Mistaken Wisdom

Sermon Delivered at First Parish Cambridge, Unitarian Universalist, November 5, 2017*

I bought a Garmin GPS watch this week in an effort to kick start my fitness regimen which has been sidelined by seminary and moving and internship since about 2014.  Its fun.  Olive hates the beep it makes.  I like the fact that it counts my steps and also receives my text messages.  While I was shopping for this, I was brought back to my days as a fitness instructor when the big thing was to have a heartrate monitor built into your watch.  Things have come a long way.

I see a lot of people with FitBits and other devices, reminding them to walk…or reminding them that they have a pulse.  Sometimes I wonder if this is the closest that many people come to actually thinking about their bodies. Technology has become a not so thin veil between us and our experiences. Our devices respond to our voices, our touch, even our body temperature.  Artificial intelligence is becoming less and less artificial and more and more supplementary each day.  But today, I would like to make a case for us to get back to basics so to speak…

So, I have every intention of going a bit off the rails today.  When I say that, it is not to indicate that I’m going to stand on top of the pulpit and crow like a rooster…although, I’d love to see what that feels like.  Rather, I’m going to speak to you in a way that ministers in Unitarian Universalism rarely if ever speak; with demands and an undercurrent of ultimatum…a bit fire and brimstone.  But this is important; the future of our movement and possibly the world as we know it depends on leaders like myself stepping up our game and pushing the boundaries much, much further.  But no matter how uncomfortable or confusing it may be at first to receive, my hope is that you ultimately feel my push as the gesture of love that it is intended to be and not as a selfish directive.  What I say today may also sound like scolding, but it is not. It is intended as a wakeup call to us all.

And with that, we begin…

Mosaic Makers

I love Unitarian Universalism, but Unitarian Universalism isn’t working.  Well, it may be working for a few people, but it is not working in the grand and lofty way that we certainly speak of it.  Indeed, Unitarian Universalism may be working for certain individual and self-focused purposes, but what we’re doing here just doesn’t want to take hold in the wider world.  We have not succeeded in moving the dial in terms of ending gun violence, Nazism, violence against women or racism; we’re even moving backward on abortion rights and healthcare in general.  Our efforts to build the Beloved Community are failing.  Sometimes I wonder if it is because we are much better at building the Beloved Social Club.  We do great at self-improvement among the people we know, but on the whole, we have not cultivated the tools or even the interest in changing hearts and minds beyond our immediate sphere. Even though we may feel good about our contributions to amplifying awareness of the distress of those who are marginalized and placing ourselves into the work on the ground to change individual lives, the Dakota Access pipeline is brimming with oil even as we speak and the Klan is still legal. This is not what I call success.

I love Unitarian Universalism, but Unitarian Universalism isn’t working.

We have the highest ideals.  Inspired by some of the greatest hearts and minds.  Among those hearts and minds is of course Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We are nobly motivated by aspirations such as this quote put forth by the King Center:

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. [1]

And we can even point to more of MLK’s scholarship to describe the lofty philosophical underpinnings of his beloved community as an expression of Agape.  He said in his March 7, 1961 Detroit sermon:

“Agape is more than romantic love. Agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men. Agape is an overflowing love, a spontaneous love, which seeks nothing in return.”[2]

Sounds great!  So, where are the droves of marginalized people flocking to our doors?  I have yet to hear anyone within Unitarian Universalism tell me why anyone outside of Unitarian Universalism should come to us for this message.  We are spectacular at telling everyone what we want as individuals and standing up for our personal sense of right and wrong and making sure that personal agency is at the center of everything we do and say.  But tell me, how is that Beloved Community and not simply the Beloved Self?

Last week, I had the incredible fortune to travel to San Diego for the Mosaic Makers conference.  It was wonderful.  I was there with Alex Taylor, Rashid Shaikh, Susan Leslie and Bruce Pritchard all of whom I think got a great deal out of the experience.  I was so incredibly grateful for their presence and excited for them to see that place, First UU San Diego, that was so instrumental to my formation.  It was certainly one of the most diverse UU settings I’ve seen outside of Finding Our Way Home (the UU gathering for professionals of color.)  From the perspective of a trip that shows what anti-racism and multi-culturalism can look like, it was a huge success.

