For the past 2 months I’ve been participating in the multi-congregational Zoom class discussing NPR’s “White Lies” podcast. This is a podcast by two reporters who re-investigated the 1965 murder of UU minister Jim Reeb in Selma, AL. Three men stood trial for killing Reeb, but they were acquitted by an all-white jury. A technique used by the defense attorney in this trial (and countless defense attorneys in other trials) was to create an alternative story to explain the events of the evening. That counter-narrative allowed jurors to say that “reasonable doubt” was created in their minds and they couldn’t convict the defendants.
In the Reeb case, the counter-narrative created in the courtroom and spread for years after the trial claimed that Reeb wasn’t badly harmed by the men who attacked him that night. Rather, it was the two other ministers escorting Jim Reeb to the hospital who actually killed him. That’s right, rather than convict three men who by reputation were bullies and “mean as snakes,” who had admitted they hit and kicked Jim Reeb, the white jury and later the white population of Selma vehemently insisted that Jim’s pacifist minister friends were the real murderers. The reporters discovered that more than a dozen people actually witnessed the attack, although none at the time admitted it. They had gathered around to watch the beating, like a ring of school children around a playground fight. That day, and for 50 years following it, truth and justice took a backseat to upholding white supremacy in Selma, AL.
Truth and justice have been languishing throughout the country lately. The attack on the Capitol last week was perpetrated by people who clung to a counter-narrative of a stolen election and many believe it to their core. They could not accept the truth – that a majority of the country disagrees with them; that a majority of the country wants different leadership. At best, these were misguided, delusional people with no understanding of 8th grade civics. At worst they were domestic terrorists with a carefully orchestrated plan to kidnap or kill members of Congress. While many in our nation were stunned by the attack, I wasn’t. In a nation where truth has been under attack for years (smoking doesn’t cause cancer, evolution is an unproven theory, climate change isn’t happening, the coronavirus is fake), something like this was inevitable. But hopefully, it has helped shake more people awake in this country – helped them recognize the importance of truth and given them the impetus to defend it.
Recognizing the importance of truth and supporting the ideals of justice, peace and liberty for all is the core of our Unitarian Universalist faith. It is so deeply woven into the fabric of who we are that we can easily forget that these are learned values. We are not born with these ideals, they were nurtured within us. As a parent watching the rioters storm the Capitol, part of me worried if I had done enough to ensure that my children would never be swept up in such a delusion. I wondered how I could be certain that my children would not be recruited online by extremist rhetoric and end up attacking fellow Americans. Did I do a good enough job nurturing a passion for truth and justice in my own children?
While there is no absolute guarantee, I am greatly comforted that I raised them in this congregation. I am confident that the other adults in this congregation who cared for and supported my children filled in any of the gaps I may have missed. Their RE teachers at UUCF taught them to listen with love, to feel empathy for others, to support democratic processes, to search out the truth, to treat others fairly and to discern the difference between fact and fiction. The UUCF Religious Exploration program is one of the antidotes to the poison of the counter-narrative. Beginning with toddlers, this program teaches children to care for one another, to be respectful, to ask questions and to work for justice. Encouraging your children to participate in RE or choosing to teach an RE class next year is a positive step you can take to nurture a respect for the truth and a commitment to justice in our youngest congregants. You can help nurture the children currently in this congregation, the way my children were nurtured years ago. It is a way you can change the world for good.