Sep 16, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, September 15, 2019
In the Christian New Testament, there are a set of words attributed to Jesus that are sometimes called the harshness sayings by scholars. They are called that because, well, they suggest that Jesus was the sort of person who made a lot of other people uncomfortable. He spoke truth to power. And he was not always polite when he did. He told people that if they wanted to achieve the Kingdom of God then they needed to radically change their society and their lives. He suggested that in order to follow his teachings they needed to shift almost everything about what they did.
You might know a couple of the more famous of these harshness sayings. They are phrases like: “...it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And “If your right eye causes your downfall, tear it out and fling it away” And “If anyone causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck.”
The harshness sayings suggest that religious practice, as Jesus saw it, was not an easy thing. It required personal sacrifice. It necessitated questioning everything about how people did things. To be faithful, in his view, required a radical confrontation with the reigning world order. It meant uprooting the powers and practices that organized human life and replacing them with something else.
Such a religious view is in no way unique to Jesus. In the Hebrew Bible, we find prophets like Jeremiah who complain about how difficult it is for people to follow God’s teachings:
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,
Who seeks integrity,
That I should pardon her.
It was the religious task, the mission, of prophets like Jeremiah to point out to the people of Jerusalem that they were not living in accordance to the will of their God. They needed to change everything they were doing if they were to live in accordance with the divine’s laws. Otherwise, Jeremiah warned, their civilization would face utter destruction.
Again, we see in this prophetic tradition the idea that religious practice is not easy. It is something that requires a fundamental shift in the way that people are doing things. They need to reimagine their relationships with each other and with the divine if they are going to live faithfully.
I have been thinking about the harshness sayings and the prophetic tradition as I have sought a Unitarian Universalist response to the climate crisis. As I mentioned last week, this year in worship we are acknowledging that we, as a human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. At the root of all of these crises lie our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth. Addressing them, as a religious community, means asking the questions: How can we develop the spiritual and religious resources to face these crises? How can we imagine new ways of being and overcome our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth?
Last week we talked about disrupting white supremacy. This week we are talking about how to respond to the climate emergency. It is a good week for it. This coming Friday there will be a youth-led Global Climate Strike. It is likely to be the largest climate action in history. The Unitarian Universalist Association is inviting Unitarian Universalists across the country to participate. Here in Houston, the staff of First Church is encouraging members and friends to join in these protests. On Friday morning, we will be gathering here at 10:00 a.m., making signs, practicing songs, and then, after a brief worship service led by our Assistant Minister Scott Cooper, traveling as a group to city hall.
I hope that many of you will come. Immediately following the service, we are having a brief meeting to discuss logistics. One of the local organizers, Lia Millar will be joining us. At the meeting, we will be also talking about how you can participate if you are unable to miss a day of work or school. I recognize that skipping work to be part of a protest is a risk that makes some of you feel uncomfortable. Maybe it even endangers your livelihood. We want everyone to be able to be express their distress and concern about the climate emergency. And so, our Membership and Communications Coordinator Alma Viscarra has developed a social media strategy for those of you who will be working on Friday. The more of us that express commitment to do something about the climate emergency, the greater the chances are that we can, collectively, do what needs to be done to confront it.
The coming Global Climate Strike has been largely inspired by Greta Thunberg. Greta is a sixteen-year-old from Sweden. Last year she started skipping school every Friday to protest adult inaction on the climate emergency. Frustrated, angry, and more than a bit terrified, she, by herself, sat down in front of the Swedish Parliament and demanded that people start talking about the crisis. Within a few weeks she was joined by other children from throughout Europe. On a regular basis they began to climate strike and skip school. When Greta and those who joined her were criticized for neglecting their education, Greta responded:
“And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?”
There is a certain resonance between Greta’s words and the harshness sayings of Jesus and the prophetic words of the great Hebrew prophets. In her speeches, she has repeatedly chastised adults for failing to address what represents a profound threat to our current human civilization and life on Earth. She says, “... on climate change we have to acknowledge that we have failed. All political movements in their present form have … [failed]. And the media has failed to create broad public awareness.” Her words an indictment to all of us who are over the age of about thirty and who have failed to do anything significant to address the climate emergency.
During our lifetimes, the situation has grown more dire. We have known that carbon emissions are causing the Earth to rapidly warm for decades. And yet, over the last thirty years humans have emitted more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than our species did over the prior two hundred. If we continue to emit carbon dioxide at this rate then we will have placed our planet on the path to warm by two degrees Celsius within ten years. And that will create a truly dire situation. Island nations will drown. Coastal cities will flood. Millions of people will be displaced. Many millions may starve as drought renders some farm lands unproductive.
It is past time to debate the science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of the United Nations, has repeatedly made clear that there is an overwhelming consensus on the part of scientists about the state of the climate emergency. The author Scott Westerfeld has circulated a meme that summarizes how ridiculous it is debate the science. It reads, “Plot idea: 97% of the world’s scientists contrive an environmental crisis, but are exposed by a plucky band of billionaires and oil companies.”
Besides, we have already begun to feel the impact of the climate emergency. Hurricanes like Dorian and Harvey have become more frequent and more intense in recent decades as the Earth has warmed. At the same time, as many as a million species on Earth are threatened with extinction due to human action. Every day, as many as two hundred species go extinct.
Let me give you a few words from Greta Thunberg: “We are now at a time in history where everyone with any insight of the climate crisis that threatens our civilization and the entire biosphere must speak out in clear language, no matter how uncomfortable and unprofitable that may be. We must change almost everything in our current societies.”
She starkly summarizes our situation this way: “Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t.”
“Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t.” I hear in those words echoes of the harshness sayings. I hear in them echoes of the prophetic teachings. But I want to suggest that there’s a difference. And it is a theological difference.
The harshness sayings of Jesus and the prophetic teachings have, for the several centuries, been one of the major animating forces behind what we might call the apocalyptic story. The apocalyptic story is a narrative derived from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. It is probably familiar to most of you. In apocalyptic stories, the world is caught in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. This struggle will ultimately result in cataclysmic battle in which the forces of good triumph for all time over the forces of evil. Humans will find themselves in the heavenly city after God has vanquished the Devil.
In many versions of the apocalyptic story, humans play little role in bringing about this ultimate victory of good over evil. The tradition of the prophets is often interpreted as meaning that God is the one who will bring about collective salvation. The harshness sayings of Jesus are often read in a similar way.
Apocalyptic stories are rooted in a claim that matter, that the Earth, is itself somehow fallen, corrupt, or sinful. Earthly matter, the material substance of which we are composed, passes away. Bodies age and decay. We have physical suffering. Death comes to all of us.
Apocalyptic stories are predicated on the idea that it is possible to escape material corruption. They rest upon the belief that matter and conscious, body and soul, are two separate entities. They are based in a belief that human beings are somehow different from other animal species. And that the purpose of our existence, our reason for being, our salvation, individual and collective, has little to do with the loam and clay, the sand and stone, the soil and dirt, upon we place our feet. This view is poetically expressed in the words of the old Texas songwriter, Jim Reeves:
This world is not my home,
I’m just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue
In the European philosophical and theological tradition this idea goes back a very long way. One place it is found is in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Plato has been so influential on the European tradition that another philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once wrote, “the European philosophical tradition... consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Plato had the idea that the material world is but a shadow of a higher reality. This was the world of forms. He used a famous allegory to explain the distinction between the material world and the world of forms. Perhaps you have heard it, it is called the allegory of the cave.
Imagine, he argued, that there are group of prisoners chained in a cave. They are chained in such a way that they have to look straight ahead at the cave wall. They cannot turn their heads to see behind them. Behind them is a fire. And a group of puppeteers with puppets. The puppeteers use the puppets to cast shadows on the wall in front of them. The prisoners can only see the shadows, not the objects that are creating them. They mistake the shadows for reality. When, in truth, the shadows were a pale imitation of it.
In his reckoning, the shadows were matter. The things casting the shadows was pure being. Human bodies were matter. They were transient one-dimensional reflections of the pure being of the soul. Bodies died. Souls were immortal.
This division between the body and soul gave philosophy, in Plato’s rendering, much of its purpose. Philosophy was meant to be a discipline whereby its practitioners could move beyond the illusions of materiality and immerse themselves in the contemplation of true reality. Socrates was another Greek philosopher. He was Plato’s teacher and in Plato’s writings he is often cast as the ideal philosopher. He is also frequently described as disassociating himself from his body and matter--choosing the contemplation of the ideal over a direct engagement with the earthly mess of daily living. In one of Plato’s dialogues he’s described as someone who “stands aside from the body insofar as he can.” His alienation from his body is so complete that Plato depicts him as caring almost nothing about clothing, comfort, or even food. He can stay up all night thinking about the soul and not get tired. He is anything but an ordinary human. “Socrates is weird,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes. Plato’s transformed person, the one who has conquered their corruptible, transient, material body is, very little like you or me. Faithful living, in his rendering, is harsh and takes us far from ordinary life.
Plato’s division between the body and the soul was taken up by many ancient Christian theologians. Augustine, who might be thought of as the father of Trinitarian Christianity, took Plato’s idea of the separation between the body and the soul and, combining it his reading of the harshness sayings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, applied it to human history. He thought it was impossible for human beings to achieve God’s vision for justice and salvation. This was because, he reasoned, our material reality made us corrupt and imperfect. God, however, was incorruptible and perfect. There was no point in struggling for justice because humanity’s corrupt nature would ultimately screw things up. The only thing we could do was wait for God to bring about the end of human history. Which God was going to do in fairly short order.
This apocalyptic view of history has been one of the central stories in European theology and philosophy since Augustine. And thinking about it, one might find resonances between apocalyptic stories and the current climate emergency. However, I detect meaningful distinctions. Accepting that we are in the midst of a climate emergency means embracing our material reality, rather than rejecting it. It means recognizing that humans are, collectively, largely the agents of our own historical destiny rather than part of a divine plan.
Last week, I spoke about the need to find new ways of being and new religious narratives. Those new ways of being and new religious narratives are connected to embracing our materiality rather than rejecting it. They require us to recognize that this world is our home. That our treasure is here, not laid up in some cerulean realm. That we recognize that our actions, small and large, have an impact on this Earth and on how the human story will progress or resolve itself.
I had something of an awakening to this over the summer when I was in Paris. My parents, son, and I were there on one of our fairly frequent European quasi-vacations. My father teaches most summers abroad and for most of my life I have joined my parents for at least part of their trip--my father working hard and the rest of us more-or-less on vacation.
The summer heat reached unprecedented levels while were there. For three days in a row, it was over a hundred degrees. One day, it was over 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Paris is not like Houston. It is not a city built with air conditioning. The apartment we were staying in did not have central air. There was nowhere to escape the heat. Inside it was hot. Outside it was even hotter. Walking down the street or just moving was exhausting.
As we suffered through that heat, I thought about the connection between air travel and climate change. I am pescatarian. I do not own a car. I take public transit or walk most places I go. I do not buy a lot of new clothes. But even so, my love of travel has made my carbon footprint, my contribution to climate change, much larger than it should be.
When I hear the harshness sayings of Greta Thunberg, I hear her talking to people like me--people of self-declared conscience, people who understand themselves to have empathetic and good hearts. And I hear her saying two things. I hear her saying, you need to do all you can to work to confront this crisis we are in. If we do not resolve it now it will fundamentally change the world we inhabit for the worse. And I hear her saying, you need to reimagine your own habits, your own way of moving through the world.
It is a call to a new way of being. One not based in a rejection of material being, but its embrace. It is a call to hear the words of a poet like Pablo Neruda:
Es una copa llena
The world is
a glass overflowing
It is a call to recognize that the Earth itself is sacred.
The author Naomi Klein has observed that this new way of being changes everything. There is a need, she writes, for “breaking... many rules at once,” for “shifting cultural values,” for changing the way we understand the world, the narratives we have, and the actions we take.
This can only be done through collective sacrifice and collective effort. We have made such sacrifices before. It might be possible to make them again. The people of the United States sacrificed enormously to mobilize to defeat fascism during World War II. They changed their consumer habits. They grew their own food. They even reorganized family structures--sending women into factories while men went off to war.
Such collective sacrifice and collective effort is being called for in legislation like the Green New Deal. Its ten trillion-dollar price tag has been called outrageous by some. Yet, it is within the range of the possible. The United States government spent as much as three or four trillion dollars on bailing out the banks during the recent financial crisis. That same government has spent as much as six trillion dollars on the so-called War on Terror.
I am pretty sure that four plus six still equals ten. So, the question does not appear to be do we have the resources to attempt to quickly shift our society and address the climate emergency. The question rather seems to be, do we have the will make the collective sacrifice and effort to do so. I am not going to pretend that I, or you, or any of us individually has that capacity. I find myself uncertain that I can even give up air travel. My parents and brother live in far-away states, most of my scholarly collaborators gather for academic conferences, and I enjoy seeing distant parts of the world. When I think about radically changing the way I do things, I find myself thinking of a line from Augustine, “Lord make me pure but not yet!”
But I also find myself thinking of words from Greta Thunberg about hope, the possibility of change, and the ways that future generations might view us. Here a few final words from her:
“The year 2078 I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there was still time to act. You say you love your children above all else and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible there is no hope.”
