We Still Have a Dream

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Sometimes, history can be divided into ‘before and after.’ Before and after the printing press. Before and after the “shot heard round the world” in Lexington, Massachusetts, that signaled the beginning of the American Revolution. Before and after the atomic bomb, or the landing on the moon. Before and after the morning of September 11, 2001. Moments in time when the course of human history – our destiny, our direction, our very self-understanding of who we are, as a people – as people – shifts forever.

One such moment occurred in late August, 1963, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. – when a quarter of a million people – roughly 200,000 of them  African-American – peacefully assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating a century since the Emancipation Proclamation, and demanding their long-overdue, God-given, Constitution-guaranteed, civil rights. That day, history changed.

It marked the end of a very remarkable spring and summer in American history. Before the March on Washington, Martin Luther King had been thrown in a Birmingham jail. Before the March on Washington, Bull Connor had released police dogs and water cannons on peaceful protestors. Before the March on Washington, Governor George Wallace had stood in the doorway of a building at the University of Alabama, attempting to physically prevent African-American students from enrolling there. Before the March on Washington – just two months before – Medgar Evers, a prominent civil rights leader in Mississippi who himself was battling in court for the right to be admitted to a college – to the University of Mississippi Law School – just before the March on Washington, Medgar Evers was assassinated, in his driveway, by a member of a local group called the White Citizens’ Council.

The litany of evil – is seemingly endless. And Lord knows – the March on Washington did not bring it to an end. But after the March – when civil rights organizers returned to the South to continue their struggle – something had forever changed. They carried with them a moral mandate. A point of no return had been passed.

Martin Luther King’s iconic speech had placed the civil rights movement in a broader historical perspective – wrapping it in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation – transforming civil rights, in the words of youthful participant Andrew Young, “from a Southern black movement, into a national, multi-racial, human rights movement.” The size and the scope of the March made it impossible, any longer, to deny the depth and breadth of that movement – and made the political successes that would shortly follow almost inevitable.

Before the March on Washington, it was possible to ignore both the Supreme Court and the U.S. Justice Department – to deny African-Americans admittance to Southern colleges and universities – access to whites-only bathrooms and water fountains – to the voting booth. But after the March on Washington, came the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After the March on Washington, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After the March on Washington, the goals of the civil rights movement were somehow legitimized, in the eyes of many white Americans, which ultimately led to their being legalized. And after the March on Washington, some of its own organizers –among them Andrew Young, John Lewis, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Julian Bond – were elected, to political office, breaking new ground at the same time they were breaking color barriers.

Fast forward, half a century. Without the March on Washington – without Dr. King’s powerful articulation of the Dream – it is difficult to imagine a President, Barack Obama. Do you remember seeing the faces of some of those now elder statesmen and stateswomen of the civil rights movement, on that night in November, 2008, when Obama was elected? Written there on those faces – amid the tears and the smiles and the eyes filled with disbelief at being alive, to see that day – written there was confirmation that a piece – just a piece, but an important piece – of the Dream, had been realized.

Yet we know, all too painfully well, that though the arc of history was bent, just a bit, toward justice, that hot afternoon in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago – we have not yet reached, the promised land. It is true that, after the March on Washington came the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Institutions of higher learning, businesses, city councils and civic organizations were integrated. But also, after the March on Washington – less than three weeks after – a bomb, planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, ripped apart the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young black children. It was but the beginning of several waves of violent response to the forced desegregation of the South. Rioting in various cities – including Cincinnati – throughout the 1960s, highlighted  just how difficult such a social and cultural paradigm shift can be. And let us not forget that it was only after the March on Washington, and its successes, that the era’s most prominent and powerful proponents of civil rights – John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy – each, one after the other, was assassinated.

Yes, though the unprecedented crowd on the Mall that historic day in D.C. – unprecedented in its size, unprecedented in its integration, unprecedented in what today we would call its “diversity” – though they sang “We Shall Overcome” – we know, that we did not actually overcome, that day. Nor have we, yet.

Rev. James Reeb Marker

And friends, I am here this morning – after listening once again to the inspiring, moving, impossible-to-hear-without-crying words of Martin Luther King Jr. – and after another disturbing summer of discontent – I am here today to try to shake us out of our complacency, to urge us, in the words of that antiphonal prayer I borrowed from another faith tradition, to “find a way, to stop just celebrating the dream, [and] to start living it.” To fight against injustice and prejudice, anywhere and everywhere we find it. Here. Now. In today’s world. “When I feel secure,” that reading tells us, “I must remember the insecure. When I see injustice, I must remember that it will not end, until I help make it end.”

