Sep 18, 2017
as preached at the Ashby First Parish Church, September 17, 2017
I am delighted to be with you this morning. It is the first Sunday of a new church year and I have the privilege of serving as your new minister. I am looking forward to getting to know each of you, the town of Ashby, and your wider community. It is my hope that in the coming months we will learn and grow together.
I join you at the beginning of your congregation’s, and your town’s, 250th year. It has been a long way from there to here and yet any time, any moment, can be an opportunity for fresh starts or re-imaginings. The poet Dante knew this. He commenced his great poem in, as it were, the middle:
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
We too find ourselves in the middle of this story we call the First Parish Church of Ashby. Thanks to the diligent work of Dorothy Wilder, we know how the story began. We know that the town voted to build a meeting house almost immediately after its incorporation. We know that the first meeting house was begun in 1771, completed in 1790, and replaced by the present building in 1809. We know that the church and town formally separated in about 1841. That was when the building was split into two floors. The top became the present sanctuary. The bottom served as the town hall until sometime in the late 1880s. We know the sanctuary was remodeled in 1927. The rooms that stand on either side of the chancel were added.
The story of First Parish Church is not merely its building. Amid Wilder’s litany of ministers and active members of the congregation, we learn that its liberals and conservatives split in 1820. The liberals became Unitarians and kept the building. The conservatives adhered to the trinity and formed the congregationalist church across the street. Evidentially, it has generally been the larger of the two congregations. Wilder indicates it was begun by “a majority of church members.” In reference to First Parish Church, she writes that its members “could not hope to belong to a large and comfortable majority.”
Reading Wilder’s history, we learn two further things about the life of this congregation. The first is that music has long been important to its members. The initial reference to music in the town’s records appears in 1768, one year after the church was founded. The other thing we learn from Wilder is that heating the building has long been an issue. She reports debates about how best to keep it warm in the winter months as far back as 1833.
Though this sketch of the story of First Parish Church leaves much unmentioned, I suspect it captures the major highlights. Certainly, the importance of music and the challenge of keeping warm in the winter were both shared with me when I met with the search committee. At least one person told that they come here largely because they love the music. I was also told that in the cold months you drain the pipes after services to make sure that they do not freeze.
The search committee did more than tell me about the Lizards in the Hayloft and avoiding frozen pipes. They brought the story of the congregation into the present. The last fifty years of congregational life are in many ways similar to the First Parish Church’s first two hundred years. Throughout all this time the congregation has been deeply entwined with the town.
Today is my third time in Ashby. The two other times I heard the same story about the congregation last fifty years. The first time was from a member of the search committee. The second time was from Pastor Ken, who serves the congregation across the street and who grew up in First Parish Church. The story centered on your former minister, Philip Zwerling.
I understand that Phil served here during the Vietnam War. He was an anti-war activist and, like many Unitarian Universalist ministers at the time, opposed to the United States military actions in Southeast Asia. He appears to have expressed his opposition in a rather imprudent manner. In 1973, I have been told, he denounced the American war effort on the bandstand in the town common during the annual Memorial Day joint service between First Parish Church and the Ashby Congregational Church. “This split the church and more than half of its members went across the street,” Pastor Ken advised me when I met him during the summer concert on the green I attended.
The congregation has yet to recover to the level of membership it had prior to Phil’s tenure. In the 1960s it seems to have had perhaps a hundred fifty members. Today it has forty or so. Listening to this story I was reminded that in our collective lives trauma leaves an enduring imprint. Much of the present political conflict in the United States can be traced back to the Civil War and through it to the twin traumatic sins of the nation’s founding: the enslavement and forced migrations of Africans to the North American continent and the genocide of the hemisphere’s indigenous peoples. Trauma can narrate our collective life, suggesting what we imagine to be possible and what we imagine to be prohibited.
In the collective life of First Parish Church, the traumatic tale of Phil Zwerling on the bandstand seems to come with a subtext. The subtext is that the town of Ashby is conservative and that if I want to succeed as minister I would probably do my best to mind that.
I wonder the truth of that subtext. Certainly, Ashby is much more conservative than any place I have lived. The majority of its votes went to Donald Trump in the last election. And yet, the story of Phil and the bandstand is hardly unique. Lots of Unitarian Universalist congregations were split by the Vietnam War. No less a congregation than Arlington Street Church suffered the same fate.
Arlington Street is one of the flagship churches of our religious tradition. Located across from Boston Common, possessing sixteen beautiful Tiffany windows that glow with an almost holy light on a Sunday morning, the congregation was for many years the cathedral church of Boston Unitarians. No less a figure than William Ellery Channing served as its preacher during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. You might remember Channing as the greatest theologian of American Unitarianism. He was the promoter of the claim that each of us contains within “the likeness to God” and the author of memorable aphorisms such as, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.”