After Greta’s words, I close not with a prayer but with an invitation. I invite us to join together on in the pursuit of new ways of being. I invite us to engage in collective action. I invite us to come together and change everything. I invite us to see ourselves as part and parcel of this material reality, this good blue green ball of a planet we call Earth.
Please join me, First Church’s staff, thousands of other Unitarian Universalists throughout the country, and millions of other people across the world on Friday. Join us if you can, in person. Join us virtually if you cannot.
And now, I invite you, the congregation, to say Amen.
Jul 24, 2019
Last December Mark Lilla published an article in the New York Review of Books titled “Two Roads for the New French Right.” It discusses intellectual currents in French amongst the Right, specifically amongst people about my age or younger. According to Lilla, they represent something new. They are more concerned with climate change and more critical of capitalism than their elders. Some of them are genuinely anti-capitalist.
Lilla drew extensively from Pascale Tournier’s book “Le vieux monde est de retour, Enquête sur les nouveaux conservateurs” for the article. Pascale is a French journalist who writes for La Vie, a left-leaning humanist oriented Roman Catholic magazine. The title of her book roughly translates to “The Old World is Returning, A Study of the New Conservatives.” Since I study conservative thought and right-wing movements in the United States, I thought it would be interesting to get a sense of what’s going on with the French Right. I sent Tournier an email and she graciously agreed to meet with me.
Most of our conversation covered the ground she touched upon in her book. I read French quite slowly and since buying it in Arles last week have managed to make my way through the first couple of chapters. What she, and Lilla, argue is that conservatism is a new idea in France. Historically, the main currents amongst the French Right have been divided into the Orléanists, Bonapartists, and Legitimists. Each current aligned itself with a different royal house that claimed the French throne. The Orléanists supported the Orleans cadet branch of the House of Bourbon, the Bonapartists supported the family of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Legitimists supported the elder branch of the House of Bourbon. Without getting into the details, each current holds distinctive political positions about the role of the state in French politics as well as democracy. In the 1970s right-wing populism started to emerge as another current in the form of the National Front led by the Le Pen family. And within the last few years conservatism has begun to emerge as a fifth current.
Taken as a whole the conservatism of the French Right is quite distinct from the conservatism of the Right in the United States. Conservatism in the English-speaking world dates to Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution. Conservatism in France is primarily rooted in French and Catholic sources. In some ways, Tournier’s description of it made it appear as having little in common with conservatism in the United States. American conservatism is organized around the maintenance and restoration of white supremacy. It promulgates climate change denial and is closely tied to white evangelical Christianity. It celebrates capitalism and business and is anti-intellectual enough in its orientation that intellectual historians, climate scientists, and mainstream economists often state, in some form or another, that it has no genuine intellectual tradition.
The French conservatives that Tournier describes are deeply concerned with climate change. The flagship publication is called Limite and bills itself as a “revue d'écologie intégrale,” a magazine of integrated ecology. They are Catholic and have been deeply influenced by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, which argues that climate change is real, and that Catholics must take it seriously. They link their ecological concerns with an analysis that says humanity has overstepped the limits of the natural order, which is how they end up as recognizably conservative. They are for heteronormative nuclear families and opposed to gay marriage. They reject the animating slogan of the May 1968 movement, “It is forbidden to forbid” and instead claim that limits must be sought in all aspects of human life if climate change is to be confronted. Interestingly, this leads them to be critical of capitalism as they fear it is both damaging to the planet and undermines what they imagine to be traditional social arrangements.
According to Tournier, they have turned away from the antisemitism of older generations of the French Right. Instead, they are anti-Islamic. When I asked Tournier if this meant that there were either Jews or Protestants among their members, she told me that Jews and Protestants largely supported Macron. She didn’t know of any of them who were either Jewish or Protestant.
Overall, Catholicism seems to be the conservatives central animating concern. Unlike the older French Right, for whom Catholicism is largely a cultural and political orientation, Tournier thinks that the New French Right was deeply influenced by their faith. It is their faith, she thinks, that has led them to take climate change so seriously. It is their faith, also, which seems have to pushed them outside many of the old Right-Left dichotomies.
Tournier and I ended our conservation not with a discussion of the Right in the United States but with a discussion of the reemergence of the Religious Left. I described for her the work of William Barber II, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the work of my own Unitarian Universalist Association under the leadership of Susan Frederick-Gray. My own takeaway from our time together was that there is energy for new ideas on the Right in France in a similar way that there is energy for new ideas on the Left in the United States. I have no idea the significance of this confluence other than it suggests that political ideologies, like the rest of human culture, are fluid, ever changing, and, at the same time, built upon what has come before.
However appealing I might find some aspects of New French Right’s religious based approach to climate change, it makes more than a little nervous to take a friendly interest in political currents that, whatever their other appeals, routinely inhabit the same space as reactionary, historically anti-semitic, movements like the National Front (now the National Rally). My own nervousness was heightened when I discussed Limite with a friend who is not a scholar or a journalist but a climate change activist. She told me, “they dress up their right-wing politics in an ecological package. They are not serious about ecology but they are serious about opposing gay rights, feminism, and other cultural issues dear to the Left.” Not being immersed in French politics, I am in no position to judge her assessment. But it does make me cautious.
Jul 18, 2019
Today I met up with two anarchists to discuss French and American politics and social movements. I first met MN almost fifteen years ago when we part of the organizing committee for the Industrial Workers of the World Centenary in Chicago. He is currently splitting his time between Paris, where his partner works, and the United States. He is no longer a member of the IWW but he remains active in radical politics. He works as a house painter.
I met FD three years ago when I was in Paris on my way to an academic conference in Toulouse. He is a militant with the French anarcho-syndicalist union CNT-SO. He is a teacher and is currently finishing a PhD in philosophy.
Both MN and FD are about my age and, like me, both men started participating in the anarchist movement when they were in their late teens or early twenties. Much of our conversation focused on the present state of the French anarchist movement and the overall political situation in Europe and the United States. We also spent a little time discussing common acquittances or our previous collaborations.
France has a long anarchist history but in recent decades its anarchist movement has been relatively small. The General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, is effectively France’s largest labor union. It was originally founded by anarchists in the late nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century it was dominated by the Communist Party. The CNT-SO, or National Confederation of Labor, Workers Solidarity, is one of two anarcho-syndicalist labor unions in France today. Both are small and both exist because of a split in the historic French CNT which was formed in 1940s by anarchists who left the CGT and Spanish exiles.
The split in the French CNT occurred within the last fifteen years. It was over the issue of whether or not the union should have paid staff. This is a controversy that was emerged in almost every single anarcho-syndicalist union with more than a few hundred members over the last twenty years. The people who went onto form CNT-SO believed that paid staff were necessary to do certain kinds of work—legal work, for instance—while those who formed CNT-France rejected paid staff of any kind. I believe that in advanced capitalist economies paid organizers are a necessity for radical organizations to exist and sustain themselves on any kind of scale. That, however, is another blog post for another day.
During our conversation, FD told me he thinks that French society as a whole has moved significantly to the Right in the last twenty years. He also said that the radical Left is largely moribund or bereft of new ideas. The May Day parade in Paris, for instance, might attract tens of thousands of people but they all follow the same parade route that they have followed for the past fifty years. More concerning, he felt that the socialists and the anarchists were mostly without new ideas. The Socialist Party is rapidly losing influence with French politics and, he argued, many contemporary Leftist political leaders were no longer anti-capitalist—they look to American style liberalism as an inspiration rather than social democracy or the broader socialist tradition.
We spent a lot of time discussing our personal histories with the IWW and CNT-SO. I made the point that the IWW has increased in size over the last two decades. It has grown from a few hundred members to perhaps as many as three or four thousand. Despite a troubled history of interpersonal conflict, significant structural and cultural challenges, and its small size it has been an innovative force within the American labor movement. Its campaigns at Starbucks and Jimmy Johns proved that fast food workers could be organized. And its Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has not only proved that imprisoned workers can be organized, it has helped coordinate some of the largest prison strikes in United States history.
MN shared his reasons for no longer belonging to the IWW—I can’t, as the senior minister of a congregation with twenty employees, I am no longer eligible for membership. He said that his repeated experiences of interpersonal conflict within the union had led him to believe that the IWW would never overcome its structural issues. He also said that he gained invaluable skills from his time with the IWW and that his experiences with the union had helped him to grow into an effective organizer in other contexts.
FD had a different perspective. He said that his experience with the CNT-SO had taught him that anarcho-syndicalism was probably never going to be a mass movement in France. But he had learned that it was the job of the far left to organize the margins. Anarchists are best suited to organize people who other groups—be they labor unions or political groupings—are not willing to organize. They have the most success organizing amongst those who are the farthest margins of society. In France, this has largely meant organizing the migrants who in hotels and in the hospitality industry. He shared with me that at the moment there is a strike organized by migrant hotel workers who are members of CNT-SO in Marseille. It has been getting a significant amount of press and bringing some good energy into the CNT-SO.
Apr 1, 2019
as preached the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 31, 2019
We have reached the midpoint of our sermon series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This morning we are going to be talking about the fourth principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The core question I want us to focus on is: What does it mean to be responsible? Before we get to that question, though, I want to invite you back with me to an earlier time and place. I want you to come me with to Geneva, Switzerland.
The year is 1553. Geneva is a growing medieval city. A mass of tight streets and narrow houses on the shore of a large sweet water lake, in the next ten years it will almost double in size. Near the city’s center sits St. Pierre Cathedral. It is a Gothic structure, solid stone. There are big round columns capped with carvings depicting biblical scenes, angels, the resurrection of Christ, Satan, and even a mermaid. The rest of the massive sanctuary is spare. The ancient statues and carvings that had depicted the saints have all been smashed by iconoclasts. The stain glass remains. Blue, purple, and red pools on top of the wooden pews. Near the front of the church stands the pulpit. And from that pulpit each Sunday preaches John Calvin--one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin is a man of both religious reform and religious reaction. He is a reformer for having rejected the authority of the Pope in Rome. He is a reformer who wishes to save the church from the accrued corruptions of medieval theology. He is a reformer who claims that salvation comes through faith alone. He is a reformer who understands the Bible to be incontestable the word of God.
He is also a reactionary whose supporters have turned him into the virtual dictator of both civil and religious life in Geneva. He is a reactionary who believes that without divine intervention humans are innately depraved. He is a reactionary who believes that certain ancient theological, non-scriptural, teachings are non-negotiable. He believes in the Trinity--the idea that the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus Christ are all one single being. He believes in infant baptism--the claim that the immersion of children in water shortly after their birth is a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people.
Just recently, Calvin has charged a man by the name of Miguel Serveto with spreading heresy. Serveto--who will be known to history as Michael Servetus--is a brilliant man. A doctor, a theologian, a true Renaissance scholar, he is the first European to describe pulmonary circulation, the way blood moves from the heart to the lungs and back again. Servetus’s theology is not Calvin’s. He does not believe that people are born wicked or sinful. He rejects infant baptism as unnecessary. Instead, he holds that it is only possible to enter into a covenant with God as an adult.
More troubling to Calvin is Servetus’s position on the Trinity. Servetus has rejected it as a non-scriptural form of tritheism. Servetus reads Hebrew and Greek fluently. He argues that the Trinity is to be found nowhere in the Bible. He believes Trinitarians are actually tritheists. He claims they worship three gods. In one inflammatory text he has written, “Instead of a God you have a three-headed Cerberus.”
It is not solely Servetus’s denunciation of the Trinity that Calvin finds troubling. It is the way that Servetus thinks about Jesus. Servetus believes that Jesus was a man. In one particularly offensive book Servetus has written: “God himself is our spirit dwelling in us, and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain working latent energy, a certain heavenly sense, a latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.” In this passage and elsewhere Servetus has signaled that he believes it is possible for each human being to awaken the divinity within them. Jesus, Servetus believes, was created by God to help make people aware of the breath of God which resides in each of us.
Servetus has been inspired in his views through his encounters with Judaism and Islam. He grew up in Spain immediately after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel had offered the Jews and Muslims who lived there a choice. They could convert to Christianity or they could suffer banishment. Many stayed, converted, and secretly continued to practice their religions. Servetus’s interactions with these conversos has convinced him that the Trinity is the stumbling block that prevents practitioners of all three religions from recognizing that they are all children of the same God. This belief and his discovery that the word Trinity is not in the Bible has given him a lifelong mission to teach the Christian world about the errors of the Trinity.
Sitting on a wooden chair, gripping its hand tooled armrests, brooding, in St. Pierre Cathedral, Calvin reflects that Servetus’s views threaten all of Christianity. If they are allowed to spread, they will destroy the very Reformation Calvin has worked so hard to create. Servetus’s unorthodox theology will undermine Christian theological unity. The Catholics and the Protestants might not agree upon much but they agree upon the Trinity. They agree that humans do not have the spirit of God dwelling within them. And they agree upon the necessity of infant baptism.
Calvin is thankful that in response to his charges the Council of Geneva, the city’s civic authority, has condemned Servetus to death. At Calvin’s prompting the Council has issued a verdict “to purge the Church of God of such infection and cut off the rotten member.” This surgery is not be merciful. Servetus is to burned alive with his books on a pyre built from green wood.
