Peg Duthie - UU projects Peg Duthie
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville
24 September 2006

The assignment from the worship committee: "Activism as Religious Expression"

The homily:

L'shanah tovah! Today is the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of year 5767 in the Jewish calendar. One of the New Year customs at the synagogue I attend is a Tashlich service in Nashville's Centennial Park, where its participants cast breadcrumbs symbolizing their sins and transgressions into Lake Wautaga.

I am very fond of the park: it's the site of the Parthenon, with the giant golden Athena that's one of Nashville's most striking residents. I watched Macbeth there earlier this summer, and my niece and nephews ran me ragged playing tag around the train car. The calligraphers' guild I belong to holds an exhibition at the park's art center every year – two of my pieces are currently there. Last month, the art center featured the work by Orlando Mathers, who happens to be one of my neighbors, one of the most non-obnoxiously cheerful people I've ever met, and a wicked good watercolor painter.

Orlando is also African American. There's an irony to his work being celebrated at the Art Center, because the building is on the site of what used to be another body of water, the Centennial Park swimming pool. The pool existed until the 1960s, when the city of Nashville decided to close it down and fill it in rather than desegregate it.

Nashville was not unique in this: during that era, swimming pools all over the South shut down rather than integrate their facilities. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this strategy in Palmer v. Thompson, ruling that the city of Jackson, Mississippi was justified in closing all five of its public pools – four white and one black – reasoning that it wasn't economically feasible for the city to keep the pools open if white residents were going to stay away. There was an article in the New York Times this September 11th about the town pool in Stonewall, Mississippi, which is being excavated and reopened to all races after thirty years under dirt.

It's both sad and fascinating to read people's memories about that era – forty years later, it's striking how many variations of fear pervade the decisions and attitudes of the time. One particular stance that I find especially thought-provoking is the one resisting change because the speaker feels society isn't equipped to handle it. It's a justification that was used in the closing of the swimming pools – there were people who weren't opposed integration in principle, but who feared the possibility of riots and other civil unrest, or of personal consequences, such as their businesses being boycotted by key customers. During the lunch-counter sit-ins, some stores put signs in their windows that said "Closed –In the Interest of Public Safety" rather serve black students.

It's important to recognize that these weren't groundless fears. In 1958, white supremacists bombed the Nashville Jewish Community Center as well as Atlanta's oldest synagogue. Some of the elders at my church remember fearing whether First UU would be likewise targeted, and this came up a few years ago, when our church held a forum on how vocal our community ought to be on the issue of marriage equality. The church's GLBT+ group wanted to display a banner proclaiming our support of gay marriage, and one of the issues that came up was, how much danger might this pose to the rest of the community? Would it be an act of irresponsibility to subject the entire community to that kind of risk? It's one thing for individual adults to show up at marches and rallies – their choice, their consequences -- but how would we feel if someone decided to dynamite our nursery? I have friends at the church who remain hugely ambivalent about Unitarian Universalist visibility on the issue – they truly feel society isn't ready for it, and while they agree it isn't fair, they can't help but wonder if we shouldn't concentrate our resources on less controversial problems. After all, there's no shortage of those, either.

There were also a number of logistical obstacles: banners aren't cheap, and our church building wasn't designed for outdoor signage. In the end, we ended up creating several marriage equality posters to display in our wayside pulpit. I know of at least one homophobic call we've received regarding the posters, but I also know of visitors who decided to come to our church after seeing them. One of our newest members found out about First UU by reading a column in theTennessean that my minister had written, one based on her conversations with her parents about civil unions.

In one conversation, Reverend Gail and her parents discussed a minister who'd been fired for signing a petition in favor of gay marriage. Her dad said, "I don't know what made her think she could go around signing petitions like that." Rev. Gail responded that, as a Protestant minister, it was in fact the woman's job "to express the prophetic tradition by preaching the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other."

