In Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz, Nick LaRocca, the leader of an all-white band says, “My contention is that the Negroes learned to play this rhythm and music from the whites. The Negro did not play any kind of music equal to white men at any time.”
In response to this statement, Wynton Marsalis, the great African American trumpeter, spends 14 seconds in stupefied silence. Finally, he says, “Race...for this country is like the thing...in...mythology, that you have to do for the kingdom to be well.” According to Marsalis, the key to this nation’s health lies in its willingness and ability to take on the challenge of race. If it does not, the nation cannot be well. [Mark Feeney]
Evidence that the kingdom is not well surrounds us. The fiasco of the last presidential election is a mighty piece of evidence that this nation is not only not well, but unwilling to take on the heroic challenge it is presented with daily. At the heart of the controversy of ballots and chads and counts and recounts and then no counts was a question of racism – which voices count and which do not. Though the focus was primarily on Florida, at least 21,000 voters in Roxbury can testify to equally questionable procedures in Boston. [John Swan] An investigation into practices throughout the country would, no doubt, shine the light on a good many irregularities in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
On January 6, then Vice President Al Gore chaired the registering of Electoral College votes. Protest to the legitimacy of the votes from Florida came from the Congressional Black Caucus. This protest was not allowed, however. The rules say that in order to register a protest you need the signature of at least one representative and one senator – and no senators had endorsed the protest.
Take in the scenario: a small group of Black representatives is trying to say something. Something that no one in the country could possibly be surprised by, yet something that no one else in the room is saying. The group tries to say that there is a problem. That the kingdom is not well. But they are not allowed to say this because in doing so they will be breaking the rules. The rules, after all, say that at least one senator must endorse the protest. But out of 100 senators – all white – not one was willing to stand with the protest. Not one in a hundred senators was willing. Not the very liberal Mr. Kennedy. Not even Mr. Lieberman who must have felt some betrayal by the electoral process!
When Representative Maxine Waters was told that her protest was inadmissible because of the rules, Ms. Waters said in frustration that she did not care about procedures. Can you blame her? How else or where else or when else might she be heard? Is it unreasonable for her to say she doesn’t care about the rules in this case?
In response to her, Al Gore says, “The chair would advise that the rules do care.” [James Carroll] To me, Al Gore’s response speaks volumes about the denial that surrounds the nation’s illness. First of all, he completely takes himself out of the proceedings. By referring to himself as “the chair” he invites us to see that he is a man without agency. He – the Vice President of the United States – has no authority, no power, no voice. He blames the rules. In so doing, he seems to suggest that if there is a problem, it is with Maxine Waters. By the standards of white culture, Al Gore is a perfect gentleman in this instance. He is impartial, unfeeling. His response lets us know also that he is a fair loser. He stands to gain something from the protest, but he does not let this interfere with his role. He is no longer a man. He is a chair. His advice “that the rules do care” dramatically illustrates the use of white cultural standards to exclude the outsider who in this case is both Black and a woman.
In this scenario, no person can be blamed for anything that may be unfair here. Not the chair. Not the senators. Only the rules. It does not matter that whole communities feel disenfranchised. It does not matter that there are strong feelings of injustice. In the end, everything comes down to rules and so no people can be held accountable. And as long as no one can be held accountable, those with power and those they bless don’t even have to see that the nation is not well.
Undoubtedly, you have already surmised that I am a highly opinionated person. I used to be worse. There was a time in our relationship when my partner called me Miss Pronouncement. Not only do I value my own opinions, I tend to believe them superior to most other opinions. I tend to believe my opinions say something about who I am. They give me an identity. If I let go of my opinions, who will I be?
