A sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carrie Knowles on 2/12/17 at the UUCLC. All copyrights reserved to the Author.
You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.
Burning Bridges of Hope
The 45th president issued on January 27th a travel ban that immediately suspended for 90 days the entry of immigrants and nonimmigrants into the US from seven countries with majority Moslem populations. It suspended for 120 days the entry of all refugees—and indefinitely suspended refugees from Syria. It contained the further significant provision that, when refugee admissions resume, it would prioritize “refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” That is, provided the individual is not a Moslem.
Foreign born doctors who serve people in small towns through the US were stranded. Patients from the affected countries in dire need of expert medical care were cut off from access. Exchange and foreign students were blocked from returning from visits home. Researchers and other professionals were stuck either at American or foreign airports. Longterm legal residents with green cards found themselves held for hours at entry points in many cities. Iraqis who had served for more than a decade with our armed forces as interpreters and fighters and now were fleeing threats to their lives found their refugee status cancelled.
With a 3-0 decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, a Temporary Restraining Order was kept in place that blocks enforcement of most of the president’s travel ban. The Ninth Circuit’s very readable opinion lays out powerfully the many legal challenges to the president’s order that loom ahead. A long process now seems to lie ahead, with uncertain outcome.
As the week’s events unfolded, as I read the words of the president’s executive order, as I heard the ban being defended by powerful American lawmakers of his party, I found deep questions welling up in me. Is this who we are?
I felt repeating in my mind, like some deep songs we hold for always in our memory, or some prayer I learned before I even knew what I was chanting, words written 240 years ago:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
– Declaration of Independence
The declaration, that all men are created equal, didn’t say only Americans were created equal, or only white men were created equal or only Christians were created equal. The Bill of Rights enshrined in our constitution states, “No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.…” That text makes no exception for the foreign born.
When I found my spiritual home with the Unitarians, and made a covenant to affirm and promote;
The inherent worth and dignity of every person, and
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
these principles seemed to echo those enshrined values.
As Americans, who are we? Are these truths indeed self evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Over these days, I have been confronting a troubling reality. From the beginning of our history as a nation, we have time and again tossed those lofty words aside.
In 1789, our Constitution’s preamble promised the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” but “ourselves” included none who were slaves. It took a civil war and incredible political pressures to draw from Abraham Lincoln the Emancipation Proclamation.
Our early settlers, the Puritans, fled persecution in their homeland, England, to Massachusetts—the Mayflower arrived in 1620. In 1845, a calamity of monstrous proportions struck Ireland—the great Irish Potato Famine. The blight that destroyed this staple that fed the people was an airborne fungus originally transported in the holds of ships traveling from North America to England. It blackened and withered the leaves of the potato plants and rotted the potatoes underground.
Through the famine years, nearly a million Irish migrated to the United States. Their roughest welcome was in Boston, Massachusetts, then an Anglo-Saxon city of about 115,000. In 1847, the first big year of Famine emigration, the city was swamped with 37,000 Irish Catholics. They were ridiculed, relegated to unskilled jobs, and found themselves victims to unscrupulous landlords who rented them rooms with no water, no sanitation, no ventilation and no daylight.
Under these conditions, diseases like cholera took the lives of 60% of Irish children before age six, and adults lived on average six years after stepping off the boat.
By 1850, the Irish made up 43% of the foreign born. Irish immigrants were derided in the press as “aliens” who were mindlessly loyal to their Catholic leaders, to the Pope, rather than any allegiance to America. American born workers felt displaced from jobs. These fears led to violence—Protestant workmen in Boston burned down a Catholic convent. Violence against Catholics erupted in Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans and Louisville, Kentucky. Militant anti-Catholics formed a third political party nicknamed the “Know Nothings” who wanted to cut Irish immigration and keep them from becoming naturalized American citizens. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing candidates won every statewide office including the governorship, in 1854.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Yet the most famous Famine descendant was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the great grandson of Patrick Kennedy who left Ireland in 1849.
