Sep 4, 2014
Sep 3, 2014
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.
Aug 31, 2014
Aug 30, 2014
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.
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—
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.
Aug 29, 2014
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, October 7, 2007
All human beings deserve the same rights and respect. It does not matter whether you are black, white, Asian, Mexican or Native American. It does not matter whether you are male, female or transgender. It does not matter whether you are homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. It does not matter if you are rich or poor. You deserve to live your life with grace and dignity.
This coming week marks both Columbus and National Coming Out Days. In very different ways these celebrations epitomize the controversy that often erupts when people insist upon and advocate for human rights for all. Columbus Day is a celebration of the European discovery of the Americas. Most indigenous communities do not view the holiday as a celebration of discovery. For them it is a reminder of the genocide of their ancestors.
Our society denies gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people their full human rights. National Coming Out Day is a chance to raise awareness about this. Like Columbus Day it is not a holiday that is universally celebrated. Those who oppose full human rights for members of the queer community are likely to either ignore or protest National Coming Out Day.
When I was a child we celebrated Columbus Day in my elementary school. In one of my classes we made drawings of Columbus and his three ships--the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. We learned about how he had discovered America and convinced the Spanish king and queen Ferdinand and Isabel to finance his trip across the ocean. No mention was made of the native populations who inhabited this continent before the arrival of the Europeans or of their fate after the conquest of the Americas. To a naive child Columbus was a hero to be celebrated.
My consciousness about Columbus Day changed when I became involved in indigenous solidarity work in Chiapas, Mexico. I now understand that it as a complex holiday. On the one hand, it is an important day for Italian Americans and others to celebrate their heritage. On the other, it is a reminder of the suffering of generations of indigenous people at the hands of European colonialists. This complexity makes the Columbus Day holiday an ideal time to reflect upon one of the pressing issues of our day, immigration. Columbus was, after all, the original immigrant. Many of the undocumented immigrants to the United States today are descendents from the original inhabitants of the Americas. The debate about immigration is in part a continuation of a long debate about whom this continent belongs to and who has a right to participate in our society.
The immigration debate has gradually been heating up for the last several years. In 2006 it reached a boiling point when Congress attempted to pass a series of laws to clamp down on undocumented immigration. One of the measures that conservatives hoped to pass called for the deportation of the at least twelve million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. A mass deportation of this type would prove disastrous, not in the least because, according to the Center for American Progress, the costs would be at least $215 billion.
Right now, undocumented immigration is an issue in most wealthy countries. Things have gotten so bad in the Global South, in the developing countries of the world, that people are willing to risk anything to have a shot at a better life for themselves and their families.
Many do risk everything and ultimately die attempting to reach the wealthy countries. In five months in late 2005 and early 2006, for example, between one thousand and fifteen hundred sub-Saharan Africans died trying to sneak into Spain. According to the journalist Jeremy Rose that is "five and seven times the number of people who died attempting to reach West Berlin during the Berlin Wall's entire history."
People do not take such risks and leave their families behind because they want to. They do it because they have to. People emigrate to places like the United States because the options of staying behind in their home countries are much worse than risking death trying to leave them.
There are many people in our country who are afraid of immigrants. They are afraid that undocumented immigrants erode border security, take jobs from American citizens and threaten American culture. These issues frame most of the debate around immigration. I believe they obfuscate the central issue. The central issue is: who do we, and by we I mean both the people in this room and our culture at large, consider a human being? I believe that we all deserve the same rights and respect. We are all human beings. We all deserve to be able to live our lives with grace and dignity.
This idea is at the core of the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This first principle says that our community affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means that we think all human beings are human beings and are worthy of respect and dignity. This idea is at the heart of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It says, in part:
"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
The Declaration of Human Rights is supposed to be the global standard by which countries are judged, both in terms of how they treat their citizens and how they treat others. The Declaration contains all of the basic things that human beings are supposed to be entitled to. According to the Declaration all people are afforded the right to own property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to work and not be forced to work, freedom to choose their own sexual and life partners and freedom of movement. To deny people these rights is to deny them their humanity.
For undocumented immigrants the words "other status" are the key phrase in the document. That means that everyone in this country is supposed to be afforded these rights, whether or not they are here with the approval of the government.
The question of who really is a human being has been one that our country has wrestled with for a long time. Throughout the colonial period and during the first decades of our history as a nation the only people considered to be full human beings were land owning males of European descent. Anyone who did not meet the criteria of being male, white and a landowner was seen as less than a full citizen and, therefore, less than completely human. Slavery was justified by claiming that Africans and people of African descent possessed less developed faculties than Europeans. They were thought to need the guidance of others, their slave masters, to become civilized. Women, likewise, were denied the vote because they were thought of as less rational and capable than men.
Today, though most of us would not admit it, our country continues to have such attitudes. Today we do not consider people who live in the Global South, that is developing nations like Nicaragua, Iraq or the Sudan to be full human beings. If we did we would never let our government pursue the foreign policies it has in those countries.
In fact much of the immigration to the United States is a direct result of the failed economic and political policies of Washington. The last few years have seen an average of 500,000 undocumented immigrants from Mexico per year. Currently the greatest export from Mexico is Mexicans. As a result, remittance, money sent back to Mexico from the United States, is one of the top sources of income within Mexico. This is a direct result of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, more commonly known as NAFTA. NAFTA has decimated the Mexican countryside by placing small Mexican subsistence farmers in direct competition with large agricultural combines from the United States and Canada. Unable to compete, over 1.3 million Mexicans have left the countryside in the last ten years.
The violence that our government has perpetrated in Central America is another major reason why so many people have been forced to emigrate to the United States. Throughout the seventies and eighties the United States backed repressive regimes or right wing guerilla movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The conflicts in these countries led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of primarily indigenous peoples. Those that could, fled. And those that fled, fled to the United States.
One of the major reasons why people immigrate to the United States is that they want to be treated like human beings. I remember talking with a campesino in Chiapas, Mexico a few summers ago about this. He told me: "You Americans care more about your pets than you care about us." At least three thousand people from Latin America have been found dead along the United States border in the last ten years. I cannot help but wonder if he is right.
The material poverty that most of Latin America lives in is staggering. Through my work with CASA, the human rights organization that I helped to start in Mexico, I have visited Mexico a number of times. While there I have taken trips to the poorest rural communities and urban slums. People live without running water, far from the nearest school or doctor. They live in shacks with dirt floors and thatch or tin roofs. And they work hard for very little. Many live on less than a dollar a day.
The journey that many people from Mexico and Central America take to escape this kind of poverty is arduous. It involves a difficult and lengthy trip to the border, often through dangerous areas where immigrants are preyed upon by organized crime and harassed by governmental authorities. Once at the border immigrants will locate a coyote, a professional people smuggler, to take them into this country. Coyotes charge as much as $3,000 to people who wish to cross the border. Most of the people who cross into the United States lack the resources to pay up front. So coyotes often deliver them directly to potential employers through whom they can work off their debt. This can amount to modern slavery. Undocumented immigrants have been held in bondage for years while working off their debt. Once their debt to the coyote is cleared they often continue to live in fear as their employer threatens to have them deported if they step out of line.
Two myths about undocumented workers are that:
They do work that Americans do not want to do;
and they depress wages for American workers.
If either of these myths are true it is only by the slightest degree. Economics is not a zero sum game. There are not a set number of jobs available. More people in the United States means more needs for goods and services. This in turn means more jobs. The extent to which undocumented workers depress wages is also open to question. An article in the Economist argued that at most undocumented workers depressed wages for other Americans by 8%. Their analysis suggested, however, that the actual number was much closer to .4%.
