For the Love of Justice- series

This was a three part series on social justice.  All three sermons are below.

”Unitarians and Justice” First of a three part series

Rev. Brian J. Kiely  Unitarian Church of Edmonton

February 9, 2014

 

This is the first of a three part series looking at our religion and our connection to social justice.  The series is inspired by something our Unitarian Universalist brothers and sisters are doing in the USA.  They are in the middle of a 30 days of justice mindfulness campaign.  And that is part of a larger initiative called Standing on the Side of Love.  It is a nationwide UUA campaign calling people to live lives of justice.  It started a couple of years ago and has had a great deal of impact.  I will talk about that in a minute but first I want to share a reading that muses a bit on that title  Standing on the Side of Love.  These thoughts from the Rev.  Fred Small

 

“Many Unitarian Universalists suffer from a chronic identity crisis.  People ask us, What do Unitarian Universalists believe?  And — we freeze!  We don’t know what to say, because UUs believe so many things, so many different things.  We are priests of paradox, apostles of ambiguity, nattering nabobs of nuance.

 

“ And so the UUA produces seven principles and six sources and countless pamphlets and little wallet cards to remind us what we kind of believe.  We are exhorted to compose elevator speeches, summations of Unitarian Universalism so pithy that they might be recited on an elevator in its fleeting passage between floors.

 

“Do we believe in God?  Question – simple.  Answer – impossible.

 

“Define ‘God.’

 

“Define ‘believe.’

 

“Define ‘we.’

 

“Define ‘in.’

 

“Whatever God is or is not, I don’t think God cares what we believe.  I don’t think Jesus cares what we believe.  And I know Buddha doesn’t care what we believe.

 

“The important question is not what we believe, it’s where we stand.  I want to be standing on the side of love.”

 

So Fred Small wants to be standing on the side of love.

 

Simple, direct.  Clear in some ways and not in others.

 

What do I mean?

 

Well, it’s a little like his questions about belief: define God, define belief, define in…

 

Define ‘Standing’.  Define ‘Love’.

 

At their national gatherings in Arizona two years ago, thousands in the bright yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” tee shirts joined advocates for immigration reform in protests outside Sherif Joe Arpaio’s infamous desert prison camp.  The UUA media people tried to interest the press in speaking to President Peter Morales with no success until they hit on the strategy of asking if the press wanted to talk to ‘the head of the yellow tee-shirts”.  They flocked.  It was a day of great exposure for us and the campaign.  It has been repeated on several different issues.  And while that was nice, it wasn’t the point.  Bearing witness against injustice is the point.

 

Standing on the Side of Love is the point…but what does that mean?

 

Defining ‘standing’ can be a bit challenging in an open congregation where people are encouraged – no expected to think for themselves.  For what shall we stand up?  There are so many good causes out there, climate change in its many guises, first nations issues, LGBTQ and other human rights, human slavery, corporate excesses, First World exploitation, Occupy and the 1%, immigration, the federal government’s stand on… well that’s too long a list to even begin.  You get my drift.

 

We each have issues that ring our bells and get us going.  But those aren’t necessarily the issues that will cause the ears of everyone else to perk up.  And there might even be some who just flat out disagree with the bell ringing point of view.  There have been passionate people who have come through our doors and have been bitterly disappointed that we free thinking liberals could not see the obvious rightness of their cause.  Some of them have left, disillusioned because this community would not instantly take over their struggle.

 

But diversity of opinion is part of the price of our free church.  One of the hardest things to do in a Unitarian congregation is to adopt a formal stand on anything.  There will always be some who disagree with the stand or with the course of action which comes from it.  So instead we encourage individuals to make their case from time to time and see who rallies to their cause.

 

We encourage that commitment, because whether we use the slogan or not, we do believe in standing on the side of love as each individual understands its meaning.  We are all called to work for the justice we see missing in the world.  And sometimes when enough of us see the same problems, we start to have an impact as a community.  But whether that happens or not, we at least know that this is a safe place to find support and sympathy and restoration of the spirit before we enter the fray once more.

 

There was an incident that illustrates this particular challenge just a few weeks ago on our UCE Facebook page.  There was a vigorous debate about singer Neil Young’s recent visit to Ft. McMurray.  Now I imagine that there is nothing like a uniform agreement to be had here on precisely what to do about oil dependence.  We might all agree that climate change is a real threat, but what we need to do about it would likely cause some disagreement among us.

