The United States Never Was A Christian Nation. But What If It Were?
Sunday, July 21, 2019 — 10:30 AM
At the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
228 SouthOcean Avenue Freeport, NY 11520
Some Recent Sermons:
Civil Rights Are Not Enough!
Sunday, January 14th, 11 AM
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau, Garden City, NY www.uuccn.org
It is an honor for me to be here this morning, standing at the pulpit usually graced by the presence of my dear colleague, the Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson, who has loyally and lovingly ministered to this congregation for a decade.
It is also an honor to be here for Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. This is a challenge for a white man who grew up in racist America. Although I grew up in a more racially diverse community than did many Baby Boomers, the culture of the 1950s shaped me – with its homophobia, misogyny and racism. So did my family’s location in the working class, where the highly skilled trade unions – my father was a member of the IBEW – were white and intent on staying white. This was an issue Dr. King raised with his allies in organized labor. You can read about it in the book, All Labor Has Dignity, from which I took the first reading. My neighborhood was one that included white working and middle class families and (mostly) white immigrants, like my father, and my maternal grandfather, who also left the Bronx to live near us. The neighborhood was home to two of the more affluent Black families in town. They were redlined out of the neighborhood where white people of their economic means lived. I became close friends with the son in one family. Through him I was introduced to Jet and Ebony magazines and the importance of the NAACP in the local community. When it was time for us to start high school, he went to a prep school and I to the local public high school. I grew up within the culture of 1950s racist America and was as a teenager a sympathetic observer of the civil rights movement. Dr. King was assassinated near the end of my freshman year at Boston University. I plunged into the work of racial justice. As a teenager I learned from my friend and neighbor. I continued to learn at the university where King had earned his Ph. D. And I am still learning.
The reading by Dr. King is part of an address he gave on March 18, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. On February 12, the black sanitation workers had begun a strike. They had set out to form a union. They were sick and tired of low pay, no pay if it rained, no benefits, and no job security. They were sick and tired of being injured and even seeing two of their colleagues killed by defective equipment. The mayor would not meet with them. On February 23, they tried to meet with the City Council and the police maced them. The only white-led institution in Memphis that supported them was the AFL-CIO Labor Council. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sent its top organizing staff to Memphis. Still the city government refused to recognize the union or negotiate. Dr. King was leading the Poor People’s Campaign. Invited to speak to the striking workers, he came to the city on March 18. After all, even the black sanitation workers who worked full time for the city were earning poverty level wages.
Dr. King had long recognized that winning civil rights was the first step toward real freedom. There were still substantive (human) rights to achieve, such as economic equality. Without economic justice, freedom was not complete. A convenient historical forgetfulness allows us to ignore the fact that the 1963 march on Washington was a March for Jobs and Freedom. Freedom, as King had said again and again – and said, once again, in Memphis – is more than the civil rights to vote, attend integrated public schools, eat in integrated restaurants, and ride in the front of the bus. It is the ability to live full and fulfilling lives. As he put it bluntly, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”
Civil rights were important. Winning them was a great victory. But civil rights are not enough.
Dr. King repeatedly declared that there were three evils that afflicted the United States. One was racial prejudice or injustice. This was what the civil rights movement addressed. I am not going to say much about the civil rights movement, since that has been and continues to be emphasized in most commemorations. But I will mention that King’s philosophy was personalistic. The fundamental concern was the person – whether we are talking about someone standing by your side or living on the other side of the globe – and each person was a moral actor.
The second great evil was economic injustice. Many people were not paid fairly for their labor. Some could not get jobs at all. They did not have access to family wealth. Recent immigrants rarely came with wealth. And with few exceptions, the descendents of slaves did not have family wealth. To this day, the mean and median wealth of Black families is lower than that of white families. In fact, data released by the Federal Reserve in September 2017 shows that the median net worth of whites is ten times that of Blacks. Without economic fairness, the person cannot thrive and the person cannot know real freedom.
