A sermon by Claudia J. Ford and James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, January 17, 2010
OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR MAY BE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR: A Sermon for Martin Luther King, Jr.
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that people should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
— A logia attributed to Jesus at Matthew 7:12
Those of you who follow James Ford’s Monkey Mind blog or his Facebook posts might imagine that writing a sermon with James is a thrilling experience akin to maybe bungee jumping or paragliding. Yes. This is true.
Let me start with a story, which many of you know. It is February 1965, 100 years after the legal end of slavery, in Selma. Alabama State Troopers shoot twenty-six year old Jimmie Lee Jackson in the stomach while he is defending his mother and grandmother from a beating by those same State Troopers. Jimmie Lee dies of his injuries two days later. Then during three weeks in the month of March 1965, blacks and whites attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest discrimination against blacks registering to vote. During the first march, the police cruelly beat 600 people in a televised display of such brutal, wanton violence that viewers think they are watching a documentary of Hitler’s Nazis in Germany during the Holocaust.
Martin Luther King gets involved in the protests after this aptly named, “Bloody Sunday” and asks clergy and citizens from around the country to join in the second march two days later. I was 11 years old and I well remember the heated dinner table conversations, and the trip to the Unitarian church in Manhattan on an uncharacteristic Monday afternoon to watch in silent solidarity and support as Reverend Dick Leonard and other church members boarded a church-chartered bus to Alabama.
At the end of the first day of the second march the Reverend James Reeb, a Unitarian minister, 38 years old and the father or four young children, is viciously attacked on a Selma sidewalk by white supremacist thugs who fatally injure him. Reeb dies on March 11, 1965.
Finally, in the third attempt to march, 25,000 people arrive with Martin and other civil rights leaders on the Alabama state courthouse steps in Montgomery.
Of Reverend Reeb’s death, President Lyndon Johnson said, “At times history and fate meet in a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.” Reverend Reeb was not the only martyr, black and white, of the Selma marches, but it was his death that convinced President Johnson to create and pass the Voting Rights Act.
In last week’s sermon we heard James speak movingly about the history of the Unitarian church centered on the 1821 conference in Baltimore. This profound moment for religious liberalism, and the stirring demonstration of our own congregation’s spiritual strategic plan in the form of the renewal of our church’s covenant, got me to thinking: what is our covenant of racial justice? What is our biggest task now?
It would be tempting to use this occasion of our acknowledgement of Martin Luther King to talk about race from the point of view of culture, politics, or history. I don’t want to do that. I would like to look at our troubled relationship between White and Other from the point of view of religion, and spirituality. An arguably more difficult road to traverse, but well worth the effort.
In a review by George Ronald, of the book “The Last War: Racism, Spirituality, and the Future of Civilization” written by M. L. Perry, a mixed race American, Dr. Perry ultimately lays blame for racism, in America at least, to a mercantilist, Protestant culture that allowed early American colonists to rationalize that Africans were somehow subhuman and therefore exempt from a Christian application of the Golden Rule.
Perry describes a process of “de-spiritualization,” whereby “whiteness itself, like material success, became a sign of spiritual election and God's favor. Possession of white skin absolved the individual and the community of the duty to practice Jesus' teachings to love The Other without regard for material qualities of body or social status.”
In the end, Perry concludes, racism is essentially a spiritual disease, fueled by a materialistic view of the world that is largely a Western, Protestant Christian construct. The antidotes Dr. Perry offers to such ingrained beliefs include a process of widespread education in which “schools, organizations, companies and communities, and I would add religious communities like our own, must declare themselves strictly in favor of the concept of the oneness of humankind and vigorously uphold that principle.”
This is the point. To find genuine healing in this world of pain and suffering we must do two things. We need to find our uniqueness as an intimate reality; we are distinct, each one of us, it’s obvious. And at the same time come to know in our bones how we are all one family, actually something even deeper than family, we are all one.
Yes, it can be hard to see through the differences. They’re, as I’ve said, so obvious. But the truth of our connectedness lies just beneath the surface. We find it as we open our hearts, as we allow ourselves to let go of the certainties to which we often spend our lives clinging. Sadly, there are a lot of those certainties. And so the project includes some hard looking. And that’s what brings Claudia and me together into this pulpit today.
Now, I suggest race may not be the biggest deal for us here. It’s my observation we welcome everyone who has a master’s degree. I’ve touched on issues of class before. I will again. But, the truth be told, race is a deep issue, one of the deepest. Just look around our Meeting House and see who is here. And we’re better than most. Race is very, very important for us to consider, to think about. And I hope, we hope, for us all to engage.
Race itself is a multifaceted thing. But today let’s hold to the issues of black and white. Racism directed at African Americans is rooted in our nation’s original sin, slavery. And even though not one of us had a hand in that on either side of the whip, just being born into this culture, actually, just coming to this culture from another - and we inherit a given. It’s in the water we drink. This is the world in which we live. And it is the world in which we must act. We must, if we hope for that healing for ourselves, for our children, for the world. We must open ourselves to this particular discomfort, to take a journey through it.
