Choose a Category

Oct 25, 2017

Abolition Democracy (Unity Temple)

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.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Abolition Democracy William Ellery Channing W. E. B. Du Bois Lauren Hill Jesus Christ Fourth Principle Charles Sumner Susan Sontag Unity Temple Civil War Confederacy White Supremacy White Supremacy Teach-in Unitarian Universalist Association

Oct 16, 2017

Abolition Democracy (Ashby)

as preached at First Parish Church Ashby, October 15, 2017

It is delightful be back in Ashby with you all today. The fall colors are just as glorious as I had been promised. The cascading hues of brilliant dying leaves against rumpled enduring bark reminds me that no matter how difficult the hour, how deep the crisis, our muddy planet is thick with beauty.

Would that this morning we could do nothing more than raise our voices in a hymn for the beauty of the earth. But no matter how crimson the leaf, how captivating the unfolding patterns of trees, 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 ever true that we inflict suffering upon each other. Any day of the week Susan Sontag words ring true, “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.” 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 steadily, when we understand precisely the path on which we wonder and what besets us. Honest speech and honest analysis couple our understanding of the truth. 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 love to participate in an exercise in truth seeking. We have joined with them in an association-wide teach-in about white supremacy. The teach-in is the second on the subject this year. 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.” In other words, 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. One of the founders of the Confederacy described his country, and thus white supremacy, in these words: “This Union was formed by white men, and for the protection and happiness of their race.” Though he was writing in 1860, his words should not be understood as gender neutral. A study of the Confederacy and white supremacist thought reveals it be based on the belief that society should be organized for the benefit of white men, not just whites. And those white men are not just any white men, they are wealthy white men. Ultimately, white supremacy is a system of racial capitalism where the wealth of the white elite is built off the dual exploitation of brown and black bodies and the natural environment.

The great philosopher W. E. B. 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, Du Bois is understood to be one of the originators of the academic disciplines of sociology and history. He 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 the 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 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.”

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. Yet 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. In doing so we usually ally ourselves, if only temporarily, with the industrialists 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. That does not just mean coming to terms with the reality that many of the men who founded the United States were slave holders who participated in the genocide of the continent’s indigenous peoples in order to steal their land. It means recognizing that however much you find white supremacy abhorrent, the majority of the institutions which we participate in were created by white men, for the benefit of white men. And 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 too with 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 the vast majority of these cases, the white men at the top come from families not unlike my own: upper middle income or above.

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 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 about what it means to be black in America, that is to say what it means to live under white supremacy. As she tells us, “Black rage is founded on blocking the truth.” And the truth is that however much we may believe in racial justice, our words will remain hollow unless we examine the institutions of which we are a part and consider how they have been built for and continue to largely benefit one group of people: wealthy white men.

We Unitarian Universalists are not Calvinists. We need to recognize that the nation and its institutions were founded by wealthy white men for wealthy white men. We need also to recognize that things can be different. We can be truthful with each other. We can be compassionate. We can remember that love is transformative and reason clarifying.

I close with words from that 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. Humbly do I pray that the republic may not lose this great prize, or postpone its enjoyment.”

May it be so. Blessed Be and Amen.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags Abolition Democracy William Ellery Channing W. E. B. Du Bois Lauren Hill Jesus Christ Fourth Principle Charles Sumner First Parish Ashby Susan Sontag Civil War Confederacy White Supremacy White Supremacy Teach-in

Sep 18, 2017

Sometimes You Need a Story to Survive

as preached at the Ashby First Parish Church, September 17, 2017

I am delighted to be with you this morning. It is the first Sunday of a new church year and I have the privilege of serving as your new minister. I am looking forward to getting to know each of you, the town of Ashby, and your wider community. It is my hope that in the coming months we will learn and grow together.

I join you at the beginning of your congregation’s, and your town’s, 250th year. It has been a long way from there to here and yet any time, any moment, can be an opportunity for fresh starts or re-imaginings. The poet Dante knew this. He commenced his great poem in, as it were, the middle:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

We too find ourselves in the middle of this story we call the First Parish Church of Ashby. Thanks to the diligent work of Dorothy Wilder, we know how the story began. We know that the town voted to build a meeting house almost immediately after its incorporation. We know that the first meeting house was begun in 1771, completed in 1790, and replaced by the present building in 1809. We know that the church and town formally separated in about 1841. That was when the building was split into two floors. The top became the present sanctuary. The bottom served as the town hall until sometime in the late 1880s. We know the sanctuary was remodeled in 1927. The rooms that stand on either side of the chancel were added.

