Posts Tagged freedom

Go Vote!

“We covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
Fifth Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association

"I Voted" sticker with flaming chalice pinThe congregation I serve makes its major decisions by voting.  As a church belonging to one of the faiths descended from the early American congregationalists, we elect our own officers, we set our own budget and we vote to call our own ministers.  One of the primary benefits of membership in the congregation, in fact, is the right to vote on such matters, though we do not exclude sympathetic non-members from discussing the issues, too.  But it is a unique responsibility of membership to vote, to contribute in this and other ways to the collective wisdom of our decision-making.

We trace this tradition of congregational self-determination back almost four hundred years.  Indeed, with the rejection of religious hierarchy — rejecting both the king of England as the head of the church and the bishops as its officers — more than a hundred years before the United States declared their independence, the congregationalists were trying out democracy long before the country as a whole embarked on its similarly bold endeavor.  Liberty was the watchword in both cases, but for the churches it was specifically the freedom of mutual love.

After all, there is more to democracy than simply voting.  Being engaged participants, whether as members or as citizens, is essential.  And simply voting on an issue according to majority rule needs to be accompanied by a commitment on everybody’s part to stay in relationship, or else risk succumbing to divisiveness.  It is a fact of life that there will always be differences of opinion, so the real question is not which opinion is more popular, but how to live and work together before and after the vote.  The right to participate in shared decision-making is inseparable from shared responsibility for the health of the community, whether that community is one congregation or a whole country.

This makes efforts to rig elections all the more distressing.  I’m not talking about so-called voter fraud, which like other boogie men doesn’t actually exist.  Apply some reasonable common sense to the idea of repeated visits to a polling station while pretending to be a different person each time and it is clear that such a scheme would have little impact but require lots of effort and risk.  On the other hand, redrawing district lines to segregate certain voters or passing laws to prevent certain people from being able to vote at all are clearly ways to skew elections that, for all that they have the appearance of legality, are only sophisticated forms of cheating.  And since they inevitably target marginalized individuals — including women, people of color and poor people — they are also unjust and immoral.

We are already saturated with coverage of the various presidential campaigns in anticipation of next year’s elections, but this year’s elections — today’s elections, in fact — are just as important.  Candidates for national office often begin at the local or state level, working their way up as their political careers gain momentum.  Ensuring that we have capable officials who truly represent the will of the people, rather than special interests with deep pockets, begins — and is most critical — in so-called off-year elections.

For all those people who can’t vote or are prevented from voting, each of us who can do so should embrace with joy and gratitude the right and the responsibility to vote.  The purpose of an election is indeed to pick a winner, but when participation is low, whether due to voter apathy or deliberate disenfranchisement, then we all lose.

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Reconnecting, Remembering, Recommitting

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

Hinei mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yahad!
How rare it is, how lovely, this fellowship of those who meet together!
— Psalm 133

The house was alive with activity, from elders catching up on their news to children chasing one another through the doorways.  Those not assisting in the preparations would be shooed out of the kitchen, where the cooks were in a state of frenzy getting everything ready.  There were bowls of appetizers everywhere, to try to delay some of the impatience of hunger; olives were particularly popular.  And in what was otherwise the living room, every table and chair in the house had been gathered to make a long dining table with enough space for the whole family to sit down together.  It was Passover at my grandmother-in-law’s house in Philadelphia.

Soon after Allison and I…

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The Church of Last Resort?

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 20th 2013.)

Back in the Spring I happened to notice that a newspaper article had been pinned to one of our bulletin boards.  Curious to see what it was, and knowing that I hadn’t pinned it there myself, I took a closer look.

The article was an opinion piece by journalist Lisa Miller, a prize-winning religion columnist for the Washington Post.  She began this particular newspaper article with the following paragraph.

The joke about Unitarians is that they’re where you go when you don’t know where to go.  Theirs is the religion of last resort for the intermarried, the ambivalent, the folks who want a faith community without too many rules.  It is perhaps no surprise that the Unitarian Universalist Association is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the country, ballooning fifteen percent over the past decade, when other established churches were shrinking.  Politically progressive to its core, it draws from the pool of people who might otherwise be “nones” — unaffiliated with any church at all.

Well, I experienced a number of emotions in response to reading just that first paragraph.  First, I felt a certain exasperated weariness.  After all, the joke about people who tell jokes about “Unitarians” is that they can’t get our name right.  I don’t know if it’s ignorance or laziness.  For the last fifty two years, we’ve been Unitarian Universalists, and the Universalist side of our heritage is as essential as the Unitarian side.

(And, as one person who commented on the Washington Post’s website put it, starting an article about another’s religion by joking about that religion is probably not wise unless the writer is already committed to the even greater folly of writing a series of articles beginning “The joke about Baptists …”, “The joke about Catholics …”, “The joke about Jews …”, “The joke about Muslims …” and so on.  The commenter concluded, “I will get a bag of popcorn to watch the responses you get to those articles.”)

