A Universalist Response to Racism

a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
(Co-minister of Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, MD)

Winner of the UUA’s 1999 Skinner Award
Delivered at General Assembly, Salt Lake City, June 25, 1999
then at Paint Branch, November 7, 1999
(and various sites since then)

One of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s compatriots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s was Whitney M. Young, Jr., a Unitarian Universalist who was, for most of that decade, head of the National Urban League until his death in 1971 at age 50.

Not long before he died, Young met with President Nixon and his cabinet to press for greater reforms toward racial justice. Afterward, he said he felt his ideas were well received by Nixon. Just a few months later, sadly, the President attended Young's funeral and was photographed with his widow, Margaret Young, also a UU. This moment was captured in a widely circulated picture that showed her leaning toward Nixon, with the caption: "Mrs. Young embracing the President after the service."

Margaret later revealed what was really going on in that moment: evidently she had taken that opportunity to remind the President of the commitments he had made at that earlier cabinet meeting with her husband Whitney. She was actually, you might say, in Nixon's face, challenging him to follow through on his verbal support for racial justice efforts.

We do need reminders about the importance of moving toward the complex, demanding but essential vision of racial justice–what has been called our "Journey Toward Wholeness." How easy it is to be satisfied by merely voicing good intentions. The realities of following through are, if history is any indicator, much harder for most of us, U. S. presidents included. I know I sure need reminders as I come to grips with the part I play in our often oppressive cultural drama. It is all too tempting for me to push the issue away, to insulate myself from the impact of racism in our time.

Yet I believe we are called to be very present to this vision. The path toward racial justice is, you should know, paved with Universalist theology. Our first UU Principle, which affirms "the inherent worth and dignity of every person," is a modern touchstone of our Universalist heritage that directly informs our struggle against the divisive and diminishing effects of racism.

So from this angle today, I will try to illuminate some of the path we're on in the direction of our "Journey Toward Wholeness," which is the title of an excellent report on the subject to the 1996 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). It was produced by the UUA’s Racial and Cultural Diversity Task Force, after a demanding and creative four year process. (For UUs, this Journey Toward Wholeness report might be akin to Catholic Bishops’ Letters that come out every so often on subjects of import.)

I'll also offer a few tools that you can put to use immediately as you move along on your own "Journey Toward Wholeness." For wholeness is our vision and goal in many respects, isn't it? Do we ever actually get there? Maybe not–it's an ideal. So we journey toward it. Having the goal–the ideal–is important, essential even, but what really matters is being intentionally on the "Journey Toward Wholeness." This is true both in one's personal spiritual life and in a world community full of diversity. We are called to be intentionally on this path toward the vision of racial justice.

Wholeness is a strong part of our Unitarian Universalist vision–always has been, really. Stated simply, our traditional Unitarian platform declares the unity of God and Life. Universalist theology, meanwhile, teaches that salvation is for everyone in the whole fabric of community.

Both religious movements came of age as the United States did, and neither tradition accepted the orthodox idea of a specifically "chosen people." Instead, early Unitarians and Universalists adapted the emerging democratic ideals of political liberty into a liberal religious context, by describing an indivisible world of both rich and poor, black and white, strong and weak, Jew and Gentile, etc.

Despite their own cultural blind spots (the kind that afflict people in each and every age), early Universalists especially resisted theological concepts which divided people, such as hell, predestination and original sin. They preferred the all-embracing Love taught by Jesus. To them, "all-embracing Love" meant all-embracing.

The song from our hymnal, #151: I Wish I Knew How, has a rather Universalist refrain:

"I wish I could share all the love in my heart;Remove all the bars that still keep us apart."

The implications of this radical Universalist love were and are fierce. As a challenge to the often less than all-embracing behavior of individuals and institutions, it did not sit well with mainstream religion then, in the early days of American Universalism, and does not still. This "all-embracing Love" is even hard for many contemporary UUs to grasp, let alone live out.