Folks – I see injustice every time I turn on the news. We need not look far, for evidence of how far we still have to go. The Voting Rights Act – legislation that, for 48 years, allowed enforcement of the constitutional right to vote, in places where that right was being intentionally, viciously, and sometimes violently denied to the minority, by the majority – that Voting Rights Act was eviscerated this summer, by a deeply, ideologically divided Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision on a case brought by – you guessed it – a county including the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama – the Supreme Court removed restrictions on primarily Southern states that had kept them from rigging their voting systems, to deny African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities access to the ballot box.

Before the March on Washington – and the Voting Rights Act that resulted from it – there were the infamous poll taxes and literacy tests and other insidious laws in the South that effectively prevented blacks from voting. The beauty, of the Voting Rights Act, was in its so-called “pre-clearance” clause, which required certain political jurisdictions – in many cases, entire states – that had a history of discriminatory voting laws to get the approval of the United States Department of Justice, before enacting any such voting laws. The Voting Rights Act, it should be noted, was repeatedly extended by Congress – four times, in fact, most recently in 2006 by a quite conservative Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, all of whom supported extending it because of clear and ongoing efforts in parts of the country to thwart the right of minorities to vote, at every turn.

In other words, as recently as seven years ago, the Voting Rights Act was a bipartisan affair. But no more.

Yet for 48 years – after the March on Washington – the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia were kept in check – were required to submit, for approval by federal authorities, their voting laws. Maybe that seems extreme to you. Why, you may ask, do we still need such laws, in the 21st century? Haven’t we grown past the need for such oversight? Well, in a word – no.

In 2001, for example, the white mayor and the all-white Board of Aldermen of a small town in Mississippi actually cancelled an election when census results showed that African-Americans had become the majority of voters in the town – effectively declaring themselves monarchs of the municipality. Under the authority of the federal Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice was able to intervene. Still, it took until 2003 – two years – before another election was held. But when it was held – guess what? The town elected its first African-American mayor, and three black aldermen.

After this summer’s Supreme Court ruling – that could not have happened.

Also in 2003, a small town in South Carolina tried a new and creative way to protect the dwindling – white – voting majority. The town (ironically called “North,” South Carolina), sought to annex an adjoining unincorporated area, that, just coincidentally, was all white. Again, under the authority of the federal Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice stepped in – pointing out that a request for annexation by a predominantly black area on the other side of town, a decade earlier, had been denied. The Justice Department concluded, [quote], “race appears to be an overriding factor” in the town’s annexation decisions – and thus blocked that particular attempt to rig an upcoming election.

After this summer’s Supreme Court ruling – that could not have happened.

Now you may think – you may want to believe – that such transparently racist voter suppression schemes are isolated incidents – but the evidence proves otherwise. This kind of thing has been going on quite literally ever since freed former slaves got the right to vote – and the March on Washington and the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act hardly did away with the determination, or the sentiment, of those who seek to deny minorities the vote. No, those laws just gave the law some teeth, to the legal effort to thwart such efforts.

And – I have to say it – if anything, the election of an African-American President in 2008 prompted an even greater number of similarly desperate attempts to circumscribe the voting populace. A rash of so-called “voter ID laws” were introduced around the country following the election of Barack Obama – laws that required government issued, photo identification before one could have access to the ballot box. It is certainly no coincidence that minority populations and marginalized demographic groups, especially blacks and Latinos, are much more likely to not have such IDs.

Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, one such law – in Texas, where the 2010 census showed 89 percent of its ten-year population growth of more than 4 million people, was non-white – thanks to the Voting Rights Act, a Texas photo ID law was blocked. But within hours of the Supreme Court decision this summer – which significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act – Texas officials – white Texas officials – announced they would immediately begin implementing, the same voter ID law that the Justice Department had declared, three years ago, to be a violation of civil rights.

And just this week, as thousands of protestors marched in the state capitol, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, signed what many are calling the nation’s most restrictive voting law – the new gold standard of voter suppression. Without the threat of being stopped by the now-impotent Voting Rights Act, the very conservative North Carolina legislature is cutting back on early voting, eliminating same-day registration, and requiring certain specific, state-issued photo IDs to vote – IDs that many minorities, students, and poor people (especially those without cars) do not have.

The American Civil Liberties Union has already filed suit against these new efforts to deny thousands access to the polls. Meanwhile, as I said, thousands are marching, in the streets, in protest, and will be doing so again tomorrow, in what have become weekly “Moral Monday” demonstrations. Even the Attorney General of the United States – and the Justice Department – remember them? – are preparing to sue North Carolina.

