Feb 26, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 24, 2019
At the outset of this morning’s sermon, I would like to invite you to turn in your grey hymnal and read the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association with me. You will find it about five or six pages in, right after the Preface. Let us start with the phrase, “We, the member congregations” and read all the way through to the end of the first principle. “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
The idea that each person has inherent worth and dignity is one of the core theological ideas of our religious tradition. We find it articulated in the words of early nineteenth century Unitarian preachers. They taught that we contain within us “the likeness to God.” They urged each of us to always remember that, as one of them put it, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” I invite you to say that with me, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” And now, I want to invite you to do one last thing, turn to your neighbor and look at them for a moment. If you are comfortable, look them in the eye and, “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
We are all members of the same human family. We each have inherent worth and dignity. These are radical ideas in our society. And they challenge each of us. I struggle with them. I struggle with them when I grow frustrated with friends and loved ones. Sometimes, I even question whether I am capable of honoring each person’s inherent worth and dignity. I question myself when I walk by a homeless person and ignore their plight--as I do often in this neighborhood. And I question myself when I pay attention to the world of politics. I admit that there are some political leaders whose membership in the great family of all souls I find myself challenged to acknowledge. What about you? Do you find it easy to always honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Are you able to recognize the worst of us as members of the same human family as easily as you accept the best of us?
Our theological ideas would not be radical if they were easy to live into. This morning, I want to do three things. I want to talk with you about the radical nature of our theological heritage. I want to talk with you about how our Unitarian Universalist institutions have sometimes failed to live up to our theological values. And I want to talk with you about the potential our Unitarian Universalist institutions today have to be nurture our theological values and, in doing so, be part of the great work of collective liberation.
February is Black History Month. As part of our recognition of Black History Month we will focus our conversation on the radical nature of our theology, the disconnect between our religious institutions and our theology, and our present potential by focusing our conversation on the life of an important black Unitarian, the Unitarian minister Ethelred Brown.
Ethelred Brown was not just a Unitarian minister. He was a foundational figure in the theological tradition known as black humanism. My friend Tony Pinn is a Unitarian Universalist, professor at Rice, and probably the leading academic proponent of black humanism. He defines it as: “Black self-control, self-assertion, and concern for the human family...[H]umanism is a statement of humanity’s connectedness/ oneness and need for self-determination, without a conscious discussion of this assertion’s impact on traditional conceptions of divinity or ultimate reality.” Black humanism proclaims that black lives matter, that white supremacy must be confronted, that reason is central to religious life, that human action, not divine intervention, is the tool we can use to solve our human problems, and that this life here on Earth is what is of utmost importance.
Ethelred Brown was born in Jamaica in 1875. When he was sixteen he had an experience that may seem familiar to a number of you. It was Easter morning. He was singing in the choir of an Episcopalian church. The time came to sing the Athanasian Creed--that’s the one that proclaims the divine to be trinitarian. And then, he recounts, “The strangeness of the Trinitarian arithmetic struck me forcibly.” It struck him so forcefully that, he recalled, “[I] decided then and there to sever my connection with the church which enunciated so impossible a proposition.”
Is your own story similar? Many people have recounted similar experiences of rejecting the theological beliefs of the religious community of their youth. The next part of Brown’s story might be one you recognize too. That afternoon he went to visit his uncle. And in his uncle’s library he discovered a pamphlet written by a nineteenth-century Unitarian preacher from Massachusetts. There he found the words, “we believe in the doctrine of God’s Unity, or that there is one God, and one only.” Encountering these words Ethelred Brown realized that he was not alone in the world. That there were other people who rejected the Trinity. The realization that he was not alone in his beliefs led him to visit a bigger library and seek out other Unitarian texts. Soon he “became,” as he put it, “a Unitarian without a church.” Does that resonate with any of your experiences?
After several years of largely keeping his beliefs to himself, Brown felt the call to ministry. He sent a letter addressed “To any Unitarian Minister in New York City.” Eventually, the letter found its way to the President of Meadville Theological School. Meadville’s President sent Brown a reply. Well, actually, he sent a letter of admission to Meadville.
