Dec 8, 2017
The title of this morning’s sermon is “Into the Dark of the Night.” It is December, the first Sunday of Advent, and there are eighteen days until the longest night of the year. In a town like Ashby, in a state such as Massachusetts, I suspect that during days of the late autumn and winter the long nights are very dark. I imagine that when we gather to light the Christmas tree on the common this afternoon the sun will be on the cusp of setting and the sky, the sky... the sky will be edging towards pitch.
The start of Advent is the best time of year to contemplate the dark of the night. The dark of the night... winter... There’s too little sunlight, too many grey days and seeming unending nights. Some days I get to my office at Harvard before the sun peaks out between sludge clouds and leave after the day star’s rays have disappeared. I bike home in the ice cold, pass through dim streets, and arrive in a chilled apartment just as the radiators kick on. The next morning it is hard to get out of bed to greet a day with little light or little warmth. And so it goes... the end of November, December, January, the long curse that is February, the false hope of March, and, finally, the bright promise of April.
The winter months are not without hope. There are tonight’s bright Christmas tree lights. There are the flames of the menorah. The shamus glows in the center. Each night more lights move in from the edges until at last the branched brass or oil globes or treed silver shines nine strong against evening’s lack. There’s Kwanzaa with its seven candled kinara. Each wax dipped wick represents a community principle. In all, the dark of December contains at least half a month of sacred light.
The holidays are not the only hope to be found in the dark months. One morning soon we will awaken and discover the world a perfect blanket of quiet crystalline white. The day might become a quick sled ride down a long hill; a misshapen snowball thumping wetly against a woolen coat or nylon jacket; a fort or lumpy sculpture that arises from damp and thick winter flakes; or—or is it and?—a mug of steaming mulled cider or, better, hot chocolate resting on the kitchen counter. Humans signs of warmth and creativity against the season’s harshness.
It is during the winter months that I come to know most fully a simple truth: we need each other to survive the dark of the night. This truth is matched by another: we never know for certain what will come out of night’s darkness. This first Sunday of Advent, let us sit awhile and pull at these adjacent two truths. We need each other to survive. We never know for certain what will come out of the dark of the night.
The ordinary hope of winter is predicated upon understanding these two truths. Where I live, enduring the coldest season requires a certain amount of faith that the basic fabric of society will continue to be tended to no matter how brutal the ice and snow. It also requires acceptance that winter plans are never quite reliable. How many times have you gone to bed at night only to awaken in the morning to the news that the weather has rendered your world slightly different? Your power lines are down. Your child’s school is closed. The roads are impossible. The day’s agenda for work has been suddenly whited out.
Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, this interruption will be rendered moot. The roads will be plowed. Your neighbor will stop by with their snowblower. You will host a friend whose power is still out for dinner. The unpredictably of the weather will be made manageable by human sociality.
What is faith but the trust that difficult seasons, challenging epochs, will be overcome? That misery is not the entirety of the human condition? Certainly, the Christian promise of salvation is rooted in the hope that our terrestrial challenges are destined to be vanquished through the aid of the divine. In most Christian theological narratives the passing grotesquery of death is translated into the unceasing beauty of eternal life.
Such narratives may work for some of us, providing consolation when none might otherwise be found. For others, they may appear inadequate, illusory gossamer thrown over muck and mire. In either case, we can find some wisdom when we confront the dark of the night. Theodore Rothke’s poem reminds us of this.
His words, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see,” recall times of insomnia. It is three in the morning. Coming to consciousness suddenly, the night, the apartment, is pitch around me. In the distance, the city flickers, but in my bed, restless thoughts obscure the meager moon and the street’s luminous lamps. I arise troubled by some half-insight: a friendship that has become complicated, a worry about family, or the unceasing demands of academia--Did I phrase that claim right? Do my footnotes provide the evidentiary support for my argument? I agonize about what remains of our public life. A hastily passed tax bill, the possibility of new wars, the almost unending stench of old ones, epidemics, evidence of election interference, unchecked white supremacy, and rampant patriarchal violence all add to my sleeplessness. I brood about the human place in the universe and wonder: Where does my life fit in amongst the infinite oceanic vastness of space? I find myself and lose myself, a creature composed of star dust wondering about the stars. Does any of this ever happen to you? Do your eyes crop open when all the house is quiet? What wakens you then?
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas gave insomnia a central place in his thinking on how we come to know the other. In one of those overly dense passages that some philosophers love, he tells us: “Insomnia... tears away at whatever forms a nucleus, a substance of the same, identity, a rest, a presence, a sleep. Insomnia is disturbed by the other who breaks this rest...”
Out of the dark of the night comes something that disturbs our sleep. It may be the thought unbidden, the unexpected snow, or a set of bad dreams that crash us awake. All are knowledge that something exists beyond this self, this me, this creature trying to sleep. As Roethke put it, “A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.”
Roethke’s poem and the insomnia of Levinas both relate to the famous religious idea articulated by the Spanish poet and mystic St. John of the Cross. He called it the dark night of the soul. It is the experience of crisis when it seems like the gloom of winter or the gloom of our lives will never end. At such moments, a deeper kind of spiritual insight than is usual might appear.
This morning we have been wending our way around three kinds of crises: the natural, the personal, and the social. Each is an opportunity to remember two truths it can be easy to forget: The world is ever unpredictable. We need each other to survive.
Winter in New England is an ever returning natural crisis. We build houses, drive in cars, and buy wool blankets to escape it. Perhaps I have said enough about the dark of winter already... It is what confronts us each year on the first Sunday of Advent. But just as it arrives we are reminded that year will turn again. 2017 will soon become 2018. Spring will arrive. Blue crocuses will crack through retreating films of ice. The natural crisis of winter will be replaced by spring. We do not know exactly what form the crisis of winter will take. We do know that surviving is a communal task, something that requires all of the infrastructure of our society.
The same lessons can be found in our periods of personal and social crisis. We never know what is coming out of the dark of the night. Most often, if we persist, we persist together, with the aid of our human fellows. We humans are social creatures, each of our selves formed, bolstered, and assisted by the other selves around us. What about you? How have you faced the crises in your life? Alone or with the aid of others?
Personal crises are always with us. We share our joys and sorrows each Sunday because of this enduring aspect of the human condition. Coming together on a Sunday morning makes it a little easier to cope with the tragedies, the crises, large and small that we find in our lives. Speaking of death in community reminds us that the love that is each of our lives will continue even after we have physically ceased to be. Sharing our concerns about illness or the lives of family and friends means that we do not have bear our burdens alone. Whatever comes out of the dark of the night we can gather on a Sunday morning assured that we are not alone.
We need each other during times of social crises just as much as we do when we face personal crises. And these days, it seems like social crises are ever with us. This autumn has been hard. This winter may be harder. The United States Congress just passed the most substantive tax bill in more than a generation. It was hastily pushed through the House and the Senate. It is still unclear what, exactly, it contains since it was passed without substantive public debate. It appears, however, to be a redistribution of wealth from poor and middle income people to the richest. It appears to be an assault on higher education. And it appears to be an attempt to raise the deficit in order to undermine the social safety net--Medicare and Social Security.
