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Nov 25, 2014

We Need to Talk About Lynching

In the 1920s and the 1930s the NAACP used to hang a flag outside the window of its offices in Manhattan with the words “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday." The narrative often told in histories of the civil rights movement is that lynching declined and was outlawed in the 1960s. Lynching is often described as extra-legal punishment; that is punishment that takes place outside of the bounds of the law. During the age of lynching the murderers of people of color were frequently exonerated for their actions by courts of law.

The killing of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson’s acquittal fits a pattern. A black man is killed by police, or in Trayvon Martin’s case under legal pretenses, and a court fails to convict the killers. I refuse to believe that the verdicts in all of these high profile cases in recent years have been untainted by white supremacy. I refuse to believe that justice has been served. I want to raise the questions: Is it time to bring back the word lynching to describe the killings of black men by police officers? Can we say that Michael Brown was lynched? What about Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice?

Lynching is an act of public violence. It is legally sanctioned by the society in which it takes place, it does not matter that this occurs after the fact. Lynchers escape legal punishment for their acts. Michael Brown was killed in public. His killer will not be punished. His body was left in the street for four hours. It was put on public display, images of it appeared throughout the media.

Many people might argue that using the language of lynching to describe what happened to Michael Brown is unnecessarily inflammatory. I disagree. By using the word people who care about justice can signal that justice does not reign in the United States and that the civil rights movement did not bring racial justice to this country. We do not live in a post-racial society. There is a direct line of continuity that can, and should, be drawn from slavery through Jim Crow to the present day.

More than fifty years ago, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. made the distinction between unjust and just laws. He wrote, “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” King wrote these words to defend his civil disobedience against white supremacy in the 1960s South. A law that consistently acquits police officers of the killing of black men is an unjust law. It is a law that stands outside of any moral law. It must be overturned. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo... a man was lynched yesterday.

CommentsCategories Human Rights News Tags Michael Brown Ferguson Racial Justice

Nov 22, 2014

Responses to "A More Beautiful World"

My friend Rev. Ian White Maher stirred up a bit of conversation when I published his guest post "A More Beautiful World: The Challenges of Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplaincy." In addition to substantive conversation on Facebook, Rev. Tom Schade over at The Lively Tradition and Rev. Cynthia Kane at Captain Reverend Mother posted responses. I am still formulating my own thoughts on the comments Ian and I have received from Kane, Schade and others and plan to write something in response to their responses in the next week or two. In the meantime, I hope people will continue to reflect on Ian's important piece and the conversation it has started. If anyone knows of other bloggers who have written in response to it please contact me so I can post links to their pieces.

CommentsTags Military Chaplaincy Unitarian Universalism

Nov 19, 2014

Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship

Tomorrow I am going to participate in a panel at Collegium on the Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship. Here are the remarks, based largely upon the survey I conducted, I prepared for the conference:

My first impulse when asked to participate on this panel was to survey the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship. I am familiar with most of the scholars in our movement. Instead of providing an overview of their work I thought it would be interesting to ask some of my ministerial colleagues who they read. I conducted an on-line survey. Seventy-four people, including a dozen who identified as lay people and another eight who primarily identified as academics, responded. I won’t claim that the survey is scientific but I do think that it tell us something interesting things about the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship.

The question “Who are the five most influential Unitarian Universalist or liberal religious thinkers today?” generated a clear consensus. More than half my respondents included Rebecca Parker’s name on the list. Five other scholars were named by at least twenty percent of respondents: Mark Morrison-Reed, Tom Schade, Paul Rasor, Thandeka and Dan McKanan. Three others were offered up by at least ten percent of respondents: Cornel West, Forrest Church, and Sharon Welch.

There are two things that I think are interesting about this list. It is not made of exclusively of academics and there is a disconnect between how influential a scholar is within the academy and how influential they are within our movement. To the first point, Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church are not traditional academics, they are, or were, scholar ministers. Tom Schade is a blogger. Among the academics named only three are, or were, engaged full time in theological education. No one currently on the Starr King faculty makes the list and only one of Meadville’s full-time faculty is there.