 

The Facebook issue was a good illustration.  It began when I posted an article by a local filmmaker who was hired by Mr. Young to shoot Ft. Mac from a  helicopter.  He was not angry or vindictive but wanted to bring some balance to Mr. Young’s remarks about his hometown. I posted the article initially without comment .  Several people liked it.

 

There then appeared several strongly worded posts and links  from someone who is not familiar to me. She has very strong environmentalist views and appears to have a role in the Green Party.  Others – and I-  tried to discuss the content of her points to which she replied,  “Your apologist rhetoric has no place when people are dying. It is your duty, all of you, to speak out against something that is killing our children – not to excuse it away. For any reason. Esp. jobs, jobs, jobs.”

 

I felt attacked personally because I dared ask some deeper questions about the issues.  She posted links to a slew of articles and videos to the thread.  None of them actually addressed my questions.  I truly do not know whether this person has ever attended here.  Her name is not familiar to me.

 

This person was certainly passionate about her cause – and a generally good cause it is.  But was this person standing on the side of love as she expressed her outrage?

 

It is an interesting turn of phrase.  It’s not, “Standing on the side of justice.” Because that is sometimes hard to define.  It is not “standing on the side of righteousness.” Because righteousness  usually follows on from faith and belief, and around here I think most of us agree that faith and belief can be pretty subjective…and maybe even a bit short sighted if not blind…

 

…especially OTHER people’s faith and belief.

 

In fact almost any other word you could put in place of love would cause as many problems as solutions.  Because any other word would appear to be pointing towards something that is not part of who we are…something from which we can maintain a distance. We can debate a proposition, a concept of justice, a theory without necessarily owning it as our own.  Heck we can even get angry about it and think that such passion comes from love.  It does to a degree, but not fully, for it is a passion defined and bounded by the limit of the cause.  It does not take the other side into its loving embrace.

 

The love under discussion here is ‘agape’, a Greek work meaning a spiritual selflessness and openness.  It is not sexual.  It’s passion is not passion for, but passion with …com-passion.  It wants justice, but it also wants fairness and balance and respect.    The starting place of love is in us in treating others as we would be treated, in standing up on behalf of the mistreated because that’s not how we want to be treated. The starting place of compassion and empathy and sympathy is therefore also us.

 

Committing to standing on the side of love is committing to making change first inside of us.  It is about having more than an opinion.  It is about giving of ourselves in some way and listening as much as talking – listening in order to find the bridge with the other instead of speaking into the ever widening chasm.

 

So most importantly, when we truly stand on the side of love we tend to avoid finger pointing and name calling.  We say what we believe and why we believe it.  And we listen to what those of differing views have to say, open to the possibility of altering our views if need be.   There is no call to denigrate those with different positions.  For one thing, it doesn’t work.  As one other person in our Facebook debate suggested, “You haven’t changed nay minds”. It just ratchets up the rhetoric and causes the people with whom you disagree to become more entrenched.

 

Love understands that we will never change a heart by calling someone a boogeyman or evil, or a corporate capitalist pig or whatever.  I have never heard of a world leader burned in effigy say, “You know?  Those folks are making some great points!”

 

Standing on the side of love is an embodiment our first principle to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person, even those on the ‘other side’.  And Standing on the Side of Love uses that principle of affirmation as a justification for constructive immigration reform, or the redress of economic injustice that favours the very, very wealthy.  Standing on the side of love is promoting the cause of green reform while understanding that people must still feed their families and live in safety while we transition from one kind of way of living to another.  Standing on the side of love remembers that the innocent get hurt the most in times of revolutionary change and tries to ameliorate that.

 

And that can take a frustratingly long time, for real justice comes through cultural evolution – and that is slow.  Look at how much we have achieved in human rights, in LGBTQ rights, First Nations rights and climate awareness.  It’s been painfully slow, but there has been progress.  Getting angry – getting away from our centre – will not make it go faster.  It will likely just burn us out.

 

But enough generalizing.  I want to show you something that has been making the social media rounds lately.  It is the best example of what Standing on the Side of Love means.

 

You have probably heard that the Olympics are happening in Russia, and that there has been a justice controversy or two associated with that fact.