The next emotion I experienced was, well, pride.  Let’s be honest.  It’s good that we’re here for people who can’t find a religious home elsewhere, and if we are growing because we embrace “the intermarried, the ambivalent”, the “people who might otherwise be ‘nones’”, then, well, bully for us.  There’s certainly a common idea that many mixed faith parents find their ways to Unitarian Universalist congregations for the sake of appropriately inclusive and respectful Religious Education for their children, and it’s no surprise that Beacon Press has published books for interfaith families and that UU World has run articles on the subject.  There’s also the fact that, though more and more people are coming to us with no prior church-going experience, there are still plenty of people who were treated badly by other religions and need Unitarian Universalism as a place where they can, after nursing their wounds for a while, find healing and spiritual wholeness.

But then, looking back over the article, I experienced annoyance.  I don’t want Unitarian Universalism to be, in Ms. Miller’s words, “the religion of last resort”.  I don’t want our Fellowship to be what’s left after somebody has checked out all the other churches that come before us in the alphabet.  I don’t want us to be the church of last resort.

And apparently Ms. Miller isn’t the only one who sees us that way.

In early August, the Southern Baptist Convention filed a brief with the Supreme Court concerning a lower court’s ruling that government meetings may not be opened with a religious act of prayer.  “Th[is] case is about a government seeking to establish a state-ordered civil religion that crowds out the most basic rights of freedom of speech,” the brief stated.  “That is not what our ancestors, and their allies among the American Founders, meant by religious liberty.  We shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Baptist church, [we] agree, but we shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Unitarian church either, and that’s what some are attempting.”

So, just like Ms. Miller, the people who wrote the brief apparently know something about us, but not enough to get our name right.  Maybe their only source of information is “A Prairie Home Companion”.

In any case, the Southern Baptist Convention does seem to be making explicit something that Ms. Miller only implies: that if you take “religion” and remove from it all of the actual religious “stuff”, then what’s left is Unitarian Universalism.

Now by “religion”, let’s be honest, what’s actually meant here is “Christianity”.  Nobody crying “freedom of speech” and “religious liberty” in this case is for one moment thinking about the possibility that government meetings might be opened by a Hindu swami leading a prayer to Vishnu or by a Pagan priestess calling on the spirits of the four directions.  In the Town of Greece, New York, on the other hand, a Christian minister has given just about every opening prayer and that’s why the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the town had violated the First Amendment.

(By the way, of the fifty-two chaplains who have served the United States House of Representatives, guess how many have been Christian?  Methodists and Presbyterians count for more than half of them, and though there are actually two Unitarians and one Universalist amongst that number, they served back when both traditions were still pretty much Christian.  Oh, and there have never been any female chaplains, though some, as well as male clergy of other faiths, have been guests.  You might be interested to know that September 2000 marked the first time a guest chaplain was Hindu.  Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala opened the House session with a prayer that, in spite of invoking a generic “God” rather than, say, Shiva, resulted in protests from conservative Christians.  I don’t know if there’s ever been a guest chaplain who was Pagan, but I really, really doubt it.)

Closer to home, the Newport News City Council opens its meetings with an invocation by a local minister, though they’ve had to change how that’s done, perhaps as a result of the ruling against the Town of Greece, New York.  I’ve delivered that invocation twice: once before anything was changed, when I spoke facing the audience, and once after the change, when I spoke facing the members of the city council.  Either way, everybody in the room could hear me, thanks to the microphone, and I was even on television!

I guess the intention of the change in having the minister speak facing the council is that the invocation is then for them, rather than being for everybody.  That seems pretty flimsy to me, though.  Both of my invocations were much as you’d hear for a chalice lighting in this Sanctuary.  If I was actually praying to anything, it was to “the spirit of life and love”, but otherwise I was praying for the members of the city council, that they might speak the truth in love and listen to more than others’ words, and that their work on behalf of our town might be their prayer.

I suspect that that made my invocations rather different from those of most of my clergy colleagues.  On the one hand, the letter from the city council said that “The invocation must be generic and applicable to citizens of all faiths. Invoking Christ, Mohammad, etc., has been deemed by Courts to be improper in this setting.”  On the other hand, an attached document from The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities included a recommendation that “Those who lead such prayers should make them non-denominational and respectful of the nearly universal belief in God, while avoiding language or images that are connected to any one tradition or practice of a particular faith or religion.”  I think my reaction when I first read that was something along the lines of “Huh?”  Let me read it again so that you can appreciate the glorious incoherence of it: “Those who lead such prayers should make them non-denominational and respectful of the nearly universal belief in God, while avoiding language or images that are connected to any one tradition or practice of a particular faith or religion.”

For starters, to talk about denominations is to pretty much frame this in terms of Protestant Christianity from the get-go.  To talk about Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy as denominations is actually nonsense, because the very idea of denominations is at odds with Catholic and Orthodox theology.  I guess some might consider, say, the different schools of Buddhism to be like denominations, if they insisted, but what would “non-denominational” Buddhism have to say about “the nearly universal belief in God”?  Theravada Buddhism is actually atheist while Tibetan Buddhism has thousands of deities, and with many of those gods depicted as wrathful and fearsome, I suspect the people at the The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities would wet themselves if they actually knew.  (Or maybe they do know, but wrote in thoroughly sloppy language.)

So in the sense that a Unitarian Universalist invocation should be at least somewhat meaningful to everyone from theists to humanists, and from atheists to pagans, then yes, the perfect “non-denominational” prayer to open a government meeting would indeed be Unitarian Universalist.  But the Southern Baptist Convention is wrong in claiming that that’s only because what we’re actually doing is starting with something Christian and then removing all of the Christianity from it.

