A Long Time Ago in a Galilee Far, Far Away

A Christmas Eve Homily by Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 24, 2015


Apparently, the force has awakened. I’m not clear on how or when it ever went to sleep, but at some point over the past 30-some-odd-years I guess it fell into some kind of slumber. I have not seen the new Star Wars movie yet, Episode Seven, but I have heard good things about it, and heard reports that after the mess of the three prequel movies a decade ago, the new director, J.J. Abrams, has breathed new life into the franchise and has given Star Wars back to its fans.

I was 11 when the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, though that first movie is now called “Episode IV.” As it was for many people at the time, the movie blew me away. Some months prior, I remember going to a movie with my brother, but I don’t even remember anymore what the movie was. I only remember the preview about a dazzling outer space movie with rocket ships and a princess and a guy who swung across a chasm on a rope attached to his belt and lots of laser beams and a title my brother and I only remembered as “Space Wars.”

And now, 38 years later, it’s Christmas and the story continues, and we see it and hear it in more and more depth each time a new cycle comes around. I’m pretty sure most of you have seen it, or read about it, and I’m pretty sure you know how it begins: “A long time ago, in a Galilee far, far away…

What? You thought I was talking about Star Wars? Or Jesus? Or America?  It’s quite stunning actually, how similar all three stories are to each other – of the Roman Empire, the Galactic Empire and the American Empire. It’s an epic story, one of the most well-known stories in the world, a story of an evil empire extending its grasp into the furthest hinterlands of ice and desert, subjugating entire races of people in order to pay for the luxuries of the home base and the government and the war machine it spawns to maintain control at all costs. And when the empire grows too big the leadership begins to rot from within, at the same time desperately expending any means of suppression toward rebels who take action to restore dignity and freedom and compassion among their people.

Ten years before Star Wars came out, on Christmas Eve 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a sermon in which he said, ““This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without….Our world is sick with war… [but] We will never have peace in the world until [people] everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means… [Peace is not] a distant goal we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

Dr. King went on to talk about three words for “love” in the Greek Christian Scriptures, the third of which is agape.  He said, “Agape is more than romantic love, more than friendship…[it] is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all…When you rise to love on this level, you love all [people] not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loves them. This is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Love your enemies.’ I’m happy that he didn’t say, ‘Like your enemies,’ because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices.…But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all… And I think this is where we are, as a people, in our struggle for racial justice. We can’t ever give up. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship. We must never let up in our determination to remove every vestige of segregation and discrimination from our nation, but we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege to love.”

It is a hard season in our world today, and it is almost disheartening to hear those words and know they are as true today in 2015 as when Dr. King spoke them on Christmas 1967.  But I find vision and meaning and strength and sustenance in the story of the birth of child who brings challenge to Empire.  The message of Christmas is not a nice, heartwarming message wrapped in a pious dream of utopian good will. It is a powerful story of transformation, of using active nonviolence to substitute tyranny with justice, and rampant brutality with renewable love.  The Christmas message is a message that confronts the systems of  persecution with parables of compassion, a message that all lives will truly matter only when the lives of those who are marginalized are valued and listened to as much as the lives of those who are in the center.

This story we hear every year of the birth of Jesus, a story that takes place a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away, this story we hear of a child of marginalized people in a marginalized faith in a marginalized nation, rising to speak up and speak out against the governmental and religious systems of domination that brutalize freedoms and make a mockery of compassion, is a story that really is not so long ago, and not so far away.

Part of the reason this story about the birth of Jesus remains so powerful is exactly because it is not so far away.  The greatest of mythologies are not powerful or meaningful because they can be placed as factually occurring in history, but because they true to our experience and to our hearts. The story of finding inspiration in the most ordinary, marginalized, and unlikely places, of inspiration that overcomes our cynical, hardened hearts with hearts broken open, is perhaps the most profound of miracles. In this Christmas story, the miracle of Jesus is not how he got here, the miracle in this harsh and cynical world is in the example of Jesus, who taught ways we may keep our hearts open to love, over and over again.

The Christmas story of Jesus reminds us each year of the power and potential one child has – either our own, or an Israeli child or a Syrian child or a black child, or Chinese, Indian, Russian or Somali.  Because of the end of cynicism that each new baby brings, the Christmas story reminds us that each night a child is born is a holy night, a time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshiping.

May you go forward from this place and throughout the year, feeling glory in compassion and love, and the sight of new life beginning. And…

May the force be with you.


Yes, St. Nicholas, there are Unitarians

A Letter Sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 13, 2015

FIRST READING: On Arius of Alexandria
Compiled by Kent Saleska from writings by Gail Forsyth-Vail, Wikipedia, and other relevant websites
In the early 4th Century, the Roman Empire was in crisis, pressured by enemies on the outside and Christians on the inside who argued over the nature of humanity and the nature of Jesus. Emperor Constantine felt that uniting the Christian Church would strengthen and unify the Empire and bring order to outlying areas. The endless religious debates, often leading to violence and riots, were a source of significant annoyance to Constantine. He finally had it with the violence, so in 325 he convened a council at his summer residence at Nicaea, in what is now Turkey, insisting that the bishops agree on a creed that would bring unity to the church.

Arius of Alexanderia, a Libyan priest, was tremendously popular partly because he was a poet and a singer. He believed Jesus was divine but less so than God. He believed Jesus’ wisdom and teachings were more important than his death and resurrection. Alexander, the main bishop of the city, was Arius’s superior. He believed Jesus had been one with God since the very beginning, and that when Jesus was on earth, he was God living as a human being. In essence, Alexander believed a Trinitarian doctrine and Arius believed a Unitarian doctrine.

The emperor told the bishops to make up their minds about this question of Jesus. After this council, he wanted a strong Empire with one religion and no more arguing! Constantine meant to enforce the decision with the power of this empire.

Alexander and his supporters presented the writings of Arius to prove he was a dangerous heretic, maybe even an agent of the devil. By the time they had finished, all but two of the hundred bishops were on Alexander’s side.

Reports are mixed as to whether Arius actually spoke or not, since he was merely a priest and not a bishop.  According to Christian legend though (likely evolving hundreds of years later), at one point while Arius was arguing his case, Nicholas of Myra, the bishop who would later become St. Nicholas, became so agitated and outraged at hearing what he believed was heresy that he got up, walked across the room, and punched Arius in the face! As the story goes, Nicholas was stripped of his bible, bishop’s mitre and robes and quickly put in prison. But that night Jesus and Mother Mary appeared to Nicholas and asked “Why are you in jail?” to which Nicholas responded, “Because of my love for you.”  The next morning when Constantine and the bishops heard the story and saw him sitting in jail dressed in his bishop’s robes and reading the bible, they released Nicholas, asked for his forgiveness, and reinstated him as a bishop.

The bishops spent the next few weeks writing a Creed for the Christian Church, a set of beliefs everyone needed to agree to in order to belong. Arius and his two supporters refused to sign it, and were declared heretics and sent into exile. Ever since that time, Arianism – that is, Unitarianism – became the archetypal heresy for Christian orthodoxy.


SECOND READING: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”
In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York’s Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897, by the veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church. Here is that letter.

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’  Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see…

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.


Yes, St. Nicholas, there are Unitarians
A Letter Sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

Dear St. Nicholas,

This letter is likely to be a little different from most of the other letters you receive each year.  I am not writing to ask for presents, or special favors, or to make excuses for my behavior. I’m not even writing on behalf of someone else.  If you are able to pause for a few moments in your busy work and are able to open your heart, I would love a few moments of your time and attention.

I am writing to you now as part of a practice I engage every year at this time. Each December I write a letter to a Christmas character and share it with my people. In previous years I’ve written to other luminaries such as Jacob Marley from “A Christmas Carol,” George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and Doris Walker from “Miracle on 34th Street.” To date though, St. Nicholas, you are probably the most illustrious personage to whom I have written.

