Business not as usual September 6, 2015
Some years ago, I read a wonderful book called Drinking the Rain. It was a memoir by the journalist and author Alix Kates Schulman about the summer she spent in a small, remote family cabin in rural Maine. She was fifty years old at the time, and had just been through an emotionally wrenching and bruising divorce, so she repaired to the cabin from her apartment in uptown New York as a way of escape. The cabin had no running water, no power, and was in the middle of nowhere. For the duration of the summer, she led a life of solitary simplicity, foraging for her food – berries, edible roots, fungi – fishing in the nearby pond, being very conscious of whatever waste she produced, and drinking the rain. Hence the title of the book. For the summer she was a modern day Thoreau, learning to strip life down to the basics, cleansing her spirit and her body of the emotional and physical toxins which had been poisoning her. She lost weight; her body became chiselled and strong and tanned, but more importantly, she discovered a spiritual resilience in herself that she thought she had forever lost in the devastations of her divorce.
When she returned to NYC at the end of the summer, she was determined to adhere to the regimen of exercise, healthy eating and simplicity which had been her salvation, but of course, she was seduced and distracted by life in the city. How could she drink the rain in her high rise apartment? How could she forage? Bit by bit she returned to her former less healthy habits of diet and indolence.
Most of us are seduced and distracted by life’s many temptations. We have our occasional moments of re-focusing, of re-committing, of renewing, we have our temporary enthusiasms, whether they be ill-considered New Year’s Even resolutions or responses to the crisis of the moment, but then we fall away. We move on. We forget to pay attention. As that can be true for diet, or exercise, or practising the ukulele, so it is often true for the attention we pay to the issues of the day. We are caught for a brief while by whatever is the cause of the moment, we are energised to take action, but then when it no longer dominates the headlines and the evening news and the twitter feeds, we lapse back into our accustomed indifference.
Just over a year ago, as I am sure you recall, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Witness accounts of what happened conflicted, but what was true is that Michael Brown was black, he was unarmed, he was shot several times, his body lay in the street for four hours before it was finally removed, and the officer who shot him was never charged. Indeed, he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from well-wishers across the country.
It is unclear why that particular killing attracted such national attention. The killing of unarmed black men and women by the police has been going on for years, but attract national attention it did, and it caused protests in Ferguson which were met with brute militarised force by the authorities. It was shortly followed by other such instances, of Eric Garner on Staten Island, killed by officers who used a choke hold on him, something expressly forbidden by the force’s own code of conduct. There were no doubts about the manner of his death, it was caught on camera and witnessed by the nation, and yet the officers responsible were never charged. So far this year, almost 600 people have been be killed by police in 2015, a hugely disproportionate number of them black, most unarmed. It continues to this day.
I think we can take some pride in what we have done here to be informed and concerned, in the whitest county in all of California, hardly on the ugly front line of the racial divide. We have tried to educate ourselves about institutional racism and how we are its privileged beneficiaries. We invited the Grass Valley Chief of Police to speak to us. We had two speakers, one black and one white, address us about racism at a Sunday service in April. But, I think it is true to say, as a congregation, we are not paying attention as once we were. We have been seduced and distracted by other things, good and worthy in themselves as those other things are.
Meanwhile, on the national stage, in response to this sustained assault upon their persons and their lives, there has arisen the Black Lives Matter campaign. Protests have continued. The first anniversary of Michael Brown’s death was observed with large demonstrations in Ferguson, with many of my Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues present. One of them, Rev. Terasa Cooley, a personal friend, wrote afterwards about her experience, and how frightened she was the whole time. How she, an educated, articulate white woman wearing a clerical collar, felt threatened and intimidated by the menacing police presence and the jeering white crowds. She always had the option of melting away. She could retreat, disown her witness. Others don’t have that option. They can’t change the colour of their skin.
I was in Minneapolis this past week, attending the Interim Ministers Training in a hotel adjacent to the Mall of America, that ultimate cathedral of consumerist excess. Not so long ago there was a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mall, with 3,000 people gathered, many of them Unitarian Universalists. Police were called. Even though the protest was entirely peaceful and short-lived, some were arrested on ridiculous, spurious charges by an aggressive police response. Why? Because, above all other values, it must be business as usual. Nothing, nothing, must interfere with the white man making his profit.