But Anita Farber-Robertson, co-chair of the Racial & Cultural Diversity Task Force, clarifies it forcefully in the "Journey Toward Wholeness" report [pg. 39]:

For Unitarian Universalists, any behavior, any theology, which would shut people out, separate the saved from the unsaved, hold any persons as less than sacred, is wrong. Our theological tradition has the potential of sensitizing us to dynamics of exclusion and dehumanization, allowing us to know that they are diminishing us all. It provides the ground from which we can name those dynamics as evil.

Our theological tradition, especially Universalism, can sensitize us to the dynamics of exclusion and dehumanization, so that we know how they diminish us all. This is a fierce and noble stance, a far cry from the shallow and too often made misstatement that "UUs can do and believe whatever they want." No, we believe what we must.

For instance, as the two religious movements (Unitarian and Universalist) and the one country (the United States) matured together, early on it was clear to some that slavery was contrary to these demanding liberal religious understandings, especially for the Universalists, although many Unitarians were also quite adamant abolitionists. One of, if not the first anti-slavery society in America, formed in the 1790s, was led by the Universalist doctor, Benjamin Rush, who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Even earlier, in 1770, one of the original founders of the very first Universalist congregation in America, in Gloucester, MA, signed the membership book as "Gloucester Dalton, African."

Not much later, Mary Livermore, a prominent New England Universalist, went to Virginia and, after experiencing the slavery system firsthand, became, in her words, "a pronounced abolitionist, accepting from no one any apology for slavery." By the mid 1800s, a belief in the kinship of all people was called "one of the distinguishing excellencies of Universalism." [All examples from The Gospel of Universalism by Tom Owen-Towle.]

However, as articulate as they were on unifying theological principles, Universalist and Unitarian abolitionists were often ambivalent about actual action toward racial justice in their day. There were indeed defenders of slavery among our UU ancestors. Few leaders were as willing to put themselves on the line as Unitarian minister Theodore Parker did. One powerful image we have is of him writing sermons with a gun on his desk, ready to defend the runaway slaves hiding in his basement.

Again, history shows that the realities of following through on good intentions are much harder. The institution of slavery was deeply interwoven into the fabric of the nation then, much as racism is still ingrained in our collective behavior today. Racism was taught to me by subtle and not-so-subtle osmosis as I grew up in an almost all-white, middle-class suburb near a large city, and I daresay parts of me are still racist, despite making some progress on my own "Journey Toward Wholeness." It’s mighty hard to unlearn prejudices picked up in one’s formative years.

It may be difficult for some of us well-intentioned white people today to understand that at times, and despite our best principles, we can nonetheless be contributing to a racist environment. One helpful guide for me is the clarifying definition of racism as race prejudice combined with the misuse or abuse of privileged power.

Privilege is a key understanding here. It is usually designed into any social system by the dominant group, so that it becomes expected and assumed by them, often even invisible to those who benefit by it. Racial privilege in the U.S. belongs to white people, ever since they overwhelmed the native people here and set up a society that suited them, that they generally dominated. For me, perhaps no other realization has been as personally transforming as the concept of race privilege.

(Let me add that UU theologian Thandeka, in recent presentations, maintains cogently that class, even more than race, serves to promote privilege and injustice, and this angle certainly deserves examination, too. But for my purposes in this sermon, and for this section of my "Journey Toward Wholeness," I find race privilege to be an illuminating lens to hold up in front of my mirror.)

To help illustrate this often invisible advantage, let me read just five examples of white privilege, culled from a very much longer list, found in materials presented by the Racial and Cultural Diversity Task Force:

As a white person, I can expect…

…that I will be shown a variety of housing if I go to a rental or real estate agent;
…that my children will see many members of my racial group, white people, in positions of authority in educational, political and other social settings;

As a white person, I can expect…

…that, in general, I will receive good service when I go to a restaurant;
…that I will be able to find members of my race, white people, when I am looking for a doctor, a dentist, a lawyer, a counselor, or other professional;

As a white person, I can expect…

…to wake up in the morning without having to think about the issue of race.

