Tuesday, August 3, 2021

What is it about Unitarian Universalists and Social Justice? by Reverend Tom Capo



        Unitarian Universalists exhibit a high degree of theological and philosophical diversity—with Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists, Humanists, Pagans, Christians, Jews, searchers, and those who don't define their theology with one word or label. Despite our differences, we have developed congregational communities and have covenanted to be institutionally associated, respecting and affirming our differences of belief. And here's an interesting thing, Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have a shared history of involvement in public witness and involvement in social change dating back to the beginning of this country and continuing to the present. 

          Before I joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I hadn't gotten involved in social justice.  That's not to say I didn't intentionally perform acts of mercy—helping those less fortunate than myself.  As a teenager, I collected food and clothing for the homeless and was a summer camp counselor for the developmentally disabled.  I knew that our world was far from a perfect place, and so I helped where I could.  I will tell you that I was indeed angry about the many injustices I saw around me, but I thought there wasn't much I could do about them, and perhaps as a teenager in the 70's I couldn't have.

          When I started attending First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth Texas, my exposure to social justice issues ramped up considerably.  In the Membership Class I attended, I was given a card that stated "Ten Things Commonly Believed Among Us" by the Reverend David O. Rankin.  It stated among other things: "We believe in the ethical application of religion.  Inner grace and faith find completion in social and community involvement.  All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty, and justice." This was the beginning of my journey from offering mercy to working for meaningful justice.  I have to say as a new Unitarian Universalist, I was more of a thinker and talker about justice.  I focused more on my own spiritual journey, my own discernment of who I was and how I would live out my spiritual journey.  This was for me necessary ground work. And at that point, I looked to my congregation as my sanctuary away from all the people around me in the Bible Belt who spoke about pro-life, needing more guns, the benefits of the death penalty, and how I would go to hell if I didn't believe in a certain type of Christian religion.  So a lot of my early years as a Unitarian Universalist were spend in breaking down what I had been taught and restructuring a faith foundation that would support my identity as a UU.

          Throughout the 1980s, religious conservatives gained credibility in politics asserting that their religious values should be incorporated into public policy to the exclusion of the values of other faith traditions. Their influence only increased with the election of President George W. Bush in the 2000 election, and again in 2004. And their influence has continued to grow through the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Their vision for the United States—indeed the world—is one that results, at least from my point of view, in increased oppression, discrimination, and domination, reserving power for a small number of government and business elites. As a result, the gap between rich and poor has expanded and continues to expand in the United States; and the exclusion of religious liberals from this civic dialogue was and still is dangerous.

          At one of the first General Assemblies that I attended, in Fort Worth in 2004, Unitarian Universalist Association, UUA, president Bill Sinkford, said that he was revisioning the focus of his role as leader of our denomination and the direction for our UUA.  He had the attendees to fill out questionnaires to help him develop this new vision for himself as a leader and for our Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations.  He later reported that one of the visions that was becoming clear from these questionnaires was that UU’s wanted Unitarian Universalism to be a liberal religion with a voice in the community.  And not just any voice, a voice that clearly speaks of our values.  I was still hesitant to be a liberal religious voice in the public square, but a spark came to life within me as I listened.

          One of our 19th century forebears, Reverend Theodore Parker wrote, " I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one ... And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."  And as Sinkford continued to speak, he referenced Parker's quote, saying: "Moral values are not just particular opinions on 'hot button' topics in a divisive election year. Moral values grow out of our calling as religious people to work to create the Beloved Community … Moral values instruct us to 'love our neighbors as ourselves' and always to ask the question, 'Who is my neighbor?' [We are called to be] fundamentally inclusive rather than exclusive, and [generous] of spirit rather than mean spiritedness…As a community of liberal faith and equally liberal doubt, we have a historic opportunity to engage in interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue to discern a core morality that would bend the arc of our current moral universe toward compassionate justice in our pluralistic global society."

          Now at the time the word "moral" didn't hit the ears of some Unitarian Universalists with much acceptance.  But as I listened, I heard that I needed to be part of the arc of the moral universe moving toward justice.  I could no longer stand on the sidelines if I really wanted to live in a world centered around the values of Beloved Community.

          Now let me pause for a second for that to sink in.  And I want to ask you why you attend or are a member or friend of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  Is this Unitarian Universalist congregation a sanctuary for you?  Is it a place where you can explore and affirm your personal spiritual journey?  A place where you can find friends who will accept you, treat you fairly, with compassion, and caring?  Is UU Miami a place where you want to have the values of justice, equity, compassion, mercy, and peace affirmed every time you come through these doors?  Do you think you can find others here who want to change the world, to make it a better place for all?  The truth is you could answer "no" to all these questions and still be a Unitarian Universalist because we do not have a dogma that you must believe in to be a member.  But here's the thing for me today: when I talk to people about Unitarian Universalism, I emphasize that this is a place where people are called to responsibly search for truth and meaning and are called to make the world a better place.  That's not how I would have described Unitarian Universalism in the past and may not be how I describe in the future, but today this rings true for me.

