Mar 5, 2020
Note: I recently received an email from Greg Coleridge, the Outreach Director for Move to Amend, asking if I could share a sermon that I preached back in 2010 in support of Move to Amend and in opposition to corporate personhood. I've posted it here so that Greg can share it and others can read it. It reflects a different preaching style than the one I use these days but it reflects my views.
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, April 11, 2010
There are times when I wonder if I have wandered into a science fiction story. The recent United States Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission was one of them. You have probably heard about the case. In this five-to-four decision the Supreme Court opened the door for corporate advocacy during elections. The court decided that restrictions on corporate spending for political advertising were violations of a corporation's right to free speech. The court's logic requires them to equate spending money with exercising free speech and accepting that corporations are legal persons with the same rights under the United States Constitution as human beings.
This decision, as the legal scholar Jamin Raskin argues, is "threatening a fundamental change in the character of American political democracy." It will allow companies like Enron, Walmart, and Blackwater to take money directly from their corporate treasuries and put them into campaigns for political candidates. True, they still will not be allowed to contribute directly to a political candidate. However, they will be allowed to finance political ads endorsing and attacking candidates. This, as retiring Justice John Paul Stevens has written, could well lead to, "corporate domination of the electoral process."
And if corporations dominate the electoral process it will be difficult to place checks upon their powers. It is hard to imagine Congress passing regulatory laws on anything that impedes corporate profits if all of its members owe their seats to corporate financing. Under such a scenario our elected officials could become little more than proxies for their corporate backers. The United States would cease, in any meaningful way, to be, in Lincoln's memorable words, "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Instead it would become government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations. And any form of even rudimentary democracy might then perish from the Earth.
William Gibson imagines such a world in his cyberpunk novels. In works like his Sprawl Trilogy of "Neuromancer," "Count Zero" and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" he envisions a society where corporations are sovereign states unto themselves. In this world, corporations retain their own armies, make their own laws and compete against each other for the most profitable competitive edge. Sometimes the competition grows violent and corporate soldiers kidnap or coerce a competitors prize employees or forcibly steal trade secrets. Human beings are reduced to their potential for generating profit. And all of humanity is divided into roughly three classes--the privileged elite that own the corporations, the less privileged middle classes who work for the corporations, and the masses who exist at the margins of society eking out an existence in low-wage factories, in dump heaps and in the ruins of the world's great cities.
This world is not unlike our own. Some of the best of science fiction comes from observing current societal trends and following them to their logical conclusions. Gibson's world is a projection of the path that we might take if society continues to progress along its present trajectory. It resembles our own but with a few crucial differences, differences that could eventually be rendered naught.
In Gibson's world the environment has been completely despoiled in the pursuit of profit--even horses have gone extinct--and technology has become indistinguishable from what our ancestors would have called magic. Human flesh and machine mesh. Many people have computers directly wired into their brains. Microchips allow for the acquisition of language and motor skills. If you cannot fly a helicopter you can buy a chip that will automatically give you the skill to do so. Reality and virtual reality form one seamless whole. Computers create sensory experiences in individuals.
It is a dystopian future. Humanity has lost control of its destiny. The great rule the many and use them for their own ends with nothing--no unions, no governments, no civic organizations--to check their power.
I fear that court cases like that of Citizens United represent the birth pangs of such a dystopian world. Already many large corporations are more powerful than the majority of the world's governments. The boundaries of the recent healthcare debate were set far more by the healthcare industry than they were by the public. Gibson's future is, in some fashion, here. The vast inequities of global wealth are increasing. Sweatshop labor is replacing unionized manufacturing jobs. Ecological catastrophe looms--the Earth grows ever warmer and the Earth's species ever fewer.
