This week when my friend and professor Dr. Gabriella Lettini posted a link to a Huffington Post article by Marilyn Sewell titled “Saying Goodbye to Tolerance” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marilyn-sewell/saying-goodbye-to-tolerance_b_1976607.html), I was very excited. Earlier this week, I had used Rev. Sewell’s words in the Starr King School for the Ministry chapel service:
The shadow side of our free faith, with its ultimate measure being the individual conscience, is seen when we interpret that freedom as simply “freedom from” and not “freedom for.”*
And I love her observation about Unitarian Universalism that “we are a religious movement that no longer takes religion seriously.”
But as I continued to read the article, I found my attitude shifting. I was struck by what sounded like the same diatribe I hear time and again from bitter ex-Christians in UU congregations who rant about Christianity (and that is clearly reflected in the affirming comments on this article…ex: “I hate xtianity even as I “love” the xtian.”) Of course Marilyn Sewell is a bit different on this front. She was raised a Baptist and clearly and frequently references her Christian roots. But someone from her particular position making the statements contained in this article seems like giving red meat to the anti-Christian lions among UUs. “If she is against Christianity…” In all fairness, Rev. Sewell is very clear through most of the article that she is specifically talking about conservative evangelical Christians, although she occasionally drops both the words “conservative” and “evangelical” at times, so I get the impression she is trying to make a distinction of sorts. But then she invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy … was not the strident clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people.”
These are deeply prophetic words and quite possibly Rev. Sewell finds her justification in using them in a call for intolerance toward conservative evangelical Christians because King used similar words in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” which is a rallying cry to not wait for the “inevitable” but rather to play an active role in creating change. But I think she’s missed one important point, as do some Unitarian Universalists and other liberals. That is the point of love. And that is a point that was at the core of every action, every word and every deed that was carried out by Martin Luther King, Jr.
My purpose with this blog is to show the link between our spirituality and our bodies. I work with all kinds of bodies: large, small, fit, healthy, ailing, old, young. As I touch someone’s body, or as I ask them to move with their body, I witness the greatest motivating factor that we have in our human existence: that is the power of love (pardon the 80’s cliché.) I would never ask a client to hate or be intolerant of their fat. I would never ask a client to battle their tense neck. The best trainers and therapists understand that you must ask people to meet their challenges head on, without judgement, with total love and appreciation accepting the challenge as part of the totality of who we are. For it is only without judgement that we can elicit change in ourselves…both physically and emotionally. If we are able to have enough tolerance with our failings to understand where they come from, we are able to find a way to confront them honestly and clearly. I believe it is very much the same with the “body” of human kind.
MLK said in his sermon “Loving Your Enemies” (Montgomery, AL, 1957), “hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.” Just as Rev. Sewell states that oppression is a continuum, I would argue that hatred of any kind, whether it be in violent action or mild intolerance, is just as much of a continuum. Those Unitarian Universalists, existing in a head centered cloud of “me-ligion” may have a lot of trouble grasping what I am trying to convey here, but I guarantee you that even the most conservative southern Baptist understands that we are nothing and nowhere without love. Dr. King’s sermon uses the word “love” 95 times. He goes on at length about the Greek words for love…describing where love can come from, and the power inherent in love…both in regard to Jesus Christ and to all people in general. He is not afraid to base his theology and his hopes for a better world on love. This is the corner stone of Dr. King’s radical philosophy and it comes from his personal relationship with Christianity. Reverend Sewell uses the word “love” only twice…once in the quote “hate the sin, love the sinner” and then as a verb speaking of same sex love. She never once asks us to explore what happens when we abandon tolerance. She never gives us the chance to confront the sickness in the body of our common humanity. Where is the love that compels us to want more from those who hate us and would kill us? This is what was appalling to Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke of the silence of the “good people.”
I call on Rev. Sewell, our Unitarian Universalist communities and people of all religions and non-religions to start where Dr. King started, with love: love and compassion for ourselves, and our failings and our limitations and even love for our intolerances. I do not pretend that Christianity or any organized religion is innocent and pure. Certainly, hate crimes are carried out by people who claim to be acting in the name of Jesus Christ. These are despicable acts. They are crimes that deserve punishment and protection from perpetuation. But it is more important to understand that these criminals have supplanted love with fear. The real battle for the “silent good people” is to start with unconditional and transformative love. It is impossible for some, but Dr. King asked us to try. That was the beauty of his vision.
“Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.” – MLK
I have chosen to be a part of a religious community, although many of my friends do not desire to be part of religious communities. I also have people in my life that do not believe in my politics or civil rights for my sexual orientation. But in my world, I must find a way to love them all for as Dr. King says, “hate destroys the hater as well as the hated” and my goal is to build a healthy world that ultimately thrives and communicates based on love.
I am glad Dr. Lettini brought this article to my attention. She is a radical liberal Christian theologian who I admire and who I know understands the power of basing theology and social justice in love. In closing I say to Reverend Sewell that I am grateful for her insights in this article and her other writing and sermons I have heard her preach. But, in response to our many “shadow sides” I would ask that we all strive to light a chalice so that it casts no shadows shining bright with the light of love.
