Toward Redemption: Responding to Margaret Renkl

At the beginning of this morning’s service I shared with you excerpts from “An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians,” by the New York Times’ Nashville-based contributing opinion writer, Margaret Renkl.[1] I call this sermon, “Toward Redemption: A Response to Margaret Renkl.” I wouldn’t be preaching on Renkl’s letter, except Stan and Sue McMillen purchased a sermon at last years’ UUS:E Goods and Services auction; after going back-and-forth about a topic, Stan finally landed on Renkl’s open letter, and this is the sermon (and a reminder that if you prefer a different sermon, be sure to come to the auction on May 14th and bid high!).

Stan had actually forwarded the letter to me when it was published two years ago. He re-forwarded it back in March, saying: “I really love this [letter] and it is as true today as it was when it was written…. Since then, [conservative] states have passed draconian laws. We’ve seen increased violence against Asians, Jews, and homeless people. Where is Christ in Christianity? Hopefully you can build on this and reflect not only on violence to humans, but also to Mother Earth and all the creatures that [share the planet with us.] What do you think?”

What do I think? Honestly, my first thought was, that’s about ten sermons worth of material, Stan, but you only purchased one.

Renkl’s open letter is powerful. She names White Christianity’s historical and ongoing collusion with White supremacy culture in the United States. “When we arrived,” she writes, “on our big ships and decimated this land’s original peoples with our viruses and our guns, when we used our Christian faith as a justification for killing both ‘heretic’ and ‘heathen,’ we founded this country in flames.” She writes about White Christianity’s complicity with slavery in the past and a racist criminal justice system in the present. She pleads with White Christians to look squarely at what has happened and is happening, to refuse the retreat into indifference, to seek redemption. To that end, she names White Christian leaders who have engaged or are engaging in redemptive, antiracist ministries. She concludes: “We are not yet beyond redemption. It is time to act on what we say we believe…. Remember the words of the prophet Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks….” Remember the words of Jesus — “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake.” She challenges White Christians to “join the righteous cause of the protesters. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

At first I balked at this sermon idea. Renkl is writing to her “fellow White Christians.” But is she writing to us? As people of faith who largely don’t identify personally as Christian; who don’t automatically regard the words of the prophet Isaiah or Jesus as sacred scripture for us; who often regard Christianity with wariness based on difficult and painful past personal experiences; and as people who don’t necessarily have the authority to say where the Christ in Christianity is—we Unitarian Universalists can easily assume we’re not part of Renkl’s audience. She’s writing to them, not to us. The risk is that, consciously or unconsciously, we’ll start to point self-righteous fingers at White Christians for their racism, as if we have no redemptive work to do as Unitarian Universalists. So I balked at first. But it’s Stan and Sue’s sermon, so I got over it.

We are included in Renkl’s audience, because we cannot, and should not evade our own history. Most of us may not identify theologically as Christian today, but our spiritual forebears, the New England Puritans, where precisely those White Christians who, in Renkl’s words, “arrived on our big ships and decimated this land’s original peoples with our viruses and our guns … found[ing] this country in flames.” And as much as we can and should point proudly to our historical, faith-based legacies of activism and organizing against slavery, against poverty, for civil rights, for women’s rights, worker’s rights, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, immigrants rights, and for environmental justice, we can also point to Unitarians and Universalists connected to the slave trade through ship-building and sailing, connected to New England’s sweatshop textile mills, connected to Indian boarding schools, not to mention a history of general White church indifference to the plight of oppressed people. So it would be disingenuous for us to exclude ourselves from Renkl’s audience.

Renkl’s letter first appeared on June 8th, 2020, two weeks after the May 25th police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. When Renkl urges us to join “the righteous cause of the protestors,” she’s referring to that incredible movement that swept the nation—and the world—in the wake of Floyd’s murder. Many of you participated in the protests, marches and rallies here. We can prove it. We have pictures!

What is truly striking to me today is how different the nation’s energy feels two years later. I’m sharing a feeling more than an analysis. It feels like the nation hit a high-water mark for justice and liberation in 2020. That summer there seemed to be a widespread consensus across the political spectrum that what happened to George Floyd was wrong and should never happen again. Suddenly every business, every corporation, every local government, every congregation was figuring out how to say Black Lives Matter, was expanding training for diversity, equity and inclusion. I also point to the November, 2020 election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They represented then—and now—a multicultural, religiously pluralistic, people-centered America. They shared then—and now—a vision of a more just and fair America. They shared then—and now—a commitment to addressing climate change. They understand and care about policy in a way their predecessor did not. They both have extensive experience in government and are competent administrators, especially in response to the pandemic. They are kind people.

I also point to what felt like the solidity of longer-term gains for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people—marriage equality, military service, representation in school curricula—including a general national consensus in support of GLBTQ people and communities. There was certainly still a long way to go at the end of 2020, and some parts of the country were more proactive than others, but those longer-term gains, by and large, seemed to have survived by the end of that year, despite some horrendous Trump-era assaults.

There’s certainly more I could name, but I’m trying to articulate the positive, progressive energy that was palpable in the nation in the second half of 2020.

