May 7, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston's online service for May 3, 2020
This month in worship we are focusing on the theme of perseverance. Today’s sermon is titled “How Can I Keep from Singing?” The title is a nod to our closing hymn, “My Life Flows On in Endless Song.” Each verse of the hymn ends with the same question: “How can I keep from singing?”
The question often comes after words juxtaposing the injustices of the world with the promise of better days. The opening verse runs:
My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
The hymn tells us that if we listen we will hear strains of “a new creation” sounding above the “earth’s lamentation.” It is a comforting message. It certainly reflects something that I would very much like to be true right now, those old words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
But the news of the hour has me mistrusting such theistic promises. Behind each set of words sits a divine deity who assures us, in the words of great poetry, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And reassures us, in soaring rhetoric, truth crushed to the ground shall rise again.
Now, I love this hymn. It is one of my favorites. But right now I am not finding comfort in such hopeful narratives. I find myself profoundly concerned about our human future. I am straining to catch any hint of “the music ringing.” And so, in this sermon, I do not want to offer you false hope. Nor I do I want to give you metaphysical reassurances that all shall be well. Instead, I want to follow the French philosopher Albert Camus’s injunction to “use plain, clean-cut language” when discussing the pandemic and horrors it has unleashed.
I am going to offer you a humanist approach to the pursuit of justice. It is built around an observation about the impermanence of things. “Cambia todo cambia... Cambia la superficial / cambia tambíen lo profundo / cambia el modo de pensar / cambia todo en este mundo,” sang the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. Everything changes. The superficial, the profound, the way we think, everything in the world changes, runs my hackneyed translation.
Everything changes. This leads to two simple claims about the pursuit of justice. First, no victory is forever. Second, defeat is rarely permanent. No victory is forever. Defeat is rarely permanent. Such words lack the melodic comfort of hymns to the new creation. And my challenge--or perhaps it is our challenge--is how do I make such claims and yet still cling to the refrain of our closing hymn: How can I keep from singing?
Before I turn to a humanist approach to the pursuit of justice, I offer two contextual reflections. The first, a discussion of Unitarian Universalism and religious pluralism. It could alternatively be described as a response to the query: Dr. Bossen, why are you talking about humanism in a church? The second, some observations about our political and economic moment. We might name that section a response to a Marvin Gaye’s question, What’s going on?
So, Dr. Bossen, why are you talking about humanism in a church?
I offer this rhetorical question for all of you who are watching this video and are not members or regular attendees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston or another Unitarian Universalist congregation. I know there are a fair number of you. As I mentioned in my welcome, right now we have people from all over who are watching these videos. If this service is anything like our previous online services some of you are listening to me in your homes in places as far away as Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota. I even know of a family who has been joining us from Brazil and someone else who is connecting with us from Prague.
And, so, for all of you who are unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism, let me hone on in one particular phrase that we offer each week in our welcome statement, we need not think alike to love alike. It is attributed to the sixteenth-century Transylvanian Unitarian theologian Francis David. He lived in Transylvania which was then situated at the border between the Ottoman Empire and what used to be called Christendom--the lands in Europe that were then under control of political powers affiliated with one kind of Christianity or another.
Transylvania at that time was a religious diverse community. The practice then was that people more-or-less had to follow the religion of the local monarch. If the king or queen was a Catholic, then the people were expected to be Catholic. And if monarch was Protestant then they were supposed to follow the teachings of whatever Protestant church the resident royalty belonged to. Now, this created all kinds of problems. Frankly, it led to all sorts of stupid wars. The advent of a new monarch brought with them the threat of a religious realignment. Crudely put, if the previous monarch was a Protestant and the new one was a Catholic then the new king or queen would expect all of the people who lived in the country they ruled to convert.
Faith is a deeply held. Few people wanted to switch religions just because the palace had a new resident. And so, there were all sorts of horrible conflicts. In the United Kingdom, just as an example, Mary Tudor executed Protestants for their religious beliefs and then her sister, who succeeded her, Elizabeth the First, executed Catholics.
Francis David was a man of peace. He thought all of this religious conflict was ridiculous. The king in Transylvania was then a man named John Sigsmund. Like David, the king was a Unitarian. David had no idea what the religion of Sigsmund’s successor would be. And so, he, and the king’s mother, Queen Isabella, convinced John Sigismund that rather than make Unitarianism the state religion, he should pass a law proclaiming religious tolerance. It is called the Edict of Torda and reads, in part: “Preachers everywhere are to preach the gospel according to their understanding of it; if the parish willingly receives it, well: but if not, let there be no compulsion on it to do so, since that would not ease any... [person’s] soul.”
Religious tolerance, the idea that each person’s faith, their relationship to the divine, is their own, gradually expanded in Unitarian Universalist circles to an acceptance of religious pluralism. If the preacher can “preach the gospel according to their understanding” then there is no reason why parishioners should not have their own particular understandings of the gospel. The word gospel essential means good news. I use it here not to offer a particularly Christian account of religion but as a way of speaking of the thing you understand to be most important about your relationship to the whirling dance of mass and light, the earthly mess of water and dirt, that which we might call the cosmos, or gaia, or God, or the spark of human reason, or love or... whatever you might name the all of this which we are each a part of and enmeshed in.
Over time the emphasis on religious tolerance, led Unitarian Universalism to be somewhat unique among the Western religions. It became pluralistic. Its adherents came to understand, we need not think alike to love alike, and realized that what the religious community did together was more important than what its individual members believed.
At the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, and in other Unitarian Universalist communities, we celebrate people’s ability to uncover their own relationship with the, well, I will just call it all this--the light that filters green through the leaves of trees, the virus that is spreading among us, the lush blues of Henri-Edmond Cross’s canvases, the damn rent that is due at the beginning of the month, the beauty and the horror of existence--and, at the same time, ask each other the question: How shall we live together?
We are a community. We cannot all agree upon what we believe. But, maybe, just maybe, as a community we can figure out how to live together. We need not think alike to love alike. It is the hope, the gospel, the good news, if you will, of Unitarian Universalism.
Our embrace of pluralism is why we have humanists in our churches. Humanism is this a worldly focused tradition. Its adherents argue that there is no transcendental force outside of human history--no God or divine force--that is bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Anthony Pinn, a leading humanist and Unitarian Universalist, suggests that humanists recognize, “we’re dependent upon a world that doesn’t bend to our will and doesn’t prioritize the criteria for our well-being.” We are the ones who make whatever meaning we find in the world. And we are the ones we who will bring whatever justice we find into the world.
Alongside humanists, we have people of a variety of religious perspectives who participate in the life of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. There are theists, Christians, Jews, pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and even many atheists and agnostics. Some of our members hold onto multiple religious identities or even belong to multiple religious communities.
For my part, I identify primarily with humanism but I find myself drawn to the symbolism and stories of both Christian gnosticism and Jewish mysticism. This partially due to the fact that I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist congregation by a mother who had been born into a Christian family and a father who had been born into a Jewish one. It is also rooted in an understanding that religious language is metaphorical. We use religious symbols to represent that which is greater than ourselves. Humanist philosophy, gnostic Christian symbols--the resurrection of the living and the politics of the living--, and mystical Jewish parables are all attempts to put into words that which ultimately escapes language--my relationship, and yours, to the all of this of which we are each part and parcel.
Why, humanism in the church? What we do together is more important than what we believe. Why, humanism in the church? We are a pluralistic tradition which invites us to draw upon many sources for our understanding of our relationship with all that is. Why, humanism in the church? We need not think alike to love alike.
And, now, my second contextual reflection, What’s going on?
The state of Texas started to re-open yesterday. I took a walk through my neighborhood. There was more traffic than there had been in weeks. There were people noisily sitting at bars and restaurants. Very few of them were wearing face masks. The day before Texas reported the second highest number of new cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The pandemic is far from contained. It is only getting started. And, yet, the governor and his allies want people to get back to work and to get the economy moving again. What’s going on?