Like the word "liberal," the word "activist" has become shaded with negative overtones in recent years. So-called "activist judges" are accused of pandering to liberal agendas whenever their rulings contradict the conservative status quo. There are also activists who give activism a bad name. There are people so shrill and fanatical about their causes that they scare off or alienate would-be supporters. The Southern phrase "Bless their hearts" was made for such people – they mean well and they do worlds of good, but lord help you if you get stuck next to them at a potluck. Back in 1853, Unitarian astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote about her encounter with social reformer Dorothea Dix:

She must be past fifty, she is rather small, dresses indifferently, has good features in general, but indifferent eyes. She does not brighten up in countenance in conversing. She is so successful that I suppose there must be a hidden fire somewhere, for heat is a motive power, and her cold manners could never move Legislatures. […]

In her general sympathy for suffering humanity, Miss Dix seems neglectful of the individual interest. She has no family connection but a brother, has never had sisters, and she seemed to take little interest in the persons whom she met.

The frustrating truth is that it takes all types – some of them less agreeable than others -- to create and maintain a just society, one in which "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" prevail over economic convenience and deep-entrenched fears. The distressing truth is that we aren't going to see this happen during our lifetimes – there's far too much work to do, and far too much pain and pride to be reckoned with when it comes to anything having to do with race or sex or land. People in this state are still fighting the Civil War, and 150 years from now, we're probably still going to have lawsuits boomeranging back and forth over Confederate symbols and whether the Ten Commandments belong on public property.

That said, it's essential that we do what we can. My friend Rachel is a rabbi-in-training – she calls herself "the Velveteen Rabbi," because she isn't quite ready to run with the "real" rabbis yet – and she likes to quote from Pirke Avot, a collection of Jewish wisdom that asserts "it is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." From our own tradition, we have Edward Everett Hale, a nineteenth-century Unitarian minister who declared, "I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. What I can do, I should do. And what I should do, by the grace of God, I will do." One of Hale's contemporaries was Theodore Parker, a Unitarian clergyman whose writings influenced Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. When the Reverend Dr. King spoke about "the arc of the moral universe" ultimately stretching toward justice, he drew from words Reverend Parker had written over a century before:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long.

"Long," of course, is a relative term. When things are not right, any length of time seems far too long. I would also argue with Parker's characterization of the triumph of justice as "continual and progressive" – two weeks ago, I was at a dinner with some folks from my church, and one of them expressed his dismay at how the United States seems to be regressing when it comes to the concepts of civil liberties and religious tolerance – not just in our government's blatant contempt for human rights, but among the general population as a whole. I don’t fault him for feeling discouraged – I seldom listen to NPR these days because it sends my blood pressure through the roof, and I can't do anything to save the world anyway when I'm stuck on I-40.

I don't fault anyone for feeling frightened, either. My own parents grew up under martial law, and they had conniptions when I started writing opinion letters to the editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader. They were terrified that I would make the wrong people mad and that I wouldn't get into the right colleges as a result, and they couldn't understand why I couldn't keep a low, safe profile like all of the other teenagers they knew.

On the other hand, when I asked my father for a check to Amnesty International, he doubled it – that's one of my favorite memories of him. One of the points I want to leave you with today is that there is no one right way when it comes to being an activist. We need people with the time, energy, and chutzpah to show up to rallies and marches and city council meetings, and we need people brave and bold enough to preach compassion and fairness in newspapers and blogs and broadcasts and podcasts. But we also need all the people who show their support in quieter ways, be it writing checks or sticking stamps onto envelopes, or cooking breakfast for volunteers, or reading stories to children that celebrate our values. We need to accept that different people go through different phases of involvement, and that there are difficult choices to be made – it can be very easy to resent other people for not caring enough or failing to support the causes that most matter to us, but I guarantee that whatever you're doing, there'll be someone who thinks you should be doing more of it, and someone else who thinks you should be doing something else entirely – and I'm talking about fellow religious liberals, not the people who think we're just a front for the Democratic party.

