Four Reflections Jan 19 2020 service, followed by Homily
An Inescapable Network of Mutuality [editor’s note – only audio for the Homily by Rev. Lyn Cox is included due to technical difficulties with recording.]
Reflection 1: Charles Alexander, Systemic Racism
The concept of race is a fairly new social construct that has evolved and changed over time. Many people who we view as white today were not always viewed as such when they first stepped onto US soil. The Irish, Poles, Italians, and Swedes at one point were considered non-white and thus less than at some point in US history. There is no scientific evidence that supports the idea that the “races” are significantly different at a physiological level, yet Racism and White Supremacy persists. The fact is, racial categories has served and continues to serve a very important function. Race and by extension Racism and White Supremacy were created to divide the masses and keep the ruling class of Masters in power by creating a belief that poor so-called White people have more in common with the Masters than they have with so-called Black and Brown peoples.
Rapper Ice T once rapped the lyrics:
What if we could take our enemies, feed em poison
Undereducate their girls and boys and
Split em up, make em fight one another
Better yet, make em kill for a color…
Keep em unemployed, and then they’ll probably steal…
They’ll kill themselves off, think about it…
No matter what you think, we’re all in the same gang.
Those of us on the Racial Justice Task Force understand that the work of anti racism and the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign are linked. Poverty is the result of the Masters hoarding resources and opportunities for themselves. Along with Militarism and the destruction of the environment for capital gains, Racism is one of numerous systems the Masters put in place to maintain and protect their status. By creating a caste system that gives limited privileges to some and encourages competition among the subjugated classes, we are divided and left unable to advocate for our collective interest. We all must first understand that we are not Masters. To end poverty, we must engage and address the problem collectively, which will require us to see beyond our superficial differences and seek justice for all. The work of Anti-racism is the work of Anti-poverty.
Reflection 2: Bruce McConachie, the War Economy and Militarism
When Martin Luther King began the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, including a strong statement against “the war economy and militarism” was an obvious priority. The US government was rapidly escalating its unnecessary war in Vietnam and numerous experts had been attacking the war economy for a decade or so. These included President Eisenhower, who had warned that a “military-industrial complex” was exerting undemocratic influence on our nation’s military budget and foreign policy.
These days there are many reasons to continue to challenge American militarism and our war economy. As journalist Katerina Vanden Heuval noted in a recent editorial, “The steady militarization of US foreign policy has hampered our ability to address real security concerns that are threatening not just our own people but the entire planet, from catastrophic climate change to a global economy rigged to foster extreme inequality. . . . Our bloated military budget already constitutes over one-third of the entire world’s military spending, even as vital domestic imperatives are starved for funds.” She also points out that the soldiers who have done the fighting in our recent wars are disproportionately poor, black, and brown.
It’s worth asking, though, why protests against war are so seldom in the news. Since the so-called “war on terror,” US troops have been fighting on more fronts around the world than during the late 1960s. Nonetheless, few progressive Americans have thought to include the evils of militarism and the war economy along with sexism, racism, homophobia and the other “usual suspects” of social injustice. When I was writing this five-minute piece for the service today, I looked back at my experience and that of our two sons in search of a story that I could tell about our experience with militarism. I came up empty. And I wondered why. One likely answer to such questions is that few white men above a certain income and status have to worry any longer about the possibility of dying in battle for their country. It appears that the elimination of the all-
male draft after Vietnam was the best gift that America could have given to the military-
industrial complex and the perpetuation of its unjust values.
In what they call a “moral audit” put together to support the current Poor People’s Campaign, the authors – a group of ministers, academics, and other experts – itemize these and other ethical failures that flow from our nation’s addiction to militarism. As well as siphoning massive resources away from pressing social needs and filling the pockets of war-for-profit corporations, US policies have led to the militarization of US borders and poor communities across the county. Just think of the weapons, gas masks, and armored personnel carriers that have found their way from US army camps into the hands of local police in Fergusson and similar cities. The Poor People’s Campaign is right to include militarization and the war economy as one of the four major underlying causes of misery and injustice in America.