There are signs that the country could be headed towards an even larger crisis, a constitutional crisis. The news this week about Michael Flynn’s decision to cooperate with Special Counsel Mueller has made the prospect of the impeachment of President Trump more likely. And whether President Trump is impeached or not, the ongoing investigations into the 2016 election has led many to believe that the political institutions of the United States face disaster.
Whether you agree with my assessments of these social crises or not, I suspect that you will agree that these are difficult times across the globe. The philosopher Hannah Arendt has some words for us that come from an earlier epoch of social crises. She wrote them after living through World War II and witnessing the rise of Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism. She tells us: “even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination... from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth... Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun.”
I cannot sleep in peace.
The voices of nature speak
To the trouble hearts of men.
In the dark of the night, when we awake with insomnia, when we confront an unknown other, when we are called out of our sleepy selves, we can find comfort and illumination in our human fellows. When I awake to the gloom of winter or a personal crisis or a social one, I often turn to poetry. Art reminds me what others have faced and attempted to endure. Even so dour a poem as “Midnight” by the obscure Chinese poet Jen Jui provides a testament to the light we can offer each other in the dark of the night. Her light may have been a candle. It might have only burned for a moment and then been extinguished in sputtering smoke. But still, it was some slight glow and it reminds me that many others before me have struggled through social crises. Thus far, the human species, friendship, community, and beauty all continue.
We never really know what is coming out of the dark of the night. We need each other to survive it. My prayer for us this morning is simple. Will you join me in it?
Oh, all there is,
infinite whirl of star dust
and stellar light,
of which we are a part,
and which is so much greater
than any of us
or my meager words,
may we each remember
on this fine autumn morning,
and on all the mornings of our lives,
that no matter
what the dark of the night contains,
there is another truth,
that we are not alone
but each part
of the great human family
we name all souls.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Dec 2, 2017
Tomorrow, I am going to spend much of the day in Ashby. In the morning I will be preaching a sermon entitled “Into the Dark of the Night” during the regular service. Then in the afternoon I will be offering the opening prayer for the town’s annual Christmas tree lighting. Asa and I are both excited about the tree lighting and the beef and vegetable stew that follows it.
Later in the month I will be returning for the annual Christmas Eve service. The service will have lots of reading parts. I will assemble the liturgy from a variety of sources: the canonical gospels, gnostic texts, and more contemporary poems. If you plan to attend the service and would like to read one of the texts that I select please get in touch with me. I would love to have your help! I am looking forward to a collaborative service that includes lots of good music from members and friends of the congregation! It should be a special night.
The text for the sermon I preached on November 5th, “Through All the Tumult and the Strife,” is online. On my blog you’ll also find the text of a sermon that I preached at First Parish Cambridge on November 12th called “You and I.”
As is my practice, I close with some poetry. In this case it is a concluding fragment from Kenneth Rexroth’s magnificent Christmas poem “A Sword in A Cloud of Light:”
I am fifty
And you are five. It would do
No good to say this and it
May do no good to write it.
Believe in Orion. Believe
In the night, the moon, the crowded
Earth. Believe in Christmas and
Birthdays and Easter rabbits.
Believe in all those fugitive
Compounds of nature, all doomed
To waste away and go out.
Always be true to these things.
They are all there is.
I hope to see you soon!
Nov 13, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Cambridge, November 12, 2017
The reading for this sermon was Wislawa Szymborska’s “A Thank-You Note.”
It is always a pleasure to lead service here in Cambridge. As a member of the congregation and a Unitarian Universalist minister who serves elsewhere, I relish the opportunity to worship amongst friends. I am grateful to Adam’s invitation to fill the pulpit. He is off this Sunday speaking at the Indivisible conference in Worcester as part of a panel on “Race, Justice and Action.” It makes my heart glad to know that he is sharing a Unitarian Universalist message about how to “work against racial injustice and white privilege in all the issues we tackle” with a wide progressive audience. One of the most important things we do as Unitarian Universalists is offer our prophetic voice to the public sphere. Adam’s work today is a reminder that what we do outside of these sanctuary walls matters as much as what we do when we gather for worship. In this age of nuclear weapons and ecological catastrophe it is crucial that we respond to Martin King’s insight “We must learn to live together as a brothers or perish together as fools.” Though the words are unfortunately gendered, they express the deep truth of our era--salvation is social, not individual. Put another way, authentic spiritually or religion in 2017 is not about what any one of us do by ourselves. It is about what we do together.
This is a complicated Sunday to offer a sermon. The Christian theologian Karl Barth is supposed to have said, “The Christian should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Now, I am not a Christian. Newspapers are not what they used to be. I have interpreted this apocryphal quote as offering a suggestion about prayer and preaching. It implies that our worship should simultaneously be rooted in the reality of the present moment and the depth of our religious tradition.
This week the news has been filled with major stories. If I was to follow the advice of preaching with the newspaper in one hand I would have to construct a sermon that somehow addressed the horror of yet another mass shooting. This time it was at a church in Sunderland Springs, Texas. I would need to speak to the almost endless revelations that have unveiled deep patterns of sexual predation throughout the echelons of male power. I would be required to reflect upon the results of Tuesdays elections. The coalition of women, people of color, and transgendered people that won office throughout the country has given many liberals and some leftists cause for celebration in the face of despair. And I would be obliged to gesture towards Veterans Day.
Instead of addressing these events directly I am going to make a general claim about our religious life together. I am also going to offer a gentle nudge about what it means to be human. Adam told me that this month in worship the congregation is exploring different ways of knowing the self. The self that we will consider is not individual, it is social. Whatever path might be taken to towards that which we call enlightenment, salvation, divine knowledge, or nirvana is not one travel as individuals. It is one we discover together.
The Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh approaches this point when he suggests that we meditate upon the nature of a sheet of paper. He tells us:
“If we look into this sheet of paper... we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. ...And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.”
The sheet of paper does not exist by itself. The same is true for each of us. We have been constituted by our relations with our families, our communities, our society, and all that is on this muddy blue planet we call earth. As the poet Wislawa Szyborska confessed:
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
We are even shaped by strangers. Such a claim runs counter to much of American culture and, indeed, portions of our own Unitarian Universalist tradition. Many of us take our principle of commitment to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” to be an individual quest. In doing so, we might invoke historical figures dear to our Unitarian Universalist tradition like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, or Henry David Thoreau.
This year is Thoreau’s two hundredth birthday. He was raised a Unitarian in our congregation in Concord. When he resigned his membership at the age of 23 he sent the clerk a simple note, “I do not wish to be considered a member of the First Parish in this town.” He did not give an explicit reason. His famous individualism suggests he may have held a sentiment about the congregation similar to that expressed by the comedian Grucho Marx. When leaving a different organization Grucho wrote, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”
Yet against his objections, we Unitarian Universalists have taken Thoreau as a member. In a recent article in the UU World Howard Dana, the current minister in Concord, makes the claim, “Modern-day Unitarian Universalism was in many ways started by Thoreau and Emerson...”
