Truth and Meaning: Mold in the Cellar

The first time I exited Business 10 onto Patrick, I saw the sign: “Midland: City of Modern Explorers.” I remember feeling hopeful that my new home would be progressive and warm. Since then, I have met many friendly and caring people in Midland. I have befriended future-oriented, justice-seeking people in the area. Midland offers amenities of a city many times its size, and is a great place for parents to raise their children.

But under the foundation of the City of Modern Explorers grows a mold. It spreads during the cold dampness of night in the sickly detritus of decay. It eats away at our compassion and understanding. It mocks our modern, forward focus and stifles our exploring nature with fear and bigotry.
Unless we explore our own cellar, we might live unaware of this destructive cancer. If we dismiss the stench of hate and the foul erosion of community, then our City of Modern Explorers may well become a hollow shell of platitudes build on the sandy ground of empty promises.
Recently, a thief vandalized the flag pole in front of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship that I serve, and stole flags representing our public witness. This was the third time in recent months that someone has taken flags from our property. One flag was the flag of our faith – the chalice of Unitarian Universalism. The others were symbols of our support of equality for gay, bisexual and transgender people. The police shrugged the act off as random nuisance. I do not.
Since moving here, I have inspected Midland’s basement and exposed the mold growing in its shadows. This malignant rot wants to stay hidden and so it attacks in the only way it knows – through intimidation, bullying, insinuation, and taunts. The mold tells you what you want to hear – that everything is alright and that you don’t need to change anything.
I ask you to ignore this lie, because we do need to change something in Midland. If we care about this city, then we need to confront this infestation in our cellar and see it for what it really is. Corruption. Hypocrisy. Arrogance. Evil. If we want Midland to remain a bastion of science and reason, of education, and of family activities and love, then we need to put on our haz-mat suits and enter the basement.
After our flags disappeared, the Midland Daily News published an article about the crime. It did not take long for the mold to spread its spores, suggesting that my congregation had committed this act ourselves as a public relations ploy. I challenged the author to offer proof of his allegation, which of course he could not. In response, however, he posted this black and white image on my Rev. Jeff Liebmann public figure page on Facebook.

The image sickened me. I hope you can forgive me for feeling the urgency to share this foul drawing with you. In particular, I hope that my Jewish brothers and sisters will forgive sharing such an all too familiar drawing. But, I have read much about propaganda and the growth of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. The image clearly intends to mimic similar posters created by the Nazis to rile up Antisemitism among the German people, posters like the one shown, which was printed by the Nazis for use in Russia. Look at the two images. Compare the features of the figure, unmistakably meant to mock Jewish people and make it possible to hate them and blame them for social problems. One is more than 80 years old. The other is barely a toddler.
This is how propaganda works. The message attacks people at the fringes, those whose numbers are too small to defend themselves effectively – the Other. Propaganda blames all social woes on the Other, shouting that the Other is inferior and therefore undeserving of our compassion or sympathy. When we see these messages, we might be tempted to write them off as perhaps objectionable, but mostly harmless. Perhaps we discuss the limits of free speech and how we define hate speech. But, in the end, we avoid the conflict and wait for the event to blow over and be forgotten.
Unfortunately, such images are not harmless, nor are they forgotten – and they ARE hate speech. They are not harmless, because some people actually believe the message. They believe the message and the mold slowly takes hold of their souls. They are hate speech because they are cowardly lies fabricated by people raised to believe that they are superior and that their interests matter more than the welfare of others. They are lies because they perpetuate discredited stereotypes and shun facts and evidence like sunlight.
As a religious person, I love my neighbors – all of my neighbors. I seek justice and equality for all people, whatever their culture or ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, immigrant or veteran status, level of ability, or religion. I do this because this is a principle of my faith, to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. So I witness publicly against expressions of hate, prejudice, and bigotry. I witness for the oppressed who cannot change the oppressive paradigms of society themselves. And I witness for you, so that you will know the nature of the disease infecting the foundation of our community.
The late social and civil rights activist Julian Bond once spoke at the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist Congregations at a lecture I was privileged to attend. He told this story. 

