Monday, March 14, 2011

Sermon - Repairing the Web

Repairing the Web

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We’re all familiar with that statement. And we tend to agree. If injustice is occurring in some place, we are called to step in and confront it. A geographical distance from the place of injustice does not remove override our responsibility to stop it, or at least speak out against it. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Well, today I want to broaden that concept a little bit, to deal not just with geographical distance, but with temporal difference. I’d like to suggest that injustices of the past, is a threat to justice in the present, if it doesn’t get addressed. That’s right, the injustices of a community’s past can linger on for centuries, raising their head over and over in different forms.
Today we are talking about dealing with injustices of the past. We are talking about our society seeking redemption for it’s historical sins. One of the most prominent and most controversial ways that redemption is often sought is through reparations.

In general terms, reparation is material compensation provided to the victims of injustice, or to their descendents. Today, the largest conversation about reparations revolves around slavery and African American descendents of slaves. There are also significant movements for reparations for American Indians.
And in some cases, reparations are actually made on a large scale. After World War II, the U.S. government apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans and provided reparations of $20,000 to each survivor to compensate for loss of property and liberty during that period. And other countries have also opted to pay reparations for past grievances, such as the German government making reparations to Jews and survivors and descendants of the Holocaust.
You get the idea. Reparations are material compensation for a past injustice. But more than just a cash payment, reparations are even more powerful as a symbolic gesture. They make one step toward reconciliation, toward mending relationships that have been violated. And that’s what redemption is about after all.

There are two important stories that come out of the church where I grew up, in Tulsa Oklahoma. And as far as I can tell, there has been very little conversation about how these stories are pieces of larger, incredibly beautiful puzzle.
The better known story I have shard with you in a previous sermon. It has also been the topic of at least a few articles in the UU World magazine. It’s the story of how two churches became one. The story of how a White, upper-class Unitarian church found a new soul, and the story of how a struggling Black liberal evangelical congregation found a new home.
Rev. Carlton Pearson, an African American Pentecostal preacher, had founded one of Tulsa’s most prominent megachurches. By the late 1990s Higher Dimensions, had swelled to 6,000 members, who were contributing $60,000 a week into the collection plate. The church had added on an 800-seat balcony, installed major multimedia equipment, bought a 650-acre ranch, and had plans for to build a hotel. Carlton Pearson built that congregation from the ground up and it looked like the sky was the limit. It was like a Black Mariner’s.

But in 1996, Pearson had a revelation. In watching the victims of genocide in Rwanda, Pearson became angry at the God he knew. The idea that God might condemn any of these people, these victims of senseless violence to Hell was unfathomable. Pearson had a revelation, and he began to preach the gospel of inclusion to his congregation, the gospel that God’s love was not limited to those who had been born again, not even limited to Christians. He knew that no one would be excluded from God’s love, regardless of their religious beliefs. Carlton Pearson basically became a Christian Universalist.
But this message of love didn’t sit well with the evangelical world, or even his own congregation. In the midst of speaking his truth, the truth of Universal love, Pearson lost just about everything he struggled for. The mega-church crumbled. They lost thousands of members; his close-knit staff; his building. He lost use of his church’s name; rights to his own sermons, books, audio, and video; and lots of money. Worse than all that, he says, the venom he has felt from conservative Christians was shocking. His cleaners and his wife’s hairdresser refused to serve them, and his children were taunted at school and forbidden by parents to see friends.
From the congregation of 6,000, about 200 remained loyal to Pearson, and followed on a religious journey. The 200 or so survivors renamed themselves New Dimensions, and eventually found a new place to worship, at the All Souls Unitarian Church. Their worship service was held Sunday afternoons. Keep in mind, All Souls looks like any other Unitarian Church, just bigger. The congregation is overwhelmingly white, and mostly from an upper-middle background. They are a theological mix much like ours, some theists, some atheists, many agnostics, mostly refugees from other traditions. But, as a deep friendship grew between these two ministers, one a White Unitarian Universalist and one and African American Evangelical, both committed to racial justice. And so did the relationship between their congregations.
Eventually, New Dimensions became a part of All Souls Unitarian Church. With around 2,000 members, as the largest congregation in the Unitarian Universalist Association, All Souls has become a radically inclusive, richly racially diverse community.
The contemporary worship service is like nothing I have ever seen in another Unitarian Universalist church. There is a praise band, a gospel choir, and most importantly, people on their feet singing, not out of a hymnal, but out of their heart. These two congregations have taken an amazing journey together, and their future looks stronger than ever. Who could have thought such a relationship was possible.

What has happened in Tulsa is a bit of a love story, one that we like to celebrate. But there is another story that happened at that same church in Tulsa. It’s a story that I think is deeply, deeply related.