You might think that the story takes a pleasant turn here. And you would be partially right. But you would also be partially wrong. You see, in the early twentieth century the number of black Unitarian ministers was precisely zero. The Universalists were slightly better. They ordained Joseph Jordan, Thomas Wise, and Joseph Fletcher Jordan in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
This is not to say that black people were not interested in Unitarianism. It is rather to say, that white Unitarians were not interested in having their institutions led by people of color. As early as 1860 there had been black people who wanted to become Unitarian ministers. The black Baptist minister William Jackson approached the American Unitarian Association, told its leaders that he was convinced of the truth of Unitarian theology, and asked to be welcomed into the fellowship of Unitarian ministers. They turned him away.
A few years before Ethelred Brown went to Meadville, the seminary graduated its first black graduate: Don Speed Goodloe. While he would later go on to become the principal of what is now Bowie State University, the American Unitarian Association would not find him a pulpit.
So, Brown’s admission to Meadville came with a warning from its president. Brown recounts he was told, “there was no Unitarian church in America for… people [of color], and that as white Unitarians required a white minister he was unable to predict what my future would be at the conclusion of my training.”
Brown went to Meadville. He graduated. And he returned to Jamaica where he started in succession two Unitarian churches with minimal support from the American Unitarian Association. The first was in Montego Bay. The second was in Kingston. The services sometimes numbered several hundred people. Despite this, after a few years the American Unitarian Association withdraw its support because, as Brown recollects he was told, “the results were not satisfactory.”
Reflecting on this episode, African American Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed observes, “The question was, Satisfactory for whom?” Despite preaching a theology of radical inclusion, the American Unitarian Association was led by men--and its leaders at the time were all men--who could be described as white supremacists. Its president occasionally wrote words that I cannot in good conscience repeat from this pulpit. He consistently did not support people of color who were interested in the Unitarian ministry.
The withdrawal of the American Unitarian Association’s support from Unitarians in Jamaica set the pattern for much of the remainder of Brown’s life. By 1920, Brown’s efforts to maintain a Unitarian church had nearly bankrupted him. He and his wife decided to move to Harlem to seek better opportunities. He was part of a wave of migrants from the Caribbean that included seminal figures in black life such as the poet Claude McKay, the historian Arturo Schomburg, and the pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.
Once in Harlem, Brown set about organizing the Harlem Community Church--a religious community that was designed to be “a temple and a forum.” Its proposition was not different than the one we pursue on Sunday mornings: to lift up the beautiful, to proclaim the transformative power of love, and to celebrate the clarifying power of reason. It was in Brown’s words, “a temple in which we worship the true and good and beautiful, and receive inspiration to live a life of service; a forum where... mind sharpens mind as we strive to plumb the depths, span the breadth, and scale the heights of knowledge.”
Over the next thirty-six years, Brown led a religious community that played a vital role in Harlem’s religious life. He was regularly invited to preach at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was then perhaps most important African American church in New York. Its ministers included Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a Congressman who tacitly supported Brown’s ministry. The members of Brown’s church included significant labor leaders and journalists. It was also a hotbed of political radicalism. Brown himself was a socialist who actively supported labor unions. A member by the name of Frank Crosswaith played a central role in integrating the American Federation of Labor and building the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union recognized by the AFL. Another member named Grace Campbell was the first African American woman to run for public office in New York.
Unfortunately, for most of those thirty-six years the American Unitarian Association did little to support the Harlem Unitarian Church, as it was finally known. This despite having an impact in the community that would make many a congregation jealous. This despite promoting a purpose that was clearly Unitarian. Here are Brown’s words:
The Church is an institution of religion dedicated to the service of humanity.
Seeking the truth in freedom, it strives to apply it in love for the cultivation of character, the fostering of fellowship in work and worship, and the establishment of a righteous social order...
Knowing not sect, class, nation or race it welcomes each to the service of all.
And, yet, as I have been saying, the American Unitarian Association had trouble recognizing Brown’s teachings as its own. This should perhaps not be that surprising. The father of black liberation theology James Cone once observed, “theology is always identified with a particular community.” This claim should be a reminder that the vast majority of theology preached from Unitarian Universalist pulpits and nurtured by Unitarian Universalist institutions has been white theology. That is, it has been theology that came from communities in which the majority of members and the vast majority of religious leaders have believed themselves to be white.