Two men are sitting by a river and see, to their great surprise, a helpless baby floating by. They rescue the child, and to their horror, another baby soon comes floating down the stream. When that child is pulled to safety, another baby comes along. 

As one man plunges into the river a third time, the other rushes upstream. “Come back!” yells the man in the water. “We must save this baby!”

“You save it,” the other yells back. “I’m going to find out who is throwing babies in the river and I’m going to make them stop!”

I am rushing upstream and ask you to join me. The mold eats away at Midland’s foundation every day, but we have the power to stop its spread. We can do this by proclaiming that all people should have equal rights regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Not special rights; equal rights. We can do this by proclaiming that Black Lives Matter; of course all lives matter, but right now we need to show that Black lives matter as much as our own. We can do this by loving our neighbors – all of our neighbors – whether they are Christian or Atheist, Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, Buddhist or Agnostic.
Most of all, we need to stand up to bullies and reveal them for what they are – damaged and insecure people nurtured with the stagnant waters of ignorance, the stifling heat of fear, and the cold oppressive brightness of privilege and prejudice.

Truth and Meaning: A Top 10 List That Matters

Last week, I talked about our love of top 10 lists. So, this week I offer my list of the top 10 things Americans need to do to restore sanity to our nation.

10. Labor – Establish a minimum wage that is a living wage. The endless attacks on labor undermine our economy and our democracy. No one should suffer wage or job discrimination for any reason and anyone willing to work should be able to live above the poverty line.
9. Health Care – Provide a basic level of medical and mental health care to every American once and for all. We should demand that politicians stop using our health and well-being as a political football.
8. Corporate Responsibility – Demand that the private sector pay its fair share of taxes and be held accountable when it misbehaves. Congress should overturn the Citizens United decision. The idea that a corporation has the rights of a person is not only illogical, it is social suicide.
7. Election Reform – Guarantee the unencumbered right to vote for every citizen by removing all restrictions to voting rights and making Election Day a national holiday. Enact comprehensive campaign finance reform and abolish all partisan gerrymandering, replacing current redistricting tools with common sense and reason.
6. Environment – Stop making the irresponsible assumption that petrochemical resources are unlimited. We should plan for a future where all people have access to food and clean water, and where we live sustainably.
5. Racism – Judging people by their skin color, ethnicity, or culture is a concept that has overstayed its welcome. Our mass incarceration of people of color in increasingly profit-oriented prisons is obscene. Immigrants need a clear and affordable path to citizenship.
4. Stupidity – People are free to ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence on any given topic. But we should keep such people out of positions of authority and decision making. We have tolerated know-nothings and deniers in our public discourse for too long. The Earth is round and circles the sun. Climate change is real. Sexual orientation is largely determined at birth. Evolution occurs. The world is billions of years old.
3. Guns – End our insane worship of guns. We have allowed violence and killing to be our number one national priority for far too long. We should make universal background checks mandatory and impose strict limits on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Open Carry and Stand Your Ground may have worked on the 19th century frontier — they do not work for 21st century America.
2. Life – We should become a truly life-sustaining nation. That means no more war, an end to capital punishment, zero tolerance for police brutality, and contraception and comprehensive sex education for all so that every child is wanted. More important, it means caring about the born — eliminate hunger, provide equal education opportunities, and provide jobs, housing and social safety nets for everyone.
1. Revolution – We cannot accomplish needed changes through incrementalism. We should seek nonviolent ways to catalyze large-scale changes quickly and effectively. That means grassroots movements for policy change, boycotts, dissent and other tools the people have at their disposal. And it especially means voting for the highest quality candidates and not just for anyone who happens to have a “D” or an “R” next to their names.

