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.

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