BLACK LIVES MATTER
a sermon by the Rev. Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, October 11, 2015
October 4th last year was Yom Kippur, a holy day that is never for the faint of heart. That day I’d been in services and study groups of Central Reform Congregation, my synagogue in St. Louis, from Kol Nidre service the evening before more or less non-stop through to Yizkor and Neila, the memorial service and concluding service at the end of the afternoon. The Yom Kippur services feature communal confessions, all sins stated as the acts of us all. “We ask forgiveness: for using the sins of others to excuse our own; …for refusing to admit our share in the troubles of others…” for “…the sin we have committed against You by the abuse of power; …the sin we have committed against You by hardening our hearts; …the sin we have committed against You by hurting others in any way.” Remember, this was in St. Louis, an extremely racially divided city and metropolitan area. And it was a little less than two months after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: …who shall live and who shall die.” The communal confessions were sharp and painful. “For keeping the poor in the chains of poverty and turning a deaf ear to the cry of the oppressed, … forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” The liturgy was more deeply meaningful than the safer, less challenging year before. In the study sessions instances were revealed of mistreatment of Jews of color that very day who had first been turned away by the white security guards of this event at this location. It was raw. And I sat with dear friends who are African American Jews who had been every night drumming and chanting in peaceful, lawful protests in Ferguson. Frequently getting pepper sprayed, being attacked with tear gas, getting roughed up by the police, getting arrested, getting threatened with violence, being injured by the police even as they followed the law, receiving death threats from the community.
Add to that the fact that my friends and I had been fasting for the holiday. Finally, challenged liturgically, sore in our souls, but having found atonement together, we sang, “May it be a good year. May it be a happy year. May it be a happy year. May it be a year of peace. …And may we find the strength to make it so.” We went our ways. I felt exhilarated, but also like I’d fallen down a long flight of stairs.
I barely had time to break my fast with a hamburger and Coke before I had to rush off to Powell Hall, the grand palace of culture where the St. Louis Symphony performs. Some of my friends in the High Holidays Choir and other friends in the St. Louis area’s Unitarian Universalist choirs were also in the Symphony Chorus, and the main program was the very moving German Requiem by Brahms. After the intermission, the chorus and orchestra took their seats, the conductor entered to enthusiastic applause, the room became silent. And then it happened. I heard a solo voice, and in momentary shock thought to myself, “This isn’t how the German Requiem begins!”
It took a moment and then I saw him, someone in the audience standing on the parterre was singing: “What side are you on, friend? What side are you on? What side are you on, friend? What side are you on?” A few more stood and joined in, “What side are you on, friend? What side are you on? What side are you on, friend? What side are you on?”
More stood and sang, modifying this mineworkers protest song from the 1930s: “Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all. Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all.” More standing each time through until about 50 protesters were singing. They unfurled banners over the balcony saying, among other things, “Requiem for Mike Brown.” Some members of the audience were clapping in support, others jeered. One man was captured on video scowling, saying, “Mike Brown was a thug.” And then, after a couple of minutes, the banners were rolled up, and the leader chanted four syllables. “Black Lives Matter!” All the protesters took up the chant and, chanting, marched out of the concert hall. As they exited, you could hear the chant echoing through the hallways and then the lobby, eventually ending on the street. “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!”
As silence came, many, including members of the orchestra and choir clapped. Silence settled again. And the conductor turned to face the orchestra, raised his baton, and began the most powerful performance of Brahm’s requiem that I have ever experienced. And no matter what the political and social opinions of those present, whether they liked it or not, it had become a requiem for Michael Brown.
I had been to Ferguson just a few days after Michael Brown was shot dead by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. I saw the makeshift memorial in the middle of the street where his body had lain uncovered for 4 hours. Together with St. Louis and Illinois Unitarian Universalist ministers, I offered pastoral care to strangers. African Americans in a community center, clearly demoralized, numb or shell shocked, waiting for various kinds of assistance. My St. Louis friends and colleagues – Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, and African American – found their lives turned upside down. Found themselves stretched and challenged and changed. “Black Lives Matter” as a slogan had not been created in response to Ferguson but in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin by self-appointed community watch person George Zimmerman in February 2012. The initial slogan that erupted on the consciousness of the nation after Ferguson was “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” And it was initially effective. Or seemed to be. But gradually what came into the collective awareness was that the weight of history, the weight of statistics, the record plainly illustrates that in our society the lives of African Americans are still not treated as having the same value as the lives of white people. Not by a long shot.