Truth and Meaning: Love and Marriage

In a few weeks, I hope to begin officiating weddings for all couples here in Mid-Michigan. When (not if) the U.S. Supreme Court rules Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, I will be running to the Midland County Courthouse to greet happy couples. Nothing would make me more jubilant that to be bombarded with requests to preside over glorious ceremonies of love and life.

As we have seen in dozens of other states, the earth will not stop revolving on its axis; the “traditional” family will not crumble; and people will not want to start marrying their dogs. All that will happen is that thousands of loving couples will finally have the rights and privileges that heterosexual couples take for granted.

These rights are not some dreaded “gay agenda.” In fact, when people learn about the injustices faced by gay and lesbian couples, they often wonder what took so long to break down these irrational barriers.

For instance:

  • In a same-sex marriage if one partner dies, the other partner is not entitled to bereavement leave from work, to file wrongful death claims, to draw the Social Security of the deceased partner or to automatically inherit a shared home, assets or personal items in the absence of a will.
  • Unlike heterosexual spouses, same-sex partners are usually not considered next of kin for the purposes of hospital visitation and emergency medical decisions.
  • Same-sex partners cannot cover their families on their health plans without paying taxes on the coverage, nor are they eligible for Medicare and Medicaid coverage. 
  • Same-sex couples are denied the automatic right to joint parenting, joint adoption, joint foster care and visitation for non-biological parents. In addition, the children of gay and lesbian couples are denied the guarantee of child support and an automatic legal relationship to both parents, and are sometimes sent a wrongheaded but real negative message about their own status and family.
  • Same-sex couples are excluded from special rules that permit married couples to buy and own property together under favorable terms, rules that protect married couples in their shared homes and rules regarding the distribution of the property in the event of death or divorce.
  • Gay and lesbian couples cannot file joint tax returns and are excluded from tax benefits and claims specific to marriage. In addition, they are denied the right to transfer property to one another and pool the family’s resources without adverse tax consequences.
These are just a small sampling of thousands of federal, state and local barriers faced by same-sex couples. Any reasonable person can look at these and see that denying these people the same rights and privileges of heterosexual couples is not only wrong, it is immoral.

In time, these injustices will not only go away, but we will wonder why we ever enforced them at all.

Truth and Meaning: Notoriety or Notorious?

When called to serve the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland, I was pleased to be moving to the City of Modern Explorers. I envisioned living someplace known for innovation, forward thinking and progress. People I spoke with talked proudly of Midland’s notoriety as a wonderful place to raise a family, a small city filled with the amenities of a larger metropolitan area.

Lately, however, Midland’s notoriety has become overshadowed. We continue to make national, even international news — but not for new inventions, or for cultural achievements. No, Midland has instead become notorious as a bastion of fundamentalist theocracy, intolerance and bigotry. And the latest addition to this sad list…hypocrisy.

The obsession of homophobic and transphobic public figures in our city is not simply disturbing, but a national embarrassment. And the recent revelation of a local minister decrying homosexuals while engaging in sexual discussions with men on a gay dating website colors the credibility of our community.

Beyond this announcement, the subsequent resignation of the clergy in question, and the unimaginable horror in the future for this family, lies another even more insidious evil that remains unaddressed. How many people have read his words, listened to his speech and felt confused and conflicted, and perhaps filled with self-hatred? How many families has this man “counseled” into dysfunction and broken relationships? How many gay teens have sunk into depression, even attempted suicide because their minister told them that they were sinful?

I feel for his wife and children. I can even find a small measure of sympathy for him. But I reserve most of my concern for the victims of his vitriolic attacks on gay and transgender people. I stand with gays and lesbians, bisexual, transgender, and queer folk and offer my support as they face routine discrimination and public shaming by public officials who lack the will to love their neighbors as themselves.

If you are gay and a minister has told you that you are an abomination, then find another minister. If you are a lesbian and have been shamed by your church as sinful, then seek out a welcoming congregation. If you are transgender and been told that your religion has no room for you, then look for a religion that embraces you. And if you are questioning and hear our representative in Lansing compare you to a pedophile, then join with us.