We have other grievous times that challenge our identity, who we are, who we have been.
Political changes in Japan and a serious recession led many Japanese to migrate to the United States, beginning in 1868. By 1924 about 380,000 had immigrated to Hawaii and the West Coast, where they established farms or small businesses. As the Japanese-American population grew, European Americans on the West Coast resisted the newcomers. They were scared of competition, and spread the idea of the “Yellow Peril”—we must fear the hordes of Asians would take over white-owned farms and businesses. Groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League, the California Joint Immigration Committee, and the Native Sons of the Golden West organized and lobbied successfully to restrict the property and citizenship rights of Japanese immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively banned all immigration from Japan and other “undesirable” Asian countries. US law prohibited Japanese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens.
In 1936, President Roosevelt ordered the Office of Naval Intelligence to compile a “special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble” between Japan and the US, and in 1939 the President ordered the ONI and FBI to work together to compile a larger Custodial Detention Index.
Early in 1941 and again in 1942, Roosevelt commissioned studies of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast and in Hawaii to document the threat. Both reports concluded there was no Japanese problem. Yet after the Pearl Harbor attack, political pressure escalated against Japanese-Americans, urging internment.
Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command, who administered the internment program, testified to Congress:
I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty. But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.
By February of 1942, Earl Warren, then the Attorney General of California, had begun his efforts to persuade the federal government to remove all people of Japanese ethnicity—including those who were as little as 1/16th Japanese (those who had one great great grandparent who was Japanese) and send them to internment camps. A Colonel, Karl Bendetsen, declared,
I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp.
A series of proclamations culminating on May 3, 1942, ordered all people of Japanese ancestry, whether citizens or non-citizens, to report to assembly centers and then “Relocation Centers.”
White farmers were delighted. California newspapers took up the cry. The Los Angeles Times signed on to the message:
A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched… So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents…notwithstanding his nominal brand of citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…
Not all voices joined the chorus. The Orange County Register argued that the internment was unethical and unconstitutional. Its publisher, R. C. Hoiles, wrote:
It would seem that convicting people of disloyalty to our country without having specific evidence against them is too foreign to our way of life and too close akin to the kind of government we are fighting…. [A]s Henry Emerson Fosdick so wisely said, ‘Liberty is always dangerous but it is the safest thing we have.’
One hundred and twenty thousand people were incarcerated. People were convicted of crime if they evaded internment.
In 1944, two and a half years after issuing Order 9066, Roosevelt rescinded the order and closed the camps. Ultimately, the courts found that the government had intentionally withheld the original racist versions of the testimony by General DeWitt and Colonel Bendetsen about the disloyalty of Japanese Americans. The government had held from evidence the two reports commissioned by Roosevelt in 1941 and 1942 that found Japanese Americans posed no threat to national security. The court found the justifications for internment were based on “willful historical inaccuracies and intentional falsehoods.”
Does any of this ring a bell?
One more story of who we are. While our Unitarians, Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha risked their own lives to bring to safety Jews and others whose lives were threatened in Nazi occupied Europe, the United States government turned away thousands of Jewish refugees, fearing that they were Nazi spies.
Most notoriously, in June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis carrying 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami. The ship was forced to return to Europe and a quarter of the passengers died in the Holocaust.
Rhetoric of unfounded fears spread the belief in a supposed “fifth column” of spies and saboteurs who had infiltrated the country as refugees. US Attorney General Francis Biddle declared in 1942,
..every precaution must be taken…to prevent enemy agents slipping across our borders. We already have had experience with them and we know them to be well trained and clever.
Until the end of 1944, Attorney General Biddle warned Roosevelt not to grant immigration status to refugees. All foreigners became suspect, including Jews. In this climate of disinformation—shall we say “alternative facts”—immigration restrictions were actually tightened as the refugee crisis worsened.
Some journalists challenged these assertions. Then in 1944, in the face of mass murder of Jews, the Treasury Department released a damning report that saw wartime paranoia and bigotry in the actions of the State Department:
…certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and willful failure to act, but even of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.