The story of First Parish Church is not merely its building. Amid Wilder’s litany of ministers and active members of the congregation, we learn that its liberals and conservatives split in 1820. The liberals became Unitarians and kept the building. The conservatives adhered to the trinity and formed the congregationalist church across the street. Evidentially, it has generally been the larger of the two congregations. Wilder indicates it was begun by “a majority of church members.” In reference to First Parish Church, she writes that its members “could not hope to belong to a large and comfortable majority.”

Reading Wilder’s history, we learn two further things about the life of this congregation. The first is that music has long been important to its members. The initial reference to music in the town’s records appears in 1768, one year after the church was founded. The other thing we learn from Wilder is that heating the building has long been an issue. She reports debates about how best to keep it warm in the winter months as far back as 1833.

Though this sketch of the story of First Parish Church leaves much unmentioned, I suspect it captures the major highlights. Certainly, the importance of music and the challenge of keeping warm in the winter were both shared with me when I met with the search committee. At least one person told that they come here largely because they love the music. I was also told that in the cold months you drain the pipes after services to make sure that they do not freeze.

The search committee did more than tell me about the Lizards in the Hayloft and avoiding frozen pipes. They brought the story of the congregation into the present. The last fifty years of congregational life are in many ways similar to the First Parish Church’s first two hundred years. Throughout all this time the congregation has been deeply entwined with the town.

Today is my third time in Ashby. The two other times I heard the same story about the congregation last fifty years. The first time was from a member of the search committee. The second time was from Pastor Ken, who serves the congregation across the street and who grew up in First Parish Church. The story centered on your former minister, Philip Zwerling.

I understand that Phil served here during the Vietnam War. He was an anti-war activist and, like many Unitarian Universalist ministers at the time, opposed to the United States military actions in Southeast Asia. He appears to have expressed his opposition in a rather imprudent manner. In 1973, I have been told, he denounced the American war effort on the bandstand in the town common during the annual Memorial Day joint service between First Parish Church and the Ashby Congregational Church. “This split the church and more than half of its members went across the street,” Pastor Ken advised me when I met him during the summer concert on the green I attended.

The congregation has yet to recover to the level of membership it had prior to Phil’s tenure. In the 1960s it seems to have had perhaps a hundred fifty members. Today it has forty or so. Listening to this story I was reminded that in our collective lives trauma leaves an enduring imprint. Much of the present political conflict in the United States can be traced back to the Civil War and through it to the twin traumatic sins of the nation’s founding: the enslavement and forced migrations of Africans to the North American continent and the genocide of the hemisphere’s indigenous peoples. Trauma can narrate our collective life, suggesting what we imagine to be possible and what we imagine to be prohibited.

In the collective life of First Parish Church, the traumatic tale of Phil Zwerling on the bandstand seems to come with a subtext. The subtext is that the town of Ashby is conservative and that if I want to succeed as minister I would probably do my best to mind that.

I wonder the truth of that subtext. Certainly, Ashby is much more conservative than any place I have lived. The majority of its votes went to Donald Trump in the last election. And yet, the story of Phil and the bandstand is hardly unique. Lots of Unitarian Universalist congregations were split by the Vietnam War. No less a congregation than Arlington Street Church suffered the same fate.

Arlington Street is one of the flagship churches of our religious tradition. Located across from Boston Common, possessing sixteen beautiful Tiffany windows that glow with an almost holy light on a Sunday morning, the congregation was for many years the cathedral church of Boston Unitarians. No less a figure than William Ellery Channing served as its preacher during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. You might remember Channing as the greatest theologian of American Unitarianism. He was the promoter of the claim that each of us contains within “the likeness to God” and the author of memorable aphorisms such as, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.”

Arlington Street split in the 1960s over the minister’s support of the anti-war movement. Jack Mendelsohn served there in the during the Vietnam War and under his leadership the congregation hosted a massive draft card burning that garnered national attention. It resulted in a famous court case that included the conviction of the pediatrician Benjamin Spock and William Sloane Coffin, Jr., then the chaplain to Yale University, for obstructing the war effort. It also resulted in significant criticism of Mendelsohn’s ministry by a number of the church’s members. In one letter he received from a congregant he was told, “such demonstrations serve only to provide aid, comfort and encouragement to North Vietnam in prolonging the war and refusing to discuss any reasonable basis for ending the conflict.” The phrase aid and comfort, you may know, is legal shorthand for treason.

