A Wilderness Faith

Reflecting on his service in Afghanistan, U.S. Army chaplain and Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. George Tyger, writes, “I know love / For it is love that has kept me alive / Not bombs / Not bullets / Not body armor / These only kept me from dying / Love keeps me living.”[1] That is essentially the message of this sermon. If our Unitarian Universalist faith is to serve us well in the wilderness—and I’ll say more about how I’m using the word wilderness this morning—then love must live at its center.

Love at the Center

I’ve heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that Unitarian Universalism is not a real religion, that our faith works fine when life is good, but offers no reliable assurances in the face of tragedy, injustice, evil, death; that our faith works fine for those who come for worship on Sunday morning, but does not travel well beyond the walls of our buildings. I’ve not yet finished reading George Tyger’s War Zone Faith, but if his ministry in 2011 and 2012 to the 1500 soldiers of the 1st Squadron, 10th US Calvary Regiment stationed in and around Kandahar City, Afghanistan—the “spiritual home of the Taliban”—is any indication, then I feel confident Unitarian Universalism’s liberal faith—its appeal to reason, its tolerance for ambiguity and difference, its call for social justice, its assertion of human dignity and its emphasis on love—holds up under some of the most dangerous conditions on the planet. If Rev. Tyger’s testimony is any indication, this liberal faith travels remarkably well.

Rev. George Tyger

Though let me be clear: I am not suggesting that any Unitarian Universalist minister, including me, could do what Rev. Tyger does, or that all one has to do is show up in a war zone and start talking about the love at the heart of his or her Unitarian Universalist faith. That’s not what Rev. Tyger does. He has a gift for battlefield ministry. And while he is clear in his writing that he doesn’t want us to romanticize his ministry or present overstated caricatures of his service, in my view his ability to provide chaplaincy to soldiers in combat is extraordinary. His Unitarian Universalism holds up well in a war zone because of who he is, because of his rare courage, and because of his unique ability to communicate his loving faith—to make it relevant in the midst of bullets, bombs, body armor and body bags. When I  say our UU faith travels well beyond the walls of our buildings, I also acknowledge that no faith travels all by itself. People carry their faith with them, and specific people carry their faith into specific situations. Our faith has the greatest impact in the world when our gifts and talents are well-suited to the demands of the situation we find ourselves in—whether we feel called to be there or whether we arrive there by accident. Rev. Tyger has a gift for battlefield ministry. For me, this begs the questions, “What is your gift?” and “Where and how does your love for people and the world express itself most clearly?” I invite you to take these questions into this summer season. It’s important that we know the answer to these questions because, in the end, the measure of the “realness” of any religion has little to do with what that religion says or writes about itself—or how catchy its promotional videos are. It has everything to do with how that religion inspires its people to live their faith by using their gifts to bring more love into the world.

I want to share some thoughts on living our faith not only beyond the walls of our congregation, but in any situation we might call a wilderness situation. As a reminder, our ministry theme for June is wilderness. A few weeks ago I preached about the connection between the wilderness around us and the wilderness within us. I suggested that traditional religion often identifies wilderness as a place of trial, challenge and temptation—a place where something bad happens, where some wicked thing lurks—and if we can overcome it, meet the challenge, resist the temptation, then we can return to the safety of civilization having matured in our faith, having deepened our humanity. While I do think this is one important narrative for understanding the role wilderness plays in our spiritual lives, I also made the case for a second narrative. Wilderness is not only the place where we face challenges and trials. It is also the place where we encounter the things we hold most sacred; where the Holy actually lives and speaks out beyond the bounds of all established jurisdictions; where we find solace and peace; and where we gain strength to resist the various evils civilization has created and perpetuated among human beings.

This morning I want to explore how we engage the wilderness around us. I’m combining elements of both spiritual wilderness narratives. I’m not talking about the forests, the jungles, the deserts or the mountains—though I do believe the Holy lives and speaks there. Rather, I’m talking about difficult, challenging situations, painful situations that demand a faithful response from us—whether they occur in the actual wilderness of the natural world, or in the heart of civilization; whether they occur within the walls of our meeting house, or beyond them. I’m talking about the wilderness of the devastating diagnosis, the death of a loved-one, or the loss of a job. The Holy lives and speaks there too. It must. I’m talking about the wilderness of mental illness, of addiction, of loneliness. I’m talking about the wilderness of estrangement in families, the breakdown of relationships, watching a loved-one engage again and again in self destructive behavior. The Holy lives and speaks there too. It must.

