Our Nation’s Mistake

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

Perhaps you saw the title of my sermon today and thought I was going to address our current administration’s violent response to throngs of peaceful protestors all over this country and the violation of “our” right to peacefully assemble. That is a concern.

Yet to focus on that and not the “real issue,” which is the racial disparity in this nation, is to remain centered in a white world view: the world view that maintains that only white folk have a right to express themselves without impunity. This world view that maintains that property and free enterprise are to be valued more than lives. This world view that refuses to center the voices of those who experience the evils of this nation’s deeply rooted racism, day after day, decade after decade.

But not anymore. There is a rising going on. 

Caitlin Breedlove, who for a few years led Standing on the Side of Love for the UUA, is a young white lesbian who has been involved in movement organizing for nearly twenty years starting at the famed Highlander Center in Tennessee. (You may know that The Highlander Center was the incubator for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.)

On June 2, Caitlin Breedlove posted a prayer on social media. I am going to read it to you, but first in case you have forgotten, these were the headlines last Tuesday:

The day after our President declared war on US citizens, who thronged to say “Enough already,” Caitlin Breedlove posted this prayer:

I pray for those white progressive activists out there just like me:

For the courage to admit that white-on-white organizing against white supremacy has mostly failed despite what we saw as our best efforts,

And for the courage to admit that we have not even had the courage to admit that failure.

For the clarity to know when times have come, even when they are utterly not of our doing or will.

For the strength to see that our work is not measured in our performance of wokeness but in our actions seen and unseen: in our ability to align, follow, interrupt, and bring the many of us with us not the few.

For the humility to join where we have never joined before, and give where we never have before, or give and join again if we have many times.

Where once we could not bring masses of white people to an altar of hope like the call to #defundpolice, are we willing to now? Are we willing to now, as Black people through the risking of their very lives, open that window in history?

Where money, shine, the desire for affirmation, petty fear, and individualism won our hearts, are we willing to confess that and lay it down, and let courage and willingness come forth now?

Even now, there is still time. Salvation is not on the timeline the white mind thinks it is.

What is left, after things burn, is not fragile.

She provides a starting place for white progressive activists. That starting place is to admit failure.

We don’t do that easily. We don’t do that willingly. It is hard to sit in failure; to admit that we (white progressive activists) have not fixed the great wrong that this nation was founded upon.

But we must “admit our failure and know when times have come… not utterly of our doing or will.”

If you don’t believe me, if you haven’t accepted the story of how this nation, from the very beginning, has valued property over human life, please read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (2014), the UU Common Read for this year.

This is a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., included in that book, as the lead to Chapter Five, “The Birth of a Nation.” 

Our nation was born in genocide… We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode.

All oppression is tied together.

Those who know this are trying to tell everyone else.

Here is another June 2 social media post from another young woman, Aisha Hauser, a black UU Religious Educator for nearly 20 years:

Some folks are getting a … clue that this country is in trouble. All the chickens are coming home to …  roost. You can’t commit genocide of Indigenous people, enslave millions from the continent of Africa, continue to pillage and put profit over people and empower and encourage state sanctioned violence with impunity. There will NEVER be peace in this country until the wrongs of the past and PRESENT are corrected. NEVER.

Hers is a strong call for “burning it down,” for reparations, for at least a peace and reconciliation council.

Watching, remembering all the decades of work, and so sad that this injustice has yet to be made right, I was triggered to reply to a social media post from my brother’s ex-wife. She was begging for protesters to be nice and stop the looting. She said being nice is the only way to change things. I should have perhaps said that the looters were not necessarily the protesters, but instead pointed out from a self-righteous position that “NICE” has not worked. Not long after that, a friend of mine from high school days—we went to church together—posted that I shouldn’t use the “Black Lives Matter” icon, because all lives matter. “Really?” I blasted back.

Really, you can be that obtuse?

Our theme this month is Mistakes. We have all made them. I should know better than to blast away on social media. So many anti-racist trainings have taught me that you can only “help” another white person take the next step past the anti-racist work continuum that they currently are engaged in. It is step by step work. It isn’t wise to try to get folk to leap to an advanced level, but rather to be “woke” step by step.

