Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
What is required of our religious movement to make it the change agent it hopes to be? Today, at the anniversary of the Universalist John Murray’s landing in the U.S. I will address how we might respond to this question in the context of our Universalist identity. Next spring I’ll focus on our Unitarian side.
Song by Adrienne Rich https://readalittlepoetry.wordpress.com/2006/01/06/song-by-adrienne-rich/
From “The Persistence of Universalism,” an address by the Rev. Gordon McKeeman to the New York State Convention of Universalists on Oct. 4, 1980
“We live in a time when there are a great many scared people who do not want to hear that they have to enlarge their selves. They do not want to hear that they need to widen their sense of concern and consciousness to embrace the whole of the world. They would like very much into fortress America, or fortress Christianity or to some other narrowed loyalties to which they can give themselves. . . .
“We ought to be pointing in people’s lives to the urgency within those lives to wholeness and that no person can ignore that inner urgency to his or her own wholeness, save at her or his peril.”
The week before last I spent a couple of days in the Habitat for Humanity building down near Biltmore Village in the company of about 45 people. It was a fascinating mix, ranging from people with high public profiles – Asheville’s Superintendent of Schools & members of the School Board, a state senator, a city councilwoman – and positions of responsibility – with Mission Hospital, the Asheville Housing Authority, the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department – but also high school students, community activists, social service providers, and others. Even more, it was unusually diverse for most gatherings in this town – young & old, black, white, Hispanic, and different gender identities.
And the topic before us was something that usually isn’t discussed in mixed gatherings like this one: Race. Not race in the abstract, but how notions about race had evolved over time and shaped our culture, our upbringings and our lives.
We were guided in this work by facilitators from a group called the Racial Equity Institute, based in Greensboro. The story they had to tell was hard to hear – how race emerged as a wedge to divide people in this country from the time of its first settlements, how it acted not only to discriminate against black people but also to confer advantages to white people. Affirmative action, we learned, is a practice that goes back to the founding of our Republic, but it was white people, not blacks, that it was designed to benefit.
We can see it as early as 18th century immigration laws, into Jim Crow legislation after the Civil War, even up to the Social Security Act, the G.I. Bill and federal housing legislation. So, is it any wonder that today we find an enormous disparity in wealth between blacks and whites in America? Yet, even now an invidious racism whispers that the gap is simply evidence is some inherent lack on the part of blacks, some inability to compete on a level playing field.
A point of the training was to demonstrate how the playing field for blacks in America is and has been anything but level – like starting a race well behind your competitors or walking in late to a Monopoly game where nearly every property has been purchased and every move you make diminishes your wealth.
Of course, for the participants this was no game. White people like me were invited to tally the advantages that they and their ancestors had unknowingly accrued, while black participants were left stunned – some, with tears in their eyes, unable to speak – to consider how much loss they and their ancestors had endured: loss measured not just in wealth but in wellbeing, in lives demeaned or cut short, even in their hopes for their own lives and those of their loved ones.
Organizers have invited participants to a potluck supper this coming week, which will be held here, at this church, to talk over what we learned in the training and where we will go with it. I am glad of the opportunity to continue the conversation, but I also worry.
Just this week in Tulsa and Charlotte we got another reminder of how close black people are to the boiling point in frustration over centuries of oppression that they see no signs of abating. We can debate the circumstances of this or that shooting and whether police officers were justified here or there in their actions. But the larger point is that by its actions, by its policies our society, our government shows over and over again that it counts black lives as cheap, and that is simply unendurable.
We in Asheville are not far from our own accounting, with the State Bureau of Investigation report on the police shooting this summer of Jai “Jerry” Williams due to arrive soon to the office of District Attorney Todd Williams. Whatever action the district attorney chooses, we in this town will have work to do.
Much concern has been expressed about whether there will be violence. Of course, no one wants injury and destruction, but it needs to be said that the work before us will need to be more than just keeping the peace. My colleague the Rev. Jay Leach found himself in the midst of chaos in Charlotte last week, and he summed up the state of affairs this way in a post on Facebook. He gave me permission to use this quote:
“As disturbing as some of the images from last night are, I am more and more convinced that sending the message that we all need to be calm is the wrong thing to do. In fact, more of us need to stop being so calm, so accepting, so willing to ignore, so supportive of an unjust and unsustainable status quo. Things should change. Things must change. Until they do, until there is justice, there will be no peace.”
So, I wonder: Do you hear an echo of the quote from Gordon McKeeman that we heard earlier in Jay’s words? Listen again: “We live in a time,” McKeeman wrote, “when there are a great many scared people who do not want to hear that they have to enlarge their selves. They do not want to hear that they need to widen their sense of concern and consciousness to embrace the whole of the world. . . . We ought to be pointing in people’s lives to the urgency within those lives to wholeness and that no person can ignore that inner urgency to his or her own wholeness, save at her or his own peril.”
It’s interesting that, like today, McKeeman was speaking in the time of a contentious national election – October 1980 – a moment when, again like today, fear was driving some people’s political agendas.
But he framed his thoughts a little differently. People, he said, “do not want to hear that they have to enlarge their selves. . . . They do not want to hear that they need to widen their sense of concern and consciousness to embrace the whole of the world.”
What he is pointing to here is the heart of Universalism. Remember that historically Universalism arose in the Christian tradition with the notion that all are saved. It is centered in a fairly simple theological proposition: A God whose nature is love would not consign his creatures to eternal damnation. Such an act it is contrary to the nature of love. And if we understand God as love, then it is contrary to God’s nature. And so, there must be no hell.