St. Nicholas, I know you are known by many names and represented in many different ways throughout the world. You are the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students. And you are known by many names around the world: Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, Pelznickel, Pere Noel, Babbo Natale, and Kanakaloka.

Today we also know you through the lens of both history and our annual experience of your story.  Today we know you as a large and jolly old man wearing a red suit with white fur trim, who is known especially to children for bringing joy with gifts of generosity. It’s an image that comes to us from the artist Thomas Nast, who first drew you this way in 1862 for the cover of Harper’s Weekly in the middle of the Civil War, with a drawing of you bringing gifts to the Union soldiers while seated on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

It was only 35 years later that a little girl by the name of Virginia wrote to a newspaper editor asking if you were real. In response, that newspaper editor said, “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.” That newspaper editor’s kind response rings through the years even to this day and tends to fill us with love and grace.

But there are other images of you that date back even further, centuries earlier, that perhaps more closely depict your origins in Myra, in a country that was Greek in its heritage at the time, but is now in a country we call Turkey. These images show you in your ecclesiastical robes as the Christian bishop of Myra, where you were consecrated as bishop in the year 317 of the common era.  And it is about this time of your life that I write to you now.

You see, I am a Unitarian Universalist, a denomination created after two separate denominations, the Unitarians and the Universalists, merged in 1961. Unitarian theology, like Trinitarian theology, draws directly from Christian scriptures, but with a different interpretation.  Some people find this different interpretation to be reasonable and full of religious wisdom, tradition and history. Others, including you, called this difference “heresy.”  You see, my Unitarian Universalist faith descends from the Unitarian faith, which in turn descends from the theology of Arianism, a theology named after your primary opponent at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 of the common era.

Though this story may never have actually happened, since it doesn’t appear in any Christian writings until about the 10th Century, the story that comes to us is that Arius, a learned man who was a poet and a musician as well as a Catholic priest in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, believed strongly that there was only one God, not a three-personed God. His argument was based not only on Christian Scriptures, but on passages that were said to be quotes from Jesus himself (like John 20:21) when he said, “As the Father sent me, so I will send you.”  As great as Jesus was, since there is only one God in historic Unitarian theology, this means that Jesus was NOT divine. Or, as I like to rephrase it, that he was no more divine than the rest of us.  In fact, that’s what I believe the Jesus story was trying to teach: that each of us has the same capacity for love and grace and compassion as he did.

The story that comes to us from the Council of Nicaea is that you, as a Christian bishop who believed in the Trinitarian Christian theology, became so agitated and outraged at hearing Arius speak that you just couldn’t control yourself any longer and got up, walked across the room, and punched Arius in the face.
Fresco from the Soumela Monastery (Turkey)

In my book, Constantine and the bishops rightfully stripped you of your robe, mitre and bible, and put you in jail as a result of your violence. But as the story continues, Mother Mary and Jesus appeared to you while you were in prison, giving you back your robe, mitre and bible, so that in the morning all the bishops, and even Emperor Constantine, asked for forgiveness from you, and then defrocked Arius and banished him from Christendom.

I hope it is not true, but even if it is not, this story is troubling to me on so many levels. First, of course, is that this tale of your aggression is at great odds with the jolly, delightful and compassionate man of the Christmas season now. Unfortunately, that is nothing new.  Many people throughout time present a very different social face than how they behave behind the scenes.

What troubles me about this story more deeply is the narrative that not only allows your violence to occur, but even glorifies and celebrates it.  It’s a narrative that says violence is OK – and not just because the bishops released you, and not just because the bishops and Emperor Constantine asked YOU for forgiveness, and not just because they reinstated you to your position, but because in this story Jesus himself blesses you and your violence. To me, that is one of the most horrific, reprehensible, and unfaithful interpretations of Christian Scripture I’ve ever heard.

That interpretation is also dangerous because of the behavior it spawns. If it is OK for a Christian Bishop to punch a heretic, then it’s going to be OK to do a lot more damage to anyone who thinks differently or looks differently or believes differently than the majority. In your day it would still be another 200 years before a newly inspired religion called Islam would become prominent, but you did live among the Turks and you did know Jews.  If you felt such anger toward a priest in your own faith, I can’t imagine what you must have felt for those in other faiths.

In our time, in our country this year, we have a politician who is running for the highest office of our land – a position similar to the one held by your Emperor Constantine – and this politician spews the most bigoted and hate-filled vitriol I have ever heard a candidate speak in my lifetime. We had similar talk some 80 years ago before I was born, in our country and in other countries, where people were imprisoned or murdered for looking differently, behaving differently or believing differently from the majority. And now this politician is calling for the same thing again in our day. This fear-mongering by him and other politicians and religious leaders has caused an atmosphere of increasing violence – in words, physically in person, and against houses of worship – against Muslims, and all people of color in our country, including people who look Middle Eastern like you.

In response to your story, St. Nicholas, and in this atmosphere of increasing violence, a man called “Marc” who writes a Catholic blog called “Bad Catholic” wrote this: “Jolly Old St. Nicholas…tried to listen patiently, he really did, but Arius’ speech was just so wrong, that he was compelled to get up in the midst of it and, yep, punch him in the face.  I hold that this is the image of Santa Claus we need to reclaim. Because when you think about it, this was the original campaign to Put the Christ Back in Christmas. Arius would have made the nativity a non-event…He, majestically prefiguring the various sects of Happy-Holiday-ers, Winter Solstice-ers, and it’s-actually-a-pagan-holiday-ers…denied that Christmas need be a celebration of substance at all. So when the modern world promotes the consumerist image of Santa Claus over the image of Christ, it is not so much the wrath of Christ they should fear as it is the wrath of Santa Claus.”[1]

It needs to be said that believing Jesus was not divine does not mean Arius or anyone wanted to make the nativity a “non-event.” After all, St. Nicholas, we venerate people like you even though you were not born with a virgin birth!  But another person who responded to this blog post said, “Maybe the next time some alleged preacher tells a heresy, say “Gay marriage is OK,” or…“Evolution is in the Bible” maybe some believer who has just had enough can introduce that heretic to the Spirit of St. Nick.”

In this spirit, anger begets anger, and might makes right. If you are rich and in the majority, and if you look like and believe like the majority, then being violent and promoting violence is not just OK, it is sanctioned and blessed: anger is righteous, and self-righteousness is righteous, and inspiring others to violence is righteous. But I’m wondering, St. Nick, is that really the spirit and the legacy you want to spread through the world?

You see, I have an interest in this issue. This isn’t just a theological exercise or an abstract debate for me. I am a Unitarian, and after punching a Unitarian, you were exalted and honored.  You have been celebrated throughout time for holding fast to your beliefs even when you were imprisoned and beaten prior to the era of Constantine.  And yet Arius held fast to his beliefs too, even in banishment, and even on his deathbed.  You were ruled “right” by an unfaithful majority that used violence and fear rather than reason and compassion to promote your agenda. The same thing is still happening today.  Yet perhaps what you don’t fully realize is that after 2,000 years, there are still Unitarians who walk this earth, fully cognizant of the teachings of scripture, and who still believe as Arius did, even on his deathbed, that there is only one unifying force that connects all people and all the universe. So yes, St. Nicholas, there are Unitarians.  And in my estimation, these Unitarians behave in ways that are more Christian than you or your cohorts did in the stories that come down to us.

Our theme this month is on “humility,” and while I know it is always easier to tell someone else to be humble rather than look at ourselves, I feel somewhat qualified in this case with a fellow clergy whose actions I feel were out of line with their religious teachings and beliefs.  And while I know I have plenty of my own faults and times of arrogance, I also know it is religious teachings and practice of humility that help us address our human tendency toward arrogance and hubris.

What comes to my mind too are some teachings from another great religious teacher, Mahatma Gandhi, who said two things that are especially relevant to you, St. Nicholas. The first is that “The pursuit of truth does not permit violence to one’s opponent.” And second, “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.”

