Delivered October 12, 2014 - Rev. David A. Miller ©
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito
A Unitarian Universalist Association Congregation—Solana Beach, Ca
(Lightly edited version)
A famous line of Martin Luther King Jr. was, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The origin of this line was by Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker born August 24, 1810. According to the Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society, Parker was a preacher, lecturer, and writer, a public intellectual, and a religious and social reformer. He played a major role in moving Unitarianism away from being a Bible-based faith, and he established a precedent for clerical activism that has inspired generations of liberal religious leaders.
The origin of Dr. King’s line came from a collection of “Ten Sermons of Religion” by Parker in 1857 and actually said, “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Parker was an amazing figure in UU history and transcendentalism and I would recommend looking him up for further study, but perhaps the major thing that he is remembered for and the thing that all UU ministers have to study in order to be a UU minister is a sermon titled, The Transient and Permanent in Christianity. This is a benchmark piece of work that had a significant influence on the course and direction of Unitarianism and one of the reasons we are all sitting in a Unitarian Universalist congregation today.
Again from the, Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society, “Parker emerged as a major Transcendentalist spokesman in May 1841, when he delivered A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity at an ordination in South Boston. Parker intended the main point of the sermon to be that Jesus preached the Absolute Religion. What made the strongest impression on Parker's audience, however, was his vehement denial of the factuality of Biblical miracles and of the miraculous authority of both the Bible and Jesus. Particularly outraged were three Trinitarian guests in the audience. They published an attack on the sermon in the newspapers and demanded to know if Unitarians considered Parker a Christian minister. During the resulting uproar, most Unitarian ministers, and a large portion of the Unitarian lay public, concluded that Parker's theology was not Christian.” Just like Emerson who had been banned from Harvard Divinity School for his heretical views that challenged the Unitarian Orthodoxy of the times, Parker was in the theological doghouse with the mainstream.
Here is a little of what that sermon said, “... Looking at the Word of Jesus, at real Christianity, the pure religion he taught, nothing appears more fixed and certain. Its influence widens as light extends; it deepens as the nations grow more wise. But, looking at the history of what men call Christianity, nothing seems more uncertain and perishable. While true religion is always the same thing, in each century and every land, in each man that feels it, the Christianity of the Pulpit, which is the religion taught; the Christianity of the People, which is the religion that is accepted and lived out; has never been the same thing in any two centuries or lands, except only in name... Let us look at this matter a little more closely. In actual Christianity -- that is, in that portion of Christianity which is preached and believed -- there seem to have been, ever since the time of its earthly founder, two elements, the one transient, the other permanent. The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions, the impiety of man; the other, the eternal truth of God. These two bear perhaps the same relation to each other that the phenomena of outward nature, such as sunshine and cloud, growth, decay, and reproduction, bear to the great law of nature, which underlies and supports them all...”
What I think Parker was getting at was that he believed there was the core truth of religion which was permanent and unchangeable, and the way it had been used and interpreted since it was created, which was always changing and not changing in a good way but more in a way that met the needs of those who changed it, straying far from its original intent. This meant it had to be examined, it had to be explored and it was important to always be searching for a way back to the core meaning.
Unitarian Universalists have been questioning orthodoxy and convention for a very long time. That may be why a little bell goes off in my head when I hear the phrase, “but it has always been this way,” because one of the things that Parker is educating us about is the way it has always been is rarely the way it has always been. It may be the way we have come to know it, but that may have come from a series of evolutions or events that formed things in a certain way that may never have been done all that intentionally, but now all the sudden they are a part of “our tradition.” I am not saying that tradition is all bad. Traditions can be wonderful, can be grounding, can inform people and cultures to important aspects of their history and shared meaning. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be explored and examined.
There is a very important tradition that I observed as a child. It was about the discovering of America. In school, the way it was always done was to know the date of 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Generations were taught about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. What they weren’t taught was about the Doctrine of Discovery. “The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in a papal decree issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.” (UUA Website) And as the UUA has noted, the reason this matters is that, “The Doctrine is woven into the fabric of United States law via nineteenth century case law that is still used as precedent. It is still the basis used by courts today to violate existing treaties with Native peoples and take away their mineral and water rights.”