My own historical and theological sensibilities make me disinclined to agree with my colleague’s assessment. Nonetheless, there is substantive truth to the idea that Thoreau is a major figure within our tradition. His words are frequently invoked from Unitarian Universalist pulpits. There are numerous religious education curricula that focus on his texts and philosophy. Ministerial students study him in seminary. There is even a congregation named after him in Texas. I will even admit to citing Thoreau’s connection to our history when confronted by perplexed people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism before.
When many of us think of Thoreau, we think Thoreau the archetypal individual. If I say his name perhaps you recall the opening paragraph to his classic “Walden:”
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”
“I lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself,” such words express the autonomy of the individual. They imply that the self you are considering in worship this month is an individual. And how easy is it to center in on this perception? What is more individual than the self? The sense of I, me, the one who is speaking from the pulpit appears as a singular perception. I suspect the same is true for the you who is sitting in the aged wooden pews. This pulpit and those pews were carved generations ago when this sanctuary was built before the Civil War. Yet, if you run your hands along the smooth grain I imagine it is you and you alone who will experience the tactile sensation of finger against smooth varnish. Certainly, as far as I can perceive the hand I place upon these planks is mine and mine alone. I am unaware of anyone else perceiving the precise contact I have against them now. And yet... And yet...
We owe to others that we have this sanctuary, that we can gather to worship, that we can gaze distractedly out of glass clear windows as the sermon progresses, that we can lean on the cushions of the pews, that we have language at all to describe these experiences and objects.
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
We are social creatures. The self that each of us perceives from has been constructed socially. Think about the very categories we use to describe each other: gender, race, class, citizenship... Each of these is a social construct, not a natural category. Male and female, black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, rich, poor, United States citizen or beloved undocumented sibling, these labels we give each other do not exist outside of human language.
I suspect that many, most, or possibly all of us use these categories when we imagine our selves. I know I do. When I apply for jobs or fill out forms I check off the various boxes: white, male, non-Hispanic... And I know when many people see me they see white, heteronormative, male... These categories have formed many of the experiences and opportunities I have had throughout my life. These experiences and opportunities have in turn shaped my sense of self, my understanding of the I that is now speaking and perceiving before you.
One of my teachers, the folk singer, anarchist, and Unitarian Universalist Bruce “Utah” Phillips used to like to share words from his own teacher, a member of the Catholic Worker pacifist movement named Ammon Hennacy. When Bruce had been a young man, much younger than I am now, he told Ammon he wanted to be a pacifist. Ammon said to him: “You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.”
When I think about Ammon’s words, I realize how little of who I am can truly be attributed to my own actions and choices. And how much I have benefited from the systems of “racial injustice and white privilege” that Adam is off today speaking prophetically against. What about you? How much of who you are has been shaped by the perceptions and choices of others? My own ability to achieve an education, to have the self-discipline to work hard, to appreciate art, to love literature...
I owe a lot
to those I do not love.
This self we have is a social creation. And so, its salvation must be social as well. When I use the word salvation I do not explicitly invoke the Christian tradition nor do I bring forth the Buddhist ideal of nirvana, extinction of the self and escape from suffering. Instead, I refer to the philosopher Josiah Royce. The originator of the phrase “beloved community,” he rendered salvation as “the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims.” He suggested that there is “great danger of... missing this highest aim as to render... life a senseless failure by virtue of thus coming short of... [this] goal.”
We might put Royce’s thought differently by saying salvation suggests that there is a purpose to life and that we are ever in danger of missing it. So much of religion is devoted in one fashion or another to this idea. And so many religious traditions suggest that it is something for the individual to achieve. The majority of Christian theologians, mystics, and religious leaders encourage the development of a personal relationship with God. The bulk of Buddhist thought centers upon the achievement of individual enlightenment. Our own dear Thoreau, “lived alone in the words, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself.”
But if the self is social, as I have been suggesting, then its salvation must be social as well. As the poet Audre Lorde observed, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” The great end to human life, whatever it may be, is something that we will either achieve together or fail to achieve together. If we are going to deconstruct or change or alter the categories that define us and limit us, the categories that brought some of us into this world “armed to the teeth” then we must do so together.
This change, this deconstruction, is part of our path to communal salvation. It does not lie through the obliteration of our differences or the destruction of our individual selves. For while the self is constructed socially, it is nonetheless something I experience--and I imagine you experience--as real as well. No other hand but mine can now touch these planks. No other back but yours can rest upon that pew.
Lorde advises us, “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretenses that these differences do not exist.” I trust that your experience is your own, just as my experience of my own. The very problem with so many narratives about individual salvation is that they suggest that there is one path to the ultimate truth--whatever it may be--that religious traditions suggest we humans seek. Salvation is found through Jesus. Nirvana comes through the practice of meditation. Thoreau suggests that self-reliance is the key. There is only one true scripture.
There are many paths but we must figure out how to navigate them together. Salvation, our highest purpose, is something that we either achieve together or we perish as a species like fools. Is that not the story of all of the news of the week? Is that not the story of the news of every week? That we must learn to respect our differences while building a world, and a community, that liberates all of us?
In the end, the major message of this sermon is not unlike the well-worn fable of stone soup. Perhaps you remember it? In the story, some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. The travelers arrive amid hard times. Each villager is hoarding a small stash of food and all of them are hungry. They will not share with each other or with the travelers.
The travelers go to a stream, fill their pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and light a fire underneath it. One of the villagers asks the travellers what they are doing. The answers reply that they are making “stone soup.” The soup, they say, tastes wonderful and they would be delighted to share it with the villager. However, they tell her, it is missing a little something to improve the flavor, to make it a little more savory. Perhaps she would willing to part with a few carrots? She fetches some from her house and another curious villager stops at the pot. Soon, another villager appears and asks about the soup that is stewing. He is convinced to bring a few onions. And so it goes, tomatoes, kale, garlic, eventually come together to make a delicious soup. Individually, there was not quite enough for anyone to have a meal. Together, the village and the travelers can eat. A social salvation.
After this story and all that I have said, I close with a prayer:
May my words,
and our time together,
stir us all to remember
a greater truth,
we are all caught
in the same single
garment of destiny
and whatever good there is to be achieved
in this world
is a good that shall be
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 11, 2017
I will be preaching at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia on April 8, 2018!
Nov 10, 2017
I am excited to announce that I will be preaching at First Parish Cambridge this coming Sunday (November 12, 2017)!
Nov 6, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, November 5, 2017
This past May I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. I spent the first half of my decade as a clergyman as a parish minister and the last five years in the stilled and musty halls of the academy. I started my ministry in Cleveland in September of 2007. Since, I am serving a parish again in the fall of 2017, I thought this autumnal morning would be a good opportunity to reflect upon some of what I have learned in my ten years as a minister. In his Divinity School Address, Emerson gave this advice to aspiring clergy, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life,--life passed through the fire of thought.” Those words were read during my ordination. I have attempted to follow Emerson’s advice and pass my own life through the fire of thought.