Calvin sits and broods. He and Servetus have corresponded for years. When they were young men they had both been on the run from the Catholic Inquisition. Their paths almost crossed once in Paris as they each sought to escape the authorities. Yet, Servetus has grown so obstinate in his heresies that Calvin has become convinced that Servetus will never realize his errors.
Calvin sits and broods. A friend arrives, bringing him a report of Servetus’s death. Even at the end, Servetus refused to recant his beliefs. On the way to his place of execution he cried, “O God, O God: what else can I speak of but God.” His last recorded words also deny the Trinity. Right before he succumbs to the flames he wails, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” Calvin’s friend observes that Servetus could have saved himself from the flames if only he had transposed the words. Had he called on Christ the Eternal Son instead of Christ the Son of the Eternal God he would have been allowed to live.
The trial and execution of Michael Servetus is one of the most famous episodes in Unitarian history. His 1531 book “On the Errors of the Trinity” is largely regarded as first text in the continuous stream of religious tradition that stretches from sixteenth-century Europe to this pulpit in twenty-first-century Houston. It is true that are earlier figures and movements whose theology influenced ours. The second century North African theologian Origen taught that all souls would eventually be united with God. Arius was another North African theologian. Living in the third and fourth centuries, he built a large following by arguing against the Trinity. He believed that Jesus was not eternal. He believed Jesus was created by an eternal God. But despite these truths, it is with Servetus that enduring Unitarian theology begins.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Edict of Torda. Issued in 1568 by King John Sigismund, the Unitarian king of Transylvania, it was the first European law guaranteeing religious tolerance. Sigismund and the other Transylvanian Unitarians were greatly influenced by Servetus as they struggled to make sense of Christianity while living on the edge of the pluralistic world of that was the Ottoman Empire.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Polish Brethren of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who were known as Socianians. They were followers of the Italian theologian Fausto Sozzini. Like Servetus, they rejected original sin and the eternal nature of Jesus. They influenced the English Unitarians who later founded some of the first Unitarian churches in the United States. When President Andrew Jackson’s followers smeared President John Quincy Adams for his Unitarianism they called him a Socianian.
This direct line is one reason why our tradition was long summarized as a commitment to “freedom, reason, and tolerance.” When asked to describe Unitarian Universalism, the lifelong member of our communion Melissa Harris-Perry wrote, we “set aside divisive doctrinal battles [while] we seek a straightforward commitment to the fluid, open, collective work of seeking our truths together without assuming that we will all share the same truth.” An understanding that doctrinal beliefs can be lethally divisive is why a commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is central to our faith.
Now, I said, at the outset of my sermon, I wanted to focus our attention on one word of our principle. That word is responsible. Since we are examining a single word, I thought it wise to consult that massive tomb known as the Oxford English Dictionary. It once spanned more than a bookshelf. These days it has been safely reduced to a database. Turning to the OED, as it is affectionately known, we discover that the word is both an adjective and a noun. In our principle it appears as an adjective modifying the word search. There are eleven different ways in which responsible can be used as an adjective. The earliest dates to the sixteenth century. The most recent only came into use in the 1970s. Our adjective invokes the most contemporary meaning. Responsible in our principle appears to mean, “a practice or activity: carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.” A responsible search: a search carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.
Responsible is derived from the French responsible. The French comes the Latin respōnsāre, which means “to reply.” We might then think that to be responsible is to reply or respond to some set of underlying moral or ethical claims. Our fourth principle does not tell us what these underlying moral or ethical claims are. It only suggests that we are to be accountable to them.
In what remains of our sermon, I want to suggest to you two varieties of moral claims we might be responsible to in our search for truth and meaning. And then, in a somewhat tautological move, I want to suggest that the challenge of the search for truth and meaning is that it is a search for the very thing we are responsible to.
Two types of moral claims we might respond to in our search are the horizontal and the transcendental. These types of claims exist upon separate axis. As the name implies, horizontal claims are those that we make based upon this plane of existence. We make a horizontal claim when we refer directly to our relationships with other humans, other animals, and the Earth.
Transcendental claims are those that we make based upon some other plane of existence. As the name implies, such claims transcend this world. We make a transcendental claim when we refer directly to our relationship with a moral law that exists outside of the human community or exists due to a divinity such as that indescribable religious element we call God.
Much religious jostling takes place over the question of which of these two types of claims--the horizontal or transcendental--takes precedence. This Thursday at Rice I am going to be part of panel on interfaith dialogue. The conversation will be between an evangelical Christian, a Muslim, and myself. We are supposed to circulate our questions to each other in advance. The questions are supposed to be around some aspect of the other person’s tradition that we do not understand or would like clarified.
The evangelical Christian is from a conservative tradition that is opposed to sex same marriage. One of my questions for him, therefore, has to do why his community chooses to emphasize that aspect of their theology. There are only a handful of Christian scriptures that appear to address issues of same sex love. Most of them were originally directed towards other concerns. In contrast, there are over two thousand biblical verses that focus on the injunction to be in solidarity with the poor and to work towards economic justice. Why, I want to know, does his tradition emphasize one at the expense of the other? The evangelical Christian’s question for me is: Isn’t the dismissal of God, the deification of the human spirit, and trust in human ethics a naïve and dangerous project?
Based on these questions, I am not entirely certain our efforts at interfaith dialogue are off to a good start. However, I think that they nicely highlight distinctions between horizontal and transcendental moral claims. I arrive at my line of inquiry from a horizontal position. I am concerned about the GLBT community and economic justice because of the human relationships I have. I grew a Unitarian Universalist in a faith community that has long taught that many different kinds of sexual expression and gender identities are natural, normal, and wonderful. I have long known that there is only one human family and that a society based on the exploitation of labor leads to poverty, injustice and human suffering. Looking around, I am moved by the pain that I see in the eyes of others. I recognize it as similar to my own. It is like the verses by Mary Oliver in our hymnal:
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. / Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.
Such words summarize horizontal moral claims more eloquently than I can. Here we find an understanding that it is the shared human experience--our animal, bodily, loving nature--that unites us. It is to this earthly unity that we are responsible.
In contrast, my evangelical counterpart’s relationship is not primarily with the horizontal--with the human community that surrounds him--but rather, with the transcendental, that which he has chosen to name God. He worries about my more horizontal morality because, he fears, it misses the place where morality is rooted: in a particular conception of the divine.
This conception of the divine, his community teaches, has issued certain injunctions about how we humans are to live our lives. If we fail to live by those injunctions--which for him includes particular teachings about human sexuality--we not only lead morally deformed lives in this world. We jeopardize ourselves in the next world. That, is a truly, transcendental position. Not only is our moral orientation to something that exists outside of the human life we share. But the consequences we face for failing to live a moral life come not in this horizontal world but in some other transcendental plane of existence.
My evangelical counterpart’s transcendental position is not the only one. Nor is my horizontal position the sum of horizontalism. Our human best includes people who oriented themselves towards the transcendental. Coretta Scott and Martin King attended Unitarian churches when lived in Boston. They ultimately moved away from Unitarianism because they felt they needed more of a transcendental connection to the divine than they believed our tradition offered them.
Conversely, our human worst includes people who oriented themselves towards the horizontal. The Soviet Stalinists of mid-twentieth-century killed millions of people. They justified their actions on horizontal claims about alleviating the most suffering for the largest number of people. Some, like the great Russian dissident Anna Akhmatova, drew upon the transcendental to survive their brutality, writing:
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me...”
Other Russian dissidents, such as the poet Victor Serge, drew upon the horizontal as they resisted:
Our hands are unconscious, tough, ascendant, conscious
plainsong, delighted suffering,
nailed to rainbows.
Together, together, joined,
they have here seized
And we didn’t know
that together we held
this dazzling thing.
And so, we reach our tautology, our fourth principle. Our Unitarian Universalist Association has committed us to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” But that search, is, so often for the thing that we are responsible to. In your search do you find yourself responding to the horizontal? Is it the human, the this world, the way rain glistens upon live oak leaves or the scamper of a lizard (is it a gecko, a skink, or a six lined race runner?), the tears that you see in the eyes of migrants as they suffer under Texas bridges, that call to you? Or is it an awe-inspiring indescribable divinity who blesses the universe with life and stirs within you an understanding that you should work to change the country’s barbaric practices towards immigrants? Is it both? Are they incompatible? Which are you responsible to? The horizontal or the transcendental? Or, perhaps, even, something else, something that I have failed to name that is neither horizontal or transcendental but unites, encompasses, or exists outside of both?
I could close with those questions. Instead, I want us to reach back to Calvin and Servetus. Calvin had Servetus killed because he felt that our religious forbearer endangered humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. Calvin believed that a relationship with the transcendental took precedence over a horizontal relationship. Conversely, Servetus was trying to reconcile the horizontal and transcendental. Humans understand God in many ways. Finding the commonality between these paths, he thought, would lead to peace. And yet, he could not give up on what he felt was his correct understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. As he was burned he cried, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” And as Calvin’s friend observed, Servetus needed only to change the words--to compromise on his understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental--to save his life.
It is difficult to be responsible. It is challenging to understand what we are supposed to respond to even as we seek to find it. And, so recognizing this challenge but also recognizing our call to meet it, I close with repetition of our earlier reading by Leslie Takahashi. I invite you to hear it as a prayer:
Walk the maze
within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves.
This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.
Listen in the twists and turns.
Listen in the openness within all searching.
Listen: a wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you
and in that dialogue lies peace.
Let us walk the maze together,
open to where it leads us,
open to the transcendental,
if we encounter it,
and the horizontal,
when we find it.
Be us not afraid to name the divine
if we discover it
and be us not afraid
and care for the human,
and all that is
this beautiful world
wherever we go.
to say Amen.
Mar 25, 2019
This is the third sermon in our series on the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The seven principles are not a creed. They are not a statement of belief. One way to understand them is that they are a covenant--an agreement about the promises Unitarian Universalists make to each other about how we will live together. Covenants are at the heart of Unitarian Universalist practice. We use them in the place of a set of beliefs to which all members of the community must subscribe. They are one of the oldest customs among our congregations. In New England there are Unitarian Universalist churches whose covenants date back to the seventeenth century. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker offers a concise description of where covenants lie within our tradition. She writes, “In place of a hierarchical church authorized by tradition and governed by priests, bishops, and popes, [our religious ancestors] ... insisted congregations should be organized by people coming together and making a covenant to ‘walk together’ in their spiritual lives. Covenanted religious communities rest on the authority of their members...” This last point is especially important. The world changes over time. And, as I recounted a couple of weeks ago, the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association--the covenant we promise to keep between our congregations--have changed in response to shifts in society and our understanding of the world around us. We been able to change them because have given ourselves the authority to change them.
This week we are tackling the third principle: “Acceptance of another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” I want to make a deceptively simple claim about this principle. It offers us a basic formula for our life together. As Unitarian Universalists, we promise to accept each other. We promise to encourage each other towards spiritual growth. And we promise to do so as part of a congregation.
My claim about the third principle is deceptively simple. None of these things are easy. If we engage with them we will find ourselves transformed. But then, is that not a purpose of religious life? To transform ourselves and equip each other to transform the world? This morning I want to take us through each part of the formula for life together that the third principle offers us. And I want to suggest to you how following it can be transformative. But before I do, a couple of painfully bad jokes.
In a big elegant Unitarian Universalist church up in New England, a visitor was making a ruckus in the back pew. After every sentence the minister spoke, the visitor shouted, “Hallelujah! Amen!”
As the service progressed, an usher approached the visitor and spoke to them quietly. “Uh... excuse me... we just do not do things like that here.”
“But I got religion!” the visitor exclaimed.
“Well,” the usher said, “You certainly did not get it here.”
One evening, a Unitarian Universalist was at a cocktail party with a bunch of people from other religious traditions. After a little while, the Unitarian Universalist realized that they could tell the religious tradition of the other guests by the first question someone asked them.
The Methodists wanted to know, “Where do you go to church?”
The Congregationalists queried, “Did your family come over on the Mayflower too?”
And the other Unitarian Universalists said, “Where did you go to graduate school?”
Acceptance of one another
Those are pretty bad jokes. I told them to offer to two observations. First, many of the members of most Unitarian Universalist communities have certain, usually unspoken, expectations around the kinds of behavior that are appropriate in our churches. Second, many of the members of most Unitarian Universalist communities have certain, usually unspoken, expectations around the type of people who are attracted to Unitarian Universalism.
First observation... expectations for behavior...
When I speak of behavior I am not talking about the question of ethics. I am not asking, how must we act in the world if we love justice and love goodness? Instead, I am talking about culture: the implicit assumptions people make about how to conduct themselves in certain situations. This brings us back to our first joke.
Unitarian Universalist churches are not known for our ecstatic religious celebrations. Bob Fazakerly, our musician emeritus, told us when he retired that people used to come to First Church for a classical music concert and a lecture. Neither classical music concerts nor lectures are genres known for their ebullient audience participation. If anything, it is precisely the opposite. In symphony halls and lecture venues the audience is supposed to sit quietly and absorb the powerful music or the stimulating message.
When I have preached at various congregations I have tried to shake this up a bit. I have invited people to talk back to me or to each other during the sermon. The results have sometimes been... well... humorous? Responding immediately to the sermon, offering an “Hallelujah” or an “Amen” in reaction to whatever the preacher just said is not something that happens in most Unitarian Universalist congregations.
