Broken Covenant

My friend Rose Schwab is on the path to becoming a Unitarian minister. This is a sermon she gave to her predominantly white congregation in St. Louis, addressing the protests in Ferguson and the history of racism in America. I am constantly awed and inspired by her ability to get to the heart of what is most important and what is most true. 

(When she sent this to me, she recommended that I read "every single sentence, because it builds." I have the same recommendation.)

Broken Covenant, Nov 30th, 2014
Rose Schwab

A covenant is a promise about how we are going to be together.   When we covenant we promise that we are going to be accountable to each other.  

And we Unitarian Universalists undertake the communal process of covenanting each time we meet.  It is through covenants we are spoken into relationship.  It is through covenant that we pledge our love and dedication for one another. And, most importantly, it is through the process of process of covenant that we say to each other, I am accountable to you.  

Covenants are so powerful, that they can change the world.  One such covenant has made a big difference.  In the year 622, when Islam was new, Mohammed was called upon to resolve a conflict in Medina.  There were 12 prominent clans who didn’t like the Jewish population that lived among them.  And this went against Mohammed’s religious beliefs.  I am not talking about the fundamentalist Islam, but the heart of Islam. Because in Islam, it's all about oneness: a perfect and ultimate divine oneness that trickles into every aspect of life.  Even our human interactions could be infused with an accountability to each other as if another person were an extension of one’s self.

So, Mohammed helped these people understand that they were linked.  And, eventually, they made a covenant that everyone could live well under. Mohammed wasn’t Jewish, but he saw that the covenant was broken for the Jewish people.  So, he made the following document, the Constitution of Medina:

The non-Muslims included in the community have the following rights:

1.     The security of God is equal for all groups.
2.     Non-Muslim members will have the same political and cultural rights as Muslims.
3.     They will have autonomy and freedom of religion  (this was nearly 1,000 years before the Unitarians thought of pluralism in Europe).

This Muslim ideal of community spread throughout northern Africa, and whole societies were based in the human expression on oneness.   If you’ve ever seen Islamic art, you know how infused this culture is with a sense of the divine.

I’m telling you this so that you can appreciate how beautiful and sophisticated of a culture this was, and how far this depiction is from our American psyche concerning African American people.  I am telling you this, so that you can understand how awful it was, when centuries later, ships began to land in Africa, from France, Spain, England and Portugal.  And they kidnapped people.  After people were kidnapped from their families, after they were taken from their land and their country, after their social order was destroyed, they were put onto ships to be brought to the Americas. The voyage took 1-6 months, and on these slave ships, human beings were kept for most of the day in boxes- long flat boxes- like coffins that were closed, and only were 18 inches high.  That meant that people on slave ships had 6 inches of space for up to 6 months.  In this passage alone, 2,000,000 people died.

And here we have the breaking of a covenant.  Not the Muslim covenant, not the African
covenant, not the European covenant, but a breaking of the unspoken covenant between all humans.  A breaking of that thing, that connection, the feeling of oneness and family that is real, that we’ve all felt with strangers. Intelligent and dignified people were made out to be inhuman.  People who came from the place that invented mathematics and astronomy, the area that had the most extensive library and educational system in the world were made out to be savages.  

This covenant was broken many years ago, but it’s still broken today.  How could the covenant between this country and African Americans not be broken...if it was broken in its very birth?  How could the voice of the black community not be rising again?  How could they keep from crying out “That another child is dead in the streets with no justice for his killer?”  This is not a new trouble, this is an old trouble.  This is a familiar trouble.  The broken covenant with African American people has never really been dealt with.  This is about the man who was buying a BB gun in a Walmart, and had sat down, on the phone, and was shot to death because it seemed he was threat.  This is about the 12 year old boy who was shot dead in the park, after a woman called and said that there was a child with a fake toy gun.  I am willing to bet, that if your brother were on the phone, and was shot dead, and then a special jury deemed that as “justified,” you too would light fires and break glass.  If your son was in the park with a toy gun, and the cops came and shot him dead, you too, would be crying out, “How can my child be dead?”  This is about the indignities of not being listened to, even though the things you have to say are as true as true gets.  

Now, it might be that the verdict concerning Michael Brown’s death hits home for you, or you might be inundated with feelings and emotions that conflict.  I know that both of these things are true for me.  Writing this sermon was incredibly hard, because of how messy this all is.  

