Free and Responsible in Times of Unrest

Originally delivered to University Unitarian Church on 7/5/2020 as part of Independence Day weekend. You can watch the service on the UUC website HERE.

Good morning friends. It is good to be together again, even if it is virtually. I hope that this Independence Day weekend has offered rest and community. The sun is beginning to peek out from the clouds and the promise of Pacific Northwest Summer is almost here. Yesterday evening seemed beautiful, sitting on the deck, overlooking the garden. The air was calm with our bees coming home for the night. Then my 5 year old came out of his room saying the fireworks were too loud for him to sleep.

I thought of the veterans I work with and how 4th of July is a complicated holiday. Many of them love their country and find meaning in their service, and also must find ways to drown out the bombs bursting in air because their experienced trauma on the battlefield cannot distinguish the difference between fireworks and munitions. And even though laws have been passed around shooting off fireworks within the city limits, the night sounded like a battlefield.

For a people who profess to “support our troops” there seems little care for the impact our freedom has on those who have served. Pointing to a incongruity between what is said and what it done. This year, our nation’s birthday feels complicated and subdued, and not just because of COVID. We seem to be collectively struggling with the pains of growing as a culture and community after 244 years of existence. We continue to learn the intertwined lessons of freedom and responsibility.

A popular slogan reads, “Freedom isn’t free.” It is usually associated with military service as a reminder of the price paid in human lives to keep our country safe. Yet I look at our summer of protests and cannot help asking the question, “Who’s freedom are we celebrating?” Many Black, Brown and Indigenous communities are marching in the street because they don’t feel free. #MeToo did not emerge as a hash tag out of nowhere. Nor did #BlackLivesMatter. The promises of the United States of America have been too long in coming. And perhaps because what is promised has not been delivered, it is instead a lie? That freedom is not for all, but only for some: the white, the rich, the powerful, the normative.

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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Our Declaration of Independence is a living document that set the foundation of multiple freedoms along our nation’s growth. We know at the time of its writing there were vast swaths of humanity who would not benefit from its ideals. What it did was set the stage for freedoms in the future, all of which began with fighting and struggle, protest and civil disobedience and civil war. Freedoms which were never guaranteed until they were wrested from the hands of the rich and powerful. Freedom of Black people from slavery. Freedom for women to vote. Freedom to marry, whether another color or the same gender. Our country has known nothing but struggle to live up to the ideals we preach; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As a minister and chaplain, I wrestle with the concept of “freedom” philosophically and theologically. This uniquely human virtue feels out of place in the world as it is a constant struggle to achieve. Our universe is more clockwork than not with its laws of motion and energy, gravity and time. There seems little room for freedom. Religion still wrestles with the balance of human will and how it interacts with the Ground of Being; how can all powerful, all good and knowing God allow human beings to do evil. It seems that God’s freedom is limited by our capacity to do what we want. Existentialists acknowledge that there is much to being human that isn’t free; our genetic code, our being born in time and place, our growth and development; all of which is dependent on our parents and our community. The self-made man is a myth. No one does life alone.

Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would write that human beings are “condemned to be free.” Because of the crushing weight that comes from the human struggle with forces outside of one’s self that seek to restrain the human spirit in its becoming. And these forces of limitation are everywhere: government and laws, church and state, family systems and social groups all provide containers to push against. And we push against our limitations perhaps because we believe we are inherently more than what our systems tell us. We are capable of imagining freedom as an ideal and put in the work of creating it. Planets and suns, moons and stars care nothing for freedom. Nor the dirt under our feet. It seems that the only part of our universe that cares about freedom are the pieces in it that flourish; life. To be alive is to seek freedom.

From its very beginning on this planet, life flourished against adversity. Its advantage was evolution, adapting to overcome. And even then freedom wasn’t so much a concept as it was mathematics and biochemistry. A species would expand until it couldn’t. Eventually covering the whole planet with biodiversity that ebbs and flows in balance created over millennia. Here in Seattle we know what happens when the freedom of the natural world runs amok. My neighbors spent days of time and energy to remove Himalayan blackberry from their backyard, which had crushed out the plum and apple trees originally placed there. The only other thing that survived back there was the ivy. And now that it has been removed, there is nothing. At least until life finds a way.