Arlington Street split in the 1960s over the minister’s support of the anti-war movement. Jack Mendelsohn served there in the during the Vietnam War and under his leadership the congregation hosted a massive draft card burning that garnered national attention. It resulted in a famous court case that included the conviction of the pediatrician Benjamin Spock and William Sloane Coffin, Jr., then the chaplain to Yale University, for obstructing the war effort. It also resulted in significant criticism of Mendelsohn’s ministry by a number of the church’s members. In one letter he received from a congregant he was told, “such demonstrations serve only to provide aid, comfort and encouragement to North Vietnam in prolonging the war and refusing to discuss any reasonable basis for ending the conflict.” The phrase aid and comfort, you may know, is legal shorthand for treason.
Arlington Street went into crisis and decline in the decade or so following the draft card burning. In the 1970s it actually ran as a fellowship, without a minister. It struggled through the 1980s to such an extent that the physical plant fell somewhat into decay. Yet, today, Arlington Street is a thriving congregation with a Sunday morning worshipping congregation of about two hundred. It weathered its crisis and returned to vibrancy. Why? Well, the answer is straightforward. After its crisis, the congregation was eventually able to answer a simple question: what is the purpose of the church? They respond by saying, we are “gathered in love and service for justice and peace.” And then they take actions to live out that answer.
I am not affiliated with Arlington Street and I am not intending to lift them up as the paradigmatic example of twenty-first century liberal religion. Instead, I share their journey to suggest that any religious community that wishes to recover from its past traumas must be able to answer the question: what is the purpose of the church?
I posed this question to the search committee and again to the Parish Committee when I met with them. Each time I got a similar answer. Members of both committees said something like, “the purpose of this church is to survive and preserve our historic building.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this answer. It is good to keep a keep small congregation afloat. It is important to meet Sunday after Sunday and offer each other emotional support. You make a difference in the world by maintaining a Unitarian Universalist voice in rural Massachusetts at a time when religious institutions across New England are in decline. You have a beautiful building. From the outside, it is picture postcard perfect. There is no reason to suspect that placing the survival of the congregation and the preservation of the building as your mission is inadequate for your community’s near future. First Parish Church has been here for two hundred and fifty years. It will be around for sometime to come.
But, I suspect, that if we want to see the congregation move from surviving to thriving we will need to come up with a different answer to the question what is the purpose of the church than the one you have now. Survival and preservation are good for current members. We may need a new story if we want to attract new ones. What is the purpose of this church?
This is not my question to answer. It is yours. In the coming months, I plan to work with the Parish Committee and all of you to answer the question, what is the purpose of the church? It may be that you decide that your current answer is sufficient. It has served you for the past few decades. It might also be that you decide you want a new answer, one that tells a different story about the life of the congregation. That will be your choice.
I close not by suggesting my own answer to the question what is the purpose of the church but by offering words from three of the greatest Unitarian Universalist theologians of recent decades: James Luther Adams, Rebecca Parker, and Mark Morrison-Reed.
Adams: ...the vocation of… the church, [is] to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsible to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transforming power.
Parker: Good religious communities convert people to the way of life our society needs to move to: from believing that violence is redemptive to practicing justice and compassion; from going it alone to giving and receiving care from others; from isolating oneself in individualism to sharing work on behalf of the common good.
Morrison-Reed: It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
What is the purpose of this church? What story will help the congregation to survive? What story will help it thrive? May we answer these questions well.
Amen and Blessed Be.
May 9, 2017
as preached at Hopedale Unitarian Parish, March 20, 2016
This morning I want to talk with you about the prophetic power of liberal religion. That power is something I imagine is familiar to many members of this congregation. After all, Adin Ballou, your congregation’s founding minister, was one of the great prophets of non-violent civil disobedience. Ballou, of course, did not use those words. He called his belief system Practical Christianity. He preached pacifism He counseled that only moral force was powerful enough to solve social problems. The use of violent means would only beget more violence.
Ballou is by no means unique for holding up the transformative power of prophetic liberal religion. My mentor at Harvard Dan McKanan suggests that prophetic power has two dimensions. It can “denounce... condemn those who would [in the words of Isaiah], ‘grind the face of the poor into the dust.’” It can also announce or, as Dan writes, “proclaim God’s Kingdom that will be realized here on earth, the beloved community of black and white and brown together, the new society within the shell of the old.”
The formula is present in our biblical reading from this morning. There Jeremiah warns the people of Israel, that they have gone astray. If they change their ways, he tells them, they will have God’s blessing. If they don’t then they will face disaster. This is the essence of prophetic power. And, so, what I am telling you this morning is that we as a country face disaster if we do not change our ways.
I want to start our meditation on the prophetic power of liberal religion this morning with an unlikely religious symbol, a bucket. Yes, I said a bucket. But not any bucket. Rather, I have in mind very specific bucket. Come along with me and I will show it to you.
To see this bucket we have to go to a rural Universalist church in Northern Ohio. In some ways, it is quite similar to this one. It was started in the middle of the 19th century by people who believed, like Adin Ballou did, “.” And like your congregation, it played a small role in the struggle to end slavery.
That congregation’s building was built in the style of an old New England meeting house. You probably know what I mean. Iconoclastic. White walls, wood floor, wooden pews, simple windows, not much to look at on a Sunday morning when you diligently ignoring the minister’s sermon. But like most churches that were built in that style, the congregation had a rickety aged bell tower. That’s where we are going.
