Apr 27, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston's online worship service, April 26, 2020
The theme of today’s service is renewal and regeneration. And in this sermon I invite us to consider the most pressing question immediately before us: What comes next?
The Governor of Texas has begun the process of re-opening the state. He has appointed a task force to get non-essential workers back to work and businesses back in business. The state, national, and world economy, meanwhile, are currently in a greater freefall than the one experienced during the Great Depression. Many people are hungry. Many people are scared. Many people are tired. And almost everyone is asking, what comes next?
But before I get to that vital question, I have to admit that I almost titled my sermon: for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork?
The pandemic has been hard on a lot of people. Like many other families, my own continues to struggle to make it through the everyday. Now, normally, I avoid too much of a focus on my own quotidian challenges in my preaching. This is especially true when it comes to my children. Neither of them signed up to be preacher’s kids. I do not think it is appropriate to turn their lives into sermon illustrates.
However, in the nineteenth-century, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that the primary job of the preacher was to “convert life into truth.” He charged Unitarian ministers to offer up “life passed through the fire of thought.” And I think that I am not burdening my son with some unasked-for narrative by sharing that it is not easy trying to get him to engage with his schoolwork. Out experience is, after all, one shared by many families. The primary truth I can offer, from my own life, today, is demonstrated by the tension between the question at the heart of my sermon and my alternative sermon title. We need to ask: What comes next? And, at the same time, most of us are wrestling with our own variants of: for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork?
The tension between our question and my alternative sermon title is not a new one. It might be reframed as another question: How do we look to the future when we find ourselves in the middle of tragedy? And to ask that question is essentially to ask, how shall we mourn?
It might seem counter-intuitive, but mourning is essentially a future oriented activity. When we mourn, we acknowledge that we have experienced a loss. We admit that we are suffering. And then we try to ask ourselves the difficult question: What comes next? What comes next itself contains two questions: How shall we remember those we have lost? And how shall we live without them?
This past week the COVID-19 death count in the United States passed fifty thousand. I suspect that most of you have been impacted by the virus. I know someone listening to this sermon is ill. I know someone hearing me preach has lost family or friends. I know someone considering my words has lost their job or their business. I know that almost everyone who is playing this video has been affected by this pandemic. We are all mourning.
As a historian, political philosopher, and a theologian, not to mention a parish minister, I have been finding it increasingly unhelpful to think of the situation we are in as unprecedented. There have been plagues and pandemics before. There have been tyrants before. The wealthy and powerful have feigned compassion for the poor before. There has been mass economic disruption before. And people have mourned before.
One of the central functions of a religious community is to help people mourn. We hold funerals and memorial services. We offer prayers and condolences. We write eulogies. We make meaning through mourning. We ask the question, through tears, what comes next?
For most of us, our primary experience of mourning has been mourning the deaths of individuals. Our grandparents or parents or partners or friends or even children have died. Their deaths might have been swift and tragic. They might have come at the end of a long illness. They might have arrived when those we loved were old, in their middle years, or when they were young. Whenever it has come, we, the mourners, who have survived have needed to ask the questions: What does this person’s life mean for me? What comes next?
I have lost my grandparents to old age and heart disease. I have lost friends to drug overdoses, violence, and suicide. I have had loved ones die of cancer. I have known people who were killed in car crashes and bicycle accidents. In each instance, the same questions: What does this person’s life mean for me? What comes next? How shall I mourn?
Right now, many of us feel like the writer Edith Sitwell when she was asked why she wore black. She replied that she was in mourning. “For whom are you in mourning?” came the response. “For the world,” she answered.
We are mourning the world. There is a sense of mourning the world in June Jordan’s poem, “Nobody Riding the Roads Today.” It was written long before COVID-19 blighted the globe. And yet, it captures much of the experience of isolation that I know many of us are feeling:
Nobody meeting on the streets
But I rage from the crowded
overtones of emptiness
...Nobody laughing anymore
But I see the world split
and twisted up like open stone
The world empty, the world split, the world twisted; we are mourning the world. We are asking ourselves, what did the way of life we had before the pandemic mean? We are asking, what comes next? And we, are doing this all, as all mourners must, in the midst of our ordinary, unaccustomed, struggles: illness, fear of illness, deaths of loved ones, job loss, housing insecurity, hunger and want, and, in the case of many an exasperated parent, the cry of, for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork? Each struggle connecting to an aspect of what we have lost, of what we are mourning: health, the illusion of safety, economic security, work, and the school community. They each meant something different to us before the pandemic. And their meanings have changed now that we find ourselves living amid a worldwide pestilence.
The anthropologist David Graeber has written perceptively about mourning and the function of religion. Controversially, but correctly, Graeber believes that a central purpose of religion is, in his words, “the production of people.” In religious community, he writes, we “are constantly being socialized, trained, educated, mentored towards new roles... constantly being attended to and care for.” In community, we are “implicated in processes of transformation.”
It is a statement that I am sure rankles many of my more libertarian or individualistically oriented friends. One of the great myths of the United States is that we are self-made individuals. It is a myth that lies at the heart of the country’s economic system. It animates much of economic discourse and influential economists like F. A. Hayek have claimed “the individualistic tradition... has created Western civilization.”
Individualism sits at the core of the salvation narrative of conventional Christianity. After our deaths, we are promised, if we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, we will ascend to Heaven and enjoy life eternal. The emphasis is on what happens to your individual soul and to mine. It is not on what happens to us together.
Graeber’s anthropological understanding of religion suggests, instead, that we are social creatures and that in community we create each other. Mourning offers an illustration of this dynamic. “Rarely,” he argues, “do the political careers of important individuals end in death. Often political figures, as ancestors, martyrs, founders of institutions, can be far more important after their death than when they were alive.” What is true of political figures, can be true for all us. Our legacies, our contributions to the commonweal, last beyond our mortal shells.
Some years ago, I asked my friend, the now deceased Spanish Civil War veteran, anarchist, and union organizer Federico Arcos, what he thought about life after death. Federico was a militant atheist. He had little use for organized religion--though he greatly admired both Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I assumed he would simply tell me that it the idea of life after death was absurd.
Instead, he surprised me. “We are immortal,” he told me. “We live on the stories we are part of and in the things we create.” “You see this road,” we were driving, “the working people who built it will live on in it as long as it continues to exist. My dead friends,” he had lost most of his loved ones during the war, “live on in me through the stories I tell. And they will on in you because I am telling you their stories. And if you share their stories,” and I have, “they will continue. That is our immortality.”
We are narrative creatures. We tell the stories of our own lives to each other to make meaning from them. And other people tell stories about our lives to understand our social roles. A religious community is a community of memory. And, “it is from the community of memory that most of the significant movements of thought and action emerge,” wrote twentieth-century Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams. “It is only through a disciplined memory of the past,” he continued, “that one can judge properly of the present and play one’s own part rightly.”
We are mourning. We are asking what our stories have meant. And we are asking, what comes next? Since, we are in the Easter season, and because we are a religious community, I might point out that Christianity is, in many ways, a religion of mourning.
Jesus, the poor man, the rebel Rabbi, the overturner of the money changers’ tables, the preacher of the power of community and the living presence of the Kingdom of God, was put to death by the greatest empire of his day for suggesting that love was the most powerful earthly force. Jesus’s followers believed him to be the messiah, the individual who God had sent to proclaim, in the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos, “let justice well up like water, / Righteousness like an unfailing stream.”
Instead of bringing about the reign of the divine, peace to the cottages, and plenty to the tables, the story is told, Jesus was executed as a common criminal. He was nailed to a cross and placed between two thieves to die a humiliating and excruciating death.
Die he did. And his community had to ask the questions, amid pain and suffering, amid their experiences of grief and loss: What did his life mean? What comes next?
We might read the Christian New Testament and the non-canonical Christian texts, such as the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, as a series of arguments about how to answer these questions. In my Easter sermon, I suggested that one answer people found within these texts was a belief in the resurrection of dead--we shall only hope for heaven when we are dead. And I suggested that another answer was the resurrection of the living--opening ourselves to savoring what is and building the just community where we can. And I argued that the resurrection of the dead led to the politics of the dead. And that the resurrection of the living led to the politics of the living.
We can find debates about the politics of the dead and the politics of the living scattered throughout Christian texts. We can read Jesus proclaiming the politics of the living in the words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’” And we can read Paul proclaiming the politics of the dead in the words, “I have been crucified with Christ.”
In the texts, Paul can never quite seem to decide whether he believes in the politics of the living or the politics of the dead. In his Letter to the Galatians he makes one of the most forceful statements of the politics of living in any Christian text--canonical or otherwise. He writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” These are words that a humanist and a theological universalist such as myself, might re-interpret as saying, we all part of the same human family. The lesson of this pandemic, the story we should be telling while we mourn, is that we are all interconnected and what impacts one of us, impacts all of us.
In the Letter of the Galatians, Paul also provides words that have formed the theological basis of the politics of the dead: “yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” This statement was used by generations of later theologians--Augustine and Martin Luther in particular--to craft the idea that salvation is individual, it occurs in the next world, and it happens because of what we believe, not because of what we do. Such a focus on individual otherworldliness has often justified the negligence of earthly justice and the exploitation of the poor. It is behind Augustine counsel that obedience to the earthly authorities is obedience to God. It is in Martin Luther’s text, “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” in which he denounces those who rebel against the world’s powers and principalities. Those who look for heaven in this world, who seek justice among the living, are, he claims, “the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name.”
