Feb 6, 2020
I keep a running list of the books that I read all the way through--as opposed to read selectively in, which is how I approach most works of academic history, critical theory, and theology. For a few years I posted this list to my blog with commentary on some of the books. I fell away from that for awhile but am now getting back to it. I will be posting a list of all of the books I read over the last decade in the next week or so as well.
In 2019 I a read a bit in French because I was in France for awhile. I hope to read a bit of Spanish and French for pleasure in 2020 as well--though a month into the year I haven’t really gotten to either of them. My French reading level isn’t great and while I read a good portion of Pascale Tournier’s book “Le vieux monde est de retour, Enquête sur les nouveaux conservateurs,” I didn’t complete it. I did read several volumes of the delightful early French readers series Quelle Historie. They’re almost exactly at the level of French I can read without a dictionary.
In terms of books in English, the best novel I read was a translation of Soseki Natsume’s “I Am A Cat.” It is an early twentieth-century classic about the life of a cat who lives in the house of a somewhat eccentric minor Japanese scholar. The cat is witty and absurd and various passages find him doing such things as “worshipping my honored Great Tail Gracious Deity” and meditating on the ways cats “trod the clouds” because “[c]at’s paws are as if they do not exist.
Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” is an important work about the rise of dictator in the 1930s United States and the eventually successful efforts to overturn his rule. It isn’t great literature but its heroes are a Unitarian and a Universalist and it has some useful insights into the possibilities and limitations of liberal religious resistance to fascism.
Like Lewis’s book, much of what I read was for my Minns lectures. Daniel Walker Howe’s “The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861” and Juan Floyd-Thomas’s “The Origins of Black Humanism in America: Reverend Ethelred Brown and the Harlem Unitarian Church” deserve special mention for their important work on Unitarian intellectual history. If you have heard me preach in the last twelve months these two works have been lurking somewhere in the background.
I didn’t read anything particularly bad in the 2019 but, as I discuss at length in my third Minns lecture, I was pretty disturbed by Timothy Synder’s complete elision of the US’s history of white supremacy in his “On Tyranny” and his attacks on anarchists and antifascists in “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.” For indigenous nations and many people of color the United States has been a totalitarian society since its inception. To pretend otherwise, as Synder does in his widely read “On Tyranny,” is exceptionally dangerous at a moment when some white people are waking up to the reality that they may soon be living in a totalitarian society. If we--and the we I am writing as here are what I might call white people of good hearts--are going to resist the rise of totalitarianism then we had better make allies with indigenous nations and people of color. They have, in many cases, successfully resisted this country’s totalitarianism for generations. We will be more powerful together and we--again writing for the plural white people of good heart--have much to learn from other resistance movements.
Synder’s scorn for antifascism and anarchism is ahistorical nonsense--his passages drawing equivalences between anarchism and fascism are particularly problematic. Here’s what I said on the subject in my Minns lectures:
Such equivalences marginalize the rich critical resources these traditions offer—[Hannah] Arendt herself was enamored with the anarchist celebration of “the council system” and critique of bureaucracy as a form “tyranny without a tyrant.” And they forget, as events in Charlottesville should remind us, anarchists and other antifascists have have played crucial, though often overlooked, roles in trying to contain various forms of totalitarianism. It was the anarchists in Spain who initiated the fight against the fascist coup to overthrow the Republican government. It was a Spanish anarchist tank division, serving the French Foreign Legion, which first entered Paris to liberate it from the Nazis. And today, anarchists in Rojava, the historically Kurdish area of Syria, have played a critical role in the defeat of the Islamic State.
That aside, when Synder isn’t attacking anarchists or fetishizing the state (as he does in a number of passages in both books) his work offers insight into the nature of totalitarianism, the machinery of death, and how both might be resisted. I certainly learned a great deal about the Holocaust from him and the parallels he draws between 1930s Germany and our present moment are important. However, Hannah Arendt remains by far the most useful critic of totalitarianism and fascism. And if you really want to understand the antecedents to our historical moment I suggest you read her “The Origins of Totalitarianism” instead (reading it alongside W. E. B. DuBois’s “The Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880” and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “The Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” will really give you a complete sense of how the United States has gotten to the point it has).
