The Reed that Bends, the Tree that Breaks(Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 17 September 2016

tree bending.jpg

There’s a French fable from the late 17th century by Jean de La Fontaine, The Oak and the Reed, Le chêne et le roseau. The oak stands tall and tells the thin reed, “You grow along the banks of the river, but you are weak and you need me to give you shelter.” “Oh,” says the reed, “you are too kind to care so much about me. But just wait. When the storm comes and the winds blow hard, I will still be here, but you will be gone.”

Les vents me sont moins qu’à vous redoutables.
Je plie, et ne romps pas.

The cruel North wind blows and just as the reed has warned, the oak tree is uprooted in its inability to bend, while the reed remains, small but mighty.

The historical analysis of La Fontaine’s fable tells us that the oak represents the king, while the reed is the people. Who has the real power in the end? The people. It’s a warning to the king who believes that he is all-powerful simply because he wears his crown, while the people may appear weak, but they are the ones who posses the true strength. The fable is also often seen as a metaphor for the way we choose to live our lives. If we are rigid and inflexible, a time will come when life’s storms will topple us. But if we move like reeds in the wind, we will survive even the greatest trials.

On Wednesday, September 20th, at sundown, the Jewish New Year begins. This is the time of the High Holy Days that begin with the celebration of the creation of the world and end with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, on Friday, September 29. This is a time when Jews are called to consider how they have failed God, themselves and others in the past year, how they have missed the mark. It’s a time to ask and to offer forgiveness.

I always feel that this is a tradition worth observing each year to honour the Jewish roots that form part of the foundation of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Like Louise, who sang a blessing for us earlier, I also come from a Jewish background, and this time of year continues to be important to me personally, as I weave my own Jewish roots into my Unitarian practice.

This year, I find, I’m feeling my Jewishness more acutely than ever. This summer as I watched the footage of hundreds of men in polo shirts and khaki pants carrying torches, waving Nazi flags and chanting “Jew will not replace us”, as they marched around a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA, I shivered. I don’t think shiver is even a strong enough word for what I felt. I felt nauseated. I felt sick. 

Then the president of the United States, (sorry, but I can no longer speak his name), dared to say that there were good people carrying those torches and that there was violence and bad behaviour on both sides, when a young woman marching in the counter protest was mowed down and killed. I suppose I felt some solace in hearing the world rise up in reaction, calling out the American president for showing his true colours, for being unable and unwilling to truly condemn the Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, White Nationalists, Fascists and other hate groups that gathered that day in Charlottesville. He never once spoke of Heather Heyer as a human being who lived and loved and lost her life, never once dared to call her murder terrorism as he would have done if the name of the driver had been Hussein instead of Fields. He waited four days to reach out to her family. Four days.

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Those were the words that Heather Heyer had posted on her Facebook page before she died. Forgive me if I’m sounding too political, but all of this has cut me to the quick.

So I stand here and I must confront what Jewish tradition has always called me to do at this time of year. We must reach out in forgiveness, as much as we must ask for forgiveness to wipe the slate clean for the New Year. Honestly, it’s a tradition I’ve always found hard to live up to. To say we are sorry, is incredibly challenging for us as human beings. How often do we offer half apologies like, “I’m sorry you felt that way…”? Right now, we are witnessing world leadership where the admission of wrong and the art of apology have been wiped from the diplomatic vocabulary.

I’d like to believe that we can learn to be capable of bending, of being flexible, like the reed. I’d like to believe that we can learn to say, “I’m sorry,” whole heartedly, without qualifiers, just simply, “I’m sorry.”

But when I hear he-who-cannot-be named say that there was wrong on both sides in Charlottesville, there’s this tiny a part of me, I admit, that hears myself. Just a tiny part — hear me out. How often have I, as a Unitarian minister, heard myself saying that there are two sides to any story? How often have I heard myself trying to make sense of the motivations of both sides in any conflict? There’s value in letting go of our inflexibility, in bending in understanding toward someone else, but then there are the times when we need to be strong in our resolve.

You know those moments in your own life, the forgiveness you cannot find, the times when you know it would have been better to bend, and the times when you know you need to stand firm. In the giving and taking of daily living, these are the hardest things for us to figure out. When it comes to crowds invoking the memories of Nazi Germany by carrying torches, flying swastikas and calling out for blood and soil, how can we ever bend or forgive?

I recently read an article by an historian who wrote that he understood why Confederate statues needed to come down in US cities and in the US capitol. But, as an historian, he said, he was having a hard time seeing history be erased. For a moment you think, well, sure, maybe there’s value to placing these reprehensible monuments into a museum with a clear explanation of what they really mean.

But consider this: these are not statues of Confederate generals signing peace agreements to restore the union of the United States. These are statues of generals in their uniforms, riding their mighty stallions, brandishing their sabers. These were monuments erected in the 1920s and 30s, as well as the 1950s and 60s during the Civil Rights Movement, to send a clear message to African American citizens: The war may be over, but you have not won. You will never be safe. You will never be equal.

The hate groups who gathered in Charlottesville came to protest the pending removal of Lee’s statue. “This is our history,” they said. “How can you take it away from us?” But think about what General Lee had done. When his army invaded Pennsylvania, the troupes were encouraged to seize and return blacks to the South, whether they had been born free, previously granted their freedom or escaped. As many as a thousand men, women and children were captured and driven like cattle back to Virginia to be auctioned off as slaves. At another battle, black prisoners were slaughtered. The list of atrocities goes on.