A discomfort with saying “Hallelujah” I can understand, at least on a theological level. The word is Hebrew. It roughly translates to, “Praise God.” A lot of Unitarian Universalists are humanists or atheists. They are not usually comfortable praising God.
“Amen” is another Hebrew word. It translates to “so be it.” Unitarian Universalists say it fairly often throughout the service. I invite you to say at various points on Sunday morning. When you say it you signify your rough assent or agreement with the offered prayers or sermon. You are not indicating that you agree with every word spoken. Instead, you are indicating your support for the general spirit of the message or prayer.
In a lot of religious contexts, people say “Amen” frequently throughout the service. In some congregations there is even something called the “Amen” corner. That is a group of people who get pretty excited throughout the service and support the preacher by saying “Amen” whenever there’s something they like in the sermon. Shall we try it for a moment? Can I get a quick “Amen”?
Most Unitarian Universalist congregations do not have “Amen” corners. One of the first times someone pointed out to me just how closely this reflected the culture of the classical music concert hall and college lecture when I was serving a church in Cleveland, Ohio.
I invited a Black Baptist friend of mine to come preach the Sunday sermon to my congregation. We part of a network of religious communities and clergy devoted to social justice. We socialized together, and I occasionally attended her church on my Sundays off. Their services were boisterous affairs. There was a big gospel choir, a strong “Amen” corner, lots of clapping during the hymns...
So, my friend came to my congregation and gave her sermon. The congregation appreciated her and the service went well. Afterwards, I asked her what she thought. She said, “It certainly was tranquil. Very nice people. Similar vibe to the Cleveland Symphony.”
Similar vibe to the symphony... In the bad joke the usher was telling the visitor that it was not OK to bring their whole self to the worship service. There were to be no Amens, no Hallelujahs, no ecstatic expressions of religion. The visitor might have accepted--they were no thrown out of the church nor where they theologically condemned. But they were certainly not welcomed.
This leads me to a series of questions for you. Do you feel welcomed at First Church? Do you feel like you can bring your whole self here? If not, why not? Conversely, are there certain behaviors that you expect on a Sunday morning? What are they? How would you feel if we had an “Amen” corner? It is good to talk about our answers to these questions. It is one way that we clarify our assumptions about what it means to do church together. It allows us to make the invisible visible and to challenge our own assumptions. That, in turns, opens up a space for us to engage in the work of collective transformation.
Second observation... expectations around culture...
In my second bad joke, Unitarian Universalists ask each other the question, “Where did you go to graduate school?” This question surfaces an assumption about Unitarian Universalism that many people have. It is often presumed to the educated person’s religion.
As a denomination one of our greatest struggles is around class diversity. The historian Mark Harris wrote an entire book on classism within Unitarian Universalism. He claims that a preference for a more tranquil worship service is tied to the class orientation that many of our churches had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Back then, New England Unitarianism was the religion of the social elite. They rejected the instant emotional conversion to salvation favored by evangelicals. Instead, they thought that salvation was to be found through an educational process that would last throughout life. This understanding of salvation--the slow and steady, rather than the quick--led them to think that churches were not different from universities.
Even though I am myself Harvard educated, I have experienced my share of class discomfort in Unitarian Universalist congregations. While I was working on my doctorate I regularly did pulpit supply. About twice a month, I preached at a different church. Some of them were small and scrappy. Others were large and elegant.
As some of you know, I am a single parent. When I would go preach someplace I would have to bring my son along with me. When he was little, when it was time for the service to start, my son would want to sit up in the pulpit with me. He did not know anyone else at the congregation. And as a five, six, or seven-year-old he was not comfortable sitting out there, in the pews, by himself.
Now those of you who are parents, or know children at all, can imagine how this sometimes played out. Kids squirm. They do their own thing. He would dutifully go off and join the other children when it was time for religious education classes. But he was very clear he wanted to sit next to his Dad until then.
Those big elegant New England churches have huge pulpits elevated over the entire congregation. There is nowhere to hide in them. You can imagine how the presence of my wiggling child next to me in the pulpit sometimes went over. After preaching, on more than occasion, I received notes or comments about how my sermon was very good but it was inappropriate for me bring my son with me when I went to lead the service somewhere. He was too distracting. The underlying message: we do not want single working parents as our ministers. That is about a classist message as they come.
More questions: Do you feel welcomed at First Church? Do you feel like your level of education or economic class matters to other members? Do you have certain assumptions about the level of education or the economic class about other members? Again, it is good to talk about our answers to these questions. When we talk about them we can make the invisible visible and challenge our own assumptions. We can raise the questions: Who is really accepted at First Church? Who do we really welcome here? Do we need to change our congregation to live into our universalist theology of radical love and acceptance.
Encouragement to spiritual growth
Asking these questions together can push us towards greater spiritual growth. That is one of principal reasons for our religious life together: to deepen our own religious sensibilities. Or as I put it at the beginning of the sermon: to transform ourselves and our community. We might think of it is as a process. First, someone is welcomed into our religious communion. Second, they are encouraged towards spiritual growth.
The very process of welcoming can be an opportunity for spiritual growth--for personal and collective transformation. In recent weeks there has been a fair amount of discussion in Unitarian Universalist circles around the question of welcoming. How many of you get or read the UU World? It is our association’s quarterly magazine.
In the most recent issue there was an article on how Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome transgender and genderqueer people. It was written by a cis-gender woman and centered on her experience of relating to transgender and genderqueer people. Many transgender and genderqueer Unitarian Universalists were outraged.
CB Beal is a Unitarian Universalist educator who self-describes “as a gender non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer person.” They wrote an eloquent response centering their experience and the experiences of other transgender and genderqueer people in our congregations. They challenged Unitarian Universalists to consider who feels most welcome in our congregations. They challenged Unitarian Universalists to ask the question: What standards of behavior, what kinds of dress, what identities are expected in most Unitarian Universalist congregations? They write, “When we [Unitarian Universalists] ... speak of inclusion but we only mean that people are welcome among us when their identities do not cause us confusion or discomfort, we are not speaking of inclusion.”
The President of our Association, Susan Frederick-Gray has said to us, “our Universalism tells us that no one is outside the circle of love.” “However,” she has reminded us, “we must understand that in our lives, in the context of oppression and discrimination, that the circle has never been drawn wider from the center. It has always grown wider because of the vision, leadership and organizing of people living on the margins who truly understand the limits and costs of oppressive policies--and what liberation means.”
In dialogue with this insight, CB Beal suggests three steps towards living into our theology of radical love and building communities of radical welcome. For someone who is relatively privileged like me, they recommend: “First, to seek the voices of the marginalized and center those voices. Second, not to decenter them when they say something we... [do not] want to hear. Third, if we hear something we... [do not] want to hear or that we ... [do not] agree with...” commit to staying in the conversation.
We encourage each other towards spiritual growth when we listen to and welcome difference. My identity, my theology, my way of expressing myself might be different from yours. We are each transformed when we learn to communicate and, dare I say, love across these differences.
Further questions: How has your life, your spirituality, been changed by being part of a congregation that contains people who are different from you? How have you grown or been transformed by participating in a religious community where there is no consensus on the nature or presence of the divine? Where our theology includes theists and atheists, believers and doubters, pagans and pantheists, and all seekers after religious truth?
In our congregations
One of the great gifts of Unitarian Universalism is the hybrid nature of our religious communities. The covenantal nature of our communities and our commitment to theological diversity means that among Unitarian Universalists you can find different religious identities. There are Christian Unitarian Universalists. There are Jewish Unitarian Universalists, like my family. There are Muslim Unitarian Universalists. There are Unitarian Universalist pagans. There are Unitarian Universalist humanists. There are Shikh Unitarian Universalists. There are Hindu Unitarian Universalists. I would need to continue my list for a list for long time to effectively include all of our theological diversity. What I am trying to do, in my own awkward way, is to highlight the hybridity of Unitarian Universalism.
Ours is a religious tradition that for many years has been open to influence by other religious traditions. Historian Susan Ritchie observes that in the sixteenth century, “European Unitarianism grew up in the soil of a variety of boundary lands in the outreaches of Eastern Europe.” That set of our religious ancestors became Unitarian because they sought to reconcile the theologies of three religious communities present in places like Transylvania and Hungary. Christians, Jews, and Muslims, they believed, were all children of the same God. By rejecting the divinity of Christ, they thought, it was possible to recognize the family resemblance between the different religions of their lands. This, they hoped, would lead to religious tolerance and, ultimately, peace.
I picked Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “To live in the Borderlands means you” as one of our readings this morning because it is one of my favorite pieces on hybridity--on navigating the challenging, fertile, wonderful, and sometimes dangerous space of living between defined identities. Anzaldúa was a queer Chicana poet from Texas. She wrote her poem to reflect on what means to live as a Chicana in country that stole much of its land from Mexico and seeks to build borders between itself and Latin America. She wrote it reflect on what it means to be LGBTQI in a country that has historically marginalized everyone but straight presenting cis-gendered white men. When she wrote:
Cuando vives en la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half--both woman and man, neither--
a new gender.
She was not thinking of Unitarian Universalism or our communities at all.
Yet, I think that her poem expresses much truth when it comes to living with a hybrid identity in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. If you have a hybrid identity, you are never fully one thing or the other. You are something in between. And that something is wonderful. You may not always feel welcome. Your identity may be contested. But you are wonderful and you are loved.
And that, is our challenge, when we hear the third principle of our association: “Acceptance of another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” We are challenged to radically welcome each other. We are challenged to truly accept each other. Regardless of class, regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of other human divisor, regardless of education, regardless of worship style, we are called to build a community where all are welcome and all are loved. Our last question: Can we do it together?
And to that, I invite the congregation to say, “Amen.”
Mar 10, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, March 10, 2019
Last week Carol got us started on our spring sermon series on the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. She focused on the first principle of our religious communion--respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person--and how it related to our seventh principle--respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Today we are going to consider the second principle: justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. The primary claim I am going to make in response to this principle is: If we take our religious tradition seriously we will find ourselves compelled to disrupt the great disorder of things. Or, put differently, if we fully commit to Unitarian Universalism we will engage in the often frustrating, sometimes fruitful, Sisyphean struggle of attempting to transform our human society. Alternatively stated, authentic religious practice ain’t easy. It requires that we work to change ourselves and the world around us.
As we move toward our main message, I want to offer you a smidge of history, a small personal confession, and a bit of critique to help frame our sermon series. Let us start with the history.
The seven principles are a recent creation. They are the heirs to numerous statements about the nature of Unitarianism and Universalism that stretch back to the seventeenth century. But they, themselves, only date to 1985. Their immediate successors were the six principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These were approved in 1961 when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged to form our present association. The six principles included gendered and theocentric statements such as “love to God and love to man,” “the dignity of man,” “brotherhood,” and “men of good will.”
Between 1961 and 1985 something important happened in American culture--second wave feminism. Betty Friedan published her best-selling text The Feminine Mystique challenging the idea that the proper role for middle-income, educated, white women was housewife and mother. The National Organization for Women formed to advocate for women’s rights throughout the country. Feminist activists launched, and won, numerous legislative struggles that greatly expanded women’s legal rights. In the same years, some women of color came to be critical of the predominately white feminist movement. One well remembered group was the Combahee River Collective. They issued a statement challenging the feminist movement to be accountable to people of color and non-heteronormative people. Maybe you lived through this history. Maybe you did not. Either way, I hope that you get the point: there was a profound social shift.
Unitarian Universalist women were active in many of these struggles. And they did not just set their attention on reforming society. Many devoted themselves to transforming our congregations. In 1977 a group of women prompted the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association to pass a resolution on “Women and Religion.” Included in the resolution was a commitment that the association would “avoid sexist assumptions and language in the future.”
This soon inspired women throughout the association to examine the 1960 principles. They found them wanting. At a pivotal conference, one group held a workshop organized around the question: “The UUA Principles: Do They Affirm Us as Women?” Their resounding answer: “No!”
Over the next few years the presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation, Natalie Gulbrandsen and Denny Davidoff, led the effort to rewrite the principles. The men of Gulbranden’s home congregation told her, “Mankind doesn’t leave you out.” She replied, “we are human beings but not men, and that there are many other terms you could use--humankind, human beings--that include women.” After their terms as presidents of the Women’s Federation, both Gulbrandsen and Davidoff served as moderators of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was during Gulbrandsen’s tenure that Davidoff led a collaborative process that resulted in the seven principles being adopted by the association with only one (male) vote in opposition.
The history of the seven principles is in some sense the history of attempting to live out the second principle: justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. This principle has been implicit within our liberal religious tradition for hundreds of years. Manifesting it within our association required not just a transformation of language. It necessitated the transformation of our ministry. In 1977 when the “Women and Religion” resolution was passed only about 5% of Unitarian Universalist ministers were women. Today, more than 50%--including the president of our association--are. As I stated at the opening of my sermon, taking our religious tradition seriously requires that we work to transform ourselves and our society.
And now, a personal confession: I have ambivalent feelings about the seven principles. Do any of you feel the same way? These feelings started years ago before I entered seminary. Back then I was spending my time doing solidarity and human rights work with indigenous movements in Southern Mexico. One of my mentors in this work was a well-known Mexican human rights activist and Jesuit priest. I visited my Jesuit friend whenever I passed through Mexico City. Usually we shared a meal together in a diner--me ordering enchiladas verdes stuffed with cheese and he... actually I forget what he used to order.
