A Hunger For Justice
Reverend Tom Capo
October 5, 2014
We affirm justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. I’m going to ask you the same question I asked last month when we explored “Beloved Community.” What does “affirm” really mean to us, individually and as a congregation? What does “affirm” really look like? Many of you do work in the community, or perhaps in your jobs, to help others, to fight injustice, to educate those who are unaware of the some of the human, animal, and ecological crises our world faces. I know that many of you are yearning, hungry for justice, equity, and compassion in our world.
What does it mean really mean to be “hungry for justice?” Are these just words we bandy about during coffee hour and snack after the service? “Here, have some fair trade chocolate.” “Thanks I am hungry for justice!” Is it a personal question? “I got detention because I was sitting next to the person who was disrupting class. But it wasn’t me! I was just sitting there! It’s totally not fair and I’m going to get my parents to file a complaint! I am hungry for justice!” Or is it a different kind of personal question? “I’ve read the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2013-2014 Common Read Behind the Kitchen Door, about wage inequality and unfair working conditions in the majority of our nation’s restaurants. I am hungry for justice and I’m going to do something about this.”
As you reflect on the meaning of being hungry for justice, I offer this quote from Benedictine monk and Zen practitioner Brother David Stendl-Rast, "Gratefulness is the full response of the human heart to reality - as it is. Not to this reality or that reality. We are not to choose. We are to be grateful even if we are confronted with something that is an outrage. Something that ought not to be there. We are not grateful for the outrageous thing. We are grateful for our ability and the opportunity to do something about it."
A man and his wife go to a movie. He texts the babysitter of his young daughter. A 71-year-old retired police officer demands that he stops texting. Words are exchanged. Popcorn is thrown. And 43-year-old Chad Oulson dies when Curtis Reeves takes out his pistol and shoots him dead. We’re shocked. Saddened. Horrified. But are we hungry for justice? What do we do about the Stand Your Ground Gun Laws, the increased incidence of gun violence?
What other issues percolate up when we are slapped in the face with an injustice like this one? What do we do about racial profiling, oppression, and prejudice? What do we do about Ferguson, Missouri? What do we do about the increased bullying in our schools? What do we do for the people who are bullied and the bullies themselves? What do we do about the atrocities of war? What do we do about the atrocities that United States citizens commit? And what do we do for our Veterans, many of whom are damaged physically and psychologically, who need our help, our love, our support to find a way to make a life after surviving the traumatic experience of war?
Do we feel hungry for justice, or are we instead overwhelmed by injustice? We’re not hungry; we’re nauseated. We’re not just shocked, we’re shell shocked. We find ourselves exhausted, so emotionally tired or so inured to the horror—we’re not hungry; we just want a warm blanket to crawl under, to sleep deeply, and maybe hope that when we wake up, someone else will have taken all the injustice away. And will we be able to forgive ourselves for not taking up a cause?
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am called to speak truth to power, to be a prophet urging our
leaders to address these issues and encouraging our congregants to take action. Should I tell you that each of you must do something—sign petitions, rally, hold vigils, write your leaders, console those who have been hurt, be a public witness against judging people when there is only limited information, information given to us by the rating-driven media? What do I do? What can you do with so many issues constantly battering us? And when we choose certain issues to try to make a difference, have we then chosen to be numbed to the rest?
Last year, I attended the vigil for Kenneth Weishuhn, a young gay teen from Paullina, Iowa who ended his own life after being repeatedly bullied by peers at his school. At the vigil so many adults and teenagers came forward with their stories of being bullied. Friends, bullying in our schools is not isolated; it is epidemic. Many teens talked about being bisexual and feeling piercingly unsure of how to cope or even how to describe to themselves or their peers what it is like to be attracted to both men and women. And, young and old, person after person shared that there had been one or two people who helped them survive the bullying: a coach, a best friend, a parent who stood by them, so they were not facing the barrage of abuse alone. What I heard was that just one person could make a difference for a persecuted teen or adult—one person who cares enough can help a bullied teen who is choosing between struggling through a painful period or ending their life. Think about that the next time you think one person can’t make a difference, the next time you think you can’t make a difference.
I attended the Unitarian Universalist Prairie Star District Annual Meeting in 2012, and in the exhibit hall I came across a program that a young Unitarian Universalist seminary student was involved in. She told me about Operation Recovery, the Right to Heal Tour, and Iraq Veterans Against the War. She gave me posters featuring art created by veterans who were suffering the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She told me she felt compelled to get involved with this Operation Recovery; she felt an irresistible call to help these men and women because so many in the government and civilians in our country were turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to their needs—She was hungry for this work; she had to help these veterans as they journeyed through the pain to healing; she had to walk with them as they found their places in this world after returning from war. This was as vital to her as her call to ministry.
After Trayvon Martin’s death, you remember the black teen shot by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012, I asked some local African American leaders in Cedar Rapids about rallying in solidarity with people all over the nation in response to this horrific incident. What I heard from them was, “well, let’s wait and see if someone else holds a rally then we can join in.” No rally occurred in our city.
