Being Decent in Indecent Times

By Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton, November 22, 2015

Chalice Lighting
“When strangers meet, endless possibilities emerge:

New experiences, new ways of understanding, and new ways of taking action.

When strangers meet, each pays special attention to the other.

Each is called to serve something larger than the self.

Today, this morning, let’s light the chalice:

For openness, for willingness to grow,

For rich curiosity, and for common purpose.”

(Rev.) Fulgence Ndagijimana

READING by Michael Brown

Dear Fellow Humans who have sought and found a peaceful port,

Welcome to the United States. I am grateful you survived what has no doubt been a perilous journey. We Americans take pride in this country, as well as what it has to offer those seeking a better life.

Well, most of us do. Unfortunately, we have a dark corner of people who have forgotten that the U.S. is largely to blame for your country falling apart due to our Empire’s actions over the last few decades. Some Americans have also developed amnesia for everything that happened before 2009. If you interact with people in that condition, raise your hands and yell in as clear English as you can “Don’t shoot!”

On behalf of the United States, I apologize in advance for all the hateful things you will hear said about you by ignorant Americans who know nothing except what they have and their misguided conviction that you are here to take it from them. They don’t understand that most of them descend from people who were in a similar circumstance that brought you here.

I wish you the best, and pray you find peace and a place in our complex mosaic culture.

— Mike

Rational American

SERMON

Sometimes a minister picks a sermon topic a few weeks in advance because they are inspired and have a plan.  Sometimes we pick a title and hope for inspiration.  And once in a lovely while we are handed our sermon on a platter.  That’s what happened this time around.

We are exploring the overall theme of living with integrity this month.  For this week I picked a sermon title “Being Decent in Indecent Times”.  It sounded catchy at the time but I had only the very broadest idea of how to proceed.

And then the indecent times arrived dramatically and violently and shockingly in Beirut and then Paris and then Mali and perhaps in a foreshadowing of things to come, in the arrest of my friend in Burundi.  Hundreds dead in the three terror attacks, hundreds more injured.  These stopped us in our tracks.  Most of us were shocked.  But as we emerged from that shock responses varied.  Many responses were anchored in compassion.  Others, sadly, were grounded in fear and hate and prejudice.  In those cases, the original acts of indecency were amplified and multiplied.

I want to give my thanks to Jeff Bisanz and Audrey Brooks who were kind enough to offer the prayer I wrote last Saturday morning in the aftermath of Paris and Beirut.  It was a musing about the choice we face in light of such terrible and terrifying acts.  Do we respond with a closed fist or an open hand?

To rephrase it in light of this sermon title, do we have the courage to be decent human beings in decidedly indecent times? Or do we fall back into giving evil act for evil act?

It is a tough call when the fear grips us.  As a father of growing girls my heart jumped to my throat when I thought of the young people being murdered at a rock concert.  I am a peaceful man – until you want to harm my girls.  All peaceful bets are off then.  When I hear family members of victims cry for vengeance my heart goes out to them.  I cannot condemn that cry.

But there is a reason why vengeance and vigilante justice are outlawed, for it is that very striking out in anger that begets only more violence.  That very vengeful mindset is certainly a factor in the continuing rounds of terrorism that governs the very tragedies we see these days.  Injustice is repaid with injustice, crime with crime, death with death.  But someone has to break that indecent cycle.

Let the families grieve and vent their anger.  They have that right, they have that need if only to begin their healing.  But cooler heads must prevail in the administration of justice and when the state commits to action.  It falls upon the rest of us to bring sober second thought to the table, to reason together, to seek lasting peaceful solutions.  It falls to all of us to bring decency and compassion into an indecent situation.

And in daily life, that can take a special kind of courage. Each one of us has to decide how much we are able to risk.  Will we speak out to our friends when they claim that refugees harbour terrorists? or will we stay silent?  Will we step in if we see someone visibly different being harassed or assaulted in a store or on a bus?  There are reports from several parts of the country of pushing, verbal abuse and even spitting on mostly Muslim women wearing versions of the niqab.  Do we let the perpetrators get away with it while we stay silent?  Will we let their anger dominate our fear?  That’s a decision each one of us has to make and live with.  I can’t and would not tell you what to do, but I do invite you to imagine how you might respond by way of preparation.

My friend and student colleague Michael Brown who has preached from this pulpit, posted a disheartening image outlining the reactions of some our southern neighbours. It is the reaction of those who favour the closed fist and the closed heart.

The politics of the United States are exceptionally polarized right now, frighteningly polarized.  Presidential hopefuls of one party are eschewing the use of reason and even running roughshod over facts in their quest for the nomination.  Some platforms are outwardly racist and raise spectres of facist regimes past.  Their strategy is to appeal to the baser, frightened  instincts of the citizens.  It is exactly the same strategy as ISIS or ‘Daesh’, as we are now supposed to call them, is using.  Scare people into giving you power.  Make them too afraid to stand up for their rights.  And in the tried and true methods of warfare, reduce the enemy to caricatures of faceless barbarism.