Pain and Suffering

I’m also talking about the wilderness of war zones, the wilderness of bullets, bombs and body bags, because the Holy must live and speak there too. I’m talking about the wilderness of more than one in five American children living in poverty,[2] because the Holy must live and speak there too. I’m talking about failing schools, gun violence, mass incarceration and the erosion of civil rights for Voting Rights Actpeople of color because, in addition to its positive rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 this week, the Supreme Court also eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, opening the doors to a myriad of efforts to restrict access to voting and, in my view, thereby stunting and even reversing the progress of American democracy. The Holy cries out in that wilderness too, demanding a faithful response. I’m also talking about the wilderness of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, because yes, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA—an enormous victory for people standing on the side of love and justice. But there are still 38 state DOMAs on the books; and while some of those, I expect, will disappear quickly, most of them will not go down without a fight. Winning that fight will require people of faith to continue bearing witness to the injustice of marriage inequality and to express the tenets of their religion in the public square with courage and conviction. The Holy must live and speak in that struggle too.

Oftentimes the wilderness—whatever form it takes in our lives—feels overwhelming. The word “bewildering” makes sense. It is hard to comprehend at first. There’s an opaqueness to it. It is often unbelievable. Receiving a cancer diagnosis, unless you have some strong prior indication, is unbelievable. The tragic death of a loved-one is unbelievable. The statistics on the number of Black and Hispanic men wrapped up in the criminal justice system are unbelievable. The statistics on the educational achievement gap are unbelievable. Child poverty, unbelievable.  Lack of access to quality, affordable health care, still unbelievable. So many lives are at stake. Always at first the wilderness seems overwhelming, unapproachable, insurmountable, dangerous, deadly, bewildering.

Consider this generalization about Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalists often respond to wilderness situations not from the heart but from the head. If this statement rings true to you, please understand it is far less true than it sounds, but it is true enough—and out there in the larger culture enough—that some people allege ours is not a real religion. It’s not the only reason people make this allegation, but it’s one of them. Often our first response to wilderness situations is to seek information and data. These days we Google it. Don’t hear me wrong, I feel strongly that in order to respond faithfully to the wilderness around us, we do need to acquire information about what is going on. We need the facts. Information makes the wilderness less opaque, less bewildering, less unapproachable (though not necessarily less dangerous). Speaking specifically about the wilderness of injustice and oppression, it is essential that we analyze it; that we figure out how it works, why it is so pervasive in so many aspects of our society, and why it is so difficult to dismantle. In conducting such analyses, we ask questions like “Where is the money coming from?” Or “What is the money paying for?” We ask questions like, “Who benefits from this injustice?” or “Who has the power in this institution?” We ask historical questions like, “Why did this injustice come into being in the first place?” In the language of community organizing, we call this a power analysis. For years, working on antiracism organizing within the Unitarian Universalist Association and in different cities and towns in Connecticut I’ve heard myself say over and over again—because I was trained to say it—“We need a common power analysis of racism before we can work to dismantle it.” And those words are true. But in reflecting on this aspect of my ministry over the last fifteen years, I recognize that sometimes I’ve become too mired in analysis. I’ve stayed too much in my head. And my faithful response has been less than effective. There’s some truth to the generalization.

As essential as it is to have an accurate analysis of unjust and oppressive systems, we cannot confuse having an analysis with having a faith adequate for the wilderness. We need something more. We need love. I’m reminding myself of this as much as I’m preaching it to you. Rev Tyger says, “I know love / For it is love that has kept me alive / Not bombs / Not bullets / Not body armor / These only kept me from dying / Love keeps me living.”[3] When I call myself a person of faith, it means I enter the wilderness with a much deeper question than the many analytical questions I might be asking in order to overcome my bewilderment and quell my anxiety. When I enter the wilderness as a person of faith I am looking, quite simply, for opportunities to feel and express love for others. When we enter the wilderness as people of faith, the deeper question is “How can we bring love to bear in this situation?” When we enter the wilderness as people of faith, the deeper question is “How can we be a loving presence to those who are suffering?” “What gifts can we share that will make love come alive in this moment?”