Arlington Street went into crisis and decline in the decade or so following the draft card burning. In the 1970s it actually ran as a fellowship, without a minister. It struggled through the 1980s to such an extent that the physical plant fell somewhat into decay. Yet, today, Arlington Street is a thriving congregation with a Sunday morning worshipping congregation of about two hundred. It weathered its crisis and returned to vibrancy. Why? Well, the answer is straightforward. After its crisis, the congregation was eventually able to answer a simple question: what is the purpose of the church? They respond by saying, we are “gathered in love and service for justice and peace.” And then they take actions to live out that answer.

I am not affiliated with Arlington Street and I am not intending to lift them up as the paradigmatic example of twenty-first century liberal religion. Instead, I share their journey to suggest that any religious community that wishes to recover from its past traumas must be able to answer the question: what is the purpose of the church?

I posed this question to the search committee and again to the Parish Committee when I met with them. Each time I got a similar answer. Members of both committees said something like, “the purpose of this church is to survive and preserve our historic building.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this answer. It is good to keep a keep small congregation afloat. It is important to meet Sunday after Sunday and offer each other emotional support. You make a difference in the world by maintaining a Unitarian Universalist voice in rural Massachusetts at a time when religious institutions across New England are in decline. You have a beautiful building. From the outside, it is picture postcard perfect. There is no reason to suspect that placing the survival of the congregation and the preservation of the building as your mission is inadequate for your community’s near future. First Parish Church has been here for two hundred and fifty years. It will be around for sometime to come.

But, I suspect, that if we want to see the congregation move from surviving to thriving we will need to come up with a different answer to the question what is the purpose of the church than the one you have now. Survival and preservation are good for current members. We may need a new story if we want to attract new ones. What is the purpose of this church?

This is not my question to answer. It is yours. In the coming months, I plan to work with the Parish Committee and all of you to answer the question, what is the purpose of the church? It may be that you decide that your current answer is sufficient. It has served you for the past few decades. It might also be that you decide you want a new answer, one that tells a different story about the life of the congregation. That will be your choice.

I close not by suggesting my own answer to the question what is the purpose of the church but by offering words from three of the greatest Unitarian Universalist theologians of recent decades: James Luther Adams, Rebecca Parker, and Mark Morrison-Reed.

Adams: ...the vocation of… the church, [is] to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsible to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transforming power.

Parker: Good religious communities convert people to the way of life our society needs to move to: from believing that violence is redemptive to practicing justice and compassion; from going it alone to giving and receiving care from others; from isolating oneself in individualism to sharing work on behalf of the common good.

Morrison-Reed: It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

What is the purpose of this church? What story will help the congregation to survive? What story will help it thrive? May we answer these questions well.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags First Parish Ashby Unitarian Universalism Dante William Ellery Channing Jack Mendelsohn Dorothy Wilder Ashby Vietnam Philip Zwerling Arlington Street Church James Luther Adams Rebecca Parker Mark Morrison-Reed

Jun 21, 2017

Paper Presentation: Unitarian Universalism and the White Supremacist Theological Imaginary

I will be presenting a paper entitled "Unitarian Universalism and the White Supremacist Theoligical Imaginary" at the 2017 meeting of Collegium. Here's the text of the accepted paper proposal: 

This exercise in comparative theology will contrast the white supremacist theological imaginary with the theological imaginaries of two Unitarian Universalism’s foundational figures: Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing. The paper will begin with an analysis of the white supremacist theological imaginary as crystalized in one of the most explicitly religious and powerful white supremacist organizations in the history of the United States, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. The Klan was vocally Protestant and attracted modest support from some Unitarians and Universalists. The Klan’s founder held Unitarianism in esteem and Klan publications frequently quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson. This suggests a certain resonance between some aspects of Unitarianism and Universalism and individuals within them and the white supremacist theological imaginary.

After summarizing the Klan’s theological anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and understanding of the history and place of the United States in the world, the paper will then turn to examinations of the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing to attempt to answer the questions: What was it about liberal theology that appealed to members of the Klan? To what extent should the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing be understood as inherently white supremacist?

The paper will conclude with a reflection on the theological imaginaries of figures contemporary to Ballou and Channing who articulated unitarian and universalist theologies but have not been incorporated into the institutional history of Unitarian Universalism. It will argue that while elements of white supremacy can be found within the writings of both Ballou and Channing they are not found in the works of figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Constantin Francois Volney. These figures formed a part of a Trans-Atlantic multiracial revolutionary abolitionist antinomian tradition which included significant numbers of individuals who held universalist and/or unitarian theologies. Incorporating their theological imaginaries into the theological imaginaries of contemporary Unitarian Universalists might prove to be a helpful antidote to whatever aspects of the white supremacist theological imaginary contemporary Unitarian Universalists have inherited from the movement’s foundational figures.