We need to aim high and then forgive ourselves when we miss. Every year I look back at my plans for being a better wife and friend and colleague, and every year I can't believe how much time I frittered away and how many things are still on my to-do list. It's a sick-to-my-stomach feeling, because I mean those promises to myself when I make them -– don't be late, don't make excuses, don't be a coward – and it's no fun feeling like I don't yet know how to act like a grownup. I do take comfort in the fact that generations of artists, scientists, and activists have struggled likewise; in her diary entry of September 26, 1855, Maria Mitchell wrote, "I feel constantly hurried because of the shortness of life and I have so much to do […] and I feel that there is an infinitude that I do not know…"

I'm reasonably sure that our challenges will outlive us, but I'm also convinced that what we say and do will continue to matter long after we are gone – not in terms of our words showing up on plaques and monuments, but in making it easier for future generations to live just and compassionate lives. I believe in encouraging each other in the here and now, and that religious communities are a resource against despair not just when we bear witness to the world's tragedies and shortcomings, but also when we write thank-you notes to volunteers, purchase fair-trade coffee, and all the other small yet significant gestures that let people know we appreciate how hard they're trying.

I usually drive by Nashville's Centennial Park several times a week. Lately, in the middle of the afternoon, there are often several people with posters that say, "Honk if you support marriage equality." Last Friday, I saw a sign that proclaimed "Christians for Marriage Equality."

I have to admit I have mixed feelings about the campaign, and about being asked to honk for or against anything – I don't like being honked at, because I automatically associate it with aggressive driving, and I can't help but wonder if I'm going to get rear-ended someday by someone realizing I'm out to destabilize society as they know it. There are so many people driving by in silence, though; when I do sound my horn, the activists' faces light up and I often get a thumbs-up in response.

In his book Felon for Peace, Jewish activist Jerry Elmer speaks about working with Catholic pacifists to destroy hundreds of draft files in Boston and Providence. He says, "It was precisely my Judaism – or, more precisely, my Jewish family's experience with the Holocaust – that stood at the very center of my motivation…I acted because I felt I could not stand silently by when crimes against humanity were being committed in my name." However, in spite of the certainty of his calling, Jerry also wondered if he'd have the guts to do what needed to be done; he writes about studying the book of Jonah that spring and feeling the same reluctance and fear the prophet experienced when God decided to hand him an assignment. [Full disclosure: I was the book's copyeditor.]

The Bible is full of people who are baffled, incredulous, or outright terrified of what God asks them to handle, and some of the stories are still tremendously difficult to digest: just a month or two ago, I listened to a rabbi muse about how the story of Isaac as a sacrifice continues to trouble him, in spite of all his years of study and in spite of thousands of years of commentary. However, one thing that both Jewish and Unitarian sages have insisted on across the centuries is the importance of striving towards justice and compassion in spite of fear and risk. There's a saying by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav that "all the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid." During World War II, Norbert Capek, a minister who wrote some of the songs and readings in our hymnal, was arrested by the Gestapo for "listening to foreign broadcasts" and gassed to death at Dachau. In 1971, when Beacon Press published the Pentagon Papers, it did so in spite of harassment and intimidation from the U.S. government: the month after the book appeared, FBI agents combed through the Unitarian Universalist Association's bank records, searching for anything incriminating that the Nixon administration could use against the denomination.

We live in interesting times, and that can't be helped, but we do have a choice in whether to see that as a curse or as a blessing. In my High Holy Days prayerbook, there's a reading that goes as follows:

Praise Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me.
Curse Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me.
Praise Me or curse Me,
And I will know that you love Me.

Sing out My graces, says God.
Raise your fist against Me and revile, says God.
Sing out graces or revile,
Reviling is also a kind of praise.

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God,
If you sit entrenched in, "I don't give a hang," says God,
If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don't cry out,
If you don't praise and you don't revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.

-- Aaron Zeitlin

It's a new year, and a new season. May we each live our lives knowing that we matter and helping others to share our collective courage, tenacity, and faith. Amen and alleluia.


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