As human beings emerging out of this spirit of life, we have an intrinsic drive to be free. Which is why our own faith holds freedom as a covenanted belief. We Unitarian Universalists believe in freedom because it is what our faith has struggled to have for millennia; from the time of Arius and through the Protestant Reformation. A freedom to find our own connection to and relationship with life’s ground of being, however it is named. And our principles are not just a gathering of ideas but a formula, much like the Declaration of Independence. They move from individual to the universal. Our faith begins with the existential reality that a human being regardless of context has in themselves inherent dignity and worth. No exceptions.

Because if there were exceptions in this first statement, arguments could be made for exclusion. And we, as inherited from our religious ancestors, know the price of exclusion in the form of silencing whether it was through the prison cell or the bonfire. Yet, we are not alone in this universe, and so our freedom moves outward to include how we aspire to be with each other; with justice, equity and compassion. Which is not ruled by selfishness but through support, of one another’s spiritual growth in the human project. And that this growth strives for a balance between freedom and responsibility. Which is our fourth covenanted principle: “We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Our faith recognizes that between freedom and responsibility is the necessary balance of power between “Can I?” and “Should I?” One of the lines I love from the movie Jurassic Park as the protagonists struggle with seeing dinosaurs created for human amusement is delivered by actor Jeff Goldblum: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And if we remember what happened in the movie, life found a way. There is a reason our bale blue dot of a planet is struggling with ecological catastrophe. It’s because we had the freedom to do with it however we chose without the foresight or the will to decide of whether or not we should have done it.

The word “responsible” comes from the Latin respondere, meaning to answer to. Our own word in English, to “respond.” So as we covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, to who or what are we responsible? From a theological perspective, I would say that eventually we are responsible to that source of life and love from which we all came. Which includes each other. Our freedom to search for truth and meaning is not done in a vacuum. It is always in relationship with other people and life itself.

Which is why our own faith struggles with this fourth principles. Everyone wants the freedom and yet it is painful to lean into the responsibility. I am completely free to, from this pulpit, say any number of things. This is one amazing part of our religion. There is no Pope or council of Bishops who can defrock me. I cannot be brought up on charges of heresy or deviance from doctrine. And yet, if I were to preach a theology of white supremacy, I would be held responsible to you all and to our faith. Not as a limit to my freedom but because of the injury such a declaration would cause to our siblings for whom white supremacy means their dehumanization. Just because I can, does not mean I should. We are better, together.

On this 244th anniversary of the United States of America, we are deeply feeling the dynamic tension created between freedom and responsibility. We are living a political, economic and religious system that says one thing: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And does another, as so many people have to fight this very system to be recognized as human beings. Just as cognitive dissonance is the increasing stress a human being experiences when holding contradictory beliefs, so too is our country writhing with the pain of political, economic and spiritual dissonance. And we will continue to do so until all are free.

There is no solution past this time that is comfortable. #MeToo is supposed to feel uncomfortable. #BlackLivesMatter is supposed to feel uncomfortable. #SayHerName is supposed to feel uncomfortable. I have heard voices say “I would support the movement if they stopped rioting. Stopped yelling. Stopped calling the police ‘pigs.’ Stopped being so disrespectful.” Yet no people under the yoke of oppression have ever gained an inch of traction until the escalation of conflict. We want our freedom from social unrest and not the responsibility that comes with preventing it.

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the [Black American] has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

            These words were not written over the last few weeks but in 1967 by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his sermon The Other America. The civil rights champion of justice and freedom dedicated to nonviolent civil disobedience knew the origin of riots not as a disease but as a symptom. The actual disease being poverty, racism, sexism, bigotry, and discrimination. Diseases because they trouble the waters of civil society which says, at least in this country, that our health comes from being a “more perfect union” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For our religion and our country, our celebration of Independence Day is a call to remember our identity regardless of how painful, messy and hard the task. And just like the slogan “Freedom isn’t Free,” of course living together and flourishing is not without sacrifices. In this difficult time of COVID, we can not afford to ignore the other diseases which infect our community and country. Because they are just as deadly.

