Agape. Love. Unmerited Love. Unmerited acceptance. Everyone’s worth and dignity seen and respected. Grace. Feeling loved. Feeling accepted. By a divinity, by another person, by humanity. Regardless of who you are, how you look, where you are from, who you love, how you embody your gender. Regardless of what you do or don’t do. Regardless. Just for existing. At every moment, you are beloved.
Have you ever felt loved and accepted just for existing? Not because of something you have done. Perhaps someone has treated you that way. Perhaps you helped a stranger. Perhaps you felt a wash of unmerited grace and love when something worked out in your life when you didn’t earn it or deserve it. Perhaps you felt the touch of grace when you saw overwhelming beauty in nature, feeling a part of creation or divinity, accepted as part of the whole just as you are. I hope you have. Do you think that’s an isolated experience? A privileged experience.
You already know that world there is full unfairness, racism, oppression, injustice, hatred. People who experience those, especially those who experience those systemically, routinely, who are traumatized, hurt and killed by unfairness, racism, oppression, injustice, hatred may have a difficult time feeling unmerited love or grace or acceptance in their hearts. Our Unitarian Universalist Principles call us respect the worth and dignity of every person, giving voice to that respect through compassion, acceptance, and with acts and systems of justice. How we do this will vary from person to person. We are called to love and accept everyone, but particularly those in need, those treated unfairly and unjustly. We do this because of our Unitarian Universalist heritage, because we seek to live by our Unitarian Universalist values/Principles, because we believe in right actions in the face of the evils of the world.
I mentioned something in our last Social Justice meeting, that I want to share with you today. A woman called me a few days after Tyre Nichols’ death. She said she was looking at the UU Miami website to see what she could do in response to his death and was surprised that UU Miami didn’t offer any information about any anti-oppression actions she could take, nor did our website mention any action this congregation is taking, in response to his death. I was left somewhat dumbfounded and a little embarrassed. You will notice in the Social Justice Committee email I put out a week or so ago that the committee is seeking to work with a Black church or organization that is active in social justice, so that we could join our efforts with theirs. Specifically, to let Black organizations take the lead in racism and police violence issues as this is the population most directly impacted by these issues. The Social Justice Committee, and I’m sure other members of this congregation, want to support them, attend their rallies, and consider how we can better understand their perspective on the issues. Why support their perspective? Why not just head out on our own to do some good old social justice work? Because our role is not to be White Saviors, swooping in with the best of intentions and taking over. We seek to honor the Black community’s worth and dignity by aligning our efforts to the efforts they are already making on their own behalf. This method of interfaith, transracial work seeks to dismantle structures of white supremacy while addressing the effects those structures have on the targeted population. And so the Social Justice Committee is actively seeking Black Community leadership and offering our time and energies in support of the initiatives they have identified as actionable.
A week or two ago, I received my weekly edition of Sightings, a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School. The article in this edition was called “Should We Watch Videos of Racialized Police Violence?” By Zachary Taylor. Zachary is a White Ph.D. student in religious ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He asks “what the moral value of our witness is. Why should it matter, morally, that Americans bear witness to this horrific display of police violence that led to the death of a Black fellow citizen? And how can we bear witness to Black suffering in ways that avoid its commodification [in other words converting human, social or cultural value into market value], and exploitation?”
I find it problematic when the newscasters often show us some horrible event as a teaser in the broadcast to in essence whet our appetite, so we will stay tuned. Later in the broadcast they’ll lead the story with something like “please be warned that the images in this video might be disturbing.” Too little, too late, they have already shown us the disturbing images 5 times before their warning. So what purpose does it serve? To give us a head’s up in case our attention has wandered away? To increase the market value of the incident? It is so easy to be numb to the violence because we are inundated with it, often without warning. And yet Taylor’s theological article was encouraging me to watch these disturbing videos as an act of bearing witness to racism and oppression and police violence so I won’t become numb to it, so that I can combat society commodification of it, so that I don’t succumb to the images with society’s default setting of exploitation. Am I “morally” called to watch the exploitation of people of color, of marginalized communities as a form of bearing witness to the problems in our society? It is easy to feel helpless and even hopeless as a witness. As I read the article I wondered if any of the unmerited acceptance and love I show to my fellow beings makes any real difference in this world so full of hate and violence.
