Aug 19, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
We have just rung our church bell twenty-one times. Mallet has struck metal for each of the “twenty and odd” Africans who arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia in late August 1619. Their arrival was a pivotal moment in this country’s history. African Americans have provided this country with its some of its foremost artists, religious leaders, philosophers, politicians, and scientists. African American culture has given the United States, and the world, powerful and popular musical traditions that shaped global culture: the blues, jazz, hip-hop, house and techno, rock ‘n roll, and soul. And African Americans have again and again pushed this country to be a land of freedom and equality rather than a land of slavery and injustice.
The Africans who arrived in Virginia were kidnapped by English pirates from a Spanish slave ship originally destined for the Caribbean. At least a few of the names given to them by their kidnappers were recorded. There was a woman called Angelo and a couple called Antonio and Isabella. They were the parents of William, the first African American born in the English colonies. He was born free. Slavery did not become hereditary until later.
Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, and the others who arrived with them were natives of West Central Africa. They arrived on an English ship called the White Lion. The ship’s crew is believed to have traded them for food and supplies. They were the first Africans to be brought to English North America. And their arrival marks the beginning of chattel slavery in the colony of Virginia.
1619. It is a year that is just as foundational to the United States of America as 1776. The two years represent the contradiction that lies at the heart of the country. From its very inception, the United States of America has proclaimed itself “the land of the free.” From its very inception, the United States of America been built upon unfreedom. It is like the late Toni Morrison observed, “the presence of the unfree [lies] within the heart of the democratic experiment.” Unfreedom has, from its point of origin, warped the very idea of freedom. To build one person’s freedom on another person’s slavery is to turn freedom itself into a lie.
I have a friend who has a joke about this. He says, “Whenever white folks start talking about freedom, I start to look around to see what, or who, they are trying to steal.” Often freedom for people who believe themselves to be white has come at the expense of everyone else. And just as often, African Americans have proclaimed that freedom is either for everyone or no one. It is like Martin King observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This contradiction between freedom and unfreedom has led slavery to be called America’s original sin. Unitarian Universalists, as I said last week, could use a more robust understanding of sin. And theological language is illuminating when we attempt to understand the legacy of slavery.
Sin can be understood as estrangement. Estrangement is a form of separation in which there are, at a minimum, unfriendly feelings between the estranged parties. It is the mission of religion to help us overcome sin. Sin, I am suggesting, is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality. It is something to be found in our human relations (and in our relations with the planet). When I speak of slavery as a sin, I am speaking of a pattern of estrangement that was actualized in the material conditions of people’s lives. The institution of slavery was a set of behaviors, and set of beliefs, that enabled people who believed themselves to be white to imagine other human beings as primarily tools and instruments for producing wealth. When an enslaver looked at someone they had enslaved they did not see the pain in the eyes of another human being. They did not see another being whose purpose in life was to love and laugh, imagine and create. They imagined they saw someone who existed to serve them, who existed to be exploited to build wealth. In their crass imagining the enslavers estranged themselves from their own humanity. In their fierce resistance those who had been enslaved proclaimed theirs.
Sin is overcome by practicing and preaching love. For if sin is estrangement then salvation might be understood as a coming back together, a reunification. And the impulse that brings us back together, and that binds us back together, is love. I am not speaking of romantic love. Instead, I refer to what in the Christian lexicon is called agape--goodwill towards all; the desire that all humans can be free. Salvation, the overcoming of estrangement, then should be understood as basing our lives, and our society, upon a love that honors all human beings.
Sin and salvation, freedom and unfreedom, all of these have a distinctly earthly flavor. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition teaches us not to look for salvation in the next world but to see it in this one. It teaches that sin is not a cosmic thing, a metaphysical reality, but something found in human relations. This is why the Universalist lay leader Fannie Barrier Williams said, “I dare not to cease to hope and aspire and believe in human love and justice...” It is why the Unitarian minister Egbert Ethelred Brown prayed, “May we know that without love there will never be peace. Teach us therefore to love.”
Freedom and unfreedom... 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia. They arrived after enduring the brutal Middle Passage. They had been forced into a ship in Angola and cramped below deck. We have no words from them describing their experiences, but we do have the words others who survived the journey from Africa to the Americas. The abolitionist Olaudah Equiano was one of them. Kidnapped as a young boy in what is now Nigeria, he published “The Interesting of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” the same year the United States Constitution became the law of the land. He described the Middle Passage as “filled with horrors of every kind.” He recollected his time confined below deck this way: “with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me.”
At least two million people--daughters, sons, children, mothers, fathers, parents, lovers, friends, artists, prophets, singers, geniuses, dancers, poets, human beings--died in the Middle Passage. Some succumb to illness. Some were beaten to death when they resisted. Some jumped from the ships rather than endure unfreedom. Let us honor them with a silent prayer.
And a poem: “August 1619” by Clint Smith.
Over the course of 350 years,
36,000 slave ships crossed the Atlantic
Ocean. I walk over to the globe & move
my finger back & forth between
the fragile continents. I try to keep
count how many times I drag
my hand across the bristled
hemispheres, but grow weary of chasing
a history that swallowed me.
For every hundred people who were
captured & enslaved, forty died before they
ever reached the New World.
I pull my index finger from Angola
to Brazil & feel the bodies jumping from
I drag my thumb from Ghana
to Jamaica & feel the weight of dysentery
make an anvil of my touch.
I slide my ring finger from Senegal
to South Carolina & feel the ocean
separate a million families.
The soft hum of history spins
on its tilted axis. A cavalcade of ghost ships
wash their hands of all they carried.
The soft hum of history spins / on its tilted axis. 1619. The first Africans arrived in Virginia not as slaves but as indentured servants. Europeans who lived in the colony were in a similar legal state. Indentured servitude was a system whereby an individual was bound to work for an employer for a particular period of time. At the end of the contract the individual was free to sell their labor to whomever they liked. If they could find land to work, they were also free to live as a farmer. Many poor Europeans made their way, voluntarily and involuntarily, to the English colonies as indentured servants.
