The Silence of Injustice
Our reading today is titled, “The Spine” by Joseph G. Anthony
The masseuse can’t really find
the pressure point.
He runs his fingers up and down the spine
of Appalachia, but it’s all stressed.
Bony ribs and shoulders blades are grimy dark;
coal black though the man’s not black.
Just been underground a long, long time.
He tries lye soap to get him clean,
but it just peels the skin and leaves the stain unmarked.
Decades away from sun.
Some dirt is never done.
He scrubs away till finally pink blood seeps
through seams of gray.
He presses down, down, down,
on the poor white man whose backbone’s bent
beneath the weight of all that hate.
The man yells out in pain.
Oh, Jesus, sweet
Jesus, won’t nothing straighten
In the late 1990s, a south side Chicago kid by the name of Christian Picciolini opened a record shop in the suburbs. The store offered the music you would expect — blues, rap, rock, heavy metal, folk, jazz, and so on and so forth. The combined sales of all this music only equaled 25 percent of his sales each year.
The other 75 percent was due to one of the largest collections of white power music in, not just the Midwest, but the country. By the time Mr. Picciolini opened his record store, he was already immersed in the world of the first and largest neo-Nazi skinhead gang in the Blue Island suburb of Chicago.
He was fourteen years old when he handed his life over to fear, hatred, and violence. Combined with his successful record store and his early involvement in the rebirth of this movement, there was a ruthlessness, a hatred that filled his eyes and passed through his lungs, that makes him a well-respected leader in the white power movement in our country.
From all across our nation people would visit his record shop, and this was in the pre-internet days, so it became a racist pilgrimage of sorts. However, Mr. Picciolini made one crucial mistake. He offered music that did not just appeal to his fellow neo-Nazis, he offered music that appealed to south siders, of whom many are black, as well.
He figured, who cares, their money is money. And he continued to sell to them. And then he began to get repeat customers. And repeat customers meant he started to talk to them. And from talking he learned about them, he developed a relationship of sorts with many of them, he started to become friends with them.
The backbone that supported his racism began to straighten out and he saw the people before him — with different and beautiful skin tones, and with the same wants and desires of any south sider. Not long into his days as a white power record salesman, he pulled the racist music from the shelves, knowing that he was pulling 75 percent of his revenue as well.
He reflected, “How could I sell this music in the presence of people I had gotten to know?” And that’s an important thing to lift up. How could he sell viciously racist music in the presence of people he had developed a relationship with? Remember that — because ignorance and hatred are inherently weak, they buckle under the simplest of human connections.
Not long after, he closed up shop, but from there, the gates to his heart were flung wide open. Christian Picciolini, the well-respected neo-Nazi, had an awakening that allowed him to dedicate himself to the cause of equality and love — all from selling blues and rock ’n roll.
He went on to co-found “Life After Hate,” an organization committed to education, diversity, and helping guide people caught up in the destructive world of white power to a renewed, more generous, and compassionate worldview.
Intrinsic in the work of this organization is also equipping former extreme racists with the tools to not only forgive themselves for the evil they’ve participated in — because we all need a little compassion for ourselves, but to also for them to learn to be forgiven by those they’ve harmed — in all of the raw pain and anger that minority populations deserve to feel in the face of white extremism.
The work of this organization has been transformational for people caught up in or born into these dangerous ideologies. And it all started with selling music to people in his neighborhood and talking to them instead of demonizing them. He was being a good capitalist, and his capitalism cost him, blessedly, his attachment to hatred.
Nowadays, Christian Picciolini is able to level with people trapped in the world of racism, to share his story, to dig deep into that fear and isolation that fueled his former life and use it to create a more loving and just world.
“Hate springs from ignorance,” he tells us, “ignorance turns into fear, fear turns into hatred, hatred often manifests as violence, and unless we work hard to understand each other we cannot get to a place where we have racial justice. Because there will always be one group that thinks they are superior to another.”
Words to live by and words we need to hear on this Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. day. Words we need to hear when we cannot escape imaginary and forced division between white and black, Christian and Muslim. The example of Christian Picciolini in turning away from his neo-Nazi past is not there to lift him up as a white savior.
It is not there to say that all racism is of such an extreme variety as his was, but it tells us that breaking the silence, of reaching out to those we fear or those we do not know can be transformative — it is there to show us that the simplicity of being open to human relationship can dismantle the most vicious of hatreds.
But here is the heart of oppression and injustice. Here is the bloody, beating, exposed heart — it is fragile like any other, and holding it all together is silence. Silence in the face of being oppressed, silence in the face of witnessing oppression, silence in the hope that it will all just go away, silence in the prayer that our aspirations are good enough, silence because we think this has all been done before — that people like Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X did the work for us.
To all of those silences, they are more dangerous than any superstition that visits our lives. How are you silent in your life when you are faced with injustice? How is your community silent?
Ask yourself those questions. Because herein lay the power of injustice — it pushes us into realms of personal and communal silence. It is swift but quiet in its nefariousness. It forces us to fear our own convictions or to fear the unknown for reasons that defy reason itself.
I trust that none of us in this room are struggling with a neo-Nazi identity, if you are we need to talk, but perhaps we struggle with the families we come from, the messages we heard or are still hearing, perhaps we struggle with the fear that is boiling over every single day in our politics, how could we not struggle with the broadcasts that are fed to us freely by the world around us?
