Category Archives: Politics

Liberty and Justice for all

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Liberty and Justice for all

Today, in the near culmination of my long holiday weekend, I marched with my congregation in the local 4th of July Parade—an affair the organizers claim as the largest 4th of July parade on Long Island, since 1921. Because I knew this would be a part of my weekend, I began early posting about all the ways I would spend my time this weekend: an afternoon walking and wandering with visiting friends, a low-key party at the home of a British ex-pat congregant, a worship service elucidating the work of the UU UNO, an afternoon at the beach with friends, a day visiting 2 more beaches with friends, a fancy dinner, missed fireworks, another beach (we have lots of beaches out here), and one more attempt at fireworks. A fun time with good friends and a great congregation in a beautiful part of the world. And in the middle of it, marching in the 4th of July parade.

Having experienced this parade last year, I was tempted to beg off, under the guise of needing to care for my house-guests. This is on the list of nightmare scenarios: literally, parading myself through the streets of town drawing all kinds of attention; waving and smiling and well— you can imagine. But an earlier conversation with the member of the congregation organizing our participation in the parade reminded me how much our participation in the parade means to the people that I am blessed to serve with. So, bright and early this morning, I tossed the yellow rally cards into my car, filled my water bottle, and pulled on my golden “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirt.

This holiday is a problematic one for me. I am not especially patriotic. Growing up, my father empowered us—through his example and his critique—to resist standing, hand over heart, to recite the pledge of allegiance and sing the Star Spangled Banner. That line in the pledge of allegiance—about liberty and justice for all—has mocked me since I was in middle school and old enough—educated enough—experienced enough—to know better. And The Star Spangled Banner cannot out-sing the discordance of its oft-ignored racist third verse. American patriotism—for me, and others like me—requires a suspension of disbelief. It requires us to strike a bargain of a kind of willful un-seeing and misremembering, in exchange for … what exactly?

Yet, as minister to this congregation, I march in the July 4 parade. Years ago, this congregation sued the parade organizers in order to be able to march with an anti-war banner. For them, the parade is an opportunity to show this community who they are and what they stand for. I do wonder, for the participants and the viewers alike: “What are you here for?” This year, there were 10 of us from the UUCSF: with yellow SOSL shirts, banner, & signs; and a red, white, and blue banner displaying the name of our congregation. Along the streets, as we ambled between a band float and an honor guard, the sidewalks were lined with people festooned in a remarkable sea of red, white and blue attire. Most were White, but there were plenty of Black and Brown faces waving flags, smiling and applauding us, taking pictures, giving a thumbs-up. I wonder, what are they there for?

In years past, I have celebrated this holiday with family, sometimes friends, enjoying a day off from work; an opportunity to tell stories and play games; to show off grilling and baking skills; an opportunity to be together. I recognized that in the parade goers today: an opportunity to be together; to cheer and to wave and to share good will. I sometimes preach about collective effervescence—these ritualistic opportunities for emotion to knit a community together around shared action and ideas. I recognize that, here too: people—families, friends, and neighbors—seeking an opportunity to be together— to be lifted toward something grander than the every day of living.

My continued hope is that in our reaching to be lifted to something grander, we do so from a foundation of truth and reckoning—honest remembering—of our history. My continued hope is that this kind of honesty lifts us out of an effete self-centered, self-flagellating mire of guilt and shame to a ground where we are able to hear and see each other honestly as we move to a more perfect union.

As my congregation gathered for the parade, we discussed that by this time next year, all of our literature and emblazoned bling will say something more inclusive than “standing” on the side of love. We considered ways that we might change our congregational mission statement to address this shift. For now, if you ask: Why we march in the 4th of July parade? (to our knowledge, the only congregation that does so), we will say that we are answering the call of love. We will say that we are proclaiming, to our friends and neighbors, the truth of a greater love—one that calls us to justice. We will say that we are inviting others to join us in that truth.