Why is this technical distinction between indentured servitude and slavery necessary? Because slavery was created explicitly to divide Africans and poor Europeans. United in mutual love they were a threat to the wealthy elites of the colonies. Estranged through slavery, Africans and poor Europeans could both be exploited to produce wealth for the rich men who owned plantations and factories.
This condition of estrangement was intentionally created to shore up the power of the wealthy. It was created through the legal system. The Africans who arrived in Jamestown, if they lived long enough, died free. Their children were born free. They sometimes united with the children of European indentured servants for greater freedom for the poor. This mutual love was unconscionable to the men who owned most of the land in the colonies, men who understood freedom as the freedom to earn money and not the freedom to be. They passed laws that, in essence, created race and created slavery as a racial condition. First, they passed laws that declaimed that only African people could be slaves. And then they passed laws that said that an individual’s legal status followed that of their mother. If the mother was an African slave then the child, no matter the color of its skin, would be a slave.
Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Africans resisted and imagined true liberation from the beginning. They ran away almost as soon as they arrived in the Americas. In the dismal swamps, the mountains, in the deep recesses of the forests, they formed maroon societies. Sometimes joined by poor Europeans who had fled indentured servitude, sometimes joining with Native Americans, free Africans created communities where true freedom was the norm. Interracial solidarity--the salvation of mutual love--overcame the sin of slavery. These communities, as the political philosopher Cedric Robinson has described them, were “communitarian rather individualistic, democratic... Afro-Christian rather than... materialist.” Over the centuries they provided safe harbor for people escaping slavery. Over the centuries they offered a space where people could dream freedom dreams outside of or on the edge of a society where freedom only existed for some people. Many of these free maroon societies lasted until at least the Civil War when they provided bases of operation for African American guerrillas and Union loyalists in the struggle end chattel slavery that the Civil War became.
Freedom and unfreedom. Sin and salvation. Here is an uncomfortable truth about the United States: enslaved people laid the foundation stones of the White House. Enslaved people placed the Statue of Freedom atop the Capital dome. The American Revolution was at least partially about the freedom of men who believed themselves to be white to enslave others. In 1772, four years before the Declaration of Independence, slavery was outlawed in England itself. Men like Thomas Jefferson feared that Britain would eventually abolish slavery in the English colonies. This dynamic prompted the English writer and politician Samuel Johnson to ask, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of” slaves?
Throughout the history of this country it has most often been African Americans who held out a different vision of freedom. It is not a vision of freedom based in the ability to enslave others—a vision of freedom rooted in estrangement. It is a vision of freedom based in a belief, in the words of the abolitionist Martin Delaney, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” It is a vision of freedom organized around the idea of universal equality.
The great W. E. B. Du Bois called it abolition democracy. He coined the phrase abolition democracy to distinguish the genuine democratic beliefs of the great abolitionists who opposed slavery from the false democracy of the slave holders. He summarized it in deceptively simple terms. It was “based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men.” He wrote those words in 1931. If he were alive today I am sure he would have rephrased them to include women and transgender people.
After the Civil War, proponents of abolition democracy demanded full legal rights for the formerly enslaved. They also demanded what we might now call reparations for slavery. They recognized that political freedom is essentially meaningless without economic autonomy. When your entire livelihood is dependent upon some landlord or employer it can seem impossible to vote and act for your own interests.
Alongside political freedom and economic independence, abolition democrats worked for a third thing: universal free public education. They understood that in order for democracy to function community members had to be educated enough to identify and advocate for their own interests. They had to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood, knowledge from propaganda.
Abolition democracy is the greatest of the American political traditions. It is only one that actually offers the possibility of freedom for all people. It proponents form a pantheon saints. In that pantheon are people of African descendant like Phyllis Wheatley who said, “In every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance.” And Harriet Tubman who wrote, of the struggle for freedom, “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death.” And Frederick Douglass who gave a speech asking, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” And Martin King, and Ella Baker, and Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others. It is a pantheon that includes not only people of African descent but all of those who have held out a vision of love that can conquer hate, a vision in which the estrangement of sin can be overcome by the salvation of equality.
Writing about the contradiction between unfreedom and freedom that lies at the heart of the United States, W. E. B. Du Bois argued more than a hundred years ago, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Writing as an advocate of abolition democracy, though she does not use that term, the African American journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones posed her answer to Du Bois’s problem in the form of a question, “What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”
It is a hope that I cling to in these troubled days. It is why I look to people of color and women for leadership in the face of a blatantly white supremacist President who aspires to authoritarianism. It is the saints of abolitionist democracy who have most boldly articulated a different view--a view that proclaims the salvation of love for all. In this desperate hour, when democratic societies are under threat, when racial injustice is increasing, when inequality is growing, when we face the existential threat of climate change, let us turn to their vision of freedom. Let us a proclaim and live an understanding of freedom not born from estrangement and separation but love and unity. For now is the crucial time, not just for you and for me but for all who come after. We live in a moment like the one James Baldwin wrote of at the end of his magnificent meditation on the civil rights movement and race in America, “The Fire Next Time”:
“If we… do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
Let us inscribe the words of Baldwin, and all the other abolition democrats, known and unknown, on our hearts. 1619. On this four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Angelo, Antonio, and Isabella, who we know only by the name given to them by their kidnappers, and the other “twenty and odd” Africans who came with them, let us commit ourselves to a vision of freedom for all. It is not a vision of freedom to exploit. It is a vision in which you and you and you and I and all of us can truly be who we ought to be. It is a vision we find articulated in the hymn “Life Every Voice and Sing” which I now invite you to join me in singing.