Second, I compared my list against google scholar’s citation tracker to see whom amongst is read by the wider academy. Hands down the three most cited Unitarian Universalist scholars were, in order of citation count: Sharon Welch, Anthony Pinn and Rebecca Parker. Interestingly, two of the scholar ministers received about the same number of citations as established academics: Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church. Less surprisingly, the blogger on the list had not been cited by any scholar.

One conclusion that might be drawn from this data is that the site of scholarship within our tradition will continue to be situated both inside and outside of the academy. As Dan mentioned, there are thirty five either recent graduate PhD or doctoral students. Many of us, I suspect, will not pursue jobs within the academy. Those who opt for a non-academic career will not necessarily leave their scholarly work or their ability to influence either Unitarian Universalism or the academy behind. Indeed, they may be uniquely positioned, as Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church were, to have some impact on their academic fields while at the same time nurturing future generations of Unitarian Universalist religious leaders.

Another is that the people we scholars perceive as influential are not necessarily the same people that those in our movement conceive of as influential. For the past decade there have been a variety of blogs that have had transient but significant on the discourse within our liberal religious community. Tom Schade’s The Lively Tradition is the latest iteration of these. In previous years Chris Walton’s Philocrites or Victoria Weinstein’s Peacebang were similarly influential. This suggests a possible project for those of us who are interested in bridging the space between the academy and our wider Unitarian Universalist community: a collective blog.

I am almost out of time. My two other questions were: “What magazines, academic journals, and blogs most impact your work?” and “What is the most important issue for Unitarian Universalist scholars to address?” The responses to both were all over the place. Only three publications--the Christian Century, New Yorker, and the UU World--were named by more than ten percent of respondents. There was no clear consensus as to what issue we should be addressing, though several people did write some variant of “Theology, Theology, Theology.” Mark Morrison-Reed was kind enough to send me a personal e-mail in response and given that I value his opinion as I value few others I thought I would let him have the last word here: “exploring the multicultural history of [Unitarian Universalism] important...

Why is this important? If the UUA is to become more diverse is must figure out what is getting in the way. And it must hold up the history that exist[s] but is yet untold. The various Identity groups need to understand that they have been around and have made a difference. That narrative must be told a a corrective to our misunderstanding of who were really are and might become.”

CommentsCategories News Research Notes Tags Unitarian Universalism Collegium

Nov 13, 2014

Guest Blog Post: A More Beautiful World: The Challenges of Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplaincy

[Colin's note: My good friend the Rev. Ian White Maher wrote this piece in response to the Rev. Rebekah Montgomery's 2014 sermon for the UUA's Service of the Living Tradition. We have decided to post it here in the hopes of starting a much needed conversation within our shared religious tradition.]

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

I walked out of this year’s Service of the Living Tradition in order to play with the cute two-year-old sitting next to me. Like my young friend, I found myself fidgeting in my seat, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the ceremony, and finally I decided that playing with this bundle of joy was more in line with where my life is these days. Although I really love playing with children and will take just about any opportunity to do so, this was not a decision I took lightly. I believe in the ministry and, more specifically, I believe in our ministry as Unitarian Universalists. Serving as a minister in our tradition is one of the great honors of my life, and I am proud to stand in what I consider a beautiful and noble lineage.

Each year, as we welcome new colleagues into the fellowship and say goodbye to those who came before us, the sermon outlines a vision for Unitarian Universalist ministry. No single sermon can hope to capture the depth and meaning of the ministry of our movement and every preacher will always encounter criticism for what they say (or don’t say) during the service. We accept this limitation when we get up to proclaim a vision. However, this year’s sermon, mostly through omission, normalized a vision of a nation at war that is inconsistent with who we say we are as a religious movement.

