Consistently Courageous Action

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, July 11, 2021

In January 2010, I was in Chicago for an intensive month at my seminary. I lived for that month in a condo on the Chicago River with just two buildings between me and Lake Michigan. I was right downtown, within easy walking distance of pretty much everything I wanted to take advantage of in my down time.

One Saturday evening, I walked through light snow along the river, crossed a bridge and made my way to a cinema to see James Cameron’s recently released movie Avatar. I didn’t know much about it other than that it involved going to another planet where the atmosphere made unprotected life in a human body impossible. And so, they created hybrid bodies that appeared like the inhabitants of the planet. Then they can experience the planet in their avatar bodies.

I didn’t go prepared to politically critique the movie. It was an action movie in which the hero starts out as an unaware outsider serving the cause of his superiors. But in the process of the story, he becomes awakened to what it means to live on this particular living planet. He becomes proficient in its ways. And then, when his own people attack, he puts himself in the position of leading the resistance.

I had no sooner seen the movie than I started seeing scathing reviews about the hero being a “white savior” rather than an ally empowering and supporting the beleaguered Na’vi people who are the native population of the planet. I had been so taken in by the storytelling focus on the moral awakening of the human hero in an avatar body that I hadn’t seen the problematic nature of a story about saving the Na’vi that didn’t center on the action of the Na’vi. We’ve long been trained by mainstream American culture to focus on the saving nature of the good actions of white saviors. Most of the time, the story has to be told as if it’s about white people, even when it isn’t really a story about white people at all.

Back in March last year I started thinking about how I might approach this sermon, the sixth sermon in a series I started way back in the fall of 2019. It is a series of sermons focused on this congregation’s own documents and what they say about why we exist and what this Fellowship intends to do. We had started with the purpose statement in our bylaws, worked through the main points of our vision statement, and had completed a sermon on the first bullet point in our mission statement, but then we shut down in-person services for the pandemic, and the entire service schedule went by the wayside. Today, finally, we return to our series.

The second segment of our mission statement says:

It is the mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro to: contribute to the creation of a kinder and more just world through consistently courageous action as an ally and defender of the marginalized and oppressed.

Consistence. Courage. Action. Allies. Defenders. These key words already land a little differently than they did for many people of faith and goodwill in June of 2017, when this Fellowship voted to accept the words shaped by our year-long mission-discerning process.

About two weeks before our vote on our mission statement, Skinner House Books, a Unitarian Universalist publishing house, released Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry, a book edited by Mitra Rahnema. And at Ministry Days – the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association – and the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association that year, discussion of the book was at the center of our engagement. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations spent the next year studying what it was all about. The idea of “centering” is that emerging justice depends on people with relative power stepping back from the center, DECENTERING THEMSELVES and their narratives, in order to allow voices otherwise pushed to the margins to shape the discussion and the action to follow that discussion.

So with critiques of Avatar and discussions of Centering in mind, I set my mind to this second point in our mission statement. What does it mean to be “an ally and defender of the marginalized and oppressed” if we intend to decenter dominant narratives in favor of listening to the voices and following the lead in our Fellowship of marginalized and oppressed people? What does it mean to be a defender if we purposely shift the narrative so it isn’t the story of a dominant group that we’re telling. When we are not saving some other who is oppressed but allying ourselves to the cause an oppressed or marginalized identity. When we commit to truly hearing voices other than our own.

And while we’re asking ourselves this question, we have to recognize that, although there are congregations who have grown a broader and deeper mix of identities among their members, this is historically and is largely still a denomination with a white majority, with most congregations exhibiting a white culture, despite decades of denominational desire and effort to recreate our culture as intentionally antiracist, anti-oppressive, and multicultural. Our congregations tend to be places where it is easy to shape our narratives in ways that center white voices and white experiences.

Remember Selma? The March to Montgomery? It is a story of Black leadership by remarkable and emerging leaders, calling the attention of the world to the unjust practices of a particular place. Martin Luther King Jr. called on allies from across America to come to Selma, to center a narrative aimed at ending systemic oppressions there. Remember the martyrs for justice? We remember them – at least we remember the sacrifice of two of the four. Unitarian Universalists. A minister and a layperson. The Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. It is the simplest thing on earth to center the story on UU participation and loss. On white participation and loss. And we don’t want to lose that narrative, that story of supreme sacrifice, of white bodies taking the punishment generally aimed at black bodies. We encourage ourselves by telling the story where we show Unitarian Universalist commitment to justice in white bodies that take the blows of an unjust system.

It is a worthy piece of a story of the march toward justice. But how long ago was Selma? Our mission statement calls on us to be consistent in our courage. To have courage of action, not just courage of ideology. No one wants to be harmed in the process, but opposing systems of oppression is dangerous work. There are times when courageous allies are harmed when they put their bodies in the mix.

We can learn to recognize the sacrifice of people with a dominant identity who have removed their voices and their stories from the center. We can honor those harmed or lost in the struggle while consistently centering the voices and the leadership of the marginalized and oppressed. Our mission statement calls on us to be allies and defenders. But it definitely does not call on us to make the story all about us.

Next year, a long-awaited sequel to the movie Avatar is set to come out. Will this one do a better job of avoiding the trap of white saviorism? James Cameron and his team have had more than a decade to rethink how to tell the story without making it a human story in a Na’vi world, to rethink how the story deserves Na’vi leadership. We’ll see whether the cineplex can grow its ethical commitment.

As the conversation continues to develop, as our moral consciousness grows, we can learn ways the words land differently now than they used to. We can tell our stories better. We can better become what we aspire to be: consistently courageous allies and defenders of the marginalized and the oppressed. And we can do it better once we have removed ourselves from the center.

Our mission statement calls us to meaningful action.

Amen and Blessed Be.