Break the Chain



Break the Chainã
preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
March 10, 2013


I’m motivated this morning by our opening hymn, I Wish I Knew How, and our reading, How We Break the Rules.  I could stand up here and talk a lot about freedom, and liberation movements, and the search for personal freedom, but I’ve decided that this morning, I’d like to get very practical.  I do really wish I knew how, as it says in the song, to break all these chains holding me.  I’m guessing you wish that too.  And I also suspect you and I both know more than we think we do about how to break those chains.  I read Greg’s sermon from last week, and if you were lucky enough to be here last Sunday, you heard a great example of his journey breaking the chains that shackled his spirit.  I’d like to spend our time together this morning analyzing how we can all do that too.

As I spent time contemplating this, I came up with five rules, not nine.  You may agree or disagree with my conclusions, but it’s a place to start the conversation.  Our oppressions may vary, but we do live in a society that in many ways binds us.  I’ve created my own list of how we can break those chains.

How We Break the Chains:
Societal Rule #1
            Don’t talk about it!
How we break the rule:
            Name it!
Societal Rule #2
            Isolate
How we break the rule:
            Connect – find allies
Societal Rule #3
            use the image or story of the oppressor
How we break the rule:
            tell a different story, or create a different image
Societal Rule #4
            Play it “safe” and maintain status quo
How we break the rule:
            Risk loss by breaking the rules
Societal Rule #5
            everyone out for him or herself
How we break the rule:
            claim allegiance to something larger

Before I elaborate on my made up rules, I do need to answer those of you who may be so aware of the chains binding others, that you think to focus on your own freedom is unwarranted in comparison.  You may be aware of having so many more freedoms than others on the planet, that to focus on yourself seems selfish.  I do wish to respond to that charge first.  Then I’ll get to my practical rule-breaking.

Well, actually, I think Jesus said it best:
“You hypocrite, first take the mote out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the mote from your brother's eye.”

Now, I remember that passage as using the word mote as I just used it, but all the translations I found online talked about planks, beams and specks in your eye, but I hope you get the point.

If you’re not comfortable with Christian scripture, however, I can give you a more secular saying: 
“In the event that the oxygen level in the main cabin becomes unstable, oxygen masks will drop in front of every passenger. You are to make sure your mask is securely in place before assisting others.”

The problem with this advice is that my mask isn’t securely in place and I am a hypocrite, so there is another saying I must share, to explain why I am going to go ahead and preach this sermon despite the mote in my own eye:

This one is by Shoma Morita who writes,
"Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die."

Since I’d like to get started on those things I’d like to accomplish before I die, I’m going to go ahead and preach this message this morning.  We begin with ourselves for two reasons, 1) I am the only person whose behavior I control, 2) effecting change in one part of any system can have ripple effects in everything else.

Said William Ellery Channing, “I call that mind free which refuses to be the slave or tool of the many or of the few, and guards its empire over itself as nobler than the empire of the world.”

Societal Rule #1
      Don’t talk about it!
How we break the rule:
      Name it!

Society says there are some things we are not supposed to talk about.  Sexual orientation has been one of them – Greg broached that subject last week.  Rape and personal violence is another – something I talked about during our month of exploring evil.  The Prison Industrial Complex, a theme in our common book read…   As long as we don’t talk about these things, we can be under the illusion that these things don’t exist or  I am the only one affected.  In order to break the rule that says not to talk about it, we Name it. 

Name the chains shackling you, the habit breaking you, the inaccurate label describing you, the violence hurting you, the bullying, the poverty, the sexism, whatever conditions limiting you – name it.  Naming is powerful.  Especially when the chains which bind you have been in place your entire life, they may seem perfectly normal.  Sometimes it takes someone else to reflect back on how restricted your life is.

When Channing preached his sermon called Unitarian Christianity, he was naming something important.  Prior to that sermon the term “Unitarian” was a purely derogatory term, but once he claimed the title for himself, it began to change – for people like Channing and us.  Likewise, when Greg named his sexual orientation last Sunday as “bisexual” he was naming something he had kept secret his entire life, by making it public, he freed himself to be at home in his own identity, home in himself.  What is it that you need to name for yourself?  We all know about the opening line in AA meetings:  “My name is X and I’m an alcoholic.”  That is naming. 

Naming the chains that bind us – whether the illness– like alcoholism or cancer – is debilitating itself, or whether it is because society oppresses you because of that name (though the name may describe something morally neutral) – like Unitarian, Jewish, or bisexual:  Abuse survivor, immigrant, privileged, disabled, atheist, obese, black, young.  You have to figure out what your name is, but it’s clear to me that the first step toward freedom is to name the oppression.

Societal Rule #2
            Isolate
How we break the rule:
            Connect – find allies

We live in a very isolated society – people drive alone in their cars to work, work alone on their computers, you might exercise alone, or eat alone – though technologies like Facebook may make it possible to re-connect with people who don’t live nearby, the time spent on Facebook is time not spent in the physical presence of a neighbor, family, or friend.  Society has changed, and we need to be very conscious of the ways we utilize changing technologies to connect us, rather than isolate.  To break this rule, we need to find our people.  Find allies.  Channing found his allies among the liberal ministers of Boston.  Greg, within this Welcoming congregation and association.  We all need to find people who are like us or understand us and can support us.  The It Gets Better Campaign that Greg mentioned last Sunday is a very public campaign to reach out to people who may feel alone – especially in adolescence when they think they are the only gay person they know, and they imagine that everyone else is straight and happy.  It’s a brilliant way to use the technology that we live with today, in a way that connects us, rather than isolates.  Hopefully, these technologies can lead us to people we can share the same time and space with at some point, and share our stories, our challenges, our celebrations.