In my home state of Michigan, the scenes from the state capital this week were chilling. Men with rifles stormed the capital building demanding that the governor “Open the Economy.” One member of the state legislature tweeted, “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them.” That is right, politicians in Michigan are wearing bulletproof vests for fear of getting shot while deliberating on legislation. What’s going on?
Oh, did, I mention, that the governor of the State of Texas is a white man? And that the men with rifles who invaded Michigan’s state capital were all white men? Excuse me, I must have forgotten. But then, there is a tendency in this country’s culture to take whiteness as the great unspoken norm. What would have happened if the men who had stormed Michigan’s state capital had been black or brown? How would they have been treated? What’s going on?
The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily described whiteness this way: “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” And right now, once again, the consequences of this doctrine appear to being laid bare. The white men with rifles and the governor of the State of Texas are trying to re-assert their ownership, their control, of the world while the viral pandemic rages. I do not think it is a coincidence that the plans and demands to re-open the economy came soon after it was discovered that the virus was disproportionately impacting communities of color. I do not think it is a coincidence that many of the people being forced to go back to work right now--and forced is the right term because if the businesses they work for re-open and they stay home then they will be ineligible for unemployment--are people of color. It is the logic of system that has built generations of white wealth off of the exploitation of people with brown and black bodies.
Two illustrations from national politics. First, we have the President’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to force meatpacking plants to remain open. This move is accompanied by two refusals. The first is a refusal to offer any national regulation on the safety standards that businesses are to follow during the pandemic. Instead businesses are to employ whatever safety regime business managers and owners think best. Business managers and owners do not have a particular interest in keeping employees safe--at least not big business owners and managers--they have an obligation to make the most money possible. That’s the core logic of capitalism. So, in refusing to provide national safety regulations during this time of pandemic the President is basically telling working people that they had better keep working and that they are at the mercy of their employers.
The second refusal is the President’s decision to not invoke the Defense Production Act to produce either personal protective equipment or ventilators. He is willing to invoke it to force people to work under unsafe conditions. He is not willing to invoke it to make sufficient equipment to save people’s lives. Perhaps I should mention that the vast majority of workers at meatpacking plants are migrants and people of color? White wealth built upon the bodies of black and brown people.
My second illustration from national politics comes from the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to block any significant emergency funding to state governments. This is an effort to bankrupt state governments and destroy many of the gains that working people have made over the last generations. If state governments are forced into bankruptcy then they will not be able to pay unemployment benefits. They will not be able to honor the pensions of public workers. Should I mention here that unemployment is disproportionately impacting communities of color? Or that the path for many people of color into what gets called the middle class has been through public service jobs? Or that it has been an objective of Southern white supremacists since before the Civil War to weaken the federal government so that they could have greater ability to exploit black and brown bodies?
What’s going on? The President of the United States, the governor of the state of Texas, and the white men who invaded the Michigan state capital believe that black and brown lives do not matter. What’s going on? White wealth is once again being built off the bodies of black and brown people. What’s going on? Maybe should we take out the old Marvin Gaye track--I recommend the vinyl if you’ve got it--and listen to the words: “There’s far too many of you dying / You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some lovin’ here today.”
What’s going on? I may have offered too much of the political for those of you who turned to this service for a bit of comfort and connection. However, I told you that I would be offering a humanist account of the pursuit of justice. And that pursuit is an earthly pursuit. It rejects the claim that we should only hope for Heaven when we are dead. Let us now move towards to my humanist account of the pursuit of justice.
Justice is not best understood in the abstract. It is about the actual lives of actual people. And right now, being real about justice means recognizing that the United States has long been a racialized order. And right now, it also means listening to the words of Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and so-called sage of Omaha. A few years ago, he said, “There’s class warfare... but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
My humanist account of justice draws from these real dynamics. No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. Instead, there is constant struggle between all the different communities in society. In a society that has historically been white supremacist, that struggle is partially between those who wish to proclaim that whiteness is mastery of the earth forever and forever Amen and those who have more multi-racial vision. And it is also between those who wish to maximize profit and those who work so that they can simply provide for themselves and their families.
It is a somewhat crude analysis but certainly it seems to be borne out by the struggles of the hour. On the hand, we have those, who appear to be demanding that the lives of working people, particularly those with brown and black bodies, be sacrificed so that they can continue to make profit and have comfort. And on the other, well, Friday was May Day, the international holiday celebrating the workers struggle for justice. It was marked by strikes or sick-outs--that is people calling into work sick as a form of protest--at many of the largest companies employing so-called essential workers--who, in many cases, are being treated as expendable workers.
In the last several weeks, the wealth of richest people in the country--Jeff Bezos particularly comes to mind--has been increased at dizzying rate. At the same time, many working families are in a state of complete crisis. More people are out of work now than at any time since the Great Depression. And the solution is not, as the governor of Texas would have it, to get back to work. It is provide them, as many other countries are doing around the world, with the necessary resources to safely shelter in place. But that would impact the ability of the richest amongst us to make profit.
No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. I offer this humanist account of the pursuit of justice as a way to remind you that almost all the good things in life that have come to the majority of working people have come through struggle. The New Deal is under assault right now via Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fund state governments. It was not granted on high by the largess of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It came about because in the midst of crisis of the Great Depression working people organized, went on strike, withheld rent, refused to participate in an economy that was not working for them, and put enormous pressure on politicians and business leaders to make sure that the economy actually provided them with something.
Unemployment, Social Security, workplace protections, they are all under threat right now. No victory is permanent. And defeat is rarely forever. Following the Civil War there was an effort to build something like the New Deal. It was called Reconstruction. And it turned back the tide, for a time, of white supremacy and built much of the country’s public-school system and offered both black and white people some protections and provisions. These looked a bit like those found in the New Deal and that were later won by the civil rights movement. Those victories were worn away over the decades until the crisis of the Great Depression and then World War II provided an opportunity to rebuild and build upon them. And now... What’s going on? Will the pandemic bring about further destruction of those gains? Or will folks organize to lay the groundwork for working people to have more of the good things of life?
No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. I am afraid that through this sermon I may have focused too much on a narrative of social salvation for some of your tastes. Where is the song in all of this, you might be asking? You might not be an essential worker. You might be someone who has the resources to continue to shelter in place. You might hear your life reflected in the words of Dorothy Dow’s poem “Waiting,” written shortly after the 1918 flu pandemic:
If you should walk in the park and not find me,
Or go in the market-place and not see me,
Would you not search further?
Does not your heart tell you I am somewhere?
Go out on the long roads--I may be at the end of one.
You might simply be sitting at home safely, waiting for all of this to end so that life might return to something like it once was. You might be wanting a more hope filled message. If you are, I invite you to listen to me as we turn to the end of the sermon and a reflection on Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague. It is a novel that I am inviting you to read with me this month as part of my discussion group Texts for Troubled Times.
Camus’s novel is set in an Algerian town immediately following World War II. The book centers on the question: In the midst of a pandemic how shall we, as individuals, pursue justice? It is often read as a parable about life under totalitarianism. Camus was a committed anti-fascist. He fought in the French Resistance against the Nazis. When he wrote the book, he was more concerned about the rise of totalitarianism via the Soviet Union than he was about plagues. But then, he argued, through his book, that totalitarian regimes--those who organize the world around the politics of the dead and seek to marginalize the lives of working people for their own ends--are a lot like plagues. They come on slowly and then blossom in full force. They are endured. They are resisted. And then, when the necessary immunity has been built up, they begin to go away. That, at least, is what Camus thought.
In his novel, he offers advice on how we might live when no victory is permanent, and defeat is rarely forever. He does not suggest that justice will reign forever. “[T]here are pestilences and there are victims,” he tells us. Humans are not able to fully control the natural world. Plagues will come and go and come again. Tyrants and dictators might be restrained for a time but they, like plagues, continue to re-emerge and reassert themselves. That is what happening now, in this time of pandemic, across the globe. How shall we live, then, Camus asks?