As Unitarian Universalists, we repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery—the ideological justification for colonialism, feudalism and religious, cultural and racial biases—as it relates to the indigenous people of this hemisphere[1]. But, as a nation, we are presently engaged in two (potentially three) massive wars of colonialism and feudalism that were perpetrated using religious, cultural and racial biases. As Unitarian Universalists, we made a commitment to the prevention of gun violence,[2] but, as a nation, we are one of the greatest offenders of worldwide gun violence. As Unitarian Universalists, we condemned the racist mistreatment of people of color by the police[3] and are trying to divest ourselves from the fossil fuel industry,[4] but, as a nation, we continue to participate in wars of aggression to protect our access to fossil fuels and police the world while condemning whole nations of people of color to poverty and chaos through the use of military colonization. We have been working to find a space for military chaplains within our movement, an effort that I think is worthwhile because there are people in the military who desperately need us. But we cannot allow this effort to subvert our prophetic mission as peacemakers in the world.

The United States military is not a defensive force and our lack of criticism of the endless war agenda of our nation runs contrary to what our mission is as people of faith and conscience. The Service of the Living Tradition (despite a reading titled “There Must Be Religious Witness”) was silent on the impact of military aggression. And while no sermon can cover every angle, the absence of even a nod to our repeated aspirations to be peacemakers left me gutted and frightened as a minister as we seemed to willingly collude with the normalization of the use of the military to advance imperialism.

The war in Afghanistan is now the longest American war in history. The war in Iraq will pass Vietnam as our second longest this December. Washington officials have admitted that the current is strategy is not working when it comes to defeating al-Qaeda, and yet we are still there some 13 years after we first invaded. In the meantime, we have spent over 1.5 trillion dollars on these two wars alone, a number that has lost any sense of reality.[5] Our politicians weakened the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 which explicitly forbids the use of government-made media (propaganda) upon domestic audiences in order to manipulate us into war.[6]  They have undermined our moral fiber as a nation by legally justifying torture and indefinite detention as an extension of our global military strategy. Some 2.5 million soldiers have now served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, many of them serving multiple tours, with an estimated 14-20% these men and women suffering from PTSD.[7] And, perhaps worst of all, we just don’t seem to even notice that we’re at war any longer. Children who are now entering high school have only known our nation to be at war. This is what is normal to them.

The Unitarian Universalists I know resolutely reject this military spending, use of domestic propaganda, justification of torture, abysmal and inadequate treatment of our soldiers, and the normalizing of war. As people of faith, we know that these actions run contrary to our worldview and our understanding of the holy. But these wars are more than just a domestic nightmare; they are an extension of U.S. imperialism that has destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of Iraqis and Afghanis. Yet the Service of the Living Tradition made no mention of these people. Not one. 

I knew that it was time for me to leave the Service to play with my young friend after hearing Rev. Rebekah Montgomery preach:

“Often the most remarkable thing would happen. I would stop our vehicle, push open my heavy door and step outside—take off my Kevlar helmet and brush the sweaty hair off my brow. The villagers would gather around us and kids would peek from behind older children, just watching us. After a few minutes, the one or two villagers around me would swell to 5 or 6—then 9, then 12. The thing is—out in some of these areas—Afghans had never seen a female Soldier. They’d especially never seen a female soldier driving a Humvee. The reception I received a handful of times is sort of like landing on a strange planet where you think you’re average and nothing out of the ordinary—and everyone else perceives you as a purple dinosaur with green spots and yellow feathers. Then in a hot minute, the Afghans’ worldview would completely shatter when the interpreter explained to the amassing crowd before us that I’m an officer and a chaplain, or like one interpreter insisted, ‘a female mullah’ or religious leader in Islam.”

This final line received laughter and cheers. And on one level, I can understand why. Women should be able to serve in the military. Women should drive cars. Women are brilliant faith leaders and interpreters of the Divine. But the subtext of this statement also reveals the very cultural and religious bias that was used to start the war in Afghanistan and has been used in our battle with Islam for a very long time. A hundred years ago these soldiers would have handed out Bibles to these “backwards” people. Today we just cheer along in patriotic smugness.

