First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Act Justly Walk Humbly

January 18, 2015
Rev. Sandra Fees

This morning we are continuing our series on this month’s theme of humility. We are considering what it means to live a life of humility. It’s also Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday. So I’m wondering this morning about the relationship between justice and humility. I have been considering what it means to act justly and walk humbly at the same time. It seems to me a little like patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time – possible, but a challenging act of coordination.

On the surface, humility looks meek and mild to me, not necessarily just. It’s something closer to what the Selfless in the book and movie Divergent look like. The novel Divergent is a dystopic tale, with the Selfless are one of several factions each named for a virtue. Those in the Selfless faction are committed to helping others. Grey is their color, and they dress conservatively in drab, loose clothing to avoid calling attention to themselves. They aren’t supposed to spend time in front of mirrors looking at themselves.

My family life growing up was simple. My mother’s side of the family was Brethren. She sometimes referred to them as plain folk. My grandmother and several of my aunts wore head coverings, the kind we see the Amish and Mennonites wearing. My maternal grandparents dressed in mostly black and very modest clothing. They didn’t even have a wedding photograph because of the biblical prohibition against graven images. Fortunately, I didn’t grow up with those restrictions. My mother and most of her sisters rejected the idea of a head covering as well as some of the other restrictions. Still, my parents encouraged simplicity and modesty in dress and demeanor.

There are some important lessons to be learned from the ideals of selflessness and modesty – especially amid our highly individualistic and self-oriented culture. But this can be taken too far. Selflessness can become subservience. Modesty can become silence. Some of these patterns can end up being abusive or simply reinforcing the status quo. This can be true for women, for children, for people of color, and for others. I think of all the times African Americans, women, gay people, and others have been asked to stand down or wait their turn or be adjusted to injustice.

Justice requires us to be maladjusted to violence and injustice. Justice looks big and bold. It’s in your face. Just think of it. When we Unitarian Universalists are out working for justice, we show up in bold yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts – not grey. We carry big signs with confident pronouncements, like “Not One More” when it comes to deportations. Or “Ban the Box” to give people with past convictions a fair chance at employment. Or “Black Lives Matter” to bring attention to systematic anti-black law enforcement. Justice seekers often chant loudly and tirelessly. Justice is demanded.

Justice, too, can be taken too far. It can turn to arrogance, self-righteousness, even fanaticism. Islamic extremism so much in the news right now is an example of what happens when justice is distorted and lacks humility and compassion.

So where and how do these two – justice and humility – meet? Unitarian Universalism finds a link in the prophetic voice of justice leaders of varying faith traditions. The second source of our UU religion is: “the words and deeds of prophetic men and women who challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Hebrew prophets are among them.

The Hebrew prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:1-8) Micah’s teachings are consistent with our Unitarian Universalist principles. Our principles call on us to treat others fairly, to practice compassion, and to respect each person’s worth and dignity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” Limited vision! That’s where humility comes in. To act justly and walk humbly means recognizing that we don’t know everything, being willing to be open to other people’s ideas, and listening to another person’s perspective.

The recognition that we only know part of the truth shouldn’t stop us from speaking our truth. We still need to get out there in our yellow t-shirts and give voice to our vision of justice. We still need to be maladjusted to injustice. But admitting our limited view makes space for others. And it makes space for dialogue. It makes space for us to build the beloved community in a way that includes everyone.

We already have some of the skills we need to do this work. We practice humility here in our community on a regular basis. We come together with vastly different ideas and beliefs. Some of us are naturalists or agnostics. Others are theists or mystics or pagans. Some of us regard the Bible as one of our most cherished sources and others look to Buddhist scripture or literature.

In our coming together as a religious community, we already acknowledge religious pluralism and strive to respect these differences. In fact, we go further than that. We encourage each other to follow our individual spiritual paths and to be open enough to learn from one another. This same level of understanding and openness – this same humility - can be brought to our justice work.

