Unitarian Universalism's Strength in Public Theology

A religion based in "deeds not creeds" must develop its sense of what behaviors constitute the practice of faith. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Later Adams asserted "the prophethood of all believers" and argued that our ethics are not abstract, but embodied in voluntary association. Universalist theologian Clarence Russell Skinner examined the social implications of Universalism and argued that Universalism calls us to move from "the partialisms" of parochial, tribal and nationalistic thought and to move toward "the greatness" of universalism that builds bridges across divisions in the human species. Our story as a people has been to engage the social order with the aim of bettering the conditions under which we all live.

     I see building a public theology as essential both in the congregation and as we speak and act in the world. Thus below are two expressions of a public theology, an opinion place published in a noteworthy newspaper, and a speech delivered in a few congregations and at a regional social justice conference.

Op-Ed published in the Baltimore Sun

Maryland must raise its minimum wage

Rev. David Carl Olson

Having grown up in a working class family in Rhode Island, I know what's it like for parents to struggle to make ends meet. There were six kids in my family supported by my dad's maintenance man salary and my mother's minimum wage job flipping burgers. Despite having two incomes, during the cold months, we had to choose between grocery shopping and paying the heating bill. There were plenty of pancake suppers during those winters.

The conditions that my family struggled with still exist for so many. The federal and state minimum wage rates remain stuck at $7.25 an hour, or about $15,000 for a full-time worker. After more than three years since the official end of the Great Recession, average wages are still declining in real terms, even as workers throughout the U.S. put in longer hours to get by.

It’s time for Maryland to raise the minimum wage and commit to indexing it to keep pace with the rising cost of living. We take pride in being the richest state in the country. We must also fairly compensate the Marylanders who wake up each morning to do the hard work of cleaning office buildings, serving food and providing care for the elderly.

A strong coalition of labor, faith and community groups has come together to advocate for a plan to incrementally raise Maryland's minimum wage to $10 by 2015 and then index it so that wages don’t lose value over time.

People are so close to the edge and struggle to make choices about basic things in their lives. Our congregation has two parishioners who are planning their wedding. One is working at Walmart and the other recently was laid off. They have no fixed address, moving between family and friends. When planning a recent counseling session, they almost canceled because they couldn’t afford two Metro fares. As they establish their family, it breaks my heart to consider their future.

About 320,000 Maryland workers will benefit directly and indirectly from an increase in the minimum wage. Contrary to the myth that minimum wage workers are mostly young people working part-time, more than 80 percent of the workers who will get this proposed raise are age 20 or older, over half work full-time and another third work between 20 hours and full-time.

An increase in the minimum wage will go right back into the economy, generating economic growth as these workers put food on their tables and raise their families. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that increasing the minimum wage will raise pay for more than 450,000 working Marylanders while injecting approximately $380 million into Maryland's economy and creating an estimated 1,500 jobs.

While the value of higher wages for low-paid workers remains clear, those who oppose any increase in the minimum wage still claim that higher wages will only slow job growth or burden local businesses. These concerns find no support from the facts. Indeed, businesses that pay fair wages to their employees ultimately benefit from reduced turnover and higher worker productivity, as their employees are spared from the struggle of balancing two or more jobs in order to make ends meet.

In fact, the real strain on economic growth in today’s economy stems from the decision made by many national fast food chains and big box retailers to inflate their profits by paying rock-bottom wages, siphoning money out of local communities and impoverishing the customer base needed to sustain economic growth. The paradox is that poor folk need places to get inexpensive goods, but it is the poor who get ground down by the big box.

The message of the religious community — whether it is from Moses, Jesus or Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and a personal hero of mine — is that we are called to care for the poor. It’s not about charity. It’s about creating an equitable system in which all work has dignity, you get a fair wage and everyone has agency in their own lives to reach their full potential. Raising the minimum wage will help put Marylanders on that path.