The Trump administration’s assault on Moslems, those who are citizens, those who are recent migrants, those who are refugees, will go on as long as his party buys into the rhetoric of hate. We are living again our woeful past of injustice and intolerance, fueled by falsehoods: that Moslem refugees swarm with terrorists, though not a single act of terror has been carried out by a migrant from any country listed in the ban. We’re told our visa vetting process is a total failure, yet it already consumes 18 months to three years.
Remember that old saying—insanity is repeating over and over what you have done in the past and expecting a different outcome? With no benefit to our nation, in past generations, we destroyed the lives and well-being of those we saw as “other.” Our country was moved by flagrant lies that fed the rhetoric of bigotry. Belatedly, we faced the wrongs we committed, but nothing could undo the harm we did to people we saw as “Other.”
We don’t have to relive our shameful past. We gain nothing by burning the bridges of hope for men, women and children seeking refuge and survival.
We can affirm the self-evident truths that all of us, from all continents, of all skin color, people of all faiths are born equal and have certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We can grow as a nation as Abraham Lincoln grew, as he wrote in his second inaugural address,
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
We can reach out in justice, equity and compassion, and welcome the stranger, and draw all people into the circle of love and peace. May it be so.
Given January 29, 2017
You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.
Rev. Dr. Carrie Knowles
Nine days have passed since the 45th president of the United States was sworn in to office. I am mindful of the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
So many issues are now at the forefront: religious tolerance, the well-being of immigrants and refugees, racial justice, affordable healthcare for Americans, the dignity and equality of women, the rising temperature of the earth, to mention only a few. And each one of these is a matter of faith, not politics. Each one of these, for us UU’s, touches on our covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person which must include women, Moslems, Blacks, refugees and immigrants; our covenant to affirm and promote justice and compassion in human relations, which is violated when we bar refugees from any nation; our acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations as we reach out to all.
We UU’s affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning—which calls us to confront blatant lies and the bland denial of solid fact.
We covenant to promote the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large that calls us to live by our core values of what is right, by advocacy and action in our communities. We affirm the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all which counsels us to stand firm for peace and civil rights, and to preserve the earth, our home. And lastly, we affirm respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—an ideal that includes all the other principles of our faith.
I admit—all of these calls to live by my faith right now feel a bit overwhelming. I feel like the mosquito at the nudist society picnic: no question what to do, just where to begin.
But then I thought of an essay by Virginia Safford where she tells of walking in an old cemetery in New England where she came upon a tombstone with an epitaph I hold in my heart. The name and dates of the dead had been erased by time and weather, but the epitaph was still readable: “She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.” [repeat]
Today, the worthy thing I want to attend to, is the issue of immigration and the undocumented. It is about as many as 11 million people, in the US. And the first of our principles I want to address is, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
I have a special care in my heart for immigrants. Some of you may remember my own family story: my father migrated here when he was 12, fleeing the massacre of Jews in Russia. I have a strong feeling about Mexican immigrants. I broke out my ankle one Sunday morning some years ago, when I lived here, in Riviera West. I had walked to the top of a steep hill and then slipped on gravel. No houses nearby, no cell phone. A Mexican worker nearby heard my screams. He lifted me into his pickup truck and took me home so my husband could drive me to the ER. The worker’s name was “An-hel,” Angel. A close friend of mine now is a young woman in the East Bay who came as a teenager from Mexico without documents. She has a job, but no health care coverage, and no benefits. Her children are citizens, they were born here and they go to public schools.
The political campaign of the 45th president opened with a profound assault on the truth: among his lies, his assault on the truth about immigrants and the undocumented. Here are some of the lies.
It is a lie that we have open borders.
President Obama has often been referred to by immigration groups as the "Deporter in Chief.” Between 2009 and 2015 his administration removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders. This doesn’t include the number of people who "self-deported" or were turned away and/or returned to their home country at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). [ABC News]
It is a lie that immigrants account for high rates of crime.