Now, these are not unnatural or even unreasonable expectations. Being inclined to associate with one's own racial group, for instance, is not wrong. What has been called the universality of human narcissism is that most people are more comfortable looking into a pool that reflects their image.

The kinds of expectations I've mentioned are, however, easy for white people to take for granted. What matters, and what makes for injustice, is that in contrast, people of color usually cannot expect such seemingly simple things as good service in restaurants. In fact, what they evidently often have learned to expect–at any moment, directly or indirectly–is some kind of harsh reaction to their presence by those of the dominant group. I suspect that such harsh reaction by some white people may be rooted in fear–a fear stirred by something that challenges their assumptions, or by a perceived threat to their privileged expectations.

I've learned that the evil of racism emerges when those of us in the dominant racial group neglect to hold ourselves accountable for the harmful effect of that collective privilege on others who do not look like us. I think perhaps the most insidious form of racism is when we actually find ways to blame the disenfranchised, marginalized, oppressed "other" not only for their own struggles, but for our upset as well. This contributes to a nearsightedness that is all too easy to either accept passively or deny aggressively.

In our time, because of continuing damage done to the lives and culture of people of color, because of the growing awareness of our fundamental interconnectedness, and because of the increasing proximity we all have to each other on a shrinking planet, I believe white people are called to get some corrective lenses and improve our nearsighted vision, not to mention our own behavior, so that we can all adapt to survive and thrive at a deeper level of fair coexistence.

The responsive reading (#584), by Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us:

"There are some things in our social system
to which all of us ought to be maladjusted."

My early training as a racist was interrupted some when my parents sent me to a Junior High summer camp started by a UU church in the nearby city. As I rose from camper to counselor, the early period of Affirmative Action was in full gear, and there was a fair amount of grant money available to help less-privileged kids get out of the hot city summer. Our UU camp became one of many destinations for groups of inner city kids, endorsed by the values of our parents and churches.

Over the decade that I was engaged in this dynamic and formative camp, I had opportunities–which never would have presented themselves in my very insulated home town–to be in relationship with kids of different ethnicities, from very different settings. So I began to see the world a little more completely, a little more fully, and I grew in a new direction of wholeness, thanks to numerous camp relationships. My summers away at an idealistic, integrated UU camp helped to counteract the powerful racist messages I got during the school year. Meanwhile, the journeys my mother took for civil rights marches also got my young attention.

Today, decades later, we are clearly in a time of change, as white privilege and dominance–at least numerically–dwindles. I am challenged to make peace in the workplace, the church, the neighborhood–wherever I am involved with people who see things differently and probably look different than me. I'm now speaking directly to those of you who are my white brothers and sisters when I suggest that we are called to deal with our various angers and fears about losing privilege and our sadness about what has been the lot of people of color in this society. We are called to deal with our anger, fear and sadness.

And you might respond, "Thanks, but that's just too much work." Yes, indeed, how much easier it is to avoid all that struggle and escape into a nice video realm, or focus on all the demanding tasks around the house, or the career. Well, yes, unlearning and eliminating racism–in ourselves and in our culture–is a lot of work, but I can't help hearing the old cliché: If you're not part of the solution, guess what? [You could be part of the problem.]

Part of our white privilege is that we can usually wake up without thinking about the issue of race, so we might also think we can avoid dealing with the consequences of racism. But this is shallow thinking, my friends. Silence denotes acquiescence, complicity. Besides, unlearning and eliminating racism is work fundamental to a future of peace and justice, if that matters to you. It is also our religious imperative, like it or not. As UUs, we are sensitized "to dynamics of exclusion and dehumanization," and we know that they diminish us all. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" [MLK, Jr.].

