Bit by Bit
The Washington Post bills him as “the most influential writer in America.” George Will. This past month, he wrote a newspaper column in which he claimed that being a rape victim is now a “coveted status” that college women actually seek out, that complaints of rape and sexual assault on college campuses are exaggerated and overblown, and that women claiming to be raped are delusional.
It’s just like that yahoo Republican Maine state Representative Lawrence Lockman, who is reported to have said (and I quote) that “If a woman has [the right to an abortion], why shouldn’t a man be free to use his superior strength to force himself on a woman? At least the rapist’s pursuit of sexual freedom doesn’t [in most cases] result in anyone’s death.”
When you hear me say all this, what sound wants to rise up out of your lungs to be heard? What does your heart cry out?
“For the tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American kids flooding the United States border, their journeys toward a better life are ending up inside windowless detention centers.
Authorities along the US-Mexico border have been overwhelmed by the current wave of underage immigrants. Last month alone, 48,000 unaccompanied children arrived in the Rio Grande Valley. Many immigrants are driven on their 2,000 mile exodus through Mexico under the impression that the US does not deport minors. Among them are pregnant women and mothers with newborn infants who are trying to reunite with family members already in the US and also seek a better life for their children. Military bases are serving as ill-fitted camps for children the government doesn’t know what to do with yet. Conditions inside some of the camps have been described as horrific.” (From Alasdair Baverstock’s “Wave of Unaccompanied Central American Migrant Kids Overwhelms US Holding Facilities.”)
What does your heart cry out here?
A groan rising to your lips?
Does it make any difference to know that, until 1890, there was no national immigration system or agency in the US? How a passport was not required for entry until 1918, and even then it was only for identification. How most citizens who brag that their ancestors came here “the right hway” are making assumptions based on ignorance. How they assume that their ancestors “went through the process” and obtained visas, as people are required to do today. How, in fact, most of them came before the “process” existed—before the concept of “illegality” existed. How the first Mexicans in the US did not cross any border; rather, the border crossed them. How, until 1924, the new border between the US and Mexico was virtually unpoliced and migration flowed openly. (From Aviva Chomsky’s “10 Facts You Didn’t Know about Immigration and the Undocumented.”)
Does knowing any of this make a difference to the sound coming from your soul?
That sound, which is the sound of the caged bird…
Sound that, at the very least, comes from the sympathy of one heart with another in pain? Sympathy we can feel even if we’ve never personally been in one of those detention camps?
“Many of the slaves today are girls. Born in America. Hidden in plain view. They are the lost girls, standing around bus stops, hanging out by runaway youth shelters, or advertised online. At the Motel 8 or the Marriott, at McDonalds or the clubs. According to the FBI, there are currently an estimated 293,000 American children at risk of being exploited and trafficked for sex. They are girls like Jackie who ran away from an abusive home at 13 only to be found alone and hungry by a trafficker who promised to love her like a father/boyfriend/Prince Charming. He sold her to at least six different men every night. When she begged him for food or rest, he beat her.” (From Malika Saada Saar, the executive director of Rights4Girls, a U.S. based human rights organization for young women and girls.)
It’s as Maya Angelou says: But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams,
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied….
Did you know that Atlanta is one of the largest hubs for human trafficking in the country? And that tonight there will be 100 girls exploited in metro Atlanta?
But the caged bird sings
The caged bird howls
The caged bird rages
It is so hard to look into all this…. But like Dr. King once said, there are wounds inflicted on our souls when we look the other way. So we look…
And what we see are so many different cages, so many different situations:
Cages of sexism and misogyny
Cages of undocumentedness that is not at all a clean and tidy issue of legality but is wrapped up with racism and economic exploitation
Cages of slavery in raw, physical terms: emotional, spiritual, physical brutalization….
And it goes on and on
Cages of all shapes and sizes
Cage that today’s celebration of Juneteenth reminds us of: the historical slavery of a whole population of human beings, the long shadow of that….
Cage that is still there for our African American brothers and sisters, cage that persists in the various forms of systemic racism…. Some people think this “systemic racism” stuff is bunk because look at Oprah and look at President Obama…. But let’s also look at how 1 in 9 Black children has an incarcerated parent compared to 1 in 57 White children. Let’s also look at how a White man who has been to jail is still more likely to get a job that a Black man who hasn’t been to jail. (From Tiffanie Drayton and Joshua McCarther’s “18 Things White People Should Know/Do Before Discussing Racism.”)
Old cages, cages that continue on in transformed fashion…
All the different kinds of cages
And some of us can know them only at second-hand…
How, if you are a man, to possibly know what it is like to live in a world in which you can be walking down the street in the perfect light of day and a complete stranger comes and grabs at your breasts and then, when you protest, will blame you?
