Even as many in the United States experience fear and uncertainty for their own future and the future of this country, each of us is called to speak out, demanding that this nation continue to be a land where principles of justice, equity and compassion will overcome the upsurge of hate crimes, divisiveness, and xenophobia we are experiencing. Together, we can help shape the future of our communities, and the nation.
The Reverend Carol McKinley is a community minister affiliated with the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where she coordinates its Faith in Action Ministry. Currently she is a member of the PNWD Board of Directors and the district’s Healthy Congregations Team.
Sermon: “The Fierce Urgency of Now” by The Rev. Carol McKinley
Last Friday’s inauguration of the 45th president of the United States of America stirs a vast array of emotions – grief, anger, alarm, fear.
An horrific campaign season followed by an upset election left many of us – but not all, of course – stunned and afraid of the massive changes promised during the campaign: vows to build a wall between our country and our neighbor, Mexico; to create a registry of Muslims and ban Syrian refugees from our shores, to end a national health care system that brought medical coverage to 23 million uninsured Americans; to erase environmental laws and policies that protect the water we drink, the air we breathe, the soil that produces our food. We heard mean-spirited rhetoric that sounded like permission to ridicule persons with disabilities, that put a candidate’s imprimatur on misogyny and sexual assault. We heard the 45th president state he and he alone is the only person capable of bringing this country out of its Dark Ages to make America great again.
It is no wonder that there is fear and uncertainty. These feeling do not arise from the imaginings of a whiney liberal elite. Statements about these issues, as well as about targeting press freedoms, restricting an independent judiciary, and deporting undocumented immigrants without fair hearing are part of the public record. We face a presidency that promises to smack down laws and policies passed over decades — often after long and fierce struggle – that reflect the core of who we are as Americans: respect for the rule of law, reason, respect for all people, compassion for the less fortunate.
On this post-inauguration Sunday, the future of our country, the world and our earth is yet to be determined. But now, here in this sacred space, we can take the time to breathe in, and breathe out, as we consider how we as Unitarian Universalists and as Americans respond to the new political and social reality before us.
When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke before a quarter-million people at the 1963 March on Washington, he described a “fierce urgency of now.” He said, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
King’s words in this “I Have a Dream” speech are as true today as they were in 1963. Yes, there is a fierce urgency of now for every parent who lives in fear of losing their health insurance under the Affordable Care Act; for every immigrant child who lives in fear that her mother might be gone when she returns from school; for every Muslim who lives in fear when he attends Friday prayers at his mosque; for every woman who feels the sexual harassment she faces in her workplace might be ignored or laughed off when she reports it.
The new president’s words in speeches and tweets make clear the racist and nativist component of his views. As Americans, we can never accept bigotry as part of our national conversation. Those who find such views and language abhorrent must make a commitment to stand up to bigotry and hate. We must stand with those especially threatened by these views: Muslims, Spanish-speaking people, African Americans, women.
Let me be clear – this is not about having a different political interpretation of how our leaders bring our country’s values and its documents to life, about being a Republican or Democrat or Libertarian. This is about standing up to lies, misrepresentations, and blithe disregard for American norms and values – values like liberty, equality and justice for all – values enshrined in this country’s founding documents.
Yet the person who voiced views so antithetical to those American values was elected. What’s going on in the United States? Why were such a large percentage of our fellow citizens – including elected officials – susceptible to the rhetoric of fear and division by the person behind the curtain?
The morning after the November 8th election I had an experience that gave me a clue.
Still stunned by election results, I went to pick up a prescription at Olympia’s Group Health, and saw a friend in the hallway. We shared our angst about the future of our country. A man overheard us, and joined us. Unlike my friend and me, he was elated about the election outcome, and he told us why. He was a long-haul truck driver with a very good income, until he had a workplace injury. He lost his job at the same time his ex-wife was, as he said, “bleeding him dry.” Struggling financially and facing an uncertain future, he felt the newly elected president was throwing him a lifeline. He believed those promised high duties on imported goods would bring manufacturing, which meant jobs, back to the United States. This man was convinced he would find a job in the booming economy promised during the campaign. No, he didn’t like some of the things the candidate said, but he was willing to overlook them if it meant he could be employed again. For this man, November 8 meant hope and a future.