Reverend David Carl Olson is the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. His email is minister@firstunitarian.net

Published January 23, 2013

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun

 

“You are the One”

a sermon for the #BlackLivesMatter movement
Autumn 2016
by Rev. David Carl Olson

Reading: II Samuel 12.1b-7a (Tanakh, Jewish Publication Society, 1985)

The LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said “There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him. 

“One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but he was loathe to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”

David flew into a rage against them man, and said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die. He shall pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a think and showed no pity. And Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

-=-=-=-=-

I bet you’ve heard the challenging and perhaps ridiculous thought experiment, that suggests that, statistically, if we put an infinite number of monkeys into an infinite space with an infinite number of typewriters, there is sure to be one that will type out “Hamlet.” Well, a “pilot experiment” of this mind game was actually accomplished over a decade ago when researchers at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom placed six Sulawesi crested macaques into a room with an old computer, and left them alone for a week.

The macaques played with the computer, bewildered a little by the monitor but picking up the keyboard, and tasting it (always important!), knocking each other around with it, banging it into the desk, but finally noticing that it controlled the “face” of the computer, the monitor.

And so . . . they typed! For a week they typed, and the researchers published their writings as a scientific study entitled “Notes Toward the Complete Works of Shakespeare.”

It will be hard for me to quote from the publication, except to say that one of the opening words was aaaaaaaaaaaaasssssssssssddddddfff. You get what was going on—it was gibberish!

Lead investigator zoologist Amy Plowman concluded, “The work is interesting, but had little scientific value, except to show that the “Infinite Monkey” theory is flawed.”

Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal cites literary scholar Jiro Tanaka who pointed out that while “Hamlet” may not have been written by an infinite monkey, it was, indeed, written by a primate. That some time in pre-history, “a less than infinite assortment of bipedal hominids split off from a not-quite infinite group of chimp-like australopithecines, and then another quite finite group of less hairy primates split off from the first motley crew of bipeds. And in a very finite amount of time, [one of] these primates did write ‘Hamlet.’”  

For tens of thousands of years, before old computers or new, before typewriters and ink and pen and paper, before written language, we had stories. Telling stories, hearing stories, being instructed and entertained by stories, being moved by stories, it was stories, some say, that made us human. 

Stories being so central in helping identify who it is we are, it is no surprise that stories carry the human institution of religion. Indeed, these stories that get passed on from people to people, generation to generation, form the basis for the sets of practices and beliefs that are what religion is.

In the Hebrew Bible, we are introduced to this character David in a story of innocence, faith and valor, the story of David and Goliath. In that story, the shepherd boy David becomes quite a hero in taking down the threatening giant, delighting his king.

But that story doesn’t seem to point us toward the story that we are thinking about today: the story of David’s taking as his third wife the wife of another man. Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah, and you may know the complicated story of David’s use of his high office as King to seduce Bathsheba; his attempt to cover up his seduction by sending her straight away to her husband so that they would have sexual relations and that Uriah might believe that he is the father of the child Bathsheba is carrying; the story of Uriah’s dedication to battle and thus his decision not to have relations with his wife when he needed to be a ready-to-go soldier; and finally David’s decision to have Uriah placed on the front lines and abandoned by his comrades so that he would be killed and Bathsheba would be free to become David’s wife number three.

We are story tellers, we human beings; and here we have a religion that places side by side two stories that seem to upset each other: the virtuous youth and the despicable adult; the innocent who slays the threatening enemy, and the greedy ruler who slays the loyal. We may be less astonished by stories of battles being used to eliminate enemies, less concerned about the stories of multiple wives in that period of patriarchy’s story; but the distance between Little David, with his harp and his sling and his five smooth stones, and Big David, with his desires and his arrogance and his power, is a great distance, and we are shocked; and it is as if they are not the same person, as if these two are not on the same path. It seems as if David, in these stories, has missed the mark, has lost his way.

And so into this Hebrew tradition enters the corrective: the prophet, Nathan, who is sent to speak to David with the power of God. David who was chosen by God (as evidenced by his success in battle), David who knows God so well that he can sing directly to God and about God; this David is lost to God; and the messenger sent to bring him back is his prophet. And what does the prophet do? He tells a story.  A rich man and a poor man. An act of thievery by the rich and violence against the poor. A story that compels a response. We are people of story.