Most undocumented immigrants do the work immigrants and poor people in this country have always done. They work in fields, in restaurants, in the garment industry and in domestic work. The wages in these industries are low in part because the management in these industries has fought tooth and nail against unionization efforts. Management would prefer that the workers stay undocumented so that they continue to live in fear and stay docile. Giving undocumented workers papers and a path to citizenship would in fact raise wages much more than clamping down on undocumented workers would.
It is certainly true that the income gap between the rich and poor in our country is growing. This is not the fault of undocumented immigrants. It is a result of the same economic and political policies that cause people to immigrate to the United States in the first place. Through trade agreements like NAFTA, a situation has been created where there a free movement of capital but not free movement of labor. Companies are free to move their factories wherever they like if labor costs get to expensive and workers are not able to follow them. This creates a series of captive labor markets, each trying to outbid the other in terms of low wages and services. The governments of poor countries vie with each other for the right to exploit their citizens. Working conditions in those countries are not fit for human beings. In some, children work twelve or fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for only a few dollars in wages. Such practices were outlawed in the United States three or four generations ago. Yet we allow our government to pursue economic policies that support such behavior. And in the end it hurts our country as well because manufacturing jobs from the United States leave for places with cheaper labor.
This is not capitalism as envisioned by Adam Smith. He believed that capitalism required free movement of both labor and capital. Restrict one and you distort the capitalist system and deny someone’s basic rights.
Columbus Day and the debate around immigration are connected to National Coming Out Day by questions of human rights. Both undocumented workers and members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities are denied some of their human rights. The struggles of both challenge us to make our society more inclusive.
Not long ago almost all members of the queer communities lived in the closest, afraid to admit their sexual orientation to any but a trusted circle. Over the last several years this has changed and, in many communities, it is now more acceptable to be queer. The stories from lesbians of two different generations that Dana read earlier demonstrate this. Young people questioning their sexual orientation or identity today have far more opportunities to safely explore whom they love than they did twenty years ago.
This does not mean that our society treats members of the queer community justly. It does not. Most states do not recognize the right of gays and lesbians to get married. The murder of Matthew Shepard a few years ago also served as a tragic reminder that while our society has become more tolerant of queer lifestyles, we still have a long way to go.
This is why celebrating National Coming Out Day is important. Coming Out Day reminds us both of the struggles that have been fought in the past and those that must be waged in the future. It is a time for us to pause and remember Stonewall, Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk, and the countless others who have either suffered because of who they loved or struggled for equal rights for all people. Coming Out Day is also a time for us to roll-up our sleeves and commit to making the lives of those around us and those who will come after us better. Never again should it be permissible to hate someone because of their sexual or gender orientation.
The history of this country is in part the history of the expansion of the franchise. Gradually more and more groups have been allowed to become full participants in our society. First white men without property and then women and black men were granted equal rights, at least under the eyes of the law. They are now all considered human beings and the laws for committing crimes against them are, in theory, the same. It is time to expand the franchise again. This time we must expand the franchise to truly include all human beings. We must recognize all of our brothers and sisters on planet earth as human beings.
In the hopes that it may be so, I say Amen and Blessed Be.
Aug 28, 2014
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 30, 2007
My theme this morning is the transient and the permanent in liberal religion. When I talk about liberal religion I mean Unitarianism, Universalism or Unitarian Universalism. Over the course of our almost five hundred year history our religious movement has changed a great deal. We have changed so much, in fact, that what seemed essential to us in one era now appears to be only tangential. Despite appearances I believe that no matter what the changes in our movement we have retained an important and discernible core. At our essence we are a covenantal community committed to truth, love, freedom and the ability of each person to find his or her own spiritual path.
The inspiration for this sermon comes from a seminal sermon by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker entitled "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity." In that sermon Parker tried to discern the essence of Christianity. He believed that much of what people took to be Christianity was actually a product of the time and culture in which they lived. He wrote:
"In actual Christianity... there seem to have been... two elements, the one transient, the other permanent. The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions... the other, the eternal truth of God. These two bear perhaps the same relation to each other that the phenomena of outward nature, such as sunshine and cloud, growth [and] decay...bear to the great law of nature, which underlies and supports them all."
Parker wrote as a transcendentalist. For him the essence of Christianity stood in for all religious truth. He thought that Jesus taught not Christianity but absolute religion, the essence of spiritual truth that lay behind all religion. Despite the title of his sermon, Parker was part of a movement that helped turn Unitarianism away from its identity as an exclusively Christian religion. Today, in our congregations, we recognize that all religions contain a kernel of truth in them. We understand that each religion is an effort to reach toward an understanding of ultimate reality. The interpretation may be different but the impulse to reach out is the same.
To help us explore the transient and the permanent of liberal religion, our own attempt at reaching towards the absolute, I would like to offer you three images from my and our religious ancestry. If examined closely, these images can teach us much about Unitarian Universalism.
First, imagine the gathering of a group of 17th century New England colonists. They have left the Church of England and fled their native land. They have come to a strange continent seeking religious freedom and, after months of discussion and debate, they have decided to form a religious community. Finally, they have reached agreement about the shape and form of their community. It is important for them that each individual be allowed to find truth in God and in the Bible as they best know how. One by one they write their names in the membership book and sign a covenant, an agreement about how they will behave together in religious community. Their covenant reads:
"We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth."
Now we turn to our second image. It is late at night. Theodore Parker sits at his desk. He is writing a fiery sermon calling for resistance to the fugitive slave law. That law demands that Northerners return fugitives to their supposed masters in the South. In front of Parker lies a loaded pistol. He has the gun because he and his wife are sheltering Ellen and William Craft, fugitives and members of his congregation. He plans to shoot anyone who comes and tries to return them to slavery.
The third image is of myself as a youth of fourteen. I am on the beach with about two hundred other Unitarian Universalist youth. Moonlight bounces off the sand and waves tumble rocks ever smoother on the shore. We are at the evening worship service of Con Con, the international annual conference for Unitarian Universalist youth. We are singing, sharing stories, running our hands over the soft warm earth. Amid the song, starlight and fellowship I experience an almost overpowering feeling of love and unity.
Each of these images is taken from a different moment in the history of liberal religion. The first image is from our earliest roots on this continent. The last is almost contemporary. We can draw a direct line through all three images to our worship service today. What has changed in our communities since the New England farmers gathered almost four hundred years ago? What has remained the same? What is transient and what is permanent?
I approach these questions from two directions. First, I take a theological tact, and look at the beliefs of both Unitarian Universalists and our ancestors. Second, I examine our culture, that is I look at who makes up our communities and how we relate to the wider world.
To the casual eye it would appear that almost nothing of Unitarian Universalist theology has remained consistent. Our religious ancestors who gathered together in Massachusets were self-identified Christians. The Bible was the central text in their religious community and all of them regarded Jesus as their lord and savior. A sociologist of religion would call them Protestant Christians.
Today, only a portion of Unitarian Universalists and Unitarian Universalist congregations identify as Christian. The members of our religious communities follow a variety of spiritual practices and beliefs. In our congregations we find Buddhists, Christians, Humanists, Jews, Agnostics, Pagans and others. A sociologist of religion would call us Post-Christian Protestants.