And here’s one final reason. On January 9 th of this year, the Reverend doctors William Barber and Liz Theoharis, the leaders of the PPC, joined with other faith leaders across the country to request that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights hold our government accountable for violating the UN Charter and escalating us toward war with Iran. Their public statement announcing this request included the following: “The US President’s order to carry out a lethal drone strike violated the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force. The assassination of General Qassim Suleimani represented an act of war against a country with whom the United States is not at war. Trump’s claim of imminent danger from Suleimani is unfounded and must be investigated.” I am happy to add my fervent “Amen.”
Minister: Knowing we are imperfect people in a world that struggles with brokenness, we are moved to build and nurture and grow closer to the vision of Beloved Community. Part of that work is in sustaining places where people can be encouraged with spiritual depth and equipped to live their values in the world. The morning offering will now be given by the congregation and received by the congregation.
Reflection 3: Doneby Smith, Ecological Devastation
Take a breath. Close your eyes for a minute and listen. “Ecological devastation”
Open your eyes. What image flashed in your mind on hearing that term? Was it this? [hold up picture of emaciated polar bear on shrinking ice floe] or this? [wildfire in Australia]. What about this? [black child using inhaler] or this? [people lining up for bottled water in Newark]
We know that, across the globe, those who have contributed least to ecological devastation are suffering the worst. Here are examples close to home. In Baltimore, hospitalization rates for asthma are twice the state average and three times the national average. The worst affected areas are in three zip codes close to the two coal-fired power plants and the BRESCO incinerator. The zip code with the most hospitalizations in 72.5% black and has a median household income of $27,225. (For comparison, Maryland population is about 56% black and the median household income is $83,200.)
Rising sea levels are literally taking the ground out from under the feet of many who make a living from the Chesapeake Bay. Tangier Island is disappearing and will likely be gone by mid-century. Warmer winters resulting from climate change are devastating oyster populations, making it harder to earn a living in a place where incomes are less than half the state median.
Brandywine in Prince George’s County is 66% people of color. Five power plants are within 15 miles of the town and it is the site of the 7th most contaminated coal ash depository out of 265 in the country. Groundwater pollution ranges as high as 222 times safe levels. In 2017, minorities made up about 38% of the US population, but they were close to 50% of the people living within 3 miles of a Superfund site.
The US Dept of Defense is the single largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. This is quite the paradox as the DOD recognizes climate change as a significant threat, not to mention the amount of fossil fuel they expend to protect sources of fossil fuel. Apart from global climate change issues, 15 military installations in MD have polluted the groundwater with carcinogenic chemicals. Four of the worst are nearby, including in White Oak, with some sites measured at up to 24,000 times safe levels.
Poverty, systemic racism, militarism—they all have connections to ecological devastation and, as you have just heard, this is happening, not just far away or in the future, but here and now. Although I did not grow up in poverty and I am obviously not black, there are some ways that these issues are personal for me. For one thing, I grew
up in New Jersey which holds the record for Superfund sites: 113 to Maryland’s 20. On a deeper level, this is about my spiritual practice and my life’s work. As a Pagan, to me, the Gaia hypothesis is not just a theory. The intricacy of the interconnections within and between the body of the Earth and our human bodies is nothing short of wondrous and sacred. Down the timeline of life, the ancestors exhort me and the descendants entreat me to preserve the gift I’ve been given.
As a medical professional, I’ve spent most of my career caring for refugees, houseless people, immigrants. I’ve seen some of the effects of racism and poverty on health, but health and healthcare do not happen in a vacuum. There’s a larger context. I cannot address toxified air and water and soil, floods, droughts and the other results of ecological devastation within the walls of my clinic. I cannot fight the injustices imposed on those who are bearing the greatest cost using my stethoscope.
Where is hope? I’m with Greta. She said, “We’ve had 30 years of pep-talking and selling positive ideas. And I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work. Because if it would have, the emissions would have gone down by now. They haven’t. And yes, we do need hope, of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”
I count on you to act.