I freely admit, I have remained silent when my heart told me I was in the presence of injustice, in the presence of racism, in the presence of homophobia, gender bias, xenophobia, non-compassionate conservatism, the list goes on. Never let it be said that you hired a perfect minister.
This is just how a culture of fear and hatred gets under our skin — it makes us doubt our convictions and identities. It makes us fear how we look, how we feel, how we will be treated by those we speak out against. Let me tell you, honoring your dignity was never an option for those that will ridicule you or try to silence you.
But, the way to honor their dignity is to say you will not let them be their worst selves. We must call those who would oppress others back to their best selves — and as we heard last week, one of the messages of this faith tradition is that we call people back, including ourselves, again and again. We do not stop. We cannot stop.
If we can get to a place where we reach for a world where we can wholeheartedly believe in the transforming power of love for all people, at all times, now and forever — and our world is in need of some good lovin’ — our religious lives will be lives of service to the cause of justice, however we are able to contribute.
We need to be realistic with our justice work, and yes, bills must be paid, jobs must be worked, families must go on through loss or great joy, life must be lived. But if some south side kid can change his life because he shared music with those he demonized, what can we do, for ourselves and others?
I have to share with all of you the same fear I shared back in December. The climate around us, the rhetoric that has gained ground — we all know who I speak of — and I’m afraid we have a long election season before us, so I must name him and his oppressive ideologies in the way that I, as a minister, am allowed — again and again — but it’s more than that.
There is a climate around race, ethnicity, religion, and nationalism that is rocking what I believe. I’m not calling any of you out for age, but for those of you that remember Segregation or the Red Scare, I wonder, is this how it once was when it slowly began then? Because I do fear where this might be taking us. And I pray, yes, this good ol’ Humanist prays, that my fears are unfounded.
But that unease I feel just under my skin, I will not, cannot let it fester. I must harness that fear for the cause of dignity and wholeness — especially for those that would use it to silence me. But I cannot do this alone, I cannot do this with my limited memory and identity as a 30-something, a clergyman, an LGBT person, an American. I need the memories of those of you here and the memory of the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light.
So begins the favorite hymn of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., written by Thomas Dorsey, the father of Gospel music, after his wife and child both died during childbirth. This favorite hymn has become a sweetly quiet gesture of longing for pain to be healed, grief to be held, and freedom to be seen.
And we sang it in honor of a man whose legacy we highlight today and for so many Sundays past and, we hope, many Sundays to come. If ever there was a song for the oppressed, here we find it in words that are clear in their hopes, clear in their crying out, precious lord take my hand.
Here in this song of the heart we hear that the dream of Martin Luther King Jr still needs us to follow, still needs us to hear the call of freedom and justice, still needs us to be with the oppressed, still needs us to take a risk and journey head on into the fray, lead me on, let me stand.
But we know that while we will feel worn and weary in our work as a people of the faith, the oppressed feel it a hundredfold. They wonder not who will save them, but who will be shoulder to shoulder with them no matter what. Who will take the risk? Who will continue on when our brothers and sisters need to rest from their tribulations? I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
And before we can even hope to see that beloved community, see the wholeness of our world, see heaven on earth, there will be the longest of nights, there will be more tears, there will be times when it is hard to forgive ourselves and others, there will be a longing for us to be on the other side of the fight for justice, through the storm, through the night.
But see, there are cracks of light showing in the clouds hanging over all people. The dream of Dr. King was not a dream that could happen overnight, and though he was taken from the world far too soon, his dream must still be pursued.
Because his dream is a dream of not just the American South, but the dream of Boston to San Francisco, the dream of white and black, the dream of young and old, the dream of Christian and Muslim. A dream that reaches out through the clouds and calls to us not for silence but for a resounding Amen and Alleluia in the name of justice and dignity. Oh, lead me on to the light!
But our black brothers and sisters who are oppressed cannot journey alone, they cannot be the only voices to condemn a system of racism of which we are a part, they cannot be the only ones crying out to a culture that has left them behind, they cannot be left to a system that will not indict, that will not seek justice, that will not say the racial divide must be dismantled — they cannot —
Because the dream is alive and it needs to be kept alive and it needs every single one of us. Will you stay silent? Will you smile at awkward family dinners when that one uncle goes off on “those people,” will you bite your tongue at the friend who flings around the casual but disgusting racial jokes, will you instead of being a citizen of Democracy, ignore the poison of politicians and pundits that demonize whole sections of our population, will you not share music with all people? Precious lord, take my hand.
Note: The choir began singing “Precious Lord” here.
The dream of Martin Luther King Jr is alive, it still echoes from coast to coast, it still transforms lives, it still breathes life into those who seek justice, it is with us, it is with you. And so we will march. We will march shoulder to shoulder with those who cry out for justice, those who wish to see more of the dream become a reality.
We will march from Heritage Hall not because it is our heritage to march but because there is something worth marching for. There with us tomorrow morning will not just be Unitarian Universalists, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, whites and blacks —
There on the front lines will be the memories of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Martin Luther King Jr., so many names not known to us, so many names they cannot be listed, so many memories of people taken unceremoniously by racism. Will you join in marching with the memory of these people? Will you join in marching for the dream? Will you break the silence?