And so after the parade, I will put away my flags. I will go to the beach—again. I will listen to Frederick Douglass’s 165-year old address on “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” (full text) I will reflect upon the history of a nation that justified holding people in bondage—for profit, even as it proclaimed the self evident truth of all men [sic] created equal. I will contemplate the vestiges of this history, felt so keenly still today. And tomorrow, I will go to work reminded of Douglass’s words from another address:

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men [sic] who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

I am here for truth. I am here for love and justice. I am here for the true liberation of all peoples.

The Radical King

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The Radical King

New Year – and I’m working on honing my potential for prophetic witness and challenge. So maybe I can manage to resume blogging.

Here’s the speech I delivered this morning at the Rogers Memorial Library (of Southampton, NY) annual MLK Breakfast. (it’s long for a blog – and it’s a speech – so better heard than read, but here you go)


I’ve been thinking about which Martin Luther King, Jr. to talk to you about this morning. King the pastor. King the prophet. King the organizer. King the Dreamer. Which King do you remember and recall and pass down?

I watched the television show Black•ish, last week. (If you’re not watching it, you’re missing out). This episode was mostly about how people, and how this Black family is responding to the election of Donald Trump as President. At the father’s workplace, actual work has ground to a standstill. At the children’s high school, relationships have deteriorated to the point that they have been given the day off to reflect and to prepare for a “Unity Day.” The son, Jr., has been asked to deliver a part of Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—delivered during the March on Washington in 1963.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. …That one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.[1]

Jr. is reminded, though, by his grandfather of a different King. The King who also in that speech said:

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality—1963 is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

There will be a neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundation of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.[2]

I want to talk to you this morning about this King. The Radical King. The prophet who preached change. The organizer who understood power. The pastor, who remained grounded in love.

In the introduction to his collection of speeches by King—titled The Radical King, Dr. Cornel West writes

In Dr. King’s own time, he would say repeatedly, “I am nevertheless greatly saddened…that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.” It is no accident that just prior to King’s death, 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of his opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America. When much of the black leadership attacked or shunned him, King replied, “What you’re saying may get you a foundation grant but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth.” In short, Martin Luther King, Jr., refused to sell his soul for a mess of pottage. He refused to silence his voice in his quest for unarmed truth and unconditional love. For King, the condition of truth was to allow suffering to speak; for him, justice was what love looks like in public.[3]

West continues: “Although much of America did not know the radical King— and too few know today— the FBI and US government did. They called him ‘the most dangerous man in America.’”[4]

The most dangerous man in America.

They understood his revolutionary power. The power to organize tens of thousands of Black people to successfully boycott the bus system in Montgomery Alabama. The power to inspire millions of Americans—Black and White and everything in between to support and fight for a vision—a dream—of a more just society. The ability to harness the transformative power of love to challenge business as usual in order to change our world.

King tells us that power is not a thing to shy away from, but to cultivate and to harvest and to use skillfully. One of his associates (and I think friends) was Walter Reuther. During the March on Washington, Walter Reuther marched with Dr. King. And during his speech, Reuther stood by his side. This association—between King and Reuther—is especially meaningful to me because before ministry, I was a member of and then an organizer for the United Auto Workers Union (the UAW), founded by Walter Reuther. In his last speech before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, King says this about power:

Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change. Walter Reuther defined   power one day. He said, “Power is the ability of a labor union like UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.”

Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love.

Now we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.[5]

Power, paired with love. Power in the name of love. That is transformative. And used skillfully, with purpose. This is what King was calling us to all those years ago. To remember our purpose and to keep our eyes on the prize. I think about that a lot lately in our current presidential climate. Now, I don’t want to be partisan—but I have a political point of view. And so, I’m going to go there. Because when I look at our politics today—and especially our President Elect, I can’t help but characterize it as chaos. So much chaos and distraction and–in my opinion-foolishness surrounding this president, that my work is to keep my eyes on the prize. To stay focused on what’s at stake. To not be distracted. And instead, to be maladjusted.

