I introduced myself to the Priest after the service, to thank him for his homily and let him know how much it touched me. He asked me to introduce myself, and finding I was UU said “there’s a Unitarian Universalist church in my town, I’ve always been impressed with their commitment to justice.”
That’s not the first time a stranger from outside our faith tradition has linked Unitarian Universalism and Justice. Why is that? Why is working for Social Justice part of our identity? Let’s start with a historical perspective that goes way back, back before Unitarian Universalism. Social Justice is an important theme in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Think about the Prophets in the Hebrew scriptures:
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness” — Isaiah 58:6The Christian Scriptures are likewise full of examples of the importance of social justice. Today I was struck by this passage:
"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." 1 John 3:17-18From the early days of the Enlightenment, our Unitarian Fore-parents were also drawn to visions of a more just system of governance. Some of the framers of the US constitution were Unitarians or attended Unitarian churches and shared Unitarian ideas. The abolitionist movement, the movement to end slavery, was likewise full of Unitarians and Universalists, who saw clearly that slavery conflicted with the teachings of scripture and with God’s universal love.
In 1845, when 173 Unitarian ministers signed
A Protest Against American Slavery, they mentioned the foundational documents of the country, saying to "constantly to profess one thing and constantly to practice another must destroy the sinews of national virtue." This is, I believe, at the heart of our UU evolution towards justice- the conviction that there must be integrity between our beliefs, our words and our actions.
Suffragists like Susan B Anthony (a Unitarian) and Olympia Brown (a Universalist) or were key to the work for Gender Justice as we heard in this morning’s story. Rev. Brown rode the circuit speaking in small towns throughout Kansas and what was then the far west. This was before shock absorbers, remember, and before asphalt. Imagine her fortitude and determination to ride on a hard wooden seat over a rocky road through the plains, not knowing whether this next town would be open to her message or would be outraged and call her names. It must have been hard and lonely, but she accepted it as a challenge. She spoke over 300 times in those 4 months. Though in the end only 1/3 of the male electorate in Kansas voted for women’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony considered this a wonderful triumph.
In the early 20th century, a school of thought called the “Social gospel” emerged that influenced key Unitarian Thinkers. The main idea was being a faithful person included trying to create a fair and just world right now. Not waiting for a reward in another life, but creating, as it was said “the kingdom of God on Earth.”
When the horrors of world war 2 were unfolding, the Unitarians and the Universalists each send money and staff to Europe to help where we could. In fact, it was our work together on social justice that eventually brought the two denominations together as one UUA. James Luther Adams, a Unitarian minister who later became an influential professor UU seminaries, went to Europe in 1935 specifically moved by the social gospel. Adams witnessed the Nazi government in action. He was part of the Underground church movement, and was on one occasion questioned by the Gestapo, at risk of imprisonment for his actions. While in Germany Adams used his home movie camera to film great leaders like Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer who worked with the church-related resistance groups, and also the pro-Nazi leaders of the Christian Church. By the time he came back to the US, he was more convinced than ever that any church which could stand by and passively let such oppression happen, was irrelevant and impotent.
And so when the great civil rights movement happened in the US in the 1950s and 60s, and there was a call for allies to join the march in Selma, UU ministers and lay people showed up in numbers that belied our small denominational size.
UUS have been on the leading edge of LTGBTQ rights. In 1970 the Unitarian Universalist Association “becomes first U.S. mainstream religious group to recognize LGB clergy and laity within its ranks and to demand an end to anti-gay discrimination”[i]. In 1988 we were the first denomination to ordain a transgender minister. We were on the frontlines of the fight for Marriage equality.
Our “Side with Love” campaign, which started its work organizing for marriage equality, became deeply involved in the movement for immigrant rights. The current president of our UUA Rev. Susan Frederik Grey was minister of a church in Phoenix Arizona that was part of a “long-term campaign to end the constitutional violations of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio”.
When we tell the history of our UU work for justice, it’s easy to paint a picture which shows that we have always worked for justice from our earliest days, but that is not the whole story.
When we tell the story of our participation in the Abolitionist movement, we rarely mention those UU churches and leaders who opposed it. When the Fugitive Slave Act, was signed into law by (Unitarian) President Millard Filmore, the bells of the Congregational, Methodist, and Universalist churches in Waltham tolled in protest but, William Lloyd Garrison wrote in his weekly abolitionist newsletter the Liberator, “The bell on the Unitarian Church being clogged with cotton would not sound.” That is to say, the Unitarians of that town were so bound up in the cotton industry, they would not speak out for abolition.
