A People So Bold
Rev. Douglas Taylor
It is inspiring to me to realize that we, as a denomination and as individual congregations, continue to make important contributions toward the establishment of justice. Ours is a religious tradition which has often played a prominent role in social justice issues throughout the past few centuries. It has been this willingness to engage the real problems of the world that has caused me to be most proud that I am a Unitarian Universalist.
This congregation, before my time, had developed a strong history of activism by sending its minister to Selma during the Civil Rights movement and by serving as one of the starting places for the Binghamton – El Charcon Sister City project. And there are a variety of ways we do the work of Justice in this congregation today.
For example, the Green Sanctuary committee has been doing a great deal around earth justice, projects ranging from petitions to end gas-drilling, to weatherizing our own church building. And we just had solar panels installed on our roof. Another example is found in the group of members that joins with other community members on the court house steps each Monday protesting the current wars. Yet another group pulled together and planned last year’s annual interfaith worship service affirming gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in religious life. We host an annual “Justice Sunday” with a worship service and program each spring. We provide and serve a local green salad each month for the free community dinner in downtown Johnson City, and once a year (on election night) we provide and serve the entire meal.
The Children’s Religious Education committee has adopted the Rescue Mission’s Men’s Shelter – the only homeless shelter for men in Broome County – and every first Sunday after services we’ve been making meals for the shelter to serve. We take a special collection once a month for a local charity or organization that is doing good in our community. We have a corporate-level membership in the NAACP, and there are regularly members of our congregation on the local NAACP board. There are so many ways to make a difference.
That’s an exhausting list. There are so many ways to get involved, so many ways to make the world a better place. It’s exhausting, but I doubt it is an exhaustive list! I’m sure I’ve left some important things off my list – someone will come up to me after service and say I forgot to mention something.
But the huge impressive list is not really what I wanted to talk about. Really I want to ask: Why do we do all this? What compels us as individuals and as a community to work for justice? James Luther Adams, our 20th century Unitarian theologian, called for the liberal church to be a prophetic church, to boldly declare liberation against all oppressions of the mind and body. And he called for the Prophethood of all believers. In his essay by that title, Adams writes that religious liberals shy away from the claim that a prophet is one who predicts future doom, and instead we emphasize the interpretation that a prophet is one who speaks truth to power:
Religious liberals are accustomed to emphasizing the prophetic task of the church. [He writes] But we have long ago abandoned the whole idea of predicting the future by means of interpreting the biblical prophecies. In conformity with the findings of modern historical research, we have held that prediction is a secondary and even an unimportant aspect of Old Testament prophecy.
He goes on to talk about our view of prophets not as foretellers but as ‘forthtellers,’ meaning people to speak forth the truth with love. A prophet, Adams tells us, “stands at the end of a community’s experience and tradition, … viewing human life from a piercing perspective and bringing an imperative sense of the perennial an inescapable struggle of good against evil, of justice against injustice.” We see a prophet, not as one who predicts the future, proclaiming doom and impending destruction. Instead, we see a prophet as one who stands forth to announce a crisis, to demand that the ethical decisions be made here and now.
But a short way into the essay we discover that Adams is challenging this liberal view as truncated. He writes:
But we fall far short of understanding the full nature of prophecy if we think of prophets merely as critics dealing with religious and ethical generalities. In the great ages of prophecy the prophets have been foretellers as well as forthtellers. They have been predictors.
And here I am reminded that Martin Luther King Jr. was not merely a critic of culture and our country’s race relations record. King never said “I have a critique.” He said “I have a dream.” He was a foreteller as well as a forthteller. King dreamt of a better land, a beloved community. King was a critic but he was more than that, he interpreted the signs of the times and predicted where we were going and called us to a better place.
And James Luther Adams wants our congregations to be prophetic churches filled with prophets. What would that look like? Do we have prophetic-minded people? Are we merely critics dealing in religious and ethical generalities? Or is there a vision leading us?
So I put it out there. I asked the individuals on the Social Justice Council to tell me, “Why do you do this work?” What is it that makes us so bold? The first response I got was from George McAnanama who said, “I have an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong. Therefore Social Justice work keeps me both sane and out of jail.” Though, he did allow that there were those who would argue with his assertions about it keeping him sane. And I would argue that it might be keeping him out of jail, but working for justice is the sort of thing that has seen others sent to jail.
Eric Loeb responded to my question of ‘why’ saying, “like the Boy Scouts (‘though I’ve never been one) I want to leave my “campsite” better than I found it. Doing so gives me great personal satisfaction as well as helping me develop satisfying relationships with other people. It’s unquestionably spiritual, though, having been raised by atheists of Jewish descent, that’s not a word I use very often.” He acknowledged that working for justice was just something he grew up with; his parents were doing it around him all the time. “I guess I’ve been a social activist since, as a pre-teen, I was “Number One Boy” for The Council for Community Action.”
