On Ancestors, Slavery, and Religious Dissent

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Heroes of faith in every age, far seeing, self-denying, wrought an increasing heritage, monarch and creed defying. Faith of the free!”[1]—words from 20th-century Unitarian minister Vincent Silliman. I wanted us to sing this hymn before this sermon because it points to a dynamic in our faith that at times proves confusing both to Unitarian Universalists and to those who observe us from outside. Liberalism in the United States has both political and religious roots, and continues today to express itself both politically and religiously. In both politics and religion the American liberal tradition—at its best—orients us towards freedom, liberty, justice, equality, inclusion, human rights and, I add today, environmental sustainability. In both politics and religion the American liberal tradition—at its best—calls us to protest, to dissent, to offer prophetic witness when we encounter barriers to freedom, when we encounter injustice, inequality, exclusion, human rights violations and threats to environmental sustainability. The “faith of the larger liberty” is both political and religious. It is “monarch and creed defying.”

What occasionally causes confusion is the way our religious yearnings blend with our political concerns. We might come to worship on Sunday morning looking for explicitly spiritual sustenance, and suddenly the service takes on a political tone or reflects on a political issue. How is this religious? some might wonder, forgetting that this blending is an aspect of our liberal tradition. It might happen on a Sunday morning, but it also happens at the state capitol or, as it did for me last Monday, on the corner of Barbour and Westland Streets in North Harford, advocating with other clergy and Governor Malloy for drug policy reform.

Recall that the Puritans who founded colonial New England—the Puritans from whom our Unitarian ancestors were directly descended—were both political and religious. They were religious dissenters at a time when religious dissent had immediate political implications. And of course, for their dissent they were persecuted. As children many of us learned the Puritans left England in search of religious freedom. This idea of the free church would eventually become a centerpiece of not only the American liberal tradition, but of American democracy itself. The 20th-century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said that in America “the conception of the democratic society is … a descendent of the conception of the free church.”[2]

That’s likely overstated, but there is a connection between the Puritan quest for religious liberty and the later American quest for political liberty. What I always find ironic is that, had they had our word ‘liberal’ in their vocabulary, they would have rejected it. They were anything but liberal. They were coercive theocrats who adhered to strict Calvinist doctrine and who could not conceive of the separation of church and state. Politics and religion were completely intertwined. They established a state church and levied taxes on all citizens to pay for it. They enforced attendance at Sunday worship. Though they originated as dissenters, they could not tolerate dissent within their own society, and often confronted it with state violence.

The Puritans brought the traditions of religious freedom and dissent to the New World, but they were not responsible for carrying them forward. Throughout the colonial era, individuals, groups, sects—including eventually Unitarians and Universalists—continued to rise up in defiance of Puritan religious orthodoxy and political rule until the congregational church was dis-established in the 1800s. One such new sect which formed in the late 1600s was the Rogerenes, named for their founder, John Rogers, whose father, James Rogers, a wealthy New London, CT merchant, was the 8th Great Grandfather of UUS:E member, Fred Sawyer. Oh yes! This is the sermon James Rogers’ 21st-century Unitarian Universalist descendant purchased at last year’s UUS:E goods and services auction!

Fred leant me a copy of Allegra di Bonaventura’s 2013 book, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England.[3] (She’s an assistant dean at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale.) Di Bonaventura weaves together the stories of five colonial New London families—the Winthrops, the Livingstons, the Hempsteads, the Rogers (who founded the Rogerenes), and the Jacksons who were slaves of African descent. The book provides an intimate and rare portrait of slavery in colonial New England—a story not often told. It also offers an intimate and rare portrait of colonial New England family life, marriage, romance, death, work, commerce, politics, law, punishment, religion, religious dissent, and religious activism. I highly recommend it and I am grateful to Fred for suggesting it.

Fred is interested in his ancestors, the Rogers, and what lessons their lives might hold for us. For me it has always been an important spiritual practice to take time to remember that we are here because others came before us and bequeathed to us, if nothing else, the gift of life. It is important to look back and honor our ancestors—both our blood relatives, and our spiritual forebears—those “heroes of faith” about whom we sing in “Faith of the Larger Liberty.”

