On Freedom

This is the text of my remarks at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley this morning:

What a privilege it is to be back among you, and to be given the chance to speak again from this familiar pulpit. Many of you may know that I am back in the Bay Area this semester as minister-in-residence at Starr King School for the Ministry, where I am having a grand time being present to students, leading the weekly chapel reflection group, and teaching.

I am teaching a class exploring the history and theology of our association’s efforts to counter racism and other oppressions—a process that the UUA calls “The Journey Toward Wholeness.” For several years, I served on the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee, a committee of the UUA Board of Trustees. While I served on the committee our major task was to assess how we’ve done in the area of anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism.  We asked congregations, districts, theological schools, departments of the UUA, and many other groups a series of questions that basically added up to, “How are you doing when it comes to countering racism and oppression in our association?”

With few exceptions, the answers sounded a lot like this:  “About ten years ago we started with great energy and vision, but somehow, along the way, we lost that. Now there doesn’t seem to be much interest and those of us that have been doing this work are feeling burned out, disappointed, and stuck.” We heard story after story of committees gone dormant, efforts petering out, and people feeling deep disappointment and anger that we did not seem to be living our values in the world.

This was no surprise to me. In fact, I’d said “yes” to the invitation to serve on the committee because I too felt this frustration.  I wanted to know why we seemed to be unwilling or unable to sustain continued commitment and energy to work that feels, to me, as if it is vital to our integrity.  It seemed to me then—and still seems to me—that if we are going to truly live by our Unitarian Universalist principles, the work of countering racism and oppression in all its forms is crucial.   So why were we having such a hard time doing it?

That is the question that the class I’ve been teaching is trying to answer, and the answer is a difficult one, both in its complexity and in its meaning.  As we have traced the history of Unitarian Universalist theologies, we’ve come to see that our association is deeply rooted in modernity, especially in our insistence on the autonomy and supremacy of the individual.  In short, our beloved faith tradition is mired in tenets, beliefs, and practices that are part of the problem, not the solution.

Take, for instance, our oft-quoted “new trinity” of freedom, reason, and tolerance. For a time, these three concepts seemed a recipe for radical liberation.  But the recipe was particularly narrow, for our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors did not believe everyone equally ready for freedom, equally able to reason, or equally deserving of tolerance.  Though liberal religion was a step in the right direction, it was a baby step, and the ground on which that step was taken was still clearly in a land of colonialism, racism, and a conviction that only some people were “enlightened” enough to fully understand and achieve the benefits of liberal religion.

That’s the bad news.  Our history and theologies are rooted in soil that has been poisoned by centuries of elitism and power.  The good news is that we still have some good seeds and we can look for healthier soil in which to plant.

One of those seeds is freedom.  In the poisoned soil, “freedom” grew twisted.  It turned into something that is not freedom, but isolated, autonomous self-interest.  But the seed of freedom is still there and can be replanted in our hearts and in our congregations and communities.  We can understand freedom in new ways: not as a seemingly infinite list of rights and entitlements which individuals deserve, but as liberation from want, from fear, from violence, from habits of thinking that oppress ourselves and others.

Where we have lost our balance, turning freedom into something self-centered and small, we can discover new ways of being free: free to engage fully in community without constantly judging ourselves and others; free to believe that we can make a difference, because we do not have to do it alone;  free from the fear that we must hide and minimize our differences, because we have come to truly value the way each person’s integrity adds to the beauty of the beloved community; free to think, to feel, to laugh, to forgive, to believe, to question, to make mistakes, and to love one another.

Unitarian Universalist theologian and ethicist, Dr. Sharon Welch, describes a vision in which we can create circles of freedom where no one is abandoned, and everyone knows:
…[T]he satisfaction of belonging to generations who care deeply about suffering and yet relish the wonders of friendship, connection, and beauty; the freedom of an open heart and a lively imagination; the sustenance of knowing that, whether we win or lose, we have seen and cherished the wondrous gift of life.”

May it be so.