By “not to join[ing] forces with pestilences” he answers. By pursuing, what I have called in other sermons, the politics of the living. Choosing, through our individual actions, the things we can do to slow the spread of pestilences of COVID-19 and white supremacy. We should not act, Camus, suggests with the assurance that our actions will bring about an end to the plague. We should persist because we can and because in doing so we might make things better for ourselves and for everyone else.
Here in Greg Abbott’s Texas, we can continue to practice social distancing. We can be in solidarity with essential workers. Or, if we are working, we can strike in demand of safe working conditions. It is clear the federal government is not going to provide them to working people and that safe conditions will only be won through struggle. We can boycott the big chains that are making money while small businesses starve. If you look online you can alternatives sources for almost anything that Amazon sells. But most all, we can each ourselves the simple question: What can I do to not join forces with pestilences?
That question may unexpectedly lead to another. Camus found joy in life. He sought to bring more beauty into the world through his novels and stories. In his reading of Camus’s novel, humanist Anthony Pinn, suggests that its lesson is that there is joy in the struggle. He closes some recent reflections on Camus and COVID-19 with these words:
We struggle with our own task, work against the threat of this virus… simply because we can. COVID-19, some day, will withdraw--and we will leave our homes again, gather with family and friends. But the virus won’t be gone, the threat is ever present. Things are “well” not because the threat has been tamed, but because we persist. We should work to make life better, and in so doing we imagine ourselves... happy.
I close my reflections with a gesture towards our closing hymn. I find greater truth in its final verse than in its first:
When tyrants tremble as they hear
the bells of freedom ringing,
when friends rejoice both far and near,
how can I keep from singing!
To prison cell and dungeon vile
our thoughts to them are winging,
when friends by shame are undefiled
how can I keep from singing?
If we persist in our efforts to be in solidarity with each other and not cooperate with the virus then we will look back on these times without shame. If we persist in the struggle for justice, knowing that no victory is forever, and defeat is rarely permanent, we will be able to make tyrants tremble with the bells of freedom. The tyrants might win and they might not but our peals of liberty will cause them to quake. If we do what we can to slow the spread and to help, and dare I say love, each other then, we will look back on these times, these strange days, with the question: How can I keep from singing?
I have spoken. You have heard. And, as Francis David and I both would have you do, ask yourself: Does this humanist gospel speak to your heart? How can I keep from singing?
May the congregation, absent in body but present in spirit, say Amen.
Apr 27, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston's online worship service, April 26, 2020
The theme of today’s service is renewal and regeneration. And in this sermon I invite us to consider the most pressing question immediately before us: What comes next?
The Governor of Texas has begun the process of re-opening the state. He has appointed a task force to get non-essential workers back to work and businesses back in business. The state, national, and world economy, meanwhile, are currently in a greater freefall than the one experienced during the Great Depression. Many people are hungry. Many people are scared. Many people are tired. And almost everyone is asking, what comes next?
But before I get to that vital question, I have to admit that I almost titled my sermon: for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork?
The pandemic has been hard on a lot of people. Like many other families, my own continues to struggle to make it through the everyday. Now, normally, I avoid too much of a focus on my own quotidian challenges in my preaching. This is especially true when it comes to my children. Neither of them signed up to be preacher’s kids. I do not think it is appropriate to turn their lives into sermon illustrates.
However, in the nineteenth-century, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that the primary job of the preacher was to “convert life into truth.” He charged Unitarian ministers to offer up “life passed through the fire of thought.” And I think that I am not burdening my son with some unasked-for narrative by sharing that it is not easy trying to get him to engage with his schoolwork. Out experience is, after all, one shared by many families. The primary truth I can offer, from my own life, today, is demonstrated by the tension between the question at the heart of my sermon and my alternative sermon title. We need to ask: What comes next? And, at the same time, most of us are wrestling with our own variants of: for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork?
The tension between our question and my alternative sermon title is not a new one. It might be reframed as another question: How do we look to the future when we find ourselves in the middle of tragedy? And to ask that question is essentially to ask, how shall we mourn?
It might seem counter-intuitive, but mourning is essentially a future oriented activity. When we mourn, we acknowledge that we have experienced a loss. We admit that we are suffering. And then we try to ask ourselves the difficult question: What comes next? What comes next itself contains two questions: How shall we remember those we have lost? And how shall we live without them?
This past week the COVID-19 death count in the United States passed fifty thousand. I suspect that most of you have been impacted by the virus. I know someone listening to this sermon is ill. I know someone hearing me preach has lost family or friends. I know someone considering my words has lost their job or their business. I know that almost everyone who is playing this video has been affected by this pandemic. We are all mourning.
As a historian, political philosopher, and a theologian, not to mention a parish minister, I have been finding it increasingly unhelpful to think of the situation we are in as unprecedented. There have been plagues and pandemics before. There have been tyrants before. The wealthy and powerful have feigned compassion for the poor before. There has been mass economic disruption before. And people have mourned before.
One of the central functions of a religious community is to help people mourn. We hold funerals and memorial services. We offer prayers and condolences. We write eulogies. We make meaning through mourning. We ask the question, through tears, what comes next?
For most of us, our primary experience of mourning has been mourning the deaths of individuals. Our grandparents or parents or partners or friends or even children have died. Their deaths might have been swift and tragic. They might have come at the end of a long illness. They might have arrived when those we loved were old, in their middle years, or when they were young. Whenever it has come, we, the mourners, who have survived have needed to ask the questions: What does this person’s life mean for me? What comes next?
I have lost my grandparents to old age and heart disease. I have lost friends to drug overdoses, violence, and suicide. I have had loved ones die of cancer. I have known people who were killed in car crashes and bicycle accidents. In each instance, the same questions: What does this person’s life mean for me? What comes next? How shall I mourn?
Right now, many of us feel like the writer Edith Sitwell when she was asked why she wore black. She replied that she was in mourning. “For whom are you in mourning?” came the response. “For the world,” she answered.
We are mourning the world. There is a sense of mourning the world in June Jordan’s poem, “Nobody Riding the Roads Today.” It was written long before COVID-19 blighted the globe. And yet, it captures much of the experience of isolation that I know many of us are feeling:
Nobody meeting on the streets
But I rage from the crowded
overtones of emptiness
...Nobody laughing anymore
But I see the world split
and twisted up like open stone
The world empty, the world split, the world twisted; we are mourning the world. We are asking ourselves, what did the way of life we had before the pandemic mean? We are asking, what comes next? And we, are doing this all, as all mourners must, in the midst of our ordinary, unaccustomed, struggles: illness, fear of illness, deaths of loved ones, job loss, housing insecurity, hunger and want, and, in the case of many an exasperated parent, the cry of, for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork? Each struggle connecting to an aspect of what we have lost, of what we are mourning: health, the illusion of safety, economic security, work, and the school community. They each meant something different to us before the pandemic. And their meanings have changed now that we find ourselves living amid a worldwide pestilence.
The anthropologist David Graeber has written perceptively about mourning and the function of religion. Controversially, but correctly, Graeber believes that a central purpose of religion is, in his words, “the production of people.” In religious community, he writes, we “are constantly being socialized, trained, educated, mentored towards new roles... constantly being attended to and care for.” In community, we are “implicated in processes of transformation.”
It is a statement that I am sure rankles many of my more libertarian or individualistically oriented friends. One of the great myths of the United States is that we are self-made individuals. It is a myth that lies at the heart of the country’s economic system. It animates much of economic discourse and influential economists like F. A. Hayek have claimed “the individualistic tradition... has created Western civilization.”
Individualism sits at the core of the salvation narrative of conventional Christianity. After our deaths, we are promised, if we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, we will ascend to Heaven and enjoy life eternal. The emphasis is on what happens to your individual soul and to mine. It is not on what happens to us together.