Black Lives Matter. How extraordinary it is that even the slogan should be controversial. Do they not matter? Some people say they don’t like the slogan because All lives matter. Well, of course, they do. As heirs to the Universalist tradition, how could we say otherwise? But saying Black Lives Matter is not saying Other Lives Do Not Matter. It is insisting that Black Lives Matter because for so long, for so many, they haven’t mattered. Black lives have been demonised, criminalised, marginalised, brutalised for centuries. White lives haven’t been. Where were those who counter, All Lives Matter, when no attention was being paid to the miserable plight of so many black lives? Is the need for us whites always to be at the centre of attention, always to dominate, so desperate, so pathological that we cannot allow the lives of anybody else, ever, to be lifted up, to be the focus?
I saw a cartoon recently which made the point perfectly. The caption was, All Houses Matter, and the drawing showed two houses, one on fire and the other not, and the fire brigade aiming their water hoses at the house not on fire. We whites are not suffering the indignities of institutionalised racist violence. Why do we demand still that our lives should receive all the concern?
At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly this past June, the Rev. Rob Hardies of Washington DC told how he discovered this faith in which he is now such a leading luminary. He had recently moved to Portland, Oregon, to start a new life for himself as a young twenty something who had just come out as gay, to himself and to the world, and who was feeling very unsure and unsafe. One day, walking the streets alone, he turned a corner and lo, there was the UU church wrapped in yellow ribbon. The whole church, declaring itself a Hate Free Zone at a time of virulent anti-gay hatred. He went inside, and heard a message that said, in effect, not that all lives mattered, some generic piece of pablum, but that HIS life mattered, HE mattered. He was gay, reviled by some, certainly by many churches, but HE mattered. It was a moment which certainly transformed his life. Perhaps, even saved it.
Many of our brother and sister UU congregations around the country have put up Black Lives Matter banners or signs outside their churches. Many of them, perhaps most of them, have had those banners or signs vandalised. Some have had them torn down, the word Black ripped out. Some have had graffiti written on them. The word All over Black in some cases. The word White over Black in others. No ambiguity about the racism there. Some have received threats over the phone. Remove the sign – or else! Our near neighbours, the UUs in Reno, have suffered this fate to their sign, but they are unbowed. As they have publicly stated, they will not allow themselves to be ruled by fear, they will be guided by faith, they will stand on the side of love. They replaced and rededicated their sign last Sunday, with an overflowing congregation standing firm, standing up, standing out, standing on the side of love.
I wonder. Might we erect a Black Lives Matter banner on our front lawn? We have our rainbow flag, telling the town that we gladly welcome gays and lesbians and all of the wonderful variations of human gender and sexual expression. There was a time when flying that rainbow flag invited ridicule, even violence. There was a time, I have no doubt, when there were those within this congregation who struggled with being so publily identified. Now, the law of the land recognises the right of same sex couples to equal marriage. We have come a long way, even in Rowan County, Kentucky. How many rainbow flags had to fly to help turn that particular tide of human hate and bigotry?
How many Black Lives Matter banners, marches, protests, speeches, demonstrations and interruptions to Business as Usual, will it take to turn this tide of ugly human hate and bigotry?
The necessary price that we, the privileged and the powerful, must occasionally pay so that others might have their share of life’s bounty is that we might have to endure some moments of discomfort, some temporary disruptions, some relinquishment of our entitlements, we might need to accept that it cannot just be business as usual. Did women win the vote because men voluntarily offered it? No, men had to be shamed into it. No social reform has ever happened without the discomfort and displeasure and disapproval of those who held the reins of power. Is it too much to ask that we should accept being made temporarily uncomfortable that others might live?
When I am challenged about my beliefs, my attitudes, my easy assumptions, my initial reaction is usually to resent the challenge. I don’t welcome it any more than I imagine you do. I resent being made uncomfortable. But it is through discomfort that growth comes, it is through confusion that clarity and enlightenment emerge, it is through pain that there is eventual healing.
I invite you to consider that we put up Black Lives Matter banner outside our church. I invite you to consider doing so, in the knowledge that if our experience is anything like that of our brothers and sisters in Reno and elsewhere, it will be stolen, vandalised, destroyed. I invite you to do so, knowing that we might have to put the sign back up, again and again and again.
I invite us not to accept business as usual. I invite us to be ruled by faith, not by fear. To stand on the side of love, not hate. I invite us to risk suffering a little, that the suffering of others might cease.