Our history might contain men like Ethelred Brown and women like Grace Campbell. It might include abolitionists and women’s rights advocates. It might hold within it American presidents, important scientists, and canonical literary figures but it also includes outright white supremacists. Indeed, some of the very people we celebrate held what we might at best call retrograde views on race. These were not just men like the president of American Unitarian Association who refused to support Brown. They include individuals like the Universalist minister who was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and the Vice President of the United States whose racist views were so reactionary that he was once referred to as “the Marx of the master class.”
Despite this, our theology that each individual has worth and dignity and all people are part of the same human family has sometimes transcended the bounds of our historically white institutions. The great Frederick Douglass worshipped at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC for several years. He recognized that our religious tradition has the potential to, and sometimes does, confront what he called then “the slaveholding religion of this land.” The African American abolitionist, suffragist, and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. She urged us to remember, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
Our work today as Unitarian Universalists is to carry forth the legacy of men and women like Ethelred Brown, Frank Crosswaith, Grace Campbell, Frederick Douglass, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. They understood the liberating potential of Unitarian Universalist theology. It is no accident that they were abolitionists and workers for social justice. That is who we become when we take seriously the injunction to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Bill Sinkford, the first African American president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has observed that our congregations become more racially diverse when they devote themselves to the work of justice. At a General Assembly right here in Texas he told us, “Racial and cultural diversity will, I pray, come to Unitarian Universalism. But it will come as we become known as a faith community that strives to live our open hearted theology, and a faith community that is willing to be an ally in the struggle for justice.”
The current President of the Unitarian Universalist Association has made the same observation. In conversations she has noted that the congregation she served in Phoenix, Arizona grew numerically and in racial diversity as it deepened its involvement in the struggle for migrant rights and worked to stand up against white supremacy throughout the country. A few weeks ago, she told us that “we must reclaim our great historic mission and prophetic role to be the conscience of our nation.” Doing so requires us to recognize the people like Ethelred Brown who were in our midst and who, in many ways, our institutions failed.
Doing so also requires us to recognize that sometimes we fail to live out our theology of radical love and inclusion. Not we failed, but we still fail. And before I close, I want to offer a brief story about such a failure that a friend of mine shared with me a number of years ago. My friend is a black Unitarian Universalist from Detroit. He has been a Unitarian Universalist for a long time, longer than I have been alive.
Some years back he decided to visit a congregation in suburban Detroit. He found the service inspiring. The music was good. The sermon was fine. It felt right. And then, during coffee hour, he had an interaction that chilled his heart. Someone came up to him and tried to be friendly. They said, “What are you doing here? We do not get many people like you visiting us?”
In some ways, his story was exactly the same as Ethelred Brown’s. The person who was speaking to my friend could not imagine that our liberating theology could transcend the bounds of that historically white suburban church.
And here, I want to speak for a moment to the white members of this congregation. It can. And it does. All the time. When white well educated Unitarian Universalists like me make assumptions about who are “our people” we limit and even distort our liberating theology. The work for someone like me does not just include the prophetic work of struggling for justice. It includes the work of self-reflection, of examining when and where I have failed to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all and made assumptions about who Unitarian Universalists are.
This is why it is important to celebrate someone like Ethelred Brown who declared that our “religion is an emancipatory power ... it... [frees us] from the shackles of theologies which are both unreasonable and dogmatic and from creeds which never change.” And why it is important to also recognize that there are many people who have theological views similar to ours but never join Unitarian Universalist congregations. The writer Alice Walker is one of them. Widely recognized as a contemporary black humanist, she celebrates the natural goodness she believes lies within each human and connects us to the world around us. She tells us, “All people deserve to worship a God who also worships them. A God that made them, and likes them. That is why Nature, Mother Earth, is such a good choice.” There is no transcendence here. Just a reminder that the world around us is the important one and that it is infused with the divine.
And this is why it is also important to support the work of Black Lives Unitarian Universalist. BLUU, as it is also known, is an organization of black Unitarian Universalists that is pushing Unitarian Universalism to be the liberating faith that our theology calls us to be. They have offered the following expansion of the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. They write:
The Movement for Black Lives calls on the Unitarian Universalist faith -- a faith willing to make the bold proclamation that each person inherently matters -- to live up to that claim by working toward a future in which black lives are truly valued in our society. We call on UUs to actively resist notions that black lives only matter if conformed to white, middle-class norms, and to challenge assumptions of worth centered around clothing, diction, education, or other status. Our value is not conditional.
