I’m reading James Baldwin these days. James Baldwin was an essayist, playwright, novelist and a voice of the American civil rights movement known for works including Go Tell It on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, and The Fire Next Time.
Let’s spend a moment with that last work—The Fire Next Time. It was published in 1963, the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington and preached “I Have a Dream” and spoke of “the fierce urgency of now.”
Out of that very same urgent now moment, James Baldwin said, “In the beginning—and neither can this be overstated—a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not know what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him—for that is what it is—is utterly gratuitous, [when he realizes this,] it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils.”
James Baldwin said, “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”
This is James Baldwin’s witness to the unvarnished truth. It is indeed hard for Black people not to see Whites as devils. It is indeed a miracle of perception and charity for a Black person not to teach their child to hate, not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck….
On Monday, May 31, we saw video of the Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, and George Floyd is saying he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, and Derek Chauvin doesn’t remove his knee, he just keeps pressing it down hard, and he’s looking into the camera while he does this, he’s looking, and the nonchalance on his face while he’s looking, while George Floyd beneath him is dying—eight minutes and forty-six seconds of it–is absolutely chilling.
If you’re Black and you’re watching this—this sort of thing that keeps on happening over and over again—in Atlanta just two days ago it was Rayshard Brooks killed by police—THIS sort of thing, over and over and over again…. My God, if you’re Black, how do you keep from seeing White people as Devils? How do you refrain from hate?
How do you do that?
Somehow, James Baldwin does. Listen to this next thing he says, in The Fire Next Time: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
James Baldwin, despite the brutalities of life as a Black person, despite the outrage, speaks of love. Not infantile—not just pleasant emotions—but a spiritual force that energizes a spirit of “quest and daring and growth.” A spiritual force that causes you to remove whatever mask you are hiding behind even though it scares you to do that. You do it anyway.
James Baldwin speaks of love, and this love he describes—it is a fire.
It is the fire we are seeing all around us, these days. The fire this time. Love that wants America to finally grow beyond its original sin of slavery and racial injustice. Take those masks off. Love that wants justice for all in America. Love that I personally felt at our West Shore vigil last week, when we showed Cleveland our grief at the way the Black community has been abused by police violence and how this has ultimately been 400+ years in the making—ever since 1619 and the arrival of the first Africans to be sold into bondage in North America, at Jamestown. At that vigil I felt the fire, especially when we entered into eight minutes and forty-six seconds of silence, the time it took George Floyd to die—and the love rising up within me which was like a fire was a knowledge that what happened to George Floyd and what happened to Tamir Rice and what happened to Breonna Taylor and what keeps on happening is evil and a stain on my soul (my soul) and by God I must be a part of the solution. The love I felt said to me, “All of us need all of us to make it.”
“All of us need all of us to make it.” (This sentence comes from the beautiful prayer “All Of Us Need All Of Us to Make It” by the Revs. Megan Foley and Theresa Soto.)
This is the fire this time. And, I would have us note that this time is curiously primed for the fire to burn more intensely and more purely than ever before. If I were a more traditionally religious man, I would say we are witnessing the hand of Providence at work. For within the span of just five months, an utterly unprecedented pile up of catastrophes and disasters and conflicts has come upon us, bringing things to a boiling point. Historian Thurston Clarke says, “It’s like an anti-hit parade, a convergence of the greatest catastrophes of the past 100 years or so, all hitting us at once.” 1918 had its flu pandemic that killed millions, and now it’s COVID-19. The 1930s saw the Great Depression, and experts are now telling us that the world economy is facing the most severe recession in a century. 1974 saw governmental disarray that preceded and followed Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, and now we have the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
All this has happened within the course of just five months!
It is therefore unsurprising that we are now seeing protests and riots that rival and perhaps even surpass those from 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated, together with Robert F. Kennedy.