We have heard over and over from the now-president of the US that about 2 million illegal immigrants are criminals, and must be deported.
In truth, newcomers to the U.S. are less likely than the native population to commit violent crimes or be incarcerated. For over a century, innumerable studies confirm two simple yet powerful truths about the relationship between immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime. This holds true for both immigrants here legally and the unauthorized, regardless of their country of origin or level of education. In other words, the overwhelming majority of immigrants are not “criminals” by any commonly accepted definition of the term. [American Immigration Council, 2015]
According to data from the American Community Survey (ACS) in 2010, roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males age 18-39 were incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born. This difference in incarceration rates has existed for decades. In 1980, 1990 and 2000, the incarceration rates of the native-born were anywhere from two to five times higher than that of immigrants.
The exact number of undocumented immigrants, out of the 1.9 million, whom the new president has offered to deport at once, is not clear.
Calculations by the Migration Policy Institute show about 820,000 (43 percent) of the 1.9 million are unauthorized
immigrants with criminal convictions. But more than half of the 1.9 million immigrants who are convicted of crime are lawfully in the country with green cards or visas. And of the undocumented with criminal convictions, only about 690,000 committed felonies or serious misdemeanors that could make them a threat to society. [Washington Post]
Despite these realities, the most recent language about deportation priorities, tucked into the president’s border wall order out this week, expands the definition of who is a criminal.
The president’s order focuses on anyone who has been charged with a criminal offense, even if it has not led to a conviction. It includes anyone who has used a false Social Security number to get a job, as many unauthorized immigrants do.
It further allows the targeting of anyone who “in the judgment of the immigration officer” poses a risk to public safety and national security. Now immigration officers have broad authority without review from a supervisor before targeting individuals. This goes further than any previous administrations in the number of people targeted for deportation.
It is a lie that the undocumented immigrants are mostly those who cross our southern border. It is false that a “wall” between Mexico and the US could seal off unauthorized migration.
Since 2009, the origin of unauthorized immigration has shifted from Mexico to other countries. The number of the undocumented, 3.5% of our population, has stabilized in the last three years at 11.1 million, down from its peak of 12.2 million.
Mexicans are a bare majority of the undocumented—52%, about 5.8 million people. The number of unauthorized immigrants from countries other than Mexico is about 5.3 million, or 48%. These people come from Asia, Central America and sub-Saharan Africa. [Pew Research, 2014]
It is false that unauthorized immigrants have been flooding over the border. About 2 out of 3 undocumented adults have been in the US for at least a decade. Ninety-three percent of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico have been here more than 5 years.
I think many Americans recognize these grave distortions of the truth.
Yet there are beliefs and concerns that override the facts. Some feel that no matter how many or how few, unauthorized immigrants are depriving American workers of jobs. I have heard from an elderly woman that they take jobs away from older Americans.
I have heard from a disabled immigrant from Europe that they take jobs away from disabled persons.
In fact, the undocumented have strikingly different occupational profiles than those born in the US.
One out of three unauthorized immigrants hold service jobs such as janitor, child care worker or cook—nearly twice as many as the share of US born workers in these jobs. An additional 15% work in construction, compared with 5% of US born. A small percentage—4% work in farming and forestry, compared with .4% of US born workers.
None of these jobs would deprive the elderly or disabled of employment.
In better paid work, in the fields of sales and office jobs, and professions, in management, and business and finance, 62% of those jobs are held by US born workers, compared with 26% of the undocumented. [Pew Research]
That’s a lot of numbers I’ve thrown at you. Let me step back. Most jobs held by the undocumented and by other recent immigrants are jobs that few US born workers compete for.
Yesterday, a home care worker from LA joined the Women’s March in Washington DC. She’s a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She wrote a piece for the New York Times, published on Inauguration Day.