Jul 5, 2019
I want to begin our sermon this morning in what might seem to you as an odd place. I want to begin with an apology. This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Unfortunately, I did not have this important anniversary on my calendar when we sat down to plan the June worship services. What was on my heart was figuring when to conclude our occasional series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We have done seven services on the principles as they currently exist. I wanted to make sure we had service as part of the series on the proposed eighth principle before too much time had passed. The wording for it reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
We will engage at greater depth with the principle in a moment. But first, I want to return to my apology. We should have devoted the entirety of our service to marking the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. And we did not. If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, if you love someone who is part of that community, if needed your church home to honor the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall and if you feel that I have given that momentous event short shrift, I am deeply sorry. You are a vital part of this community. I see you. I love you. You are loved by this church. And we will do better in the future.
In the spirit of loving heart of our tradition, I offer you this poem by the Rev. Theresa Soto. They are a minister and transgender activist. They are also a leading voice in contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Their poem:
--dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer
and gender-expansive friends and kin
(and those of us whose gender is survival):
let me explain. no,
there is too much. let me sum up*.
you are not hard to love and respect;
your existence is a blessing.
your pronouns are not a burden or a trial;
they are part of your name, just shorter.
someone getting them wrong is not a
poor reflection on you. it is not your fault.
your body (really and truly)
belongs to you. no one else.
the stories of your body
the names of your body’s parts
your body’s privacy
the sum of your body’s glory.
it is not okay for anyone
to press their story of you
back to the beginning
of your (of our) liberation.
we will find the people ready to be
on the freedom for the people way.
we will go on. no one can rename you
Other, it can’t stick, as you offer the gift
of being and saying who you are.
mostly, though, your stories belong to you.
your joy and complexity are beautiful
however you may choose to tell it (or not
tell it). some folks (cis) may take their liberty
for an unholy license. you are beloved. please
keep to our shared tasks of
Let me repeat those last three lines:
keep to our shared tasks of
Whatever the topic of the service, whatever the message of the sermon, that is what it is really all about. It is why we gather. It is why come together and create community. It is why there is currently a discussion within the Unitarian Universalist Association about adding the eighth principle. So that we might:
keep to our shared tasks of
Again, the proposed principle reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
There is a certain sense in which my thoughtless around the anniversary of Stonewall emphasizes the importance of the eighth principle. The eighth principle calls us to be accountable to each other and to work on dismantling systems of oppression not only out in the world but within ourselves and within our institutions.
And central to that work is recognizing that individually and institutionally we occupy certain spaces within society and have particular identities. You see, I was able to forget about the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall because of who I am. I am a heteronormative cis-gender white male. And even though I have plenty of friends who are part of the LGBTQ community, even though I have read texts on the history of sexuality, queer theology, and gender theory by people like Gloria Anzaldua, Leslie Feinberg, Michel Foucault, Pamela Lightsey, and Audre Lorde, even though some of my favorite musicians include gay icons such as the Petshop Boys, Frankie Knuckles, and Sylvester, even though I know how to strike a pose and vogue, my our consciousness is rooted my specific social location. And that social location makes it possible for me to forget to put something as important as the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall on our liturgical calendar.
Recognizing that we each inhabit particular social location is central to the work of liberation. It is one reason why scholars like Pamela Lightsey begin their texts with statements such as: “I am a black queer lesbian womanist scholar and Christian minister.” Lightsey teaches at the Unitarian Universalist seminary Meadville Lombard Theology School. She is the only out lesbian African American minister within the United Methodist Church. Her work focuses on pushing Methodists and Unitarian Universalists to recognize that the majority of our religious institutions were not created by or for queer people of color. She argues that “institutional racism continues to be the primary instrument used to enforce personal racism.” And that if we want to be serious challenging racism in the United States we need to work on it within our own institutions. Her act of stating her own social location is meant to provoke people like me to make my own social location explicit.
Too often people like me often from a space of white normativity. We assume that our own experiences are typical, even universal. And we are oblivious to the ways in which the institutions we inhabit have been constructed to serve people like us. One good test to figure out how much you might operate from a place of white normativity is the “Race Game.” Have you ever played it? Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes it in her well known work “Learning to be White.” The game is straightforward. It has only one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The preacher was an articulate white man.”
I imagine that I just made some of you uncomfortable. Race is an emotionally charged subject. An honest discussion of the subject brings up shame, fear, and anger. Talking about race can also be revalatory, it can bring the hidden into sight. What the “Race Game” reveals is the extent to which most white people assume white culture to be normative. Thandeka writes, “Euro-Americans... have learned a pervasive racial language... in their racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid.” In her book, she reports that no white person she has ever challenged to play the game has managed to successfully complete it. In the late 1990s, when she was finishing her text, she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or e-mail describing their experiences. She only ever received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”
Revelation can be frightening. The things that we have hidden from ourselves are often ugly. In the Christian New Testament, the book of Revelation is a book filled with horrors. The advent of God’s reign on earth is proceeded by bringing the work of Satan into plain light. It is only once the invisible has been made visible that it can be confronted. Thandeka’s work reveals how white people are racialized. It shows that whiteness is not natural, it is an artificial creation. Whiteness is something that white people learn, it is not something that we are born with. Race is a social construct, not a biological one. It is a belief. And it is taught to children.
Thandeka recounts the stories of how many people of who believe themselves to be white learned about race. Most of the stories follow the narrative of Nina Simone’s powerful 1967 song “Turning Point.” I do not have Nina’s voice so I cannot do the song justice. But the words are poetry:
See the little brown girl
She's as old as me
She looks just like chocolate
Oh mummy can't you see
We are both in first grade
She sits next to me
I took care of her mum
When she skinned her knee
She sang a song so pretty
On the Jungle Gym
When Jimmy tried to hurt her
I punched him in the chin
Mom, can she come over
To play dolls with me?
We could have such fun mum
Oh mum what'd you say
Why not? oh why not?
Oh... I... see...
It is chilling, when Nina sings that last line. She sings it as if it was a revelation. The “Why not? oh why not?” are offered in low confused tones. The “Oh... I... see...” are loud and clear. They suggest a transformation, and not one to be proud of.