Compassion

Having the facts is essential. Knowing what’s really going on is essential. Doing the power analysis is essential. But the Holy that lives and speaks in the wilderness—in the depths of pain, suffering, loneliness, depression; in the war zone, the grieving spouse, the broken family the impoverished neighborhood, the failing school, the over-crowded emergency room, the addict’s needle, the prison cell—the Holy that lives and speaks there, no matter how we understand it, no matter what name we ascribe to it, cries out for a courageous, loving response. The heart of a faith adequate for the wilderness is love. In the end, the measure of the “realness” of a religion has little to do with what that religion says about itself. It has everything to do with how that religion inspires its people to live their faith by using their gifts to bring more love into the world. What are your gifts? Where and how does your love for people and the world express itself most clearly?

Compassion

Tomorrow I have the honor of saying a few words at a press conference Senator Blumenthal is holding in response to the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Prop 8. (I received this invitation because I served for many years as chairperson of CT Clergy for Marriage Equality and, later, CT Clergy for Full Equality.) There are many ways to talk about these rulings that involve facts. If you read Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion—which I highly recommend—you’ll find it very factual, very analytical. [4] I expect nothing less from a Supreme Court Justice’s opinion. He clearly understands the nature and the full extent of the injustice DOMA visited upon gay and lesbian couples and their children. Reading his opinion I learned facts I hadn’t known before, like the fact that under DOMA the partner of a gay or lesbian veteran could not be buried next to their beloved in a veterans cemetery.

But I don’t want to address facts tomorrow. I want to speak of love, because I am a person of faith, and a Unitarian Universalist, and love has been at the center of our faithful response to this particular wilderness for a generation. In fact, I want to remind the media that it has largely mischaracterized the sides in the American debate over marriage equality. It has largely reported the debate as one between secular, non-religious people in favor of marriage equality, and religious people against it. But that has never been the case. Unitarian Univeralists, the United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, American Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Presbyterians, the Metropolitan Community Church, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, even some Pentecostals—and the list goes on—have been coming again and again into the wilderness of homophobic laws, of painful silences and closets, of fear and hatred towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people, of bullying, bashing and suicides—people of faith have been coming into this wilderness and proclaiming a message of love, singing “we are standing on the side of love,”[5] singing “Love will guide us,”[6] praying prayers of love, praying, in the words of Rev. Tyger when he gave the invocation at last Tuesday’s LGBT pride celebration at the Pentagon that “love refuses to be constrained by culture, by creed or by fear,”[7]—coming into this wilderness and bearing witness to a Holy power in the world so vast that no one is left out, that all may come as they are, that all may love according to the dictates of their own heart. If I may be so bold, we are winning in this wilderness struggle, because love wins. Love wins.

love wins

We’ve heard it said that the poor will always be among us. Some say there will always be poverty. If nothing else, it’s a Biblical notion. I’ve never been convinced of its truth. But I am convinced there will always be wilderness, and that the encounter with wilderness is part of the human condition, part of the human experience. Therefore, we will always need love—to give it and to receive it—to courageously speak it, proclaim it, sing it, pray it. Love is the essence of a faith adequate for the wilderness. Love wins. I believe it. May we go out from this place and into this summer season ready to give and receive love.

Amen and blessed be.

Standing on the Side of Love



[1] Tyger, George, War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections From Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. xiv.

[3] Tyger, George, War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections From Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. xiv.

[5] Shelton, Jason, “Standing on the Side of Love,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1014.

[6] Rogers, Sally, “Love Will Guide Us,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUS, 1993) #131.

[7] The Pentagon’s June 25 LGBT Pride event is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7vkpOYQiIo&feature=share.

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Decolonizing Our Faith

READING

An excerpt/adaptation from “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed” (Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje, Provost and Professor of Cultural Studies and Islamic Studies at the Starr King School for the Ministry)

Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje

“Decolonizing” [religion] means looking at how it can subvert the dominating paradigm instead of merely reflecting it or having a merely reactive response to it….  [We must name how] the demonizing of the dark leads to the war against women and their bodies from the Inquisition to the beginning of the dismantling of women’s reproductive rights [and] is connected to the masculinization of the healing industry, to the hardening of Christian religious dogma in northern Europe, to the driving out of the Goddess, to the destruction of the Earth, to the mass killing of kweers of all colors, is connected to the expulsion of the Dark Other, i.e.,  the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain, is connected to the Afrikan slave trade and the invasions of the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, where indigenous peoples, Afrikans, and Asians were enslaved and massacred (and continue to fuel a fear of brown-skinned immigrants and the brutal murdering of dark-skinned peoples, women, kweers, etc.) because they were considered to be like women: incarnations of evil; incarnations of unbridled lust; like women, they were considered to be too connected to the body and to sex; and where the Earth was destroyed because like women, the Earth was considered to be wild and needing to be dominated; like dark-skinned peoples, it needed to be dominated and controlled. This interlocking vortex became reflected in our language, where all that was evil was “dark” and vice-versa. The Dark Other was soon not only people living with brown skin, but anyone who was other: people living with disabilities, women, kweers, etc.

SERMON: Decolonizing Our Faith

“Evening breeze sings to me…. Mother earth awakens me.”[1]

Friends, this sermon is about awakening—waking up, opening our eyes, rising, stretching, greeting the dawn, greeting a new day, greeting a new way of being in the world which, in some respects, is not new at all. That is, greeting a new way of being in the world whose roots are ancient; or greeting an ancient way of being in the world that has been with us all along and even though it has been hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, discounted, ridiculed, colonized, marginalized, made invisible, lampooned, bamboozled, attacked, assaulted, bombed, burned, bashed, bullied, battered, tainted, taunted, targeted and terrorized it has survived and has been asserting itself anew; has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. This sermon is about awakening to an ancient way of being which is also new.

Throughout my entire ministry I’ve wrestled with the claim—a philosophical and academic claim—that we live in the end times of the modern world.  Not the Biblical end times—that’s something completely different and involves far too much hellfire and brimstone for me. The era scholars call modernity is slowly coming to a close. I encountered this idea in college in the 1980s and then in seminary in the 1990s. While I’m not convinced anyone knows entirely what this means or what the future holds, I do think naming and reflecting on this claim provides insight into the mission of the liberal church today.

I wrestle with this claim because I don’t believe the modern world will transition to something new without considerable conflict. Despite all the wonderful gifts of modernity—modern science, medicine, technology, industry, transportation, democracy, freedom, liberty, individual autonomy, human rights—all of which I fully expect will continue in new forms in whatever era is coming—despite this positive legacy it is also true that the modern world has always held itself in place through violence and oppression. For nearly six centuries modern nations and their leaders have far too often turned to domination and exploitation to achieve their goals: domination and exploitation of the land, of natural resources, of the global working poor and laboring classes, of the global south, of peoples of color, of women, of indigenous peoples and cultures, of (in the words of Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “kweers of all colors,”[1] of Jews and Muslims—and sometimes Christians—of Goddess religions, earth-based religions, and all manner of traditional folkways, including healing and agricultural practices.  

The modern world may be ending but its insidious underside—its tendency to resort to violence and oppression—won’t just disappear. Over the centuries it has insinuated itself deeply into modern consciousness, into our social, political and economic structures. It is the constant, unspoken threat of violence at the heart of so many international negotiations. It is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate saying “all options are on the table,” which we know is code for “we reserve the right to bomb you.” It is the rise of drone technology striking up and down the Afghan-Pakistan border and across the Southern Arabian Peninsula. It is gang warfare on city streets and corporate warfare on workers and the environment. It is wealthy nations with no will to address crushing poverty within their borders. It is the crazed search for fossil fuels despite incontrovertible evidence we’ve already combusted the climate beyond recognition. It is theories of “legitimate rape.” It is all the uninvestigated, untried murders of transgender people. None of this will simply disappear with the end of modernity. It must be confronted, challenged, resisted, subverted and undermined in creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent ways. It must be declawed, defunded, dismantled, disorganized and voted out of office. It must be transformed into something peaceful, just, fair and sustainable. In my view this is our work as free, liberal, loving people of faith. This creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent work of confronting domination and exploitation is a critical role of the church in these end times of the modern world. In embracing this role I believe we awaken to that ancient way of being which is also new.