          Rev. Dr. Patrick O’Neill preached about Henry David Thoreau’s spirituality, saying: "Thoreau, who left society for a time to sojourn in the natural world, felt the need to return to be part of and prophet to society because of the evils he saw around him; this was how he lived his faith.  It is our moral obligation, as Thoreau reminds us, 'to do at any time what we think right,' to take the risk to live our faith as part of and prophet to the world.  We must be a church that 'pokes [the] conscience; demands our efforts to mend what is broken in the world; to heal what is wounded in our communities; to hold gently the sorrows and to address lovingly the pain of those perennially left out on the margins of society; the hopeless and the helpless; the war-torn and the hungry and the infected of the world.'” (“Out From Walden” by Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill)

          It was Thoreau and Parker and many of our forebears who are exemplars for me in my spiritual journey now.  They lived lives that balanced a spiritual quest and a prophetic spirit acting in the world—doing justice.  From the first congregation I attended in Fort Worth to now at UU Miami, I reflect on what being a Unitarian Universalist means to me.  And increasingly I have realized that I can't just focus on my needs, spiritual or otherwise.  From what I know of our forebears and what I've heard from my peers in the various congregations that I've been part of, I've discerned that what I need to find is a way, my way, to work for justice. 

          Perhaps one of the reasons it took me so long to find my way to justice work was because of the risks.  For instance, James Reeb who lost his life while marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma Alabama.  And some of our congregations, even this one, have had crosses burned on their property.  Many of our congregations, including this one, have had a Black Lives Matter signs stolen or destroyed.  And many of our congregations, including this one, who have rallied for LGBTQ rights or Civil Rights or for Black Lives Matter or any of so many issues do not have their voices affirmed—in fact they may be yelled at, threatened, or have obscene gestures pointed their way. 

          Yet Unitarian Universalists have persisted in making the world they envisioned.  One of our forebears helped get bandages and supplies to injured soldiers during the Civil War, and after that experience realized that there needed to be some kind of organization to help those hurt by the effects of war throughout the world, so she founded the Red Cross-- Clarissa Harlowe Barton.  Another of our forebears after witnessed various cruelties committed upon animals in the late nineteenth century founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-- Henry Bergh.  After a massive race riot directed at black residents in Springfield, Illinois that led to seven deaths, the destruction of 40 homes and 24 businesses, and 107 indictments against rioters, another of our forebears co-founding the NAACP-- Mary White Ovington.  Another forebear, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, wrote a letter to President Kennedy regarding the proliferation of atomic weapons that resulted in a treaty that finally stopped this proliferation-- Albert Schweitzer.  Our forebears worked for the Abolition of Slavery, for Civil Rights, for women's rights.  It is a powerful legacy that we have inherited.  But it important to remember that our forebears experienced risk and pushback in their work.  But there was something else, their Unitarian Universalist faith, nourishing the spirit, grounding them in their values and empowering them for justice.

          The first time I walked in that Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, I felt nourished in spirit and grounded in values that made sense to me—love, compassion, democracy, equity, mercy, justice.  I wonder if you feel the same.  And I have come to learn that justice work is love practiced in the public arena.  When you come through these doors, do you feel empowered for justice work?

          When I hear about our forebears, I feel empowered for justice work.  When I reflect on our Seven Principles, including those that speak about justice, equity, compassion, and the inherent worth an dignity of every person, I feel empowered.  When I hear some of you speak about your justice work, like your rally shut down the Homestead detention center for immigrant children, I feel empowered. When I am invited by one of you to participate in a rally, like the Black Live Matter rally we held on Highway 1 last year, I feel empowered.  For much of my life, I didn't think I could make a difference.  But the longer I have been part of Unitarian Universalist congregations, the more a belief that I really could make a difference grew in me.  In the last 20 years being a Unitarian Universalist minister, because of my faith and my grounding in Unitarian Universalist values and history, I have lobbied legislators in four states; I have stood in rallies for LGBTQ rights, to stop a war, to recognize Black Lives; I have confronted Pro-life protesters, spoken out publicly about gun violence, about same sex marital rights, and reproductive rights.  I don't know if I could have or would have done these things without being empowered by my UU faith and by those in the UU congregations I was part of. 