Rev. Montgomery received a standing ovation at the end of her sermon. People were genuinely moved by her words. But what exactly was moving us? This sermon did not tell the real story of what happens in war. It was a glorified retelling of America bringing light to the “backward” people, those who held worldviews that did not cohere with modern times. It was absolutely uncritical of our behavior, our motivations, and our responsibilities as people who believe in the sacredness of life.

The standing ovation was incredibly frightening to me. It seemed to mean that thousands of people who I consider faith partners could be swept up in a patriotic fervor that tells only about the glory and nothing about the real horror of what we are doing to people and the propaganda that we spread to diminish the worth of others and justify our own behaviors.

The estimated death toll of Iraqis and Afghanis varies widely, with the military taking the official position that it doesn’t track deaths (documents released by Wikileaks revealed this to be false). The deaths related to the war in Iraq range from 195,000[8] to 461,000 (civilians and combatants).[9] Enemy combatants amount to somewhere between 50,000 to 65,000 of these deaths.

But the story of what is happening gets lost in the abstraction of these numbers. “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic,” as the saying goes.* The reality is that the American military is a brutal and terrifying force. The stories that reach us tell of the constant fear our soldiers encounter—one such story made it into the sermon, while the fear that our enemies feel remained unspoken—but these stories are told in a way that makes it seem like we meet our enemies as equals on the field of battle. This is not true. The American military is the best trained, the most skilled, the best funded, and the best educated fighting force the world has ever known. From a patriotic perspective, this sounds great. But if we want to engage from a human perspective, we must wrestle with the impact of the death and destruction that we bring with us. For every American soldier killed in conflict, somewhere between 14 and 19 enemy combatants is killed.[10] Or, stated more graphically, for every American soldier killed in conflict, 3 to 5 families worth of enemy combatants die. But it is also estimated that coalition forces are responsible for somewhere between 12%-35% of the civilian deaths.

I understand that Rev. Montgomery and the other chaplains likely are not in a position to talk about this atrocity. Being in the military means that you agree to a certain degree of censorship. Being in the military means, at least in public spaces like the Service of the Living Tradition, that it is not appropriate to criticize the direction of your superiors and our President. You do not talk about the impact of the five years of drone strikes in Pakistan and the children who have been killed by a practice that seems to have a 2% success rate against strategically important targets.[11] You don’t talk about it because ultimately the purpose is not to defeat al-Qaeda. It is to defeat the people.

As a nation we are engaged in reprehensible behavior, and we should be much more ashamed of what we are doing abroad than we are. Many of us have taken actions—attending marches, meeting with politicians, donating to anti-war and veterans’ programs, working with returning vets, trying to support Iraqis and Afghanis struggling with the consequences of the war, and many other important measures—but like the Confessing Church of the 1930s and 1940s Germany, I fear that we, as people of faith, will be judged for the horrors that are being committed by our nation because we have not done enough.

I am not a pacifist who believes that the worst peace is better than the best war. But in our rush to support the career decisions of our military chaplains we seem to have lost sight of the daily murder that is being carried out in our name by the U.S. military. There absolutely is a role for Unitarian Universalist chaplains in the armed forces, but it is not to normalize war, or even necessarily to promote a UU worldview among the soldiers. We have a faith obligation to minister to everyone, including those in the military, but as a faith movement we have not given our ministers the proper support and guidance to effectively serve the disenfranchised.

While it is not appropriate for the chaplains to speak out against the endless war agenda of our nation—that is our job—the chaplains absolutely can serve those Americans who have been preyed upon by recruiters and now find themselves in desperate situations, fighting people who never intended to hurt them, and often ending up with lifelong debilitating injuries, both physical and mental.