Graeber’s anthropological understanding of religion suggests, instead, that we are social creatures and that in community we create each other. Mourning offers an illustration of this dynamic. “Rarely,” he argues, “do the political careers of important individuals end in death. Often political figures, as ancestors, martyrs, founders of institutions, can be far more important after their death than when they were alive.” What is true of political figures, can be true for all us. Our legacies, our contributions to the commonweal, last beyond our mortal shells.
Some years ago, I asked my friend, the now deceased Spanish Civil War veteran, anarchist, and union organizer Federico Arcos, what he thought about life after death. Federico was a militant atheist. He had little use for organized religion--though he greatly admired both Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I assumed he would simply tell me that it the idea of life after death was absurd.
Instead, he surprised me. “We are immortal,” he told me. “We live on the stories we are part of and in the things we create.” “You see this road,” we were driving, “the working people who built it will live on in it as long as it continues to exist. My dead friends,” he had lost most of his loved ones during the war, “live on in me through the stories I tell. And they will on in you because I am telling you their stories. And if you share their stories,” and I have, “they will continue. That is our immortality.”
We are narrative creatures. We tell the stories of our own lives to each other to make meaning from them. And other people tell stories about our lives to understand our social roles. A religious community is a community of memory. And, “it is from the community of memory that most of the significant movements of thought and action emerge,” wrote twentieth-century Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams. “It is only through a disciplined memory of the past,” he continued, “that one can judge properly of the present and play one’s own part rightly.”
We are mourning. We are asking what our stories have meant. And we are asking, what comes next? Since, we are in the Easter season, and because we are a religious community, I might point out that Christianity is, in many ways, a religion of mourning.
Jesus, the poor man, the rebel Rabbi, the overturner of the money changers’ tables, the preacher of the power of community and the living presence of the Kingdom of God, was put to death by the greatest empire of his day for suggesting that love was the most powerful earthly force. Jesus’s followers believed him to be the messiah, the individual who God had sent to proclaim, in the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos, “let justice well up like water, / Righteousness like an unfailing stream.”
Instead of bringing about the reign of the divine, peace to the cottages, and plenty to the tables, the story is told, Jesus was executed as a common criminal. He was nailed to a cross and placed between two thieves to die a humiliating and excruciating death.
Die he did. And his community had to ask the questions, amid pain and suffering, amid their experiences of grief and loss: What did his life mean? What comes next?
We might read the Christian New Testament and the non-canonical Christian texts, such as the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, as a series of arguments about how to answer these questions. In my Easter sermon, I suggested that one answer people found within these texts was a belief in the resurrection of dead--we shall only hope for heaven when we are dead. And I suggested that another answer was the resurrection of the living--opening ourselves to savoring what is and building the just community where we can. And I argued that the resurrection of the dead led to the politics of the dead. And that the resurrection of the living led to the politics of the living.
We can find debates about the politics of the dead and the politics of the living scattered throughout Christian texts. We can read Jesus proclaiming the politics of the living in the words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’” And we can read Paul proclaiming the politics of the dead in the words, “I have been crucified with Christ.”
In the texts, Paul can never quite seem to decide whether he believes in the politics of the living or the politics of the dead. In his Letter to the Galatians he makes one of the most forceful statements of the politics of living in any Christian text--canonical or otherwise. He writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” These are words that a humanist and a theological universalist such as myself, might re-interpret as saying, we all part of the same human family. The lesson of this pandemic, the story we should be telling while we mourn, is that we are all interconnected and what impacts one of us, impacts all of us.
In the Letter of the Galatians, Paul also provides words that have formed the theological basis of the politics of the dead: “yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” This statement was used by generations of later theologians--Augustine and Martin Luther in particular--to craft the idea that salvation is individual, it occurs in the next world, and it happens because of what we believe, not because of what we do. Such a focus on individual otherworldliness has often justified the negligence of earthly justice and the exploitation of the poor. It is behind Augustine counsel that obedience to the earthly authorities is obedience to God. It is in Martin Luther’s text, “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” in which he denounces those who rebel against the world’s powers and principalities. Those who look for heaven in this world, who seek justice among the living, are, he claims, “the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name.”
I mention Paul, his influence on Augustine and Luther, and his confusion about the politics of the dead and the politics of the living, because his presence in the communities that eventually became Christian offers important lessons for us as we mourn the world. Paul was the one of primary evangelists of religion that became Christianity. Much of the Christian New Testament consists of letters he wrote emerging Christian communities. And in them we can read of a struggle over who will determine how Jesus was to be mourned.
In Galatians, again, we find a revealing passage. Towards the beginning of the letter Paul wrote, “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel I proclaim.” This text, which continues and from which I shall not read in full, provides an account of a struggle for power within the emerging Christian community. The struggle was about who would determine how Jesus was to be mourned.
On one side, stood Paul, and, presumably, Barnabas and Titus. On the other side, was “the acknowledged leaders.” There were theological differences between these two groups. We do not actually know what “the acknowledged leaders” believed. The theological polemics that have come down to us, that is the letters in the Christian New Testament, are from Paul’s faction, not theirs. I suspect that the acknowledged leaders beliefs might have been more in line with the gnostic teachings, the resurrection of the living and the politics of life, found in the non-canonical gospels and attested to in portions of the canonical gospels, than the resurrection of the dead.
That is not important. What is important is that they included “James the Lord’s brother,” and other disciples who claimed to have known Jesus when he was alive. Paul, in contrast, never met the living Jesus. Instead, he “received... a revelation through Jesus Christ” and, that he stated, made him equal in authority to the authority Jesus had granted his friends while he was still alive.
Much of the debate in Galatians is over whether or not Paul’s revelation granted him this equal authority. He claims it did. And he claims that the “acknowledged leaders” “recognized the grace that had been given to me.” We have no way of knowing whether this was true or not. We have only Paul’s account of the argument. We have only him telling us how Jesus was to be mourned and how the community was to answer the question: What comes next?
And that elision, the silence of James the Lord’s brother and his friends, should speak us to across the centuries and provide a crucial warning as we go about mourning the world, as we struggle to make meaning of what we have lost and answer the question: What comes next? The warning is this: those who are closest to the levers of power, those who are the most privileged, will be the ones who will determine how we mourn unless we struggle for the resurrection of the living and the politics of the living.
The silence of James the Lord’s brother is not accidental. It is a product of who James was and who Paul was. James was like Jesus, a poor man, an outcast, a Jew in a pagan Empire who proclaimed that Caesar’s power was less than God’s, an undocumented brown skinned workingman, struggling to make it through the day--as so many people are struggling today. James almost certainly struggled to find housing, to find work, and to get enough to eat. James was persecuted for his beliefs.
Paul, on the other hand, was an educated Roman citizen. Unlike presumably James, for there is no authentic text from James, Paul could read, and he could write. He was trained in Greek philosophy and Jewish theology. He had been educated in rhetoric. He even had a career persecuting men like James before he had his revelation. And yet, it is his letters, his theological treatises, that form the major corpus of Christian epistles and not those of James or his friends. He is the one who has determined so much of how Jesus is to be mourned. He answered the question: What comes next?
It is there, in the Letter of the Galatians, an account of the rich and powerful determining how the poor and marginalized shall mourn. It is there, the replacement of the politics of the living--which Paul sometimes believed--with the politics of the dead--which Paul left as the major part of his legacy.
And that, in this age of pandemic, on this Sunday a few weeks after Easter, as we mourn, is a central issue we must wrestle with as we attempt to answer the question: What comes next? Who will determine the narrative we make, the story we tell, the meaning we create about the pandemic? Will it be the most privileged and powerful among us, for that is who Paul was, or will be it those like James, who are suffering the most?