Well, okay, for this hard work I offer three tools which have been helpful to me as a white person but may well be useful for anyone; three tools you can pick up and use today starting where you always have the most influence–with yourself; three inner orientations that can help you along your own "Journey Toward Wholeness."

The first tool is the ability to let yourself struggle. Don't avoid struggling with racism, just because it's hard work. You don't necessarily have to figure it out today and fix it tomorrow. But you do have some struggling to do, and that's okay. Racism is a nasty part of your world; so what's your perspective on it? Let it be a struggle from which you might learn something.

Think about it. Reflect on it. Talk with close friends about it. Be present to the struggle; honor the honest range of your feelings. When you're ready, there are resources to help you take the next steps. (In materials emerging since the "Journey Toward Wholeness" report there are some good suggestions, as well as various local and regional groups addressing related issues.)

But it's okay to struggle with the realities, the frustrations, the pain, the challenging vision of racial justice. There's enough injustice to fight; don't fight the struggle, too.

The second tool is especially for my white brothers and sisters. I recommend cultivating the craft of patient listening–patient listening. Ask about and really hear the stories of racism from people of color around you. But don't quickly jump to any particular stance in response. Try not to talk your way out of your discomfort; just be there.

Just listen and acknowledge the truth of someone who looks different than you. This alone can be a large contribution and education. Sharpen this tool–patient listening–and you'll get farther faster on your "Journey Toward Wholeness."

The third, and most Universalist tool, is to reflect on and remember the powerful implications of both our 1st UU Principle, affirming "the inherent worth and dignity of every person," and our 7th Principle, which acknowledges our fundamental interconnectedness with of all life, the web of interdependence.

One thing these two principles, taken together, mean to me is that you should never demonize any individual. If you feel wronged or insulted by someone–deal with it, but don't let a person's questionable behavior lead you to discount their humanity or to extend their individual misbehavior into assumptions about another who might look like them.

We are challenged to respect each person as, literally, an interconnected aspect of ourselves. So beware of and interrupt any harsh generalizations, especially by race. Never demonize anyone, including yourself. For instance, if you’re white, just because you may be part of the dominant, frequently oppressing race which, collectively, is accountable for marginalizing people of color, do not believe the worst about yourself, so that you might become immobilized. (And believe me, I’m reminding myself, too, on this score.)

Self-demonizing, or beating yourself up for being white, is an indulgence. And besides, you don't deserve it. Of course you're imperfect, and perhaps a recovering racist, like me. But that is no reason to indulge in paralyzing self-hatred. Frankly, it's a luxury of the privileged. Everyone can contribute, even a little bit, to the work of racial justice.

Maybe the song I mentioned earlier speaks to you like it does to me:

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.
I wish I could break all these chains holding me.
I wish I could say all the things I could say,
Say ‘em loud, say ‘em clear, for the whole world to hear.

The ability to let ourselves struggle, the willingness to listen patiently, and the active affirmation of our UU Principles in our own voice–with these tools and any others that help us, I feel we can make a serious dent in racism. As usual, we must start with ourselves, with an anti-racist attitude, unlearning the unhealthy patterns and privilege we've been taught by the dominant culture. And we can do this right now. Why wait? Then, as we take more steps on our "Journey Toward Wholeness," we can increasingly model for others the vision and value of racial justice.

To really follow through on our good intentions for a more just society, we have to be honest with ourselves and each other, forthright in our ethical actions, and articulate about the vision we seek to embody. Our Unitarian Universalist heritage and our living theology are a strong platform from which we can help create a 21st century with steadily diminishing racism. For many of us, it will mean releasing some of our white privilege, to be sure, which could be painful, but that's just going to be part of our struggle.

As a white person of European descent, I plan to listen patiently for deeper opportunities that will arrive because of my willingness to struggle, because I bear witness to all I believe as a contemporary Unitarian Universalist, grounded in my inspirational religious heritage. As hard as it may be to unlearn and eliminate racism, the "Journey Toward Wholeness" is worth it.

This is my faith.

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