CommentsCategories News Research Notes Tags Unitarian Universalism Collegium White Supremacy William Ellery Channing Hosea Ballou

Apr 30, 2017

Finding Each Other on the Road to Emmaus

as preached at Memorial Church of Harvard University, April 30, 2017. The readings for the day were Isaiah 43:1-12 and Luke 24:13-35. The sermon focuses on Luke 24:13-35.

It is good to be with you this morning. I want to begin with a simple note of gratitude for your hospitality and for Professor Walton’s invitation. Rev. Sullivan, Ed Jones, your seminarians, and Elizabeth Montgomery and Nancy McKeown from your administrative staff have all been delightful. Thank you all. Working with everyone has been a pleasant reminder that while I might prepare my text alone, worship, and indeed ministry, is a collective act.

Today is the third Sunday in the Easter season. In keeping with the Christian liturgical calendar, our lesson this morning is an Easter lesson. It is Luke 24:16, a sentence fragment that we read as “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” I want us to use a slightly different translation. It runs, “but something prevented them from recognizing him.”

The fragment comes from a longer passage known as the Road to Emmaus. In the text, we find two of Jesus’s disciples hustling towards a village called Emmaus. It is Easter Sunday, the first Easter Sunday. They are discussing Jesus’s execution, the empty tomb, and all that has happened in the past months. Well, actually, they are not having a discussion. They are having an argument. And they are not out for a casual afternoon stroll. The text suggests that they are fleeing Jerusalem. They are part of a revolutionary movement on the verge of collapse. The movement’s leader has been executed. Its members are scared and confused. They had been expecting victory and experienced defeat. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the text explains.

Into this hot mess steps Jesus. As the two disciples hasten along bickering about, I suspect, everything, up walks Jesus and asks what is going on, “but something prevented them from recognizing him.” In that whole story this is the verse I want us to linger upon, “something prevented them from recognizing him.”

Wrestling with the text we can imagine all kinds of reasons why the two disciples were prevented from recognizing Jesus. The Catholic priest and antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan took a fairly literal approach. Berrigan suggested that Jesus’s disciples failed to recognize him because his body was broken. Jesus appeared as he was, the victim of torture: bloodied, bruised and swollen.

Another interpretation suggests that it was the sexism, the misogyny, of the disciples that prevented them from recognizing Jesus. The initial eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women. In the verses immediately before our passage, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, along with some number of unidentified women, try to convince the rest of the apostles that the tomb is empty. The male disciples do not believe them, call their story an “idle tale” or “nonsense.” Recognizing Jesus might have required these disciples to recognize their own sexism. It would have required them to acknowledge that the women they had chosen not to believe were telling the truth.

Whatever the case, the text tells us this: there were two people traveling a path together; they were joined by a third; and they did not recognize him for who he truly was.

This is an all too human story. It is too often my story. I imagine you are familiar with it too. Think about it. How often do you encounter someone and fail to fully recognize them? Let us start with the mundane. Have you had the experience of thinking you are near a friend when you are actually in the vicinity of a stranger? More frequently than I would like to admit I have my made way across a crowded room to greet someone I know. When I arrive I discover someone who merely resembles my friend. They have the same haircut, a similar tattoo, or are wearing a shirt that looks exactly my friend’s favorite shirt. But beyond the short dark bob, double hammer neck tattoo, or long sleeves with black and white stripes is a stranger.

Such encounters are embarrassing. Blessedly, they usually last a fleeting moment and then are gone. Other failures of recognition carry with them much greater freight than mistaken identity. For another kind of failure of recognition is the failure to recognize the human in each other. And that can carry with it lethal consequences.

When police officers murder people with brown and black bodies they fail to recognize the human in the person who they shoot, choke, or beat. The police officer who shot Mike Brown said the young man looked “like a demon.” That is certainly an apt description of failing to recognize someone as human.

Reflecting on the murder of Trayvon Martin, theologian Kelly Brown Douglas has written we “must recognize the face of Jesus in Trayvon.” She challenges us to consider that Jesus was not all that different from Trayvon. They both belonged to communities targeted by violent structures of power composed of or endorsed by the state. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, the list goes on and on. What would it mean if their killers had recognized the human in each of them? What was it that prevented police officers from recognizing the human in 321 people they have killed thus far in 2017?