We are post-Christian because, as a religious movement, we come out of Christianity. That means that while we do not retain much of the theology of Christianity we continue to use many of the forms of Christianity. Like most other Protestant movements we have ministers, gather together for worship primarily on Sunday morning and organize ourselves into congregations. In addition we have taken a central idea of Protestantism, the belief that each person is capable of direct relationship with God and able to read and interpret the Bible, to an entirely different level. We recognize that there is truth in religious communities beyond Christianity. We do not just believe that each person is capable of interpreting the Bible. We think that each person is capable of interpreting their own religious experiences and naming their own source of religious authority. For us personal experience, and not the Bible, is the starting point for theological reflection.
Despite the shift from Christian to post-Christian we are united with our New England ancestors by our use of covenants. When we form communities we agree to treat each other in a certain way. The New England religious communities from which we are descended used similar covenants. The Salem covenant of 1629 that I read earlier is an example of one such covenant. Another, couched in slightly different language, is the Bond of Union of this congregation. If you look on our web-site or in our by-laws, you will find a statement that reads:
"We warmly invite into membership all in common with our purpose as expressed in our Bond of Union: mutual helpfulness in the search for truth and for enduring value in ways of life; advancement of sound morals among ourselves and in our community; encouragement and protection of individual freedom of religion."
This Bond of Union is meant to guide us as we live and work together in religious community. It contains several clear expectations about how we will behave in our congregation. It describes what it means to be a member of this community. We agree that when we gather:
We will help each other
We will seek truth
We will try to live moral lives and promote morality, as best we understand it, in our communities
We will respect and protect freedom of religion
Our Bond of Union is not really that different from the covenant of our New England ancestors. Laying them side by side it easy to see how they contain the same spirit. The language may be different, one mentions the Lord and God while the other does not, but both covenants speak of a commitment to truth, of mutual aid and respect. Neither explicitly mentions a standard of belief that people must meet in order to join the community. Instead we are asked to agree to "walk together" or be "in common with our purpose."
Our use of covenant unites us with our religious ancestors across almost four hundred years. We have long understood, to quote the Transylvania Unitarian Bishop Francis David, "we do not need to think alike to love alike."
With our Unitarian Christian, Universalist and Transcendentalist ancestors we share a belief that human beings are at the very least morally neutral. According to the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, our congregations "covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person."
This pledge is at the heart of what it means to be a religious liberal. Historically, the very definition of a religious liberal was someone who objected to the argument that humanity is somehow inherently wicked. In the Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association this sentiment is not couched as a belief—to affirm and promote is not the same thing as to believe—but in looking back at our history it might as well be.
The origin of the American Unitarian Association, one of the precursors to the Unitarian Universalist Association, lies in a 19th century dispute over whether or not human beings had innate goodness within them. The principle spokesperson of Unitarianism during this time was William Ellery Channing and he engaged in numerous debates with more orthodox clergy. In his famous sermon, entitled "Likeness to God," Channing argued that each person had within them the likeness to God. The purpose of religion was to help us nurture that divine spark. Channing felt that it was possible for us to reach an almost Godlike consciousness because, in his words, "we carry within ourselves the perfections, of which its beauty, magnificence, order, benevolent adaptations, and boundless purposes, are the results and manifestations [of God]. God unfolds himself in his works to a kindred mind."
As a young man, Channing was Parker's hero and provided him with much inspiration. Looking at texts like Channing's "Likeness to God" and Parker's "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity" one cannot help but notice similarities between them. That said, Channing and Parker had their differences. Channing acted as a sort of senior statesman for the religious liberals of his day. Parker was a powerful prophet whose anti-slavery views made him pariah among his fellow Unitarians. Channing was reluctant to call for the abolition of slavery until late in his career.
Parker, however, never would have taken the stands he did had it not been for the liberals of Channing's generation. Channing's generation's belief in the perfectibility of humans was in part what led Parker and his cohorts to attack slavery. If Parker was to approach God's likeness how could he not speak out against the evil of his times?
We are united with our 19th century ancestors not only by our feelings about human nature but by our understanding that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. In his essay "Self-Reliance" the Unitarian minister and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson admonished: "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world." By this Emerson means that it is our own experience of truth that is ultimately important. Each of us has had our own experiences and each of our experiences helps us to understand what is true.
My own truth has been tempered by a healthy dose of mysticism, a feeling that we can all connect to the infinite that surrounds us. This belief stems from early experiences like the one in Oregon where I felt a deep connection to everyone and everything around me.
The wonderful thing about Unitarian Universalism is that I can hold this belief, some of you can disagree with me and we can all be right. We are able to do so because we understand that our religious truths stem from our experiences. We have all had different experiences, which means we have all come to different religious truths. The absolute undergirding all of our experiences may be the same but our ways of understanding what is true will be different.
Covenants are a belief in at least the neutrality of human nature and a recognition that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. Taken together these three things form the core of Unitarian Universalism. Combined they form us into covenantal religious communities dedicated to truth, love and freedom. This is the core of our theological vision, our sense of absolute religion.
Having described our theological vision, we should turn our attention to the culture of liberal religion. We Unitarian Universalists are not of the sort to separate ourselves from the world. We have chosen to live in it. We are shaped by, and to a limited extent, shape the culture around us. Parker believed that culture should be the most transient part of religion. While the essence of our religion remains the same, culture should change with the times.
We can look at the culture of liberal religion on local or global levels. From a global perspective Unitarianism, Universalism and Unitarian Universalism are culturally rich. We can find our co-religionists in the Kashi hills of India, in Transylvania, the United States and the Philippines.
On the other hand, if we only look locally, if we examine the culture of our religion in the United States over the last four hundred years it appears culturally poor. David Bumbaugh touches on this in his sermon "Beyond the Seven Principles: The Core of Our Faith:"
"[I]f we ask, "Who is served by Unitarian Universalism" we come at the core of our faith from a very different angle. The answer to that question, whether we like it or not, is that historically Unitarian Universalism has served the emergent middle-class, (dare I say, mostly the Euro-American emergent middle class). This is not a fact we find ourselves able to embrace comfortably."
I am afraid that, in general, Bumbaugh's observation is correct. There are, of course, exceptions, and much of the best of Unitarian Universalism can be found within them. However, it is painfully true that in aggregate our congregations have primarily served the professional and business classes. In general, our communities are made up of teachers, public servants, college professors, mid-level business executives and others of similar educational background. Most of us are neither the people who own the means of production nor those who those who labor in the mills.
Unitarian Universalists are not only a middle-class people. Many of us are also deeply counter-cultural. We have come to Unitarian Universalism because we have rejected the dominant modes of religious thinking in our society. In earlier days we would have been called heretics. Often our understanding of religious truth calls upon us to question the actions of our government, the values of our materialist culture and why people in our world are not afforded to most basic of human rights. When we ask these questions, I believe the permanent in liberal religion, the part of our faith that calls us to extend ourselves beyond our comfortable shells, in peeking through.
Nonetheless, as a religious movement, we need to ask ourselves if the class composition of our congregations is part of the transient or the permanent of liberal religion. When our communities lack the full spectrum of human diversity we are all missing something. We learn by struggling to build community with those who are different from us. If we restrict ourselves to only a thin band of the world's peoples, then our community is the poorer for it.
The Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed reminds us, "The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all."
To fully unveil those bonds we need to widen our communities. This is not easy work as it requires us to carefully examine the cultural assumptions we make within our congregations. Often I have heard Unitarian Universalists say that our faith is best fitted for people with a certain level of education or background. If culture is part of the transient in liberal religion this need not be the case.