So, after all of that, here’s my list for 2019:
Books Read in 2019
It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis
Strange Weather in Tokyo, Hiromi Kawakami
An Illustrated Guide to Japanese Cooking and Annual Events, Hattori Yukio
How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Neil Gaiman
The Professor’s Daughter, Joann Sfar
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, Neil Gaiman
Paper Girls Deluxe Edition Volume 1, Brian Vaughan
Hope without Optimism, Terry Eagleton
I Am A Cat, Soseki Natsume
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
Anxious Church, Anxious People: How to Lead Change in an Age of Anxiety, Jack Shitama
Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World, Otis Moss III
The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861, Daniel Walker Howe
The Origins of Black Humanism in America: Reverend Ethelred Brown and the Harlem Unitarian Church, Juan Floyd-Thomas
The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation, Benjamin Moffit
Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History, Mark Harris
Catstronauts: Mission Moon, Drew Brockington
The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians, Anthony Wallace
English Traits, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus, 1511-1553, Roland Bainton
Power in the Pulpit: How America’s Most Effective Black Preachers Prepare Their Sermons, ed. Cleophus LaRue
John Calhoun and the Price of Union, John Niven
Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, Margaret Fuller
Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, Hannah Arendt
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Timothy Snyder
The Complete K Chronicles, Keith Knight
On Tyranny, Timothy Synder
F Minus, Tony Carrillo
Assembly, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
The Stainless Steel Rat for President, Harry Harrison
The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie
Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin
Quelle Historie: Angela Davis
Quelle Historie: Voltaire
No Name in the Street, James Baldwin
Quelle Historie: Histoire de France
Quelle Historie: La Socrellerie
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Naomi Klein
Maroon Comix: Origins and Destinies, ed. Quincy Saul
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George R. R. Martin
More Power in the Pulpit, ed. Cleophus LaRue
Quelle Historie: Anne de Bretagne
Deathworld I, Harry Harrison
The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, updated edition, Martha Nussbaum
Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, trans. Steven Carter
The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava, Thomas Schmidinger
The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas
The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, Linda Gordon
Soft Science, Franny Choi
Deathworld II, Harry Harrison
The Courage To Be, Paul Tillich
Disoriental, Negar Djavadi
Black Rights/White Wrongs, Charles Mills
American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals & Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice, Albert Raboteau
Fall or Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Jun 4, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, June 2, 2019
Today is a very special Sunday. It is the Sunday of the annual meeting--a time when you will be making decisions about the future direction of this congregation. You will be electing leaders and voting on amendments to First Church’s Constitution. The importance of the annual meeting makes it the only time all year that First Church gathers together as one worshiping community. Usually, First Church is one church in two locations. Today, we are one church in one location. This Sunday we have members from the Thoreau present in the pews, both of First Church’s ministers on the same campus, and Thoreau’s staff musician Teru as our pianist.
Since I have you all together, and since you are making decisions about the future of First Church, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk with you about the future of the church. Not this church, specifically, but the future of Unitarian Universalism. I take this subject because as your interim minister, one of my tasks is to help you evaluate yourselves.
Since at least the sixteenth century, it has been an aspiration of our Unitarian Universalist tradition to be a religion that is relevant to contemporary life. Instead of believing that religious truth has been permanently codified in ancient scripture or perfectly expressed in the life of a single individual, we claim, “revelation is not sealed.” The universe is constantly unfolding its marvels. The starscapes overhead, fragmenting atoms, luminescent corals, the causes of cancer... human knowledge, and with it technology, is ever increasing. In such a situation, the claim that the sum of religious knowledge remains static for all time seems absurd. The challenge for Unitarian Universalist congregations is to build “a modern church for a modern age.”
“A modern church for a modern age,” these words come from Ethelred Brown, a Unitarian minister who was active in the opening decades of the twentieth century. I have spoken with you about Brown before. For many of the years that he served the Harlem Unitarian Church, he was the only member of the African diaspora who ministered a Unitarian congregation. Today, there are hundreds of Unitarian Universalist religious professionals who are people of color--our slow shift to being a multiracial movement being but one way in which Unitarian Universalism is changing.
Brown was part of a larger movement within the Unitarianism of his day called the community church movement. It was organized by the Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes in Manhattan and the Universalist minister Clarence Skinner in Boston to build religious communities capable of confronting the crises of the early twentieth century. Inside the walls of their congregations, they sought to create “the new church which shall be the institutional embodiment of our new religion of democracy.” Both men preached the need to substitute “for the individual the social group, as an object of salvation.” This experience of social salvation was available on Sunday morning when “peoples of every nationality and race, of every color, creed and class” became “alike in worship and in work.” In such moments the church instantiated the “‘Kingdom of God’--the commonwealth of” all before it was present in the secular world.
This was more than empty metaphor. Under Holmes’s leadership, the Community Church of New York was one of the earliest Unitarian congregations to meaningful racially integrate. As early as 1910, the congregation was multiracial. And its members, including Holmes himself, played important roles in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. They were active in creating these institutions because the crisis of their day were about racial justice and civil liberties. They understood that a democratic society rests on the freedoms of speech, belief, and assembly. These were not secular ideas for them. They were religious inspired realities based on the that proposition in order for religion to be meaningful it had to offer clarity, inspire compassion, and prompt action on the crisis of the hour. Inward piety, the deep of religious feeling of connection between each and all, was understood as best expressed as, in Holmes’s words, “a passion for righteousness.”