As I have, I have come to the conclusion that much of what I have learned as a religious leader can be distilled into two sentences: The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. We are what we do. Neither of these observations is original to me. William Blake, “Man was made for Joy & Woe / And when this we rightly know / Thro the World we safely go / Joy & Woe are woven fine / A Clothing for the soul divine / Under every grief & pine / Runs a joy with silken twine.” To claim we are what we do is to invoke ethical traditions that stretch back to Confucius and Plato.
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. Some of what I say over the next few minutes might be a little difficult to listen to. If you find it all disturbing I welcome a conversation after the service. I hope that you will listen my words in the spirit they are given. They come from a belief that it is only by confronting the hard parts of life that we can grow as individuals and as a religious community.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I felt called to the ministry because of the Unitarian Universalist tradition’s powerful legacy of social justice work. I wanted to make the world a better place and I thought that one way to do that was as a minister. It came as something of a surprise to me when I realized early in my ministerial training that one of a minister’s central functions is to be present to death. I was barely two months into seminary when I was asked to officiate my first memorial service.
Now, there are only two kinds of memorial services: easy ones and hard ones. The easy ones come at the end of a long and honorable life. The deceased’s family and friends gather one last time together to celebrate all that was and all that has left been behind: the love that remains after death.
Then there are the hard ones: the tragic accidents; the incurable diseases that strike down the youthful; the lives that end all too soon. Memorial services like these bring to me the words of the Greek poet Glykon: “Nothing but laughter, nothing / But dust, nothing but nothing, / No reason why it happens.” I find it impossible to offer an honest rationale, a satisfactory explanation, for why horror has happened to one person and another has escaped it. The best I can do is recognize that our human lives are ever shaped by our choices and the choices of others. So much of the pain we suffer has its origins in deep historical systems of racial, economic, and gendered oppression. And yet, such explanations are unsatisfying, for they all suggest that so much of our lives, and the suffering we experience throughout them, is due to little more than blind chance. “No reason why it happens.”
My first memorial service was a hard one. They had been husband and wife. They had died tragically in their early twenties. They were my friends. We had actually all lived together right before I started seminary. And so, it seemed natural that when they died I was asked to organize a service.
My two friends were what we call “spiritual but not religious.” They were not Unitarian Universalists. Instead of a church we decided to hold the service in backyard of the apartment building where they had lived; where we had lived together. Several other of our friends lived in the building. My friends had been alienated from their birth families. The building was the place they most felt at home. It was decided that as part of the service we would scatter their ashes in the apartment’s back garden.
The service began. A late autumn Chicago night, we had candles against the cold. The stars struggled through the murk of city lights. The wind came, damp and icy off the lake. Hearts heavy, we sat in silence. I said some words, read a poem, then another, led a prayer. The stories started. They began somber enough--the attempts to reason through the unreasonable, the ache of loss--but slowly our spirits shifted. Someone shared about the couple’s dogs. They had owned two toy poodles. They loved to groom those dogs. It was almost as if they practiced topiary on them. The animals’ haircuts were often misshapen bouffants. Slightly smashed spheres, triangles, or even squares could be found at the end of their tails or on the tops of their heads. That was not their most endearing feature. It turns out that poodle fur takes vegetable based hair dye wonderfully. And so, on their evening walks the dogs would roam along the lakeshore--a cascading calliope of electric blue, neon green, shocking pink. Thinking about those dogs still makes me giggle.
Lightened by canine stories, grins on our faces but damp still in our eyes, we knew it was time to scatter the ashes. Chicago is not called the Windy City without reason. The person charged with the task either made a miscalculation or simply was not paying enough attention. She tossed a big handful of ashes into some flowers. They flew back on us, getting in our hair and clothes. A moment of shock and then the laughter began. And so, there we were, laughing and crying, not knowing exactly when one emotion started and the other stopped, covered in what someone euphemistically called “dead girl.” Baptism by ash. Have you had a similar experience? Where in the face of the truly awful something of the shear utter unbridled joy of life crashes through?
The horror and beauty of life are ever intertwined. James Baldwin made something of the same point in “The Fire Next Time.” It is probably Baldwin’s most widely read text. Written in the midst of the civil rights movement, it is a meditation on what it means to be black in America, the illusion of white innocence, this country’s deep structures of racial violence, and how we might find a modicum of hope. An enduring theme throughout the book is that despite of whatever horrors exist in the world, beauty endures. At the close, Baldwin recollects his childhood in a poor Harlem family, “When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty?”
One might mistake Baldwin’s query as an elegy for lost innocence. But he had rather something else in mind. The question is not about innocence but resilience. It is caught up in the reality that in a racially just world, the particular beauty of those moments would never have existed for Baldwin. As he struggled to make his way through the world, a black, gay, atheist writer, he saw beauty persisting. There are stories of beauty that can be discovered amongst some of the greatest human horrors.
The words of Holocaust survivor Gerta Weissman Klein reflect this. Writing of her time in Auschwitz, Klein recollects, “Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf.
Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”
There is so much in those two sentences. Beauty, generosity, friendship, some scant hope, and, of course, the backdrop of almost unfathomable horror. To observe that beauty persists amongst horror is not to provide moral justification for the unspeakably awful. It is instead to suggest that we are ever haunted by hope.
Reflecting on Baldwin’s essay, Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker observes, “The greatest challenge in our lives is the challenge presented to us by the beauty of life, by what beauty asks of us, and by what we must do to keep faith with the beauty that has nourished our lives.” To meet this challenge is to survive in a world is all too often hostile to our humanity.
And so, we come to my second lesson, we are what we do. I do not mean this in any sort of trite vocational sense. I am not saying that your measure, or mine, can be counted as the sum of our professions or the amounts of our salaries. Instead, I am taking an ethical position, aligning myself with a particular ethical tradition, virtue ethics.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. And then, finally, there is the tradition of virtue ethics.
Virtue ethics has a long resonance within our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... The great Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves by nurturing such virtues.
Virtue is like a muscle. It grows with exercise. The brave person is brave. The generous person is generous. The person who is filled with gratitude practices gratitude. We are what we do. These virtues come from the habits that we form. Those habits can be shaped by our religious practices. The main reason to join a Unitarian Universalist community, I have come to believe, is that it gives us the opportunity to cultivate virtues in a community that models those virtues. The community also holds us accountable to each other and provides us a space to reflect upon our actions and our habits when we fail to live up to our aspirations.
Think about your own involvement in the life of First Parish. Our community encourages us to practice virtues together. When we speak truth to power from the pulpit or stand vigil on the town common we are being honest and brave. When we share our joys and concerns we are providing a space for gratitude. When we make a financial pledge to the congregation we are practicing generosity. And when we fail to do these things we can hold each other accountable. Has your involvement in First Parish made you a braver, more gracious, or more generous person? Unitarian Universalism has nurtured these traits in me. After my decade as a minister, I know I am a braver, more gracious, and more generous person than I would be if I was not a Unitarian Universalist. This community and the broader community of Unitarian Universalism help me to be so by holding me accountable. What about you? We are what we do.