Reflection 4: Bob Geiger, Poverty
Poverty is right there in the title: “The Poor People’s Campaign.”
This movement does not shy away from calling out white supremacy or environmental degradation, or the war economy, as we have heard this morning. But in naming the issue at the root, it is poverty that calls us most vividly to moral revival. Moral revival, bringing back to life a lost sense of moral purpose, because the spiritual roots of addressing poverty run deep.
It was Christ who instructed: “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Christ was simply echoing the words of other prophets long before him. Isaiah said,
“If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”
Today, we need the Poor People’s Campaign as a reminder of our obligations and connection to our fellow human beings who may not be as fortunate or privileged as
ourselves at the current moment. We need this reminder in our world filled with the images of a televised existence where everyone is upper-middle-class. We need the reminder in our financially segregated neighborhoods, where our neighbors are not poor.
Muslims have a powerful reminder when they fast for Ramadan every year. Fasting is a means for compassion for the poor and gratitude for the favors of Allah. When the faithful feel the the pain of hunger, they remember that many people in the world go hungry without choosing to do so, and that they should empathize with their pain and act within our capabilities to help them.
We UUs, who do not fast, who live in a society that not only glorifies material possessions, but also sends us the message that the poor are to blame for their poverty, we need reminders, we need a moral revival.
My dad, who grew up poor, in a house without running water during the Great Depression, used to tell a story from his own childhood that captures the tragedy and trauma of poverty. One time when my dad was young, he broke both his arms at the same time. His father took him to the doctor. His father asked the doctor how much it would cost to set his arms. The doctor replied: $35, or $60 with anesthetic. My dad’s father thought this over for a second and said: He doesn’t need the anesthetic.
With poverty comes chronic stress. The stresses take many forms that intersect with the other threads of today’s service. The stresses come in the form of asthma, exposure to toxic chemicals, of living in high-crime, racially segregated neighborhoods or unsafe living conditions.
In my work, I see the effects of poverty every day. For 21 of the past 22 years, I have worked at the two schools in Montgomery County with the highest rates of students who qualify for Free and Reduced Meals. When I was an assistant principal at Broad Acres, a fire gutted an apartment house and displaced 15 of our families. Three years later, after I became principal of New Hampshire Estates, there was a fire and explosion at the Flower Branch apartments that killed seven people, including one of our first-graders. These tragedies would not have happened to these families had not been poor.
Parents are reluctant to come pick up their sick kids, for fear that they may lose their jobs if they take the time off work. A mom without a car can’t afford the cab fair to take her kid to the crisis center. Another mom doesn’t want to report her abusive husband to the police, for fear that without his income, she won’t be able to pay the rent. Another
family who has not paid the rent lives in fear that they will be evicted and their things thrown out onto the street. Some kids are so traumatized by their lives, they are not available for instruction.
For me, this struggle is about justice, about the first UU principle, respecting the worth and dignity of every human being.
The struggle of the Poor People’s campaign is also about democracy. Right now, power in our society falls disproportionately, overwhelmingly, to the wealthy. So much so, that it threatens our democracy. Our work in this movement is about helping give voice to the dreams and needs of folks who don’t have the money to buy a seat at the table of the political establishment. With this work, we help build a true democracy, we help protect real liberty. For all of us.
Homily: An Inescapable Network of Mutuality / Rev. Lyn Cox
In 1963, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, he replied to an open letter written by white clergy who were critical of the direct action that Dr. King was involved in, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. In “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King reminds us of our interdependence, our duty to follow moral laws rather than immoral ones, and the urgency of addressing injustice immediately. This letter is also calls to account white people of faith, in whose half-heartedness and silence on behalf of the civil rights movement Dr. King was gravely disappointed. The beginning of the letter explained why he was in Birmingham.
Dr. King wrote:
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
By 1968, Dr. King’s work spreading the gospel of freedom had expanded. He helped launch a Poor People’s Campaign. His 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, described some of what the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign was up against in terms of three systemic evils: poverty, racism, and militarism. Dr. King paused his work on the Poor People’s Campaign to answer a call to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, where he was murdered. Nevertheless, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign went ahead. They occupied Washington, D.C., building a “Resurrection City” where they could teach and learn, make moral witness to systemic evil, and demand attention to the moral crises of their society.