Teresita Villasenor herself is a legal immigrant from the Philippines who works as a caregiver, supporting people with disabilities—work that takes patience, understanding, and sometimes hard physical work. She writes,
I have faced low wages for long hours, discrimination, abuse and exploitation. Ninety percent of care workers are women and many are immigrants, some living undocumented in this country….. What we want Mr. Trump to recognize is that undocumented immigrants are a blessing. We challenge him to figure out who will take care of him when he’s old. Who will take care of his wife, his daughters and his sons? For too long, immigrant families in this country have been separated, deported and detained.
This immigrant caregiver reminds us of our core principles: the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and our commitment to justice and compassion. Yet the narrative that has resounded with many millions of Americans is that immigrants are “Other,” less than “us,” and a threat to our identity as a white so-called “Christian” nation.
As more of the undocumented have been rounded up for deportation, we have seen profound violation of their civil rights and due process. By law, people accused of crimes have a right to a hearing before a judge and to release on bail, within six months, unless they present the risk of flight or further wrongdoing. Yet undocumented immigrants rounded up for deportation, not for any crime but only because they lacked authorization to enter the US, have been held in detention centers without a hearing and without bail for much longer than six months, sometimes as long as five years.
Interestingly, those held for the longest times are those most likely to be found legitimately seeking refuge, and they are released, and they ultimately become citizens.
Our Congress has failed for decades to deal rationally with the presence of undocumented immigrants. Finally, former President Obama took executive action to limit deportation of undocumented immigrants who came here as children, and who are now in school or the military—it’s called DACA—and he took further action to limit deportation of undocumented parents of citizens—called DAPA— who have committed no crimes.
Obama’s executive orders seem to many the embodiment of justice and compassion. But the order to suspend deportation of undocumented parents was blocked in the courts. The order to hold off deportation of those who came as children can now be reversed with the stroke of the new president’s pen.
The fate of 752,000 young immigrants brought to the US as children—a third of whom live in California—now rests with an unverified executive order that was leaked to the media but had not yet been signed as of this weekend. Further, the president has made no commitment to honor the promise of the US government to DACA kids that their information will not be shared with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).
I stand here today near the altar in this Fellowship Hall in fear this will happen, and soon. I have been living since November 8th with the fear that young people called “Dreamers” will be torn from their lives and hopes and find themselves detained and ultimately deported to a world they never knew. I have been living with the fear that parents will be torn from their children, kept endlessly in deportation centers, then sent back to countries no longer their home.
My fear is tempered with hope, exactly because I stand here near this altar in sacred space.
This consecrated place that contains us all is called a sanctuary. More generally, a sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety.
There is a tradition going back thousands of years in many ancient cultures including the Israelite culture that all who came for refuge at the altar or in the consecrated space of the temple or to those cities designated as sanctuary cities were safe there.
Those seeking refuge could include criminals, debtors, escaped slaves, priests, and ordinary people. It was considered a greater crime to drag someone from the sanctuary or kill them there than it was to defile the sanctuary itself.
This tradition was revived in American churches when they offered sanctuary to soldiers who refused to serve in the Vietnam War. And in the 1980’s congregations opened their doors to Central Americans fleeing wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The movement was revived again in 2006 and grew during President Obama’s two terms.
Today, 450 houses of worship in the United States have offered to provide sanctuary or other assistance to undocumented immigrants. More than forty of these are Unitarian Universalist congregations—with the full backing of the UUA.
Protecting immigrants is becoming a priority for religious liberals of many faiths and ethnicities since Trump’s victory and his selection of an attorney general nominee who supports a crackdown on immigrants. While few congregations have the space and determination to risk harboring undocumented immigrants indefinitely, they can connect with neighboring churches that have such resources. They can line up to contribute money, legal assistance, food, clothing, medical care, child care or transportation.
So I bring my heart and soul here today in the trust that we can start consideration here about supporting the sanctuary movement. I will be in the Fellowship Hall after the service to meet with all of you who are interested in further discussion.
A first step is understanding what undocumented immigrants and their families confront now and hearing their stories.
A further step is to reach within ourselves and ask what we may be called to do by our faith, our guiding principles, by our compassion and love of justice.