As we wait for a vaccine to be developed so we can reopen our country, our faith is poised to offer a vaccine for the human spirit. A vaccine which exorcises the demons of hate through the human capacity of powerful love. Our medicine is our covenanted principles, beginning with the self and moving outward into the community and to the Earth. When you wake up tomorrow morning, perhaps you can look at yourself in the mirror and pray, “I have inherent worth and dignity. I deserve justice, equity and compassion. I am free to grow and flourish and search for truth and meaning in my life. I have a right to my story and my destiny. I am committed to peace, liberty and justice for all. I am responsible, to myself, humanity and life.” Oh to go out into the world every day with that prayer, what miracles could it perform?

Perhaps it could breathe new life into these old words:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Siblings in faith, our prayers and our freedom has never been for us alone. But for ourselves, each other, and the generations who follow us in this human project.

The unrest in our religion and the unrest in our streets are struggles of identity as we are called into that dynamic tension of freedom and responsibility. It will always be a struggle as we cannot help as human beings but to wrestle against the boundaries placed onto us. Perhaps the grace given to us as a species is our evolution as a communal creature where we recognize we are all tied together in our pursuit of freedom. That we have a responsibility to ourselves, our community, the Earth and that Holy Spirit of Life and Love to not let our own freedom crush the freedom of others. Because of this, ours is a faith of abundance. A faith of freedom. And a faith of responsibility. A truly American faith which serves to keep us, and our country, in covenant with one another and the identity we profess. May we have the courage and strength, as a people of faith and as citizens of this country, to continue bending that moral arc of the universe toward justice. And now, more than ever, let freedom ring. Amen and hallelujah.

Holy Riots: Pride and BLM

Originally delivered to Edmonds Unitaritan Universalist Community on Pride Sunday, 6/28/2020.

Siblings in faith, welcome to Pride Sunday! A festival of remembrance and resistance; a festival of “I will be seen!” and “We will never forget!” As we celebrate this holy day of Pride, the liberative work of love and justice is still in progress. And this Pride Sunday comes at a time when Black and Brown voices are rising loud, resonating with those voices that cried out fifty-one years ago at Stonewall. And just as the first Pride was a riot, so too does the movement of #BlackLivesMatter follow that eventual cry: “ENOUGH!”

As we struggle in a global pandemic, the normal festivities of Pride are muted. The parades cancelled. The packed bars empty. And impromptu street dance parties have given way to gatherings over Zoom. This year Pride has turned inwards, offering an opportunity to consider what this holy time may mean for all of us. As story after story comes out about human beings being murdered for the color of their skin, Pride is challenged to re-center the queer black and brown bodies who were there at the beginning. Today, what miracles can take place should the energy of Stonewall and #BlackLivesMatter come together?

Many a prophet have said that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But what is this “justice” with a gravity capable of influencing the course of humanity? Some synonyms are “fairness, equity, egalitarianism, impartiality, objectivity, neutrality, right-mindedness, trustworthiness, incorruptibility.” With so many definitions, justice is complicated and messy. And it is different in every culture and every age. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth is as old as Babylon and is still alive and well today, and so is the first Century Palestinian Jewish call to love those who persecute you and turn the other cheek when harmed.

We have many tools at our disposal to help our discernment. Distributive justice seeks only the proper dispersal of goods in transactions. Punitive justice wants to punish offenders for wrongs committed. Retributive justice demands restitution. Social justice attempts to bend society toward equity and equality. Restorative justice focuses on the complex needs of both victims and offenders. But when injustice happens, which one do we choose?

If I am driving down the road and somebody makes a mistake and hits my car, I would like them to pay for the damages. Certainly, that’s justice. But what if it’s a family that is scraping by with children to feed and medical bills to pay? Or a tech executive driving a Tesla? Or a person who is living out of their car and now cant get to work?

There are so many “what if’s.” Justice quickly becomes complicated and messy. What if they are a drunk driver? Or a woman who has just escaped from an abusive home and is in crisis? What if my son is in the back seat and is killed? Friends, the narrative of justice is very rarely a dualistic, right vs wrong, one size fits all episode of Law and Order.