 

Live and Let Love

We who made the film LIVE AND LET LOVE were all saddened and upset about what was happening and decided to protest. The Russian Anthem is one of the world’s most beautiful anthems, filled with pride, melancholy and strength to show the true sentiment of the Russian people. Although not every Russian feels proud when they hear it. For many Russians the song has been a symbol of oppression. However, the lyrics of the song were changed in year 2000 and in 2009 a poll showed that 56% of respondents felt proud when hearing the anthem… Still there are many people of Russia, who are not able to sing the song with pride, among them many millions of LGBT people. It is their anthem too, but the state is criminalizing their lives. Being a singer as well as a choir conductor Sean Kelly, the initiator of the project, suggested protesting using the Russian National Anthem, making it a proud song for people of all colour and orientation. Singing for those who can’t.

 

(See the video at: http://youtu.be/0KWhaqr1v8s)

When it comes to social reform and social justice, well, there are a lot of things out there that push our buttons.  Groups of official and unofficial people all around the world do things that push our buttons.  Perhaps their acts disgust some of us or infuriate us or anger us or sadden us or cause us to despair of the future of the human race.  It is so easy to match their disregard for humanity and their hatred with hatred and anger of our own.  Sometimes in the face of the horrible,  yelling feels mighty good.

Standing on the Side of Love challenges us to get past that.  To hang on to our humanity and our principles even as we seek to change those things we are moved to change.

 

As our responsive reading concluded

Let us speak out with courage and act with compassion.  May our journeys – of the spirit, and of mission – always be life affirming and for justice. 

 

 

For the Love of Justice – a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

February 16, 2014   Unitarian Church of Edmonton

 

So, how was your Valentine’s Day?  Romantic?  A non-event? Forced or stressful?

 

I can’t say I have ever loved that day – pun intended.  When I have been longing for love it has felt oppressive.  When I have been in love it usually has felt stressful and obligatory.  In fact I have a hard time remembering any of them that stood out as even approaching what social pressure says they are supposed to be.  Well… okay… there was that one time …but that was a surprise for both of us, almost an accident…but I’m NOT telling you anymore about it.  Still 1 good one in 45 or so tries is not a great track record.

 

I guess the point is that romance can’t really be forced into a box, not matter how frilly and heart-shaped that box may be.  The best romance springs from the heart when it will, is full of surprises and delight, and it has almost nothing whatsoever to do with love.

 

Romance isn’t love.  Oh, you can have love and romance wrapped together, but a common mistake is seeing them as the same thing.  They aren’t.  One is chemical and tied up with attraction and pheromones and stuff like that.  For most people it lasts but a brief time.  I recall a study published not too long ago that suggested relationships where the feelings of romance consistently lasted even three years were pretty rare – 12 to 18 months was more of the norm.

 

But love?  That can last a very long time.  Love is something that develops over time.  It comes from deep inside.  It emerges slowly  but, once established, is there all the time…even when it is on shaky ground.  If romance is a trumpet fanfare splitting the night that is lit by fire works, then love is the steady hum of the cello.  It is a wonderful instrument.  It can be passionate.  It can evoke the tragic, and it can simply serve as the rhythm of life.  You might not always notice the sound, but whenever you listen for it, the comforting sound is with you.

 

And how does all of this fit into the second sermon in the series on social justice?

 

Well, every so often, someone reaches out to you and asks for a signature on a petition, or a donation, or to come join a march or come see a film.   Or maybe you see something on TV that stirs you, or you read it in a newspaper or see it in a Facebook post.  It catches your imagination, sparks your outrage, spurs your feelings of humane sympathy and calls you to act right now to make a difference.

 

Being sparked like that, getting fired up is a wonderful thing.  It reminds each of us that we are part of the human race, that we are all connected to each other and to the planet.  Our consciousness gets raised at least a little and we start to think of the good and the needs of others, not just ourselves.  Yeah, that’s a very good thing.

 

But in a way, these are like romantic moments…lots of sizzle, but with no guarantee of a long term commitment.  And like romantic moments you can come away from them filled with energy and a joyful heart of having done something.  And you have!  Woo hop!  But these are just moments.  They often aren’t sustained, except perhaps by the organizers who stay with the issue day in and day out.

 

I know whereof I speak on this, for it’s happened to me too many times to count. Many years ago one of my oldest friends, Norberts – who happens to be a truth teller – caught me in this.  Now Norb lives in Montreal.  We don’t see each other often, and he is terrible at returning phone calls, so we don’t talk much either.  It doesn’t matter.  We have the kind of friendship that picks up exactly where it left off.