Chris Niskanen also wrote about the example from her parents. In her e-mail she added, “I do social justice work because I firmly believe in fairness & equality for everyone, as well as helping those people who are less fortunate than myself. I feel I can best do this in a group. As Margaret Mead said a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
This note began a theme I heard from several of the people on the council. Toni Norton wrote: “The little I can do, together with the work of others, can make a huge difference in the world.” Sue McAnanama wrote: “Working in community with others to accomplish what I cannot possibly do alone is a path that goes to the heart of my religious beliefs.” And Carol Miyake said it like this:
Often there is a sense that one as an individual can do little to help create a more just and peaceful world, but joining together with others in our faith community gives a sense that by working together, it is possible to make real progress. I find rich spirituality in working together with others towards a better world for all.
Several people spoke of doing justice as a core part of what it means for them to be religious or spiritual. Toni Norton said, “Helping those less fortunate and those affected by widespread social injustice, goes to the core of my being and belief.” And Sue McAnanama said, “I try to incorporate the core values of equality, non-violence, and peace into my daily life.”
Petra Stone also responded saying this:
To me, doing social justice work is the essence of my spirituality. One of my core beliefs is that we are ALL connected. So if my fellow travelers suffer, I suffer. If I work to improve the lives of those around me, I will be better off as well as will future generations. Although sitting on a mountain and connecting with God/dess can be helpful at times, I see little value in it, if I do not then spread the love that such a connection to the divine affords me to others. “Let you light shine, so others may not feel so alone and in the dark and know that there is always hope.”
I imagine that for many of us, the reasons we strive to make the world a better place has been articulated well by these statements. It is a core part of being religious for many of us. It is how we engage spiritually. Putting our faith and beliefs into actions to help others is not only an ethical thing to do it is also a spiritual thing to do. And I do hear a vision, a far-sighted goal in what people are doing. We are working toward a world with more “fairness and equality.” We are working in community to help those in need because peace, equality and compassion matter. And we all want to shine. And we all feel the suffering of our neighbor. This is the prophetic element in our justice work: the shared vision of a better world that we work to build.
Rema Loeb sent me a very inspiring and deeply spiritual response to my question, why do you pursue Justice?
A large part of social justice for me is the recognition that we are all a part of the natural world, that there need be no division among us, whether we are two leggeds or part of what many native people recognize as all of our brothers and sisters. That we cannot harm the Mother without harming ourselves seems so clear.
It should then be easier to recognize the pain and suffering that we cause to others, often in ignorance. Social justice is simply accepting the fact that we can be more in touch with the balance of life and therefore be a helper on this great journey.
It is easy to get discouraged, even apathetic, and feel that there is so much to be done, too few to do it.
Maybe we just need to realize that whether a simple sharing of food or of time, of leaning more about the needs of others and sharing that knowledge, of signing or launching petitions or lobbying, of working for peace or healthcare or the elimination of poverty, of helping to build a world of more love, more inclusion or even just encouraging others, we can all have a part in creating the world of which we dream. It is a journey of patience, a journey that holds much joy even through difficulties; and always with the knowledge that if the 99th monkey gives up, we will never arrive at the 100th monkey.
You don’t have to be a great and stirring speaker like Dr. King to be a prophet, and you need not be a wild-eyed woman wearing a sandwich board sign declaring the end (or the beginning) to be near. You can be an ordinary soul with a conscience and a voice and a heart. You don’t have to be super-amazing. You can be just regular-amazing like most of the people around here. I don’t think Adams meant for the ‘Prophethood of all believers’ to be an impossible task. He explains a little further in this passage:
We have long held to the idea of the Priesthood of all believers, the idea that all believers have direct access to the ultimate resources of the religious life and that every believer has the responsibility of achieving as explicit faith for free persons. As an element of this radical laicism we need also a firm belief in the prophethood of all believers. The prophetic liberal church is the church in which persons think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in the light of their faith.
Adams is saying the key ingredient is the capacity to interpret the signs of the times in the light of our faith. He is saying that as a community we can and should evaluate our world, weigh it against our shared vision and dream of what we can be.
The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it. Only through the prophetism of all believers can we together foresee doom and mend our common ways.
We are builders and doers and planters and seekers. We are lovers and dreamers, makers of institutions and rebels against institutions. We cry out in frustration and we wait patiently through the labor for daybreak to come. We stand in witness we sit in protest, we walk in solidarity and we run the race in faith. We are the ones who see what can be and start the work of building that dream into a reality. We are the ones who critique the injustice – yes! – and also boldly declare what the world can be when we see justice rolls down like water and peace like an ever flowing stream.
Our shared vision of a better world is why we do all the justice work we do. It is a spiritual path for many of us because it is not mere critique we are offering – but a prophetic declaration of a better world. The world we dream of, our prophetic vision is of our world made more beautiful by fairness and equality and peace; it is the world we are boldly working to build together.
In a world without end
May it be so