Monday, December 3, 2012

"Know Justice, Know Peace" - Sermon

         Our theme for worship in the month of December is Peace. It is a fitting topic for the Christmas season I think.
         I want to start this discussion of peace in what may seem like an odd place. The journey toward peace, I believe starts with the Golden Rule that we were discussing earlier with the kids. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Now I’m not talking about revenge or payback. The Golden Rule is just the best example of a basic understanding of fairness and justice.
         We usually talk about forgiveness, patience, understanding, and love when we the topic of peace comes up, especially in Unitarian Universalist circles. But I wanted to start with the golden rule to put us on a common foundation of fairness in our dealings with one another.
         Children learn about fairness from a very early age. Often to the chagrin of their parents, they begin to realize that rules should be consistent. What applies to one person, should apply to all people. Usually as children, a sense of fairness is cultivated in defense of our own wants and needs, whether it is who gets to play with what toy, or what the bedtime is that night. Kids want life to be fair; they want all the rights and goodies that they are entitled to. But eventually, our sense of fairness expands beyond a defense of our own needs and desires, to a common understanding. We grow to realize that each person, regardless of his or her stature or position, should be treated with the same over arching rules and privileges that we each enjoy.
         It sounds terribly simple, fairness and the golden rule. But I wanted to bring children into the conversation for a particular reason. Their inclination toward fairness is a good sign that we are hard wired to seek out a social organization that treats people in a stable, predictable, and equitable manner. It’s part of who we are as social animals. Whether that message comes through religious, moral, or political voices it is a core of our social organizing. Speaking in broadest terms, fairness is after all the goal of Democracy… and Socialism… and Communism. Though they take radically different paths to get there, the end goal of each of these systems of government is a fair society, in which everyone gets what he or she is entitled to.
         We have an innate drive to cultivate fairness within our human community. How then, could we assume that a peaceful relationship could grow between two nations, or two individuals, if the very basic issue of fairness has not been addressed? How could we possibly achieve peace without first addressing the issue of justice.

         As far as I can see, we are hardwired to seek out and create a fair world. Yet so much of the dialog about peacemaking ignores this basic component of the human experience. There are two equally oversimplified understandings of peacemaking. Both of them ignore our basic human need for justice.
         From one side, we have peacemaking through force. This is a strange assumption that it is possible to bomb or starve a community into submission. Throughout history, around the world great nations are guilty of making this assumption. It’s the assumption that enemies can be subdued and peace created through force. I’m ashamed to say that this is often the mistaken strategy that our own country takes. Even though we see time and again that the aftermath is resentment, depravation, corruption, and more bloodshed. Subduing an opponent by force does not create peace. It creates a time-bomb of frustration.
         But then, on the other side of the peacemaking dialog, we encounter an equally misguided dismissal of the importance of fairness in human hearts. This is the perspective that peace is only about forgiveness and letting go. It’s the perspective that if we could all just agree to get along, the world would be all right. This is the perspective of many Unitarian Universalists. It’s a very warming picture, but where do we compensate for fairness when we talk about letting go and moving on? How do we hold onto our conviction that people are created equal and should be treated in equal manner? How do we honor decades, even centuries of oppression in a conversation of forgiveness?

         There has to be some accounting the scales of justice. We see that in our own country and around the world, people have made great strides toward equality through non-violent means. But what I want to point out is that even in those non-violent movements, a great struggle has been undertaken. Confrontation is made head on, and an appeal to fairness, not forgiveness, is put front and center.
         It sounds strange, but peaceful resistance hinges on the power of suffering. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King thought and wrote about it. The primary tactic of non-violent resistance is to voluntarily undergo suffering, to such an extent that your adversary is forced to see the injustice being perpetrated. Real non-violent action is terribly hard work. Gandhi realized that stable human relationship, peaceful relationship, depends on a mutual recognition of what is fair. It requires deep sacrifice to melt the heart of the adversary and appeal to his innate sense of fairness. This sort of peace building is founded on suffering and sacrifice, not just forgiveness and hugs.
         Lasting peace requires justice. Neither forced submission of an opponent, nor empty appeals to forgive and forget provide the foundation for peace. The real work for peace rests in working for justice. It is not simple, it is actually quite complex and messy business, peace.