But no matter your feelings about this event, we all know the pain of broken covenant.  This is a human thing.  We all know what it feels like to assume that we are safe and loved, but, instead, be betrayed or forgotten.  This is a human thing.  Perhaps it’s your family, your partner, or it is an institution that broke the covenant with you.  But whatever happened, the most hurtful thing, probably, was that no one cared about you.  Probably what broke you, was that no one cared about what happened to you.  No one was accountable to you, and no one said they were sorry.

When a covenant has been broken for us, we want so badly to be seen that we go back to the table, to try and fix what happened.  But, because covenants are made communally, the only way to mend one is for everyone who was part of the breaking to be at the table.  You can’t just have the people who’ve been wronged there.  In order to mend, the people who are hurt need to tell their story, and the people who hurt them need to hear it, and say they’re sorry.  

Can you imagine if Darren Wilson had run to the body of Michael Brown and reckoned, in public, with his own anguish about killing another human being?  What if he had just been real, rather than polarized?  What if he had had the dignity to say, "I’m sorry."  Don’t you think that this would have changed the conversation?  Even if he just talked about how scared he was without simultaneously justifying a death and mistreatment of a body, that would change the conversation.  Don’t you think any acknowledgement of wrong-doing would change the community’s response?  I do. To in some way express an understanding that he took another’s life.  Because the way it is now, no one has said that they’re sorry to this family.  No one has admitted a wrong.

And that’s because, in part, it’s not easy to know who’s wrong. It’s really not clear who is at fault here.  And I mean, in the deepest theological, economic, political sense of this word “fault”.  This is a big, messy, complicated system that is made up of humans, police, jurors, the policed, the protestors.  And it’s really an incredibly painful experience of trying to figure out how to talk about whose fault it is.  To say it is the fault of police is to take the easy road. 

But what we do know, and what there is no question about, is that there are people in this city who need some accountability. Regardless of how messy the fault element of it is, someone needs to show up at the table to hear the story.  Someone needs to be accountable. So we will be.  Because we are people of faith, and it is the right thing to do.

In place of an unhealthy system, we will be healthy.  In place of police departments that have bad patterns and practices, we will make good patterns.  In place of school systems that abandon, we will show up.  We will be accountable for the people in our lives. Accountability doesn’t mean we go in and “save” anyone, it just means that we show up.  It means that when our institutions do not do so, we will uphold the unspoken covenant between humans.  When the eyes of our nation stare dryly upon dead bodies, we will weep.  

We are a powerful group of people.  You know it, and I know it.  This is a church full of
intelligent, connected, and loving people, so we could actually have a real effect on St. Louis.  If we put our mind to deepening our engagement with people in St. Louis who are struggling, we could do some amazing work.

Being accountable to those who are suffering is not the easy path, to say the least.  But we are called to do it.  In his lifetime Mohammed changed the entire Arab world, but he didn’t do it one fell swoop.  All he did in Medina was see people who were being treated wrongly, and then call upon his religious beliefs to lead him towards a new covenant.  I doubt it was easy.  I don’t think he just said, here’s the new way.  I’m sure he had to have a lot of tense and difficult conversations with people who’ve hurt each other.

And we can’t change the climate of this country in one fell swoop, but we are in St. Louis.  This national, global event is happening here.  It’s news across the country, but for you, this is your town.  These are the people who you live with. So, what we will do is be accountable to those who are suffering, in this neighborhood, in this city. 

Because we are Unitarians, so we have historically preached a divine oneness...a perfect and ultimate Unity between all beings on this earth.  

And we are Universalists, so we believe that everyone deserves decency and dignity.  

And we are called forward by our covenant.  We will call upon our religious beliefs to lead us into a deeper and more beautiful way of co-existing with our brothers and sisters. So we won’t be afraid to make promises, and we won’t shy from accountability, and we won’t avoid doing the hard work of showing up at the table. 


  1. Pretty fucking good.....

  2. i believe we white people owe people of color, especially african and native people, big time. we owe them a major apology and reparations for the murder and abuse we put on them. saying " i didn't do it" is not good enough. we benefit from our ancestors bad behavior and we bear the responsibility to do what is right. jean, minneapolis


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