Midland, we should be sick and tired of being notorious for our intolerance of people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The time has come to enhance our notoriety once more. The time is now to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the class of people protected from discrimination in our city. And from now on, our religious and political leaders should know that hate speech is not free speech, and that ancient scriptures do not replace truths proven by verifiable research.

Truth and Meaning" Religion as Abuse

Spiritual practice provides us fulfillment in a world of chaos and sadness. Like an intimate relationship with a partner, spiritual practice connects us deeply with the awe and mystery of existence. Whether you pray, meditate, worship, study, create or provide service, your spiritual practice protects you and fosters within you joy and love.

All too frequently, however, intimate partners become abusive. We suffer from an epidemic of domestic abuse and violence no less harmful than a divine plague. We suffer from abuse not only within our homes, but in our society as well. Just as an abusive partner uses coercion, intimidation, and threats to control another, some people seek to coerce, intimidate, and threaten others with their religious beliefs.
This religious intolerance represents a particularly insidious evil. By robbing us of a pure source of joy and enlightenment, these zealots seek to control our actions, our choices, even our thoughts. Through physical, emotional, and economic routes, religious bullies seek the power to limit our freedoms and cancel our basic human rights.
Beyond the obvious reasons, this behavior is immoral because it chases people away from religion entirely. As fundamentalists seek to increasingly tighten their grip on our laws and our freedoms, more people leave organized religion to carve their own moral code in the secular world. This saddens me because there are religious communities that do not preach hate and intolerance. There are religious communities that welcome everyone as they are and that help people along their spiritual path.
If you are the victim of religious abuse, look for the welcoming congregations. Whatever your reason for being battered by theocrats — different theology, sexual orientation, attitudes regarding women’s health, climate change, gun violence, etc. — there are religious communities that accept you as you are.

Truth and Meaning: Hope

Nepal.  Baltimore.  Marriage Equality.  Black Lives Matter.  Deportations.  Bomb Trains.  Benghazi (again?!).  The list goes on and on.

Anger. Frustration.  Exhaustion.  Helplessness.  Betrayal.  Hopelessness. We feel them all because we are human and because we care.
I remain convinced, however, that each and every one of us can take these emotions and constructively turn them into actions to address every one of these issues. All of these emotions save one — hopelessness.
Hopelessness is a terminal disease that destroys our ability to get up each morning and face the realities of life. Hopelessness blocks our spiritual immune system from facing the fear and dread of catastrophe, ignorance and hate.
But there is a cure for this disease. For while we might be unable to cure our selves, we can cure each other. We can promise to devote ourselves to each other, come what may and whatever our differences.
But if your church tells you to judge others, to be intolerant of our differences, then hopelessness will win. Only through respect and love can we rid ourselves of the viral epidemic invading the social body today.
In 1770, Universalist minister John Murray had lost everything — his wife, his child, his financial means, and his faith. He gave up his ministry to lose himself in America. Thanks to a farmer with a dream, Murray overcame his hopelessness and rediscovered his calling. Later, he wrote: 

“You may possess a small light. Uncover it, let it shine. Use it to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women.”

Elephants in the Room Interfaith Presentation

I led this presentation at the Mid-Michigan Interfaith Dialogue Symposium in Freeland on April 19, 2015.  The topic was how to make “church” more relevant, especially for Millennials, by rationally addressing difficult moral issues, such as abortion and homosexuality.  My contention is that many religions are declining because of dualistic thinking on these issues when, in fact, the sacred texts are ambiguous at best.