As a bishop, perhaps you remember some of these teachings from the Jesus you say you believe in, who said, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” The peacemakers, for goodness sake, St. Nicholas!  Then St. Paul, a colleague of yours from just a short time earlier wrote (Phil 2:1-4): “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ…if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then…do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but to the interests of the others.” Remember too, that service is always an opportunity to cultivate humility. Jesus demonstrated this when he knelt and washed the feet of the Apostles.

What I want to do is to call you, St. Nicholas, and myself, and anyone who will listen, to heed these teachings of humility and compassion.  When I look at the difference between your behavior in 325 and then in 1895 and then 2015, it seems as though the intervening 1700 years have mellowed you out a bit.  Perhaps, as is often the case with us in the evolution of human maturity, you have learned and grown from earlier transgressions.  Judging by your actions in the past 150 years, it may be that you’ve already learned that a lifetime devoted to the practice of kindness and generosity go a lot further than an inability to keep your temper.

120 years ago a little girl wrote to a newspaper editor with the sincere hope of getting an answer that would not destroy or belittle her faith, but would confirm and expand it.  It would seem that I am writing to you now with a similar intention. I am writing too because I want to believe not only in a Santa Claus, but in strong, compassionate, devoted people of faith who have not been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age, who exist as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.

If your transformation in the past 150 years is any clue, then we have a lot for which to be optimistic about the rest of humanity as well. May we then be able to say, like that famous newspaper editor said, Thank God Santa Claus lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now…nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, may he continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Your friend,
Kent Hemmen Saleska

[1] Found at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2011/12/on-the-st-nick-punch.html#disqus_thread

Unitarian Universalist Prayer: A Velvet Bridge

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
October 18, 2015

READING: On Prayer
By Czeslaw Milosz

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are left aloft, as on a springboard
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun
That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word is
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we: there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

Unitarian Universalist Prayer: A Velvet Bridge
By Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

This month of October our theological theme is prayer. I know for some, prayer may feel irrelevant, outdated, or seem like magical thinking.  I understand that some Unitarian Universalists struggle with prayer. Even through my years in seminary I also struggled with understanding prayer, and it wasn’t until my year as a chaplain resident at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park that I began to awake to some beginning understanding about prayer. It is good to remember, though, that many Unitarian Universalists, even many in this congregation, consider themselves Christian, or theist, and there are many in our denomination for whom prayer is a lively act of faith.  Our religious parents were the Congregationalists, and our religious grandparents were the Puritans, so our religious DNA is firmly grounded in Christianity.

But like many theological terms and general religious practices, prayer is not solely owned by Christians. It is not owned by Muslims or Jews either, for that matter, or by any particular religion, sect, or people.  The issue of prayer really isn’t about Christians versus atheists or humanists. In fact, it’s not a “versus” thing at all. It’s not about fighting, arguing or disagreeing. The issue of prayer is partly about honoring our own sources and values, but even more importantly, it is about the quality of how we want to connect.

We Unitarian Universalists say we value diversity, all kinds, including sexual orientation, skin color, income levels, geography – even theological diversity. In fact, we value theological diversity so much that we enshrined it in the words of our six sources. You may already be familiar with our Seven Principles: the ones that include “The inherent worth of each individual” and “The interdependent web of which we are a part.” But I’m wondering how many are familiar with our six sources of Unitarian Universalism?  The “living tradition” of six wisdom and spirituality sources, affirmed decades ago by our congregations, and from which Unitarian Universalism functions and engages the world, include:

  1. Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  1. Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  1. Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  1. Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  1. Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  1. Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

No single one of these sources is intended to dominate the others. These six sources are the foundation upon which we operate and move through the world. These sources are six equal ingredients in a soup that nourishes our wisdom and guides our actions. Denigrating any one of these six ingredients not only discounts individuals in our church we love and cherish, it also discounts the value we say we have of diversity.  How are we to go into the world and preach tolerance, acceptance and diversity if we don’t first practice it here in our midst?

We are held together not by dogma, theology or creed, but by covenant, by the promises we make to one another, as individuals and as a denomination, for living in Beloved Community.

I know words like “prayer” and “spirituality” and “God” come with baggage for a lot of people. And I know that a lot of people come to Unitarian Universalism because we tend to be not as religiously dogmatic as many of the more right-wing conservative religions of many faiths.  But that doesn’t mean we abdicate the use of religious language and the language of reverence. Our task is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to turn and face our biases, to be rigorous in questioning how we got them, and to be honest about the beliefs and practices we may let go, and the beliefs and practices we appreciate and want to keep.

In all my years of growing up in Unitarian Universalism and in recent years gathering with fellow ministers, I have never heard anyone pray asking for a miracle of healing or engage in magical thinking about supernatural intervention. Maybe it’s just the people I hang out with, but Unitarian Universalist prayer, in my experience, is directly tied to our relationship with each other and with the planet, and often addresses our greatest aspirations for how we want to engage our own powerful humanity as a creature that evolved as an expression of a creative universe.  “Spiritual growth” is written into the third of our seven Unitarian Universalist principles: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” So in my experience, Unitarian Universalist prayer is one of those pieces of how we as individuals go about growing in spirit.

In his poem, “On Prayer,” Chess-law Me-losh (Czeslaw Milosz) says, “All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge / and walking it we are left aloft, as on a springboard / above landscapes the color of ripe gold.”

The poet begins by saying “all I know,” which is using different words to describe our first source: direct experience.  In our liberal religious tradition, we affirm that we don’t need popes or bishops or ministers to access the power of the universe. We first access the Holy, however we may describe it, through our own direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. This is our first source, from our own tradition, which acknowledges that we are called and moved to a renewal of spirit through an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. Some people call those forces “God,” some people call those forces the Big Bang, gravitational pull and DNA. These are the forces greater than ourselves that we may acknowledge through addiction recovery, in small group ministry, in social justice work, and through being part of a congregation and having to work through the challenging problem of designing a new building that will embody our congregational mission.

And I love the image of prayer being a “velvet bridge.” The poet doesn’t describe prayer as a way to ask a supernatural being for money or for favors or for miracles. Through acknowledging the existence of transcending mystery and wonder, though, we know that the task of faith is to move forward even when we don’t know the answer. In fact, that’s the definition of faith. We don’t know for sure, absolutely positively, that all people are born “good.” But our Universalist heritage fills us with the faith that people are NOT born in sin, that we are inherently the expressions of a creative universe, and as such we have inherent worth. We have faith in our connections to one another, to our planet, to the universe, to the past, and to the future.

The central image of this poem is the bridge, the velvet bridge. The purpose of a bridge is to connect, to unite, to pass from one shore to another, from realm of experience to another. With the metaphor of a bridge, prayer is understood to be not a form of begging for things to be different, but to connect things as they are. And yet, paradoxically, in the process of connecting things as they are, everything is transformed. Soren Kierkegaard, that famous Danish philosopher and theologian, once said that “Prayer does not change God, but it changes [the one] who prays.”  The poet Chess-law Me-losh (Czeslaw Milosz) says something similar.  He says, “That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal / Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is” / Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.”

The “shore of Reversal.” What a beautiful phrase. In the written version of the poem, the word “Reversal” is capitalized. The shore of Reversal. That’s where the velvet bridge of prayer leads. Why does anyone pray? To be grounded, to find a center, to find focus, to connect to a deep yearning, to connect to the Source of all creativity and love that enfolds and welcomes, to connect to the Source that affirms the brilliance of our origins and brilliance that lies beneath the mess of all pain and addiction and loss that is our true self and our true being.

Friends, we pray out of a recognition that we are not able to get through this world on our own. That even when we don’t fail or falter or struggle, and even when we are not faced with some big catastrophe, we rely on so many things done by so many others: the people who package the food in the grocery store, the farmers who grow and harvest the food, the people who made our cars and built our homes, the institutions and people who provide our paychecks, the doctors and dentists who see to our health, the construction workers who built the roads upon which we travel, the people who took care of us and raised us when we were babies. We are not self-sufficient islands and never were.