The tower is only accessible from a ladder that can be up through a trapdoor. Up the ladder we go. Watch that rung. The fourth one. It probably needs to be replaced. We are on small platform now. There are little slits in the tower walls. Light comes in and we can see out. In front of us is solid rope. Do you want to ring the bell? Now over in that corner is the bucket I want to show you. It is not much to look at it. It is just a bucket. But it is really old. And it is filled with all kinds of nasty junk. There are nails and stones and broken pieces of pottery. What’s the deal with the bucket you ask? I almost forgot the most important part. It has sat in that corner for more than 150 years. You see this bell tower used to be the place where the congregation sheltered escaped slaves. The junk in the bucket: missiles to be thrown down the ladder if anyone came to drag the church’s wards back to slavery.
When I saw the bucket I was a guest minister, preaching at that little Ohio church. Apparently, they show it to all of their guest clergy. I suspect that it is the congregation’s most important religious symbol. It is a sacred object that represents an aspect of the community’s heritage that the feel a need to preserve it and share it.
The bucket represented what we might call prophetic memory. Prophetic memory can alternatively be cast as honest history. It begins with an acknowledgement of human agency. We human beings have done much to create the world in which we exist. With our hands, hearts, and minds, out of the soil, under the blessing of the sun and rain, we have hewn our society. This acknowledgement of human agency leads to a second aspect of prophetic memory. We human beings are responsible for the evil we inflict upon each other. Here, Rebecca Parker offers a helpful definition of evil. “Evil,” she writes, “is that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.” Evil, the patterns of exploitation that shape our lives, is historically constituted. It comes from somewhere. Prophetic memory begins with the admission that the world we live in has a history. It continues with the observation that we are held in the bonds of that history, it shapes everything we do. It finishes with the proclamation that the bonds of history can only be escaped if we face them.
In Dan McKanan’s framework, prophetic memory, like other prophetic acts, combines the act of denunciation with an announcement. It denounces a historic evil and announces that if people had not acted that evil would have remained in place. In doing so, it reminds us that we have been shaped will to continue to be shaped by history.
Many people in this country, particularly white people, try to escape history. It can be easier, more pleasant, to imagine that we are somehow free from history’s bonds. Such an act of imagination can provide a false sense of freedom. Resisting patterns of evil are reinforced by ignoring their roots.
The pretense we are not formed by history is a dangerous one. History matters. It shapes us in two very substantive ways. First, our communities have been created over time. They are the results of specific acts and decisions by specific historical actors at specific times. The history of Hopedale would have been far different if Adin Ballou had not gathered a utopian community here.
Second, the way we remember history matters. In this sense, history is not some static unchanging thing. It is something that we construct out of an available set of resources and view through a specific lens. It is essentially a narrative act. Historians take the accumulated detritus of society’s archives--books, letters, half-remembered stories, faded photographs, company ledgers--and fashion a story about the past from them. Ordinary people do the same thing with our lives and for our communities. We find old buckets and make stories of them.
In the last months, as the rhetoric on the Presidential campaign trail has grown increasingly ghastly, I have found myself thinking about prophetic memory and the debris filled bucket. I have asked myself the question, what do we, as religious liberals, need to be announcing and denouncing today? That ratty old bucket and the ugly words of the Republican Party frontrunner remind me of a uncomfortable truth about America. The central problem in this country since before its founding has been the problem of white supremacy. This is the history that we need to be prophetic about and that many white people are trying to escape.
This morning I am speaking as a white man to a predominately white congregation that is part of a largely white religious tradition. The term white supremacy might make you uncomfortable. It is an uncomfortable moment to be white. The rhetoric of the Republic Party frontrunner has made it clear that we have two choices, and only two before us. We can denounce and actively work against the peddling and practice of virulent hatred. Or can we be complicit with white supremacy.
What the bucket reminds me is that the choices for white people in the United States has have always been thus. For hundreds of years, white people have had to decide whether we would accept the system of white supremacy or whether we would fight it. The majority of us who believe ourselves to be white have chosen, to this country’s enduring shame, to accept the system. I use the word believe intentionally here. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has so eloquently reminded us in his recent work, race is a belief. It is not a biological fact. And yet despite its illusory nature, it is a belief with profound social consequences.
Let me put my premise slightly differently. Those of us who believe we are white have two choices. We can accept the belief that we are white. In doing so we can benefit from everything that white supremacy offers us. Or we can reject this belief and try to make a different world. The prophetic act is to denounce race for the social construct that it is and then announce, in the words of William Ellery Channing, we are living members of the great family of all souls.
I can well sense an objection that might be murmuring amongst you. There is a crisis in white America right now. Decades of deindustrialization, the heroin epidemic, the dissolution of white working-class communities, increasing death rates amongst poorer whites... The subject of white supremacy might seem irrelevant, a distraction from more urgent issues at hand.
Here, I return to us to the words from our readings this morning. Herman Melville, “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.” The shadows cast upon poor working-class communities, just as those cast upon the communities of people of color, are shadows cast by white supremacy. The only way to escape the deeper shadows is to step out from the clouds of white supremacy.
