“Bending Toward Justice” by Mark W. Harris

A participatory Social Action service

March 11, 2012 – First Parish of Watertown, MA

Opening Words – from Theodore Parker

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.

Homily – “Bending Toward Justice”

Do you remember the first time you realized there was suffering in the world? Was it something your parents said? Did you see a news item on television about a famine somewhere in the third world, a picture that showed a child with a bloated belly in Biafra or Bangladesh? Or if you are older perhaps it was the Jim Crow laws that separated whites from blacks on buses, or in schools, and the names Rosa Parks or Brown vs. Board of Education flashed across the screen or in the headlines. Maybe it was in school when you first heard about slavery and how human beings were held in chains, whipped, forced to work, and separated from their families. Or maybe it was the oppression of Native Americans where you learned they were forced off their lands, pushed West, and eventually had to bury their hearts at Wounded Knee. For me, it is literally that stereotype of a 1950’s Mom imploring a school age child to eat all his/her green beans saying, “Think of the starving children in India.” We felt guilty that we had plenty, and they had none. We were ashamed that we could live in such luxury, and they lacked even basic essentials. Or not. Maybe we merely felt lucky or grateful, or didn’t really think about it much because it was so removed from our daily lives.

Yet most of us had a sudden realization sooner or later that there was terrible suffering in the world. You may remember that Buddha’s father, the king, tries to keep this knowledge from him by locking him up in the castle, but he eventually sees that pain, hunger, disease, and ultimately death exist in the world, and this knowledge leads to his enlightenment. While my parents encouraged me to improve myself, and be honest and kind to others, I don’t recall them telling us to help others. And while the fundamentalist church of my childhood was mostly focused on memorizing Bible verses and being saved by Jesus, his fundamental message could not be disguised completely. I soon learned that Jesus said feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, heal those with mental infirmities, and treat your enemies with love and respect. In fact, he seemed to care most for those who society often despised. It soon became clear to me that I was a better Christian if I showed compassion for those who were in pain from hunger or disease or suffered from prejudice or hatred.

But Jesus also said the poor will always be with us, and that the woman could be wasteful and use the expensive oil on his feet despite the protests of the disciples. This seems to beg the very question that Dick Gilbert raises in the reading, should we savor the world or save it? Just this past week, I was a guest teacher in a class at Northeastern on religion and politics. I began with the very basic question of whether religion is about personal spiritual fulfillment, like employing inner directed prayer or meditation, or what might be considered other-worldly activities, or is it about political engagement with this world in an attempt to make a difference in society, to strive to build heaven on earth. Traditionally the individualists might say, make yourself better, and you will make a better world, one person at a time. The problem with that is that it is pretty hard to be a better person in isolation. The deeper our sense of the spirit, the greater depth we feel to God, the universe and each other. Furthermore, we cannot get away from the world. When my belly is empty I have some inclination of what it means to be hungry. You may know what it means to be ignored by a doctor, or be followed in a store because we do not fit a wealthy profile. We may truly know the prejudice of not counting as equal because of our age, sex, color, sexual orientation, disability, income level or where we live, or because a loved one has encountered some of those same instances of discrimination. As Gilbert implies in the reading, we are only made whole, when we hear the cries of pain, and try to create a world where we relieve the suffering of others. The mission of the church is not to meet our needs, but to heal the world, and when we give to that larger mission, then our deepest needs of connection are met.

This is in keeping with the tradition of liberal religion. We have always been a faith for this world, where we teach that our salvation is tied up with the good works we perform. A couple of years ago there was a news item about a new rug in the President’s oval office. The rug featured famous quotes, including one attributed to Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It seems that King borrowed this phrase from the famous Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker. King was echoing the words of someone who had called for justice more than 100 years before him. This is a reminder that we are inspired by those who precede us, those who allow the spirit of love to come alive in them and be made manifest in the world as they reach out to others to help make that moral arc bend toward justice, doing the work of God or of creating a better world for all. It is significant that today marks the anniversary of the death James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister who went to Selma, Alabama in 1965 at the call of Dr. King to march for civil rights. He died on March 11 after being beaten by three men outside a diner in Selma. In his last sermon at All Souls Church in Washington, Reeb had said, “ Let all who live in freedom, won by the sacrifice of others, be untiring in the task begun, till everyone on earth is free.”

