(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved
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Writing in the New York Times this past Tuesday, David Brooks – who is called a liberal’s favorite conservative – wrote about the difficulties of being a secularist, atheist or humanist in today’s world. As the ranks of the non-religious grow, from today’s historically high levels of twenty per cent of adults and a third of those under thirty, Brooks asserts that secularists will need to find a positive expression of their beliefs. If secularism is to thrive, it needs to offer the world a moral code that motivates people to act in ways that positively impacts the culture, he writes. Since secularists don’t call on centuries of religious theology or Scripture, since they do not rely on hope for an otherworldly eternity to motivate them, they must develop cohesive communities of like minded people. They must also, Brooks suggests, put forward a consistent moral code that is inspirational enough to rally people to serve causes greater than themselves.
I read this column just as I was sitting down to prepare today’s message. Brooks offers a reasonable point – one that might speak to us. It is not enough for any person or any group to simply be against something. In politics, spirituality, morality and life itself, the best way to create change is not to be critical, but instead positive. Secularists and humanists must not as much be against religion as they should favor a logical and loving alternative that truly inspires people – something which Northern Hills and the Gathering already offer and which must continue.
Over the past five years during February, I have looked at three Oscar nominated movies to find spiritual inspiration. I’m doing the same this year. Last week I looked at the film Imitation Game. Today, I examine the film Selma. While that movie focuses on a pivotal period during the Civil Rights fight of the 1960’s and how Martin Luther King, Jr. strategically steered passage of the Voting Rights Act, the movie implicitly offers a message that is subtly complimentary to one regarding equal rights.
In its one word title, there is no reference to Dr. King, his greatness or to any of the leaders who strategized with him. Selma is a place that represents the struggle for equal rights – much like Birmingham, Watts, Ferguson, Seneca Falls or Stonewall also do. But more than just being a place, Selma represents a community of people inspired not by God or visions of heaven, but the very worldly, here and now concerns of justice and dignity. Selma can be for us much of what David Brooks writes – a symbol of the positive purposes a diverse but united community of people can offer the world.
The movie is really a collection of how everyday people came together to bring about change. In it, we watch as Annie Lee Cooper tries to register to vote – but runs up against the wall of Southern systemic barriers to that basic right. We watch in shock as Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young black deacon in a Marian, Alabama church, is shot to death by a white policeman when he tried to protect his mother from being beaten by white police during a protest. We see the horror of four young black girls blown up and killed by the local Klan in their Birmingham church – which was used as a meeting place by black protesters. We learn of the efforts by John Lewis, a Congressman today from Georgia, who led the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Selma. We learn of the local group who had worked to end segregation, register blacks to vote and confront local racist politicians – years before Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Selma. We watch the many whites who joined the Civil Rights protests – ones like Unitarian ministers Clark Olsen and Olof Miller who were savagely beaten for participating in the Selma march, or Detroit housewife and mother of five children, Viola Liuzzo, who joined the Selma march and was shot in the head and killed by four Klansmen. We see the hundreds of black protesters, young, old, women and men, who are run down by police on horses, beaten and bloodied during the Selma to Montgomery march.
What we see in the film is a community bound together in action despite their different backgrounds and beliefs. We see people stirred and motivated to act in a positive and non-violent manner. We see their leaders, including Dr. King, give direction and eloquence to these everyday people – but Dr. King and other leaders did not and could not carry the Civil Rights protest on their own. Leaders cannot lead unless there are people who are with them, people who are willing to act.
Selma is a movie that ultimately honors a large and diverse group of people – it honors a grassroots social movement, one founded on centuries of oppression felt by everyday people. We look back on the 1960’s and see the monumental force of Dr. King, but the movie Selma underscores the fact that history is not made by single individuals. History is a fabric of stories woven together by the deeds and lives of countless everyday people. It is these people, usually nameless and unknown, who comprise historical movements – be it the American Revolution, the fight against slavery, or the Civil Rights efforts. It is from the ranks of such broad social movements that individual men and women rise up to be leaders and give inspiration to the multitudes. Instead of great men and women making history, the reverse is true. Historical forces that comprise diverse groups of people help make certain men and women great.
And that is the case with Martin Luther King, Jr.. He was the inspiring leader, the brilliant strategist, the voice in the wilderness who beckoned a generation to peacefully correct the wrongs of the past – but he was only one man. Diverse groups of common people, comprised of Annie Lee Coopers, Jimmie Lee Jacksons, Viola Liuzzos, Clark Olsens and thousands like them – they are the often forgotten ones, the heroes and martyrs of history, of whom the movie Selma celebrates.
In this fiftieth anniversary of the Selma marches, we are rightfully asked to heed what the movie honors. And, yes, we are also asked to ponder why the events fifty years ago echo the events of just a few months ago – of peaceful black protesters marching against oppression but facing white police aggression. The protests of Selma and Ferguson are sadly linked across half a century. One event asks us to remember and honor. The other calls us to speak out and act.
But for us as members of Northern Hills or the Gathering, the message of the film also extends beyond our call to help reconcile racial wounds. In many ways, we are like the people of Selma. There are issues in our churches and our communities that need to be addressed. How we come together, how we, with all of our different backgrounds and traditions, work together to address the challenges of our time will say much about who we are.