Friends, I could go on all morning – but I trust I have given you enough real-world, concrete examples to convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt, that despite the great strides forward that began with the March on Washington, and the federal legislation that followed – despite the election and re-election of an African-American President (perhaps, even, because of these things) those who would limit, rather than expand, civil rights – those who would deny even the most basic of democratic freedoms – the right to vote – because of one’s race or ethnicity – these kinds of vile and cowardly collusion, remain alive and well in America, in 2013 – because racism remains alive and well, in the hearts of many Americans.

We have come a long way – but we have not come far enough.

Which is why we must still have a dream. Why we must not allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking we have finished the task. No – we must continue to work for that dream – for our dream – for a time when not only “right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” – but for a day when their parents, who are of legal age and are citizens of this great country, can have equal access to the voting booth – where their votes will each count, equally – where no one, be they a local city or county election official, or a political partisan on the sidewalk outside the polling place, or a roving band of zealots in a pickup truck – all of which I have personally seen with my own eyes – where no one can or would dare try to legislate or intimidate a single person into not voting.

That is my dream. It’s been said before – and I’ll say it again – I may be a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Though I was only five years old when Martin Luther King spoke of his dream – that dream is alive and well in me, today – as it is in thousands – no, millions – of others. We are now the embodiment of the dream. We are the ones to whom it is left to complete the task.

It may be a long climb, up that mountain – it may be a long way, to that promised land – but we are undeterred. For justice is on our side. History, is on our side.

We still have a dream. Let us get to work making it a reality.

May it be so – and amen!

Ten Things I Like About Jesus

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Today I am going to share with you ten things I like about Jesus. Let me begin my reflection by telling you, very briefly, about what theologians might call my “Christology” – not what I like about Jesus, but what I believe about Jesus…

I believe Jesus was a man, not a god – and that he really lived, and really died. But like John MacKinnon, whom we heard from in a reading a moment ago, I also believe that – had there never been such a person as the historical Jesus – people would have invented him nonetheless. I also believe, like Elaine Pagels, whom we also heard from a moment ago – that Jesus was engaged in perhaps the ultimate religious quest: seeking to understand what it means to be human, and to understand the relationship between the human and the holy.

And I find truth, too, in the picture of the dual Jesus painted by the poet Kahlil Gibran, who wrote, “Once, every hundred years, Jesus of Nazareth meets with the Jesus of Christianity, in a secluded garden in the hills of Lebanon. They walk together, and talk for a long time – and, at the end of the conversation, Jesus of Nazareth goes away, saying to the Jesus of Christianity, ‘My friend, I fear we will never, ever agree.’ ”

As Unitarian Universalists, we approach any discussion of Jesus with certain givens: For one thing, although we as a religious movement have our roots in the Christian tradition, in the past century or so we have come to a place where, we must admit, there are some things inherent in our lived context, on which we will never, ever agree. We believe – and, on our good days, even celebrate – that there are many different, and valid, ways to look at, interpret, and be in relationship with this man called Jesus. And so, we seek to be open-minded not only in our own personal Christology, but in our acceptance of the differing beliefs of others.

Yet when we hear the old children’s hymn “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” despite its ostensibly comforting message, we grow uncomfortable at its implications. We wonder that so many, in today’s world, can accept this kind of literalistic, and simplistic, interpretation of the already limited perspective on Jesus that’s presented in the Bible.

So how, with integrity, can a thoughtful person who seeks to find a more profound meaning in the life and death of the great Palestinian prophet, make sense it all? How can we “wade in the water” of relationship with this remarkable man without drowning in a sea of bad theology?

Well, we have one example, from our own Unitarian tradition. I’ve told you on more than one occasion the story of Thomas Jefferson, who, during his presidency, did his best to separate the wheat from the chaff by taking the four gospels available to him – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and literally cutting out the supernatural and the superstitious. The resulting volume – called “The Jefferson Bible” – is a little-known but remarkable piece of early American historical trivia – and a treasured volume on my office bookshelf.

But we of the 21st century have available to us many other teachings about Jesus than did Jefferson – the Nag Hammadi discovery and the Dead Sea scrolls, among others – many of which represent a Gnostic understanding of Jesus and his ministry. Fundamentalists notwithstanding, our ideas about Jesus today are shaped by considerably more sources, and by listening to lots more voices, than simply “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

Now you may be wondering why I chose to preach about Jesus this morning. After all, I don’t consider myself a Christian, and though Heritage, as a Unitarian Universalist church, stands in the historic lineage of Judeo-Christianity, we seldom even mention Jesus during Sunday services here. We do not consider a “personal relationship” with Jesus to be “the only way.” Yet it is important for us to remember that it’s one way – and a way that we might find meaningful, if we take the right approach.