During these meals my friend would share with me his admiration for the great figures of Latin American liberation theology, some of whom he knew personally. He spoke of Gustavo Gutiérrez, who taught that to be Christian was to work for the fundamental transformation of society. Gutiérrez understood that God was present among the oppressed and marginalized, not the powerful and privileged. “The point is not to survive, but to serve,” he wrote. And my Jesuit friend spoke of Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while serving as the Archbishop of El Salvador. Romero spoke out against his country’s right-wing regime and its supporters killed him. He urged us to recognize, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”
My Jesuit friend also encouraged me to listen to what are called the base communities. In Southern Mexico, these are small groups of indigenous peasants that gather for Bible study, worship, and political action. Listening to them, I learned the work of collective liberation includes the centering the voices of the marginalized. When someone like the indigenous leader Comandanta Ester said, “We are oppressed three times over, because we are poor, because we are indigenous and because we are women,” she was offering us all a formula for social transformation. Eliminate poverty, eliminate violence against people of color, eliminate patriarchal and heteronormative structures of oppression and a better world will be born.
My Jesuit friend was curious about what I believed. There are not many Unitarian Universalists in Mexico. He knew nothing about our liberal religious tradition. So, one day when we were lunching together I shared with him a folding card that I kept in my wallet. On it were printed the seven principles. Maybe you have a card like the one I am talking about?
My Jesuit friend looked at the card. And then he said, “Hmm... there is not a single thing on here that I do not agree with, reminds me the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
I was shocked by his response. You see, my friend is not a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. He is a deeply devote Catholic who has dedicated his life to his church. His tradition and ours... well, let’s just say that there is supposed to be a lot of daylight between them. Catholics believe in certain creedal statements about the nature of God and the primacy of their church. Unitarian Universalists reject creeds and hold that there are many paths to religious truth. Catholics think that only men can be priests. Unitarian Universalists ordain people of all genders. Catholics believe that God has intervened in human history and will do so again. Humanistically inclined Unitarian Universalists like myself tend to think... umm... good luck with that.
And yet, our two distinct religious traditions had caused us to make similar commitments. My Jesuit friend sought personal transformation--which he would call salvation--through his belief in the saving power of Jesus, his devotion to the spiritual practices of Ignatius of Loyola, and his commitment to his church. I sought after my version--the development of my human potential--through a spiritual discipline of walking, journal writing, and contemplative reading. Gazing through the limited lenses of our particular theological traditions we found ourselves working together to transform society and root out injustice. I called my commitment to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations the second principle. My Jesuit friend called it God’s preferential option for the poor.
Since that conversation, when I am asked to describe Unitarian Universalism, I do not refer to the principles. Instead, I usually say something like: Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition that celebrates the possibility of goodness within each human heart, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying force of reason. We believe that we need not think alike to love alike. Our communities include atheists and believers in the divine. We offer a religious home for all wish to join us: welcoming the GLBT community, declaring that love has no borders, proclaiming that black lives matter, toiling to address climate change, and struggling for democracy.
This list of theological positions and prophetic actions contains things that my Jesuit friend would not agree with. My list makes the space between our traditions more visible. It also hints at something I believe: religious truth comes at cost and takes effort to seek. The world’s horrors challenge a belief that there is a seed of goodness in every human heart. The constant emergence and re-emergence of human hatred call into question the power of love. Raw human folly weighs heavily against the force of reason. And yet, looking within my religious tradition, gazing at all of you, cultivating my own spiritual practice, I am willing to make the faithful Unitarian Universalist wager that humans are not innately wicked, that love is the most powerful force on earth, and that rationality is a great gift.
My previous confession leads to a further critique, or, perhaps, observation. I am not alone in finding the seven principles to be insufficient. Many ministers and Unitarian Universalist theologians also find them unsatisfying. A few take such dissatisfaction to the extreme calling the principles the “Seven Banalities or the Seven Dwarves” or claiming that they do not reflect religious values. One (male) minister even went so far as to argue that by adopting the principles “‘God’ became ‘Our Political Liberal, Who Art Us, Writ Large.’”
Most of us, however, take a less brutal approach. If I were invite you up to my office and suggest you read through the several shelves of Unitarian Universalist and liberal religious theology that I keep up there you would find this: None of us ground our theologies in the seven principles. Instead, we debate. We argue. We seek to find a way to articulate a collective center for a tradition that claims that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. Some suggest that a deep feeling of connection to something larger than ourselves--which we might call the infinite mysterious universe or God or goddess or otherwise name--is the root of liberal religion. Others claim we are defined by our commitment to the use of reason in religion, our openness to science, and our understanding that revelation is not sealed. Still others claim that the core of liberal religion is found in a recognition that the most powerful force on Earth is love.
Reading, wrestling with, and preaching on these debates over the years I have come to two conclusions. First, the seven principles are not statements about the core of liberal religion. They do not definitively state who we are as Unitarian Universalists or the ultimate nature of liberal religion. Instead, they are observations based on empirical evidence of what the ethical values of Unitarian Universalists have been, when we are at our best, over time. Ethics rest upon foundational principles. They are the actions we are called to take from the religious truths we have found, not the truths themselves. Second, religious wisdom, religious truth, is something that comes through great effort. It is something that we earn, uncover, discover, as we struggle, collectively, to make sense of the rich mess of our lives. When we find religious wisdom, we learn that it calls us to challenge the powers and principalities, the social disorder, of the world.
This is the Sunday following International Women’s Day. I thought I would close by offering you two examples of Unitarian Universalist women who devoted themselves to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations at great personal cost. Their lives suggest what Unitarian Universalist ethics look like when we strive to actualize them. And so, let me speak of Susan B. Anthony and Kay Jorgensen.
Susan B. Anthony is a household name. She was one of the central agitators for women’s rights and suffrage. And she was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester New York. In an 1854 speech she demanded: “justice and equality... the removal of the many customs and laws that prevent the full exercise of all her God given powers, the entire freedom of thought, word & action, that man claims for himself...” She devoted her life to the realization of these propositions.
And when I say devoted her life, I mean spent over fifty years struggling for justice, equity, and compassion for women. She knocked on doors, collected petitions, and spoke to demand that women have the same rights as men when it came to property, employment, and access to the ballot. She founded the National Woman Suffrage Association which worked until 1920 to win the right to vote. She was arrested, tried, and convicted for voting illegally.
She made mistakes. When, following the Civil War, black male leaders like Frederick Douglass pushed for the enfranchisement of black men before white women, she said horribly racist things. (Douglass forgave her shortly before he died.)
She did her imperfect best to transform the world. Along the way, she took on roles--public speaker, political activist, ethical leader--which women were not supposed to hold in the nineteenth century United States. That is to say, she transformed herself. When we look to her life we see that the best of Unitarian Universalism is realized in the pursuit of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. And we are reminded that the pursuit of such values requires the work of personal and collective transformation.
Unlike Susan B. Anthony, Kay Jorgensen is not a household name. She was a Unitarian Universalist minister who died last year. She was one of my earliest mentors in the ministry. I met her when I was a young adult living in San Francisco. Around the time I moved to that city, Kay and her longtime collaborator Carmen Barsody were starting the Faithful Fools, their street ministry in the city’s Tenderloin District.
The Tenderloin has historically been one of the poorest and most crime ridden neighborhoods in San Francisco. In opposition to those who say that Unitarian Universalist is inherently a religion of the well-to-do, Kay and Carmen focused their ministerial work on accompanying the poor and marginalized in San Francisco. Theological core of their work was a belief in human “oneness” and an understanding that by getting “acquainted with that which divides us, our own suffering is revealed.” They believed, in a word, in the transformative power of universalism.
The core practice of the Faithful Fools ministry is something they call street retreats. These last somewhere between a few hours and several days. Participants spend their time on the street in the same spaces as homeless people: eating where the homeless eat and sleeping where they sleep.
The Fools use the street retreats to do two things. The first is to be present to and minister to the very poor and homeless without judging them. In other words, the Fools see the Tenderloin’s residents for what they are, human beings, and then treat them as human beings. Second, the retreats are opportunities to breakdown stereotypes that people with various kinds of economic privilege such as myself have about the very poor and homeless. By inviting participants into the same spaces as the residents of the Tenderloin we learn that despite whatever stereotypes we might carry in our heads, the people struggling on the streets are just as human as we are. We all need the same things: food, shelter, love, and a bit of work to call honest.
Kay had a playful sense humor. She had a clown for an alter ego named Oscard. When asked how she was doing she sometimes quoted the Elwood from the movie “The Blues Brothers:” “There's 106 miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark out, and we're wearing sunglasses.” It is a good line, though I confess I am still not one hundred percent certain what she meant by it. Perhaps that we make the road by walking, discovering the path as we go?
Kay’s sense of play caused her tweak the noses of San Francisco Unitarian Universalists. Once, to emphasize the plight of the city’s homeless she spent about a week sleeping on the front door step of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. She did this after the senior minister had posted a no trespassing sign to keep away the indigent.
Kay’s willingness to experience personal discomfort is another reminder that living into the values of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations is not easy. She cleaned houses the first several years of her ministry with the Faithful Fools in order to support the organization. Well into her seventies, she spent days at a time sleeping in the streets.
And, yet, is this not one of the reasons why we gather Sunday after Sunday? To find the hope, the power, the joy within ourselves to do the difficult work of transforming ourselves--to living into our full potential--and trying to change the world for the better. It is challenging work. I fail in it all the time--each day. And yet, looking within our tradition, looking around the world, I see that there have been many who--however, imperfectly--have devoted themselves to the proposition of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
Let us close in prayer,
Oh, spirit of life,
that some of us call love,
and others name God,
be with us,
as we struggle,
to find the strength,
to pursue the narrow path
towards religious truth
to find the power
to transform ourselves
and our world
so that someday,
the lights of heaven,
might shine down
upon a world
in which justice,
equity, and compassion
have been realized in human relations.
That it may be so, let the congregation say Amen.
Mar 9, 2019
During an interim ministry there are specific tasks that the interim minister and the congregation are supposed to focus on in order to prepare for the success of future ministries. One of these tasks is strengthening the connection between the congregation and the larger Unitarian Universalist Association. In recent months we have been doing this by bringing outstanding denominational leaders such as UUA President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray and the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, to lead worship for us. They have led inspiring services on what Unitarian Universalist communities are doing to confront humanity’s profound moral, political, and spiritual crisis. As the Rev. Frederick-Gray told us “this is no time for a casual faith.” It is a time to nurture “a fierce sense of purpose that recognizes how much is on the line.”
In the next months we will be nurturing this sense of purpose and strengthening our connection between First Church and the Unitarian Universalist Association through a series of services on the association’s seven principles. The series will conclude with a service on June 16th focusing on the proposed eighth principle. In current form the proposed principle reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
Periods of interim ministry are also times for experimentation. In the next months we will be experimenting with worship by adding, for eight weeks, a 9:00 a.m. contemplative service. The 9:00 a.m. service will feature the same sermon. It will include more space for musical and silent meditation and a little less congregational singing. Nursery care but not religious education will be provided. I am excited about the experiment. Sunday morning attendance has been strong in recent months and adding a second service with a different format will allow us both room to grow and the opportunity imagine the ways that worship can be different.
The theme of my column this month is change. One of the challenges during periods of change is remaining grounded in a sense of self, even as that sense of self shifts. In that light, I offer this selection from Joy Harjo’s “Remember:”
Remember the wind.
Remember her voice.
She knows the origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people are you.
Remember you are this universe and this universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Feb 5, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, February 17, 2019
Today we kick-off First Church’s annual stewardship drive. My task this morning is to offer you what sometimes gets called “the sermon on the amount.” It is often a difficult sermon to preach. The three topics generally considered taboo to discuss in polite company, are, after all: sex, money, and religion. Stewardship combines two of these: money and religion. It did occur to me that I could bring a discussion of Our Whole Lives into the sermon. Our Whole Lives is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s comprehensive sexual education curriculum. If I spoke about it we could then have all three. That might everyone really squirm. But Jonathan Edwards I am not. Today is no occasion for “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Instead, it is an opportunity for us to celebrate our life together, the entity we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And giving money to support the congregation is one way we celebrate our life together.
Dan King, our Assistant Minister, likes to say that stewardship works best when we give until it feels good. That is what I am encouraging you to do this morning: to give to the congregation in such a way that you feel good about the level of support you give to First Church. I am not going to get Marxist on you and suggest that we follow old bewhiskered Karl’s adage: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Instead, I want to encourage you to feel good about your contributions to First Church. Well, actually, I want you to feel good about First Church. And if you feel good about First Church, I think you will feel good about financially supporting the congregation.
Our theme for this year’s stewardship campaign is “weaving a tapestry of love and action.” The theme is drawn from the words we use to bless the offering each week. This theme reminds us that justice is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists: As Cornel West once observed, “justice is what love looks like in public.” For Unitarian Universalists stewardship really is about justice. Our institutions, our churches and our Unitarian Universalist Association, allow us to live out our commitment to the transformative power of love in public.