The pressure to meet enlistment numbers for our wars overseas pushes military recruiters to engage in dishonest behavior with high school students and underprivileged Americans in order to meet their quotas. The “prospecting” techniques of recruiters have been compared to the predatory grooming behaviors of abusers.[12] Not everyone, of course, who enlists does so because they see no other option for their lives, and many do see real opportunities in a military career. But to suggest that the military does not explicitly target the poor and underprivileged in our nation is beyond naïve. It is a manipulative system that traps the American poor into conflict with the poor of other nations, leaving them with few resources and little support when they do finally manage to get out.

These people need chaplains who can stand with them as they come to grips with the moral injury that has taken place in their lives, both for what has been done to them and what they have done to others. If the ministry of our chaplains is to those who have been trapped by this system, I am in absolute support of it. If the ministry is to champion American imperialism and colonialism, I do not believe that this is consistent with the moral and ethical vision of Unitarian Universalism. Military propaganda does not serve the living tradition to which I have given my life.

There is a more beautiful world out there. I know it is possible. I can see the promise of that world in the innocent joy of the child who sat beside me. And I pray that the denomination that I call home is willing to help our chaplains become who they need to be and do the spiritual work required to reject the violence and murder that is carried out in our name.

*Often attributed to Joseph Stalin, though this is probably apocryphal.


Nov 10, 2014

The Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship

Next week I am going to be part of a panel presentation at the UU Collegium on the “The Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship.” To aid in preparations for my portion of the panel I am trying to collect some unscientific survey data. There are only four questions and I would appreciate it if readers of my blog could fill it out and distribute it. I will publish the results on the survey next week. The url is

CommentsCategories News Research Notes Tags Unitarian Universalism Collegium

Oct 21, 2014

The Chicago Couriers Union: a lesson for IWW solidarity union organizers

Recently Juan Conatz put a copy of my 2007 article "The Chicago Couriers Union: a lesson for IWW solidarity union organizers" up on libcom. The piece appeared in the Industrial Worker and served as the basis for my The Chicago Couriers Union: A Case Study in Solidarity Unionism,” which was published in Working USA. You can read the Industrial Worker piece here.

CommentsCategories Anarchism IWW News

Sep 4, 2014

Featured on the UUA International Blog

An abridged version of my sermon "Through Eyes that have Cried" is featured on the UUA's International blog. You can read it here.

CommentsCategories News Tags Immigration El Salvador

Sep 3, 2014

Preaching in Marlborough/Hudson

I will be preaching at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson in Hudson, MA on September 28. Unfortunately, my November 16 date in Northborough, MA has been cancelled. 

CommentsCategories Ministry News

Aug 31, 2014

Preaching at First Parish Northboro

I will be preaching a version of my sermon “Two Bodies, One Heart” at the First Parish Northboro on November 16, 2014. Worship begins at 10:00 a.m.

CommentsCategories Ministry News

Aug 30, 2014

Nurture Your Spirit, Help Heal Our World

preached by the Rev. Joan Van Becelaere and the Rev. Colin Bossen at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, October 14, 2007

Part 1: Rev. Colin Bossen

Today is Association Sunday, a chance for us to affirm our common bonds, our covenant and our purpose. We celebrate this day with hundreds of other Unitarian Universalist congregations. Today is an opportunity to reflect upon what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist and why our congregation and our religious association are important.

As a lifelong Unitarian Universalist it is clear to me that we need Unitarian Universalism in our troubled world. Our community can give us the strength we need to be healers and to struggle for justice. It can offer us a vision of what a better world might look like. In our community we come together to nurture our spirits and try to heal our world.

I am reminded of the importance of our religious community on an almost daily basis. Thursday we held a candle light vigil in response to the shooting at SuccessTech Academy. Our vigil helped me to remember that in times of crisis and tragedy our community should be, and is, a place for people to come for support, healing and meaning making.

Throughout my life the Unitarian Universalist community has almost always been there when I needed it. As many of you know I am a social activist by nature. Much of the organizing I have done would not have been possible if it was not for the Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities I have a part of. Whenever I felt that it was too hard to go on, pointless to go to another meeting or attend another march, there has always been someone in the Unitarian Universalist community that I could turn to for support.