The weekend presented many examples where we completely de-centered whiteness: a Día de Muertos service that was entirely Latina led in Spanish and English where Spanish was the dominant language and sometimes not translated.  Two black scholars leading very different talks.  Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin speaking about Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism and explaining its purpose as an incubator for cultivating black affirmation, support and retention of African American UUs; Dr. Mark Hicks challenging the conference attendees to explore how white supremacy shows up in language and action.  Rev. Mitra Rahnema sharing her intentions as the editor of the book Centering and making it clear that she wrote the book for people of color as a resource while inviting white UUs to read the book with this in mind and learn from looking through this window and Chris Crass offering an impassioned plea to stay in the work of cultivating multi-culturalism despite our sometimes problematic personal histories.

As a leader, Mosaic Makers was exactly what I needed in many ways.  Still, on the last day when I was there for a separate professional day of reflection where we caucused as POC identified and white identified, I found myself wondering about the distinctly separate Unitarian Universalisms that each of us cultivates and that grow among those of similar social locations.  The dominant one that supports the experiences and needs and expressions of European Americans, another one that speaks to African Americans… another that resonates with Indian Americans…one that lets women see themselves…and another that works for people who identify as Trans*.

On one level, having a “faith” that is this malleable seems ideal.  But looking a bit closer and in particular looking to where the rifts and cracks actually exist in our “beloved community”, and in examining the very real inabilities to communicate, the dysfunctions, the ongoing inequities and our sometimes defiant resistance to appeal to a broader spectrum of populations, what we have created is a loose gathering of people who have no real reason or explanation as to why they should want to be in community together other than working toward a concept of “beloved community” that sometimes looks like rabid individualism when you hold a mirror up to it.

No, and it pains me to say it again, Unitarian Universalism isn’t working.

Anti-Slavery, 1854

Let’s take a journey back in time…

In 1854, Anthony Burns was arrested. Anthony Burns was black.  Anthony Burns was an escaped slave.  He was arrested here in Massachusetts because the legislature supported enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.  Judge Edward Loring presided over the case and handed down the judgement that Burns should be returned as “property.”  As I research the history of slavery in this state, I am learning that the “official records” most likely don’t correlate with the realities of the ongoing presence of slaves and certainly the mentality that actively ignored if not supported the continuation of slavery in the south.

Thankfully though people like William Lloyd Garrison among other abolitionists and Unitarians were outraged.  That year, he was part of a July 4 anti-slavery rally held in Framingham at a place called Harmony Grove.  At the gathering there were addresses by Lucy Stone, Wendell Phillips, Henry David Thoreau, Sojourner Truth and of course Garrison.  Garrison made a powerful case explaining the breadth and potential reach of slavery.  The MA historical society website says that Garrison warned that:

Slavery and its minions jeopardized freedom everywhere and its advocates, […], intended to tighten their grasp over the Caribbean, expand into Central and South America, and even extend the cursed institution into the Pacific. Freedom was disappearing. What could there be to celebrate on July 4? he asked.

The website goes on to describe the dramatic climax of Garrison’s address…

Garrison then produced a copy of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and put a match to it. Amid cries of “Amen” the hated document burned to a cinder. Then he produced copies of Judge Edward G. Loring’s decision to send Anthony Burns back to slavery …As Martin Luther had burned copies of canon law and the papal bull excommunicating him from the Catholic Church for heresy, Garrison consigned [this] to the flames. [Finally] Holding up a copy of the U.S. Constitution, he branded it as “the source and parent of all the other atrocities–‘a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.'” As the nation’s founding document burned to ashes, he cried out: “So perish all compromises with tyranny!” [3]

Clearly, White House Chief of Staff, General Kelly could learn a thing or two about “compromise” from reading this.

Garrison’s act of burning the Constitution was extreme.  Many would regard this as an act of treason…even today.  But let me present it to you this way.  We are very accustomed in UU circles to speaking of “racial justice work”.  Yet in my world as an African American, “racial justice” isn’t something that I can pick up and put down.  It doesn’t sit outside of me for me to look at…it IS me.  It is not “racial justice”, it is my life.  Any document that legitimized the basis for me being regarded as a lesser being should be burned.  “So perish all compromises with tyranny.” Garrison, a Unitarian, was not afraid of radical change.  In this moment, we are called to the same, both outside of our doors and within.

1945…could be today

Fast forward 90 years…

Holding up a copy of the U.S. Constitution, he branded it as “the source and parent of all the other atrocities–‘a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.'” As the nation’s founding document burned to ashes, he cried out: “So perish all compromises with tyranny!”

