as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, January 16, 2022
“Struggling with Revolutionary Love;” the title of my sermon can be read two ways. First, it is suggestive of the philosophy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He taught that the path to justice lay upon a foundation of revolutionary love. He sought to follow the wisdom of the one he called “the master” who when he was “crucified by hate… responded with aggressive love;” who “admonished his followers to love their enemies and to pray for them that despitefully used them;” who instructed his disciples “that only through creative love for their enemies could they be children of their Father in heaven;” and who beseeched them to remember “that love and forgiveness were absolute necessities for spiritual maturity.”
Living by this wisdom, King believed, would allow the civil rights movement of his generation to overcome the obstacles of white supremacy, poverty, and war. It would empower workers in the vineyards of righteousness to raise their voices in a hymn of not “We Shall Overcome” but “We Have Overcome.” It would create a “revolution in values” that erased “the glaring contrast between poverty and wealth;” inspired politicians and generals to look at the world’s “dark and bloody battlefields” and “say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just;” and prompted all people “to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
That is the first interpretation of the sermon title: that we who are seekers of justice are to proceed our work rooted in revolutionary love.
The second interpretation builds off the first. Rather, however, than suggesting we are to ground ourselves in revolutionary love it suggests that we are struggling with the very idea of revolutionary love. Instead of we, I should say I. I am struggling with the concept of revolutionary love. At this difficult and dangerous time in the history of this country, in this epoch of existential human crisis, I find myself genuinely uncertain in the belief that the justice that I, and so many others, want to see come into being will be birthed through an adherence to an ethic of revolutionary love. What about you? Are you questioning that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice? Or that the force that bends the arc is the power of love?
“Struggling with Revolutionary Love,” I am struggling with revolutionary love this morning. I am struggling with revolutionary love because today it seems almost sacrilegious to speak of the man whom Nina Simone named “the King of Love.” We are watching his legacy and the legacy of the civil rights movement be erased in the state of Texas and throughout the United States of America. We are watching his legacy be erased while politicians spew forth platitudes about the import of his life, the meaning of his philosophy, and the tragedy of his death. We are watching a national assault on voting rights by the one of the major political parties while, in the words of journalist Robin Givhan, King has become “inspiration, retort, rallying cry and protective cover… the conservative rebuttal to concerns about systemic racism. King’s name is a love song for bootstrapping individualists.”
In these times, it feels almost sacrilegious to offer another sermon celebrating the life of a man who preached an ethic of revolutionary love. And, I admit, this week I seriously though about directing my Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday sermon to another revolutionary or worker in the vineyard of justice. I thought maybe I should dedicate my words to Desmond Tutu, who spoke of how difficult it was “during the dark days of apartheid’s vicious awfulness… when evil seemed to be on the rampage and about to overcome goodness” to do anything more than hold onto to “faith by the skin of one’s teeth.”
I considered celebrating the legacy of Sidney Poitier. He devoted himself to creative cultural resistance to racism and wrote, “I must find positive outlets for anger or it will destroy me.” That insight helped inspire one of the most consequential, and justice making, artistic careers of the last century.
I even thought, perhaps, maybe the wisdom we needed this morning was from workers for justice who criticized King’s message of revolutionary love as insufficient. Assata Shakur, “nobody… has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of” their oppressors. Or Kwame Toure, the “first need of a free people is to define their own terms.” Or quite possibly Malcolm X, “that whole thing about appealing to the moral conscience of America–America’s conscience is bankrupt… Uncle Sam has no conscience.”
Ultimately, though, I came back to King. I came back to King because these times are calling into question his faith in the belief that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. I came back to him because these times are challenging any thought I might have that the power of revolutionary love is strong enough to inspire us to ultimately sing a hymn of “We Have Overcome.” I came back to him because our tradition, and therefore my faith, are more closely connected to him than any of the other workers in the vineyard of justice who I mentioned.
