Dear Ones —
I awoke this morning still in the undertow of last week’s trio of mass murders in Gilroy, CA; El Paso, TX; and Dayton, OH. I wish I were capable of a soothing pastoral response to these tragedies, but I am not. There is much to be said about the contributing factors to these events, especially the patchwork gun laws that enabled this collective slaughter. But whatever the other factors at play, each event shines a harsh light on an underlying, virulent evil: the evil of white supremacy culture and its entitled expression. All of it has made me restless with rage.
A century ago, a similar virulent outbreak of domestic terrorism occurred in the United States, known as The Red Summer of 1919. More than 250 black women, men, and children were murdered in 35 cities and towns across the country. One motivation for the madness engulfing the country was the return of black soldiers from service in World War I. Having fought to protect democracy, these men came home determined to truly live as though democracy applied to them. That determination was a threat to white supremacy, and it cost hundreds of people their lives.
We find ourselves living now amid another deadly outbreak of white supremacist violence – expressed not just in horrific murders like these, but in the hateful rhetoric that precedes it. More terrible and dangerous, we find ourselves in a culture of determined denial. It is not that people do not see what is going on, or do not understand it – they do not want to know. Knowing might mean having to speak up, to say no to the evil that is right in front of them; knowing might even mean having to change their lives.
Though we profess to value knowledge, we Unitarian Universalists and other progressive people of faith are not immune to this viral ignorance. Some of us are just as likely to wish we could “stop talking about race,” or that we would “get back to the basics” of Unitarian theology, or that we “leave politics to the politicians.” The language among us changes from generation to generation, yet it reveals the same static desire for the white supremacy that continues to entrap our nation, and that threatens to strangle our faith.
Public figures observe our hate-filled society – with many of its democratic processes in ruin, with most of its leadership on the run – and are quick to say, “we are better than this.” But we are not better than this toxic storm in which we find ourselves. Not yet. For today, this is who we are. Unitarian Universalism is not better than the white supremacy culture in which it was created, not better than the reactionary forces within it, not better than the apathy that still grips many of our people and congregations. Not yet. For today, this is who we are. Because if we were different, we would not be where we are now as a people, as a faith, or as a nation.
Like many of us, I live within that stream of American life dedicated to building a nation better than the one we occupy today. Like many of us, I work within that stream of Unitarian Universalism committed to a faith of the truly free — free in body, mind, and spirit. White supremacy culture — in any and all of its expressions — continues to threaten both our nation and our faith. Neither will flourish until it is rooted out.
The 1845 poem “The Present Crisis” by the Unitarian writer James Russell Lowell l, was written at a time in which the enslavement of my ancestors was still common and unremarkable — except among those who had taken up the abolitionist cause. Russell, like most white abolitionists of the era, found slavery untenable but could not imagine social equality with free black people. Yet he wrote words as powerful now as they were more than a century ago. We know parts of that poem as #119 in our hymnal, “Once to Every Soul and Nation.” There is at least one other verse, however, that matters in this present moment:
We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great,
Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn this iron helm of fate,
But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din,
List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,—
“They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.”
Long ago, our nation — as well as our faith — knowingly compromised with the sin of white supremacy culture, and this legacy holds all of us in its grip. For the last quarter-century, Starr King has built a seminary dedicated to breaking that grip, sending out into the world religious leaders prepared to help their congregations live into this terrible knowledge, and show them a way forward. Year by year, we have grown in the many ways in which we do this urgent work. Even in my rage and my sorrow today, I write holding on to this work as the only hope I see. It is a privilege to work against this deadly ideology, to be joined in doing so by a brilliant and committed faculty and staff, to help build capacity among future congregational and community leaders so that white supremacy culture dies the death it deserves.
As I said at the start, this message is no soothing pastoral response; it is a call to strengthen your spiritual practice, to gather with your communities for support, to prepare for further resistance. We will need all our resources to fight what is before us. Amid such troubles, please know that I am thankful for each one of you, for your commitment not only to our faith but to the freedom of every soul.