as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, MA, February 18, 2018
It is good to see you, the brave and hardy crew who made it through the winter snow to church this morning. Down in Medford, I awoke to the unpleasant task of digging my car out of a good four inches of heavy snow. I imagine that many of you arose to a similarly disagreeable chore. So, thank you for making it to church despite the wintery weather. Snow or no snow, it is good to be together.
This morning I offer you a sermon for black history month. I recognize that Ashby is not a particularly diverse community. But that makes it all the more important for us to take time to consider African American history and, the subject of today’s sermon, African American conceptions of Jesus. The United States is a multiracial and multicultural country. In order to build a morally just society we need to understand something of each other’s experiences and perspectives.
And so, I think it is vital for white Unitarian Universalists to understand something about black theology and religion. Across our denomination, we have often worked closely with historically black churches in the quest to build racial justice. Unitarian Universalists were intimately involved in the civil rights movement. Many prominent African American thinkers and activists have belonged to or attended Unitarian Universalist churches. Frederick Douglass worshipped at All Souls in Washington, DC. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King attended Unitarian Universalist congregations in Boston while Martin was studying for his doctorate at Boston University. According to the Pew Forum, the political beliefs of members of Unitarian Universalist churches and members of historically black churches are virtually identical. The notable exception to this is around the issue of GBLT rights, but even the disparity there has decreased in recent years.
It is also true that for white people, gaining a better understanding of black theology and religion is central to one of the most important political projects of our time: dismantling white supremacy. White supremacists have been gaining dramatically in strength in recent years. At the same time, growing awareness of patterns of police violence against people of color and the racial injustice of the criminal justice system have made it impossible to ignore a simple truth: this country, particularly its white majority, is in need of a conversion experience. The human cost of continuing to live in a white supremacist society, a society that values the lives of white more than the lives of people of color, is too high. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams defined conversion as “a fundamental change of the heart and will.” Many of us who are white need to be converted from a perspective that claims that the lives of people of color somehow matter less than the lives of white people.
Have you ever had such a conversion experience? One that forced you to re-examine all of your previously held beliefs and develop new ones? I suspect that some of you have. Unitarian Universalism is, by in large, a religion of converts. Only about 1 in 10 of the adult members of our congregations were raised Unitarian Universalist. The majority of us were either brought up in another religious tradition or in no religious tradition.
One powerful conversion story comes from the Unitarian Universalist minister Bill Breeden. As I remember it, Bill, who is white, started life as a fundamentalist Christian. His tradition did not require clerical education and as a teenager he began preaching at a small Pentecostal church. At the same time, to make ends meet, he was working at a local grocery store as a stock boy.
It was there that Bill had his conversion experience. One of his duties was to dispose of unsalable or expired food. This was the 1960s and the food was destroyed in a burn pit behind the store. Once a day Bill would gather up the food, take it out back, douse it with gasoline and make a sort of bonfire. Often times the food that he destroyed was still perfectly edible.
One evening as he prepared to pour gasoline over the assembled pile and light it aflame he heard a voice. “Please, sir, could I have that cheese? I am hungry and I would like something to eat. I would like some food for my family.” Bill turned and found himself facing a middle aged Black woman. He let her have the cheese and she went on her way.
Put before she did Bill saw Christ in her. Something about her, some manner in which he connected to her, caused him to see the world in an entirely different way. In that moment Christ was transformed from a blond haired, blue eyed, white skinned male to a poor Black woman standing in front of him. His universe, his understanding of the sacred was forever altered.
Over the next years Bill left his fundamentalist community and developed a theology of Universalist Christianity. He saw the divine in all people and upheld the human family as one. Eventually Bill found Unitarian Universalism.
I doubt most people have conversion stories that are quite as dramatic. Few, if any, Unitarian Universalists I know claim to have seen Christ. Many of us are not Christian and grow squeamish when the word is mentioned. Others, such as myself, would argue that the word Christ is a metaphor for the human potential and the possibility of perfection that lies within all of us. In this theological strain seeing Christ in someone else means sharing a moment of absolute connection and recognition; witnessing the impossible glorious mystery of the universe in the face of another. It is such a moment that Bill had when he encountered the woman behind the grocery store. In her he saw himself and all of the human family. He realized that the two them shared some sort of deep connection, some type of kinship, on an ineffable level.