As the time approached for the fiftieth anniversary of that first Poor People’s Campaign, grassroots leaders and spiritual leaders understood that the work that had begun in 1968 was more urgent than ever. In this twenty-first century campaign, it became clear that ecological devastation had to be considered as one of the interrelated systemic evils that shares roots with poverty, racism, and militarism. The premise for the current Poor People’s Campaign is outlined and empirically supported in a document named, “The Souls of Poor Folk.” The authors write:
We come to remind our nation what truths we hold to be self-evident. We come to remind our nation what values we hold dear. In Washington and at state capitols around the country, we hope to make a new moral witness from our love for what Maya Angelou called “these yet to be united states.”
And, indeed, in preparation for that anniversary and since then, there have been organizing sessions; teach-ins; marches; mass meetings; conferences for artists, musicians, and theologians; and more meetings and marches. I have met people advocating for universal health care, immigration justice, climate action, police accountability, clean air for poor neighborhoods, access to dental care, a living wage, an end to death by incarceration, and, most of all, moral discernment in budgets at the local, state, and national level. All of these issues are held in community by people of sharp minds and loving hearts, following the leadership of the people who are most impacted.
Social justice is only a small part of what I do as an Interim Minister, but when I could make it to organizing meetings and public witness events over the last four years, I have been transformed by the community. Activists came from organizations with particular focus points, and they showed up for each other because we all understood that what happens to any of us affects all of us. Witnessing the solidarity between people who come from different social locations and yet know that the vision of Beloved Community calls us together, that has changed my life. I would invite all of us to experience that solidarity more deeply.
Our speakers today have connected some of the dots. Spending more money on machines of war than on social uplift is tangled up with racism, environmental devastation, and poverty. Giving corporations and our own government a free pass to pollute our air and water is emboldened by poverty, racism, and the war economy. Denying health care and the basic means of survival to people of all backgrounds is fueled by racism. Systemic evils are connected, and so we must be connected in casting a new constitutional vision for the America that might yet be, a new moral vision for justice and equality for all of the children of creation. We are in this together. When my fight is your fight, and your fight is my fight, we show up for each other and we go forward together.
In “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King spoke of “an inescapable network of mutuality.” We are in this together. True liberation is collective liberation. I feel like I say this a lot, but it’s not just me. The Poor People’s Campaign is about our collective liberation, centering the leadership and stories of those most impacted by systemic evils, and using a moral lens to shape a direction for a revolution of values.
Knowing we are connected is not always comfortable. It reminds us of our own pain and limitations, and it means we can’t ignore the pain of our neighbors. Yet living into Beloved Community also means sharing our strength. Our action steps are about showing up — even when it’s inconvenient and awkward — so that we can make connections with people in the spirit of movement building, and about accepting leadership and wisdom from the people who are most impacted by systemic oppression.
If this congregation would like to be part of the Poor People’s Campaign, there is a lot we can do between now and the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and March on Washington on June 20. There are buses and carpools to organize, there is home hospitality to arrange, there are local logistics to support. It’s also important to remember that this is a state-by-state and region-by-region campaign, with local priorities and local organizations making a difference right here. There is a Prince George’s County Poor People’s Campaign meeting this Saturday, January 25, at noon at the Greenbelt Library; check the Maryland Poor People’s Campaign Facebook page for details on that. On January 29 (that’s a week from Wednesday), at 5:30, there will be a DC area march, followed by a mass meeting at the Church of the Epiphany on G Street NW. To me, the point of all of those activities is to find and build relationships between this congregation and other organizations. We go forward together.
As Unitarian Universalists, we understand that we are part of an interdependent web. We know that our actions have consequences. As we consider the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I invite us to put our values into shared and organized action, by whatever means and talents and opportunities available to us. Let us not be isolated by the issues that are closest to our hearts or our experience, but united in making common cause for justice and love.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.