As I drove home that day, I realized that this was my first face-to-face conversation – and it was a conversation, not an argument or shouting match – with someone who did not share my views on the presidential candidate. I had a glimpse of how this country’s staggering economy has affected some of our people, especially those who have lost hope that our economic system actually works for them.
As sociologist Arlie Hochschild makes clear in her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, people like my new friend at Group Health are not people who have been duped into voting against their own interests. In her research among Tea Partiers in the South, Hochschild found lives ripped apart by stagnant wages, a sense that their struggles were ignored in favor of others – minorities, women, immigrants – who they felt constantly cut in line ahead of them in the pursuit of the elusive American dream. In the context of their lives, those voters’ political choices make sense.
I met other disenchanted Americans in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir that offers an empathic look at the struggles of America’s white working class.
I recommend both books for a deeper understanding of those we so easily might dismiss as ignorant or racist. As these authors point out, labeling people ignores the reality of their lives and their interpretation of political, social, and economic events that affect them. Labeling fails to recognize the fear with which they live every day.
Given the right social and political environment, a candidate can – and did – capitalize on that reality and the fear that pervades the lives of many of our neighbors.
As people of faith and hope, we need to challenge the fear that surrounds us and infects our country’s spirit. In the recent UU World, UUA president Peter Morales writes, “Demagogues always feed on fear. We live in a nation where a sizable number of people are deeply afraid. They are afraid for their economic future, afraid of blacks, afraid of Muslims, afraid of Latino immigrants, afraid of Chinese taking jobs, afraid of their own government….. Fear almost always comes in disguise, so we don’t recognize it for what it is. Fear comes masked as hate, racism, homophobia, misogyny, religious intolerance, and even ignorance. It looks like an opinion, but it is a gut feeling.”
In the face of these deeply held feelings, what is our role as religious liberals? How can we challenge pervasive fear?
As people of faith, we must look to public figures and policies that aim this country toward hope, not despair. Religious communities like Tahoma UU Congregation have a crucial task – to stand up and speak up, asking our neighbors to imagine a political landscape where habits and patterns of racism, xenophobia, and fear are rejected as directly opposed to the noble values that inspired our country’s founders. As people of faith, we can be leaders for hope and for change.
Change begins with listening – really listening, with an open heart and open mind. This election made clear how many Americans feel left out, just as the Americans in Strangers in Their Own Land and Hillbilly Elegy feel left out. As religious people who stand on the side of love, we must learn more about the reality of our neighbor’s lives by listening to their stories.
After we listen, we can talk with those whose views we do not share. The feminist Margaret Fuller once wrote to her Unitarian father, “Your reluctance to go ‘among strangers’ cannot too soon be overcome; & the way to overcome it, is not to remain at home, but to go among them and resolve to deserve & obtain the love & esteem of those, who have never before known you. With them you have a fair opportunity to begin the world anew . . .”
Next, we must refuse to accept bigotry as part of the national conversation and stand up for values of justice and inclusiveness. In our own communities we can show love toward our neighbors by rejecting White Nationalism and by naming racism, xenophobia, homophobia and anti-Semitism what they are: sins against humanity. We can stand with our neighbors and confront hate speech and behavior against all marginalized groups in the grocery store, the mall, at a football game, or on social media. When we speak up, we affirm our belief in the richness and opportunity that lie in this diverse nation.
We can do this as individuals, and as congregations. Last Wednesday, Peter Morales of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Tom Andrews, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, issued a joint Declaration of Conscience. It reads,
“At this extraordinary time in our nation’s history, we are called to affirm our profound commitment to the fundamental principles of justice, equity and compassion, to truth and core values of American society.
“In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes, we affirm our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
“In opposition to any steps to undermine the right of every citizen to vote or to turn back advances in access to health care and reproductive rights, we affirm our commitment to justice and compassion in human relations.
