UU Minute #5

Pandemics, Printing Presses, and Protestants

Pandemics are nothing new. They have been a periodic part of human life ever since we’ve had cities. The Bubonic plague in the middle-1300s killed one third of Europe’s population, creating labor shortages, which created pressure for innovation. For instance, as long as there were plenty of people to copy things by hand, it didn’t occur to anybody that a printing press sure would be handy. Even so, it was a century after the worst plague year before Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type came on line. Some sixty years after Gutenberg’s press, in 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. Coincidence? Hardly.
  • For one thing, the Catholic Church jumped on the printing press to crank out the certificates for indulgences – confirmation of going to heaven for those willing to pay enough to the church. Increased traffic in indulgences highlighted the corruption in the Church that motivated Luther’s reforms.
  • Second, the printing press produced Bibles in the vulgar tongues. Suddenly more or less ordinary people – if they were literate – no longer had to rely on what Priests reported the Bible said.
  • Third, Luther’s complaints about the church echoed complaints that others had been making for centuries – but those others didn’t have this new printing press contraption. The 95 theses that Luther famously nailed to the church door in Wittenberg were also taken to the Wittenberg printer, where they became a pamphlet that spread through Europe* – so Luther’s theses had an influence far greater than previous church critics had. 
Unitarians emerged from the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation. Pandemic led to printing press, which led to Protestant Reformation, which led to us. I wonder: to what will our current pandemic lead?

*The 95 Theses were nailed to the church door on Oct 31, 1517. By Nov 17, broadsheet copies of Luther's document were being printed in London, over 1,000 land-kilometers, plus an English Channel, away. Luther followed-up that document with Europe's first media blitz: from 1518 to 1525, Luther’s writings accounted for a third of all books sold in Germany. His mastery of the new technology allowed him to succeed where Jan Hus (1369-1415) a century before had met with execution.

NEXT: Katarzyna Weiglowa


UU Minute #4

Universalism IS Biblical

The Council of Nicaea in 325 was bad news for unitarian Christians. Arius argued that the divinity of the father was greater than that of the son. Jesus was divine -- was more than human -- but was not God. This Arian Christianity lost out to the Trinitarian view that father and son were of the same substance: co-eternal, co-equal. But no matter which side had won in Nicaea, the effect of the Council was to emphasize the importance of having the right doctrine, and de-emphasize the ethics and values of living a Christian life. And that was bad news for the other side of our heritage: the universalist Christians.
Virtually from the beginning, some Christians had understood that everyone was going to heaven: universal salvation. They had Biblical support:
2 Peter 3: "The Lord [does] not [want] any to perish, but all to come to repentance."
1 Corinthians 15: "For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ."
Romans 14: "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God."
Sure sounds like salvation was to be universal. But as Christianity pivoted to a doctrinal emphasis, universalism had to be squelched -- because: if we're all going to heaven anyway, it's hard to make the case that you only get in if you have the right doctrines.

NEXT: Pandemics, Printing Presses, and Protestants


What Accountability Is


These are our times.

This week the party not currently in the White House announced its nominee for Vice-President – and the party in the White House responded with sexist and racist attacks. Said party also stepped up its voter suppression efforts, attacking the credibility of mail-in ballots, and seeking to make cuts to the postal service to reduce its capacity.

World-wide deaths from covid-19 in the last week are back up to a seven-day-average of 5800 a day. US deaths in the last week averaged over a 1,000 a day.

The households that could be at risk of eviction in the coming months are tens of millions.

We did not ask for these times. It simply falls to us to live them – to respond to them as people of compassion and wisdom, and to mine the hardship for emergent possibility.

The indigenous American poet Joy Harjo has some words for that. She suggests we take a journey – which, if we cannot do literally, we can do metaphorically – and the party she says you can have when you get back, might have to be a zoom party.

For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet
Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop.
Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.
Open the door, then close it behind you.
Take a breath offered by friendly winds.
They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean.
Give it back with gratitude.
If you sing it will give your spirit lift to fly to the stars’ ears and back.
Acknowledge this earth who has cared for you since you were a dream planting itself precisely within your parents’ desire.
Let your moccasin feet take you to the encampment of the guardians who have known you before time, who will be there after time.
They sit before the fire that has been there without time.
Let the earth stabilize your postcolonial insecure jitters.
Be respectful of the small insects, birds and animal people who accompany you.
Ask their forgiveness for the harm we humans have brought down upon them.
Don’t worry.
The heart knows the way though there may be high-rises, interstates, checkpoints, armed soldiers, massacres, wars, and those who will despise you because they despise themselves.
The journey might take you a few hours, a day, a year, a few years, a hundred, a thousand or even more.
Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.
Do not hold regrets.
When you find your way to the circle, to the fire kept burning by the keepers of your soul, you will be welcomed.
You must clean yourself with cedar, sage, or other healing plant.
Cut the ties you have to failure and shame.
Let go the pain you are holding in your mind, your shoulders, your heart, all the way to your feet. Let go the pain of your ancestors to make way for those who are heading in our direction.
Ask for forgiveness.
Call upon the help of those who love you. These helpers take many forms: animal, element, bird, angel, saint, stone, or ancestor.
Call your spirit back. It may be caught in corners and creases of shame, judgment, and human abuse.
You must call in a way that your spirit will want to return.
Speak to it as you would to a beloved child.
Welcome your spirit back from its wandering. It may return in pieces, in tatters.
Gather them together.
They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.
Your spirit will need to sleep awhile after it is bathed and given clean clothes.
Now you can have a party. Invite everyone you know who loves and supports you. Keep room for those who have no place else to go.
Make a giveaway, and remember, keep the speeches short.
Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way through the dark.