I mention Paul, his influence on Augustine and Luther, and his confusion about the politics of the dead and the politics of the living, because his presence in the communities that eventually became Christian offers important lessons for us as we mourn the world. Paul was the one of primary evangelists of religion that became Christianity. Much of the Christian New Testament consists of letters he wrote emerging Christian communities. And in them we can read of a struggle over who will determine how Jesus was to be mourned.
In Galatians, again, we find a revealing passage. Towards the beginning of the letter Paul wrote, “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel I proclaim.” This text, which continues and from which I shall not read in full, provides an account of a struggle for power within the emerging Christian community. The struggle was about who would determine how Jesus was to be mourned.
On one side, stood Paul, and, presumably, Barnabas and Titus. On the other side, was “the acknowledged leaders.” There were theological differences between these two groups. We do not actually know what “the acknowledged leaders” believed. The theological polemics that have come down to us, that is the letters in the Christian New Testament, are from Paul’s faction, not theirs. I suspect that the acknowledged leaders beliefs might have been more in line with the gnostic teachings, the resurrection of the living and the politics of life, found in the non-canonical gospels and attested to in portions of the canonical gospels, than the resurrection of the dead.
That is not important. What is important is that they included “James the Lord’s brother,” and other disciples who claimed to have known Jesus when he was alive. Paul, in contrast, never met the living Jesus. Instead, he “received... a revelation through Jesus Christ” and, that he stated, made him equal in authority to the authority Jesus had granted his friends while he was still alive.
Much of the debate in Galatians is over whether or not Paul’s revelation granted him this equal authority. He claims it did. And he claims that the “acknowledged leaders” “recognized the grace that had been given to me.” We have no way of knowing whether this was true or not. We have only Paul’s account of the argument. We have only him telling us how Jesus was to be mourned and how the community was to answer the question: What comes next?
And that elision, the silence of James the Lord’s brother and his friends, should speak us to across the centuries and provide a crucial warning as we go about mourning the world, as we struggle to make meaning of what we have lost and answer the question: What comes next? The warning is this: those who are closest to the levers of power, those who are the most privileged, will be the ones who will determine how we mourn unless we struggle for the resurrection of the living and the politics of the living.
The silence of James the Lord’s brother is not accidental. It is a product of who James was and who Paul was. James was like Jesus, a poor man, an outcast, a Jew in a pagan Empire who proclaimed that Caesar’s power was less than God’s, an undocumented brown skinned workingman, struggling to make it through the day--as so many people are struggling today. James almost certainly struggled to find housing, to find work, and to get enough to eat. James was persecuted for his beliefs.
Paul, on the other hand, was an educated Roman citizen. Unlike presumably James, for there is no authentic text from James, Paul could read, and he could write. He was trained in Greek philosophy and Jewish theology. He had been educated in rhetoric. He even had a career persecuting men like James before he had his revelation. And yet, it is his letters, his theological treatises, that form the major corpus of Christian epistles and not those of James or his friends. He is the one who has determined so much of how Jesus is to be mourned. He answered the question: What comes next?
It is there, in the Letter of the Galatians, an account of the rich and powerful determining how the poor and marginalized shall mourn. It is there, the replacement of the politics of the living--which Paul sometimes believed--with the politics of the dead--which Paul left as the major part of his legacy.
And that, in this age of pandemic, on this Sunday a few weeks after Easter, as we mourn, is a central issue we must wrestle with as we attempt to answer the question: What comes next? Who will determine the narrative we make, the story we tell, the meaning we create about the pandemic? Will it be the most privileged and powerful among us, for that is who Paul was, or will be it those like James, who are suffering the most?
Will we, like Paul, choose the politics of the dead, with their emphasis on individual salvation, individual economic activity, and claim that we are self-made? Our we will choose the politics of the living, found in Jesus’s words that the Kingdom of God is among you? Not among one of you, not only inside of me, but among all of us, and present, possible, here, now, in this world. That salvation is social, and not individual, that we must build the commonwealth if we are to recover from the pandemic and prevent the next one.
I could close here by offering policy prescriptions and prophetic denouncements drawn from the politics of the living. I could argue that the President’s refusal to heed the warnings and possibilities found within science are part of the politics of the dead. I could take Texas’s Lieutenant Governor to task for his belief that we should be willing die for the economy. I could offer an analysis of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fund state governments during this pandemic as an attempt to destroy unions for civil servants by destroying the state pension systems. I could criticize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for their constant refrain that real help for families “will be the centerpiece of our next legislation.” And I could claim that we need massive income redistribution and the creation of new social infrastructure if our country and our world is to emerge from the pandemic and prevent the next one.
But instead of offering such a lengthy discourse, I will close with turns to two texts that suggest the politics of the living. The first comes from the speculative fiction writer Ursula Le Guin. In her novel “Always Coming Home,” she imagines what comes next, after our present society experiences a collapse, and how the people of the future will mourn the world we have today. They discover new ways to live sustainably. At peace with each other, they do not fear or target the other. They not do not target immigrants or migrants but instead recognize that all are part of the same human family and invite travelers to: “Please bring strange things, / Please come bringing new things.” And welcome them with the words: “Return with us, return to us / be always coming home.”
In the future she invites us to imagine, the future that comes after whatever it is we have now, people come to recognize their interconnection with each other and with all that is. Her vision is a promise of what might be if we learn the lessons of the hour and reject the myth of individualism in favor of the truth that we are social creatures. Our salvation is social.
And finally, I turn to what is perhaps the greatest statement of the politics of the living from the twentieth century. It comes from Charlie Chaplin. At the close of his film “The Great Dictator” his character, the little tramp, his stand-in for the poor and marginalized, his cipher for James the Lords brother, makes a speech denouncing the fascists and fools, the powers and principalities, of his day, that were then hurtling the world into war and desolation:
“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile — black man — white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness - not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed...
To those who can hear me, I say - do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed - the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people...
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” — not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power — the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then — in the name of democracy — let us use that power — let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world — a decent world that will give men a chance to work — that will give youth a future and old age a security...”
These are words that speak of the politics of life. Let them teach us how to mourn, how to make meaning from all that we have lost. And let them help us to answer the question: What comes next?
And, also, for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork.
Let the congregation, absent in body, but present in spirit, say Amen.
Apr 13, 2020
as preached online for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, April 12, 2020
You might remember that our theme for worship for April is renewal. This is our Easter service. I am scheduled to be talking with you about renewal and rebirth. And in this sermon, we are going to be focusing on something that might be called the resurrection of the living. The inspiration for it comes from two scriptural lines. The first is found in a text in the Christian New Testament known as The Acts of the Apostles. In the old King James version it reads, “God is no respecter of persons.” The second comes from “The Treatise on the Resurrection,” a gnostic Christian text from the early second century. There we find this description of the answer to the question, “What is the resurrection” “It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”
God is no respecter of persons, an ancient idea that bespeaks the truth that we are alike to the divine. Each person, the rich and the poor, will go the way of all flesh. The living resurrection, a transition into freshness. Taken together these texts teach us that we all share a common fate and all contain within us the possibility of awakening into a “revelation of what is.”
The lesson is echoed in the words of William Ellery Channing, the principal nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian. He said, in an Easter sermon, “here on earth the influence of Christ’s character is seen in awakening an active, self-sacrificing goodness” in the heart of each; taught that the purpose of religion was to rouse the “likeness to God” that lies within all; and claimed that heaven might be found on Earth. “A new sense, a new eye, might show the spiritual world compassing on every side,” he preached.
The living resurrection, my sermon, with its central message drawn from “The Treatise on the Resurrection,” might be divided into two parts. The first, a bit of context and some theological exposition. The second, a confession about our contemporary struggle.
Most of you have probably never heard of “The Treatise on the Resurrection.” Some of you self-identify as liberal Christians or come from Christian families. If this is the first time listening to one of our services marking the Christian high holidays, you might be surprised to hear a text read that deviates from the standard lectionary. You might have been expecting Acts and one of the Psalms or a reading from the canonical gospels of John or Matthew. But certainly not a passage from “The Treatise on the Resurrection.”
Here at First Unitarian Universalist, I always include a reading from the gnostic tradition in our holiday offerings. Unitarian Universalism has its roots in two heretical Christian traditions. Unitarians, like William Ellery Channing, believe that Jesus is best understood as a great moral teacher. They rejected the idea of what is called atonement theology, summarized best in the statement, “Jesus died for your sins.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker observes, “To say that Jesus’ executioners did what was historically necessary for salvation is to say that state terrorism is a good thing, that torture and murder are the will of God.” “The importance of Jesus,” she writes elsewhere, “is not that he paid the price for sin. Jesus is important because he embodied loving concern for others and called people to love their neighbors.” Jesus pointed to the possibility of what other great religious leaders--the Buddha or mystic Rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov--and have pointed to as well, religion should awaken us to the beauty of the world around us and the compassion within us.
Universalism is the other heretical Christian tradition that inspires us. Universalists celebrate the love of God for all. They believe that God loves everyone, without exception. “The scriptures declare that God is love, that he is a good Being, that he is no respecter of persons, but is good to all, and that his tender mercies are over all his works,” wrote the nineteenth-century Universalist Lucy Barns. Such a good and loving deity, Universalists think, cannot damn her creations to an eternity of suffering. Instead, they understand, death brings us humans a common fate. They know that whatever Hell we find, we make for ourselves in our earthly realm. The theological sentiment of the Universalists is captured well in a fragment of the singer Bobby McFerrin’s rendition of the 23rd Psalm. McFerrin speaks of his faith in the feminine divine:
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.