Truth and Meaning: Religious Freedom Amplified

The Founders of the United States were religious people. Our second President John Adams, a Unitarian, epitomized a sound partnership between State and Church. He wrote, “… it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.” Adams experienced in his time a movement similar to what we face today — radical fundamentalists bullying their way into office and forcing their particular brand of religion on others. To this movement, Adams said,

“We have now, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James’s Bible through all nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious subscriptions to purify Christendom from the corruptions of Christianity … I see in every Page, something to recommend Christianity in its Purity and something to discredit its corruptions … The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.”

Critical to understanding Adams, however, was his view Christianity was not the only viable religion. Adams was well read and had enormous respect for Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and other world religions. Adams even supported nonbelievers, when he said that “Government has no right to hurt a hair on the head of an atheist for his opinions.” What Adams could not abide was the pompous priesthood of organized churches that stifled free inquiry. He wrote to Thomas Jefferson of his disgust with the use of the Cross as a tool for war, torture and oppression. “… knavish priests have added prostitutions of it, that fill the blackest and bloodiest pages of human history.”

Our Founders would have found current efforts to impose so-called religious freedom laws as repugnant and un-American. Jefferson would clearly have seen these laws as an attempt to impose Christianity as a State Religion on all by sanctioning discrimination by the majority against the religious minorities. If they were alive today, Adams and Jefferson would rail against such attacks on the peoples’ right to be free from the religious practices of others. Jefferson wrote,

“Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness … that the impious presumption of legislature and ruler, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time … that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

What basis would Adams and Jefferson have relied upon to ensure religious freedom? In a letter to his young nephew, Jefferson recommended reading the sacred texts of religions and using his own powers of reason as guide.

“Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love.”

Adams agreed, saying that “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue.” The incitement to virtue is the true path to religious freedom. Loving your neighbor, helping the needy, freeing the oppressed. Religious freedom is not about your right to do as you please. Religious freedom is not about imposing your beliefs on others you have committed yourself to serve. Religious freedom is about inciting the virtue in every person to love all people and to respect all their glorious diversity.

When government passes laws protecting discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs, it condones theocracy by indirectly permitting the establishment of a state religion consisting of the doctrines of the religious majority. But freedom of religion is a civil right and must not be subject to popular opinion. Our Founders understood that the best manifestation of religious belief was through the inculcation of virtue among the people. Let us remind our elected officials that they cannot legislate honor, trust, respect and dedication. Those traits of the people derive from virtue built from Love and Understanding.

Truth and Meaning: Religious Freedom Simplified

You run a business in a small town in Indiana. You have lived in this town your entire life and you know everyone who lives here. You are a devout Christian and you live your life according to the teachings of Jesus. How can you know if your Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of religion is being violated?

Let’s say that one day, 10 different customers enter your store. Now that your state has passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, you might decide to not to serve certain people because doing so violates your religious beliefs. Which of the following customers would you turn away?
  1. A teenager that spent time in a juvenile facility for petty larceny.
  2. A homemaker who needs help with her drinking problem.
  3. The local state representative who used incendiary mailers to defeat his last opponent.
  4. A Muslim who attends a mosque in a nearby town.
  5. The loan officer at the town bank.
  6. A local pig farmer.
  7. The town fortune teller and expert on horoscopes.
  8. A man who is sleeping with his neighbor’s wife.
  9. A woman who has not been baptized.
  10. A gay man.

If you picked #10, then you believe that your religion preaches that homosexuality is an abomination. If, however, you did not also pick ALL of the other nine, then your judgment about the gay customer is not truly based on religious beliefs, but on prejudice. If you do not refuse all 10 of these customers, then you are condoning either stealing, drunkenness, giving false witness, heathen worship, usury, eating impure foods, wizardry and magic, covetousness, and unrepentance – all sins according to your Bible.