The times are changing – and what a journey. Our Journey Groups start back up in September, when our theme for the month will be journeying and wandering. “Journey” may be what you call it as you look back to see how you got where you are, and “wandering” is what it feels like when you’re in the middle of it – which, in some sense, we always are.

Oh, what a journey. Joy Harjo in that opening reading enjoined us to a journey. "Ask forgiveness," she said. Yet she also said, "Do not hold regrets," and, "Don’t worry," and, "Cut the ties you have to failure and shame." She describes a journey of cleaning ourselves, and putting our spirits back together.

As we arrive at today, this 9th Sunday of summer, our congregation’s journey through the summer so far has crystallized and articulated the important learnings of the last several years, or decades, or centuries. I want to take some time today to do something I never do: recap – because: this summer’s Community Unitarian Universalist worship services have been urgent and beautiful and wise, and I want to recognize that and not let the messages get lost, but kept at the forefront of our minds.

On this Sunday when we dedicated our chalice to our second source: "words and deeds of prophetic people that challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love," let’s review some of the words of prophetic people this summer who graced our pulpit, and who, indeed, challenged us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.

Collectively, this summer’s services tell us that a reckoning and rectifying really could happen, and is happening. Four hundred years of racial hatred is finally turning in the direction of fairness and respect – the direction of beloved community. The prospect of living in a world of substantially greater justice feels greater than I have ever felt it – and this summer we heard that from a range of different preachers.

Remember six weeks ago -- July 5? Petra Thombs shared a service commemorating Juneteenth and traditions of liberation among indigenous and African-American peoples. We learned or remembered Frederick Douglass’ stark exposure of the meaning of Independence Day.
“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him more than all other days in the year the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham, your boasted liberty an unholy license, your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass-fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery.”
Petra made vivid for us the environmental injustice of using Lanape-Ramapough land for toxic waste dumps – and the effort to save their sacred area, Split Rock. She spoke of the black lives that didn’t matter to police officers. “The over-reach of policing,” Petra said, “enables the arm of white supremacy.” Linking the crises, Petra noted that “the devastation of the covid pandemic has exposed the greater virus that has lived in our nation from its inception.”

She said: “A child who can grow up and never be confronted with how they benefit from racial violence is levels behind. A society that creates schools and culture like this has failed in its humanity.”

With this clearer understanding of our predicament, positive moves forward become possible.

Remember five weeks ago – July 12? Rev. Leslie Becknell Marx spoke to us about the power of covenant. She cited the great Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams that human beings become human beings by making promises to each other, for such covenant brings us out of our separateness and brings us into accountability. The relations of accountability – giving account of ourselves to each other -- is liberating. It brings us into our own, into a structure of belonging. This means we have to be ready to learn from each other – to hear how our words or actions have done harm – without getting defensive, and, here’s what’s often the harder part – without feeling shame. No shame.

Rev. Becknell Marx cited Brene Brown that shame is a tool of oppression, and she cited Audre Lourde that the master’s house will not be dismantled by the master’s tools. So: no shame. Shame kills empathy, and empathy is what we need most.

Yet shame may arise -- it comes unbidden (and when have we ever bidden it?). So we must learn to recognize the feeling, identify how it manifests in the body, and manage it – and not talk, text, or type while we are in its grip.

Some slogans can be helpful. For Brene Brown, the slogan she repeats to herself is “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” Rev. Becknell Marx’s own reminder slogan, she said, is “Kind, awkward, brave.” Oriented toward kindness, brave enough to not run from what is awkward. Be kind. Be awkward. Be brave. We actually can do that.

Remember four weeks ago, July 19? Reggie Harris in song and story told us about Sankofa – the symbol of the Akan people of Ghana: a bird with its head turned backward taking an egg from its back. It expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present to make positive progress. And that’s just what Reggie’s service did: drawing on knowledge gained from experience, he limned the possibility of a future of greater racial justice.