Stonewall, like #BlackLivesMatter, are narratives of oppression and violence by the very systems that are supposed to dispense justice. Was the Stonewall riots just? At the time mainstream newspapers were more concerned about the police, their safety, and spoke about how the queer clientele were criminals anyways. Now history looks back at the moment, after half a century of marches and court battles, as a spark beginning the LGBTQ Rights Movement.

Are our current riots just? Is it justice when violence is payed back with more violence? Narrative and context matter. For too many years to be queer was to be a criminal. Just as it used to be illegal for women to vote. Or for people of color to drink from water fountains labeled “white only.” When oppression goes on too long and violence erupts, are they riots, or are they rebellions? Which brings to light that laws are only as flawed as the community who creates them. The power of moral justice, when righteous, can supersede and challenge legal codes and civil law. The Rev. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr, in his “The Other America” speech, said:

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

Which is why our Unitarian Universalist faith can both celebrate Pride and roll up our sleeves for the work of #BlackLivesMatter. Because we understand these riots are holy cries for justice! We are a people who believe that justice should uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Not just straight. Not just white. Not just male. Our faith strives for equity and compassion in human relationships. Our justice holds diversity and the capacity for nuance and growth. It seeks to balance freedom with responsibility, is democratic, and respects the conscience of both individual and community. Our justice promotes peace in all aspects. And takes into account a holistic view of life and creation as intrinsic parts of human flourishing.

Siblings in faith, this is the kind of justice that continues to bend the arc of the moral universe. It is this kind of justice, a queer black justice, a justice that is able to contain multitudes, uplifts complexity, and restores the human person, that when found, evokes a response of singing and dancing, of hips swaying and hymns announcing “let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.”

Which is why Pride became such a raucous, joyous celebration. Because queer justice is human justice. The riot at Stonewall was a holy call to jubilee that is still emerging. It is an eruption deep within the human spirit that, when witness to injustice, refuses to accept a universe that turns a blind eye to suffering. We curious mammals have a proclivity for creating newness in the world: we make powerful love manifest through our blood, sweat, tears and relationships. And when we reap the fruit of such arduous labor, our only response can be one that celebrates life lavishly.

Which is why we need the parades and dance parties and rainbow flags now more than ever! Because they represent a victory of the human spirit over those who say, “You’re too loud,” “Too liberal,” “Too politically correct.” “Too flaming.” “Too ghetto.” “Too emotional.” “Too Black.“ “You’re moving too fast.” Often times, these are the same voices who believe bootstraps are a proper response for when “life isn’t fair.” It’s a finger-wagging magical wand ingrained in childhood. Growing up, when I felt that someone or something had delivered me an injustice and I would scream “it isn’t fair!” I would inevitably hear from an adult, “Well, life isn’t fair.”

I understand the point; me not getting my way is not necessarily injustice. But arguing to be recognized as a person with worth and dignity is not the same as throwing a tantrum because I didn’t get cookies after dinner. Yet some hear the call from the margins, “We are suffering and dying! Help us!” as flippantly asking for “wants” rather than standing up for “needs.”
Now that I am grown with a child of my own, I agree—life isn’t fair. Because in my experience life shrugs at such metaphysics like fairness and equality. I can’t distill their finest points into atoms of compassion or electrons of generosity. Our universe goes about its clockwork business of laws that govern energy and matter. It leaves the messy business of humanity to us.

Perhaps because life isn’t fair, and that rubs my spirit the wrong way, I look toward the heavens and say “Hold my beer.” And commit to bringing fairness into the world. Just as I have the power to make love real, I also have the power to make justice real. Because isn’t that the point of all this? Our governments and institutions and civil society and churches and laws and constitutions and covenants are all human creations that attempt to bring some kind of justice into the world. And if the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, then that arc was fashioned long ago by humanity and it is our literal bodies lending weight to its completion.

Through the lens of human history, we know about many of those beautiful human bodies who refused to accept that “life isn’t fair.” Prophets have been nailed to trees for standing up and demanding justice. Just as black bodies are still hanging from trees. In our own tradition it was holy bodies seeking religious and spiritual freedom against a world who would burn them at the stake for heresy.