What happens, however, when we look back and discover some difficult fact about our ancestors? For example, white people who discover that their ancestors owned slaves. Given what we know about slavery—countless lives lost, bodies violated, families separated, work stolen, language and culture assaulted—and given the reality that we still live with the legacy of slavery and witness in, for example, our criminal justice system, attempts to reinscribe it through polices that lead to mass incarceration of people of color, learning that one’s ancestors held slaves can be very disconcerting. Upon learning that the Rogers held slaves, Fred seemed not troubled, but accepting and curious. What do we do with this information? He’s interested in understanding not only what it meant to hold slaves in this era, but also what it meant to set them free. Many Rogerenes ultimately freed their slaves and, in later generations, became outspoken opponents of slavery. While the historical record isn’t entirely clear on why they began freeing their slaves, and while they did it slowly and with some ambivalence, we can make some claims about it with a high degree of certainty. First, their religious experience led them to oppose slavery. Second, there were great risks involved in such opposition. Di Bonaventura points out that Puritan clergymen, as town leaders and moral arbiters, “led in slaveholding as a group, owning bondsmen in greater numbers than did their parishioners.”[4] To oppose slavery was to oppose the theocracy itself.  Religious yearnings blending with political concerns.

The Rogerenes were adept at opposing the theocracy. Who were they? They were a religious sect responding to an ongoing experience of the Holy Spirit. The founder, John Rogers, son of James Rogers, became acquainted with an English sect known as Seventh-Day Baptists or Sabbatarians in Newport, RI while on business trips there. Sabbatarians worship on Saturday. Rogers took to it wholeheartedly, and started a Sabbatarian church in New London. Once he had converted his father and some of his siblings, he broke off from the Newport church and started his own sect which eventually became known as the Rogerenes. Described as fanatics and outlaws, they worshipped not only on Saturdays, but any day of the week and—worse—they engaged in menial labor on Sundays. They refused to pay taxes in support of the established church. They called for the separation of church and state. They welcomed men and women of every background as full congregants—African slaves, free blacks, Indians, Europeans, rich poor, men, women, children—they were truly egalitarian in this sense. They lived together, ate together, worshipped together and baptized each other in the Thames river. Di Bonaventura speculates that their experience of egalitarian spiritual community is what led them to become uncomfortable with slaveholding. It was difficult to proclaim spiritual equality while continuing to benefit from a profound social, political and economic inequality. Over the years they provided emotional, spiritual, legal and financial support to their slaves, most notably to John and Joan Jackson who were involved in 45 lawsuits in CT and MA over a period of decades, starting with John’s attempts to win Joan’s freedom, and then in their combined attempts to win their children’s freedom.

Although di Bonaventura doesn’t mention it, I’m reminded of that well-known passage from the Christian New Testment book of Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[5] They seemed to be living a version of this vision.

The Rogerenes hid nothing. they seemed undaunted by Puritan power. This is likely due to the fact that they were wealthy themselves, and as much as the Puritan hierarchy detested them, it needed their wealth to fund the ongoing development of New London. In a sense, the Rogerenes could afford to be provocative. Even so, the Puritan authorities did not sit idly by. They had the Rogerenes arrested, fined, publicly punished, incarcerated. Here’s a passage from For Adam’s Sake that gives a sense of how both sides operated. In this passage, local authorities have caught John Rogers and his brother-in-law, Samuel Fox, eel fishing on Sunday and convict them of ‘sabbath-breaking.’

Fox paid his fine…. John Rogers was not so compliant. He refused to pay and was imprisoned in the makeshift New London jail.

The Sunday after her brother’s incarceration, Bathshua (Fox’s wife) staged a protest…. She entered the meetinginghouse in the midst of Mr. Saltonstall’s morning service and loudly announced before the assembled congregation that she had performed menial labor in violation of the law. Authorities seized her immediately and put her in the stocks. The commotion of her outburst and apprehension … allowed her brother to escape. When Saltonstall later began the afternoon service, John Rogers appeared back in action—thrusting open the meetinghouse doors pushing a wheelbarrow. It must have been quite a site when the Rogerene leader rolled up toward the pulpit, shrilly calling out his wares (the wheelbarrow almost certainly contained shoes of his own making; the wealthy merchant had taken up the humble craft of cobbling as biblically sanctioned manual labor)…. Members of the congregation pounced on Rogers… Town authorities [then forced] the Rogerene leader to stand fifteen minutes on a ladder with a rope around his neck…. The exercise made little impression on Rogers and they flung him back in jail.