Three weeks ago, July 26, I took a turn and spoke about Widening the Circle of Concern – and the way that efforts for racial justice have played out in Unitarian history, including particularly these last few years. Unitarian Universalists have expressed ideals of equality, but we haven’t done the work to learn what we need to learn to make our congregations truly welcoming places for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. The one line from that service that I’d most like us all to remember is where I cited Aisha Hauser, a Unitarian Universalist religious educator of color. Aisha said: “I feel like we [meaning: we Unitarian Universalists] are at a precipice. Either we are going to be who we say we are, or we will be a country club for white people.”

Two weeks ago, Rev. Karen Brammer called our attention to this liminal time – the threshold we are on of a new possibility. Whether you say "precipice," like Aisha, or “threshold of liminal time,” like Karen, there’s a sense that we are in a time of transition and great possibility -- both for our denomination and our world.

Rev. Brammer spoke of "catastrophic success": that our economic and political systems have been so successful – catastrophically successful -- at generating wealth for the wealthy. That "success" brought along with it our three catastrophes: the pandemic, environmental collapse, and racial injustice.

We Unitarian Universalists are well-suited, she said, to encourage just change, and understanding how liminal the present time is will help us be oriented toward making positive change happen.

Rev. Brammer cited Eric Holthaus’s point that that climate crisis is the result of centuries of injustice, that we now stand of the brink of righting the wrongs of the past and rebuilding our society. Thus, says Holthaus, “the next few decades are going to feel like falling in love.” He says it’s about “setting aside everything you thought you knew and trusting that you’ll end up in a radically different place you never could have achieved on your own.” So – yeah – that’s what falling in love does to us.

The world of justice that we now but dimly apprehend, but which powerfully lures us forward, will bring together planetary sustainability, public health, and full-scale racial and multicultural respect.

And then one week ago -- last week -- Rev. Jef Gamblee said, even if we do not engage overtly in white-biased behavior, we are inheritors of White Supremacy. He told of how echoes of his racist childhood live within him all the time, he asked us to reflect on ways we mindlessly sustain White Supremacy – and ways we sustain what Paul Scanlon called the White Compact – that we won’t call out another white person.

Guest preachers at Community Unitarian Universalist have free reign to talk about whatever they find most compelling, and yet every service this summer has been about race and justice – because that’s the compelling theme of our time. We’re all talking about it because finally it feels like we might be getting somewhere. We’re all talking about it because the prospect of living in a society that’s actually coming to grips with its white supremacist culture is the most exciting thing any of us can think of.

We are in the middle of one amazing journey – a journey that seemed impossible just a few years ago.


Holy Creation:

In the fog of our uncertainty, may we find moments of clarity. In the fatigue of our grief, may we find the strength to go on. In the social distancing of our lives, may we know that we are not alone.

Let our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers go out to every neighborhood in the world where protests over life and death concerns continue, though the media vans have moved away. Let our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers go out to every village and every city where people seek to safely gather in the name of peace, asking for recognition and reparations for their neighbors -- in Belarus, Hong Kong, Portland, and everywhere there are demonstrations for justice. May we learn how to speak words of solidarity that matter, how to take actions that make a difference, how to walk with each other down the long road of justice.

Our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers go out to Beirut, Lebanon and all Lebanese people, as their communities are convulsed by the aftereffects of the ammonium nitrate explosion – to the brokenhearted, and to the rescue workers. May we support and accompany their journey towards recovery and justice.

Our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers are with students, teachers, parents, and communities facing decisions around the start of school. Our earnest hope is that those who are making decisions on behalf of our most vulnerable will act with wisdom, discernment, and compassion.

Our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers are with our planet as we learned that the Milne ice shelf – Canada’s last intact ice shelf – has split and collapsed into now-free-floating parts. As the ice vanishes, so do the ecosystems dependent on it, and the shelf’s break-up removes a stopper that was preventing melting glacial water from seeping to the ocean, raising sea levels.

Our thoughts, hearts, and prayers are with climate refugees all over the world. And with those affected by the mud slide in Kerala, India. And with those caught in the cross fire of violent battles in Mocimboa da Praia, Mozambique. And with those living through the emergence of deadly conflicts in Port Sudan, Sudan.

In all these things, we discover again our finitude. We ask of ourselves the mindful intention to delight in what is good, to confront what is cruel, to heal what is damaging.



We are in the middle of one amazing journey – a journey that seemed impossible just a few years ago. We are not there yet – not by a long shot – and there’s no guarantee that the inevitable backlash won’t prevail. Just that we could get there is so exciting that I – and evidently a lot of other ministers and leaders of faith congregations – can’t stop talking about it.

And when I say “we” are not there yet, I don’t just mean that the country isn’t there yet. I mean you and me. We have to keep learning. Robin DiAngelo tells this story:
‘In my workshops, I often ask people of color, “How often have you given white people feedback on our unaware yet inevitable racism? How often has that gone well for you?”
Eye-rolling, head-shaking, and outright laughter follow, along with the consensus of rarely, if ever.
I then ask, “What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change that behavior?”
Recently a man of color sighed and said, “It would be revolutionary.” I ask my fellow whites to consider the profundity of that response. It would be revolutionary if we could receive, reflect, and work to change the behavior.’
That’s it. That’s the revolution: to be a people that can graciously learn. Not get defensive, or insist that we didn’t intend any harm – as if that made everything OK. And not succumbing to shame because we didn’t already know. Graciously learn from feedback. That’s what accountability looks like.

