On Ancestors, Slavery, and Religious Dissent

Rev. Josh Pawelek

A Rogerene Interruption“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.

Before the Song at the Sea

Matt Meyer

 

Matt Meyer

Matt Meyer

The song at the sea must have been an incredible party.  The Israelites have made it to safety.  The Red Sea has swallowed up their enemies, and their powerful god has liberated them from generations of slavery.   

And you have to imagine that the actual walking through the Red Sea, when the waters had parted, leaving them this magnificent passageway to freedom. Well that must have been pretty incredible too.  

If you’re like me, you have a pretty clear mental image of the event, as Charlton Heston raises his staff and a mighty wind comes and parts the waters.  But there is another story of the way that it happened that has come down to us through the Jewish tradition.  

The story says, that when Moses and his people were trapped between the Egyptian Army and the sea, the people had begun yelling at Moses, asking why he had led them out of the safety of Egypt.  He asked God “what now?”  God rebuked Moses and told him to tell his people to just keep on walking and stop doubting. 

So a man named Nachson, a leader of his tribe, begins to wade on into the water.   He steps in, expecting the waters to part, but they don’t.  So we walks in up to his waist, expecting them to part, but they don’t.  When the water is up to his neck, he expects it to part, and it does not.  It is only when the sea is up to his nostrils, we are told that God opens up the path before him.  

God wanted to free the Israelites, but first they had to do their part.  Liberation didn’t come because they sat back in comfort and asked nicely. If you have ever worked to get our government, or any major institution or corporation, for that matter to change its way, the story of Nachson may feel familiar to you.  He was in almost over his head, before the way started to clear. 

-wade in the water-

 Why would he do such a thing?  What gives a person such solid faith in the path before them? 

Sometimes I hear stories about people I admire, and I try to ask myself, who am I in this story?  To be honest, I’m probably not Nachson.  I’m probably not pharaoh, or Moses either.  I’d like to think, of the bystanders watching Nachson walk into the sea, I would have at least been one of the supportive ones.  “Keep up the good work Nachson, I’ll be right behind you as soon as the path is dry!”

Shane Clairborn, a radical Christian activist, worked to set up an intentional community where people can not only believe in Jesus, but follow the example of Jesus’ life, by holding property in common and loving their neighbors in action as well as words.   To hear him tell his story though, of fundraising and conflict and getting his jaw broken in a rough neighborhood, he often seems to be in a little over his head.  But, Shane says, “Some of us have just caught a glimpse of the promised land, and it is so dazzling that our eyes are forever fixed on it, never to look back at the ways of that old empire again.” 

I imagine that Nachson, had seen somewhere in his heart, a dazzling glimpse of the promised land.   He saw clearly where he and his people were at, with a powerful and angry army coming up behind them, and he saw where they were headed  – through troubled water, and onto freedom.  The path from here to there was clear, and no sea was going to stop him from walking it. 

-wade in the water- 

One of the first real discussions I ever participated in on the subject of racism was a white-identity group at UUA General Assembly many years ago. 

We were in an oversized room in a convention center, a dozen white college and high school students sitting in a circle.  Someone said these words that hit me.  The said, “Racism is the name a system that pushes down one group, People of Color.  But the other half of the system is a process of lifting up another group, white people.  

I have gone on to learn more since then, about what that lifting up and putting down looks like in real life, but that first sentence, that definition, articulated, what had been for me, the missing half of the story on race.  

This other half of the story included me – included my place in things. I started to look back on my life at these invisible forces that, like gravity, shaped the world around me and pushed me, so silently, in a certain direction:          

-that time the police let me go with a warning,

 -the first good paying job I got through a family friend,

-everyone who said I looked like a “natural’ leader,

-the private school I went to,

-the other time the police let me go with a warning,

-the honors classes I took, strangers who naturally trusted me,

-my own trust in the government to be on my side,

-and last but not least, the other time that the police let me go with a warning. 

Coming to look honestly at my place in this old empire of ours has felt at times like being in over my head.  How uncomfortable to realize that despite my best intentions, I am sometimes in the position of the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians and that I am at the same time also the Egyptians.  

Most of the Egyptians weren’t bad people, you know, they were part of an unjust system, where exploitation of the most vulnerable was just built into the their economy.  

The sneaky thing about white privilege is that I did not ask for it.  

It’s like finding some extra money in my pants pocket after doing the laundry.  

All along the way, my employers, and the police, and locally funded schools, and standardized tests, and family connections, and the housing market, have all been slipping money and other privileges into my back pocket, and I never even needed to pay attention to it.  In fact, I was encouraged not to. 

But walking intentionally into uncomfortable conversations about race, going into the discomfort, sometimes up to my neck has given me, if not a glimpse of the promised land, at least a vision of the way toward it. 