And in that spirit, whoever you are, wherever you are sitting, in honor of legacy of Ethelred Brown and in the power of black humanism, I invite you to again turn to your neighbor and share these words: “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
May we be granted the power to always remember those truths.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Aug 13, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, August 12, 2018
It is good to be with you this morning. And it is good to be in Houston. The opening words of our sermon come from the Australian pop singer Natalie Imbruglia’s wrenching break-up song “Torn.”
I’m all out of faith.
This is how I feel, I’m cold and I am shamed
Lying naked on the floor.
Perhaps these words sound familiar. Perhaps you have been there yourself. All out of faith, heart sick, dreams ruptured, the once neatly woven fabric of your life torn into jagged pieces that cannot neatly be stitched back together.
Maybe you were there just this morning. And maybe today, somehow, someway, you got up off the floor. You put on your bright yellow summer dress, your favorite black t-shirt and jeans, or your linen coat and tie, and you made it here. I do not your story. But I know this: if we love the world we will be wounded. And if we want to continue to love the world then we must do the work of healing. It is like the words from one of our earlier songs, “every scar I see / A place where love is trying to break in.” Or as the writer Alice Walker put it, “healing begins where the wound was made.”
The title of our sermon is “The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart.” It is inspired by Alice Walker. She wrote a book with the same title. I chose the title to acknowledge that I begin my interim ministry with you following the resignation of your previous senior minister. Some of you might be upset at him, at other members of the congregation, or about all that has passed in the last year within your religious community. I do not know. I am just beginning to learn your stories. But I know this: the health of your congregation depends in part at looking at the ways you have been wounded in the past, at the ways you might have wounded each other in the past, and then collectively engaging in the work of healing. Since healing begins where the wound was made this will require us to be honest with each other about how we have been hurt in the past. It is only by acknowledging the wounds that we experienced, and the pain we feel, that we can begin to find the way forward. And that way forward is with a broken heart.
But then world is heart breaking, is not? How often does your heart break? It seems I encounter something heart breaking almost every day. What about you? I am new to Houston. I arrived about a week ago. Already, I found that homelessness is an endemic problem where I live in Montrose. Just Friday I passed near someone whose story I am sure is heart breaking.
I am unpacking my apartment. And if you are anything like me, part of unpacking is the process of discovering all of things you do not need. Why are there two cuisinarts? Where did Biscuit, our cat, get twelve catnip mice from? Who packed them? How is it that I am still carrying around my tax records from 1999? And so, if you are anything like me, moving always involves trips to the Goodwill.
There I was. Standing in the Goodwill parking lot, convincing the manager that he should take all eight of my old folding bookcases, when a young man pulled up on a bicycle. He was shirtless. He was carrying a backpack. He opened it and took out a half case of beer. He sat down on the asphalt. The manager asked him to leave. He yelled back, “call the cops. I ain’t going anywhere.” Again, he was asked to leave. Again, he yelled, “call the cops.” I do not know how the story ended. The folks from Goodwill graciously accepted my collection of miscellaneous, and mysterious, kitchen implements. And I left with the certain knowledge that whatever happened next would be heart breaking. The police would come and forcibly remove the young man from Goodwill’s property. Or he would leave and spend the day’s heat somewhere else, drinking his way through twelve cans of beer.
Children in cages; endless cruelty to refugees in Europe; the violence of white supremacists in the United States; the rising, building, gathering crisis of climate change; endemic misogyny; the deaths of countless people of color at the hands of the police; uncivil discourse; gloating tyrants; war, war, and war... We only need to turn on the television, look online, or glance in a newspaper to discover things that can break our hearts. It is like Susan Sontag once wrote of the New York Times, “An ample reservoir of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”
And yet, amid all of this horror and heart break there is joy and beauty to be found. Maybe not for all us. Maybe not all the time. But it is there: a delicate blue weed flower cracking through the gaps in concrete. The joyous warmth of children. The spaces between dancing salsa beats. Ochre oil clotted on taut canvas. The common tenderness we might share with each other on Sunday morning once the service has ended. I find wisdom in one of the most popular readings in our grey hymnal, Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese:”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the world goes on. I have said little of our private pains. There are the wounds of the world. There are whatever wounds exist in this congregation. And then there are the wounds that we have suffered in our lives. The loss of a parent. The loss of a spouse. The loss of a child. The end of a marriage. Struggles with addiction. Poverty. Bullies for bosses. All of the disappointments and disillusions that cast shadows upon our lives. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” writes the poet.