There are thousands or hundreds of thousands or even millions of people of color who would not suffered needlessly and died violently if white people had been able to see the divine in them. To offer two recent example: Michael Brown would still be alive if Darren Wilson had seen the divine in him when he pointed his gun. Trayvon Martin would still be with us if George Zimmerman had seen him for a human brother rather than as a threat. To go further back in history: thousands of black men and women would never have been lynched if white supremacists understood that there is no difference between white skin and brown skin. Jim Crow would not have lessened the lives of millions if white moderates and liberals saw their own children in the eyes of black and brown little boys and girls. The horror of slavery would have been avoided if slavers had heard their own cries in the voices of their victims.
The great Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing taught the kinship of the whole human race. He wrote, “I am a living member the great Family of All Souls.” He also said, “I cannot improve or suffer myself, without diffusing good or evil around me through an ever-enlarging sphere.” The knowledge that all humanity is, on some deep level, one family and that we are all connected means that the actions of an individual can and do effect the many.
Drop a pebble in water and it ripples outward. Act, speak or simply live your life and you cannot know ultimately what effect you will have. The choices that we make impact not only ourselves and our families but future generations.
The events in recent years that spurred the growth of Black Lives Matter have been a reminder of this truth. The police often treat people of color outrageously because of America’s long history of racism. Unarmed black men have been killed by white police officers for hundreds of years. The narrative is almost always the same, a white person with a gun felt threatened by a black person without a gun. A white person with power was scared by a black person without it. This century old story is the legacy of slavery. This century old story is rooted in the terror that many whites feel, at a subconscious level, that someday black and brown people will rise up and take back what is theirs. This country was partially built on the labor of African slaves. All of the lands that make up our nation were stolen from Native Americans.
We have the power to change the story. We have the power undo racism and value the lives of every member of the human family the same. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition urges us to do so. Channing taught one of the purposes of religion was to help people gain insight into their impact on and connection with others. Religion could nurture the conscience and help individuals tune themselves to the “Infinite God…around and within each.” The more developed the conscience, the greater the understanding of how each and every action effects those around us. The truly wise, he wrote, “will become a universal blessing.” They understand how “an individual cannot but spread good or evil indefinitely…and through succeeding generations.” Understanding this they weigh their choices carefully.
Channing’s theology caused him to affirm that humanity’s spiritual nature included “the likeness of God.” Within each person was “the image of God” and by the choices one made that image would either be “extended and brightened” or “seem to be wholly destroyed.”
Casting Bill’s experience into Channing’s theology it would appear that at the moment of his encounter, Bill was made aware of the image of God within both himself and the woman. Their differences were blotted out. Bill realized that, in the language of Channing, they were both members of “the great Family of All Souls.”
The images we have of God can obscure the divine from our view. Each image is, by necessity, only partial. Yet often people mistake them for the whole. Even the very word God is misleading. In trying to describe the ultimate mystery of the universe we naturally run across the limits of our human language and human imagination. God is a useful metaphor for those limits. Using the word allows a humanist like me ways to communicate with my friends who resonate with more traditional understandings of the divine. We are all trying to understand the same ultimate mystery, the unfathomable vastness and complicated beauty of universe, just as we are seeking to comprehend our part in that mystery.
Orthodox forms of Christianity try to make the mystery more fathomable by claiming that Jesus Christ was God. A human God is a God that we can relate to and, perhaps, understand.
But by making God human the orthodox imprison her within all of the various complexities of humanity. There is a paradox here. For if God is only fully present in one person then that one person somehow reflects what is of ultimate value differently than anyone else. Jesus is male, so God must be male. God is male, so males must have the highest worth. This theology of incarnation has led to a place where God is no longer ultimate and universal. Instead, God is partial and trapped in human images. God, the symbol, reinforces human hierarchies.
There are significant stakes in how the divine is portrayed. The image of Christ as White suggests that because God choose to be embodied in as a white person whites are somehow closer to God than others. For some a white Jesus is the foundation of that most pernicious form of partialism, white supremacy.
The Black Christ is presented by some black theologians as a counter to the White Christ. In various ways these theologians argue that if Christ must be a color that color must be black. As Kelly Brown Douglas points out, historically, “in the United States Blackness is synonymous with inferiority.” By recasting Christ as Black the “bond between Blackness and inferiority” can be severed. This move also “fosters Black people’s self-esteem by allowing them to worship a God in their own image, and by signifying that Blackness is nothing to be detested. On the contrary, it is a color and condition that even the divine takes on…”
For most of these black theologians the White Christ was a Christ of slaveholders. Brown Douglas identifies the Black and White Christs as having different theological significance.