A time of prayer provides us with a time to remember our connections to each other, to remember the velvet bridges that reach across the chaos and consumerism and conflict of each day. The “shore of Reversal” is the ground where we can go beneath the surface of the veneer of our lives, to touch again our original brilliance and be reminded of our purpose, our deepest desires and our greatest aspirations.

That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is”
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we: there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh

This is another part of what we find on the “shore of Reversal”: not only do reconnect with our own brilliance and greatest aspirations, but we find compassion too.  This life is beautiful, but sometimes it can be really hard. Things happen. Sometimes we lose a job.  Sometimes we need to move to another neighborhood or another state, where everything is new and different and unknown. Sometimes we are betrayed by a friend. Sometimes a beloved family member dies.  And I’m willing to bet that each person here, at some point in your life, has behaved in a way you regret. I know I have. So in prayer, when we arrive on the “shore of Reversal,” we move beyond ourselves and become larger. Maybe we recently had a fight with someone, but for a few moments in honest prayer, we let down our walls and feel some of the fear or pain experienced by the other person. The Reversal comes from being startled for a few moments when we loosen our grip on our own anger or resentment and feel compassion for the Other. We see that we may be a unique human being, but we are not alone, and neither are others, that there on the shore of Reversal, “every one, separately, / Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh.”

In the music Paul Winchester [our Music Director] offers us today, the movement is from a more traditional understanding of prayer and use of language to a more broad and deep and open interpretation of language of reverence that connects us to the forces of the universe that create and uphold life. The language of reverence, whether through music, words or theology, is largely through metaphor, and the language of poetry is the primary vehicle for the use of metaphor.  So the words of our music today begin with the traditional language “Our Father, who art in heaven” in the musical piece of the prelude, but in the opening words of the music for the postlude, the words are very different.  The postlude piece begins with the phrase, “O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos, focus your light within us.” It is said to be an translation of the Lord’s Prayer that is directly into English from the original Aramaic. I have no way of knowing for sure if that is true, but it definitely resonates more with the teachings of the radical and inclusive Jesus I know from the rest of his teachings and actions in the old stories. And in this new translation, I love the line that, instead of saying, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” it says, “loose the bonds of mistakes as we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.”

We humans are created from a creative universe and we are creative beings. We are artists.  We can make spiritual growth out of anything.  Spiritual growth is the purpose of the church.  It’s the purpose of ministry.  It’s why we’re here.

I like Parker Palmer’s definition of “spiritual.” It connects with an understanding of prayer as a velvet bridge. Parker Palmer says, “By spiritual I mean the diverse ways we answer the heart’s longing to be connected with the largeness of life.” There are so, so many diverse ways to pray, and so, so many ways to answer that longing to be connected with the largeness of life.

The poem by Chess-law Me-losh (Czeslaw Milosz) ends with the lines:

That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is”
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we: there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

“If there is no other shore / we will walk that aerial bridge all the same.” In prayer we walk forward with a trust in the connections that bind us to one another and to the planet and to the universe, and to our past and our future. In prayer, even if we don’t always know why it works or how it transforms us, we move with an intention that helps us let go of our frustration, anger, and resentment, and helps us focus on compassion.  In prayer, we move not with pleas to a supernatural being for supernatural help, but with a faith in the goodness that exists in each being, and in the transformation of our own attitude that will allow us to see that goodness.

In prayer, even if there is no other shore, we will walk across that velvet aerial bridge all the same.


(From the words I spoke at my own ordination in March 2008)

It has been said that the only true and honest prayer,
For all the joy and for all the pain,
For all that is despised and for all that is beautiful,
Is a prayer of thanks.

So I give thanks today
For all that has been my life
For all that has been given
For all that people have done to make this day happen.
But the thanks are not for me alone.
I give thanks for this community,
For our time together today
Is in honor of our covenantal relationship
With each other.

So, as we move forward together,
May we remember and honor our gifts, our compassion, and our passion.
But most of all, may we remember and honor
The spirit of love that moves between and among us.
Here today, and for all the days we move through the world together.

Blessed be and amen.

In the Bleak Midwinter: A Sermon in Response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings on December 14, 2012

Author’s note: In the fall of 2012 my son began kindergarten. On December 14 of that year 28 people were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, most of them children in kindergarten and first grade. Now my children are in 1st and 3rd grade and I walk them to school every morning. And because of that Sandy Hook shooting, to this day, every morning – every single morning – a small fear still raises it’s voice in my head, wondering if this will be the last time I will see my children.  Yesterday, October 1, 2015, yet another mass shooting (more than four victims) occurred at  Umpqua Community College in Oregon. In the almost three years since Sandy Hook there have been 142 mass shootings. 142. With at least one school shooting per week during that time. And still no laws have been enacted legislate gun use. Nothing has been done. I despair that if our murdered children don’t inspire us to act, then I don’t know what will. But two days after the Sandy Hook shooting I wrote and gave a sermon describing both my anger and despair, yet also pleading that we not become numb to violence, but keep our hearts open to love. Today, after yet one more mass shooting, I’m posting this sermon as a reminder maybe even more to myself than to others that the same thing is still true: being numb will not create change; but keeping our hearts open to love will.   -Kent Saleska

In the Bleak Midwinter
A response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, December 14, 2012
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 16, 2012

READING: Matthew 2:12-18
Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, [the Magi] returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”  So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.  Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

*     *     *     *

In the Bleak Midwinter
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

I am tired.  I am sick and tired.  I am sick and tired and angry of violence in America, of violence in the world.  I am angry at a shooter, I am angry at gun manufacturers, I am angry at the gun lobby, I am angry at politicians who defend and collude with the gun lobby.  In this hour, in the aftermath of this tragedy, I am angry and in anguish like Habukkuk in ancient Hebrew Scriptures who laments:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

The perversion of justice shows up so many places in our culture.  I am angry that some of our best computer minds are being used to create ever newer and more complicated and more realistic video games where the players, many of whom are children, rack up more points the more people they kill.  I am angry that violence is both glorified and deemed to be more appropriate to show on television and in the movies than naked bodies making love.  I am angry that access to guns is easier and more available in this country than is access to health care.  I am angry that the National Rifle Association continues to defend their gun manufacturers and their bloodlust with the childishly irresponsible mantra, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  And I am angry that so many people and so many politicians defend that mantra as well.

I am angry that people like former governor Mike Huckabee get to go on national television and say that we have so much violence in our schools because we have systematically removed God from our schools, and that as a result, we shouldn’t be surprised that our schools would become places of carnage.  These outrageously insensitive words are not just cruel and false, they also victimize the families of the dead with a second round of verbal and emotional violence.

In Friday’s shooting, it was reported that two of the guns found were a Sig Sauer pistol and a Glock pistol.  The slogan for the Sig Sauer gun is: “When it counts.”  The slogan for the Glock gun is, “the confidence to live your life.”  So I am left to wonder what counted at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and what unfathomable form of confidence did the shooter need to have when he went there?

And of course, ultimately, I am so angry and so saddened by the deaths of 28 people, most of whom were children.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to wait in a holding area not knowing the fate of your child.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to wake up this second morning since Friday to once more be reminded that your nightmare continues whether you are sleeping or waking.  13 years ago I worked with teenagers and opened the paper to read about Columbine.  I just sat at the breakfast table sobbing.  More than a decade later I have a son in kindergarten, and on Friday, as I kept turning to my computer in my church office to read and hear updates about the kindergarteners in Sandy Hook Elementary School, I had a similar reaction.  I feel like Rachel, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because her children were no more.

So that we do not just remember the shooter, we need to remember the children and adults.  For each person – child and adult – I have a candle here.  If you feel comfortable, I invite anyone to come forward and (as Greg plays the music for “O come, O come, Emmanuel” ) light a candle in memory as I read off the names of the people who were lost on Friday:

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
Madeleine Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Nancy Lanza, 52
Adam Lanza, 20
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto,27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6

I am so, so angry, and I am so, so full of anguish.  I am almost at a loss, and I struggle mightily to figure out what to say or do next.  Sitting in my office on Friday listening to the news reports, I suddenly felt I could no longer preach what I had planned to preach.