The way forward is with a broken heart, Alice Walker tells us. But is it? I have been cold, shamed, and on the floor. And when I have been it has seemed that there was no way forward at all--heart sick, wounded, whole, or otherwise. What about you? To believe that the way forward is with a broken heart is an act of faith. It is not a rationale claim. It is a statement, sometimes against much evidence, that there is hope yet to be found in the world. And sometimes it seems like we should be all out of faith. And yet... and yet... there is a way forward. The sun in early morn will crack across mountain tops and bring the morrow. Spanish moss will continue to hang from ancient oaks. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,” advises Mary Oliver.
The way forward is with a broken heart. Walker wrote the book twenty years after the end of her marriage. It is a thinly fictionalized series of accounts about how she made her way forward after a divorce that left her bewildered, heart sick, and lonely. The world that she thought she was going to create, to build, was forever gone. She is someone now who her young self could never have imagined. In the opening paragraphs, she tells her readers, “You do not talk to me now, a fate I could not have imagined twenty years ago.”
“[A] fate I could not have imagined,” there are few better words that capture loss. Walker’s marriage did not begin with the imagination that it would end in bitter discord, “[y]ou do not talk to me now.” When it begins, few imagine a ministry ending in disappointment. And yet, marriages and ministries both sometimes finish in sorrow.
The way forward is with a broken heart. We continue after life’s disappointments. In Walker’s book she weaves the torn fabric of ruptured lives into healing quilts. In one story, the narrator finds joy in “the woman I love now.” In another, two sisters encounter comfort, peace, and a modicum of delight when they travel back to their family’s old home. In a third, a father and a daughter discover solace in each other after years of difficulty. “[T]he world cannot be healed in abstract,” Walker informs us.
I suspect that if you are like me, you have been wounded in particular ways. I imagine that if this religious community is like other religious communities, it has been wounded in particular ways. It is only by addressing our specific injuries that we can begin to heal from them. And that healing is not something we can do alone, as isolated individuals. It is something that can only be accomplished together. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” counsels Mary Oliver.
The way forward is with a broken heart. Learning how to make our way forward, yours and mine, with a broken heart is deeply religious work. It might even be the central task of the religious community. There are few other places in our lives where we can be honest about despair. Again, and again, I have learned this during my ministry. The newcomer who tells me he’s visiting the church because his parents have just died. The transgender woman who shares that after years of alienation she has finally found a religious tradition that will love her without exception. The refugee who speaks almost no English and needs a place where she does not feel alone on a Sunday morning. A religious community like this one must be a place of love and healing.
That is the message our Universalist religious ancestors gave us to give the world. They said we were the church of “God’s love unlimited.” God’s love unlimited. No matter who you are, no matter the depths of your despair, no matter who you love, as members of this faith community we are called to love each other, to love the world, to face despair, and to collectively find our way forward with broken hearts.
This is deeply religious work. It requires the faith that somehow, someway, love will find us when we are shamed and on the floor. And that faith is not always easy to find. Sometimes it seems we cannot find it at all. But it is there, in the midst of heart sickness. There is always the possibility that we can learn to love again, that we can be gentle enough with each other to commit to the loving work of healing. There is always the chance that we can find a way forward.
Early Christianity was organized around finding a way forward with a broken heart. It began as a religious movement of those who continued after the heart-breaking loss of their beloved rabbi Jesus. Our second reading, the Epistula Apostolorum, was offered to remind us of this. It is a heretical text from the early second century of the Common Era. In it, the members of the early Christian church try to move forward after almost unimaginable disappointment. They had experienced great love in the person of their teacher. They had hoped for divine justice in the face of cruel empire. And their love and hope had ended in their leader’s death.
They reminded each other that love remained. They urged the members of their community to follow their master’s teaching: “But look, a new commandment I give you, that you love one another and obey each other and (that) continual peace reign among you. Love your enemies, and what you do not want done to you, that do to no one else.” They believed that if they had faith, somehow, someway, they could learn to love again. And through their love, they knew, they could heal each other and the world.
Let us forget for today that their message somehow became confused by the theologically orthodox over the centuries. Instead, let us hear in the words of the Epistula Apostolorum the expression of the church of God’s love unlimited. The theistic language may not resonate with you. Even if you need to translate it, I hope you will feel the transformative, healing, vision of love captured in those ancient words. They plead with us to find a forward way with a broken heart.