I know that we often hear angry voices calling for somebody – a police officer, say, who murdered an unarmed black man – to be held accountable. And what “held accountable” amounts to in that context is punished: charged with the crime they have evidently committed; and, if they are guilty, found guilty; and then sentenced according to the same formula applied to a black man or anyone else found guilty of that crime.

Punishment is our institution of last resort for holding people accountable. The call for a wrong-doer to be held accountable amounts to a call for punishment only in a context where no other means of accountability is available. When we have run out of all other ways to uphold the principle that everyone has a responsibility to other people – a responsibility, among other things, to not cause certain kinds of harm designated in law – punishment is the last resort for insisting on that principle of responsibility to one another.

Certainly there’s a legitimate question that needs serious examination whether our prison system ever does any good for anybody – for the convicted, for the victim, for public safety generally. Proposals that we should close all prisons -- and the thesis that fully developed institutions of restorative justice without imprisonment would better reduce crime, promote public safety, a healthy society, the healing of victims, and the redemption of offenders -- are worth taking seriously. In that conversation, we would also address the very difficult questions of how could we get there from here.

But if we’re going to have prisons at all, we need to use them equitably. It’s funny how in America today, the thought that prison is harsh and unnecessary, and an alternative to prison would be more appropriate, seems to enter certain heads only when the accused is white.

Punishment is our institution of last resort for insisting that we are all accountable for how we treat each other. We arrive at that last resort when all other structures of accountability have failed. When they don't fail -- that is to say, when proper accountability exists at all -- no punishment is involved.

Accountability is what we long for. I don’t mean that we long for other people to be held accountable for behaviors we don’t like. I mean we ourselves long to be held accountable, to be in relationships of accountability, to be, in other words, in community – seen for who we are – giving account for ourselves.

Accountable means answerable – liable to be called to account. To be accountable means you count – you matter. To be accountable means you belong.

It’s been ten years since I read Peter Block’s book, Community: the Structure of Belonging, and it left a permanent impress on my understanding of accountability. Accountability means community, and it means belonging.

Peter Block says:
“The essential work is to build social fabric, both for its own sake and to enable chosen accountability among [members]. When members care for each other, they become accountable to each other. Care and accountability create a healthy community." (30)
In another passage, Block says:
“Restorative community is created when we allow ourselves to use the language of healing and relatedness and belonging without embarrassment. It recognizes that taking responsibility for one’s own part in creating the present situation is the critical act of courage and engagement, which is the axis around which the future rotates. The essence of restorative community building is not economic prosperity or the political discourse or the capacity of leadership; it is members’ willingness to own up to their contribution, to be humble, to choose accountability, and to have faith in their own capacity to make authentic promises to create the alternative future. This means that the essential aspect of the restoration of community is a context in which each member chooses to be accountable rather than entitled. Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole, and it flows out of the kind of conversations we have about the new story we want to take our identity from. It means we have conversations of what we can do to create the future. Entitlement is a conversation about what others can or need to do to create the future for us. . . . (48)
"Entitlement is essentially the conversation, ‘What’s in it for me?’....Entitlement is the outcome of a patriarchal culture,...The cost of entitlement is that it is an escape from accountability and soft on commitment. It gets in the way of authentic membership. What is interesting is that the existing public conversation claims to be tough on accountability; but the language of accountability that occurs in a retributive context is code for ‘control.’ High-control systems are unbearably soft on accountability. They keep screaming for tighter controls, new laws, and bigger systems, but the scream, the expose their weakness. The weakness in the dominant view of accountability is that it thinks people can be held accountable – that we can force people to be accountable....It is an illusion to believe that retribution, incentives, legislation, new standards, and tough consequences will cause accountability. This illusion is what creates entitlement – and worse, it drives us apart;...Every colonial and autocratic regime rises to power by turning members against each other....Commitment and accountability are forever paired, for they do not exist without each other. Accountability [remember,] is the willingness to care for the well-being of the whole; commitment is the willingness to make a promise with no expectation of return....Commitment is the antithesis of entitlement and barter. Unconditional commitment with no thought to ‘What’s in it for me?’ is the emotional and relational essence of community. It is to choose a path for its own sake.” (70-72)
For 400 years the white power structure has relied on its entitlements – incentives and coercions – and has avoided accountability. This is the source of our defensiveness and shame when we are called out for something that is hurtful to a member of a less dominant culture or group. When we're called out, we are prone to respond with defensiveness, or shame, or both because we are products of a system of entitlements that uses shame as a primary coercive strategy. We’ve been conditioned to feel judged and ashamed – punishable – when in fact we are being invited into relationships of care in which we are learning from each other how to more effectively care -- how to make love real.