Will we, like Paul, choose the politics of the dead, with their emphasis on individual salvation, individual economic activity, and claim that we are self-made? Our we will choose the politics of the living, found in Jesus’s words that the Kingdom of God is among you? Not among one of you, not only inside of me, but among all of us, and present, possible, here, now, in this world. That salvation is social, and not individual, that we must build the commonwealth if we are to recover from the pandemic and prevent the next one.
I could close here by offering policy prescriptions and prophetic denouncements drawn from the politics of the living. I could argue that the President’s refusal to heed the warnings and possibilities found within science are part of the politics of the dead. I could take Texas’s Lieutenant Governor to task for his belief that we should be willing die for the economy. I could offer an analysis of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fund state governments during this pandemic as an attempt to destroy unions for civil servants by destroying the state pension systems. I could criticize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for their constant refrain that real help for families “will be the centerpiece of our next legislation.” And I could claim that we need massive income redistribution and the creation of new social infrastructure if our country and our world is to emerge from the pandemic and prevent the next one.
But instead of offering such a lengthy discourse, I will close with turns to two texts that suggest the politics of the living. The first comes from the speculative fiction writer Ursula Le Guin. In her novel “Always Coming Home,” she imagines what comes next, after our present society experiences a collapse, and how the people of the future will mourn the world we have today. They discover new ways to live sustainably. At peace with each other, they do not fear or target the other. They not do not target immigrants or migrants but instead recognize that all are part of the same human family and invite travelers to: “Please bring strange things, / Please come bringing new things.” And welcome them with the words: “Return with us, return to us / be always coming home.”
In the future she invites us to imagine, the future that comes after whatever it is we have now, people come to recognize their interconnection with each other and with all that is. Her vision is a promise of what might be if we learn the lessons of the hour and reject the myth of individualism in favor of the truth that we are social creatures. Our salvation is social.
And finally, I turn to what is perhaps the greatest statement of the politics of the living from the twentieth century. It comes from Charlie Chaplin. At the close of his film “The Great Dictator” his character, the little tramp, his stand-in for the poor and marginalized, his cipher for James the Lords brother, makes a speech denouncing the fascists and fools, the powers and principalities, of his day, that were then hurtling the world into war and desolation:
“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile — black man — white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness - not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed...
To those who can hear me, I say - do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed - the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people...
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” — not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power — the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then — in the name of democracy — let us use that power — let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world — a decent world that will give men a chance to work — that will give youth a future and old age a security...”
These are words that speak of the politics of life. Let them teach us how to mourn, how to make meaning from all that we have lost. And let them help us to answer the question: What comes next?
And, also, for the love of all that is holy, will you please do your bleeping schoolwork.
Let the congregation, absent in body, but present in spirit, say Amen.
Aug 14, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
This morning’s sermon is a bit unusual. It does not have a single message or a unifying theme. Instead, it consists of my responses to questions from members of the congregation. Thirteen different people submitted questions and in the next twenty minutes or so I will attempt to respond to all of them.
I understand that you do not have a tradition of this kind of service. Among Unitarian Universalists, it is not uncommon. As far as I can tell, Question Box sermons emerged sometime during the 1950s as part of the humanist movement. They were part of our faith’s general movement away from being a primarily biblically based religion--a pattern that began with the New England Transcendentalists of the mid-nineteenth-century. Question Box sermons were, and are, an expression of our theology of preaching. Good preaching is a really dialogue. The preacher listens to the community, observes wider world, connects with the holy that surrounds us, and the infinity of which we are all a part, and reflects back, lifts up, offers some of it the congregation. If preaching does not reflect the concerns of the gathered body then it will fall flat and fail in its task of opening the heart, quickening the mind, moving the hand to action, and expanding our communion with the most high.
With the Question Box sermon the act of listening is more explicit. The preacher responds directly to the concerns of the community. Since ministry is always a shared exercise, I have invited Board President Carolyn Leap up here to be my questioner. I thought it would be good in the service to directly model the shared leadership between ordained and lay leaders that is essential to the vitality of Unitarian Universalist congregations. And so, with that, I would like to invite Carolyn to ask your first question.
1. If we can’t readily be a sanctuary church ourselves, could we support another congregation that does undertake that role?
Shall I answer with a simple yes? Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in the Woodlands recently decided to become a sanctuary church. We could support their efforts. Alternatively, we could reach out to some of the other congregations in the Museum District and see if they would be interested in collaborating with us and to work to collectively provide sanctuary. That is what the First Parish in Cambridge did. Together with three other Harvard Square churches they provided sanctuary in concert. Only one of the four churches felt that they had the facilities to offer a family sanctuary. So, the other three congregations provided them with financial support and volunteers and showed up en mass to rally in support of the family whenever there was any question of a threat from ICE.
If the broader concern is about the plight of migrants, there are lots of other things we could do. We could work to make ICE unwelcome in Houston. We could organize a regular vigil at a local ICE detention center. We could figure out how to support children whose parents have been deported. They need to religious communities to advocate for them.
We can take a trip to the border and work with migrants there. The congregation has organized to do just that. A group of lay leaders are planning a trip to Laredo next week to volunteer at a local refugee center. They are leaving on August 15th and returning August 19th. I believe they still have room for volunteers if anyone is interested in joining in them. I am sure it will be a powerful act of witness and a meaningful expression of solidarity in response to one of the great crises of the hour.
2. Xenophobia is Universal. In the U.S. it is black/white; in Romania, Hungarian/Romanian; in France, rich/poor (black); anti-Semitism (Jew). Xenophobia has deep human roots!
I am unsure whether this is a question or a statement. It seems to me that it is an assertion about human nature. It reminds me of the old religious orthodox claim that human beings are innately depraved. While, xenophobia can be found in many cultures, I am not willing to believe that it is something innate in human nature. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of movements and teachers who sought to transcend it. And we know that sometimes these movements and teachers were successful in moving beyond xenophobia.
Jesus preached “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Now, we might quibble about the theology, but the message is clear: we are all part of the same human family and we all share the same fate. We are born. We die. We have some time in between. That time is better spent bringing more love into the world rather propagating hate.
More recently than the first century, the Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has done extensive research into how teaching children racism might be understood as a form of child abuse. She tells us that people who believe they are white are taught they are superior and racialized by society, by their families, and, unfortunately, by their religious communities.
And so, I think that this is one of the principle purposes of our religious tradition and the other great dissenting traditions. It is push us to move beyond xenophobia and hatred towards love and compassion. It is challenge us to remember the teachings of the great and the ordinary people who allowed love to be the animating principle in their lives. Religious leaders like Jesus or Martin King or Dorothy Day or Rumi or the Buddha... Ordinary people like the gentiles who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust; civil rights workers who bravely committed to nonviolence in the face of the physical, spiritual, and political brutality of white supremacy; the powerful drag queens of New York who fifty years ago inspired Pride; the, well, the list is so long that if I were to try to do it any justice to it we would be here all day.
3. Climate change is worse than we can imagine. Now! I cannot see a practical way forward!
Just this year the United Nations, drawing upon the overwhelming consensus of scientists, told us that we have eleven years to avert catastrophic climate change. General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces warned, “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet.” The future is unwritten. We might be able to avert this damage--and stave off the possibility of social collapse and even extinction that comes with it--if we act now. Will we as a human species do so? I do not know.
What I do know is this. If we are to confront climate change, we will have confront the very meaning of the word practical. A few years ago, the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein wrote a book about climate change titled “This Changes Everything.” Her basic premise was that the climate crisis was so severe that the only way out of it was to move beyond the fossil fuel based capitalism that has formed the basis of the global economy for the last two hundred years. This will mean challenging, and dismantling corporate power, living our lives differently, planning our cities differently, moving towards a different kind of society. Can we, as a human species, be impractical and demand the impossible? I don’t know. What I do know is that in the 1940s people in this country and elsewhere were able to radically sacrifice and defeat the existential crisis of fascism and Nazism. Perhaps we will be able to find the moral strength for such a mobilization again.