Dr. King saw economic injustice through the lens of class as well as the lens of race. He was raised in a relatively sheltered middle class family and community: Sweet Auburn, then the wealthiest African American neighborhood in the nation. His middle class family was not so wealthy that he did not have to get summer jobs while in high school and college. He did. And it was through one of his summer jobs that he first saw poverty close up. And some of the poor people he met as a teenager were white.
Dr. King studied a great deal of philosophy in college and seminary. He decided that he could not be a Marxist because of Marx’s concept of human nature. He did not dismiss all of Marx’s work, although he rejected communism as it was practiced in 1940s and 50s. But he expressed his attraction to socialism, insisting that it had to be a democratic socialism. He may have even called himself a socialist once or twice. He supported proposals for a guaranteed minimum wage. He distrusted unregulated capitalism and was a dedicated supporter of organized labor, even when it had yet to eliminate racial prejudice from many unions.
Civil rghts are not enough. The substantive rights to live a full and fulfilling life – human rights – are just as important as civil rights. In Dr. King’s view, people had a right to honest jobs, good wages, and job security. These were required for real freedom. These were required for the person to thrive.
The third evil was war. When he broke the silence (his words) on April 4, 1967, he was addressing the United States’ moral responsibility for the war in Vietnam, which he saw as racist as well as violent. The war was destroying persons on both sides. But it was a war against the freedom of people of color: the people of Vietnam. His opposition led to a loss of support for his civil rights work from those unions that were stridently anti- communist – much of the AFL-CIO, especially its top leadership – and employed in defense-related industries (engines of economic growth following World War II). It fed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s long-held belief that King was a communist. But Dr. King saw the war eating at the moral core of the United States, whose imperfect democracy he dearly loved and sought to perfect. For the United States to be an imperial power betrayed its essence and purpose in being as much as domestic racism did.
For most of his adult life, Dr. King was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. So it was inevitable that – sooner or later – he would publicly make the connection between racial inequality, economic inequality, and war. And this he did in 1967.
Civil rights are not enough. There is a human right to live in peace and self-determination. In this case of the Vietnamese, national self-determination was essential to their freedom.
Dr. King was doing the work of racial and economic justice – supporting the unionization and strike of sanitation workers -- when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s human right to live a full and fulfilling life in physical safety was denied on that date.
The struggle, of course, continues. The civil rights victories of the 1950s and 60s are under assault. But they do not have to be lost. They may not be enough. But they are necessary. As Angela Davis said in the second reading, the Black civil rights movement was and is important, there are more civil rights battles to fight, and full freedom requires the achievement of human rights. Dr. King pointed this out less than two weeks before his death.
Dr. King was in Memphis on April 4, 1968 because civil rights are not enough.
You are probably thinking, this is all well and good, but what about today, January 14, 2018?
I could give you all kinds of statistics about the school to prison pipeline, education, income disparities and police violence. And they would all be relevant. Instead, let’s talk about football.
Actually, let’s talk about the cover of the current issue of The New Yorker.
Artist Mark Ulriksen depicts Dr. King on one knee in prayer, his right arm linked to Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett’s left arm, his own left arm linked to former Forty-Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s right arm. Dr. King and each of the football players are on one knee, as King and his allies knelt for prayer in the streets more than fifty years earlier and each of the two players has “taken a knee” during the playing of the national anthem prior to NFL games. In August 2016, when Kaepernick first stayed seated before changing his pose to taking a knee, he told NFL.com: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” [8/27/16]
Michael Bennett, who had long spoken out on justice issues and joined the protest of taking a knee – which continued even as Kaepernick remained unsigned for the 2017 season – was in August 2017 the victim of police misconduct. As reported by NFL columnist Jarrett Bell in USA Today [9/6/17], a police officer put a gun to Bennett’s head and threatened to blow his “(expletive) head off.” A second officer jammed his knee into Bennett’s back, making it difficult for him to breathe. Bell goes on to state:
Too many people have twisted the reason for the national anthem protests, interpreting them as a slight on the American flag of the military. It was always about police brutality, systemic injustice and oppression.