Once the Israelites were out in the desert, and the way forward looked difficult, some among them we are told, asked Moses to take them back to the more comfortable land of Egypt and back to slavery, rather than trust that they could cross the sea.  I can understand that. 

What’s a white person to do when we inherit money accumulated by our parents or grandparents in a time when their careers and even their neighborhoods were closed to people of color.  

What’s a man to do when corporations slip an extra 30% in income into our back pockets, just for being male bodied.  

What’s a heterosexual to do when federal marriage law slips some extra money in our back pockets for loving someone of a different gender.  

Looking around to the systems of inequity in this old empire that surrounds us, is uncomfortable. Finding all those dollar bills and benefits in my back pocket, feels a little like being trapped in Egypt as an Egyptian.  Living in comfort made affordable by the cheap labor of exploited people.  The Israelites had a plan for liberation, but what of the middle class Egyptians.  The story doesn’t tell us if any of them felt uncomfortable with their place in things.  

I am stunned by the courage of that Mexican man on the immigration rides in Arizona, who at great personal risk boarded a very public bus in order to speak his truth about humanity in an unjust system. 

But I am equally impressed by the white woman who sat near him and was willing to get into that struggle up to her neck. I had thought perhaps that she would have had nothing to lose, by showing her identification to the authorities, but she sought a greater purpose.  Perhaps she saw a glimpse of the promised land, through the realization of living her values in troubled water. 

Our broken immigration system is troubled water. 

A public school system that fast-tracks some to college and some to jail, is troubled water. 

A consumer culture that urges us to find comfort in things at the expense of relationship is troubled water. 

The separation of people according to racial profiling is troubled water. 

Wading through those troubled waters of injustice can bring us to the other side, where we can realize the promised land of justice, equity and compassion in our human relationships.  

I don’t know if there is a god out there somewhere who has specific opinions about how we go about bringing change to the material world.  My experience though, tells my that god or no god, some plans work better than others.  Sitting back in comfort and asking nicely for change, tends not to work.  It is rare to find a story of societal transformation, without some troubled water.  Without someone moving forward into the depths, holding fast to a vision of the promised land.

-Wade in the water- 

The African-American spiritual, Wade in the Water, comes from the new testament story of the pools of Bethesda, where we’re told a multitude of people waited by it’s shores, because it was known that in certain seasons, god would trouble the water, and the first one into the pool when the water was troubled would be healed of all their ailments. 

In a story of exodus from slavery in our own nation Harriet Tubman was said to sing this song, to tell slaves on the run, that they should follow the water-way, so the dogs would not be follow their scent. 

I can’t say for sure, which character in the Exodus story I would have been.  But I can say that I’ve known some modern-day Nachson’s (say modern-day Nachson) and am planning to try my best to follow them into the water. 

Coming of age in Unitarian Universalist community challenged me to think about how change happens.  From the World as it is to the world as it might be. We have a strong tradition of heresy that, I hope, isn’t coming to an end any time soon. 

I invite you to join me in the heresy of returning any unearned money you find in your back pocket.  I invite you to think of a modern day Nachson in your life and ask them how they do it.  I invite you to wade into the troubled water, of discomfort, of conversation, of action.  I invite you to turn your back on this old empire of ours and join in recommitting to a Unitarian Universalism that speaks of a promised land here and now, and walks steadily into the water to get there together. 

 

The Time Where Words End: Reflections on Humility

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Come, my way, my truth, my life, such a way as gives us breathe, such a truth as ends all strife, such a life that killeth death.”[1]

Words of George Herbert, a seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet; words that invite, beckon, welcome; words that help frame for me the way we arrive at humility.

Humility is our ministry theme for December. For most of us I suspect humility isn’t one of those loaded spiritual words; it isn’t one of those traditional words that raise our hackles, one of those vaguely unpleasant pin-prick words; it isn’t one of those haunting religious words. In fact, for many of us it’s not even religious. It’s as secular as it is spiritual. Humility is a character trait, a demeanor, a manner, a personality type, a way of holding or conducting oneself that creates space for others, that allows others to breathe; it’s a way of moving lightly through the world, walking softly upon the earth; it’s an open, inviting, welcoming, hospitable way of engaging others. It’s a way of service. It’s a virtue. We often know it when we see it and, in general, we appreciate it—even admire it—in others. And there’s something oddly—and at times confoundingly—elusive, even paradoxical, about it.

In short, I’ve learned over the years that when I try to be humble—when humility is my goal—I typically fail. It’s as if I can’t get there from here. I can’t just wake up in the morning and resolve to be humble. I’ve learned I can’t just leave my home after breakfast thinking, I’m going to be humble today, and expect to arrive at humility. Or when I feel badly about yelling at my kids and I say to myself, I’m not gonna do that anymore, I’m gonna be more humble: saying that to myself might get me fifteen seconds of humility (and I’m pretty sure it’s not genuine). Simply resolving to be humble is not the path to humility. Something else needs to happen. Something needs to call me out of myself—or perhaps deeper into myself. Something needs to stop me in my tracks, take my breath away, make me pause, make me still, make me quiet.

