Division and Unity: Oppression

December is an extraordinary time of year. Sometimes I wonder why we've packed so much into one month rather than spreading it out over the rest of the year. 

We've got Christmas, Diwali, Yule, Hanukah, and the New Year. They're all right on top of each other and there's no time to really enjoy them all. It makes it downright exhausting to be a Unitarian! Couldn't we at least move one of those holidays to some boring time of year? How about Hanukah in July? There's nothing going on and having menorahs and dreidels in the middle of summer could be very cheering... Or put the new year in August. It would be much easier to celebrate with the good weather and long days... 

OK, we're probably stuck with everything being in December. I know. 

I'm sure that December affects all of us in a variety of ways. In these cold December days, I often look out the window to what used to be my garden and I feel a pang of guilt. 

I say it "used to be" my garden because toward the end of the growing season I simply started to let it go and ignored it. 

Tomatoes began to rot on the vine or dry out and collapse. Weeds grew here and there. It became a mess. And I haven't done any more on it since. It's bad. 

Mind you, in spring, when everything was sprouting and growing quickly and buds were giving way to tiny tomatoes, I was out there all the time. 

There's something I learn about myself from these observations. I'm really good when I can see a big change happen fast. I'm rubbish when it comes to the long haul. In the long haul, you don't get to see anything happen quickly. It's slow going. It's about preparing and tidying. 

This is important, and I know I'm not the only one who is in it for the big wins, but disappears for the slow and steady process of keeping it going. 

Let's think about one of our December events now... 

Today is the second day of Hanukah. You may recall that Hanukah is a Jewish celebration of an ancient revolution - a throwing off of the yolk of oppression. In the second century BCE, a brutal occupation by a Seleucid emperor was overthrown by a band of rebels led by Judah Maccabee and his sons. That revolution led to the all-important rededication of the centre of Jewish life and religion at that time - the Jerusalem temple. 

It was a time of celebration - one of those rare times in history when progress seems sudden and freedom seems irrepressible and inevitable. 

On Friday, there was major news that reminded me of this same sort of moment. Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would push for approval of religious gay marriage. That is, he has committed to legalising full marriage between two people of the same sex in religious premises. 

Now remember, this congregation campaigned for years for the right to register civil partnerships. That right was finally granted at the end of last year and - owing to huge bureaucratic delays - finally became possible in this building just last month. It felt like a big advance - one that came with much work on the part of many. It was an advance that I recognise - many of you do - to be just a step in a larger quest for full equality. 

And now, amazingly, winter suddenly seems to have given way to spring and actual gay marriage is on the agenda of the conservative prime minister. 

To me, this seems like a dream come true. It is potentially an enormous leap forward and it seems to be progressing very quickly and without the usual sort of slow bureaucratic slog we expect. 

Remember Seamus Heaney's words: "once in a lifetime...longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme." Is that where we are now? 

Although I'm delighted, I'm also more than a little bit uneasy. It's not because - as many have said - you can't trust the Tories. I may be too naive, but I believe that Cameron is sincere about making this happen - although his motivations may be rather different than my own. 

I'm uneasy, in part, because big, seemingly quick advances like this remind me too much of the excitement of new shoots bursting from the soil in the spring and flowers exploding from new buds. It is too good to be true - especially in December. 

Consider the words of Frederick Douglas - a man who escaped from slavery in the American south to become one of the 19th century's greatest abolitionist leaders. 

"Power concedes nothing without a demand." He wrote. "It never did and it never will." And so, the "struggle for freedom...must be a struggle." 

Are we now seeing power giving way without a struggle? Certainly, the Church of England and the Catholic Church and some others are protesting, but the struggle seems relatively minor compared to the scope of the freedom being promised. 

For oppression to be maintained, it must be of benefit to the powerful. It must secure and reinforce their power, it must provide them with greater access to resources and money and privilege. 

Today, as many of us are rightfully exhilarated by the seemingly sudden promised advance in rights for committed same-sex couples, we have to recognise that the calculation for the powerful and privileged in our society has changed. 

Once, political power required courting the religious. It was essential to keep the CofE and the Catholic church and a variety of other social conservative elements happy. Now, it seems clear that the tide has changed in the general population. The number of people opposing same-sex marriage is rapidly decreasing as is the power of the conservative religionists. In the new calculation, it is becoming clear that greater power will accrue to the powerful by getting socially liberal people on their side. 

And, as one form of oppression fades, others become even more entrenched. As gay and lesbian people are admitted into first class status, the oppression that underpins the power of the ruling class becomes even harder to unravel. Class and racial divisions are increasing. Income inequality is growing frighteningly large. 

A. Philip Randolph, a great civil rights leader of 20th century America echoed Frederick Douglass's sentiments of a century earlier: "Justice is never given; it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship." 

If it seems too good to be true, it is important that - whilst celebrating the advances - we take a closer and harder look and the structures and systems of power and oppression around us. 

The long march toward justice is indeed an endless one. It is a slow one. There may be occasional breakthroughs, but those of us who are committed to that continually evolving process, must be in it for the long haul. We have to be ready to pluck the weeds and even get out in the cold and wet weather to do the winter clean-up. The garden of justice must be constantly and carefully tended to bring about a continuing harvest of progress. 

Our challenge is to live with enough determination and resolve to challenge the deep injustices around us without seeing necessarily enjoying the sudden spring-like moments of freedom's blossoming or the bountiful growth of equality and opportunity. 

The great rabbi Tarfon, who lived around the end of the first century CE knew this challenge well. 

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief." He wrote. "Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it." 

Indeed, we should not expect to complete the work in our lifetimes, but the inability to complete the work makes our contribution no less important. 

In our own times, Marian Wright Edelman assured us of the importance of our small contributions to justice when she suggested that "You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation." 

Let's get out there and do the continuous and unglamorous and usually unremarkable work of justice. We are part of a never-ending process of growth that is far larger than ourselves and of which we will never know more than a tiny fraction. And yet, our contribution to that very human endeavour is as essential as any. 

It is time to begin tidying the winter garden of justice for tomorrow's growth.