Sermon: Black Lives Matter (text & audio)

READINGS

From The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In an ear of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

From Across That Bridge by John Lewis
“All our work, all our struggle, all our days ad up to one purpose: to reconcile ourselves t the truth, and finally accept once and for all that we are one people, one family, the human family . . . . Our struggle to affirm the light despite oppression, depression, conflict, poverty, hunger, disease, violence, and brutality is a loving gift we give to ourselves ad our another to help humanity move toward the day wen we can readily separate the light from the darkness and the equal incandescent beauty of the light that is in us all.”

SERMON

There was a festival feeling in the air as we marched west along Selma Avenue last Sunday. A brilliant sun was in our eyes, and people were gathered along the street, smiling with something between amusement and amazement in their eyes as this flood of humanity passed before them.

The tenor and pace of the march changed, though, as we approached Broad Street. It was here that we began to get a sense of the true scope of this gathering. Turning left to face the Alabama River, we saw for the first time some five blocks in the distance that iconic marker of the Civil Rights movement with the heavy block letters spread across its central girder: Edmund Pettus Bridge.

More remarkable, though, was the amazing crowd of people spread before us. You get a sense of it from the photo I took that appears on the cover of your order of service. The crowd covered every bit of the bridge and the street leading up to it. Organizers had also put up a massive screen that you see to the left where images of and video interviews with major figures in the 1965 Voting Rights campaign in Selma were projected. I happened to catch the moment when an image of the Rev. James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister who was murdered in Selma, was displayed.

What this picture doesn’t show is the many others who spilled over into side streets leading up to the bridge and were lined up for several city blocks behind us. Once we turned onto Broad Street it was no longer possible to march: We inched ahead step by step as we could. It must have taken 20 minutes to walk the few blocks to the bridge. I’ve found myself in crowded settings like these before, but I can’t remember ever having been in one that was as diverse. Even more, I can’t remember having been a part of a diverse gathering where the racial animus or just discomfort that seems so often to lie just below the surface when white and black gather in this country was so low.

As we moved forward, it seemed to me that the festival feeling that we had felt earlier shifted into something deeper. Part of it, I’m sure, was the weighty sense of moment. Here we were – black and white – celebrating with our presence our joined affirmation of the principle won by the struggle of Civil Rights leaders 50 years before – that all people have the right to a role in deciding their own destinies, and that that right is embodied in unhindered access to the vote. Ultimately winning that right was an extraordinary victory that ended a pattern of oppression that had been in place for centuries. And here in Selma in 1965 was the tipping point, hard won through injury and death but won all the same.

But beside that sense of occasion, there was something else in the air. It felt to me like an easiness, communicated in smiles and casual banter. Pressed together as we were, there was no pushing or impatience. We took our time, and it was OK. Looking from the crest of the bridge on that picturesque bend in the Alabama River, listening to children laughing and clusters of people singing freedom songs, it was easy get lulled into a kind of happy “Kumbaya” moment.

But on the bus ride back I remembered remarks from the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at a service only three days before at the Baptist church where the Selma campaign had its origin to remember the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement. As good as it may feel to celebrate, she said, our nation is at “a critical moment” when, “we must shift our mentality and our behavior and our practices. We must do something radically different if we are going to be able to continue move forward as a nation and a world.”

And it’s true: 50 years after the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, our nation is challenged with a different image: blood on the pavement in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Cleveland, Ohio, and elsewhere, and ugly truths about persistent disparities in the lives of black and white Americans.

How far we have to go can be measured by the fact that as we celebrate the Civil Rights victories of the 60s the most powerful slogan of our time is that “black lives matter.”

Yes, we have both elected and reelected the first black American president. Yes, African-Americans are media, entertainment and sports superstars and head major corporations. All that is true, and still racism remains imbedded in the fabric of American life.

The difference from the 60s is that the way it makes itself known is less obvious . . . at least to those of us who are white. We haven’t been followed around in stores by suspicious retail clerks. We haven’t had jobs or mortgages denied for vague reasons. We haven’t been pulled over, repeatedly, for no apparent reason and searched spread-eagle outside our cars. All this goes on, and not just out there in the big, wide world, but right here in Asheville.