I want to let that unpleasant question linger. Let us return to our text. It contains an encounter with the holy. Our two disciples were on the road to Emmaus. They discovered the divine. But they did not realize the divine was amongst them until it was too late, until Jesus disappeared.

One of the principal theologians of my Unitarian Universalist tradition is William Ellery Channing. He taught that each of us contains within “the likeness to God.” Jesus, Channing believed, was someone who had unlocked the image of God within. He did this by seeing the divine in everything, “from the frail flower to the everlasting stars.” Channing might be labelled by more conventional Christians as a gnostic. The gnostics believed that Jesus came not to offer a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world but to teach us how to shatter earthly illusions and find enlightenment.

This suggests a reading of our text that focuses not on the resurrection of Jesus in the body but the resurrection of Jesus in the spirit. Remember, on the road to Emmaus Jesus appeared from seemingly nowhere. The disciples were walking and there he was. Remember, he disappeared immediately, as soon as the bread was broken.

Maybe what happened was this: as our two disciples debated, and argued, and bickered as they fled down the road to Emmaus they finally understood Jesus’s teachings. As they recounted what had happened, the divine became palpable to amongst them. And when they broke bread together they felt the divine stirring within. It was the same feeling they had when they were with Jesus before his execution. They felt Jesus still with them when they recognized the divine in each other. They found each other on the road to Emmaus.

Understood this way, the story is not about what prevents our two disciples from recognizing Jesus. It is about what prevents them from recognizing each other. What was it? What is it that prevents us from recognizing the human in each other?

Let me suggest that failing to recognize the human in each other is an unpleasantly enduring feature in academic life. Think about it. Most of us have participated in the question and answer sessions that follow presentations and lectures. These sessions have a scripted dynamic. Someone from the audience asks a question, the presenter responds. Harmless enough, such exchanges further the collective project of the intellectual community. Except... these exchanges sometimes include failure of recognition.

Do any of these seem familiar: the individual who asks the same question no matter the subject of the lecture; or the person who aggressively repeats someone else’s query as their own; or the comment in the form of a question? Each of these comes from a failure to listen.

Failures to listen are failures of recognition. They often come from failing to imagine someone else as a conversation partner, as an equal, as another person with whom we are engaged in a shared project. If we lift the curtain behind failures to listen we will frequently find insidious cultural dynamics, corrupting structure of power. I have seen, over and over again, an older male colleague restate a younger female colleague’s question as his own. I have seen white academics ignore the words of people of color or try to co-opt their work. I have seen graduate students comment on each other’s work not in the spirit of inquiry but in the spirit of currying favor with their faculty. To be honest, I have done some of these things myself.

When I commit them I am locked in my own anxieties, my need to appear smart, my desire to impress, even my longing to be a hero. Instead of listening to what someone is saying, I focus on my own words. And so, I miss the conversation. I do not fully recognize who or what is around me. What about you? How often are we, like our disciples on the road to Emmaus, oblivious to the holy?

Recognizing the human and the divine in each other is hard. Let us think about race. Race is a social construct. Race is a belief. White supremacy is a belief system. It requires that there are people “who believe that they are white,” in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memorable words, and that those people act in certain ways and believe particular things.

Most people who believe they are white believe in white normativity. This is the idea that an institution or community is primarily for or of white people. The assumption is that normal people in the institution are white and that other people are somehow aberrations. Religious communities are not immune to this. Neither are universities.

The theologian Thandeka came up with a test for white normativity. It is called the “Race Game.” The game is straightforward. It has one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you might tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The guest preacher was an articulate white man. He brought with him his ten-year old son. That little white boy sure is cute!”

The “Race Game” can be uncomfortable. It can bring up feelings of shame. Thandeka reports that in the late 1990s she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or an email describing their experiences. She received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”

Does it require courage to recognize the human and the divine in each other? What was it that prevented our two disciples from recognizing Jesus? What assumptions do each of us hold about what is normal and is not that prevent us from recognizing each other? We could play variations of the Race Game as a test. The Gender Game: “The guest preacher was a cis-gendered straight presenting man.” The Social Class Game: “He was an upper middle-class professional.” The Ableism Game: “The able-bodied man with no noticeable neurodiversity.” Such games might be difficult to play. They reveal the social constructs that prevent us from recognizing each other.

But something prevented them from recognizing him.
But something prevented them from recognizing each other.
But something prevented us from recognizing each other.