It's striking that three years ago when UUA President Peter Morales resigned in the face of being strongly called out, the people who had been criticizing Peter's actions felt no satisfaction. Instead, just the opposite: they felt hurt that he withdrew from the conversation, withdrew from accountability. They really were not seeking his punishment or replacement -- they were seeking accountability, and they wanted him to hang in there with them -- to graciously and thoughtfully consider the feedback and work to change. If you had been watching that conflict unfold, and concluded, "the critics won," then you were looking through the lens of the old paradigm of power. There's a new paradigm -- a new culture for understanding what it means to call someone out. In this new culture -- more in evidence among the younger folks and among activists -- what sounds like criticism in the old paradigm is a call for accountability. It's not seeking to banish you in shame, but to draw you in to a greater belonging.

When we are called out for a white supremacist assumption (which we made because white supremacy is baked into the neural pathways of everyone of whatever race – pretty much throughout the industrialized world) we are, in fact, not being judged. We are called out because this is how assumptions get unbaked: slowly, and piece by piece, and person to person.

We really aren’t being judged -- or blamed or shamed. And that’s the hardest part to grasp of what’s going on in this liminal time of emergent possibility. We aren’t being judged. We are, very differently, being called to community – a wider and richer and more beloved community than we have ever known. May it be so. Amen.


UU Minute #3

How Trinitarianism Became Orthodox

Roman Emperor Constantine's reign began in they year 306 when he was 34 years old. His reign would last 31 years, and his administrative and financial reforms strengthened the empire. Six years into his reign [at age 40], Constantine converted to Christianity, becoming the first Christian Roman Emperor after centuries of Christian persecution at the hands of the Romans. The Christianity of the time was scattered and diverse: no central authority, no commonly accepted scripture, no commonly practiced liturgy, no orthodox theology. For Constantine, devoted to bringing administrative order to his empire, this had to be fixed. So, in 325, Constantine convoked the Council of Nicaea, calling all the bishops together to hash out just what Christianity was. Jesus of Nazareth was the religion's central figure, but was he the latest in a long line of prophets calling people to righteousness and piety, or was he something more? And, if more, what? Constantine didn't care how these questions were answered just so long as there was a uniform answer. He invited all 1,800 Christian Bishops, and more than 250 of them actually went to Nicaea that summer*, representing every region of the Roman empire. Constantine himself was there for some of it. For three months they discussed and debated,* drafted and revised statements, and in the end the adopted a statement that established Trinitarianism as orthodoxy, and the more unitarian form of Christianity advocated by a priest named Arius was declared heresy. We've been the heretics ever since.

*add in each bishop's retinue of priests, deacons, subdeacons and readers, and the number approached 2,000 -- filling the inns of Nicaea to bursting with over a dozen men per room.

**The picture showing two clerics shoving each other is a 2016 painting by Giovanni Gasparro depicting Bishop (later, Saint) Nicholas slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea. Yes, THAT Saint Nicholas. So we came out of Nicaea not only heretics, but on Santa Claus' naughty list.

NEXT: Universalism IS Biblical


UU Minute #2

Trinitarianism is NOT Biblical

We are called "Unitarian," as opposed to "Trinitarian," even though that particular theological dispute was never central to what we have been all about. The orthodox called us "Unitarian," and -- this may come as a surprise -- we couldn't come to consensus about some other name to call ourselves, so the name "Unitarian" stuck. Which raises the question: How did Trinitarianism become orthodox in the first place? It's not in the Bible. The closest thing in the Bible is that passage where Jesus tells his followers to go forth "and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit."* But that doesn't say anything about father, son, and holy spirit being, in fact, one, rather than three, which is what Trinitarianism claims. How did Trinitarianism become orthodoxy? That's the question for the next episode of the Unitarian Universalist minute..

*Matthew 28:19.

NEXT: How Trinitarianism Became Orthodox


Widening the Circle of Concern



The times are changing. The Christian organization, Bread for the World, had had on its Board of Directors the congressman who accosted and levied sexist insults at Representative Ocasio-Cortez and non-apologized for it. Yesterday, though, Bread for the World asked for and received his resignation from its Board. The Christian charity said the congressman’s “recent actions and words as reported in the media are not reflective of the ethical standards expected of members of our Board of Directors.” The group’s statement spoke of “our commitment to coming alongside women and people of color, nationally and globally, as they continue to lead us to a more racially inclusive and equitable world.”

You might remember a day when you didn’t hear Christian charities talk that way. You might remember a day when you didn’t hear Unitarian Universalist organizations talk that way.