          And this congregation offers you the same opportunities for empowerment.  Here in this place with these people, we support you and empower you to do justice work.  As Thoreau said, " Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign [their] conscience to the legislator? Why has every human a conscience then? I think that we should be humans first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right."  I invite you, no I call you to look within yourself for what you think is right and work for that.  Work for justice.  That is our Unitarian Universalist heritage: you can be empowered to do what you can and perhaps more than you ever thought you could, to make the world a better, more just, equitable, and peaceful place. So may it always be.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

"How Should We See Our Country" by Reverend Tom Capo


           How do you think about our country today?  What do you think about the stories and myths that seem to buttress what we as Americans tell ourselves about our exceptionalism, our patriotism, about our forebears who never did anything damaging, hurtful, abusive, uninformed, or problematic?  Forbears who never lied, never supported slavery? Were you taught that Columbus discovered America?  About Paul Revere's Midnight Ride?  That the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th?  That Betsy Ross designed and sewed the first American Flag? That the Founding Fathers were Christians?  That the Star-Spangled Banner is a tune composed in the United States?  That the Liberty Bell was cracked on July 4th? That the Battle of the Alamo was fought to keep Americans Free?

            In Forget the Alamo, Tomlinson and Stanford write: "The Alamo is an American touchstone…a symbol of national resolve, looming during the 1950's as an embodiment of U.S. determination to halt the spread of Communism.  During the 60's, LBJ repeatedly invoked it to generate backing for the war in Vietnam.  In time it was embraced by "patriots" and right wingers who viewed Santa Anna's Mexican Army as a stand-in for all manner of threats, from Communists to brown-skinned immigrants pouring across the Mexican border…[And] The [Texas] State Board of Education actually has standing orders that school children must be taught a 'heroic' version of Alamo History."

            I grew up in Texas, actually I lived almost 40 years in Texas.  I was taught the "heroic" version of Alamo History.  I didn't question it until I was in college when I started to hear a smidgen of the more complicated history of the Alamo and really of the United States.  Being exposed to this new information happened around the time I started attending First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church.  In my Unitarian Universalist congregation, I was encouraged to question, to doubt, to not accept a truth just because someone told me or I read it.  Nowadays I would say do not accept a truth just because you saw it on the internet.  The members of my UU church encouraged me to study and consider truth by looking within myself and by seeking trusted sources for cultural context, for more complete in-depth information, and for various perspectives.  I was encouraged and supported in a responsible search for truth and meaning. 

            Even as I started my spiritual journey in Unitarian Universalism, I didn't immediately embrace the complicated history of the United States.  I guess I was still so enamored with being a United States Citizen, proud to be part of its experiment in democracy, its balance of powers with the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, its free-speech, and its freedom of religion; and its high standard of living.  There was so much to be thankful for living in this country at least for me, a white cis-gender heterosexual male.  I didn't put much energy into looking at how complicated our forebears and our country's history actually are.  After all, it all worked for me so why would I spend much time looking too closely at our history?

            However, eventually my curiosity led me to ask some harder questions and as one domino fell after another in my quest for truth and knowledge, I became increasingly aware that some of what I had been told and taught in school about the history of this country was an exaggeration at least, but most the American history I was taught was over-simplified, distorted, or just plain lies. It was around this time that I picked up Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  And I read: "So long as our textbooks hide from us the roles that people of color have played in exploration, from at least 6000 BC to the twentieth century, they encourage us to look to Europe and its extensions as the seat of all knowledge and intelligence. So long as they say “discover,” they imply that whites are the only people who really matter. So long as they simply celebrate Columbus, rather than teach both sides of his exploit, they encourage us to identify with white Western exploitation rather than study it.”  He went on to say: “In sum, U.S. history is no more violent and oppressive than the history of England, Russia, Indonesia, or Burundi - but neither is it exceptionally less violent.”

            Were you taught that George Washington's dentures were made of wood?  They weren't that's a myth.  Washington bought teeth from enslaved people.  "It is important to note that while Washington paid these enslaved people for their teeth, it does not mean they had a real option to refuse his request" (mountvernon.org) Thomas Jefferson called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” but continued to hold well over a 150 human beings as property his entire adult life.  And what about all the myths that support white supremacy culture in the United States--Betsy Ross really didn't design or sew the first American Flag; Paul Revere was just one of many riders that night; many of the Founding Fathers were not Christian and so on.  And now there are people in power—in state governments, for instance in Texas-- who want to deny or suppress our complicated history, making it illegal to discuss racism or use the 1619 project-- which "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative--or discuss critical race theory—which is an academic movement of civil-rights scholars and activists in the United States who seek to critically examine U.S. law as it intersects with issues of race in the U.S.--in the classroom because these make the United States look bad or they just want to deny our complicated, often violent, racist history.