Even though I walk, through a dark & dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won't forsake me,
I'm in her hand.
Unitarianism, the knowledge that we can each open ourselves to the glory unfolding around us and the compassion within us. Universalism, the wisdom that we all share a common fate and that power of the divine is found in love. These are ancient heresies, teachings rejected by the powers and principalities of ancient Rome for their subversive nature. Each year during the high Christian holidays we read from texts like “The Treatise on the Resurrection” to remind ourselves that the core of our Unitarian Universalist theology is as old as the Christian tradition itself. It is just that we happen to be the heirs of those people who refused what the philosopher Cornel West and others have called Constantinian Christianity, the marriage between Christianity and the Roman Empire. Constantinian Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus without really asking questions: Why was he killed by the greatest Empire of his day? What did he teach that made him so threatening? The heretical Christians who wrote “The Treatise of the Resurrection” believed in resurrection of the living, “a transition into a new freshness.”
Constainian Christians instead preach of the resurrection of the dead. They sing the beautiful hymn, “This world is not my home I’m just a passing through / My treasurers are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” The old heretical Christian asked instead, in the words of the labor hymn, “Shall we only hope for heaven when we’re dead?” Or shall we imagine the possibility that here, in our earthly realm, there might be, “joy and peace for all”? The resurrection of the living or the resurrection of the dead?
“The Treatise on the Resurrection,” this morning’s text, comes from heretical tradition called gnosticism. The teachings of William Ellery Channing resemble those of the gnostics. Contemporary scholar Elaine Pagels has distilled gnostic thought into three primary gestures. First, it taught that the resurrection of the living was the discovery that “self-knowledge is knowledge of God.” There is a flicker of the divine--what humanists might call the spark that leaps from each-to-each in times of common crisis--within each of us. We are resurrected to life when feed that spark.
Second, they claimed that Jesus was “a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding.” Following teachings such as those found in “The Treatise on the Resurrection” or the better known “Gospel of Thomas” offers us advice on how we might each kindle our own flame. Much of that teaching might be captured in the advice of the prophet Micah who rhetorically asked, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” The resurrection of the living, the gnostics believed, was available to all who opened themselves to the “revelation of what is” and sought “the transformation of things” and “transition into freshness.”
Third, they saw Jesus as a human being who pointed the way to the resurrection of the living, not someone who was the “Son of God in a unique way,” as Pagels puts it. Instead, those who underwent the resurrection of the living could become like Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas relates, “Jesus said, I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out... He who will drink from my mouth will become like as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.” The likeness of God, claimed William Ellery Channing, resides within each of us.
The resurrection of the living, here is where we reach my confession. I am having more than a little trouble believing in it this morning. As I speak to you, the words of the poet T. S. Eliot lie somewhere in the background, “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”
It is hard to preach about the resurrection of the living, to offer you a sense of renewal and the hope of rebirth, in this cruel month of April. Like a lot of people, I am struggling. I am blessed to continue to have a job and good health. But I am a single parent of a thirteen-year-old boy. We are sheltering in place together, in our 1,200 square foot apartment. Like a lot of parents, I am finding it difficult to stay home all day--with the exception of an hour walk in the evening--with a kid who has to attend school online, complete his homework, cannot see his friends, and who is not able to go outside all that often, to be hard. It is almost unbearable. Which is not to say that I do not love my son. It is more that juggling work--this sermon was written in a series of snatches between vain attempts to get schoolwork completed in a timely fashion--and having to do all the cooking and well, everything, else is more than a little hard. Most days I go to bed simply grateful to have made it through the day without entirely losing my mind.
I do not tell you this elicit your sympathy. Rather, I tell you this to join my voice to the chorus of others making statements like, “It is OK not to be OK” or “Parents are not OK.” Voices from around the world tell us that they are not OK. From Italy, Sylvia Poggioli writes of “the grimmest [ritual]: the 6 o’clock televised press conference at which... the latest number of Covid-19 cases and the day’s body count” are announced. Hari Kunzru describes how the unrelenting deaths in Brooklyn are bringing “a rapid disintegration of all social and economic life [that] has exposed the terrible fragility of the American system.” Nicole Rudick observes from New Jersey that during this cruel April, “boring is the best you can hope for.” Staying in Oxford, England, Merve Emre, experiences “isolation,” walking “the empty aisles of the supermarket--no pasta, no beans, no peanut butter,” and learning of a “nurse who had worked for forty-eight hours straight crying in her car because she couldn’t find fresh fruit or vegetables after her shift ended.” In New Mexico, Danny Lyon meditates upon the impending death of a friend and asks the question: “When this horror passes, and it will, will the survivors accept a new way to live? The party is over... Is this the turning point? Will we emerge into a new and better world?”
The survivors... I pray that all who are watching this service, and all of your loved ones, will be among them. For this is likely to be one of the most difficult months that many of us have lived through. To date, more than a hundred thousand people have died from COVID-19, more than twenty thousand of them in the United States. In this country alone there are over five hundred thousand infected. The true number could be ten times that since testing has been such an abysmal failure. That would mean five million infected, one out of every sixty-six people living in the United States.
Epidemiologists are reporting that over the course of the pandemic at least sixty thousand people in this country will die. Some forecasts are much higher. The national death rate is supposed to reach its greatest height in the next weeks--suggesting that April will live up to its reputation for cruelty.
The cruel month of April is bringing massive job losses. Close to ten million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of the crisis. Another ten million will probably lose their jobs by the end of the month. Somewhere close to fifty percent of people under the age of forty-five have are now unemployed and huge numbers of people without healthcare. In most states, the unemployment system is overwhelmed and benefits have been slow in coming. Rent was due at the beginning of the month. Many families were forced to make the choice between paying it, buying food, and, in some cases, paying for medicine.
The cruelty of the month suggests that at least a few of you who are watching have experienced illness, are suffering from the virus, or have recently lost your job. If that describes you, I hope you will reach out to us here at First Unitarian Universalist. One of the purposes of a religious community is to take care of its members. The congregation is here for you during this time of pandemic. We will what we can to provide you with comfort and relief.
In the midst of such of a cruel month, it is difficult to preach a sermon on the resurrection of the living. I suspect it is difficult to preach an Easter sermon today from any tradition. Easter is supposed to be a grand and joyous holiday. Here at First Unitarian Universalist, we typically celebrate it with: magisterial organ music; an exuberant choir performance; bright, voluminous, bouquets of flowers; a few Easter bonnets; and our annual Easter parade. Each year, for more than twenty years, this congregation’s children have celebrated the holiday by marching down Fannin Street to the Emergency Aid Coalition with a rather sizable donation of canned goods.
None of that is happening. Instead, I find myself preaching again to an empty sanctuary--prerecording a message that I hope will provide you with a sense of connection, a bit of uplift, and perhaps some clarity during these strange days. It is Easter and the emptiness of the sanctuary provides us with the temptation to choose the theological analogy of the resurrection of the dead. For it is on Easter that Jesus’s disciples, the scriptures in the Christian New Testament claim, found the empty tomb. And it is on Easter that they became convinced he had been brought back to life--the resurrection of the dead.
The story is recounted that Jesus, the young peasant revolutionary from Nazareth, was executed on Friday. Jesus, the story says, a young peasant with brown skin--for any peasant born two thousand years ago in the town of Bethlehem would have brown skin--was put to death by the officials and soldiers of an imperial state. Jesus, the radical who, the Gospel of John tells us, “made a whip of cords and... upset the tables of the money-changers” and drove them from the Temple, and “whom,” the Acts of the Apostles in the old King James claims, “they slew and hanged on a tree,” and who, when his friends and loved ones went to reclaim his corpse, was discovered not to be in his tomb. Jesus--who, in a more contemporary translation of the Gospel of Luke, warned, “But alas for you who are rich; / you have had your time of happiness, / Alas for you who are well fed now; / you will go hungry / Alas for you who laugh now; / you will mourn and weep. / Alas for you when all speak well of you; / that is how their fathers treated the false prophets”--was not moldering in his grave. Instead, the Christian scripture declares, “God raised him to life on the third day.”
The empty tomb; God raised him to life on the third day, that is the story of the resurrection of the dead. The empty sanctuary; the suggestion that God will cause us to rise up again, after this pandemic, a non-heretical Easter metaphor. God will cause us to rise up again, the claim, the belief, the message that everything is going to be fine in the end, that we will return to the way things used to be, to “normal,” that stock market will resume its endless rise, that employment will come roaring back.
The resurrection of the dead... Last week Rev. Scott urged us to reframe hope. He quoted the writer David Whyte, “Hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.” Hoping that the world will return to “normal” after the pandemic ends or that we will all quickly return to work and profit making is hoping for the resurrection of the dead. Literally, it will require that some of us die so that others might resume making money--a wish that Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has expressed. But it will also mean that we, as a society, have learned nothing from this pandemic and all the suffering it has brought.
Instead of hoping things will return to the way they were, instead of seeking the resurrection of the dead, I think, this Easter, as hard as it is, we must choose the resurrection of the living. The resurrection of the living, what does it mean for us in this moment? It is hard me to preach about it or seek it, as I struggle amid the chaos of an upended world to compose these words, but I suspect I know what it means: take pleasure in living and pursue the politics of the living.