Whether a Gibsonian dystopia arrives fully born or whether a different world is coming depends on how we address the question of corporate power. Corporations, like any other human institution, are tools to accomplish specific purposes. Despite their many guises their purpose all boils down to the same thing: to achieve the highest profit margins possible. A corporation might make medical supplies, print school books, or sell organic foods. Its legal obligation is not to produce the best quality of these items it can. It is instead to provide the corporation's owners, the stockholders, with the highest return on their investment possible.
Corporations have been around for a long time. They predate the founding of this country. Some have argued that the American Revolution was as much a rebellion against corporate power as it was against the colonial rule of the crown. The "British colonies were chartered by the king and given the right to govern...and...British law forced the colonists to trade under disadvantageous terms with the East India Company...the American Revolution overthrew not only King George III's sovereignty...but also the power of the first huge corporations...", writes Tom Stites, the former editor of the UU World.
After the American Revolution it took a long time for corporations to begin to re-establish their sovereignty. Some of the founders of the United States were quite skeptical of corporate power. Thomas Jefferson wanted to insert a clause about freedom from monopolies into the United States Constitution and wrote, "I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of moneyed corporations." Jefferson was not heeded and as the country grew corporations gained in power.
The Industrial Revolution and Civil War brought corporations to a new level of size and development. Originally they had been chartered by individual states for a specific scope and period of time. Gradually business interests convinced state legislators to expand the corporate purview and grant charters that lasted in perpetuity. After the Civil War came the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment--aimed to ensure that freed slaves had full personhood and citizenship. In what some might regard as a perversion of the law, corporate lawyers used this amendment to gain personhood for corporations, affording them the same protections under the Bill of Rights as human beings. This greatly reduced the ability of city governments and state legislatures to regulate them.
I am not a lawyer. I find this logic difficult to grasp. I do not understand how a law clearly written with the intention of protecting the rights of freed slaves could be interpreted to bolster corporate power. The logic escaped some on the Supreme Court as well. Justice Hugo Black wrote that the "history of the amendment proves that the people were told that its purpose was to protect weak and helpless human beings and were not told that it was intended to remove corporations in any fashion from the control of state governments." Black's opinions were not those of the majority and corporate personhood remains a legal fact until the laws are changed.
The question of what makes someone or something a person has many dimensions. As Emily so aptly noted in her reflection earlier personhood is something that we bestow upon others. As a society we grant certain people but not others the right to participate as full members and enjoy the full protection of the law. Individuals or communities may bestow personhood on different entities than the state. The state may, in turn, hold some entities to be persons that individuals or communities do not.
The lens of the expansion of personhood provides an interesting interpretation of the history of the United States. At the country's founding the only human beings who the law recognized as having full personhood were land owning white males. Through the course of much struggle, and the sacrifices of many brave souls, personhood was expanded. It shifted, under the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, to include white non-land owning males. Then, in the wake of the Civil War, it enlarged to include, in theory, African American males. With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment women gained personhood. The Civil Rights movement made the promises of the Fourteenth Amendment reality and African American women and men secured personhood. Today there are those like the ethicist Peter Singer who extend personhood to animals. There are also those in the anti-abortion movement who would claim personhood for human fetuses.
In the contemporary United States there continue to be many human beings who are not afforded full personhood by our society. Undocumented immigrants and enemy combatants are not guaranteed many of the protections of the Bill of Rights. This has left them vulnerable to torture, trials without juries or due process and loss of life and liberty. Here in Ohio, and elsewhere throughout the United States, members of the BGLT community lack the rights that those in heterosexual partnerships or with binary gender norms enjoy. Members of the BGLT community can be discriminated against in housing or in employment situations. They do not have the right to marry. Our society has also demonstrated that it does not respect the personhood of many in the developing world. Our willingness to tolerate sweatshop labor in the manufacture of consumer goods and our indifference at inflicting gross civilian casualties during wartime offer substantive proof of this.
