Compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” But I agree with theologian Karen Armstrong that the word “pity” has some extra baggage, and it seems to me that extra baggage is packed with the subtext of looking down on someone, seeing that person as somehow less than I am, and helping them because they are less than me, or, said another way, because I am in a position of power over. Pity just doesn’t fit with my understanding of compassion. And compassion seems greater than baseline concern. Concern is a somewhat amorphous term that could mean anything from being interested in to being worried or anxious about, to actually caring about someone. Compassion, when contrasted with concern, is more focused than concern. Compassion, at least to me, is about how we behave toward one another; how we take care of one another while treating each other with respect, and experiencing each other as having worth and dignity. Compassion springs from the abundance of love we have in our hearts to share and from the belief that we all have an enormous supply of lovingkindness within us to treat not only ourselves well, but also others well. In a more compact way I define compassion as: intentionally, equitably, and actively caring for one another. How does this kind of compassion look now-a-days?
For over a week now, images of George Floyd’s murder—what is in essence, if not fact, his lynching—has replayed countless times on countless media outlets. In my opinion, this has been in no way an expression of compassion by the news organizations, these never-ending replays of George Floyd’s murder. But then I found myself asking, “have we as a Nation become so desensitized and numb, and has our capacity for shock and righteous anger become so dulled that this, this unending witness to yet another black man’s murder is what it takes to get us moving together to make a change?” Has it all become some sort of grotesque theater, and have we become the audience who can’t look away to the point that we do not leave our seats to get outside and do something about it?
Then the rallies and riots started. I am supportive of the rallies, as many of you know after seeing me and some members of this congregation standing in protest on Highway 1 last week with our Black Lives Matter and No White Silence signs. But I am scared of the riots. I know that change will not come to our white supremacist culture easily and I realize it’s going to be messy. Riots are part of the messiness. Despite my fear, I am willing to live with the messiness for change to happen. I just think that there are ways to not provoke the riots.
It seems like no matter how peaceful the protests are during the day, when night falls and curfews begin to be enforced, riots have happened. In some places, the police try to control the protesters with violence, hurling smoke bombs and shooting rubber bullets, cutting people’s tires, tazing them, punching reporters with their shields, escalating peaceful crowds of generally peaceful people to violence. I’m not naïve, and neither are you. I understand that these peaceful protests have also attracted people whose goals are in direct opposition to the goals of the majority of protesters. Some are outsiders to the community, others are themselves members of the community. It’s a tinderbox out there; one person or a small group of people lights a match—throws a flash bomb or a rock or a Molotov Cocktail—and suddenly everything bursts into flames.
Where is the compassion? How much training have the police had on how to handle situations like this? Have they been trained to de-escalate, engage, connect with the African American people out there who dying from coronavirus, who have for decades suffered from poverty and institutional racism?
Over my years in counseling and ministry, I have had discussions about oppression and racism with people of color. I have talked with people who have returned from their stays in prison unable to restart their lives; I’ve talked with those who have been pulled over by the police again and again for “driving while Black”; I’ve talked with parents of black children who tell me about the conversations they have to have with their children to keep them safe and alive in a white supremacist culture; I’ve talked with those who are homeless--who have found it virtually impossible to get out of the cycle of homelessness without someone giving them a hand up, not a hand out, a hand up. I have lent my voice to them when I could to support their needs and causes. I worked with an organization in Chicago to develop a program to equip people of color with effective skills in the event they’re pulled over by police. And the police were involved in this program. People of color and police could see each other as human beings and share their feelings with one another not only about the legal issues involved with a traffic stop, but the fear and anxiety involved, on both sides.
We are all just people. We’re just people trying to find our way through change. We have all been enculturated into a white supremacist system and some of us are trying to find a way to change that. I have seen police kneeling and praying with protestors this week, not just punching and kicking and shoving. I have seen people of color speaking out about what they want and need as these rallies have continued. As their discernment begins, discussions have started around defunding the police, demilitarizing the police, getting police trained in de-escalation, and increasing police community involvement. I have heard organizers talking about getting rid of the prison-industrial complex. I have heard discussions about how we all need to stop calling the police or at least stop calling the police as a first resort instead of the last. What’s the alternative? Communities working together to deal with situations themselves, or perhaps training communities to learn how to deal with conflicts when they come up, before calling the police. Some of you might think some of these ideas are radical or unrealistic but the time has come to begin discussions, to understand what needs to change in our culture to make it truly equitable. White people need to first ask those most affected by racial inequity and injustice what they need. White people need to withhold their judgments on the ideas that people of color have they about meaningful solutions and effective directions even if it makes white people uncomfortable.