-=-=-=-=-

Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates tells a story. His story is an extended letter to his teenaged son; a letter that shares some of Coates’s life story, but also his great explanation of what his story is about. He is convinced that his life, maybe our life, is captured by a greater story, is enveloped in a Dream.

This great story is the story of being White in America; the story of the people who think that Whiteness is real, that dream to be White. Our country, in this telling of the story, is ensnared by this Dream which is based not on identifiable, verifiable, sensate truth, but shielded in story, animated in myth.

The founders of the First Church in Boston, Massachusetts, an ancient “cousin” church of ours in our Unitarian faith, a partner of ours in the covenant we formed with them to create the Unitarian Universalist Association; that church began its journey from England telling a story about themselves, that they were to be “like a city on a Hill,” a city chosen by God with a people chosen by God. They were to be the exemplary people for the establishment of God’s rule and realm.

These aspirations about God, are not they aspirations about the Good? Should those stories not be told with admiration and wonder?

But what is the basis for that story, that myth? Does it not also include the notion of the superiority of the people and their culture? Does it not take the notion of Anglo-Saxon superiority which will permit, even encourage, the annihilation of the First Nations people? Does it not set up the conditions for viewing the people of Africa as less than fully human, created to serve the people who believe the Dream of the establishment of God’s own city?

Ta-Nehisi Coates wonders if we are all asleep—if we are all in a kind of Dream state where we don’t know, for sure, what is happening among us. Most clearly, he calls us back to the body, not the imaginary body of Whiteness and Blackness, but the true bodies in which we live. The Dream allows us not to notice the bodies of people afflicted by poverty, to ignore the pain of Black bodies (in Baltimore) which lack of transportation to good jobs, to accept as normal the incredible effort of some bodies to hold down two or three part-time jobs to sustain the bodies of one’s children. The Dream makes excuses for the shooting of Black male bodies by the police in Ferguson, and the strangulation of Black bodies by the police on Staten Island, and the rough police van rides of Black bodies in Baltimore.

We’re in a Dream in this culture of Whiteness-as-Normal, in this absolutely artificial distinction of skin color being the chief marker by which actual bodies of all colors are measured. And it is from this Dream, this myth, this story of Anglo-Saxon superiority that we must awaken; for the story of Anglo-Saxon superiority is the great sin of our nation, the sin that sets those who achieve “Whiteness” over all people and all the earth; and this story leads to the subsequent sins of environmental degradation, of racism, of “The Dream.”

The prophet Nathan tells a story to David the king; paints a picture so vivid about the clear abuse of power, draws so direct and convincing a logic that David himself erupts in declaring the injustice of the scenario. David hears the Truth of the Story.

But David is asleep. David is so lost in the Dream of the world that he inhabits—the mythic world that excuses all his behavior because he was the chosen one of God—that he cannot apply the very understanding that he has. He knows—but he cannot know. He is asleep in the Dream.

“Attah ha-Ish,” says Nathan,  “You are the man,” to shake David out of his sleep, to smack him to attention, to prod him into action that he may resist the Dream.

“You are the man,” is his wake up call. You are the one who inhabits that very body. 

Are we the man? Are we the ones so caught up in our sense of the way things ought to be in our societal Dream that we can’t see the way things really are? Do we tell our story as congregations and an Association as if we were all innocent children slaying fierce giants—or is our story, even our actions as we live our mission today, a more nuanced, complicated, incomplete and human story?

How shall we wake up? How shall you wake up? How shall I?