Martin Luther King frequently made references to climbing the mountain to get to the Promised Land, while knowing that he might not reach the top, and see the promised land of peace, equality and justice. There is a mountain of inequality in the world that we all know exists in the world, and as my colleague Paul Beedle says, our first task is to see the mountain. Once we recognize this, we recall the people who have gone before who have slowly climbed up those steep trails of inequality – from Jesus, to Parker, to King. They have made paths for us to follow, trail markers that we might know the way, and see clearly to the top. We know the road is hard, but we have witnessed the truth that the moral arc bends towards justice due to the labors of these hands. We think of Parker and abolition, Anthony and women’s rights, King and civil rights, and on to the current battles for equal marriage, and environmental justice, and we claim a share of that legacy.

How can a church be involved? While a church can achieve Green Sanctuary accreditation or be recognized as a Welcoming Congregation because of programs to affirm gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons on all levels of congregational activity, it can only be as active as individuals who can invest their time and energy. Over the last few years we have been involved with many social action endeavors. While not listing many specifics, those general categories are listed on the insert. The Social Action task force wants you to know that they can be approached with your ideas about what kinds of social action programs will help us express the mission of the church. You have a chance to do that today. We also want to know if you have other issues you want to see addressed, or if you want to see more effort to initiate social change, as well as participate in charitable acts. Our focus groups are for this purpose.

Communities such as ours always will have a variety of responses to injustices we see in the world. Some of us see systems as responsible, and others blame individuals more. Some want to help with gifts of money, but others want to see the suffering up close and know it in our hearts. Still others want to work to change the system with new laws. Some will feel that we must create deeper bonds with each other before we can effectively reach out to others. We are all made whole with different kinds of commitments, and no one should be expected to follow one path to social action or change. What is important for everyone to know is we feel a deep sense of community bonding when we feed the hungry at a soup kitchen, or stand with those who define family by commitments of love, rather than by the gender of the participants. Let us remember that all of these acts are a way of saying we want to help that moral arc of the universe bend toward justice.

Suffering exists in manifold ways in the world. We Unitarian Universalists have a rich tradition of responding to suffering with compassionate hearts. We continue to do so even though the mountain of injustice is steep. We do so because our hearts cry out responding to others pain. In a new book called Beautiful Souls, Eyal Press describes brave people who have listened to the voice of conscience crying out from within. Paul Gruniger, a police officer disobeyed the law so that Jews could flee from Austria to Switzerland. He said, “I could do nothing else.” Yet this act of bravery cost him much, including his job. We also know that one person’s act of conscience can be another’s crime. Each of us must make that decision of when we must act in response to another’s pain. We know you cannot see beauty, if the landscape is scarred with trash. We know you cannot taste the nectar of the grapes, if you cannot afford to buy them. We know that you cannot hear the ebb of the oceans tides, if you do not have time or opportunity for leisure. Each time we look, or buy, or relax, we may realize how lucky we are, and how unlucky someone else is. We can be grateful for what we have, but we can also let it be the fulcrum for bending that moral arc so that more people can taste the grapes, enjoy the day, and also climb the mountain with us, so that one day all of us together can see the beauty of the promised land.

Closing Words from Paul Beedle

When we trust the wisdom in each of us, when we tell our stories from deep inside and listen lovingly, when we feel the power of each other’s faith, when our hearts are in a holy place, we are building a highway over that mountain called Inequality. When we share, and help one another, and treat each other fairly and justly, we are building a highway over that mountain called Inequality. When we draw a circle that encompasses all of us, and proclaim liberty throughout the land, we are building a highway over that mountain called Inequality. When we do these things, then in those places in our national life where it is lacking, we may be assured and know that freedom is coming. Let us join with others in our community to make a better world for us all. Amen.

For Focus Groups:

Social Action at First Parish

Task Force Activities

Giving Boxes – Material items donated to local agencies

New suggestions:

Charitable Offerings – Money given to local and national/international agencies (non-profits)

New suggestions:

Benefit Concerts

Volunteer Opportunities: Food Bank, Friday Night Supper Program, Panera Bread Donations to Local pantry, Community Dinner (new this spring)

New suggestions:

Educational programs: speakers, films, adult education series (immigration / book discussion

Social Witness – Gay pride parade, etc.

Legislative Action – Bottle Bill, Supporting UU Mss Action (UU lobbying group)

Trustees – Socially Responsible Investing

Questions: 1. Is a Social Action Program inherently political? (Can our programs
reflect a diversity of beliefs?)

2. Does Social Action mean helping individuals or changing the world?

3.What kinds of programs or initiatives should we undertake in the future? (What issues are important to
you?)