The fire this time is being fed by everything. Jenna Wortham, writing for the New York Times Magazine, says, “The pandemic added its own accelerant to the mix. For roughly three months before Mr. Floyd’s death, Americans were living in a state of hypervigilance and anxiety, coping with feelings of uncertainty, fear and vulnerability — things many black Americans experience on a regular basis. […] Meanwhile, a clearer — and bleaker — picture of the country began to emerge. The privilege among some was in stark contrast to the lack of it among others. While some Americans fled cities to second homes, millions of others filed for unemployment and formed lines at food banks. […] At the same time, social distancing meant much of daily life — school, work, meetings, parties, weddings, birthday celebrations — was migrating to screens. It seems we’d just created newfound trust and intimacy with our phones and computers when the gruesome parade of deaths began a procession across them. Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and killed in Glynn County, Ga., on Feb. 23. Breonna Taylor was in bed when the police entered her apartment and sprayed her with bullets in Louisville, Ky., on March 13. […] By the time outrage and despair over Mr. Floyd’s death filled our feeds, the tinderbox was ready to explode.”
Jenna Wortham goes on to say, “Our social feeds have become like security camera grids, each with images of a dystopia: in a park in the nation’s capital, peaceful protesters dispersed with chemical irritants and smoke canisters, clearing a path for the president, who then posed for a photograph nearby. In Philadelphia, police officers pelting demonstrators trapped on the side of a highway with canisters of tear gas. In New York, two police vehicles accelerating into a crowd. In Atlanta, police officers breaking into a car and tasering two black college students. Every day, people with cameras have offered a raw and terrifying supplement to television and newspaper coverage.”
Again, if I was a more traditionally religious man, I would say that we are seeing the hand of Providence at work. God saying, just stop for once and take a good hard look at the harsh reality of what’s happening around you. Just look. Just see.
In her article, Jenna Wortham quotes the civil rights organizer who was the originator of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” Alicia Garza. Alicia Garza coined this phrase in 2013 in response to George Zimmerman being acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. “Seven years ago,” she says, “we were treated like we were too radical, too out of bounds of what is possible. And now, countless lives later, it’s finally seen as relevant.”
So relevant, that “Black Lives Matter” has been painted in giant yellow letters on the road to the White House. That’s the D.C. Mayor’s way of sending a message.
The fire this time has been possible because the distractions of pre-pandemic life have gone away. It really has been a time to just see.
Yet another thing we’ve been seeing is our President. Yes, I have to talk about this. And this is not about me declaring my political loyalties or telling you who you should vote for. I am a Unitarian Universalist first, and that’s fundamentally where my loyalties lay, and any political candidate and any political party that promotes policies running counter to my religious values is going to get on my bad side. Just know this, as I now go on to say that our President sows division and discord and it is disgusting. That tweet of his: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Disgusting. That photo-op of his, at St. John’s Church on the edge of Lafayette Square, and how the way there was cleared by tear-gassing peaceful protestors. Disgusting. His erasure of transgender civil rights protections in health care—accomplishing and announcing this in the middle of Pride Month and on the four-year anniversary of the massacre at Pulse in Orlando.
He is our President, but he will not lead us in mourning the 100,000+ folks who have died of COVID-19. He is our President, but he will not model healing and unity. One ex-President after another—Republican and Democrat—has stepped forward to say words of grief and healing, but not him.
Our President won’t do the right thing. And the fire I am feeling in this time tells me: he won’t do the right thing, so I must. I must do the right thing. You must do the right thing. We must do the things that the President ought to do but can’t, God help him.
We must be the ones.
All of us need all of us to make it.
The fire, this time. So, by now, since May 31, there have been two weeks of protests—people marching, kneeling, singing, crying, praying, lighting candles, chanting and shouting, voices muffled behind masks. Hundreds of thousands of people doing this, in more than 2,000 cities and towns all across America, and we are seeing more of the same protests against police violence and racism worldwide—in Paris, Berlin, Belfast, Amsterdam. People saying in countless tongues, “No Justice, No Peace.” “Black Lives Matter.” “We will not be silent.” “Enough is enough.”
This is being said, in countless tongues.
The protests are making a difference. Within two weeks of sustained protests, we have seen the following—and this list I’m about to go through is short, compared to how much I could report:
- Charges were upgraded against Officer Chauvin, and his accomplices were arrested and charged.
- Dallas adopted a “duty to intervene” rule that requires officers to stop other cops who are engaging in inappropriate use of force.
- New Jersey’s attorney general said the state will update its use-of-force guidelines for the first time in two decades.
- In Maryland, a bipartisan work group of state lawmakers announced a police reform work group.
- The Los Angeles City Council introduced a motion to reduce LAPD’s $1.8 billion operating budget.
- MBTA in Boston agreed to stop using public buses to transport police officers to protests.
