Liberation Universalism

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Note of acknowledgement: I am incredibly grateful for the academic and collegial relationships that have allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of my Unitarian Universalist faith.  In particular, I would like to offer my thanks to Dr. Sofia Betancourt and Dr. Elias Ortega who have both been integral parts of my development and growth in ministry and scholarship and who are already leading Unitarian Universalist theology into new and exciting understandings.

I identify religiously as a Unitarian Universalist.  I am also black.  These two identities often sit in conflict.  I am also gay. Anyone who has read this blog knows all of these things about me.  Its worth noting that I was once publicly challenged by Michael Eric Dyson for choosing the predominantly white spiritual space of Unitarian Universalism that affirmed my identity as a gay man over spiritual spaces that affirmed my blackness and left my sexuality on the sidelines.  I’m not alone in making this choice.  A significant portion of black UUs leave their spiritual homes (AME, Pentecostal, COGIC, Catholic) to find the freedom to publicly have the partners of their choices and live in the physical expressions that are most resonant to them.

Contrary to what Dr. Dyson and others may believe, and despite there being some LGBTQ affirming black religious spaces, it is not an easy choice.  The black church is deeply ingrained in who we are as African Americans.  In fact, I originally started this piece with a deep dive into the why and wherefore of my own journey away from the black church as a spiritual home, that also explained how I maintain a strong affiliation with what it means to me at my core as a black American.  But I decided in the end that for the purposes of this piece which is aimed specifically at a black Unitarian Universalist audience, it is more useful for me to look forward even if many of us do look back with great affection and winsome sentiment and a certain sense of loss.

My purpose in writing this essay is because it is increasingly necessary for black UUs and specifically black UU faith leaders to put theological stakes in the ground.  With all due respect, it is not enough for us to be satisfied with a retrofit of the Seven Principles or to spend the bulk of our time and emotional energy “dismantling white supremacy” even though these endeavors are crucial.  Nor is it truly productive for us to repurpose the work of dead white scholars who had no interest in speaking to black audiences and sometimes even stated their belief that blacks didn’t have the intellect for “liberal religion.”  Black thought outside of Unitarian Universalism is vast, rich and important and not at all limited to responding to whiteness.  I believe that black thought inside of Unitarian Universalism must be just as robust, groundbreaking and public.

A Framework

Black UUs are hungry for a more solid framework within the broader vagaries of Unitarian Universalism.  What I want to lay out are a few of the basic goals that I see as being necessary to serve black UUs.

A-Colonial – First, any uniquely black UU theological framework must be a total repudiation of the colonial project.  The oppression of black people within the European colonial industry is global and continues to be one of the most devastating oppressions in human history.  Colonialism placed a socio-political value on blackness as the measure for the opposite of “good”, “productive”, “intelligent”, “beautiful”, “desirable”, “welcome” and more.  Blackness was defined as the absolute negative of Western culture and in doing so, European colonizers created a framework that changed the world giving us everything from the total violence of the n-word to modern capitalism. We do not deserve to be bound to this.

African Origins – Next, a black UU theological framework must affirm that the immediate connection to the African diaspora (what we call blackness), precludes, predates and is totally independent of the violence of colonial frameworks.  Blackness must know its origin story.  People of and connected to the African continent and cultures were not created by racism; they were not “discovered”; they were not “civilized”.  The culture of African peoples, much of which has been erased, ignored and made inaccessible by European history is literally as old as humanity.  The rickety cart of white supremacy cannot be put before the gleaming thoroughbred horse of people of African descent.

Contextualized Christianity – Next, a black UU theology must have a relationship with the gravity of how African people across the globe have been colonized by and indoctrinated into European religion; first as a tool of oppression and then as an essential and profound tool for survival.  The painful and deeply challenging question that any post-colonial black theological framework must ask is “how well are black people served by worshiping gods created in the context of colonialism?”  This is not to erase the sustaining and life-giving influence that black church communities have provided black people.  Nor is it to disparage anyone’s belief in a Judeo-Christian God or the saving power of Jesus.  Rather, this question is to explore how can all expressions of black faith (whether they be Abrahamic or indigenous, theistic or atheistic) move outside of the context of anti-black oppression, find and cultivate their own generative power, and thrive in a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with responding to whiteness.

Full Humanity – Finally, a black UU theology must on its most basic level begin with a commitment to banishing the concept of the “other”.  In that blackness in the European colonial project is the ultimate “other”, the pretext of total invitation to humanity must be foundational.  This is with regard to all forms of embodiment, gender and sexual expression, ability, social location, culture, ethnicity, etc.  Here is the invitation and commitment to the totality of humanity as part of the embodied world.  It doesn’t excuse violence, ignore bigotry, avoid sexism, or apologize for oppression.  It simply acknowledges shared humanness as the most important starting point.  This is theology that requires us to not so much rise above our differences as to rise through them.

Liberation Universalism

These four core elements (a-colonialism, African origins, contextualized Christianity, full humanity) sit at the heart of a theological framework that I will call Liberation Universalism.  Considering the complex legacies of both these words, I will attempt to offer some enlightenment as to how I am using both “liberation” and “universalism”:

Liberation – This is liberation that is not an act of resistance or defiance; it is not a response.  Instead, this is a liberation that is inherently born into human being.  It is a liberation that is not so much fought for and won but revealed, reclaimed and reaffirmed.  It is liberation that has and will always been within.  It is the assumption of liberation as an initial state of being.