What are the crises of our hour? We must seek clarity about them. As a human species and as a country, we are in the midst of series of severe and interlinked catastrophes. There is the climate emergency. Scientists now tell us that we have, at most, twelve years to reduce carbon emissions by half and keep global heating to a non-catastrophic level. If our human habits do not change we risk the lives of hundreds of millions of people and the possibility of driving as many as a million species to extinction.
As a country, we are in the midst of crisis in democracy. We have a President whose party has consistently and persistently undermined liberal democratic norms. The President refuses to cooperate with Congress when the House requests his financial records or subpoenas members of the executive branch. The President celebrates autocrats and dictators while maligning liberal political regimes. Meanwhile, the President’s party plots to gerrymander legislative districts by fixing the census and suppressing the vote. Meanwhile, even those members of his party who claim to have the conscience of a conservative vote in favor of his agenda, and for his judicial nominees, over and over again.
Across the globe, and in the United States, white supremacist violence, white supremacist populism, and anti-democratic or illiberal regimes are on the rise. White men—and it always seems to be white men--have walked into mosques and synagogues and killed people as they gathered for worship. Antisemitism is increasing and, in this country, the police continue to kill and jail people of color at far higher rates than they do white folks.
In this country, the rise in white supremacist violence is mirrored by an overall increase in gun violence and mass shootings. Specters of carnage like Friday’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach are regular occurrences. Instead of moving towards action, politicians have reduced their responses to repetitive public ritual: thoughts and prayers are offered, a debate on the causes of the tragedy is truncated, and nothing happens.
The situation is reminiscent of the opening lines of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worse
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats penned these words almost exactly one hundred years ago. He wrote them during the same period of crisis in which the community church movement was created. The First World War had just ended--taking with it the lives of millions. Europe lay in ruins. And Yeat’s own Ireland was in the Irish War for Independence--a war that would result in the loss of thousands of lives and would gain the Republic of Ireland political independence.
Yeats cast his poem in religious terms. The image of the falcon who cannot hear the falconer is suggestive of a humanity that has grown deaf to God. The falcon turns ever wider, moving ever further from the divine. And yet, even as humans move away from divinity Yeats finds himself believing: “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” It is just when all hope is lost, Yeats hints, that profound change comes.
Yeats’s poem is helpful to our sermon because it suggests, as I believe, that the root of all of these intertwined crisis might be understood as a religious crisis. Religion comes from the Latin word religar which means “to bind.” In its earliest English form, it was understood as what binds a community to God and what binds us together. It precisely this sense of collective ties--whether to the greater natural reality or to the larger human community--that is fraying today.
Human society has become global. Our species evolved living in small bands of, at most, a few hundred. It difficult for many of us to find our places in an interconnected world of billions. Our ancestors often had clear roles in the world. You were born into a social position with specific obligations and you stayed there for all of your life. Your parents were farmers, so you became a farmer. Your family owned a blacksmith’s shop, so you worked in a blacksmith’s shop. Today, such social determination is far less common. Instead of telling children what they must be when they grow-up we hand them texts like Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and suggest that what they make of themselves is their own doing.
This change in human life can easily lead to loss of sense of meaning. If you do not find the right role, the right job, the right partner, or the right community, it can easily feel like you are missing something in your life. People go looking for that missing something. One explanation of the rise of right-wing populism is that such movements offer the people who join them a sense of meaning. They can place themselves into the larger narrative of race, political order, or apocalyptic religion and discover that their life has meaning beyond their own individual struggles.
Our Unitarian Universalist tradition can also provide a sense of connection and of meaning. In an essay on the future of Unitarian Universalism, retired minister Marilyn Sewell writes, “The void at the heart of American culture is a spiritual one.” For many of us, we have become unbound, unfettered, disconnected. People come to this church so often seeking connection in moments of crisis. These crises are personal as well as social. First time visitors often tell me that they have come to us because of some tragedy in their own lives--the death of a spouse, the loss of a child, divorce, illness... Attendance often peaks in moments of social crisis: there are more people here on those Sundays when the great crises of the hour are unavoidable--when there is another mass shooting or political diaster--than when the news of the world is less dramatic.
I hope you will indulge me for a moment while I offer a bit of testimony about how this dynamic has played out in my own life. I ended up a Unitarian Universalist minister for much the same reason that people seek out our congregations and join our communities. It is true that I was raised Unitarian Universalist. My journey to the ministry was not all that meandering. But like a lot people raised Unitarian Universalist I almost walked away from our tradition.
When I was in middle school I began to drift away from the church. Some of my friends from elementary school stopped participating in religious education. And I started to feel disconnected from the community. At the same time, I was being ruthlessly bullied at school. School did not seem like a safe space and Unitarian Universalism seemed irrelevant to my life--though I doubt at the age of twelve or thirteen I would have articulated myself in just that fashion. I did not feel like I had a community to which I belonged. Sunday mornings I generally fought with my parents about coming to church.
