(With guest musician Sue Cotter)
Sermon “Freedom from Outrage” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
This was going to be a sermon about hell, a pithy, tongue-in-cheek sermon, in the spirit of April Fools Day, at the end of our stewardship campaign, suggesting that if we Unitarian Universalists officially brought into our Seven Principles the idea of hell, we’d all be better off. What I was going to suggest was that if I, like the pastors of so many of our conservative Christian neighbor churches, could inform you with authority that you will be saved from the hellfire of eternal damnation….then you, like the members of those churches would fill out your pledge cards with lots of digits.
Because it’s a well known fact that the more liberal the tradition, the smaller the pledges. The most conservative churches expect five-figure annual pledges from their members. And they get it.
The fear of threat is that large.
We Unitarians and Universalists don’t have hell.
Theodore Parker, one of the first Unitarian Ministers in the United States, said that hell makes people “do nothing from love of what is good beautiful and true,” but rather “makes religions unnatural to humanity, and of course hostile,” it paved with children’s bones.(1)
John Murray, the man often called the father of American Universalism, survived the debtors prison after the deaths of his wife and daughter, said repeatedly that the job of the church is to give people not hell, but hope. (2)
You know the joke: Universalists believed God was too good to condemn anyone to hell. Unitarians believed they were too good to be condemned to hell by any god.
Unitarians and Universalists moved more closer together theologically, and since our consolidation in 1961, we’re a lot more likely to believe that hell isn’t a creation of the divine, a prison in the nether world, but rather, hell is what we have the capacity to create, right here on Earth.
If we’re lucky – some might even say blessed – then we live through heavenly times. If not, hellish times.
At worst we believe that only a rube would even engage in the conversation, at best that our job is to love the hell out of this world.
Bill Sinkford, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s first president of color, took office in June of 2001, and within a few months in that position, in the aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, began warning us about the dangers of what he called “stridency of opinion.”
While the rest of the country was angrily debating whether or not we should engage in a war that the administration said could last a century, Unitarian Universalists were engaged in another struggle. We were debating whether or not religious language – even religion itself – had a place in our association of congregations.
Hell, which may have existed all along on earth, was beginning to make itself visible in our national politics and in our denominational politics.
RRev. Sinkford delivered a sermon in Texas in January of 2003 that, as detailed by the New York Times, “set off a firestorm of protest from humanists, who flooded a humanist chat room with cries of ‘creeping credalism’ and warned of a ‘mass exodus’ from the association. That was partly a reaction to a newspaper article that erroneously said Mr. Sinkford had called for including the word ”God” in the principles.”(3)
Rev. Sinkford’s response was to ask people to take it “down a notch,” and repeatedly expressed concern that if we don’t make room for the diversity of opinions we claim to value, we’ll exclude the passions of new, younger potential members and perhaps even fracture our congregations and our associations.
How innocent those fears seem now.
AAuthor Mark Manson, describes a world in which stridency of opinion has gotten worse. We’re now living, he says, in an “Age of Outrage.”(4)
“Outrage is everywhere today,” he writes, “on the political left and right, with old people and young people, people of all races and economic backgrounds. We may live in the first period of human history where every demographic feels that they are somehow being violated and victimized. From the wealthy billionaires who have somehow convinced themselves that their 15% tax burden is simply oppressive. To the college kids who hijack stages and scream threats at people because their political views differ from their own.”
He continues, “Not only does there seem to be more outrage happening in all sectors of society, but as you’ve probably noticed, this outrage seems to constantly be escalating. People who complained 10 years ago that there were no Christmas trees in the mall anymore are now claiming that there is a “War on Christmas” and a vast secular/atheist conspiracy to uproot Christianity from US society. People who thought red meat maybe caused some health problems a few decades ago are now claiming that doctors are secretly withholding cancer cures so they can pillage people for more money. People who used to complain about Reagan’s tax hikes now see any increases to the tax rate as a sign of communism, fascism, and Hitler all rolled into one.”
He wrote all of this last summer, before the Republican and Democratic conventions, and I think we can all agree: Outrage has escalated even more since then on the national political scene.
And within the UUA, the difficulties have increased.
About three weeks ago, a tall, white, handsome, middle-class, heteronormative able-bodied man was hired as the lead staff person in a region where people of color are higher in the percentage of the general population than any other region in the country. There were others who applied for the job who were women, people of color, and one very qualified and effective African American woman. The next day people were talking about it, and by the end of the week, Peter Morales, the first Latino president of our association of congregations, was being held personally accountable for the hire.
Here’s my analysis of the upset. The Unitarian Universalist Association, the UUA, has been saying for nearly two decades that it wants to be more diverse, to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity that exists in the United States. They’ve launched dozens of programs; they’ve sent consultants to congregations and other UU organizations to work on anti-oppression and anti-racism and build multiculturalism; they’ve given money to black organizations; and have said repeatedly -rightfully – that if we want our association of congregations to be diverse, we have to staff to reflect that goal. So it seems to me that if they are hiring for a top leadership position, and they have real diversity among applicants, unless there is a compelling reason to NOT hire a person of color, they MUST hire a person of color.
The UUA should do what they are asking congregations to do.
Until recently our discourse in the UUA has been about being called to undo racism. People had a lot of different definitions of racism, and the intensity of its presence was debated, but everyone agreed: In this country racism is present in systems that are dominated by white people, because white people still have advantages over people of color, whether or not they actively do anything to perpetuate those advantages. It’s just easier being white in this country, and it’s easier being white in the Unitarian Universalist Association, too. There’s been no debate about that fact.
But the outrage grew among many over the last week, with some calling for congregations to begin withholding 100% of our dues in two years if the top tiers of leadership don’t yet include 25% people of color. Some are calling for 50% people of color in two years.
