Walking with Hope

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 11 January 2015

This is a sermon about Martin, Charlie and hope.

If you could sum up the job of a minister in one very short sentence, I’d say that it is to bring hope into the world. That’s what I believe I’m called to do.  Not hope for some life beyond death, but hope for this world, for the lives we live now.  Today is one of those days, when I wonder if I can live up to this calling.  It’s hard to bring hope when the world around you makes no sense at all.  The events of the past week in Paris have brought a grey cloud of sadness over me.  I imagine you feel it too.  If this morning’s band hadn’t already rehearsed the music for today, I might have changed the entire order of service.

It’s been almost 52 years since Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, “I have a dream,” were delivered to a huge crowd at the March on Washington for Civil Rights (it was 28 August 1963).  You could say there’s been a lot of change — and not nearly enough change  — since Dr. King cried out for the day when his children would be “judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Given the events of the past year in the US, with the deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers in Fergusson, Missouri, Brooklyn, New York, and elsewhere, it can feel as though Dr. King’s dream has been completely lost.

But, hope, as I told you last week, is about continuing on even when we know that the world will not change in the ways that we dream.  Hope accepts reality, but trusts in the power of our hearts to choose love over fear. This is what Dr. King taught.  These are his teachings that continue to reverberate around the world, teachings that I needed to be reminded of this week.

You may not know this, but in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered an important speech to a large gathering of Unitarian Universalists.  He was invited to give that year’s Ware Lecture, a prestigious annual lecture that’s been hosted by the UUA General Assembly since 1922. (His speech: http://www.uua.org/ga/past/1966/ware/index.shtml)

He told the gathering that he felt a great affinity with our movement.  He felt that he was among friends.  “Don’t sleep through the revolution,” was his message.  He argued that the church needed to stay awake, to instil a world perspective in its people, to reaffirm over and over again the essential immorality of racial segregation, to refute the idea that there are superior and inferior races.  Most importantly, the church needed to move out into the arena of social action.   

So many of the things he spoke of that night in Hollywood, Florida, sadly still ring true.  He said that progress in race relations had been made, but not enough.  He said, “We must realize that the plant of freedom is only a bud and not yet a flower….There still are stubborn, difficult problems to deal with all over the country.”  “Look around our big cities,” he said.  He spoke of inequality in education, employment and housing.  

These same words could be spoken today.  As CNN sports writer LZ Granderson put it this way in August: (http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/11/opinion/granderson-missouri-police-shooting/):

I am tired.

Tired of our streets being peppered with dead, unarmed black people. Tired of listening to armed assailants describe how they feared for their lives. Tired of being told “this has nothing to do with race.”

I am tired of having to march to have murderers arrested. Tired of worrying about my 17-year-old being gunned down by some random white guy who thinks his music is too loud. Tired of knowing the same could happen to me…

…I am tired of seeing images of police officers with snarling dogs threatening a crowd of black protesters and not knowing if it's from the 1960s or last week…

…I’m tired of hearing mothers and fathers weep for children who did not have to die.

But most of all I'm tired of the people who are not tired like me.

These are sad words.  Words that point to a hopelessness that continues. I know that it can be easy for us to say that this is a US story.  Yet if you speak to members of our First Nation communities, you can hear similar stories of racial profiling and police discrimination.  There is a hopelessness here, too, that we tend to pretend doesn’t exist.

I think of this interview I recently heard with Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who has dedicated his career to defending men and women on death row in Alabama.  (on Tapestry: http://www.cbc.ca/tapestry/episode/2014/12/05/champion-of-the-damned/).  He speaks of working in Montgomery, Alabama today, of standing on the shoulders of people like Dr. King, who came before him in the civil rights movement, who lived through greater injustice than he has ever known, yet kept marching forward.

“Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists,” he says.  You have to keep hope alive if you are going to fight injustice.