The US President, in the face of the refugee crisis, did a decent thing.  We will set aside the ill-advised actions that contributed to the creation of the refugee crisis for now.  Let us instead deal with his response to the tragedy: Last year the US accepted 70,000 refugees from around the word but only 1,500 from Syria.  He wants to up that to 10,000.  Not wild generosity, perhaps, but something.  But the fear mongering governors of 31 states have said they would refuse Syrian refugees, fearing them to be terrorists.

Only 8 states have declared that they would be welcoming.  That the governors have no power to bar those refugees is irrelevant.  They did the same thing with same sex marriage and lost.  They don’t care.  They are pandering to the fears of their people.  Instead of inspiring them to be better citizens they are pushing them to be more fearful ones.  It is responding to indecency with greater indecency.

I cite the US case almost as a cautionary tale for our Canadian response so far seems quite different.

And as I said, facts and logic are irrelevant.  For example, the fact that not one of the 750,000 refugees settled in the USA since 911 has been arrested on a terror charge is meaningless to those who would sow fear and racist and religious hatred.  It is indecent. The same is true in Canada.  The two terror-related attacks in Canada last year were committed by Canadians, born and raised here.  Our previous government used these events to copy the American legislators and pass draconian laws.   A lot of us think Bill C-51 is an indecent law.  As a passionate Canadian, the passage of C-51 was one of the lowest moments of my life. They used this non-existent security excuse as a way to slow down the settlement of refugees to the merest trickle through administrative foot dragging.

But, these past few weeks I have had reason to feel deep pride in my country again for the first time in a decade  (outside of Olympic hockey victories).  Our new Prime Minister has maintained his promise to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end.  Like most observers I am skeptical about trying to meet that timeline, but not because of fear.  No, I am skeptical because of the massive logistical nightmare it presents.  But I am sure those 25,000 people will get here.  I am proud because I have always believed we live in a fundamentally decent land.  Flawed to be sure, imperfect and uneven in our application of justice and equity to our own dispossessed.  We are not without our racism and our fearful souls.  But for the most part we live in a land that accepts and even celebrates difference.  In the face of the Syrian crisis, we are trying to do the decent thing.

And I have never been prouder of this congregation of ours than in the last few weeks.  On November 1, 45 people remained after church for an information session discussing refugee settlement.  It was a testament to the new hope so many off us are feeling and a testament to our own sense that we have a role to play in bringing decency back into the world.

The following week 17 people attending the Social Justice committee meeting learned of the chance to bring over the Adam family from Turkey.  Mohamad’s sister is a longtime Edmonton resident.  We learned of a chance to partner with her.  Our Social Justice meeting unanimously endorsed a plan to support the project.

Last Wednesday the Board also unanimously voted to create a Sponsor Group and manage the money.  When a simple call went out for volunteers six people stepped up to serve as the organizing group and many more offered their services to help in other ways.  And before the project was even approved we had cash and pledges for over $4000.  And many others said they wanted to contribute.  If you are among them, I hope you will consider doing so today if you can.  We are now over $9,000 but need to raise at least $15,000 before we can process the final application to start bringing the Adam family here.  100% of your donation will go to supporting this family or another and there will be tax receipts.

I expect we will raise the necessary cash in the next week or so.  And why are we doing it?  Because it’s the decent thing to do.

Look around the room, do you see these banners (which will soon be moved to better viewing places)?  They hang here to remind us that we affirm all religions and philosophies that teach peace.  They remind us that as Unitarians we have to always stretch the boundaries of our welcoming, that we are called to challenge ourselves not to oppose the other or reject the unfamiliar, but rather to learn about it and make room for difference as best we are able.  That is the history of this church and the calling of the future church.

Have you noticed the wave of goodwill across this wonderful land?  There is something in the air again and it smells mighty good.

In Peterborough after a mosque was set on fire, citizens raised nearly $100,000 in 24 hours to effect repairs.  The goal had been $80,000.  Two Christian congregations offered their space for Friday prayers.  I am told by a UU colleague that right now congregations of Unitarians, Christians, Jews and now Muslims are all sharing space.

That’s decency in indecent times.

Of our 45 congregations in Canada there are now 24 involved in refugee projects in various stages of development.  And our national Social Justice Co-ordinator April Hope is not only working with them, but with over 20 related groups. Our project is being enthusiastically supported financially by the smaller Westwood and Kelowna congregations.

That’s decency in indecent times.

I have been contacted by at least three groups of people unassociated with this church offering financial and volunteer support.

 

That’s decency in indecent times.

And in the few instances I have read scaremongering anti-refugee comments in the newspapers, there have been quick and strong replies from many people decrying those attitudes and calling us to our best selves

That’s decency in indecent times.

And when Fulgence was arrested in Burundi there was a swift outpouring of support for him and his community from Unitarians around the globe.  Unlike the genocide in Rwanda, the events of Burundi are not going unnoticed.

That’s decency in indecent times.

So folks, this is our time; our time to choose decency, our time to act for decency.  A grand gesture is not needed, really.  All that’s needed is a simple decision.  In all you say, in all you think, in all you do, choose decency.  Take the time to look at your actions and reactions.  Are you choosing a good and healthy path that affirms life, that affirms good, that affirms fairness to all?  Ask these questions and act according to your soul’s answer.  That’s all any of us needs to do.