King attended a Unitarian congregation in Boston for a time while he was in graduate school. And his faith in non-violence was partially inspired by the Universalist minister Adin Ballou. Ballou taught, that by pledging “never more to resist injury with injury…adhering to the law of love under all provocations… scrupulously suffering wrong… [we] shall gloriously ‘overcome evil with good.’” Some of King’s faith also came from the Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau whose writings on civil disobedience helped inspire his belief in the possibility of a “peaceful revolution.” And his trust in the moral arc of the universe drew upon the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who preached, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one… But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
And so, when I speak of struggling with revolutionary love, I am speaking of struggling with my own faith in some of the most influential teachings from the Unitarian Universalist tradition. I am speaking of struggling with a belief that the democratic dimensions of the republic will be preserved, that white supremacy will not be allowed to reassert itself, and that the existential crises of the hour will be addressed by the political class.
I know that I am not alone in such struggles. In the last months, I have spoken with some of you about your sense of foreboding doom. Many scholars and responsible journalists are claiming that the country’s liberal democratic institutions are under profound threat. Members of one of the major political parties seem to have decided that fealty to a former president is more important than loyalty to the Constitution or, even more shockingly, the future of humanity–for their intransigent refusal to address the climate catastrophe threatens not just the prosperity but the possibilities of future generations.
Making the struggle more difficult, for me at least, is the knowledge that we have been this way before. It was Karl Marx who wrote, “all great world-historic facts and personages appear… twice… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The farce is with us. History is repeating itself.
History is repeating itself. The voting rights and civil rights that Martin Luther King, Jr. fought had both been won and lost by generations that proceeded him. They had been won during that great era of democratic renewal and hope known as Reconstruction. Immediately following the Civil War, African American men gained the right to vote, to be tried by a jury of their peers, and to serve in elected office. Between 1870 and 1900 more than twenty Black men held congressional office, either in the House or in the Senate.
History is repeating itself. This week is not the first time that the House has passed voting rights legislation that the Senate has rejected. In 1890, as Jim Crow was being constructed across the South and the right to vote was under assault, the House passed the Lodge Bill–which would have ensured federal oversight of elections and blocked laws limiting access to the ballot–only to see it filibustered in the Senate. The bill’s failure emboldened white supremacists in their assault on the human rights of African Americans. It inspired a slew of legislation that made it all but impossible for Black men to vote the formerly Confederate states.
The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce; it is farcical to listen to a Senator from Arizona speak of how she is for voting rights but wants to preserve the filibuster because getting rid of it would somehow “worsen the underlying disease of division infecting” the country. She should know what will come next. Without voting rights legislation, the disease of minority, the disease of white supremacy, the true ailment that has long animated the opposite of the better angels of our nature will grow more virulent.
The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce; it is farcical to watch a Senator from West Virginia support abolishing the filibuster for the debt ceiling while refusing to do so to preserve a fundamental citizenship right. And it is farcical to hear a Senator from Kentucky make pious proclamations that the President is “profoundly unpresidential” while he keeps his caucus firmly committed to blocking vital legislation.
The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce; it is the farcical nature of the moment that has left me struggling with revolutionary love. What about you?
Revolutionary love requires faith. “Faith,” Paul writes in Hebrews, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It is a trust that despite evidence to the contrary, as Desmond Tutu, liked to say, “This is God’s world and God is in charge.” It is a belief that no matter how difficult the hour, if we just keep on keeping on, everything is going to be alright.
It is difficult to keep that faith now. It is difficult to keep as we find ourselves almost two years into a pandemic that seems like it will never end. As we experience, over and over again, the failures of the political class to provide the country and the world with what we need. As economic uncertainty, political division, the resurgence of white supremacy, and the daily death toll of thousands, make it seem like what lies ahead is not the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice but only more tragedy.
Throughout his life, King struggled with his faith in revolutionary love. His last public words may have been God’s “allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.” But his last sermon was titled “America Too is Going to Hell.”
He wrote that sermon but never gave it. As a result, an alternative title exists as “American May Go to Hell.” Whatever title you pick, the words of the sermon are the words of someone who is struggling with his faith. They are words of a worker in the vineyard of justice is trying to find evidence of things unseen and having are a hard time finding it. They are the words of someone who is speaking like a prophet and denouncing a country that will spend billions on physical infrastructure but little on meeting the needs of the poor. They are the words of someone who wonders what will happen to his beloved land if it does not change its course.