White supremacy can also be understood as a system of racialized capitalism. W. E. B. Du Bois offers a formula for racialized capitalism. The formula runs the exploitation of brown and black bodies plus the despoliation of the natural resources of the planet equals the foundation of white wealth. Du Bois lays out a central problem with racialized capitalism. It pits white workers against black and brown workers by promising white workers what David Roediger as evocatively called “the wages of whiteness.” These wages include a sense of superiority, the belief held by many whites that no matter how bad things get at least they are not black. They also include easier access to a whole host of society’s institutions. Today, people of color are not barred formally from educational or employment opportunities, as they were in the past. That does not mean that they have equal access to them.
The fear that is so pervasive amongst American whites today is directly related to the loss of the wages of whiteness. Immigrants are linked to a fear that they will take away the jobs of white Americans. There is an often unspoken fear that the presence of blacks within predominately white communities will lessen the strength of the public institutions within those communities. Phrases like “good school” or “good neighborhood” are code words for schools and communities largely free of people of color. The success of the Republican frontrunner is directly tied to his ability to both symbolize the wages of whiteness and articulate many white people’s fears of losing them.
Under our system of racialized capitalism, white people are taught to blame brown and black people for our problems. Under capitalism corporations compete against each other for the cheapest labor. So, the problem is not people of other races. The problem is that capitalism itself is an essentially exploitative system that pits groups of workers against each other.
Du Bois posited a solution to this conundrum, something he called abolition democracy. He used this term to describe the ideology of abolitionists in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Civil War. These nineteenth-century men and women believed that white free labor was undermined by black slave labor. The only way for both blacks and whites to escape the exploitation of racialized capitalism was to unite to end it. Before the Civil War this meant the destruction of slavery. After the Civil War it meant that the creation of strong public institutions, like universal free public education, that served everyone, not just specific groups in the community. Du Bois rightly understood that existence of a disadvantaged racial group in society undermined the possible existence of equality and justice. The collective poverty of blacks served as a constant threat to whites. It created a labor pool that could be endlessly used to undermine white labor. And it offered a threatening example of what might happen to white workers if they failed to buy into racialized capitalism.
So, here is the historical truth with which we as a religious community of memory must struggle. Here is the prophetic truth we have been given. This country has long been caught between white supremacy and abolition democracy. The one, insists that we can somehow escape history and that we can meet in the state of nature. It pretends that whites have not benefited from generations of white supremacy. The other, proclaims that we have to wrestle with history and form interracial alliances if we are ever to transform our society.
All of this brings me back our bucket. It suggests that once upon a time that congregation, like many others, practiced abolition democracy. In this historic moment the question is will we as a religious people practice prophetic history and revitalize abolition democracy? Or will give into America’s other tradition, the tradition of white supremacy? Can we step clear of the shadows or forever to be stuck under them? Can we clear the shadows or do they foreshadow? Let us choose wisely.
Amen, Blessed Be, and Ashe
Nov 7, 2016
On the Sunday before the 2016 I preached this signficant revision of the sermon I delivered two weeks earlier at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton. So, here's the A New Heart and a New Spirit as preached onNovember 6, 2016 at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson, Hudson, MA.
It is nice to be with you again. You have invited me here each of the past three autumns. This academic year, if all goes well, I will be finishing my doctorate. It is likely that this time next year I will be living someplace other than Massachusetts, working a new job, and no longer doing regular pulpit supply in New England. So, let me begin my sermon with a simple note of gratitude. The support of your congregation and congregations like yours has made a real difference in my ability to support my family while I have been in graduate school. Thank you.
This Sunday, I wish I could build the sermon around a sustained note of gratitude. Unfortunately, Tuesday is the presidential election. Gratitude seems like an inappropriate emotion for the closing hours of what I have come to think of as a national tragedy. Instead of gratitude, I find myself obliged to talk with you about the need for national repentance. As a wide variety of political commentators have suggested, no matter what happens next week the impact of the election will be long lasting. One of the candidates has received the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. The other has been embroiled in endless scandal and controversy. Regardless of who wins, the deep cleavages in American society have been exposed and exacerbated. On Wednesday morning, it will not be possible to pretend that America is a country that does not contain enduring patterns of misogyny. On Wednesday morning, we will not be able to declare that America has left behind its long history of white supremacy. And on Wednesday morning, we will not be able to say that this nation does right by the poor, the marginalized, the most needy, the people who Jesus called “the least of these.”
Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is revealed to be the nation’s next President, these problems will endure. I grew up in a family where we followed politics the way most people in follow sports. One of my oldest family friends is fond of saying that “politics are sports with consequences.” I was about sixteen or seventeen when I realized that no matter which team won the election most of the country, and, indeed, most of the world, lost. Throughout my life, under both team donkey and team elephant, the United States military has started or continued needless foreign wars. Congress has passed legislation to expand the prison system and cut back on social programs for the poor. The President has advocated for bills that favor bankers and business executives instead of ordinary working people and overseen the vast expansion of economic inequality. No matter who has been in the White House, for the past thirty years the wealth gap between whites and people of color has grown.