Then, for those of us who see providing for the safety of vulnerable unauthorized immigrants as one of those “few worthy things” we desire to undertake, we can together develop our priorities for action.
May we find deep in our hearts those few worthy things that fill our spirit with light and hope and may we attend to them well and faithfully in the coming days.
This holiday season, our church will participate in the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) Guest At Your Table project. GAYT is a program to raise support for and awareness about the work of UUSC to advance human rights in the US and throughout the world.
This year’s program theme is Defying Hate, based on the recent release of the Ken Burns documentary about UUSC founders Martha and Waitstill Sharp, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War (on PBS). The Sharps defied hate by helping Jews and dissidents escape Nazi Germany using brave, creative methods, many of which could have caused them to be imprisoned, tortured, or worse.
UU Community of Lake County is proud to join with UUSC to carry forward the Sharps’ legacy by continuing to defy hate and protect the lives and rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and other marginalized groups.
Every household in our congregation who wishes to participate in Guest At Your Table will receive a clever little box which we will keep on our dining tables during the season. As we enjoy a meal, we are encouraged to drop a few coins into the box. Our donations will be combined and sent to UUSC to help with their human rights work in the US and around the world. Each of us will have had a small part in helping with this important work.
Schedule for GAYT for UUCLC
The UUCLC November 2016 Newsletter is available here.
You can download the pdf of this sermon here. The pdf contains footnotes to points made in the sermon.
Nonviolence: Greater Than the Sum of Our Fears
Rev. Sonya Sukalski
(Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Community of Lake County September 25, 2016)
Where Does the idea of Non-violence come from? Adin Ballou is known for founding the Hopedale Community in Massachusetts as a combination factory and religious community where a new civilization could be fashioned out of people living their values, and making their convictions a reality.
He was married by Hosea Ballou II to his wife Abigail Sayles, and connected with both Universalist and Unitarian threads of our history. He is one of the forefathers who gives Unitarian Universalists today a foundation in practical religious living born of our Christian roots. I believe that one reason why we gather weekly on Sunday mornings is not only to be inspired and uplifted by singing together, but also to take a time out to mull over our relationships and habitual patterns in an effort to integrate our deepest longings.
Do you long as I do for more love in society?
One of the teachings of Jesus that I resonate with is to aspire to love your neighbor as yourself. This doesn’t mean to withhold love for your neighbor as you withhold love for yourself, it means to look for things to love all the time, and to grow in love, and when you find yourself loving something in your neighbor which you don’t love in yourself, to gently go deeper and see if the love holding all of us can be present in that space. Likewise, when I find myself hating something in another person which I do all the time, to slow down, pray for patience, and see if there is a way into a little more love all around.
Now Adin Ballou was not the only Unitarian to tinker with this idea of holding onto some love for people who he might be in conflict with. Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote Resistance to Civil Government in 1849, a full five years before he wrote the more well known Walden.
In Resistance to Civil Government he “ argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican–American War (1846–1848).” Fascinating to me is that Leo Nikolayavich Tolstoy, author famous for the novel War and Peace, picked up on both Ballou and Thoreau’s writings and in the non-fiction book, The Kingdom of God is Within You, further developed the idea of nonviolent resistance which Gandhi and Martin Luther King then employed in creating social change. Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God is Within You was so radical it was banned in Russia, and had to be published in Germany.Gandhi posited that the way to change hearts about violence, was to confront the hard, cruel, suffering humans are capable of inflicting with non-resistance in order to open the conscience and spirit to a new way. Ahimsa as it is known in Sanskrit, is a powerful tool in the activist’s bag, partially because revenge and violence are so much easier than turning the other cheek to receive another’s pain and suffering which is the definition of ahimsa.