Struggling with revolutionary love… from everything I know of his biography, I suspect that King struggled with revolutionary love in much the same way that many of us do. I suspect he wondered whether it had the actual capacity to transform the world and bend the arc of the moral universe. In his last year he spoke more and more blistering about the wickedness of the United States. In one sermon he denounced the war in Vietnam, “It is just as evil to kill Vietnamese as it to kill Americans, because they are all God’s children.”
Struggling with revolutionary love, these last months as I have been questioning whether or not revolutionary love provides the path forward, I have thought some about the question of faith. What if, I have asked myself, rather than thinking of faith as evidence of things not seen we recast it as evidence of things seen?
The prophetic impulse has long been generated by the tension between what ought to be and what is. The faithful prophet demands that the world be improved according to their vision of justice. They denounce what is lacking and proclaim what should be.
The challenge is that the world is always lacking in what should be. The challenge is that when I watch the Senators from Arizona, West Virginia, and Kentucky, I am struck by the distance between what is and what ought to be. The problem is that to imagine right now that the country and human species are bending toward justice does not require just faith in evidence of things unseen. It requires a willful sort of blindness.
“I cry most days now,” the British environmental journalist George Monbiot wrote of our present situation.
Perhaps that is what is required. We should be real about our grief. We should make space for our grief. And we should hold each as we grieve.
But I have come to another realization as I have struggled with revolutionary love. I think that a definition of faith that relies upon evidence of things not seen is wrong. What if we reimagined faith as evidence of things seen?
I suspect that the challenge we face is not to bring things that are unseen into the world. It is to build upon the goodness that already exists. The faith I have in the democratic practice comes not from things unseen. It comes from my experiences over the years watching Unitarian Universalist congregations like this one engage in the work of self-governance. It comes from the thoughtful conversations I have had with Board members and team leaders and religious education teachers about Unitarian Universalists can perform the difficult task of forming a religious community that embodies their values.
My faith in the democratic practice is not there in the Senate–in the unseen passage of necessary legislation. It comes from all the people I have known, and I have known so many, who have gathered week-by-week to improve their communities, to build their labor unions, to cooperate together. It is found in the people who are willing, as Martin Luther King, Jr. was, to commit civil disobedience and strive with all their might for justice.
The evidence in things seen… the farce of history might be repeating itself. But we can have faith because past tyrants have been defeated. The Confederacy lost the Civil War. Jim Crow was undone.
I imagine that King found his faith in revolutionary love from a similar place. It is true that he often spoke of the inspiration he found in Jesus. But I believe it is also true that he found hope in the love that surrounded him. We often lift him up as a solitary prophet. In truth, he was a spokesperson for a movement. He grounded himself in love he had for his fellow workers in the vineyard of righteousness as he did in any sense of divine love. It is all there in his sermons.
Go read his famous last speech, the one he gave on the last night of his life. Do you know how it begins? It does not begin with a scriptural citation or an inspiring quote. It begins with a tribute to Ralph Abernathy, “the best friend that I have in the world.” And what is the sermon about? I mean, what is it really about? When you read it closely you find that awful lot of the sermon focuses on just one thing. It is about the profound inspiration, the profound experience of revolutionary love, he had experienced from those he had spent so many years working alongside. He is clear about the inspiration he drew from those who have “been in this struggle for many years… been to jail for struggling; but … still going on, fighting for the rights of the people.”
I get the sense from the sermon was less about faith in things unseen than it was about faith in things seen. He had faith in revolutionary love because he had felt its presence in his life throughout his time in the civil rights movement.
Revolutionary love, I want to suggest, is less about the ought–how ought the world be–and more about the is–the love that King had for his community and his community had for him. The question is not how to bring what has been unseen into being. It is how to lure more of the goodness that is already here into existence.
This is why bell hooks, in her own reflections on revolutionary love, can claim “Love redeems.” We are each born with a fundamental need for love. When we find the love we seek–in community, in friendship, in our family, in a romantic partner–we discover “reason to hope.” The revolutionary love we seek, hooks taught and King experienced, begins in our everyday relationships and in our communities.
Struggling with revolutionary love, here is where I would like to leave the sermon. We can find so much of the power of revolutionary love that we seek in the same place that King found it. In and amongst ourselves and growing in our hearts when we gather together to struggle for justice, to care for each other, and care for the world.
Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be