At the Unitarian Universalist Association, the UUA, vigil on Wednesday night, I heard three ways to move forward to support the change that our culture is struggling with as we try to decenter whiteness. The ways suggested, in broad categories, are learning, acting, and giving.
As Unitarian Universalists, many of us are all about learning, reading, studying, talking about issues. But the learning I am talking about is more than that. It is not only about reading a book, like “White Fragility”; it is more than talking about that book theoretically; it is about engaging with the message with heart and soul. It is about looking at our own personal prejudices, fears, and behaviors that support this white supremacist culture that we live in. It is about deciding how we might change ourselves to help society change.
Acting is deciding what to do and doing it. I posted an article on my Facebook page from the UUA website that gives some ideas about how to decide on action. The article is called “Risk, Courage and Discernment: Spiritual Preparation”. It asks questions to aid in preparation and discernment before taking a social justice action. Questions like: Is this action visionary and reducing pain for people? Does this action have moral authority? Is this action building my own and others capacity? What role have I been asked to play? Which [of our forebears] (spiritual, family, social justice) have played this role? How can I lean on their wisdom? How can I do right by their legacy? It asks us to consider our privilege and access to stability, or lack thereof, in doing this work. Reminding us the goal is always to fight another day, for this work is not short-term.
I thought about these questions Wednesday as members of our congregation were holding up Black Lives Matter signs on Highway 1. So many people giving us a thumbs up, waving or honking in support.And Chris Kirchner dressed as an angel. Two young African American girls drove up and stopped in a long line of cars at the stoplight. As they took Chris’s picture, one said “I am going to cry” and she did, emotionally overwhelmed by the symbolism. And I thought this is one right action we have made, being here today.
And finally giving. How do we use our resources to be change agents in the world? Personally and as a congregation? How do we support Black Lives Unitarian Universalist or DRUUMM, Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalists Multicultural Ministry? How do we support Black Lives Matter? These are organizations doing work to dismantle racism and work to support decentering whiteness in our denomination and in our culture.
After all I have been experiencing this week, I revisited the questions in the story of three questions by Tolstoy: When is the right time? Who are the right people? What is the most important thing to do? I thought now is the time, you, the members of this congregation, are the right people, and even while in quarantine, even though it is summer, the most important thing to do is to offer this congregation opportunities to grapple with racism. To be in alignment with the UUA’s antiracism work is one of the developmental goals you have defined as important to this congregation, that you have asked me to focus on while I am with you. It is time that I offer a space for this congregation to discern ways we, individually and collectively, can be radically compassionate, intentionally, equitably, and actively caring for humans around us in need, particularly people of color and other marginalized groups.
In the newsletter you may have noticed that I am inviting you to begin engaging in learning—by studying the book “White Fragility”. My hope is that by engaging with this book and others, that we can begin discerning action and giving for the good of others, particularly people of color and other marginalized groups who are being choked by the cultural norms of our white supremacist culture.
You might think to yourself I already know what to do to help, but my friends, pause for a moment. First, you might take into consideration what people of color are suggesting. Look at the Black Lives Matter Action of the Week or consider giving to the National Bail Fund Network to help those essentially trapped in jail because they don’t have the money to get out. These are actions that are being led by people of color.
Remember, my friends, change in our culture ultimately will not come from white guilt, or fear of riots, or anger and frustration over bad individuals in the police force. Change comes when we act from compassion, when we gain insight, when we develop beloved community and engage with one another about the difficult issues that are on our hearts, issues that society needs to struggle with. This is that time for all of us to engage with those issues. On the Blog The Fallon Forum written by American activist and author Ed Fallon, I found this. Ed was talking about the symbolism of the police taking a knee, and how that symbolism was immensely important, but he was clear that symbolism isn’t enough. He wrote: “We all must commit to working toward policy changes that shift the system away from the racism that has been accepted or perpetrated by too many - even by ourselves. Equally, we must commit to personal efforts that shift us toward… [seeing] each other’s different cultures as part of what makes our society rich and beautiful, to understand our differences even when we don’t agree with them, and to hold each other up in love.” May it be so.