The Spirit of Truth, 4: Journey Toward Wholeness

Unitarian Universalists have struggled with the legacy of racism created in Colonial America as a way to co-opt indentured servants and minimize rebellion.

In the 19th century, Unitarians were at the forefront of the abolition movement. We are proud of that.

A century later, many of us were likewise in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Among the 30,000 who marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965 were
“about 500 UU lay people and about 250 UU ministers. The ministers who went to Selma represented a quarter to a third of all UU ministers in full fellowship. Add to that the dozens who spent time with the Mississippi Summer Project, the Delta Ministry Project, and other efforts in the South afterward; those who led their communities’ response; and the dozen ministers who participated in the UU presence in Selma through the summer of 1965. It isn’t a stretch to estimate that half of the 710 UU ministers in full fellowship were actively engaged in this struggle.” (Mark Morrison-Reed, "Selma's Challenge, UUWorld, 2014 Winter)
We are proud of that, too.

Yet we have not always been noble.

In the 1920s the first two African American Unitarian ministers, Ethelred Brown and Lewis McGee both encountered continual discouragement and resistance from the denominational leaders at the time who saw no place for a black man in the pulpits of their predominantly white congregations.

In 1968, just three years after so many UUs had transformative experiences in Selma, our General Assembly was torn apart over race issues.

Our denomination through the years has launched a number of initiatives to raise the consciences of UUs on race and encourage racial diversity in our congregations. In 1996, the program called “Journey Toward Wholeness” began.

In response, here at Community Unitarian Church at White Plains, the minister at the time, Rev. Shannon Bernard, called together a group of church members who began the program we call “In The Spirit Of Truth.” In The Spirit Of Truth (ITSOT) has been meeting on the first Sunday of the month at Community Unitarian Church for 19 years. In the year and a half that I have been with this congregation, I have joined them about half the time.

At our In The Spirit of Truth gatherings, we sit in a circle, pass the talking stick around, and take turns sharing our thoughts and our feelings about any form of bigotry or prejudice. There may be a particular issue or episode from history or the recent news that serves as a topic for the day, or there may not be. The name, In The Spirit Of Truth, comes from the recognition of the need to learn
“to speak the truth to each other as we perceive the truth without fear of censure, to listen to uncomfortable feelings below it, and to see ourselves in others, to see others as ourselves, and to gain insights into the experiences of others which would help us to live our principles in an increasingly diverse world.” (Mary Lane Cobb)
For nearly 20 years now, In The Spirit Of Truth has been gathering at Community Unitarian Church and providing a context for participants to share how they have experienced the racial divide – or, as the project expanded, any divide based on prejudice, or that produces discrimination.

For those who speak in the Community Unitarian Church pulpit, the Spirit of Truth stands visibly before them. For those who gather in her name on the first Sunday of the month, she is embodied in the faces and the words and hearts – the broken and healing; bleeding and living; shining hearts – of those who speak, listen, and hold one another respectfully, no matter what is said.

In that sharing come surprises. We may be surprised by what we hear others saying -- or by what we hear our own voice saying. We learn our truth, we connect with others through their truth, and the healing of the wounds of racism, wounds inflicted by a divide-and-subjugate strategy of landowners more than 300 years ago, begins.

The bandages of programs, the splints of institutions, and the sutures of social justice will fail without the salve of truth – the awareness of what is so, shared knowledge of how things are. To all the members of Community Unitarian Church -- and, indeed, to every resident of Westchester County who may be reading this blog: if you have not been a part of In The Spirit Of Truth, or if you haven’t for a while, for your own sake and for all our sakes, go. Participate. Be moved, perhaps to tears. And begin to be healed.

May it be so.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "The Spirit of Truth"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Audio (with slideshow) on Youtube: CLICK HERE


This Week's Prayer

Dear Ground of Being,

We pray to remember, to grow in gratitude for the voices of insight among us. We remember Marcus Borg, who died this week. The liberal Christian theologian was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, and helped thousands of thoughtful people see a way to bring careful intelligence together with moving faith.

We pray to reconnect with our selves, the self that is all things; to accept ourselves exactly as we are, and at the same time to encourage ourselves to spiritual growth. In disconnection, we have often ignored the oppressed and brokenhearted, and so we pray. May righteous anger give us energy for lives of compassion and justice. There are some things to which, as Martin Luther King put it, we ought to be maladjusted.

Raif Badawi, sentenced last May to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes by a Saudi court for “insulting Islam.” Ill after the first 50 lashes, he waits to heal so that he can be lashed again and again. May we be maladjusted to cruelty in the name of religion.