I will talk a more about the theme in a moment. But, first, whether you are here at Museum District or listening to the sermon via livestream in Richmond, I want to pause and make a point of inviting you all to stick around after the service for Souper Bowl Sunday. It is our kick-off event. It is a chance to share a bowl of soup, relax, and celebrate the great community that is First Church. It is just one of the many opportunities to connect that we are offering throughout the month. We have a number of people who have volunteered to serve as visiting stewards. They will be visiting with other members of the congregation and listening to your stories about what First Church means to you. Meeting with one of them is not obligatory. These meetings are opportunities to deepen your connection to First Church by reflecting with other members about the role the congregation plays in your religious life and in the wider world.
Weaving a tapestry of love and action... We say those words each week as we bless and express gratitude for the offering. Well, actually, we say, “To the work of this church, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our lives and these our offerings.” What I want to offer you this morning is what preachers call an exegesis of the phrase we say each week as we bless the offering. An exegesis is a fancy word for interpretation of a text.
“Weaving a tapestry of love and action,” I want to offer you one more fancy word as we proceed with our exegesis of our much spoken text. That word is hermeneutics. If exegesis is the interpretation of a text then hermeneutics is the method by which we arrive at the interpretation of a text. The exegesis: the meaning. Hermeneutics: how we arrive at the meaning.
Exegesis, hermeneutics... These words are two of the central tools we use in the collective religious exercise we call the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. The Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church used to define religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” He often followed this definition with this series of observations, “Knowing we must die, we question what life means. ...the questions death forces us to ask are, at heart, religious question: Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What’s life purpose? What does this all signify?”
We come together to interpret the texts of our lives--to infuse them with meaning. Unitarian Universalism offers a set of hermeneutics to do so. As a religious community, we interpret the texts of our lives using a specific set of principles. I am not talking about the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Those date to the middle of twentieth-century. Our liberal religious tradition is much older than that. What I am talking about is the principles behind the principles.
The twentieth-century Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur described the primary principles of our religious tradition as: freedom, reason, and tolerance. In making meaning from the rich mess of our lives, he believed, our tradition called for “complete mental freedom in religion rather than bondage to creeds... the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather than reliance upon external authority or past tradition... generous tolerance of differing religious views... rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship, or polity.” Freedom, reason, and tolerance... We are free to believe what we must believe. We are called to put our beliefs to a rational test. Tolerance, the beliefs that I hold need not be the beliefs that you hold.
My friend Gary Dorrien is one of greatest living interpreters of liberal theology. He makes the claim that the distinction between theological liberals and theological conservatives is that we insist that religion “should be interpreted from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience.” If religion is to matter, we say, then it must relate to our lives today. It must help us live in this world. It must not be antithetical to the findings of science.
Building off the work of German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has long argued that all of these intellectual statements are good and well but they leave our tradition without a foundation. They do not tell us where our beliefs come from. They do not describe the ground on which we stand. And that is a mistake. Because, Thandeka argues, our theology does have a foundation. It is founded on love. Specifically, it is founded on the experience of connection that each of us has to the all. The experience of connection between the self and the all is the fundamental religious experience. Liberal religion begins, she observes, not with rational arguments but with the feeling of being part of something greater than ourselves.
Thandeka is careful to observe that this feeling of connection escapes clear religious labels. She writes, “for Christians... [it] is God... For Buddhists... Sunyata... For Pagans, Gaia; for Humanists, the infinite, uncreated Universe.” But however we describe it, it comes to each of us.
I have noticed that the moments in my sermons that people connect with the most are often the sections in which I narrate such an experience of connection--whether it is my own or someone else’s. This might be because the deepest truth of Unitarian Universalism is that the text we are trying to interpret is the text of our own lives.
When I talk about finding meaning in the joy of dancing or discovering it while sitting in a Zen temple in Japan, I suspect that many of you connect with the ways in which you have made meaning out of similar experiences. The meaning I find in the unadulterated beauty of a flowing flock of birds over a parking lot sunrise might be different than yours. Maybe I encounter meaning, connection, deep emotion in the rough notes of a Latin jazz album as needle scrapes across vinyl and you do not.
But somewhere, each day, there is some experience, some series of experiences that you have where you connect with something--or someone--other than yourself. Perhaps you find that experience through your family. Perhaps you do not. Perhaps it is mostly among the moss-covered oaks. Perhaps it is in the hum of the train tracks as the streetcar slips by on a Sunday morning. Maybe it is on your bicycle as ride you along the road, the wind, the push of the peddles, the spin of the wheels, offering a sense of exhilarating motion.
Wherever you find connection, I suspect that if you regularly come to First Church it is because of you have found a community that helps you make meaning of it all. A community that helps you weave your life into the larger tapestry that is First Church. I suspect that this is true whether you sit on the cool wooden pews of this sanctuary or amid the lush greenery of our Richmond campus.
Such meaning making is why we ritually celebrate life’s passages as a religious community: child dedications, weddings, and memorial services. Child dedications--the celebration of what a new life means to a family and to the community, a celebration of the enduring possibility of human existence. Weddings, a celebration of two people coming together, attesting to the deep connection they feel, and promising to each other that their lives will be more meaningful together than separate. Memorial services, the great summing-up--the celebration of the life that has been, the meaning it offered, and the ways we who continue can find meaning and inspiration.
Unitarian Universalist minister Kristen Harper describes the daily unfolding of our meaning this way:
Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again,
To hurt again, to embrace joy,
To experience unease,
To discover the tragic.
Each day provides us with the opportunity to live.
When we say, we are “weaving a tapestry of love and action” what we are really saying is that we are collectively making meaning out of our lives. And that each day in our life together we have the opportunity to make further meaning. That meaning can be found in each experience, each moment, we share.
Our exegesis does not end quite there because really we have just covered the words “weaving a tapestry of love.” We have not talked much about justice. I started our sermon with a claim from Cornel West, “justice is what love looks like in public.” And each week we dedicate ourselves to action. That is, we dedicate ourselves to living out our commitment to love in public.
This is what we are called to do today and all of the days of our lives. We all know that the human species is in the midst of a grave existential crisis. As I wrote in this month’s newsletter column:
Climate change; the global resurgence of totalitarian, anti-democratic, political regimes; seemingly intractable structures of white supremacy; unbridled capitalism; and the enduring dominance of militarism have all combined to make us question even the possibility of continued human existence. These great crises are not primarily material. They are rooted in an underlying moral and spiritual crisis: How do humans make meaning in an ever-changing global pluralistic society where the narratives that shape individual identity and communities are constantly contested?
Our ability to make meaning together has equipped us to do this work for justice in the world. And, today, it is the work that we Unitarian Universalists are called to do.
And now, I need to be real with you. I do not often talk with you about the specific work of being the interim minister of your congregation following the negotiated resignation of your previous senior minister. Since I arrived in August, there has been too much to do. We have been working on launching our Richmond campus. We have been working on making First Church be one worshipping community in two locations. We have been working on winding down our relationship with the Tapestry congregation, our former campus in Spring. The Board and I have been working on governance. There have been multiple staff transitions. Nikki Steele our much loved Congregational Administrator is moving to Virginia. The congregation’s devoted long serving organist Bob Fazakerly is retiring. And so is the Rev. Dr. Dan King. There has been a lot going on.
But now, on stewardship Sunday, for the sermon on the amount, for just a few minutes, I want to talk with you about my interim work. One of my primary tasks is to hold up a mirror to the congregation and ask you to look at yourselves. Such work can quite uncomfortable. This is one reason why interim ministries are intentionally only a couple of years and why congregations are generally happy to see the interims go when their ministries end.
One thing I want you to see when you, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, look at yourselves is the way that the staff have been treated. It is true that your previous senior minister’s negotiated resignation was over his treatment of staff. But once I got here and started to look into it the picture became more complicated. The issue was not only that he engaged in bullying of staff. The issue was that the congregation was not abiding by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. Salaries were being paid sort of according to guidelines. Everyone was paid at least the minimum level recommended by the UUA. Few people were paid according to their level of experience or tenure with the congregation.
Far more problematically was the benefits situation. It was not uniform. It was out of whack with UUA’s standards for fair compensation. Some people got benefits and some did not. I brought this situation to the Board’s attention shortly after the congregation received a generous bequest from the estate of John Kellett. And the Board took action, committing the congregation to follow the UUA’s fair compensation guidelines going forward. This has meant ensuring that all qualifying employees receive appropriate benefits--health insurance, life insurance, pension, disability insurance, dental insurance, and the like. It has also meant making some progress on adjusting staff salaries so people are paid according to their level of experience. All of this is costly and there is more ground to be gained in the issue in justice for the staff’s compensation. The total annual bill for fixing the situation is $72,000 a year. The money from the Kellett bequest is not enough to make this sustainable without an increase in pledge income.
There are some of you who will want to understand how this situation came about. And I willing be talking with you about it elsewhere. But the most important thing for you to know is that the Board is committed to making sure it does not happen again. They have hired a consultant to work with them, and by extension the entire congregation, on reimagining First Church’s governance so there is more appropriate oversight going forward. I have recommended that the Board conduct an annual audit of employee records and compensation to ensure future justice for the staff.
Now, I promised you at the outset that this was not going to be a modern rendition of Jonathan Edwards’s “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” I believe with James Baldwin, “With the best will in the world, no one now living could undo what past generations had accomplished.” Which is to say, we cannot rewrite history. What has been done has been done. But we can change things going forward. We have that power. Indeed, we are committed to that proposition as a community weaving a tapestry of love and action.
And what I really want you to do is to feel good about your connection to First Church. This is a wonderful community that does much good in the world. You were the first historically white congregation in Houston to desegregate. You launched Hatch Youth in the midst of the AIDS crisis to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and allied youth. You provided important services to the wider community through your Neighbor-to-Neighbor program. You have supported more than fifty first generation college students with your Thoreau Scholarship program. You have been a beacon for speaking out against injustice, for speaking up for the oppressed, for binding up the broken, for transforming lives for the better. There is so much to be proud of.
And today, in this historic moment, when humanity faces one of its gravest crises. Unitarian Universalism has a vital role to play in confronting it. For First Church, this means the opportunity to grow, not for growth’s sake but because the way we Unitarian Universalists make meaning is vitally important to the world. There is an opportunity to grow both here at the Museum District and out in Richmond. The Board has also committed to making the Assistant Minister position full-time and to transitioning one of the Administrative Assistant positions to a full-time Membership and Communications Coordinator. The Kellett bequest is also being used to honor these commitments as well as to help pay for some long-deferred maintenance on the Museum District campus--including fixing the elevator, the roof, and replacing carpet and stucco that was damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
This opportunity to grow is an opportunity to help more people weave their lives into our meaningful tapestry of love and action. In order for it to be realized we need to remember that building justice in the wider world requires that we treat our staff equitably. Indeed, I might suggest we carry our exegesis of “weaving a tapestry of love and action” a little further. If we did so we might observe that the lives of the members of the congregation are the threads that form the tapestry that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. But the building and staff provide a portion of the loom on which you weave. Without each the work of all would not be possible.
And so, when I say I would like you to give until it feels good, that means I would like you to give so that you feel good about the tapestry of love and action that First Church is weaving. I want you to feel good about First Church as a religious community. And I want you to feel good about the work that First Church does in the world.
In that spirit, I would like to close not with my own words but with yours. I invite you to say with me the words that we find in our order of service and repeat week after week, “To the work of this church, which is weaving a tapestry of love and action, we dedicate our lives and these our offerings.”
Let the congregation say Amen.
Oct 1, 2018
Over the last couple of years, in quite different contexts, I have heard the claim that the average length of a Unitarian Universalist ministry is now about seven years. I am not sure where this number comes from, but I have heard from search committee members, members of congregations that I am serving, academics, and UUA staff. My gut has told me that it is a meaningless number. That it might be true that the average length of a ministry is seven years across congregations of all sizes but that the claim would not hold up under a more fine-grained analysis. Comparing congregations of all sizes, I thought, is probably comparing apples to oranges rather than apples to apples. And so, I decided to dig into the data a bit to see what I could come up with. It turns at that the claim that the average length of ministry is seven years across all congregations is a good example of the old truism, “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It is probably a true statement, but it doesn’t actually give us any useful information.
I am currently serving as the interim senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston. It is a congregation of, as of today, 449 members. It is a multi-site congregation with 353 members at its largest campus, the Museum District, and 37 and 59 members at each of its smaller two campuses (Tapestry and Thoreau, respectively). So, I thought a good test of the claim that the average ministry lasts seven years could be done by looking at four different data sets. The first was of the ten congregations nearest in size to all of First Church. The second was of the ten congregations nearest in size to the Museum District campus. The third was of the ten congregations nearest in size to Thoreau (the larger of the two smaller campuses). And the last, an additional point of interest, was looking at the ten largest congregations within the Association. Here’s what I found*:
Data Set 1 (Ten Congregations Nearest in Size to First Church)
This data set begins with the First Unitarian Church of Providence and ends with the First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, MA. The average ministerial tenure for this set of congregations is at least 14 years. The longest tenure of a minister still serving is 35 years (Baton Rouge, LA). The shortest recent tenure of a completed ministry is 4 years (Burlington, VT). The median tenure for a ministry is at least 13 years.