It is perverse that with so many human beings still outside the circle of personhood corporations are allowed inside it. Large corporations--the big Wall Street firms, the large manufacturing companies, the airlines and oil combines--are far more the tools of the rich and powerful than they are of those on the margins of society. The recent mining disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia should here prove to be illustrative. On the one hand there is Massey Energy whose CEO Don Blankenship's annual compensation approaches $10,000,000. On the other hand there are the miners who make about $60,000 a year. By granting personhood to corporations our society reinforces the dynamic whereby the wealthy have more voice than the rest of us. Massey Energy advocates for the ability of Blankenship to make ever more money selling coal. The Upper Big Branch miners, without a union, have little to advocate for them.
This is a problem. Whatever is in Massey's best interest is what will make Massey’s shareholders the most money. The best interest of the miners are different. The more money Massey pays the miners the less the company's owners will earn in profits. More troubling, the greater the company's expenditures on safety, the lower its' profit margins. Last night on NPR's "All Things Considered" Gerald Stern, a lawyer who represents the families of the victims of mine disasters, described the dynamic this way: "You don't find anybody becoming President of a coal company who came up through the safety side of the industry. You come up through the production side. That incentive, to focus on production and not to reward those who say I need to close the mine for a day or two to... make sure the mine is safe, that is the problem here."
The situation reminds me of another science fiction story, this time from the British television show Doctor Who. The episode, called "The Green Death" and made in the early 1970s, unfolds when the Doctor and his companion Jo travel to South Wales to investigate the mysterious death of a miner in an abandoned coal mine. Once in Wales the Doctor and Jo discover that the mine is filled with some sort of strange glowing material that kills all who contact it. As the plot unfolds they learn that Global Chemical, a nearby oil company, has been pumping the mine full of waste from a secret energy project.
In order to pursue maximum efficiency and obtain the highest profits the head of Global Chemicals has turned operations of the company over to a computer system named BOSS. BOSS shows little regard for human life and either brainwashes or kills all who stand its way. Nothing is to be allowed to impede maximum efficiency.
BOSS is an almost perfect metaphor for corporate personhood. Like the corporation, it blindly pursues its end without regard to the human consequences. And like the corporation, in the pursuit of this end many people get hurt.
Here I think we come to the primary problem of corporate personhood. While the legal fiction affords corporations with many of the rights of human beings it does not couple the corporation with human limitations. Corporations can live forever. Corporations are, ironically, non-corporal and need not breath, eat, seek shelter or sleep to perpetuate themselves. Most importantly, corporations lack conscience.
Considering this issue Tom Stites has written, "The right of conscience is the essence of freedom...it is the essence of what makes us human. No other creatures are known to have consciences; corporations certainly do not." The absence of conscience means that if corporations are to consider anything other than maximizing their profits then it must be outside forces that compel them to do so.
This a political problem but it is also a spiritual one. It is a political problem because how decisions are made, and who gets to make them, are ultimately questions of politics. Restraining corporate power, and ending corporate personhood, will only come about if people organize to do so. With the Supreme Court on the side corporate personhood it is clear that change will not come from the courts. Instead what is needed is a constitutional amendment delineating that corporations are not afforded protection under the Bill of Rights. Currently the grassroots campaign Move to Amend is pushing just such an amendment. Whether they succeed or not will depend upon how much support they get.
It is a spiritual problem because what differentiates us humans from corporations is spirit. The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning breath. Spirit is often equated with the force that propels life forward. Corporations lack this force. They follow a different trajectory. It is trajectory that leads towards a Gibsonian dystopia where the richest live in abundance, the masses in squalor and the planet is threatened with extinction.
The alternative is a world where spirit reigns and the life force is honored above profit. In such a world, to quote Emily, "humanity and personhood... [might] not completely overlap" but personhood would be limited to those entities that either have or serve spirit. With personhood so limited we would not fear that profits would be valued over people or that the environment would be despoiled to enrich the few. Instead of profit decisions would be guided by what is best for the many.