Taking pleasure in living, awakening to the “revelation of what is.” The other night, I went for a late walk over by the Menil Collection. The museum was shuttered. The streets near empty. The darkness as dark as it gets in the middle of Houston. Live oak trees lined the sidewalks. Sculptures interrupted, as they always do, the symmetry of the Menil’s lawn--a lush and neat expanse surrounding the rectangular building with its inviting porches and columns. A flutter interrupted the sculptures, the trees, the lawn, the columns, the porch. A flutter and then flash of wings and legs, tufted feathers, the observant, silent, head of a tricolor heron. Never had I seen such a bird before--let alone in the midnight of the city. There it was: nature’s beauty, revealing to me how life continues, thrives, in the midst of a pandemic. A spark of the resurrection of the living.
You can awaken yourself to the resurrection of the living no matter where you are during this pandemic. The beauty of the world surrounds us. There are always complex patterns and unexpected openings--no matter how cramped we might be and no matter how much we suffer. And here I could offer a learned discourse on all of those who have found beauty among misery and horror. But instead, I will just quote the survivor of World War II, Sami Rosenstock, who wrote during that moment of terror, “Salt and fire await you on the mineral hill of the incandescence of living.”
The incandescence of living, if we are to experience the resurrection of the living we must pursue the politics of the living. This is what Jesus did. And this is why he died. The politics of the living follow the injunction that God is no respecter of persons. They urge us to remember the most vulnerable among us. They challenge us--be we white or black, Asian or Latinx, poor or rich--to recognize that the grave injustice of the disproportionate death rate among African Americans is a result of the politics of white supremacy. It is not an accident that black people are dying from the virus at a higher rate than white people. It is the result of a system that has spent generations creating riches for wealthy whites at the expense of people of color. Pursuing the politics of the living means heeding the call of Anthony Fauci who reminds us that the unequal death rate is a result of “health disparities [that] have always existed for the African American community.”
Again, there is much I could say about the politics of the living. But instead, since this is Easter, I will just quote Jesus who said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you did for me.” The politics of the living come from the resurrection of the living. They challenge us to ask ourselves the question--most especially in the midst of a pandemic--what shall we do to make the world more beautiful for all?
The resurrection of the dead; the resurrection of the living... I confess to you, my friends, absent in body, though present in spirit, that this Easter I having trouble choosing the resurrection of the living. April is cruel. It will get crueler. I do not anticipate that sheltering in place will get easier. I do not believe that any of this will end soon.
But I will make what small movement I can towards the resurrection of the living. I will leave this place and go for a walk with my son. We will wear masks. We will keep our social distance from others. And, perhaps, we will see a tricolor heron or a flower or some other spark of beauty to awaken us to the “revelation of what is.” And it will remind us that no matter how difficult the hour, the glory of life is ever present.
And I will leave this place and do what I can to remember that God is no respecter of persons. I will speak out and demand that our society care for the least of these--which in this time of pandemic could become all of us. I will do what small things I can. Write my words. Call those who are struggling. And remember the rhetorical question, from the ancient prophet Micah, who called for the resurrection of the living when he asked, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
“Why do I seem to shout?” the ancient text inquires. “What is the resurrection?” it asks. Didactically it answers:
“It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”
This Easter may each of us, no matter how along we might feel, no how matter vulnerable we are, no matter how much we are struggling, begin to undergo the resurrection of the living. For, “These are the symbols and images of resurrection. They establish its goodness.”
The goodness of the resurrection of the living is established. Hear those ancient words and remember that truth, my friends. And now, I invite you to remember that truth, hear my words, and present in spirit say, Amen.
Oct 21, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 20, 2019
When I was twelve or thirteen one of my friends showed up to church in a suit. It was crisp and navy blue. It was paired with a lightly starched white shirt and a butter brown leather shoes polished to a glossy shine. With it, he wore a tie with a classic four in a hand knot that he done up himself.
This confused the rest of us. We were a group of perhaps half a dozen Unitarian Universalist kids. It was the late eighties. Typical Sunday morning garb consisted of the least sloppy tie-dyed shirt or punk rock pin festooned jacket that our parents could force us into. If we were going to be in the sanctuary for a special service--Christmas or Flower Communion--we might be strongly encouraged to wear jeans with no visible holes and some kind of shirt with buttons. But a suit? Who in our Middle School group ever wore a suit?
My friend, it turned out, had found religion. Or, more accurately, he found another religion besides Unitarian Universalism. He was at the beginning of his conversion process to some kind of fundamentalist Christianity. One Sunday it was his suit. Another Sunday found him enthusiastically talking about Jesus. A subsequent Sunday he told us that he had been “born again.” And a few Sundays after that we did not see him anymore.
He left and began attending a conservative Christian church with a grandparent. His parents and older sibling stayed in our congregation. Years later, I talked with them about why my friend had left Unitarian Universalism. They told me that he seemed to like the clear answers and structure that his new church provided him. It was organized around finding salvation through Jesus. The church leaders taught that the Bible had the answers to all life’s questions. Their preaching and teaching consisted of sharing these answers. And they claimed that the afterlife was more important than present life.
Our congregation was completely the opposite. In our religious education program we were never offered an explicit salvation narrative. We were never told that the Bible had all the answers. We were taught that our religious journeys consisted of asking questions and seeking answers. We were on a search for truth and meaning. We were not given clear definitions of either term. And we were told that our present life was more important than the afterlife. For, as Shakespeare wrote, death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” At best we can only speculate about what happens after we die. We are immersed in life.
Over the years, I have found myself thinking about my friend and the path he chose. In Unitarian Universalist circles it is far more common to find people who convert from some kind of fundamentalism to Unitarian Universalism than the other way around. Comedian George Carlin’s old joke, that he was Catholic “until I reached the Age of Reason” resonates for a lot of us. How many of you came to this congregation from a more rigid faith? And how many of you have a close friend or family member who left Unitarian Universalism for a variety of strict orthodoxy?
The nineteenth-century religious dissenter Francis W. Newman claimed, “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born.” He went on to describe the once-born this way, “They see God, not as a strict Judge... but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmony.” Building off Newman’s dichotomy, the philosopher William James placed our tradition firmly within the category of the once born. He complained that we generally suffered from “an inability to feel evil.” And that we lacked an understanding of the religious experience of conversion.
Is that why my friend left Unitarian Universalism? Did he feel evil sharply and need assurance that it could be conquered? Did he think he could be born again and escape it? I do not know his answer. But I am unsympathetic to James’s claim that we do not feel evil. I do not think that most of you would accuse me of suffering from an inability to feel evil. If anything, I have been accused of being too “doom and gloom” and not optimistic enough to be a good Unitarian Universalist preacher.
It is certain that I am once born. I have never had a conversion experience. Nor have I left Unitarian Universalism for another faith tradition. I have found within our tradition resources sufficient to help me weather the crises of my life--of which there have been more than a few--and to help me come to terms with the tragic. I have found resources sufficient to help answer one of the key religious questions: What does it mean to lead a good life?
It is one of the oldest questions in religion and philosophy. My friend who left my youth group found a certain answer to it by looking into the metaphysical realm and discovering his connection with, and salvation through, Jesus. My own answers have been less certain. It was, in part, that ambiguity that made my friend uncomfortable. What truth I have discovered I have discovered precisely by embracing ambiguity and placing myself amid the rich mess that is a worldly life. This is why the words of humanistic poetry, like this snatch from Alejandra Pizarnik, resonate with me:
dice que el amor es muerte es miedo
dice que la muerte es miedo es amor
dice que no sabe
She says that love is death is fear
She says that death is fear is love
She says that she doesn’t know
I find a similar sentiment in these beloved words from the Chinese poet Tu Fu:
Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a little
While, why should men cross each other?
It is also present in my favorite verse from the Greek poet Glykon:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens
There are no certain answers to be found in these poems. There is no suggestion that we should be born again. There are just questions and a certain humility: “She says that she doesn’t know;” “We enjoy life such a little / While, why should men cross each other?” “No reason why it happens.”
The orientation of these poems is worldly. In their worldly orientation we find a hint of a Unitarian Universalist response to question: What does it mean to live a good life? Our tradition teaches that we are to root ourselves in the here and now. We are not to place our hopes in some unspecified future when we shall be dust.
But Unitarian Universalism teaches something more than that. That something lurks in the background of these poems. And it lurked in background of my friend’s departure from the congregation of my childhood. Unitarian Universalism teaches that we are shaped by the communities of which we are members. When my friend left our youth group he left one narrative about the good life for another. His new community made that narrative explicit. Our congregation was less clear, but the teaching was there.
It was not present in words. It was present in deeds. It was found not by looking to Jesus for salvation. It was found in the lessons we could discover in sharing our lives with each other. I do not remember anyone telling me that as a child. But as I have studied Unitarian Universalist theology over the years, I have come to realize that the teaching was present all along. Usually, it was offered implicitly rather than made explicit.
Early generations of Unitarian Universalist theologians used the phrase “salvation by character” to summarize their understanding of our tradition. This phrase signifies that we are to judge each other not by our creeds--what we say we believe--but by our deeds--what we do. Over time the choices we make, the things we do, eventually add up to who we are.
This conception of the good life, that we are what we do, was something that my home congregation gave us the opportunity to discover on many occasions. One Sunday morning from my youth group made a particular impression. By then I think I was fourteen or fifteen. We had a guest in our class that morning--someone who was a member of the church but who I knew only vaguely.
