The Solid Rock of Human Dignity
A sermon by the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon
Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia
January 20, 2013
On Friday, a dozen of us gathered here at the church to watch a video of author Michelle Alexander speaking about her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This book is our Common Read here at the church this year. You may remember my preaching about it in October. (And, as a side note, this was only the first in a series of events to discuss it – so you still have time to buy a copy at our book table or find a copy at the library and get reading!)
In her book, and in the video, Alexander lays out a number of well argued points supporting her larger thesis that a very complex collection of factors have created a vast new system of mass incarceration of poor people of color, which has in turn created a caste system that she calls the moral equivalent of Jim Crow. She argues that the mass imprisonment of people of color, mostly on small scale drug possession charges, in turn affects entire communities’ economic prospects, creating widespread joblessness and desperation, which in turn leads to increasing violence, and round and round in a seemingly intractable cycle of suffering and oppression.
Alexander’s point echoes something King said in the speech we heard excerpted this morning – that the problems of economic inequality, racial injustice, and our violent culture are all tied together. That, as King said “You’ve got to change the whole structure.”
At the end of her book Alexander admits that the complex and interweaving forces of injustice toward which she points can seem impossible to untangle, much less dismantle. But, she says, there is reason for hope, because there is a single, very simple assumption undergirding all of these complex, intractable factors… it is no more and no less than the declaration that someone is unworthy.
As King said: “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’” and exploit anyone it can. It is this idea that any individual or group is somehow “less than” – less than human, less than worthy, less than us – it is this idea that underwrites and enables every system of oppression.
A quick look at history tells us that the ‘othering instinct’ seems to be written into human society. There has never been a time or place without oppression.
And a look inside tells us that whether by nature or nurture, social influence or careful teaching, this same assumption seems written into our hearts and minds as well, much as we might wish otherwise.
And yet. And yet. We declare justice possible. And yet in that same history and in us, there is a steady stream of worth and Love, an ongoing story of transformation and redemption.
There is Jesus preaching to love our neighbor and the Buddha destroying the illusion of separateness.
There is Ghandi fasting and Martin Luther King marching.
And there is us. Sitting together in church, trying to learn to love.
It is the paradox of our chalice lighting words come to life. That the world is perfect as it is and also broken. That we are good and worthy and prone to the sin of ‘othering.’
So here we are – sparks of God sitting together in this room, and out walking down the street, somehow failing to see the other sparks all around us. Here we are – each of us enough – and each of us sure that we are ‘more than’ some and ‘less than’ others.
Lucky for us, the religious project has always been one of paradox and transformation – one of grace and mercy – one that calls us to our highest selves again and again, and still names us good and worthy as we try and fail.
And I have a word of good news today –
that our religious tradition, our Unitarian Universalist faith is built upon a “solid rock of human dignity” –
this is the core of our faith, passed down over the centuries from our religious ancestors –
this claim that humans are born in to blessing – seeds of good sewn in our hearts – all worthy, beloved by God, and joined in a single destiny.
And here is the really good and really challenging news. We claim that destiny to be Universal and Reconciling Love.
It is a radical claim – that Love wins – that some creative force in the universe pulls us irresistibly toward justice, compassion, and kinship.
It is a radical claim, because it never has been yet.
Love never has won yet, but is always winning still. Victories small and large in each of our lives – through each of our actions.
We have no proof or formula or data-set leading us to an ultimate destiny of reconciling love. We have but glances seen dimly – people doing doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly.
We have no final view, and yet the fierce and transforming power of love is the at the heart of our faith tradition—
if we are willing to claim it –
if we are willing to let ourselves love beyond reason, beyond belief.
If we are willing to be changed.
And I’m gonna get some old time religion up in here. Because it’s not enough to say that we believe Love wins and we believe that all people are worthy. Believing it doesn’t do much until we let our selves be converted by love.
Until we are born again – as Martin Luther King calls us to be – born again into a life guided by Love.