In a 1963 speech, The Rev. King talked about creative maladjustment. He said

there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good‐will will be maladjusted. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence.

In other words, I’m about convinced now that there is need for a new organization in our world. The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment—men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation would not survive half‐slave and half‐free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery would scratch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions, “We know these truths to be self‐evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights” that among these are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who could say to the men and women of his day, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.” Through such maladjustment, I believe that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. My faith is that somehow this problem will be solved.[6]

We ought to be maladjusted—yes. Creatively maladjusted. Filled with the force of a righteous anger at anything that stands against love. Filled with a force of anger at anything that stands against justice. At discrimination, at religious bigotry, at economic injustice, at militarism, at senseless and useless violence. As urgent a message today as it was 53 years ago.

I want to leave you with just one more thing from King The Pastor. King The Theologian. The King who was always guided by Love.

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate (on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens’ Councilors in the South) to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we aren’t moving wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality. [7]

This message of love. This is the Radical King. This is my inspiration for the work of ministry.

Like King, I choose love. And I will talk about it everywhere I go.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have A Dream,” 1963.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Martin Luther King Jr., The Radical King (King Legacy), Beacon Press. 2015. Kindle Edition.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here,” in The Radical King (King Legacy), Beacon Press. 2015. Kindle Edition
[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at Western Michigan University, Dec 18th, 1963.
[7] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here,” August 1967.

 

Tyranny of the Meritocracy

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Lani Guinier, in her new book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America, raises the question: what is the purpose of higher education? Is the purpose of education to cultivate an informed and engage citizenry? Is the purpose to prepare laborers to participate in the marketplace? Or is the purpose of education to reproduce social hierarchy based on academic credentials? A look at our overreliance on standardized testing—the creep from college admission testing down into the lower levels of elementary education—suggests the third option. Despite our reliance on standardized tests, such as the SAT for college or the LSAT and GRE for graduate school, to decide school admission, these tests are actually a very poor predictor of who will do well in college and graduate school. Rather, if we are honest with ourselves, these tests are more accurately used to determine deservedness. Students who score well on these tests may or may not do well in higher education. But students who score well on these tests “deserve” to be admitted to a “good” school. Standardized tests become another tool of “entitlement.”

What would it look like if the purpose of higher education were to cultivate an engaged and informed citizenry – not just to reward those who have already had access to opportunities? In a recent Supreme Court case about race conscious admission in higher education (Fisher v University of Texas, 2012), Justice Clarence Thomas argues that using a criterion such as race in admissions decisions does a disservice because it leads to a mismatch. You can read more about Fisher here, but this mismatch argument is what is interesting, and we use it more broadly than in race considerations. The idea is that when we consider criteria other than, say high test scores, (think race, or class, or service in the community) we run the risk of admitting students who are not academically prepared and are thus a mismatch to the schools and all of the high-achieving students. We weed out those un-deserving students for their own good—so that we don’t set them up for failure.

We like this argument because by using something like test scores, we can imagine that we are using objective criteria. Test scores are objective. Students who do well on test scores are smart and hard-working. They deserve to be admitted into institutes of higher education. The higher the score, the more competitive the school. Except test scores are not an objective measure of smartness or hard work. Test scores are more a measure of family wealth than anything else. (Read about that here and here and here and here. Oh, and here.) Yes, there are exceptions. But let’s be real: on a macro-level, test scores are a measure of wealth—not intelligence, not hard work, and not deservedness.

But what if the goal of admissions teams at institutes of higher education were not simply to cull the unprepared and reward the high achievers? What if the goal of admissions were to foster democracy and this cultivation of an engaged and informed citizenry? And what if the purpose of institutes of higher education were to take a diverse and complimentary student population and to actually prepare them for collaboration and achievement in the world?