A sermon on the dance between Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology in Unitarian Universalism
The Gentle Oppressor
Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 15, 2019
Something interesting and perhaps unsettling is happening in Unitarian Universalism lately. There is a change unfolding among us, a turning. And it has to do with something deep. It is about how we do our justice work and the theology behind it – which means this unfolding change, this turning, is about our very identity as a people of faith.
My colleague Darrick Jackson serves on the UUMA executive team and recently wrote a reflection that talks about the impact of this unfolding change among us. Jackson shared about something that came up for him:
… in response to a conversation with a young, white, male layperson. In it, [the young man] asked if there was a place for him in Unitarian Universalism. [Jackson goes on to say] This question resonated with me and had me, a gay, middle-aged man of color, asking the same thing. It struck me that we were both seeking a place in this faith, and neither of us felt like we fit. …
Let me share with you where such questions are coming from. The Black Lives Matter movement began in its current iteration back in 2014 with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Unitarian Universalist churches, in solidarity started hanging Black Lives Matter banners, participating in rallies and marches, and generally getting involved in the anti-racist effort to end unchecked police violence against black and brown bodies.
A few years later, we Unitarian Universalists had moment in which people said, ‘wait a minute. We are doing all this anti-racism work out in the streets but our congregations and our regional & UUA staffing continues to be predominantly white. Let’s do some internal work.’
And 18 months ago, our congregation, along with most other UU congregations, hosted a “Teach-In about White Supremacy.” It is hard to look at our own UU culture and tease out the places in which we participate in the systems of oppression. There has been an increased attention lately to the voices of people of color, a centering of people and voices that have traditionally been at the margin of our UU culture. It’s beginning to get noticeable.
This is difficult in part because Unitarian Universalism has a long and justifiably proud history around Social Justice. It is not easy to be called out about something we’re known for being pretty good at. American history is littered with the names of Unitarian and Universalist activists. From the fight for the abolition of slavery through the 1960’ civil rights era, Unitarians and Universalists (and after our merger in 1961, Unitarian Universalists) have been part of the work.
And not just the work of racial justice. You’ll find our names involved in the women’s movement, as advocates for better health care, at the establishment of the American Red Cross and the Sanitation Commission, as early proponents for same-sex marriage, and at the southern border during the ‘80’s Sanctuary Movement and today. All of that history is borne from our Liberal theological message that says freedom is an essential spiritual necessity.
This summer at General Assembly, my friend and colleague Mark Morrison-Reed received the award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. He has been a UU minister and scholar for many years. Mark elucidates a critical point for Unitarian Universalism along the line between liberalism and liberation and how we talk about freedom. Liberalism’s freedom is very personal. It is about freedom of thought and freedom of religion and stresses the importance of providing opportunities for individuals to be free. Liberation’s freedom is communal. It is about the shared struggle to build relationships and repair relationships that will free individuals and communities from oppressive systems.
Traditionally, we Unitarian Universalists are in the Liberal Theology camp rather than in the Liberation Theology camp. Early Universalists theology said: God is love. We are loved so the best response is to love others. Or, we are loved and so is everyone else, God doesn’t stop, so we shouldn’t either. Or, our work is to make heaven here not just wait for it later
Early Unitarians theology said: Salvation by Character, you get to heaven by being a good person, so help others and you’ll get in. Or, everyone needs the chance to develop their moral character, we need to adjust society so it can happen. Or, we are God’s hands in the world, we are the ones who bring God’s freedom and compassion to people in need.
All of those are versions of Liberal Theology. We don’t see divinity as taking sides for people and groups. Just because we are privileged does not mean God loves us more. It means we are more responsible to make things better for the whole human family. We see the holy wherever there is peace and goodness, regardless of the groups and sides. “God’s love embraces the whole human race,” is how one of our hymns puts it.
There has long been a critique of Liberal Theology, however, that says it is too entangled with colonialism to still serve. There is a patronizing element in which we offer to help the poor or the ‘least of these’ without becoming one with them. We risk perpetuating the oppressive systems even while reaching out to help those in need, we risk becoming gentle oppressors. And our Liberal Theology allows that to go unnoticed and uncritiqued.
Once place that critique does come if from Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology says that in fight against injustice, God is particularly interested in the wellbeing of the poor and disenfranchised. God has a preferential option for the poor. Liberal Theology starts with the notion that God doesn’t take sides; God is for everyone. Liberation Theology says, No. God is not neutral. Liberal Theology says, “That’s not what we meant.” Liberation Theology says, “Well, that’s how it comes out over here.” (At least, that’s what the dance sounds like in my head when I let these two Theologies interact.)