Which world will come to be? The decision is ours. What we choose is a matter of our conscience. Conscience is something we all have. It is something we can use to build a better society. Reflecting on the crisis of fascism and its relationship to conscience the German poet Bertolt Brecht once wrote:
General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect;
It needs a driver.
General, your bomber is powerful.
It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant.
But it has one defect;
It needs a mechanic.
General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill,
But he has one defect;
He can think.
This defect is something that all of us share. It is what makes us humans and renders corporations mere legal fictions. Let us remember this. In doing so we might serve the spirit--the breath of life--and bring about not a science fiction dystopia but a life-affirming world where justice flows like a river and peace like a ever flowing stream.
May it be so.
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.”
May 15, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, April 29, 2018
Today is bring a friend Sunday. I would like to begin my sermon by extending a special welcome to the guests who are visiting today. I know that visiting a strange religious community--even at the invitation of a friend--can be intimidating. It is hard to know exactly what to expect. I imagine that can be especially true when visiting a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Unitarian Universalism is not a large religious movement. It might seem similar to Protestant Christianity but it is very much its own thing.
Our tradition has deep roots in New England. Here in Ashby, the First Parish Church is thus named precisely because it was the first parish in the town, founded at the same time as the community itself. It was not exactly Unitarian Universalist at the time. Unitarian Universalism as it exists today came about from the merger of two historic Protestant denominations. First Parish was a member of one of them. This congregation historically was Unitarian. The Unitarians believed in the universality of the human family, the power of reason to progressively perfect character, and the humanity of Jesus. The Universalists took a somewhat humbler approach. Instead of lauding human potential, they rejected the Christian idea that God damned sinners to eternal torment. They asserted that a loving God would not damn any of her creations to Hell. One Unitarian minister joked about the two denominations, “The Unitarians believed that they were too good to damn. The Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them.”
Today, drawing on both of these traditions, Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal, non-creedal, post-Christian religious movement. We are covenantal because in our congregations we make agreements about what we expect from each other as members of a community. This congregation reads its covenant every Sunday. We recited it a little bit earlier. It runs:
We gather to build community, because we know that people need to give and receive love.
We gather to worship, because we hunger for the sacred.
We gather to dedicate ourselves to service, because service is
the active expression of our beliefs and talents.
We gather to celebrate the power and wonder of Mystery.
This covenant suggests that if you are a member here you are expected to work to build community, to take part in worship, to serve the congregation and the wider world, and to celebrate the mystery that lies at the heart of existence.
That last point touches on the non-creedal aspect of our tradition. Our covenant does not require you to hold a particular theological position to participate in a Unitarian Universalist community. You can describe the Mystery as God. Or, if you are an atheist, name it as the marvels of the laws of physics. Alternatively, you can approach it through Buddhist practice or neo-paganism. If you are of Jewish heritage, as I am, you might observe holidays like Passover or Hanukkah. It less important what spiritual path you pursue than it is that you choose to pursue one.
The final words I used to describe Unitarian Universalism were post-Christian. They acknowledge that while Unitarian Universalism came out of Christianity it is no longer explicitly Christian. You can be Christian and be a Unitarian Universalist. You can also not be Christian and be a Unitarian Universalist. Nonetheless, Unitarian Universalism retains many of the forms of practice of Christianity, specifically Protestant Christianity. We gather for worship on Sunday mornings. We sing hymns. We preach and listen to sermons. We ask for an offering to sustain the life and work of the congregation. We pray.
So, if today is your first time here and you are wondering what the heck this is all about, I hope that my explanation of Unitarian Universalism has been helpful. Please feel free to come talk with me after the service if you have any questions or just to introduce yourself.