What must we do to recognize each other? Again, I turn to the text for an answer. Recall that our disciples were part of a revolutionary movement. Remember, they had given themselves over to a liberating struggle, a common project. Two thousand years ago they did not accept the status quo of the Roman Empire. Today, we can recognize the divine when we join in struggle against the world’s powers and principalities.

Tomorrow’s May Day marches, protests, and strikes demand that the American government recognize the human in every person. The rally 4:00 p.m. at Harvard is a challenge to the University community to protect our marginalized members. Yesterday’s climate march was a call to honor the divine everywhere and in everything on this blue green ball of a planet. This morning’s passing of the peace was briefly an opportunity to recognize the human in the face of each person you greeted.

The first hundred days of the new President’s regime have been a sickening reminder of what is at stake when we fail to recognize the human. The afflicted are not comforted. The comfortable are not afflicted. The brokenhearted do not have their wounds bound. The stranger is not welcomed. People die from the violence of white supremacy, from the violence of military action, from the violence of state sponsored poverty.

Our disciples finally recognized Jesus because they were part of a revolutionary movement that was committed to welcoming the stranger into its midst. A movement that bound wounds, healed spirits, and denounced violence. But more than that, it challenged people to find the divine amid and amongst themselves. For as Jesus said, “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, “Look, here it is,” or “There it is! “For the kingdom of God is among you!”

It is the poets who sum this sermon best.

T. S. Eliot:

“Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
--But who is that on the other side of you?”

Jimmy Santiago Baca:

“the essence of our strength,
each of us a warm fragment,
broken off from the greater
ornament of the unseen,
then rejoined as dust,
to all this is.”

denise levertov:

“Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent”

Let us pray.
Heart’s hunger,
holy mystery,
spark that leaps each to each,
source of being
that in our human language
so many us of name God,
stir our hearts
so that we may have the courage
to uncover
all that prevents us from recognizing
each other
and the divine that travels amid
our mortal community.

Grant us the strength,
and the compassion,
that we need to go together
down the revolutionary road,
liberating the human within each of us,
binding the wounds of the broken,
welcoming the stranger,
afflicting comfortable,
comforting the afflicted,
renouncing violence,
and encountering the truth,
the holy is never absent when we join together in struggle.

May we, like our two disciples,
find each other on the road to Emmaus.

Amen.

Gloria Korsman, Research Librarian at Andover-Harvard Theological Library, aided me with the research for this sermon. My understanding of Luke 24:13-35 also benefited from conversation with Mark Belletini. One of my advisors, Mayra Rivera Rivera, helped connect me with the congregation.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Human Rights Ministry Sermon Tags Memorial Church Harvard Emmaus Luke 24:13-35 Black Lives Matter Trayvon Martin Freddie Gray Mike Brown Sandra Bland Korryn Gaines Easter Unitarian Christianity William Ellery Channing Kelly Brown Douglas Ta-Nehisi Coates Thandeka T. S. Eliot denise levertov Jimmy Santiago Baca

Jan 25, 2017

Preaching at Bell St. Chapel (Date Change)

My preaching date at Bell St. Chapel in Providence, RI has been changed. I am now leading worship there on Feb. 26. Here's the service blurb:

The Great Family of All Souls

William Ellery Channing’s claim “I am a living member of the great family of all souls” is central to our Unitarian Universalist theology. In this service, we’ll wrestle with what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist today and how Channing’s words are both a call for us to be our most authentic selves and be compassionate to those around us.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags Bell St. Chapel Providence, RI William Ellery Channing Unitarian Universalism

Aug 28, 2016

While There Is A Soul In Prison

Note: I recently have become involved with the Industrial Workers of the World's Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. I am serving as their contact person for faith-based organizing. It is a volunteer role and one of things that I am doing as part of it is preaching some in support of the September 9, 2016 National Prisoner Strike. The following sermon was the first I preached in support of the movement. I presented it at the First Parish in Needham, Unitarian Universalist, on August 28, 2016. 

It is a pleasure to be with you this morning. Your congregation features prominently in one of my favorite books of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology, A House for Hope. John Buehrens, your former minister and the co-author of that book, has something to do with me being here today. He was a strong advocate for youth ministry when he was the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I had the good fortune to meet him when I was sixteen. He encouraged me both along my path to the ministry and my path to the academy. I also have fond memories of the worship services your present minister Catie Scudera led during her time at Harvard. And I congratulate in calling someone who will no doubt be one of the guiding lights of the next generation of Unitarian Universalists. So, there is a strange way in which even though I have never spent a Sunday with you before I feel as if I already know you a little.