When we remember that culture is transient, we remember, again in the words of Morrison-Reed, that "alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done." This act of remembrance is part of the permanence of liberal religion. This act of remembrance is what makes our communities worthwhile. It is what happens when we truly unite in a covenantal community to pursue truth, love and freedom. That it may be so.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Aug 27, 2014
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 23, 2007
My message this morning is that it is possible to build a better world, a world decidedly more fair than the one we live in today. In such a world no one will go without food, without shelter, without education and each community will be able to decide how to best meet its own needs. This may sound like a utopian dream but today we have the technology to make such a dream a reality. I know that such a world is possible because I have seen the seeds of it amid the indigenous communities of Chiapas and among the communities I am a part of in the United States.
Our reading this morning comes from Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos, the primary spokesperson of the Zapatista National Army of Liberation. Marcos speaks of building such a world. He writes: "In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live...This world was not a dream from the past, it was not something that came to us from our ancestors. It came from ahead, from the next step we were going to take."
The Zapatista National Army of Liberation, usually just know as the Zapatistas or the EZLN, their initials in Spanish, are the armed part of a broader social movement for indigenous rights and autonomy. Located in Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico, the Zapatistas have openly struggled for indigenous rights, autonomy and the possibility of a better world for the last thirteen years. Despite their name, the Zapatistas are primarily a non-violent movement. They have only taken up arms once and that was in January of 1994. Since then, despite being frequently attacked by paramilitaries and harassed by the Mexican military, federal and state police, they have not fired a shot.
The Zapatistas took up arms on January first of 1994 against the Mexican government for two reasons. The first was that January first was the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement, commonly known as NAFTA, took effect. The Zapatistas viewed NAFTA as a virtually death sentence for their rural communities. NAFTA included provisions in it that essentially outlawed the collective ownership of land, a practice of the indigenous of Mexico since before the arrival of the Spaniards. Without the collective ownership of land the Zapatistas feared that much of indigenous campesino culture would disappear.
The Zapatistas also objected to NAFTA because it placed small Mexican farmers in direct competition with the large agricultural combines of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and the other states that make up the corn belt. Corn is the base of the Mexican diet and the Zapatistas were afraid that the small farmers from their communities would simply be unable to compete with the cheap corn from the United States that would flood the Mexican market in the wake of NAFTA.
The second reason why the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 was that at time Mexico had been governed by one party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, for sixty five years. For all intents and purposes Mexico was not a democratic country, it was a one party dictatorship, and the PRI did not practice democracy internally. Every six years presidential elections were held. The PRI always won them and the outgoing President always nominated his successor.
Rural Mexico is, in general, an impoverished place, more than half of rural Mexicans live in poverty, that is they live on less than two dollars a day, and the indigenous communities of Chiapas were among the poorest of the poor. In some parts of the state the poverty rate exceeds eighty percent. For the Zapatistas NAFTA was the final straw. They felt it was better to die on their feet than to starve to death silently in their communities.
The Zapatista uprising lasted a scant twelve days. They were able to seize control of about one third of the state of Chiapas but by January 12th the Mexican military was poised to go into the jungle and massacre the indigenous communities that supported the Zapatistas. At that point Mexican civil society, that is to say people like you and me, staged massive protests throughout Mexico demanding that the government and the Zapatistas solve their conflict peacefully. In the face of this the Mexican military was forced to back down. That left the Zapatistas in control of a small swatch of liberated territory, an area of which they have set up about implementing their vision of a better world.
I began working in Chiapas in the summer of 2000 when I took at two week trip there with the organization Schools for Chiapas to help build a school in one of the Zapatista autonomous communities. While in Chiapas I met my friend Roxanne Ukahri Rivas and in the fall of 2001 we started an organization originally called the Chiapas Peace House Project. Now called CASA or Colectivos de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Acción, an acronym that roughly translates to collectives for solidarity and action, the Peace House was started to provide a physical space for people sympathetic to the Zapatistas to come, reflect and work with either indigenous communities or the social movements and non-governmental organizations that supported them. In the six years since we started CASA we have opened two centers, one in Chiapas and another in Oaxaca, and have hosted more than seventy long-term volunteers. Our volunteers have worked on everything from training indigenous campesinos to be human rights observers to mural painting and collective gardening projects.
In the eight summers since I started working in Chiapas I have had the privilege to watch the Zapatista movement's vision for a new society unfold. My first trip to Chiapas was at the end of what I affectionately call "the bad old days." 2000 was the last year that the PRI were in power. Since the cease-fire in 1994 the Mexican government has been conducting a low-intensity war against the Zapatista communities. Another way to describe low-intensity warfare is to call it civilian targeted warfare. In this counter-insurgency model the government gives arms and immunity to paramilitaries who attack indigenous communities. At the same time military and police units encircle the communities under threat. This allows the government to claim that it is not involved in the conflict, that the conflict is between different social organizations, while at the same time slowly starving the Zapatista communities of the resources that they need to thrive.
Prior to the ouster of the PRI, part of the Mexican government's strategy was to harass, detain and deport internationals who came to Chiapas to either act as human rights observers or to offer the Zapatistas aid. I call that period the bad old days because back then if you wanted to visit the Zapatista communities you had to engage in complicated cloak and dagger operations, dodge military road blocks and generally operate under cover. If you did not it was possible that you would find yourself on a plane headed back to your home country with an order never to return to Mexico.
Today the situation in Chiapas remains largely the same. There is one important difference. The Mexican government has stopped harassing solidarity activists and human rights workers. Government officials came to the conclusion that the conflict in Chiapas and the Zapatista movement received a lot less attention if they simply ignored the presence of internationals. After the election of Vicente Fox in 2000 the deportations of internationals ceased. For us then the bad old days are those before Fox's party, the National Action Party or PAN, took power. The Mexican government now tries to claim that really there is no conflict in Chiapas. But for the people of Chiapas the situation was not changed much. In fact it has probably gotten worse. The number of documented human rights abuses in Mexico have increased since the PAN took power.
When I went to Chiapas in 2000 I visited two Zapatista communities. The first was Oventik. An hour outside of the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Oventik is probably the most visited of the Zapatista communities. Back in 2000 it often served as a launching point for other journeys into Zapatista territory. We spent two days there speaking with Zapatistas from the community and waiting to travel to the community of Francisco Gomez.
The journey from Oventik to Francisco Gomez took eight hours. We left in the middle of the night and traveled under tarps in the back of cattle trucks. It was one of the more intense experiences of my life. We had to try and circumvent at least three military roadblocks to get to Francisco Gomez. We were stopped at the last roadblock outside of Francisco Gomez. My heart sank and I know that most of the other people I was with were worried as well. We were pretty certain that we going to get deported or, at the very least, turned back. Instead the soldiers let us through.
Years later, talking with a Mexican friend, I found out why. Apparently she and the driver had told the soldiers that they were polleros, which is a Spanish slang word for human traffickers, and that we were undocumented migrants. Given that at least half of our delegation were white gringos like myself I have no idea why the soldiers believed my friend. Regardless, we were allowed to continue our journey.
In 2000 Francisco Gomez was a tiny little community. It had a population of maybe two hundred. The only way to get to the community was via a rough dirt road that bisected the hamlet. Like Oventik, Francisco Gomez is also an important Zapatista center. Both are what are now called Carcoles, which means shell in Spanish. Carcoles act as regional seats for the Zapatista autonomous government. Each Carcole coordinates the activities of approximately two hundred communities. Today most Carcoles have their own clinics, schools, meeting centers, cooperative stores and administrative offices. When I visited Francisco Gomez in 2000 the community was just in the process of building its school. We were there, in fact, to help them build that school. We brought with us a willing volunteer force and, more importantly, enough money to buy all of the concrete that was needed.
