February 22, 2016~Black Theology, Non-Violence & Socia Transformation

~Sermon by Art McDonald


Reflecting upon the life and death of Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, I thought to myself, gee, here’s a guy I don’t share many perspectives with or could easily find common ground until I heard a quote from him that went something like: “A man who has made no enemies is probably not a very good man.” I suddenly resonate with that a bit because after having written one of my occasional columns for the clergy musings section of the Gloucester times, this one about approaching the religion of Islam with an open heart and mind, I received at least 3 disparaging e-mail comments, the worst of which read like this: “It is very hard to comment on such soporific stupidity. (Despite the difficulty he goes on!) So you read about Islam. Did you get to the bits where the Shia and Sunni kill each other? Or don’t they read the same book. Maybe ask some of your Sunni mates what they think of your good friend the Sufi. Maybe ask all your good Muslim friends what they think of someone who leaves Islam; or if their daughter wants to marry a Christian. You won’t ask those questions because you don’t want to know about the nasty stuff. You talk about ‘honesty’ but you will never ask the questions that matter. Do you honestly think it is about the number of times something is said that gives it importance? You are a fool; you live in a fool’s paradise while the rest of the world is burning. Your Muslim ‘friends’ treat you like the idiot you are. You are their pet. You purr and put out tripe like this article. Muslim anger over Iran –you moron- they are Shia, nothing to do with the “Jihadis.”

A few weeks before making this enemy, I, with several members of this congregation, attended the annual Martin Luther King, jr. march and service at the UU Rockport church and I was interviewed by a Gloucester Times reporter about ECCO and the Black Lives Matter movement. Those words led to a vitriolic and accusatory phone call from a Gloucester resident who was outraged that I was bringing this movement to our community where we live in racial harmony and have no issues around racism; how dare I try to stir up controversy and trouble. The tirade, a monologue, lasted about 5-6 minutes. I chose not to respond other than to acknowledge that I heard the anger and disagreement. At least, I thought, I’ve passed part of the Scalia litmus test for being a decent human being; I’ve got enemies.

I couldn’t point to first-hand, specific examples of racial or ethnic harassment on Cape Ann to offer to the caller, but I continue to be amazed at how many examples there are in so many communities across the country. Locally, the town of Brookline is in the news as two policemen of color have accused other officers of systematic and ongoing racism, and a diversity commission in the town reports the problem is widespread in the community. Similar charges have been made at the oldest public school in America, Boston Latin, by minority students. And in a particularly painful case for me, my alma mater, little old Providence College in RI is in the midst of a major upheaval over charges of ongoing racism both by students and faculty leading to a set of demands for change and a sit-in in the office of the college President. One Black Professor, a department chair, said in her 8 years at the college she had been racially-profiled approximately 10 times – college security stopping her on campus and asking what is she doing and why is she here as she heads to her campus office.

And, despite the suggestion that with the election of Barack Obama to the White House, we are clearly in a post-racial society, 3 prominent African American leaders in Boston, one a professor at Berkeley School of Music, one a minister, one an official with the ACLU, all suggest that too many in the country, including elected leaders, still can’t get used to the idea of a person who looks like Obama leading our nation. Maybe they are wrong but that’s their perception and experience. We still can’t think straight about race or ethnic diversity, it seems. One of my UU ministerial colleagues, an African American from West Virginia, who came to this church for my installation 12 years ago, says to me over and over, “Art, I don’t understand racism!” Maybe that’s why we, sadly, need to keep celebrating Black History Month every February, even though some want to rename it “Ethnic Equality Month.” And maybe that’s why we need a movement called “Black Lives Matter” even though many want to rename it “All Lives Matter.” And part of this ongoing celebration is raising up the great contributions of persons of color to our history, past and current.

