“Staying United” 2/5/2017

READING: from “We Can Change the Country” by James Baldwin

The terms of this revolution are precisely these: that we will learn to live together here or all of us will abruptly stop living. And I mean that. This is not, and never has been, a white nation. … We are living, at the moment, through a terrifying crisis, and let me try to put it in the cruelest and most abrupt terms that I can. … [N]ot for a moment does any black man that I’ve ever encountered believe that he really was what the country said he was. … [T]he American Republic … created something which they call a “[n-word]” … out of necessities of their own. … The question with which the country is confronted is this: Why do you need a “[n-word]” in the first place, and what are you going to do about him now that he’s moved out of his place? Because I am not what you said I was. And if my place, as it turns out, is not my place, then you are not what you said you were, and where’s your place? …

It is time that we the people took the government and the country into our own hands. It is perfectly possible to tap the energy of this country. There is a vast amount of energy here, and we can change and save ourselves. We don’t have to be at the mercy forever of these sordid political machines. … If we don’t now move, literally move, sit down, stand, walk … if we don’t now do everything in our power to change this country … The future is going to be worse than the past if we do not let the people who represent us know that it is our country. A government and a nation are not synonymous.

SERMON: “Staying United”

On Friday I went over to the Broad Theatre to see the new movie about James Baldwin, called “I Am Not Your Negro.” I’ve been excited about it for weeks, since I first saw ads for it, because I know that he was one of the most important American writers of the 20th century, and one of the strongest voices against racism and oppression. And though his voice was heard loud and clear in the early 1960s – most notably in two debates: one with Malcolm X in 1963, and one with William F. Buckley in 1965 – I never learned about him in school. Not in high school, not in college. Not until public television began to take notice of him did I begin to learn who he was. In 1986, a year before his death of cancer, he was noticed in Robert MacNeill’s series, “The Story of English.” That year he was also invited to speak to the National Press Club. In 1989 PBS’s American Masters series aired a documentary about him, named after a collection of his writings released at the same time: “The Price of the Ticket.” Nearly ten years passed before the Library of America devoted two volumes to his work: essays and early fiction. In 2004 the US Postal Service produced a James Baldwin stamp, as if to put the seal on his memory. And then, during Barack Obama’s presidency, came the second wave: a new collection of his essays in 2010, a new website based on “The Price of the Ticket” – called the James Baldwin Project – launched in 2014, a third Library of America volume – later fiction – published in 2015, and now this new documentary showing at the Broad Theatre. Clearly, his contributions are being noticed more and more.

You can watch his debates with Malcolm X and William F. Buckley, as well as “The Price of the Ticket” documentary, free online.

Audio of Baldwin/X debate

Video of Baldwin/Buckley debate

PBS “American Masters” videos about Baldwin

The James Baldwin Project

His story is becoming more and more accessible to a new generation. I feel that as a ray of hope, a light shining in what sometimes seems a dark time, a beacon like all the citizens and public officials across the country who are loudly saying no to violence and oppression, whether it’s the women’s march or the scientists’ march or Black Lives Matter or judges and attorneys general, and even senators, saying no. That’s a lot of light, a lot of hope.

And it’s a lot of unity. It’s been a very long time since we saw such e pluribus unum so vividly and spontaneously manifest across our country. Up to now, it’s all been about “red and blue.” Political parties and the media have reinforced this “red and blue” narrative for a long time. It was far from insignificant when Barack Obama began prophetically to challenge it: not red states and blue states, but the united states. Those color labels, red and blue, made division normal, and made it into whatever any of us perceived it to be. It clouded and confused the issues, but kept division the central alternative fact of our national life. Two teams, red and blue, that’s it.

And we – we carried that frame over into social media and into our cable and online news preferences, and started choosing to live the divide. “Bubbles” and “echo chambers” some called it. But it was really just a passive acceptance of division. Social media and the internet are not to blame. We are – all red and blue of us.

When we chose teams, we chose a contest. To people who study conflict theory, that’s a significant choice. Conflict theorists describe a model with five levels of conflict – five different ways of framing and engaging conflict. The lowest level is when we just have a problem to solve. Nobody’s ego is on the line, we just need to work together and solve this thing. If we can’t agree on how to solve it, we might find ourselves at the next level up: agreeing to disagree. We might not be fighting, but equally we might not be cooperating. Agreeing to disagree can be honest, but it can be tricky. If we can admit that we might possibly be wrong, it gives us room to cooperate and be helpful, and in the best case, pleasantly surprised. Trust, respect, good communication, and alertness to power dynamics are crucial for sustaining a positive and friendly state of agreeing to disagree. If we fail, we may find ourselves at the next level up: a contest. That’s why choosing teams is a significant choice: choosing the contest means giving up on trust, respect, good communication and caring about privilege and oppression, from the start. It’s about the most un-covenantal thing we can do.

