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.
A Buddhist, a Pagan, and an Atheist Walk into a Church Together
Rev. Douglas Taylor
August 25, 2019
I was standing in the doorway of the gymnastics studio, waiting to pick up my son at the end of his class. Another dad kept glancing at me. Finally, on his way out the door, he paused and gestured to my T-shirt, remarking, “It’s impossible, you know.”
I looked down at my T-shirt, which bore various religious symbols from the world’s religions surrounding the word “unity.” Ah, this man was telling me that unity among the religions is not possible. “Oh, but it is! I’ve seen it,” I responded quickly as he continued out the door – clearly not interested in a conversation with me about this topic.
It is possible. I have seen it many times: people of differing faiths sitting down together in respect and fellowship. It happens a lot more often than people seem to think.
There is a small piece of commentary I saw online again recently. It is a picture of some people together in a coffee shop and it has the words:
A Muslim, a Jew, A Christian, a Pagan, and an Atheist all walk into a coffee shop …
… and they talk, laugh, drink coffee, and become friends. It’s not a joke. It’s what happens when you’re not a jerk.
Certainly, there are many examples of our religious differences dividing us. Certainly, a unity among different religion perspectives is not possible if we assume “unity” means we have to get rid of all of our differences. Our differences are important; they’re even beautiful. But notice that there is common call among the world’s religions to treat our neighbors well, to wish for our neighbors what we wish for ourselves, and to refrain from offering to our neighbors anything which we ourselves find hateful.
Certainly, we have differences. To seek unity is not to seek to do away with these differences. Instead, our unity is shown by a willingness to offer compassion, love and goodwill toward our neighbors.
What I am describing is a form of theological pluralism. Theological pluralism says, essentially, more than one thing can be true. I don’t have to be wrong for you to be right. And new understanding is always possible. It is not the same as ‘anything goes.’
Look at us, for example. Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal faith tradition. We do not have a confession or statement of faith, no doctrine or creed that all must sign and adhere to before being considered a true Unitarian Universalist. You don’t need to agree to or abide by a belief statement written hundreds or thousands of years ago to be here. We are proudly non-creedal.
I hasten to add this does not make us non-theological or imply we have no beliefs as a community. Only that no one belief or theology is determinative or prescriptive. Instead, we have a lot of theology among us, we abide in theological plurality together.
We’re all over the map, theologically speaking. We are Pagans, Theists, Humanists, Buddhists, Mystics, Agnostics and more. And within each of these labels are nuances that spread us quite wide. There are as many ways to approach the Holy as there are people to approach it. As the Sufi mystic Rumi has said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
This is how we gather as a people. Our congregation encourages each person to have their own personal theology rather than asking anyone to bend to a corporate theology. We have an adult curriculum called “Building Your Own Theology” we have offered from time to time in which participants work to craft a credo statement, an “I believe” statement. Our “Coming of Age” program for youth is modeled in much the same way. We recognize that faith is built not from doctrines, but from life. Beliefs are borne from experience. We certainly do not say, “You can believe anything you want,” rather we say, “You can believe as you must, as your conscience demands.” It is a fierce commitment to the freedom of conscience.
Here is a quick version of all this: Unitarian Universalists are not belief-centric. We are values-centric. What binds us together as a community is not a set of shared beliefs, it is instead a set of shared values. One of these values is Theological Plurality.
Have you ever stumbled through one of those conversations when someone asks you what Unitarian Universalism is? Usually, the question comes at me in the shape of ‘What do you all believe?” Do UU’s believe in Jesus, in God, in the Bible? Here is my best advice for that kind of question. Take a deep breath. It’s a trick question. We do not have beliefs at the center of our religious community. We are a values-centric religious community, it is our common values that bind us as one. That’s how we can have Atheists, Pagans, Buddhists, Christians, seekers and skeptics all show up for a shared worship experience week in and week out as Unitarian Universalists together.
E Pluribus Unum. Our unity arises from our differences and variety. It is a good thing we are each different. Every one of us experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person. And we each use the differing words that best fit that experience for us. Each person is like a fingerprint.
Every person’s fingerprints are unique. I’d heard this is not actually true; but when I looked into it more what I learned is that it is absolutely true. Every person has a unique set of fingerprints. The trouble is in the application of this truth to criminal investigations. Fingerprint impressions are always imperfect which leads to false identifications. So, there is some unreliability in fingerprints, not because of the actual fingerprints.