From his crude confinement, John Rogers hung a handwritten “Proclamation” out a window, declaring his opposition to “the Doctrines of Devils”…. For this … the authorities charged him with blasphemy, an accusation that led to his transfer to a more secure imprisonment in Hartford, where he awaited trial and certain conviction in the General Court…. At his sentencing the court required Rogers to submit a bond to secure his good behavior. Rogers deemed the order a sacrilege and refused to comply, so he remained in prison.

[He] ended up serving more than three years in prison at a time when long-term incarceration was extremely rare and highly impractical…. Once Rogers finally did finish out his term, Saltonstall, whose delicate pride had been wounded in the attacks on his sermonizing, brought a civil suit against him for defamation. Saltonstall also served on the bench of the court that determined the outcome—a conflict of interest which the colonial court blithely tolerated—so it was no surprise when the plaintiff-judge won a spectacular and highly retaliatory damage award of six hundred pounds.[6]

In discerning what the Rogerene story may mean for us 300 years later, I want to make three points. First, I don’t support the interruption of someone else’s worship service. You may recall that anti-abortion activists invaded a UU service in New Orleans last July and that I was appalled. To some degree I feel for Mr. Saltonstall’s flock. But the Rogers lived in a different era, where there was no separation of church and state, where the religious and political authority were the same, where the minister was also the judge who heard his own case and decided that case in his own favor. In such a society where alternative religious viewpoints are illegal, interrupting Sunday worship may be the only option when political and religious freedom is at stake. What resonates for me is their willingness to speak out, their willingness to accept consequences in order to express their deeply held convictions. As Unitarian Universalists we are not formal heirs of the Rogerenes, and yet something in their story, their spirit, their courage, their willingness to speak and act on their truths, their concern for freedom both religious and political—something in them resonates with our UU spirit, our UU convictions, our UU principles. They swim in that same great river that eventually became the American liberal tradition we have inherited.  They are kindred spirits in this “Faith of the Larger Liberty.”

Second, the Rogerenes apparently achieved something that was remarkable and difficult in their time, something which remains remarkable and difficult today and yet which we are called to achieve: a diverse, egalitarian, beloved spiritual community. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” We might add: there is no longer gay or straight, trans or cis, young or old, documented or undocumented, rich or poor, imprisoned or free, addicted or sober, mentally ill or mentally well—at our core we are all one, we are all connected, we are all worthy of welcome, respect and love.

Finally, the Rogers family held slaves. They clearly benefitted from holding slaves—it was one source of their wealth. And yet their religious convictions caused them to become increasingly uncomfortable with slaveholding. I said earlier we continue to live today with the legacy of slavery in America. We continue to live in the midst of extraordinary racism. I feel blessed to inherit a liberal religious tradition that calls me to examine and confront this legacy, to confront it within the church, to confront it within the halls of government, to confront it on urban and suburban streets, to confront it with that New England spirit that is both monarch and creed defying.

While we UUs are not formal spiritual descendants of the Rogerenes, I’d like to suggest that we share some of the Rogerene religious and political DNA. We might say we both descend from a common ancestor–a common free church, free faith liberal spirit. We encounter in them not only a distant cousin, but a spiritual ancestor swimming in that great river that gave rise to the faith of the larger liberty, and whose memory we can invoke as we endeavor to build that land where justice rolls down like waters, and peace like an ever-flowing stream; where all are one, all connected, and all worthy of welcome, respect and love.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Silliman, Vincent B., “Faith of the Larger Liberty,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #287.

[2] Adams, James Luther, in Stackhouse, Max, On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976) p. 9.

[3] Di Bonaventura, Allegra, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013).

[4] Di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, p. 32.

[5] Galatians 3:28.

[6] Di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, pp. 49-51.

A Sufficient Quantity of Faith

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In an interview with Krista Tippett for the American Public Media show “On Being,” Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, said, “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”[1] She offers this thought as part of a broader, ongoing, playful yet pointed critique of American Protestantism, which she describes both as “Western individualism run amok in religion” and the “personal me-and-Jesus, how-I-feel, what-my-piety-is, [what]-my-personal-prayer-life-[is]—all of that stuff.”[2] As Unitarian Universalists it is easy to assume this critique doesn’t apply to us because, well, she’s not talking to us; she’s talking to Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc. We don’t get all the jokes about high church Christian theology, but that’s OK. Her message isn’t really for us.