One Sunday after church I told one of my older friends that I was planning to stop coming to Sunday School. My parents felt that I had reached an age where I could start to make my own decisions about my religious life. And if the church did not feel like it meant something to me then I did not need to participate in it anymore. I was just starting my freshman year of high school. My friend told me to hold off on quitting. She invited me to a weekend long event put on by an organization called Young Religious Unitarian Universalists or YRUU.
YRUU was a youth organization that believed in youth empowerment. Its principal activity was to organize what we, in the North, called conferences and what here, in the South, are called rallies. At these events, the youth led and developed the majority of the program. We created worship services. We organized small groups for fellowship and discussion where we shared about the difficulties and possibilities in our lives. We invited outside speakers to offer workshops on art and social action.
My first conference was a liberating experience. Suburban Michigan in the early nineties was not a socially progressive place. Yet the Friday evening I walked into my first conference, I saw a community devoted to making a space for people to be themselves. You could attend a conference and be openly queer, or be, as I was then, a science fiction geek, and no one would reject you. I made friends with young men who wore dresses all weekend and young women who wore combat boots and shaved their heads. I made friends with people who refused to reside in any gender category whatsoever. I got to discuss the fantasy novels I loved with others who loved them. I was encouraged to ask critical questions about religion: What is God? How is the each connected to the all? How might I deal with the pain in my young life? I experienced worship, for the first time, as communion. Singing together some hundred strong the youth at the conference felt united. I felt a sense of belonging and connection. I felt like a certain void in my life, a void I could not articulate, had been filled. And working to fill that void, collectively, with others, is one thing that led me to become a minister.
What about you? Have you ever had such an experience? If you are new here, is such an experience what you are seeking? If you have been here for years, is it why you continue to come? To build a modern church for a modern age is to create such possibilities for connection and meaning making. It is recognize, as Marilyn Sewell argues, that people “are coming to a church because their souls need feeding” and then work, together, to feed those souls by offering meaningful opportunities for connection.
We must do more than just feed souls. We must confront the crises of the hour. Texas poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico captures a bit of the current crisis in her poem “Buen Esqueleto.”
Life is short & I tell this to mis hijas.
Life is short & I show them how to talk
to police without opening the door, how
to leave the social security number blank
on the exam, I tell this to mis hijas.
This world tells them I hate you every day
Building a modern church for a modern age does not just mean creating a religious community for people of relative affluence and comfort such as myself. It means proclaiming that no one should be hated by the world. It means creating a community that is capable of including everyone who suffers from the weight of the world. It means working to dismantle--even if the task seems hopeless--the great structures of oppression in the world. In her same essay, Sewell asks, “Travel ahead twenty, or say fifty years into the future. What will our children and grandchildren say of us? Will they say, where was the church when the world came crashing down? How will history picture us…?”
And here, perhaps paradoxically, I return to my experience in YRUU. Why? As I mentioned, YRUU was organized around the premise of youth empowerment. It was largely youth run. We elected the people who organized the conferences. And those people had to then decide how to, democratically, create the events. This might seem like a small statement but it actually pushed us to gain a large number of skills. At the age of fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, we had to run meetings, design budgets, speak in public, and lead songs. This gave me and my cohort a set of skills necessary for democratic life. They were skills that, for the most part, we were not gaining in other parts of our lives.
Unitarian Universalist congregations, like YRUU, are self-governing entities. It is you, the members, who decide on the direction you want to take your congregation. It is you, the members, who decide how best to confront the crises of the hour. And in this act of self-governance, you gain the skills necessary for democratic life. These skills are often not developed within our working lives. But you can gain them here. Participating in a congregational meeting, you have the opportunity to experience direct democracy--each member gets a vote on important matters before the church. Joining the stewardship team, you can learn about fundraising. Joining the welcome team, you can develop important interpersonal skills. Joining the Board, you can learn how to guide a mid-sized non-profit with a budget of close to a million dollars.
These may seem like little skills. Across time they can have a big impact. I have spent more than twenty-five years intimately involved in struggles for social justice. And almost everywhere I have gone--be it to a union meeting, a center for GLBT youth, a session on the climate emergency, or an antiracist collective--I have met Unitarian Universalists actively, and skillfully, participating and leading movements. So often, they seem to be using skills they gained in congregational life to do so.
A modern church for a modern age, for me, it means creating a community where people can find connections and gain the skills necessary for democratic life. It means living out the religion of democracy, welcoming people of all races, classes, cultures, languages, and genders, into our religious community. What might it mean for you? I have offered a sketch of my own picture. But as your interim, I want to close with a question: What is your vision for this congregation? What kind of church do you want First Church to be? Where would you like First Church to be in ten years? In twenty years? In fifty years? What will your children or grandchildren say? How will they answer the question: Where was the church when the world came crashing down?
In the hopes that you will answer them wisely, I invite the congregation to say, Amen.