4. What led you to the ministry?
Answering this question would take all of the time we have remaining and more. Like a lot of ministers, I have my own story of my call to the ministry. Recounting it, however, takes about ten minutes. So, the succinct answer: I love Unitarian Universalism and think it has the power to change lives, change communities, and change the world. I became a minister because I decided I wanted to live a life of service and help actualize that change. I love people and love the privilege of accompanying members of the congregations I have served through the journeys of their lives. There are few other callings that allow someone to be with people in their most intimate moments--celebrating the birth of a child, the union of love, or death--and at the same time require reflection, study, and a commitment to social action.
Thank you for letting me serve as your minister. It a great blessing to have such an opportunity.
5. Is it possible to choose your beliefs? My friends and family feel like I actively abandoned our faith, but I feel like it was something that happened TO me. I miss being a part of that community, but I don’t think I could ever get myself to literally, earnestly believe in what I used to.
A friend of mine once advised me, “Unitarian Universalists do not believe what we want to. We believe what we have to.” Honest belief is not chosen. It is something we come to through our experiences. For it is religious experience, the connection to or the absence of, the divine that forms the basis of belief. The experience comes first, our interpretation of it, our beliefs, comes second. Try as we might, we do not really get to choose our experiences and so we do not get to choose our beliefs either.
I sense a great deal of pain behind this question. And that is understandable. Many of us connect with religious communities through our families and friends. And so, leaving a religious community can feel like leaving them.
Now, I do not know the fullness of our questioner’s story. So, let me just say this. We are glad that you are here with us and we want this congregation to be a place of healing and joy for you. In this community you are loved, and you are welcome. You and your presence are a blessing beyond belief.
6. The U.U. merger? What was behind it (got anything interesting or unusual to share?) and most of all, what are any theological ramifications. (If they are a perfect fit, why didn’t they merge sooner?)
I have no juicy pieces of gossip to share. Probing the theological ramifications would require a book. The short story, in 1961 the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America realized that they shared a great deal of theological ground and that they would be stronger together than they would be on their own. The somewhat longer story, there had been people who were both Unitarian and Universalist in their theological orientation in both institutions for more than a hundred and fifty years. For example, in the middle of the nineteenth-century the great abolitionist minister Thomas Starr King served both Unitarian and Universalist churches. Going even further back, unitarianism--which uplifts the humanity of Jesus--and universalism--which proclaims God’s infinite love for all--were of the two theological beliefs that were deemed most threatening to the Roman Empire. They were explicitly outlawed in the 3rd and 4th centuries when the leadership of Christian churches aligned itself with the leadership of the Roman empire.
7. U.U. churches – are there any deaf members or deaf pastors? How often are hymns updated? Is there a group for single adults 40’s+?
So, three questions in one! Yes, there are deaf members in some congregations. My home congregation in Michigan actually pays a sign language interpreter to be present for each sermon. And yes, I know of at least two ministers who are partially deaf and who have had successful careers. That said, I do not know of any ministers who have devoted themselves entirely to the deaf community and who preach using sign language. That does not mean such people do not exist. There are well over a thousand Unitarian Universalist ministers in the United States. I only know a small fraction of them.
We introduce new hymns from time-to-time in our worship services. If you would like to suggest one, I am sure that either Mark or I would be happy to receive your input. Personally, I am always looking for new hymns. Singing the Living Tradition, our grey hymnal, dates from 1994. Singing the Journey, the teal one, dates from 2005. And Las Voces del Camino, the Spanish language the purple one, dates from 2009. This year we will be singing at least one hymn a month from it. I understand that the process of compiling a new hymnal is soon to start.
We do not currently have a singles group for people in their forties. If you are interested in forming one please speak with Alma, our Membership Coordinator, and she will advise you on what to do to get it underway.
8. Why are you so political rather than spiritual? (from the pulpit) Why is your focus on racism and anti-oppression so important to focus on? What gives your life meaning? What are good ways to deal with prejudice in ourselves and others?
Four meaty questions! Let me start with the first, why am I so political rather than spiritual? We are at a crucial moment in human history. The next decade may well determine whether humanity has a future. Meanwhile, we face the threats of renewed white supremacy, both inside and outside of the government, and an all out assault on democracy. Such a time as this requires that I preach from the prophetic tradition. The Hebrew prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the like went around the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel pronouncing doom and offering hope. They proclaimed that if people did not change their ways the wrath of God would be upon them. And they said that if they changed their ways God would have mercy for them. And, whatever happened, there was always the possibility of repentance and hope. They also said that ultimately justice will prevail upon Earth as it has in heaven.
I do not think that we need fear the wrath of God. But it is pretty clear that if we do not change our ways then our society and even humanity may well be doomed. Certainly, the federal government’s anti-human immigration policies, the constant threat mass shootings that we all face, and climate change all require us to change our ways.
I focus on racism and anti-oppression because I think that the principle change that needs to take place is rooting out white supremacy. I understand white supremacy as racial capitalism in which the exploitation of the black and brown bodies is coupled with the extraction of the resources of the Earth to produce wealth for men who believe themselves to be white. We have to overcome it if we are going to have a collective future.
What I am trying, and probably failing, to communicate, is that my decision to be political from the pulpit is not in opposition to spirituality. It is a specific kind of spirituality. And it is rooted in the things that give my life meaning.
And here I would like to invoke my parents, Howard and Kathy. During the political right’s family values crusades of the 1990s, they told me that they objected to all of those who cast family values as inherently conservative saying, “We have family values. We have liberal family values.” As far as I can tell those values boil down to: love your family, treasure your friends, bring more beauty into the world, and hate fascism. I have done my best to live by each of those tenets. Doing so has given my life a great sense of meaning.
I am not going to get into the question of how to confront prejudice in ourselves and others in any depth. Other than to note, that I suggest a hatred of fascism, not fascists. We are called upon to try and love the Hell out of the world. We need to love those we struggle against and proceed with the hope, however fragile, that the spark of love that resides in each human breast might somehow flame up and overcome whatever hate exists in human hearts.
9. How dogmatic are the 7 principles? What should you do if one of them interferes with justice?
The seven principles are not a creed. You do not have to believe in them to be a Unitarian Universalist. They are a covenant between Unitarian Universalist congregations, and not between individual Unitarian Universalists. We have freedom of belief and if you do not believe in one of the principles you are still welcome and loved in this community. We could have a longer conversation about what beliefs you cannot hold and be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation--one could not be a neo-Nazi and a Unitarian Universalist, for example--but that is a different subject.
In order to answer the second question I would need a case, an example, of when one of the principles came into conflict with justice. But my short answer, if there is a conflict between one of the principles and justice, choose justice.
10. How do you reconcile the Christian sentiment of sin with religion/spirituality? For example, is there sin in U.U. or does it encompass following your own ethical code?
Unitarian Universalists could benefit with a more robust understanding of sin. We rightly reject the idea of original sin, that when we are born there is inherently something wrong with us. We think that each human life begins as an original blessing, a joy, a beauty, to celebrated. It’s like the words of our hymn, “We Are...” written by the Unitarian Universalist Ysaye Barnwell:
For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe who we are....
We are our grandmothers’ prayers and
we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.
Original sin is not the only kind of sin. The theologian Paul Tillich defined sin simply as estrangement or alienation. We sin when we find ourselves estranged each other and from the world that surrounds us. We sin when we give into white supremacy and racism. We sin when undermine democracy. We sin when we propagate climate change. And yet, we can overcome this sin. We can seek reconciliation. We can work for racial justice, build democratic institutions, and seek to live sustainable lives in harmony with the Earth. These are all collective projects and collective liberation, overcoming our various forms of estrangement, is the great task before us.
Sin is also a relevant concept in our personal lives. How many of us are estranged from loved ones? We can work to repair broken relationships, and to overcome sin. We can call the child or the parent with whom we have become estranged. We can reach out to the friend who have hurt or with whom we have grown apart. We can do something about estrangement. We can do something about sin.
