Liberation vs. Colonial Pews

First Parish in Cambridge Interior – Colonial Revival (renovation ca. 1914)

Listening to Rev. Joan Javier-Duval’s sermon at the closing worship of the UUA General Assembly, there was one word that resonated particularly deeply with me: Liberation.  Her message is a beautiful arc of what moving toward liberation can actually look like and I hope we take her challenge and continue crossing bridges to the other side.  But what does liberation look like for Unitarian Universalism?  Too often, and too easily, our energies get focused exclusively on the liberation of others.  So, I want to echo and amplify a significant part of Rev. Javier-Duval’s message, that the liberation must also be an internal ‘crossing over’.

Meetinghouse Original
First Parish in Cambridge Interior  – Gothic Revival (ca. 1870s)

The congregation of First Parish in Cambridge has an ongoing debate about getting rid of the high backed colonial pews in our meetinghouse.  These pews are not original. They were installed in 1914 when all of the New England Unitarian churches were embracing a colonial revival.   It was an aesthetic choice.  In fact, at that time the entire interior of the meetinghouse was gutted and done over in ‘colonial revival’ and the original Gothic revival decor (see image) was erased.  The congregation was trying to capitalize on something that had never been a part of the physical expression of the church building although the colonial history was inescapable in every other aspect of the community.

Today, these pews shape how we worship and how we experience our time together.  I cannot force the hand of my congregation…the church belongs to them.  Removing these pews will be their decision alone.  At the same time, I recognize that the potential removal of these pews is also a metaphor for the act of liberation that is most necessary across the wider Unitarian Universalist denomination.  Simply put, in order to liberate Unitarian Universalism we must first de-colonize Unitarian Universalism.  Intentionally, systematically and universally de-colonizing Unitarian Universalism is one step that will invite people of color, people with disabilities and people who otherwise would not have been thought of as fully human by the likes of our early Unitarian heroes, to feel whole in our our spaces our communities and our theology.

How can we cheer for the removal of Southern Confederate statues while our own congregations cling to celebrating Northern scholars and influencers who were apologists for slavery and white supremacy?  How can we reasonably invite land acknowledgement rituals in our spaces when we as a denomination never consistently acknowledge Unitarians as the theological progeny of the Puritans who were responsible for the removal, death and erasure of native people from their land and history? (See my previous post: Failure of My Faith for more on this subject.)

If we truly want to embrace liberation within our faith, then Unitarian Universalism should not get a pass in the national reckoning on histories and legacies of oppression.  Here are a few ideas for what de-colonizing Unitarian Universalism could look like:

  • Laying bare the disconnect between the colonial project and the modern inclusive, anti-oppressive movement.
  • De-centering Western religious history in what we teach, what we preach and how we practice; placing it instead as an equal in the global spiritual narrative.
  • Retiring harmful Puritan worship formats and content and/or reserving them for specific times and purposes when they are appropriate.
  • Asking white UUs to fully explore cultural whiteness, letting go of frameworks that regard people of color as problematic or the “other” to be solved.
  • Require congregations to assess their relationships with local communities of color providing them with resources, options and measures to build those relationships.
  • Rewrite the UU Principles to include the word “love” prominently along with an affirmation (not apology) of racial, religious and cultural diversity and a statement acknowledging the harmful colonial origins of the tradition.

We cannot continue to make excuses for our colonial roots if we are going to be the leader in creating modern inclusive spiritual community.  Our spiritual potential is too great and our future too important to be hampered by a brutally flawed past.  We cannot build a modern structure on the un-level surface of colonialism.  Doing so has already left the relatively new structure of Unitarian Universalism unstable.  It is not too late.  This is not cancel culture, but corrective culture.  This is liberation.  We have the opportunity in this moment of national reckoning to identify the flaws of the past, build a new foundation, and be informed by and aware of the past while placing it in its proper context.

We are not done.  Unitarian Universalism deserves a blueprint for change and a variety of actionable ways to make that change a reality. The question we are left with now is whether or not our faith is willing to be as strong in action as it is in words.  Are we willing to endure the pain of real liberation?  De-colonize Unitarian Universalism, NOW.


Its All About Time…

Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.  People are now kneeling and praying and holding silence for this amount of time and it feels epic and unbearable.  It is easy in the midst of that interminable silence to understand how monstrous this act really was.

By contrast, there’s a shorter stretch of time that’s also worth noting: 5 minutes and 41 seconds.

That is the total amount of time we have witnessed the President of the United States appear at religious institutions so far this week.  Not in prayer, or in reverence, but as a self serving show.  On Monday, Donald Trump awkwardly held a bible while standing outside of a darkened St John’s Church in Washington, D.C. after using a small scale military operation to clear peaceful protesters.  It made me sick.  (But I’m getting used to the taste of bile in the back of my throat as long as he is president.)  Then yesterday he followed that up with what amounts to a drive-by strut on the catwalk at the St John Paul II Shrine with Melania.  I agree with Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory that this display was “reprehensible.”

Here’s how it breaks down:

Trump time at St. John the Evangelist – 00:02:28 (not including the Third Reich style promenade from the White House).

Trump time at St. John Paul II Shrine – 00:03:13

Total Trump time for both photo ops – 00:05:41

Time Derek Chauvin knelt with his full adult body weight on George Floyd’s neck – 00:08:46

Fixing the perversion of religion, the misuse of religion in politics and government, … is the responsibility of the religious, specifically religious leaders.

Religion is not a prop.  What people believe and how they believe it is not a political marketing tool.  Our constitution provides for freedom of religion, as well as freedom from religion.  From a basic ethical standpoint, none of us should be subjected to each other’s beliefs either as bribery or deterrent.  The reason freedom from religion was equally important to the framers of the constitution is because, in their time, religion had been weaponized against people as a tool of coercion and oppression.  Disestablishment was about preventing the financial dependence of churches on public funds and avoiding an obligatory relationship between the government and one church. The Trump administration seems to have missed this.  But then you miss a lot about religion when you only know how to spend five minutes anywhere near a church.

Trumps on the Catwalk
The Trumps on the Catholic catwalk

I have written before about the many ways in which fixing white racism is the responsibility of white people. It is a similar situation with religion. Fixing the perversion of religion, the misuse of religion in politics and government, the leveraging, pandering to and otherwise abuse of religion by bad actors is the responsibility of the religious, specifically religious leaders.  Religion or lack of religion can and does inform many people’s political decisions, but political action cannot be beholden to any religion or religious ideology.  Political policy must make room for people’s different and varied religious beliefs and practices if they have them.  More importantly, however, political policy cannot use belief and practice to achieve its end.  Nor can policy be inscribed with religious doctrine.  Take careful note: Trump also just signed an executive order on Advancing International Religious Freedom.  Really, it just piggy backs on existing policies and priorities that the administration has expressed about religious liberty before. But appearances are everything to the Trump administration and to the untrained MAGA eye, he looks like St. Trump the Evangelist (for the last 48 hours, 5 minutes and 41 seconds anyhow.) But what else do you do in an election year when there is a global pandemic, race riots and historic unemployment? You sell more Trump steaks!

Religious/ spiritual/ ethical leaders of all kinds…progressive conservative, pro-choice, pro-life, Orthodox and Atheist must come together in this moment to recognize that all of our ideas about “faith” or “not faith” are being grossly abused and the result will be that we will all loose the right to our freedom of belief.  There is no policy agenda that is worth the loss of real liberty that comes from allowing the broad spectrum of faith to be co-opted and misrepresented by someone who only sees religious expression as theater.

We need to bring the curtain down on this show.