The last time I spoke here I asked us as individuals and as congregations to cooperate in acquiring what I call purpose driven wealth. That kind of wealth is not comprised of money or things, but of meaning, self-actualization and purpose. We earn this wealth by acting according to our purpose for living – to be positive agents of change in our families, churches and communities. I suggested three goals for our two congregations. First, to increase and improve our congregation care teams – to organize people who are trained and skilled in offering listening ears and empathy to fellow members who are hurting. Second, I suggested both congregations cooperate and serve together in hands on outreach efforts for the poor, marginalized, hungry and homeless. Third, I suggested we plan, implement and support ways to build racial justice and reconciliation through our Sunday services, our verbal witness and our hands on work.
I reiterate these suggestions. I don’t want to forget them. Interested persons for each of these goals, in both congregations, can contact me or other leaders and initiate plans to meet, discuss and implement positive goals for our futures. Beyond these specific goals is a much larger one – one that we might learn from the movie Selma. Our primary cause is to make a difference in the lives of ourselves, our children, our friends, and in our world. We exist as people and as churches to serve others at least as much as we serve ourselves. We offer a spirituality that is unique in its radical embrace of any and all people, to love them, to serve them, to be a force of free thinking and human compassion. But to do this we must come together – moving beyond differences to unite in ways that will better fulfill our purpose. We do so not for a god, not for a hoped for eternity in some abstract heavenly abode, but to instead help build a heaven on earth, right here, right now – an earthly paradise of peace, equality, decency and equal opportunity.
This worldly heaven, one that Dr. King spoke to and envisioned, requires we heed the example of everyday people celebrated in the film Selma. As diverse people, the Civil Rights marchers came from different backgrounds and traditions. But they found a way to unite. One of the beautiful images of the film Selma is a scene where thousands of people link arms to peacefully confront forces of intolerance blocking their way. Men, women, black, white, brown, ministers, rabbis, children, senior citizens, liberals, conservatives, northerners, southerners – all in one body – uniting to address the compelling cause of their time.
Like them, we too must come together and link arms for the compelling cause of our time. We must cooperate. We must support one another in humility and kindness. We must sacrifice. We must serve – each in our own way. Leaders and ministers do not make a church, just as Martin Luther King did not constitute the Civil Rights movement. Everyday people did – and everyday people, acting in common, are the heroes of history and of our two churches.
The causes for our time at the Gathering and Northern Hills may seem small but they are important for our witness as people who defy division and seek spiritual unity that embraces universal ideals. To that end, our two congregations have been given a special opportunity – to meet as different but like minded people, to get to know one another, to discuss ways to cooperate, to dream of a combined body that will be greater, stronger and more purpose driven than either congregation left alone. This opportunity we have, much like that which history gave to the people of Selma, is to move beyond our individual or congregation desires. I did not join the Gathering just because I liked the Gathering. I joined because it was a place I could live out my purpose in life to serve others. That goal is much bigger than me or my personal beliefs.
I’ve heard about a few differences that might separate our congregations – mostly involving a few Sunday service practices. No two sets of people with proud histories and traditions will ever be the same. Indeed, our differences represent not stumbling blocks but, instead, wonderful diversity. The people depicted in the movie Selma prove that point. Some were activists who worked to change laws. Some were advocates of confrontation. Others were persons who saw the symbolic power of non-violence, attacked by forces of hate, as a way to build empathy in hearts and minds. These groups differed in strategy and tactics. But they found a way to unite according to their higher purpose – that all people have the right to be heard, respected and represented.
And those are ideals we also share. We are not Northern Hills members. We are not Gathering members. We are not motivated by small differences. We are members of a universal community of idealists, servants and activists, like the protest marchers of Selma, who envision a better world. Yes, we each have our own unique histories. Yes, we have our unique Sunday service practices that are meaningful and good. Crucially, however, we share the important motivation to promote an alternative spirituality of reason and logic, focused through a prism of service and love.
As the Selma protest marchers neared the end of their fifty mile journey to the Alabama capital of Montgomery, under the malevolent gaze of the Ku Klux Klan, racist police officers, and Governor George Wallace – forces that would divide instead of unite, the marchers sang in unison: “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on!”
Those marchers knew too well that far too many change movements in history have fizzled out because their members lost sight of the prize – they focused on negativity, fear, uncertainty and differences instead of positive solutions. And the ultimate prize for which they labored fell from their grasp.
My friends, we cannot allow the same to happen to us. The prize we seek is not the glory of our individual congregations. It is not for our own comfort. It is for the glory of our common cause. We must harness that opportunity to build upon our cause, we must heed the calling of our shared beliefs, we must listen to our collective hearts that beat to a unifying and thoughtful spirituality. I see us as one people who value the traditions of the past, but who also respect and compromise with the traditions of others, all in order to keep our eyes on the prize. That prize, that glory, will not be a bigger church – with more members and more money. It will instead be the greater realization of our purpose as people and congregations. We must march boldly forward united in our vision of being positive spiritual change agents. Together, we too can be Selma.
I wish you all much peace and joy.
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