Apr 22, 2019
As part of my research for the Minns Lectures on American Populism and Unitarian Universalism I recently stumbled across the following description of Unitarianism by the Rev. Ethelred Brown in Langston Hughes's column "Week by Week," which Hughes wrote regularly for the Chicago Defender. This was published in 1960, about four years after Brown died. I am not certain when Brown wrote his portion of the text.
The Meaning of Faith: Unitarians
Unitarians in the United States number about 100,000. Some of their congregations in the larger urban centers have a number of Negro members. Ethelred Brown, the late minister of Harlem Unitarian Church in New York City, wrote especially for the readers of this column, the following concise statement on the meaning of his faith:
Unitarians are not Trinitarians—that is, they reject the doctrine of the Trinity which states that God is three persons in one. This denial in itself justifies their name. But they also reject every doctrine or teaching claimed by Trinitarians to be "fundamental"—namely, the miraculous birth and deity of Jesus, the Resurrection, the Atonement, a material hell and a personal devil, and infallible Bible. But it is important to note that Unitarians deny what they deny because they believe what they believe, and because they are what they are.
Unitarians believe in the reliability of Reason as contrasted with Revelation and Intuition. And a distinctive and significant result growing out of this belief is that the Unitarian Church of is a creedless church. Unitarians are united not by intellectual agreement but by an ethical and spiritual purpose. Therefore they are not to be approached or presented as persons who deny certain things and believe certain other things, but rather as persons with a certain attitude to reality—persons dedicated to a certain form of life. From this attitude there stem the following distinctive characteristics:
1. Unitarians believe that Religion and Science are not contradictory but complementary.
2. They talk Sense and Religion at the same time. Any proposition that insults their intelligence is rejected.
3. They believe that theological statements must square themselves with established truths. Facts must never be tampered with to accommodate our theories—but our theories must be corrected to agree with the facts.
4. Unitarians do not believe in a static but in a progressive mind. Knowledge grows from more to more.
5. They believe in the right of the individual to seek truth for himself. They take Truth for authority and not authority for truth.
6. Climaxing all, and inclusive of all, Unitarians do interpret or present Religion in terms of church and creeds and ceremonies, but as Life — as character and service. This was aptly stated by Dr. George D. Stoddard, former President of the University of Chicago, when he spoke at a corner stone laying of the $200,000 North Shore Unitarian church. "Unitarianism is nothing radical, but quite simply a return to the sense of honesty, directness, fearlessness and self-reliance that characterized the behavior of our forefathers."
This then is the distinctive trait of Unitarianism — it places life and character above forms and ceremonies, and its churches honestly strive to bring together thought and reverence, the fearless mind and the uplifted heart — "That mind and soul according well may make one music as before — but vaster." This explains why Unitarians feel as did Dr. Charles W. Eliot, late president of Harvard University, "To propagate the simple fundamental convictions of our Unitarian Faith is a holy thing, and a sacred duty."
Feb 26, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 24, 2019
At the outset of this morning’s sermon, I would like to invite you to turn in your grey hymnal and read the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association with me. You will find it about five or six pages in, right after the Preface. Let us start with the phrase, “We, the member congregations” and read all the way through to the end of the first principle. “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
The idea that each person has inherent worth and dignity is one of the core theological ideas of our religious tradition. We find it articulated in the words of early nineteenth century Unitarian preachers. They taught that we contain within us “the likeness to God.” They urged each of us to always remember that, as one of them put it, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” I invite you to say that with me, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” And now, I want to invite you to do one last thing, turn to your neighbor and look at them for a moment. If you are comfortable, look them in the eye and, “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
We are all members of the same human family. We each have inherent worth and dignity. These are radical ideas in our society. And they challenge each of us. I struggle with them. I struggle with them when I grow frustrated with friends and loved ones. Sometimes, I even question whether I am capable of honoring each person’s inherent worth and dignity. I question myself when I walk by a homeless person and ignore their plight--as I do often in this neighborhood. And I question myself when I pay attention to the world of politics. I admit that there are some political leaders whose membership in the great family of all souls I find myself challenged to acknowledge. What about you? Do you find it easy to always honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Are you able to recognize the worst of us as members of the same human family as easily as you accept the best of us?
Our theological ideas would not be radical if they were easy to live into. This morning, I want to do three things. I want to talk with you about the radical nature of our theological heritage. I want to talk with you about how our Unitarian Universalist institutions have sometimes failed to live up to our theological values. And I want to talk with you about the potential our Unitarian Universalist institutions today have to be nurture our theological values and, in doing so, be part of the great work of collective liberation.
February is Black History Month. As part of our recognition of Black History Month we will focus our conversation on the radical nature of our theology, the disconnect between our religious institutions and our theology, and our present potential by focusing our conversation on the life of an important black Unitarian, the Unitarian minister Ethelred Brown.