Except maybe it is. I actually think Bolz-Weber’s critique applies more to us than any other tradition, mainly because something at the heart of mid-19th-century Unitarianism—160, 170 years ago—something in its liberal world-view, its revolutionary spirit—something in its encounter with the artistry and theology of European Romanticism, something in it led many of our 19th-century Unitarian forebears to prioritize the individual spiritual search over and above the authority of the church. Something led the Unitarian-minister-turned-Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1841 to pen those enduring words, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”[3] Something led Emerson’s poetic descendent, Walt Whitman, in 1871 to contend “that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion come forth at all.”[4] Something led the author and Unitarian minister, John Weiss, also in 1871, to declare that “America is an opportunity to make a Religion out of the sacredness of the individual.”[5]

While there were certainly Unitarians who prioritized the centrality of the church in this era, the emphasis on the sacredness of the individual began with us and still lives and breathes in Unitarian Universalism today. It may appear different than today’s American Protestant ‘me-and-Jesus’ individualism, but they share the same historical roots. This isn’t commonly understood, but current-day American Christianity has adapted its forms of individualistic spirituality from the Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendentalists and other liberal religionists of the mid-19th century.[6] So, what if faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals? What if faith is only given in sufficient quantity to communities? What might that mean for us?

Our November ministry theme is faith. The last time we used faith as a monthly theme was November, 2010. I recently re-read a sermon I preached on faith at that time, wondering how my thinking has evolved.[7] That sermon was helpful (I hope) in offering to UUs a more relevant definition of faith than the one the larger culture tends to use. If someone knocks at your door and wants to have a conversation about religion, you kinda know what they mean by faith. It likely has something to do with accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, plus the good news that such acceptance is the path to eternal life. Beneath that good news is almost always a set of doctrines about who Jesus is, who God is, and why their church understands these things correctly. This kind of faith requires us to accept propositions for which we have no evidence other than that “the Bible says it.” It requires us to believe the unbelievable. That’s the common definition of faith in our larger culture. It’s certainly a valid definition—not everything we believe must have a rational explanation.[8] But as inheritors of the 19th-century Unitarian appeal to the sacredness of the individual, we need a different definition.

 

In that November, 2010 sermon I quoted Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, who says that the essence of faith, whetherconnected to a deity or not … lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”[9] Similarly, the 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, suggested that faith is the act of placing our confidence in something. He held no expectation that that something be unbelievable or other-worldly. He said “faith should take into account the realm of fact…. Every person is concerned with a basic fact, something in which one has confidence.”[10] This is a definition of faith that can work for people who don’t or can’t believe the unbelievable, for people who need their religious and spiritual lives to be grounded in a reality they can experience through their senses: through touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling; through raising children, caring for others, working for a just society, or digging in dirt. This is a definition of faith that arises not from religious doctrines, but from the concrete experience of our daily lives, the realm of fact.

There is much in which we place our confidence. We are deeply faithful people. As I wrote in my November newsletter column, “we have faith in humanity, creativity, nature, love. We have faith in science, democracy, community, fairness, humility. We have faith in gratitude, children, education, diversity, the earth. We have faith in the seasons, the tides, the warmth of the sun, the darkness of night. We have faith in our neighbors, our principles, our interfaith partners, the words and deeds of prophetic people of all eras. We have faith in modern medicine, ancient healing arts, the comforting assurance of family and friends, the kindness of strangers. We have faith in reason, the power of speaking truth, compassion, honesty. Some have faith in God—a deep and sustaining faith. Some have faith in the ancestors—a deep and sustaining faith. And did I mention love? We put our faith in love.

When I invite you, at the beginning of worship, to find that place inside of you, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, that place where you may go when you yearn for peace, that place where you may go to commune with whatever is holy in your life, that place where you know your truth, where your voice is strong, I am asking you to remember what is most reliable to you. I am asking you to remember those things in which you place your highest confidence. I am asserting that we are people of faith just as much as those who come knocking on doors, or who stand on city street corners yelling, Repent! or who experience a personal, intimate relationship with their lord and savior. By locating that place inside of you, I am keeping continuity with our spiritual forebears. That mid-19th century tradition of honoring the sacredness of the individual remains vibrant among us. For me, our UU identity is so deeply embedded in this tradition that, were we to give it up, we would cease being who we are.