Finding beauty amidst horror is a virtue that can be nurtured by religious practice. Religious practice is something that we do together. It is the ritual life of our community and it is spiritual disciplines like meditation, prayer, yoga, or journal writing that we encourage each other to maintain. One of the most powerful religious practices in this community is music. Singing together, listening to Stephan or the Lizards in the Hayloft settles my spirit. It is a regular practice of letting a little beauty into life, even if only for a few minutes on a Sunday morning.
My heart is very heavy these days. It is undoubtedly a pathetic truism that the state of the world is bleak. So bleak that a litany of all of our planetary troubles is unnecessary. They sit almost constantly on many of our hearts and minds. And yet, the practice of beauty that I find in music helps to sustain me, helps remind me that there is hope, that life and the human community will find a way to continue. It is like the verse from our earlier hymn:
Through all tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
If sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
We are what we do. We practice beauty in the midst of the horrors and difficulties of life. When we do, we make the world a little more beautiful in its turn.
And so this is my prayer for each of us. No matter the murk and mire, the hard times and brutalities, the bleak winters of despair, the springs or autumns with seemingly little hope, may we cultivate a practice of beauty so that we may all ever ask, “How can I keep from singing?”
Amen and Blessed Be.
Nov 5, 2017
I am looking forward to seeing many of you later this morning for our regular Sunday service. I will be preaching a sermon entitled “Through All the Tumult and the Strife” in which I reflect on what I’ve learned over the course of my ten years as an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. I will be back on November 19th to co-officiate the annual community Thanksgiving service, held in conjunction with our neighbors the Ashby Congregational Church. They’re hosting the service and I am looking forward to celebrating with them.
The texts for the two services I led in October are available online. The October 15th sermon, “Abolition Democracy,” can be found here: http://colinbossen.com/the-latest-form-of-infidelity/14264405/abolition-democracy-ashby The October 29th sermon, “You Say You Want a Revolution” is here: http://colinbossen.com/the-latest-form-of-infidelity/14265421/you-say-you-want-a-revolution Also online are the audio and text for the version of “Abolition Democracy” I preached at Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois.
Last month we also held a congregational goal setting workshop. The Parish Committee and I will be meeting after coffee hour today to discuss. You are welcome to attend. In the meantime, here’s the priorities that people at the workshop set for the balance of the 2017-2018 program year (i.e. through the end of June):
1) Reach out to people on Members and Friends list: ask them to come to church – SOON!
1a) Look at Ashby UUNews list: ask people if they would like to be on our Members and Friends list: by the END OF DECEMBER
1b) Schedule Social Events
2) Schedule a Friends Sunday
3) Plan a speaker series for the spring (concert/ movie/ film);
4) Explore using social media for messaging
There were a few other goals that were identified during the workshop that we hope to focus energy on as we can (including completing our Welcoming Congregation work). However, these four will be the main things that I devote my ministerial time to over the next several months. I am excited about them because they are achievable, outward looking, and suggest people in the congregation believe that First Parish Church has something special to share!
I close with a handful of lines from the 8th century Chinese poet Tu Fu, in honor of last night’s full moon:
Isolate and full, the moon
Floats over the house by the river
Into the night the cold water rushes away below the gate.
The bright gold spilled on the river is never still.
The brilliance of my quilt is greater than precious silk.
The circle without blemish.
The empty mountains without sound.
The moon hangs in the vacant, wide constellations.
Pine cones drop in the old garden.
The senna trees bloom.
The same clear glory extends for ten thousands miles.
I hope to see you soon!
Nov 1, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, October 29, 2017
It is rare to celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of something. We celebrated the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of this congregation a few weeks back. Were you there for the ecumenical camp meeting? It was a memorable affair. The sun, bright and hot, the bandstand filled with representatives of the diversity of the local faith community; I said a few words about Unitarian Universalism. I shared with the gathering the sentiments of our Universalists ancestors who believed that a loving God does not punish his or her creations with eternal damnation. And I offered a blessing for Ashby’s next two hundred and fifty years. Members from our congregation collaborated with the congregationalist church across the street in a moving performance of bluegrass gospel. There were prayers and hymns to Mary by Father Jeremy St. Martin, the local Catholic priest. The local pentecostal church closed the event with an electrified praise band.
However rare it is to have a two hundred and fiftieth anniversary, it is even rarer to have a five hundredth anniversary. And, yet, here we are, marking the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Today we fill our pulpit with talk of a religious revolution. Thousands, no tens of thousands, no perhaps even hundreds of thousands of sanctuaries contain, this Sunday, similar words.
As we think about the Protestant Reformation, it is worthwhile to cast our minds back to the sultry Sunday afternoon of the ecumenical camp meeting. In the four participating congregations, we can see four of the major strains of religion that emerged after Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on a castle door in Wittenberg, Germany. The Ashby Congregational Church could be taken to represent what scholars call the Magisterial Reformation. This is the mainstream of Protestantism. It finds within the Bible divine sanction for earthly authorities.
St. John the Evangelist might stand for the reforms sparked within the Roman Catholic Church as a reaction to the Magisterial Reformation. The very fact that Father St. Martin spoke and prayed in English rather than Latin should remind us that the Protestant Reformation dramatically reshaped the Catholic Church. A major complaint of Luther and many of the reformers who proceeded him was that the church did not speak to people in their own languages. Some even argue that Luther’s greatest accomplishment was translating the Bible into German.
Crossroads Community Church may symbolize the nineteenth and twentieth-century Protestant reactions to rigorous biblical criticism. These have coalesced in more recent decades into pentecostalism and Christian fundamentalism. Such congregations often take the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, only scripture, to the extreme and insist that the Bible contains literal truths that contemporary science and biblical scholarship have shown to be empirically untrue.
Our own First Parish Church embodies what has been called the Radical Reformation. The great Unitarian Universalist historian George Huntston Williams described the Radical Reformation as a “a radical break from the existing institutions and theologies” of its times. He claimed it was driven by a desire “to restore primitive Christianity and to prepare for the imminent advent of the Kingdom of Christ.” The radical break that the Radical Reformation represented remains familiar to many of us, even if the forces that drove it seem less so. None of us, I imagine, want to go back to the religion described in the Christian New Testament or anticipate the immediate advent of the Kingdom of God. Most of us, I suspect, are attracted to Unitarian Universalism because it proclaims theological views that are still held suspect by the larger culture. One of these is that a loving God does not offer eternal punishment.
The Magisterial Reformation, a reformed Roman Catholicism, pentecostalism, the Radical Reformation... with his apocryphal bang, bang, bang, Luther did not intend to hammer the sixteenth-century Catholic Church into separate pieces. He intended to reform it, to purge it of corrupting elements. None of his ninety-five theses called for the creation of a new church. He sought instead to repair an existing one, to help call it back to, in his view, the true theology and practice of Christianity.
