September 20 2020

Are you WOKE?

I understand that woke means: awake to the issues of social justice and racial justice. The idea is of African American origin, and is used everywhere as an expression of awareness.

Unitarians ought to be woke. I want to be woke, but I don’t want to be ungrammatical. But being woke means more than received usage.

Paradoxically, the incorrect ungrammatical expression refers to being correct in every other respect. But maybe Unitarians are woke anyway. We honour and dignify every individual and respect every person regardless of colour caste or creed.

Being woke apparently extends beyond our present era back into the social mores of previous decades.  For example, woke people do not watch re-runs of the once immensely popular tv series Friends, because some of it was politically incorrect and therefore questionable. Such persons certainly do not watch On The Buses or Benny Hill : stereotypical racist and bawdy humour of my early years.

Further back, our history of Empire and slavery are clearly unacceptable to the woke, and one could trawl through history unearthing examples of social and racial injustice to illustrate what we mean.

The toppling of statues and the assertion of Black Lives Matter have all featured prominently in our news.

For centuries religion has been on the side of the un-woke. Religion has stressed difference and separation, the sheep from the goats. Exclusive sects have always attracted membership, because people like to think of themselves as different and superior. And much of the effort Jesus of Nazareth put into his own ministry involved overturning this tendency to prejudice.

In his time, the ordinary common everyday tasks of life were kept separate from the business of the Temple and holy matters. Only one of the 12 tribes of Israel was permitted to administer the sacred duties of their religion, and these were the Levites. Only they could handle the holy utensils, only they could offer sacrifices for the people, they changed their clothes a lot, avoided sweating and kept away from socialising.

Jesus, on the other hand, drank wine, he let his hair grow long, and he was frequently seen at parties. As far as we know, he didn’t change his clothes uncommonly often, he perspired, and on one occasion we are told that when he prayed his sweat dripped off him like blood.

He appeared to profane some of the things which the priests of his day held up as sacred. He desecrated custom by healing on the Sabbath, and memorably for us at this time of the autumn equinox, when we have started to feel the season change and think forward to harvest, Jesus crushed grain on the Sabbath as he passed through the fields in order to eat.

He conversed with women as equals, he associated with despised races such as the Samaritans and the Romans, and of course he didn’t keep himself apart from the sick, the halt, and the lame. He was empathetic and aware of their struggle. The key to appreciating  the enormous liberation in religion which he inaugurated, and which has not always been remembered by the churches, is precisely this idea of being woke, of being sympathetically understanding of those labouring under social or racial injustice.

Woke is a verb, not a noun. It is a fluid awareness unconfined by political correctness alone. It adapts to every instance of inappropriate injustice or social outlook.

Being woke is to be aware that we are privileged and that others are not, and suffer on account of it;  to be aware of what others have to cope with and deal with, while we do not. For example, a very rich and successful person of colour will still face racial prejudice, whereas I, poor and shabby by comparison, will not. Heterosexuals, for another instance, have been slow in being woke about the challenges homosexuals encounter, perhaps by simply not realising the difficulties that have to be faced. And there are numerous other examples we could quote.

The autumnal equinox which we have marked today represents a religious idea which most of us will have first encountered in Deuteronomy 30: I set before you this day life and death, blessing and the curse, therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live. Specifically the equinox is the time when night and day are equal, and its spiritual representation is of the period of struggle between darkness and light, life and death.

Being woke is nothing less than being a part of that struggle, whereby we extend our sympathy and understanding to all those who struggle under racial or social injustice. It means not turning a blind eye, not passing by on the other side. We are people of light and life, and at this specific time of the year, as the earth’s northerly axis begins to tilt gently away from the sun, as it passes across the equator to shine most strongly in the southern hemisphere, it is a time for us all to restate our intentions and reaffirm our priorities.

Shall we end with a few words of prayer adapted from Rev Cliff Reed:

The God of the earth, divine mystery, causes us to pause in wonder before the beauty that is autumn.

We are grateful for the glory of the leaves, on their way from greenness, to brown, to mould.

We give thanks for migrating birds, those that have filled the summer woods and skies, but which now prepare to go.

For the lines of geese across the evening skies, their plaintive calls echoing before the darkness.

We are grateful too for the strange ways of fungi and toadstools, drawing brief lives from decay.

For all that enriches our lives in this season, and for all that awakens our spirits to the splendour of life, so varied, so ever-changing, we offer our gratitude.

May God make us worthy of the world in our care. Amen.


Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period