Now if you know anything about Unitarian Universalist history, you might at this point object by saying that that’s indeed what happened.  After all, just a few minutes ago I made reference to three ministers from our traditions, the Unitarians Jared Sparks and William Henry Channing and the Universalist Henry Couden, each of whom served as Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives sufficiently far back in the past that both Unitarianism and Universalism were, at those respective times, both still pretty much Christian.  So didn’t both traditions evolve by shedding their Christianity?

Well, I guess you could view it that way.  To my mind, though, that’s definitely a “glass half empty” way of looking at it, and rather misses the point.  And to try to look at it in a “glass half full” way is to still be stuck in the mindset that’s something’s missing.

I prefer to look at what happened in terms of a bigger glass, with more in it.  Yes, both Unitarianism and Universalism emerged from Christianity.  They were both viable schools of belief in that chaotic, frothy mixture we simplistically name “the early church”, present right from the start two thousand years ago, and a lot of politics took place before both the Unitarians — who believed in the full humanity of Jesus — and the Universalists — who believed that everybody would ultimately go to heaven — found themselves cast out as heretics.  And yet pockets of both Unitarianism and Universalism persisted in springing up again and again through the centuries.

In the United States, both faiths thrived thanks to the Constitutional guarantee that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  And both faiths continued to be Christian well into the nineteenth century, differing only from “official” Christianity in their specific theological points.  It wasn’t even until the 1820s that the Unitarians started calling themselves by that name, setting themselves apart from Christians who believed in the Jesus of the Trinity, but apparently that started a ball rolling that nobody saw coming.

First, there was the Transcendentalist Movement, which featured many Unitarians.  That made the glass bigger by refusing to accept the Bible as the only sacred text.  The scriptures of Eastern traditions became accessible in English translations and Nature itself became a source of religious inspiration.  The Transcendentalist Movement eventually disappeared, but the Transcendentalists themselves were absorbed back into Unitarianism.

Something similar happened a century later, when Humanism appeared on the scene.  That made the glass bigger again by refusing to accept theism as the only valid theology, and it opened the way to add pantheism and atheism into that bigger glass.  Humanism, too, at least in that original form, also disappeared, but the Humanists were, like the Transcendentalists before them, absorbed back into Unitarianism.

And along the way, social movements from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage made the glass bigger too, not just for the Unitarians but for the Universalists as well.

The Universalists were exclusively Christian well into the twentieth century, but while the Unitarians had grown bigger and more inclusive in an organic fashion, or at least by repeated happy accidents, the Universalists actually made a conscious decision to make their glass bigger and more full.  They chose to aspire to be a truly Universal religion, and in this realized they had natural partners with the Unitarians.  Both faiths agreed that together they would make the glass even bigger and even more full, and so in 1961 Unitarian Universalism was born.

In other words, Unitarian Universalism is far from the result of starting with Christianity and then removing everything Christian.  Rather, it’s what you get when you make, to switch metaphors, a big enough tent for people of different religious beliefs and different spiritual practices to gather under the same roof.  To talk of what’s left is to miss the point entirely.  To talk of what’s left is to somehow think that the process of growing that tent and becoming more open and inclusive to more people has actually diminished us, when in fact it’s quite the opposite.

Now don’t be misled by the regrettably persistent strain of anti-Christian sentiment that occasionally pops up amongst Unitarian Universalists.  As I mentioned earlier, some people find themselves here because they’re seeking healing from the hurts inflicted upon them in other churches.  Not that I want to justify bad behavior, but a certain amount of appropriate venting can be cathartic, so long as it eventually leads to wholeness.  And not to make excuses but there’s also the inevitable stress of being a member of a minority religion within a culture that clearly doesn’t understand us.

But then, we’ve contributed to some of that problem ourselves, too.

Unitarian Universalists went through a long phase of describing ourselves, as a faith, in terms of what we are not, what we don’t believe, what we don’t do, and so on, leading to ridiculous ideas that we’re the religion where you can believe whatever you want or that we’re the faith community with no rules.  No wonder we’re seen as the church of last resort!

It’s only within the last decade or so that we’ve started talking about Unitarian Universalism in terms of what we are, which is an authentically religious embodiment of the ideals of the original motto of the United States: “E pluribus unum”, or “Out of many, one”.  Let me say that again, in case you ever want to use it as an “elevator speech”:  Unitarian Universalism is an authentically religious embodiment of the ideals of the real motto of the United States: “E pluribus unum”.

So I don’t want us to be the church of last resort.  And, in fact, we’re not.  It’s only the ignorance and laziness of others that lets them label us that way, aided and abetted by our historical inability to clearly identify ourselves as a religion.  But fixing those things doesn’t mean we automatically become the church of first resort.

But we could be.  We could be the church of first resort.

Unitarian Universalism could be at the top of the list of religions where people who have not yet joined us know they can find uplifting worship and music, where they know they can participate in outstanding religious exploration for all ages, where they know they can engage in faithful witness for progressive values, where they know they can support tireless advocacy for justice, and where, above all, they know they can be supported by a loving community where we tend our own souls by caring for one another.  Unitarian Universalism can be the church of first resort … but that’s my topic for next Sunday.