Even that, though, is just the surface. It gets more frightening as you move down the economic ladder, where opportunity for employment is less and the chance for entanglement in the legal system is greater. It’s a world that few of us here encounter, and yet it is devastating and even destroying the lives of thousands every year. What’s especially frightening now is the escalating level of violence that has resulted in the needless shooting deaths of black men and now the tragic deaths of police officers.

So, what now? Last December our Associate Minister Lisa Bovee-Kemper challenged you to consider how we as a congregation might respond. She presented you quotes from a couple of our colleagues: One was from The Rev. Tom Schade, who said that “We who believe in people must join in the movement that demands that black lives matter. It is the cutting edge of the assertion that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity.”

The other was from the Rev. Victoria Safford, who observed that: “Our longest march may be the one that takes us down from the dais of competitive debate and rational inquiry into the common ground of listening, witnessing, mourning and embracing.”

Lisa closed announcing, “I stand before you this morning with no easy answers, no clear call to action. I stand before you brokenhearted and tired, feeling as if the darkness has come too close, and I can’t see the way forward. But I have faith in the power of goodwill to act. I believe we can turn that anxiety into anger and the anger into action. I have faith that we will find a way forward, together.”

So, we announced our way forward by posting “Black Lives Matter” on our sign and convened a meeting. Those of us at the meeting resolved that before we decide what to do, we need to know what we’re talking about. People were encouraged to attend the upcoming Building Bridges anti-racism training or make contacts with community groups like the NAACP. And we announced that everyone in the congregation would be invited to read Michelle Alexander’s path-breaking book, The New Jim Crow, and that we would organize groups to discuss it.

I hope that many of you had a chance to at least look through Alexander’s book. It can be dense in places, but she makes a devastating case for how many African-Americans are being denied essential rights of citizenship.

The irony, she writes, is that just as Civil Rights laws were taking effect, tearing down century-old Jim Crow laws intended to intimidate and exclude African-Americans from civil life, a new raft of laws and practices were being adopted that accomplished the same purpose. They weren’t billed that way. Instead, they were offered as tools to protect public safety. But, how they were enforced assured that a generation of young African-American men would be swept away and stigmatized, ripping apart families and neighborhoods across the country.

The numbers alone tell a shocking story. Since 1972, the number of people held in prisons or jails has risen from 350,000 to more than 2 million and a disproportionate share of them are African-American. The number grows even larger when you add those on probation or parole. In fact, there are cities in the U.S. today where more than half of all young adult black men are under correctional control.

The main driver of this increase, Alexander shows, is a program that once was highly praised: the War on Drugs. You recall the grim stories of crack houses and drug gangs turning urban centers into war zones. Politicians promised to “come down hard” on the perpetrators with laws that vastly increased prison sentences for even the smallest drug offenses.

Set aside for a moment the fact that the War on Drugs was declared at a time when drug use was actually on the decline and that treatment is a far more effective preventive for drug use than prison. What devastated the African-American community was that police targeted their neighborhoods for enforcement, even though studies showed that whites used drugs at equal rates. That meant that in the highly publicized perp walks of drug dealers the face in the news almost always was African-American. That, in turn, fed racist assumptions that intensified the drive to push even harder.

Meanwhile, African-American men were being warehoused for years, and when finally released discovered that they were tainted for life by laws that forbid those convicted of crimes from participating in civil society. They were unable to vote, to obtain licenses for most professions, to obtain housing or food assistance. Even when not forbidden to hold a job, their conviction was a stain that often shut them out. The American script that anyone with gumption can make it in life was unavailable to them.

The net effect of all of this, Michelle Alexander argues, has been to create a racialized caste system that devastates lives and threatens to defeat any effort of social reform. So, what to do? Well, here’s where it gets hard because this state of affairs forces us all, white and black, to examine ways of thinking that unknowingly perpetuate it.

Alexander says that what distinguishes the “New Jim Crow” from the old is that it is driven not by racial hostility but by racial indifference. We begin with the simple notion that those caught up in the criminal justice system got there by their own choice. Nobody made you buy that cocaine – right? Commit the crime, do the time!