All this morning, I have suggested that the way forward is with a broken heart. I have invoked Walker’s wisdom, “healing begins where the wound was made.” But I have said almost nothing of the work of healing. It is early yet. I do not know your stories. All I know is that whatever healing work must be done, in our lives, in this religious community, and in our beautiful, fractured, world, is work that we are called to do together.
I am here, during this interim time, to do that work with you as best I can. During this transitional moment in your congregation’s life I promise to be as tender with you as I can. I will as honest with you about the wounds in your congregation, and in the world, as I can. I will be as honest with you about my own struggles and wounds as is appropriate. Throughout this period, I pledge to love you as best I can. I only ask that you have the merest glimmer of faith that whatever wounds there are in your lives, in this congregation, and in our luminous world we can find a way forward with broken hearts.
That it may be so, I invite you to join me in that spirit that some call prayer and others call meditation:
Oh, great spirit of love,
that some of us name God,
and others call the goodness to be found
in human life,
or name not at all,
be with me,
be with this congregation,
its members and friends,
its children and elders,
and all the people of this religious community,
as we engage in the work of healing
There is so much pain,
so much hurt,
to be found,
addiction, disappointment, war, loss,
None of us need suffer alone when we remember
that love can heal.
Let us remember that each human
is born with a beating heart
and the capacity to love.
Let us learn to awaken
that love within
and reach out to each other
so that we might heal each other
and this glorious world.
So that we may do good work together,
let the congregation say Amen.
Feb 28, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, February 18, 2018
It is good to see you, the brave and hardy crew who made it through the winter snow to church this morning. Down in Medford, I awoke to the unpleasant task of digging my car out of a good four inches of heavy snow. I imagine that many of you arose to a similarly disagreeable chore. So, thank you for making it to church despite the wintery weather. Snow or no snow, it is good to be together.
This morning I offer you a sermon for black history month. I recognize that Ashby is not a particularly diverse community. But that makes it all the more important for us to take time to consider African American history and, the subject of today's sermon, African American conceptions of Jesus. The United States is a multiracial and multicultural country. In order to build a morally just society we need to understand something of each other's experiences and perspectives.
And so, I think it is vital for white Unitarian Universalists to understand something about black theology and religion. Across our denomination, we have often worked closely with historically black churches in the quest to build racial justice. Unitarian Universalists were intimately involved in the civil rights movement. Many prominent African American thinkers and activists have belonged to or attended Unitarian Universalist churches. Frederick Douglass worshipped at All Souls in Washington, DC. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King attended Unitarian Universalist congregations in Boston while Martin was studying for his doctorate at Boston University. According to the Pew Forum, the political beliefs of members of Unitarian Universalist churches and members of historically black churches are virtually identical. The notable exception to this is around the issue of GBLT rights, but even the disparity there has decreased in recent years.
It is also true that for white people, gaining a better understanding of black theology and religion is central to one of the most important political projects of our time: dismantling white supremacy. White supremacists have been gaining dramatically in strength in recent years. At the same time, growing awareness of patterns of police violence against people of color and the racial injustice of the criminal justice system have made it impossible to ignore a simple truth: 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." Many of us who are white need to be converted from a perspective that claims that the lives of people of color somehow matter less than the lives of white people.
Have you ever had such a conversion 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 it, Bill, who is white, started life as a fundamentalist Christian. His tradition did not require 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, if any, Unitarian Universalists I know claim to have seen Christ. Many of us are not Christian and grow squeamish when the word is mentioned. Others, such as myself, 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.
There are thousands or hundreds of thousands or even millions of people of color who would not suffered needlessly and died violently if white people had been able to see the divine in them. To offer two recent example: 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. To go further back in history: 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 little 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 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 impact not only ourselves and our families but future generations.
The events in recent years that spurred the growth of Black Lives Matter have been a reminder of this truth. The police often treat people of color outrageously 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 undo racism and value the lives of every member of the human family the same. 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. 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 some black theologians 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 Kelly 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 also "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," Brown Douglas 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 words, "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 a symbol. 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 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 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." And like Channing's words, 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 are we can take a step towards truly building a community that welcomes and affirms all. 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 in our lifetimes. 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