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Knowledge, Access, Advocacy

(I delivered this part of a shared sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 28th 2013.)

During the last few months I’ve shared services with representatives from some of our Share-the-Basket partners.  If you’ve been here more than a few times, you’ll have noticed that each and every Sunday, we share the Offering with one of a number of worthy causes that actively promote what we recognize as Unitarian Universalist values.  The Fellowship has been doing this for a few years now — and, in the case of the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads, doing it once a month for much longer — because we recognize that it is important to practice the abundance to which our faith makes claim, particularly once we recognize that how we use our money and other resources says a lot about who we really are.

Now I’m told that, whenever we’ve done a straw poll, at about this time of year, regarding our possible Share-the-Basket partners for next year, Planned Parenthood, if it is on the ballot, gets the highest number of votes.  A large number of you, in other words, believe that it is important for this congregation to support Planned Parenthood’s vision of “a society where all adults and teens have the ability to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives.”  And so this year, I’m pleased to remind you, one of our Share-the-Basket partners is Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.

A couple of other factors make this a timely partnership.

One is that, at last year’s General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona, the delegates from the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association selected “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling” to be the new issue for study and action by UU congregations over a four-year period.  Stepping up to challenge the “racial, economic, cultural and structural constraints on women’s power” as well as supporting “the right to have children, [the right] to not have children, and [the right] to parent children in safe and healthy environments”, this is only the most recent stage of our association’s “fifty-year history of reproductive rights advocacy of which [Unitarian Universalists] should be very proud.”  The first resolution by Unitarian Universalists was passed fifty years ago, in fact, at the 1963 General Assembly in Chicago; it called for the legalization of abortion, ten years before Roe vs. Wade made that a reality.  That made Unitarian Universalism the first religion to officially endorse a woman’s right to reproductive choice; since then there have been at least two-dozen association-wide resolutions and social justice statements on the topics of abortion, women’s rights and sexuality education.  This is a history of presenting a strong progressive religious voice — our Unitarian Universalist voice — of which we should definitely be proud.

Another factor is that Virginia is the target of too many jokes on late-night television when it comes to our Commonwealth’s nineteenth century sense of sexual morality.  Actually, the nineteenth century might be giving Richmond too much credit; perhaps fourteenth century would be more appropriate.  In any case, I’ve only been living here for three years, so I don’t know how long Jon Stewart, David Letterman and the rest have been laughing at us, but good grief!  Whether it’s requiring trans-vaginal ultrasounds as part of abortion “counseling” or reinstating Virginia’s anti-sodomy law, it’s all too easy to make fun of us.  Never mind that, when it came to a challenge to the sodomy law in 1975, the court justified it by quoting Leviticus, the fact that Governor Bob McDonnell excused his support of the ultrasound bill by saying that he didn’t understand what “trans-vaginal” means is the best argument in favor of comprehensive sex education that I’ve ever heard.  It’s a shame we can’t require every elected representative to have taken the same “Our Whole Lives” curriculum that we teach to our middle-schoolers.

Now in introducing the Adult Religious Education curriculum that was created in support of the “Reproductive Justice” study/action issue, the authors explain that the current debates about all of these issues — including, incredibly, the availability of contraception — “is not as much a political argument over information and misinformation as it is a conflict of values about life, sexuality and religious freedom.”  (And I shouldn’t need to note that religious freedom does not mean the freedom of churches and other religious organizations to oppress their own employees or those they serve.)  As promoted in particular by coalitions of women of color such as SisterSong, Reproductive Justice is a framework that promotes individual rights in many intersecting areas, including reproductive choice, the eradication of violence against women, comprehensive sex education, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, economic justice, environmental justice, and immigration justice.  These are all areas in which Unitarian Universalists have developed progressive positions based on our religious understandings of life, sexuality and freedom.

Talk, of course, is cheap.  It’s doing something with our beliefs and opinions that makes a difference.  All of the time spent at General Assembly debating and passing resolutions and statements of conscience and actions of immediate witness is worthless unless we actually act upon them afterward.  And since it’s congregational delegates who do all that debating and passing of resolutions, it’s the responsibility of congregations to put them into action.  So, on the fortieth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade back in January, Lauren F—, Tret F—, Tom H— and I went up to Richmond to take part in a demonstration at the Capitol in support of reproductive rights, including access to safe and legal abortions, and in opposition to the persistent efforts to chip away at those rights.

I realize, of course, that taking part in such a demonstration — even had it it been at a warmer time of year — isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.  Moreover, there are limits to what we, as a single congregation, can reasonably expect to achieve.  This is work we must do in coalition, and we’re doing just that in at least a couple of ways.

For example, the Gathering of the Tidewater Cluster that took place in Williamsburg last month marked the first step toward creating a Unitarian Universalist network for legislative advocacy in Virginia, something that is being facilitated by our own Mason M—.  This is something that’s been talked about since before I got here, and I’m so glad that it’s now getting off the ground.  I encourage you to talk with Mason to learn more about it.

And, of course, we’re working with Planned Parenthood as one of our Share-the-Basket partners.  You’ll hear more about their work in a moment from two of their people who are here today, but before I introduce them, I just want to frame the value of our support of their work in terms of the three words that provide the title of this sermon — knowledge, access, advocacy — words come from the mission of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia itself.