I do not have particularly clear memories of learning to be white. Many people Thandeka describes in her book belong to my parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers. I grew up in a somewhat integrated neighborhood. One of my neighbors, I used to mow his lawn when I was in high school, was the Freedom Rider Rev. John Washington. My elementary school had children and faculty of many races.
I do not remember thinking about race until I was in my early teens. I was with my white parents. We were driving through Chicago, the city where my white father was born, when our car broke down across from Cabrini Green. Do you remember Cabrini Green? It was Chicago’s most notorious public housing project, with terrible living conditions and a horrible reputation for violence. My parents told us, their white children, not to get out of the car. I have a clear memory of my white father telling us, “this is a very dangerous neighborhood.” When I asked him what he meant by that he responded by saying he would tell me later. I do not think that he ever did. It was only once I reached adulthood that I realized phrases like “dangerous neighborhood” and “nice neighborhood” or “unsafe failing school” and “good school” contained a racial code.
The effort behind the proposed eighth principle is to prompt Unitarian Universalist congregations to challenge their own unspoken racial codes. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles are implicitly anti-racist. Moving from being implicitly anti-racist to explicitly anti-racist might help us to reveal the ways in which our institutions were primarily built for people who believe themselves to be white. And most of them certainly were. All Souls, DC, the congregation behind the eighth principle proposal, has been a multiracial community for more than a hundred years. More than a hundred years ago, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass used to worship there. Yet All Souls includes among its founding members John Calhoun, one of the principal defenders of slavery.
As you might remember, in addition to being a minister I am also an academic. Over the last several years much of my research has been into the history of white supremacy. It has convinced me of the necessity of adopting the eighth principle. While working on my dissertation, I read thousands of pages of texts from the Ku Klux Klan. I studied the history of the Confederacy and the ideology of chattel slavery. And I learned that until the middle of the twentieth-century white supremacists thought of themselves as liberal. They promoted the values of free speech and freedom of religion. They just thought that these freedoms were only for people who believed themselves to be white. Their position was sometimes implicit--they did not state such freedoms did not extend to everyone. They just refused to extend them to all of humanity.
Each year prior to the Fourth of July I read Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It is a reminder that so often the liberal principles of freedom have not extended to all people. Their proponents have assumed white normativity. So, let us invoke Douglass, one of the greatest abolitionists, the escaped slave who declaimed, “I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view.” Observed thusly the holiday showed, in his words, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Douglass believed America was false to its past because European Americans pretended that the American Revolution was about freedom. The truth differed. The Revolution was about freedom for whites. For African Americans it heralded another ninety years of enslavement. For Native Americans, the indigenous people of this continent, it signaled the continuation and amplification of generations of land theft and genocide. Slavery was outlawed in England, but not the English colonies, in 1772. The English crown was more respectful of Native America nations than most European colonists wished. What to the Slave was the Fourth of July? A celebration of white freedom; a gala for African American slavery. Liberty and slavery were the conjoined twins of the American Revolution. High freedom for those who believed themselves to be white, and base oppression for others, mostly people of color, continues to be its legacy.
For those of you who are comfortable with traditional religious language, let me suggest that white supremacy is a sin. Paul Tillich, one of the great white Christian theologians of the twentieth century, helpfully described sin as “estrangement.” It can be cast as separation, and alienation, from the bulk of humanity, the natural world, and, if you identify as a theist, God. James Luther Adams, one of Tillich’s students and the greatest white Unitarian Universalist theologian of the second half of the twentieth century, believed that the cure for the estrangement of sin was intentional, voluntary association. We can create communities that overcome human separation. He wrote, “Human sinfulness expresses itself... in the indifference of the average citizen who is so impotent... [so] privatized... as not to exercise freedom of association for the sake of the general welfare and for the sake of becoming a responsible self.”
The Christian tradition offers a religious prescription for dealing with sin. First, confess than you have sinned. Second, do penance for your sin. First, admit that you are estranged. Second, try to overcome that estrangement. We might recast the prescription in terms of addiction. First, if you believe yourself to white, admit that you are addicted to whiteness. Second, you try to overcome your addiction, step by small step. First, you admit that we, as a society, have a problem. Second, we try to address it.
The eighth principle is a vital effort to address the social construct, the collective sin, of racism. Racism requires institutions to maintain. The eighth principle challenges to place our institutional commitment to dismantling racism at the center of our faith tradition--not on its periphery. It challenges us to make Unitarian Universalism explicitly anti-racist, not implicitly so.
Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists, accused the churches of their day of siding with the slave masters against the enslaved. Douglass proclaimed, “the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually sides with the oppressors.” Today most religious institutions, particularly most predominantly white religious institutions, maintain racial norms not out of malice but out of ignorance. Silence is the standard. But, as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” The proposed eighth principle calls on Unitarian Universalists to break our institutional silence.
And breaking this silence requires people like me recognize that our perspective is not universal. It is just as vital for me to sometimes say, I speak as a cis-gendered heteronormative male who society has labelled white as it is for someone like Pamela Lightsey to specify her position. Such specificity means that in a country which devalues the lives of LGBTQ people and people of color we make it clear that everyone has inherent worth and dignity. This means breaking assumptions that the experiences of people like me that our experiences our universal, that this country honors everyone’s inherent worth and dignity because it has historically honored the worth and dignity of men who believe themselves to be white.
This is difficult work. It means making mistakes. It means apologizing. It means learning from those mistakes and then trying to do better. And it means committing to stay together in community because we believe that our community can be redemptive. It can be a place to overcome the sin of separation. For we understand that in the face of all of the difficulties and challenges, all the fear and assumptions, there is a higher truth: love is the most powerful force there is. Love can bind us together. Love is stronger than hate. Love can change the world.