122 men are still held at the United States’ military prison in Guantánamo, Cuba. May we be maladjusted to this imprisonment.

The leader of Boko Haram claims his group killed hundreds of women and girls in the Nigerian town of Baga and threatens to attack Niger, Chad and Cameroon. May we be maladjusted to misogynist violence.

Texas has no state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, so the Houston City Council approved an ordinance to do that. A petition drive for a repeal referendum has ended up in court. May we be maladjusted to discrimination against LGBT folk.

Russian troops have been pouring into eastern Ukraine, and combat has broken out on a half-dozen fronts. May we be maladjusted to imperialist war.

We are given this brief life, not to make peace with war, but to make peace instead of war. May it be so.


The Spirit of Truth, 3: Explaining Some Mysteries

We are all wounded by the race line that slashes across our psyches, whatever side of that line we may think we’re on. Once the race line has been established, there’s a projection that occurs. Learning to be white means learning to project upon darker-skinned people everything in us that feels low, vile, or shameful. A constant, nagging sense of unworthiness is part of the deal. Here, you get to be white, like the rich folks, but you can’t help noticing that you’re still poor, so maybe you’re not really worthy of your whiteness.

The more whites were made to feel unworthy, the more they projected unworthy qualities on the group they were allowed to, and told to, despise. The more whites internalized that message, “You’re white, so if you just work hard enough, you’re bound to be OK,” the more they projected upon blacks the laziness they feared in themselves. White racism against blacks is always a version of self-disgust adopted in a desperate attempt to hold onto worth and dignity in the face of exclusion from the upper classes.

This begins to explain a few mysteries.

Martin Luther King brought his war on slums to Chicago for his 1966 campaign for open housing. He encountered greater hostility than he had ever seen. Rocks and bricks were thrown.
King, protected by supporters after being hit with a stone
during a housing march in Chicago's all-white Marquette Park
neighborhood. -Chicago Tribune photo 1966 Aug 5
As King marched, someone hurled a stone. It struck King on the head. Stunned, he fell to one knee. He stayed on the ground for several seconds. As he rose, aides and bodyguards surrounded him to protect him from the rocks, bottles and firecrackers that rained down on the demonstrators. King was one of 30 people who were injured; the disturbance resulted in 40 arrests. He later explained why he put himself at risk: "I have to do this--to expose myself--to bring this hate into the open." He had done that before, but Chicago was different. "I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today," he said. (Chicago Tribune, CLICK HERE)
What could account for this intensity of hostility from whites whose every economically-visible interest was unthreatened? Why were the lower and middle-class whites more virulently racist than the upper-class whose interests were more directly challenged?

Because if worth and dignity didn’t come from whiteness, they just weren’t sure where it could come from.

Over and over, a substantial portion of white lower and middle-class voters vote against their own self-interest and in favor of wealthy interests. That doesn’t happen in most other countries in the world. Why does it happen here?

It's because here is where the idea of being white -- that is, learning to distance yourself from the interests blacks would have – even if, in reality, you did share those interests – was invented. White has meant identifying with the wealthy, identifying with a shared paleness over and against shared economic needs.

Why is the US unable to enact a fairer, much more effective, and even cheaper health-care system – a single-payer government National Health Insurance – while Europe and Canada and Japan have this eminently sensible system?

It's because the US's specific heritage of racism taught us to identify with the wealthy, and the wealthy don't need national health insurance.

Why is the US unable to provide adequate public schooling, affordable housing for all, and progressive taxation?

It's because the US's specific heritage of racism taught us to identify with the wealthy, and the wealthy send their kids to private schools, aren't at risk of homelessness, and don't want to be progressively taxed.

Why is it that when Black men open-carried firearms as the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and 70s, gun control legislation passed, and when that perceived threat was gone and whites wanted to open carry, those controls were rolled back, and white people heavily armed in public are celebrated as patriotic and freedom loving?

Why is it that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created much harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine, used mostly by blacks, than for a quantity of powdered cocaine, used mostly by whites, that produced similar effects?

It’s because the national psyche has developed the longstanding habit of projecting upon dark skin color everything it is scared of, and is unconsciously convinced that black people doing a dangerous activity is much, much more dangerous than white people doing the same thing.

Why is it that the percentage of African Americans in prison is almost six times higher than the percentage of European Americans in prison?

Why is it that a young black male is 21 times more likely to be shot by police than his white counterpart?

Why is it that otherwise identical resumes yield a 50 percent greater chance of being invited for an interview if the applicant’s name is stereotypically white than if the name is stereotypically black?