First, knowledge.  If all people have the “right to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives”, they need to be empowered by receiving the knowledge they need to make those choices.  And so, much as we teach “Our Whole Lives” to our middle-schoolers, Planned Parenthood “provides comprehensive, age appropriate sex education to schools and organizations around Hampton Roads.”

Second, access.  It’s no good having rights in theory if you can’t exercise those rights in practice.  And so, to support people in making informed and responsible choices about their own lives, Planned Parenthood provides access to “high-quality, affordable reproductive health and family planning services”, with facilities located on the Peninsula and southside.

Third, advocacy.  In recent years we’ve witnessed a resurgence of efforts to suppress and prevent both knowledge of our own sexuality and access to services including abortion and contraception, not just in Virginia but nationwide.  And so, Planned Parenthood leads the way in calling for responsible public policy that supports “the rights of all women and men to make their own choices about their [own] reproductive health, to have access to comprehensive sex education and and to have access to affordable reproductive health services.”

I’m very pleased, then, that sharing the pulpit with me this morning are Kim Barbarji and Dan Rice from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.  Kim is the interim program director in the education department at Planned Parenthood.  In that role, she manages the education department and oversees their Newport News public school program.  Before coming to Planned Parenthood, Kim was the Deputy Director of Avalon, a Center for Women and Children which serves victims of domestic abuse in Williamsburg.  And Dan is lead educator at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia, teaching their program in the Health I classes at all six Newport News public high schools.  Dan is a gifted sexual health educator, who has written and taught a wide variety of health curricula for Rutgers University.

[Kim and Dan speak.]

Thank you, Kim and Dan, for being with us this morning.  I hope you’ll take the opportunity to talk with them following this morning’s services, when our Social Justice Committee will facilitate an informal question-and-answer discussion with them.  Our partnership with Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia is a critical part of our work for Reproductive Justice, part of our larger commitment to grow the Beloved Community that is fundamental to both Unitarian Universalist theology and identity.  When it comes to knowledge, access, advocacy and all of the ways we do this, may we be courageous in living our shared aspirations.

So may it be.

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The Dance of Freedom and Responsibility

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 19th 2012.)

If you’ve ever been a subscriber to an e-mail discussion group (or, going back a few years, a listserv or — even further back! — an on-line bulletin board), chances are you’ve either witnessed or even been a participant in a disagreement that became an argument that escalated into what’s known as a “flame war”.  We wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that this phenomenon characterized by ad hominem attacks and all-out sarcasm is a unique result of the development of electronic forms of communication such as e-mail and the Web, particularly since they allow for the rapid exchange of increasingly heated sentiments fueled — in large part — by the cloak of anonymity.  We’d be wrong, though.

For example, the available technology of sixteenth century Europe, including Gutenberg’s movable type for the printing press, was apparently sufficient to allow individuals with not-so-humble opinions to hurl strong words and insults at one another, albeit with a turnaround time of weeks rather than minutes.  And in Reformation Europe, two such individuals were Michael Servetus and John Calvin.

Calvin was running the city of Geneva on the basis of his ideas for reforming church and state.  Servetus was practicing medicine in public and writing books in secret, specifically books decrying how Christianity was corrupt.  Now Calvin, like Martin Luther before him, also believed that Christianity had been corrupted, the blame for which lay squarely with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  Servetus agreed, but went further by insisting that the real source of the corruption was the doctrine of the Trinity.

Gutenberg’s movable type, you see, had put the Bible into the hands of anyone who wanted to read it for themselves, and Servetus, like countless others since that time, had done so and had found that the Trinity — the fourth-century doctrine that God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit exist as three persons but only one being — well, that claim is not actually in the Bible.  And denying the Trinity made Servetus a heretic.

As his books made the rounds, in part because he couldn’t help but send them to religious and civic leaders across Europe, Servetus was condemned not only by the Catholics but also by the newly minted Protestants, too.  Taking a pseudonym to avoid persecution, he continued to write books as well as letters to those who he thought might have some sympathy for him.  Servetus believed he knew the truth and he felt it his duty to share it with others, convinced that if they were but willing to listen to him then they would be free of the falsehoods to which they had chained themselves.  When others, from his perspective, would not listen to him, he fell back on verbal abuse, whether in his letters to Calvin or during his trial in Geneva.  Yes, he was caught and tried for heresy, something that was probably only a matter of time.

Servetus was first arrested, in fact, by the Roman Catholic authorities but he managed to escape.  In his absence the Inquisition convicted him of heresy and sentenced him to be burned with his books.  Fleeing across Europe he inexplicably stopped in Geneva, where was recognized and arrested following a Sunday service where none other than Calvin himself was the preacher!  Just as the Catholics had the first time, the Calvinists convicted Servetus, but this time they made sure he couldn’t escape again.  And so he was burned at the stake, in person rather than in effigy.  His books were burned with him, his most recent work chained to his thigh.

That was the end, and a thoroughly grisly end at that, for Michael Servetus.  It was not, in spite of the intentions of the Catholics and the Calvinists, the end of his ideas or even of his books, a very few copies of which survive even today.  Scholars view our modern ideas of the rights of freedom of religion and conscience, in fact, as his legacies.  We Unitarian Universalists celebrate him as a martyr, recognizing his influence on the Unitarian movements in Poland and Transylvania, and putting him on T-shirts such as this one that was sold at General Assembly in a few years ago.  “Michael Servetus, 1511–1553: Unitarian Universalists Celebrating 450 Years of Heresy”!

