Oct 16, 2017
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.
Oct 14, 2017
I return tomorrow to Ashby to lead the first of my two services for the month. “Abolition Democracy” is offered as part of an association-wide teach-in on white supremacy. You can learn more about the teach-in here: https://www.uuteachin.org/ As part of the sermon, I will be talking some about why I think it is important for our congregation to participate. A bit later in the week I will be presenting at Collegium, the scholarly association of Unitarian Universalist theologians, on a similar subject (http://www.uucollegium.org/meeting) and next Sunday I will actually give a different version of the sermon at Oak Park’s Unity Temple, one of the cathedral congregations of our religious tradition (http://unitytemple.org/).
My second sermon for the month will be on the 29th. I will be reflecting on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. After the service there will be a workshop open to all members and friends of the congregation designed us to engage in an exercise of assessment and goal setting for the balance of the program year. The start of our ministry together and the congregation’s and the town’s 250th anniversaries all combine to suggest it is a good time to think about what we want to accomplish as a religious community. I am looking forward to the workshop.
But mostly, tomorrow, I am looking forward to being back with you again. I really enjoyed my first two Sundays in Ashby. You were exceptionally warm and welcoming at my first service. The 250th anniversary ecumenical camp meeting was something special that I will long remember.
For future reference, the texts of my sermons will usually appear on my web-site the Monday after I preach them. So, if you weren’t able to make it to my first service at the church you can find my sermon from September 17th, “Sometimes You Need a Story to Survive,” at: http://colinbossen.com/the-latest-form-of-infidelity/14262255/sometimes-you-need-story-to-survive Each month, before the first Sunday that I preach, I will also be sending out a note just like this that will include, among other things, links to the prior month’s sermon texts.
I love poetry and I believe that people don’t have enough of it in their lives. I will always close with a few verses either from something I have been reading recently or that pertain to the month’s services. Here are a few lines from Audre Lorde about how we might speak to each other during times of crisis:
I speak to you as a friend speaka
or a true lover
not out of friendship or love
but for a clear meeting
of self upon self
in sight of our hearth
but without fire.
from “Conversation in crisis"
I hope to see you tomorrow!
Sep 11, 2017
I am delighted to announce that I have accepted a postion as the minister of the First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist, Ashby, Massachusetts. I will be serving the congregation part-time. Most of my work will consist of preaching twice a month. I will also be offering some adult religious education and pastoral care. Here is the email I sent to the congregation to introduce myself:
Dear Members and Friends of First Parish Ashby:
I am delighted to be starting as your part-time minister! I know an email has already gone around sketching out my biography and telling you a bit about me. However, I want to send you all a brief hello to let you know that I excited to meet you on Sunday. I am looking forward to our time together.
I will be leading worship twice a month. In September, I will be in the pulpit on the 17th and participating in the camp meeting on the 24th celebrating Ashby’s 250th anniversary. I have never been to an event quite like what is being planned. I anticipate it is going to be a meaningful and moving experience. In the next few days, I will be reaching out to a few of you about helping with music for the service on the 24th.
In general, I will be answering emails and making phone calls about congregational business on Mondays. This will usually happen in the mornings. I will be available to you throughout the rest of the week but might not be able to get back to you immediately. If it is urgent, it is always better to call or text me than to send an email.
It may interest you that I keep a blog at www.colinbossen.com. The text of my sermons will be available on the Monday following a service. So, if you can’t make it to the service on the 17th, you should be able to read what I said on the 18th. A link to the text will put up on the parish Facebook page. From time-to-time, I may post other things relevant to congregational life on my blog or on the parish web-site. If that happens I will be sure to let you know.
In addition to preaching, I am also going to offering adult religious education and providing some pastoral care. If you would like to meet with me please reach out and we can arrange something. I will be working with the Parish Committee in the next few weeks to develop a plan for both adult religious education and pastoral care.
Since I write on September 11th, and against the back drop of the devastation in Florida, Mexico, and Texas, it seems best that I close on a note that reflects more than just my joy and excitement about our coming time together. I offer you this fragment from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” a poem that captures so much what it means to me to be alive:
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
I pray that whatever sorrows, horrors, and challenges the world brings us in the coming months we will all find some beauty and joy in life, both as individuals and as a community.
I hope to see you Sunday!
PS I apologize for the gendered language in Blake’s poem. The way he wrote and thought in the 18th century doesn’t fully reflect the beloved community we aspire to create in the 21st.