Let me tell you how the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has recently said yes to this task of challenging the violence and oppression at the heart of modernity. At our 2012 General Assembly (GA) in Phoenix, delegates voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. I was not familiar with this term until UUA board members started talking about it a year ago. I was familiar with some of the history surrounding it, but not the term itself. In short, the Doctrine of Discovery provided the intellectual, moral and spiritual justification for European colonization and slavery at the dawn of the modern era. Here’s a quote from the UUA website: “The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in … papal decree[s] … that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.”[2]

These original papal decrees were written in Latin, but you can find English translations online. Two in particular stand out. The first, entitled Dum Diversas, issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, is widely regarded as the first official sanction of the African slave trade. Here’s a quote: “We grant you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority of this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and … to lead their persons in perpetual servitude and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal places, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods … to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”[3]

Then in 1493, in response to Christopher Columbus’ first Atlantic voyage, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree entitled  Inter Caetera to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. “We … out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God … give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever … all the islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter.”[4]

A picture emerges of 15th-century European power elites—popes and monarchs—authorizing the domination and exploitation of foreign lands, peoples and resources, and thereby ushering in the modern age.  A few centuries later Protestant rulers of Europe and the United States adopted the Doctrine of Discovery for their own uses. You can see it in Mass Bay and Virginia colony charters; in the Atlantic slave trade; in American expansionism and manifest destiny; in centuries of Indian wars, countless broken treaties, trails of tears, and detainment on reservations. You can see it in the Mexican-American war, the annexation of the American southwest, the colonization of Hawai’i, American imperialism, the history of immigration law, the war on drugs, the war on terror and the mass incarceration of black and brown people in American prisons. You can see it in a variety of United States Supreme Court decisions, the most recent being a 2005 case called City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York. [5] “The case involved a dispute over taxation of ancestral lands…. During oral arguments, it became clear that [the case] would hinge on whether … the Oneida Indian nation ‘has sovereignty status’ with regard to [its] ancestral lands…. In [the first] footnote [of her] decision for the Court majority [Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg writes:] ‘Under the Doctrine of Discovery … fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.’”[6] For me this underscores how deeply modernity’s tendency toward domination and exploitation is quietly woven into our legal system.

When the UUA was designing the 2012 GA and the various ways our delegates would bear witness against Arizona’s harsh immigration laws, our Arizona partners started talking to our leaders about the Doctrine of Discovery. They said, essentially: the reason state and federal governments and the sheriff’s department can treat us this way, can racially profile us, can raid our neighborhoods, can keep us from accessing our ancestral lands, can tear families apart in the middle of the night is because the United States still believes in the Doctrine of Discovery. They asked us: Will your General Assembly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly ask your leaders to work with indigenous people to propose a Congressional resolution calling on the US government to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly call upon the US government to fully implement the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?[7] We said yes. We voted, resoundingly, yes.

This yes is important to me; I hope it’s important to you. This yes meant, first, that as a historically white religious association with a distinct European American heritage we were able to hold ourselves accountable to people of color organizations in Arizona. That’s what it means to be antiracist: white institutional power made accountable to people of color, their institutions, and their organizing for a more just society. But deeper than that: in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery we said yes to decolonizing our faith. That is, we said yes to a vision of our world free from the violence, oppression, domination and exploitation at the heart of modernity. We said yes to working as Unitarian Universalists to achieve that vision. We said yes, we are ready to wake up to a new way of being in the world—a new way of being whose roots are also ancient.

What is that way of being, asserting itself anew, singing now on the evening breeze, waking with the morning sun? If Professor Farajaje is right—and I believe he is—that one of the central strategies of modern domination was the demonization of the Dark Other, which connects the demonization of the earth to the demonization of women, people of color, indigenous peoples and cultures, immigrants, Jews and Muslims, ‘kweers of all colors,’ and on and on, then this new way of being must point us away from demonization, away from division, away from distancing us from them; it must point us towards balance. The modern world has been out of balance since its inception. We need to regain our balance—our own, internal sense of balance and a collective, global sense of balance.

We need balance between the dark and the light, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them. We need balance between day and night, dawn and dusk.

We need balance between our current habits of consumption and what we truly need for living well—a movement away from the fetishizing of material things and the resulting rape of the earth towards more holistic modes, methods, practices and principles of sustainable living, of renewable energy, of reduced carbon footprints—an honest, realistic balance between the needs of humanity and the needs of the earth accountable to generations upon generations into the future.

We need balance between our technological lives and our natural, flesh and blood lives. We need balance between our technological relationships and our natural, face-to-face, body-to-body, person-to-person relationships. We need balance between our online friends and our actual friends.