This afternoon many of us here in our church are involved in the radio play production of the “Miracle on 34th Street.”  Each December I give a sermon that is a letter to a Christmas character.  This year, partly because it’s a character in our show, and partly because I have not yet written a letter sermon to a female character, I wanted to write this year’s letter sermon to Doris Walker, the divorced single mother of the story who is trying to raise her child in the best way she knows how: with as much realism and as few illusions as possible.

I was looking forward to writing that sermon.  A divorced single mother in the 1940s was highly unusual.  Not only is Doris Walker not a sad character deserving our pity or a caricatured character easily dismissed, she is strong and loving.  She wants to raise her daughter in a way that will prevent her daughter from suffering the pain of shattered illusions, and the resulting anger and resentment that inevitably follow.

Sitting in my office on Friday, I felt I couldn’t write that letter sermon.  Instead, I felt the need to somehow address the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Yet as I wrote this sermon and participated in the rehearsal for the show yesterday, I couldn’t help but identify the similarities in Doris Walker’s conflicted feelings about raising a vulnerable child in a world full of pain and disillusionment.

In the midst of my own anger, I am reminded that I can get just as angry as the next person – and that if I let it, I can let my anger turn into rage.  And if I allow my self-righteousness and rage to run amuck, then I create defensive walls, attempting to protect my own pain by directing anger at others.  As a result, I develop the capacity to inflict the kind of violence I normally condemn.  This is where I need my religion, my faith, a faith bound together and emerging from both Christianity and Judaism, to prevent the emergence of rampant anger.

Two thousand years ago, much of the Mediterranean world was occupied and oppressed by Rome.  The people of that time in particular sought a savior, someone who would throw off their oppressors and allow them to be free once more.  I believe we are living under similar oppression today – only this time, it is an oppression of the spirit.  The heavy hand of empire is upon us, an empire of spiritual emptiness that lures us into fear, reactivity, consumerism and addiction.

“Your body is so ugly,” says the emptiness, “that the only way you can be beautiful, or even acceptable, is to lose weight if you are fat, gain weight if you are skinny, straighten your hair if it is wavy, curl your hair if it is straight, dye your hair if it is grey.  And since these efforts will never be enough,” says the emptiness, “spend even more time and money and emotion on these unattainable efforts.”

“Your life is so empty,” says the emptiness, “that the only way you can fill it is with more toys, bigger houses, smaller phones, more pills, more alcohol, more sex, more adrenaline rushes.  If you are not happy,” says the emptiness, “then watch more TV, play more video games, drink more beer, get more and more angry and point your finger at someone else as the cause of your unhappiness.”

“The world is such a scary place,” says the emptiness, “that the only way you can be safe is to buy a gun.  And if you don’t feel safe buying one gun,” says the emptiness, “then go buy another gun.”

In the great empire of emptiness, the forces of fear become so powerful and dissonant that they scream for no restrictions whatsoever because for them the protection of gun ownership, the so-called “freedom” of gun ownership, is more important than healthcare, or the education or the protection of our children.  In this Orwellian cacophony, I can almost hear the doublespeak emerging that stops calling them “killing sprees” and instead, begins to call them “freedom sprees.”

I don’t want to live in a world like that.  Do you?  I don’t want to live in a world where doublespeak trumps common sense, where a lie repeated often enough becomes a truth.  Do you?  From my faith, I need to hear the call of deep peace and profound love cut through this nonsense.  It will not help to turn over the responsibility of raising my children by blaming the video game industry, or blaming Hollywood, or even by blaming heartless politicians or inadequate gun laws.  In the bleak midwinter, when everything is gray and rainy and foggy, the future is not clear.  Definition is difficult to determine between near and far, between up and down, between danger and safety.  So in the bleak midwinter, in the fog of our anger and pain, in the mists of our desire for retaliation and blame, when it seems we’ve lost our moral compass and our sense of direction is out of whack, we call for the birth of a savior.  We sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

“Emmanuel” means “God with us.”  When I talk about a “savior,” though, I’m not necessarily talking about God, or a god, or any external supernatural being coming to perform magic on us.  I’m talking about how we discover our brilliance and share it with the world.   I’m talking about how we dig deep to find our light that will give us the strength to overthrow the oppression of emptiness, and then walk together, with one another, as images of The Holy for one another, to bring forth that light to live our lives in balance and wholeness.  As the song says:

O come, O come Emmanuel
and with your captive children dwell.
Give comfort to all exiles here,
and to the aching heart bid cheer.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within
as Love to dwell.

Perhaps this is when, like Doris Walker, we begin to rebuild our faith, or as she says, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”  This is when we call upon our faith, and on each other, to help us bond together to say to the forces of emptiness that we will not succumb to that lure of fear.  This is when we need to hear once again about the peace of beating our swords into ploughshares; about how faith, hope and love endure, but the greatest of the three is love; about the inherent worth of each person; and how we humans and nature and all the universe are intertwined and interdependent.

In the words of our opening song, “In the bleak midwinter, in this world of pain, where our hearts are open, love is born again.”

In the face of unspeakable tragedy, let us not become numb, but remain open.  May we remember that however we may name or not name God, compassion and love always show up only in the way we show up.  May we remember that however we may name or not name God, our hands are the hands that reshape the world, call on our politicians to draft laws of peace, and work to prevent violence in our lives.  May we find ways to hold one another with grace, and to remember to feel and to be present for our children.  May we behave in ways that let them know they can talk to us about anything.  And may we never forget to hug them and tell them how much we love them.

To Transform and Redeem: Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka
September 20, 2015

FIRST READING: from “Justice without Violence”
By Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1957:
It is necessary to boycott sometimes but the non-violent resister realized that boycott is never an end within itself, but merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor. The aftermath of violence is bitterness; the aftermath of non-violence is the creation of the beloved community; the aftermath of non-violence is redemption and reconciliation. This is a method that seeks to transform and to redeem, and win the friendship of the opponent, and make it possible for [people] to live together…in a community, and not continually live with bitterness and friction.

SECOND READING: from “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
By Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963:
My friends…We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see…that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

[So] I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

THIRD READING: from “Courage for Black Lives Matter: A Love Letter to White Unitarian Universalists (and other White Folks too)”
By Chris Crass (a white heterosexual male Unitarian Universalist)
September 11, 2015
Our commitment to living the values of our faith is being tested….With FOX News leading a media frenzy denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement as a hate group, as terrorists, as anti-white, some of us are retreating from wearing Black Lives Matter buttons and some of us are questioning whether or not to take down the Black Lives Matter banners from our churches.

It would be easy for me to say all of the white UUs who are faltering are just falling back into their white privilege, are sinking back into their liberal white racism. It would be easy for me to distance myself and feel superior. It is much harder for me to say, that I too, as a white Unitarian Universalist, have been scared. After months of wearing my Black Lives Matter button, I found myself second-guessing whether to wear it.

What if I am challenged at the grocery store or walking in the park with my son? It was much easier to wear my button after the latest police murder of an unarmed Black person. Filled with anger and a desire to “do something”, I wore my button with defiance to racism and a commitment to racial justice.

I held my button in my hand, and I knew that all of this is much bigger than buttons and banners. This is about breaking a centuries-old code of white silence and white consent for anti-Black racist violence and institutional white supremacy and its legal and cultural dispersal of white privilege and white entitlement. Entitlement to safety and comfort, at the expense of people of color having the same. Entitlement to our [white] children not needing to think about the color of their skin or [not] wondering if the color of their skin puts them at risk of socially- and state-sanctioned violence.

This is about choosing what side of justice we put our bodies on. And like other white UUs, I don’t want to be part of this racist society. I want to stand in the tradition of Unitarian Universalist abolitionists and Civil Rights workers, knowing that even within our faith tradition it has not always been easy. I want to stand on the side of love, like we did on Marriage Equality, even when it was illegal in every state and scary for many of us to be publicly out for LGBT rights.