It’s also important to name that not just our UU identity, but a big part of the American identity is rooted in this individualistic tradition, so much so that, without it, we wouldn’t quite recognize America. It would take a series of sermons to unpack this claim, but if in recent years you’ve felt a shift in the American character, it may have to do not with the loss of this tradition but, as the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt contends, with its cooptation by market forces, with its commercialization, with what some call the “‘Oprahfication’ of American religion and culture…the spread of the feel-good spirituality that [Oprah] Winfrey urges upon her fans,”[11] and with what we might describe as the hyper-expressions of this tradition—narcissism and self-absorption that have eviscerated religious and civic connections[12] and, in my view, have spurred the rise of various religious fundamentalisms in the United States.

As far as I can tell, Nadia Bolz-Weber isn’t criticizing the individualistic spiritual tradition in American religion. In fact, she’s a shining example of it. But she is criticizing shallow, surface expressions of this tradition—“me and Jesus and all that stuff.” She’s criticizing the shadow side—the fact that we pay lip service to the sacredness of each individual but often don’t live as if it matters. She’s rightly wary about what individualism in religion can and has become. She understands how hyper-individualism in spiritual and secular settings has taken a toll on community cohesiveness. So, she asks all people of faith to take a TIME OUT! “I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals…. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.”

You could hear this as a re-assertion of the authority of the church over the individual, a call to doctrinal conformity, but she has too many tattoos for that to be true. She’s offering a course correction to Western individualism run amok in religion. She’s calling for balance. She’s reminding us that individualism can only take us so far. No matter how sacred, precious, worthy, and profoundly beautiful each individual soul is, none of us can make it alone. She uses the example of the Apostles Creed, saying “nobody believes every line of the Creed…. But in a room [full] of people … for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”[13] It’s funny, not because it’s a joke, but because it’s true. As a Lutheran minister, she knows that were she to demand that every Lutheran believe every line of the Creed all the time, she would make Lutheranism inaccessible to people who need church in their lives but can’t believe in that “perfect” way. If I were to demand that each UU embody our principles perfectly all the time, I would similarly make Unitarian Universalism inaccessible to many.

The truth is we don’t bring our best selves to each new day. We don’t always live the ideals we aspire to live, let alone those our church calls us to live. We may come to church in profound pain, feeling wounded, broken, lost, empty, anxious or in despair from a difficult diagnosis, a lost job, lost memory, the death of a loved-one, a struggling child, a raging virus, an endless war, catastrophic climate change. Sometimes our faith fails. Whatever we place our confidence in can let us down, can go missing, can forsake us. Faith isn’t given in sufficient quantity to individuals. Sometimes we simply don’t have enough.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough. This is my evolution since 2010: Together we have enough. Faith is given to communities in sufficient quantities. Bolz-Weber says there are times she can’t adhere to the Biblical admonition to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. But, “if I’m at the point where I cannot pray for someone,” she says, “I will say ‘I cannot pray for this person, I really need you to do it for me.’”[14] That’s the power of community: if I can’t get there, there is someone else who can get there for me. There is someone else who can carry my faith until I’m able to carry it again.

This led me to reflect on the ways we’ve responded in worship to mass shootings. I’m remembering in particular the Hartford Distributors shooting in August, 2010 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, 2012—both so close to us here in Manchester. These were worst-nightmares-come-true—the human potential for evil becoming real before our eyes. Many of us, myself included, felt our faith in humanity faltering in a very specific way. We questioned the validity of our first UU principle—the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In the aftermath of such shootings our hearts go out to the victims and their families. We say their names in worship. But what of the shooters? They have crossed a moral line, have launched themselves beyond the pale, have made themselves enemies in the Biblical sense. Our hearts don’t naturally go out to them. Instead we recoil at the thought of them. Yes, we are admonished to love the enemy. Yes, we UUs affirm the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—but surely that doesn’t apply to these shooters? For so many of us it is enormously difficult to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the perpetrator in the aftermath of horrendous evil. Even the act of just saying their name in worship feels like too much.  And yet there were people in our community in both instances who felt strongly that the names of the perpetrators needed to be said, that in addition to their crimes their deaths also needed acknowledgement. To name them in this way does not condone their crimes. It is simply to remember that they were human too. Though something went horribly wrong, they came into this world surrounded by hope and promise too, and their deaths—though different—are tragic too. These shootings were profoundly difficult moments for me, and I was so grateful to know others were keeping my faith for me.