Even more, the old Universalists declared, it was God’s intent to bring every person to a happy end. And so, McKeeman says, Universalism became known as “The Gospel of God’s Success,” conveying the image that, as he put it, “the last unrepentant sinner would be dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable, at least, to resist the power and love of the Almighty.”
In time, though, the debate over heaven or hell faded and the focus shifted instead to the duty of the living and the nature of the world in which we find ourselves. In that context, it became less urgent that we consider how or even if we image the nature of God – something that lies beyond proof whatever side you argue – and turn to what we might consider to be the nature and consequences of love. What does love call us to in our lives? What does love require of us?
Universalists argued that theirs was not just a theological proposition, but a description of the world. As Gordon McKeeman put it, “running through life is the urgency to wholeness, to integration, to the putting together of scattered pieces of life. There is a universality of natural laws and there is, in parallel with it, a universality of the religious impulse, the desire for holiness or wholeness.”
We can find evidence for this, McKeeman says, when we look at the other side of the coin: “When we see people seeking to live out parochial, partial and insular assumptions, we discover people who create or perpetuate the tragic divisions of life, the costs of which in human misery, pain and suffering we continue to pay.”
There’s another word, an old word that sums up the agony that we experience in this condition, one that we might use to describe this state of affairs: Hell. So, maybe Hell does exist, but it isn’t something that was created for us; it’s something that we create for each other.
Why would we do that? Well, we get confused and distracted, selfish and afraid. We learned at the Racial Equity Institute training that in this country it was fear and greed that tended to drive white people each time they turned up the heat in the Hell they had created for black people, whether it be new restrictions on voting, or housing, or job opportunities.
The thing is that we live with the bizarre notion that while these people are enduring hell, we white people can go about our lives building our own little heavens. We tell ourselves that we live in the American dream, that anyone can accomplish anything with a little grit and determination. Of course, we’ve come to learn that this isn’t even true for most white people, that many people suffer and struggle against forces far stronger than they are.
But rather than question the myth, they bury themselves in shame, check out of the rat race and dive into addiction or despair. It’s a pretty desperate hell of its own.
Universalists warned us against this long ago. As Gordon McKeeman puts it, hell is about separation. We “set up little islands in the human experience” thinking we can make our own way independent of what’s going on with the rest of humankind. “And Universalism,” he points out, “says unequivocally, it cannot be done. You cannot have Hell for some people and Heaven for others.”
So, let’s be clear. The hells we create and the hells we occupy are not just the way of things. They come about by choices we and others make over time that create false divisions and that unfairly advantage some people over others, and until we stop privileging those policies and practices we will be powerless to alter them.
The solution is not to narrow our loyalties, to build walls and gates and find new and different ways to separate ourselves from others onto little islands of our own. The solution is to widen our loyalties, to enlarge our sense of who we are, remembering Edwin Markham’s old Universalist rhyme:
He drew a circle to shut me out – heretic, rebel, a thing to flout, but love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle and took him in.
How we do that is a big part of what about 70 members of this congregation were struggling with yesterday. We got together and invited each other to name those concerns and injustices that rankled us most. Then, we broke into groups to talk them over. It was big stuff – racism, climate change, immigrant rights, mental health and prison reform. Whew!
But this was no gripe session. It was gathering with an eye to action. So, this afternoon we’ll be meeting further to talk about what that action might look like. And you’re invited to attend. Whether or not you were part of the discussion on Saturday, your voice is welcome as we sort out how we as a congregation can be about widening that circle.
It is serendipitous that PBS chose this past week to air Ken Burns’ powerful documentary “Defying the Nazis” about the role of Unitarians Waitstill and Martha Sharp in helping hundreds of Jewish and other refugees marked for death escape from occupied Europe. (And if you missed it you can still see it online at PBS.org. But it’s live only until October 6, so make a point of looking soon.)
The story I told earlier of Martha Sharp initiating a child refugee program is one of the most compelling examples of their work, but there was much more – escorting refugees on hazardous railway journeys, sheltering refugees in safe houses, fabricating travel documents. It was work that put their lives in danger repeatedly, but they kept at it, even though it meant long absences from their children and strains that eventually broke apart their marriage.
Little wonder that Waitstill Sharp reported that when the UUA president first approached him about the job, he was told that 17 ministers before him had rejected it.
So what is required of us? As Lisa Forehand said, it’s something we all struggle with. Because we know, or at least intuit, that answering that question will open an avenue to help us get a sense of the meaning of our lives.
Our tradition through both of its strains – Unitarian and Universalist – declares that the answer to this question is not something we can expect to be given; it is something we must find. And we begin that journey in our own hearts. As Lisa said, we “try to hear our calling and have the courage and audacity to answer.”
It is not required that we all be activists in the model of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, but it is also not sufficient that we coast on by either insulated in privilege or paralyzed by fear.
Like Adrienne Rich, we might take some time to examine our own loneliness, an existential truth that we each come to terms with at some point in our lives. What’s the use? What am I? How could I possibly matter?
But she won’t leave us there. “If I’m lonely,” she says, “it must be the loneliness of waking first, of breathing dawns’ first cold breath on the city, of being the one awake in a house wrapped in sleep.” Not isolated, not defeated, but awake, aware.
“If I’m lonely,” she says, “it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore in the last red light of the year that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither ice nor mud nor winter light, but wood, with a gift for burning.”
The Universalists had a word for that burning. They called it love. Love calls to us, they said. It nags at us, pleads with us – heck, drags us kicking and screaming, and says, “Get out here. Your presence is required – your time, your talent, your treasure, your genius, your compassion are needed if we are ever going to end the despair and depravity of separation, if we are ever going to live into the wholeness of this world.”
Let us head love’s call.