Black History Month, day 9

Dan Harper, our Associate Minister of Religious Education, and I offered a class at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto called Current Issues in Liberal Religion. On January 24, 2012, our topic was “Race and Liberal Religion,” and I gave this presentation.

In addressing race and liberal religion I am talking about the liberal religion that interests me most, Unitarian Universalism. This talk has eight related points, the first of which is:

1. Unitarian Universalism is not an intrinsically white religion.

Unitarian Universalism arose within a largely European context, created by and among white people, although they might not have called themselves “white” and certainly would not have meant by that what I mean by it when I call myself “white.” It has grown in that milieu and is a product of that culture.

This does not mean it is the only culture in which Unitarian Universalism could thrive. Please note some examples of religions that have moved successfully from the culture of their origins. They’re a little obscure, but you may have heard of them: Islam (think of Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia). Judaism (think of Europe and North America). Christianity (think of everywhere).

When the topic of race comes up, you get conversations among white, European, Anglo Unitarian Universalists about whether “they” would like “our” church. That whole question needs to turn around. If we white, European Anglos do more listening than speaking, we might get a new perspective on the tradition we consider our own. And we might hear that it’s going to change.

2. People of other “races” can and do find Unitarian Universalism attractive . . .

Right now, Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales is traveling to Mexico to visit with a small, lay-led congregation in Mexico City. It is Mexican, not made up of expatriate and retired US American & Canadians, as the two older congregations in Mexico are. I’m very interested in Mexican UUism, even to the point of thinking that when I’ve “retired,” I’ll devote time to helping congregations there. And I’m curious: how will a Mexican Unitarian Universalism look?

It is already there, and in the Philippines, and in the Khasi Hills of India, and in Uganda, Indonesia, Brazil—also in Finland, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and many others [here I handed around this International Council of Unitarians and Universalists map]. How does it look in those places? Different, no doubt.

Why do we doubt that they would be interested? As UU minister Jose Ballester asked rhetorically and very seriously at a General Assembly some years ago, in response to the question, “Would Latinos want to join Unitarian Universalist churches,” “Si, como no?” which means, in Spanish, not just “why not?” but “how not?” How could they (some of them) not want to, for the same reasons non-Latinos (some of them) want to?

In Mexico, according to Catholic news sources, atheism is on the rise. Maybe those atheists in a deeply Catholic country would like to find each other and have a community that takes their ethical and spiritual needs seriously.

Unitarian Universalism blossomed in the culture of Western Europe and the US, but it isn’t limited to that culture. It is not solely an American religion. But it took the particular shape we know because it grew here, and it will take other shapes in other places. It already has. If Filipinos are drawn to it in the Philippines, as we know they are, why wouldn’t they be drawn to it here in Silicon Valley? (By the way, there are 138,000 Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties.)

3. . . . and not for the reasons that white UUs often think.

When we white UUs ask “will they like a church like ‘ours’?,” we are assuming a lot about what people of other races and backgrounds want in a church. We may assume, for example, that black people want gospel and spirituals. Well, maybe they do—I’m pretty partial to spirituals myself—but they’ll have to tell us so. More perniciously, we assume that people of other cultures and subcultures are incapable of grasping our theology. Or sometimes we just assume they wouldn’t be interested in it. One well-meaning white former Catholic I met in a UU church reasoned that Latinos don’t want to be here because, well, they’re Catholic. But she wanted something other than the religion of her upbringing, and as we see in the many predominantly Catholic countries around the world that have a nascent UU movement, so do many others, including Latinos.

To find out what draws nonwhite people to UUism, we can read what they’ve written. William T. Jones, an African-American Unitarian Universalist theologian, undertook a theodicy of black suffering and came to a liberal-religious conclusion. (Theodicy is the question of how suffering can be compatible with the existence of God.) To quote a review that paraphrased much of his book neatly, this is what he had to say about most religion: “any theology that assumes that black people are willing to continue suffering massive injustice, or that they can be persuaded that there is something redemptive in doing so, dooms itself to irrelevance.” His is a theodicy that rejects an omnipotent God, because any such God would have to answer for the suffering of black people.

–Which suggests that far from being irrelevant to black experience, Unitarian Universalism is very attractive to people who have suffered injustice. Jones is a humanist. The implication of his theology is that whether people suffer oppression or not is in human hands.

4. First critique of liberalism.

If we’re interested in race and liberal religion, we have to take seriously some criticisms of liberalism. One was made by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. Interestingly, like Jones, he focused on evil: on the reality of sin. He wrote, in a piece called “How My Mind Has Changed”:

[T]here is one phase of liberalism that I hope to cherish always: its devotion to the search for truth, its insistence on an open and analytical mind, its refusal to abandon the best light of reason. Liberalism’s contribution to the philological-historical criticism of biblical literature has been of immeasurable value and should be defended with religious and scientific passion.

It was mainly the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclinations to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin. My reading of the works of Reinhold Niebuhr made me aware of the complexity of human motives and the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence. Moreover, I came to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring realities of collective evil. I came to feel that liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism.