What we—or at least I—didn’t know then was that we really were at a high-water mark. There’s a new energy now, a fury, circulating through the nation in response to whatever progress we might have made. Of course, ‘new’ isn’t quite the right word to describe it. This fury is an always-present dimension of the fabric of American life. Over the decades we’ve seen it in our politics, our culture, our churches, sometimes muted, sometimes loud. Right now it’s explosive. It’s a reactive fury, nativist, White, patriarchal. Versions of it get preached in many Christian pulpits. We see it in the passage of what Stan called draconian laws restricting voting access, restricting abortion access, restricting what schools can teach about gender identity and sexual orientation, restricting what schools can teach about race and racism. In Connecticut we see it in the so-called Safe Streets movement, attempting to roll back progressive juvenile justice reforms. We see it in unruly town hall meetings, people shouting, throwing punches, harassing town council and board of education members. We see it in Nazi literature being distributed around West Hartford, Manchester and other Connecticut towns. This fury has transformed peoples’ pandemic exhaustion into a potent political tool. Case in point: in the Virginia governor’s race last November, fury at pandemic restrictions became synonymous with fury over unfounded fears of critical race theory being taught in public schools. They became the same fury.

In thrall to this fury, so many people have rejected sound public health strategies for responding to the pandemic, and have instead privileged a warped understanding of personal freedom above even the most remote concern for the well-being of their communities, let alone for the most vulnerable members of those communities. Speaking of the Christ in Christianity, I have enough authority to say with confidence that the kingdom of heaven does not belong to those who ignore the most vulnerable. But that’s not the dominant energy in our nation right now.

Of course, it’s not our energy here at UUS:E. We are not a people of fury, and ours is not a furious faith. Yes, we share in all the legacies of White Christianity which Renkl’s letter describes, but we’re not defending them, as if our lives depend on them. We’re not arguing that they no longer impact our lives, and that therefore we should not talk about them. We’re aware that we have to account for them, that we have to continually work at transforming them into something that looks and feels like redemption—a church, a people, “a world made whole,” as we sang earlier. That’s why we talk about racism and other oppressions, a lot. That’s why we’re studying the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Widening the Circle of Concern report. That’s why we’re beginning a conversation about the proposed 8th Unitarian Universalist principle.

There are many ways to move toward redemption. Renkl names a number of White Christian leaders who have been or are engaged in redemptive, antiracist ministries. I have a few thoughts about how we ought to engage, especially in light of the fury I’ve been describing.

First, trust that for most people, fury is a very difficult emotion to sustain. Fury burns brightly, then burns out. Its energy is fleeting. It thrives most when it has opposition, when people react to it. The less we react, the less fuel we provide, the less capacity it has to sustain itself over time. I’m not saying we ought to ignore it, as it does have power and it is causing harm. But I’m less concerned about addressing it directly, in a reactive way, and more concerned about supporting the people it targets.

This new fury almost always targets vulnerable people. That’s it’s tell-tale sign. So I say, let’s focus our energy on the most vulnerable people in our communities. The “Plowshare Prayer”  we heard earlier from the singer/songwriter/church-worker Spencer LaJoye points us in this direction: Amen on behalf of the last and the least / On behalf of the anxious, depressed, and unseen / Amen for the workers, the hungry, the houseless / Amen for the lonely and recently spouseless / Amen for the queers and their closeted peers / Amen for the bullied who hold in their tears / Amen for the mothers of little Black sons / Amen for the kids who grow up scared of guns / Amen for the addicts, the ashamed and hungover / Amen for the calloused, the wisened, the sober / Amen for the ones who want life to be over / Amen for the leaders who lose their composure /  Amen for the parents who just lost their baby / Amen for the chronically ill and disabled / Amen for the children down at the border / Amen for the victims of our law and order.[2]

Ask yourself, even if you are vulnerable in some way, how can you position yourself—your body, your gifts and skills, your money—in proximity to vulnerable people such that you can offer help, support, caring, compassion? When we respond to the world with this kind of energy, we are saying “no” to fury that would exclude and deny and erase, and “yes” to love, “yes” to community, “yes” to life. When we respond to the world with this kind of energy, we’re also doing what I understand to be the core of Jesus’ ministry: From the book of Matthew, Chapter 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”[3]

When we respond to the world with this kind of energy, we’re actually bringing a very specific kind of Christianity to life: Universalism. We’re saying everyone is entitled to inclusion, not just some. Everyone is entitled to love and care, not just some. Everyone’s life is sacred, not just some. When we respond to the world with this kind of energy, we move toward redemption.

Finally, remember, the kind of redemption Renkl is talking about—this making right and just and fair our nation that was founded in flames—doesn’t happen overnight, but rather takes decades, if not centuries. It comes slowly as systems and culture change. And what changes systems and culture? It’s not any one thing that you or I do, though each thing we do matters. It’s what we do together. It’s what we as a congregation do together with other congregations, which is why it matters that we’re part of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance, in solidarity with nearly fifty other congregations across the region, organizing our people and our money to make positive social change. It’s why we partner with Moral Monday CT, Power Up CT, the Domestic Worker Justice Campaign and the Recovery for All Coalition. It’s why we partner with the Inter-Religious Eco-Justice Network and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. There’s wonderful energy in these partnerships. It’s not the energy of fury. It’s the energy of love and liberation. And though it takes time, and requires enormous patience, and we lose battles along the way, engaging in that collective work of love and liberation is the most sure path toward redemption.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Rankl, Margaret, ”An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians,” New York Times, June 8th, 2020. See:

[2] Cholst, Rachel, “Spencer LaJoye Turns Prayers Into Plowshares on Their New Song,” Adobe and Teardrops, March 1, 2022. This piece includes an audio track of LaJoye’s song on Soundcloud:

[3] Matthew 25: 35-36.