So the very simple question is this: Are your basing your decision to serve any particular customer on your religious beliefs, or simply on your personal bias against certain groups of people you feel are sinful?
Here is another way to look at it. Let’s say that these same 10 customers enter your store. What possible actions that you could take would you deem inappropriate according to your religious beliefs?
  1. Looking the other way because the teen is just acting out.
  2. Selling the homemaker a flask of whiskey.
  3. Printing the incendiary flyers for the state representative.
  4. Selling the Muslim a rug that might be used for prayer.
  5. Co-signing a loan for a friend.
  6. Buying bacon and homemade sausages to sell to others.
  7. Asking what is in store for Aquarians today.
  8. Selling the man a box of condoms.
  9. Selling the woman a gun.
  10. Taking an order for a rainbow-colored wedding cake.

Again, if you picked #10, then you believe that your action would facilitate homosexuality and offer tacit approval of marriage equality. But if you did not pick ALL of the other nine, then you are discriminating not on the basis of religion, but because of your bias against gays.

You are not God. It is not your task to sit in judgment of others. You are not pouring the whiskey down the woman’s throat. You are not defaming a virtuous candidate. You are not forcing people to perform acts of ritual impurity. You are not condoning adultery. And you are not giving a sociopath license to kill. Neither are you putting two men in a bed and telling them to have sex. You are baking a cake. That’s it.
If you want to run a business according to your religious principles, fine. But, you don’t get to pick which rules of your denomination you will follow and which you will not, because that is not faith – that is discrimination and a violation of basic civil and human rights.

Truth and Meaning: Silence and Selma

The greatness of a quotation sometimes surpasses time and context. We often do not know for certain the origin of a great quote because so many people adapted the message over the years that its roots got lost in history.

“The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We attribute this statement most frequently to the British statesman Edmund Burke. The basic concept, however, dates back many centuries further, at least to Talmudic writings. Another variation of the quote reads, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for men of good conscience to remain silent.” While widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson, no such quote exists in his writings.

In the end, the source of the idea bears little relevance. The sentiment remains as true today as ever in the course of human history. Wrongdoing requires not only the will on the part of the perpetrator, but the blind eye and closed lips of the spectator. Evil and tyranny can only succeed with the consent of the masses, either through indifference, complacency or silence.

What is evil?

Few of us would deny the presence of evil in the world. But what exactly constitutes evil? Is evil the counterbalancing force of good? Is evil a malignant mutation of good? Is evil a concept relative to the society’s sense of immorality? Is evil anything that causes suffering, whether natural or human-made?

Since we can do little about floods and hurricanes, let us deal only with human acts of evil. I believe we can characterize an evil act as possessing three essential characteristics — the act is intentional, harmful and unrepentant. In order to commit an evil act, we must first intend to commit evil. The act must cause direct or indirect harm or suffering to others. And we must feel no remorse for the act or its consequences.

For example, accidentally harming another person is not evil because you had no intent. Wishing harm on someone is not evil if no harm comes to the person as a result. And harming someone intentionally is not evil if you truly regret your action and seek forgiveness.

Therefore, actions by those who don’t call god by the same name as you are not inherently evil. Acts by those of a different nation, skin color, sexual orientation or social class are not by definition evil. Evil comprises acts perpetrated counter to the universal themes of the religious teachings of humanity. Therefore, for instance, all murder is evil. Continuing failure to love your neighbors unconditionally is evil. Ongoing idol worshiping — be it money, guns, power or status — constitutes evil.

The magnitude of evil

Obviously, some evil acts exceed others in severity. Genocide, torture and institutionalized oppression are the acts of nations. Individual citizens can hardly be held completely accountable for the acts of nations. Generally speaking, the larger the act or authority of the perpetrator, the less personal responsibility we bear.

Some responsibility for national acts, however, does exist for individuals. Every white American of European ancestry carries a small portion of blame for the mass murder of indigenous peoples. Every male American can be held accountable for our shocking statistics of sexual assault and domestic violence against women and children. Every straight American shares culpability in hate crimes against gay and transgender individuals.