And so Thursday, Peter Morales resigned over a debate about race. He just wasn’t up for the struggle. Now there is one Latino person on staff at the UUA, and we continue with the diversity struggle.
In another book, Mark Manson talks about struggle this way.
If you were to be asked “what do you want out of life?” your responses would probably be pretty boring. You want to have enough money to be comfortable, maybe rich. You want to be healthy and happy, maybe even respected. The stuff everybody wants.
BBut maybe that’s the wrong question, Manson says. “A more interesting question, a question that most people never consider, is, ‘What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?’ Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives turn out.” (5)
“Because happiness requires struggle,” he says. “It grows from problems. Joy doesn’t just sprout out of the ground like daisies and rainbows. Real, serious, lifelong fulfillment and meaning have to be earned through the choosing and managing of our struggles. Whether you suffer from anxiety or loneliness or obsessive-compulsive disorder or a … boss who ruins half of your waking hours every day, the solution lies in the acceptance and active engagement of that negative experience- not the avoidance of it, not the salvation from it.” (6)
Happiness comes, as it did for the Samurai, from engaging in the struggle, finding answers on our own, rather than being given easy solutions. Happiness comes from letting go of rage and realizing that hell isn’t something out there, created by others, but rather something in here, created by ourselves.
Apparently the problem of racism in our congregations and our association are ones that Peter Morales just doesn’t enjoy tackling and solving any more. At least not right now. As a Latino man with a pale complexion, he’s been dealing with race in a very personal way his whole life, and he’s probably as tired of the struggle as I am of the struggle with homophobia. He’s going to manage his struggles by focusing on something different for a while, if he wants to have any real, serious, lifelong fulfillment.
Funny though, because that’s what congregational life is about.
We come here, we commit ourselves to this project, where we have to pledge and volunteer for leadership, and teach ourselves and the youth, and decide how to finance ministry – all while trying to answer for ourselves the tough questions about heaven and hell, good and evil, god and humanity – because we know that our struggles here are what give our lives real, serious, lifelong fulfillment. These struggles give meaning to our lives because they matter, and they matter because their solutions make a difference in the world as we work together.
Thank goodness we have our bond of Union, that moment each Sunday when we join hands and pledge to one another not to think alike but to walk together. Or journey. Or dance, or sing….or cry. We do it together. Without having to agree on everything, unanimously.
I’m heartened that I can say, without any reservation, that the Bond of Union is the thing that holds this congregation together. It’s the one thing that people tell me caused them to join the congregation, the thing most frequently reported as the motivation to stay through controversy. The Bond of Union serves as a constant reminder to avoid stridency and outrage in our interactions with one another.
But. We have to live into the challenges that arise out of differences of opinion. Sixty years ago, as we consolidated, we took two different views of perdition – one abundant and one self-congratulatory – and turned them into a great mission. To love the Hell out of the world.
What comes next?
The good news is that in these times where so many people are feeling like hell is right here, there are a lot of good problems to tackling together. There may not be one that everyone agrees with, but there may be a couple that cover a lot of overlapping bases.
We can’t just sit back and avoid engagement, for fear of disagreeing. Our bond of Union won’t let us.
Our job is to give the world not hell, but hope. To Love the hell out of this world.
It’s time for us as a congregation to ask what it is that we are willing to struggle for.
People are outraged because they are hurting. They are under attack. Every demographic group, as Mark Manson said, is feeling attacked, fueling outrage.
It seems to me that what we have to do now is find the balance between issues we are passionate enough about that our struggle with them will give resonance to our lives, yet distant enough from our own experience that we don’t risk crossing the line into unproductive and divisive outrage.
As I assume Peter Morales is, I’m tired of fighting to defend my rights as a minority. I’m tired of homophobia, and my life being decided upon by voters, judges, judges, legislators, governors and presidents. It’s time for me to let go of my outrage for my own issues of identity, and channel a more hopeful energy into loving the hell out of this world.
I’m pledging myself now to do what I can to end racism and promote democracy.
That means showing up for racial justice. Literally. That means going to meetings of the white ally group called Showing Up for Racial Justice. I’ve wanted to for for than a year now. But the meetings are way over in Rocky River, and always conflict with other things I’ve already scheduled.
I’m going to get those meetings into my calendar and show up and do what is asked of me in relationship with groups of people of color, allowing them to take the lead.
Promoting democracy means engaging with Move to Amend, organized around the radical idea that corporations are not people and campaign contributions are not free speech.
Working with our Social Justice Council here at East Shore, promoting democracy means resisting autocracy and authoritarianism by exercising the power I do have as a man, a white person, and minister. Because I do have a lot of power, if I choose to exercise it.
We have a lot of power together, and we can exercise that power by advocating for democracy, educating ourselves and the public, and showing up where we are needed, especially other religious institutions that are under attack because of who they are.
I hope you’ll join me on this journey.
(1) Theodore ParkerThe Works of Theodore Parker: A discourse of matters pertaining to religion. Thomas Wentowrth Higginson, ed. American Unitarian Association. Boston MA. 1907. P. 412.
(2) Charles A. Howe. The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism. Skinner House Books, Boston MA 1993. P. 1.
(3) Richard Higgins. “Religion Journal; A Heated Debate Flares in Unitarian Universalism.” New York Times, May 17, 2003.https://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/17/nyregion/religion-journal-a-heated-debate-flares-in-unitarian-universalism.html
(4) Mark Manson. “Living in an age of outrage,” June 2, 2016.https://markmanson.net/outrage
(5) Manson, Mark (2016-09-13). The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (pp. 36-37). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
(6) Manson, Mark (2016-09-13). The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (p. 37). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.