There are two ways humility has been showing up in my recent reflections on justice. The first has to do with being humble enough to trust that others can see things I can’t see.

My own reflections and soul-searching since the deaths – killings - of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown – have led me to understand something that seems very obvious. I’m a white woman and I’ve never going to have the experiences of an African American. I’m never going to be black.

I can understand some things by reflecting on my own experiences of prejudice. I’ve experienced prejudice in the areas of sexism and ageism. So this gives me a glimmer of insight. But I don’t really know what the black experience is like. Being able to say that is itself humbling.

When a police officer kills an unarmed African American, I know there’s something awry. Yet, while African Americans are protesting on the streets, I may still be trying to understand the facts. It isn’t that I don’t see the problem, but I want to know more – I want to be more certain before I speak out. What I’ve come to ask myself is this: am I willing to believe there was racism at work whether I am yet certain I can see it?

Can I accept that as a truth? Can I speak out knowing I have a limited vision? Can I trust something I don’t fully understand and trust that someone else sees what I can’t fully see? Being able to accept other peoples’ truths, that is humility – and contains the seeds of justice.

There’s a second way openness and understanding are playing out for me. It’s in the struggle for dialogue rather than argument. Sometimes when I get to the point where I feel strongly about my truth, I grow tired of the conversation and impatient with people who I think just don’t get it or who don’t agree with me.

It has surprised me that when the words “Black Lives Matter” started to appear that some people objected to that language. Some responded with the line: “All Lives Matter.” I thought, okay, yes, that’s true. It is our first principle, after all. We affirm the worth and dignity of every person and strive for healing and unity for everyone.

But I found and still find myself really wanting to defend the words, “Black Lives Matter.” I’m still defending them a little right now. Because when people change the conversation to say “All Lives Matter,” it frustrates me. It isn’t that I don’t agree that all lives matter. It just seems to miss the point, which is the effects of systemic anti-black law enforcement.

I’ve been wondering about what’s most important here. Is the important thing that one of these wins out over the other? Or is the important thing that we have the conversation and hear each other? The conversation, not the slogan, has the potential to draw people closer together and to transform hearts and minds.

To respect and listen deeply to one another is to act justly and walk humbly. Exposing our beliefs and opinions has the power to bring greater healing amid our brokenness and alienation. This listening isn’t easy. It will certainly disturb us, make us impatient with each other, possibly angry. But it can also make us wiser and stronger and more just. Maybe we’ll be able to say: Black lives matter AND All lives matter.

Margaret Wheatley writes:

What if we were to be together and listen to each other's comments with a willingness to expose rather than to confirm our own beliefs and opinions? What if we were to willingly listen to one another with the awareness that we each see the world in unique ways? And with the expectation that I could learn something new if I listen for the differences rather than the similarities?

We have this opportunity many times in a day, every day. What might we see, what might we learn, what might we create together, if we become this kind of listener, one who enjoys the differences and welcomes in disturbance?

It’s hard to welcome in the disturbance. It’s hard to trust this wisdom. It requires a lot of us. Welcoming difference requires that we do justice, and love goodness, and walk humbly. This is a difficult ethical path.

And this is exactly the path that can ultimately lead to the beloved community that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of so eloquently. To build the beloved community, we need to overcome racism and oppression – and overcome our own egos. To build the beloved community, we need to overcome our own barriers to love and our own defenses that keep us from deepening our engagement with one another.

What is required of us? To respect those who we don’t agree with, to admit we aren’t the center of the universe, to acknowledge we don’t know everything, and that there’s something greater than we are – whether that something is God or community or the universe or an ideal. This is the intersection of justice and humility. This is the practice of building the beloved community.

May we learn to act justly and walk humbly in our efforts to build the beloved community. May we learn to listen to the wisdom in each of us. May we walk hand in hand “toward the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.” May we walk in love.

Amen. Blessed be.