Come, my way, my truth, my life. Earlier I shared with you Rev. Mark Belletini’s meditation “Earth.” For me it’s one among many good descriptions of the kind of something that needs to happen in order for humility to rise in us. He writes: “This is our earth. / There are no other earths. / Before its wonder, philosophers fall silent. / Before its mystery, / poets admit their words are shadow, not light. / And all the great names religious teachers / have left to us / Ishtar, Shekinah, Terra Mater, Suchness, Wakan Tanka, / Gaia / suddenly refuse to announce themselves. / And so we too fall silent, / entering the time where words end / and reality begins.[2]

Times where words end. There are moments when one’s voice grows silent, when the self seems to dissolve, when the ego suddenly lies dormant. In such moments I find I more easily remember what matters most. I remember my highest values, my commitments. I feel called to dedicate or re-dedicate my life to some reality or purpose greater than me. I feel called to surrender in some way to that reality or purpose; called to let go and trust I’m being led in a good direction; called to relinquish some aspect of myself, making room for something new. Come, my way, my truth, my life. In such moments, when I’m not actually seeking to be humble, I’m more likely to arrive at humility. That’s the paradox: we can’t just decide to be humble. Humility rises in us as a result of something else: having no words, falling silent, surrendering, letting go, relinquishing; dedicating our lives to some reality or purpose greater than ourselves.

As I began working on this sermon I was focusing on one of Jesus’ parables in the book of Luke. Along the way I started arguing with the parable and decided it was better not to start there. I want to read it to you now and then explain my contention with it, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”[3]

I like this parable for a number of reasons, though mainly for its overall message that humility is a virtue, while unchecked pride, hypocrisy, vanity and their ilk are problematic. What challenges me about this parable is its black and white view of the world and human nature, its either/or thinking about how one ought to relate to the Holy, the stark line it draws between virtue and vice, the strict dichotomy it builds between acts of humbling oneself and acts of exalting oneself. Our lives aren’t always so clear, and I actually don’t want to live in a society with such absolute clarity. I think it’s more realistic—and more honest—to note that humility and pride can and do comingle in us. They balance each other. Both can contribute to our spiritual, mental and physical health and the line between them isn’t always clear.

Here’s an example of how this lack of clarity—perhaps it’s better to say balance—recently manifested in my life. Two Tuesday evenings ago about forty of us were standing outside the Hartford Public Library observing the Transgender Day of Remembrance. During that observation I was invited to speak. I was certainly humbled to receive that invitation. But I was also proud. I was proud to be recognized as an ally of the transgender community. I was proud to be recognized as a local faith leader. I was proud to be recognized for my speaking ability. I was proud to be a faith leader speaking to, for and with people who are so often excluded from faith communities. I was proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. I was proud to be the minister of this congregation. I was proud of our young people who were holding our bright yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” banner. I was overflowing with pride. And in a moment like that there’s no way on earth I’m going to minimize that pride. On the contrary, I’m going to reveal it. I’m going to let it shine. I’m going to speak with volume. I’m going to speak forcefully. I’m going to put some ego into my speech. And if I believed in the kind of God to whom I could describe this scene in prayer—I would probably sound a lot more like the Pharisee than the tax collector. Like the Pharisee’s prayer, my prayer would sound like self-exaltation. No apologies.

But I also know there’s more to it than that. Come, my way, my truth, my life. In the midst of that pride, I also recognize more fundamental reasons for being at the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s not because I might get to speak. It’s not because I’m a Unitarian Universalist or a faith leader. It’s because I believe that bearing witness to violence and oppression matters. I believe that doing whatever we can to stem the tide of violence against transgender people matters; and that doing whatever we can to stem the tide of violence on city streets and in homes and against undocumented immigrants and between Israel and Hamas and on and on and on matters. It’s because I believe that asserting the value, dignity and integrity of transgender lives matters. And it’s because I hold the larger conviction—and I think we all share it—that all lives matter, that all people are worthy, that all people deserve to be treated with love and compassion, that all people ought to be able to participate fully in the life of our various communities and ought to be welcomed in doing so. This conviction—which is also a commitment—is in me, but it didn’t come from me. I suppose it has many sources, but first and foremost I experience it as a movement of spirit in my life. I feel I’m constantly being led to it. And while I don’t always feel like following, in those moments when I do let go and allow myself to be led, when I do surrender, when I do relinquish, in addition to whatever feeling of pride washes over me, a feeling of humility also rises in me. In that moment it doesn’t matter if the attention is focused on me. It doesn’t matter if I speak. It doesn’t matter if I’m a leader. It doesn’t matter if I’m a Unitarian Universalist. It doesn’t matter if there’s a bright, yellow “Standing on the Side of Love Banner.” It only matters that we’re present and willing to help.