* “Unitarian Universalists: Who Are We? What Do We Aspire to Be?,” a presentation at the 2011 Minns Lectures by Marilyn Sewell
Text – Loving Your Enemies
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Montgomery, Alabama, 17 November 1957
Audio – http://archive.org/details/MlkOnLovingYourEnemies-trueLove101
Dr. Gabriella Lettini is Dean of Faculty at Starr King School for the Ministry and co-author of the book Soul Repair http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13532187-soul-repair
5 thoughts on “Say Hello to Love”
Love your focus on love as the ultimate healer and goal. I agree with you. What a bold rebuttal. And I loved your analogy to loving our bodies no matter what they are like, even the parts we may hate… Go Adam!
Thank you for taking time to read my humble offering Nica! We all do our part.
Very interesting rebuttal, Adam.
I like a lot of it, particularly that you’re arguing (and standing) on the side of love. Marilyn’s piece is equally thought provoking and obviously provoked your reply. I love her a lot and have met her on a couple occasions. I can really hear her voice in her piece and think it’s significant that such an otherwise loving and tolerant person can begin to lose patience. I long for our President to do the same with the extreme right wing in this country (at least AFTER the election), but that’s another story…
However, the question remains, “How long do we tolerate intolerance?”
Most Americans have no trouble saying that we should have zero tolerance for Muslin extremists that want to kill non-combatants, innocent civilians in the name of their intolerance. What about Christian extremism? They may not be killing in the obvious ways, but as Sewell notes, they are, to some degree, responsible for the violence against those for which they (and their God) cannot tolerate. If such a boundary exists, where do we draw the line for righteous intolerance?
I know and love many fantastic Christians of most varieties. I was raised the son of a preacher man, a fairly moderate Presbyterian minister in Texas, no less. I hear you saying that much of who you are is still rooted in a Liberal Christian tradition. And I’ll bet it IS challenging at times to be a Christian in UU. It shouldn’t be. That’s wrong. We need to get better about embracing Christians in our faith lest we become quite hypocritical in our pontifications about UU being about “tolerance.”
All of that being said, I really, really shut down when I start hearing from any Christian the “we’re-the-only-way-to-Heaven” crap. The amazing thing is that when they say “we,” they’re not even referring to all Christians, but usually their very narrow, rigid, literal interpretation of the teachings. I’m consistently surprised that more liberal and even middle of the road Christians don’t denounce that extremism. In much the same way the world grows impatient with the silence of millions of good, loving moderate Muslims, I grow tired of the larger Christian church not cleaning house a little better. As you note, MLK was not fond of the silence of good people either.
I think your point here is important.
Yes, we have to return to love whenever possible. But what about tough love? What about the love of a parent for a child that has said or done something that we cannot tolerate? Yes, I know that sounds (literally) paternalistic. It IS paternalistic. But to me, these literal sects of world religions are just that. They are primitive, childlike understandings of the world where fear and hate, often under the guise of love or righteousness, are really running the show. In much the same way that an angry child can yell, “I hate you! I’m going to kill you!,” the angry zealot couches his/her faith.
In every spiritual or religious path that I’ve discovered on my journey, there are good, wise, compassionate caring adults. As presumptuous as it sounds, I think it behooves those adults to practice some tough love with the “children” in their house.
I don’t believe that Marilyn’s piece is the last we’ll hear from her on this. There is something in the tone that tells me these thoughts and feelings are works in progress. I think she is brave for putting it out there if this is the case as she is inviting dialogues like this one. In knowing that she has such an open, inquiring, loving mind, I reckon that it will never completely close down on this issue.
Thank you for your eloquent rebuttal. You made some excellent points about love and set the bar appropriately high. I hope Marilyn will read it and continue to engage in the dialogue with us and others.
Thank you Michael for your reply! I think what you say about “tough love” is extremely important.
Yes, Marilyn Sewell read my blog and was highly appreciative of my point about love. This needs to be a conversation among all of the leaders of UUism. With so many among our ranks who come from a need to “heal” from Christianity, I don’t think we do enough (as with our work with privilege and white guilt) to actually live into a world that is beyond the wounds. Let’s find better, healthier and more loving ways to embrace our personal theologies, while not tearing down others. Again, thank you!
We can get stuck in the very boxes we seek to make round, lost in the very shadows we thought we knew well under the sky’s bright light. Perhaps this is party what is occurring both in Dr. Sewell’s words and in the quest to clarify the point of it all-love. Love not as a noun, but as this vibrant, dynamic and changeable energy, one that invites us and challenges us to look at our most terrifying demons, both systemic and personal. We are caught by the language and its illusion of duality. This-not-that, sin-not-sinner, conservative-not-liberal. The Reverend’s words and passion are attempts to perhaps dissolve those false dichotomies, and to challenge us collectively to dive deeply into love’s invitation.