The title of today’s sermon is “A Place to Grow Our Souls.” The title is inspired by the life and writing of the late Grace Lee Boggs. Grace Lee was a Detroiter. She died a couple of years ago at just past the age of one hundred. She was a remarkable woman whose life and activism spanned much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first-century. Born in the middle of World War I, she was one of the first women of color to earn a PhD in philosophy. She was by turns a socialist, a labor activist, a leader in the Northern civil rights movement, and a supporter of the Black Power movement. At the end of her life she was also someone who believed that if the human species is to survive we all, each of us, need to undergo a great moral awakening and transformation. It is that last of aspect Grace Lee’s life that I want to dwell on this morning, the idea that, in her words, “Each of us needs undergo a tremendous philosophical and spiritual transformation.” This work of transformation is not work that we can achieve individually. It is a collective project, one that is best pursued as part of a community. A Unitarian Universalist congregation like this one is a pretty good place to engage in the difficult work of transformation.
Most days when I turn on the radio, open a magazine, or make the mistake of glancing at my social media feed, it seems like we as a human species and as a country are in the midst of a series of great crises. The climate is warming. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. There is a dramatic epidemic of gun violence. There is a dramatic epidemic of opioid abuse. Economic inequality is rising. Democratic institutions and norms are declining. White supremacy is resurgent. Sexual violence is rampant. I feel exhausted just reciting this list. And it is incomplete. What about you? Do you find the news of the world overwhelming? At this moment in human history it is easy to feel hopeless, alone, powerless, and isolated in despair. And, indeed, in our increasingly atomized society more people feel alone today than ever before. Family ties have frayed. Friendships are harder to make as many of us retreat from public activities. As Grace Lee wrote, “These are the times that try our souls.”
Grace Lee was, as I mentioned earlier, a Detroiter. Now, I am from Michigan and I have a particular affinity for Detroit. Have you been there? It is like nothing in New England. Over the last seventy years it has steadily lost population as a combination of white flight and deindustrialization have hollowed out large segments of the city. In 1950 there were close to two million people living in Detroit. Today there are less than seven hundred thousand. Meanwhile, the city’s economic base has collapsed. One out of every three residents lives in poverty. There are whole neighborhoods that have essentially been abandoned. You can see blocks upon blocks of collapsing red brick apartment buildings and burned out single family homes. You can even find deserted factory complexes. I suspect words might not capture the scale of the devastation.
Maybe it would help to describe one site, the Packard Plant. An automobile factory built in the early twentieth century, it is a mass of concrete, steel, and brick. The windows are all broken out. In the winter, snow drifts and ice invade the buildings. In the summer, the sun comes inside. Vegetation is everywhere. There are trees, and not small ones, growing on the roof. In the month of May the former parking lots are filled with the weed flowers of spring. Roots from dandelions, myrtle, milkweed, and garlic mustard, all break down old asphalt. The buildings themselves are cavernous. Walking through them can feel like walking through ancient caves--some of the concrete has even degenerated in stalactites. It can also feel like traveling through the remains of an ancient civilization, a sensation made all the more palpable after the Packard was plundered for its copper and anything else of value that could be pried loose. This whole site is almost twice the size of the Harvard yard. If we brought it to Ashby it would enclose the Common and stretch down to about the elementary school in one direction and Glenwood Cemetery in another.
Some years ago, someone on the radio show The American Life described the city this way, “Whatever civilization is, Detroit is what comes after.” I tell you all this because I want you to understand a little about the place that Grace Lee spent most of her life and to give you a feel for the crises which surrounded her. The neighborhood Grace Lee lived in is not far from the Packard Plant. And near her house are several buildings that had been partially burned out and left to rot. There are also some vacant lots that have turned to what can only be described as urban prairie--large spaces were native plants and wildlife are returning.
Thinking of Detroit and Grace Lee, I am reminded of the work of the Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker. She encourages us to imagine that we live after the apocalypse. The great catastrophe has already happened. The world has, in some way, already ended. She reminds us: “We are living in the aftermath of collective violence that has been severe, massive, and traumatic. The scars from slavery, genocide, and meaningless war mark our bodies.” And she asks, “How do we live in this world? What is our religious task?”