We spent two weeks in Francisco Gomez working along side and learning about the Zapatistas. We had a chance to watch them make decisions collectively. In their communities a general assembly of, depending on the community, all men or men and women is the policy setting agent. The general assembly elects leaders to enact the policies while the general assembly decides them. These leaders can be recalled if they overstep their authority, are unpaid, and usually only serve for a very limited term.
When I was in Francisco Gomez it seemed that the Zapatista experiment in autonomy was just starting. The communities still had much to do if they were to reach their stated goal of creating a different sort of society. Their infrastructure was still fairly rudimentary. A lot has changed in the following eight years.
This summer I had the opportunity to take my family to Chiapas with me. We went to Chiapas for two reasons. The first was that the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee had contracted with me and CASA to run a human rights delegation for them. The second was that I wanted Sara and Emma to have a chance to learn about the Zapatista movement first hand.
We arrived about a week and a half before the start of the delegation to attend the Second Encounter of Zapatista Peoples with the Peoples of the World. About three thousand people from across Mexico and from around the world attended this meeting. The Zapatistas sometimes refer to their big meetings as intergalacticos because they hold that people will attend from as far away as outside the solar system. This summer's intergalatico lasted ten days and consisted primarily of speeches by representatives of Zapatista communities and other progressive, usually rural, communities from around the world followed by a question and answer session. There were also ample opportunities for both formal and informal networking. It was an exercise in listening, achance to hear the voices of others from all across the globe. The Zapatistas want a world in which there is room for all cultures and peoples of the world. Their events usually attempt to bring somewhat disparate groups together to make common cause.
This year's intergalatico was a opportunity for the Zapatistas to highlight the accomplishments of their movement over the last thirteen years. Discussions were held on such topics as the Zapatista government, education, health care, economic and justice systems. Representatives from some Zapatista communities also spoke about women's rights and women's struggles in the indigenous communities and the relationship between Zapatista communities and international solidarity activists.
During the ten days of the intergalatico the Zapatistas held meetings at the Caracoles of Oventik, Morelia and La Realidad--there are five Caracoles in total. La Realidad is in the heart of Zapatista territory and while all of the Carcoles are supposedly equal, La Realidad is clearly more equal than the others. It is larger and is the place where much of the Zapatista military leadership spends its time.
Sara, Emma, Asa and I arrived in Chiapas in time to participate in the second half of the Intergalatico. That meant that we missed the meetings in Oventik and travelled instead directly to Morelia. It was a three-hour trip in the back of old VW micro buses and pick-ups. When we were in pick-up trucks Sara and the kids got to ride in the cabin.
Travelling with a family was a very different experience for me. While there was far less of a chance of deportation than there was eight years ago, it was still challenging. Sara and I had to make certain that the kids had their needs taken care of at all times and I choose to do things differently than I would have had I been by myself. We brought a tent and went to bed early rather than staying up late to take part in the festivities--the Zapatistas love a good party and their events always feature a lot of dancing, art and, usually, a basketball tournament. I was unable to participate as much in the meetings as I had in the past.
On the other hand, bringing my family allowed for interactions on a different level than I had experienced in the past. Asa took on an almost celebrity status. He was probably the only white baby that a lot of the Zapatistas had ever seen. They were fascinated by him. Women lined up to hold him and Sara and I got to speak with them about their parenting practices. Babies, it seems, transcend all cultures.
The biggest challenge about traveling with my family was simply the travel itself. The trip from Morelia to La Realidad was not an easy one. We went as part of a caravan of intergalatico attendees. There were twenty one trucks in our caravan and each truck carried between twenty five and thirty people. For the most part the trucks were cattle trucks and most of us had to travel in the truck bed. Sara, Emma and Asa were given a seat in the cabin but there was not space for me.
The trip took fifteen hours, nineteen if you count the four hours we spent waiting in the sun for the caravan to get organized. The last eight hours of our journey were along windy dirt mountain roads long after the sun had set.
While it was a hard journey it was not all bad. We made friends with our fellow travelers and I got to learn a bunch of radical songs from across Latin America. I traded civil rights and labor movement songs for poetry and music from Mexican and Spanish social movements.
When we got to La Realidad we had the chance to learn more about the Zapatista autonomous communities. Of particular interest were the discourses on women's rights and the Zapatista justice system. The Zapatistas have always had a good line on women's rights. Unfortunately, it has often seemed like there was dissidence between their word and their actions. Prior to this trip I have rarely seen women in leadership positions within the communities. I believe this has been largely because of the traditional roles of women in indigenous communities.
This dynamic seems to have shifted. At the intergalatico women acted as spokespeople for their communities and were visibly part of the highest levels of the Zapatista government. It was a powerful change to witness.
The discourse on the justice system was also interesting because the communities had tried to really implement a form restorative justice. One story I heard about the justice system in La Realidad is about Coyote, a human trafficker who people from Latin America pay to help them sneak into the United States. It seems that people from La Realidad caught him in their territory. When they caught him he had a large number of migrants locked in the back of semi. He was smuggling them North so they could cross into the United States. When the Zapatistas caught them they been had been without food or water for some time. The Zapatistas gave the migrants a good talking to, fed them, and told them that it would be better if they went back to their own communities than if they tried to come to the United States. Many people die in the journey North and once they get to the United States there is no guarantee that they will find themselves in a good situation. The Zapatistas made Coyote refund the migrants their money, levied him an additional fine and sentenced him to a couple of years of community service. I am told he considered himself lucky that he was caught by the Zapatistas and not the Mexican government.
Now I realize that I am speaking very highly of the Zapatistas. It is true that I have a lot of respect for them and believe that the autonomous communities offer an important lesson to how the world might be different. I have learned through working with them that it is possible to build a different world. To have hope for a better world in this day is a powerful thing to have.
However, I do not mean to come off totally uncritical of the Zapatistas. Their role among the social movements in Chiapas and Mexico is complicated. In the last thirteen years they have both worked with and alienated many organizations I am sympathetic to and people that I am friends with. Their communities are far from perfect and they have the same human flaws as all of us. In some communities they have a long way to go before their discourse on women's rights matches their practice. Nonetheless, their experience suggests that we can build a better, fairer world.
Sara, Emma, Asa and I returned to our new home in Cleveland Heights about two weeks before I started my ministry with you. Since then I have been trying to think about how my experiences in Chiapas apply to my work with you here. There are a couple of things that seem clear.
The most important is simply that the Zapatista dream of a better world can be a powerful inspiration. It is possible to catch glimpses of this dream now and again. The essence of Zapatismo is collective work, the practice that people work together to accomplish what they could not as individuals. I saw members from this congregation engaging in this type of mutual aid yesterday when many of you gathered to help an older member of the community scrape and paint his garage and tidy his yard so he could try to sell his home.
The second is that there are some interesting parallels between Chiapas and North Eastern Ohio. Both areas are suffering heavily due to shifts in the economy. Rural Chiapas is in crisis to due to the changes in trade that NAFTA has brought. Likewise, Northeastern Ohio is in the midst of deindustrialization as manufacturing jobs leave the area as a result of changes in technology and the availability of cheaper labor elsewhere. As a result, both areas are experiencing significant out migration as it becomes more and more difficult for some people to support themselves. Sometimes when I am out walking the dog or biking around town, I will see three or four homes for a sale on a single block. And just as Chiapas is one of the poorest parts of Mexico, Cleveland is one of the poorest areas in the United States.