Universalism – Rather than being an homage to ideas about “salvation”, this universalism is a beginning.  It is a universalism that seeks to begin with the fullness and wholeness of all humanity.  It is universalism that begins with the assumption of the full spectrum of human being rather than trying to figure out how to include what it didn’t think was worthy or didn’t know.  It is humanity before judgement.  It is a universalism in which for example, blackness holds shared value and capacity in human being in addition to its unique qualities born of African descent without the burden of colonialism.  This is universalism as transcendent being.

Ultimately, Black Unitarian Universalists will have many expressions of their faith.  What I present here as a framework of Liberation Universalism is just one interpretation.  Others will differ greatly.  I’m convinced however that if the name “Unitarian Universalist” is going to remain a part of black UU identity, both blackness and Unitarian Universalism must be challenged and deeply interrogated and put through a rigorous theological exploration.  They also must be intentionally woven together in thoughtful and thought provoking ways.  Being black and UU cannot just be about white supremacy.  Nor is Black UU identity solely a question of surviving anti-blackness.  Black UU theology is a question of black affirmation, origins, faith, history, empowerment, mortality and more.  And it is categorically unique to the experience and need of people of African descent.  It is not to say that black UU is better, but black UU theology must be different.  It is needed to carve out places of self-understanding that allow us to grow and thrive within all UU communities while holding our heads equally high among non-UU black faith communities.  It is time for us to claim a uniquely black Unitarian Universalist theological place.  Let us finally call this place home.

ALD

‘Round Midnight

Image by Zach Dulli from Pixabay

And so it begins…

The public and judicial enshrinement of the idea that “sincerely held belief” and “religious liberty” supersede public good, health and general wellbeing started last night when the Supreme Court, shortly before midnight, issued their opinion in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of New York.[1] From Amy Howe at Scotusblog.com, “The Supreme Court late Wednesday night granted requests from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Orthodox Jewish synagogues to block enforcement of a New York executive order restricting attendance at houses of worship.[2]

As I look at the case as it was presented to the Supreme Court, I can see the writing on the wall for LGBTQ rights…this new conservative court is going to support exemptions in favor of religious institutions without regard for the broader harm that those religious institutions may cause.  Their majority opinion can only be seen as a tip of the hat to conservative religious communities that see themselves as somehow being victims under attack.  Never mind the nationwide assault these conservative organizations have waged on general LGBTQ rights, women’s autonomy, Transgender health and public accommodation and even survivors of sexual assault. Associate Justice Gorsuch’s concurring wink and nod opinion hints at this when he states:

Government is not free to disregard the First Amend­ment in times of crisis. At a minimum, that Amendment prohibits government officials from treating religious exer­cises worse than comparable secular activities, unless they are pursuing a compelling interest and using the least re­strictive means available. See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U. S. 520, 546 (1993). Yet recently,during the COVID pandemic, certain States seem to have ignored these long-settled principles.[3]

To be clear here, the Lukumi case that Justice Gorsuch references is one of the most quoted in cases seeking religious exemption to LGBTQ inclusion.

As a minister who currently wrestles every day with what it means to create, support, generate, fashion and design spiritual community without the benefit of physical presence, I understand the challenges faced by faith leaders.  I grew up in traditions that were based on holy communion, I have a deep theological understanding of the sacraments in the Christian tradition and I have studied Jewish practices for the last decade as part of my education as a minister.  But the argument as presented seems to be making the point that Governor Cuomo is somehow “anti-religion” in his position and favoring commercial business over spiritual wellbeing.  Yet, they don’t mention the essential difference between how people gather to worship and how they gather in a restaurant.

Without getting into a lengthy analysis, the basic difference between the two is the way in which dining and worship manifest as intimate experiences.  Communal worship is designed around the premise of bringing together people who aren’t normally in close proximity by creating a forced intimacy; by its very definition, communal worship is a super spreader event, meant to spread faith and shared experience.  Sadly however, it is also a super spreader for Covid-19, the flu and any airborne illness.  Dining on the other hand allows people to bring their isolated intimacies into the public setting and therefore can be managed in terms of maintaining isolations while providing unique intimacies.  Diners are not sharing the same plate and glass.

But this is not the main problem with this decision.  The Arch Diocese case is wrestling with the question of whether or not a government entity has any right at all to limit how and when people worship.  The conservative court has ruled here that government cannot intervene in religious practice in any way under any circumstances even in a global pandemic.  This is an incredibly dangerous premise because how then does one intervene when church organizations claim that conversion therapy is part of their religious practice?  Or worse female genital mutilation and racial segregation?

Freedom of religion is important to maintain our Constitutional standards, but freedom from religion is equally important.  What needs to happen here is that not only does church and state need to remain separate, but the question of religious belief as a personal framework needs to be separate from religious practice as a public facing act as well.  If the method in which a religious practice is being carried out creates a public health threat for those who do not practice that religion, reason says that there must be limitations and considerations as to how it is exercised.

Moving into the next era of Supreme Court decisions will require all of us who are progressive faith leaders to remain vigilant and informed.  This ruling was handed down around midnight before a national holiday.  It literally snuck in.  What is more, law is based largely on precedent.  The precedent set by this decision is chilling.  It is an onramp to solidifying the foundation for religious exemption to be the broad law of the land giving a pass to violent discrimination and bigotry.  The conservative justices are poised to lead the way marching civil rights in the United States all the way back to 1789 one midnight decision at a time.

[1] Amy Howe, Justices lift New York’s COVID-related attendance limits on worship services, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 26, 2020, 2:18 AM), https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/11/justices-lift-new-yorks-covid-related-attendance-limits-on-worship-services/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Per Curiam, “2 ROMAN CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF BROOKLYN v. CUOMO,” 2020, 33.