Is Unitarian Universalism a Prophetic Church?

Any Facebook friends who’ve paid attention to my “status” will know that the recent Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministries has been on my mind for the last two weeks. Last week, my status worried that I might not make it to a session due to winter ice. This week, I’ve spent more time pondering what came out of the discussions, such as wondering “whether Unitarian Universalism can preach to both the comfortable and the afflicted in the same congregation(s).” From talking with others who attended, I know that I am not alone in being deeply impacted by the experience. Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King School for Ministry and a presenter at the Convocation, even mentions the Convocation (and our blog) in her e-newsletter to the seminary.

At a meeting of the First UU Church of Second Life last night, I asked fellow UUs there whether they consider Unitarian Universalism to be a “prophetic church.” This question, of course, raised other questions: what does it mean to be a prophetic church? After making clear that I did not mean a church that predicts the future, but rather a church that speaks the truth of justice to unjust power structures, we moved on to other questions. Have we been a prophetic church in the past? Are we now? Will we be in the future?

Due to logistics, the Convocation was not open to everyone, but these discussions are not meant to be limited to attendees. Essays were submitted, presentations were filmed, and a book and a DVD will come out of this for others to have the same chance for reflection. In addition, this will be taken up at the social justice track of UU University at General Assembly in Salt Lake City.

But in the mean time, I am asking our readers what I asked the UUs of Second Life: Is Unitarian Universalism a prophetic church? Do you want it to be, and if so in what way?

Reflections on Pluralism and Theologies of Justice

Like Adam, I am lucky enough to be able to attend the Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministry currently being held just outside of Baltimore. It is late Wednesday night, almost Thursday morning, but I am just posting about Tuesday because it’s taking me that long to digest the rich diet of ideas being offered.

We started the Convocation by devoting the first session to our UU theological and historical background in social justice – our religious grounding. We heard from three provocative panelists – Rebbecca Parker, Dan McKannan, and Jill Schwendemn. One theme that emerged was to recognize the rich history that we have coming out of two liberal Christian traditions – the Unitarians and the Universalists, and the importance to ritual to reaffirm our values. This being a UU convocation, those of us in the audience were asked to engage in these questions for ourselves – to think about how our own faith impacts our social justice work. I thought about how both the Christian tradition of the culture in which I grew up and the Buddhist tradition of my ancestral culture were equally important to me. The Judeo-Christian stories are so familiar and emotionally powerful. Yet at the same time, I do not want those traditions to be privileged over others such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The need to recognize the religious pluralism within our UU congregations mirrors the need to recognize and celebrate diversity in all its forms in our society.

The second session took up the problem of suffering, brokenness, and evil in the world, and our appropriate response. If the earlier session celebrated our UU and American heritage, then the evening’s panelists – Taquiena Boston, Victoria Safford, and Sharon Welch – all gave beautiful, painful testimonies as to where we have been unable to fully address the challenges that arise in an imperfect world. The room struggled with the concept of evil and wondered whether it was necessary to confess complicity by making the statement “I am evil.” Dr. Welch stressed a non-dualistic approach, recognizing and addressing acts of oppression while at the same time not labeling others as “evil” in a way that evokes animosity towards them and thus perpetuates the cycle. And Rev. Safford talked about how the choices that we make to no longer do harm are not one-time events. The choice must be made over and over again. What I understood from her was that we have been conditioned to be inclined to make the choices that we make. That doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our choices but it recognizes that simply choosing once would not be enough.

As I listened to the conversations from both the afternoon and evening – discussions of “sin” and the means to “reconciliation” – I felt that it would be helpful if we UUs became conversant in other faith traditions – if we truly understood the concept of karma.

I do not mean the Westernized understanding of karma as a punishment and reward system. That comes from imposing the concepts of “good” and “evil” and a “divine judge” on an Eastern concept. Karma is not based on judgment. It is merely the consequences of one’s actions. Harmful acts have harmful consequences. Understanding this allows us to name and admit to oppressive acts without the debilitating judgment of “evil doer.” It tells us that the need to choose to end oppression is urgent for every moment that we allow it to continue (which is a choice), we generate more bad karma, the consequences of our actions (or inaction). What’s more karma reminds us that even when we choose the loving act, our work is not done. We will have to choose over and over again because the consequences of past harmful choices are still with us. It reminds us that there are no easy fixes to repair the world and build Beloved Community. But it also follows that if we act in love, steadily, that reconciliation and wholeness are inevitable.

A Reflection from the Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministry

Brokenness, evil, hope, encounter, partnership, accountability, effectiveness, justice, change, worship, and repeat.

That is the mantra that is emerging for me over the course of my past two days surrounded by committed and prophetic Unitarian Universalists. Without naming it, I have spent my nearly three years with the UUA’s Washington Office learning and living this mantra. Much of my inspiration and guidance along this journey comes from the people present at this convocation.

I was asked at the convocation how I see my faith impacting my justice work. I quickly replied, ‘I don’t see a difference between the two.’ When asked to expand on that, I had trouble articulating what I meant. But after listening to so many panelists speak of such core components of our faith and our work for justice, I zeroed in on a clearer sense of my meaning. My faith is composed of community, reality, hope, belief and joyfully showing up to do the work. My justice work is also composed of community, reality, hope, belief and joyfully showing up to do the work. At their core, I don’t see a difference.

But there is a need – and a space – for our faith to have a more defined and complete theology of justice and ministry other than faith = justice. I have found that the space between and among our faith and justice work is filled with the elements of the mantra above. Each one of those elements has been spoken to at this convocation, albeit in often disjointed and incomplete ways. But, like a puzzle, as each moment passes the picture is becoming more clear.

At the end of the last panel discussion we were asked to come forward and share song or metaphor to illustrate our visions of prophecy and justice. Participant after participant went to the microphone and stood before all of us and the camera, and beautifully and articulately added more and more pieces to the emerging puzzle. I was literally on the edge of my seat.

Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministry

We’ve got snow, ice, slush, sleet… but amazingly, weather didn’t interfere with the arrivals of any of the 35 assembled prophets who are tucked into the Maritime Center, near Baltimore Washington Airport, to wrestle with the deeper questions related to social justice: What is it about Unitarian Universalist history, theology, and practice that calls us to justice? How do we hold brokenness, suffering, oppression? How do we find prophetic voice? How do we build prophetic congregations?

It is a huge treat to gather for reflection. I find myself sucking up bits of what might seem abstract or distant theory, just the way my dry Minnesota skin sucks moisturizing lotions in winter. There’s a deficit here and what a treat to spend some time filling it!

In seminary, my psychology and theology professor used to tell us over and over, we should always have at least two theories to pick from as we made any decision in a counseling session. Absent such good grounding, she warned us, we could damage our clients deeply.

And yet, as the saying goes, “I used to have six theories about childraising and no children. Now I have six children and no theories about childraising.” We get busy. We find ourselves suddenly swimming in deep waters where our only thought is survival. We learn that the plane we boarded for Florida was really heading to North Dakota. And we do the best we can.

So, as I say, this is a huge delight. We are here to create a book and a DVD for others to have the same chance for reflection, and it’s fantastic to be here. The UUA is partnering with All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, DC to do this, and received a grant from the UU Funding Panel as well as All Souls’ Beckner Fund. Look for us at the social justice track of UU University at General Assembly in Salt Lake City!