The Black Lives Matter movement is the leading struggle for racial justice of our times. It is a movement led by Black people who are women, queer, youth, working class, including Black UUs around the country….And it is a movement that puts a challenge to every white person who believes themselves a proponent of racial equality, every white person inspired by the Civil Rights movement, every white person who believes they would be on the right side of history if an injustice of great magnitude were taking place.  The movement is a challenge to put our values into practice, not just when it is easy, but also when it is hard.

SERMON: To Transform and Redeem: Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community
By Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

Five decades ago the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a book called Why We Can’t Wait, a book based on a letter he wrote in April 1963 while imprisoned in the Birmingham jail after being arrested for nonviolent action against racist practices in that city.  A statement titled “A Call for Unity” by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods was printed in the newspaper.  In their statement, the white clergymen agreed that social injustices existed, but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought in the courts, not on the streets. The statement provoked King so much that he began writing a response in the margins of the newspaper, and later finished it on a pad of notepaper.  King’s letter was an eloquent and powerful defense of not only the tactics and goals of the Birmingham Campaign, but of the use of nonviolence and the entire Civil Rights movement.

Today much of America venerates Martin Luther King.  Even some conservatives strive for misguided attempts to line up in King’s shadow. In some of the recent news coverage, I even read that Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who is denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples because she says it is against her religious beliefs, was reading Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” while she was in jail for contempt of court.

We need to remember, though, that Dr. King was not the mild and inoffensive figure America likes to make him out to be these days.  He was not just a nice guy who wanted everyone to have equal rights. He was a radical. He pushed the boundaries of white comfort and the white status quo. His philosophy was to take what many people wanted to ignore or sweep under the rug and make it visible by making white people uncomfortable.  The eight white clergy in Birmingham were uncomfortable. They agreed that social inequality existed, and they agreed with his goal, they just didn’t like his means. They didn’t like that he was getting in their faces and marching in their streets and sitting at the lunch counters that were clearly designated for white people only.  Instead, they had some alternate vision where Dr. King and black people in America would protest nicely, and orderly, and in ways that would not offend white people by doing it in ways that white people wanted him to do it – only through the courts.

Yet in events that reverberate and replay today in current events and in the response of the Black Lives Matter movement, black people were being killed and beaten and refused access to voting rights and economic equality and equal educational opportunities.  As Dr. King said at a Memphis rally in 1968:

“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

1963 was an explosive year for Civil Rights.  In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King gave several reasons why. Here are a few of them:

  • As the centennial of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, it reminded black people that they remained oppressed despite their nominal legal freedom;
  • Nine years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, black people in America were disillusioned with the slow speed of desegregation; and
  • The Great Depression never ended for African Americans; while others enjoyed economic recovery after World War II and while white soldiers reaped the benefits of the GI bill, black unemployment rose and returning black soldiers were denied the educational and housing benefits granted to their white colleagues.

As for the suddenness of what was being called the “Negro Revolution,” Dr. King wrote: “Just as lightning makes no sound until it strikes, the Negro Revolution generated quietly. But when it struck, the revealing flash of its power and the impact of its sincerity and fervor displayed a force of a frightening intensity. Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.”

Today we are faced with the replay of events and attitudes pulled right out from the years of Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.  Today, within the past two years or so, we’ve seen an explosion of angry hurting people in America who are attempting to claim their equality and humanity in the midst of a culture that values black bodies on the field in sports, and black bodies in advertising, and black bodies in the military, and understands black bodies as scary and frightening on the streets – but does not value black lives in equal measure to white lives.

Here we are, 52 years after that explosive summer, which was 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after the voting rights act that was depicted in the recent movie “Selma,” and 47 years after the assassination of Dr. King, and we still do not have racial equality in America.  And we have all kinds of parallels between the two movements in the national events, in the fight for equality, and in the reactions and attitudes of white people across the entire religious and political spectrum from conservative to liberal.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King began saying it and Jesse Jackson continued the refrain that “Black is Beautiful!” Today a prominent leader of the Black Lives Matter movement by the name of DeRay McKesson will end every day he is on Twitter with the phrase “I love your blackness. And mine.”

In the 1950s and 60s, when black people marched on the streets or stood in rallies in nonviolent protest, the liberals would often say they agreed with the goals and vision of racial equality but did not like the in-your-face methods of getting there, while the conservatives would physically block the entrances to the voting booths and universities, and would bring out the fire hoses and call out the State Troopers and police dogs to attack the black protestors. Today when the Black Lives Matter movement marches on the interstates or stands up in protest at the Mall of America, the liberals will often still say they agree with the goals and vision of racial equality but not with those methods that interrupt our normal every day lives, while the conservatives will call out massive curb-to-curb police forces that are increasingly militarized in full riot gear and six-wheeled military vehicles due to acquiring the military equipment leftover from a decade and a half of global warfare, and will call the nonviolent group “terrorists,” and in broad sweeping attempts at fear-mongering advocate for the deportation of 11 million immigrants.

Many people would like the Black Livers Matter movement to either change their tactics or to simply go away, either by choice or by force.  But in 1963 Martin Luther King wrote that “Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.”  And arising from the nonviolent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, the same is true today, except that now it is three hundred and FIFTY years.

In 1963, giving voice to his view about why black people can no longer wait for equality, Dr. King wrote to his white moderate clergy colleagues in his Letter from Birmingham Jail “My friends…We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see…that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

And in words to his white moderate colleagues that unfortunately has some similar application to white moderates today, Dr. King continued his letter with what seems to be a mixture of bitterness, encouragement, sorrow and lament:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

So I wonder today how much we in America really value Dr. King’s vision. And I wonder how much we liberals will put our values and veneration of Dr. King into action.  I wonder which we prefer more – venerating a historical figure or giving weight and action to his teaching and vision?  Take a look at reading #565 in your hardcover hymnal. Clinton Lee Scott writes there that it is “always easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision. / It is easier to glorify the heroes of the race than to give weight to their examples.”

I wonder these things and yet I also know we are a people called by love to be love’s people.  We are called by love to love the hell out of the world.  We are called by love to follow love – not to reduce and limit love, but to expand love and compassion so that it will multiply throughout the world.  That’s what we learned when we fought in Minnesota for same-sex marriage. So that’s what we can do as we fight for racial justice too.

We are called by love not just to pay homage to a prophet, but to heed the direction of Martin Luther King’s vision.  “The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined by the theologian Josiah Royce, but it was Dr. King who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning. For King, the Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal.  Rather, it is a global vision in which all people share in the wealth of the earth, where poverty, hunger, homelessness and discrimination are not tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. It is a realistic, achievable goal that may be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.  In 1963 King wrote: “The aftermath of violence is bitterness; the aftermath of non-violence is the creation of the beloved community; the aftermath of non-violence is redemption and reconciliation. This is a method that seeks to transform and to redeem, and win the friendship of the opponent, and make it possible for [people] to live together…in a community.”

Over and over this is what Dr. King taught: that our work of racial justice through nonviolent action is to create the beloved community, a method that seeks to transform and redeem all of us so that all of us are saved from the hell of bitterness and injustice and inequality and environmental destruction.

A few weeks before his death, William Stafford wrote a poem called “The Way it Is.”  As we imagine the evolution of oppressed people and the struggle for equality from the time of the American Civil War until today, and as we contemplate our liberal values of justice, equity and compassion in human relations that unites and inspires both our action and our veneration of Martin Luther King, listen to these words from William Stafford:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

“Black Lives Matter” means something.  It is not a terrorist group as some people in America would have you believe.  And it is no more lawless or a radical fringe than Martin Luther King and his people were lawless or a radical fringe. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is the thread of racial justice work we hold on to today. In his “love letter” to white Unitarian Universalists, the UU Chris Crass describes the current “Black Lives Matter” movement as “the leading struggle for racial justice of our times.”

