Thursday, October 1, 2015

Using Controversy to Generate Compassion and Commitment

Black Lives Matter is the motto for a movement created by American citizens in response to recent, highly publicized incidents of racial violence and injustice throughout our country. The motto symbolizes the concern for racial justice and equality.

Several Chicago area Unitarian Universalist congregations display Black Lives Matter signage, including the Unitarian Church of Evanston, the Third Unitarian Church of Chicago and the Beverly Unitarian Church.  The Beverly church has a large electronic sign in front of its castle-like building. It is highly visible. 

When Beverly Unitarian displayed Black Lives Matter on their sign, it generated enormous controversy, including venomous responses to a photo of the sign posted on Facebook that went viral. Comments were cruel and obscene, even including threats of violence. The Beverly Church board was so shocked by these bully tactics; they elected to change their sign to “Life Matters, Risk Loving Everyone.” 

This decision also went viral, especially among activists on the left who felt the church demonstrated weakness by capitulating. Calling the new decision “racist” and “deeply hurtful,” those who objected charged the church with failing to understand that “Controversy is necessary in the journey of justice-making.”

I applaud Beverly Unitarian for having the courage to engage in public witness in a community that struggles with racial integration. The community is bordered by two poor black neighborhoods, one middle class black neighborhood and two middle-to-upper middle class white neighborhoods. 

Even more challenging, Beverly is home to a huge number of Chicago police officers and firefighters, many of whom are part of the congregation. The vitriolic comments that poured onto the church accused the congregation of being anti-police and stoking violence against police. This was so upsetting that the board felt the need to clarify their position.

Racial tensions are entrenched here, muddied and inflamed by political leaders and media pundits to whom prejudice and hate speak have become normalized chatter.  One example is Fox News’ focus on the Republican presidential candidates that are framing the phrase Black Lives Matter as anti-police and calling those who support the cause anti-American.  (In truth, the movement is about being anti-abuse.) 

I was approached by a fellow Unitarian Universalist to sign on to an open letter designed to publicly shame our fellow Beverly congregation into restoring Black Lives Matter to their sign. I refused to sign this letter and I sent my refusal to local colleagues and others who received the request.

This is a learning moment for Unitarian Universalists, other progressive congregations, and all of us who want to participate in the work of correcting the sins of racism. There’s no question that generating controversy is good and natural in the work of culture change and justice making. When a congregation stands together for a value held sacred, it deepens the community’s capacity to embody a specific value and integrate it into the wider society.  But how do we respond to controversy? More importantly, how do we use it to generate understanding, compassion…. and change? 

This is delicate and challenging proposition.  The issue at hand isn't simply the sign, it is so much more--the institutional racism that pervades our culture and how human beings are profoundly diminished and destroyed by this racism. That's what we need to address. And we need to look at how we are engaging our justice work--are we clinging to our opinions, rabidly promoting them and demonizing those who choose a different way? We Unitarian Universalists tend to be opinionated people with a very high opinion of our opinions!  We can forget that strength comes in deepening in relationship with others--and this includes our capacity to listen to others, to hear multiple perspectives, and--here's what's most challenging--to love even those with whom we strongly disagree.

My guide is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his understanding of radical love. Radical love doesn’t call us to be perfect. Radical love calls us to be rigorously honest with ourselves, willing to be critical of ourselves, and to discern the life-affirming basis on which we can stand collectively as witness to the world. Radical love calls us to be active and resist behavior and systems that are unjust.

Rev. Jennifer Nordstrom, my colleague at Third Unitarian, puts it eloquently: “The work of racial justice is long-haul, deep-commitment work. Though we are all hurt by racism, people of color’s lives are threatened by it while white supremacy ensures that white people have more power in society to deal with their
feelings than people of color do.”

I am inspired that Beverly UU Church is on board to do this work. Their minister, Rev. Karen Mooney, tells me they will be using this moment to engage with their ecumenical neighbors and educate each other. “We are working to create spaces where we can hear each others stories, work together, laugh, and be vulnerable,” she says. “The work that I see before us it to make visible the systems of power and privilege that we all live within.”

While I encourage all congregations to show solidarity with the movement for racial justice and display Black Lives Matter in front of our congregations, I joyfully affirm the sign in front of Beverly Unitarian Universalist that now displays United against hate and fear. Stand with us against racism.

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