Where is our hunger for justice in the larger community? Who can ignite it? My friends, we can ignite it. We Unitarian Universalists, who claim the flame of truth as our denominational emblem every time we light the chalice, every time we wear a tee-shirt or a “gimme” cap with “Standing on the Side of Love” on it. It’s who we are, who we are called to be. We, as a denomination, as churches and fellowships, as Unitarian Universalists—we are the ones who can illuminate that empty table of injustice and tell a dissatisfied, yearning world, “look, you are hungry and this table is empty. Fill this table with justice, fill this world with justice, and be hungry no more!”
And just like any banquet, we can pick and choose how we will satisfy our hunger, the world’s hunger, for justice and equality. I am passionate about gay/lesbian/transgender/bisexual rights, about a woman’s right to choose, about the need for more restrictions on the ownership and use of guns, as well as more training for people who own guns. I am passionate about our need to work more rigorously on reducing/preventing pollution of all kinds, and supporting our planet’s fragile ecosystem. I am passionate about our need to look for alternate renewable sources of energy and stopping the depletion of the limited resources our planet generously gives us. I am passionate about our need to provide affordable and high quality education and health care for everyone. These passions are what fill my plate, my plate of injustices. And, like any hungry person, I plan to work on my plate until is empty, and then who knows? I might go back to the justice table and get a second helping of other issues that fire my passion. I promise there will be plenty left over for each of you—the justice table never runs out of meaty causes that await our time and attention.
You can’t “eat” everything. You cannot do everything. So how do you choose to fill your plate? Perhaps start by reflecting on the values that we say that we hold in common, our Principles and Purposes:
1. We believe that each and every person is important.
2. We believe that all people should be treated fairly and kindly.
3. We believe that we should accept one another and keep on learning together.
4. We believe that each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.
5. We believe that all persons should have a vote about the things that concern them.
6. We believe in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world.
7. We believe in caring for our planet Earth, the home we share with all living things.
When Senator John Kerry accepted the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 2004, he said: “Values are not just words, values are what we live by. They're about the causes that we champion and the people we fight for.” What causes do your values, do our UU principles, call you to champion? How do you, one person, or one congregation, feel you can apply your time, energy, resources to make a difference in this world? Ask yourself, “Can I be that one person who makes a difference in another person’s life?” “Can my congregation really make a difference in this world so full of injustices?” And the most important question is: “Will I be that one person who makes a difference?” You’d be in good company. Reverend Theodore Parker fought for an end to slavery in this country before the civil war, and helped many runaway slaves to have free lives in this country. Susan B. Anthony fought for a woman’s right to vote, and though she never lived to see women voting, her work inspired many other women to finish this fight. Bill Baird fought for a woman’s right to choose whether to have a child; some media called him the "father" of the birth control and the abortion-rights movement. He was jailed eight times in five states in the 1960s for lecturing on abortion and birth control. Morris Dees founded the Southern Poverty Law Center; this American nonprofit civil rights organization won legal victories against white supremacist groups. Albert Schwietzer successfully lobbied for a 34-month nuclear test ban moratorium. Mary White Ovington founded the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Each was a proud Unitarian or Universalist who was hungry for justice, who made a difference. This is your heritage. I urge you to claim it, to live it, to be the change you seek in the world.
More Unitarian Universalist ministers than ministers from any other denomination marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. Here in the mid-west, Leonard Peltier, Darrelle “Dino” Butler, Bob Robideau and Jimmy Eagle of the American Indian Movement lived in a Unitarian Universalist church building during their 1975 Federal trial. And just two years ago, Unitarian Universalists from all over the country protested in support of immigrant rights at the “Justice GA” in Arizona.
Recently I talked with Reverend Alan Taylor, the minister of Unity Temple in Oak Park. They turned out 100 members of the congregation to a local action gathering that got several legislators on board and then 30 congregants went with Reverend Taylor to Springfield where they got 2 Republicans to sign on to legislation that allows felons convicted of non-violent felonies to seal their records. And on September 6th, members of this church walked with people from all over Chicago in the Climate Action March. This national effort has brought serious attention back to the need to deal with climate change.
Unitarian Universalists are right in there, at the front of the justice table, handing out full plates as fast as they can. Food equality, wage equality, marriage equality. There are plenty of plates to go around. You don’t need to take all of them. Just take one. Take one plate and feed your thirsty soul, your hungry heart, and know what it is to be satisfied, to be truly grateful.
"Gratefulness is the full response of the human heart to reality - as it is. Not to this reality or that reality. We are not to choose. We are to be grateful even if we are confronted with something that is an outrage. Something that ought not to be there. We are not grateful for the outrageous thing. We are grateful for our ability and the opportunity to do something about it.” Friends, let’s go get something to eat. I’ll see you at the justice table.