Struggling toward racial justice is not easy.  It comes with making a lot of mistakes, of sometimes inadvertently saying things that offend someone, sometimes even being unaware of or clueless about our white privilege and the impact that has on people of color.  Fortunately, though, we do have more and more resources to help us. This year I am hopeful that our congregation will be able to host a new curriculum called “Beloved Conversations.” This is a curriculum about racial justice that is similar to the Welcoming Congregation effort, which was a curriculum developed in the 1980s and 1990s to help Unitarian Universalists become more welcoming toward people who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning. If you are interested in working with me to bring the “Beloved Conversations” workshop here, please talk with me after the service.

Sometimes this effort to address racial justice is filled with a simple challenge to communicate, and sometimes it is disheartening and scary. A few weeks ago a colleague sent out a call on our minister’s Facebook group to support a Unitarian Universalist congregation in rural southern New Jersey that had put up a “Black Lives Matter” banner outside their church.  They were getting lots of pushback from the community with some very aggressive messages on their church’s Facebook page. So the call went out asking us to write comments of support on their Facebook page.  Along with some other colleagues, I joined in – and I began getting attacked for my comments until at one point one man responded to one of my posts with the words, “There’s a new implant that can fix stupid.” And the picture he attached was an image of a bullet.

In 1963 America got defensive and angry when the people of its former slaves began to demand equality and decent treatment. Today America is getting defensive and angry when people of color and white co-conspirators simply utter the phrase that “Black Lives Matter.” But it is apparent that the reaction is proof for why the phrase is needed and is so important.

Our Unitarian Universalist brother Chris Crass shares that the reason this is so important is that “This is about breaking a centuries-old code of white silence and white consent for anti-Black racist violence and institutional white supremacy and its legal and cultural dispersal of white privilege and white entitlement. Entitlement to safety and comfort, at the expense of people of color having the same…This is about choosing what side of justice we put our bodies on…I want to stand on the side of love, like we did on Marriage Equality, even when it was illegal in every state and scary for many of us to be publicly out for LGBT rights.” He goes on to say that “The Black Lives Matter movement is…led by Black people who are women, queer, youth, working class, including Black UUs around the country….And it is a movement that puts a challenge to every white person who believes themselves a proponent of racial equality, every white person inspired by the Civil Rights movement, every white person who believes they would be on the right side of history if an injustice of great magnitude were taking place.  The movement is a challenge to put our values into practice, not just when it is easy, but also when it is hard.”

It was Martin Luther King’s vision to transform and redeem the oppressor, not by capitulating to the oppressor’s timetable or desires, but through nonviolent direct action.  To honor his vision, it is our work in this day to hold on to the thread of justice and love, to put our values into practice, to allow ourselves to be claimed as love’s people, not just when it is easy, but even when it is hard. May we find the courage to be so filled with our faith to be so brave and so bold.

Daring Greatly: Vulnerability, Risk and Forgiveness

A Sermon given by Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka
August 23, 2015

First Reading: Excerpt from “Citizenship in a Republic”
Speech given by President Theodore Roosevelt
Delivered at that Sorbonne in Paris, France, April 23, 1910

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…

Second Reading from the book:
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead
By Brene Brown

Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional.  Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.
When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.

Daring Greatly: Vulnerability, Risk and Forgiveness (sermon)
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

This fall will bring many changes to our congregational life. The Ingathering Water Ceremony will be next Sunday, prior to Labor Day weekend and two weeks earlier than usual.  In order to help build energy and prepare for moving to a new building next year, this fall we are returning to one service.  As part of that move, we’ll be initiating lifespan “First Hour” religious education programming an hour before each service.  Sometime in spring we hope to break ground for the new building this congregation has been working toward for the past ten years.

At its worst, these changes can bring about feelings of great anxiety and frustration and a loss of how things used to be.  We could decide to turn on each other and blame each other if things don’t go exactly the way each of us, separately, want things to go.  We could behave as the critic in the speech President Theodore Roosevelt gave and be the one “who points out how the strong [person] stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”

On the other hand, we could enter into the coming year with a spirit of adventure.  We could enter this year as though we are getting into a canoe at the beginning of a trip in the boundary waters, or like the way we feel when the car is all packed and we just leave our driveway to head out on a cross-country road trip. In that context, we enter into the unknown ahead with a spirit of adventure and risk, and we tend to give our traveling companions a little grace.  We’ve done all the planning we can reasonably do: we’ve given the car a tune-up, filled the tank with gas, packed all the food, the tent, the paddles, the equipment and bug spray. But we know we can’t know everything – we can’t predict the weather or know if we’ll drive over a nail or if we’ll turn down a dead-end road or get caught in a backwater where the only safe and viable option is to backtrack five miles back the way we came.

Engaging in changes takes risk.  It takes courage.  It takes a willingness to do things differently than were ever done before. And it takes a willingness to make mistakes, offer grace and forgiveness, and to understand that the mistakes and forgiveness are part of the learning and growth it takes to create community. We create community not by liking everything everyone does, or doing everything that everyone else wants us to do, but by working together, finding our truths, and being willing to sit at the table and stay at the table listening honestly to the truths other people share.  This is how it worked in our efforts to make same-sex marriage legal in Minnesota, this is how it works in the Black Lives Matter movement, and this is how it works for us too as we move through our changes.

In this way, the next words of President Teddy Roosevelt resonate strongly when he says that, “The credit belongs to the [person] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends [themselves] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if [they fail], at least fails while daring greatly…”

I have to admit something though.  During this sermon on vulnerability, when I’m attempting to share the growth and vitality that comes from taking risks, of being vulnerable and “daring greatly,” I feel compelled to confess something to you.  I’ve had a full week, including a board retreat Friday evening and all day Saturday, and the closer it got to this morning, the more I didn’t want to write anything.  The closer it got to Sunday, the more my resistance grew.

You see, I want to be a good preacher and I want to be a good minister to you.  And in this context, “good” means that the stories I share are deep and profound and transformative, and that you leave any service where I preach inspired, and shaking your heads in amazement at my creativity, the depth of my insight, and the power of my preaching.  I want to touch each of you, each and every Sunday, at the deepest level of your being, whether you are atheist, pagan, humanist, theist, Buddhist, mystic or agnostic.  And when I feel I am not able to give you that level of profound preaching, I am not a “good” minister, because anything less than that means I am a failure.

Sometimes I feel as though I am living in that joke where the guy wakes up on a Sunday morning and says to his wife, “I don’t want to go to church. It’s too early in the morning, nobody likes me, and the sermons are boring.”  And the wife says in response, “Oh stop complaining. It’s not that bad. Nobody hates you…and besides, you’re the minister, you have to go!”

When we are feeling scared and vulnerable, it is so easy to do what John Lennon and Paul McCartney said, to “hide your love away.” [This was the song for the offering]   You can easily feel that hiding away your love and vulnerability is natural. In fact, you might even call it being healthy.  Now in some cases that’s true, because I am NOT saying that if you ever feel threatened by someone that you should just open yourself up to them anyway. In those instances of abuse and cruelty, whether physical, verbal or emotional, it makes the most sense and it IS healthy to be savvy and aware, and to make sure you find ways to keep yourself safe.

But part of our human task, especially as people of good will, and especially as people of good will who say we want to live in a welcoming and beloved community, is to cultivate ways we may remove some of our acquired defenses and share with one another the deeper and more intimate parts of our lives.

Why? You might ask. “Why is it part of our human or religious task to open ourselves – first to our self and then to others?”

Because at the very bottom we get to feeling alone and isolated.  We get to feeling we are the only one who feels the way we do, who feel the feelings of failure, incompetence or stupidity.  And we move into feelings of shame because we haven’t yet found a way around or through those feelings of isolation, failure, incompetence or stupidity.  Being vulnerable is what helps us to see the humanity in another person.

One thing that helps me write each week and get up each Sunday morning and come to church is that I know each person has their own deep fears and feelings of shame.  I know I’m not the only one struggling.  Now, I may not know what your challenge is.  You may never have even talked to me about what it is you struggle with.  And most likely, whatever it is that you struggle with is going to be different from what I struggle with.  But I approach each Sunday trusting that someone in the congregation is hurting from something.