I have a further, perhaps more global concern about drawing a very strict division between humility as a virtue and pride as a vice. In the midst of such moral certitude I get antsy thinking about all the people in the world who are in some way voiceless, powerless, oppressed. I think of the way humility was taught as a virtue to slaves on southern plantations in the hope they would be less likely to rebel against their masters. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as a virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the voiceless from cultivating their voice. No need to speak out. Just accept your station in life. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as a virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the powerless from seeking power. Patience. It’s not your time yet. I’m mindful that humility can be held up as virtue whose subtle and not-so-subtle purpose is to keep the oppressed from seeking their liberation. No need to change the way things are. Look forward to your reward in Heaven. But to the extent such ploys succeed they do not lead to genuine humility. At most they engender a warped and manipulated version of humility—a virtue adopted only because the ego has been assaulted and worn down; a virtue adopted only because pride and self-esteem have been eroded; a virtue adopted only because fear and self-loathing have made healthy exaltation impossible. This is what humility looks like—or certainly can look like—in a black and white, either/or moral landscape. I get antsy. I do not want to be a minister—and I do not want us to be a congregation—who counsels humility in those moments when what a person or a people needs to do is speak up, speak out, name their pride, express their anger, claim their power, advocate, struggle, fight and achieve liberation.

I was speaking with Jerry DeWitt on Friday. He’s the Louisiana-based Pentecostal-minister-turned-atheist who was profiled in the “New York Times Magazine” this past August. He’s now writing a book called After Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism. We’re zeroing in on a date for him to speak here in April. He was talking to me about how he understands his mission these days which includes his notion—a simple, profound notion—that everyone deserves the opportunity to express themselves. Everyone needs a voice.  I think he’s right, and I trust this is not a controversial idea here. It resonates seamlessly with our first Unitarian Universalist principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It has been central to Unitarian and Universalist identity for generations. I think it is fair to say it has been central to American liberalism since its inception. But ever since I was a child growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation I’ve been hearing, in various forms, a question about balance. Is it possible we’ve placed too much attention on the individual’s voice and not enough attention on what lies beyond the individual? Can we have a lasting faith if, at its core, all we discover is that each individual has the right to express themselves? Isn’t there something greater that binds us together? Or on a more personal level: Is my spiritual life just about self-expression? Is it ultimately just about me?

Of course, my faith can’t be just about me. Our faith can’t be just about each individual voice. It can’t be just about ego, as beautiful, creative and prophetic as the works of our egos may be. There’s got to be more. And there is. I love the way Rev. Walsh answers these questions in his reading, “On Buying a Cemetery Plot.” He says, “I have a desire to be remembered…. Is this vanity? Yeah. But it’s my vanity. And it’s an orderly and traditional kind of vanity. So to heck with it, I bought the plot.”[4] He’s honoring his ego, he’s honoring his voice. He doesn’t name it explicitly, but he’s proud. He wants to be remembered.  Then he shifts. He moves away from his focus on him and his vanity and starts reflecting on death. In the language I’ve been using, he’s orienting himself towards a reality greater than himself—toward a time where words end. He says “Cemeteries help us acknowledge and accept our limits….[and] Until we can live in the presence of death, we will not know the value of life—we will not be fully grateful for the gift of life, and we will not be prepared to make full use of this gift to enjoy and serve the Creation.”[5] I read this as a movement across a continuum from healthy pride to healthy humility, from “I want to be remembered,” to “I want to serve the Creation.” Come, my way, my truth, my life. There are times where words end, moments when our voice grows silent, when our self seems to dissolve, when our ego suddenly lies dormant; moments when we remember what matters most—our highest values, our commitments, the people and places we love; moments when we feel called to dedicate or re-dedicate our lives to some reality or purpose greater than ourselves; moments when we surrender to that reality or purpose; moments when we let go and trust we’re being led in a good direction; moments when it does not matter if we speak, if we’re the hero, the leader, the performer, the sage, the expert, the wise one; moments where it does not matter if we’re Unitarian Universalist or any other faith. In such moments it only matters that we are present and willing to serve the Creation. In such moments words end and a genuine humility can rise in us.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1]Herbert, George, “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #89.

[2]Bulletin, Mark, “Earth” Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 32.

[3]Luke 18: 9-14.

[4]Walsh, Robert, “On Buying a Cemetery Plot,” Stone Blessings (Boston: Skinner House, 2010) p. 48.

[5] Ibid., p. 48-49.