In short, the answer to the question, “Why this service today?” is that I thought it was time I gave Jesus some thought. And so, I have come up with a list of ten things I like about Jesus. Here they are:

First, and foremost, Jesus was a universalist. He practiced an inclusive, rather than an exclusive, ministry – the very definition of universalism. Those who were scorned by society, those who were excluded from power, those who experienced living outside the strict codes of conduct of the Mediterranean world of his day – be they the poor, the sick, the young, women, lepers, prostitutes, the blind, Samaritans or those of other races or classes – these are the people Jesus cared for. These are the people Jesus sought to save – in a very real-world sense of that word. With intentionality, he subverted the dominant paradigms of his time – for the purpose of including everyone in what one of our UU Sunday School curriculae calls “The Kingdom of Equals.”

I say he did all this “with intentionality,” because what almost all the accounts of Jesus’ life tell us is that Yeshua – for that was his real name – sought very public venues in which to offer his most radical teaching. My personal favorite comes, ironically, from my least favorite gospel: John. In Chapter 8:3-11, while preaching at Mount Olivet, the following happens:

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in their midst, they said to him: ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now, in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?

“This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you, be the first to throw a stone at her.’ ”

If he had done nothing else at all, Jesus’ universalism, his message of all-inclusive love and care for the human race and the human condition, his example of unconditional forgiveness, would have been enough, for generations to come, to emulate.

The second thing I want to lift up about Jesus is, to me, a natural corollary to the first. All of us are familiar with what has been called “The Golden Rule” – that teaching in which Jesus says to his followers, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There, in succinct form, Jesus says, is the entirety of “the Law and the Prophets.” That is, even if you were to throw out everything else in scripture, everything in the holy writings of his people – if you could but manage to live by this one rule, your life, and the lives of those around you, would be transformed into something holy.

And though the Golden Rule appears in many, many stories about Jesus, both within and outside the Bible – as well as in remarkably similar form in the teachings of nearly every religion of the world – I especially like the version that appears in Matthew, because it is part of a longer passage that harkens back to my first point, in which Jesus begins by saying, “Don’t pass judgment, lest you yourself be judged.”

Elsewhere in that same sermon comes the third thing I like about Jesus – his insistence on living in the present moment. Whether or not he picked up this aspect of his teaching from a purported journey to the East and the influence of Buddhist teachings matters not; what is important is the idea that we cannot, “by worrying, add a single hour to our life;” in fact, more likely, quite the opposite. We now know to be true, what Jesus only surmised : that worrying actually takes time off our lives, through the adverse effects on our body of cortisol and other stress hormones.

Jesus wondered aloud in Luke, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky, so why do you not know how to live in the present time?” A sense of mindfulness, of being fully present, in the moment, will lift many of our burdens from our shoulders. This is a profound insight into the human condition, truly the result of religious and spiritual contemplation.

It is also perhaps the most difficult of Jesus’ admonishments for us to achieve. “Don’t fret,” says Jesus simply in Matthew – and sometimes, when I read that, I feel like I’m being told, “Just say no.” The truth is, I often seem to be living by the motto, “I fret; therefore I am.” But even if it takes all the world’s great teachers, Jesus and Buddha and even Nancy Reagan – eventually, I pray, I will get it; eventually, I will be able to “consider the lilies, how they grow… even Solomon at the height of his glory was never dressed as beautifully at they.”

Part and parcel of his openness to grace is the fact that Jesus took time for himself. He went on retreats. When the stress of his ministry began to get the best of him, he left the crowds and the disciples and went out alone, to meditate, to reflect, to recharge his spiritual batteries. What better model could one provide for anyone in the caring professions, than what we are taught in seminary to think of as “self-care.” Everyone, regardless of her or his Myers-Briggs type, sometimes needs alone-time – particularly, like Jesus, when we are about to make a major life decision, or embark on a different path, or undertake an important mission.

Let us all – and here, again, I am speaking also to myself – remember Jesus’ example of taking time for ourselves, so that we can then be more present, for others.

The fifth thing I like about Jesus is something that may strike you as odd, because it’s based on an omission rather than on something he said or did. I just love the fact that Jesus never once, in any known quote or story about him, mentioned homosexuality. Almost all of the bigotry and fear being directed at gay and lesbian people today is done with some kind of Christian justification – yet the man on whom Christianity is supposedly based never uttered a single syllable about – much less against – gays.