How, if you are straight, to possibly know the outrage that arises when someone blithely asks, When did you CHOOSE to be gay? which is as insane as asking a straight person, When did you CHOOSE to be straight, what was the exact moment of choice, what was it like?
How, if you are White, to possibly know the weariness and resentment that goes with constantly having to accommodate, accommodate, accommodate to the dominant White culture which is not your culture, your sense of aliveness, your taste in music and food and color and noise? And so the Latina writer Julia Alvarez finally gets to step out of invisibility and say, with great relief:
it’s my turn?
to oh say?
what I see,?
I’m going to sing America!?
singing our brown skin
into that white
and red and blue song
So, hit it maestro!?
give us that Latin beat,?
There are just so many dimensions to the human condition of the cage…
The more I look into it
The more the cages multiply
Until, for a single person, there can be many cages
Cage within a cage within a cage
On the outside: Structural prejudice that impacts entire social groups
But then within that, cages of interpersonal complexity, interpersonal hurts that can cause us to be our own worst enemies, can elicit in others exactly the sorts of things we are trying to escape
And then even deeper than that, cages of simple individual fear…
Here, I’m thinking about something comedian Jim Carrey said recently about his father. “So many of us chose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him. So, he made a conservative choice and instead he got a job as an accountant.”
But Jim Carrey goes on to say, “When I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job. Our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which is that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
How tragic, to step back from what you love, because of fear….
But despite all the complexity that can feel overwhelming
Despite the cage within the cage within the cage
We still sing….
The caged bird sings
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The universal longing is undaunted…
Somehow we know it—freedom—as our destiny even though it is but a promised land…
We can taste it and we can smell it
It has always been so
Down through the ages
Down through the ages we can hear the echo of his voice
“Let My People Go”
Moses commanding Pharoah to free the Hebrew slaves
And it happened
The slaves escaped the cage of Egypt
Yet there are cages within cages with cages
and his people still went through the motions of slavery, the habits had hardened,
so Moses led them through the wilderness for 40 years
40 years to get them to unlearn their inner slavery
but he still believed in freedom
The precious legacy of our Unitarian Universalism as well.
We like to tell the story of the Unitarian minister Dr. Norbert Capek, who,
serving in his native land of Czechoslovakia,
dared to preach about spiritual freedom
and how the differences among us make us beautiful
even though it was World War II
and the Nazis would kill you for being different.
Eventually, in June of 1942,
Norbert Capek was sent to the death camp in Dachau.
But the example of his life triumphed over his death.
He created the Flower Celebration and gave it to the world.
Everyone was asked to bring a flower which represented their uniqueness, the flowers were put in a common bouquet to represent the community of unique, wonderful individuals, and then everyone was asked to take a flower home with them as a gift of love from a fellow congregant.
Unitarian Universalists have been observing this celebration ever since.
It is because we are a freedom people….
We are gathered on the basis of the promise that Love is where we all come from, and Love is where we’re all going.
No one deserves to be left out of Love.
No matter how caged we might feel, we still sing…
We sing for others, and we sing for ourselves…
And I know in this postmodern age
where people are very casual about their talk about values
and they like to say it’s all relative
they like to say I have my truth and you have your truth
it can be confusing to stand up for freedom and call it a universal value
a trump card, if you will, that wins every time.
But here’s how I see it:
there’s a difference between casual relativism and committed relativism.
That’s how I’m defining terms: casual vs. committed.
Casual relativism sounds good because it says that there’s not just one way up the mountain,
there’s not just one way to be beautiful
there’s not just one way to be good
but in the end it turns out to be another cage—a mental kind, if you will—
because it goes on to do something utterly unreasonable and unhelpful:
it doesn’t allow you to say that some ways of life are better than others.
It throws the baby out with the bathwater.
It gives no moral guidance whatsoever.
Committed relativism, on the other hand, says keep that baby.
Yes, diversity is good, yes there’s not just one way up the mountain,
yes there’s not just one way to be beautiful and good,
but it also insists that amid all the possible diversity out there,
some actions and some habits are undeniably unhealthy and should be avoided.
Some things are hurtful and we shouldn’t allow for them.
For example, think about all the foods out there in the world:
And on and on.
Diversity, which is all good.
Not one way up the mountain of taste, at all.
But even so, you still don’t want to eat anything poisonous.
Anything does NOT go.
Stay away from what’s poisonous.
And you probably want to stay away from what’s not nutritious, or unhealthy.
Like foods containing trans fats, or high fructose corn syrup, or excess cholesterol.
We are all committed relativists in our eating.
So why not in the realm of moral values?
THIS is where the insight regarding freedom clicks in.
So many forms of freedom.