Someone will remember. Even when we can’t, someone will carry our faith for us. And there will be times when we maintain faith for others who can’t—after the difficult diagnosis, the lost job, the loss of memory, the death of a loved-one, as a child struggles, a virus rages, a war continues and climate changes. That compelling tradition of affirming the sacredness of the individual continues to live and breathe in our congregations. But there are times when it isn’t enough. When we come to those times, may we always remember: faith is given in sufficient quantity to communities. And in the midst of community, may we have faith.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self Reliance,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 149.

[4] Whitman, Walt, Democratic Vistas, quoted in Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 4.

[5] Ibid., vi.

[6] My primary resource for making this claim is Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

[7] Pawelek, Josh, “I Know This Rose Will Open: On Being a Person of Faith,” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT,  November 14th, 2010:  http://uuse.org/i-know-this-rose-will-open-reflections-on-being-a-person-of-faith/#.VFOMF_nF-Sp.

[8] Ibid., third paragraph.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002) p. xiii.

[10] Adams, James Luther in Beach, George K., ed, An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 21.

[11] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Restless Souls (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) p. 285.

[12] Schmidt names this phenomenon in the final chapter of Restless Souls. Another take on what I call the “shadow side” of the American tradition of spiritual individualism is Claude Fischer’s blog-post “Self-Absorbed” at http://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/self-absorbed/.

[13] The text to this interview is posted at http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace. Or watch the interview at http://vimeo.com/73913123. The segment I refer to in this sermon begins at 1:08:53.

[14] Ibid.

“Dealing With Our Spiritual Stuff” or “Reclaiming our Liberal Inheritance”

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

 

 

“There’s a river flowin’ in my soul”—words from Alabama civil rights attorney, state judge, play-write, songwriter, and community-builder Rose Sanders, also known as Faya Ora Rose Touré.[1] “There’s a river flowin’ in my soul and it’s tellin’ me that I’m somebody.”[2]

I am somebody. You are somebody. I matter. You matter. I don’t know for sure what Touré had in mind when she wrote “There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul,” but given her long and distinguished career as a civil rights attorney and activist, her dedication to the black community in Alabama, across the nation and even globally, her focus on reforming educational systems to address the race-based achievement gap, I’m guessing she wrote this song originally to inspire young black people in her community who were experiencing the impacts of institutional racism and generational poverty, and hearing messages from the larger culture, over and over again, that they don’t matter, that they are nobody—which of course is a lie. The song is meant to dispel a lie. It is meant to speak truth to a larger power—what some might call a demonic power—that keeps telling the pernicious and often deadly lie that some people matter and some people don’t.

This sermon is about our spiritual inheritance as Unitarian Universalist and more generally as liberal religious people. Touré’s song, though I assume not written explicitly for us, certainly speaks to and affirms the foundation of our spiritual inheritance, our principle of the “inherent worth and dignity of every person;” the notion—which we receive from both the Universalist and Unitarian sides of our heritage—that everyone matters, no one is left behind, all are welcome, all are worthy of love, all are saved—no exceptions. Two hundred years ago, in its various liberal Christian forms, this was a radical, liberating and loving message in an American religious landscape that was quite grim and fearful, filled with warnings of God’s judgment and wrath, filled with images of eternal suffering amidst hellfire and brimstone. Today, though we don’t typically express it in its traditional Christian forms, this message of inherent human worth and dignity, which we have extended to include all life—the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—remains a radical, liberating and loving message in a global religious landscape that on one side features a variety of divisive fundamentalisms preaching a variety of eternal damnations and even on occasion inciting followers to commit acts of sacred violence; and on the other side features growing pockets of people who, for a variety of reasons, could care less about religion, viewing it as outdated, hypocritical, insular, irrelevant and, often, abusive.

I’m grateful to Faya Ora Rose Touré for her song. There’s a river flowin’ in my soul, and in your soul. I am somebody. You are somebody. I matter. You matter. This is one way of expressing our spiritual inheritance. This is one way of expressing a radical, liberating, loving message to a hurting, fearful, violent, apathetic 21st century global community. However….

Did you know that was coming? If you’ve been paying attention to me over the years, you know, at about this point in the sermon, it’s time for however or but or still or yet or except that or on the other hand. This morning is no exception.