The current election has me doubting the collective capacity of American society to engage in acts of national repentance. At almost every turn collectively we seem to reject the opportunity for national conversation about the deep structures of American society that lead to destructive behavior. It is true that there are bright moments. The braggadocios misogyn of the captain of team elephant seems to have sparked conversation about the unacceptable place that sexual assault and exploitation hold in our society. For too long men, particularly white and powerful ones, have inflicted sexual violence on women. It seems possible that the reaction to the boasts of one of the candidates about his sexual exploits has begun to shift this dynamic. However, only time will tell if shift is permanent--if we as a society can repent--or if the conversation around sexual violence is transitory.
This election has had me repeatedly turning to the Hebrew prophets. The prophets were horrified by injustice. In ancient days Isaiah and Jeremiah wandered the dusty streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed that God was angry with the people for failing to take care of the poor. Ezekiel stood at the gates of the Temple and announced that his country was doomed because its leaders worshipped false gods.
These religious leaders warned that their community faced destruction if its members did not change their behavior. And they then offered the possibility of transformation. Like a doctor they diagnosed their community’s illness and then proscribed a cure. They suggested that the problems that others took to be the disease were mere symptoms of the essential malady. They made their proclamations as foreign invaders threatened the very existence of their country. Their peers took the Babylonian or Assyrian armies to the problem that troubled Israel. The prophets knew better. They warned that the external threat that their country faced was a result of its own internal contradictions. It was supposed to be the chosen land of God yet within it the poor struggled for survival and the rich worshipped false deities.
In face of this contradiction the prophets offered a solution. They clarified what was the essential problem--mistreatment of the poor and the worship of false deities--and suggested a path forward. They told their people to repent and change their actions. Ezekiel suggested that in order to escape doom people needed to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” It was only by becoming fundamental different, and moving forward together on a new road, that the prophets believed their people could escape calamity.
Not so many years ago, at the very end of his life, the greatest of American prophets, Martin King, made similar warnings and offered a similar solution. In the last months of his life, just two weeks before we was gunned down, he spoke to an audience of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King cautioned, “I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell... If America doesn’t use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty.” Almost exactly a year earlier, in his famous speech against the Vietnam War, King warned the country risked being destroyed by “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”
Like the Hebrew prophets of old King called for “a radical revolution of values.” He believed that without such a shift this country was doomed. So long as people valued their things more than they valued each other they would remain separated and unable to experience human solidarity. But that human solidarity was desperately needed, he understood, because humanity faced the existential threat of nuclear war. He warned, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must live together as a brothers or perish together as fools.” What was true in King’s day is even more true today. We do not just face the existential threat of nuclear war but also the threat of climate change.
I thought of these prophets--King, Jeremiah, Ezekiel--as I watched the Presidential debates. Not once during any of the three debates did I hear either of the candidates mention the plight of the poor or express solidarity with the working class. Both spoke of helping the middle class but neither mentioned the homeless. Neither seriously discussed climate change. Neither offered support for reparations for slavery. Both favored violence as a means to peace. The stern admonitions of generations of anti-war activists have fallen stone deaf on their ears. King might have understood that, in his words, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” but Clinton and Trump do not.
The debates have had me thinking about the need for national, and individual, repentance. I have concluded that true repentance consists of four things: clarity, confession, apology, and action. Clarity is ability to see the source of the problem. In the prophets term, to extend the medical metaphor from earlier, it is to diagnosis the disease rather than focus on the symptoms. Confession is two-fold. It requires that we acknowledge our own complicity in the creation and maintenance of negative patterns of behavior. It also necessitates us to admit that we benefit in some way from those patterns of behavior. Apologizing should be obvious. It means saying we are sorry for our behavior. Finally, we have to act for all three of the previous steps of repentance are meaningless without action.
To begin our path towards national repentance we need to gain clarity about the sources of social ills. I suggest that we must seek to understand how team donkey and team elephant are made up of players who are after the same goal. I suggest that clarity will come from an understanding that the creation of the current economic and political system has been one in which both parties have been complicit. The Democrats, particularly under Bill Clinton, and the Republicans have continued to build a government that deepens the plight of the poor, exacerbates economic inequality, fuels mass incarceration and police violence, engages in the repression of political dissent, encourages the destruction of the environment, and fights catastrophic and needless wars. As I see it, America is sick and both different expressions of the country’s illness. One might be the symptom while the other could be understood as the disease: a political practice of speaking about social progress while doing little to aid the marginalized.
In my own life repentance has taken two forms. On an individual level, it has required me to try and mend my relationships when they have become broken and heal the harm that I have done. On a collective level, it has necessitated a commitment to social justice and the ongoing work of understanding how I have been complicit in and benefited from systems of oppression.