            So what was I to do?  How was I to see this country? Feel about this country?  I was brought up on a white-washed, everything's great, move-along-no-problems here history of the United States. As I delved deeper and understood more about this country, I wondered how could I even celebrate the Fourth of July?  Just this week, the Unitarian Universalist Association put this out on their Facebook page: "July Fourth is far more complicated than just a long weekend filled with backyard BBQ's  and fireworks. That tradition is white America’s version of Independence Day. But what about the people whose land we live on? As the United States reckons with the racism and marginalization that are undeniable parts of its history, it’s important to speak about the harm faced by Indigenous people at the hands of colonizers. As we light our grills this year to celebrate Independence Day, we must remember that colonialism is a current and ongoing process. This land that we call home is Indigenous Peoples’ land. This land is a part of who they are. It’s a mixture of their blood, their past, their current, and their future."

            So here I am on the 4th of July wondering.  Wondering what to celebrate; Wondering what to think of this country I have loved.  Wondering.  As I read through Lies My Teacher Told Me, I remembered a few words that Loewen offered: “The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history.”  Can I love my country as I look at it honestly?  Can I love my country even as I look at through a more inclusive historical lens?  Can I love my country as people in power try to suppress an honest and inclusive history?  What about you?  How do you feel about the USA as you look at it more honestly, and as you begin to see it through a more inclusive historical lens?  The answer is not simple.  At least the answer is not simple for me. 

              The Buddha once said: "Those who have failed to work toward the truth have missed the purpose of living."  Work toward the truth.  Well as I learn more, read more, discuss with people with varying perspectives more, and look within more, I think I am beginning to really see this country more clearly, more realistically, more honestly.  And I am committed to continuing this journey, even when I feel so many complicated feelings—anger, sadness, guilt, fear, and joy.  You might ask "How can I feel joy, with all this dishonesty and obstructionism and white supremacy culture surrounding me."  Well, I answer because I am on a spiritual and historical journey, and I am learning more about myself.  And I see others wanting to learn more about our complicated history.  Did you know that on June 5, 2020 "almost all of the top best-selling books on Amazon (seven out of 10) and at Barnes & Noble (nine out of 10) [took on topics around systemic racism], including How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, and So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. [And] On the most recent New York Times list of best-selling nonfiction in e-books and print, five of the Top 15 titles address racism. One of them, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s book about mass incarceration, was published 10 years ago." (The New York Times, People Are Marching Against Racism. They’re Also Reading About It. By Elizabeth A. Harris)

            I know many of you know that we have a Decentering Whiteness Book Club here at UU Miami.  And at times people outside the church have attended.  During our most recent class a young man from another state joined us.  He said he was moderate—I think he was talking about political and social, not right wing or left.  Yet as he spoke, he talked about how he felt that all this diversity and inclusivity was being shoved down peoples' throats and he didn't believe it was right.  He said he had read White Fragility, How to be an Antiracist, and other books on race, and he didn't agree with the worldview that racism has been and is problematic in our country.  He felt the good Christian values of treating others as you want to be treated would stop all this divisiveness.  I guess you can see where this is going.  Our intrepid group of Unitarian Universalists listened respectfully and offered our views, our thoughts; we didn't try to convince him, but we did plant seeds that there were other ways that white people see the complicated history of this country with racism and white supremacy deeply entrenched our culture.  How taking away rights and privileges from people of color negatively impacts all of us.  How another way of treating others might be to treat them as they want to be treated.  He felt that would be too hard because he didn't know them.  I suggested perhaps he could get to know them in order to treat them the way they wanted to be treated.  He talked about feeling verbally attacked in another group on antiracism he attended.  But in our book study no one got angry, though I did see a couple times that a few UU heads shook and there was more than one eye-roll. We let this young man know that despite our differences, he was welcome to join us in expressing his views; and we thanked him for joining us and engaging in a respectful discussion. I felt joy.  I still feel joy.  I and those Unitarian Universalists on that Zoom Book Study were making progress on our spiritual and historical journey, learning more about racism, learning more about white supremacy, and learning more about how to engage with people who have different views than us about the very difficult issue of racism in the United States. 

            Perhaps that is what I will celebrate on this 4th of July—that many of people in this country are reading, learning, making progress toward understanding what racism is and how it has influenced the laws and policies and structure and culture of this country.  While we are all in different places on the spectrum of understanding, more people are engaging in conversations about race than ever before.  More books on racism and its history in the US are being written and read than ever before.  Yes, I know there are people who are still trying to hold onto "Remember the Alamo" and "Patriotism" --meaning whitewashing history.  But today, I rejoice in our progress, not in our perfection.  I want to love our country because of its diversity and the willingness of more people in this country to stretch themselves and their worldview.  Yes, there is work to be done, and I for one will keep on doing it—reading, learning, advocating for antiracism and anti-oppression, but today I celebrate that I see and feel progress being made.  May this celebration be my prayer for our country.