We need balance between male and female energy, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them—indeed, a recognition that male and female not only balance, but blend, mix, merge and cross—a wonderful truth of human diversity—the reason we bear witness at the Transgender Day of Remembrance this Tuesday evening, saying no to the murders of transgender people, and yes to the dignity of transgender lives, yes to the human capacity for changing, transitioning, bending, crossing and queering.

We need balance among all faiths and cultures for a world in which no faith or culture dominates, where each faith and culture has access to the public square, yet where each refrains from imposing itself on the others, where each respects the others, where each seeks to understand the others, where all come together on common ground to work for the ongoing advance of justice and equality for all people and for the earth.

We need balance between the tools of war and the tools of peace, and much greater wisdom when it comes to declaring war.

We need a more just balance of wealth, for a world in which the rich and the poor and not so far from each other, not so unfamiliar to each other, not so disconnected from each other.

This sense of balance is that new way of being that has been asserting itself in these waning days of modernity; that new way of being that has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. And in fact, it has been with us all long. Have you heard it? Its roots are ancient: It is there in the Tao, yin and yang, wu wei, neti neti, namaste, the middle path, shalom, the great commandment, the Sacred Way. Yet is also new. We have tools, knowledge and insights the ancient masters could never have imagined. So let us awaken from our modern slumbers, open our eyes, rise, stretch, and greet the dawn; and in this new day let us first regain what we have lost—our balance; and then let us begin to refashion the world.

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Farajaje-Jones, Elias (now Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed”  Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays, 2001 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, 2001) pp. 19-20.

[2] See “What is the Doctrine of Discovery?” at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/index.shtml. Also, the UUA has produced a helpful introductory video at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/199378.shtml.

[4] An English translation of Inter Caetera can be found at http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/inter%20caetera.htm.

[5] City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 125 S. Ct. 1478, 148384 (2005).

[6] Frichner, Tonya Gonnella, “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery,” a preliminary study submitted to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, 9th session, February 4th, 2010, p. 19. See: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/E.C.19.2010.13%20EN.pdf

[7] Language to the UUA Board’s Responsive Resolution for repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is at http://www.uua.org/statements/statements/209123.shtml.

 


[1] Composer Unknown, “Evening Breeze” Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1072.

Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly

Rachel Naomi Remen says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[1] This statement, for me, begins to name the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them. When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, “you do not have to endure this alone.” When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.

Our ministry theme for July is witness. We selected this theme in part as a way to reflect further on the actions of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Justice General Assembly[2] or “Justice GA” in Phoenix last month. I will do that, but I first want to speak more generally about what it means to be a religious witness, and in particular what it means to be a liberal religious witness. Witness can and has for some of us become one of those haunting theological words we associate with traditional or conservative religion. When a preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” we know they want someone to testify about how God is making a difference in their life, how God is making their life better in some way, how God is great.

Liberal religious people in general, and Unitarian Universalists in particular don’t bear witness that way. This is a basic theological difference between liberal and conservative religious understandings of the Sacred. In a conservative religious context, if the preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” and someone starts testifying about God’s greatness, everyone says “Amen!” “Hallelujah.” Everyone has, more or less, the same concept of God. But liberal religion allows for and encourages doubt, skepticism, questioning and wondering. If the liberal religious preacher were to ask, “Can I get a witness?” and someone were to start testifying about God’s greatness, you might hear “Amen, Hallelujah!” but it’s not likely.  You’d be more likely to hear someone ask (maybe at coffee hour), “What do you mean by God?”  We’d start debating the existence of God and there’d be as many opinions in the room as there are people. We don’t just join the amen chorus. We don’t all have the same concept of God. We don’t all believe in God.  We’re comfortable acknowledging we don’t really know. We ask questions.  We express doubt.

Having said that, I don’t want to sell us theologically short. While liberal religious people don’t typically bear witness to the traditional, conservative idea of God, there are many ways we experience the sacredness of life and many things to which we ascribe sacred meaning or ultimate worth: Human Beings, Family, Community, Learning, Growth, Evolution, Nature, Earth, Cosmos, Ancestors, Spirit, Breath and, for some, Gods and Goddesses. All of this works in our lives. All of this impacts our lives in positive ways. All of this is great. This is what our worship and our congregational life is all about. We do testify. All the time. We do bear witness. All the time. We just do it differently.  We use different language. “Can I get a witness?” doesn’t roll off our tongues the way it does in more conservative churches; but that doesn’t mean the Sacred is absent from our lives. It’s quite the opposite.