Sin can be understood as those actions and beliefs that keep us separate from each other. It can be individual and collective. Individual sins turn us into strangers when we seek intimacy. They are the lies, the slights, the acts of casual and intentional selfishness that make it difficult for us to find an authentic connection. Collective sins are the deep structures and communal actions that create arbitrary groups of people and then keep those groups of people separate from each other. We are all members of one human family. Yet, nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and systems of white supremacy trick us into thinking otherwise. We imagine ourselves and others as white or black, American or terrorist, male or female... Instead of understanding that in our common humanness we share an origin in the darkness of the womb and a destiny in the gloom of the grave.
None of this is easy. I have found individual repentance to be incredibly challenging. It usually requires admitting that I am wrong and that I need to change my behavior. Who likes to do that? Looking at our own flaws is some of the most painful work. Often, it is far easier to gloss over our mistakes and let relationships fall away that be introspective about the ways in which we need to change our behavior.
Sometimes, though, we do not have a choice. I learned a little about the difficulty and the reward of individual repentance when I was first starting out in the parish ministry. More than a decade ago, I served my internship in congregation of about three hundred members. I was in my late twenties and full of energy and enthusiasm. I was committed to the ministry and learning how to be a good minister. I was filled with what the poet Kenneth Rexroth used to call “the wisdom of youth,” which is to say I did not take criticism particularly well. When confronted by someone with something they were unhappy with my tendency was to become defensive. I would try to explain my actions rather than work to correct them.
Predictably, this pattern did not serve me well. Everything came to a head during my mid-point evaluation. My internship committee, and supervising minister, sat me down and told me that people had very mixed feelings about my tenure as congregational intern. In general, I was liked and my commitment to Unitarian Universalism and the ministry was palpable. However, there was a segment in the congregation who felt that I ignored them and did not tend to their needs.
Specifically, I was told that many of the congregational elders, particularly those who were women, felt that I did not pay enough attention to them. My first reaction on hearing this was to deny that it was true. I paid attention to everyone. The conversation proceeded, I dug in my heels. I refused to accept the criticism. This only made matters worse. The internship committee grew frustrated with me. And then my supervising minister managed to shift the discussion from the abstract to the concrete. She named a particular behavior: my preference for talking with people around my own age during coffee hour. And she reported her observation that she had seen me turn away, on more than one occasion, from a woman in her seventies or eighties, to chat with someone in their twenties or thirties.
I recognized the truth in what she said. I gained clarity. I was crestfallen. I think I might have sat in stunned silence for a couple of moments. Then I admitted that my behavior had been problematic. I confessed. The minister suggested a path towards correcting my behavior. She urged me to go and visit the women who I had ignored. I did and in doing so both I apologized and changed my behavior. Over the course of a few months and a series of coffees and home visitations I repaired relationships with my congregants. I also came to understand how my own behavior fell into the larger patterns of behavior within a misogynistic culture that often renders women over a particular age invisible.
This is a painful subject and my behavior around it should not be understood in anyway as perfect. I share my story not to illustrate how great I am but rather to draw attention to the relationship between individual and collective sin and the practice of repentance. Sin, again, can be understood as those actions and beliefs that prevent people from recognizing their fundamental kinship as human beings. Collective sin, in my story unconscious misogyny, fed individual sin, the failure to develop relationships with some of the women in the congregation. Repentance required clarity around my own patterns of behavior. It required confession that I had done ill. And then it necessitated an apology and a change in behavior.
Sin and repentance are not frameworks that religious liberals like to use. Our religious ancestors rejected original sin, the idea that human beings were innately wicked. Instead, we favor the teaching that each of us is born with potential to inflict harm upon ourselves and each other and at, the same time, reach great moral heights. The great 19th-century Unitarian, William Ellery Channing, taught people that each of us contains the likeness to God. He believed that when we focused our attention rightly and committed to lives of right action we could discover that likeness within and approach spiritual perfection. Channing thought that this was what Jesus had done and he urged others to do likewise.
The emphasis on the innate potential within has often caused religious liberals to downplay sin or the need for repentance. I suspect that since we historically have believed that human perfection is possible we sometimes have committed the error of thinking that we ourselves are perfect. If anything, the path towards uncovering what our Quaker friends have called the inner light lies through developing an understanding of those larger systems and individual actions that keep us continually building false walls between each other. In the words of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker, we must realize that “We are the cause, and we can be the cure” for much is what is wrong in the world. It is only through examining our mistakes and attempting to correct our actions that we can make progress as either individuals or a society.
This returns us to the subject of national repentance. For me, this election has brought clarity. There is little to celebrate about either political team. America is sick. No matter who wins the election the illness will continue until we, as a nation, are brave enough to confess. We must confess that in this country the poor continue to be exploited. We must confess that white supremacy and misogyny remain the norm. We must confess that the natural world is being destroyed to feed our materialist addictions. And we must confess that a failure in the political imagination means that unreflective militarism is offered as a violent solution to international problems.
Each of these confessions deserves an apology. But more that, they demand a change in behavior. What would our government’s policies be if America’s politicians took seriously the project of eliminating poverty? How would we treat each other if we tried to move beyond white supremacy and misogyny? What would our lives, and our relation with our ecosystem, look like if we recovered from our addiction to materialism? How would our foreign policy be different if it was not based on the threat of violent force?
