Until All Shall Be Free
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 20, 2016
Rosa Parks did not stay in her seat because her feet were tired. She refused to move to the back of the bus for the express purpose of launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There is a version of the story that claims she was just tired after a long day at work. A few decades back that was the official story taught in schools. She was tired. Even though Rosa Parks had insisted early on that she was not physically tired so much as tired of giving in, the story I learned in school is that she was tired.
Here is why this is important: it’s the question of why she did it. Why did she refuse to surrender her seat on December 1st 1955 to a white passenger? Was it because her back was hurting after a long day’s work? Or was it because Rosa Parks was part of a movement to make a change in our country and our culture? If an entire generation is taught that she was just tired, they can believe that a single courageous person acting independently can make a difference. And they never learn about the deep need to be connected to strategic communities holding a vision of the Beloved Community.
Rosa Parks had been to the Highlander Folk School for activism training the summer of ’55. Emmett Till’s murder had incensed the people that same summer. She had attended a civil rights mass meeting the weekend before refusing to surrender her seat on the bus. Parks had been secretary of the NAACP for 12 years when the famous incident took place.
It was not for her tired back that she acted. It was for the movement, it was for all her people in Montgomery. And in the end, it was for the whole nation. It was not for herself.
Liberation is not a personal journey – it is for the whole community. This is not to say that personal liberation doesn’t exist or has no value. Instead what I am lifting up is how we can sometimes get lost thinking about personal liberation when the greater goal is liberation for the whole community. My personal liberation is where it begins in me, and that is how it spreads – from individual to individual. But the full story is about the whole community.
It would be as if we told the Exodus story as a tale of one man’s heroic attempts to find personal liberation by fleeing across the Red Sea from Pharaoh’s army. But the Liberation story in Exodus is not about Moses’ personal journey toward freedom; it is about the whole Jewish people making that journey. Moses certainly found personal liberation through his actions. At the beginning of the journey he has a lot of problems to work through, and one part of the Exodus story is the liberation of Moses, the great leader, so that the people could then find liberation. But we don’t ever cast it as only a story of Moses finding his way to freedom.
[A person] was standing at a street corner one day, laughing like a man out of his mind.
“What are you laughing about?” a passerby asked.
“Do you see that stone in the middle of the street? Since I got here this morning, ten people have stumbled on it and cursed it. But not one of them took the trouble to remove it so others wouldn’t stumble.”
(from Taking Flight, p161)
Personal liberation is about me never tripping on that stone in the middle of my path again. One step toward full liberation is to remove the stone that I and others are in danger of tripping over. A greater step is to look at why the stone was there in the first place, who put it there, why, and how we can build a world where nobody wants to put stones in the path of other people.
And sure as you’re born there are stones that are in our paths because that is the nature of stones and of paths, and there are stones in our paths because other people put them there to maintain a status quo to their benefit. And here I am not using the metaphor of these stones simply as hurdles and difficulties we all have to deal with because that’s life; I mean it as oppression and systemic, targeted injustices that occur.
My colleague Susan Frederick-Gray, echoing the sentiments of Gandhi and King and Mother Teresa, says, “True freedom is knowing that we cannot be free when others are oppressed.” (Quest, CLFuua.org, April 2016, “The Power and Poverty of Freedom”) We shall keep at it until all shall be free, not just some people and not just my people, but all people. That is the point that marks us as Unitarian Universalists, as people of conscience, as civilized in our contemporary context.
Lila Watson, a Gangulu-Australian artist and activist, frames the point with graceful clarity. She says: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” It is not enough to secure your own freedom and liberation. It is not even enough to only secure the liberation of people like yourself, people who share in your identity and feel the same oppression you feel. Systemic oppression and thus systemic liberation, is the whole deal. And more importantly, the deep work of being an ally is not in helping others, it is in partnering with others for mutual progress.
This brings us to the difficult aspect of what to do with ‘them’ in the ‘us-vs-them’ mentality created by oppression. The answer is to erase the distinction, of course; to be the ally from either direction of the oppression equation.
Nelson Mandela, in his book Long Walk to Freedom wrote:
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people…the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.
To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chain’s, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. That is the true test of our devotion to freedom.
— from Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom
For Rosa Parks, the question of the Bus Driver’s liberation was surly not at the top of her attention. But that is part of the point of liberation in the longer arc of history. Moses was not concerned with how the Egyptians were going to be liberated from their oppressive ways, yet in the long run that is a key piece to the full accomplishment of liberation and freedom.