Taylor goes on to suggest that bearing witness to these videos can plant the seeds of change within us, and can lead to action. To do something in the world to have a positive impact. Rallies, petitions, protests, grassroots organizing, something concrete to try to make a difference, to stem the rising tide of oppression, to try to effect change. He writes: “we may watch these videos so that we do not become desensitized to Black suffering, especially when it is a result of state-sanctioned violence. Just as there is a concern that repeated exposure to Black suffering and death may inure (white) audiences to racial injustice, there is, equally, a concern that it is all too easy for white viewers to turn their heads and avert their eyes to the horror of racialized police brutality.” I have to admit he is right; it is easy for me to get angry about what is happening to others, and then return my privileged life People of color and marginalized people can’t just turn their heads and walk away from the trauma, abuse, oppression they live. I can take breath between the racism and oppression I witness on TV or the internet, without worrying about what might happen to me when I drive my car in white neighborhood, what might happen when a police officer asks to talk to me. I don’t have an ever-present, underlying concern about being injured or even killed by those who abuse their power when they “serve and protect.” Can bearing witness to these videos be a way to express unmerited love and acceptance of people who are different than me?
Finally, Taylor reflects on Moral philosopher Jeffrey Blustein’s thoughts on witnessing these videos. “Blustein observes that injustice not only typically results in physical or material harm (or even death, as is often the result of police violence), but also communicates to victims that their lives and interests matter less than those who perpetuate injustice… In response to this harm, bearing witness ‘symbolically asserts the moral status of the victims, their coequal membership in the moral community, by giving them and their suffering a voice.’ In this view, the moral value of bearing witness to Tyre Nichols’s suffering lies in the symbolic restoration of the status Nichols was denied—that of a human being with dignity.”
The denial of worth and dignity is not the Unitarian Universalist way. So yes, I am willing to watch these videos as a witness to restore worth and dignity to a person who has had it removed, who has been abused and treated as an object or somehow less than those who have more power! These victims of radicalized police brutality have inherent worth and dignity. They deserve, simply by virtue of their existence, to be treated with compassion, justice, equity. No-one should be physically or emotionally abused or much less killed for a traffic stop, for being in the wrong neighborhood, for asking for help. Many of us in this congregation are automatically treated with more worth and dignity because of the color of our skin. Those of us who are heterosexual and cis gendered are more likely to be treated with more worth and dignity in this culture than people who don’t fit into hetero-normative standards. Is that fair? Is that just? No, it is not. And yet that is the reality of our culture. So, what do we do as Unitarian Universalists? What can you do?
Each of us as individuals and all of us as a community can commit to being the change we seek in the world. I am committing to bearing witness to videos of police brutality? How? By not just letting those images wash past me, but by being fully present and fully aware of what I am witnessing. By actively connecting what I’m witnessing to my Unitarian Universalist Principles and Values, and exploring where there are intersections, intersections that in turn might lead to concrete actions. I will continue to work for justice and equity in human relations. The UU Miami Social Justice Committee and all of you can bring forward ideas about how this community can engender effective, tangible change. Like we did by rallying for Black Lives Matter a few years ago. All of us can seek to develop relationships with communities of color so that our community can join with communities of color as we work toward the goals they themselves have identified on critical needs. We can treat all people with worth and dignity not because they’ve done something to earn it, but simply because they exist. Looking them in the eyes, talking to them with respect, honoring and trying to understand their perspectives. These may not be easy things to do, but as Unitarian Universalists, these are the kinds of life-affirming actions we are called to do.
Please keep in mind during this Black History month, and really, at all times keep in mind, that we are called to be allies to people who are trying to rise up on the shoulders of ancestors whose names they do not and probably will never know. Whose stories and traditions were erased as they, as enslaved people, built this country. Whose economic progress has been restricted and whose very lives were threatened if they tried to succeed or thrive. Please open your hearts and minds to the stories of the African Americans who are part of the history of this country, even if it makes you uncomfortable. This too is how we can embody unmerited love, this is a way we can all move toward deeper connection with and more understanding of those who need us with them as we work together to eradicate racism and oppression in this country. May it become so.