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Choosing the Hard Path – 4/21/2013

Two and a half millennia ago, the forces of the city of Athens took the field against an invading army near the town of Marathon. The Athenians were outnumbered and the battle was to determine the fate of their city. Once the violence was through and the outcome was decided, legend has it that a messenger ran immediately back to Athens, a distance of more than twenty-five miles. His message was so important that he did not stop until he reached his destination and died of exhaustion, just after delivering the critical news: “We won!”

The modern practice of the marathon, an endurance footrace roughly the same length as the distance from that ancient battle site and the city of Athens, is a ritual that connects its participants and celebrants to that far away moment. Divided by geography and time, the racers and the crowds are united by a shared experience. There is a critical difference, of course, between the modern practice and its ancient origin: no one is supposed to die. And this made the violence at Monday’s marathon in Boston just a little bit more profound in its wrongness.

The world was inverted; the normal course of events turned on its head. We who live in the US are accustomed to seeing images of death and destruction in busy and distant cities: in Baghdad, Belfast, Bogota, Beirut – but Boston comes with neither the comfort of distance nor of strangeness. It is a place intimately and horrendously known. Many of us work in the neighborhood of the finish line; several years ago I did too, and I would often walk a few blocks down Boylston to visit the public library. Looking at news reports, I saw familiar landmarks obscured by people running for their lives and places where I had stood before spattered with blood. The pain and the loss, magnified by proximity was also twisted and contorted by this disorientation: the common way of things grossly distorted.

Sometimes, when there is a report in Western media on some terrible, violence far from here, explanation is required about a particular practice of the people there. During the Vietnam War Walter Cronkite had to explain to the viewers at home that the Tet festival was a celebration of the lunar new year, traditionally a time of truce, and this was part of why the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese proved so effective. During the Iraqi civil war, when Sunni militias began targeting Shi’a pilgrims with bombs, reporters would spare a sentence or two to explain that Iraq is the site of several of the holiest shrines in the Shi’a tradition, and sees a year-round flow of people traveling there on pilgrimage. This week, those sorts of explanations were made not about someone else’s religion or regional cultural practices, but about our own. Newscasters reviewed the history of the Boston Marathon, the quaint local festival of Patriot’s Day, the fact that a Red Sox home game usually coincides with the race. Suddenly journalists who normally cover state budget negotiations became war correspondents. Suddenly anyone who took their cell phone with them on a sunny outing downtown became a frontline photographer.

Shellshocked and reeling, the city started to mourn – we read the heartbreaking accounts of lives lost and limbs broken. Every conversation began with a hushed, “How are you? Did you know anyone who was…?” It all would have been horribly surreal enough – and then Friday happened. Fugitives, gunfights, house-to-house searching, and the beating heart of New England stopped. The pictures of empty streets like something out of a movie starring Will Smith or Bruce Willis. Perhaps you remained above the minute-to-minute fray and did not allow yourself to be absorbed in the frightful commotion. I, however, confess I had my ear glued to the radio, refreshing the Boston Globe website and following the Facebook updates of friends and acquaintances in Watertown and Cambridge. Trying to find out everything that was going on and praying that no one else would die.

Now we are a day after the great rush of catharsis, the applause at the end of a dramatic manhunt, and the spontaneous street-celebrations which in my neighborhood marked the end of the fear of spontaneous gunfire and explosions with fireworks. What meaning are we to take from all of this? If all that we can hold in mind about the week just past is the death and the fear of it, then there is no meaning to be made here, because murder is an act that destroys purpose and possibility rather than creating it. Yet I do find a profound lesson in what I and you and just lived through. It is connected to the spectacular and humble demonstrations of human beings acting humanely towards one another in the aftermath of evil – people rending their clothes to make tourniquets to save the lives of strangers and running towards explosions that every impulse of self-preservation should force you away from. But the lesson is different from the irrefutable observation that the cruelty necessary to spark such a tragedy is dramatically outperformed by the compassion people show to one another in a crisis. Others, after all, have born witness to this far more effectively than I can.

I am about to make a very sharp turn in my remarks here, and I want to give you clear warning for it, because these past seven days have been filled with abrupt turns and reversals with no warning at all. When I first began planning this sermon months ago, it was intended as a reflection on the story of Ethelred Brown, a figure from Unitarian history. On Monday afternoon, I thought that I should abandon this topic for now far more pressing matter at hand, but over the course of the week I came back around again. First, because I began to see a relationship between Rev. Brown’s life and this particular moment in which we find ourselves, and second because his story is far less well-known

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to us than other figures from our history partially because its telling has been put off too many times. So let me tell you, then, a little something about Ethelred Brown.

Egbert Ethelred Brown was the first person of African descent – the first black man – to be ordained to the Unitarian ministry in America. He grew up in Jamaica in the last quarter of the 19th century. He was raised an Episcopalian and felt drawn to the vocation of religious leadership from a young age. As a child he would organize services and preach to an ad hoc congregation of friends and services. But he also found himself at odds with the church on theology – among other things, he found he couldn’t accept the doctrine of the Trinity. After learning of Unitarianism in America and reading about it, Ethelred became, in his own words, “a Unitarian without a church”. There was then no organized Unitarian presence in Jamaica.