 As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

Yes, this is painful history you say. But that’s the United States. What about Canada? On Canada Day, an entire month before the incident in the US, dozens of people gathered in Halifax around the statue of Edward Cornwallis, as Chief Grizzly Mamma from British Columbia ritually shaved her hair to mourn the atrocities committed against Indigenous Peoples. After founding Halifax in 1749, Cornwallis had called for a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.

As the ceremony proceeded, five men approached from a group called the Proud Boys who label themselves “a fraternal Chauvinist organization that will no longer apologize for the creation of the Western world.”  All five of the men are members of the Royal Canadian Navy. The intrusion was small but significant, as they interrupted a prayer and made it clear that they had come to defend what they see as Canada’s heritage as a British colony. After a heated conversation, they left.

A week later, a group of longtime leaders of Canada’s white supremacy movement met in a Toronto public library to memorialize Barbara Kulaska, a lawyer known for her work in helping “alleged war criminals and avowed Holocaust deniers beat criminal charges.”

On August 20, La Meute (The Wolf Pack), a far-right, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant group, marched in Quebec City. They were met by counter protestors who were shut down by police for the violent actions taken by some. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know enough about what happened, but I know that this was not a proud moment in Quebec history.

This is us, Canada. Things may seem less visible here, but add to the list the Canadians and Quebecois who joined the white nationalists in Charlottesville, or the young man who shot and killed 6 people and injured 19 others in the mosque in Saint Foy, and you have but a partial list of what’s been going on here. There’s no doubt that fear and hatred is on the rise. We tell ourselves that hatred lives in the hearts of other cultures, not our own. But no community, no country, no people, is fully immune — not without constant and total vigilance over our minds, our hearts and our actions.

Do we need to take down statues of Canadian figures like Cornwallis?  Do we change street names? I think we need to publicly and permanently tell the whole story, the whole truth — like the plaque installed at the gravesite of Duncan Campbell Scott letting visitors know of his instrumental role in creating Canada's residential school system.

In Germany there’s the stolperstein project which has faced its own share of public debate. Stolperstein literally means stumbling blocks. These are concrete cubes, each bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of Jews and other victims of Nazi extermination or persecution. The plaques mark the exact place where people were removed from their homes or their workplaces, as a way to make sure that Germans citizens never forget the horrific magnitude of this part of their history. A friend in Germany tells me that these are powerful reminders that you pass daily, nearly every place you go.

When I was at the UUA General Assembly this June, keynote speaker (Ware lecturer- http://www.uuworld.org/articles/stevenson-2017-ware-lecture) Bryan Stevenson spoke of the stolperstein in Germany and the influence they’ve had on his work to raise awareness of the history of lynching in the South. Stevenson is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. He has dedicated his life to helping mostly black men in the Alabama prison system legally escape execution.

“Imagine what it would be like,” he said, “if there were a monument on every tree, on every place where there had been a lynching in the US?” Right now, he and his foundation have just begun construction of the first National Memorial to the Victims of Lynching, to be be built on a hill in Montgomery, Alabama. Part of the construction will include markers that will eventually to be sent to stand as memorials in every county in the US where there have been lynchings of African Americans.

[See this short video about the plans for the monument, which powerfully expresses more than I could ever say. https://eji.org/national-lynching-memorial]

Bryan Stevenson said to us, “I'm not interested in punishing America for this history; I want to liberate us from it.” He said, “We have to change the narratives that support injustice.”

This summer, as David and I drove through Nova Scotia, we listened to a powerful interview with a young man named Derek Black, godson of white supremacist David Duke and son of a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who is the founder of Stormfront, a major white nationalist website. (podcast: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/podcasts/the-daily/former-white-nationalist-derek-black.html

transcript: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/podcasts/the-daily-transcript-derek-black.html?mcubz=1)

Derek Black had been raised to believe that whites were superior to all other races; that the world would be a better place if people lived in racially isolated communities. As a child he started a forum for other children about white supremacy and as a teen he was commentator for a white nationalist radio talk show. He ran as a Republican for a local public office in Florida and won. But then, in 2010, he went off to university, attending a small liberal arts college about three and a half hours from home.

In the beginning, he enjoyed being a regular college student, keeping his true identity secret. Eventually, he was outed and the friends he had made turned away from him. But there was one student he had gotten know during his freshman year, an observant Jew, who invited him to one of the Shabbat dinners he often hosted for Jewish and non-Jewish friends. The friend figured that if Derek was going to hate Jews, at least he should meet some real Jews.

Derek accepted the invitation and that night he met someone who engaged him in conversation about his beliefs for the next two years. Confronted with facts and figures and tremendous patience, Derek’s white nationalism was slowly stripped away until he finally rejected the white supremacy of his childhood. When he publicly renounced his family’s views, his father told him that he wished he’d never had a son.

Think of the courage of those two strangers who met at a Shabbat dinner and willingly engaged in dialogue for two years. It cannot have been easy, but what a powerful outcome. That, to me, is as close as you get to truly living the Rosh Hashanah promise, to fully engaging in a process of ongoing forgiveness that doesn’t end in a single conversation.

Until we change the narratives that support injustice, things will stay the same. We can be the oak standing with the king, believing that we are righteous in our strength and in our privilege, believing that the dominant culture has the only story to be told. But as the storms come, the people will rise up to tell their own stories, and they will live on while the mighty oaks fall.

Download The Reed that Bends, the Tree that Breaks