Now I am not suggesting that we organize a revolution. However, I do think that the key to transforming our community is organizing and seeking new solutions to old problems. If we can find our own dreams of what is ahead perhaps together we can, one step at time, stretch to reach them. Our dreams might teach us how our society can be different and how we can build a more peaceable world, one in which there is room for many others.
May it be so. Amen and Blessed Be.
Aug 26, 2014
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 16, 2007
And so we find ourselves at the beginning of things. This month marks the start of our ministry together. This is my first sermon as your settled minister. Together we have begun a new era in the life of this congregation.
The problem with beginnings is that it is often difficult to discern exactly when things start. In any relationship there is a lot that happens beforehand to make the actual relationship even a possibility. I arrive here after having gone through an extensive search process. I talked with and pre-candidated with many different congregations before deciding that this congregation was the best fit for me. Your search committee interviewed many different ministers before deciding that I was the best fit for this congregation. Before we got to our decision points, or even began our searches, there was a lot of discernment that took place. Based on my skills, my values, the needs of my family and my hopes for the future I had to figure out what type of congregation I wanted to serve. You had to do likewise as you prepared to look for your new minister.
I think a statement from my brother, Jorin, sums up all of this quite nicely: “There’s a lot of stuff that happened before I was born.” Whenever we start, whenever we are born or embark onto a new adventure, we are coming into the middle of things. What happened before we begin shapes who we are and what we understand is possible. The past can limit us or it can help us to understand that there are boundless possibilities before us. But the past itself is problematic. Ask two participants at the same event and they are bound to give two slightly different histories.
I picked our readings today from first two chapters of the book of Genesis because I believe that taken together they demonstrate the problems with beginnings. If you read the book of Genesis you will notice that it actually contains two different creation stories. In the first story, found in the first chapter, God creates humankind, man and woman, together. He does this after he has created the stars, the earth, the sea, the animals, the plants and pretty much everything that exists.
In the second story, found in the second chapter, the Lord God creates man first and then woman from the body of man. Woman is only created after man has already named all of the plants and animals. In this version of creation man, and not the animals and plants, is what comes first. Woman comes last.
There has been a lot of speculation as to why there are two separate stories of creation in the book of Genesis. The story of creation is not the only instance where the Bible contains two versions of the same story. Over the years Biblical scholars have evolved what is called the documentary hypothesis to explain why these duplications exist. This theory holds that the first five books of the Bible, usually called the Torah or the Pentateuch, were not written by one person or even one community. Instead, they believe that the Torah came together over many hundreds of years and that it had four primary sources. These sources, each representing a different community among the ancient Israelites, can be identified by the language they use and how they understand the divine, the priesthood and the Law.
Scholars of the documentary hypothesis argue that the reason why the book of Genesis has two different creation stories is because it is the amalgamation of at least two different texts. One is called the Elohim because of how it refers to the divine. In this version the divine is called, in English, God. The other version is called the Jahwist because it refers to the divine as the Lord God. The Elohim source is commonly attributed to a community in the Kingdom of Israel while the Jahwist source is usually believed to have originated in the Kingdom of Judah. The two sources offer different histories about the people of Israel and in some cases contradict each other. Whichever individual or group edited the version of the Torah that we have today could not, for whatever reason, decide which of their stories were correct or more important and as result there are many instances where we have the same story told from two different perspectives. At this late date in history it is impossible to know which one is closer to the oral tradition from which the Bible originated, or even if such a concept makes any sense when trying to interpret the Bible.
I think that this illustrates a simple truth about history. There are always multiple interpretations of the same event. Each community, and each person, will understand what happened in the past a little differently.
The other thing that the book of Genesis can teach us is that beginnings are never truly clear. The first sentence of Genesis reads “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth...” The problem here is that it does not say where God comes from, why God decided to create the earth or what the pre-history of the world was. Even in this story of the creation there’s a missing story of the beginnings of the beginnings.
Again scholars have tried to figure out what is going on. Some have speculated that the Bible actually contains hints of the pre-history of the world within the text. Based on what is offered in those hints, some scholars believe it is actually possible to create a rough narrative of what happened before the book of Genesis. I had a professor in graduate school who thought that various Sumerian and Babylonian sources, when compared with the Biblical texts, could be used to help fill in the missing gaps. Whether this is actually true, or whether it is a flight of scholarly fancy, I do not feel qualified to say.
Today, in our own beginning, we find that we are not really at the beginning. There is a lot of pre-history that proceeds the start of our ministry together. In fact, for some of you our beginning is not a beginning at all but a continuation of the ongoing story of this congregation. For you I am a character introduced somewhere in the middle of the story. I come in neither at the beginning nor, I hope, at the end. The congregation will continue after I move on, an event that I hope will not occur for many years, and at some point my time with you will simply be referred to as the years during which Colin Bossen was your minister, just as you talk about the Farley Wheelwright, Jesse Cavileer, Chris Bailey or Peggy Clason years.
Since I am coming into your story in the middle things I have spent a little while trying to understand what happened before I arrived. Unitarian Universalism and this congregation have a long, interesting and complicated history in the Cleveland area. There is a lot to try and understand. As far as I can figure there have been Universalists in the Cleveland area since at least the 1830s. Our oldest congregation in the area, the North Olmsted Unitarian Universalist Church, dates from this era.
The first Unitarians arrived to Cleveland around the same time as Universalists. It was not until 1867 when the Unitarians were organized enough to form the First Unitarian Society of Cleveland. That congregation is one of the two ancestor congregations of our community. Our other ancestral congregation is All Souls Universalist Church. That congregation merged with First Unitarian in 1932.
The real story of this congregation seems to begin in 1951 when the majority of the members of First Unitarian decided to relocate the congregation to Shaker Heights. At the time the congregation was located at 82nd and Euclid. The neighborhood that the grand old Gothic church was in was changing. Cleveland was experiencing its first major round of white flight and middle class whites were leaving the city for the suburbs. The people who founded the Society were those who decided that they wanted to stay in the city.
About twenty years later came another defining moment in the history of the congregation. I have heard some people refer to it as “the time we gave the church away.” Earlier this year your interim minister, Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, preached an excellent sermon called “The Legacy of Empowerment” on this time in our congregation’s history. In that sermon she argued that this period of time has left a long standing imprint on the congregation. What happened between 1969 and 1971 determined the shape of the congregation for years to come.
I do not pretend to understand everything about that period in the congregation’s history. What I do know is this, the late sixties and early seventies were a very tumultuous time in our country, in our religious association and in our city. The years between 1967 and 1971 saw what has been commonly called the black empowerment controversy in the Unitarian Universalist Association. During this time Unitarian Universalists struggled with racial issues in a way that we had not done before and have not done since. At the heart of the crisis was the question of whether or not the UUA would give $1,000,000 to the Black Affairs Council, or BAC, to spend as they saw fit.
At the 1968 General Assembly, held here in Cleveland, the member congregations of the UUA voted to give BAC $1,000,000. Not long after, citing a looming financial crisis, the UUA Board of Trustees overturned the decision. Up until that point the General Assembly, to which each congregation sends delegates to represent its interests, was the body that set the budget of the UUA. The decision to overturn the financial commitments that the General Assembly had made was unprecedented and at the following year’s meeting, held in Boston, total chaos broke loose.
An attempt was made to reverse the Board’s decision and when it failed, our religious association almost split in two. Many African American members of BAC left our movement. First they left the meeting in disgust, and then they left our religious association. At the same time, Jack Mendelssohn led a walkout of the white delegates sympathetic to BAC. Almost half of the Unitarian Universalists present at the meeting followed him. It has taken more than a generation to begin to heal the self-inflicted wounds of that day.