I checked the New York Times Bestseller list yesterday. For Combined Print and E-Book sales, the new book by Mary Trump has the top spot. At number two is Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility. At number three is Ibram Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist. The top 15 titles this week also includes: Eddie Glaude, Begin Again (an appraisal of the life and work of James Baldwin in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and the current administration); Ijeoma Olua, So You Want to Talk about Race; Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law (looking at how the American government abetted racial segregation in metropolitan areas across the country); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow; Layla Saad, Me and White Supremacy; Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy; and Ibram Kendi’s earlier book, Stamped from the Beginning, (looking at anti-Black racist ideas through the course of American history).

That’s nine titles on the Combined print and e-book bestseller list. The Hardback bestsellers also include: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. And the Paperback bestseller list this week also includes: Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns (about the Great Migration of 1915-70, in which six million African-Americans abandoned the South); Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria; Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime (about growing up biracial in South Africa).

That’s a lot of interest in racism. And yes, there’s been an upswing in attention to the issue since George Floyd’s murder on May 25. More than half these books were not only receiving a lot of critical attention, but were bestsellers before George Floyd.

It’s true, Americans aren’t big readers, so even bestseller nonfiction isn’t seen by most Americans. Still, the ideas filter down, and there IS a lot of reckoning going on.

The concept “colorblind racism” is beginning to be more widely recognized. Colorblind racism refers to collective practices that reinforce the contemporary racial order even without individuals intentionally discriminating on the basis of race. It refers to ignoring the ways that whiteness exists as a system of power. And to ignore that system of power is to allow it to continue – it’s to be complicit in sustaining that system.

So Ibram Kendi makes the point that we can be racist, or we can be antiracist. There is no comfortable in-between called being “not racist.” "Nonracist" is an illusion – in fact, a delusion. Either racial hierarchy is OK, or it isn’t, and if we aren’t actively dismantling it, we’re tacitly saying it’s OK.

There are differences between racial groups in poverty, unemployment, educational attainment, homelessness, low birth-weight babies, hypertension, life expectancy, risk of subjection to police brutality. So where do we think those differences come from? There are racist explanations of those differences as rooted in genetics. But if it isn’t genetics, the only alternative explanation is systems of power and policies.

Certainly there are cultural differences. Cultural differences are either irrelevant to negative quality of life outcomes, or they are the targets of power and policies, or they are responses to, and results of, systems of power and policies. So any attempt at a cultural explanation immediately requires systemic explanation.

Thus, there is no middle ground between racist and antiracist. The explanation is either genetic and racist or its systemic and antiracist. We are either confronting racial inequities or we’re allowing them continue. Ignoring them is allowing them to continue.

What does it look like to NOT allow them to continue? What do we need to change to be antiracist? As individuals, I suggest take a look at the bestseller list, pick a title and start reading. As a Unitarian Universalist congregation – and as the Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations – what are the changes we need?

What I want to do today is particularly shine the light on Unitarian Universalist institutions because that’s where we are.

Let's begin with some history about Unitarians and racial justice.

In the pre-civil war years a number of Unitarian clergy and other leaders were prominent abolitionists. We can be proud of that – yet we must also remember that the rank-and-file Unitarian was not committed to abolition. In 1836, Unitarian minister William Furness preached against slavery to his congregation, the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. Roughly half of his congregation was outraged and incensed. Many of them quit the church or withheld pledges.

That would never happen at Community Unitarian Universalist, right? No, probably not. For one thing, nobody defends literal chattel slavery anymore. For another thing, twenty-first century congregations simply don’t take their ministers as seriously as 19th-century congregations did. No matter how much you might disagree with what I say, you give it an interested listen and aren’t outraged because the pulpit isn’t as powerful and threatening as it was – which is a good thing.

But beyond that, try to get inside the heads and hearts of those 1836 Philadelphia Unitarians. They faced challenges and frustrations, and as they tried to build lives of comfort and good things for their families, they developed certain moral blind spots about what made such a life possible. In that regard, is that so different from us?

Jump forward to 1965. Five hundred Unitarian Universalists from around the country went to Alabama to participate with Dr. King in the march from Selma to Montgomery, including over 140 Unitarian Universalist clergy -- 20 percent of all UU ministers in final fellowship at that time. We can be proud of that – yet we must also remember that two years later, in 1967, 135 Unitarian Universalists came to New York for an "Emergency Conference on Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion." What ensued became the messy and forlorn chapter in Unitarian Universalist history involving the BUUC, the BAC, and the BAWA.

Almost as soon as the meeting was called to order, 30 of the 37 African American delegates withdrew to form a Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC). The BUUC developed a list of what they called "non-negotiable demands" to be submitted to the conference and, ultimately, the UU Association's Board of Trustees. The core demand was that the board establish a Black Affairs Council (BAC), to be appointed by the BUUC and funded for four years at $250,000 a year -- which would have then been 12 percent of the UUA's entire budget. The next General Assembly approved these demands. Then the General Assembly after that, finding that funds had grown tighter, wanted to spread the million dollars over five years at $200,000 a year instead of four years at $250,000 a year. The BUUC seemed heavy-handed to some, and another group, "Black and White Action" (BAWA), formed -- also sincerely wanting to advance the cause of civil rights.