This story is about reparations. As I said, reparations is typically talked about in reference to slavery or the oppression of American Indians, but it can also be targeted at more specific moments of injustice.
The injustice in this case was the Tulsa race riot. The sixteen-hour Tulsa riot in 1921, destroyed the Black business district in north Tulsa. When a white mob swept through the area of town, at least thirty-eight people were killed. Over 800 people were admitted to local hospitals with injuries, an estimated 10,000 were left homeless, when 35 city blocks composed of 1,256 residences were destroyed by fires.
Although racial tension was at a boiling point, the incident was sparked when a Black you man allegedly assaulted a white women in a downtown building. After the man’s arrest, the local paper ran two incendiary ariticles, one titled, “Nab the Negroe for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and the other provided news or a lynching party that would gather that evening. The hatred that these articles fueled gave rise to a terrible moment of violence. The owner of that paper, the Tulsa Tribune was a leader member of All Souls Unitarian Church.
That moment, that terrible day is a scar on Tulsa’s history. For years the story was ignored, but in the 1990’s a few brave leaders reached out to begin a long-overdue healing process.
In the 1990s, a two-year effort lead by All Souls UU church encouraged the community to contribute to a voluntary reparations fund. Over $40,000 was collected and distributed. Two Tulsa Unitarian Universalist congregations, Church of the Restoration and All Souls Unitarian Church, were instrumental in these efforts to help survivors. $27,000 came from Unitarian Universalist sources including All Souls and Restoration Churches, the UUA's James Reeb Fund, and individuals. Obviously $40,000 cannot pay for the destruction and injustice of the past. It hardly makes a dent when spread among the survivors. But, it was a worth while effort. And effort by a few of those in power to reach out, to make a step towards mending a relationship.

As I said earlier, these two stories, one story of reparations for damages done and one story of communities coming together, these two stories are part of the same fabric. They inform each other. As we talk about reparations in the political world, and as we talk about redemption in the church world, let us remember that the material compensation is only a symbol of a much deeper need, a need for mending relationships. Reparations is not about buying away guilt. It’s not about being done with the past; it is about mending a relationship, to build a healthier community.

I have come to understand a similar feeling among American Indian activists that I know. Providing reparations to indigenous people at this point is a daunting concept. Even calculating the loss of land, the loss of human dignity, the pain, suffering and murder that occurred is an overwhelming task.
But today there is a strong movement among American Indians to seek some tangible reparations, a material symbol, and acknowledgement of past wrongs. It’s not to fully compensate for historical losses. Such compensation would be absolutely beyond financial measure. To goal is to move in the direction of a mended, healthier, more respectful relationship.
I ran across an article that describes that goal in detail. Rather than seeking just material reparations, William Bradford explains that creating justice is more complex than that. Rather than a one-time cash payment, he suggests an entire new understanding of justice. It has seven distinct stages: acknowledgement, apology, peacemaking, commemoration, compensation, land restoration, legal reformation, and reconciliation. I love this description of justice for two reasons. First, because it points out that the goal is not a simple material exchange. But more importantly Bradford’s model ends with the ultimate goal or reconciliation. (Beyond Reparations: An American Indian Theory of Justice, WILLIAM BRADFORD)

Reparations is not primarily about paying for material injustices. It is about repairing the complex tapestry of community. Redemption is not about making amends and going in your separate directions. The goal is to mend relationships.

Today’s intergenerational story was “The Dog and the Heartless King.” Remember, the dog in the court kept barking and barking until the King has offered enough food to everyone in his kingdom. The king was so selfish, he had never realized just how many people were in such profound need around him. But, this gigantic barking dog helped him to see the errors of his ways.
The quick and easy interpretation of the story may be that we need a barking dog, so that we as a country, might be motivated to feed the hungry and care for the sick. Certainly there are multitudes in our society, just like the kingdom of the heartless king, who are hungry and cold. Perhaps we need a barking dog.
But my understanding of the story is that the dog is already barking. The challenge is to hear it for what it is. Based on centuries of colonialism, slavery, corporate exploitation, and domination of the Earth, our own dog is barking. It just sounds a little different. We don’t live in a children’s story after all. But, The earth is crying out. The bombs of conquest are deafening, the racial inequality and tension that persist. All of these realities are the giant dog barking. That dog will keep barking. Our history will continue to remain with us, until we can respond and heal from it, until we can seek redemption.

Ash Wednesday is also the beginning of the season of Lent. A time of sacrifice and repentance before Easter. A

In closing, I want to revisit our reading from earlier. Both the poetry and the message a worth repeating. In this passage from the book of Isaiah that we read together earlier, God is talking about what kind of worship is fitting and meaningful for his people.

From Isaiah 58:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not hide yourself from your own kin?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.

We have only begun to see the very tip of the potential greatness that this diverse country could be. This talk of redemption and healing from past injustices is not just the stuff of heart-ache. It is also the stuff of hope. For the dog to stop barking in our land, it’s time to seek some redemption. It is time for the United States to make manifest a new destiny. A destiny built not on expansion and exploitation, but a destiny founded on healing and health, and right relationship.


No comments:

Post a Comment