That is to say, the protests are about civil rights and human rights … both. The civil rights of freedom of movement and due process. The human rights freedom of life and safety. NFL players make good money, but at a sport that can damage their health, and as Black men, they too are targets of white supremacy
As the artist of the The New Yorker cover, Mark Ulriksen, put it:
I asked myself, What would King be doing if he were around today? This is 49er country and my mom [is] upset that players have brought politics into sports, but I say, … I’m glad that Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett are making it political. I’m sure that if King were around today, he’d be disappointed at the slow pace of progress: two steps forward, twenty steps back. Or ten yards back, as the metaphor may be. [www.thenewyorker.com]
There seem to be a lot of people upset about the cover. Not Dr. King’s daughter, The Rev. Bernice King. On September 23, 2017, she tweeted two pictures: one of her father and other civil rights leaders down on one knee on the street; the other of NFL players in the same pose during the national anthem. Her words: “The real shame & disrespect is that, decades after the 1st photo, racism STILL kills people & corrupts systems.”
Five days ago, in response to complaints about cover of the New Yorker, she tweeted:
Many are troubled by the image. Why? In answering this, I think we can gain understanding of my father’s teachings, including his assertion that the “white moderate is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
Neither the pursuit of civil rights nor the pursuit of human rights is orderly. Bennett and Kaepernick have their civil rights, but their human rights are under attack.
Civil rights are important. But civil rights are not enough.
Brothers and sisters, we religious liberals are called NOT to be among the moderates “more devoted to order than to justice.” If we truly affirm the worth and dignity of every individual, we need to be in the struggle today, as messy as it has gotten. And it is going to get messier.
For all the progress that has been made, civil rights are not enough!
Amen. Blessed Be.
Staying Strong from Passover to Easter
Delievered on Sunday, April 16, 2017 at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey
The season that includes Passover and Easter is a fit time for reflection on the struggle for survival and freedom, from the stories in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures to the present day: Slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, the arrival in the promised land, the destruction of the Temple, the Babylonian exile, the life and ministry of Jesus, his crucifixion, the stories of resurrection, American slavery, the escapes along the Underground Railroad, Civil War, the end of slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, the New Jim Crow, Black Lives Matter…
I. The Biblical story of the Exodus is the story behind Passover. In Judaism, it serves as the reason for the admonitions in the Book of Leviticus and elsewhere to welcome the stranger and former slave, for you were once strangers in a foreign land and you were once slaves. It is also served as the message of and model for deliverance from slavery in the United States. Hence, the popularity of gospel tunes, such as Go Down, Moses, which we sang as our opening hymn today. Hence the use of “Our Moses” as a name for Harriet Tubman, the former slave who led many other slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
II. It continues to be a moving metaphor to this day. I have just heard of a book by Dutch theologian Dick Boer, Deliverance from Slavery Attempting a Biblical Theology in the Service of Liberation, in which he seeks to generalize from the biblical text a more general theology of liberation.
The Passover Seder is the celebration of a spring feast ordered by God in the Book of Exodus. Its origin is in the passing over of the plague of the death of the first-born in Egypt.
The Exodus story is told, but so are the absence of the prophet Elijah and the Babylonian Exile (6th century BCE). Many Passover customs are not biblical, but date from the period following the destruction of the second temple c. 70 CE. Displacement and exile are at the heart of the Seder, even seven decades after the establishment of the modern nation of Israel.
The Christian narrative eventually leads to Easter, the validation of Jesus as Messiah. Except for a few small groups of messianic Jews, Judaism does not make use of the story of Easter or accept Jesus (Yeshua) as the messiah. Nor does Islam accept Jesus as messiah, though he is the next-to-last prophet before Muhammad. Easter, as a point of fact of historical development, was connected with pre-Christian spring festivals and possibly a goddess named Oester. Like all spring festivals it has elements of rebirth, as exemplified by plant and animal life. Many of the customs of Easter – eggs, flowers, and bunnies, for example – have more to do with these spring festivals than the Christian story of Jesus’s resurrection.
