A People So Bold

Sarah Richards
March 19, 2017

A People So Bold

You know, I go to a lot of meetings: meetings of fellowship groups, community meetings, UU and interfaith meetings, but over the course of the past two weeks, I noticed something remarkable. In three of those meetings, we decided on what to call ourselves – three groups that began informally now have an identity: Carbondale Area Interfaith Refugee Support, Southern Illinois Immigrant Rights Project, and something like the Mayoral Faith Advisory Group – to be honest, I’m not sure of the exact moniker of that last one…

And those are just three meetings I attended – it seems there are new Facebook group pages that are forming in our region with a similar speed. I know that many of you are experiencing the same thing – there is a lot of organizing, and new movement – even in long-established groups there are new initiatives, new energy. It’s all a bit heady, and maybe a bit overwhelming to keep up, but we want to keep up because we feel called to engagement and action. At times like these, I think it’s important for us to define our ethical grounding, our religious road map and moral compass for this journey. Marilyn Sewall, UU minister and theologian writes:

Those of us alive in these times have a clear and evident mission. We have a compelling moral purpose that can direct our lives and our energies: We are about saving the world. So what is our part? The place to begin is at home—that is, with ourselves. Notice what is life-denying and resist it. Live with the moral authority that comes from compassion and nonviolence. Form communities of people who will sustain you in living as you wish to live, whether they are study groups or alternative living arrangements or socially responsible, sustainable businesses. Our congregations must be central gathering places for such community.[i]

“Those of us alive in these times have a clear and evident mission.” The times that the author was referring to were almost a decade and (seemingly) a lifetime ago, in 2009, when our country was experiencing a severe economic crisis and a newly elected president. In reading this passage and other contributions to the anthology, A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists, I find both reassurance and challenge. The authors wrote at a moment of uncertainty about what has and should drive our living tradition to fulfill our mission to save the world, and their wisdom is relevant for us in our times, too. In this month as we explore what it means to be a community of risk, I invite you to consider the connections between our theology and our actions in the world.

UU historian Dan McKanan argues that “our religion has always been defined more by our understanding of human nature than of God.[ii]” But at the same time, he notes, “our faith in humanity does not require a common theory of human nature.[iii]” The first American Unitarians found divinity within humans, expressed in William Ellery Channing’s declaration, “God becomes a real being to us in proportion as his own nature is unfolded within us.[iv]” Universalists by contrast held that because God would save all souls, we should act with a sense of “the common destiny of humanity.[v]” Early 20th century humanists linked human nature to action for social justice directly, with no internal divinity or collective salvation as motivation. McKanan’s research into the theological groundings of social justice action and movements of Unitarians, Universalists, and UUs leads him to a proposition. “If…our Unitarian Universalist faith centers on the religious experience of encounter with other people, then our religious practice must necessarily be one of partnership. The sacred fire that burns among us is not just among Unitarian Universalists—it is inseparable from the interconnected social and ecological web of which we are a small part.[vi]” Partnerships “depend on strong habits of hospitality and welcome” – habits this congregation has demonstrated in the past, and more recently, habits that we improve with practice. McKanan emphasizes the imperative to partner with marginalized people and groups, and to go beyond the confines of our congregations, reminding us that “authentic encounters happen more readily in places of struggle than in places of privilege.[vii]

So, it is in our nature as humans, and as UUs, to save the world by partnering with those across all sorts of boundaries. This means risking loss within our socio-economic, race and class systems, in order to, in Marilyn Sewall’s view, reimagine the American Dream. The recession of a decade ago was an opportunity for people to ask some deep questions about the economic system, in the same way that the nationalist turn of the new administration has caused widespread questioning of the political system. And of course the political and economic are tightly intertwined, so her advice to “Notice what is life-denying and resist it. Live with the moral authority that comes from compassion and nonviolence. Form communities of people who will sustain you in living as you wish to live…”– this advice remains relevant today. Sewall quotes an East German dissident: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” She writes “This is who we [Unitarian Universalists] are—we are not afraid to be insecure. We are not afraid to search, to go deeper, to find the truth, even when the truth is unpalatable. We are seekers who want to live out of that truth, not some kind of made-up world that might be more comfortable to live in for the moment.[viii]

Speaking of unpalatable truths: evil. Human beings have an undeniable capacity for it, and Unitarian Universalists have often been criticized for glossing over that truth, preferring to center their theology, and the social justice work that springs from it, on our divine nature or inherent worth and dignity. This is the premise from which Rebecca Ann Parker begins her essay “Resisting Evil, Reverencing Life.” She writes, “The social character of evil requires social forms of resistance. Resisting evil is not about personal escape from guilt, sin, or punishment. It is about ending the harm that evil perpetuates and creating justice and abundance for all.[ix]

For Parker, we UUs must do more than acknowledge evil – “it has to be interrupted, called out, deflated, disempowered, voted out of office, replaced, redirected, contained, or transformed. Calm clarity and decisiveness in the presence of evil are the marks of spiritual maturity and strength.[x]

Reading Parker’s critique gave me pause, I cringed as I read, “It is not enough to celebrate “inherent worth and dignity” and assert confidence in the gradual evolution of progress. Religious communities must actively assist healing and recovery from the harm that comes to souls and bodies because of unjust and life-threatening realities. Religious communities must train their members to use their imagination, compassion, creativity, intelligence, conscience, and senses to unmask that which harms life…[xi]” Parker chastises UUs who base their actions on ideals and utopian visions: “Ideals do not administer spiritual assistance; ideals do not come to the kitchen table in the night of fear when a house has been firebombed….”

So what, for Parker, is the better approach? She argues, “The foundation for social justice work need not be a dream of what could be. It can, instead, be doxology—praise for the gift of life, delight in what we have tasted and seen of beauty, love, tenderness, courage, steadfastness. Grace and gratitude rest in the tangible.[xii]

Let us move now from the theory to the practice, what are some of the tangibles that we have experienced here at CUF? I invite Judy Aydt, Nolan Wright, Sage Banks and Tasha Youngblood to share brief reflections.

—–

Friends, every day we have chances to make a difference, to save the world by our actions right where we are. At a time when the rights of transgender youth are threatened, we have the opportunity to renew our Welcoming Congregation status for all LGBTQ people. At a time when people are in need of connection and support, we have the opportunity to serve as greeters, and to provide hospitality for all who come through our doors. We have the opportunity to share our views and experiences by submitting pieces to our CUF Links Newsletter (deadline for the April edition is next Sunday!) We have many opportunities for entering into partnerships – the Carbondale Interfaith Council, Carbondale Area Interfaith Refugee Support, Southern Illinois Immigrant Rights Project, The Race Unity Continuing Conversation, and so many others. Each one of these actions involves risk, each one of them contains potential for imbuing our lives with grace and gratitude. May it be so.

Amen.

[i] Sewall, Marilyn. “Reimagining the American Dream” in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists, John Gibb Millspaugh, Ed., Boston: Skinner House Books, 2010, p. 79.

[ii] McKanan, Dan. “The Sacred Fire” in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists, John Gibb Millspaugh, Ed., Boston: Skinner House Books, 2010, p. 18.

[iii] Ibid, p. 20.

[iv] Ibid., p. 18.

[v] Ibid., p. 19.

[vi] Ibid, p. 22.

[vii] Ibid., p. 24.

[viii] Sewall, p. 80.

[ix] Parker, Rebecca Ann. “Resisting Evil, Reverencing Life” in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists, John Gibb Millspaugh, Ed., Boston: Skinner House Books, 2010, p. 37

[x] Ibid., p. 39.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid, p. 40.