I have learned about the power of religious community both through direct experience and by watching my elders. In fact, one of the wonderful things about our communities is that they are intergenerational and that they offer us the chance to interact and learn across the generations.

Several years ago, I was a member of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. When I was there the congregation had a strong commitment to social justice. The stalwarts of the community were all longtime veterans of justice work. A couple of the older members had developed civil disobedience into a spiritual practice. I remember a Sunday that Hal, one of the civil disobedience practitioners, got up in front of the congregation during joys and concerns. He wanted to proudly announce that he had just been arrested for the two hundredth time. The day before he had been protesting the death penalty at San Quentin, again, and had been arrested for blocking the road to the prison.

His cohort in civil disobedience, a man named Elwood, had declined in health by the time I moved to Berkeley. There were wonderful stories circulating about him. Hal liked to share the one about the last time he and Elwood had committed civil disobedience together. They were at San Quentin and Elwood, who was in his eighties, was too ill to stand unassisted. Despite his infirmity he wanted to participate in the protest. So, he and Hal came up with a brilliant solution. They made a fake electric chair, put a execution hood on Elwood and placed him in the middle of the street. At Elwood's trial, this is the part of the story that Hal liked best, the judge threw the charges out. Since Elwood was tied to the chair he was incapable of moving from the street when ordered to do so. That meant that he could not be held responsible for his actions.

I love this story. I think it illustrates a congregation at its best. Hal and Elwood were able to accomplish things together that they could not have done alone. Their faith in their community sustained them over many long years of struggle. It strengthened their voices for social change and gave them comfort in dark times. I knew Hal and his wife Cynthia for many years. I know that it was his community that allowed him to stand going to jail over and over again.

Today, we need our liberal religious communities more than ever. We live in an age of anxiety, in a time when people are anxious and disconnected from each other. In a globalized world we face increasing cultural and political complexity. The world can be a very confusing place. Our liberal religious communities can ground us. They can give us the strength we need to struggle onwards.

At the heart of communities is the idea of covenant. Covenants are agreements we make with each other about how we will live together. They are a practice of loving conduct and a mark of faithfulness to each other in the midst of change, anxiety and differences of opinion.

Covenant is also at the very heart of our congregational polity, our Unitarian Universalist way of doing religion and living together as a faith community. Some of you may be surprised to hear this. You might think that congregational polity means that each congregation simply does its own thing. After all, we each are autonomous and are each run by our members. Does that not mean that we are just free to do our own thing?

That may be the way some folks think about congregational polity, but it certainly is not what our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors meant when they formed the foundation of congregationalism back in 1648.

Part 2: Rev. Joan Van Becelaere

Let me tell you a story about our religious ancestors and what they were willing to risk for the sake of their belief in their covenant.

In 1620, our Pilgrim ancestors landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. In 1630, our Puritan ancestors arrived at the Massachusetts Bay colony.

Soon after arriving in New England, the Pilgrims and the Puritans began to work together and formed the New England Standing Order of Congregations. This Standing Order began to experiment with a new way of working together, a new way of doing religion in a new context.

Instead of relying on old structures, either the rule of bishops as in the Church of England or the rule of a powerful group of regional Elders and Clergy as in the Reformed tradition, our mix of New England Pilgrims and Puritans developed a new, revolutionary structure where each congregation governed itself, but still lived in cooperative relationship with other congregations. Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Puritans remaining in England grew strong and took over Parliament. These English Puritans favored Reformed church structure—that is, the rule by the group of regional elders and clergy.

In 1642, the English Puritans declared war on the king, took control of Parliament and then tried to take control of the colonies in North America. Then the Puritan Parliament passed the Westminster Confession which, among other things, dictated that all congregations were to use the Reformed polity. The congregations in New England could see what was coming and they were very afraid that the English Parliament would try to stop their new experiment in congregational independence. And they couldn’t just ignore the laws from Parliament. After all, Parliament controlled the colonial governments as well as the English army and navy and trade. And now Parliament wanted to control the congregations. This was a matter of politics as well as religion.