As we move towards the close, I invite you take to time in silence. What do we as a nation need to repent for? How are you as an individual in need of repentance? What kind of clarity do you need? What do you, or we, have to confess? How might you, or we, apologize? What would a change in action look like?
[Two minutes of silence.]
My prayer for us this morning is that we may find the inner strength and collective solidarity to overcome those things that keep us separated from each other. May we learn, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week, and life-by-life, to join our human hearts with our human hands and engage in the difficult work of creating a great moral revolution.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Sep 1, 2016
Aug 28, 2016
Note: I recently have become involved with the Industrial Workers of the World's Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. I am serving as their contact person for faith-based organizing. It is a volunteer role and one of things that I am doing as part of it is preaching some in support of the September 9, 2016 National Prisoner Strike. The following sermon was the first I preached in support of the movement. I presented it at the First Parish in Needham, Unitarian Universalist, on August 28, 2016.
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning. Your congregation features prominently in one of my favorite books of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology, A House for Hope. John Buehrens, your former minister and the co-author of that book, has something to do with me being here today. He was a strong advocate for youth ministry when he was the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I had the good fortune to meet him when I was sixteen. He encouraged me both along my path to the ministry and my path to the academy. I also have fond memories of the worship services your present minister Catie Scudera led during her time at Harvard. And I congratulate in calling someone who will no doubt be one of the guiding lights of the next generation of Unitarian Universalists. So, there is a strange way in which even though I have never spent a Sunday with you before I feel as if I already know you a little.
Such familiarity, I suspect, is rather one sided. Most of, maybe all of, you just know me as the guest preacher. The last in the long line of summer preachers trying to bring a little spirit to Sunday morning before your regular worship services resume next month.
Now me, I am something of circuit rider. Right now I preach at more than a dozen congregations a year while I am finishing up my PhD at Harvard. As I travel around I have the privilege of getting something of the breadth of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I think since I started in the ministry more than a decade ago I have lead worship at close to a hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Those congregations include the some of the largest and some of the smallest in our tradition.
My peripatetic career causes me to divide Unitarian Universalism crudely into two wings: the liberal and the abolitionist. Unitarian Universalism is occasionally called a liberal religion. This label refers to our understanding of human nature. Historically we have understood human beings to contain within them, in the words of William Ellery Channing, “the likeness to God.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker has explained, this does not mean that we think human beings are necessarily godlike. Instead, it suggests that rather than being born innately flawed or depraved, as orthodox Christianity has long taught, we are born with the capacity to choose and to become. Reflecting upon the suffering that we inflict upon each other Parker writes, “We are the cause and we can be the cure.” In this sense liberal religion means a recognition that much of what is wrong in the world was wrought by human hands. By joining our hands and hearts together we can, and we do, heal much of that harm.
I am not thinking of the liberal religion of Channing when I say that Unitarian Universalism can be crudely divided into two wings. I suspect that if you are here this Sunday morning your view of human nature is at somewhat similar to Channing’s and Rebecca Parker’s. Whether politically you are a Democrat or a Republican, an anarchist or a socialist, a liberal, libertarian or a conservative, if you are a Unitarian Universalist are a liberal religionist.
My division of our community into the abolitionists and the liberals focuses on our attitudes towards social reform. The majority liberal tradition believes in incremental and pragmatic social change. The social institutions and practices that exist, exist. When confronted with the intractable problems of America’s justice system liberals think the key question is: how can we make this system work better for everyone? How can we ensure that police are not racist? That everyone gets a fair trial and that prisons are humane?
Abolitionists demand the impossible. Rather than seeking to reform existing institutions they dream of creating new ones. Instead of asking how existing social institutions and practices can be reshaped they ask: what are those social institutions and practices for? In the face of a justice system that appears patently unjust they ask: Why we do have the system in the first place? What is its essential social function? Is it meeting this social function? Is this social function something we want met?
I place myself in the abolitionist camp. The essential difference between the two wings is that abolitionists see social institutions and practices as historically constituted while liberals take them as more permanent. A less fancy way to put that is that abolitionists think that the things we do and the institutions we create come from somewhere, will only last for so long, and will eventually be replaced by something else. Liberals focus on fixing what is now. Abolitionists imagine what might be.
This morning I want to talk with you about supporting the upcoming nation-wide prison strike. Prior to today, how many of you had heard about it? On September 9th people in prisons across the country will refuse to work. By withdrawing their labor from the prison system they hope that they will be able end prison slavery. They use the words prison slavery intentionally to draw attention to the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. That is the amendment that outlawed chattel slavery. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States.”
The bold hope is that by challenging prison slavery prisoners can challenge the prison system itself. Prisons in the United States rely on prison labor to exist. Consider the following. There are about 2.2 million prisoners in the United States today. Of these, about 1.1 million, or roughly half, work in prison. They serve food, do janitorial work, and labor in offices. They also maintain public parks and roads and manufacture products for both the government and for private industry. The United States military, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and McDonald’s all benefit from prison labor. All of the license plates in the state of Alabama are made by prisoners. They are paid as little as 15 cents an hour.
