How many times have we UUs attended a stirring Sunday service which ended with Theodore Parker’s exhortatory call “May ours be a religion, which like sunshine, goes everywhere…” Today, under tons of rain, I woke up thinking how much is wrong with that mission.
Its first problem is theological. Although Parker carefully says, “like sunshine,” he then calls on us to model our behavior on the characteristics of an immeasurable sacred essence. We are finite, each of us, not only individuals but religious communities, and cannot be God or God’s body. We can only be a part of it. And to be a part of something is to humbly, with experimentation and dialogue, fit oneself into a niche. Eventually a joy comes from being in that niche, and there excelling in providing a service the whole body requires.
To go everywhere is to wander. Not all who wander are lost, but neither are they reliable to those they have encountered. That is where covenant comes into it. Covenant means, “I will be back at three different times: in a rhythm you can count on (because I have other places to be as well), in your times of need, and in times of memory, hope and vision as you make your own journey.”
If we really were sunshine, there would be no problem with constantly meeting and serving new people, communities, purposes, because we would be immeasurably large and energetic. We are not sunshine. We are not immeasurably large and energetic. And behaving as if we were sunshine has set up a counter-covenantal pattern of service that’s throwing off our numbers faster than water floods down a deforested hillside. Ministry is a zero-sum proposition, not because God and goodness are finite, but because we, the servants, are very much so.
The opposite of covenanting is abandoning. Here are the communities which, by my calculation, we have abandoned — and the new communities to which we made our next jump. I do not include here examples of outright racist rejection, which have been so well and accurately chronicled by others. I am talking about folks we started to work on uplifting, and then left behind because, as James Ford puts it so well, we are so “easily distracted by shiny things.” And our shiny thing is the next group that seems to need our uplift. In every case, what I write seems as true of other faiths as of our own. This social justice thing is not a denominational community, but an interfaith one which moves on at the point when it has to either filter back into its own faith community, or move on, as a group, to a new location. The faith communities themselves reject this alternative rooting process, because it seems to syphon energy from the normal pastoral work of living, working, raising kids, caring for elders and dying.
But Unitarians have plenty to be proud of, and in much of it, we did indeed form a key part of a leadership phalanx. Despite some egregious problems, we actually got off to a pretty good start on anti-slavery work. Not that we were unique in this, but we were persistent, and we did stay the course, even to the point of giving up our lives, until the work was done. But after the Civil War, the valiant efforts of Radical Reconstructionists to radically equalize the races in the South petered out. These efforts were tremendous, and one group who have received far too little attention are the northern women who went south to teach freed hostages how to read, write and cipher. If they couldn’t have forty acres and a mule, at least they might have the skills to hold their own in the monetarized economy. Up here in Burlington, Vermont, one young lady sallied forth, and received occasional donations for her supplies.
As lynchings set in — targeting the men, and sometimes women and children — who were building success by application of these tools, northern Unitarians discovered a new group of the dispossessed: urban slums of Eastern and Southern Europeans. And for the less adventurous, there was the question of women’s suffrage. Yes,those were serious problems. Those who solved them sometimes paid with their lives, and I am the beneficiary of everything they did. But nothing had happened in the South to improve the lot of freed hostages; in fact, during the Social Gospel years up North, the Southern Black situation got worse. Is that a coincidence?
In these same years, as European-American culture, with some African-American co-participants, spread West, a new wave of attentions began. Even as Asian Americans suffered outright rejection, including “back to China” laws, massive sums of money and attention were put into providing First Nations children with an “education” we now understand to have been pure cultural genocide. But again, as misguided as it was, it represented a turning of attention away from the covenant with the South, both Black and White, which had been desperately degraded by the war, and into the issues of the West and urban North.
This is not to say that African Americans did not have their own abilities to be fulfilled, only to say that no one makes it without allies. It is as allies that we proved difficult. And as Eastern and Southern Europeans, along with African Americans, unionized the Midwest and Northeast, Unitarians and Universalists redoubled our efforts to get our own sons and daughters into universities from which they would join the ranks of management. Samuel Atkins Eliot made this explicit in his call for closing down urban churches — some of them great landmarks — in favor of suburban and university-tied communities. This conflict erupted hugely during the 1960s and 1970s. Good-bye to all that Social Gospel harmony. Hello, we hoped, to a new era of common cause with African Americans.
But with African Americans we ran into exactly the same problem we had experienced with European-Americans: when it was time to bring the comforts of their culture into our culture, we balked. Not because we are bad people, but because our congregations still consisted, as all congregations do, of people looking for support in the exhausting work of growing up, launching their adulthoods, raising their kids, struggling with their jobs, dealing with elders, illness and death.
Happily, as this mission got difficult, Stonewall and the GLBTQQ movement gave us something to work on. Those early victories glittered — not because they were easy, but because they were so obviously necessary. Thank God young people no longer know the devastation which AIDS wreaked in the 1980s, wiping out an entire generation of promising gay men. How unfortunate that we’ve forgotten this pain as AIDS has spread itself into communities we no longer serve, the urban poor, especially African American.
Then came equal marriage. This mission is not yet finished, but once again, once we picked off the low-hanging fruit, UUs as a movement have moved on. Once again, we’ve abandoned our own, as congregations in states and territories seek our support to pass these laws, state by state, and our media-driven denominational staff has moved on to the immigration rights of Latin Americans among us. Somehow, a pattern of discrimination which has plagued our country for generations has suddenly gotten its moment in the sun, and UUs, pretending once again we can be everywhere, have caught its glitter, donned their yellow teeshirts, and hit the picket lines.
Meanwhile, what about our parishioners in Rhode Island, whose chance at Equal Marriage just went down? What about our community in New York, where it is the governor, not our president, who leads the charge?
“We will get back to you at some point,” is not the definition of covenant. I write this facing a window which opens onto a sky of heavy clouds. From the local news (Vermont is one news district, so this includes the whole state), I know of two or three congregations whose parishioners might well be in shelters right now due to flash flooding. Where is our network for that project? Why is my district staff not sending out, right this minute, a flash message letting me know what has happened to the Universalists of Barre and St. Johnsbury, and the UU Fellowship under Mt. Mansfield, since their valleys got yesterday’s five inches of rain in two hours? All night long, my television station was blaring out its warnings to them, “Take shelter, don’t drive on flooded roads.” Why does my religion have no way to tell me how they’re doing?
Unitarian Universalism is a lovely vision — so long as one combines it with humility. Even sunshine doesn’t always pour itself out as abundantly as is needed. How much less can we do so. Only by acknowledging the role of interfaith and denominational alliances — not so much in league with the national media as with our local communities — can we undo the devastating floods of bad luck and injustice. Somehow they have managed to form the penetrating root systems at which our social justice leap-frogging has totally failed.
In fact, they have succeeded because of our social justice leap-frogging. All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good folk to do nothing. A related corollary is, to find some other place to spread their goodness.