So, consider, then, the analogy. Every person’s way of interacting with the holy is as unique to that person as their fingerprints. Your spirit or soul or personality – whatever word you need to use from your theological framework, your essential self, if you will – has its own unique arches, loops, and whorls. There is a fit between you and the universe that is your unique experience of the universe.
Our beliefs and theology arise from our experiences. We have experiences of life, the universe, of love and trust … and then based on those experiences we shape our beliefs and theology. Your theology and beliefs will be different from mine – not because one of us is wrong but because we are different. The arches, loops, and whorls of your spirit have led you through your experiences to your own unique understandings and beliefs.
What fits you will not fit me. You must find the words and ways that fit best for you. I may use the word ‘God’ when I am talking up here; and as you listen to my words, you’ll need to translate to the words that work for you.
We vest a great amount of authority in the individual religious conscience, proclaiming that you and you alone can discern, through your own free and responsible searching, what is ultimately true and meaningful in terms of faith and religion. It is not simply that differences are honored, accepted. They are necessary. We must be different. All of life is like this.
The Transcendentalists such as Emerson captured the fullness of the sentiment that your personal unique experience can shoot straight to the heart of a universality of experience that harkens the unity of life. In his essay, The Oversoul, Emerson wrote,
“And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one. Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely: that the Highest dwells with him.” (Oversoul)
Your expression of divinity is your contribution to the pattern. And consider the pattern! It’s not just that you have your own special expression of the divine; so, does everyone else! The differences among us beautify the pattern of the whole. There would be no harmony if we all sang the same note. Talking only with people who sound like you do is like walking around endlessly in a cul-de-sac, the challenge is absent and the beauty fades by familiarity!
It is critical to discover the divine spark within you, as Jesus said “the kingdom of God is within.” However, the real challenge is to see the divine spark, the inherent worthiness and dignity of another; to see God’s image in one who is not in your image. It is one of the great tasks of a spiritual life: to allow yourself to be challenged from time to time by the perspective of another. It is one of the best ways to stay grounded in your otherwise private spiritual journey.
And that is the beautiful challenge of our way of faith together. We bump into each other’s differences with a promise to be together with respect; to aim not to wound one another into conformity but instead to encourage each other to live with integrity within the paths we travel.
That is the great benefit to our commitment to theological plurality here in our congregations. This is not about ‘believe whatever you want.’ It is about ‘believe as you must.’ And then come together in community and bump up against the differences and listen.
As we heard last week, we risk stepping out of our bubbles and breaking with the status quo when we listen to each other; when we – as the joke I mentioned at the beginning puts it – sit and talk and not be jerks with each other.
Do you hear how all of this is not just about what you think and believe? It is also about how you behave! The implication of abiding by our values together is that we will behave in a certain way with each other. We will behave in ways that limit harm, that engender trust, that foster respect.
Listening to the perspectives of others will lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself and your world. Listening to the perspectives of other will lead to treat others in a certain way.
I know my own faith is deepened when I encounter another person’s faith in a way that allows me to listen and share with the other person. Listening to another person’s perspective helps me appreciate that other perspective as well as my own perspective at a deeper level.
Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said that the whole point of life is it serves as an opportunity to grow a soul. The implication in this statement from Davies is that your soul in dynamic, today we might say your spirituality is dynamic. It is not just that the people around you here will likely believe differently than you, but you may believe differently from yourself a few years back.
Interestingly, growing your soul is often not about clarifying your beliefs. It is more about clarifying your compassion and your capacity to see another person’s situation. Growing your soul is about allowing another perspective in without being threatened or feeling a need to overcome it or disprove it. Growing your soul is about welcoming diversity and seeking the unity beneath it all.
So, welcome. Welcome to this slightly weird way we do church here. Welcome to this journey among your fellow Atheists, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, Jews, Agnostics, Seekers, Skeptics, and those as yet Uncommitted. We recognize that we are always changing, and your beliefs, your theology, is dynamic. Your religion and your community can never keep up with you and thus we do not even try. Here we eschew doctrines and creeds that we may hold open a space for your understanding to grow and develop free from any shackle or undue constraint.
It is not an easy path to walk alone. Which is why we have a community like this. A community build around this notion that theological plurality and other similar values can serve well as our binding values. Welcome to the work of belonging to such a community in which we both support and challenge one another in this free and responsible search.
May your contributions continue to beautify the pattern. May you be continually enlightened as you engage with the variety around you. And may you ever trust that the values at our center will carry you – as they carry us all – into the heart of our deep longing.
In a world without end,
May it be so.