Says Maya Angelou,
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
For each of us, what this looks like is precious and unique and a key reason why Unitarian Universalism refuses to be a one-size-fits-all religious way…
But even so, as Unitarian Universalists we can also say,
It is better to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person than not to;
It is better to affirm justice, equity and compassion in human relations than not to;
It is better to affirm acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations than not to;
It is better to affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning than not to;
It is better to affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large than not to;
It is better to affirm the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, than not to;
It is better to affirm respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part than not to.
It is from the perspective of committed relativism that I say all this, with complete rational coherence:
Societies that fight to break down the cages of sexism and misogyny are better than ones which don’t.
Societies which fight the reality of undocumentedness are better than those which allow it to create untold human misery.
Societies which track down and eradicate every cage of real, embodied slavery (like sex slavery) are far better than ones which allow this to exist.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
This is why we sing for others, and we sing for ourselves.
We want every bird to name the sky his or her own.
No one left out of Love.
This is the ambitious work we call ourselves to as a congregation of Unitarian Universalists,
as people who are each within a cage within a cage within a cage…
It is complex work, and as the final part of my message today I want to support it by adding two vocabulary terms to our community lexicon of freedom-seeking.
There are many other terms to add, of course, but one step at a time.
First term: “racial microaggression.”
This term was first coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce, MD, in the 1970s, to name the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated and who would be horrified if they really knew how they were coming across. For example:
“When I look at you, I don’t see color.” Or:
“America is a melting pot.” Or:
“There is only one race, the human race.”
Here, the messages deny a person of color’s racial/ ethnic experiences and also assume that they should assimilate to the dominant culture, they should get with the program already in place, get in line and shut up.
Or these microaggressions:
“You don’t act like a normal Black person, you know…”
“You should have the role of Dora the Explorer in our high school skit!” (said to the girl in the class who happens to be Mexican)
“So, like, what are you?”
“No, you’re white!”
So often, microaggressions hit when things are actually feeling good. You are midflight out of your cage—this Unitarian Universalist community you are in is feeling really good to you—and then someone in the social hall comes up and asks you to represent your entire race through your single opinion on something. Or they tell you how much they love your hair and then immediately start touching it without asking permission first. Bang! Back in the cage. Feels horrible.
One particular form of microaggression we want to become more mindful of is the environmental kind, as in television shows and movies that feature predominantly White people, without representation of people of color. Also congregations. We want more worship leaders of color. How about more staff of color? Look at this sanctuary—where is the fiesta?
Another thing to consider as we journey more deeply into our vision of being truly multiracial as a congregation: this second vocabulary term; “being frozen in time. “ It names a dynamic introduced during the Diversity Retreat from this past March, which members of your Board and Staff attended, together with the folks I called together to create our new UUCA Inclusivity Ministry that goes by the name of EnterCulture. (You like that? Enter into culture. Awareness that every one of us has a culture. Entering into it and into the cultures of others. Invitation…]
But back to the Diversity Retreat. There, we learned about “being frozen in time,” and as I understood it, the term picks up on the reality of how anger and resentment can cause someone to never stop seeing a person or a community they way they used to be: even if the current reality is changing into something far different.
Know what I mean?
In some cases, “being frozen in time” can have to do with a time that comes from your own personal past—a time that has nothing whatsoever to do with the time you are in right now. It means that you find yourself blaming, for all your past troubles, the people who surround you presently who actually had nothing to do with your old hurts. But you blame them anyhow. And it doesn’t matter what they do, how they improve. They are never good enough. There is nothing they can do to make it better in your eyes.
Seeds of positive change are initially always tender things.
They grow right before our eyes, and we need to appreciate them even if they are small, so they keep on growing.
Also so we feel appreciated and want to plant more of them.
We got some seeds going on here.
More and more people of color are engaged in leadership here than ever before.
Last week we were getting happy to the sound of Pharrell Williams!!
We have more energy and vitality flowing through this congregation than we’ve had in years.
But I’ve heard some people say that nothing is changing.
It’s all talk and no action.
This freezes us in time
and once again, the caged bird for a moment was feeling more free
but then got zapped and discouraged and disempowered and is back firmly in the cage.
The path to real change is not this.
The path to real change is not through negativity.
If you are impatient for freedom, well I’m right there with you.
But don’t let your impatience actually block change.
It’s a process. The journey of freedom is a process.
“Bit by bit, we are claiming ourselves,” as Toni Morrison says.
It’s not about any one person’s private vision.
It is about creating communal vision and a communal sense of adventure and mission.
Let’s stay positive.
To speak of being in a cage within a cage within a cage is so heavy….
But we’ll be all right if we remember this wise thought
“That an entire sea of water can’t sink a ship unless it gets inside the ship.
Similarly the negativity of the world can’t put you down
unless you allow it to get inside you” (attributed to “Goi Nasu”)
Let’s not sink
Let’s stay positive and fly
Bit by bit
We’re going to get there