Ethelred Brown was not just a Unitarian minister. He was a foundational figure in the theological tradition known as black humanism. My friend Tony Pinn is a Unitarian Universalist, professor at Rice, and probably the leading academic proponent of black humanism. He defines it as: “Black self-control, self-assertion, and concern for the human family...[H]umanism is a statement of humanity’s connectedness/ oneness and need for self-determination, without a conscious discussion of this assertion’s impact on traditional conceptions of divinity or ultimate reality.” Black humanism proclaims that black lives matter, that white supremacy must be confronted, that reason is central to religious life, that human action, not divine intervention, is the tool we can use to solve our human problems, and that this life here on Earth is what is of utmost importance.
Ethelred Brown was born in Jamaica in 1875. When he was sixteen he had an experience that may seem familiar to a number of you. It was Easter morning. He was singing in the choir of an Episcopalian church. The time came to sing the Athanasian Creed--that’s the one that proclaims the divine to be trinitarian. And then, he recounts, “The strangeness of the Trinitarian arithmetic struck me forcibly.” It struck him so forcefully that, he recalled, “[I] decided then and there to sever my connection with the church which enunciated so impossible a proposition.”
Is your own story similar? Many people have recounted similar experiences of rejecting the theological beliefs of the religious community of their youth. The next part of Brown’s story might be one you recognize too. That afternoon he went to visit his uncle. And in his uncle’s library he discovered a pamphlet written by a nineteenth-century Unitarian preacher from Massachusetts. There he found the words, “we believe in the doctrine of God’s Unity, or that there is one God, and one only.” Encountering these words Ethelred Brown realized that he was not alone in the world. That there were other people who rejected the Trinity. The realization that he was not alone in his beliefs led him to visit a bigger library and seek out other Unitarian texts. Soon he “became,” as he put it, “a Unitarian without a church.” Does that resonate with any of your experiences?
After several years of largely keeping his beliefs to himself, Brown felt the call to ministry. He sent a letter addressed “To any Unitarian Minister in New York City.” Eventually, the letter found its way to the President of Meadville Theological School. Meadville’s President sent Brown a reply. Well, actually, he sent a letter of admission to Meadville.
You might think that the story takes a pleasant turn here. And you would be partially right. But you would also be partially wrong. You see, in the early twentieth century the number of black Unitarian ministers was precisely zero. The Universalists were slightly better. They ordained Joseph Jordan, Thomas Wise, and Joseph Fletcher Jordan in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
This is not to say that black people were not interested in Unitarianism. It is rather to say, that white Unitarians were not interested in having their institutions led by people of color. As early as 1860 there had been black people who wanted to become Unitarian ministers. The black Baptist minister William Jackson approached the American Unitarian Association, told its leaders that he was convinced of the truth of Unitarian theology, and asked to be welcomed into the fellowship of Unitarian ministers. They turned him away.
A few years before Ethelred Brown went to Meadville, the seminary graduated its first black graduate: Don Speed Goodloe. While he would later go on to become the principal of what is now Bowie State University, the American Unitarian Association would not find him a pulpit.
So, Brown’s admission to Meadville came with a warning from its president. Brown recounts he was told, “there was no Unitarian church in America for… people [of color], and that as white Unitarians required a white minister he was unable to predict what my future would be at the conclusion of my training.”
Brown went to Meadville. He graduated. And he returned to Jamaica where he started in succession two Unitarian churches with minimal support from the American Unitarian Association. The first was in Montego Bay. The second was in Kingston. The services sometimes numbered several hundred people. Despite this, after a few years the American Unitarian Association withdraw its support because, as Brown recollects he was told, “the results were not satisfactory.”
Reflecting on this episode, African American Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed observes, “The question was, Satisfactory for whom?” Despite preaching a theology of radical inclusion, the American Unitarian Association was led by men--and its leaders at the time were all men--who could be described as white supremacists. Its president occasionally wrote words that I cannot in good conscience repeat from this pulpit. He consistently did not support people of color who were interested in the Unitarian ministry.
The withdrawal of the American Unitarian Association’s support from Unitarians in Jamaica set the pattern for much of the remainder of Brown’s life. By 1920, Brown’s efforts to maintain a Unitarian church had nearly bankrupted him. He and his wife decided to move to Harlem to seek better opportunities. He was part of a wave of migrants from the Caribbean that included seminal figures in black life such as the poet Claude McKay, the historian Arturo Schomburg, and the pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.
Once in Harlem, Brown set about organizing the Harlem Community Church--a religious community that was designed to be “a temple and a forum.” Its proposition was not different than the one we pursue on Sunday mornings: to lift up the beautiful, to proclaim the transformative power of love, and to celebrate the clarifying power of reason. It was in Brown’s words, “a temple in which we worship the true and good and beautiful, and receive inspiration to live a life of service; a forum where... mind sharpens mind as we strive to plumb the depths, span the breadth, and scale the heights of knowledge.”
