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ME TOO

A sermon by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, January 21, 2018

Yesterday, in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Saint Louis, to towns like Ann Arbor and Wausau, and in hundreds of other cities throughout our nation, Women’s Marches took place. Stephanie Bazirjian, of New York City, said she was marching “for the DACA people, for minorities, for hard-working immigrants, for women.” Ayesha Hamilton, of New Jersey, said she chose to march “because the women’s movement needs momentum and energy, because our daughters and their daughters should not have to worry about equal pay or assault in the work place.” Last I checked, over 85,000 women registered for the march in NYC alone; and there’s almost no way to count the actual number of participants, but I’m sure it’s in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. There’s a reason so many women are marching in our nation’s streets.

Lately, I’ve read a lot about people who have been the victims of sexualized violence and assaults.

The #MeToo Movement that started a few months back is still ongoing. Many people, women especially, have picked up their respective microphones and told their stories, claimed their truth; and thus, reclaimed or perhaps, proclaimed their agency and worth.

Though they’ve been few, I’ve heard some complaints that these instances of public testimony have been too confrontational. If I’m being charitable with that opinion, as I try to be with points of view I disagree with, then I suppose I understand if what they’re offended by is the atrocious act itself, and not the brave woman telling her story. And if that’s the case, then all of us should complain of having been “confronted” as well, but for different reasons.

It is certainly distressing to hear people recount stories of abuse. It’s equally terrifying to learn, as we have in the past few months, that, time and again, many men accused of violating women were often protected by rings of secrecy, and their crimes were hidden by sinful systems that allowed these kinds of injustices to carry on, in some cases, for decades.

For me, as a brother to two sisters, a son to a loving mother, a very lucky husband to a powerful woman, and, finally, the father to a spunky six-year-old, this #MeToo Movement has taught me a humbling lesson; and “humbling” probably isn’t even the right word. Since the movement began, I’ve learned that almost every adult woman in my life has been the victim of sexual assault, and most of them have been so more than once.

Horrifying still is the fact that almost every woman I have ever known has been a victim of sexual assault, or worse.

Less than 24 hours after the #MeToo Movement started, in mid-October 2017, there were more than 12 million “#MeToo” posts on Facebook. Following that watershed event, Facebook released data stating of its nearly 2.1 billion users, “45 percent of [them] had friends who posted ‘me too.’” But this movement didn’t start and end there. In fact, it has started a revolution. And if you need proof of the revolution you should have been at the 400 Block yesterday to hear that most of the people running for public office in this country are women.

One of the most extraordinary effects of this movement has been the amount of justice it’s inspired. Some of the most powerful men in Hollywood, business, academia, and politics have been punished for deeds they’ve tried to keep secret for years. There have been forced resignations and firings all because of this powerful moment of truth and justice at work in our society.

As a result of this revolution, conversations about consent and agency fill the news cycle. Nearly every major opinion writer, for almost every major publication has responded with editorials celebrating the arrival of this moment; and the celebration hasn’t been relegated to one side of the socio-political aisle or the other; it’s people on the left and the right who are cheering this movement on.

What’s being celebrated is the justice this movement is creating, and its ability to usher in a new era of respect and dignity in human relations. It’s almost as if we are literally watching as the needle moves further towards equality and retribution. So many of the participants in yesterday’s march were young women. This movement has spawned conversations about sexual intimacy, urging all of us, especially men, to consider physical intimacy as something sacred, something tied to our very souls.

It’s teaching us grownups what some of us appear to have forgotten learning in preschool: that “yes” means yes and “no” means no.

What this movement demands is respect – it demands us to hear women through the centuries women who have told us, time and again, I contain multitudes. Women are not objects, they are human beings, deserving of every access and privilege as men.

The great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, in his essay “A Defence of Poetry”: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Seems to me that all this progress and change is mostly a result of courageous women, and therefore the unofficial legislators of the world are, in fact, women. Perhaps it’s time they become the official ones, but I digress.

As a result of this movement people are waking up. Furthermore, the fact that this problem is so widespread should challenge every one of us to recognize that these events are not separate from us, but rather, they are a part of us. It’s not just people in Hollywood and national politics that are telling their truths, it’s women of all walks of life, in all workplaces; it’s people in our restaurants, big box stores, and churches; it’s our mothers and sisters, our daughters and friends.

And, as people of faith, it is our duty to respond. This hour is a call to action, a calling that questions our dedication to life and joy, family and intimacy, and justice and truth. Furthermore, as the living embodiment of our living tradition here in Wausau, there are people who look to us to lead the struggle for greater justice and equality. How do I know people are looking at us? Hang tight, I’ll tell you.

Just this past Monday, on January 15, People for the Power of Love chose our congregation as the first ever recipient of the Love in Action Award at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Banquet. The award celebrates our church’s commitment to social justice, and also what we symbolize to the community: justice, equity, and most of all, hope.

Furthermore, the award was a recognition of the Rev. Laurie Bushbaum’s unwavering commitment to championing justice for all people, especially those who are forced to the margins of society: immigrants, minority groups, and all others who suffer from being uncared for in times of hunger, oppression, and disregard.

What Laurie, this church, and our greater religious movement share is a willingness to have hard conversations and engage in the hard work of justice making. But doing so isn’t easy. It’s hard to listen as someone describes what it’s like to be a victim of injustice. It’s hard to listen as someone tells you about the death of their loved one who died or was forever damaged because of gun violence, or police brutality, or insufficient access to medical treatment. It’s hard to listen as someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted. But as hard as it is to learn of such horrors, try imagining what it’s like to be a victim. We listen and we act because that’s what our faith demands.

Our faith demands that, like Dr. King, we say “together” when others say “separate”; it demands that we say “peace” when others say “war”; that we say “love” when others say “hate”; and it demands that we keep showing up.

Dr. King believed “That our world is in dire need of a new organization – the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.” We must resist the urge to wait for others to do the work for us. We must resist the urge to give into despair. And we must resist the urge to assume we’re not enough. Being maladjusted is proof that you’ve opened your heart to the world; that you haven’t turned away.

Dr. King’s conviction is that “Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”

After I was presented the award and started to make my way off stage a small group of people stopped to congratulate me. A man in the midst of the well-wishers took my hand and said, “Our eyes are on you, and our hearts are with you.” On a personal level, I feel challenged and, if I’m honest, somewhat frightened of those words. It’s intimidating to know that people look to you as a defender of justice and equity. But I refuse to give into my fear. I refuse to give into my fear because I believe in all of you.

I believe that each and every one of you are capable of moving that needle from injustice to justice, and seeing, in the words of the great Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, “a continual and progressive triumph of the right.”

What makes the #MeToo Movement so extraordinary is that it has proven, once again, that if we put away childish things we will be confronted with the truth that when others live lives of freedom our own freedom is amplified.

We recognize that human sexual relations are as sacred as life itself. After all, all human life is a byproduct of someone’s sexual relating.

We must recognize that for as much progress as this movement has achieved, there is still a lot of work to be done. It’s going to take us all.

Congratulations on your award. You certainly earned it. Now, let’s keep earning it.

#MeToo. Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Alexandra S. Levine, “New York Today: The Women’s March Returns,” January 19, 2018, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/nyregion/new-york-today-womens-march-nyc.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.cbsnews.com/amp/news/metoo-more-than-12-million-facebook-posts-comments-reactions-24-hours/.

[4] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69388/a-defence-of-poetry.