Yet, Luther’s ninety-five theses broke the Catholic Church into a thousand pieces. Today there are Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Mennonites, Mormons, Unitarian Universalists, and, well, the list could go on and on to encompass another hundred, nay another two hundred, variants of Christianity and Post-Christian traditions. This mosaic of religious belief and practice could not have been imagined by Luther when he perceptively declared, “There seems to be the same difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven as between despair, uncertainty, and assurance.” Nor could have even a shadow of it passed across his eyes when he complained, “those who preach indulgences are in error.”
The great variety of found in world Christianity offers perhaps the single most important, and obvious, lesson from the Protestant Reformation. Our actions have unintended consequences. These words may appear trite. They may seem the wrong lesson to lift-up as we mark the beginning of the articulation of the five great solas of Protestant life. You might think it would be better to focus this morning’s sermon on sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo gloria--only scripture, only faith, only grace, only Christ, and Glory to God Alone--as we remember the bang, bang, bang of Luther’s theses.
And, yet, what is more applicable to our lives, debates about the finer points of Protestant theology or considering how our choices can have unintended consequences? The later is really one of the great moral questions. Especially, when we consider the question the issue of accountability. Are you responsible if you intend good but cause harm? Are you responsible if your actions have unexpected benefits?
Think about it. We can imagine examples from the mundane, sublime, and grotesque. Ever buy a squash and scoop out the insides when you prepare to cook it? I remember doing so in a house I lived in some years back. We had a compost pile. I dutifully put the stringy squash bits, rind, and seeds in it. Next year, squash vines growing from the compost pile! Was I responsible for planting the squash?
There are entire schools of aesthetics devoted to appreciating the unexpected, unanticipated, or unintended. The great jazz artists knew this. Mile Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum... Each has been quoted as saying some variant of, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note.” “There are no mistakes in jazz.” Or “do not fear mistakes. There are none.” For these musicians, the unexpected consequence of an action was to expand the range of possibilities, to increase the amount of beauty in the world.
My favorite these jazz aphorisms comes from Herbie Hancock by way of Miles Davis. It seems that as a young musician Hancock was frustrated with his progress. He felt stuck in a rut. All of the choices he made resulted in obvious, and therefore uninteresting, melodies. So, he went to Davis for advice. Davis cryptically told him, “Don’t play the butter notes.” Which he took to mean, don’t make the choices that will result in the obvious melodies. Open yourself to unintended and see what happens. Hancock did this and, reportedly, experienced a breakthrough.
Chance and the unintended do not just haunt beauty or the compost pile, they can have dire impacts on our lives. The very term accident has gruesome connotations. A truck hits a bicyclist who is in the driver’s blind spot. An airplane breaks apart due to a defective part. A building burns after the insulation on wires fails and an electrical blaze erupts. In such situations, we struggle to explain who is responsible for dire outcomes. Sometimes, the answers are obvious and it is possible to hold an individual or entity to account. The electrical company skimped on materials for the wires. The airplane part was rushed into service even though the manufacturer knew it might not be entirely reliable. Other times it is much more difficult to discern who is responsible. Sometimes accidents, no matter how awful, are just that, accidents: black ice on the road can cause the most careful driver to lose control; a knife can slip from the hands of the most experienced chef and result in bloody injury.
We live in a world derived from the unintended consequences of Luther’s actions. Perhaps this gives him far too much credit. There is certainly a school of historical thought that the Reformation would have happened without him. Efforts to transform the Catholic church were well underway before he issued his Wittenberg theses. When she was growing up, my mother’s family belonged to the Moravian Church, a denomination founded by the followers of Jan Hus some fifty years before Luther found himself in conflict with the papal authorities. One of the professors at Starr King School for the Ministry, one of the two Unitarian Universalist seminaries, is Waldensian. This is a Christian movement that split from the Catholic Church in the twelfth-century, some four hundred years before Luther was even born.
And yet, there some truth to the great man of history theory found in Luther. At the very least, if he had not bang, bang, banged on the castle door in Wittenberg then we would be talking about some other event that precipitated the Protestant Reformation this morning. What that would be or who it would involve we cannot know.
And so, here we are, in this world created by Luther’s unintended consequences. Should he be held accountable for them? Luther himself believed that our human actions were such that whatever we did we were more likely to cause ill than good. This is at the center of his theology. He thought we humans were too prone to error, too incapable of making good choices, too thoughtless to understand the consequences of our actions to achieve salvation on our own. It was only through the grace of God, meditated through Christ, that we might earn eternal assurance and escape damnation. He believed that faith was the path to secure this grace and that only a limited number of people would find it. The rest of us were damned.
The subsequent history of Protestant Christianity could be cast as a long argument over who is to be damned and who is to be saved. Most Christians seem to agree that only some are worthy of salvation. Which is to say, only some can fully escape the unintended consequences of their actions.
Our Universalist ancestors thought different. They believed that God loved everyone. If no one could escape the unintended consequences of their actions then everyone must be loved. There are great and folksy stories about how the early Universalist theologian and evangelist Hosea Ballou explained this doctrine. Linda Stowell relates one of these tales:
Ballou was [out] riding... when he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer was upset. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. "All right," said Ballou with a serious face. "We'll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we'll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we'll grab him and throw him into it." The farmer was shocked: "That's my son and I love him!” Ballou said, "If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!"
The spirit of stories like this are encapsulated in the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, that we believe in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Whatever the consequences of our actions, each human life has worth and dignity. It really is a radical statement and one that runs counter to almost every dominant trend in our society. It suggests we question the criminal justice system, the distribution of wealth, the use of force in solving conflicts... If each human life has worth and dignity then our society needs to think about punishment, economic equality, and violence differently.
Luther would certainly have disapproved. As the leading representative of the Magisterial Reformation the one thing he did not want to do was question the earthly organization of power. And that really is, in the end, what makes us Unitarian Universalists the heirs to the Radical Reformation. We question the powers and principalities. We do not hold that governments have been divinely sanctioned or that the social order in sacrosanct.
This an uncomfortable position. To declare that all are loved, or that each human life is important, is truly an act of faith. To do so and suggest that we should question the power and principalities, the major institutions of our world, is, well, subversive. Even today, in 2017, five hundred years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, it remains a radical act.
Let us return to the ecumenical camp meeting. There were four churches present, all heirs in some way to the Protestant Reformation. The congregationalists, upholding the mainstream Magisterial legacy; the Catholics, with their largely English language liturgy; the pentecostals, with their particular version of sola scriptura... In a technical, theological, sense none of these traditions truly proclaim a divine universal love for all of humanity. Each argues that the path to salvation, or true religious expression, lies through them alone. In contrast, Unitarian Universalism proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of all, not all Christians, not all Americans, but all across the planet. A radical doctrine and, perhaps, an unintended consequence of Luther’s splintering bang, bang, bang.
On this Reformation Sunday, as we consider all of the unintended consequences of Luther’s Wittenberg theses, let us remember the radical love at the heart of our own faith. It remains ever subversive. We close with words attributed to our Universalist ancestor, John Murray:
Go out into the highways and by-ways.