-=-=-=-=-

Professor Kelly Brown Douglas of Goucher College argues in her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God that we need to embrace morality by developing these four morals:

     Moral memory

     Moral identity

     Moral engagement

     Moral imagination

James Baldwin suggested that achieving moral memory meant going back in your story as far as you can to tell the truth about the price you’ve paid to be where you are now. What was the price of the ticket for becoming White, Professor Brown Douglas asks. White is not a real ethnicity; no one is naturally “White.”  “Whiteness” is an historically constructed relationship of the superiority of one group over others; to become White, what did the Irish have to give up? The Italians? The Eastern European Jews? Go back, Baldwin argues, and tell the truth. Know the truth in the past; decide what of the past ought to be brought forward; find ways to make right whatever can be righted. Moral memory, a first way to wake up from the Dream.

Our moral identity as Unitarian Universalist communities includes recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every human being; recognizing the beauty of every Black body we encounter, the sacredness of every life we meet. Paul Tillich argues that the courage to be is the highest morality, to recognize self as self and to be what one truly is. Moral identity, then, is both discovered and chosen.

Moral engagement involves making a commitment to living a particular way in the world; of deciding how to relate to one’s neighbor; of choosing to confront the realities of how our bodies find freedom. Freedom is the highest aim of human life. Creating ways to increase the freedom of bodies that are held in bondage is the core moral engagement that we are called to effect. The prophets of old were clear: moral engagement involved caring for the orphan, the widow and the stranger, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless, healing for the infirm and setting the captives free. Moral engagement means, today, standing on the side of those whose communities are under attack by the police who are called to serve the greater good. Moral engagement seeks freedom for each of us, and all of us, in our very bodies.

Moral engagement can only happen with moral imagination; when we are not asleep, when we are “woke” from the Dream. My great privilege in the past year has included being in New York City, with a small group of my Baltimore neighbors, part of a national march against police terror. It was my privilege to walk with a few dozens of Unitarian Universalists; to deliver two families from Maryland that they might march, too; to open my White ears—and heart—and listen deeply, and to hear the stories of dozens of surviving families, those who had lost family members to encounters with the police; to witness the rage and the conviction that we can change things; indeed, that we must change things.

This is what I think is meant by moral imagination. And so I must ask:

What is the moral imagination of a mother of a child killed by police? What imagination drives her to to say, “This resistance is an act of L-O-V-E. Love is what compels us to create systems of accountability.”

What moral imagination equips Kadiatou Diallo, mother of Amado, her son, shot at 41 times, shot 19 times, in the vestibule of his own apartment? What moral imagination sustains her to say, “I am not bitter.” This from a woman who in the last few years has stood with grieving families at other funerals in Staten Island, in Cleveland, in Ferguson?

“We need to change,” she says. This moral imagination in spite of the boot on her neck, on the necks of her immigrant people.

“We must learn what is going wrong, and correct it.” Her moral imagination rises above her grief, and she proclaims, prophetically, “We are not anti-police; we are against police brutality.”

“An act of L-O-V-E,” the sister cried; an act of love.

The moral engagement we need can only happen when we cultivate moral imagination; when we live not in the Dream, but when we wake to the deep truth that there is liberation already moving among us; and when we “stay woke” to affirm that the small freedom any of us may experience is kind of emblem of the larger freedom that all should know; and that in our attempt to find freedom for ourselves, we must imagine that our freedom will never be complete until all are free. For David and Nathan, for the prophets and the kings, their moral imagination allows them to believe that God, by whatever name, really rules; that the rule and realm of the Good are not only in some distant venue, but among us now; moral imagination realizable now, by our moral engagement now of our moral identity now instructed by our moral memory.

“Attah ha-Ish,” Nathan said, “You are the one,” to confront David, to wake him up from the Dream, and to challenge to “stay woke,” to be not someone other than who he was, but to be himself in a way that was truly awake, truly alive. “You are the one,” Nathan said, to wake him out of his slumber, so that he could understand how his actions in the world touched people in their very bodies. “You are the one,” Nathan said, to call David back to the journey, the journey of building a world where wholeness heals community, and whole communities are on the journey of healing the world.

Are you the one? Am I? Are we the ones?

Blessed be. Ashe, ashe. Peace, Salaam, Shalom. And Love. Amen.