What gives us the strength, patience and courage to do hard things? We choose to do hard things, we endure hard things because they fit into our sense of what is right, our sense of what is possible. I’ve got a little scar on my arm from the smallpox vaccine, and I'm sure I cried and kicked when I got that vaccine, but from 1958 to 1977, enough people in the world got that vaccine that smallpox is now gone, making it the only human disease to be eradicated. Today’s children don’t have to get that vaccinated, because enough people did that hard thing because they believed that action would spare themselves and their children from getting that terrible disease. We imagined a world without smallpox, we believed it was a worthwhile goal, and the whole world united in that common purpose we ended what used to be a source of great human suffering.
Underneath the will to do a hard thing are our beliefs about who we are and what is possible. Right now, our country, our denomination, and our congregation are doing the hard work of racial justice. Working to end the oppression of transgender persons, of disabled persons. Why do we do it? Because we believe it is necessary, we believe it is the work of compassion, and we believe it is possible.
In 2017 our denomination was called to accountability by Unitarian Universalists of color to root out the structures of oppression inside our own organizations contained. We UUs have been working on this a long time, but it seems that whatever we were doing was like pruning the weeds back in a garden, instead of getting at the root of the problem. So we convened a national group called the “Commission on institutional change” to help us get at the root of the matter. Their report was published this past summer. There’s a lot of interesting things in there, and it’s well written, I’d encourage you to read it. One of the recommendations that surprised me most, was the need for us to focus on liberating theologies. That all UUs need to know, in a deep way, that working to end oppression arises directly from the root of what we believe, and who we are.
“We need to articulate a theology of liberation, experimentation and innovation grounded in our UU principles and sources of inspiration. Developing a shared theology that centers on helping to unearth, manifest and point the way toward liberation along with experimentation that strives for our collective flourishing. This theology will also call us to be accountable to the legacies of our past deeds and to work for an equitable future. This will lay the ground work for our work around truth, transformation and reparations.” P. 16The phrase “liberation theology” comes from a grassroots movement in Latin America in the 1960s in a time of crushing poverty, social injustice and violence. Liberation theology arose in a Catholic context, in “base communities”- small church groups gathered to help meet basic needs like food and water, and to study the bible to search for meaning – specific, particular meaning about what it meant to be poor in Latin American in that historic moment. The Base Communities looked for themselves in the scripture and found that there were plenty of examples of God’s compassion for the oppressed. Over and over again, especially in the books of the prophets, we find examples calling out oppressive behavior as unethical. Out of this community study grew a Liberation Theology in which the God of the Judeo Christian Scriptures wants freedom for all of us, notices the cries of the oppressed, and is moved by them. Liberation theology honors the specific wisdom of the poor and their relationship with the divine. This theological spark made its way around the world to folks everywhere grappling with oppression.
The Moses story is one story where oppressed peoples can easily find themselves. It’s a story that has spoken to our spirits over thousands of years. The importance and power of that story is why it is told every year in the Jewish Passover celebration, is why it is found in the gospel and Spiritual musical traditions, speaking to black Americans across the centuries- a story of how freedom is possible against impossible odds. We don’t really know what story Rosa Parks was thinking of as she did that hard thing back in 1955, (as today’s children’s story imagined) but we know the Moses story has inspired oppressed peoples in many ages, and that as people marched for Civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, the story was in the music of the movement, and in the sermons and the grassroots gatherings of the civil rights movement.
When you feel called to do hard things -- to face oppression in our own life, or co-conspire dismantle systems of oppressions for others, what story is in your heart?
There are other stories that also have great power in our culture. For centuries scripture and religious teachings have been used to encourage the oppressed to accept their lot in life, to practice forbearance and patience, a kind of quietism that discourages revolution and uprising. Religious authorities have used those same scriptures to argue that God wanted slavery, because it appeared in the bible, to argue that slavery was the natural order of things.
Some teach that God, or karma, rewarded some worthy with an easy life, and oppressive those unworthy. I hear talk like this on the news these days more than I ever have before- that some lives are just worth more than others. And we see how those beliefs are turned into oppressive laws, policies and structures.
It matters what we believe. And UUs must notice and name the beliefs that allow systems of oppression to flourish. It’s a common mistake to say that “UUs can believe whatever they want” because we believe that every life has inherent worth and dignity and some beliefs, stories and actions clash with those principles. We are called as individuals and as a movement to make sure our beliefs and values more and more come into alignment with our lives. Clarifying our beliefs is an important part of that process
As Unitarian Universalists, our tradition draws from many sources, including:
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- ·Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
Whether or not any one of us come from the Jewish or Christian traditions, we are encouraged to learn from that wisdom. Some will look at the story of Moses, and see a powerful story of liberation, seeing the miracles and plagues as metaphors for the obstacles all of us face as individuals and collectively on the road to freedom. Others UUs look at stories of miracles and plagues and feel a clash with our belief in the importance of reason, and the use of the scientific method. We need liberatory theologies that hold all of us, Theist, Atheist and Agnostic. While we can look for inspiration in the liberatory theologies of the world religions, it is time for us to articulate our own liberatory theologies.
When we read in the writings of the great Black liberation theologian James Cone that “The God of the biblical tradition is not uninvolved or neutral regarding human affairs; God is decidedly involved. God is active in human history, taking sides with the oppressed of the land. ” We UUs feel all kinds of ways about the idea of a God who is active in history. But Cone was a powerful voice in his own context, and we need to be careful to honor the context and the tradition in which he wrote. As a white person, raised outside the Christian tradition, I try to be conscious of my own context, not appropriate the stories, songs and cultural traditions of the very peoples with whom I am co-conspiring for liberation. We carefully honor the wisdom of those traditions in our UU sources with respect, and within the context of their particular history and present moment. Which is why we UUs are being called to “articulate a theology of liberation” drawing from our own theological roots, speaking a language that is authentic to us. We need our own theology, or own language, symbols and stories to support our work for liberation.
Consider our UU principles; the first calls us to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That’s a good foundation on which to build. Folks ask, isn’t that enough? How could racism or transphobia or ableism exist inside a paradigm where every person has worth and dignity? Yet we know, from the stories of people who are part of our UU movement, that all those oppressions continue to exist in our denomination. Because they are not superficial, these oppressions, they have deep roots in history and culture, and their roots pervade the soil in which our garden grows. Somehow we need a theology that makes acting to dismantle those oppressive structures, that makes pulling up those roots natural and inevitable. The word liberation has a call to motion in it. To do the hard work that needs to be done, our belief must be in a verb that overcomes quietism. This is why many churches have signed on to an 8th principle: ”journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” There are some good verbs in there: journeying, building, dismantling. Articulating our own liberatory theologies is about drawing down deep into our roots -- our history and traditions – and from that reserve of nourishment and wisdom, creating new growth that will allow us to flower into an anti oppressive world.
Our 7th principle is also a nourishing root of our tradition- “the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.” – This principle helps us remember that we are not talking about an individual struggle for the liberation of that person. Instead we notice that these oppressions are collective- they are also a web, woven through culture and history and our structures of power. This principle also gives us hope that our actions impact one another. That what we do here in our community tugs and pulls in other parts of the web, and that we don’t do this work alone.
Right now, at this moment in history, there is no question that we are being called to do many hard things, none harder than pulling out the roots of oppression so that liberation can flourish. We’ve been at this for a long time- UUs fought to end slavery, provided havens on the underground railroad, marched on Selma in the Civil Rights movement. Let us put into words the beliefs and values that supported us then, and will support us now. Let us reach down together into our roots and find there what we need for the liberating work ahead.