“A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is arguably the most Unitarian of our seven Unitarian Universalist principles, and it finds its place thanks, in part, to Servetus.  We call ourselves a liberal religion because we stand for that which liberates the heart, the mind and the soul.  Unitarian Universalist minister Tom Owen-Towle prefers the term ‘freethinking’ as “a fresher and less corrupted reference than ‘liberal’”, but it comes to much the same thing.  We may even refer to ourselves as heretics, recognizing that the word ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘choice’ and noting that we choose to employ tolerance, reason and freedom as tools to transform ourselves and our world.  As freethinkers, the liberally religious, we belong, Owen-Towle notes, “to the heritage of incorrigible choice-makers, an admirable lineage of heretics from Michael Servetus to Susan B. Anthony”.

So hooray for freedom!  Where, though, does responsibility come in?

First, remember that, as I mentioned last month, the word “freedom” comes from an ancient root word that actually means “love”.  That means that freedom isn’t so much about our status relative to the ideal of an autonomous individual, but rather about what we do and the choices we make in relationship to one another.  Freedom is not, in fact, a static, isolated state of being, but a dynamic, connected process of becoming.

Second, remember that the foundation of our Unitarian Universalist faith is not creed, that is, what we believe, but covenant, that is, how we promise to behave.  As you’ve heard me say before, a creed can exist in the head of just one person, even if that person were all alone in the entire cosmos, but a covenant by definition exists around and within the relationships between two or more people.

So if freedom is about becoming and if our faith is about relationship, then our free faith challenges us to understand our becoming in the context of our relationships.  I’ll say that again: our free faith challenges us to understand our becoming in the context of our relationships.  In other words, we are challenged to make sense of freedom when we do not, in fact, actually have the autonomy to do whatever we want without regard to the consequences for others or ourselves; we should instead expect to be answerable for our — otherwise free — decisions and actions.  Let me try to make this a little more concrete…

You may have heard of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, a modern parable by ecologist Garret Hardin.  Consider, Hardin wrote about forty years ago, a medieval village in which each family has the use of some common land for letting their cows graze.  For each individual family, adding another cow to their own herd on the village commons gives that family all the benefit of the additional cow, while spreading any possible drawbacks amongst all of the families in the village.  If each family in the village is free to add more cow to their herds, then it’s quite rational for them to do that, and to keep doing it, until there are so many cows that the commons becomes so damaged that it’s of no use to anybody.  The Tragedy of the Commons takes place because the villagers fail to recognize their interdependence and refuse to accept responsibility for the collective consequences of their individual actions.

Some economists, of course, have argued that the Tragedy of the Commons simply isn’t realistic, that “market forces” — Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and so forth — would always come into play to magically prevent such runaway self-centeredness, but this is no idle thought experiment: it literally happened with overgrazing on Boston Common in the 1630s, and it’s not hard to see global climate change as an on-going tragedy with the Earth’s atmosphere as the commons and all of us as the villagers.

Unfortunately responsibility is a much less exciting idea than freedom.  Even the word, ‘freedom’, tends to conjure exciting images in our minds: the open plains, with pioneers and settlers traveling westward to make new lives for themselves; or the open road, driving a fast car toward the horizon, no cares in the world as the wind blows through your hair.  Romanticized and more inspired by Hollywood movies and television advertising than based in real-world experience, yes, but evocative and inspiring nonetheless.  Responsibility, on the other hand, is about duty, obligation, something that binds us to behaving in certain ways when, all things considered, we’d rather cut out when nobody’s looking and go for a drive on the open road in that zippy convertible.  We adults like to tell our children that responsibility is a necessary part of growing up, but sometimes I wonder who it is we’re really trying to convince…

Of course, the process of individuation is a necessary part of growing up.  Healthy human beings must learn to think of themselves as individuals, separate from their parents and other people and with a sense of their own identity and will.  There’s a lot of power in recognizing oneself as an individual with free will, able to make the decisions that determine one’s own destiny.  Individuality is a necessary and healthy part of being human, but what about individualism, the place where, more than any other, our ideas about freedom are enshrined?

Individualism, it could be argued, encapsulated the founding ideals of the United States.  The “fundamental American ideology of individualism”, as defined by linguist Ronald Scollon, is that “the individual is the basis of all reality and all society” and that individual freedom must, above all else, be protected from external interference.  Well, it’s easy to get into a sort of chicken-and-egg situation when arguing about the relationship between individuals and society — and theologians and philosophers and, more recently, politicians have spent a lot of time arguing about it — but it doesn’t take much thought to realize that even if we were to aspire to be completely free individuals, we were (and, in fact, continue to be) formed — as individuals — in the overlapping contexts of family, community, culture and the very society that supposedly depends on us rather than the other way around.

