everyday deeds of ordinary folk.

7 May

Everyday Deeds of Ordinary Folk
A sermon about Oppression by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on May 5, 2013

Moment for All Ages

The moment for all ages was the book The Juice Box Bully by Bob Sornson and Maria Dismondy. In this story, Pete starts at a new school. In his new classroom, all the children have made a promise to not be bystanders, to take care of themselves, each other, and their classroom.


Poor Pete. He had been picked on at his old school and he had learned to hurt others before he himself got hurt. What a blessing it must have been for him to end up in Mr. Peltzer’s class, where his inherent worth and dignity were affirmed and where the kids would not tolerate cruelty to anyone – even to a bully. Yay Mr. Peltzer – what a great teacher!

Starting today, our ministry theme for the month is “oppression.” On the back of your order of service are some quotes and reflection questions that you can use to help you think about oppression. Oppression and cruelty are similar and overlap, but they are not exactly the same. I used the story The Juice Box Bully because most young children can’t distinguish the difference. I am reminded of the story of a 2 year old telling her playground friends “Don’t oppress me!”

Cruelty is a component of oppression. However, anyone can be cruel to someone else. It takes authority or power over someone in order to oppress them. Oppression is the exercise of authority, or power, in a cruel and unjust manner.

In our story, if the teacher had been being cruel to the students, that would have been an example of oppression, because a teacher has authority and power over students. If bullying has been reported to a school and the school chooses to ignore it, the school becomes oppressive. Power can also mean physical power, so if Pete had kept going and used his physical prowess to bully the other students, that could have become oppression. Likewise, when we experience cruelty or injustice from a boss or higher-up at work, this can be an example of oppression.

We know oppression happens on a larger scale as well. Today is not only Cinco de Mayo (a celebration of the Mexican victory over France at the Battle of Puebla), it is also Holocaust Memorial Day – a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust, in which millions of Jewish people were brutally oppressed and murdered by the German Nazi regime.

We know oppression does not always involve genocide. The cause of the American Revolution is often understood as Americans fighting for liberation from British oppression.

And we know oppression is not only in the past. Today, women are oppressed in fundamentalist Islamic countries. In Uganda, gay, lesbian and bisexual people are oppressed and murdered because of their sexual orientation. Racial oppression still exists in the United States – if you doubt that let me share that my sermon about white privilege, which I posted online over a year ago, just yesterday received a comment by a local white supremacist who called me a traitor and a communist (I must be doing something right!) He identified himself as a white male – of course – and claimed to be oppressed on this basis. But this is NOT how oppression works: if you have power as a result of being part of the dominant culture, if you have nearly every privilege imaginable, if the vast majority of those in power in the government and in business are people like you, then you are probably not oppressed. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely prayed: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”

Persecution is a type of vioent, harassing oppression. But being contradicted is not. This leads to the question of what are some of the characteristics of oppression? There are four particular qualities of oppression I would like to talk about this morning.

First, oppression is a form of systemic evil. I spoke about evil a few weeks ago, and talked about it being connected to lack of empathy. In that sermon, I briefly mentioned systemic evil, and said I would talk about it today, because systemic evil and oppression go hand in hand.

Systemic evil refers to a complex system or process, in which each small activity may seem harmless. Yet, the output of the system, the product of connecting the individual actions together, becomes harmful and cruel. For example, the March 2013 issue of Louisville Magazine has an excellent set of articles that detail the way the residents in the West End, primarily African Americans, are constantly and consistently oppressed in a complex cycle that continues to get worse. The infant mortality rate for African-Americans in Louisville is more than twice that for white residents. The death rate for African-Americans in Louisville is 39% higher than for white residents, for all causes of death. When you limit your cause of death to specific diseases, like lung cancer or diabetes, you are twice as likely to die of the disease if you are African American. There are many layers to this systemic evil: lack of access to healthcare, lack of access to healthy food, poor schools, consistently cut public transportation service, depressed real-estate values, lack of job opportunities, to name just a few. Each year, it seems, more decisions are made that marginalize and oppress the people in the West End. These decisions, taken individually, may not seem so bad, but combined together result in a systemic evil that is harmful and oppressive.

Second, the effects of oppression can be enduring: they don’t go away when the obvious oppression ends. The student who was bullied may suffer from longterm physical or emotional harm depending on the type and duration of the mistreatment. The plight of Native Americans in this country is testament to how damaging oppression can be to a culture. Even though official discrimination and oppression against Native Americans has been illegal for many years, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example, the school dropout rate is 70% and 97% of the residents live below the federal poverty rate. The unemployment rate is between 83-85%. The average life expectancy is only 45 years old, and the infant mortality rate is about 300% higher than the U.S. national average.1The legacy of oppression endures for generations.

