June is a month that the UUA has set aside to focus on compassion, a timely focus for our culture. Compassion is not a surface emotion meant to be experienced from a distance. Compassion involves a deep emotional connection with someone who is hurting, The videos of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have made visible a pandemic in our culture that has existed for far too long, the virus of institutional racism. We can not look away. We can not remain silent. We can not refuse to act. We must let compassion and love guide us as, and compassion begins with opening our eyes and making suffering visible.
On May 5, our eyes saw for the first time the horrific images of a
hate crime and public lynching by shotgun in Brunswick, GA.
Over two months before the video became public, a father and
son, filled with racism and a despicable and misguided
understanding of humanity, chased Ahmaud Arbery as he was
jogging and shot him in cold blood on the street. We were
shocked. We were outraged. And, unfortunately, we were not
surprised. We have seen it before.
On May 25, once again, videos of another lynching surfaced and
we watched as police officers provided support and cover to one
of their colleagues who pressed his knee into the neck of George
Floyd and slowly choked the life from his being, despite his cries
for his mother and his pleas of I can’t breathe.
We have a systemic problem of institutional racism in our culture
that continues to deteriorate the soul of our being from the inside
out while endangering and destroying the lives of African
The cartoon of the iceberg.
An NPR interview this week proposed the question, what if we
saw institutional racism as threatening to our lives as the corona
virus pandemic. How would this change the way we found our
vigilance, passion, and use of resources to do something about it.
June is compassion month, and we will be focusing throughout
the month on ways we are called to be compassionate people at
the UUCC. Compassion begins with opening our eyes to the
images of oppression and suffering around us. The power of
making something visible. No arrests had been made in
Brunswick GA until the video of the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery
circulated around the world and the world demanded action.
Without video footage, George Floyd’s death may have gone
Compassion begins when our eyes are opened to the pain, the
oppression, the suffering around us.
During the Civil War, Matthew Brady and a team of
photographers began to capture images of the death and carnage
in the aftermaths of battles. After the battle at Antietam, the
New York Times printed on October 20, 1862
“Mr. BRADY has done something to bring home to us the terrible
reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and
laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done
something very like it.”
The images of the dead bodies piled up began to change the
understanding of the war and undermined the heart and soul of
the confederate cause, at least for those who still were connected
to their internal humanity.
Images of shoes piled up, eyeglasses collected, and mass graves
were the greatest threat to Hitler’s sociopathic attempt to
exterminate Jewish people from the earth, as if they were a
plague. The true plague was the pool of hate and bigotry in his
heart that deepened and spread around Germany.
National Geographic magazine began a concept and era of
photojournalism as they published several editions of images
from the war in Vietnam. When our eyes began to process the
images of what was happening on the other side of the world, the
sentiment around the war changed. The small group of
protesters grew, and those who were still connected to their
humanity began to demand change.
Many have been able to paint pictures with their words, as Harriet
Beecher Stowe so poetically pulled the curtain back and showed
us true life on a southern plantation. The British poet Wilfred
Owen opened our eyes to the treachery of WWI,
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
Compassion begins when we open our eyes and see the suffering
around us. Compassion begins when we refuse to not turn a
blind eye to suffering and injustice, when we refuse to lean into
privilege and connect to the discomfort and pain and fear. The
word compassion etymologically simply means to be joined and
connected to suffering. In the Greek language, the word for
suffering is also used to describe a rut or a ditch, so the word
compassion in the Greek literally means to be joined with a rut.
There is no other way. We can not sit in safety and comfort and
claim to be compassionate people.
We are called to be people of compassion, believing deeply in the
inherent dignity and worth of all human beings and
understanding our interconnectedness to the web of existence
around us. We have to feel deeply connected to the suffering
around us, believing as Dr, King said that injustice anywhere is a
threat to justice everywhere.
The videos we saw in May and the story reported of Breonna
Taylor gunned down in her home make us angry, but It is not
enough to be angry. We have felt the indictment of our silence,
but it is not enough to speak out in voices of protest. We have
confessed our own feelings of bias and subtle racism that lives in
our hearts, but it is not enough to commit to awareness and
change. When the black lives matter movement invites us to
speak the names, we must read them aloud as if they were our
closest family members, as if we are standing over the graves of
our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and
fathers. We must feel the shotgun barrel on our skin, and let the
image from Brunswick GA explode through our gut, causing our
blood to soak into the asphalt of the street that once was our
jogging path. We must feel the knee on our neck on the
Minneapolis street and gasp for breath, cry for our mother, and
let our dying moments feel the weight and pain of the very
people who have sworn an oath to serve and protect us. When
we get into the ditch with this virus and plague, then we know
that it is killing us all.
History has its eyes on us in this moment. I look around us and I
find so many reasons to be hopeless, to dissolve into despair and
feel like nothing will ever change. Voices of hope pierce through
the shadows, and we will have a chance to hear one of those
voices in a couple of minutes from a young man named Keedron
Bryant who gives voice and music to poetry written by his
mother. I find hope in the gathering of this community, the
UUCC. In this place, I find a group of people who are willing to
crawl into the ditch and experience true compassion. I find a
group of people who refuse to turn a blind eye, who refuse to
remain silent, who choose to be authentic and vulnerable, who
risk the messiness of anxiety filled conversations, who put
themselves in harm’s way to stand side by side with those who
are in danger. I find hope in this place, and as your minister, I
covenant with you today to do all I can to do my part to keep the
flame of our chalice burning brightly. Our compassion, our love,
our desire for justice and change can make a difference. We can
stand against the viruses that threaten our lives and create a new
and hopeful world. We are the UUCC.