I don’t think that this papal decree of Pope Nicholas was the original Christianity that Jesus preached, so it isn’t always the way that it was done, but it now has been done this way for a very long time. As children, we were taught many things about the native people of this land, but it certainly wasn’t taught to us from their perspective. And now, as awareness grows around the impact of this history to native communities, according to the year 2000 census data a Native American born today, compared to all other ethnicities and races has a:
(Source: U.S. 2000 Census and Dept of Justice)
50%will never finish high school
86%will never obtain a college degree
2.5 times more likely to be a victim of violence than any other ethnicity
80%more likely to die a violent death by accident, murder or suicide
1 in 3 native women will be raped or sexually assaulted at least once
86% of perpetrators are non-native, causing jurisdiction issues and no prosecution
Lower life expectancy - 10 years lower than the national average
2.5 times greater chance of committing suicide before 24
3 times more likely to suffer from illness (i.e. diabetes, heart disease, cancer)
6 times more likely to be unemployed
2.5 times more likely to live in poverty
5 times more likely to be placed and remain in foster care as a youth
6 times more likely to become homeless
“Theodore Parker saw slavery as the greatest obstacle to achieving industrial democracy. He denounced the Mexican War (1846-1848) as an attempt to expand slavery and led Boston opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The act established a federal bureaucracy to catch slaves who had escaped to the free states. Most Boston Unitarian ministers either refused to oppose the legislation, or publicly supported it as a constitutional obligation and as a politically necessary concession to the South that would "save the Union" and "settle" the slavery issue. Some argued that catching fugitive slaves was sanctioned by Scripture. Parker pronounced the act a violation of Christian ideals and a threat to free institutions. In his Sermon of Conscience (1850), he openly called for it to be defied.” http://uudb.org/articles/theodoreparker.html
There are all kinds of things that we have always done this way in our lives, at our work, in our communities, in our congregations and around the world. Whether they have grown into something that corrupts the original intent, or conversely have come straight from a long established tradition, the way things have always been needs fresh air, light and examination.
I think it would be unfair of me to compare some cherished beloved tradition we may have here at UUFSD to slavery or the Doctrine of Discovery. I am thinking coffee hour for instance wouldn’t be on the same level. But just for fun, let’s take coffee hour as a more practical example of an organizational tradition to examine. I guess we could get rid of coffee hour, but then maybe we wouldn’t talk at all after the service. I guess we could expand coffee hour to be a catered meal for sale every week, but then we are running more of a restaurant. It has been suggested that we have someone with an espresso cart and pastries for sale come in and we get a percentage of the take and a lot more choices of coffee. These are all way to think of transforming coffee hour, ways that are all transient, ways that may change the way it has always been done. But I think it is important to also look at what may be the permanent about coffee hour, or the questions that lie at the core.
For instance, what should we do after our service that gives people a chance to talk, connect and share this important Sunday experience in meaningful ways? Or how can we transform our Sundays together to be opportunities of healing, wholeness and transformation, and what would that look like if we weren’t bound to have coffee and eating carbohydrates on a patio. What if something happened here on Sundays between and after services that fed you so deeply, that connected you so completely, that transformed the way you approached your life so much that no one cared if we ever drank another cup of coffee again. I will tell you that some would leave because they would miss the taste and the simplicity of the coffee and others would come because they are looking for whatever replaced it that brought that deeper sense of connection and transformation.
I am not attacking coffee, as most of you know, I love a good cup of decaf and a little nosh on the patio, but what I am saying is we come from a long line of people who challenge the way things have always been. We are planted firmly in a faith tradition that often challenges the meaning of faith and challenges the meaning of tradition. It can be unsettling, but it also can help us look at the structures and systems of injustice. It can help us overcome complacency and fear. It can move us in new a creative directions. It can help us understand what holds us back and it can help us with our growing edges.
I don’t think it is helpful or useful to be questioning all the traditions all the time, and, I want to remind us all that sometimes we question them and we discover that they are exactly what they need to be, some of you may remember the whole new Coca Cola debacle for example. But I guess the point is, we shouldn’t be afraid to question them, to examine them and to decide if they are still serving the needs at the core of our purpose.
At the 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix, AZ, delegates of the Unitarian Universalist Association passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and calling on Unitarian Universalists to study the Doctrine and eliminate its presence from the current-day policies, programs, theologies, and structures of Unitarian Universalism. "BE IT RESOLVED that we, the delegates of the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples." http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/
And then, much like Parker did with regard to slavery, the UUA states, “As people of faith, we are called to understand and dislodge the Doctrine of Discovery and its present-day effects, and advocate for our government to fully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an aspirational declaration passed by the United Nations in 2007 and to which the United States became a signatory in 2010.”
We are human and we are comfortable in patterns but sometimes those patterns need changing, need evolution, need fresh air, and in some cases we need to look at the facts of the world and although we may see a continual and progressive triumph of what is right we cannot pretend to always understand the moral universe, for the arc is a long one, and our eyes can only reach but little ways. We may not be able to calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but if we search deep enough, we might be able to divine it by conscience and if we keep working on it, we hope it will always in the end bend towards justice.”
May that be so.