I also came to see that liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin. The more I thought about human nature the more I saw how our tragic inclination for sin causes us to use our minds to rationalize our actions. Liberalism failed to see that reason by itself is little more than instrument to justify man’s defensive ways of thinking. Reason, devoid of purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.

This point makes an interesting companion to Jones’s approach. Liberalism—in particular, UUism, and in particular, Universalism—puts a great deal of the responsibility for suffering on human beings. Our theology of sin tends to take one of two approaches: either God is limited in power and not able to stop every instance of human suffering, or there is no God. In either case, we need a very solid anthropology of sin: an understanding of human nature that doesn’t sweep the harm we do under the rug.

A couple of weeks ago, our intern minister, Lucy Bunch, spoke eloquently to us about how the saying “everything happens for a reason” can become the secular version of “it’s God’s will.” If we are not careful, it will also become the liberal-religious version. And as she said, it is just as problematic as the more conservative theology that says “it’s God’s will.”

5. We have to take seriously MLK’s other, implicit critique of liberalism.

Now I want to get into some stickier territory. Often it’s proven to be quicksand. I hope not. Because we really need to face up to the fact that in matters of racial justice, “liberal” has been viewed as a dirty word—with considerable justification. As Phil Ochs sang:

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

I love Puerto Ricans and Negros
as long as they don’t move next door
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

(Phil Ochs, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”)

Liberals, here, are the ones who talk nice but won’t act, and that has certainly been the case on many occasions. In 1963, eight white clergymen wrote “A Call for Unity” criticizing the timing of the SCLC’s actions in Birmingham. At least some of them were far from segregationists. They were liberals, and King’s response, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” is one of the most cogent critiques of liberalism that I’ve ever read.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely . . . My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. . . . We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

He doesn’t use the word liberal, but that’s what he’s talking about. I don’t want us to be that kind of liberal: the wishy-washy kind that preaches calm when what is needed is revolution.

So what should we do if we care about Unitarian Universalism’s moving beyond white, Eurocentric culture? My last three points can be summarized: be humble, be ready, be happy.

6. Be humble. Liberal religion is not all about us. It’s defined by the many people who hold to its tenets.

White liberals don’t own Unitarian Universalism. We’re going to have to surrender our grip on it. When people of many races gather round, we’ll all have to listen to each other—and for white folks, that means we’ll have to do a lot more listening and a lot less talking than we are used to. We’ve held the floor through most of UU history. It’s time to hand the mike over and learn something from others’ perspectives.

7. Be ready: UUism will change.

When we do allow others to have more of a voice, we need to be ready for something even more challenging: Unitarian Universalism will change. When I lived in Mexico, I went to a fiesta that taught me a lot about this phenomenon. [Here I handed around the photos you see below]. As I wrote in my blog at the time:

We went to a fabulous fiesta where the image of Jesus “Señor de la conquista,” “Lord of the Conquest,” is carried out of the Parroquia (parish church) amid fireworks, dancing, and drumming. The article in the local paper says the fiesta is held “porque el catolicismo conquistó a los indios” (“because Catholicism conquered the Indians”), but, while I’m not dismissing the real, frequently devastating impact of Catholicism on native religion, the overall impression I got from the festival is that los indios and their pre-Catholic religious practices are going strong.

The good old Catholic church. Its attitude is, “Fine, keep your feathers and your drums and your heathen dances, as long as you add Jesus into the mix.” . . . . I’m betting this relaxed attitude toward syncretism is a more successful way to spread the word than uptightly insisting that indigenous people wear trousers and sing Wesley’s hymns–in short, imposing European cultural forms that are not inextricable from the religious concepts.

I make this assertion knowing almost nothing about missionary history. However, I think it’s a point to ponder for people concerned about church growth and diversity. What would Unitarian Universalism look like if we (meaning those who currently “own” it, a term I use ironically) relaxed a little more about the forms it takes on as it comes to different cultures (or subcultures) than the white, English-speaking, Calvinist-descended people among whom it largely originated? I don’t want us to conquer the natives, but I would like everyone who feels the call of Unitarian Universalism to be able to respond, and meet with a warm welcome instead of skeptical looks from those who are at home with the Protestant worship structure and European classical music that dominate today. It will look different in other hands. They will change it for themselves and, in some part, for everyone. If that means dancing like we saw Friday night, it sounds like a win-win to me.

8. Be happy: liberal religion will benefit greatly.

Conservative religion spread like wildfire because it was willing to take new forms when it went into new cultures. (Mexican Catholicism again.) If we’re going to hold tight to it and say that we (white, Anglophone European-Americans) own it, liberal religion will dwindle. But if we allow it to change as it encounters other cultures, it can grow.

After all, women didn’t start Unitarian Universalism either, but here we are shaping it. And a good thing, too. Americans didn’t start it either, but they made it what it is. And a good thing, too.

So yes, if Unitarian Universalism becomes more truly multiracial and multicultural here in the US, as it already is around the world, it will change. Let’s embrace this as good news!