This past Wednesday, Debbie Frontierro, Tudy and I, along with many ECCO friends and folks from other organizations, 150 people in all, held a public demonstration at the offices of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in Burlington, MA., to protest current ICE policies, especially in Essex County, to conduct raids in the homes of suspected undocumented immigrants, and the subsequent breaking up families and separating parents from children, for the purpose of deportation. As part of our rally a group of parents and their children sat in front of the doors of ICE in a symbolic act of civil disobedience, risking the potential for arrest and the separation of parents from children. That didn’t happen, as the police were very tolerant and accepted that we were planning no violence, only making a statement. After the event I spoke with one of the parents and she talked about the conversation with her daughter, 9 year-old Isabella, leading up to the action, and whether or not Isabella really wanted to do this and take a risk of being separated. She did, explaining that she had read about Rosa Parks in school and was inspired by Rosa’s courage in refusing to get up from her seat in the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954. She wanted to be like Rosa Parks. The mother was proud. They held hands and prayed and sang during the sit-in. They also rejoiced afterwards that they were not arrested!

One of the great legacies of the Civil Rights’ movement in the middle part of the last century is the non-violent resistance to injustice and the courageous acts of civil disobedience that served as the linchpins of this great social movement for transformation of our country. There are many great figures, women and men, who spearheaded this movement inspired by Jesus and, more recently Thoreau and Gandhi and Dorothy Day, people like Rosa Parks and King and Nelson Mandela and others, but one who is much less well known yet deeply influential, especially to Dr. King, the great spiritual mystic, teacher and pastor, Howard Thurman. Thurman, a prolific preacher and writer, once wrote about the practice of non-violence in an article entitled: “Reconciliation.” Particularly in a time in which it seems that the only way to counter violence is with more powerful violence in response, Thurman’s perspective is so inspiring and necessary. Thurman begins his reflections by stating that we must respond to all of our “ruptured relationships” and “disharmony within oneself created by inner conflict,” by choosing the principle of “community” over the principle of “conquest.” “The concern for reconciliation,” writes Thurman, “…finds expression in the simple human desire to understand others and to be understood by others. These are the building blocks of the society of persons, the precious ingredients without which our lives are a nightmare and the future of life on the planet doomed. Everyone wants to be cared for … (and) the need to be cared for is essential to the furtherance and maintenance of life in health.”

And a key aspect of reconciliation, Thurman continues, is that of the practice in our lives of “ … non-violence, that is, a response to a violent act, directed toward oneself in the first place, in a manner that meets the need of the individual to be cared for, to be understood, rather than the apparent nature of the act itself.” We do this by keeping an open heart towards the other person – this becomes the alternative, the third option, in a situation of conflict to the typical instincts to either fight or flee! For Thurman, non-violence is clearly a spiritual practice; it takes practice, commitment and perseverance. It is a practice “… whose purpose is to open the door of the heart so that what another is feeling and experiencing can find its way within.” What an enormous and difficult spiritual undertaking this is!

Reflecting upon the Civil Rights’ movement Thurman related the story of a Black student who participated in one of the early sit-ins at a lunch counter in the South. When she was told to leave by an undercover policeman, she refused. The officer grabbed her by the wrist and pushed her up against the wall. The young student relates that she had never encountered violence first hand like this, though she was told about the possibility during non-violence training. Initially, she experienced a sense of “stark panic.” Panic turned to anger and violent feelings towards the officer. But something stopped her. She stared at him until she felt his fear and sensed his own anguish. She thought how desperate he must feel. Suddenly she felt a certain calm, a peace which allowed her to suffer this violence, knowing she could absorb it and not retaliate.