He was an out gay man. He was there to share with us his coming out story. This was Lansing, Michigan in the early nineties. At the time, the city only had one gay or lesbian bar. There was no pride parade. The local newspaper still occasionally “outed” local civic figures who were living in the closet in an effort to damage their careers.
Unfortunately, I only remember the outlines of the man’s story. He had attempted to live the “straight” life for years. He had come out after several years of being married to a woman. He told us that he had lived a lie. That he had pretended to be someone he was not. While he did, he suffered immensely. He was depressed. He considered self-harm. He engaged in dangerous behaviors. And then, finally, once he left the marriage, and he found himself. He was living a life where he was authentically himself. He had even found a man who loved him. And he and his partner had recently moved in together. And they were happy.
The story had an impact on us. We talked about it afterwards. A couple of the kids in my youth group identified as queer. The man’s story gave them permission to be themselves. And it gave all of us a role model, a resource, we could turn to if we were questioning our own orientation.
The religious path of salvation by character can be found in my vignette about my youth group. There are moral exemplars in the world. We can learn from them. We can model our lives after them. And maybe, just maybe, if we do, we might be able to become something like them.
The man whose story I recounted was undoubtedly far from perfect. I am sure he had struggles beyond his sexuality that he did not share with us. I imagine that, like most of us, he had his petty moments, that he sometimes spoke harshly to his children or his partner or that he held grudges. Salvation by character does not mean that we are perfect. It comes from an understanding that we can do things to make our lives and the lives of others better. We can make choices that lead us to live lives of authenticity.
We need a community to do so. My Unitarian Universalist community provided that man a place where he could share his story. And it provided us with the opportunity to listen to him. In those days, there were few other places in Lansing where we could collectively question the social norm that to be happy people had to be in heterosexual relationships. In those days, there were few places where that man could feel accepted and loved by his community, live his authentic life, and offer what he had learned to others.
Salvation by character, the life story he shared was not a clear path to salvation. It did not offer the neat narrative of the born-again Christian--which my friend had turned to. It did not tell us that there was a single solution, a single path that we all should follow. Yes, it did contain an element of transformation, the man left a life where he could not be authentically himself for one in which he could. However, his story was about embracing who he was in this world--not rejecting it. It was not a story about confessing his sins and seeking salvation through Jesus. It was a story about admitting to himself who he was and then having the courage to be himself.
Our lives are short and fleeting things. The words we had from Jimmy Santiago Baca are meant to remind us that we have only one life that we know and how we live it matters. Baca tells us:
Who we are and what we do
appears to us
like a man dressed in a long black coat
Lo que somos y lo que hacemos
se nos aparece
como un hombre de abrigo negro y largo
That man, presumably, is death. He warns us we must bring our lives to account, must constantly cash the promissory notes that are our actions until they become our very being. We each have only one life. Time is short and so, the man tells us,
“I have many others to see today.”
“Tengo muchos otros qué ver hoy.”
Salvation by character, we are what we do. We learn how to live a good life in relation to a community. These are ideas are very old. They are much older than our tradition--something I hinted at in my invocation of seventh century Chinese and ancient Greek poetry. We might look back to Aristotle to find an early systematic treatment of them. He taught that the salvation we find in character is best expressed through the virtues. These are the elements of a good life, the things that we do which are praiseworthy--which we would hold up as examples to others.
The bravery of the man who visited my youth group was praiseworthy. He had been brave enough to leave an inauthentic life to discover one in which he was authentically himself. And that bravery was something he could help us discover in ourselves through his example.
Aristotle taught that these virtues were shaped by and informed by the community to which we belong. There was an element of what is called moral luck to this. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be born into a community or born with the circumstances to pursue a good life and sometimes we are not. Sometimes, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, things “just happen to” us. It is difficult to, in her words, “make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck.” Even as we seek to build a community where we might develop virtue--create a space where someone might share and live their authentic life--we find ourselves constantly buffeted by forces beyond control.
This, I suspect, is one reason my friend found comfort in his experience of becoming born again. It offered a permanent experience of salvation. Our once born humanistic path offers no such assurances. It, and the communities that sustain it, are vulnerable and can be lost. The good life of this world is not permanent, death, Baca’s man “in a long black coat” comes to all of us. Whatever salvation we achieve by character is at most secure for the span of our effervescent lives.
And here, as we near the close of the sermon, I am going to offer a final example of a community in which it is possible to pursue the humanistic virtues. What is happening with that community highlights the vulnerability of the good life. My transition is jagged; one of those moments when I like a jazz musician or house DJ, inelegantly switch between songs in the middle of a set. So, forgive me, as you might forgive the saxophonist who melody suddenly becomes discordant or turn tablelist whose record skips, as I jump from one thing to another.
I am going to talk about what is happening in Syria for a moment. Syria has been heavy upon my heart. In Northern Syria we find an example among the pluralistic community of Rojava of a place where it has been briefly possible to begin to pursue, to imagine, the good life. The people who live in Rojava are often called Kurds in the news. In truth, they are a multi-ethnic community of Arabs, Kurds, Yazidi, and others have spent the last several years imagining how they can create a space where they might be able to build a society where the good life is available to all people.
Following the withdrawal of the Syrian government from Northern Syria, the people of Rojava have attempted to build a community organized around three principles. These are direct democracy, ecology, and the liberation of women. Few accounts have made to the United States of exactly what this new society is starting to look like. The accounts that have emerged suggest that the good life imagined by those in Rojava is radically different than the one propagated by the oppressive, anti-ecological, patriarchal, regimes that normally reign in the region.
The people of Rojava have mandated that women must have a central role in society’s leadership. All leadership positions must be occupied by co-chairs--a man and a woman. There is also a man’s army and a woman’s army. Decisions are made at the local level, by those most impacted by them, and then coordinated across different communities. They attempt create ecological, democratic, and what we might call feminist consciousness in all that they do. This community is not perfect. Some reports suggest that while LGBT people are more welcome in Rojava than they are elsewhere in the Middle East they do not yet feel fully free to be themselves. But seven years is only a brief time to try to build a new society and invite people into a new way of being. I suspect that if Rojava survives it will, in time, become a society in which members of the LGBT community can be open about who they are and who they love. The openness to and encouragement for women’s leadership suggests that the people of Rojava are willing to make radical change.
Let me offer a brief pastiche of words from Rojava that hint at their new social vision. Here a few from Evren Kocabicak, a leader of Rojava’s women’s military wing. Three quotes: First, “nature is... a power that enables humans to achieve self-consciousness.” Second, “We have a system where every action, education or meeting is collectively evaluated; a system where such direct democracy is exercised.” Third, “Women may have a free personality and identity only so far as they have emancipated themselves from the hands of male and societal dominance and have gained power through their free initiatives.” Here are a few words from Dilar Dirik, a young Kurdish PhD student who left the region to study at the University of Cambridge. First, “All is sacred because it belongs to me, to you, to everyone.” Second, “Giving power to people who never had anything requires courage, requires trust, requires love.” Third, “Knowledge is everywhere, it needs to be valued and shared.”
I suspect that many of you hear resonances of Unitarian Universalist values within these words--of a conception of the good life that says that we must orientate ourselves to this world because we do not know what might happen in the next one. It is the society that has produced such beautiful visions that is now threatened with collapse. The United States withdrawal of troops from Northern Syria has given Turkey permission to invade. It has prepared the way for ethnic cleansing, a polite term for mass murder and dislocation. It has allowed ISIS cells to reactivate. And it has forced the people of Rojava to choose between an alliance with the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad and annihilation by the Turkish military. Their conception of the good life will almost certainly be replaced by something repressive and awful. In the words the Syrian scholar Hassan Hassan, the vision of Rojava is likely to be subplanted with a community ruled by “the worst of the worst.” Woman who have organized will be repressed and likely murdered. Democracy will be destroyed. And an ecological vision will be abandoned.
In the next week or two, we will be having an opportunity, as a religious community, to learn more about Rojava and the conception of the good life its members have. In partnership with the Kurdish American Foundation of Houston we are offering a forum featuring direct eye witness accounts of Rojava. It has not yet been scheduled. Once it is, I believe it will be the first such event in Houston. It will be a chance to learn about this new conception of the good life that after the current President’s betrayal is now under profound threat.
But for now, let us leave the subject of Rojava and attempt to bring our closing chord back into alignment with the rest of the sermon. What I have attempted to articulate, inelegantly perhaps, throughout this sermon is a simple message. We are what we do. We should orient our lives to the present world, which we know, rather the next one, from which we have, at best, scant reports. Whatever salvation there is to find we will find together. We will find it by lifting up what is best, virtuous amongst each other, and living authentically as we can: being brave, being honest, and nurturing the spark of brilliance, love, and hope that resides within each of us.
So that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say “Amen.”
Sep 9, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, September 8, 2019
Some years ago, I found myself in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. I was there with a group of Unitarian Universalists--clergy and lay folk--who had been arrested while protesting Arizona’s newest anti-human immigration law. Most of us were from out of town. We had come to Phoenix to participate in the protests against Arizona’s vile legal code at the invitation of the senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who now serves as the President of our Association. She had been urged to ask Unitarian Universalists from across the country to travel to her state, and participate in protests, by a coalition of local immigrant and indigenous activists who had come together in opposition to Arizona’s latest anti-immigrant legislation.
Broadly speaking, the law authorized state law enforcement officers to demand to see the immigration or citizenship documents of anyone they stopped. The consequences of the law went like this: Imagine that you are an undocumented immigrant. You have a broken taillight on your car. The police pull you over for this minor traffic infraction. They force you to reveal your immigration status by demanding to see your papers. And you quickly find yourself on the path to deportation.
