June 7, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“The Pace of Change”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 5
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
I feel like we are at a tipping point.
There was a popular book about this many years ago. Malcolm Gladwell talked about change, how we want to see things change, and we try to make things happen, but they don’t, until they do. Something happens, some pressure is applied, some straw is added and the camel’s back is broken. The tipping point.
One of the examples Gladwell used to make this clear was Paul Revere. How on the night when the “British were coming” there were two riders who warned the colonists. One rider went south; one rider went north. Revere went north and people came out and were ready; the other rider, a doctor, spread the same message on the same night, but no one listened, no one came out.
Revere it turned out was somewhat of a gadfly, a people person. When he said the British are coming, the message was received and trusted and effected change and risk and unity. The person was as important as the message when it comes to change.
For the last three months the voice and person many of us have turned to has been Governor Cuomo. Many times people have said to me, “I appreciate what he is saying and how he is saying it.” Coming from New York not too long ago, I can tell you that Andrew Cuomo was not always esteemed, but in this moment, during this pandemic his voice is somehow the one people follow.
We are only two weeks into the protests that have spread through the country, but I feel we need to find such a voice, a trusted voice that will help us navigate this moment. For a tipping point is a moment of huge change. And in our world already turned upside down, it seems we are finding it turned upside down yet again. It might just be me, but I feel the bizarre just became surreal. And that is what a tipping point does.
I heard a lot of voices this week. Watched a number of folks speak about the protests, about racism, about the police. Perhaps this happened to you too. I loved the one where a fellow talks about his life and what he loves and doesn’t love, all with the point of saying, before you call the police get to know me. It was a very powerful testimony.
The fellow who spoke reminded me of a conversation I had 30 years ago. I was talking with a classmate who is a pastor right now in Philadelphia. Kevin Porter is easily one of the nicest, kindest, humble, and gregarious people I have ever met. He is a lovely person. So I was confused when Kevin explained to me what happens when he walks down the street. Women clutch their bags or people move to the other side of the street to avoid him. “Why? I asked.” I just couldn’t imagine this and he said, that is what it means to be a black man.
Kevin walked me slowly and graciously to a place of understanding. He was patient with my confusion and how little I could imagine his experience. From what I know now it was a mark of his character that he took the time and with grace opened my eyes. Right now, I want to listen to Kevin speak, hear his wisdom in the moment; I want him to help me navigate this change, this tipping point.
I heard a lot of voices I didn’t like this week. This is a moment of profound anger and we say hurtful things when we are angry. There was a story in the Times this week about a police officer weeping after being asked again and again, “how do you live with yourself?”
The scene reminded me of a corrections officer at a prison who was escorting me to a classroom where I was going to teach. Most of the officers chatted me up each week as we walked, some of the chat was mundane, some serious. But this one officer had us linger for a time so he could vent and express his anger. I will never forget the last thing he said to me, “this job makes you evil.”
A few nights ago I reached out to a friend whose husband is a deputy sheriff. John Gleason is the salt of the earth, he is wonderful father, sings in the choir, truly goes out of his way to protect and serve. A number of years ago John shared with me how he started to cry when my wife waved at him with delight when she realized who it was him sitting in the patrol car. He shared it was so surprising that someone was happy to see him.
I want to hear from John right now. Listen to what he says. His voice is important if true and lasting change is to come of all the protests and demonstrations and marches. If George Floyd’s death and killing of Ahmaud Arbery is to bring lasting change, if this is a tipping point, we will need people like John to be a partner, an example.
Rabbi Rosin called me this week and asked if I would be in a zoom call with him and Rev. Owens and Imam Saddiqi. I could tell that Eric wanted to hear other voices just like I did. He recorded the conversation and it is on YouTube I believe. Before we got started Ron Owens shared stories with us about the times he was with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said, “he was quite the short man, a chain smoker. He was a listener; didn’t talk much. But when he spoke, everybody listened.”
