Accountably Dismantling Racism and Other Oppressions

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, August 15, 2021

When I was preparing for the Christmas Eve service back in 2015, I asked Virginia Edwards if she would accompany me on piano as I sang the well-known Christmas carol “O Holy Night.” So at our 7PM Christmas Eve service amid all the traditional carols, she played, and I sang it as a solo. The next year, I sang it again, and those gathered spontaneously joined me. Familiar with the words and moved by the music, people sang along with those famous words that proclaim:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

The original mid-19th-century French lyrics were similarly opposed to slavery, but were grounded in an orthodox Christian theology. John Sullivan Dwight’s translation of the lyrics into English also translated the carol’s theology into his own 19th-century Unitarian theology. It was Dwight’s translation in 1855 that declared “all oppressions shall cease.” That wasn’t the direction in which the original and still justice-seeking original went.

All oppressions shall cease! The particular wording is 19th-century Unitarian Boston, but the sentiment is straight out of the ancient Jewish prophets who argue that what God requires is justice, not sacrifice. There is an orthodox Christian view that posits that only divine intervention can set right everything that has gone horribly wrong in human history. But there is that theological strain in Unitarian Universalism that holds that, no matter what the details of your personal belief or unbelief, the divine action that is needed to set things straight is achieved only through human action. Many Christians and Jews are able to share in a theistic expression that “We are the hands and feet of God.” That is, in practical terms, in this world, what needs to be done for the world to be set right is ours to do. No matter what your particular belief is, whether you are a believer or a non-believer, whether you are a traditionalist or an innovator.

And so, in the heat of summer, with a longing for a bit of December chill that “O Holy Night” may encourage us above the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere to imagine, we come to the eleventh and final sermon in the series on the ways this congregation has decided by formal vote to name what is important to us and what our purpose is. We’ve looked at our bylaws, our vision and mission statements, our congregational vote to become a Welcoming Congregation, and today, finally, our most recent addition to those things we’ve voted on as commitments that we hope will define us. And it’s all bound up with the idea behind John Sullivan Dwight’s Christmas desire for all oppressions to cease and our understanding that oppressions cease when humans do the divine work of changing things.

At our June 13th annual meeting under the pavilion at Constitution Park, we voted to accept locally the proposed eighth principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. In the words we voted overwhelmingly to accept as guidance and statement of purpose of this congregation:

We members of this Fellowship commit and covenant, individually and as a congregation, to affirm and promote a journey toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.

And if we pare it down to the action we are aiming for, it is to “dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and in our institutions.” With attention to what we most value, we commit to undoing wrongs we have inherited from the past, taking apart and rebuilding better the oppressions we were raised with that played their role in how we think, how we express ourselves, how our institutions are structured and how they achieve their objectives.

I suppose a good starting point is looking at what oppressions we have inherited from the past that need to be dismantled for a more just society to emerge. The wording of the eighth principle explicitly names racism as an oppression that has been baked into how this country works, even when individual people would like to think in a more egalitarian manner and aim to pursue true justice. Racism is there. And, if nothing else, our experience of eight years with a Black, bi-racial President showed us that we were nowhere near being able to say that racism was a thing of the past, a thing that no longer controlled how things unfolded in America. In addition to racism, what are oppressions we inherited from the past?

Sexism. Patriarchy or Kyriarchy. Classism. Global Economic Imperialism. Unequal Distribution of Wealth and Power. Nationalism. Ethnocentrism. Cultural Misappropriation. Homophobia. Transphobia. Ableism. Ageism. Anti-intellectualism and its opposite, disdain for those with lesser education or intellect. Bullying related to any of these. And others…

Which of these oppressions has been eliminated? Which solved? None, right?

Which has there been movement on to make things better than they were when we received them from our ancestors? Many of them, right? But there has also been reaction against that progress which shows that the work is not complete, but ongoing. Who would have thought that in the 21st century we would still be fighting for women’s equality, that we would still be struggling for voting rights. The idea of all oppression ceasing is aspirational. The so-called Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the big three that have had shaping influence on even non-religious worldviews for more than half of the earth, all three have the concept of a messiah or a messianic age to provide hope where hope is hard to find, hope that, in progressive forms, shades into common territory with religious and non-religious humanism’s commitment to the power of humanity to shape its own institutions and realities.

What has become increasingly clear is that only an “all oppressions” focus has more than the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of making permanent, meaningful, structural changes. Intersectionality is an approach to pushing back against oppression that for decades already has made clear that we none of us have a single identity label. All of our various identities form a complex reality that cannot be treated like they are discrete, stand-alone realities. Any person may have a mix of privileges and oppressions, and the oppressions are not merely additive but form a compound experience of oppression. And so, it is not very effective when we act as if each oppression is something that we can struggle to change without working against “all oppression.” Because we live in a fully interdependent reality. What affects one affects all.

And so, for almost any oppression to fully cease, we cannot take the approach of struggling to solve the problems one at a time and then move on to the next, with a “Mission Accomplished” approach. In 2001, the US suffered a devastating blow from global terrorist forces, to which we responded by invading Afghanistan. We are finally projected to be out of Afghanistan by the end of this month, just shy of 20 years at war against what I still believe to be the wrong target, with all the wrong methods, without victory, and without changing anything in the world for good through that war. The reason for this humiliation was in large part our national refusal to focus on really changing how we operate in the world. The refusal to act in ways that spread worldwide equality and peace. Because contrary to what our leaders told us two decades ago, terrorist attacks against us had nothing to do with hating us because of our freedoms but hating us because of the oppressions carried out on a global scale in our name and for our benefit.

The human toll on that one modest piece of mountain real estate through the spring of this year was more than 171,000 American, allied, and Afghan lives lost before you even consider how many were injured or maimed or left with debilitating PTSD, all without achieving any improvement in that country or on the earth.

Instead of fighting wars that only added to global inequality and personal suffering, we should have been changing ourselves and how we function in the world. We should have been ending all oppressions. We should have been committing wholeheartedly to the well-being of all humanity, rather than growing the wealth of the already-rich, growing the divide between the haves and have nots, both globally and domestically. We should have been dismantling all the isms and phobias that we inherited from the past, rather than futilely pursuing global domination and thinking that the world would love us for dominating them.

Our eighth principle is about fulfilling John Sullivan Dwight’s 19th-century Unitarian dream that through our action we can end oppressive systems and build a world that benefits all, that distributes wealth and power for the equal benefit of all. At any given moment, we individuals and our small congregation have little control over the shape of the global struggle for justice. But we do have the power to shape what is nearest to us and what we benefit from. We can change the ways we operate in ourselves and in our institutions. And so:

We members of this Fellowship voted and resolved to commit and covenant, individually and as a congregation, to affirm and promote a journey toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.

This is the work of all of us. And the peace of all humanity depends on it.

Amen and Blessed Be.