The third aspect of oppression that I want to touch on today is that oppressors are also damaged in the process. Booker T. Washington famously said “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.” Misogyny hurts men because when one of the worst put-downs to a man is to call him a woman, then a man feels he must repress his emotions and anything else that might be labeled as “feminine,” stunting personal growth and prohibiting true intimacy. Similarly, homophobia hurts heterosexual people: men in particular learn to avoid physical affection with other men and any other actions that might be construed as “gay.” Racism towards people of color hurts white people because whites may experience a sense of being cut off from, of not belonging with, or being welcomed by, people of color (who are a majority of the world’s population).

We have talked about this before: when we objectify someone or some group of people as “other,” we have to wall off a part of our brain that feels empathy and compassion for that group of people, which can cause a cognitive dissonance because we are trying to hold in our minds competing, conflicting ideas as truth. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere observes “This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.”

Of course, Friere’s quote, when taken out of context like this, makes it seem as though it is the responsibility of the oppressed to liberate themselves. But this responsibility also lies with those of us who are not oppressed. This is the fourth characteristic of oppression I want to touch on this morning: It is our moral obligation, our duty, to work to free both those oppressed and their oppressors because we are all a part of the interdependent web of existence and I cannot be spiritually whole unless you are too.

It can be difficult, though, to know where to begin when we struggle against oppression – whether to free ourselves or someone else. We may feel as though we have to do something BIG. But Gandalf the Grey Wizard reminds us in the movie “The Hobbit”, that while some might believe that “only great power that can hold evil in check” but that is not what he has found. Gandalf says “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

The class in “The Juice Box Bully” gives us some ways that we can implement these small everyday deeds into our lives. The class had made a set of promises to themselves. Four of their promises can give us pointers as to where to begin when we fight against oppression.

First, we will not be bystanders. Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely observed, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” The silence by the good people is, in part, explained by the bystander effect, which says that the more people there are around to witness a crime, the less likely any of the witnesses are to do something about it.

This is a powerful tool for fighting against oppression – to not just stand by and watch, or cover our eyes, when we see oppression happening, but to name it. We don’t have to dive right into the middle of a war or a fight or an abusive situation, but we can make sure that we stand up and call oppression for what it is. Silence makes us complicit and part of the problem. It is easy for those of us in privileged positions to ignore how our actions, or lack thereof, can lead to oppression, but we do this at our own harm.

This leads to the second thing we can do in our everyday lives to battle oppression: we can choose to not participate in oppression. Now, this one is often easier said than done. We make decisions every day that have an impact on others. It is virtually impossible to live in the United States without being complicit in the oppression of others elsewhere in the world. But we can pay attention and choose avoid it wherever possible.

I cannot help but think of the collapse of the clothing factory in Bangladesh last week. Over 700 people were killed when the poorly built 8-story building collapsed under the weight of overcapacity and heavy machinery. There are many such factories in Bangladesh and around the world, funded by the demand for cheap clothes in places such as the United States. Western retailers put heavy pressure on companies for low prices, resulting in bad pay and poor conditions for workers.

So that cheap t-shirt that I bought last month at the discount store, a t-shirt which was likely made in some sweatshop factory with terrible working conditions, connects me directly to the human beings who made the t-shirt, connects me to their working conditions, connects me to their lives. But knowledge is power. Now that I know how my clothing choices affect people on the other side of the world, I can choose be more careful. Now that I know how low-wage laborers are exploited in coffee plantations, I can choose to buy fair-trade. Whenever we are made aware of how we are participating in oppression, we can work to stop being complicit in such activities.

Which leads to a third way we can work against oppression in our everyday lives: we can forgive ourselves and others when we fail. Because we will – usually unintentionally. What we know about systemic evil is that the cogs in the machinery often don’t realize until too late their role in oppression. If we demonize ourselves or others when we fail, we dehumanize them, which just feeds into the cycle. Instead, forgive even the bully, make it clear that the behavior won’t be tolerated in the future, and move once again toward right relations.

Which is not as easy as it may sound. So the final way we can work against oppression in our everyday lives that I want to touch on this morning is to ask for help and join with others. When we speak together in the world, our voices are magnified. And besides, oppression is all around us and it can be lonely and demoralizing and exhausting to try to tackle it on our own. We need one another when our strength or endurance fails. As Margaret Mead wisely said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

In these ways, we can act with love and compassion to overcome oppression. Because oppression is a form of systemic evil with long lasting repercussions that harms both the oppressed and the oppressor, we understand it is our moral obligation and human responsibility to work to create the beloved community with peace, liberty and justice for all. For every great leader for a cause, there are hundreds, thousands, or even millions of everyday folks who go about their lives, working against oppression in small ways, speaking up for themselves and for others. Like the kids who speak up when they see someone being hurt or bullied. Or the DMV clerk a friend of mine witnessed, who would not allow a husband to answer questions for his obviously dominated wife. Or the black and white students in Georgia who, for the first time ever in their county this year, bucked tradition and put on an integrated prom. Everyday deeds of ordinary folks can create a culture of love and compassion, which truly can save us from systemic evil and oppression. May it be so. May we make it so.

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