Over the next thirty-six years, Brown led a religious community that played a vital role in Harlem’s religious life. He was regularly invited to preach at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was then perhaps most important African American church in New York. Its ministers included Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a Congressman who tacitly supported Brown’s ministry. The members of Brown’s church included significant labor leaders and journalists. It was also a hotbed of political radicalism. Brown himself was a socialist who actively supported labor unions. A member by the name of Frank Crosswaith played a central role in integrating the American Federation of Labor and building the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union recognized by the AFL. Another member named Grace Campbell was the first African American woman to run for public office in New York.
Unfortunately, for most of those thirty-six years the American Unitarian Association did little to support the Harlem Unitarian Church, as it was finally known. This despite having an impact in the community that would make many a congregation jealous. This despite promoting a purpose that was clearly Unitarian. Here are Brown’s words:
The Church is an institution of religion dedicated to the service of humanity.
Seeking the truth in freedom, it strives to apply it in love for the cultivation of character, the fostering of fellowship in work and worship, and the establishment of a righteous social order...
Knowing not sect, class, nation or race it welcomes each to the service of all.
And, yet, as I have been saying, the American Unitarian Association had trouble recognizing Brown’s teachings as its own. This should perhaps not be that surprising. The father of black liberation theology James Cone once observed, “theology is always identified with a particular community.” This claim should be a reminder that the vast majority of theology preached from Unitarian Universalist pulpits and nurtured by Unitarian Universalist institutions has been white theology. That is, it has been theology that came from communities in which the majority of members and the vast majority of religious leaders have believed themselves to be white.
Our history might contain men like Ethelred Brown and women like Grace Campbell. It might include abolitionists and women’s rights advocates. It might hold within it American presidents, important scientists, and canonical literary figures but it also includes outright white supremacists. Indeed, some of the very people we celebrate held what we might at best call retrograde views on race. These were not just men like the president of American Unitarian Association who refused to support Brown. They include individuals like the Universalist minister who was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and the Vice President of the United States whose racist views were so reactionary that he was once referred to as “the Marx of the master class.”
Despite this, our theology that each individual has worth and dignity and all people are part of the same human family has sometimes transcended the bounds of our historically white institutions. The great Frederick Douglass worshipped at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC for several years. He recognized that our religious tradition has the potential to, and sometimes does, confront what he called then “the slaveholding religion of this land.” The African American abolitionist, suffragist, and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. She urged us to remember, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
Our work today as Unitarian Universalists is to carry forth the legacy of men and women like Ethelred Brown, Frank Crosswaith, Grace Campbell, Frederick Douglass, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. They understood the liberating potential of Unitarian Universalist theology. It is no accident that they were abolitionists and workers for social justice. That is who we become when we take seriously the injunction to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Bill Sinkford, the first African American president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has observed that our congregations become more racially diverse when they devote themselves to the work of justice. At a General Assembly right here in Texas he told us, “Racial and cultural diversity will, I pray, come to Unitarian Universalism. But it will come as we become known as a faith community that strives to live our open hearted theology, and a faith community that is willing to be an ally in the struggle for justice.”
The current President of the Unitarian Universalist Association has made the same observation. In conversations she has noted that the congregation she served in Phoenix, Arizona grew numerically and in racial diversity as it deepened its involvement in the struggle for migrant rights and worked to stand up against white supremacy throughout the country. A few weeks ago, she told us that “we must reclaim our great historic mission and prophetic role to be the conscience of our nation.” Doing so requires us to recognize the people like Ethelred Brown who were in our midst and who, in many ways, our institutions failed.
Doing so also requires us to recognize that sometimes we fail to live out our theology of radical love and inclusion. Not we failed, but we still fail. And before I close, I want to offer a brief story about such a failure that a friend of mine shared with me a number of years ago. My friend is a black Unitarian Universalist from Detroit. He has been a Unitarian Universalist for a long time, longer than I have been alive.
Some years back he decided to visit a congregation in suburban Detroit. He found the service inspiring. The music was good. The sermon was fine. It felt right. And then, during coffee hour, he had an interaction that chilled his heart. Someone came up to him and tried to be friendly. They said, “What are you doing here? We do not get many people like you visiting us?”
In some ways, his story was exactly the same as Ethelred Brown’s. The person who was speaking to my friend could not imagine that our liberating theology could transcend the bounds of that historically white suburban church.
And here, I want to speak for a moment to the white members of this congregation. It can. And it does. All the time. When white well educated Unitarian Universalists like me make assumptions about who are “our people” we limit and even distort our liberating theology. The work for someone like me does not just include the prophetic work of struggling for justice. It includes the work of self-reflection, of examining when and where I have failed to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all and made assumptions about who Unitarian Universalists are.