 

And one time, when we were getting together I started telling him about the trip to Nicauragua in 1986 – the one I spoke of last week when I mentioned meeting Pete Seeger at a rally.

 

“Ah, so it’s peace in Central America this year, eh?” he said with a wry smile that should have been a warning,  “What happened to the Nuclear Free Zones of last year?  Or the pro choice rallies of the year before?”

 

He was right, of course.  There was a time when I was a bit of a rally junkie going from the high of one cause or event to the next.  Again, nothing wrong with that.  Just like there is nothing wrong with dating and romance.  The good folks who organize those rallies and marches and events need our support. The thing is I never stuck with one cause for very long, never joined in the ongoing work.

 

Still, taking part in those events was and is a good thing, even if it is all we do.  I learned a lot about how the world works.  I learned to sift through the claims of both sides and to try to make up my own mind.  I became more conscious of the world around me and the kinds of injustice that do not always touch me, but that do deeply affect the lives of others.  Those kinds of mass events slowly help to move culture on its evolutionary path.

 

One of our early US ministers, Thomas Starr King wrote almost two centuries ago about slavery, “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 the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

 

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King shortened the thought into the more popular, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  That line has been quoted by President Obama and a lot of other folks.

 

The rallies and the petitions and the marches, those are the bright spots, the energy builders, the colours that make the arcing rainbow sparkle.  They give the reassurance that we are not alone and that there is always cause for hope that positive change will come.

 

But the actual arc of the moral universe?  That needs more than the romance of banners and marches.  It needs the sustaining power of love, the constant sounding of those low reassuring base notes.

 

Last week I spoke about the UUA campaign called Standing on the Side of Love.  I commented:

 

“The love under discussion here is ‘agape’, a Greek work meaning a spiritual selflessness and openness.  It is not sexual.  It’s passion is not passion for, but passion with …com-passion.  It wants justice, but it also wants fairness and balance and respect.    The starting place of that love is in us in treating others as we would be treated, in standing up on behalf of the mistreated because that’s not how we want to be treated. The starting place of compassion and empathy and sympathy is therefore also us.

 

Committing to standing on the side of love is committing to making change, first inside of us.  It is about having more than an opinion.  It is about giving of ourselves in some way and listening as much as talking – listening in order to find the bridge to the other instead of speaking into the ever widening chasm.”

 

This kind of love is a long term thing, a sustained appreciation of the world around us, the people and the creatures populating that world, even extending to the plants, water and air.

 

It is the kind of open and free form love we find in Jesus and the Buddha and Mohammed and Quan Yin.  It is the spiritually centered sense of radiant love people feel coming from the Dalai Llama, or Pope Francis.  BTW I tried to think of a woman other than Mother Teresa to add to this list.  I even Googled “Compassionate woman leaders.” and was directed multiple times to a speech of the Dalai Llama.  He made the case that women are more compassionate leaders who understand the well-being of people better than men.  He also allowed as how it would be fine if his successor was a woman.  But I digress.

 

The old 1965 Hal David/Burt Bacarach song was corny, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”  But it was also true.  It has indeed been said so often as to be corny and hackneyed, but the world does need love.  The only way to move society along the arc of justice is to love it along with that compassionate agape kind of love..

 

My friend Norberts was right.  I used to get caught up in the bright shiny flash of causes.  I don’t regret or denigrate that.  But for the last four years I have mostly worked on homelessness in Edmonton.  You see, I love this city, and I want everyone who lives here to love my children’s birthplace as much as I do.  By extension I have to therefore be willing to extend my agape to the people who live here, even the ones who scare me or trouble me because of my un-Dalai Llama-like limitations and prejudices.  Helping support the Interfaith Initiative on Housing and

 

Homelessness is one way I can contribute.  Believe me when I say it is not flashy or romantic.  It is very much a slow-moving cello movement.  But it is constant, and it is moving and we are helping the city to house its people.

 

And you?  Well perhaps you show that love in your work, or in answering the many calls from YESS and other groups inside and outside of this church.  perhaps you care for a neighbour or family member.  Perhaps you work in a field where you get to help folks.  We each find our own way to express the kind of love that grows in us and that helps keeping moving our society and our world with painful slowness along that moral arc of the universe.

 

We are each called to do what we can, and only what we can.  But the first step is finding that sustained love within yourself and then letting it come out of you in whatever way seems right for you.  And that will be sufficient.