Aug 30, 2017
Jul 31, 2017
Yesterday I had friends over to make Czech fruit dumplings. When I make dumplings I usually proceed the dumpling course with a course of salads. In this instance, I made a raw beet salad, a grated carrot salad, and a dish of cinnabar chanterelles and sour cream with fried potatoes. I am fortunate that there’s a nice patch of cinnabars growing a few blocks from my house. I have been able to forage meals from it on three occasions over the last month. I adopted a recipe from the New York Times for the meal:
Cinnabar Chanterelles and Sour Cream with Fried Potatoes
1 lbs cinnabar chanterelles
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 lbs small potatoes
1 cup finely chopped onions
3 tablespoons sour cream
salt and pepper to taste
Clean the mushrooms. Take three medium bowls. Place the foraged mushrooms in one bowl and fill the second with water. Working one at a time, quickly place a mushroom in the water and shake it to knock loose any debris. Then put the mushroom on a cutting board and, using a small paring knife, cut or scrape away any remaining debris. Place the cleaned mushrooms in the third bowl.
Place the potatoes in a small saucepan of salted water. Bring to a boil and then cook until they are just about fork tender. Remove from heat, drain, and then cut into halves or quarters, depending on the size of the potatoes. Ideally the potato pieces should be bite-sized.
Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in an iron skillet over medium heat. Add the potatoes and fry until golden brown, about 10 minutes. When the potatoes are ready, remove them from the heat and place in a small bowl.
Return the skillet to the stove, add the butter, and melt the butter over medium heat. After the butter has melted, add the onions and cook until they are translucent.
Add the mushrooms to the onions and continue cooking until all of the liquid has evaporated. Cinnabar chanterelles give off a lot of water so don’t be surprised if the mushroom and onion mix initially has a soupy consistency.
Once the liquid has evaporated, stir in the potatoes and cook for another minute or so. Then add the sour cream and cook for an additional two minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Note: If you want to make this recipe with yellow chanterelles (the kind you can sometimes buy in the grocery store) increase the butter to 2 tablespoons. They are a lot less watery and, consequently, do well with a bit more fat from the butter.
Jul 29, 2017
Yesterday the New York Times brought news that famed photo editor John Morris died at the age of 100. Morris was the photo editor of the New York Times during the Vietnam War and made the decision to publish two of the most famous images of the war on the newspaper’s front page--the informally titled “Napalm Girl” by Huỳnh Công Út and Eddie Adams's "Saigon Execution." He made sure that these images appeared on the top fold of the paper, which meant they were seen even by people who didn't build the Times. He was Robert Capa’s photo editor for many years and the founding photo editor for Magnum Photo. You can read the Times’s obituary of John Morris here. They've also made a nice video tribute.
John was a long time friend of my parents. I believe they met him through their friends Nicole Ewenczyk and Gilles Perrin--my father collaborated on a book with them a few years ago. Last summer, while I was visiting them in Paris, I had the pleasure of attending one of his lectures. John’s talk focused on his century of experience as a photo editor. He spoke about his commitment to pacifism and his belief that photo editing could be a kind of anti-war activism. The selection of images that highlighted the horrors of war, he hoped, could engender empathy for the victims of violence and inspire people to oppose their government’s involvement in international conflicts.
After John’s lecture we all had dinner at the little bistro across the street from his studio. I was seated next to him and we talked about the civil war in Syria. A few years ago I penned a piece for the Huffington Post arguing against military intervention after the Assad government used chemical weapons. I have since had some ambivalence about the question of military intervention and come to support, in principle, the Kurdish anarchist movement, Democratic Union Party. I have never been convicted of absolute pacifism and, as in the case of my longstanding support for the Zapatistas, believe that organized violent resistance to various forms of fascism and totalitarianism can sometimes be the only way to arrest them.
John did not agree. After his experiences in World War II, he felt that violence always beget further violence. Any support of a military movement in Syria, he believed, would only extend the conflict and cause further suffering. I suspect that his position was also tempered by his Quakerism.
Unfortunately, the bistro was too loud for us to converse more in-depth. Nonetheless, it was a memorable experience. It deepened my already deep respect for the photographers, and their editors, who strive to document our world as political and ethical acts. Social documentary photography is an art form and art in all its forms can be a powerful act of resistance to the viciousness of human brutality.
Jun 21, 2017
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.
Jun 17, 2017
I will be returning to preach at First Parish Cambridge on August 6, 2017. I am a member of the congregation and my kids both participate or participated in the excellent religious education program. I am especially excited to be leading worship there again!
Jun 16, 2017
I am excited to announce that I will be preaching at the First Parish Church of Berlin, Berlin, MA on August 13.
Jun 15, 2017
I wrote the introductions for two texts in the just published A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism; from 1900 to the Present, ed. Dan McKanan. I authored the blurbs for Jack Mendelsohn, "The Church and the Draft Resisters," and Common Ground: Coming of Age, A Report of the 1982 UUA Youth Assembly.