So the New England congregations begin meeting to deal with this threat. They outlined their experimental congregational structure and put it all down on paper. Then, when finally faced with a demand to adopt the Westminster Confession, the New England congregations had already formed a very sensitive but risky response which we now call the Cambridge Platform.

The Cambridge Platform diplomatically affirmed the theology of Parliament’s Westminister Confession. The platform said that Parliament’s Confession was "holy, orthodox, and judicious in all matters of faith."

But then the New England congregations went on to say: "Only in those things which have respect to church governance and discipline, we refer ourselves to the platform of church discipline agreed upon by this present assembly."

In other words, only in that minor matter of congregational governance, that itty bitty little question of polity, we beg to differ with you, dear Parliament, and we will use our own structures, thank you very much. The Cambridge Platform was a declaration of religious independence for the colonies long before political independence was even considered.

The Congregational polity of the Platform includes the autonomy of the local congregation, that the local congregation ordains ministers and that membership is based on covenant, not adherence to a creed. And it also said that the congregations themselves live in covenant with each other.

Covenant for our ancestors wasn’t just about the relationship of individual members within the congregations. It was about the relationship between the congregations themselves.

The Cambridge Platform outlined six ways in which congregations covenant, promise to be in relationship with each other.

mutual care,
consultation with one another in times of congregational conflict or indecision,
admonition when a congregation was perceived to be straying from the covenant,
participation in common celebrations and events of the larger community like ordinations and such,
recommendation or reference when a congregant moved from one congregation to another,
and relief and succor which meant sharing financial resources in times of need.
This declaration of religious independence was also a declaration of interdependence. And it was a huge risk for the New England congregations, a very dangerous game. They could have lost their charter, their right o stay in the English colonies. They could have lost their legal rights, their freedom; they could have lost their churches. But they had their faith; their commitment that enabled them to take that risk.

Fortunately for them, the next year, the civil war heated up again and the English Puritans had bigger problems than the New England colonies and their polite but revolutionary congregations.

American Unitarianism grew directly out of these revolutionary New England Standing Order congregations. And it was our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors who put covenant at the center of our polity and what it means to live in a faith community.

Part. 3: Rev. Colin Bossen

Our ancestors did not understand their congregations as isolated. They viewed each congregation as part of a larger web of mutuality, a covenanted community of congregations. The Cambridge Platform helped to define their duties and obligations to each other.

Today we would do well to remember the Cambridge Platform. Unfortunately, many contemporary Unitarian Universalists have a history of forgetting about our covenantal roots. We like to think of our congregations as individuals, liberal beacons in a socially and religiously conservative sea.

In an address at the 1998 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, sociologist Robert Bellah named this problem “radical religio-cultural individualism.” A fundamental tenet of liberal religion is the sacred nature of the individual. Individualism has shaped the view we have of the relationships between our congregations. Often we talk about covenantal relationships and act as if our congregations are isolated entities.

Bellah also said, however, that despite our fascination with individualism, we humans are, at root, relational creatures. Our focus on individualism and our forgetfulness concerning the interdependence of our covenant community is a great mistake. It runs counter to our very best natural tendencies.

We humans are essentially relational, we are tied to the rest of the universe through webs of connections. This interconnected reality has long been recognized by a number of religious traditions. Whether it is called the web of existence, the Communion of the Saints or the Tao, relationship lies at the center of our existence. Religion reminds us again and again, that we are ever bound in community. We always live in the reality of interdependence and the hope of covenant.

And it is in community that we find the deep resources to nurture our spirits in times of change. It is in community that we gain the strength to help heal our anxious and wounded world. Whenever I forget this I think of Hal and Elwood. Their story reminds me of how we can help and sustain each other through years of struggle. In telling their story I am honoring my connection to them.