The law also criminalized people who provided shelter to, hired, or offered transport to undocumented immigrants. Imagine this: Your neighbor is an undocumented immigrant. They ask you for a ride to the grocery store. You drive a little too fast and get stopped for speeding. Your neighbor is forced to reveal their immigration status to the police. They find themselves headed for deportation. You find yourself headed to jail for transporting an undocumented immigrant.
The law was, in essence, the precursor to the draconian, anti-human, immigration policies of the current President. It also served as inspiration for similar anti-human legislation here in Texas. This summer the current President attempted to take the law nationwide. He has praised its chief Arizona enforcer, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for offering “admirable service to our nation.”
The protest organizers asked those of us who had citizenship status, and were willing and able to take a risk, to commit civil disobedience and get arrested. On the day the law went into effect, we attempted to shutdown both Maricopa County Jail and downtown Phoenix. We did this by blocking the major city intersections and the entrances to the jail.
I was part of a group that committed to occupy one of the intersections. We were about a dozen strong. We linked arms. We walked into the middle of the street. And we sat down, and we sang songs until the police came and dragged us out of the intense summer heat and off to jail.
I was photographed, fingerprinted, charged, and briefly placed in a general holding cell with a mixture of protestors and folks who been jailed on other charges. There was one young man, maybe twenty, who was wearing his soccer uniform--baby blue shorts and a baby blue short-sleeve shirt with white stripes. He had been stopped that morning driving back from practice. He was undocumented. He had come to the United States as a young child. His minor traffic infraction was likely to be translated into deportation to a country he barely knew. He despaired. There were others who were in a similar situation. I did not get much of their stories. Those of us who were in the jail for protesting were soon removed from the general population. We were placed in a cell together.
It was then that I met Arpaio. He came to gloat. Accompanied by a solid half-dozen stout Sheriff’s deputies, he entered the cell we were being held in and asked us questions like, “How do you like my jail? Would like to stay for awhile?” To be honest, he reminded me of one the cartoon villains I used to watch on television when I was a kid. They had names like Snidely Whiplash, sported absurd moustaches and ridiculous cowboy hats (Arpaio was wearing a large black one), and had penchant for tying people to railroads and chortling at their victim’s fate. Of course, in the cartoons the villain was always foiled. Not so with Arpaio. He was given a presidential pardon after he was convicted of breaking the law in his efforts to deport immigrants.
Things got tense in the cell. A couple of the younger protestors tried to argue with him. His minions bristled. I was afraid there was going to be physical violence. A few of us managed to defuse the situation, largely by praying. Arpaio got bored and left. And we were stuck in our cell.
Jail is fine place for theology. Paul of Tarsus wrote at least two of his letters while in prison. Henry David Thoreau penned his famous essay on civil disobedience after spending the night in jail for failing to pay a war tax. Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks are some of the most important works of twentieth century political theory. Martin King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” And, of course, Piper Kerman wrote “Orange is the New Black” following her prison stay.
It might not surprise you that we choose to honor the tradition of jailhouse theology. We began by reflecting on our encounter with Arpaio and his henchmen. We thought about the nature of jail and what it exactly it was that we were protesting. Soon, I found myself talking with one of the local leaders of the protests, a Nahuatl-Xicano organizer by the name of Tupac Enrique Acosta.
Tupac and I found that we agreed that white supremacy was at the root of Arizona’s immigration law. We speculated that it provided the motivation for Arpaio’s behavior. White supremacy is a belief. The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily summarized it this way, “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
Race is not a natural category. It has little biological reality. Skin color has about as much to do with someone’s overall genetic makeup as their eye color or hair color. There is no such thing as the white race. Whiteness is an idea that been created over time to justify the power that some people exercise over other people. It is a belief that is used to justify the violence that people who believe themselves to be white enact upon people with brown and black bodies as they despoil land to create white wealth.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has described this process clearly. He writes that whiteness is “a modern invention.” Before people “were white” they “were something else... Catholic, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish... the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; [and] the destruction of families.”
In that jail cell, Tupac and I talked about the political moment we were in and the process by which whiteness was created. He explained the purpose of Arizona’s anti-human immigration legislation succinctly. Its “purpose,” he told me, “was to consolidate the perceptions of some white Americans around the idea of an America that is white in a continent that belongs to them.” If we were going ever defeat the legislation in Arizona and prevent families from being ripped apart and end the violence men like Arpaio inflicted upon society then we had to disrupt and deconstruct these beliefs. We had to disrupt and dismantle white supremacy. We had move past the idea that there was such a thing as the white race. We had to prove lie to the thought that America belonged to white people.
Now, you probably know that I carry around a fair amount of history, theology, and philosophy in my head. The same is true for Tupac. Together we traced out the history of whiteness. We talked about its origin points and the moments when the belief that there are such things as separate races came into existence. We talked about how it was that some people came to believe that they were white, and that whiteness was superior to blackness, brownness, redness, yellowness, or any other skin color. We talked about how colonizers came to believe that they were better than indigenous people. And we talked about all these ideas were lies. And that the truth was that there is only one human race. And that we are all indigenous to Mother Earth.
It was a very long conversation. We began it there, in jail, and continued it for many months afterwards, once we had been released. It was filled with lots of technical details, fancy terms from philosophy and theology, narratives of historical events, and discussions of the relationship between the human imagination and human reality. It would take me hundreds of pages, dozens of hours, to fully recount or accurately reconstruct. So, let me just share with you the four major points.
The human imagination is the most powerful force in human life and human culture. We imagine our reality into being. Race, religion, economics, politics, begin as stories that we imagine. We use these stories to organize our communities and our lives. We use them to create things that had not existed before. This is true on a mundane and a profound level. On the mundane level, let us pretend that you are hungry. You decide that you want a sandwich. You get some bread--I prefer crusty sourdough. You get a tomato--there are still a few in season if you know where to look. You get a bit of arugula--I guess this actually my sandwich. Anyway, I get some argula and a bit of eggplant I fried the other night. I put it all together and viola, I have a delicious sandwich. I imagined something and then I brought it into being.
The same is true of all of the great institutions and categories that exist in the world. That jail cell that were we in began as someone’s idea. Some architect imagined and designed it before construction workers built it. Before that some people imagined that there should be such a thing as jails. They imagined things like laws and then imagined a category of people they called criminals who did not live in accordance to those laws. And then they imagined police who would enforce laws and place criminals in jail.
One of the primary expressions of imagination is religion. Religion might be partially be understood as those stories we tell each other about: what it means to be born; the purpose of our time on Earth; and the reality that we must die. There are lots of religious stories in the world, lots of ways that communities attempt to narrate the meaning of this rich mess we call life. One of the most powerful of these is Trinitarian Christianity.
Trinitarian Christianity is organized around the story of sin and salvation. At the heart of the Trinitarian Christian imagination is the idea that we are born sinners and that unless we overcome our sin our destiny is an eternity of torment in Hell. The path to overcoming sin, in this story, is by achieving salvation through Jesus Christ. It is only by having knowledge of Jesus, and the salvation he offers, the story goes, that you can escape eternal suffering—sometimes imagined as the pricks of sharp pitchforks wielded by grotesque demons. It is the historical mission of Trinitarian Christianity to save human beings from such a fate in the afterlife.
More than a thousand years ago, in Europe, this imagined story of Trinitarian Christianity brought into being the idea of the racial other. This happened through a series of events we now call the Crusades. The Crusades were launched to conquer Jerusalem. Trinitarian Christianity had within it ample resources that suggested it was supposed to be a religion of peace. In the Christian New Testament, we find Jesus saying things like, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It was a long-accepted practice that Trinitarian Christians were not to launch aggressive wars.
In order to overcome this theological tendency, theologians created a legal and theological framework to justify the attempted conquest of Jerusalem. They did this by first imagining that since all people did not know about salvation through Jesus were doomed for eternity in Hell they had a moral obligation to spread Christianity throughout the entire world. In their imagination, this moral obligation came with global legal jurisdiction. Only Trinitarian Christian governments, they reasoned, could have legal standing in their political order. All other lands, like Jerusalem which was then ruled by Muslims, effectively did not have governments and were essentially empty until and free the claiming until such time as they were ruled by Trinitarian Christians.
An immediate consequence of this idea was the categorization of Jews and Muslims as “other.” Trinitarian Christians no longer viewed adherents of other religions as humans in the same way that they viewed themselves. They were to be converted and saved. And if they failed to convert they were to be removed from society less they corrupted it, rendered it less Trinitarian Christian, less pure, and endangered it. The first victims of the Crusades were not Muslims in Jerusalem. They were Jews in Europe. The Crusades launched with a massive pogrom directed against Europe’s Jewish population. This attempt to cleanse the continent of Jews resulted in the deaths of about a third of the European Jewish population.
The idea that non-Trinitarian Christian lands were empty and that they were free were taking was codified into something called the Doctrine of Discovery. This is the idea that empty lands, lands without Trinitarian Christians, belong to the Trinitarian Christians who “discover” them.
You have heard, of course, that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas. What that means is that when he arrived the lands that he found were empty of Trinitarian Christians. Without a government that he recognized, the land, by the logic of the narrative that we have been tracing, became Spanish land because Trinitarian Christians from Spain were the first to encounter it.