The top story yesterday in the Cornell Daily Sun was about white supremacists on campus. Serving Cornell University and Ithaca, NY, the newspaper was founded in 1880 and is “the oldest continuously independent college daily in the United States.” The feature article from yesterday is about an anonymous group of white students who plan to issue demands and host a march for white equality. They consider themselves a civil rights group. In an open letter to the public, the anonymous group states they are “a community of white students who wish to preserve and advance their race.”
Their demands are essentially to counter the demands of the Black Students United group. They want to not change the name of the Cornell Plantation, they want to not have more diversity course requirements, they want to not have more people of color hired as therapists for the student body, and they would like the Black Students United group to be disbanded. So, in essence, these white students just want these black students to stop.
The last line in the article is a quote from one of these anonymous white students: “White people are fed up with being treated like a minority.” Let that quote sink in for a minute. White people are fed up with being treated … like … a minority.
Now, it is possible that the white student group is a facebook hoax intended to rile up liberal schools. There have been similar hoaxes perpetrated at other major colleges over the past year. “Trolls” is the term used on the internet for people who go phishing for trouble like this. But even if this is not ‘actual students’ raising what they think are legitimate concerns – there is enough of a ring of truth and plausibility to make people fall for the hoax.
These anonymous white students (or, more likely, these racist internet trolls) are much like the vocal white people at recent political rallies; they cast themselves as the new victims. They present a story in which white people are the new oppressed people. And all of this looks to me like the rubber band snapping back.
Part of change dynamics theory is the principle of the rubber band. Lynn Garman used to talk with me about this. She would say with any progress against the status quo there was always the rubber band effect. The rubber band can stretch but the tendency is for everything to snap back into the way it used to be. I contend that every stretch does actually loosen the rubber band. But her point is to watch for the snap-back reaction in a system.
There are two major recurring news stories over this past year or so that are related to race. Other than the big picture of eight years with an African American president of the United States, we have these two major trends. One: the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of unarmed black men by police which has highlighted the continued existence of racism that necessitates anti-racist activism. And two: the current political antics of some presidential candidates which demonstrate that racist, bigoted, and xenophobic words and deeds are acceptable to share in open and public situations. This is not to say these bigoted ideas are suddenly appearing, only that the people at the political rallies are suddenly feeling authorized to speak and behave in bigoted and violent ways publicly. This is the snap-back of any progress our country has made on the issue of racism and prejudice over recent years.
So it is important to not be too discouraged by the news. And it is a reminder to me that liberation is not simply being free from oppression or injustice. Liberation is also being free for something. It is about being free for the bigger vision. It is important to continue to see the bigger vision.
Victor Frankl, in his phenomenal book Man’s Search for Meaning, writes,
Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibility. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibilities.
Freedom and responsibility belong to each other. We frame our keystone principle with that concept, calling for the ‘free and responsible search for truth and meaning.’ Freedom of speech is tempered by the responsibility not to speak violence. For freedom without responsibility ‘is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness.’ My freedom can never be contingent on taking freedom from another.
A prophetic glance at the cultural landscape reveals an alarming re-entrenchment of old racist and oppressive behaviors. And it is not just racism; misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and xenophobia are also growing. We shall not sit by idle as these stones are heaped into our paths.
In our reading this morning (History’s Road by C. Grubbs & M Bowens-Wheatley) the question is posed: “Who are the prophets who inspire you?” The reading mentions Isaiah, Tubman, Gandhi, and Seattle as inspirational prophets who cast a vision of “the way of justice lived according to the way of peace, the Beloved Community.” Who are the prophets who inspire you?
Rosa Parks inspires me to act for justice, but also to act while connected to strategic communities holding a vision of the Beloved Community. Nelson Mandela inspires me to refuse the division between oppressors and oppressed; know the difference, but don’t let it dictate your whole vision.
The Beloved Community is a vision for all people. It will not be realized until all shall be free. We will need to find a way to even liberate the mean people, bigots, and fools itching to commit violence. The Beloved Community is a long vision, I do not believe we will see it in our lifetimes, but it is still our work to bring the human venture one step closer, to stretch the rubber band again, to remove the stones from our paths, to proclaim boldly that bigotry and violence will not be ignored, to bend the moral arc of the universe that little bit more toward justice until all shall be free.
In a world without end
May it be so.