Such familiarity, I suspect, is rather one sided. Most of, maybe all of, you just know me as the guest preacher. The last in the long line of summer preachers trying to bring a little spirit to Sunday morning before your regular worship services resume next month.

Now me, I am something of circuit rider. Right now I preach at more than a dozen congregations a year while I am finishing up my PhD at Harvard. As I travel around I have the privilege of getting something of the breadth of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I think since I started in the ministry more than a decade ago I have lead worship at close to a hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Those congregations include the some of the largest and some of the smallest in our tradition.

My peripatetic career causes me to divide Unitarian Universalism crudely into two wings: the liberal and the abolitionist. Unitarian Universalism is occasionally called a liberal religion. This label refers to our understanding of human nature. Historically we have understood human beings to contain within them, in the words of William Ellery Channing, “the likeness to God.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker has explained, this does not mean that we think human beings are necessarily godlike. Instead, it suggests that rather than being born innately flawed or depraved, as orthodox Christianity has long taught, we are born with the capacity to choose and to become. Reflecting upon the suffering that we inflict upon each other Parker writes, “We are the cause and we can be the cure.” In this sense liberal religion means a recognition that much of what is wrong in the world was wrought by human hands. By joining our hands and hearts together we can, and we do, heal much of that harm.

I am not thinking of the liberal religion of Channing when I say that Unitarian Universalism can be crudely divided into two wings. I suspect that if you are here this Sunday morning your view of human nature is at somewhat similar to Channing’s and Rebecca Parker’s. Whether politically you are a Democrat or a Republican, an anarchist or a socialist, a liberal, libertarian or a conservative, if you are a Unitarian Universalist are a liberal religionist.

My division of our community into the abolitionists and the liberals focuses on our attitudes towards social reform. The majority liberal tradition believes in incremental and pragmatic social change. The social institutions and practices that exist, exist. When confronted with the intractable problems of America’s justice system liberals think the key question is: how can we make this system work better for everyone? How can we ensure that police are not racist? That everyone gets a fair trial and that prisons are humane?

Abolitionists demand the impossible. Rather than seeking to reform existing institutions they dream of creating new ones. Instead of asking how existing social institutions and practices can be reshaped they ask: what are those social institutions and practices for? In the face of a justice system that appears patently unjust they ask: Why we do have the system in the first place? What is its essential social function? Is it meeting this social function? Is this social function something we want met?

I place myself in the abolitionist camp. The essential difference between the two wings is that abolitionists see social institutions and practices as historically constituted while liberals take them as more permanent. A less fancy way to put that is that abolitionists think that the things we do and the institutions we create come from somewhere, will only last for so long, and will eventually be replaced by something else. Liberals focus on fixing what is now. Abolitionists imagine what might be.

This morning I want to talk with you about supporting the upcoming nation-wide prison strike. Prior to today, how many of you had heard about it? On September 9th people in prisons across the country will refuse to work. By withdrawing their labor from the prison system they hope that they will be able end prison slavery. They use the words prison slavery intentionally to draw attention to the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. That is the amendment that outlawed chattel slavery. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States.”

The bold hope is that by challenging prison slavery prisoners can challenge the prison system itself. Prisons in the United States rely on prison labor to exist. Consider the following. There are about 2.2 million prisoners in the United States today. Of these, about 1.1 million, or roughly half, work in prison. They serve food, do janitorial work, and labor in offices. They also maintain public parks and roads and manufacture products for both the government and for private industry. The United States military, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and McDonald’s all benefit from prison labor. All of the license plates in the state of Alabama are made by prisoners. They are paid as little as 15 cents an hour.

Prison labor is exempted from most labor standards. Prisoners are not afforded the same rights to safe workplaces that you and I enjoy. They do not get vacations or unemployment benefits. They do not accrue Social Security. The federal courts have ruled that prisoners wages can be set at any level, including zero cents an hour. Not only do they not get minimum wage. They can be made to work for nothing.

All of this means that without the labor of prisoners, prisons will not run. It is the brave hope of the organizers of the September 9th national strike that by withdrawing their labor they can radically challenge, transform and perhaps even abolish the American prison system.

Now, I just gave you a lot of information. You might feel a little overwhelmed by it. You might also think the situation is justified. Prisoners work for nothing, you could think, because they owe a debt to society. They are in prison to repay that debt and their work is part of their repayment.

