May I let my voice be a clarion call. I will use these words for justice. I will use these words for truth. And humour.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Sermon from Last Sunday: Owning and Atoning the Wounds of Judgement

Owning and Atoning the Wounds of Judgement 
Delivered to First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, February 3, 2013

Well........ today is Superbowl Sunday. And I recently heard that 27% of Americans polled believed that God plays a part in how teams perform at sports. Now I know that our group here tends to be a big mix of theists, atheists, and agnostics. However, on behalf of this town's definitely very faithful fan-base, it crossed my mind to offer a prayer for a miracle. Namely, that today, the Steelers might be able to pull off their seventh Superbowl win.... though I think the odds are probably pretty low of seeing that today. Yet, if I recall correctly, there are things that we see at pretty much every football game. I haven't watched much football in the last decade, so please straighten me out if any of these things have changed. There's still a coin toss, followed by a kick-off, yes? Do coaches still make frustrated faces at the referee or quarterback, and go like this [hand motion, hit head, wave downfield]? And are there still people with giant John 3:16 signs in the section just behind the field goal?

I want to talk to those folks. Ever since I read it growing up as a Lutheran, I have felt that John 3:16 is entirely incomplete without the important clarifications of the next verse. Many of you who are come-outers from Christian religions – or those of you have been frequently evangelized – likely know the gist of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Now, John 3:17, printed at the top of your bulletin, goes on to clarify that the reason for this offering was not for the purpose of judgement, but rather for saving.

In December from this pulpit, I offered my thoughts against the theology of substitutional atonement in which one person may expect to be saved by the distant actions of another. I also take issue with the male-gendered language regarding God, and the way many people interpret their salvation as coming exclusively from the person known as Jesus of Nazareth, putting him on a pedestal, separate and far-removed from everyone else. I imagine many people in this room have their own thoughts and history around such a theology, some perhaps painful. Today I hope to name some of the pains, and to offer some balm for healing to begin.

The important thing in my mind is that judgement was not Jesus' purpose and should not be ours. “Judgment” here I see as similar to condemnation, rather than judgement as discernment or recognition. Condemnation says, “This is unworthy, or is qualitatively lesser, and should be cast out,” whereas discernment more neutrally says, “Things appear to be this way, or that way, and perhaps these steps will work toward making the situation better.”

A problem I see is that in many of this world's cultures (including our own), on several levels, we've gravitated toward an expectation of judgment, of condemnation as the natural order of the day. This expectation and acceptance of judgement has created a wound so profound and pervasive that we are immersed in it. More often than not, we do not recognize the omnipresence of condemnation. Condemnation appears anywhere there there are situations reflecting an attitude in which a person sees their agenda as more important than the life or well-being of another person.

For many in the world, there is a theological understanding of a deity fit for meting out punishment. We may identify somebody else as evil-doers, and hope they get what's coming to them. Or we may condemn ourselves as somehow unfit, and expect that we will be individually punished for our nature, or our bad life choices. While indeed, bad choices sometimes lead to bad results, I don't view this punishment-and-guilt-based framework as healthy. When we see someone as the evil-doer, is it possible to meet them on common ground? When we feel unworthy somehow, are we then really capable of stepping up to meet others on common ground?

On the social level, these condemnations can come from oppressive prejudices – a word that means “early judging, before taking time to check out assumptions.” This is often a result of categorical thinking, in which a group of people are thought to deserve different treatment. This can appear in the amount of pay different classes of people should receive for their contributions to society; Prejudicial condemnation appears in expectations about racial segregation by neighborhoods – still very much an issue in 2013! – and a status quo many people continue to take for granted. And of course, this condemnation appears as roadblocks preventing marriage equality to same-sex partners. In a host of other ways certain categories of people are condemned to second-class status, because they do not conform to the dominant mono-culture's narrow expectations. Here, of course, I'm speaking to the culture in the USA, but also to the culture right here in Unitarian Universalism.

As Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt shared as part of the 2009 Berry Street Lecture,
We also underestimate the reality of resistance in our congregations, a resistance rooted not so much in racism as in matters of class and culture. We forget when we talk about cultural competence in ministry, or cultural change in ministry, that it is not just those other people who have a culture. Unitarian Universalist congregations have a culture. Consider who many of us are, and who we are pretty proud about being, no matter what our race or ethnicity. Many of us are the people who brag about not owning televisions because there is nothing worth watching, unless it is PBS. Many of us are the people who refuse to listen to popular music because it is misogynistic and violent, and more than a few of us regard rap music as nothing more than noise and confusion. Many of us change the channel, and listen to NPR and love Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, and laugh when Keillor makes fun of us.... Many of us are unapologetic nature lovers, and the only thing we might love more than hiking in the woods is building our congregations in the woods, complete with tiny elegant signs that blend in well with the natural environment but cannot possibly be seen by a seeker on the highway. Many of us eat locally, we shop at farmer’s markets, and we would never be caught in Wal-Mart, unless it was a dire emergency. Many of us do look ahead in our hymnal to see whether we agree with the words, and forget that the person sitting next to us may need exactly the words we are refusing to sing.”
*Gray part is edited out. See this link for her full lecture and here for Paul Rasor's accompanying lecture.

When we strongly identify expectations about the culture that McNatt names (or whatever ours tends toward), who are we condemning to somehow feel outside? In what ways are we advertising ourselves as multicultural, only to have newcomers arrive, or members stay, trying to make a good fit, but feeling the way I do when I try the one-size-fits-all gloves at Home Depot? These extra-large hands those gloves would not fit, but if my hands were cold, I'd see them as the best thing going to keep my hands warm. I wonder how many people are here not because Unitarian Universalism (or First Unitarian) as it stands is a perfect fit, but because it's the best thing going. AND I invite you, to make space, here, for your authentic self. If you are willing, to do the work of transforming our culture to be a bigger fit – to wear the not-quite-perfect gloves until they're broken in to fit your (figuratively) knobby hands, your long fingers, or your giant thumbs until they become gloves finally comfortable – so that our culture (or more properly, our cultures) make a good and welcome fit for people like YOU.

In institutions, mono-cultural ways of being find their ways into our codified laws, bylaws and policies, which serve to favor the groups with the loudest voices. It is likely not surprising that members of these most vocal groups also tend to conform to cultural norms which offer privileges. And that these in-group members are often among the decision-makers who create the policies. In these cases, the policies created and maintained may still reflect an agenda that subverts the well-being of some categories of people, yet may not even be consciously intended. Systems of privilege and oppression can sometimes be very very difficult to discover and root out.

There is perhaps no stronger evidence of an attitude of one person's agenda being more important than another's well-being – or their life – than the intentional use of violence. My choice for today's sermon on judgment came as a result of the recent spate of gun violence. Guns are tools useful both for coercion and for absolute judgement. There is a wound of judgment there, a wound that goes deep maybe in every one of us, and I believe it needs attending to. The Sandy Hook massacre brought upon me a moral doubt so deep, I asked the question, “What is the worth of our culture at all, if we cannot respond with a collective will to do what is necessary to safeguard our children, and dismantle this thing underneath our culture that keeps bringing this violence?” Then only a week later, during our time-for-all-ages, a child suggested shooting somebody as an answer to the problem in the story I had told. While I imagine the parents may have been mortified, I knew the same could happen from my own child. In fact, at Christmas when given a gift of a lovely and ornate cross made by an uncle, Henry's immediate response was quizzical (not being very familiar with crosses), followed by him grabbing one side of the cross and aiming it like a gun.

This is after we have done so much to dissuade him from guns. What is happening in our culture that young children think of guns so easily? What pressures are built into our culture that young adult males decide to pass judgement in such an indiscriminate way? The solutions to this must be multi-faceted, and I believe they must move away from the mindset of “punishment for perpetrators.” Answering one type of condemnation with further condemnation does not build a just society, but instead it serves to further undergird a culture in which we pass judgement on each other.