That said, you can imagine my surprise when I recently read the words attributed to the Buddha “...those who grasp after views and opinions only wander about the world annoying people.” [Kornfield] After the shock of these lines wore off and I took time to meditate on them, I realized that I wasn’t being invited to stop having opinions, I was being invited to stop being attached to my opinions. Another sage puts it this way: “If you wish to know the truth, only cease to cherish opinions.” [Kornfield]
In my work, I am learning at ever deeper levels that wisdom is collective. You won’t find it in the Boston Globe. You won’t find it in a PBS documentary. You will not find it in the protest of the Congressional Black Caucus. You will not find it in this speech. Wisdom and truth require a wide circle with wide experience. The more voices we let in, the closer we get to wisdom.
It’s my opinion – so take it or leave it – that in large measure the reason this kingdom is not well is because only some truths are allowed to be voiced. Only certain perspectives are given air time. Only certain experiences are considered valid. I doubt that any of us can grasp the magnitude of what is kept from being heard.
There is no journey toward wholeness in any group – be that a family, a congregation, a neighborhood or a nation – if everyone’s truth is not included. The journey toward wholeness of this congregation requires that all of you have opportunities to speak your truth and that all the ears listen deeply to what all the voices are saying. Not so that you will all agree with one another, but so that in understanding everyone a greater wisdom can be found.
What is the collective wisdom of this nation? Of this congregation? Are you willing to sit in the fire with each other to find out what your wisdom is? Imagine each one of you speaking what you know, what you feel, what you hope. Imagine being heard. Imagine listening to the experience, the feelings, the hopes of each of your sisters and brothers – from the oldest to the youngest, from the most powerful to the most marginal, from those whose voice goes down like butter to those whose voice grates like a sled on gravel. Imagine being a full participant in a process where what is important is not etiquette but ethics.
Giving space and time to all voices – especially those that have been most excluded – is a spiritual practice that any group needs in order to be or become well. If a small group of people such as this congregation is willing to take on the heroic challenge of making that spiritual practice its own – and allowing the circle to become wider and wider and wider – then a small part of the nation will become well.
Of course, as with all simple solutions, this one is not easy. Aside from the likelihood of failure, part of what keeps us from responding to such a heroic challenge is that is takes us away from everything familiar. It asks us to enter unknown realms.
Thirteen years ago, I began a process of coming out to myself as lesbian. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done. The fear was of something akin to falling off the edge of the world. I knew where my center was and I believed that if I strayed too far from that, I would come to the edge of the world and fall off. My spiritual world was a flat one. Coming out was a process of learning that the world is always round and you can’t fall off. Wherever you go, Spirit is there. You cannot fall out of the hollow of God’s hand. No matter what.
And so, I am grateful for the process of coming out – because it opened me up spiritually in ways I could never have predicted.
Taking up the heroic challenge of dealing with a history and legacy of race and racism promises the similar spiritual growth. Your collective truth includes whatever the anti-racism committee has been learning. But it also includes whatever resistance some may have to the very notion that the Arlington UU church has a role to play in dismantling racism. Your collective wisdom includes the confusion that is here, the questions, the anger, the fear, and the hope that something might be attempted together. It contains all of this. It includes whatever longing is here for this issue to just go away. It includes the experience and knowledge each of you carries in your bodies of the way racism has played a role in your life – the ways in which you feel the lie, the ways you are asked to live by rules you didn’t help create, the responsibility and resentment you may feel for dealing with a problem that our ancestors should have dealt with ages ago. All of that is a part of the truth and the wisdom of this congregation. And within that truth are hints about what you can do as individuals, as families, as a congregation to address the question, “What do we need to do for the kingdom to be well?”
- Mark Feeney. “In the World of Ken Burns’s ‘Jazz,’ Race Matters.” Boston Globe. January 28, 2001. Page N1 and N5.
- James Carroll. “Black Caucus sends a message about justice.” Boston Globe. January 9, 2001. Page A19.
- John Swan. “’Here we go again.’” Jamaica Plain Gazette. February 16, 2001. Volume 11, No. 4. Page 1 and 4.
- Jack Kornfield. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. These two quotes found on page 288. The second is a quote by the Third Zen Patriarch.