11. What is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in today’s world? What aspects of Universalism are important for us now?
When I was in my final year at Harvard, the philosopher and theologian Cornel West told me, “Unitarian Universalism is one of the last best hopes for institutionalized religion.” Unitarian Universalism’s purpose today is to demonstrate that religion can be, and is, relevant for the world we live in. And that means both nurturing loving and joyous communities that tend to the human spirit and provide places for free inquiry and organizing ourselves to confront the great crises of the hour. Future generations will ask of us, “History knocked on your door, did you answer?” The purpose of Unitarian Universalism today is really to inspire each of us to answer that question in a beautiful, joyous, affirmative!
As for Universalism, the most important aspect of Universalism today is proclaiming the belief that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love is not easy. It is difficult. Challenging. Transformative. And here I want to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
“...active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one's life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and persistence, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”
12. How can we effectively promote social justice?
Social change happens through the creation of new ways of being in the world and the creation of new institutions. Unitarian Universalist congregations can both be sites for pursuing those new ways of being and nurture new forms of institutional life. Our understanding that salvation is primarily a social, a collective, enterprise rather than an individual one makes us well equipped for such work. It is no accident that the ACLU and NAACP both have roots in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Or that Rowe vs. Wade was partially organized out of one.
When we gather, we are free to imagine a different world, a better world. And we are free to experiment amongst ourselves in bringing that world to fruition. We can be a space that welcomes and loves all in a world full of hate. We can seek to live lives of sustainability. We can practice democracy. And in doing so, we can demonstrate that living in such a way is possible, desirable, enjoyable, and worthwhile. We can save ourselves.
13. In the face of the drift toward totalitarianism how do UU stand to protect democratic values?
I suspect that the person who asked this question heard my Minns lectures on the same subject. My answer took about twenty-six thousand words and I have already been far too verbose. So, instead of answering the question I will just say this: much of our work together in the coming year will focus on trying to collectively figure out how, as a religious community, to develop the spiritual resources to confront the intertwined crisis of the hour. These are the resurgence of white supremacy, the assault on democracy, and the climate crisis. All of these crises are rooted in some form of sin, of estrangement from each other and from our beloved blue green planet. They are at their core religious and spiritual crises. And it is the task of before Unitarian Universalism and all of the good-hearted people of the world to confront these religious and spiritual crises and, in the spirit of Martin King, undergoing a great moral revolution where we move from a thing oriented to a planet and person-oriented society.
Those being all of the questions, I invite the congregation to close with a prayer:
Oh, spirit of love and justice,
known by many names,
the human spark that leaps from each to each,
let us nurture in each other,
a spirit of inquiry,
a desire to seek the truth,
knowing that whatever answers we find
will always be partial,
and that human knowledge
will always be imperfect.
Remind us too,
that the future is unwritten,
and that our human hearts,
and human hands,
have been blessed with the ability
to play a role,
however small and humble,
in the shaping of the chapter
Be with us,
be with this community,
so that we will each have the strength
to answer the question,
“History knocked on your door,
did you answer?”
with an enthusiastic yes.
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.
Jan 22, 2019
“...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” is one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous quotes. Former President Barack Obama liked it so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. We Unitarian Universalists like to make much of the fact that the quote is not entirely original to Martin King. A slightly longer version of it originates with Theodore Parker, a famous nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister.
The quote expresses a sentiment that historians sometimes label as Whiggish. The label comes from the old British political party the Whigs. They viewed themselves as champions of progress. In a Whiggish view, history is an inevitable march forward. Sure, there might be temporary setbacks, even catastrophes, but humanity is consistently becoming more democratic, more free, more prosperous, more equal, and less violent. “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” we might not know when it will dawn but the better world is coming. It is always on the horizon.
This is the classical Unitarian Universalist conception of history. It rests upon our ancestral refusal to give into the orthodox Christian notion that humanity is innately depraved. Instead, our religious progenitors believed that each of us contain within the likeness to God. With such a likeness inside of us, we cannot help but ultimately grow in collective wisdom. We cannot but help watch the world improve generation to generation.
Like Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke was a significant nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister. He boiled the theological position of the Unitarian abolitionists of his day down to five points, a sort of seven principles for the late nineteenth-century. Unitarians, he argued, believed in: “the Fatherhood of God... the Brotherhood of Man... the Leadership of Jesus... Salvation by Character... [and] the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.”
The language is highly gendered, Christocentric, and theistic. There is a lot in it that many of us would object to. However, it is the last point, human progress “onward and upward forever” that we are... well... we are wrestling with today. The words are just a slightly different way of saying “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It is another articulation of a Whiggish, of a progressive, view of human history.
Advocates of such a view might well select the triumvirate of Parker, King, and Obama as proof of the enduring validity of Whiggish history. Parker, the abolitionist fought for an end to chattel slavery. Chattel slavery was ultimately defeated. On June 19, 1865, right here in Texas the Union army announced the total emancipation of the enslaved people of the state. They were the last people mislabeled as slaves in the rebellious states that had formed the Confederacy. Their emancipation represented the extinction of chattel slavery in the United States. Slavery had existed in one form another throughout almost all of the societies in human history. Its destruction in this country and this state was a major human achievement.
King, the nonviolent prophet of the civil rights generation. King, the prophet of a generation who at the highest personal cost cashed the promissory note written into the Emancipation Proclamation. King, who saw the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. King, a leader of a movement that could eventually sing, in the words of the incomparable Nina Simone, “Old Jim Crow don’t you know / It’s all over now.” King, who died in Memphis, Tennessee while extending the struggle for civil rights to a struggle for economic rights, dignity, and a share of the world’s prosperity to poor and working people everywhere. King, whose last words to us were, “I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know... that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
And Obama, the first black president. Obama, the man whose election to the world’s most powerful office seemed a major blow to the enduring structures of white supremacy. Obama, the politician who could talk confidentially about the Moses generation and Joshua generation. He spoke this way during his first campaign for President. Invoking the biblical narrative found in the book of Exodus, Obama drew a comparison between the Moses generation and Joshua generation and the civil rights generation and his generation. The Moses generation was the generation who escaped bondage in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The Joshua generation was the generation that arrived in the promised land. In the former President’s analogy, the civil rights generation was “the Moses generation [who] pointed the way” to freedom and a land filled with justice. And his generation was the Joshua generation who was tasked to build the promised land and “to finish the journey Moses had begun.”
Jay-Z remixed this narrative in a track called “My President is Black” which he released shortly before Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth President of the United States. Eliding the abolitionists, Jay-Z said, “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.” You might prefer the earlier version: “the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Either way, it is Whiggish history.
Now, you might be all feeling a little suspicious right now. If you read the blurb for this sermon or you have listened to me before you might realize that I am kind of setting you up. I am not a big proponent of Whiggish history. This may make me a bad Unitarian Universalist. It might even make me a bad minister. There are those, like Martin King, who say that one of the primary tasks of the minister is to remind the people that there is “a power that is able to make a way out of no way.” That it is my job to tell you, as Kendrick Lamar puts it, “Do you hear me, do you feel me, we gon’ be alright.” That I am supposed to follow the charge in our hymnal that reads, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage; / preach the kindness and / everlasting love of God.”
You may noticed that my own rhetorical style leans towards the jeremiad. The jeremiad is a literary form, often but not always a sermon, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society, the decay of morality, and predicts impending social collapse. The term comes from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. In the biblical narrative, Jeremiah is described as living in the last years of the ancient kingdom of Judah. During his lifetime, the text tells us, the kingdom fell to the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem. He saw the people of Judah exiled into the kingdom of Babylon. The text that carries his name records him consistently pronouncing doom and gloom upon the land. He is always trying to get his people to change their ways before it is too late and the wrath of God is visited upon them.