That’s the bedrock definition of what it means to be a religious witness—proclaiming the power of the Sacred in one’s life. But where liberal religious people are more comfortable using the word witness is in our response to suffering, especially suffering created by social, political, economic, or environmental injustices.  At the Justice GA in Phoenix the language of witness was pervasive. To bear witness was the reason we went to Phoenix. Reminder: the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) holds its General Assembly every June in a different city. We don’t typically get as deeply involved in local or state issues during GA as we did in Phoenix, but Phoenix was different.

I preached about the difference in June;[3] I’ll explain it briefly for those who missed it. In April, 2010 Arizona became the first state in a string of states to pass a harsh, anti-immigration statute, known as SB1070. It gave local and state police unprecedented—and mostly unconstitutional— powers to enforce federal immigration law. It essentially made racial profiling legal (though its supporters deny this). When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070, civil and migrant rights organizations in Arizona called for a boycott
of the state. At that point, the UUA had to make a decision about whether to go ahead with our GA scheduled to take place in Phoenix in June, 2012. It was a hard decision, but in the end we decided to go to Phoenix, primarily because the civil and migrant rights organizations that were calling for the boycott invited us to come. “But don’t come and conduct business is usual,” they said. “If  you’re going to come, come and bear witness to the suffering of Latino and migrant communities in Arizona. Come, bear witness against an inhumane, unjust law. Come, bear witness against abusive, unjust county prisons. Come, bear witness against a blatantly racist sheriff’s department. Come, but don’t turn away from the suffering and injustice taking place in Phoenix. Come, bear witness.

Phoenix is in Maricopa County, whose Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one of the most ruthless anti-immigrant law enforcement officers in the country, proudly identifying himself as “America’s toughest Sheriff.”[4] County residents, especially in the Latino and migrant communities, have complained bitterly about conditions in his jails for decades, especially his infamous Tent City Jail on Durango Street, where prisoners are confined to army surplus canvass tents. The Sheriff himself has measured the temperature in those tents at over 140 degrees on hot days. Those are good days to deny water to prisoners. In 1997 Amnesty International issued a report citing a long list of human rights abuses and condemning the practices at many of the Maricopa County prisons.[5] This past May, the US Department of Justice filed suit against Sheriff Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that it discriminates against Latinos, uses excessive force, runs its jail unconstitutionally and has taken illegal action to silence critics.[6]

At the Justice GA we heard from a woman named Isabel Chairez from the Neighborhood Defense Committee (Comites de Defensa del Barrio) of Tonatierra, an indigenous peoples’ cultural organization dedicated to community ecology and self-determination.[7] Tonatierra was one of the organizations with whom we partnered to create Justice GA. Ms. Chairez told her story of being incarcerated at Estrella, Sheriff Arpaio’s jail for women next to Tent City. She said: “Last year, for working to feed my family, I was arrested at my home and my 3-year-old daughter witnessed the police handcuffing me and taking me away. I suffered the horrible conditions at Estrella … where I spent 3 long miserable months. At the time, I was 4 months pregnant and I did not receive adequate care and treatment. We were only fed twice a day … in the morning and late afternoon …. I ate what was given to us; even then I only gained 4 pounds by the time I was six months pregnant.

“I witnessed many ugly things inside that jail. The guards yelled at the women that didn’t speak or understand English. Verbal abuse happened all the time…. In December of 2011, women sued the county for this mistreatment…. One of the hardest things for me was that I was not allowed to walk around when I started feeling uncomfortable with my pregnancy. I was confined to the bed just like all the other women.

“One of my biggest concerns with the arrests, detention, and deportation is how parents are treated like criminals in front of their children. Think of all the children that are being separated from their mothers. My daughter is traumatized from seeing me arrested and taken away. Every time there is a knock on the door, she runs and holds on to me saying ‘Is it the police? I don’t want them to take you away.’”[8]