This process of “discovery” was accompanied by a process of declaring the people who the Trinitarian Christians encountered was a racial “other.” The indigenous peoples of the Americas were imagined to be something other than European and, therefore, something less than fully human. They were not Trinitarian Christians so they were not human in the same way that the Trinitarian Christians viewed Jews and Muslims as less than human. At the same time, Europeans were imagining that people from Africa were not entirely human. The lands that were being “discovered” in the Americas required human labor to exploit them. The indigenous populations were vulnerable to European diseases, refused to cooperate, ran away, committed suicide or took up arms, when the Europeans tried to force them to work the lands. Europeans decided it was easier to create the Transatlantic slave trade than attempt subjugate the local population. They justified all of this by arguing that by taking the lands from the indigenous and enslaving Africans they were able to convert them to Trinitarian Christianity, save their immortal souls, and free them from an eternity of torment. In return for losing their lands or their freedom the indigenous and Africans gained, the Trinitarians told themselves, eternal salvation.
At the core of the creation of race lie religious ideas like the Doctrine of Discovery. And less you think that this is all ancient history let me tell you something that I learned from Tupac. The Doctrine of Discovery forms the basis of United States property law. As recently as 2005 the United States Supreme Court used it to affirm that the United States government, which is a linear descendent of a European power, has the right to control the lands that make up the United States. It is why when you sell or buy a house you own it outright--at least once you are done paying off the bank. The land was empty, free to be discovered, when it was first purchased and, therefore, you can buy and sell all of it. In Europe, in contrast, much of the land is still owned by the feudal order. When you buy or sell a house you are often just buying a long-term lease. The land itself is still understood to belong to some European noble.
Imagination created religious ideas that then were used to justify the theft of the land and birthed the belief of race and racial other. Imagination leads to ways of being. When we talk about disrupting white supremacy, we are talking about imagining new ideas that will lead to new ways of being. Some of these ideas are actually very old ideas. As Tupac told me repeatedly during our conversation, we are all indigenous to Mother Earth. Disrupting white supremacy requires us to develop narratives that remind us we are all part of the same human family. And that we are all dependent upon the Earth, the land, for our continued existence.
Disrupting white supremacy is not about people who are believed to be white like me choosing to be in solidarity with black and brown people out of some noblesse oblige. It is about understanding that we are in a period of profound crisis and that the white supremacist narratives found in the Doctrine of Discovery--the myth that the land can belong to anyone, the myth that we are racially different--must be disrupted if we are to survive that crisis.
This year in worship, we are going to be acknowledging that we, as human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. At the root of all of these crisis lie our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth. At the center of worship this year we are going to place the questions: How can we develop the spiritual and religious resources to face these crises? How can we imagine new ways of being and overcome our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth?
This is deep work. It is scary work. It challenges us to question who we are, how we do things, why we do them, and what we think is possible. But the hour is urgent. As I will be talking with you about next week, the climate emergency is dire. We need to imagine and then create new ways of being or we may well cease to be.
One of the spiritual resources that we will be using in our efforts to create new ways of being is song. As I move towards the close, I want to invite the choir to the refrain from our earlier hymn. We will be using it as a sort of anthem this year, Mark.
We will be taking this hymn as something of an anthem over the year. I invite you to think about a few of its words:
It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
It is time now. We are at a decisive moment in human history. What we do now will resonate through the centuries. And we have the human power, the power of imagination, to make choices to thrive and to lead in love. It is our human power that has created the world that we live in and it is our human power that can change it.
This is why I choose our readings for today. They both are suggestive of other ways of being, ways of being that we must move beyond. The wisdom text of Ecclesiastes, a beautiful text that I love, suggests that the world is permanently as it is. Humans do not change it. Only the divine can change it. While there are many magnificent teachings in the Hebrew Bible, this is one that we need to now reconsider. The world is fluid, not static. The things we do and the stories we tell, matter. We have to accept our responsibility and recognize that our actions impact those who will follow us.
Revelation is a text that suggests that only the divine can bring about justice. It tells the story of a cosmic war between good and evil which ultimately ends with the divine creating the most wonderful of all societies. It is divine action that brings justice or injustice, and not human choices. This, again, is a narrative we must reject.
Instead, as we pursue our new ways of being, we need to recognize that “It is time now.” And what time to be alive. You may know that I am not a particularly hopeful person, but I want us to close on a note of hope. For there may just be a chance, against the odds, that we can disrupt white supremacy, survive the crises that we face, and learn to lead in love. The impossible has happened before. And so, as a reminder of that, I will invite us to sing, shortly, “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that helped inspire the end of the slave trade. A hymn written by a former slave trader who realized that there was only one race, the human race, as he transported Africans along the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, from freedom to slavery, and came to understand that he, like you and me, could find a new way of being.
Let us pray, that now, such realizations may come for all of us. Let us pray, that we will find Amazing Grace, and create new ways of being. And let us pray that we can do that work together.
I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Apr 1, 2019
as preached the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 31, 2019
We have reached the midpoint of our sermon series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This morning we are going to be talking about the fourth principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The core question I want us to focus on is: What does it mean to be responsible? Before we get to that question, though, I want to invite you back with me to an earlier time and place. I want you to come me with to Geneva, Switzerland.
The year is 1553. Geneva is a growing medieval city. A mass of tight streets and narrow houses on the shore of a large sweet water lake, in the next ten years it will almost double in size. Near the city’s center sits St. Pierre Cathedral. It is a Gothic structure, solid stone. There are big round columns capped with carvings depicting biblical scenes, angels, the resurrection of Christ, Satan, and even a mermaid. The rest of the massive sanctuary is spare. The ancient statues and carvings that had depicted the saints have all been smashed by iconoclasts. The stain glass remains. Blue, purple, and red pools on top of the wooden pews. Near the front of the church stands the pulpit. And from that pulpit each Sunday preaches John Calvin--one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin is a man of both religious reform and religious reaction. He is a reformer for having rejected the authority of the Pope in Rome. He is a reformer who wishes to save the church from the accrued corruptions of medieval theology. He is a reformer who claims that salvation comes through faith alone. He is a reformer who understands the Bible to be incontestable the word of God.
He is also a reactionary whose supporters have turned him into the virtual dictator of both civil and religious life in Geneva. He is a reactionary who believes that without divine intervention humans are innately depraved. He is a reactionary who believes that certain ancient theological, non-scriptural, teachings are non-negotiable. He believes in the Trinity--the idea that the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus Christ are all one single being. He believes in infant baptism--the claim that the immersion of children in water shortly after their birth is a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people.
Just recently, Calvin has charged a man by the name of Miguel Serveto with spreading heresy. Serveto--who will be known to history as Michael Servetus--is a brilliant man. A doctor, a theologian, a true Renaissance scholar, he is the first European to describe pulmonary circulation, the way blood moves from the heart to the lungs and back again. Servetus’s theology is not Calvin’s. He does not believe that people are born wicked or sinful. He rejects infant baptism as unnecessary. Instead, he holds that it is only possible to enter into a covenant with God as an adult.
More troubling to Calvin is Servetus’s position on the Trinity. Servetus has rejected it as a non-scriptural form of tritheism. Servetus reads Hebrew and Greek fluently. He argues that the Trinity is to be found nowhere in the Bible. He believes Trinitarians are actually tritheists. He claims they worship three gods. In one inflammatory text he has written, “Instead of a God you have a three-headed Cerberus.”
It is not solely Servetus’s denunciation of the Trinity that Calvin finds troubling. It is the way that Servetus thinks about Jesus. Servetus believes that Jesus was a man. In one particularly offensive book Servetus has written: “God himself is our spirit dwelling in us, and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain working latent energy, a certain heavenly sense, a latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.” In this passage and elsewhere Servetus has signaled that he believes it is possible for each human being to awaken the divinity within them. Jesus, Servetus believes, was created by God to help make people aware of the breath of God which resides in each of us.
Servetus has been inspired in his views through his encounters with Judaism and Islam. He grew up in Spain immediately after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel had offered the Jews and Muslims who lived there a choice. They could convert to Christianity or they could suffer banishment. Many stayed, converted, and secretly continued to practice their religions. Servetus’s interactions with these conversos has convinced him that the Trinity is the stumbling block that prevents practitioners of all three religions from recognizing that they are all children of the same God. This belief and his discovery that the word Trinity is not in the Bible has given him a lifelong mission to teach the Christian world about the errors of the Trinity.
Sitting on a wooden chair, gripping its hand tooled armrests, brooding, in St. Pierre Cathedral, Calvin reflects that Servetus’s views threaten all of Christianity. If they are allowed to spread, they will destroy the very Reformation Calvin has worked so hard to create. Servetus’s unorthodox theology will undermine Christian theological unity. The Catholics and the Protestants might not agree upon much but they agree upon the Trinity. They agree that humans do not have the spirit of God dwelling within them. And they agree upon the necessity of infant baptism.
Calvin is thankful that in response to his charges the Council of Geneva, the city’s civic authority, has condemned Servetus to death. At Calvin’s prompting the Council has issued a verdict “to purge the Church of God of such infection and cut off the rotten member.” This surgery is not be merciful. Servetus is to burned alive with his books on a pyre built from green wood.
Calvin sits and broods. He and Servetus have corresponded for years. When they were young men they had both been on the run from the Catholic Inquisition. Their paths almost crossed once in Paris as they each sought to escape the authorities. Yet, Servetus has grown so obstinate in his heresies that Calvin has become convinced that Servetus will never realize his errors.