Now there is good news in all this. The good news is that there is healing within this journey. And that’s the deal. We join here and we make a covenant to walk together. There are several forms to this covenant. One is written in the book, which most of us know, we’re in the process of revising. But today we’re drawing your attention to the one we signed on our hearts when we became members here. Which, if you’ve forgotten, is: to be open, to be friends, to not turn away. Actually, I’ve made this covenant consciously twice, in both my UU life and as a Zen practitioner. No turning away. But conscious or not, actually we’ve all made this covenant. It came with birth, and manifests at various times in our lives, perhaps most obviously when one chooses to become a member here.
But, again, we come to it at various places in our lives. By my best understanding my own personal journey toward this way of healing began in my early adolescence. My father was something of a good time Charley. Always living at the edge. We were in Southern California and he was managing a liquor store. His friend said he only needed to borrow the money over the weekend. My father opened the safe and gave it to him. The story is a bit complicated, but the shorter version is the friend didn’t return. And there was no way my father could come up with the missing money. As a consequence he spent a year in jail.
I was twelve or thirteen. We were living in a small town. It was in the newspaper. Everyone knew. I took to bed and tried to sleep the year away. In desperation my mother sent me up to Oakland to live for the year with my grandmother.
My grandmother’s life had not been easy. The men in our family were pretty much all ner-do-wells. Grandmother had worked her whole life as a maid. That’s hard work, physically demanding, and it ages people. At this point she was retired, living with her daughter, my auntie. They put me into the local middle school. There may have been other white kids. I don’t remember any. What I remember is the first day on the first break being beaten. After school I ran home. The next day it happened again. It continued for the balance of that year, although I became adept at hiding, so there were fewer actual beatings as time went on.
That first day I went to my grandmother. I wept. I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do. My grandmother knew powerlessness. She knew it well. And she knew all the lessons it could teach. Bitterness. Hatred. A thirst for vengeance. And she rejected them.
She didn’t know that perhaps there was a way to go to the administration. That was something outside our experience of the way the world worked. So, she wasn’t very good at addressing how to end the violence I was encountering. That class thing is a big deal.
But she did provide a way to at first endure my circumstances and then to move through it that allowed me to open my heart rather than close it. She said those other kids were the same as me. She said we may look different. But actually we’re one. Now for her that one was in Jesus. And I don’t think she ever got that “Jesus” was a placeholder for something bigger, what we here tend to use the word “one” to stand for. But in her bones she knew, she got the heart of it. And she guided me to that heart of it. She taught me to pray for others and for myself.
I don’t accept those who say prayer is meaningless. I know its power. We prayed every day. And it saved me, it saved me from bitterness, and hatred, and a desire to hurt back. It was a hard lesson. But it worked. Years later I understood that prayer was a practice of presence, of being open. I opened my heart, and I became larger. At the bottom of things I saw we really, really are one. I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to unpack that lesson, what it means, and what it calls me to.
And there is a call out of that knowing we are one within our separateness. It is a call to reach out. It is a call to act.
Maybe this is the Sunday when James says, “May you leave, may you go in unrest, with just a little bit, a little hint of peace.”
Or maybe, it is as profoundly easy, James, as just doing. Acting in compassion and conscience. Let me tell another story. It is a story I may have told before but it is such a profound expression of the spirit of this special Sunday that I am compelled to repeat it. In 1804 a farmer named John Bell, had an official statement notarized at his local courthouse in Surry County, Virginia. The statement reads “To all to whom these presents may come greeting: know ye that I, James Bell of Surry County, having under my charge a negro man by the name of Scipio, who I have heretofore held as a slave, being at this time fully convinced that freedom is the natural right of all mankind, and being willing and desirous to do unto others as I would wish to be done unto in the like situation, do by these presents liberate, set free and forever discharge from slavery the said negro man Scipio, and I do by these presents quit claim to any estate that the said Scipio may hereafter acquire; and further I do by these presents warrant and defend unto the said Scipio his full freedom and all estate he may acquire against me, my heirs, executors, administrators and assigns. In witness whereof I hereunto set my hand and affixed my seal this twenty fifth day of April 1804.”
By this act, James Bell freed his slave, Scipio Brown, and the family and descendants of Scipio more than fifty years before the Civil War. I often wonder what compassion moved James Bell to this act. In order to proceed so forcefully against public opinion and indeed against his own economic and social self-interest James Bell must have been able to put himself in the shoes of his Other – Scipio. When James declared his act of conscience he went a step further and gave the newly freed Brown family a substantial tract of the Bell land to farm.
I often ponder this unheralded deed because seven generations later most of the Brown farm is land owned by my brother and me. In this instance an act of compassion, an act of conscience, an act of justice has come to have reverberations literally around the world. What would James Bell have thought about a little South African baby rescued by Scipio’s great granddaughter from a brothel in Johannesburg 197 years later, as a consequence perhaps of his application of Jesus’ injunction: Do Unto Others as I Would Have Done to Me.? What mysterious and awesome power there is in right action.
Really the will to go beyond the de-spiritualization that is at the core of racism is as simple as the most complex of human emotions. Greed and altruism. Selfishness and compassion. Consciousness and fear. Love and hate. But like James Bell and James Reeb and James Ford you might be asked to give up something. You might be asked to pray for your tormentors, to sacrifice your power, your privilege, your land, your comfort; you might even be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice of your life in order to commit to understanding the core of our racial justice covenant. That the Object in the Mirror is NOT an Object at all. The Other in the Mirror is You. The Other in the Mirror is certainly closer than you think; the Other is as close as your own heart.