 

“Finding Your Passion”  third sermon 

in a series on Social Justice  —Rev. Brian J. Kiely  

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, February 23, 2014

 

Many will know that the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautauma was born a prince – into a life of privilege and wealth.  But one day, a seer came to his father ,the king and prophesied that one day the boy would both break his father’s heart, and bring light to the world as a Buddha.

 

The king didn’t want his boy to become a religious figure.  He wanted his son to become king after him.  He decided that the best way to ensure this was to make the boy’s life perfect and filled with joy.  He issued commands that kept all unhappiness and ugliness away from the boy, and later young man.

 

But there came a time when Siddartha needed to go into the world and see the kingdom which would be his.  His father did all he could to make these processions pleasant and joyous, but on the first journey, the boy saw an old man stumbling along the side of the road, crippled and infirm.  He had never known such a sight – such a state of being- existed.  Returning home he grew angry with his father for lying to him so about the perfection of the world.  On his next journey – despite even more precautions by his father, Siddhartha  encountered a sick man, and on his third he encountered a corpse in a funeral procession.  Discovering first illness and then death, he grew more despondent and more angry with his upbringing.

 

Finally, the prince ventured out once more, not in a procession, but unannounced with only one aide by his side.  They went to the markets and saw the haggling, the fear, the laughter, the dynamics of commerce at it’s lowest level.  In the middle of the market, in the middle of all this chaos and dirt and smell and noise, he also encountered one monk, sitting serenely with a begging bowl.  He asked his companion about that, the companion replied that the offering bowl was less about the monk’s needs, and more about giving the people a chance to make offerings and so ease the pain in their souls.

 

Siddhartha so admired the serenity of the monk that he decided to renounce his birthright and follow a path seeking enlightenment.

 

 

I tell this story both as an example of a man who would grow to exemplify human compassion, but also as an illustration of how we who are fortunate discover the darkness that also inhabits our world.

 

We in Canada are a privileged lot.  Even those among us with impoverished upbringings, who have faced racism, abuse, sexism and other unfortunate events are privileged…in comparison to some parts of the world where there is war, famine and mass destruction.

 

We have clean water, places to sleep – most of us – enough food, health care, a fairly safe city largely free of violence.  It’s far from perfect, but much better than conditions in many parts of the world.  We who have been born here or who have been accepted as immigrants are privileged.

 

I know some days it may seem hard to believe that, but it’s true for most of us.  Like the Buddha, many of us do not see what’s going on outside the walls of our privilege, especially when we are younger.

 

And for a lot of us there comes a moment when we encounter our own sights of aging, infirmity, illness and death, violence and poverty, abuse of people or substances – whatever it might be.  Like the Buddha we each encounter our Four Sights.  These are the moments when we recognize how our privilege has shielded us from some unpleasant realities. And perhaps we discover that we are complicit in some of the evils being wrought in the name of prosperity.

 

Perhaps the turning point is something that happened to you, and injustice you felt that caused you to stand up and work to make change.  Sometimes it comes from simply learning of an injustice that has kept others down.

 

What is common is that something happens that shocks us out of our privileged complacency, something tears away the gauzy veils of innocence and lets us see a world we did not know existed.

 

Like the Buddha we grow angry at those who have lied to us, either to protect us or to lull us into not paying attention to what they might be doing.

 

And some of us turn to justice work as a way to give vent to that anger.  Probably anyone who stands up for others or for themselves feels that anger of disillusionment at some time.  It is a natural starting place for justice work.

 

But I’m not sure that anger can be sustained for very long.

 

I believe that those among us who continue in this work move like the Buddha to a place of serenity.  Instead of anger, we begin to work for a better world motivated by something else.  If you have attended either of the two services in this series, you will likely guess that this place of the heart I describe is compassion.

 

The angry activist burns and fumes and demands complete victory, and is usually disappointed.  The compassionate activist looks for gentler solutions;  Looks for healing solutions; looks for bridges.  When we center our work in compassion, it becomes easier to stay with that work.

 

So today as I wrap up this series on social justice, well I have talked enough.  I would like to give us a chance to hear from one another, to conspire about compassion.  The printed question is Does your passion call you to work for the world?  But you could easily choose to tell us how you feel called, what issue calls you the most and why or what is it that gets in the way of you answering the call you feel.

 

Over to you…

A congregational conversation followed.  You will be able to listen to the discussion elsewhere on the www.uce.ca website.