And don’t we find the most value and worth in ourselves as individuals precisely when we are connected to other individuals in those relational contexts?  How easily we forget or overlook or ignore that, though!  As Unitarian Universalist minister Kenneth Collier puts it, we “sometimes spend so much time and energy worrying about and praising the autonomy of the individual that we forget that individuals standing alone have about as much strength as a bunch of stones lying around on the ground.”  And in his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn offers this much stronger critique of American individualism: “It’s an irony that these rugged individuals so loved individualism that they ganged up together to enslave black people, steal land from Mexico, and carry out an ethnic cleansing of the continent.  At other times they ganged up to abuse and mistreat, among others within their borders, Chinese people and Japanese people and Jews and Catholics, before ganging up to abuse peoples of Central and South America and so on around the world.  A nation of individuals saying, ‘[Hey,] I’m an individual.  Don’t blame me for the collective crimes of [my] country.’”

I think we need to find a new way to talk about our individuality that, on the one hand, avoids the excesses of individualism and, on the other hand, helps us to see responsibility as not only important but even inspiring.  (Getting responsibility to be exciting may be too much to ask, but I live in hope!)  There’s a word that I learned about a decade ago now that describes some of what I’m trying to get at here, and you heard it in my reading this morning: “autokoenony”.  It was coined by Sarah Hoagland, who in her book Lesbian Ethics writes: “I mean to invoke a self who is both separate and related, a self which is neither autonomous nor dissolved: a self in community who is one among many, what I call autokoenony.”

Now think of this in terms of our Fourth Principle, that “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.

Well, there’s the “free” piece of our religious journey.  If we articulate it at all, we tend to place religious authority — the right to determine what we believe and how we should behave — in individual experience.  That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t end there.  What sort of experience do we mean, for instance?  Are all experiences to be equally valued?  Are all “truths” from every source to be respected on the basis that they belong to someone else’s and that we have no right to judge them?  What is it that prevents us from sliding into utter relativism?  Yes, we affirm, in the words of our First Principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of all people”, but look more closely and there’s something implicit there.  Who is it who is recognizing and respecting the inherent worth and dignity of a given individual?  That particular person her- or himself?  No, it’s someone else, which means we’re talking about relationship.  We’re talking about the relational individual, the individual who belongs to something larger, the self in community, or autokoenony.

And this gets us to the “responsible” piece of our quest for truth and meaning.  When it comes to figuring out what to believe and how to behave, another common source of authority is community tradition.  Our individualistic tendencies make us more aware of the problems of placing authority in tradition, of course, to the extent that Unitarian Universalists have a practically instinctive distrust of hierarchy, which is why our Fifth Principle speaks of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.  The individual, after all, needs some distance from the community in order to reflect on it, but the community also serves as the touchstone that prevents us from sliding into utter relativism.  We need both, individual and community, experience and tradition, distance and belonging, freedom and responsibility.

Our own religious authority, then, emerges through autokoenony, the individual being in community, the individual becoming in community.  This is, in fact, our process of becoming human.  We may not always get it right, but we’re not aiming to succeed by being infallible; rather, we’re aiming to succeed by being faithful, and the word we use to describe this process is “covenant”.  We covenant with one another inside our faith community to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and we covenant with those outside our faith community to be “a church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand”.  Unitarian Universalist theology arises from individuals relating to one another within our congregations themselves and the ways in which we as individuals and congregations work for justice in the wider community.  In contrast to Howard Zinn’s rather negative outlook of individualism, then, consider anthropologist Margaret Mead’s words concerning individual effectiveness when combined with the power of community: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Responsibility calls to us, because without responsibility we’re not really free.  Universalist minister and social activist Clarence Skinner made this point when he wrote that “the fight for freedom is never won.  Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradition.  Each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and peculiar.  Therefore those who have been reared in freedom, bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever larger and more important liberty.

In the dance of the good life to which we all aspire, freedom and responsibility are inseparable partners.  Sometimes, it’s true, one leads and the other follows.  Sometimes it’s good to hit the open road in a fast car, but it’s usually even better to do it with a good friend or a loved one in the passenger seat.

So I encourage you, in the days ahead, to look at your own lives and see how freedom and responsibility are dancing through them.  Look for the ways in which you are free to assert your individuality and the ways in which you help others to find their own freedom.  You might be surprised at how often they overlap.  And then look at how your relationships help you find your own value and worth.  Consider how you can answer the call “to win an ever larger and more important liberty” for yourself, for your communities and for our world.  And take a look at what you have to offer our liberal religion, our free faith, that, in turn, supports your own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as well as that of our fellow pilgrims on this journey of becoming human.

So may it be.

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A Tremendous Responsibility

Freedom is one of the traditional values of Unitarian Universalism.  Unitarians across the centuries from Reformation Europe to Enlightenment England to the Revolutionary United States embraced their own trinity of freedom, reason and tolerance as essential conditions under which the true ends of religion might be attained.  Universalist minister Olympia Brown preached that freedom of religious thought and a liberal church would supply the groundwork for all other freedoms, while Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing praised the free mind “which is not passively framed by outward circumstances, and is not the creature of accidental impulse, but which discovers everywhere the radiant signatures of the infinite spirit, and in them finds help to its own spiritual enlargement.”  Today we consider ourselves freethinkers who have freely formed a free church and, should we need some hymn or reading to emphasize the point, there are literally a hundred or more that refer to freedom in Singing the Living Tradition alone!