Born again Unitarian Universalists…
You see, it doesn’t do much to believe in the fierce and demanding power of love until we actually let that power into our lives.
Until we allow the Holy Spirit of Love to move in our hearts breaking down every wall we’ve inherited or built to protect ourselves from others.
Until the spirit blows through us destroying every idea of otherness and unworthiness that has grown up in us.
And let’s be real about how hard that is. Because, if you think you do not need a conversion experience, I want to point out one thing. The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of fierce, divine love is the very natural human state of indifference.
The opposite of the kind of holy love that converts our hearts is simply life as usual – life where we see someone hurting but keep on walking, life where we find ourselves unworthy (and others too), life where we are petty and jealous, life where we are distracted and overbooked.
Conversion by love is a transformation away from every state of mind that keeps us comfortably closed away from others. And so it is not a one time deal.
We cannot walk through the world 100% open and compassionate all the time, but we can pray every morning, or meditate every afternoon, in the effort to open our hearts to Love.
We will fail often to live up to our faith, but we can try, and try, and keep trying.
Dr. King spoke to this, in a very personal way, near the end of his life. He preached:
“The question I want to raise this morning with you: Is your heart right? If your heart isn’t right, fix it up today. Get God to fix it up. Get somebody to be able to say about you, “He may not have reached the highest height, he may not have realized all of his dreams, but he tried.” Isn’t that a wonderful thing for somebody to say about you? “He tried to be a good man. He tried to be a just man. He tried to be an honest man. His heart was in the right place.” And I can hear a voice saying, crying out through the eternities, “I accept you. You are the recipient of my grace because it was in your heart! And it is so well that it was within thine heart.”
He said: “I don’t know this morning about you, but I can make a testimony. You don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh, no. I want you to know this morning that I’m a sinner like all of God’s children! But I want to be a good man! And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, “I take you in and I bless you, because you try. It is well that it was within thine heart.” What’s in your heart this morning? If you get your heart right.”
Knowing where we’ve been calls us to celebrate, as we do each year, the great strides made by King and his contemporaries, and by activists following in his footsteps. If he wasn’t a saint, he was something more human, and real – he was a servant of Love.
Knowing where we’re going calls us to pause, each year, to recognize what portion of King’s dream is still all of ours to achieve. It is to proclaim that there is always still a struggle we have yet to win – a struggle played out in the story of our communities but waged as well within each of our hearts.
It is the struggle to dig down below the million ways we separate ourselves and expose at last the ground on which we all must stand together: the solid rock of human dignity – the unshakeable truth of human worth.
That ground is there, it lays below us, undergirds our very being. Yet we must dig deep to find it for ourselves. We’ve got to try.
So, if you’ve got that old time religion burning in your heart too – if you’re ready for the alter call to BE LOVE in this world… and if you’re wondering how the heck do I do that? Do not fear! I’ve got a place for you to start.
Our denomination’s social justice campaign Standing on the Side of Love has created a month of spiritual practice – a heart conversion curriculum just for us. They’re calling it the Thirty Days of Love, and each day they provide a spiritual reflection for your meditation and contemplation – an effort to help transform the spirit. And each day they also suggest one achievable action to take on behalf of the spirit of Love – one way to put your body where your heart is – to transform your life, and with it your small corner of the world.
You can sign up online at standingonthesideoflove.org, and we will be posting information on all of our web outlets. There are also copies of a family friendly activity calendars out in the greeting area.
Perhaps this will be a month of conversion by Love. At the very least, every day for thirty days, we can try to get our hearts right. Maybe it will even be the start of a larger transformation.
As Dr. King called us to do, we will try – try to walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future, transformed by the knowledge that we are tied together in a single garment of destiny.
‘Til words of praise are heard by everyone.
‘Til the song of celebration is sung by everyone.
‘Til there is peace, and justice, and good for us and everyone.
We will keep walking.
We will be reborn again and again in the spirit of Love, until we are able to see in every face the image of God, and stand together at last on the solid rock of human dignity that is our inheritance, our calling, and our promise.
Let us make it so.