I don’t know that I agree with that anymore.

Time has come.

After a few days and moving our conversation to private messaging, my longtime relative and my longtime friend and I agreed that we had made mistakes, that a big change is sweeping us up. That our emotions had to do with being afraid that this outpouring of unrest and discontent with the way things have been is going to change us in ways we cannot fully anticipate. We declared our love for each other and our hope for a better tomorrow.

I am sure we all have our relatives and supposed-friend stories to tell. Stories about what subjects we can and cannot talk about. I am sure that for some of us, it is way easier to be in a throng of mostly peaceful protesters risking our freedom, and perhaps our health, than to have a virtual visit with the folks who we don’t see eye to eye with.

This is a turning point that won’t let us stand on the sidelines. Just voting for the other party isn’t going to be enough. The young people, the liberal clergy, the everyday folk who are out on the streets saying enough already—-since May 26, 11 days now—that isn’t going to end, can’t end with everything going back to normal.

As a colleague who is a UU minister out in the Northwest said on June 2 as well, “We are all antifa now.”

We are all anti-fascists, opposed to a regime that exalts one nation and one race, a regime wishes to be ruled by a dictatorial leader, that uses the forcible suppression of opposition.

“It is bad for business,” says even the NFL.

We must go further. If you haven’t yet read the current President of the UUA’s most recent letter, you should. Susan Frederick-Gray says, “We must demilitarize and defund the police. We must defund and decarcerate the jails.”

We must go further.

What our UUA President has to say is way down the road for some of us. Yet it is the road that has chosen us.

Here are the words of Theresa Soto, the minister of First Unitarian in Oakland, CA; a person of color, disabled, married to a trans man, a poet, a prophet:

Being a person of color in
America today is like
the person who stepped aside
for passing hikers at the Grand Canyon
and tripped and fell four hundred feet instead,
except that if you are a person of color,
people search for your criminal record
as you fall. They tut that after all, you
could have been more compliant. They
include the subtext—free of charge—your
falling is a clear indication that you deserved
it. Whatever it is, whatever flavor
of dehumanizing is being served.

When you are falling
they assert that you just don’t get it
because your parents were immigrants,
which is only a dirty word in the mouth of
a colonizer feigning innocence. When you
are a person of color, you are never [on]
the winning side. As you fall, they tell you
that all hikers matter and are worthy of first
aid. Never mind that you will reach the bottom

(from Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience)

This is a life or death matter. 

Moving to the place where one can write such poetry can be so clear about what it feels like for one’s life not be valued has to hold our attention.

Somebody switched my usual NPR radio station in my car to a black owned soul music one. I haven’t changed it back ‘cause I like the music. The other day on the way back from requesting cash from the drive-through ATM, I heard a black woman DJ on that station reflecting on President Obama’s most recent speech when he talked about how important it is to realize that when we vote for a mayor or a governor, we are also voting for those whom that leader will choose to put in positions of influence, such as sheriffs and police chiefs. 

Then she added a comment I had never heard before: she went on to say how difficult it has been for her to come to the realization that black folk in this country were bred by whites to be strong, to be resilient. The weak died during the transatlantic slave trade, the weak died in the fields, and the strong survived. The strong were selected to be the mamas during slavery to produce even stronger, more resilient, robust workers  to be resistant to immense hardship.

And now what the white man created, he fears and wants to murder?

I offer you the words of the former President of the UUA (a black man named Bill Sinkford):

I will not offer you a simplified and sanitized hope. The most I can offer you is an invitation to be present to the lack of hope.

Not an invitation to a pity party. Not an invitation to despair. An invitation to cease pretending.

The challenge is not to punish one white police officer in one city for one act of violence. We—that would be all of us—need to face the truth that so much of the structure of the world we know is built on a commitment to maintain the racial hierarchy. We must face it if we want to have any chance of changing it.

The words of prophet James Baldwin: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

We must face the truth.

Don’t let our nation’s mistake be our failure.

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