Data Set 2 (Ten Congregations Nearest in Size to the Museum District Campus)
This data set begins with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair and ends with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa. It should end with the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship. However, I wasn’t able to find information on the ministerial tenure of the last minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo and so I had to expand the data set by one. Three of these congregations are currently being served by developmental ministers. Several of them have also recently undergone ministerial transitions.
Among these congregations the average ministerial tenure is at least 11 years. The longest tenure of a minister of a minister still serving is 13 years (Morristown, NJ). The shortest recent tenure is 5 years (San Francisco and Greenville, SC). The median tenure is at least 11 years.
Data Set 3 (Ten Congregations Nearest in Size to the Thoreau Campus)
This data set begins with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Idaho Falls and ends with the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Norway (Maine). Three of these congregations are lay led. Of the remaining seven, the average ministerial tenure is 9 years and the median tenure is 7 years. Almost all of these congregations have gone through ministerial transitions recently and so the longest serving minister currently at one of them has only been there for six years. The recently retired minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Castine (Maine) left after 22 years.
Data Set 4 (Ten Largest Congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association)
This data set begins with All Souls, Tulsa and ends with the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque. Several of these congregations are in the middle of long-term ministries. I decided not to go back and research all of their ministerial histories. When the tenure of the senior was less than ten years I used the tenure of the previous minister instead of the tenure of the current minister.
The average ministerial tenure is 21 years and the median tenure is 19 years. The longest ministry of someone currently serving one of these congregations is 19 years (University Unitarian (Seattle)) although the senior minister of First Madison just retired after 30 years. The shortest recent tenure I could find was 9 years. In addition, the average tenure of ministers in these congregations is almost certainly significantly longer than 21 years since the ministers of two the tenures I included (Tulsa and Washington, DC) are both in their late forties or early fifties.
The only congregations that I looked in which the median ministerial tenure is seven years are those with about 60 members. Congregations of larger sizes all had significantly longer ministerial tenures. This suggests to me that when I am in conversations with people about ministerial tenure I will be careful to suggest they think about the tenure of a ministry at a similarly sized congregation rather than making a more generalized statement. Congregational systems theory has long claimed that congregations of different sizes behavior differently. An examination of ministerial tenure of congregations of different sizes is further evidence for that claim.
*A note on my method
All of my data is derived from the UUA’s list of certified congregations for 2018 and its directory of religious professionals. The exception to this is the membership statistics for First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston. The length of tenure is for most cases the tenure of either the current minister or, in the case where the congregation is in transition, the tenure of the most recently departed minister. The exception to this is where the current minister has been at the congregation for less than five years. In those instances, I have gone with the tenure of the prior ministry.
Nov 1, 2017
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, October 29, 2017
It is rare to celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of something. We celebrated the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of this congregation a few weeks back. Were you there for the ecumenical camp meeting? It was a memorable affair. The sun, bright and hot, the bandstand filled with representatives of the diversity of the local faith community; I said a few words about Unitarian Universalism. I shared with the gathering the sentiments of our Universalists ancestors who believed that a loving God does not punish his or her creations with eternal damnation. And I offered a blessing for Ashby’s next two hundred and fifty years. Members from our congregation collaborated with the congregationalist church across the street in a moving performance of bluegrass gospel. There were prayers and hymns to Mary by Father Jeremy St. Martin, the local Catholic priest. The local pentecostal church closed the event with an electrified praise band.
However rare it is to have a two hundred and fiftieth anniversary, it is even rarer to have a five hundredth anniversary. And, yet, here we are, marking the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Today we fill our pulpit with talk of a religious revolution. Thousands, no tens of thousands, no perhaps even hundreds of thousands of sanctuaries contain, this Sunday, similar words.
As we think about the Protestant Reformation, it is worthwhile to cast our minds back to the sultry Sunday afternoon of the ecumenical camp meeting. In the four participating congregations, we can see four of the major strains of religion that emerged after Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on a castle door in Wittenberg, Germany. The Ashby Congregational Church could be taken to represent what scholars call the Magisterial Reformation. This is the mainstream of Protestantism. It finds within the Bible divine sanction for earthly authorities.
St. John the Evangelist might stand for the reforms sparked within the Roman Catholic Church as a reaction to the Magisterial Reformation. The very fact that Father St. Martin spoke and prayed in English rather than Latin should remind us that the Protestant Reformation dramatically reshaped the Catholic Church. A major complaint of Luther and many of the reformers who proceeded him was that the church did not speak to people in their own languages. Some even argue that Luther’s greatest accomplishment was translating the Bible into German.
Crossroads Community Church may symbolize the nineteenth and twentieth-century Protestant reactions to rigorous biblical criticism. These have coalesced in more recent decades into pentecostalism and Christian fundamentalism. Such congregations often take the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, only scripture, to the extreme and insist that the Bible contains literal truths that contemporary science and biblical scholarship have shown to be empirically untrue.
Our own First Parish Church embodies what has been called the Radical Reformation. The great Unitarian Universalist historian George Huntston Williams described the Radical Reformation as a “a radical break from the existing institutions and theologies” of its times. He claimed it was driven by a desire “to restore primitive Christianity and to prepare for the imminent advent of the Kingdom of Christ.” The radical break that the Radical Reformation represented remains familiar to many of us, even if the forces that drove it seem less so. None of us, I imagine, want to go back to the religion described in the Christian New Testament or anticipate the immediate advent of the Kingdom of God. Most of us, I suspect, are attracted to Unitarian Universalism because it proclaims theological views that are still held suspect by the larger culture. One of these is that a loving God does not offer eternal punishment.
The Magisterial Reformation, a reformed Roman Catholicism, pentecostalism, the Radical Reformation... with his apocryphal bang, bang, bang, Luther did not intend to hammer the sixteenth-century Catholic Church into separate pieces. He intended to reform it, to purge it of corrupting elements. None of his ninety-five theses called for the creation of a new church. He sought instead to repair an existing one, to help call it back to, in his view, the true theology and practice of Christianity.
Yet, Luther’s ninety-five theses broke the Catholic Church into a thousand pieces. Today there are Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Mennonites, Mormons, Unitarian Universalists, and, well, the list could go on and on to encompass another hundred, nay another two hundred, variants of Christianity and Post-Christian traditions. This mosaic of religious belief and practice could not have been imagined by Luther when he perceptively declared, “There seems to be the same difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven as between despair, uncertainty, and assurance.” Nor could have even a shadow of it passed across his eyes when he complained, “those who preach indulgences are in error.”
The great variety of found in world Christianity offers perhaps the single most important, and obvious, lesson from the Protestant Reformation. Our actions have unintended consequences. These words may appear trite. They may seem the wrong lesson to lift-up as we mark the beginning of the articulation of the five great solas of Protestant life. You might think it would be better to focus this morning’s sermon on sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo gloria--only scripture, only faith, only grace, only Christ, and Glory to God Alone--as we remember the bang, bang, bang of Luther’s theses.
And, yet, what is more applicable to our lives, debates about the finer points of Protestant theology or considering how our choices can have unintended consequences? The later is really one of the great moral questions. Especially, when we consider the question the issue of accountability. Are you responsible if you intend good but cause harm? Are you responsible if your actions have unexpected benefits?
Think about it. We can imagine examples from the mundane, sublime, and grotesque. Ever buy a squash and scoop out the insides when you prepare to cook it? I remember doing so in a house I lived in some years back. We had a compost pile. I dutifully put the stringy squash bits, rind, and seeds in it. Next year, squash vines growing from the compost pile! Was I responsible for planting the squash?
There are entire schools of aesthetics devoted to appreciating the unexpected, unanticipated, or unintended. The great jazz artists knew this. Mile Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum... Each has been quoted as saying some variant of, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note.” “There are no mistakes in jazz.” Or “do not fear mistakes. There are none.” For these musicians, the unexpected consequence of an action was to expand the range of possibilities, to increase the amount of beauty in the world.
My favorite these jazz aphorisms comes from Herbie Hancock by way of Miles Davis. It seems that as a young musician Hancock was frustrated with his progress. He felt stuck in a rut. All of the choices he made resulted in obvious, and therefore uninteresting, melodies. So, he went to Davis for advice. Davis cryptically told him, “Don’t play the butter notes.” Which he took to mean, don’t make the choices that will result in the obvious melodies. Open yourself to unintended and see what happens. Hancock did this and, reportedly, experienced a breakthrough.
Chance and the unintended do not just haunt beauty or the compost pile, they can have dire impacts on our lives. The very term accident has gruesome connotations. A truck hits a bicyclist who is in the driver’s blind spot. An airplane breaks apart due to a defective part. A building burns after the insulation on wires fails and an electrical blaze erupts. In such situations, we struggle to explain who is responsible for dire outcomes. Sometimes, the answers are obvious and it is possible to hold an individual or entity to account. The electrical company skimped on materials for the wires. The airplane part was rushed into service even though the manufacturer knew it might not be entirely reliable. Other times it is much more difficult to discern who is responsible. Sometimes accidents, no matter how awful, are just that, accidents: black ice on the road can cause the most careful driver to lose control; a knife can slip from the hands of the most experienced chef and result in bloody injury.
We live in a world derived from the unintended consequences of Luther’s actions. Perhaps this gives him far too much credit. There is certainly a school of historical thought that the Reformation would have happened without him. Efforts to transform the Catholic church were well underway before he issued his Wittenberg theses. When she was growing up, my mother’s family belonged to the Moravian Church, a denomination founded by the followers of Jan Hus some fifty years before Luther found himself in conflict with the papal authorities. One of the professors at Starr King School for the Ministry, one of the two Unitarian Universalist seminaries, is Waldensian. This is a Christian movement that split from the Catholic Church in the twelfth-century, some four hundred years before Luther was even born.
And yet, there some truth to the great man of history theory found in Luther. At the very least, if he had not bang, bang, banged on the castle door in Wittenberg then we would be talking about some other event that precipitated the Protestant Reformation this morning. What that would be or who it would involve we cannot know.
And so, here we are, in this world created by Luther’s unintended consequences. Should he be held accountable for them? Luther himself believed that our human actions were such that whatever we did we were more likely to cause ill than good. This is at the center of his theology. He thought we humans were too prone to error, too incapable of making good choices, too thoughtless to understand the consequences of our actions to achieve salvation on our own. It was only through the grace of God, meditated through Christ, that we might earn eternal assurance and escape damnation. He believed that faith was the path to secure this grace and that only a limited number of people would find it. The rest of us were damned.
The subsequent history of Protestant Christianity could be cast as a long argument over who is to be damned and who is to be saved. Most Christians seem to agree that only some are worthy of salvation. Which is to say, only some can fully escape the unintended consequences of their actions.
Our Universalist ancestors thought different. They believed that God loved everyone. If no one could escape the unintended consequences of their actions then everyone must be loved. There are great and folksy stories about how the early Universalist theologian and evangelist Hosea Ballou explained this doctrine. Linda Stowell relates one of these tales:
Ballou was [out] riding... when he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer was upset. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. "All right," said Ballou with a serious face. "We'll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we'll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we'll grab him and throw him into it." The farmer was shocked: "That's my son and I love him!” Ballou said, "If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!"
The spirit of stories like this are encapsulated in the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, that we believe in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Whatever the consequences of our actions, each human life has worth and dignity. It really is a radical statement and one that runs counter to almost every dominant trend in our society. It suggests we question the criminal justice system, the distribution of wealth, the use of force in solving conflicts... If each human life has worth and dignity then our society needs to think about punishment, economic equality, and violence differently.
Luther would certainly have disapproved. As the leading representative of the Magisterial Reformation the one thing he did not want to do was question the earthly organization of power. And that really is, in the end, what makes us Unitarian Universalists the heirs to the Radical Reformation. We question the powers and principalities. We do not hold that governments have been divinely sanctioned or that the social order in sacrosanct.
This an uncomfortable position. To declare that all are loved, or that each human life is important, is truly an act of faith. To do so and suggest that we should question the power and principalities, the major institutions of our world, is, well, subversive. Even today, in 2017, five hundred years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, it remains a radical act.
Let us return to the ecumenical camp meeting. There were four churches present, all heirs in some way to the Protestant Reformation. The congregationalists, upholding the mainstream Magisterial legacy; the Catholics, with their largely English language liturgy; the pentecostals, with their particular version of sola scriptura... In a technical, theological, sense none of these traditions truly proclaim a divine universal love for all of humanity. Each argues that the path to salvation, or true religious expression, lies through them alone. In contrast, Unitarian Universalism proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of all, not all Christians, not all Americans, but all across the planet. A radical doctrine and, perhaps, an unintended consequence of Luther’s splintering bang, bang, bang.
On this Reformation Sunday, as we consider all of the unintended consequences of Luther’s Wittenberg theses, let us remember the radical love at the heart of our own faith. It remains ever subversive. We close with words attributed to our Universalist ancestor, John Murray:
Go out into the highways and by-ways.
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light and understanding
to the hearts and minds of men and women.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage;
preach the kindness and
everlasting love of God.
May it be so, Amen and Blessed Be.
Oct 27, 2017
Oct 25, 2017
as preached at Unity Temple, Oak Park, IL, October 22, 2017 [Note: This is a substantive revision of the sermon I gave on October 15, 2017 at First Parish Church in Ashby. The primary texts from Du Bois that I referenced in composing this sermon were "The Souls of White Folk" and "Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880.]