Societal Rule #3
            use the image or story of the oppressor
How we break the rule:
            tell a different story, or create a different image

As long as we accept the image or story that we’re given, we will never break the chains of our existence.  For a long time women accepted a subordinate position in society because it was common sense that women were the weaker sex… only after that story got challenged could women imagine a different position in society.  and here we are.  I rarely give it a second thought that I am a clergy person – after all, most of my UU clergy colleagues are women.  However, whenever I am out in the world and introduce myself to others, I am constantly reminded that I do not fit the image many people still have for clergy.  As all those men in Rome convene to elect a new pope, I am reminded how different our story really is.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee sought a symbol that would tell Jews and others oppressed by the Nazi’s that there’s was a safe haven.  So, they made it up – the flaming chalice.   By choosing an image to hold on to, or a story to tell, we can hang on to the dream of freedom in a way not possible when stuck in the same old story and images.  What story in your life are you trying to make up a new ending to?  What image do you conjure up when trying out new behaviors?  Do you wear a purple epilepsy bracelet with the words Out of the Shadows? to remind yourself to name it and claim it.  or do you have a worry stone in your pocket, or a picture of your grandchild on your refrigerator – to remind yourself to conserve resources so they can grow up on a healthy planet?

Images and stories are very powerful.  To break the chains of oppression, we need to create good ones, and not just accept the ones we inherit.

Societal Rule #4
            Play it “safe” and maintain status quo
How we break the rule:
            Risk loss by breaking the rules

We have been and will be singing a lot of freedom songs this month, freedom songs in the African American tradition, spirituals from the slavery period in the United States.  We started with Follow the Drinking Gourd this morning, which, the story goes, was used by the Underground Railroad to encode escape instructions and a map for fleeing slaves to make their way North from Mobile, Alabama to the Ohio River and freedom.  The "drinking gourd" refers to the hollowed out gourd used by rural Americans and slaves as a water dipper. But here it is used as a code name for the Big Dipper star formation, which points to the North Star.

Breaking the chain of slavery required brave people to risk their lives by fleeing north, fighting the Civil War, hiding those who escaped.  Likewise, resistance to Nazi domination required the same level of risk and danger.  Sometimes it is easier to see these challenges to the status quo played out in history, after the fact.  What risks do you need to take in your life right now in order to break the chains binding you?  Is it standing up to your boss, or deciding to buy local, or using one of those clickers so you can turn off the television set in every public place you enter?  What rules of our society need to be broken?  and what do we risk by breaking them?  Not answering email for an entire day, or choosing to spend time with your kids rather than taking work home?  They may seem like small steps, but I dare you to try – and see what freedom feels like.

Societal Rule #5
            everyone out for him or herself
How we break the rule:
            claim allegiance to something larger

Nelson Mandela said that “to be  free is not merely to cast off one's chains but to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others.” It is not enough that we have freed ourselves from whatever oppression; we need to claim an allegiance to the freedom of others.  We need to take the freedom of another as seriously as our own.

I think this is the reason for communities such as our own – this church.  We could all be free to believe what we must at home, but it is only in community that we practice that freedom together.  We make promises to one another to help us to grow and learn and deepen our experiences.  As Jane Rzepka puts it, “Unitarian Universalists have a long history of thinking differently as we walk together.”

Her religious rule #4 is that you have to believe in God to be religious, and UU’s break the rule by saying “no, you don’t” – but even though allegiance and fidelity to God isn’t what we hold in common, that doesn’t mean we don’t have allegiances or fidelity.  We know there is more to this world than our own selves and agendas – we know that others have value, too.  It is not enough that we cast off our own chains, but we must always keep in mind the freedom of others as well.

That’s what I came up with – 5 rules society lives by, and 5 ways we can break those rules to free ourselves, and set free others too.

Break the Chain was the name of the anthem of the V-Day grassroots movement to raise awareness to end violence against women and girls. 
This is my body, my body’s holy
No more excuses, no more abuses
We are mothers, we are teachers,
We are beautiful, beautiful creatures
I dance cause I love
Dance cause I dream
Dance cause I’ve had enough
Dance to stop the screams
Dance to break the rules
Dance to stop the pain
Dance to turn it upside down
Its time to break the chain,

We held a dance event here at church on Valentine’s Day.  I think the event broke the rules in all 5 ways I’ve described this morning.  We named the oppression – violence against women and girls – we found our allies – people came to this church who had never been inside, because they learned about the event online – they met allies, we chose a different image – rather than embodying the image of the victim, women were dancing as beautiful creatures. 

We risked loss – just doing those things – naming and speaking out, dancing publicly – you risk a little comfort, some of you risked a little comfort the following Sunday by dancing with me in worship!  and we claimed allegiance with women and girls all over the world, in Pakistan and India, countries in Africa, well, the Biggest Mass Global Action To End Violence Against Women & Girls In The History Of Humankind

Take your favorite cause, and try it out – Moms demand action for gun sense in America, ending global warming, or beginning mindful eating – (talk about counter-cultural!) – whatever oppression touches your life,

  • name it
  • find allies
  • choose a different story/ending/metaphor/image
  • risk loss
  • claim allegiance

Freedom is coming.