“And against actions to weaken or eliminate initiatives to address the threat of climate change – actions that would threaten not only our country but the entire planet – we affirm our unyielding commitment to protect the interdependent web of all existence.
“We will oppose any and all unjust government actions to deport, register, discriminate, or despoil.
“As people of conscience, we declare our commitment to translate our values into action as we stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us.
“We welcome and invite all to join in this commitment for justice.
“The time is now.”
Agree with this religious statement of conscience? You can pledge your commitment at the UUA or UUSC websites, or sign one of the hard copies we have here today. I will send those you sign today to the UUA.
Finally, we can recognize that this is a task for the courageous. But we, as Americans and Unitarian Universalists, are courageous people. Yesterday I joined thousands of courageous people at the Women’ s March in Olympia. Signs expressed support for women’s issues, for respect, for the democratic process. Other signs spoke out against bigotry, Islamophobia, racism. As I looked over the crowd I felt, This is what makes America great – not again, but always! This is what democracy looks like! So, let’s continue to stand up, speak out, and march!
As we do so, we need to care for ourselves. Here are a few suggestions that I try to follow:
- Nurture a spiritual practice, whether meditation, singing, yoga, reading, or walking. Two weeks ago I spent half a day at the Tacoma Art Museum in the 30 Americans exhibit of contemporary Black Artists, and the collection of Pacific West impressionist paintings. Those works of art depicting human beauty and resiliency and the natural grandeur of this corner of our country restored my soul.
- Ration your media consumption and engagement. Pay attention to what is going on in the world, but turn off Facebook, Twitter, MSNBC or Fox News when you feel news – real or fake – is becoming an obsession.
- Join a group or groups where you can be yourself and speak your truths, and laugh a lot, like those groups you have here at Tahoma UU Congregation.
- Think about how you can have an influence. Even if you feel your actions are small, like taking that bag of food to the Food Bank, sitting with a sick friend, picking up litter when you walk in the park, they are important. Small acts add up, especially if we ask other to join us.
- Commit to one act of resistance every day. Call your elected officials here in Pierce County, in Olympia, or in the other Washington; speak out when you disagree with acts or policies and let them know what you would like to see them do about climate change, the death penalty, education funding, or assistance for the poor or disabled. Then send thanks to those officials who support these issues. Or join the NAACP, the ACLU, or Black Lives Matter; they will need your support in the coming days and years! Or sign on to the Rev. William Barber’s Moral Monday campaign. Barber, North Carolina’s NAACP president and author of The Third Reconstruction, is a prophet for our time. He will lift your spirit and get your justice-seeking feet moving!
- Go back and reread the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution. Like art and literature, the values and ideals in this country’s founding documents will inspire and renew your spirit as they do mine. As an American optimist, I do believe that, ultimately, our democratic (small “d”) republic will right itself.
- Finally, remember that we are not alone. No one was alone yesterday in Washington DC, Seattle, and Olympia. Hold on tightly to your memories of the spirit that infused those Women’s Marches, and to memories of courageous and ultimately successful struggles for justice and equality in America’s history. Then share your memories with others. Together, we can strengthen the heart and inspire the soul. Together, we make a difference.
As James Luther Adams wrote in the opening words,” History is a struggle in dead earnest between justice and injustice, looking towards the ultimate victory in the promise and fulfillment of grace. Anyone who does not enter into that struggle with the affirmation of love and beauty misses the mark and thwarts creation as well as self-creation.”
The fierce urgency of now is today. With our justice-loving and hopeful spirits, let’s be part of it.
Setting an Intention – Hafiz
The 14th century Sufi mystic and poet, Hafiz writes:
Of a great need
We are all holding hands
Not loving is a letting go.
The terrain around here
Closing Hymn #1018 “Come and Go with Me”
Closing Words — Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens (adapted)
It rises from the heart of life, here and now, beating with joy and sorrow.
It longs for good to be affirmed, for justice and love to prevail, for suffering to be alleviated, and for life to flourish in peace.
It remembers the dreams of those who have gone before and reaches for connection with them across the boundary of death.
It acts to bless, to protest, and to repair.
Extinguishing the Chalice
Closing Blessing Song