We chose inheritance as this month’s ministry theme for a number of reasons. Most importantly, we chose it to remind ourselves it is critical, from time to time, to reflect on the gifts of those who came before us, those upon whose shoulders we rest, the legacies our spiritual forebears bequeath to us, the principles that reside at the heart of our religious heritage. It’s important to know where we’ve come from. Such knowledge helps us know who we are today, helps us confront the challenges we face today, helps us imagine and plan for our future.

We also chose inheritance because we kick off our annual appeal this month. We’re going to be asking each of us to make the most generous financial gift possible to this congregation, not only to support its day-to-day, week-to-week functioning, but so that it can keep its promises, fulfill its mission, and continue to thrive. We remind ourselves that those of us here today inherit this congregation from those who came before, from those who’ve given so generously over the years of their time, energy, talent and money to establish and grow this beacon of liberal religion here on beautiful Elm Hill in Manchester’s northeast corner, near the Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River. When you give a financial gift to UUS:E you are helping to ensure that future generations will inherit this congregation, embrace its mission, continue its traditions, and keep the beacon burning brightly.

However, don’t we hear stories about disputes over inheritance tearing families apart? One sibling gets a greater share of the estate than the others and legal wrangling ensues. I don’t know how often this happens. I’ve definitely seen it happen. It’s sad and often inexplicable when it happens, though I’m also mindful that conflict in families is normal. It only becomes a problem when it isn’t managed well. My guess is most disputes over inheritance happen in families that have a history of not managing conflict well. We might say they have stuff to work out—“stuff” being the polite way of saying it. They need to deal with their stuff. And when we say this, we’re not ultimately talking about material or money. We’re talking about the quality of their relationships. Strong relationships—trusting, respectful, supportive, loving relationships—can withstand virtually any conflict.

I want to suggest that Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people in general have a dispute over our inheritance and we need to deal with our spiritual stuff. It’s not a dispute over money—though certainly there are individual congregations who are conflicted about money. I don’t know a congregation that doesn’t have some level of tension with regard to money. It’s normal and it’s not what I’m talking about. I think Unitarian Universalists experience a very deep though largely unspoken and even unrecognized conflict over what to do with our spiritual inheritance—how to use it, how to spend it, what it’s for, what it even means to be liberal religious people in this hurting, fearful, violent, apathetic, 21st-century global community. We all receive the inheritance, but what do we do with it?

As a way of understanding this conflict, consider this question: Why do you come to services on Sunday mornings—at this church or any church, or any religious organization? I’ll give you two options for answers. First, you come to get your spiritual needs met. You come in search of community, personal connections, comfort, solace, peace, beauty, a place to breathe, to heal, to learn, to grow, to gain insight, to get religious education for your children and yourself, to be reminded there’s a river flowin’ in your soul tellin’ you you’re somebody. You come for your spiritual inheritance, that message that you have worth and dignity, that you matter.

Or, second, you come because you see suffering and injustice in the world. You’re looking for a spiritual home that will direct you back out into the world as an agent of healing and transformation, a builder of community, a justice-maker, a peace-bringer. You don’t come to receive your spiritual inheritance for your own sake. You come because you want to take that message out to the world and make it real in the world, for everyone, and for the world.

It may not seem like it at first glance, but these two responses are in conflict. They don’t have to be. They shouldn’t be. But they tend to be. I think both sides of this conflict are important, both have a role to play in congregational life. But I contend if we don’t understand how they relate to each other, how they interact with each other—if we favor one over the other—we squander our spiritual inheritance.

Earlier I read to you from the 20th-century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams. Adams was fond of asking his parishioners, students and readers, “What is the essence of liberalism?” His answer? Liberalism is filled with tension and ambiguity. It is “divided against itself.”[3] He siad this in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but we experience the same internal division today. I don’t know this for a fact, but I speculate that after World War II, Adams observed the birth of the baby boom generation, the beginnings of white and wealth flight from American cities, the rise of a new consumption-based American economy, the emergence of suburbs, and the corresponding founding of new, largely wealthy congregations far away from the urban, sometimes poor, sometimes ethnic neighborhoods where they had previously been located. These new, suburban congregations of the post-war era were designed primarily to provide ministry to and meet the spiritual needs of their own members. This is a general rule—there are many exceptions, especially during the civil rights movement—but post-war suburban congregations were insular and internally focused: focused on healing the spiritual hurts of their own members; focused on developing their own institutional programs; focused on maintaining their endowments for some future they couldn’t actually name; focused on their own children’s religious education; and not focused, except in a very distant way—usually through charitable giving and mission trips—on the world beyond; not focused on social and economic justice; not focused on prophetic and transformational ministries and partnerships in the larger community; and definitely not focused on earth-based and eco-justice ministries.