In the knowledge that it is so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Mar 10, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, March 10, 2019
Last week Carol got us started on our spring sermon series on the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. She focused on the first principle of our religious communion--respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person--and how it related to our seventh principle--respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Today we are going to consider the second principle: justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. The primary claim I am going to make in response to this principle is: If we take our religious tradition seriously we will find ourselves compelled to disrupt the great disorder of things. Or, put differently, if we fully commit to Unitarian Universalism we will engage in the often frustrating, sometimes fruitful, Sisyphean struggle of attempting to transform our human society. Alternatively stated, authentic religious practice ain’t easy. It requires that we work to change ourselves and the world around us.
As we move toward our main message, I want to offer you a smidge of history, a small personal confession, and a bit of critique to help frame our sermon series. Let us start with the history.
The seven principles are a recent creation. They are the heirs to numerous statements about the nature of Unitarianism and Universalism that stretch back to the seventeenth century. But they, themselves, only date to 1985. Their immediate successors were the six principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These were approved in 1961 when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged to form our present association. The six principles included gendered and theocentric statements such as “love to God and love to man,” “the dignity of man,” “brotherhood,” and “men of good will.”
Between 1961 and 1985 something important happened in American culture--second wave feminism. Betty Friedan published her best-selling text The Feminine Mystique challenging the idea that the proper role for middle-income, educated, white women was housewife and mother. The National Organization for Women formed to advocate for women’s rights throughout the country. Feminist activists launched, and won, numerous legislative struggles that greatly expanded women’s legal rights. In the same years, some women of color came to be critical of the predominately white feminist movement. One well remembered group was the Combahee River Collective. They issued a statement challenging the feminist movement to be accountable to people of color and non-heteronormative people. Maybe you lived through this history. Maybe you did not. Either way, I hope that you get the point: there was a profound social shift.
Unitarian Universalist women were active in many of these struggles. And they did not just set their attention on reforming society. Many devoted themselves to transforming our congregations. In 1977 a group of women prompted the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association to pass a resolution on “Women and Religion.” Included in the resolution was a commitment that the association would “avoid sexist assumptions and language in the future.”
This soon inspired women throughout the association to examine the 1960 principles. They found them wanting. At a pivotal conference, one group held a workshop organized around the question: “The UUA Principles: Do They Affirm Us as Women?” Their resounding answer: “No!”
Over the next few years the presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation, Natalie Gulbrandsen and Denny Davidoff, led the effort to rewrite the principles. The men of Gulbranden’s home congregation told her, “Mankind doesn’t leave you out.” She replied, “we are human beings but not men, and that there are many other terms you could use--humankind, human beings--that include women.” After their terms as presidents of the Women’s Federation, both Gulbrandsen and Davidoff served as moderators of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was during Gulbrandsen’s tenure that Davidoff led a collaborative process that resulted in the seven principles being adopted by the association with only one (male) vote in opposition.
The history of the seven principles is in some sense the history of attempting to live out the second principle: justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. This principle has been implicit within our liberal religious tradition for hundreds of years. Manifesting it within our association required not just a transformation of language. It necessitated the transformation of our ministry. In 1977 when the “Women and Religion” resolution was passed only about 5% of Unitarian Universalist ministers were women. Today, more than 50%--including the president of our association--are. As I stated at the opening of my sermon, taking our religious tradition seriously requires that we work to transform ourselves and our society.
And now, a personal confession: I have ambivalent feelings about the seven principles. Do any of you feel the same way? These feelings started years ago before I entered seminary. Back then I was spending my time doing solidarity and human rights work with indigenous movements in Southern Mexico. One of my mentors in this work was a well-known Mexican human rights activist and Jesuit priest. I visited my Jesuit friend whenever I passed through Mexico City. Usually we shared a meal together in a diner--me ordering enchiladas verdes stuffed with cheese and he... actually I forget what he used to order.
During these meals my friend would share with me his admiration for the great figures of Latin American liberation theology, some of whom he knew personally. He spoke of Gustavo Gutiérrez, who taught that to be Christian was to work for the fundamental transformation of society. Gutiérrez understood that God was present among the oppressed and marginalized, not the powerful and privileged. “The point is not to survive, but to serve,” he wrote. And my Jesuit friend spoke of Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while serving as the Archbishop of El Salvador. Romero spoke out against his country’s right-wing regime and its supporters killed him. He urged us to recognize, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”
My Jesuit friend also encouraged me to listen to what are called the base communities. In Southern Mexico, these are small groups of indigenous peasants that gather for Bible study, worship, and political action. Listening to them, I learned the work of collective liberation includes the centering the voices of the marginalized. When someone like the indigenous leader Comandanta Ester said, “We are oppressed three times over, because we are poor, because we are indigenous and because we are women,” she was offering us all a formula for social transformation. Eliminate poverty, eliminate violence against people of color, eliminate patriarchal and heteronormative structures of oppression and a better world will be born.
My Jesuit friend was curious about what I believed. There are not many Unitarian Universalists in Mexico. He knew nothing about our liberal religious tradition. So, one day when we were lunching together I shared with him a folding card that I kept in my wallet. On it were printed the seven principles. Maybe you have a card like the one I am talking about?
My Jesuit friend looked at the card. And then he said, “Hmm... there is not a single thing on here that I do not agree with, reminds me the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
I was shocked by his response. You see, my friend is not a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. He is a deeply devote Catholic who has dedicated his life to his church. His tradition and ours... well, let’s just say that there is supposed to be a lot of daylight between them. Catholics believe in certain creedal statements about the nature of God and the primacy of their church. Unitarian Universalists reject creeds and hold that there are many paths to religious truth. Catholics think that only men can be priests. Unitarian Universalists ordain people of all genders. Catholics believe that God has intervened in human history and will do so again. Humanistically inclined Unitarian Universalists like myself tend to think... umm... good luck with that.