Liberation Theology starts with the analysis that some people are oppressed and other people are doing the oppressing. This can be seen as creating an ‘Us vs Them’ dichotomy, but it doesn’t stay there because the solution from a Liberation Theology perspective is that everyone needs to get free – the Us and the Them.
I began with the story of a colleague’s story in which he and another person each wondered if they fit here. Jackson goes on to write:
I believe that we all have a place here, but it might not be the place we imagined, and it might not be the place we are used to. It is a place of mutuality, respect, and integrity.
What Jackson is articulating is a way forward based in a Liberation Theology. There is room for us all here; it means a few things need to change for that to work, but a way forward is possible. What is happening in Unitarian Universalism today, this deep turning, this unfolding change I’m pointing to is a dance we are currently in around Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology.
Part of what Liberation Theology calls us into is the particular. We need to get specific. My colleague Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley has an essay in the Essex Conversations in which she writes:
What liberalism and liberation have in common is that each is engaged in a project to extend human freedom, but liberalism’s approach is inadequate, in part, because of its tendency to view freedom in the abstract — without exploring a critical question: freedom for whom to do what?
Consider this example: Liberal Theology says “All Lives Matter.” That commitment is at the heart of Liberal Theology. It is the heart of the Universalism and the Humanism I grew up in. Of course, all lives matter. And we have banner in the front of our building that says “Black Lives Matter.” This is part of the dance, the turning we are in. Can we do both? Can we say Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter? Yes. Am I suggesting we put an “All Lives Matter” sign out? No. Part of what is at stake here is the sanctity of certain deep values and ideas. And part of what is at stake here is actual human lives. Our call for freedom needs to be specific.
The reading we had this morning https://www.uuworld.org/articles/power-we (last section by Betancourt and Ortega-Aponte) is taken from a presentation that happened at this summer’s General Assembly in Spokane WA. Part of why I selected this reading is because it lifts up some notable Liberation Theology as a reflection of who we are as Unitarian Universalists. They articulate a communal endeavor.
Believing that we are all saved together, that one life cannot reach its greater meaning unless we center the liberation of all, means not only a willingness to invest in one another and in the greater good, but also responding faithfully to the call to live into the work together.
The message has shifted from “We need to make room for them,” to “We need to make room for us.” This is the result of asking questions about who is on the margins and who is at the center. It is an impact of this dance between Liberal Theology and Liberation Theology.
Back in June, when I returned from General Assembly, I help bring a re-broadcasting of the big GA Sunday Morning worship service to you. The sermon was called “In This Delicate Turning” delivered by Reverend Marta I. Valentín. Some of you may remember because the video didn’t load and I read the transcript instead. One of the things Valentín said near the end of the sermon was about this question around centers and margins, about this question around is there room for everyone. Valentín offered this:
Am I saying we all must be the same? No. Am I saying that power needs to be shared? Yes. Am I saying that power needs to be given away? Yes. This is part of the delicate turning, the willingness to be led.
And this is what leads us back to that conversation Rev. Darrick Jackson had with that young, white, male layperson. When we draw the lines Liberation Theology asks us to notice, my identity lines up with that of the oppressor. I am white, male, and heterosexual. I understand what is at stake here. I find myself invited to take stock of where and how and at whom my power and privilege is at play. There is internal work for me to do.
The big work of justice-making is relational work, communal work. But there is inner work for me, as there is for all of us, to become clear. Who am I? Why am I invested in this faith and in this vision of a Beloved Community? Why am I involving myself in racial justice work? What is my part in perpetuating systems of harm? Or to get particular: How do we shift old trusted processes like Roberts Rules of Order and Freedom of Speech so they serve liberation rather than the status quo? And, is there room for me here in this faith? How can I move forward?
I’m not suggesting you change your theology from Liberal to Liberation – as if that was something a person could just do. I am suggestion you join the dance, allow the challenging interplay between them. Liberation Theology calls us into a place of what Betancourt called ‘collective salvation.’ Or as my colleague Theresa Soto puts it, “All of us need all of us to make it.”
Our Unitarian Universalism is in a time of unfolding change, a turning. Which voices will carry the center? What is at the center? Where are we headed? These are currently open questions. But I wholeheartedly with Jackson’s conclusion – yes. Yes, there is a place for you here. And yes, that means things will need to adjust from what they used to be like. But you know what? That’s what life is like anyway. Things are going to change, let’s be intentional about where we are headed together.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
One thought on “The Gentle Oppressor”
thank you for these thoughtful words, and for the invitation to join in the dance!