In 1969, our congregation experienced its own version of the black empowerment controversy. As the neighborhood around 82nd and Euclid continued to change and the toll on the congregation began to show, it became necessary to hire a police guard during church functions, the administrative offices were broken into so frequently that it was no longer safe to keep stamps there overnight and two women were mugged on the church’s property. In the face of these circumstances the congregational leadership decided that something had to be done.
Under the leadership of then minister Farley Wheelwright, it was decided to consider giving the building and half of the endowment to the Cleveland Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) so that they could start an African American Unitarian Universalist congregation. After a very controversial vote that is exactly what happened. The Cleveland BUUC organized the Black Humanist Fellowship of Liberation and called John Fraizer to be their minister. For reasons that I do not know, that congregation collapsed within only a few years.
It became clear to the members of the Unitarian Society that they needed to find another place to worship. In 1971 the Society purchased this building. The congregation that came here was dramatically different from the congregation that had been at 82nd and Euclid just a few years earlier. To be blunt, it was much whiter and much smaller. In the course of a few years the membership of the Society shrank from slightly over three hundred to under one hundred. Over the next thirty five years the congregation’s membership gradually shrank to around sixty members.
Through it all this congregation has remained here and struggled onward. No doubt at times some of you have been like the young frog in the story from earlier today. You have been ready to despair, drown in the cream and let the congregation fold. Others have probably played the role of the older frog and kept on croaking “Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!”
This congregation has seen remarkable growth in the last few years and it seems likely that those of you who kept crying “Keep hope alive!” were onto something. The congregation may be at another turning point. It might be poised to shift from a small congregation to a larger one.
Some of you may be hearing this history for the first time. Many of you probably remember part of it from Rev. Rolenz’s sermon. Still others of you may have lived it. The history of our congregation is undoubtedly like the creation myth at the start of the book of Genesis. There is more than one version. But however we remember it or understand it is important.
One of our challenges together will be to honor our past without letting it hold us hostage. Today is a different day than 1969. Our congregation today is very different from the congregation that existed then. We should look to our past as a guide, but we should only hold it as one guide of many. The transcendentalist Samuel Longfellow used to say that revelation is not sealed. Alongside our history we will find many other sources of inspiration as we labor together.
However you understand our history, whether this is your first time here or your thousandth, the truth is that today we find ourselves at a beginning. We are in the middle of the congregation’s history but we are at the start of a new ministry together. We can see the road behind us but the path ahead is murky. What will we decide about our future? What will we choose? Which road will we take?
Here we are at the beginning of things, in the middle of things, with part of our story told and part of it yet to unfold.
Amen and Blessed Be.
I am finally taking the time to port my old sermons from my time at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland over from the congregation’s site. I will be posting them in chronological order, starting with the oldest, at the rate of about one a day over the next few months. The first one is “The Trouble with Beginnings.” In an effort to get the sermons on-line I am porting them over as they appear on the Society's web site. This means that in several cases they are in need of a bit of copy editing.
Aug 25, 2014
as preached at the First Parish in Lexington, August 24, 2014
For the last two weeks, events in Ferguson, Missouri have served as a visceral reminder that this country, particularly its white majority, is in need of a conversion experience. The human cost of continuing to live in a white supremacist society, a society that values the lives of white more than the lives of people of color, is too high. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams defined conversion as "a fundamental change of the heart and will."
Have you ever had such an experience? One that forced you to re-examine all of your previously held beliefs and develop new ones? I suspect that some of you have. Unitarian Universalism is, by in large, a religion of converts. Only about 1 in 10 of the adult members of our congregations were raised Unitarian Universalist. The majority of us were either brought up in another religious tradition or in no religious tradition.
One powerful conversion story comes from the Unitarian Universalist minister Bill Breeden. As I remember, Bill started life as a fundamentalist Christian. His tradition did not require, or even value, clerical education and as a teenager he began preaching at a small Pentecostal church. At the same time, to make ends meet, he was working at a local grocery store as a stock boy.
It was there that Bill had his conversion experience. One of his duties was to dispose of unsalable or expired food. This was the 1960s and the food was destroyed in a burn pit behind the store. Once a day Bill would gather up the food, take it out back, douse it with gasoline and make a sort of bonfire. Often times the food that he destroyed was still perfectly edible.
One evening as he prepared to pour gasoline over the assembled pile and light it aflame he heard a voice. "Please, sir, could I have that cheese? I am hungry and I would like something to eat. I would like some food for my family." Bill turned and found himself facing a middle aged Black woman. He let her have the cheese and she went on her way.
Put before she did Bill saw Christ in her. Something about her, some manner in which he connected to her, caused him to see the world in an entirely different way. In that moment Christ was transformed from a blond haired, blue eyed, white skinned male to a poor Black woman standing in front of him. His universe, his understanding of the sacred was forever altered.
Over the next years Bill left his fundamentalist community and developed a theology of Universalist Christianity. He saw the divine in all people and upheld the human family as one. Eventually Bill found Unitarian Universalism.
I doubt most people have conversion stories that are quite as dramatic. Few Unitarian Universalists claim to have seen Christ. Many of us are not Christian and grow squeamish when the word is mentioned. Others would argue that the word Christ is a metaphor for the human potential and the possibility of perfection that lies within all of us. In this theological strain seeing Christ in someone else means sharing a moment of absolute connection and recognition; witnessing the impossible glorious mystery of the universe in the face of another. It is such a moment that Bill had when he encountered the woman behind the grocery store. In her he saw himself and all of the human family. He realized that the two them shared some sort of deep connection, some type of kinship, on an ineffable level.
Michael Brown would still be alive if Darren Wilson had seen the divine in him when he pointed his gun. Trayvon Martin would still be with us if George Zimmerman had seen him for a human brother rather than as a threat. Thousands of black men and women would never have been lynched if white supremacists understood that there is no difference between white skin and brown skin. Jim Crow would not have lessened the lives of millions if white moderates and liberals saw their own children in the eyes of black and brown boys and girls. The horror of slavery would have been avoided if slavers had heard their own cries in the voices of their victims.
The great Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing taught the kinship of the whole human race. He wrote, "I am a living member of the great Family of All Souls." He also said, "I cannot improve or suffer myself, without diffusing good or evil around me through an ever-enlarging sphere." The knowledge that all humanity is, on some deep level, one family and that we are all connected means that the actions of an individual can and do effect the many.
Drop a pebble in water and it ripples outward. Act, speak or simply live your life and you cannot know ultimately what effect you will have. The choices that we make effect not only ourselves and our families but future generations.
The events in Ferguson are a sad reminder of this truth. The police have behaved in such an outrageous manner because of America’s long history of racism. Unarmed black men have been killed by white police officers for hundreds of years. The narrative is almost always the same, a white person with a gun felt threatened by a black person without a gun. A white person with power was scared by a black person without it. This century old story is the legacy of slavery. This century old story is rooted in the terror that many whites feel, at a subconscious level, that someday black and brown people will rise up and take back what is theirs. This country was partially built on the labor of African slaves. All of the lands that make up our nation were stolen from Native Americans.
We have the power to change the story. We have the power to undo racism and value the lives of every member of the human family. We can be part of building a new Civil Rights movement. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition urges us to do so. Channing taught one of the purposes of religion was to help people gain insight into their impact on and connection with others. Religion could nurture the conscience and help individuals tune themselves to the "Infinite God...around and within each." The more developed the conscience, the greater the understanding of how each and every action effects those around us. The truly wise, he wrote, "will become a universal blessing." They understand how "an individual cannot but spread good or evil indefinitely...and through succeeding generations." Understanding this they weigh their choices carefully.