And yet, our two distinct religious traditions had caused us to make similar commitments. My Jesuit friend sought personal transformation--which he would call salvation--through his belief in the saving power of Jesus, his devotion to the spiritual practices of Ignatius of Loyola, and his commitment to his church. I sought after my version--the development of my human potential--through a spiritual discipline of walking, journal writing, and contemplative reading. Gazing through the limited lenses of our particular theological traditions we found ourselves working together to transform society and root out injustice. I called my commitment to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations the second principle. My Jesuit friend called it God’s preferential option for the poor.
Since that conversation, when I am asked to describe Unitarian Universalism, I do not refer to the principles. Instead, I usually say something like: Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition that celebrates the possibility of goodness within each human heart, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying force of reason. We believe that we need not think alike to love alike. Our communities include atheists and believers in the divine. We offer a religious home for all wish to join us: welcoming the GLBT community, declaring that love has no borders, proclaiming that black lives matter, toiling to address climate change, and struggling for democracy.
This list of theological positions and prophetic actions contains things that my Jesuit friend would not agree with. My list makes the space between our traditions more visible. It also hints at something I believe: religious truth comes at cost and takes effort to seek. The world’s horrors challenge a belief that there is a seed of goodness in every human heart. The constant emergence and re-emergence of human hatred call into question the power of love. Raw human folly weighs heavily against the force of reason. And yet, looking within my religious tradition, gazing at all of you, cultivating my own spiritual practice, I am willing to make the faithful Unitarian Universalist wager that humans are not innately wicked, that love is the most powerful force on earth, and that rationality is a great gift.
My previous confession leads to a further critique, or, perhaps, observation. I am not alone in finding the seven principles to be insufficient. Many ministers and Unitarian Universalist theologians also find them unsatisfying. A few take such dissatisfaction to the extreme calling the principles the “Seven Banalities or the Seven Dwarves” or claiming that they do not reflect religious values. One (male) minister even went so far as to argue that by adopting the principles “‘God’ became ‘Our Political Liberal, Who Art Us, Writ Large.’”
Most of us, however, take a less brutal approach. If I were invite you up to my office and suggest you read through the several shelves of Unitarian Universalist and liberal religious theology that I keep up there you would find this: None of us ground our theologies in the seven principles. Instead, we debate. We argue. We seek to find a way to articulate a collective center for a tradition that claims that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. Some suggest that a deep feeling of connection to something larger than ourselves--which we might call the infinite mysterious universe or God or goddess or otherwise name--is the root of liberal religion. Others claim we are defined by our commitment to the use of reason in religion, our openness to science, and our understanding that revelation is not sealed. Still others claim that the core of liberal religion is found in a recognition that the most powerful force on Earth is love.
Reading, wrestling with, and preaching on these debates over the years I have come to two conclusions. First, the seven principles are not statements about the core of liberal religion. They do not definitively state who we are as Unitarian Universalists or the ultimate nature of liberal religion. Instead, they are observations based on empirical evidence of what the ethical values of Unitarian Universalists have been, when we are at our best, over time. Ethics rest upon foundational principles. They are the actions we are called to take from the religious truths we have found, not the truths themselves. Second, religious wisdom, religious truth, is something that comes through great effort. It is something that we earn, uncover, discover, as we struggle, collectively, to make sense of the rich mess of our lives. When we find religious wisdom, we learn that it calls us to challenge the powers and principalities, the social disorder, of the world.
This is the Sunday following International Women’s Day. I thought I would close by offering you two examples of Unitarian Universalist women who devoted themselves to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations at great personal cost. Their lives suggest what Unitarian Universalist ethics look like when we strive to actualize them. And so, let me speak of Susan B. Anthony and Kay Jorgensen.
Susan B. Anthony is a household name. She was one of the central agitators for women’s rights and suffrage. And she was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester New York. In an 1854 speech she demanded: “justice and equality... the removal of the many customs and laws that prevent the full exercise of all her God given powers, the entire freedom of thought, word & action, that man claims for himself...” She devoted her life to the realization of these propositions.
And when I say devoted her life, I mean spent over fifty years struggling for justice, equity, and compassion for women. She knocked on doors, collected petitions, and spoke to demand that women have the same rights as men when it came to property, employment, and access to the ballot. She founded the National Woman Suffrage Association which worked until 1920 to win the right to vote. She was arrested, tried, and convicted for voting illegally.
She made mistakes. When, following the Civil War, black male leaders like Frederick Douglass pushed for the enfranchisement of black men before white women, she said horribly racist things. (Douglass forgave her shortly before he died.)
She did her imperfect best to transform the world. Along the way, she took on roles--public speaker, political activist, ethical leader--which women were not supposed to hold in the nineteenth century United States. That is to say, she transformed herself. When we look to her life we see that the best of Unitarian Universalism is realized in the pursuit of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. And we are reminded that the pursuit of such values requires the work of personal and collective transformation.
Unlike Susan B. Anthony, Kay Jorgensen is not a household name. She was a Unitarian Universalist minister who died last year. She was one of my earliest mentors in the ministry. I met her when I was a young adult living in San Francisco. Around the time I moved to that city, Kay and her longtime collaborator Carmen Barsody were starting the Faithful Fools, their street ministry in the city’s Tenderloin District.
The Tenderloin has historically been one of the poorest and most crime ridden neighborhoods in San Francisco. In opposition to those who say that Unitarian Universalist is inherently a religion of the well-to-do, Kay and Carmen focused their ministerial work on accompanying the poor and marginalized in San Francisco. Theological core of their work was a belief in human “oneness” and an understanding that by getting “acquainted with that which divides us, our own suffering is revealed.” They believed, in a word, in the transformative power of universalism.
The core practice of the Faithful Fools ministry is something they call street retreats. These last somewhere between a few hours and several days. Participants spend their time on the street in the same spaces as homeless people: eating where the homeless eat and sleeping where they sleep.