The weight of history. Our Declaration of Independence asserts that all men are created equal, but equality was not understood as applying to anyone except white male property owners. The statement of value never matched the reality. After the Civil War, the US Constitution was amended to make African Americans citizens. But freed slaves and their descendants haven’t yet been given any reparations to compensate them for the inhuman reality of slavery. And then Jim Crow laws were enacted that reduced technically free citizens to near or de facto slavery conditions that were not understood as such by much of America. Segregation, aimed at keeping persons of color down, was formally done away with in the 1950s, but white flight decimated the impact of integration. Even after the Civil Rights Movement brought national legislation aimed at ensuring that African Americans would have the same rights as white people, many aspects of our system were designed to disadvantage persons of color. The criminal justice system in America disproportionately gives harsher sentences to African Americans accused and convicted under the same kinds of circumstances as white offenders. Prison privatization has resulted in convicts serving as a de facto slave labor force for the corporations owning the vengeance system. And new voter ID laws and many other practices and laws continue to oppress people of color and strip them of equality. Much of the reality of life in this country – past and present – plays out on the premise that all are not created equal, that all do not have inherent worth and dignity. The founders of our republic taught their children well that saying “equality” does not necessitate applying the concept to all. Our founders said “equality” while owning slaves. And the 3/5 compromise counted slaves a 3/5 of a human being, but only for the purposes of giving their owners more power in our federal system. History is so very heavy. It can be lethal for person of color.
This history is lethal because the errors of the past were never solved.
African American activists in the 21st century pointed out to white Americans that they are still being killed in extra-judicial killings and nobody white was paying attention. So they said, “Stop killing us!” And there are only so many different answers one can give in response: “Yes, we will stop killing you!” “No, we will keep on killing you!” Or, “We don’t want to hear about this because it hurts our feelings to have it pointed out that our system or our actions do harm to others.” The way I see it, those are essentially the only options, and the third is, in its effect, the same as the second, regardless of intentions.
African American activists call their white allies to rally around in response to the highly publicized killings of young African Americans, and some people who usually think of themselves as supporters of equality respond angrily by saying, the victim you have chosen to rally around was not a good person. The implications are crystal clear. If one attacks the victim as unworthy, the basic message is that one must be pure to a high degree to be worthy of life itself.
Which brings us back to history. Research unambiguously finds that white Americans tend to consider each killing of an African American as a unique case which has to be determined on its individual facts. The same research finds that African Americans feel the weight of history. Always. Trayvon Martin was killed and many white people immediately set to trying to determine what his character was. African Americans, however, saw Trayvon’s killing as one more death of a young Black man at the hands of a white man. The kind of thing that has been going on from the beginning of this country. White America’s individualism has led to huge areas where the white person feels culturally compelled to ignore history. Eric Garner was suffocated – on video – by white police officers, and many white people responded by trying to determine what he evidently did to deserve to be killed without trial. Mike Brown was shot to death by Darren Wilson, and the first concern of many white Americans is determining what aspect of Mike Brown’s character made him suitable for execution and being left uncovered on the street for four hours. One more killing of a Black man in more than three hundred years of white people killing African Amicans with impunity.
African Americans tell their white allies, “Black lives matter.” And many, many white people respond angrily, saying, for example, “All lives matter!”
NO! No, no, no! When someone says “Black lives matter,” there is only one inherently non-racist response: some version of “Yes, they do.”
Yes, as Americans we may idealize the founders’ language in order to see our own values that ALL are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Those of us of Christian or Jewish background may feel comfortable with the language that the first human was created in the image of God. B’tselem Elohim. Imago Dei. The person influenced by Hindu culture may say, “Namaste! That of the divine that is in me bows to that of the divine in you.” Our own Unitarian Universalist version is stated in the first principle that our congregations covenant to affirm and promote: “The inherent worth and dignity of every individual.” Yes. It is true that all lives matter. But never ever as a response, a corrective to saying that Black Lives Matter! And any of the permutations, Blue lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter, they all say the same thing. They deny the all that we would like to claim as our core value.
Do Black lives matter? Yes. Period. No counter claims are valid.
Across America, Unitarian Universalist congregations are making the decision to join with others in publicly standing with Black activists for Black Lives Matter because it is basic to affirming and promoting our principles and because it is just the right thing to do. Often this has been done by hanging a banner visible from the street. Frequently this has resulted in vandalism and threats. Doing the right thing requires courage. The path to standing as allies of victims of oppression requires each person to work on their stuff and for each congregation to work on its stuff. There may be multiple ways to stand for justice in a particular area. But doing our work and making our stand are essential to uphold our values.
My friend KB Frazier is an audiologist who lives in St. Louis. He is a transgender man, currently transitioning from female to male. He is Jewish. And he is African American. He played his drum that he played at the Ferguson protests at my ordination on May 31 this year. KB frequently reminds those with privilege that there is rarely a day that he wakes up to a world that has not in the previous 24 hours killed someone with one of his identities specifically because of that identity. I want KB to live securely and safely. KB’s life matters to me, obviously. His unique life also matters beyond my knowing and beyond the fact that I care. An entire universe of potential and of love is what makes up his life. Eric Garner’s life mattered. Mike Brown’s life mattered. Trayvon Martin’s life mattered. Without each of those who have been killed, humanity has been diminished.
Black Lives Matter!
Eventually if boils down to this:
What side are you on, friend?
What side are you on?
What side are you on, friend?
What side are you on?
Amen and Blessed Be.
© 2015 by Rev. Paul Oakley