Very hard feelings erupted on the floor of the General Assembly 1969 in Boston. Almost all of the 200-300 black delegates there got up and walked out. The BUUC folks denounced the BAWA folks. It seems the leadership of the UUA had some paternalistic civil rights attitudes. We can say the BUUC leaders might have chosen to be content with recognition and funding and not vindictively insisted on "not one penny for BAWA." And, too, the BAWA supporters might not have reacted against the BUUC as if their lives depended on it. Still, the fact remains that our denomination never recovered from the 1969 General Assembly. In the years following, African American membership in our congregations plummeted.


Source of Creation and Creativity -- and Destruction; source of birth – and of death:

Ours is a world of glory: from greens of summer, to orange sunsets, to every miraculous breath of air, from the transient sparkle of the fleeting meteor to the unexpected spectacle of Comet Neowise -- glory fills the earth from mountain height to ocean depth. Our hearts swell with grateful hallelujah.

Grounded in Thanksgiving, our spirits seek to respond in compassion, for the world’s glory properly opens our hearts to the world’s suffering as well.

We remember the war-torn, hungry and pandemic hit country of Yemen. Oh, how can this horrible situation still continue?

We remember the East Africa countries into the Horn of Africa and India and Pakistan as huge locust swarms move across the land. May our desire to act against their destructive force be planned sensibly, taking into account the needs of other wildlife so that the regions’ bio-diversity can be maintained.

We remember the areas affected by earthquake this week, notably the Aleutians East Borough, Alaska.

We remember Bangladesh, Nepal and eastern states of India hit by the worst monsoon flooding for many years. Millions have been displaced, and at least 500 human deaths have resulted, as well as loss of wildlife, including drowned rare one-horned rhinos. Aid efforts are impeded by multi-national lockdowns and closed borders.

We remember in gratitude the researchers whose work to find treatments and vaccines continues and progresses.

We remember in gratitude the life of John Lewis, the great civil rights activist and the great congressman, who died on July 17 at age 80. John Lewis would say, “It’s better to be a pilot light than a firecracker.” May we be pilot lights, shining and ever ready to fire up the engines of justice once again.

For those who have planned new jobs, or moving homes, may it go smoothly. For those forced into unplanned life changes by war, politically-caused famine, and environmental disasters, may safe, secure refuges of warmth, shelter, food, and drink be found. For all known to us overtaken by a trauma, may healing and peace come. And for ourselves. As we self-isolate, mourn, or rejoice and party, may we be safe, secure, and held in belonging. Amen.


200 to 300 African American delegates walked out of that 1969 General Assembly. We haven’t had anywhere near 300 African American delegates at any General Assembly since. Unitarian Universalists want, and I want, to build among ourselves a culture of multicultural competency that truly respects diversity, and that has the skills to know how to be properly respectful and welcoming and inclusive and supportive. But when it comes to doing the work to make that our reality, we blew it at the General Assemblies of 1968 and 69 – and we’ve blown it repeatedly since then.

There were antiracism initiatives in the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s. Each was discontinued too soon or inadequately funded to have much effect. I remember being a lay member of our Nashville, Tennessee congregation in the 1990s and going to some of that decade’s antiracism trainings at my church. The UUA program of that decade was called “Journey Toward Wholeness.” I remember learning some of the ways that what we now simply call white supremacy culture operated – and I remember how indignant some of my fellow UUs were at the very idea that there might be more to dismantling racism than strategies for convincing other people to be as colorblind as we thought we were.

And that brings us to spring 2017. As of early March 2017, I admit, I was unaware that racial tensions within Unitarian Universalism were at a breaking point. I was not noticing, for instance, the numbers: that all five of the Regional Leads for the five Unitarian Universalist regions were white ministers, as was their supervisor at UUA headquarters.

At that time, of 56 people with supervisory responsibilities at the UUA, 8 were people of color, just over 14 percent. I wasn’t familiar with how many of our congregation’s religious educators of color had stories of mistreatment at the hands of white leadership, or that our religious professionals of color tend to have disproportionately short tenures within congregations whose members may have never had another significant relationship with a person of color.

So I didn’t know how systemic it was when our Community UU Congregation’s religious educator of color’s tenure with us turned out to be short. I didn’t know how prevalently our religious educators of color faced questions about their qualifications, comments that they are hired as “token,” regular challenges to their authority, culturally uninformed comments, and racial slurs – or how often the cumulative effect of this leaves them in need of treatment for the traumatic impact.

Then in mid-March 2017, a hiring decision for one of the five Regional Leads was made. The position was offered to yet another white male minister, passing over qualified Religious Educators of color. For a lot of Unitarian Universalists, that was the last straw and more than they could quietly absorb.