Early Unitarians, who came out of Protestant Christianity, doubted the divinity of Jesus and even – in many cases – his resurrection. The Rev. Theodore Parker (1810-1860) not only doubted the resurrection and denied that Jesus was divine, he made two remarkable statements: one, that Jesus was the greatest religious teacher of all time, but he was still wrong about some things, and two, martyrdom was common in ancient times and, therefore the manner of Jesus’s death was not remarkable. The story of the resurrection was a testament to the truth of his teachings, not a statement of historical fact. How Jesus lived and what he taught was what mattered. In an Easter sermon Parker said to his congregation, referring to Jesus’s goodness, May you be that goodness yourselves. The stories of resurrection were stories of the possibilities of human goodness. In other words, you may have your own Easter.
Some of us can attest to our own Easter moments. A collective Easter is not the miraculous story in the Christian gospels; it is the goal of the transformation of the world and transition to the Beloved Community. It is liberation. Our ancestors may have lived through Exodus. The slaves and there descendents have lived through a modern Exodus, but they still have not arrived at the modern Promised Land. Many live in what MSNBC reporter Chris Hayes calls “a colony within a nation.”
III. The power of the Exodus narrative in Black Christianity is its assurance of ultimate justice -- not immediate justice. The retelling of the story and the placing of present sufferings and injustices in the context of the story is one manner of staying strong from Exodus to Easter. The telling of the story does not achieve liberation; it encourages liberation. The work of liberation is not complete.
The continued struggle for liberation is the continuation of the narrative. Just looking at the narrative in relation to slavery, Jim Crow and Civil Rights, it is an ongoing narrative today, as we struggle to retain the successes of the past – not only in relation to black civil rights, but also advances in the rights of LGBTQI, women, Native Americans, immigrants, Latinos/Latinas, and other marginalized peoples. Within Judaism, many Seders now have an orange to represent Miriam, sister of Moses and a prophet in her own right, the female power in the story of liberation, to emphasize the need for libratory justice for women.
None of us have yet made it from Exodus to the Easter that is collective liberation and justice, that is, the Beloved Community. I would argue that this is true even for those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus. The events of recent years have made that clear for the African American community. After the advances of the Civil Rights Movement, there was the New Black Crow (the criminalization and imprisonment of large numbers of black males), the ongoing unjustified police violence against people of color, and structural injustice in relation to poverty and health care (among others) that made the Black Lives Matter movement necessary. Which, as Patrise Cullors says, continues to be one important part of the narrative.
By this I mean, however we read and interpret and ancient and modern texts and traditions, we have not reached the Promise Land, the broken world has not been transformed into the Beloved Community. We have not experienced Easter as a social and moral transformation, in spite of many years wandering in the wilderness.
Almost everywhere I go, persons of color and white people see my Black Lives Matter button and say how much they like it. I buy these ten or twenty at a time and give them away. Most recently I gave one to an African American woman who rang up my first purchase at the newly opened Whole Foods Market on Broad Street in Newark. She immediately pinned it to her WFM apron and said she would wear it all the time. A few weeks earlier, I was celebrating my birthday at Hat City Kitchen in Orange. Between sets, one of the musicians told me he liked the button. I have more, I said, would you like it? Yes. And I gave another to a white employee who was in the conversation. Both immediately pinned them on to the vests they were wearing. I told them, with a little pride in the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, that my congregation was the only congregation in the town with a Black Lives Matter banner on its building. I mentioned that there was some discussion of how long it would hang. I said that my opinion was that it and other BLM banners needed to be up until we had dismantled structural racism. The musician said, That will probably be about another 400 years. I hope he is not right, but he could be.
IV. Staying strong is essential to the struggle against racism in American society. As the Rev. Charles Franklin Boyer stated in his address to the UULMNJ plenary yesterday, Unitarian Universalists are strong actors in the struggle against the elements of structural racism that our legislative network and Rev. Boyer work on: mass incarceration, education, and criminal justice reform among them.
We are good at staying strong for the struggle in society at large.
However, there is currently an uproar over the appointment of senior staff within the Unitarian Universalist Association.
What happened was this. There was an open position for one of the five Regional Lead positions. The two finalists included a woman of color, who was a director of religious education and a member of the UUA Board of Trustees, and a white male, who was a parish minister and a member of the UUA Board of Trustees. The woman was told by phone she was not the one chosen, while attending the recent Lives of Black Unitarian Universalism gathering in New Orleans. The reason given had to do with “fit”, which is often a coded way of telling women or people of color that they are not wanted -- no specific concrete reason needed. The region to which she applied has no people of color on staff.