In 2005, in the fall after I graduated from seminary, I began work nearby here in St. Louis Park as a Chaplain Resident at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital.  I was with four other chaplains from four other faith traditions, and together we were in the one-year program in Clinical Pastoral Education, or what we refer to in shorthand as “CPE.”  Essentially, the process of that program involved putting our hearts on a table while our colleagues and supervisor picked through our deepest resistance and fear, then exposed our fears and pain, and in the end, gave us the tools to talk and converse with our own fear and pain rather than be held captive by our fear and pain.

While we were there, all the employees had to park a short distance away in a parking lot, and then we would take a shuttle bus to the hospital.  At the beginning of the year I remember sitting on that shuttle and feeling incredibly insignificant, even stupid.  Here I was, every day, sitting in the midst of this busload of nurses and doctors and social workers and anesthesiologists who were saving people’s lives every day, and for the most part fixing them and sending them home better. And there I was, doing what? Just talking about what people believed?

But through that year I learned that the other chaplains and I were the only ones in the hospital whose job it was to sit in the midst of people’s pain without running away or attempting to fix it.  We were the ones who remained in the room after the doctor left; we were the ones who sat with the patients and their families as they grappled with a new diagnosis of a terminal illness; we were the ones who had the time to sit with the patients who were in the hospital in the aftermath of yet one more alcoholic binge.

And it wasn’t only the patients.  Throughout the course of the year I slowly got to talk with and know some of the nurses and doctors and social workers and anesthesiologists, and every once in a while these brilliant and successful people who were saving lives every single day would share with me some little piece of their life: how one had lost a parent and wondered how they’d make it through the world without them; how another was fearful of the bad decisions they saw their children making and wondered if they had ever been a good parent; how another struggled with their weight and body image and wondered if they could ever be loved.  By the end of the year, every day when I rode that shuttle bus to and from the parking lot, I began to see not monolithic one-dimensional heroes on a pedestal, but full, three-dimensional, whole and loveable people who had just as many fears and feelings of incompetence as I did.  And not only that, I began to see in myself the strengths and capacities I never knew I had – or perhaps just never trusted them very much.

This is what I see when I look out from this pulpit each Sunday morning. I see people who are amazing – people who guide others through legal mazes, who help others get the right insurance, who help people get fed, the loud ones who make others laugh, the quiet ones who help others find calmness, the ones who help save lives, the ones who create, who push paper, who teach, who inspire, who raise children or look after parents or take care of animals. And…I see imperfect people, people with shame, regret, pain and fear.  I see people, not in spite of but because of their imperfection, who are more full, more whole, more lovable people.

A short time ago the spiritual writer Anne Lamott wrote, “The truth is, everyone worth his or her salt – all your very best people – feel broken, stunned, overwhelmed and defection some of the time…[So what I want and need] to hear [is for] someone remind me that if I want to have loving feelings, I need to do loving things. I want someone to make me laugh about our shared humanity and cuckooness; I want someone to remind me that laughter is carbonated holiness…I just want to hear that I’m loved and chosen and welcome, no matter what a mess I’ve made of things, or how defective I still feel sometimes.”

This is one of the great opportunities our church offers every day, every year!  No matter what mess someone makes, we have the chance here in our communal spiritual practice of approaching one another with good will to offer grace and forgiveness.  We have the opportunity to laugh about our shared humanity.  And we have the chance, each time we are together, to remind one another that if we want to have loving feelings, we need to do loving things.

In her book, Daring Greatly, the title which she gets from the 1910 speech given by President Theodore Roosevelt, Brene Brown says:

“Vulnerability is not weakness – and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional.  Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.”

The process of change, the process of transformation, sometimes takes a while, and as hard as it is, it requires risk, patience, grace and forgiveness. Certainly we need it from others if we are to grow in community, but the transformation is deeper and more lasting when we find a way to give ourselves patience and grace in the first place.

It is important to remember, though, that to take risks in the first place requires trust – or at least a trust that trust will grow.  When we offer a space for failure, that helps us grow in our ability to take risks and helps us grow in our capacity to trust one another.

“Uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure…are not optional.  Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.”

We may have weakness, but we are not our weakness.  We may have brokenness, but we are not our brokenness.  This year we will have an abundance of opportunity to take risks, to share where we feel weak or broken, to grow in trust, and to practice forgiveness, and to dare greatly.  In the process we will clarify our common purpose by engaging in a spiritual practice of vulnerability.  You are not alone.  We are not alone.  This congregation, this sanctuary, is our shuttle bus on the way to great fulfilling risk, and we are in this together.


White Males with Feelings of Entitlement are the Greatest Terrorist Threat to America

In response to the recent mass murder terrorist act, the murder of nine black people by a white supremacist, I am heartbroken, I am angry, and I am frustrated at the continued attempts of some conservative people and groups to do everything in their power NOT to label this as a racist act borne of a systemic racial system that supports white privilege, but instead to describe this act as somehow “anti-Christian” or the work of some lone deranged boy.

So today, June 19, 2015, in honor of Juneteenth (the anniversary of the day slaves were freed after the Civil War), and as one small memorial for the murder of nine black lives, and for the record, let us not fool ourselves as a nation, and let us be clear: it is white male shooters who pose the greatest terrorist threat to this nation. White males who feel entitled and untouchable and self-righteous.

While movies and the media portray “gang-banging” black males as dangerous thugs whose only joy in life is creating violence for others, the reality of white male terrorism…reaching back to the earliest moments of the slave trade, to white masters raping their black female slaves, to lynchings and the KKK, to Timothy McVeigh, to the high school shootings carried out by white boys, to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre, to the recent motorcycle gang murders…is much different.

And here we have another one, Dylann Roof, a white male who felt entitled, who was *invited in* to join in with the prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who sat with these people *for an hour* and then stood up and started shooting, killing nine black people. And instead of being called a “thug” or a “terrorist,” he is called “mentally ill.” Because when a black person commits violence, they are a “thug” (the new socially acceptable term for the n-word) and part of an irresponsible and violent black culture, while when a white person commits violence they are “mentally ill” and are an anomaly, acting as a “lone wolf.” This also stigmatizes mentally ill people even further, by further associating them with violence, when people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime.  Because the shooter was white, and not a foreigner, news outlets immediately began using the phrase “mentally ill,” even before he was caught (caught, and not killed, because he is white), even before any proof has been made whether he acted alone, even before he is diagnosed by a doctor.

And after all this violence perpetuated by white people, there are people, largely or *only* white people as far as I can tell, who *still* believe we need to have more guns. When was the last time you saw a black man walking down the street with some sort of automatic or semiautomatic machine gun walking down the street, like white men like to do in Texas, and at Tea Party rallies, and in other open carry states? Because a black man would get arrested or gunned down the moment he stepped out of his house if he carried one, while a white man is just “acting out his constitutional rights.”  There is no such thing as “gun rights” for black people.

As Jon Stewart recently said on “The Daily Show”: “I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount [racism in America]. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity…Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re not shit compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.”

And one of the many sad and painful pieces of this is that as a white male, I am part of the system that enjoys the white privilege this society gives to me, just by an accident of my birth – just as the nine who died in Charleston suffered the greatest loss, simply by an accident of their birth. And so as not to perpetuate white privilege by just listing the killer’s name and article about him, here are the victim’s names as well:

May we find a way to wake up, to see and admit our role in society’s system of privilege and racism, and call terrorism for what it is when we see it, and may we not act in violent retaliation that would perpetuate the violence, in order to prove that violence is wrong. May we find a peace that does not ignore the pain and anger of systemic racism and privilege, and may we find a justice that is not solely based on retaliatory mob rule. May we have communities that hold our pain and anger, and allow us to express it without having everything explode. And may we find a way to a society of sanity and one that, somewhere, somehow, and in many ways, expresses restoration, acceptance and love.