This is why it is important to celebrate someone like Ethelred Brown who declared that our “religion is an emancipatory power ... it... [frees us] from the shackles of theologies which are both unreasonable and dogmatic and from creeds which never change.” And why it is important to also recognize that there are many people who have theological views similar to ours but never join Unitarian Universalist congregations. The writer Alice Walker is one of them. Widely recognized as a contemporary black humanist, she celebrates the natural goodness she believes lies within each human and connects us to the world around us. She tells us, “All people deserve to worship a God who also worships them. A God that made them, and likes them. That is why Nature, Mother Earth, is such a good choice.” There is no transcendence here. Just a reminder that the world around us is the important one and that it is infused with the divine.
And this is why it is also important to support the work of Black Lives Unitarian Universalist. BLUU, as it is also known, is an organization of black Unitarian Universalists that is pushing Unitarian Universalism to be the liberating faith that our theology calls us to be. They have offered the following expansion of the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. They write:
The Movement for Black Lives calls on the Unitarian Universalist faith -- a faith willing to make the bold proclamation that each person inherently matters -- to live up to that claim by working toward a future in which black lives are truly valued in our society. We call on UUs to actively resist notions that black lives only matter if conformed to white, middle-class norms, and to challenge assumptions of worth centered around clothing, diction, education, or other status. Our value is not conditional.
And in that spirit, whoever you are, wherever you are sitting, in honor of legacy of Ethelred Brown and in the power of black humanism, I invite you to again turn to your neighbor and share these words: “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
May we be granted the power to always remember those truths.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Feb 1, 2019
This month our congregation launches our annual stewardship campaign, “Weaving a Tapestry of Love and Action.” The theme is drawn from the words we use to bless the offering each week. This theme reminds us that justice is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists: As Cornel West once observed, “justice is what love looks like in public.”
Your financial gifts to our congregation are essential to sustain it and position First Church to share our values and extend our collective impact in the community. Now is a critical time to support both the congregation and Unitarian Universalism. Because the congregation is in the midst of multiple transitions in ministry and staff, it is even more important to ensure that the congregation is on firm financial footing. With your support, First Church will be better prepared to begin the next phase of our long history of innovative ministry to the community.
It is all too clear we are at a critical turning point in human history. Climate change; the global resurgence of totalitarian, anti-democratic, political regimes; seemingly intractable structures of white supremacy; unbridled capitalism; and the enduring dominance of militarism have all combined to make us question even the possibility of continued human existence. These great crises are not primarily material. They are rooted in an underlying moral and spiritual crisis: How do humans make meaning in an ever-changing global pluralistic society where the narratives that shape individual identity and communities are constantly contested? This moral and spiritual crisis can only be addressed by building beloved communities that, locally and globally, change lives, transform culture, and craft transnational networks devoted to human liberation. Unitarian Universalism’s foundational commitment to the transformative power of love and theological openness mean that First Church has the potential to be one of these beloved communities. Your contributions supply the essential fabric from which the congregation can truly weave a tapestry of love and action.
To emphasize the mutual connections of our Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), we are pleased to welcome my friend and dear colleague, UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray to our pulpit on February 10th. Her sermon will focus on how Unitarian Universalism can realize its potential to build beloved community. Throughout the month the Rev. Dr. Dan King and I will also be leading services on stewardship which will emphasize our collective opportunities for tangible support for this community. Our stewardship team has recruited volunteer interviewers (“visiting stewards”) who will offer to talk with you about your personal connection to First Church and the work our congregation does in the world. The conversations are designed to be an opportunity to for deeper spiritual reflection, whether one-on-one or in a small group. I hope that you will choose to take advantage of their offer to listen to you.
This month is also Black History Month. Each of our services will feature music from Africa and the African diaspora. My sermon on the 24th will celebrate the life and work of the Reverend Ethelred Brown, the founder of the Unitarian Church of Harlem and a foundational figure in the tradition of black humanism. Portions of this sermon will be incorporated into a lecture I have been invited to prepare, “The Social Question: Unitarian Social Ethics in the Progressive Era.” I will be delivering in San Francisco on May 18th. I hope to see you on the 24th and throughout the month!
A brief personal note before I close, at the end of last month I was recently named an African American Religious Studies Forum Affiliate of Rice University’s for Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning.
The appointment comes with an invitation to present two public lectures at Rice in the 2019-2020 academic year. They will be an opportunity to emphasize the longstanding connections between First Church and Rice.
And finally, a poem:
“Each Day” by lifelong Unitarian Universalist, Rev. Kristen Harper, longtime minister of the Unitarian Church of Barnstable, Massachusetts:
Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again,
To hurt again, to embrace joy,
To experience unease,
To discover the tragic.
Each day provides us with the opportunity to live.
This day is no different, this hour no more unique than the last,
Except... Maybe today, maybe now,
Among friends and fellow journeyers,
Maybe for the first time, maybe silently,
We can share ourselves.