The Fools use the street retreats to do two things. The first is to be present to and minister to the very poor and homeless without judging them. In other words, the Fools see the Tenderloin’s residents for what they are, human beings, and then treat them as human beings. Second, the retreats are opportunities to breakdown stereotypes that people with various kinds of economic privilege such as myself have about the very poor and homeless. By inviting participants into the same spaces as the residents of the Tenderloin we learn that despite whatever stereotypes we might carry in our heads, the people struggling on the streets are just as human as we are. We all need the same things: food, shelter, love, and a bit of work to call honest.
Kay had a playful sense humor. She had a clown for an alter ego named Oscard. When asked how she was doing she sometimes quoted the Elwood from the movie “The Blues Brothers:” “There's 106 miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark out, and we're wearing sunglasses.” It is a good line, though I confess I am still not one hundred percent certain what she meant by it. Perhaps that we make the road by walking, discovering the path as we go?
Kay’s sense of play caused her tweak the noses of San Francisco Unitarian Universalists. Once, to emphasize the plight of the city’s homeless she spent about a week sleeping on the front door step of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. She did this after the senior minister had posted a no trespassing sign to keep away the indigent.
Kay’s willingness to experience personal discomfort is another reminder that living into the values of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations is not easy. She cleaned houses the first several years of her ministry with the Faithful Fools in order to support the organization. Well into her seventies, she spent days at a time sleeping in the streets.
And, yet, is this not one of the reasons why we gather Sunday after Sunday? To find the hope, the power, the joy within ourselves to do the difficult work of transforming ourselves--to living into our full potential--and trying to change the world for the better. It is challenging work. I fail in it all the time--each day. And yet, looking within our tradition, looking around the world, I see that there have been many who--however, imperfectly--have devoted themselves to the proposition of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
Let us close in prayer,
Oh, spirit of life,
that some of us call love,
and others name God,
be with us,
as we struggle,
to find the strength,
to pursue the narrow path
towards religious truth
to find the power
to transform ourselves
and our world
so that someday,
the lights of heaven,
might shine down
upon a world
in which justice,
equity, and compassion
have been realized in human relations.
That it may be so, let the congregation say Amen.
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.
Nov 13, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 11, 2018
“Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” Those words about the United States are attributed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They are apocryphal. He did not actually say them. But it is a good quote. And sometimes it feels like an accurate assessment of this country.
Today might be a day when many of us resonate with Churchill’s apocryphal assessment. The midterm elections were on Tuesday. They returned the federal government to mixed rule. The group of people who have just been elected to Congress includes the largest number of women ever. There will now be more than one hundred Congresswomen. Many of them are left-leaning and opposed to the current presidential administration. This may put a check on the President’s more autocratic and totalitarian tendencies. At the same time, the firing of the Attorney General and the appointment of an Acting Attorney General appear to be pushing the country closer to a constitutional crisis. If that comes then we will see how many people in this country are really interested in doing the right thing: struggling against rising totalitarianism and for the project of collective liberation.
At the same time there has been another mass shooting, this time in Thousand Oaks California. These events have become so common that there are now people who have lived through two gun massacres. They have become so common that they are in danger of no longer being news. They have become so common that the writer Roxane Gay felt moved to pen a column pleading, “Be shocked by the massacre at a bar. It’s not normal.” They have become so common a few days after Gay’s column was published news of the massacre has largely disappeared. They have become so common that few politicians seem to even feel the need to make cursory gestures to finding solutions to the ongoing epidemic of gun violence.
All of this takes place at a time when scientists are warning us that we may have only two years to address the existential threat of climate change. And, as this week’s news has made clear, it is an existential threat. California is burning. More than twenty-five people are dead. Billions of dollars of damage has been done. Forests are wrecked for the coming generations. But despite this horror there appears to be no collective will to address this profound crisis.
I picked today’s sermon topic, “Democracy in Crisis,” knowing that no matter which party won the midterm elections democracy, and the human species, would continue to be in crisis.
I also picked today’s sermon topic with the knowledge that this Sunday marks the anniversaries of two great crises in democracy. Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. World War I was great crisis in democracy. During and immediately after the war the administration of President Woodrow Wilson waged an all out assault on this country’s grassroots democratic movements. Thousands of political dissenters and antiwar activists were jailed. Dozens of them were killed. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly were effectively outlawed. The great Socialist Party of Eugene Debs was all but destroyed. At the same time, a dramatic rise in white supremacist violence unleashed epidemics of race riots and lynchings. The regime of Jim Crow and white supremacy were effectively solidified throughout most of the country for several decades--a crisis in democracy if there ever was one.
This weekend also marks the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht--the Night of Broken Glass. The name comes from the smashing of the windows of Jewish places of worship, homes, and shops. It signaled that the remnants of liberal democracy in Germany had been destroyed. It signaled that the country had fully become committed to a policy of anti-semitic genocide. It was the start of the Holocaust. The administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded by speaking out against it. And Roosevelt’s administration responded by doing nothing to aid the thousands of Jews who were trying to flee to safety. The ascent of totalitarianism, the closing of borders to its refugees--crises in democracy.
And so, I picked the topic of “Democracy in Crisis” for today because I understood that whatever happened this week there would be a need to talk about the crises of democracy. Maybe this is because democracy seems to be perpetually in crisis. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has claimed that contemporary “politics is civil war by other means.” There are no ultimate resolution to political questions. No one ever wins, not really. This group is dominant and then that. Totalitarianism seems to be defeated in one generation but comes back in the next. Political liberalism appears to offer the most stable form of contemporary government and then it seems to dissolve before waves of demagoguery. Democratic socialism, syndicalism, all the forms of the grass roots democracy surge then and disappear in a generation. There is no final outcome, only ever shifting sands.
We can see this in the United States when we look at the current political situation. As the great baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” The writer Rebecca Solnit recently published a piece in the Guardian arguing that the Civil War never ended. She wrote, “In the 158th year of the American Civil War, also known as 2018, the Confederacy continues its recent resurgence.” Other writers and scholars, myself included, have made similar claims.