Calvin sits and broods. A friend arrives, bringing him a report of Servetus’s death. Even at the end, Servetus refused to recant his beliefs. On the way to his place of execution he cried, “O God, O God: what else can I speak of but God.” His last recorded words also deny the Trinity. Right before he succumbs to the flames he wails, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” Calvin’s friend observes that Servetus could have saved himself from the flames if only he had transposed the words. Had he called on Christ the Eternal Son instead of Christ the Son of the Eternal God he would have been allowed to live.
The trial and execution of Michael Servetus is one of the most famous episodes in Unitarian history. His 1531 book “On the Errors of the Trinity” is largely regarded as first text in the continuous stream of religious tradition that stretches from sixteenth-century Europe to this pulpit in twenty-first-century Houston. It is true that are earlier figures and movements whose theology influenced ours. The second century North African theologian Origen taught that all souls would eventually be united with God. Arius was another North African theologian. Living in the third and fourth centuries, he built a large following by arguing against the Trinity. He believed that Jesus was not eternal. He believed Jesus was created by an eternal God. But despite these truths, it is with Servetus that enduring Unitarian theology begins.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Edict of Torda. Issued in 1568 by King John Sigismund, the Unitarian king of Transylvania, it was the first European law guaranteeing religious tolerance. Sigismund and the other Transylvanian Unitarians were greatly influenced by Servetus as they struggled to make sense of Christianity while living on the edge of the pluralistic world of that was the Ottoman Empire.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Polish Brethren of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who were known as Socianians. They were followers of the Italian theologian Fausto Sozzini. Like Servetus, they rejected original sin and the eternal nature of Jesus. They influenced the English Unitarians who later founded some of the first Unitarian churches in the United States. When President Andrew Jackson’s followers smeared President John Quincy Adams for his Unitarianism they called him a Socianian.
This direct line is one reason why our tradition was long summarized as a commitment to “freedom, reason, and tolerance.” When asked to describe Unitarian Universalism, the lifelong member of our communion Melissa Harris-Perry wrote, we “set aside divisive doctrinal battles [while] we seek a straightforward commitment to the fluid, open, collective work of seeking our truths together without assuming that we will all share the same truth.” An understanding that doctrinal beliefs can be lethally divisive is why a commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is central to our faith.
Now, I said, at the outset of my sermon, I wanted to focus our attention on one word of our principle. That word is responsible. Since we are examining a single word, I thought it wise to consult that massive tomb known as the Oxford English Dictionary. It once spanned more than a bookshelf. These days it has been safely reduced to a database. Turning to the OED, as it is affectionately known, we discover that the word is both an adjective and a noun. In our principle it appears as an adjective modifying the word search. There are eleven different ways in which responsible can be used as an adjective. The earliest dates to the sixteenth century. The most recent only came into use in the 1970s. Our adjective invokes the most contemporary meaning. Responsible in our principle appears to mean, “a practice or activity: carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.” A responsible search: a search carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.
Responsible is derived from the French responsible. The French comes the Latin respōnsāre, which means “to reply.” We might then think that to be responsible is to reply or respond to some set of underlying moral or ethical claims. Our fourth principle does not tell us what these underlying moral or ethical claims are. It only suggests that we are to be accountable to them.
In what remains of our sermon, I want to suggest to you two varieties of moral claims we might be responsible to in our search for truth and meaning. And then, in a somewhat tautological move, I want to suggest that the challenge of the search for truth and meaning is that it is a search for the very thing we are responsible to.
Two types of moral claims we might respond to in our search are the horizontal and the transcendental. These types of claims exist upon separate axis. As the name implies, horizontal claims are those that we make based upon this plane of existence. We make a horizontal claim when we refer directly to our relationships with other humans, other animals, and the Earth.
Transcendental claims are those that we make based upon some other plane of existence. As the name implies, such claims transcend this world. We make a transcendental claim when we refer directly to our relationship with a moral law that exists outside of the human community or exists due to a divinity such as that indescribable religious element we call God.
Much religious jostling takes place over the question of which of these two types of claims--the horizontal or transcendental--takes precedence. This Thursday at Rice I am going to be part of panel on interfaith dialogue. The conversation will be between an evangelical Christian, a Muslim, and myself. We are supposed to circulate our questions to each other in advance. The questions are supposed to be around some aspect of the other person’s tradition that we do not understand or would like clarified.
The evangelical Christian is from a conservative tradition that is opposed to sex same marriage. One of my questions for him, therefore, has to do why his community chooses to emphasize that aspect of their theology. There are only a handful of Christian scriptures that appear to address issues of same sex love. Most of them were originally directed towards other concerns. In contrast, there are over two thousand biblical verses that focus on the injunction to be in solidarity with the poor and to work towards economic justice. Why, I want to know, does his tradition emphasize one at the expense of the other? The evangelical Christian’s question for me is: Isn’t the dismissal of God, the deification of the human spirit, and trust in human ethics a naïve and dangerous project?
Based on these questions, I am not entirely certain our efforts at interfaith dialogue are off to a good start. However, I think that they nicely highlight distinctions between horizontal and transcendental moral claims. I arrive at my line of inquiry from a horizontal position. I am concerned about the GLBT community and economic justice because of the human relationships I have. I grew a Unitarian Universalist in a faith community that has long taught that many different kinds of sexual expression and gender identities are natural, normal, and wonderful. I have long known that there is only one human family and that a society based on the exploitation of labor leads to poverty, injustice and human suffering. Looking around, I am moved by the pain that I see in the eyes of others. I recognize it as similar to my own. It is like the verses by Mary Oliver in our hymnal:
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You have only 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.
Such words summarize horizontal moral claims more eloquently than I can. Here we find an understanding that it is the shared human experience--our animal, bodily, loving nature--that unites us. It is to this earthly unity that we are responsible.
In contrast, my evangelical counterpart’s relationship is not primarily with the horizontal--with the human community that surrounds him--but rather, with the transcendental, that which he has chosen to name God. He worries about my more horizontal morality because, he fears, it misses the place where morality is rooted: in a particular conception of the divine.
This conception of the divine, his community teaches, has issued certain injunctions about how we humans are to live our lives. If we fail to live by those injunctions--which for him includes particular teachings about human sexuality--we not only lead morally deformed lives in this world. We jeopardize ourselves in the next world. That, is a truly, transcendental position. Not only is our moral orientation to something that exists outside of the human life we share. But the consequences we face for failing to live a moral life come not in this horizontal world but in some other transcendental plane of existence.
My evangelical counterpart’s transcendental position is not the only one. Nor is my horizontal position the sum of horizontalism. Our human best includes people who oriented themselves towards the transcendental. Coretta Scott and Martin King attended Unitarian churches when lived in Boston. They ultimately moved away from Unitarianism because they felt they needed more of a transcendental connection to the divine than they believed our tradition offered them.
Conversely, our human worst includes people who oriented themselves towards the horizontal. The Soviet Stalinists of mid-twentieth-century killed millions of people. They justified their actions on horizontal claims about alleviating the most suffering for the largest number of people. Some, like the great Russian dissident Anna Akhmatova, drew upon the transcendental to survive their brutality, writing:
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me...”
Other Russian dissidents, such as the poet Victor Serge, drew upon the horizontal as they resisted:
Our hands are unconscious, tough, ascendant, conscious
plainsong, delighted suffering,
nailed to rainbows.
Together, together, joined,
they have here seized
And we didn’t know
that together we held
this dazzling thing.
And so, we reach our tautology, our fourth principle. Our Unitarian Universalist Association has committed us to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” But that search, is, so often for the thing that we are responsible to. In your search do you find yourself responding to the horizontal? Is it the human, the this world, the way rain glistens upon live oak leaves or the scamper of a lizard (is it a gecko, a skink, or a six lined race runner?), the tears that you see in the eyes of migrants as they suffer under Texas bridges, that call to you? Or is it an awe-inspiring indescribable divinity who blesses the universe with life and stirs within you an understanding that you should work to change the country’s barbaric practices towards immigrants? Is it both? Are they incompatible? Which are you responsible to? The horizontal or the transcendental? Or, perhaps, even, something else, something that I have failed to name that is neither horizontal or transcendental but unites, encompasses, or exists outside of both?
I could close with those questions. Instead, I want us to reach back to Calvin and Servetus. Calvin had Servetus killed because he felt that our religious forbearer endangered humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. Calvin believed that a relationship with the transcendental took precedence over a horizontal relationship. Conversely, Servetus was trying to reconcile the horizontal and transcendental. Humans understand God in many ways. Finding the commonality between these paths, he thought, would lead to peace. And yet, he could not give up on what he felt was his correct understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. As he was burned he cried, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” And as Calvin’s friend observed, Servetus needed only to change the words--to compromise on his understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental--to save his life.
It is difficult to be responsible. It is challenging to understand what we are supposed to respond to even as we seek to find it. And, so recognizing this challenge but also recognizing our call to meet it, I close with repetition of our earlier reading by Leslie Takahashi. I invite you to hear it as a prayer:
Walk the maze
within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves.
This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.
Listen in the twists and turns.
Listen in the openness within all searching.
Listen: a wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you
and in that dialogue lies peace.
Let us walk the maze together,
open to where it leads us,
open to the transcendental,
if we encounter it,
and the horizontal,
when we find it.
Be us not afraid to name the divine
if we discover it
and be us not afraid
and care for the human,
and all that is
this beautiful world
wherever we go.
to say Amen.