And friends, there were some UUs who said some terrible racist things as part of the debate, I can’t bring myself to say them out loud, so I’ll put a link in the blog to a historical collection of quotes by UUs to give you a fuller context.[iii]
And after the March on Selma, when People of Color joined our congregations in larger numbers than ever before, heartened that this was a denomination that really walked their talk, that really believed in Justice, equity, and compassion for all, unfortunately when they got into leadership roles in our congregations, and started really promoting an agenda for racial justice, they met with a lot or resistance, and what we now call White Supremacy culture.
When Rev. Frederik Grey was elected our president, we were on the crest of a turning point – the people of color in our denomination were challenging the white majority to walk our talk- to show a deep and lasting commitment to racial justice that would not fade when the work got hard, when the news cycle ended.
This is where we are right now- looking back at a history full of heroes working for justice, as well as the times we were slow to convert our hearts to justice, and those times when our people, our congregations, our institutions were actively working on the side of the forces of oppression. When we identify with heroes like Olympia Brown and her fight for women's equality, [ii] we have to remember that those institutions that discriminated against her were Universalist- they were us too.
We talk about justice here in this congregation to remind ourselves of that it is not enough to raise up our heroes who gave their lives to the cause of justice, but that our commitment to affirm and promote our 2nd principle of justice equity and compassion requires each of us to live out. As James Luther Adams said “any church which could stand by and passively let such oppression happen, was irrelevant and impotent”.
But why would we talk about justice on Sunday morning, in worship, a time given to our spirits? Because I believe that working for justice has a healing power not only for society but for our own spirits. I believe that working for justice is a spiritual practice. My professor Jeremy Taylor always said “the outward journey will lead us inward, and the inward journey will lead us outward.” Many of us sought the inward spiritual journey because we needed comfort, because we needed meaning in our life. We sought the inward journey as a refuge for our troubled spirits. Amen- we all need a bit of refuge these days I believe. But when we sit down in meditation or prayer, when the mind and heart settle into stillness, eventually things begin to bubble up- all the grief and struggle and conflict in our outer lives leave their mark on our spirits and psyches. Our spirits call us toward a life of integrity, and if we notice a dissonance between what we say we believe and what we do in the world, it troubles our spirits, our stillness, our peace.
Some Buddhist teachers say that the whole point of meditation is to help us grow in compassion. That the longer we are mindfully present with our own reality, our own inner journey, the more it increases our compassion to the living beings around us. That if we are truly committed to our spiritual journey, it does not lead us simply to a peaceful bliss, but to compassion, and as we hear the cries of those who are oppressed and suffering, we are compelled back out into the world to do what we can to help. Our work for justice in the world is connected to our search for integrity of spirit mind and heart, and to our growing sense of interconnection with the web of life. In the words of Cornell West “Justice is what love looks like in public”.”
We talk about justice because we need each other to do this work. When I hear on the radio about some new outrage, I may feel that I am too small to make a difference. But I know for a fact that when UUs came together to fight for Marriage equality, we made a difference. I know that churches coming together on the underground railroad made a difference. So we talk about justice on Sunday mornings to help us link our contributions into a larger whole, to help us remember our shared commitment, and to assure our spirits that we are not alone in doing this work.
We talk about justice on Sunday mornings to help each of us discern our part. It’s easy to think that only the protesters standing in front of the police line are working for justice, Or maybe you think of Olympia Brown, riding all over Kansas to promote the vote for women. But justice is not just about the acts of famous heroes. Martin Luther King made an impact because he gave voice to a moment of thousands of men, women and children. Think of all those who marched, all the preachers who you’ve never heard of who preached, Freedom Educators like Dorothy Cotton who helped people understand their rights. The people who provided hospitality, or expertise. Remember every person who boycotted the buses and walked the long walk to work until the tide had turned. Remember that when the tide finally turned for marriage equality, organizers told us what had made the difference was all the hard conversations ordinary people had with their families and friends and neighbors.
When we bring our joys and concerns as we worship on Sunday morning, we do so not only so that we can lay down our grief and worry, but so that the community knows the joys and sorrows outside their own home, and can discern “is there anything I could do to help?”
We talk about Justice when we gather so that we may feel our small and large actions to be part of a great whole, to be part of the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice.
I was reminded the other day that when MLK said those inspiring words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” he was paraphrasing the words of Unitarian abolitionist minister Theodore Parker back in 1853. In that sermon, Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
Might we also keep in mind Eric Holder’s exhortation that “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.”[iv]
We talk about Social justice on Sunday morning, to see again that long arc, longer than our single lifetimes, to “divine it by conscience” and to remember to put our hands to it, and pull.
[iv] In a 2016 interview with CBS, (Eric Holder is former Attorney General)