We are living through a moment of reckoning. It is, what I have come to call, a character-defining moment. And since I am white and speak, largely, to white audiences, it is critical to speak about our character, in particular, and how it will be defined in this moment. That is, whiteness must be named if we are to find a way forward. And I always ensure that everyone is included in my sermons. I am a pastor to all the people I serve.
The theologies of liberation, both Latin American and Black, encourage the people for whom those theologies were written to be active agents in their liberation. Gustavo Gutiérrez insisted these theologies do “not stop with reflecting on the world, but rather tries to be a part of the process through which the world is transformed.” Liberation theologies insist on the “liberation of economic exploitation, on the liberation of fatalism, and the liberation from sin.” It is a rejection of ineffective reforms—police reform, for example—and demands systematic change. It is a theology of agency.
I also believe in a liberation theology for white people. But it is distinct in that it is not a theology of agency. Quite the opposite. It is a theology of surrender and repentance for the sin that has been done in our name from which we benefit daily. Surrender and repentance are essential if the world is to be transformed.
Liberation is not something we are able to experience on our own. Liberation is, by definition, a communal experience. For some in our nation this means claiming agency. For others it means surrender and repentance not only for the behavior of our ancestors but for shadow powers harbored and nurtured within each of us.
I believe that Unitarian Universalism has the power to be a transformative faith. All people struggle with issues of intimacy, loneliness, relationship, and connection. It does not matter where you came from or what your first language is. What matters is whether you believe the message you are hearing is relevant and important in helping you live your life with integrity. But if we are to be taken seriously then we must also incorporate anti-oppression work into our theology.
The manifestation of social just work comes in two distinct, but related forms; culture change and alleviating suffering.
Both are important, but understanding why a community supports one or the other is helpful when thinking about the purpose of adding social justice work to a community’s agenda.
Social justice work that focuses on alleviating suffering might include soup kitchens, donations, and after-school programs. This is very good work. It helps with immediate needs, there is a tangible sense of accomplishment, and it does not require much training. People brand new to the congregation can participate.
Culture change work involves a much longer focus and vision, there needs to be constant training to sustain the vision, and the higher level of commitment makes it harder for new people to participate.
Each has its role and, when used skillfully, can develop the congregation.
The following meditation offers some insight in how I frame the justice work we do as a community.
Ian’s ministry with UUTC came at an opportune time for us. From his very first sermon he was unafraid to challenge us—wanting to know why, for instance, there was no Pride Flag on the premises. For those of us like myself who were keenly aware of our lack of courage in supporting our own values, it was breathtaking.
The election in November of 2016 brought much of our community into a period of horrified, vitriolic disbelief. Ian helped us to respond by hosting a Post-Election Forum for the Brokenhearted, in cooperation with 3 other well-regarded local religious leaders. This event packed our sanctuary to the gills, helping us feel less isolated by connecting us to the larger community.
As the evening progressed, recitation of some acts of violence in the community spawned a spontaneous collection to pay for a full-page ad in the local paper signed by hundreds of people, decrying violence and supporting the community of “welcome and peaceful co-existence for everyone.” The Forum for the Brokenhearted was followed by other presentations on a range of topics that were conducted in cooperation with the local branch of the NAACP at half a dozen churches. This work galvanized our congregation’s response, and individuals and groups continued to become more involved at the visible “hands and feet” level than they had in years. None of it would have happened without Ian White Maher setting an example and leading us into new partnerships outside the walls of our sanctuary.