         With Christmas right around the corner, we are going to hear a good number of different names attributed to Jesus. The one that I can’t resist touching on today is the idea of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. It’s quite a flattering name, though it probably doesn’t jive with the way many of us understand the life and teachings of that man. You see there are so many different stories about Jesus, stories of what he taught, how he lived, and what his life means, that it’s difficult, even impossible to pick out one singular message that he embodies.
         What happens much more often, is that we attach ourselves to the stories of his life and the meaning of his death, that we find resonate most strongly with our own lives. What we believe about Jesus says more about our own lives and our own convictions that it does about the wandering Jewish teacher who lived 2000 years ago.
         As UUs, those of us who do celebrate Jesus, remember him as a radical reformer. He was an out there, in your face, challenging, radical teacher. He flipped over the tables of moneychangers at the temple. He shared his meals with outcasts. He spoke about a revolution. He spent time with the poor and the disabled and the religious minorities. And, best of all, when the government came knocking at his door, he stood his ground. He was a man of deep conviction who fought to build the beloved community on Earth.
         And yet he is called the Prince of Peace. We Unitarian Universalists celebrate a very rebellious Prince of Peace. Regardless of the white-washed Christmas cards we may soon get in the mail, and the simplified sanitized Jesus in white robes, it is actually his radical message of fairness and justice that makes Jesus a Prince of Peace.

         It can be easy for some people to forget that version of Jesus. It can be easy for us to forget the struggles that occurred to create the justice and peace that we enjoy today. Maybe those histories are painful to remember. But we cannot afford to forget them.
         That’s why I wanted to sing those hymns of struggle earlier. To remind us, that while we do enjoy a pretty high degree of peaceful cooperation in our country, we have gotten to this point through centuries of struggle. Those at the margins have fought and sacrificed in unimaginable ways to build this increasingly fair community that we thrive in.
         “Lift Every Voice and Sing" was performed first as a poem as part of a celebration of Lincoln's Birthday, by 500 school children at segregated school. Its principal, James Weldon Johnson, wrote the words to introduce its honored guest Booker T. Washington. The poem was set to music by Johnson's brother John in 1905. Within twenty years the song became the anthem of the NAACP and was being sung in schools and churches and on special occasions throughout the South.
         Singing this song became a way for African Americans to demonstrate their hope for the future. In the calling for earth and heaven to "ring with the harmonies of Liberty," they could speak out subtly against racism and Jim Crow laws—and especially the huge number of lynchings accompanying the rise of the Ku Klux Klan at the turn of the century. It’s a tremendous song of struggle and I’m very proud that it is held as a part of our UU hymnal.
         And, I told you earlier about the song “We Are A Gentle Angry People.” Holly Near composed it spontaneously after the assassination for Harvey Milk. But the song of struggle takes on a personal tone for me. I was singing this song in 1998, when Matthew Shepard was killed. I was in college, only two years younger than him. In the aftermath of his murder, none of the ministers in town stepped forward to provide comfort. None of the school administrators did either. So as an overwhelmed nineteen-year-old, I organized a vigil to commemorate the murder of a man who was frighteningly similar to myself. The night of the vigil was overwhelming and I honestly don’t remember much of it. I do remember being incredibly moved by the large number of people who showed up, and I remember singing this song with my friends. And we were in fact a gentle angry people, singing for our lives.
         I wanted to highlight these hymns because they are struggles that we are familiar with, struggles that continue in our communities today. But they should also be reminders of other struggles of other peoples around the world. Because wherever there is a story of oppression, there is a story of resistance. It is part and parcel of that human inclination toward fairness. Wherever there is a story of oppression, there is a story of resistance. Regardless of the media’s willingness to cover it, regardless of historians’ ability to uncover and preserve it, it is the story of human history. Wherever and whenever there is a story of oppression, there is a story of resistance.

         Of course it’s not just voluntary, non-violent resistance that has bought the peace that we enjoy. This lasting peace and the end of slavery were paid for with the sacrifice of war, war that could have been ended more quickly. This was exactly what was explored in the recent film “Lincoln.” If I could give homework from my sermons, this would be it. Go see that film. Go and see the astounding struggle that our country went through, as President Lincoln saved our integrity as a nation. He knew that an expedited end to the Civil War, a peace that left in tact the horror of slavery, was actually no peace at all. He knew that the way must continue until the Thirteenth amendment, and the abolition of slavery could be secured. In his Second Inaugural Address, in 1865 Lincoln said:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
         My friends, peace is not simply the absence of war. It is not simply forgiveness and turning the other cheek. As we dive into this topic of peace, and as head deeper into the holiday season, let us remember what it means to be a real Prince, or Princess of Peace. As we build peace in our hearts and in the world around us, let us hold out hope for one of the earliest things we learned as children, that the game should be fair. And in our conversation of peace, let us give justice its rightful place along side forgiveness.



1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Kent. Definitely thought provoking for one who came of age during the Viet Nam War era...

    All the best,