Aisha Hauser, director of religious education at the East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, WA, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association Nominating Committee, and a former member of this Society was among the first to publicly criticize the hiring decision and call it out as “white supremacy.” Numerous white ministers signed a letter of support and a half-dozen ministers of color wrote to the UUA Board and President. The president of the UUA, the Rev. Peter Morales, responded with a letter that insensitively accused the people raising the issue of “self-righteous hysteria.” In his letter he also stated that DREs didn’t have the administrative experience that ministers had. That only inflamed people more. (I can tell you for a fact that the generalization about administrative experience has no basis in reality. There are strong and weak administrators among ministers and among DREs; you cannot generalize based on the job title.) A white female minister about my age said to me, “That’s how they talked to me when I was young and one of the few women ministers, and raising issues about women ministers’ access to good positions.”
A few days later, Rev. Morales resigned as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Within days UUA Vice President (Chief operating Officer) the Rev. Harlan Limpert and the director of congregational services (who approved the recent hire), the Rev. Scott Tayler, both resigned.
This chain of events has made it clear that we have work to do on ourselves, as a liberal religious movement, as an association of freely gathered religious communities that would be free spaces in a repressive world, as would-be builders of the Beloved Community.
The UUA Board of Trustees has begun to address the issue. It has agreed to a thorough review of hiring practices and named a former minister of this Society, the Rev. Sarah Lammert, to serve as Interim Chief Operating Officer of the UUA. She, in turn, has appointed an African American woman and religious educator, the Rev. Jessica York, to be the Interim Director of Ministry, the Rev. Ms. Lammert’s current position.
We are experiencing a shakeup of up the structural racism that we inherited from our history as a white Protestant denomination and addressing how that structural racism leads to white supremacy, i.e., the apparent impossibility for people of color to move into high level staff positions in the Association.
This uproar is not a problem. It is an opportunity to align our internal practices more closely with our stated principles.
The Lives of Black UU organization has asked member societies of the Unitarian Universalist Association to have a Teach-In on White Supremacy during Sunday service time on either April 30th or May 7th. The boards of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and the Liberal Religious Education Directors Association have all endorsed the call. Since you will be hearing the ministerial candidate on April 30th, ours will be on May 7th. The Unitarian Society of Ridgewood is among at least 240 societies already signed up for a teach-in. [As of April 26th, the number of teach-ins had reached to 603, more than half the member congregations of the UUA.]
The need for this internal work does not mean we forget about the issues in the larger world. With the retrenchments in the Justice Department on voting rights and supervision of police departments with civil rights complaints; with the seating of Judge Gorsuch* as a justice of the United States Supreme Court; with the assaults on Planned Parenthood and GLBTQI rights, and other retrenchments, there is much work for freely gathered religious communities such as USR to do within the walls and beyond the walls.
The work on white supremacy internally and in society at large demands a commitment to continue support of Black Lives Matter and the internal work of Unitarian Universalism to bring us closer to our own denominational Easter. A great opportunity is at hand.
VI. The work goes on – internally and externally. We are slowly building the Beloved Community in spite of recent setbacks. Easter understood as moral and social transformation – is a long way off. But we can take steps toward making it real.
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If you want to hear the sermon, you may listen to the podcast at www.uuridgewood.org.
Cell phone: 646-515-4729
Rev. Tony Johnson is a Minister of Religion, in Fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. He was ordainedin 1977 by the Unitarian Fellowship of Burbank, California and holds Certificates of Final Fellowship in both Parish and Community Ministry and is an Accredited Interim Minister. As a Parish Minister he serves congregations in transition for one-to-two-year periods. As a Community Minister, he works with community organizations and serves individuals without congregational affiliations.
Whatever the setting, his ministry is defined by the Gospel of Solidarity, the teachings that human beings deserve equitable treatment and justice and that people are at their best and strongest when they stand in solidarity with each other.