Reconciliation, writes Thurman, begins with one’s own spirit. And, he goes on, this spirit of reconciliation “… heals our inner breaches by confirming the need to be cared for, to be held, honored in one’s own life and the lives of others. Courage, strength and a new wholeness flows from this spirit. Though I don’t understand how this occurs,” writes Thurman, (I know that it is) “ … possible to the spirit of human persons.” For Thurman, reconciliation and the practice of non-violence flow from “… the discipline of religious experience … where the person has a sense of being touched at her inmost center, at the very core … i.e., her true self.” Here, reconciliation and love become one, where we feel understood and cared for as we seek to understand and care for others. It takes imagination in which “… one person, standing on his own ground, is able while there to put himself in another person’s place.  “… to establish a point of focus in another’s spirit, and from that vantage point so to blend with the other’s landscape that what he sees and feels is authentic – this is the great adventure in human relations.”

Wow! What a challenge. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this. However, when on the phone with a ranting person a few weeks back, full of anger and aggression, I tried very hard to feel her pain. She clearly loved her community and thought I was here to screw that up. I didn’t respond in kind even if I couldn’t totally enter her world of upset and fear. A first step, I suppose Thurman might say. I believe that anger and upset and violence aimed at any one of us might be motivated by fear, an emotion so important to keep in mind when we are feeling threatened. In the many violent and often deadly confrontations that have happened between police and all too often young black males, I want to remember not only the anger and fear of the victims but also the fear I am sure felt by police who often don’t know what they might be confronting.

Thurman concludes his reflection on reconciliation and the spiritual practice of non-violence by stating: “The experience of love is either a necessity or a luxury. If it be a luxury, it is expendable; if it be a necessity, then to deny it is to perish. So simple is the reality, and so terrifying. Ultimately there is only one place of refuge on this planet for any person – that is in another person’s heart. To love is to make of one’s heart a swinging door.”

The other day at the demonstration and sit-in in Burlington at the office of ICE, I, too, like the young Rosa Parks, Isabella, and her mother and the other parents and children, were relieved there were no arrests. Afterwards I approached the policemen and greeted them and offered my thanks for the way they responded to our words and actions. They seemed grateful for the respect. I imagined they had no interest in arresting children and their parents. We made our point, the press reported the message. We keep working and hoping for change; change of hearts, change of policies; swinging doors, not impenetrable walls.

And I am so grateful for the witness and legacy of the Civil Rights’ movement and how the women and men leaders showed us a way to work for transformation, a loving, non-violent way. And I remain hopeful. Like my friend Don Robinson, a man of love whom we call “hugs,” I don’t understand racism, either in its overt forms or more subtle variations. Some years back I was teaching at Pittsburgh Seminary to a group of ministers whom I had never met and I assigned a book entitled: BLACK FAITH AND PUBLIC THEOLOGY. Upon arriving in class that first day, I could tell there was some shock or surprise on their faces and I asked about it. One minister confided in me that they all presumed I was black; why else would a professor assign a book on Black theology? What could a group of Anglo pastors learn from such; how would it apply to them?! Of course I took delight in responding to him that I was in fact black – some of you might remember the movie “Commitments” about an Irish band who sang the lyrics: “They say the Irish are the blacks of Europe, so say it loud, we’re black and we’re proud!” He got a minor chuckle out of that.

Despite the various stories of more examples of ethnic and racial tensions in Boston, and Brookline and Providence, and all throughout our country, I am not discouraged because all of these acts of resistance, it seems to me, suggest we are making progress, i.e., there is enough awareness and support and courage for people to stand up and sit down, and the real possibility of change, whereas a few decades ago I think so many suffered such indignities in silence. Now change seems actually possible. And I choose to be part of this historical moment as an ally in any way I am able. And as I do I will continually give thanks for the legacy of Black Theology and the spiritual insights of giants like Howard Thurman, whose courage and conviction inspire me to try to understand even my enemies who think of me as a “fool,” a “moron,” just another clueless simpleton trying to be politically correct. Guilty as charged, I suppose. But I’m in good company, even if he might not be so happy about one of his enemies having enemies as well. Doesn’t the saying go that the enemy of my enemies is my friend? May Antonin Scalia rest in peace; I hope he’s having a good laugh on this one.