’t qualify, made it obvious that there’s something broken in our social contract?

It’s easy to be distressed, these days, by all that is broken. The temptation is to tune out, in order to manage your own worry and anxiety, or to fall into despair. And while I encourage you to do everything you can to care for your own soul, we can’t afford for people of faith and good will to tune out right now. Too much is at stake. 

It’s obvious, isn’t it, that we live in a country that is based on white supremacy? It's baked into our history, almost from the start. My middle name comes from a man who fought for the Confederacy, who later become an Army chaplain and minister. I can believe he was a good man, and still tell the truth that he fought in a war to preserve slavery; that he was on the wrong side. But before any of us New Englanders, native or adopted, feel too smug about our own moral superiority, let’s remember that slavery existed here too. Let’s remember the riots in South Boston when schools were integrated in the 1970s. When I return home to the South, I’m reminded that they are more integrated than we are here. We all have our work to do. 

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know how much is broken. But do you see the potential in this moment? It’s like the bandages over the sores of injustice in our land have been torn off, and we are forced to look at things as they are, rather than as we thought they were, or wished they might be. 

Last spring we hosted a meeting here, people from faith communities across the Merrimack Valley working to form a Sanctuary movement. At that meeting, the president of Temple Emmanu-El here in Haverhill said that Jews have always understood there is a percentage of people in every land, including this one, that oppose them. “That truth is just more obvious now,” he said. “But we know those people are always there.”

These days, I am actually feeling more hopeful for our nation and for our UU faith. Because the blinders have been taken from our eyes, and we can no longer take comfort in our noble words about being a nation of equal opportunity, or in our assertion of being a faith where all are welcome. Because we know that, on the ground, we don’t always act like everyone has equal worth and dignity, and as much as we might wish otherwise, our structures and customs do not make a space where all are welcome. We have work to do. 

And this is where we begin—by admitting that there’s a problem. Lots of them, actually! Admitting what people at the margins have always known, but what those with more privilege and power, and that includes most of us here, have too often been blind to the ways life is unjust, is easier for some and harder for others. As the black poet Langston Hughes wrote, “America never was America to me.”

One of the communities that is giving me hope these days is, surprisingly, the National Football League. Not exactly a bastion of liberation, the NFL is more like the American empire’s Roman circus, a monument to capitalism and militarism and conformity. But against this “rah-rah USA”  backdrop, a year ago Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem, to silently protest the killing of unarmed black men by police. After a conversation with Nate Boyer, who served in the Army as a Green Beret, Kaepernick started taking a knee during the national anthem, which Boyer suggested would be a more reverential posture (see the story online here).

Colin Kaeperinck isn’t playing in the NFL this season—no one offered him a job. But the protests continue. And they got a boost when, a few weeks ago, our president entered the fray, using profanity against protesting players, saying that they should be fired. Last Sunday, President Trump dispatched Vice President Pence to attend the game in Indianapolis. Pence abruptly left when he was shocked, shocked to see that players were taking a knee during the national anthem; in his words, “disrespecting our soldiers, our flag, or our national anthem.” But hasn’t it been clear all along that this protest is about racism and violence against people of color?

One of the players on the field, 49ers safety Eric Reid, offered a cogent analysis of the Vice President’s actions. He said,  “This looks like a PR stunt to me. He knew our team has had the most players protest. He knew that we were probably going to do it again. This is what systemic oppression looks like. A man with power comes to the game, tweets a couple things out and leaves the game in an attempt to thwart our efforts.”

When players in the NFL start offering thoughtful analysis of systemic oppression, the kingdom is at hand, as Jesus would say! Or as Paul Simon put it, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls,” they are spoken in locker rooms and by hip hop artists and by people of faith, like you.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow reminds what the Hebrew story of liberation, the Passover narrative, says: "In every generation, one rises up against us to destroy us.” In every generation, Pharaoh. And— "In every generation, all human beings are obligated to look upon themselves as if they, we, not our forebears only, go forth from slavery.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said we start to die when we refuse to stand up for what is right. In words that are just as true today, he said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Back in the early days of the AIDS crisis, when the President wouldn’t even say the word “AIDS,” a small group of activists created a poster with a pink triangle and the words, “Silence = Death.” They knew the silence must be broken—it was a matter of survival. 

These days, you could rightly think that things are bad; that our social fabric is unraveling. You could be tempted to withdraw into enclaves of supposed safety. But that would be the worse thing to do. Because our faith and the wider community and our nation need your voice and your hands right now. None of us can do everything, but we can do something. 

So take responsibility for your own learning. Read Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stevenson. Seek ways to be with those who are different: be part of our effort to support Sanctuary in the Merrimack Valley, help out at Community Meals. Talk to your friends, and to your family members, even those who think things are just fine right now.

Could it be that the current unraveling is not the end, but the beginning of a new birth of freedom? That right now, when it is no longer possible to pretend that everything is OK, that right now is just the time to give our voices and hands to the struggle for justice? That the pains we are feeling right now are not the death knell, but rather, the birth pangs of a new era of liberty and justice, that needs our help in order to come to birth.

The Skih activist and lawyer Valerie Kaur, in words that you really should hear her speak, (and here’s the link), addresses our present troubles this way. She says,

“Yes, the future is dark.. I close my eyes and I see the darkness of my grandfather’s cell (he was imprisoned because of his religion and the color of his skin.) And I can feel the spirit of ever rising optimism… within him.

“So the mother in me asks what if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ears ‘You are brave’? What if this is our nation’s greatest transition?

“What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t push we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor in love, through love, and your revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.”

My spiritual companions, we start to die when we are silent about things that matter. So let us lift our voices, and use our strength, to hasten the coming of that day, and that is coming, when all of us, all of us, shall be free.