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light and understanding
to the hearts and minds of men and women.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage;
preach the kindness and
everlasting love of God.
May it be so, Amen and Blessed Be.
Oct 27, 2017
Oct 25, 2017
as preached at Unity Temple, Oak Park, IL, October 22, 2017 [Note: This is a substantive revision of the sermon I gave on October 15, 2017 at First Parish Church in Ashby. The primary texts from Du Bois that I referenced in composing this sermon were "The Souls of White Folk" and "Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880.]
It is good to be with you this morning. I am grateful for Alan’s invitation to fill this pulpit in his absence. Alan is a fine minister and a good colleague. I am honored that he trusted me to bring you some words of truth and beauty this morning.
I am also honored to be preaching in this magnificent sanctuary. Unity Temple is one of Unitarian Universalism’s cathedral churches. I grew up in Michigan but my Dad is a Chicago boy. I have an aunt and uncle who live in Oak Park. I remember visiting your building when I was a child and marveling in its soft allure. Your renovation and restoration work is stunning. The sanctuary is even more magnificent than I remember. It is a tribute to humanity’s ability to craft beauty from wondrous wood, sand, and stone. In this space, Frank Lloyd Wright’s words are true, “if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.”
Would that this morning we could do nothing more than raise our voices in a hymn to beauty. But no matter how skillful the artisan, how perfect the painting, how finely carved the timber, we must confront human wickedness. I am not making a theological statement about original sin and the fallen nature of humanity. Instead, I am acknowledging the sad truth that we mortals are often horrible to each other. Fatal federal neglect in Puerto Rico, mass shootings in Los Vegas and elsewhere, hurricanes that have leveled overbuilt cities across the continental South, wildfires in Northern California, genocide in Myanmar, the constant gruesome humanitarian disaster in Syria, casual and bombastic threats of nuclear war, the unveiling of liberal male Hollywood icons as sexual predators, all of these can at least partially be attributed to human folly. Thus, it seems that ever we inflict suffering upon each other. Susan Sontag’s words apply any day of the week, “An ample reserve of stoicism is needed to get through the newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”
We should talk about things that will make us cry in church. If we do not talk about them here where else will we talk about them? There are precious few spaces in our lives for genuine human-to-human dialogue, the kind of dialogue that acknowledges our problems and pains and helps us try to navigate our way onward with them. So, today I want to talk with you about things that might make you cry, for they certainly bring tears to my eyes. Today I want to talk with you about white supremacy, one of the most difficult things in American society, and how confronting it relates to something called abolition-democracy.
We will get to abolition-democracy and how it might help us address white supremacy in a moment. Before we do, I want to clarify the theological points behind everything else I will offer you this morning. The first might be captured in my favorite adage by William Ellery Channing, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” Channing’s words should remind us, race is a social fiction and political reality that has been historically constructed. There is one human community. We are all a part of it. Its rifts can only be healed through acts of love. The second, could be summarized by words found in the Christian New Testament and attributed to Jesus, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This could alternatively be restated as the fourth principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. It challenges us to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” As we stumble through life, we make our way best, walk a little more steadily, when we understand precisely the path on which we wonder and what besets us. Finding truth and meaning requires honest analysis and honest speech. Otherwise, we will find ourselves mired in illusory falsehood. I could summarize these points thusly: We Unitarian Universalists believe in the singularity of human community, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying power of honest rationality.
We Unitarian Universalists do not just believe those things. We try to act upon them. This Sunday across the United States hundreds of Unitarian Universalist congregations are moved by loved to participate in an exercise in truth seeking. We are in the midst of the second association-wide teach-in about white supremacy. The teach-ins emerged as a direct response to the revelation of hiring practices within the Unitarian Universalist Association that appeared to favor white heterosexual men. This controversy, you may know, led to the resignation of Peter Morales as the President of the association. It also increased awareness of how, when it comes to race, the values and actions of many white Unitarian Universalists are in conflict.
In describing their goals, the teach-in organizers stated, “Everyone has to start somewhere, and it takes a commitment to disrupt business as usual.” They claim that for Unitarian Universalists “to be more effective at tackling white supremacy beyond our walls, we must also identify ways in which systems of supremacy and inequality live within our faith and our lives.” We must tell the truth about how Unitarian Universalism has related to and continues to relate to white supremacy.
We must do so within a context that can only be described as the reinvigoration of white supremacy and white supremacist movements throughout the United States. White supremacy has long been one of the three major political ideologies operative within this country. It was favored by many of the slave owners who numbered amongst the nation’s founders. It animated the actions of the leaders of the Confederacy. And it continues to be present among those who we might call neo-Confederates. It is at the root of what some have called our two national original sins: the institution of chattel slavery and the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the continent in pursuit of their land.
My working definition of white supremacy comes from one of the founders of the Confederate States of America. He described the origin and purpose of the Confederacy thusly, “This Union was formed by white men, and for the protection and happiness of their race.” In that statement, we find three elements that are central to the majority of white supremacist political movements in the United States. First, most white supremacists conceive of themselves as committed to a variant of democracy, one that they believe is the true expression of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. As one white supremacist described the United States, “We are a Republic. The consent of the governed is the underlying principle of our public life.”
This professed commitment to democracy is followed by a second claim that seemingly works against the first. White supremacists believe that democracy, the Union, citizenship, and the governed who can consent are limited to “white men.” In doing so, they place the legal fiction of whiteness at the center of their understanding of what it means to be part of the polity. But they also do something else, which leads to a third element of white supremacy. Gender is not incidental to its conception. It is central. Unlike a number of nineteenth-century thinkers whose claims we might try to universalize in gender neutral language, when the Confederate father used the word “men” he meant precisely that, the category of human beings we would now describe as cis-gendered and heteronormative. The role of white women within the white supremacist enterprise is largely reproductive. They are viewed as essential to the continued propagation of the white race.
There are two final aspects of white supremacy that are not expressed in the words of the Confederate I just quoted. The “white men” it benefits are not just any white men, they are wealthy white men. White supremacy is a system of racial capitalism where the wealth of the white elite is built off the exploitation of brown and black bodies.
In order to maintain it, white supremacists peddle what the great philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois called the American Assumption. This is the false beliefs “that wealth is mainly the result of its owner’s efforts and that any average worker can by thrift become a capitalist.” It is the lie that each of us, if we just work hard enough, can become fantastically wealthy.
Du Bois is our a principal guide this morning in trying to understand white supremacy. The first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard and one of the founders of the NAACP, he is understood to be one of the originators of the academic disciplines of sociology and history. Du Bois sarcastically summarized white supremacy as a belief in “the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
He coined the phrase abolition-democracy to distinguish the genuine democratic beliefs of the great abolitionists who opposed slavery from the false democracy of the slave holders. He summarized it in deceptively simple terms. It was “based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men.” He wrote those words in 1931. If he were alive today I am sure he would have rephrased them to include women and the transgendered.