When Martin Luther King Jr. summoned clergy from across the country, Unitarian Universalists who had joined forces with each other only a few years earlier responded perhaps partially because this idea of Christian nonresistance is woven deep into the DNA of our faith. No doubt MLK deeply inspired Reverends James Reeb,
Berkeley’s Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller3 who marched with him in Selma. Personally, I can’t imagine the courage so many of my colleagues had to take their life in their hands while fire hoses and dogs were turned on children, and Bull O’Connor lined up his officers with clubs to meet the marchers coming across the Edmund Pettus Bridge
in Selma Alabama. Honestly, when I have looked at Occupy and Black Lives Matter actions today, I am always weighing whether participating will enable me to show up for my commitments on Sundays or not. I am quite reticent to bear witness or be in the line of fire.
Imagine congregations telling their leaders, here’s a plane ticket, go! And now, despite the best and often Herculean efforts of congregations and community leaders who have worked decades since the Civil Rights Act, and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, racism is as visible as ever,voting rights are being attacked before our eyes,
and economic disparity is worse than when Martin Luther King was born in 1929. So, should we give up on Civil Disobedience or Christian Nonresistance? Have we gotten it wrong somehow? I’m asking you as people in whom I see so many promising qualities of humanity, what opens your heart to resist oppression? What brings life
together with others a little closer to the Utopia Adin Ballou set out to create back in the 1840s?
A friend, colleague and activist named Tim DeChristopher asked himself this question over and over, and when George Bush attempted to sell off drilling rights in and near national parks and monuments to oil companies, he bid on those parcels to drive the price up, and then starting winning them. He didn’t have the money to pay at the
time, even though Robert Redford came up with it not long after. His story is told in the excellent film Bidder 70, which every UU should know. Tim ended up in a long trial where he wasn’t allowed to tell his story to the jury by the Obama administration, and served 2 years in jail before going to Harvard to become a UU
His willingness to suffer opened hearts, and evolved an understanding of civil disobedience to include suffering for the purpose of elevating environmental concerns as well as concerns about human pain and suffering. It is incredible to hear his story of the moment when he started winning parcels and knew he could go to jail – he asked himself if he could live with that, and a feeling of peace, integrity, and meaning overtook him.
Standing up to injustice gives our lives meaning and integrity, even in the face of physical suffering. We see similar courage and persistence in the people today standing up to big oil’s private security guards who are attacking the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and protesters with dogs in North Dakota near the Missouri River. The Sioux believe their water quality will be threatened by this pipeline.
Then there is the story of William Barber...
In the late 1960s in North Carolina, Rev. Dr. William Barber II was one of the first Black children to enter an all-white school as a second grader. His brilliant father had 2 master’s degrees, and his parents had many possibilities laid out before them in Indianapolis when E.V. Wilkins, head of the NAACP asked them to move back to North Carolina because they needed educated people on the ground to test the willingness of schools to hire Black teachers and allow Black children to integrate. Fast forward to the election the election of 2008. Do you remember that Virginia, North Carolina and Florida all went to Barack Obama? This turn of events showed cracks that could herald in a new era in the South. A Black president was elected with the help of states that had voted Republican for decades since adopting Ronald Reagan’s racist Southern Strategy.
William Barber was on the ground organizing in North Carolina helping historically Black communities voice their vote in 2008 after being elected head of the NAACP in 2005. The ups and downs since the voting rights act are detailed by Ari Berman in his excellent, deeply researched, powerfully written and infuriating book, Give Us The
Ballot. Not only is it a fascinating civil rights and voting rights primer that helps me understand the events unfolding as I was born and throughout my life, but it also explains why North Carolina is a battleground state not only on the topic of voting Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi (where three civil rights workers had been lynched June 21, 1964) in 1980 with a thinly veiled reference to KKK supporters about state’s rights.
The 2008 election was a wake-up call to some and a reason for rejoicing for many. It is no accident that billionaire interests creating the Tea Party took congress in the next national election after we elected our first Black president. State’s rights advocates have waxed and waned ever since the first Reconstruction after the Civil War, and there is much to recommend keeping solutions for society’s ills accountable to the people and places they aim to influence.