We can also see the same dynamic at play when we look to Europe. Today Poland’s elected leaders are joining with avowed nationalists, anti-semites, and even Nazi admirers in a march in Warsaw. More than hundred thousand people are expected to attend. The anti-fascist counter protest will be much smaller. The alliance of the government of Poland with fascists is a reminder that the crisis of democracy is global.
Increasing global inequality is another reminder that the crisis of democracy transcends this country. Here in the United States more than forty years of assaults on labor rights, widespread automation, and the advent of a global integrated economy where workers from different countries directly compete against each other have had their toll. Today the richest three people in this country have more wealth than the poorest fifty percent of the population. Similar dynamics can be seen across the world. Such economic inequality is directly tied to the overall crisis of democracy.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked with you about some of the other contours of the present crisis of democracy. We spoke about how this country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. Last week we spoke about the possibility of the tradition of virtue ethics to help us find a way out of the crisis. Today I want to share with you another resource as we struggle to confront the crisis. It is the radical imagination.
The radical imagination... Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson told us, “Imagination is a very high sort of seeing...” The eighteenth-century poet Phyllis Wheatley asked, “Imagination! who can sing thy force?” So it should be no wonder that the contemporary poet Diane di Prima has warned us, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Even as she urged us to remember, “every man / every woman carries a firmament inside / & the stars in it are not the stars in the sky.”
The radical imagination... I want to tell you something very important. Every struggle for justice, every social movement, every attempt to make the world a better place, starts with an act of imagination. It begins with some group of people who are bold enough to imagine that the things can be different than they are.
Such imaginings can be acts of bravery. As di Prima put it, “the ground of imagination is fearlessness.” We are often told that things are what they are, they cannot be changed. And yet, things have changed. And when they have it has been because people have been willing to say, as the indigenous movement the Zapatistas have said, “In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live.” The Zapatistas represent some of the poorest of the Mexican people. Many of them live on less than a dollar a day. And yet, over the past twenty-five years they have been able to articulate a vision of a different world where “peace, justice and liberty” are common, concrete, and not abstract concepts.
The abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries who fought to end slavery were bold enough to imagine a world where slavery did not exist. This despite the fact that until their victories slavery had existed in some form in every human civilization. The ancients Greek had it. Europeans enslaved each other throughout the middle ages. Slavery was practiced in Africa, in Asia, and among the indigenous nations of the Americas as well. Until 1865 slavery formed the bedrock of the United States’s economy. And yet, men and women like Frederick Douglass could imagine a day “When the accursed slave system shall once be abolished.”
Generations later, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders like him had, in King's words, "the audacity to believe" that the world could be free of racism and violence. They imagined that world and then set about building it. Today in this country slavery is outlawed and the overtly racist laws of Jim Crow, the disgusting claim of “separate but equal,” have been overturned.
Susan B. Anthony and other nineteenth and early twentieth-century feminists could imagine a world in which women had equal rights with men. She could declare, “there will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” Using their imagination, they were able to organize and struggle to win voting rights for women. And that at a time when many men could not imagine women as doctors, or lawyers, or religious leaders.
I could go on. I suspect that you get the point. Every struggle for justice begins with the radical imagination, the audacity to believe that the supposedly impossible will become the possible. And so, today, as democracy is in crisis, I want to give you gift. I want to give you a space to unleash your own radical imagination. I want to ask you the question, What is your vision for a just world? My friend Chris Crass has developed an exercise to help people imagine the world they would like to create.
I invite you to get comfortable. Close your eyes. Notice your body. Notice how it feels to sit in your pew. Notice how it feels to sit in this sanctuary filled with people inspired by our Unitarian Universalist tradition’s vision of love for humanity. Take a deep breath. Feel the air as it enters your lungs, bringing with it the force of life. As you exhale, feel your body releasing any stress and any negative emotions you have. Feel that negativity drain to the ground. Stay with your breath and focus on it as you inhale and exhale five times. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Now, give yourself permission to think creatively and expansively about: The world you are working to create. What is your vision for a just society? What is your vision for a society where democracy is no longer in crisis? There is so much violence that exists in the world. It exists in the government. It exists in our communities. Sometimes it exists in our homes. If you could imagine all of that shifting, all of that hate and fear disappearing, what would the world be like? If you woke up tomorrow and democracy was no longer in crisis what would the world be like? If you left your home a week from now and discovered that white supremacy had been dismantled what would your neighborhood be like? If you went to work a month from now and found that climate change was no longer a crisis what would humanity’s relationship to the planet be like? What can you imagine? What would it look like in family or your home? In your neighborhood? How would people relate to each other? How would people relate to resources and to the planet? In this new vision, what is valued, who is valued and how?
Imagine that the world you dream about has come to fruition. Imagine that the honest world, the fair world, has arrived. Imagine that you encounter it today, after you leave this worship service. When you depart from this sanctuary what do you find outside of the door? As you travel down the street what kind of institutions and resources do you discover? What do they look like? What sort of services are there? What values are the economy based on? As you return to your home, what does it look like? What is your neighborhood like? What kind of activities are going on? How are decisions being made? How is conflict dealt with? Can you think about the rest of the city of Houston? What are other neighborhoods like? What about other cities? What is Dallas like? Or other states or countries? What is California like? Or Poland?
When you are ready, bring yourself back to what is happening in our sanctuary. Hold onto your vision. As you do, I invite you to consider these words from Arundhati Roy, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." Your vision, however, tenuous is part of the better world’s quiet breath.
Today, after you leave this service, I invite you find someone you do not know already and share with them some part of your vision. By speaking it aloud you may just bring it closer to being. By speaking it aloud you might just strengthen your own resolve to work towards creating it.
With that invitation to share your vision in mind, I close our sermon with these of words commission from our tradition:
Go out into the highways and by-ways,
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light
to the hearts and minds of all people.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage.
May it be so,
Amen and Blessed Be.