Except, of course, we know that’s not the way the world works. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I invite you to reflect on what laws you have violated in your life. Ever smoked or dealt marijuana, or maybe even taken cocaine? Or, maybe your brother, sister, friend? Many people make foolish choices. Even Barak Obama admitted to “doing some blow” when he was young.

But he, and most of us, grew up in families or communities where police were not vigilantly watching for drug use, and even if caught, sympathetic police or judges often could be persuaded to give us a break. As a rule, young African-American men don’t get that break.

So, we fool ourselves if we pretend that race is not a factor in how laws are enforced. This is what drives the fury of African-Americans in places like Ferguson and even here in Asheville. And it helps explain how African-Americans see racial animus in police officers even if the officers don’t feel it.

The truth is that race does make a difference and has made a difference ever since our nation’s founding, and to pretend that it doesn’t is to perpetuate an injustice. In the end, we are left to declare that it is unacceptable, it is morally wrong to write off a generation of young men because they got themselves entangled with the law, to demonize them as evil-doers who “had it coming” and never need concern us again.

Preparing for this service, I visited the discussion groups who were working through Michelle Alexander’s book and found that many of us followed a similar arc in our responses. First: anger over the injustice she so persuasively describes, but then something like deep sadness and remorse for the terrible toll all this has taken, for how our own racism that has blinded and distracted us.

My own moment came in the last chapter of Alexander’s book when she sums up her case and makes the argument that for those who want to make a difference, the chief work before is not tinkering rules and legislation – as badly as the laws need to be changed – but the building of a movement and with it a sense of personal investment.

Ultimately, she writes: “It is the failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States.”

And that’s it, isn’t it? That simple. Reading that forced me to confront, once again, the excuses and evasions I use to avoid letting my heart be touched by the wanton cruelty of racism that unfolds before me every day that I open the newspaper.

To say that “Black Lives Matter” is to declare that we do care, that we are ready to open ourselves to the truth of the travesty that racism makes of our community and our nation and the way it inevitably poisons us all.

Back in Selma at a Living Legacy conference preceding the bridge crossing, I heard the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed discuss what led the pioneers of our movement to heed the call from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma. We assume, he said, that people were drawn by “the righteousness of the cause and the magnitude of the injustice.” That was there, yes. But to a one, he discovered, it was relationship that compelled them to go: relationships to people and communities, especially African-American people and communities, that got them on those planes, cars and buses regardless of the clear risk of that choice.

So he posed the question for those of us who are mapping how we as individuals, as congregations, as a religious movement might respond to the strife we’re living amid now: with whom are you in relationship?

It’s a question I pose to you, too. Because, if we are going to engage in this work, it needs to be on the basis of more than high-minded principle. We need to have skin in the game. We need to care, and that begins with relationship. As Mark Morrison-Reed put it: when your brother, your sister, your friend, your grandson calls and says they need you to come, you are compelled to go. It doesn’t matter if you have all the answers or can solve all the problems. What matters is that you are there.

The fantasy I hold to is that that glimpse of peace that I experienced on the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge is not just a fleeting moment but a foretaste of the future, a future that we here might be agents in bringing about, where all people learn to be easy with one another, where caring, respect, and love flow freely among us.

I’m not sure of the best way forward. I just know that we have to move. I’m encouraged to hear how many of you have been prompted by this initiative to find your own way. I look forward to us sharing our learnings and inspirations. I’m willing to accept that we’ll make mistakes along the way because I know that the focus of our work will not be getting it right with the proper wording and the proper gestures, but the building of connections – sometimes messy, sometimes wonderful, but sure to change our lives.

In all of this, I am comforted by the words of John Lewis, grievously wounded at the foot of the Pettus bridge, a foot soldier for voting rights who went on to become one of our shining leaders.

All of our work, he said, points to a simple truth: that we are one human family, one people, and that the struggle we endure to overcome the many ills that persist among us – brutality, poverty, oppression – is a loving gift we make to each other that we might finally see the incandescent beauty within us all.

Photo taken by Rev. Mark Ward at the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. (March 2015)