There is a better answer than punishment, one that would produce lasting positive results, but it has heretofore been rejected. This better way is restorative justice. Whereas a system of punitive justice assumes that “Penalizing this particular perpetrator will bring justice,” in contrast, restorative justice asks “What must be done – what must change – so this crime doesn't continue to happen?” This is a radically different approach that calls upon us to be both mindful and dutiful. We must be mindful to pay attention to the present moment, without judging, without assigning a value to what is happening or introducing non-observable interpretations. And our call to duty then is to find the source of the injustice, or the cause of the prevention of justice, and work to lessen the energy of that source.
Because, as Allan G. Johnson tells us [in today's reading], even though we should be able to find ways to get along just fine, something powerful is keeping us from it. I believe that something is inertia – participation within a system that doesn't value life, a system that encourages us to compete against each other, to value our agendas more than right relationships and beloved community.

Black History month has just begun, and Women of Color Herstory month begins February 15th. In recognition of that, I will share this quote from Harriet Tubman, an African-American abolitionist and women's suffrage advocate : “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” I do not know for certain who these “thousand more” might be that she refers to, but I interpret this as a broader all-encompassing statement acknowledging the bondage we have to participating in systems that does not allow us our full freedom, and acknowledging the difficulty we have even recognizing that participation. But our duty to justice asks us to find our way to freedom.

We find our way free when we recognize the truth within our theologies. That the judgment so many people expect upon the return of some great prophet is already laid bare in the crucified condemnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the various condemnations put upon countless other prophets and light-bringers, as recently as former CIA agent and whistleblower John Kiriakow, sentenced to prison while the torture crimes he brought to light remain un-investigated. We live in an upside down world where those who most loudly advocate for justice are often most quickly cast out.

If and when the new great prophet comes, whether in the form of a returned Zoroaster, Elijah, Jesus, or Mohammed, or somebody unrecognizably new, they will not need to bring down fire, and their message will not have to be anything special. It will be not much different than before, saying to the people of the world, or the people in their sphere of influence: “Look around you. The cornerstone the builders rejected was one of love and justice! The cornerstone they chose has a nature of avarice, and uneven privilege. Look at what the building created from this cornerstone has wrought.”

“LooOOK!” would be fire-from-the-sky enough. But according to his gospel biographers, Jesus' attitude was one of forgiveness. Somewhere between harshness and mildness, he found the middle ground of mercy, in which the gospels record him as saying, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do....” Rather than the sword of condemnation, which would have been understandable, he offered an olive branch of hope for reconciliation, to which the powers of this world have yet to respond in kind. The invitation remains: How can we build each other up to create a world more heavenly, rather than grind one another down as the world descends into something that represents our values less and less? Restorative justice asks what must change so that sibling is not set against sibling in an ongoing state of adversity.

Restorative justice asks what must we do to be in true equitable relationship, to create the deepest form of solace in our hearts by reaching for common ground? I believe we must not have a too-high or too-low opinion of ourselves. We must recognize our equal inherent value – not superior or inferior – to the person who drives the fanciest car to the halls of great power, and to the person who walks in ragged clothes to ask for spare change a half-block from the Market District grocery. I believe that to achieve the destiny of authentic common ground, we must include all voices as valid, and listen non-judgmentally without feeling a need to interpret or immediately respond.

Restorative justice also asks “What must we do to keep our bodies and our communities safe?” A start is to educate ourselves and our children of the moral injury brought on by living in a world where weapons of condemnation are normative. I do believe that to respect each others' dignity, we ought to minimize the energy that goes toward creating, owning, and using weaponry that works to harm life, and we must add to energies that uplift our connection to each other, which in itself increases our safety.

I will close with this quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
I advocate that we recognize the power we do have. I advocate that we build our love by committing our power to tear down any system that denies life, or impedes flourishing, or quashes organic harmony. And may we at the same time, build up new systems based on a cornerstone of love and justice, with respect for harmony, individuality, and lives that may flourish and bloom. Amen.

pax hominibus, 
agape to all,

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