We live in a time of chaos and uncertainty. We cannot cope with this new world using our worldview of radical individualism. If we are to cope with this new reality, we need a new approach, a new worldview, new creativity to navigate this chaotic world.

If we Unitarian Universalists are going to truly cope with our chaotic cosmos, to learn to live and thrive in an increasingly uncertain world, if we are going to nurture our souls as individuals and help heal our connected world, we must rekindle that fire of covenantal commitment, that reality of relationship and interconnectedness that lies at the roots of Unitarian Universalism. That is how we will survive and thrive.

Because we live in connection, as we state with our seventh principle,--to honor the interconnected web of existence--we know that all of our actions, and failures to take action, have repercussions that ripple on throughout the web of life. We are not alone when we take action based on our deepest values, when we work for healing and justice in the world. We are nurtured in the collective covenantal power, that revolutionary commitment that lies at the historical roots of our UU community.

In working to nurture the spirits of persons and heal our society and world, we ground ourselves in the power of those Unitarians and Universalists who came before us as we work with those who are in covenant with us today, for the sake of those who come after us. The web of existence is not bound by time or space.

Part 4: Rev. Joan Van Becelaere

Lately, I have experienced an excellent example of the reality of covenant community, where the welfare of each congregation directly impacts the health and welfare of all other congregations.

A few weeks ago our sister congregation in Findlay, Ohio—the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Blanchard Valley—was flooded. The congregation lost a lot of things: their piano, sound system, chairs, all of their religious education curricula, books, and supplies in the flood waters. And they had to move to a new rental building.

They were able to save their pulpit, chalice, some of their hymnals, and the coffee pots. Yes, the coffee pots were saved. There’s a certain ironic humor in that.

Our District Office, of course, put out an immediate call for help. And help poured in from throughout the Ohio Meadville District and the larger Unitarian Universalist community. Ministers, congregations and other districts contributed to help put that congregation back on its feet.

I recently talked to the minister at the Findlay Congregation, the Rev. Beth Marshall, and she said: “It's easy to feel isolated out here, and yet I now know that there are good colleagues and congregations out there we can depend upon.” We live in covenant.

The story of the Findlay congregation is a great example of how our Unitarian Universalist community operates when it remembers the Covenantal relationship, that deep commitment to interdependence that is at the foundation of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist.

It has been said—way too often—that trying to get Unitarian Universalists to cooperate with one another is like herding hungry cats past a tuna boat at dinner time. But I don’t buy that.

I think in our very heart of hearts, we do remember our covenant. It’s in our ancestral DNA. We have just forgotten it for awhile. I believe that the Cambridge Platform, with its six concepts of congregational communion—

mutual care,
consultation in times of conflict,
participation in celebration,
recommendation in transition,
and financial sharing in times of need.
—was way ahead of its time. And with a little creative cooperation, we can re-discover and live into that covenantal ideal—here and now.

Today, we can live our covenant when we participate in Association Sunday—when we celebrate our covenant here in the Ohio Meadville district and across North America.

And why do we do all of this? Because the world today truly needs Unitarian Universalism. It needs our message of hope and welcome and acceptance and interdependence. We need a faith community that can truly provide a welcoming place of spiritual nurture for everyone. A faith that can help heal our fragmented, chaotic world.

W.E.B. DuBois once wrote:

"Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow."
Today, we can live our covenant.
We can start here and now to rekindle the fire of our commitment.
Our collection of congregational kitty cats can and will come together.
Because now is the time.

Now is the time to remember our roots as Unitarian Universalists.
Now is the time to come together and remember that we are bound in community.
Now is the time to provide a place of spiritual nurture for people seeking a spiritual home.
Now is the time for our congregations to reach out to help heal our world with hope and love.

The world needs Unitarian Universalism.
The world needs the fire of our commitment.
And it certainly needs the strength of our covenant.

Now is the time.

Amen and blessed be.

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