Unitarian Minister, Peter Samsom referenced the words of Elmo Roper of Fortune Magazine in his May 27, 1945 sermon “If I Were a Negro” saying that  “…racial and religious prejudices are rising to the point where a revival of Ku Klux Klanism threatens the nation.  Feeling against Negroes, Jews, and Catholics is increasing and we face one of the most explosive situations of our entire history.”

Samsom’s words could have been written last week.  He continues:

“[Roper] concluded his statement by pointing the way out.  As he saw it: “give people something constructive to do and they will not have time to hate each other.” There is good sense in both his warning and his solution.  We know from our own experience that race feeling is growing more serious, that tension is increasing, and that violent things are being said, thought and done.  There is no purpose in shielding ourselves from the knowledge that we are in a situation that calls for our best thinking, our sanest vision, and the most courageous cooperation among our whole people.  “Give people something to do…”—here is a suggestion with sound psychology behind it, a suggestion we may interpret quite broadly to include tasks of the imagination as well as of the hand.” [4]

Give people something to do.  How novel.  I do believe that’s what is missing for us Unitarian Universalists today.  We don’t have anything to do.  I’m not talking about marching or volunteering or calling legislators.  I mean we don’t have anything to do in here.  We have nothing that binds us or belongs to us unquestionably without privilege or bias or exclusion, a situation which begs the question over and over again, what is our faith? What is the concrete place where we meet one another stripped of social dictates of superiority and dominance or marginalization and oppression? Too often, our culture of individualism our philosophical hubris won’t let us put down the “I” to see the “we” and that, my friends, is what is sending me off the rails.

Invitation to Embodiment

“Give people something to do”

You know what? I think we do have something we can unite around…something we all can do.

Embodiment.

Before you voted to call me as your minister, you asked about my theology.  I said I would tell you more.  Well, here it comes…

Turning justice work into religion is not enough to build the beloved community.  Gathering with people who come from the same social set and demographic is not enough to build the beloved community.  Singing Christian songs without the word God or Jesus is not enough to build the beloved community. Creating separate and affirming spaces and affinity groups for marginalized identities is not enough to build the beloved community.  You know why, because after we do our individual and important separate things, we must come back together and that’s what’s missing in what is currently espoused as Unitarian Universalism.  Just because our larger organization is set up as an association of congregations, doesn’t mean that loose association is a successful, model for girding a fragile world against the catastrophic forces of human kind on a large scale.  There has got to be more.

My theology is embodiment.  That is, at the core of everything I do and everything I see, every interaction I have, I place the fact that we are in human bodies.  We all share the experience of life through being embodied.  Why can’t we just start there and say that.  We all share the fact that we were born and that we will die.  We all have minds that allow us to think and we all experience something called time.  We are all capable of action of some kind in the world and we all experience being in the context of planet earth.  Every single human being has some experience with the concept of what we call love.  Birth, Death, Thought, Time, Action, Earth, Love…to me, these are embodiment; this is my theology and this is what keeps me in the game.

There are great minds at work in Unitarian Universalism.  I am thrilled that there are more people talking about spiritual practice and ways to ritualize our shared feelings.  And yes, I have also heard more people talking about bodies.  But it is not just about individual bodies, it is about the fact that we are embodied.  My challenge to you, my invitation to you is to not fall into the trap of relegating what I say about embodiment to a “thing” that resonates with only a few of us.  Thinking about our bodies shouldn’t only happen when someone tells us to place our feet on the ground and “breathe in…breathe out.”  Our bodies can’t be put into a task force or a committee.  Like “racial justice” is my life, the fact that we are embodied is quite literally all of our lives and even if you don’t want to think about your body or deal with it, the fact that you are embodied is definitely going to deal with you.

Imagine a Unitarian Universalism that works to cultivate new ways of putting birth and death in context with one another, in the unique world that we live in today?  Every ancient spiritual tradition has always done this for a reason.  Sure, we can cherry pick from the greats, but that doesn’t bring us any closer together.  What could a language of birth and death that transcends our individual stories, that is conscious of the impact of digital life and life in a post-Holocaust world look and feel like?  I challenge us to find out.  What could a spiritual practice of embracing our ability to think mean as we embrace the broad spectrum of cognitive capabilities that science continues to allow us to understand?  Rather than basing our relationship with different mental perceptions on a narrow baseline, we should be able to embrace the whole spectrum and even more.  What if we let the beautiful spheres of science and spirit we cultivate play together…unsupervised?  Who knows what offspring they would produce.  I say, let’s challenge Unitarian Universalism to throw away its colonial, patriarchal, white-centered shackles and find out.