So let me shift gears for a moment.  This week, like many of you, I’m struggling to understand a violent and unjust world.  I’m trying to hold onto hope and it isn’t easy.  When nearly the entire staff of the humour journal Charlie Hebdo was massacred in Paris on Wednesday, I was shocked and deeply saddened.  How do you explain human inhumanity to each other?  We try to make sense of it.  We feel helpless and we want to do something, anything.  So, I understand why so many people have joined in the campaign “Je suis Charlie.”  I am Charlie. When the World Trade Towers fell on 9/11 in 2001, the French press and much of the world said, “Nous sommes americains.”  We are Americans.  I think it’s the same impulse.  You see something atrocious happen, you know how fragile your own life is, and you offer your solidarity as one human being to another.

But I also find myself struggling with the content of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo produced.  Not because I think they should have been censored, but because I feel personally saddened by the memories that they bring back for me.  Yes, they made fun of everyone including Jews, Christians, Muslims and right wingers (though it seems that only the cartoons focused on Mohammed and Islam are being circulated here and around the world).   You could say, what’s wrong with a little bit of political incorrectness?  I’d say that there’s a great luxury in being able to mock others if you have never been the brunt of racial, religious or ethnic slurs yourself.  

I grew up experiencing anti-Semitism.  I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me.  But I’m trying to figure out how to explain what this feels like when you are a child.  You see horrible caricatures of what your people supposedly look like to the world.  You feel shame, embarrassment, and anger.  You either insulate yourself from the world that is different from you, or you try to assimilate.  As adults, we can put these things into context.  As children, we can be deeply wounded.  I guess that’s why I just haven’t been able to say “Je suis Charlie,” even if I deeply believe in the freedom of written and artistic expression. I’m still trying to figure out where the boundary of that expression ends and hate speech begins.

None of this excuses the events in France this past week.  Nothing can ever excuse such violence. Why did this really happen?  We may be searching for answers forever.  In a recent interview (http://www.salon.com/2014/11/23/karen_armstrong_sam_harris_anti_islam_talk_fills_me_with_despair/), the preeminent scholar of comparative religions, Karen Armstrong, spoke of the studies that have been done to understand why individuals commit this kind of violence.   In each case, what emerges is that there was a sense of meaninglessness and hopelessness in their lives that led to the desire to go out in a blaze of glory.  “A lack of meaning is a dangerous thing in society.”

Which brings me to the question of faith.  Faith, you may say, is also a dangerous thing.  I don’t agree.  Faith grounded in love can heal the world.  Faith grounded in hate never will.  Where we get confused is when we turn all religions into monoliths and imagine that there is only one expression of each faith.  Yet there are so many expressions of every religion from Buddhism to Islam.  The Dali Lama cannot speak for all of the Buddhists in the world any more than Al-Qaeda can speak for all of the Muslims in the world, or any more than the Pope can speak for those Unitarians who consider themselves Humanist Christians.  Our challenge is to understand the difference and to not assume that, because one person acts violently in the name of their God, all people who have faith intend to impose their faith upon us by violent means.

Back in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King told the UUA General Assembly that non-violence was the “most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and human dignity.”  He said that people often find it hard to believe that love can be the foundation of a social revolution.  Most revolutions in the past were based on hope and hate, hope for change and hatred that called for the destruction of supporters of the old regime.  He said that the civil rights movement in the US was based on hope and love: The kind of love that the Greeks would call “agape,” “a creative, redemptive good will for all humanity, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”    

Dr. King went on to say these words:

“In some strange way we have been able to stand up in the face of our most violent opponents and say, in substance, we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with our soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…   

“[Be] assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

That day, Dr. King called the assembly to dare to be maladjusted.  He echoed the words he had spoken in 1957.

“I must say to you this evening, my friends, there are some things in our nation and in our world to which I'm proud to be maladjusted. And I call upon you to be maladjusted and all people of good will to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry.  I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity. I must honestly say, however much criticism it brings, that I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and to the self-defeating effects of physical violence….

“…Yes, I must confess that I believe firmly that our world is in dire need of a new organization – the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment….   

“…As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could say to the men and women of his day ‘he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’ Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”

And I say Amen to that.  May we find hope in our maladjustment.

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