In fact, his preaching most frequently railed against those who took a judgmental, holier-than-thou attitude toward the oppressed groups in his culture. This, as much as than anything else, provoked Jesus’ enemies – this, and his unrelenting insistence on point number one – universalist inclusion.

So if we are to give any kind of honest treatment to Jesus’ ministry, to what he stood for, we should be wary of anything that gives us a feeling of self-satisfied superiority, anything that smacks of casting judgment on others. It is safe to assume that, were he alive today, Jesus would be focusing much of his attention on those groups of people whose rights, whose very humanity, are being trampled in our time. Everything he did spoke of erasing divisions and creating equality. Keep this in mind next time you hear Christianity being used to justify homophobia.

I have already alluded to the huge volume of material professing to quote from, narrate, or describe the life and teachings of Jesus. We know, of course, that none of this material was recorded during his own lifetime; in fact, much of what is considered scriptural or contemporary came into written form a few generations afterward. But this is actually another of the things I like about Jesus: That he can’t be contained in any one story. There are, of course, the four gospels most people are familiar with – those contained in today’s Bible – and even those don’t agree with one another on many key points. There are also the scores and scores of other gospels, not in the Bible, that contain some similar, and many different, events in the life of Jesus, as well as innumerable sayings both profound and profane that are attributed to him. There are also the much later commentaries – nearly two thousand years’ worth of them – that seek to make sense of this complex figure.

You can choose to consider this a problem, a reason to dismiss the whole business, or – may I suggest – you can take another approach. Isn’t it cool that here’s a guy who truly, literally, cannot be contained in one story? In hundreds of stories?

Yet, there are things about Jesus that shine through all the stories, all the commentaries, all the speculation. Let me shift now to certain aspects of Jesus’ personality that I find particularly meaningful. The seventh thing I like about Jesus is that he had doubts. Like me, like you, he had doubts. There was the famous scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, of course, when Jesus expresses his misgivings about the meaning of his ministry. But throughout many of the depictions of this remarkable prophet, this charismatic political leader and religious teacher, we see evidence that Jesus had reservations about what he was doing. He doubted that people were getting his message (and here, I would venture, his doubts were very well-founded!). He wondered aloud if he was making a difference. He feared that he might be dying in vain, that he might be causing too much pain to others. In short, despite his powerful personality and strength of will, he sometimes wasn’t so sure of himself – and this, I must admit, I find very attractive about him.

Along the same lines, I like the fact that he had a temper. Again, perhaps because this is something I, too, am working on, I like it that Jesus had what we might today call “anger management issues.” We all know the story of the moneychangers in the temple, when Jesus burst onto the scene in Jerusalem, and threw what amounts to a temper tantrum – but this isn’t the only story of his anger. In many tales from both the Bible and outside the canon, Jesus’ frustration at those round him – those who didn’t see what was so obvious to him – frequently bubbled over. Of course, the spin on these stories would have us agree that, in each case, Jesus’ anger was justified – but more subtle in the depiction is the fact that such outbursts make Jesus a far more realistic figure – much more like me and you – and thus, someone we can relate to.

Which brings us to the ninth thing I like about Jesus – that he loved. With the huge popularity of Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code,” the general public is just beginning to catch wind of this fact – but those who have studied the Bible and other stories about Jesus have known all along that Jesus had feelings of affection – most notably and particularly for Mary Magdalene. And in this, too, he becomes more real. More subject to the ups and downs of life and of relationship, more able to experience the joys and sorrows of human existence. Again, more like you and me.

And that, after all, is the most important thing about Jesus. Despite the Bunyan-esque, larger-than-life mythology that has since developed around him, Jesus was human. That is not only the tenth good thing about Jesus – it’s the thing that matters most.

For if this man, Jesus of Nazareth, was not really a man, but rather a god – if you somehow accept the convoluted concept of consubstantiality that holds Jesus out as somehow both fully human and fully God – if indeed Jesus were not completely and literally human – and only human, just like me and you – then how might we ever aspire to be like him? To live like him?

It is the very fact that he was human, that makes Jesus a model for our own lives. By virtue of our shared humanity, we can know this man’s struggles with anger and doubt; we can know his feelings of love and heartbreak, passion and compassion. We can understand that, like us, he was on a religious quest – not already holding all the answers, not knowing or having already come from the final destination – but rather working out, one day at a time, with fear and trembling, the meaning of the journey.

Let us be on such a religious quest. And let us share the journey, with one another – today, and in the days to come.