Unitarian Universalism is not, of course, alone in declaring the importance of freedom.  The exodus story of the liberation of the Israelites from ancient Egypt is one of the definitive narratives of Jewish tradition, and it was similarly adopted as a powerful source of hope for African slaves in the United States in their own yearning for freedom.  Indeed, it took long beyond Thomas Jefferson’s own life-time for the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” to be offered to all Americans — at least in principle, since the processes of emancipation through liberation from oppression still continue on many fronts.  Nevertheless, Independence Day is one of the most important holidays in the United States, a celebration of our national faith in the causes of freedom and justice as articulated by the Declaration of Independence.

And yet, freedom is not something we should be satisfied to merely have; it is something that always calls us forward and outward.  As Universalist minister Clarence Skinner wrote in The Social Implications of Universalism, “the fight for freedom is never won.  Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradition.  Each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and peculiar.  Therefore those who have been reared in freedom bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever larger and more important liberty.”  Indeed, we humans are very good at finding a comfortable accommodation with whatever restrictions and blinders are placed on us — particularly if we’re convinced that they’re for our own good — and if we can be gently steered into an apathetic acceptance of tradition rather than an unceasing striving for liberty, then so much the better for those who stand to gain from our willingness to disengage from democracy by transforming ourselves from free citizens into indentured consumers.

As my wife and I count down the days until our daughter is born, I have found myself wondering what sort of future is in store for her.  Being a Unitarian Universalist gives me hope that hers will be a future where she can enjoy the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, because I believe that Unitarian Universalism offers us not just a vision of such a future but possible paths toward it, too.  After all, both Universalism and Unitarianism co-evolved with the United States — indeed, our religious forebears declared their own independence from the Anglican church well over a century before the nation declared its independence from Great Britain — and Unitarian Universalists continue to strive to be free people who freely choose to be together.

We strive because it’s important and because it’s not easy.  This is something that takes work.  Freedom takes work.  Being a Unitarian Universalist takes work.  Being a citizen of the United States takes work.  I’ve been told many times over the last few months that being a new parent takes (a lot of) work, but I believe that one of the biggest gifts I can give our daughter is a chance at a future free of tyranny, where she can be fully human, fully realized and, most importantly, fully loved.

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Social Change, with Love

Remember, remember the fifth of November:
Gunpowder, treason and plot!

— British nursery rhyme

One Autumn night in 1605, agents of King James I searched the cellars underneath Parliament and discovered three-dozen barrels of gunpowder guarded by a man armed with a slow-burning fuse.  A few days earlier, Lord Monteagle had been warned of a plot to blow up the House of Lords at the Opening of Parliament, thereby killing the Protestant king so that he could be replaced by a Catholic monarch.  The plot was the work of a group of English Catholics whose faith was repressed by the king’s policies, and the man with the fuse had been recruited after spending years abroad fighting with the Spaniards against the Dutch.  Under interrogation he admitted that his assignment had been to blow up the House of Lords, and under torture he revealed the names of his fellow plotters, as well as his own: Guy Fawkes.  Found guilty of high treason and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered, Fawkes jumped from the gallows in order to break his own neck and so avoid the excruciation of evisceration and dismemberment while still alive.

Guy Fawkes Night is observed in today’s Britain as a largely family-oriented occasion featuring bonfires, food and firework displays.  Originating as a mandated celebration that the king survived an attempted assassination, it has thankfully grown beyond its former anti-Catholic sentiment, and represents a uniquely British holiday on a par with the American Hallowe’en.  I remember when I was growing up in England that, in the weeks before Bonfire Night, children would make figures out of newspapers and old clothes and ask people for “a penny for the Guy” to pay for firewood, supposedly, the idea being that such figures would be burnt on November 5th in memory of Fawkes’ fate.

As we approach election day this week, we can be thankful that civic life in the United States proceeds considerably more peaceably than it did in seventeenth century Great Britain.  Living in a constitutional federal republic with democratically elected leaders, governance is ultimately the responsibility of the people themselves, rather than a monarch or a class of oligarchs claiming a special mandate, divine or otherwise.  Moreover, and essential to the functioning of democracy, the people are constitutionally guaranteed the rights of freedom of religion, of speech, of the press and of assembly, all of which are clearly alive and well given the popular movements that are challenging today’s political and financial orthodoxy.

It’s interesting to compare Congregationalism (as a form of church governance) and Federalism (as a form of national governance) since, in the United States at least, they evolved in parallel.  Unitarian Universalist congregations, for example, elect their own leaders (including ministers), given their covenant to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.  As such we enjoy many and varied discussions about how individuals and groups of individuals can balance freedom and responsibility, how we might seek peace and do justice, and how we are called to use our blessings in service to the greater good.  Disagreements are, of course, inevitable, but we try to remember one ingredient that unfortunately seems all too often missing from society’s political discourse: love.  For, in the words of the legendary Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou: “If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.”

Love was certainly missing in the lives (and death) of Guy Fawkes and the Court of King James, but it need not be missing in our public lives, too.  As you go to the polls this week, and as you prepare to vote in next year’s elections, will you do so with love?  Casting aside fear, forsaking anger and rejecting cynicism, will you enjoy the privileges of citizenship with love for those with whom you disagree?  Avoiding self-serving pity, will you choose compassion, literally “suffering with” the poor, the hungry and the dispossessed?  When you vote, will you do so as if “the least of these” were right there in the voting booth with you?

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