Ethelred Brown sought to correct this. He wrote to Unitarians in America seeking counsel on how to enter the ministry. The reply from the president of the Unitarian seminary in Meadville, PA tried hard to discourage him from enrolling, reasoning a white congregation would only accept a white minister, and there were no black Unitarian congregations in America. Nonetheless, Ethelred persevered, and managed to make it to the United States and enroll in and complete seminary. He and his wife Ella founded the first Unitarian congregation in Jamaica, and they and their family eventually moved to New York City, where Ethelred established what came to be called the Harlem Unitarian Church.

Rev. Brown reached out to the official leaders and great figures of the American Unitarian movement throughout his more than forty years of ministry, seeking advice and moral and material support for his pioneering efforts. The response was sometimes strongly positive – the seminary president who originally tried to convince him not to apply eventually became a strong supporter – frequently tepid, and occasionally antagonistic. Ethelred’s sense that his faith had political implications, including the civil rights of African Americans and the liberation of Jamaica, didn’t sit well with some white Unitarian leaders. At one point he was removed from fellowship as a Unitarian minister, and was only reinstated with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and the threat of a lawsuit. The way that Ethelred Brown chose for himself was far from easy; he became a minister and founded and led congregations within a tradition that had made no place for him, and largely did not understand or appreciate him or his congregants. He fought, tooth and nail, to gain a place only barely on the periphery of that movement. He did all this despite the fact that at the same time he was being told off by the president of Meadville, he was being offered acceptance by leaders in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. That was a possible alternate path he might have taken at several points in his life. The AME Church is one of the oldest predominantly African American denominations in the United States – it might not have been a perfect fit for Ethelred, but there he would never have been a racial minority of one.[i]

Today, even when multiculturalism and anti-racism have moved to the center of our values, and it is possible – though let us not say easy – for a majority-white congregation to call a person of color as its minister, Ethelred Brown remains underappreciated in our modern movement. I tell you this not to scold us for who we have been, but to remind us of someone who has earned a place in the constellation of our spiritual ancestors. So though I more closely resemble the people who dismissed Ethelred Brown – and must find my own resolution to the contradiction of inheriting their legacy and privilege – I am also accountable to his example. And in that example I find a person who lived and worked and struggled from a profound sense of being a part of a group of people who largely ignored or rejected him. Even when everything was pushing against it, even when no one else saw it, he knew that he was connected to people who were different from him in many ways, but still shared something critical in common. And he did this even though he might have had more success, or at least suffered less hardship, had he chosen to align himself with some other movement.

Ethelred Brown was stubbornly determined to live out of a sense of connection even though it was hard, even though it was costly, even though it meant the frequent risk of disappointment as the connection was with people who did not feel that same connection in return. That is what speaks to me about the place where we find ourselves today. Violence creates a terrible intimacy. That’s part of why we see such compassion in the wake of tragedy: people figuratively and literally thrown together by the force of an explosion, giving and risking anything to help one another. But that intimacy stems from our vulnerability: it comes from the hard truth that our lives and the lives of the people we care about are extremely fragile. So when the smoke clears, the easiest thing to do is to run from that frightening connection. To choose a target, pick an enemy, and blot out the feeling of weakness with a show of strength. I don’t mean that there isn’t often a rational response to use force to protect life, but that necessary action can still serve as an escape, a way to avoid the larger implications of what we’ve just experienced.

There are lines that divide the place where I live, and work, and raise my children from other points all over the world, and for a few hours this week, they shattered. We seemed no longer divided from Waziristan, Chechnya, or Ciudad Juarez by geography or time. In the ringing of an explosion, in the cries of shock and grief, in the rush to stop the bleeding, in the sweat and hustle of the dash to save a life, the walls came down. The news reports were about my home this week, not someone else’s. This time, it was my community’s celebration that was desecrated. The people who died spoke a language that I speak. That doesn’t mean that I suddenly know what it is to live in Damascus or Kandahar, but for a moment the illusion of otherness, of separateness, was broken. For a moment it was plain to see that everywhere on this earth, all people share the same fragility, and across races and cultures and religions we share also the same impulse to respond to this fragility, this vulnerability, with acts of help and kindness.

So we have two paths before us. The first is the all out sprint to an assurance that we are not really that vulnerable after all. It is a sharp, abrupt reaction, like a hand snapping back after touching something hot. Following the little voice that lives in every heart and asks, “What must I do? How must I change? Who must I harm? What rights – mine or someone else’s – must I surrender for the promise that nothing like this will happen near me again?” This path would like to put everything back the way it was: where this sort of thing happened only in those sorts of places.

The second course, the harder path, is not a sprint – it’s a marathon. To accept and embrace the awareness of connection that comes from our vulnerability. To follow the voice that asks, “How can I make the fear less great? How can I make the pain less strong? How can I make death not the end of the story? Not just for myself – but for everyone?” It is not the way of easy answers, and it offers no promise that this won’t happen again. But of the two choices it is the one that is grounded in the truth – for in truth, we are all connected: we share the same earth, the same basic structure of our being and range of emotion. And we each have in us the power to do terrible and wonderful things. We can choose division, in which case our ability to destroy will be limited only by how much we are willing to separate ourselves from other people. Or we can choose connection, and our power to create will be bounded only by our shared sense of unity.

[i] For much more on Ethelred Brown, see Mark Morrison-Reed’s “Black Pioneers in a White Denomination” (1994).


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