Rachel Naomi Remen tells us: “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.” On Saturday evening, June 23rd, more than 2000 Justice GA attendees boarded busses that took them to the front gates of Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City Jail. It was a peaceful witness. We did not attempt to block jail access. We did not engage in civil disobedience. We did not confront the Sheriff or his deputies. We did not confront the small band of counter-protestors—a few of them carrying guns—expressing support for the Sheriff.  We held candles. We chanted. We sang. Our leaders and our partners spoke about the human rights abuses and suffering taking place inside Tent City. They spoke about the culture of fear and cruelty the Sheriff’s Department has established in the county. They spoke about the backwardness and injustice of SB1070. They spoke about the need for comprehensive national immigration reform that upholds the worth and dignity of all people.[9]  This was our witness. More than 2,000 UUs—most of them wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts—doing our part to draw national and global attention to suffering and injustice, lending our collective voice and power to our partners in Phoenix, doing our part to “make what is invisible, visible …. what is deniable, undeniable ….  what is unseen, seen.”[10] That night on Durango St. there was no place else in the world I would rather have been. That night I was deeply proud to be a Unitarian Universalist and inspired to be part of movement to end mass incarceration and deportation; to build a more just and loving society.

The next day there was a man on the sidewalk outside the convention center with a sign that read “UUs: What Have You Done?” which I took to mean your presence here in Phoenix has changed nothing. You have accomplished nothing. On one hand he’s right. Justice GA did not end mass incarceration and deportation.  It did not shut down Tent City. It did not arrest Arpaio. We left Phoenix much the way we found it, and many communities there still live in fear of the sheriff’s department. Some have asked what good a nonviolent witness does in the face of this kind of power. Don’t we need to take more extreme Measures?

That’s a conversation worth having, but I see three things that happened at Justice GA that the man with the sign didn’t see. First, the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist congregations in Arizona, and the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist Association built solid, lasting, accountable, relationships with people of color civil rights and migrant rights organizations on the ground in Arizona: Puente Human Rights Movement, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, Mi Familia Vota, Arizona Worker Rights Center; Arizona Advocacy Network, National Council of La Raza, Somos Arizona, Tonatierra, Tierra y Libertad Organization and more.[11] None of these organizations can achieve its vision of a more just and loving society alone. Relationships are essential. Relationships are the essence of successful movements. This kind of relationship-based participation in a national, multicultural, multilingual, multiracial and antiracist movement for social justice is new for Unitarian Universalists. It marks a level of growth in our faith we could barely imagine a decade ago. Justice GA is over, but the truth is we haven’t left Arizona. We are still there through the power of our relationships. The justice movement our partners started is now stronger.

Second, the man with the sign does not understand that 4,000 UUs came to Phoenix and realized that the kinds of injustices that exist there could happen anywhere. It’s called Arizonafication.  4,000 UUs, myself included, left Phoenix determined to build partnerships and coalitions in our own states, determined to halt Arizonafication in our own states, determined to bear witness to suffering and injustice in our own states. The movement for a more just and loving United States of America just grew stronger.

Finally, the man with the sign missed this: Our yellow t-shirts say “Standing on the Side of Love.” It’s not rhetoric. It’s not a cheap platitude. We really mean it. And while I’m sure Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies, and the counter-protestors with guns, and Governor Jan Brewer are capable of great love—loving their families and friends, loving their jobs, their mission, their state, their country—it is not a loving act to tear a mother from her child in the middle of the night. It is not a loving act to put a prisoner in a tent in the desert where the temperature rises to 140 degrees and then deny that prisoner water. It is not a loving act to confine a pregnant woman to a cot when she needs to walk. It is not a loving act to terrorize whole communities who want nothing more than to live in peace.  It is not a loving act to take pride in one’s ability to conduct racial profiling. It is not a loving heart that enjoys mass incarceration and deportation, even if it is legal. When we bear witness to all these atrocities and we say we are standing on the side of love, we mean it. Love matters. A loving heart matters. A loving community matters. A loving nation matters. If you ask me, maybe not now, maybe not next year, but some day, love wins. I believe it. What did we do in Phoenix? We did not turn away. We bore witness to love. It made all the difference.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

[2] For footage and text from the UUA’s Justice General Assembly, see: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/index.shtml.

[8] Ms. Chairez’ testimony at Justice GA is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/business/200226.shtml.

[9] Video footage and the fully text of the speeches at the Tent City witness are at: http://www.uua.org/immigration/re/ga/200252.shtml

[10] This language comes from a litany called “Why We Witness,” which was art of the Saturday evening worship at Justice GA, prior to the Tent City Witness. See: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/worship/200328.shtml.

[11] The list of our Justice GA partners is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/185401.shtml