Like Parker, Grace Lee was someone who recognized that we live after the apocalypse. She once wrote, “there is no utopia, no final solution, no Promised Land.” Our task is to grow our souls knowing that there will never be a perfect world, that human struggle might be endless, that whatever victories we achieve will only lay the ground for further struggle. The philosophical and spiritual awakening that we need is one that recognizes that whatever successes we have in our efforts to build a better world will only be partial victories.
And yet, this is not cause for despair. It is reason to continue because every ending brings with it the possibility of another beginning. Grace Lee moved to Detroit in the early 1950s as part of an effort to radicalize autoworkers. Automation, global competition, and outsourcing decimated Detroit’s industrial workforce and cityscape, Grace Lee realized that the work ahead was different than she had imagined. Urban decline created the space for new forms of community to blossom.
And so, in the midst of desolation she began to dream of what might come after the collapse of a city, in the spaces abandoned by capitalism. She became a pioneer in the urban gardening movement claiming, “Detroit is a city of Hope rather than a city of Despair. The thousands of vacant lots and abandoned houses provide not only the space to begin anew but also the incentive to create innovative ways of making our living--ways that nurture our productive, cooperative, and caring selves.” She saw the city as a place where people might begin to pursue a new way of living and she helped to organize hundreds, or maybe thousands, of urban gardens throughout the city. Taking inspiration from a network of black farmers, she told people, “we cannot free ourselves until we feed ourselves.” And the urban gardens that she helped to start in many cases became places of renewal, where community began to come back, and flowers and vegetables grew on what had once been crumbling concrete.
When I lived in Cleveland some members of the congregation and I looked to Grace Lee and her work in Detroit as an inspiration. We started a community garden on the church’s grounds and experienced a small revitalization in the local neighborhood. We got to know people who we would have never met otherwise. My favorite may have been Esther, a Filipino woman then in her sixties who had immigrated to the United States only a few years prior. She had been a peasant farmer her in native country. And she brought her farming traditions to our urban garden--constructing out of the sticks and cast-off bits of metal she found an elaborate lattice on which to grow a multilayered cornucopia of beans, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, and herbs. Somehow out of her two eight by four plots in the garden she was able to grow almost enough food to live on for the year.
Esther and her vegetables, our community garden in Cleveland, the work of Grace Lee, point to the lesson that I am trying to offer. Every space contains the possibility of revitalization. The times may be difficult but if we think creatively, open ourselves to possibility, we can grow our souls. A desolate urban landscape does not have to be a symbol of collapse. It contains new ways of organizing ourselves or new possibilities for growing communities.
We can find similar possibilities wherever we live. And one of the best ways to find those possibilities is to be part of a liberal religious congregation like this one. The non-creedal and covenantal nature of our tradition means that we can flexibly open ourselves to collaboration and service with others. It also means that we understand that the work of growing our souls or undergoing a philosophical and spiritual transformation is not merely an activity for quiet contemplation. It might begin with the ability to see new possibilities in existing spaces, but it is best expressed through action. And that action is something that we do collectively. We need not be a large group to take collective action. Even a small congregation like First Parish Ashby can make a difference and help us to grow our souls. The Earth Day clean-up and the local organizing that the congregation did for March for Our Lives are great examples of this.
Grace Lee knew this. She was not a Unitarian Universalist. And yet, she could be described as a fellow traveler. She had a close relationship with the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit. The funeral of her husband was held there and for many years she used it as an organizing site. She even mentioned it in her final book. That congregation, it is worth telling you, is not a large one. It has declined significantly in membership as the city has declined. And yet, it continues to make a difference, to be a place where people can grow their souls by creatively serving the community.
The times may be challenging. We may find ourselves often on the edge of despair. And yet, these are the times to grow our souls. And this is a good place to do it, by working together to imagine how our world and this town can be different. We can undergo a spiritual and philosophical transformation if we are willing to see the possibilities that open themselves after catastrophes, to seek, together, the hope that can follow despair.
May it be so, blessed be, and Amen.