It is good to be with you this morning. I am grateful for Alan’s invitation to fill this pulpit in his absence. Alan is a fine minister and a good colleague. I am honored that he trusted me to bring you some words of truth and beauty this morning.
I am also honored to be preaching in this magnificent sanctuary. Unity Temple is one of Unitarian Universalism’s cathedral churches. I grew up in Michigan but my Dad is a Chicago boy. I have an aunt and uncle who live in Oak Park. I remember visiting your building when I was a child and marveling in its soft allure. Your renovation and restoration work is stunning. The sanctuary is even more magnificent than I remember. It is a tribute to humanity’s ability to craft beauty from wondrous wood, sand, and stone. In this space, Frank Lloyd Wright’s words are true, “if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.”
Would that this morning we could do nothing more than raise our voices in a hymn to beauty. But no matter how skillful the artisan, how perfect the painting, how finely carved the timber, we must confront human wickedness. I am not making a theological statement about original sin and the fallen nature of humanity. Instead, I am acknowledging the sad truth that we mortals are often horrible to each other. Fatal federal neglect in Puerto Rico, mass shootings in Los Vegas and elsewhere, hurricanes that have leveled overbuilt cities across the continental South, wildfires in Northern California, genocide in Myanmar, the constant gruesome humanitarian disaster in Syria, casual and bombastic threats of nuclear war, the unveiling of liberal male Hollywood icons as sexual predators, all of these can at least partially be attributed to human folly. Thus, it seems that ever we inflict suffering upon each other. Susan Sontag’s words apply any day of the week, “An ample reserve of stoicism is needed to get through the newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”
We should talk about things that will make us cry in church. If we do not talk about them here where else will we talk about them? There are precious few spaces in our lives for genuine human-to-human dialogue, the kind of dialogue that acknowledges our problems and pains and helps us try to navigate our way onward with them. So, today I want to talk with you about things that might make you cry, for they certainly bring tears to my eyes. Today I want to talk with you about white supremacy, one of the most difficult things in American society, and how confronting it relates to something called abolition-democracy.
We will get to abolition-democracy and how it might help us address white supremacy in a moment. Before we do, I want to clarify the theological points behind everything else I will offer you this morning. The first might be captured in my favorite adage by William Ellery Channing, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” Channing’s words should remind us, race is a social fiction and political reality that has been historically constructed. There is one human community. We are all a part of it. Its rifts can only be healed through acts of love. The second, could be summarized by words found in the Christian New Testament and attributed to Jesus, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This could alternatively be restated as the fourth principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. It challenges us to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” As we stumble through life, we make our way best, walk a little more steadily, when we understand precisely the path on which we wonder and what besets us. Finding truth and meaning requires honest analysis and honest speech. Otherwise, we will find ourselves mired in illusory falsehood. I could summarize these points thusly: We Unitarian Universalists believe in the singularity of human community, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying power of honest rationality.
We Unitarian Universalists do not just believe those things. We try to act upon them. This Sunday across the United States hundreds of Unitarian Universalist congregations are moved by loved to participate in an exercise in truth seeking. We are in the midst of the second association-wide teach-in about white supremacy. The teach-ins emerged as a direct response to the revelation of hiring practices within the Unitarian Universalist Association that appeared to favor white heterosexual men. This controversy, you may know, led to the resignation of Peter Morales as the President of the association. It also increased awareness of how, when it comes to race, the values and actions of many white Unitarian Universalists are in conflict.
In describing their goals, the teach-in organizers stated, “Everyone has to start somewhere, and it takes a commitment to disrupt business as usual.” They claim that for Unitarian Universalists “to be more effective at tackling white supremacy beyond our walls, we must also identify ways in which systems of supremacy and inequality live within our faith and our lives.” We must tell the truth about how Unitarian Universalism has related to and continues to relate to white supremacy.
We must do so within a context that can only be described as the reinvigoration of white supremacy and white supremacist movements throughout the United States. White supremacy has long been one of the three major political ideologies operative within this country. It was favored by many of the slave owners who numbered amongst the nation’s founders. It animated the actions of the leaders of the Confederacy. And it continues to be present among those who we might call neo-Confederates. It is at the root of what some have called our two national original sins: the institution of chattel slavery and the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the continent in pursuit of their land.
My working definition of white supremacy comes from one of the founders of the Confederate States of America. He described the origin and purpose of the Confederacy thusly, “This Union was formed by white men, and for the protection and happiness of their race.” In that statement, we find three elements that are central to the majority of white supremacist political movements in the United States. First, most white supremacists conceive of themselves as committed to a variant of democracy, one that they believe is the true expression of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. As one white supremacist described the United States, “We are a Republic. The consent of the governed is the underlying principle of our public life.”
This professed commitment to democracy is followed by a second claim that seemingly works against the first. White supremacists believe that democracy, the Union, citizenship, and the governed who can consent are limited to “white men.” In doing so, they place the legal fiction of whiteness at the center of their understanding of what it means to be part of the polity. But they also do something else, which leads to a third element of white supremacy. Gender is not incidental to its conception. It is central. Unlike a number of nineteenth-century thinkers whose claims we might try to universalize in gender neutral language, when the Confederate father used the word “men” he meant precisely that, the category of human beings we would now describe as cis-gendered and heteronormative. The role of white women within the white supremacist enterprise is largely reproductive. They are viewed as essential to the continued propagation of the white race.
There are two final aspects of white supremacy that are not expressed in the words of the Confederate I just quoted. The “white men” it benefits are not just any white men, they are wealthy white men. White supremacy is a system of racial capitalism where the wealth of the white elite is built off the exploitation of brown and black bodies.
In order to maintain it, white supremacists peddle what the great philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois called the American Assumption. This is the false beliefs “that wealth is mainly the result of its owner’s efforts and that any average worker can by thrift become a capitalist.” It is the lie that each of us, if we just work hard enough, can become fantastically wealthy.
Du Bois is our a principal guide this morning in trying to understand white supremacy. The first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard and one of the founders of the NAACP, he is understood to be one of the originators of the academic disciplines of sociology and history. Du Bois sarcastically summarized white supremacy as a belief in “the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
He coined the phrase abolition-democracy to distinguish the genuine democratic beliefs of the great abolitionists who opposed slavery from the false democracy of the slave holders. He summarized it in deceptively simple terms. It was “based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men.” He wrote those words in 1931. If he were alive today I am sure he would have rephrased them to include women and the transgendered.
After the Civil War, proponents of abolition-democracy demanded full legal rights for the formerly enslaved. They also demanded what we might now call reparations for slavery. They recognized that political freedom is essentially meaningless without economic autonomy. When your entire livelihood is dependent upon some landlord or employer it can seem impossible to vote and act for your own interests.
Alongside political freedom and economic independence, abolition democrats worked for a third thing: universal free public education. They understood that in order for democracy to function community members had to be educated enough to identify and advocate for their own interests. They had to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood, knowledge from propaganda.
In Du Bois’s view, the success of abolition-democracy required confronting the American Assumption. The wealth of the world has been built upon bloody exploitation. It is only by uncovering this truth that we can begin to build real freedom.
In addition to white supremacy and abolition-democracy there is a third school of American politics. Du Bois identified it as “industry for private profit directed by an autocracy determined at any price to amass wealth and power.” We might call it a belief in the unfettered power of the market, pure capitalism, or reduce it to the maxim of “profit before people.” It promotes the American Assumption. It ignores the history of white supremacy at the heart of this nation.
The story of American history could be simplistically reduced to a three-corner fight. In one corner, stand the white supremacists, trying ever to protect and expand the political rights and economic power of wealthy white men at the expense of everyone else. In the second corner, there are the abolition-democrats trying to build a society that recognizes the truth that we are all members of the same human family. Finally, in the third corner, are those we might term as the industrialists or, even, economic liberals. Their understanding of freedom is material. That is, they believe that freedom is primarily about the ability to pursue wealth.
The contest between white supremacists, abolition-democrats, and industrialists has gone on now for more than two hundred years. No one group is powerful enough to win alone. The white supremacists and abolition-democrats are forever opposed to each other. Power in the country shifts whenever the industrialists change their allegiance from one to the other. During the Civil War, the industrialists aligned themselves with the abolitionists and the Confederacy was defeated. After the Civil War, the industrialists decided it was more profitable to work with the former Confederates than to continue to their alliance with the abolition democrats. Incredible amounts of money were to be made in rebuilding the devastated South. In pursuit of profit, they choose traitors, terrorists, and former slave traders over those who believed in a universal human family. Then, during the Cold War, the industrialists switched sides again. They felt they would be more effective at home and abroad in fighting Communism if they allied themselves with the abolition-democrats. It was much harder for the Communists to argue that American democracy was corrupt if it extended the right to vote to all people. In recent years, the industrialists have vacillated. They worked with the Reagan administration to undermine labor unions, thus creating many of the conditions necessary for the rise of Donald Trump. Many of them supported the presidency Barack Obama and the candidacy of Hilary Clinton. They believed Clinton and Obama best served the interests of Wall Street.
In which corner do you stand? If you are anything like me, I suspect that you want to come down firmly as an abolition-democrat. You probably want to say that you believe in “freedom, power, and intelligence” for all. As a Unitarian Universalist, you probably believe in the singularity of human community, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying power of honest rationality. This is not surprising. The most important white advocate for abolition-democracy was a Unitarian. Charles Sumner was a lifelong member of Kings Chapel in Boston. He was also a Senator from Massachusetts in the lead-up to, during, and immediately following the Civil War. His insights into civil rights were so powerful that they formed the backbone of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, legislation passed over 80 years after his death. Du Bois described him as a hero, “one of the finest examples of New England culture and American courage.”
Yet, Unitarian Universalism has never been free from white supremacy. We celebrate Theodore Parker as one of our abolitionist heroes. He held racial views that we would today find appalling. Men like Ezra Stile Gannet and Orville Dewey, whose names we have forgotten, were solid industrialists and, in opposition to the abolitionists, promoted alliances with the southern white supremacists in the lead-up to the Civil War. Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder whose white supremacist actions cannot be described in the company of children. So many of us, myself included, far too often make choices based upon our own comfort. We lean towards the American Assumption. In doing so we usually ally ourselves, if only temporarily, with the industrialists and even white supremacists instead of the abolition-democrats.
In which corner do you stand? If you wish to declare yourself firmly an abolition-democrat you must come to terms with the history of this country. This is more than recognizing that the majority of the men who founded the United States were slave holders. It is more than recognizing that the founders of this nation unleashed a genocide on the continent’s indigenous peoples in order to steal land. It means confessing that the American Assumption is fundamentally untrue. The majority of the wealth in this country has not been accrued through its owner’s efforts. It means honestly admitting that the majority of the institutions we participate in were created by wealthy white men, for the benefit of wealthy white men.
The majority of the most powerful in almost any institution we might name continue to be white men. The majority of CEOs of large corporations are white men. The majority of the members of Congress are white men. The President is a white man. His administration contains a larger of percentage white men than any president in my lifetime. The majority of university presidents are white men. So are the majority of major league football, basketball, and baseball coaches. Our own Unitarian Universalist Association is not exempt. Of the ten largest congregations in our association, nine have a senior minister who is a white man. In most of these cases, the white men at the top come from families not unlike my own: highly educated and, at least, upper middle income.
In which corner do you stand? If, like me, you have what one my friends used to call “the complexion connection,” then the answer might not be easy. Finding it may require a change in actions. It might require making yourself uncomfortable. It may require confronting how the American Assumption has functioned in your own life. How much of what you have, have you truly earned?
If you are white, choosing abolition-democracy might necessitate opening yourself to unfamiliar voices and difficult truths. I choose the poem by Lauren Hill “Black Rage” this morning precisely because it presents difficult truths. It expresses an important perspective on what it means to be black in America, that is to say, what it means to live under white supremacy. As she tells us at the opening of the text, “Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person.” A little later she claims, “Black rage is founded on blocking the truth.”
We may believe in racial justice. We may belong to or support any number of the courageous movements that are now blooming across this country and throughout the world to confront white supremacy. We may go to or help organize protests with the Movement for Black Lives. We may collaborate with other congregations to challenge racism. We may declare that no one is illegal. These actions will not change one truth. Our words and actions will remain hollow unless we examine and transform the institutions of which we are a part. Who were they built for? Who do they continue to serve? Wealthy white men?
We Unitarian Universalists are not Calvinists. We do not believe in original sin. We believe that wrongs can be righted. We can begin with a truth: this nation and the majority of its institutions were created by wealthy white men for wealthy white men. And we can recognize that things can be different. We can confront the American Assumption. We can be compassionate. We can remember that love is transformative and reason clarifying. We can commit ourselves to abolition-democracy.
In the hopes that we can all make such a commitment, I close with words from the great abolition-democrat and Unitarian Charles Sumner, offered shortly before his death. I pray that they guide us all:
“I make this appeal also for the sake of peace, so that at last there shall be an end of slavery, and the rights of the citizen shall be everywhere under the equal safeguard of national law. There is beauty in art, in literature, in science, and in every triumph of intelligence, all of which I covet for my country; but there is a higher beauty still--in relieving the poor, in elevating the downtrodden, and being a succor to the oppressed. There is true grandeur in an example of justice, in making the rights of all the same as our own, and beating down the prejudice, like Satan, under our feet.”
May it be so. Blessed Be and Amen.