I doubt that any reader of this editorial ever killed an indigenous American. I hope none of you has ever raped a woman, or beat a child. And few of you have assaulted a gay person, or murdered a transgender man or woman. And, if you did commit one of these direct acts of evil, our criminal justice system has procedures for dealing with this evil. The system falls far short of perfection, but we make a strong social commitment to the attempt. Regardless, because we support our institutions, we all share in the imperfections of our social systems.

In addition, we are, and cannot be perfectly moral creatures, so we are all directly guilty of some acts of evil. These acts may be small, almost minuscule. We cheat on a test, take claim for another’s work, fudge some numbers to get a more favorable result. We all bear the burden of evil in some small way.

Eradicating evil

No amount of faith, prayer or good intentions will eradicate evil. To destroy evil, we must act. Following basic rules of morality is a good start. Whether you read the Torah, the Gospels, the Qur’an, or any other sacred text, you will find a common core of sound ethical rules — don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, help people, love others as you love yourself.

But while those rules help eliminate evil acts from your personal life, they do not help with the larger evils. Those rules did not help America from enslaving millions of African Americans; from polluting every river; from keeping millions needlessly in poverty; from abandoning veterans, the homeless and those who suffer from mental illness; and from allowing advocacy groups and lobbyists to reduce our democracy to a commodity to be purchased.

In his novel “1984,” George Orwell envisioned a society where war means peace; hate means love; spying means freedom; and conformity means happiness. Those are the conditions of a dystopian society. Those are the conditions of hell.

Silence = Death

In 1987, six gay activists in New York began plastering posters around the city featuring a pink triangle on a black background stating simply “SILENCE = DEATH.” The symbol derived from Nazi Germany, when known homosexuals in concentration camps were forced to wear inverted pink triangle badges, just as Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David. The Silence = Death Project compared the Nazi period with the AIDS crisis, declaring that “silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.” The slogan thus protested both taboos around discussing safer sex and society’s unwillingness to resist injustice and indifference.

Fifty years ago, events in Selma, Ala. created a similar moment of people coming together to combat evil. There, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, armed officers attacked 600 peaceful civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to the state capital of Montgomery. That day, March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. subsequently called upon clergy and citizens to come to Selma to stand united against the injustice of racism and the indifference of society to the plight of Negroes in the South.

Shocked by the televised images of savagery against unarmed and peaceful marchers, his call was answered. Two days later, a second march of 2,500 people crossed the bridge, prayed and then obeyed a court order to return to Selma. That night, Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb was brutally murdered outside a KKK hangout in town by four white men. The subsequent shooting of Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist homemaker from Detroit, prompted the federal government to act. The march from Selma to Montgomery was successfully completed a week later.

A new model

Many people died to secure the civil rights of African Americans. Tragically, more work remains. Quiet acceptance of institutionalized poverty, racial profiling, unjust incarceration and shooting of African American men, and recent assaults on voting rights have continued our legacy of oppression into the 21st century. Today, this work requires sankofa. Sankofa is a word from the Akan language of Ghana often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates as: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” Sankofa means that we sometimes must look backwards and learn from our past before we can move forward into the future.

We need to look back, to remember the events and people in Selma 50 years ago. We need to hear the voices raised up in song and prayer. And we need to channel those voices now through our own mouths. For we as individuals can only fight the evils of society by speaking out. We can remain silent no longer, because silence only means more evil, more tyranny, more death.

Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” We cannot change unjust laws and practices through our current model. At a time when we are electing representatives who are intellectually dogmatic, scientifically illiterate and religiously bigoted, we cannot look to government for change. We must be the change. With our voices, we can change society by saying that we will no longer accept our nation’s evils. We must stand united and shout as one that we will no longer accept needless suffering at the hands of special interests; we will longer accept the rule of violence and force; and we will no longer accept the dismantling of our inalienable freedoms by misers, bullies and zealots.

We must come together and reject the Newspeak saying that religious discrimination equals religious freedom; that right to fire equals right to work; that privatized profit equals free markets; that easy access to guns equals more safety; that homophobia equals family values; and that anti-woman equals pro-life.