However, the American Legislative Exchange Council also known as ALEC are front and center in the current state’s rights conversation, intellectual advocacy, and on the ground deployment of tactics and strategies concerning state’s rights. Our own Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry was formed in California partially as a bulwark against the ALEC machine where corporate lobbyists and state legislators vote as equals on ‘model bills’ to change our rights that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line at public expense.5
These model bills then make their way into our elected officials hands, and result in laws like Arizona SB1070 making it common practice to stop and ask people of color for an ID, ALEC bills include the rash of voter ID laws enacted across 19 mostly Republican controlled states in 2011 and 2012.6 ALEC is a pay-to-play operation where corporations buy a seat and a vote on ‘task forces’ to advance their legislative wish lists and can get a tax break for donations, effectively passing these lobbying costs on to taxpayers.7 As many of you know, the Supreme Court took it’s finger out of the damn holding back moneyed corporate interests in our laws about free speech with the passage of Citizen’s United in 2010. This is one powerful way our dedication to our fifth principle, the use of the democratic process, Is being subverted across society.
Rev. William Barber II, in the best tradition of organizing people of faith for the greater common good has been on the ground talking to people about what matters most in their lives for over a decade in North Carolina. People calling on their elected representatives to be agents for voting rights in a 13 week show of civil disobedience garnered headlines back in 2013, but this fruit of Barber’s labor began much earlier.
When Barber was elected to head the NAACP in 2005, he says, “We had to find a way to stand with others, acknowledging their connections with us and our issues.In a year of almost nonstop travel, I learned something important about North Carolina: there wasn’t a huge crowd standing together in any one place, but if you added up all the different groups who were standing for their justice issue, the potential base for a coalition was large.
I can just see him traveling from community to community: “sketch(ing) a list of fourteen justice tribes in North Carolina.
(Wow! I wonder how education, living wages, healthcare, elections, and forcible sterilization groups might cooperate???) He didn’t stop there:
The real magic though was when they got in the room together
“Representatives of sixteen organizations showed up to a meeting of potential partners. Each group identified the issue they were most concerned about. Then we asked them to list the forces standing in the way of what they wanted. Though our issues varied, we all recognized the same forces opposing us. What’s more, we saw something we hadn’t had a space to talk about before: there were more of us than there were of them.”
This is faith based organizing at its best, it became known as Moral Mondays because this fusion coalition grew week by week to stand up and amplify voices in the community affected by restrictions to voting rights among other issues. Unitarian Universalists saw the potential to engage community partners more deeply, and many congregations jumped at the opportunity to band together with interests across their community and state.
Just as we in California worked against Proposition 8 in 2008, though we lost, we lost forward because we began to be in conversation with people we can now share resources and issues with.
Lest you worry that congregations endanger their non-profit tax status, let me reassure you that as long as we keep our energy focused on issues rather than supporting specific people there is nothing to worry about. Non-profits are allowed not only to register voters and hold candidates forums but to advocate for issues we find morally engaging.
Today, organizers and faith communities in North Carolina are leading the effort to bring nonviolent tactics to loving our neighbors and helping society see and engage the systemic suffering that is too pervasive today. Nonviolently protesting inhumane systems help us confront our fear. When we band together and support each other across our differences, the fear of being left out and left behind diminishes. Especially when we raise our voices together in song even though our fears are well founded, it is possible to find strength to keep the love in our hearts in the face of hate and anger and the suffering that no doubt undergirds it.
The answer to being greater than the sum of our fears is to name them in community, even though this takes trust and vulnerability. When Rev. Barber and the many communities in NC were able to compassionately hear each other’s fears and struggles, and identify the deeper systems contributing to them, working together in coalition at the root causes, including growing numbers practicing civil disobedience at their state capitol every Monday for 13 weeks became a way to make sure legislators got the message that we are paying attention, and expect lawmakers to represent the good of the whole.
When you find yourself questioning our laws, questioning our society, downhearted and fearful, the answer we see today is to name that vulnerability, and see if there are people of faith able and willing to stand up together, lift voices bravely in the face of suffering, and publicly insist on change.