For too many of us the experience of body shaming came from our birth religions.  We were told that our physical desires were sin, we were told that our bodies needed to be used for one purpose…all kinds of things, so we got out.  Even for lifelong UUs including those in the post-OWL world, they were given a great premise for pride and security in the body, but no follow up on Sunday morning, or in any aspect of how we actually come together as Unitarian Universalists.  Our ideas and more importantly our intentional spiritual commitment to how we are embodied is incomplete.  Dis-embodiment is a hold-over of Puritan roots that may be quaint but is ill suited to our functional needs today. What I’m proposing is that in the search for something to propel us to the center of making real and lasting change in this world and in the search for something that people everywhere are trying desperately understand amidst the noise of extremism, technology and greed, we can answer this call by lifting up the shared glory of what it means to simply exist in human bodies that are both completely separate and one.

Embodiment.

I cannot be satisfied with Seven Principles or Six Sources or a Unitarian Universalism that isn’t willing to grow and evolve into a global spiritual tidal wave.

The title of this message is Mistaken Wisdom.  The title comes from Thoreau who spent a lifetime troubling the space between knowledge of nature and knowledge of the self.  How do we know what we know? He literally explored what it means to see the forest for the trees…and vise versa.  The nature of knowledge is a basic question of Transcendentalism and one that still resonates in UUism today, even in our Seven Principles.  But the Seven Principles and the Six Sources are also swimming in Euro-centric priorities and assumptions; the knowing is skewed to one perspective, because that is the context in which they were created and the population they were devised to serve.  How can one affirm inherent worth and dignity when your personal inherent worth and dignity is always systemically denied? How can you sit at the table if you can’t get in the room?  Our vision must expand so that every identity meets as an equal in the middle.  Therefore, we must be willing to consider how even the sacred Seven principles have been complicit and reflective of the systems we are trying to dismantle and willing if necessary to consign them to the flames of history.  “So perish all compromises with tyranny.”

I cannot be satisfied with Seven Principles or Six Sources or a Unitarian Universalism that isn’t willing to grow and evolve into a global spiritual tidal wave.  The ideas and the openness and the empowerment are all here, we just need something to do.  I say that we have an endless sacred text of learning and wonder and affirmation literally at our finger tips…our bodies.  Each chapter is written in the unique ink of our blood and the pages turn each time we exhale.  Let us escape from a stifled history and feel the cool breeze of the future.  Learning to be present with our embodiment can take us there.  Your beautiful, individual, unique, body is more than a heart rate, or steps, or text messages or any app.  Your body is a chapter in the human adventure of embodiment; it is your greatest gift to receive and your greatest gift to give.

A Prayer of Embodiment

May your birth continue to bless this world throughout your life
May your death whenever it comes, be completion of the cycle and not just loss
May your ability to think equally invite comprehension and question
May you and time move as companions, not adversaries
May your actions reflect your authenticity in this world
May your presence on this earth be both gentle and strong
May you always know love in everything you are.
May you always know your own embodiment as a blessing.

*This sermon was delivered before news of the mass shooting in Texas had broken.

[1] – http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy

[2] – https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-detroit-council-churches-noon-lenten

[3] – https://www.masshist.org/database/431

[4] – Archive of First Unitarian Universalist Church San Diego, Courtesy Betty Boone

Personal Infrastructure: Building the Post Ferguson Beloved Community

Barney RubbleOften when the expression “Personal Infrastructure” is used, it is in reference to either technology or specific systems and ways of being in the business world. But I believe there is a much more important way to apply this concept. What about those systems that we use to choose friends or create partnerships? All of these kinds of interactions are based on ways that we have learned to be in the world and together they create a framework, an infrastructure that supports us. Simply put, real Personal Infrastructure is the set of systems we use to support the decisions we make that determine how we live in community.

This week, I read my friend Kenny Wiley’s blog post on Unitarian Universalists in the aftermath of Ferguson and in the run up to the 50th Anniversary of Selma, Alabama. Like me, he continues to struggle with the ignorance and “Barney Rubble” eyes of blank though well meaning confusion that he is met with as a black man in a predominantly white denomination. Like me, he feels both Ferguson and Selma in ways that cannot be understood unless you are wearing brown skin.  And like me, he is left wanting at Unitarian Universalism’s response to today’s race wars.  The questions and the isolation make one genuinely wonder why pursue this faith at all; yet we persevere. His post is very timely for me in that I am working on a longer piece about race in Unitarian Universalism where I raise some very challenging questions about “why” the racial divide continues to persist in a faith tradition that touts its ability to be multi-cultural and welcoming.