Why is it that black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units and black homebuyers are shown about one-fifth fewer homes?

Why is it that blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate, but African Americans are arrested on drug charges at a three times higher rate?

I think we know why.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "The Spirit of Truth"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4
Audio (with slideshow) on Youtube: CLICK HERE


The Spirit of Truth, 2: Divide and Keep Conquered

In Colonial America of the 1600s, the main difference between indentured servants and slaves was from the point of view of the masters. The workers that came from Africa cost more, but they paid off in the long run because you didn’t have to release them after a certain period of time – and, as an additional bonus, you also owned their children. For that reason, the slave demand brought a steady increase in African slave populations through the late 1600s. As time went by, the trend of increased numbers of African slaves combined with more and more of the indentured serving out their time and more and more European-born poor freedmen in the population.

Only then did the masters begin to draw the sort of race line that today is so familiar to us. They did it as a strategy against rebellion.

The freedmen were persons without house or land, rankled by unfair taxes, the greed of legislators who then, as now, were in the pockets of the wealthy, and land use regulations that made it very difficult for them to ever own land. Freedmen with “disappointed hopes” and slaves of “desperate hope” were joining forces to mount ever more virulent rebellions (Thandeka, Learning to Be White 45).

The landowners strategy was to invent American racism as we know it. Whereas previously the big divide was between the vile rabble over here and the landowners over here, the new way of grouping people encouraged the European-born part of the rabble to think of themselves as “white” – as sharing something crucial with the landowners which the African-born did not. Thus the freedmen were co-opted into betraying their own economic self-interest to support the landowners’ interests with which they identified by virtue of their shared whiteness. It was a brilliant divide-and-keep-conquered strategy “to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt” (Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia 327).

The trick was accomplished by such means as passing new laws offering some protections to whites even while still indentured. As of 1705 in Virginia, any negro slave could be given 30 lashes on the bare back, but it was forbidden to whip a Christian white servant naked. The whipping happened, but the extra indignity did not – which helped the indentured begin to learn to be white, to identify with their oppressors against the even more oppressed. That same year, 1705, horses, cattle, and hogs were confiscated from slaves and sold to benefit poor whites. Any white was given the right to whip a black servant or slave. Slave owners were urged to bar their black slaves from learning the skills of a trade in order to preserve that work for white artisans.

In ways subtle and obvious, a dignity based on whiteness alone was created where nothing of the sort had been imagined 50 years before.
“The gap between the wealthy and poor widened as a result of slave productivity. Thus the sense that poor whites now shared status and dignity with their social betters was largely illusory.” (Thandeka, Learning to Be White 47)
But that illusion was powerful. Being white meant despising blacks, which afforded this illusory dignity that kept poor whites from agitating for economic reform on their own behalf and instead adopting attitudes and behavior to assist the landowners in keeping the blacks down.

We carry that legacy today.

Many of the whites among us, if we think back, would be able to tell a story of how we learned to be white. I’m talking about stories like Dan’s.
“In college during the late 1950s, Dan joined a fraternity. With his prompting, his local chapter pledged a black student. When the chapter’s national headquarters learned of this first step toward integration of its ranks, headquarters threatened to rescind the local chapter’s charter unless the black student was expelled. The local chapter caved in to the pressure, and Dan was elected to tell the black student he would have to leave the fraternity. Dan did it” (Thandeka 1)
-- with tremendous shame.

Or stories like Sarah’s.
“At age sixteen, Sarah brought her best friend home with her from high school. After the friend left, Sarah’s mother told her not to invite her friend home again. ‘Why?’ Sarah asked, astonished and confused. ‘Because she’s colored,’ her mother responded....[Sarah thought] what kind of reason was that for not inviting her to Sarah’s house? So Sarah persisted, insisting that her mother tell her the real reason for her action. None was forthcoming. The indignant look on her mother’s face, however, made Sarah realize that if she persisted, she would jeopardize her mother’s affection toward her.” (Thandeka 2)
Or stories like mine. I was a timid first-grader in North Carolina when one-day, on the school bus, a big third-grader asked me if I liked President Johnson. And I shrugged. And the big kid said he didn’t like Johnson ‘cause he lets – and here he used the N word – go to our school. The look of contempt upon his face made me feel such a relief to not be the object of that contempt. I learned to be white on that day. I was whited by a system invented in this country two and a half centuries before by landowners who wanted to suppress rebellion, a system that took on a life of its own and long outlived its original purpose.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "The Spirit of Truth"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4
Audio (with slideshow) on Youtube: CLICK HERE