We took turns listening to each other. The questions were simple: what is it you want to say; what are you experiencing? I shared with them that I am feeling very hopeful. Hopeful. I believe we are at a tipping point where great change is going to come. I confessed to them that for me this hopefulness began five years ago.
Five years ago I was in a place of great cynicism about social justice, national direction, progress shall we call it. I had found a place of quiet resignation. I believed that we as individuals could become slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but I no longer believed that such a way of life was possible for communities, for nations. And then, there was for me a tipping point.
Part of it came from hearing myself as I argued with our daughter Zoe. She is a believer in social change and I was making clear to her in very brilliant reasonable arguments that such change is an illusion. The only real change is within the individual heart. It wasn’t anything she said in response to this, it was the look of sadness in her eyes. My hope made her sad.
Tipping points seem to have a lot of things that come together at one time.
Another moment five years ago where my cynicism gave way was when the confederate flag was lowered on the statehouse in South Carolina. I remember this like it was yesterday. After the killings in a church in Charleston, there was a rumor that the confederate flag was going to come down and I distinctly remember scoffing and assuring a friend, “that will never happen.” And then it did. Even though the flag was 150 years late in coming down, it came down. I remember being hopeful for us, as a people, as a nation in a way I had long forgotten.
What brought all these moments together this week for me was reading over a eulogy given by Barack Obama five years ago. He traveled Charleston to speak to the community heartbroken by the senseless deaths of nine worshippers on a Sunday morning. His eulogy is remembered more for how he concluded his remarks. He sang Amazing Grace, slowly, haltingly, lovingly. It was as beautiful as the moment was tragic.
Reading over his remarks though I found the voice I had been looking for these last two weeks, a calm assuring call to rise above brokenness. He called the worshippers and the nation to see this moment of sadness as a mercy. We could stop and look and listen for our better selves for the hope that heals us. And then he said something that truly caused me to venture back, to remember the hope born five years ago. He said, before we return to our silent complacency, let’s look at what we could be. Before we return to our silent complacency.
I shared with Eric and Ron and Farhan, I don’t believe I did return. Something was unsettled at that moment that has made complacency no longer an option. The thing about tipping points is that things change. It’s not magic or all at once, it is that life now goes in a different direction.
I tried to explain this different direction from our reading today. To turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to give the coat and the cloak, to lend with no expectation of return, all of these resist the temptation of vengeance, moving beyond hatred and an eye for an eye. The change was this: where before I believed and rightly so that to resist the temptation of violence is a change of heart, and where I still believed that, five years ago I began to ask why are you making this change, for whom?
If you resist the temptation to strike back and turn the other cheek, for whom are you turning the cheek? If you go the extra mile, what do you hope to see in the end? If there is no one redeemed, no community made whole our change of heart is squandered. If we go through all the hard work of recognizing the shame and the violence and systemic racism, if we resist the temptations of anger and rage and violence begetting violence, what is it we hope to see?
This was the question President Obama begged us to ask five years ago. What is it we hope to see? It is an unsettling question. Rabbi Rosin posed it as we concluded our chat. The Rev. Dr. Owens said, I want people to see that we are friends. And then he invited himself over to my house for dinner, told me I could cook for him. There is a reason this man is held in such high esteem.
I can’t go back to the silent complacency, the quiet resignation I left behind. Just can’t. I had my tipping point and the old answers of change just don’t satisfy anymore. I will turn the cheek for you; I will walk the extra mile for us; I will give without expectation of return for our land, our nation. I will give my cloak so the demons and dragons don’t win this time.
I know what I want to see. I want to see the day no one has to explain systemic racism to my grandchildren like Kevin explained it to me; I want to see the day I don’t need to call John’s wife and remind him he is a beloved. Let us turn the other cheek so we may see in our nation the impulse of hate become the impulse of compassion where we know until black lives matter, all lives are lost, our great experiment is ruined, and we are left with a legacy unworthy of the gift we have been given. I know what I want to see. Amen.
- Exodus 34:1 - 9
- Matthew 5:38 - 42