Once you’re at the level of contest, you’re at risk to escalate further to the next levels: a war, and beyond that, a crusade. The difference between a contest, a war and a crusade is: a contest you’re just out to win against an opponent, in a war you’re out to defeat your enemy, and in a crusade you’re aiming to destroy the evil ones. Do you see the pattern?And when you’ve let go of trust, respect, good communication and alertness to power dynamics at the outset, it’s hard to keep yourself from viewing opponents as enemies or worse. John Lennon said that opponents “will irritate you … to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” Note that he said “humor,” not “mockery.”

I’ve had to do some hard thinking over the past many months about my own participation in division, particularly since I like a good satire and don’t always notice when it crosses the line into mockery. When I was young we used to watch the Carol Burnett Show as a family. I had fond feelings about that. And then in recent years I’ve had a chance to see reruns – exerpts, really – on late-night TV. Many times what we would have excused back then as just silly slapstick really comes across as mean-spirited mockery. When watching the Carol Burnett Show became an emotional roller-coaster, I figured I had some thinking to do.

My colleague Jake Morrill – who will be preaching here on June 18th – passed along a useful article about how division tempts us. Its author, Sean Blanda, says that psychologists call the idea that “everyone is like us” – that the bubble we inhabit is representative of the whole population – the “false-consensus bias.” When we are surprised by someone else’s opinion, this bias frames our surprise as: “Oh! I didn’t know you were one of those people!” And our notion of “those people” comes from our experience of feeling surprise at poll results or the cultural practices of folks we don’t hang with. “Who are those people who believe or do that crazy thing?” And the crazy thing is always something we disagree with. And that’s how the red and blue teams were born. This whole pattern of behavior leads to us joining the red team or the blue team. And then we make our social media life into our team’s locker room. Blanda writes that this kind of social media behavior “is counterproductive, it’s self-aggrandizement at the cost of actual nuanced discourse, and if we want to consider online discourse productive, we need to move past this.”

I think that part of moving past it is to take our social media feeds out of the locker room: disengage from purveyors and consumers of locker-room discourse – that is, the sort of discourse that sends us back into wondering who all those crazies are who believe or do all those things we disagree with. Blanda admits: “To be sure, there are hateful, racist people [whose views are] not worthy of the small amount of electricity it takes just one of your synapses to fire. [There are also] those who actually believe in an opposing viewpoint … for genuine, considered reasons. Or at least, for reasons just as good as yours.” I think that, to tell the difference, we need to reframe our surprise at others’ opinions in a way that puts us on the same team, at least long enough for us to listen and understand. And then we will understand that some we need to understand better, and some we need to challenge better – in ways that invite trust, respect, good communication, and consideration of privilege and power dynamics.

Perhaps the reason it has taken us thirty years to recognize James Baldwin as a member of our team – the united states – is that we didn’t want to hear what he had to say. Or not enough of us did. And for those who still don’t want to hear him, he is becoming a mainstream challenge to their increasingly fringe views.

In 1963, Baldwin boldly challenged white supremacy, and the understanding of America as a white nation. He challenged that bubble. He called it fiction, and asked white people to account for it. “Why do you need a ‘[n-word]’ in the first place…? … And if my place … is not my place, then you are not what you said you were, and where’s your place?” And he said that “we the people … can change and save ourselves.” We don’t have to buy into division, and we must make sure our elected officials understand that we don’t want to. We the people, deep in our hearts, want to be the united states.

We can bring this challenge to buying into division home to our own churches and ministries. What ways do we buy into division here at home, among ourselves?

Our three Unitarian Universalist congregations created two institutions to serve a vision of unity among us. One, the Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalist Cluster, or GNOUU, exists to foster community and unity among our three congregations. The main way we’ve found to do this is to worship together four times a year. And yet we divide between those who see our unity as consisting of all gathering in one place, and those who see the benefits of livestreaming these joint services so that visitors can find us on those Sundays. It’s in all our interest for visitors to any of our three congregations to find the doors open and some folks present to welcome them, without them having to cross town or the lake to join us. Why would we not wish to welcome visitors to our united GNOUU community, even by livestream? We need to figure out why we sometimes choose to divide over this question.

The other, the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, or CELSJR, exists to serve as a catalyst in New Orleans and beyond for social, economic, environmental and racial justice through activism, community engagement, organizing, and transformational learning. That’s its mission, shaped and supported by a Board composed mostly of members of our three churches. Because of CELSJR’s work, each of our three congregations has developed relationships with neighbors in Greater New Orleans we wouldn’t have found or cultivated as well on our own. This year, CELSJR is serving as our link to the General Assembly Planning Committee, helping to make sure the UUA General Assembly – at the Morial Convention Center the last week in June – will be both good for New Orleans and good for Unitarian Universalism nationwide. There is so much proven value, as well as untapped potential, in this joint ministry – one of the leading UU social ministries in the country! Do we sometimes divide over it? If so, we need to figure out why, and remember that potential stumbling block as well as CELSJR’s great successes.

My point is, unity is worth struggling for, and it’s a set of skills we can learn and teach. And it requires, first of all, not buying into division. It requires not settling for a contest, but staying in covenant. It requires building and sustaining trust, respect, good communication, and alertness to the dynamics of privilege and oppression. Because without these, you choose up teams – you choose division. And you can’t get to unity from there. Amen?


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