 

Adams witnessed this pattern and he was angry. He said: “The faith of a church or of a nation is an adequate faith only when it inspires and enables people to give of their time and energy to shape the various institutions—social, economic and political—of the common life. A faith in the commanding, sustaining, transforming reality is one that tries to shape history.”[4] Remember, he’s a liberal. When he talks about faith, he’s talking about liberal faith. When he writes about the church, he’s writing about the liberal church. How should the liberal church shape history? It should liberate people “from tyranny, provincialism, and arbitrariness and thus contribute to the meaningful fulfillment of human existence.”[5] “Any other faith,” he said, “is thoroughly undependable; it is also, in the end, impotent. It is not a faith that molds history. It is a faith that enables history to crush humanity. Its ministry prepares people to adjust to the crushing by focusing on, and salving, the personal experiences of hurt.”[6] What were those post-war suburban churches doing? They were meeting the needs of their members, salving their personal experiences of hurt. They were not shaping history through acts of liberation. They were retreating from history. That’s the conflict. That’s the tension. Do you come to get your needs met, or do you come to shape history? That’s our spiritual stuff. If we’re not crystal clear about it, we squander our spiritual inheritance. Why do we come to church?

I love James Luther Adams. For me a foundational aspect of the liberal religious identity is being part of movements to liberate people from injustice and oppression as well as movements to sustain the earth. But as much as I love Adams, his critique of the church is not entirely fair. He’s not being completely honest about the realities of congregational life then or now. The inner conflict he describes is real. ut the question isn’t which side is more important. The question is how do the two sides work together?

The church has to meet the spiritual needs of its members. The world does take a toll on us—even the most privileged among us. Life weighs us down from time to time. We come with hurts, wounds, loss and pain. We need the message that there’s a river flowin’ in our soul and it’s tellin’ us we’re somebody, that we’re loved, that we matter—no exceptions.

We absolutely need to hear that—and we deserve to hear it. Because it’s true. And because it’s our spiritual inheritance. Shame on us if we don’t avail ourselves of it. But if that’s all we do—if we remain internally-focused—if church is only about meeting our own needs—then Adams is correct: our faith is inadequate, self-serving and oblivious; as he says, it’s “a form of assistance to the powers of evil in public life.”[7]

On the other hand, let’s imagine we pay no attention to our own spiritual needs. Let’s imagine a church that sends its people out to liberate the world, yet those people are themselves hurting, wounded, thirsty, dry, exhausted. They can’t speak from a place of spiritual depth because their church does not nurture their spirits. They aren’t centered or grounded because they have no place to breath, to reflect, to be still, to pray. They feel no joy because they have no place to sing and dance. They feel alone because they have no place to connect. They’re in no condition to shape history. They are in no condition to liberate anyone because they have failed to liberate themselves.

But if we come to church to get our spiritual needs met—to breath, meditate and pray, to sing and dance, to encounter beauty, to learn, grow and stretch, to reconnect, to be rejuvenated, to be inspired—so that we may then go out beyond these walls and shape history for the sake of liberation, for the sake of spreading the good news of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to proclaim to all people “there’s a river flowin’ in your soul and it’s tellin’ you you’re somebody,” then we’re not only receiving our spiritual inheritance, we’re using it as it was intended.

It is about us; and it is about the world. We need to sustain and strengthen this congregation precisely so that it can meet our spiritual needs, precisely so that we can participate in acts of liberation. In this way, we reclaim, again and again, our liberal religious spiritual inheritance.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] See biographical information for Faya Ora Rose Touré at http://www.answers.com/topic/faya-ora-rose-tour.

[2] Sanders, Rose, “There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1007.

[3] Adams, James Luther, “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” in Stackhouse, Max, ed., On Being Human Religiously (Boston: UUA, 1976) p. 5.

[4] Ibid. p. 18.

[5] Ibid., p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 18.

[7] Ibid., p. 18.