Channing's theology caused him to affirm that humanity's spiritual nature included "the likeness of God." Within each person was "the image of God" and by the choices one made that image would either be "extended and brightened" or "seem to be wholly destroyed."
Casting Bill's experience into Channing's theology it would appear that at the moment of his encounter, Bill was made aware of the image of God within both himself and the woman. Their differences were blotted out. Bill realized that, in the language of Channing, they were both members of "the great Family of All Souls."
The images we have of God can obscure the divine from our view. Each image is, by necessity, only partial. Yet often people mistake them for the whole. Even the very word God is misleading. As Forrest Church writes, "God is not even God's name, but our name for that which is greater than all and present in each. God is a symbol expressive of ultimate mystery, meaning and power..." In trying to describe the ultimate mystery of the universe we naturally run across the limits of our human language and human imagination. God is a useful metaphor for those limits. Using the word allows a humanist like me ways to communicate with my friends who resonate with more traditional understandings of the divine. We are all trying to understand the same ultimate mystery, the unfathomable vastness and complicated beauty of universe, just as we are seeking to comprehend our part in that mystery.
Orthodox forms of Christianity try to make the mystery more fathomable by claiming that Jesus Christ was God. A human God is a God that we can relate to and, perhaps, understand.
But by making God human the orthodox imprison her within all of the various complexities of humanity. There is a paradox here. For if God is only fully present in one person then that one person somehow reflects what is of ultimate value differently than anyone else. Jesus is male so God must be male. God is male so males must have the highest worth. This theology of incarnation has led to a place where God is no longer ultimate and universal. Instead, God is partial and trapped in human images. God, the symbol, reinforces human hierarchies.
There are significant stakes in how the divine is portrayed. The image of Christ as White suggests that because God choose to be embodied in as a white person whites are somehow closer to God than others. For some a white Jesus is the foundation of that most pernicious form of partialism, white supremacy.
The Black Christ is presented by black theologians such as James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, Albert Cleage and Kelly Brown Douglas as a counter to the White Christ. In various ways these theologians argue that if Christ must be a color that color must be black. As Brown Douglas points out, historically, "in the United States Blackness is synonymous with inferiority." By recasting Christ as Black the "bond between Blackness and inferiority" can be severed. This move, in her words, "fosters Black people's self-esteem by allowing them to worship a God in their own image, and by signifying that Blackness is nothing to be detested. On the contrary, it is a color and condition that even the divine takes on..."
For most of these black theologians the White Christ was a Christ of slaveholders. Brown Douglas identifies the Black and White Christs as having different theological significance.
"The White Christ," she writes, "is grounded in an understanding of Christianity suggesting that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ...because God made flesh in him. The incarnation itself is considered the decisive feature of Christianity." Through this Christ Christians view themselves as saved from original sin because of something called atonement theology. This system argues that we humans were born wicked and sinful but God, in his infinite love, choose to accept Christ's sacrifice on the cross as a substitution for the punishment that all humanity deserved.
Brown Douglas argues that this system has at least two major problems. "First, little is required of humans in order to receive salvation." One either accepts Christ as Lord and savior and is saved or one does not and is not. If one accepts Christ then no further action is required. There is no call to ethical living. Jesus's ministry to the poor and oppressed is of secondary importance. Right belief, and not right behavior, is the focus of the system.
This first observation leads Brown Douglas to a second: "in order for humans to benefit from God's saving act, they must have knowledge of Jesus as the divine/human encounter." Without that knowledge salvation was not possible.
The logic of this White Christ served as a justification for slavery. Enslaving Africans and introducing them to Christianity saved them from the eternal damnation they would have faced otherwise. As one pro-slavery advocate argued: "The condition of the slaves is far better than that of the Africans from among whom they have been brought. Instead of debased savages, they are, to a considerable extent, civilized, enlightened and christianized."
In contrast, the Black Christ, in Brown Douglas's analysis, "empowered the Black slaves to fight for their emancipation from the chains of White slavery." The important feature of this Christ is that not he somehow saved humanity. It is "that Jesus helped the oppressed in his own time." Importantly, for many, "Jesus was a living a being with whom the slaves had an intimate relationship." That Jesus, because of his own suffering, could offer succor and understanding in times of crises.
Starting in the 1960s, with the rise of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, black theologians such as James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts and Albert Cleage further developed articulations of the Black Christ. These theologians, each in their own way, recast the Black Christ in terms that some Unitarian Universalists might find familiar.
Cleage, a minister in Detroit, argued that the historical Jesus was a black man. Further, he suggested that the bodily resurrection of Jesus had not occurred. It was a lie perpetrated by those who used Christianity as a tool for subjugation. The good life was not to be had in heaven after death but here on Earth. The myth of heaven was something that was used to oppress people. Jesus's resurrection after his death came through the continuation of his ministry by his disciples. This ministry had freedom from oppression as its central goal.
Cone, the founder of the academic school of black liberation theology, understood the Black Christ to be an ontological symbol. Ontological symbols allow humans to communicate imperfect knowledge of the divine. They are important because they point beyond themselves and suggest some fundamental truth about reality. God, for Cone, stands on the side of the oppressed. Therefore, he argued, God must have a black aspect.
Roberts, a professor at Howard University, used the Black Christ as a symbol for what he thought of as "Christ's universality." For him there was not just a Black Christ but a Red Christ and a Yellow Christ. Christ could be seen in all the colors of humanity. Re-imagining Christ in this way allowed for Roberts to try to free, in his words, Jesus from "the cultural captivity of... Euro-Americans."
There is a significant overlap between these understanding of the Black Christ and much of Unitarian Universalist theology. Like Cleage traditional Unitarians affirm a human Jesus and emphasize his ethical teachings. Like Cone most Unitarian Universalists understand Christ as a symbol--one of many in the world--that offers to teach us something about the mystery of life. With Roberts, Unitarian Universalists affirm that God, or the divine, is present in all of the human races.
Unitarian Universalists might also agree with a criticism that later generations of black theologians have of their predecessors. For black women theologians such as Brown Douglas it is not enough to make Christ Black. Christ also has to become a woman so that the full spectrum of humanity can be represented in the divine.
These understandings of the Black Christ remind me of Channing's dictum that we are members "of the great Family of All Souls." While Unitarian Universalists hold to this ideal we often fail to make it a reality. Our congregations are largely white and our message reaches but a portion of the human family. For us, Sunday morning often remains the most segregated time of the week.
I suspect that the image of the Black Christ has something to teach us, regardless of the hue of our skin. This symbol is a reminder that the divine can be found in all. If we, like Bill Breeden, can learn to recognize that divine spark in others no matter how unlike we can take a step towards truly building a community that embodies "the great Family of All Souls." We do not know where such steps might lead us or how such recognitions might change us.
Alice Walker, in her novel, the Color Purple wrote: "Here's the thing...the thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else." With this in mind, in the coming weeks try the following spiritual exercise. Take five minutes each day as you walk down the street or drive in your car and try to see God in the people around you. Acknowledge that God, the metaphor for the mystery of creation and destruction, death and birth, that binds us together, is part of and beyond us, can be seen in each and every person that surrounds us. Apply this practice to those least like you and see if you notice a change or a transformation. Perhaps you will.
We can end the violence that people of color experience at the hands of whites. But we can only do so if we can begin to see each other as members of the same human family and see the divine that resides in each of us.
That it may be so, I say Amen and Blessed Be