I want challenge that logic. I could challenge it, as so many have, by pointing out the gross inequities of the prison system. I could point out that black men are imprisoned at roughly seven times the rate of white men or that Hispanics are two and a half times more likely to be in prison than whites. But that is a liberal logic and it suggests that the fundamental problem with the prison system is that it is unfair.

The problem with the system is that it exists at all. I want to let you in on a secret. Many, perhaps most, maybe even all of us are potential prisoners. The primary difference between me and someone on the inside is not that I have not committed crimes. The difference is that I have not been caught. Everyone I know has broken some law or another. Plenty of people, including Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, have flouted this country’s drug laws at some point. Most business owners I know have skirted regulatory. And I rather suspect that the majority of middle income and upper income middle people out there make somewhat dodgy claims about portions of their tax returns. It is virtually impossible not to. Our society is so codified that actually following all of the laws cannot be done. If you doubt me try to follow every single traffic law exactly next time you drive. In April make your way through all 74,608 pages of the US tax code to make sure you are properly taking all of your exemptions.

We also know that the majority of white collar criminals never go to jail. No one has yet been imprisoned for causing the financial crisis of 2008. Yet it is common knowledge that corporate criminal malfeasance was a root cause of the Great Recession. When workers die because CEOs flout workplace safety laws CEOs rarely serve jail time. Even if they do their punishment is light in comparison to the punishments society metes out to other prisoners. Don Blankenship, who as CEO of Massey Energy was held responsible for the preventable deaths of twenty-nine miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, was sentenced to one year in prison. If the social function of prisons is to protect society they clearly fail in doing so.

All of us are potential prisoners. Many of us are not in prison simply because we have not been caught doing something that has been deemed illegal. For a moment, I want you to imagine yourself a prisoner. Imagine that when you were a college student you were caught with some of the drugs you were experimenting with. Imagine that you made an honest but significant mistake on your taxes and somehow ran afoul of the IRS. Imagine that there was one time when you had one drink to many. Rather than taking a taxi home you recklessly decided to risk it. You were pulled over by the police and wound up in jail. Whatever the case, imagine.

Imagine spending a year or two years or five in a controlled setting. Told when to wake up, when to sleep, when to work. Imagine only eating prison food. If you are lucky it might be a roll, a piece of fruit, some peanut butter. Maybe the prison has a proper cafeteria. Maybe you are really unlucky. The prison contracts its commissary out to a private company. What they feed you is unfit to eat, full of insects and rodent droppings.

Imagine witnessing the daily brutality: routine beatings; men and women extracted from their cells by trained dogs; and persistent sexual violence. Every year one out of ten prisoners is sexually assaulted, half of them by prison guards. Many of the practices exposed in Abu Gharib are routine practices in American prisons that were simply exported aboard.

Imagine that the courts and the legislatures have fallen silent to your many pleas for justice. Imagine that the media rarely reports what happens to people inside prison walls. If you can imagine these things then you might begin to understand why prisoners have called for a national prison strike. The words of prisoner organizer Kinetik Justice may have resonance for you. He said, “These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration. As we understand it, the prison system is a continuation of the slave system.”

And like a nineteen-century abolitionist you might say it is time to end the slave system. The time to end it is not tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade but today. Perhaps we will have to replace it with something. Perhaps we believe that there are some people who must be removed from society for sometime. Perhaps that sentiment is wrong. Whatever the case, the nineteenth-century abolitionist position was not to ask what will come after chattel slavery? It was say that chattel slavery must end. The abolitionist position today is the same. It is not to ask what will come after the prison system but how will the prison be brought to an end.

Whether you consider yourself an abolitionist or a liberal, let me offer you a few things you can do to support the September 9th national prison strike. You can educate yourself and others about the history and function of prisons. Either in your congregation or on your own, organize a group to read books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Caught: the Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk, and the Golden Gulag by Ruth Gilmore. Contact the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and begin corresponding with prisoners, offering them expressions of solidarity. Donate or raise money for the above groups. Invite former prisoners to speak to your congregation. And, finally, consider passing a congregational resolution in support of the prison strike. It is likely to be but one in a wave of many.

As you consider these actions, let us remember that we are all potential prisoners. In the hopes that we might do so, I offer these words from the great Eugene Debs when he sentenced to prison for war resisting. He said, “...years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

May we hear these words in our hearts. Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Anarchism IWW Ministry Sermon Tags IWOC Prison Strike Abolitionism Rebecca Parker John Buehrens William Ellery Channing Liberalism Eugene Debs Human Nature Prisoners

Tumblr