The words attributed to Jeremiah suggest that goodness has gone from his land:
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
The words ascribed to the prophet predict God’s vengeance:
I will make an end of them
-- declares the Lord:
No grapes left on the vine,
No figs on the fig tree,
The leaves all withered;
Whatever I have given them is gone.
The words imputed to the prophet are compassionate and frequently hopeless:
Because my people is shattered I am shattered;
I am dejected, seized by desolation.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Can no physician be found?
Why has healing not yet
Come to my poor people?
The federal shutdown, endless partisan bickering, the acquittal of three Chicago police officers for trying to cover up the murder of the black teenager Laquan McDonald, the rising threat of totalitarianism, children in cages, the closing of hearts, the closing of borders, the existential threat of climate change, these are bitter days. “Assuredly, thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to feed that people wormwood and make them drink a bitter draft,” the book of Jeremiah claims. These are bitter days and in these days the words: “You will not find a man, There is none who acts justly;” “No grapes left on the vine, / No figs on the fig tree;” and “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Can no physician be found?” all resonate with me more than the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” or any other notion of Whiggish history.
This may be something of a congenital defect on my part. I confess that on the Sunday following Barak Obama’s 2008 election I preached a sermon, invoking Martin King, titled “Drum Major for Justice or Drum Major for Empire?” I am going to let you guess the direction I took that sermon.
I have a habit of critiquing this country’s political leaders no matter what their party affiliation--deflating the balloons of optimism even when the days do not seem particularly bitter. I am skeptical about Whiggish history even in the sweetest of times. Like Jeremiah, I look at this country’s history and I see the tragic. I worry that the bitter days that have come will stay more than a little while. That progress is temporary, fleeting, at best, and that there are no permanent victories over even the most wicked sins. That William Cullen Bryant, who King loved to quote, was wrong when he said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” That emancipation was followed by Jim Crow, that the civil rights movement was followed by the New Jim Crow of mass incarnation. That the Joshua generation was followed by a neo-Confederate political regime. That the bitterness of oppression is an enduring part of the human experience.
There are, of course, those who in the midst of this present bitterness would offer us some kind of Whiggish history. Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. This morning we are celebrating this country’s greatest prophet. I suspect that there are a number of religious communities you could visit this weekend where you might hear a more optimistic message. And I know that if you listen to the radio or watch television or turn on a podcast or look at your social media stream sometime this weekend you are going to hear Martin King’s most famous words. They are not “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” They are “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by content of their character.” And if you go to wrong worship service or turn on the wrong radio show, you might even find someone foolish enough to say that King’s dream has been accomplished today.
But we know that is not true. These last few years it has been hard, if not impossible, to feel like “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” These are bitter days. And it seems like the bitterness is growing day-by-day. Time might even be running out for humanity. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we squabble about building fences on borders. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we cannot overcome white supremacy, war, police violence, poverty, or any of the other lesser human made woe. Bitter days.
But Martin King also lived in bitter days. His times were such that he warned us, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must learn to live together as brothers -- or we will all perish together as fools.” Before he was brought down by a white man’s bullet, he lived to see the murders of numerous civil rights workers and leaders for liberation. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Harry and Harriette Moore, the Unitarian minister James Reeb, the Unitarian laywoman Viola Liuzzo... So many lives cut short for the crime of striving for justice.
Amid all that bitterness, Martin King… well… Martin King was prone to jeremiads himself. In some of his last sermons he warned, just like Jeremiah, “The judgement of God is on America now. America is going to hell too, if she fails to bridge the gulf” between the rich and the poor, between people of color and whites. “If something doesn’t happen soon, I’m convinced that the curtain of doom is coming down on the U.S.” He observed that the nation was in the grip of the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. He understood that the choice was ultimately between overcoming them and human extinction.
And he knew that we all were complicit in feeding the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. King spoke directly to us Unitarian Universalists twice. Once, in 1966, he gave the Ware lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The other time was in 1965 when he gave the eulogy for James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was murdered by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama. He told us that the question, Who killed James Reeb was the wrong question to ask. His eulogy is worth quoting at some length:
“What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sherrif and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every [and here I have to apologize for the dated language] Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.”
Can you hear the echoes of Jeremiah?
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
Theodore Parker lived during bitter days too. He died in 1860 before the war over slavery--which we call the Civil War--brought emancipation and an end to inhuman bondage. We Unitarian Universalists like to lift up Parker as an exemplar of our tradition. Yet, many of his actions would probably make most of us uncomfortable today. He counseled armed resistance to slavery. He hid people fleeing from slavery in his home in Boston. He wrote his sermons with a gun on his desk to defend them against the kidnappers called slave catchers in case such vile men were stupid enough to come to his house. He helped arm John Brown for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Not surprisingly, Parker was hardly popular among the Unitarians of his day. Most of his fellow ministers refused to exchange pulpits with him. Many of the Unitarian elite were involved in the textile industry and had business dealings with slave holders in the South. He almost came to blows with Ezra Stiles Gannett, the President of the American Unitarian Association, over slavery.
And so, you probably will not be surprised when I share with you that Parker too was prone to the jeremiad. Here a few words of his taking to task other members of the Unitarian ministerial conference in Boston:
We see what public opinion is on the matter of slavery; what it is in Boston; nay, what it is with members of this Conference. It favours slavery and this wicked law! We need not go to Charleston and New Orleans to see slavery; our own Court House was a barracoon; our officers of this city were slave-hunters, and members of Unitarian churches in Boston are kidnappers.
“You will not find a man, / There is none who acts justly.”
Martin King and Theodore Parker, these men were not fools. These men gave their own jeremiads. And yet, they believed “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
They were able to make this statement because they were both theists. They believed in a God who was ultimately on the side of the oppressed. A God who, in Parker’s gendered nineteenth-century words, “continually commands us to love a man and not hate him, to do him justice, and not injustice.” A God who, in King’s gendered twentieth-century words, made it so “there are just and there are unjust laws.... A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with moral law.”
And here I offer you a closing confession. My problem with the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” is not primarily my skepticism about human progress. Though I am skeptical. Nor is it even my own tendency towards the jeremiad. My problem is that for the moral arc to inevitably bend toward justice it requires some that there be kind of divine, theistic, force in the universe that is able to make a way out of no way. And I must admit that really, truly, in my heart of hearts, skeptical about the existence of such a force. Often when I go looking for what many of us label God I experience absence rather than presence. And I suspect that since we are in a Unitarian Universalist church this morning you might well feel the same way. You might find that humanism or atheism or agnosticism or whatever label you want to put on it resonates with you more than any kind of theistic position. And if you do, you might well be skeptical about the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I suggest we rephrase the words just slightly. Instead of “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” I suggest, the arc of the moral universe is long but we can work to bend it toward justice. And I suggest that when, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, we look to the life of the country’s greatest prophet we can see someone who strived to bend the moral arc. The bending was not inevitable. It took great work and it came at the greatest cost. It was something that happened because an entire generation--Martin King and Diane Nash and Ella Baker and James Reeb and Malcolm X and all the names known and unknown--struggled to make it so. And that it if it is to bend again, if the sermon is to be more than a jeremiad but to end on a note of hope, then that will be because there are those in this generation, those living now, who put their faith in our human ability to bend it.
The arc of the moral universe is long but we can bend it toward justice. This Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday let us look to the lives of the great prophets—people like King and Parker. When we look at them we will see that if the arc is to bend that it will be because we humans bend it. This is our calling and our challenge this day and all the days of our lives. May we rise to it.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Jan 2, 2017
A few years back the UU World published an essay of mine entitled "Black Humanism's Response to Suffering." It's still up on the World's web site but it has just recently been anthologized in the new book Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism. I'm excited to have my work appear alongside some of my former seminary professors (David Bumbaugh, Bill Murry, and Carol Hepokoski) and exciting emerging voices in Unitarian Universalism like Emerson Zora Hamsa and Amanda Poppei. The text is $14 and you can order a copy from the UUA Bookstore. It is not on Amazon yet but I imagine it soon will be.