After the Civil War, proponents of abolition-democracy demanded full legal rights for the formerly enslaved. They also demanded what we might now call reparations for slavery. They recognized that political freedom is essentially meaningless without economic autonomy. When your entire livelihood is dependent upon some landlord or employer it can seem impossible to vote and act for your own interests.
Alongside political freedom and economic independence, abolition democrats worked for a third thing: universal free public education. They understood that in order for democracy to function community members had to be educated enough to identify and advocate for their own interests. They had to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood, knowledge from propaganda.
In Du Bois’s view, the success of abolition-democracy required confronting the American Assumption. The wealth of the world has been built upon bloody exploitation. It is only by uncovering this truth that we can begin to build real freedom.
In addition to white supremacy and abolition-democracy there is a third school of American politics. Du Bois identified it as “industry for private profit directed by an autocracy determined at any price to amass wealth and power.” We might call it a belief in the unfettered power of the market, pure capitalism, or reduce it to the maxim of “profit before people.” It promotes the American Assumption. It ignores the history of white supremacy at the heart of this nation.
The story of American history could be simplistically reduced to a three-corner fight. In one corner, stand the white supremacists, trying ever to protect and expand the political rights and economic power of wealthy white men at the expense of everyone else. In the second corner, there are the abolition-democrats trying to build a society that recognizes the truth that we are all members of the same human family. Finally, in the third corner, are those we might term as the industrialists or, even, economic liberals. Their understanding of freedom is material. That is, they believe that freedom is primarily about the ability to pursue wealth.
The contest between white supremacists, abolition-democrats, and industrialists has gone on now for more than two hundred years. No one group is powerful enough to win alone. The white supremacists and abolition-democrats are forever opposed to each other. Power in the country shifts whenever the industrialists change their allegiance from one to the other. During the Civil War, the industrialists aligned themselves with the abolitionists and the Confederacy was defeated. After the Civil War, the industrialists decided it was more profitable to work with the former Confederates than to continue to their alliance with the abolition democrats. Incredible amounts of money were to be made in rebuilding the devastated South. In pursuit of profit, they choose traitors, terrorists, and former slave traders over those who believed in a universal human family. Then, during the Cold War, the industrialists switched sides again. They felt they would be more effective at home and abroad in fighting Communism if they allied themselves with the abolition-democrats. It was much harder for the Communists to argue that American democracy was corrupt if it extended the right to vote to all people. In recent years, the industrialists have vacillated. They worked with the Reagan administration to undermine labor unions, thus creating many of the conditions necessary for the rise of Donald Trump. Many of them supported the presidency Barack Obama and the candidacy of Hilary Clinton. They believed Clinton and Obama best served the interests of Wall Street.
In which corner do you stand? If you are anything like me, I suspect that you want to come down firmly as an abolition-democrat. You probably want to say that you believe in “freedom, power, and intelligence” for all. As a Unitarian Universalist, you probably believe in the singularity of human community, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying power of honest rationality. This is not surprising. The most important white advocate for abolition-democracy was a Unitarian. Charles Sumner was a lifelong member of Kings Chapel in Boston. He was also a Senator from Massachusetts in the lead-up to, during, and immediately following the Civil War. His insights into civil rights were so powerful that they formed the backbone of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, legislation passed over 80 years after his death. Du Bois described him as a hero, “one of the finest examples of New England culture and American courage.”
Yet, Unitarian Universalism has never been free from white supremacy. We celebrate Theodore Parker as one of our abolitionist heroes. He held racial views that we would today find appalling. Men like Ezra Stile Gannet and Orville Dewey, whose names we have forgotten, were solid industrialists and, in opposition to the abolitionists, promoted alliances with the southern white supremacists in the lead-up to the Civil War. Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder whose white supremacist actions cannot be described in the company of children. So many of us, myself included, far too often make choices based upon our own comfort. We lean towards the American Assumption. In doing so we usually ally ourselves, if only temporarily, with the industrialists and even white supremacists instead of the abolition-democrats.
In which corner do you stand? If you wish to declare yourself firmly an abolition-democrat you must come to terms with the history of this country. This is more than recognizing that the majority of the men who founded the United States were slave holders. It is more than recognizing that the founders of this nation unleashed a genocide on the continent’s indigenous peoples in order to steal land. It means confessing that the American Assumption is fundamentally untrue. The majority of the wealth in this country has not been accrued through its owner’s efforts. It means honestly admitting that the majority of the institutions we participate in were created by wealthy white men, for the benefit of wealthy white men.
The majority of the most powerful in almost any institution we might name continue to be white men. The majority of CEOs of large corporations are white men. The majority of the members of Congress are white men. The President is a white man. His administration contains a larger of percentage white men than any president in my lifetime. The majority of university presidents are white men. So are the majority of major league football, basketball, and baseball coaches. Our own Unitarian Universalist Association is not exempt. Of the ten largest congregations in our association, nine have a senior minister who is a white man. In most of these cases, the white men at the top come from families not unlike my own: highly educated and, at least, upper middle income.
In which corner do you stand? If, like me, you have what one my friends used to call “the complexion connection,” then the answer might not be easy. Finding it may require a change in actions. It might require making yourself uncomfortable. It may require confronting how the American Assumption has functioned in your own life. How much of what you have, have you truly earned?
If you are white, choosing abolition-democracy might necessitate opening yourself to unfamiliar voices and difficult truths. I choose the poem by Lauren Hill “Black Rage” this morning precisely because it presents difficult truths. It expresses an important perspective on what it means to be black in America, that is to say, what it means to live under white supremacy. As she tells us at the opening of the text, “Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person.” A little later she claims, “Black rage is founded on blocking the truth.”
We may believe in racial justice. We may belong to or support any number of the courageous movements that are now blooming across this country and throughout the world to confront white supremacy. We may go to or help organize protests with the Movement for Black Lives. We may collaborate with other congregations to challenge racism. We may declare that no one is illegal. These actions will not change one truth. Our words and actions will remain hollow unless we examine and transform the institutions of which we are a part. Who were they built for? Who do they continue to serve? Wealthy white men?
We Unitarian Universalists are not Calvinists. We do not believe in original sin. We believe that wrongs can be righted. We can begin with a truth: this nation and the majority of its institutions were created by wealthy white men for wealthy white men. And we can recognize that things can be different. We can confront the American Assumption. We can be compassionate. We can remember that love is transformative and reason clarifying. We can commit ourselves to abolition-democracy.
In the hopes that we can all make such a commitment, I close with words from the great abolition-democrat and Unitarian Charles Sumner, offered shortly before his death. I pray that they guide us all:
“I make this appeal also for the sake of peace, so that at last there shall be an end of slavery, and the rights of the citizen shall be everywhere under the equal safeguard of national law. There is beauty in art, in literature, in science, and in every triumph of intelligence, all of which I covet for my country; but there is a higher beauty still--in relieving the poor, in elevating the downtrodden, and being a succor to the oppressed. There is true grandeur in an example of justice, in making the rights of all the same as our own, and beating down the prejudice, like Satan, under our feet.”
May it be so. Blessed Be and Amen.