- Police brutality captured on cameras led to near-immediate suspensions and firings of officers in several cities (like Buffalo and Ft. Lauderdale).
- Monuments celebrating confederates were removed in cities in Virginia, Alabama, and other states.
Less concrete, but equally important, are the difficult public and private conversations that have happened and are happening about race and privilege; the realizations white people are coming to about racism and the role of policing in this country. I mean, when police are acting like counter-protesters and I would even say rioters at the protests, doing violent things to incite more violence, rather than being the neutral peacekeepers they are supposed to be, that’s got to be something to talk about….
All the conversations, all the realizations, all the self-reflection. The protests are truly making a difference.
It’s doing with history what James Baldwin said: “To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” I know there’s been plenty of protests before. This is not the first time police violence and deadly bias against the Black community has been challenged. Before Black Lives Matter, there was Dr. King and the March on Washington. Before Black Lives Matter, there was Malcolm X. We often find life returning or cycling back to old issues. We think we have transcended them, but they reoccur, and it can be shocking. We can feel like failures. We can also feel afraid that we are stuck in a vicious circle and nothing can break us out of it.
But hold on. Old issues reoccur, yes, but the fact that we’ve traversed this territory before and made whatever mistakes we’ve made means this: that we are given an opportunity in this present new/old moment to do something different. To try something new. We are not condemned stay stuck in the same-old, same-old.
We are not condemned to repeat history if we are working hard to come to terms with it and we don’t give up in despair!
This justice journey we’re on right now isn’t so much a vicious endless circle but a spiral path forward to a better place, if we learn to use our history. If.
Let us hold that hope close, as the protests start to wind down and the hard work really begins.
Let us hold that hope close. Even though there’s a time coming when the protests end, let the love that is a fire stirring in our hearts stay resilient and strong.
Let the fire this time be for all time.
Let the fire this time be for all time.
Know that Unitarian Universalism is a faith of aliveness for all, and forces of systemic oppression must be ended for us to realize this essentially spiritual vision.
Unitarian Universalism wants everyone to personally experience the love that James Baldwin spoke of, that is like a purifying fire, that makes you take off your masks even though the mere thought of that is petrifying.
Unitarian Universalism must be a force of love that helps America to finally grow beyond its original sin of slavery and racial injustice. Our religion must make its unique contribution to that, or else be irrelevant.
Let the fire this time be for all time.
Just a couple days ago, Ohio Republican state senator Dr. Steven Huffman questioned whether Black people get COVID-19 more often because they do not wash their hands as much. This is true—this really happened. It is deeply, deeply offensive. The stereotype that “black people are dirty” has been used for centuries to support white superiority and black oppression. He said he’s sorry, but here’s the facts: This is a well-educated legislator, a Vice Chair of the Health Committee, and a practicing medical doctor. That someone like this would so nonchalantly brandish a patently racist stereotype is yet another illustration of how racism in Whites has an unconscious dimension, and you don’t have to be an avowed Ku Klux Klanner to need to do deep personal work to surface up unconscious biases and to become more aware of the microaggressions you may be committing unwittingly, and which make being Black in this country exhausting. It is exhausting to be Black in this country. James Baldwin puts it like this: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
So let the fire this time be for all time.
Mitch Landrieu is a former mayor of New Orleans, and I’m quoting him here, and what he says is what I want to say: “[H]ere’s the thing, America: We, particularly we white people, have to gain a greater appreciation for the centuries of oppression that have created the unrest we see today.
“And we will continue to see this level of unrest until we confront the roots of our division. We cannot continue to go over, under or around the issue of race. We have to go through it.
“So while we grieve, while we express our anger, while we listen to and honor black people who have told us time and again that the knee of America is pressed so hard against their necks that they cannot breathe, we must find the courage to face our past, commit ourselves to action that will right our wrongs and work together toward reconciliation.
“This requires new will. We must stand arm in arm to change who we are, so that we can become what we have always promised to be: equal, free and one.”
That’s Mitch Landrieu, and I say those words with him.
We cannot continue to go over, under or around the issue of race. We have to go through it.
So, what is the conversation about race you need to have right now, to serve Love?
What is the book about race you need to read right now, to serve Love?
What is the thing about race you need to do right now, to serve Love?
What is the thing about race you need to STOP doing right now, to serve Love?
Protests end, but Love never ends.
Let the fire this time be for all time.
All of us need all of us to make it.