Sunday, February 19, 2012

With Liberty and Justice for All: a sermon

Sing with me:
 “My country tis of thee,
 sweet land of liberty,
of thee I sing. 
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrim’s pride,
 from every mountainside,
let freedom ring!” 

    In 1907, the black poet W.E.B. duBois wrote new words to this famous song for black people to sing, in a scathing rebuke of the privileged understanding of liberty held by theological student Samuel F. Smith in 1832, when he wrote the lines we just sang.  Du Bois substituted these words: 

My country tis of thee, 

Late land of slavery, 
Of thee I sing.
Land where my father’s pride   

Slept where my mother died,   

From every mountainside 

Let freedom ring!

    Though Samuel Smith’s love for his country was deep, he had little understanding of how others might perceive this same country, particularly those whose presence in this country was invisible, resented, involuntary, beleaguered by oppression and poverty, enslaved by prejudice though ostensibly free.

    I wonder what words might have replaced the familiar ones, had one of the survivors of violence against sexual minorities rewritten them?  What might Matthew Shepherd have written, if he’d survived the beating that killed him outside of Laramie those years ago?    I wonder how Angie Zapata, murdered in 2008 by a boyfriend who discovered she was transgender, might have rewritten them.

    I wonder today how our gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex and transgender friends might rewrite these ancient rhymes if they are once more denied the civil rights they’ve gained so far.

    What about victims of brutal immigration practices?  What about workers summarily robbed of the opportunity to band together in unions?  What about women denied the right to control their own reproductive life or to feel safe in a work environment or on a dark street?  What about Muslims pilloried on the stage of religious and racial intolerance?  What about those young persons who are brought to this country and exploited as child prostitutes or unpaid workers in the personal service industries?

    How might they rewrite the words to this favorite American anthem?  How do they perceive the promise of freedom and justice, freedom and justice which has been held just out of reach or given and then snatched quickly back?

    We who form the privileged sector of American citizenry have only a vague idea of how much we benefit from the American promise of freedom and how little some of our neighbors receive from that same promise.

    As Unitarian Universalists, it is our responsibility to inform ourselves and to act in the interests of those who are denied access to American freedom and justice.  We have a history of doing so, in this nation and across the globe. 

    You know me well enough to know that civil rights for sexual minorities has been a passion of mine for many years.  It started when I began to understand the difficulties my gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, and transgender friends and students encountered as they tried to live with the strictures imposed by a society that just plain didn’t get it.

    Didn’t get what it might feel like to be a woman in a man’s body.  Didn’t get what it might feel like to love deeply and yet be denied the right to unite in marriage with that beloved partner.  Didn’t get why anyone would be attracted to a member of the same sex.  Didn’t get it that hostility toward someone with a same sex attraction or born into the wrong body could and often did result in violence and even murder and rape.  Didn’t get it that same sex partnerships were as sweet and fulfilling as opposite sex partnerships.  Just didn’t get it.

    Folks in our state have gradually begun to “get it”, as our legislature, at the urging of gay people and straight allies, has enacted laws that forbid hate crimes, that offer domestic partnerships which provide many protections, including the benefits of marriage, and now we have legislation which gives full marriage benefits including the title of marriage to same sex couples.

    Of course, the legislation (as has been all similar civil rights legislation which provides for sexual minorities) is under attack already and will likely be the subject of two referenda in November.  We will do all we can to prevent these rights from being snatched away by voters who refuse to acknowledge their fairness and logic.  There are still many people out there who don’t get it---and don’t want to get it.

    As Glo and I were preparing this service, we talked about the experiences we’d had with these civil rights issues and we agreed that the politics of civil rights concern us less than the compassion we feel for those who are denied these human rights.  And we realized that we wanted to present our thoughts as they reflected our belief that all of us humans share the same spirit of life, regardless of our differences in culture, in religion, in race and gender.  We all need freedom; if one person or group is not free, we are not free either.

    Recently I had the opportunity to get better acquainted with Nydia Stephens, a member of this congregation, who has educated me about one of her human rights concerns.  After hearing her stories of the victims of human trafficking, I asked her to share some of her passion for this issue with you.  Nydia?  (Nydia speaks)

    Both Nydia’s passion for the victims of human trafficking and my passion for our friends and family members who are unfairly treated by laws which do not recognize the value of the lives of sexual minority folks, both of our passion issues are bound up right now in political wrangling, but they have a different kind of  importance to us as people of faith.

    Our faith asks us to be compassionate, to consider the pain of those who struggle, who are treated unfairly, who suffer from the cruelty that lack of compassion imposes.  Yes, these are political issues, but they are first and foremost issues of compassion.  And whereas we may do whatever we can to influence the political process which establishes or denies the rights of our fellow humans, we must first address the lack of compassion which undergirds inhumane treatment for others.

    This is our job as fellow human beings, no matter what our religious beliefs, our political preferences, our cultural background.  Compassion is our job.

    The value of compassion is inextricably woven into the fabric of all moral, ethical, and religious principles.  The prophet Jesus said it well, when he was asked what God’s greatest commandment might be.  He answered “to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves”.  To love the Source of All, no matter what we might call it, and then to give the same love to our neighbor---that’s a big commandment. 

    I think this t-shirt that I found on Facebook and ordered for myself says it well:  (show shirt)

    Thy Homeless Neighbor
    Thy Muslim Neighbor
    Thy Black Neighbor
    Thy Gay Neighbor
    Thy White Neighbor
    Thy Jewish Neighbor
    Thy Christian Neighbor
    Thy Atheist Neighbor
    Thy Racist Neighbor
    Thy Addicted Neighbor

    There are a few more neighbors we need to love, and I’m sure you can add your own thoughts to this list.  Listening to Nydia, I realize we must also love the neighbor we don’t know---because she is invisible to us, invisible and suffering. 

    As we end our service today, I invite you to consider the two issues we have brought to you today:  the potential slap in the face---and worse---to those same sex couples and gay kids growing up in our state who have received a gift of dignity and acceptance from our state legislature but who face the very real possibility that it can be snatched away in November by those who refuse to “get it”, that same sex couples are as lovable and as capable of love and commitment as anyone else.

    I invite you, too, to consider what you have just heard from Nydia about human trafficking in our state.  Here is an opportunity for educating ourselves and others about a deeply troubling travesty of justice---that newcomers to our nation are frequently caught in fake industries that promise the American dream and yet deliver a kind of endless slavery to masters who use and abuse them for their own financial gain.

    Compassion is our first step.  Our second step is to use the political process to bring justice to bear on unjust practices.  Our third is to help those who have been hurt by those unjust practices to find healing.  Our fourth step is to keep a watchful eye out for new mistreatments that stem from insatiable human greed, taking steps to understand and find ways to prevent and shortcircuit those schemes that would use our most vulnerable fellow humans in shameful ways. 

    Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

Benediction:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that compassion for others is the hallmark of Unitarian Universalism.  May we bring our compassion to bear on the injustices we see around us and may we seek justice through the democratic process, which is one of our cherished principles.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


UU Clicker said...

Things are probably getting better in the compassion department. See my blog entry Feb 3, 2012 on ClickingUULife, about The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker.

We UUs need a dose of optimism to keep going!

ms. kitty said...

Thanks for letting me know about the blog entry! It was a good sermon you offered and I'm glad to find your blog. Are you on UUpdates, the UU blog aggregator? You ought to be, if not.