This awareness (persistent Unitarian Universalist whiteness) made me think that there is an underlying element of Personal Infrastructure that may be worth exploring more deeply. Before diving in here, I want to be clear that when I speak of Personal Infrastructure, I do not intend to place a value judgment on that structure.  Instead, the intent is to simply and objectively highlight the underlying structures that people create that result in certain outcomes. This is different than in technology and business where, when Personal Infrastructure is raised, there is always a “good” or a “better”, or an “effective and ineffective”…or worse a “failure.” The attempt here is more arithmetic than algebraic…more empirical than it is philosophical. I am looking at the “x + y = z” not the “x if/then y = z2” of how we relate to one another.

Personal Infrastructure as a way to look at community came to me when reflecting on some of the planning issues facing San Diego, my current city. In the world of public policy and urban planning, infrastructure will most often refer to sidewalks, utilities, roads, and sometimes schools and even healthcare. These are the tangible systems that are in place that allow people to live in a modern Western society. I thought then, what about applying this same concept to how people are in social community with one another. What are the “roads” and “utilities” that must be in place for people to be able to thrive and relate to one another and share values and a way of life together?  Even more pointedly for my ministry, what are the systems in place that result in the continued racial segregation within Unitarian Universalism?

Unitarian Universalists

Unitarian Universalist churches are predominantly white. They desperately explore ways to find deeper connection with people of color and ways to attract more people of color, but they continue to miss the mark. Despite some prominent people of color being present in the broader movement and despite Unitarian Universalist presence in several political discourses that center around people of color, on Sunday morning, Unitarian Universalist churches are almost entirely white. Here is where we can look at the question of Personal Infrastructure. The systems in place that bring people into the church relate to location and community. More specifically, these are the same systems whereby members bring people to church. The personal infrastructure of most Unitarian Universalist congregants includes a social circle that is entirely white on an immediate level, between family and intimate friends.  Significantly, this is also true for people of color who are already within Unitarian Universalist congregations (a point also brought up by Kenny.)  Again, without value judgment, it is clear that people come to church because of people they know or people they want to know. If no one in the church knows any people of color, people of color will not spontaneously appear.  Therefore, whiteness as a Personal Infrastructure keeps Unitarian Universalist churches white.

Cautionary Tale

The danger here would be slipping into value judgments and by default simply labeling the situation outlined above as “racist.” But it is not. Again, Personal Infrastructure is not about motivation or even intention, it is about observation and about the system. It is the same with gun violence.  A gun is a system and therefore a gun never killed anyone; people use guns to kill. The system (congregants bringing people they know into the church) is not racist, but the system can be used for racially biased outcomes. The subjective choice to be surrounded socially by one demographic is based entirely on social location and it is not a system in itself. So the solution exists in using the system differently or creating a new one. By understanding this system, the effort can then be applied to where it will make the most difference.  For instance, using the system differently could look like asking Unitarian Universalists to explore who they are in relationship with and how that translates into congregational diversity. Creating a new system could mean intentionally planting churches in communities of color with local residents after doing outreach to community leaders.  No matter what, the system that must change is in the Personal Infrastructure of existing Unitarian Universalists.

By looking at real Personal Infrastructure, I believe we can take an objective view of highly problematic systems and come up with realistic and well thought out solutions. When I was a personal trainer, I often said that it is crucial to let go of punishment narratives and negative influences in order to make real progress.  Constantly dwelling on white guilt and slapping down oppressive behaviors will not fix Unitarian Universalism’s race problem.  Instead, because the goal is objective and non judgmental, the exploration of Personal Infrastructure has the potential to dive deeper into actual problem solving. For instance, by looking at a congregation and assessing the level of actual engagement of congregants with people of color outside of the church, one can create a plan and awareness. One can then ask congregants to look for times when they may have missed opportunities to develop relationships with people of color, then and only then should they ask “why?” Is this a cultural choice that has been passed on or learned? Is this motivated by fear or discomfort or some other way of being in the world? Looking at Personal Infrastructure paves the way toward asking these tougher questions.

Infrastructure supports the way we live in our society. Knowing our real Personal Infrastructure supports the way we choose to live both in our society and within ourselves.  And if Unitarian Universalists are willing to really explore their Personal Infrastructure as it relates to race, it could potentially change the dialogue within the denomination and give us a voice outside of the denomination when it is most needed.

What community will you build on your Personal Infrastructure?

Check it out!: Kenny Wiley – Who Are My People