“The White Christ,” Brown Douglas writes, “is grounded in an understanding of Christianity suggesting that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ…because God made flesh in him. The incarnation itself is considered the decisive feature of Christianity.” Through this Christ Christians view themselves as saved from original sin because of something called atonement theology. This system argues that we humans were born wicked and sinful but God, in his infinite love, choose to accept Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as a substitution for the punishment that all humanity deserved.
Brown Douglas argues that this system has at least two major problems. “First, little is required of humans in order to receive salvation.” One either accepts Christ as Lord and savior and is saved or one does not and is not. If one accepts Christ then no further action is required. There is no call to ethical living. Jesus’s ministry to the poor and oppressed is of secondary importance. Right belief, and not right behavior, is the focus of the system.
This first observation leads Brown Douglas to a second: “in order for humans to benefit from God’s saving act, they must have knowledge of Jesus as the divine/human encounter.” Without that knowledge salvation was not possible.
The logic of this White Christ served as a justification for slavery. Enslaving Africans and introducing them to Christianity “saved” them from the eternal damnation they would have faced otherwise. As one pro-slavery advocate argued: “The condition of the slaves is far better than that of the Africans from among whom they have been brought. Instead of debased savages, they are, to a considerable extent, civilized, enlightened and christianized.”
In contrast, the Black Christ, in Brown Douglas’s words, “empowered the Black slaves to fight for their emancipation from the chains of White slavery.” The important feature of this Christ is that not he somehow saved humanity. It is “that Jesus helped the oppressed in his own time.” Importantly, for many, “Jesus was a living a being with whom the slaves had an intimate relationship.” That Jesus, because of his own suffering, could offer succor and understanding in times of crises.
Starting in the 1960s, with the rise of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, black theologians such as James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts and Albert Cleage further developed articulations of the Black Christ. These theologians, each in their own way, recast the Black Christ in terms that some Unitarian Universalists might find familiar.
Cleage, a minister in Detroit, argued that the historical Jesus was a black man. Further, he suggested that the bodily resurrection of Jesus had not occurred. It was a lie perpetrated by those who used Christianity as a tool for subjugation. The good life was not to be had in heaven after death but here on Earth. The myth of heaven was something that was used to oppress people. Jesus’s resurrection after his death came through the continuation of his ministry by his disciples. This ministry had freedom from oppression as its central goal.
Cone, the founder of the academic school of black liberation theology, understood the Black Christ to be a symbol. Symbols allow humans to communicate imperfect knowledge of the divine. They are important because they point beyond themselves and suggest some fundamental truth about reality. God, for Cone, stands on the side of the oppressed. Therefore, he argued, God must have a black aspect.
Roberts used the Black Christ as a symbol for what he thought of as “Christ’s universality.” For him there was not just a Black Christ but a Red Christ and a Yellow Christ. Christ could be seen in all the colors of humanity. Re-imagining Christ in this way allowed for Roberts to try to free, in his words, Jesus from “the cultural captivity of… Euro-Americans.”
There is significant overlap between these understanding of the Black Christ and much of Unitarian Universalist theology. Like Cleage traditional Unitarians affirm a human Jesus and emphasize his ethical teachings. Like Cone most Unitarian Universalists understand Christ as a symbol–one of many in the world–that offers to teach us something about the mystery of life. With Roberts, Unitarian Universalists affirm that God, or the divine, is present in all of the human races.
Unitarian Universalists might also agree with a criticism that later generations of black theologians have of their predecessors. For black women theologians such as Brown Douglas it is not enough to make Christ Black. Christ also has to become a woman so that the full spectrum of humanity can be represented in the divine.
These understandings of the Black Christ remind me of Channing’s dictum that we are members “of the great Family of All Souls.” And like Channing’s words, I suspect that the image of the Black Christ has something to teach us, regardless of the hue of our skin. This symbol is a reminder that the divine can be found in all. If we, like Bill Breeden, can learn to recognize that divine spark in others no matter how unlike we are we can take a step towards truly building a community that welcomes and affirms all. We do not know where such steps might lead us or how such recognitions might change us.
Alice Walker, in her novel, the Color Purple wrote: “Here’s the thing…the thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else.” With this in mind, in the coming weeks try the following spiritual exercise. Take five minutes each day as you walk down the street or drive in your car and try to see God in the people around you. Acknowledge that God, the metaphor for the mystery of creation and destruction, death and birth, that binds us together, is part of and beyond us, can be seen in each and every person that surrounds us. Apply this practice to those least like you and see if you notice a change or a transformation.
Perhaps you will. We can end the violence that people of color experience at the hands of whites in our lifetimes. But we can only do so if we can begin to see each other as members of the same human family and see the divine that resides in each of us.
That it may be so, I say Amen and Blessed Be