In the criticism of UUA, white supremacy was named, often. UUA President, Peter Morales, was evidently not prepared for the point that a system can be white supremacist – can tacitly operate to sustain the centering of whiteness – even if it is explicitly opposed to Nazi Skinhead white nationalist organizations. So in his initial responses, he made things worse. Criticism grew, and Morales resigned – which felt to many like a breaking of covenant to hang in with each other, and work things out.

A number of other high-ranking UUA officers also resigned, and when it came to light what substantial severance packages had been given – not normally offered in cases of voluntary resignation – the sense of hurt and injustice deepened. Strong feelings flared across social media, which caught rank and file Unitarian Universalists by surprise. As the Commission on Institutional Change – formed to address the issues raised – observed:
“Mainstream Unitarian Universalism was not aware of the amount of pain and trauma being held by the communities of color in the Association, which erupted around these events.” (168)
A sense of urgency emerged in the spring of 2017 – an urgency that continues today through our congregations.

The commission’s report, issued last month, mentioned continuity as a necessary commitment, recognizing “that we would not be having these conversations in 2020 if we had kept them going in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s” (138). So the urgency felt as the Commission began its work three years ago manifested as a visceral gripping imperative: “We can’t blow this again.”

We have said we are a welcoming congregation, that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion; acceptance of one another; respect for the interdependent web of existence. We say that we want diversity, want to be inclusive. But we haven’t lived it. Aisha Hauser, a religious educator of color, tells us: “I feel like we are at a precipice. Either we are going to be who we say we are, or we will be a country club for white people.”

As stark as that choice is that Aisha presents to us, in truth, it is starker than that. Either we are going to make more real the promise of the values we profess, or we are going to die out. The Commission’s report notes,
“the values of Unitarian Universalism cannot be realized in a system that is centered around one cultural expression. In fact, the centering of white culture and values has stymied the development of a full range of cultural expressions. . . . Younger generations expect multicultural competency, are wary of institutions that lack authenticity with their values, and expect more participatory models of shared leadership.”
Active commitment to becoming a model of antiracist community isn’t just the right thing to do – isn’t just a worthwhile and inspiring project. It’s our only tenable growth strategy.

A number of the Commission’s recommendations are focused on the UUA. Our responsibility is to be informed about what’s happening at the Associational level, and support appropriate changes. And as resources and trainings become available, to enthusiastically take advantage of them. One recommendation is for creation of a congregational certification program – like the Welcoming Congregation certification for welcoming LGBTQ folk, and the Green Sanctuary certification recognizing a congregation’s commitment to environmental preservation. To gain antiracism certification, we’d have to put some energy into learning and changing. The emphasis in all our justice work would increasingly privilege those most affected by the injustice, and follow the voices of those most at risk. There’s a recommendation that our congregational budget include funds
“to allow leaders of color, indigenous leaders, and other leaders under-represented to attend affinity groups and national meetings where they will be able to connect with others who share their identity and Unitarian Universalist faith.”
In all, the Commission on Institutional Change has 35 recommendations and articulates 119 actions it calls for to implement those recommendations.

The report, Widening the Circle of Concern, will not be an easy read for many of us – simply reading it will be, for many of us, an exercise in stretching our cultural awareness outside our comfort zone. But read it, I hope you will. The future of Unitarian Universalism, if there is a future for our faith, will look different. The commission collected hundreds of testimonials, and the report quotes from a few of them. One of them says:
“I wish more of my people looked like me. For that reason, I fear that I may always feel a little bit like an outsider. I will explain it to you in the following way. It is quite obvious to me that the UU setting is a sanctuary for gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people. It is not as obvious that it is for people of color.”
To change that – to de-center the cultural assumptions of whiteness – will change us. Some of the things that made this place comfortable for some of us will be lost. Change is hard because it involves loss. It’s appropriate to grieve.

If we can pull it off, change will also involve many gains – exciting and invigorating multicultural community – different voices, different music, different ways of thinking and doing. A healing and a new wholeness scarcely heretofore imagined will be ours. May it be so. Amen.


From Kimberly Quinn Johnson:
Hush: Somebody’s calling your name — Can you hear it? Calling you to a past not quite forgotten, calling us to a future not fully imagined? Hush, hush: Somebody’s calling our name. What shall we do?


UU Minute #1

Heirs of Alternative Voices

To start at the beginning: the roots of what we now call Unitarian Universalism lie in early Christianity, which itself emerged from pre-Rabbinic Judaism in various urban centers around the Roman empire. Early Christianity had no central authority, no commonly accepted scripture, no commonly practiced liturgy, no orthodox theology. Early Christians were a scattered and diverse mosaic of different practices and beliefs. And they squabbled about that. In particular, was Jesus of Nazareth the latest in a long line of prophets calling the human community to righteousness and piety? Or was he something more? And, if more, what, exactly? There was tremendous pressure to determine what was the true faith, so orthodoxy was eventually established. But alternative voices were never entirely snuffed out. We today are the heirs of those alternative voices.

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