Prison labor is exempted from most labor standards. Prisoners are not afforded the same rights to safe workplaces that you and I enjoy. They do not get vacations or unemployment benefits. They do not accrue Social Security. The federal courts have ruled that prisoners wages can be set at any level, including zero cents an hour. Not only do they not get minimum wage. They can be made to work for nothing.
All of this means that without the labor of prisoners, prisons will not run. It is the brave hope of the organizers of the September 9th national strike that by withdrawing their labor they can radically challenge, transform and perhaps even abolish the American prison system.
Now, I just gave you a lot of information. You might feel a little overwhelmed by it. You might also think the situation is justified. Prisoners work for nothing, you could think, because they owe a debt to society. They are in prison to repay that debt and their work is part of their repayment.
I want challenge that logic. I could challenge it, as so many have, by pointing out the gross inequities of the prison system. I could point out that black men are imprisoned at roughly seven times the rate of white men or that Hispanics are two and a half times more likely to be in prison than whites. But that is a liberal logic and it suggests that the fundamental problem with the prison system is that it is unfair.
The problem with the system is that it exists at all. I want to let you in on a secret. Many, perhaps most, maybe even all of us are potential prisoners. The primary difference between me and someone on the inside is not that I have not committed crimes. The difference is that I have not been caught. Everyone I know has broken some law or another. Plenty of people, including Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, have flouted this country’s drug laws at some point. Most business owners I know have skirted regulatory. And I rather suspect that the majority of middle income and upper income middle people out there make somewhat dodgy claims about portions of their tax returns. It is virtually impossible not to. Our society is so codified that actually following all of the laws cannot be done. If you doubt me try to follow every single traffic law exactly next time you drive. In April make your way through all 74,608 pages of the US tax code to make sure you are properly taking all of your exemptions.
We also know that the majority of white collar criminals never go to jail. No one has yet been imprisoned for causing the financial crisis of 2008. Yet it is common knowledge that corporate criminal malfeasance was a root cause of the Great Recession. When workers die because CEOs flout workplace safety laws CEOs rarely serve jail time. Even if they do their punishment is light in comparison to the punishments society metes out to other prisoners. Don Blankenship, who as CEO of Massey Energy was held responsible for the preventable deaths of twenty-nine miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, was sentenced to one year in prison. If the social function of prisons is to protect society they clearly fail in doing so.
All of us are potential prisoners. Many of us are not in prison simply because we have not been caught doing something that has been deemed illegal. For a moment, I want you to imagine yourself a prisoner. Imagine that when you were a college student you were caught with some of the drugs you were experimenting with. Imagine that you made an honest but significant mistake on your taxes and somehow ran afoul of the IRS. Imagine that there was one time when you had one drink to many. Rather than taking a taxi home you recklessly decided to risk it. You were pulled over by the police and wound up in jail. Whatever the case, imagine.
Imagine spending a year or two years or five in a controlled setting. Told when to wake up, when to sleep, when to work. Imagine only eating prison food. If you are lucky it might be a roll, a piece of fruit, some peanut butter. Maybe the prison has a proper cafeteria. Maybe you are really unlucky. The prison contracts its commissary out to a private company. What they feed you is unfit to eat, full of insects and rodent droppings.
Imagine witnessing the daily brutality: routine beatings; men and women extracted from their cells by trained dogs; and persistent sexual violence. Every year one out of ten prisoners is sexually assaulted, half of them by prison guards. Many of the practices exposed in Abu Gharib are routine practices in American prisons that were simply exported aboard.
Imagine that the courts and the legislatures have fallen silent to your many pleas for justice. Imagine that the media rarely reports what happens to people inside prison walls. If you can imagine these things then you might begin to understand why prisoners have called for a national prison strike. The words of prisoner organizer Kinetik Justice may have resonance for you. He said, “These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration. As we understand it, the prison system is a continuation of the slave system.”
And like a nineteen-century abolitionist you might say it is time to end the slave system. The time to end it is not tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade but today. Perhaps we will have to replace it with something. Perhaps we believe that there are some people who must be removed from society for sometime. Perhaps that sentiment is wrong. Whatever the case, the nineteenth-century abolitionist position was not to ask what will come after chattel slavery? It was say that chattel slavery must end. The abolitionist position today is the same. It is not to ask what will come after the prison system but how will the prison be brought to an end.
Whether you consider yourself an abolitionist or a liberal, let me offer you a few things you can do to support the September 9th national prison strike. You can educate yourself and others about the history and function of prisons. Either in your congregation or on your own, organize a group to read books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Caught: the Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk, and the Golden Gulag by Ruth Gilmore. Contact the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and begin corresponding with prisoners, offering them expressions of solidarity. Donate or raise money for the above groups. Invite former prisoners to speak to your congregation. And, finally, consider passing a congregational resolution in support of the prison strike. It is likely to be but one in a wave of many.
As you consider these actions, let us remember that we are all potential prisoners. In the hopes that we might do so, I offer these words from the great Eugene Debs when he sentenced to prison for war resisting. He said, “...years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
May we hear these words in our hearts. Amen and Blessed Be.