Our faith includes the mighty bodies of abolitionists who risked life and limb in opposition to the injustice of slavery. There were the resilient bodies of suffragists who demanded women have full agency in the destiny of their communities. Among our Saints the prophetic bodies of civil rights activists who gave their lives for freedom. And among them all, there were the holy, mighty, resilient, prophetic, beautiful queer bodies of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, fluid human beings. We are filled with Pride!

At the Stonewall Inn fifty one years ago when the queer community stood their ground against state violence and demanded the system uphold their inherent dignity and worth, their bodies bent the moral arc of the universe and human destiny would never be the same. And our tradition, with a justice rooted in our covenanted principles, has often been at the front of movements of freedom since our founding. And if we are going to celebrate Pride then we also have a commitment in taking that energy out into the world in solidarity with Black and Brown bodies who don’t have the luxury of publicly sanctioned and funded parades and dance parties.

And know this; celebration is necessary for a people who are committed to bending the arc of the moral universe. Without joy, laughter, fun and community, we will succumb to the temptations of futility and despair. There is a destructive lie in the mantra: “How can I laugh and enjoy myself when so many are suffering.” Especially in a country with concentration camps on our southern border, people of color being murdered by police, ecological apocalypse at our doorstep, and pandemic forcing us into isolation. My inner critical voice tempts me into despair, as if the only way I can be in solidarity is to suffer in solidarity.

No. A black queer love and justice rejects all attempts at dualistic, fatalistic thinking. A black queer love and justice is able to hold the human reality that we can experience joy and mourning simultaneously because that is what their very bodies have had to do for centuries. Which is why we are a gentle, angry people who sing. Which is why we are a justice-seeking people who sing. Which is why we are young and old together and we sing. Because we recognize that our joyous singing and celebrations are acts of holy resistance against the cultures of death that would refuse dignity and worth to all our beloved siblings. Certainly today, we need to celebrate Pride more than ever!

And just because we celebrate Pride does not mean we are absolved of our sins and responsibilities. Yes, I recognize that “sin” is a loaded word for our post-Christian faith. I believe a black queer love and justice invites us to acknowledge our sins; it asks I take responsibility for the harm I cause other people regardless of intentionality; that I admit to my very human failings in the form of phobias and prejudices and anger and hate that creep in due to my insecurities and fears of difference, otherness, and the unknown. Yes, my siblings, I have sinned; against you and Black communities and against the Earth. I commit, with your loving guidance, to being better.

Because it is through the painful process of humility and vulnerability that I find forgiveness for the harm I do to my siblings and to the Earth. Some believe that by leaning into vulnerability I make myself weak, powerless and deficient. But that is not what qualitative researcher Dr. Brene Brown finds in her years of studying vulnerability. Her data suggests that something queer happens when I choose curiosity and possibility; I become stronger than I could possibly imagine; that my letting go of my shame makes space for the difficult penance of transforming my heart, mind, body and spirit toward an orientation of love and justice. And when this happens, is it not a cause to celebrate?

Siblings in faith, we have so much Pride to celebrate today. We celebrate the freedom to love. The freedom to be seen. The freedom to laugh, and sing, and dance for victories won and victories yet to come. Our joy is a sacrifice on the altar of the Spirit of Life and Love in praise for the strength and resiliency to stay the course and not lose our humanity in the process. Today we celebrate the conversion of hearts and minds toward a beautiful, sensual, black queer, love and justice which has oriented the arc of the moral universe from the very beginning.

Pride Sunday is a call to repent and hear the good news that love and justice will emerge victorious. That #BlackLivesMatter will be victorious. Because of the beautiful, sensual, black queer bodies who, along with people of faith and goodwill, lend their weight to the transformation of humanity. Let us go out, in humble solidarity, and refuse to accept the despair of the cultures of death. Instead, we go from this church with joy in our hearts and laughter in our bellies, to engage in the spiritual resistance of Pride. And commit to the holy movement of #BlackLivesMatter, which like Pride, is a holy riot of humanity. May we remember the call of Stonewall as we engage in this covenanted work together. Amen, and hallelujah!