Our sister Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ, has adopted the slogan “God is Still Speaking” in order to convey their belief that God’s “revelation” is continuous and did not end with the death of the prophets. As religious liberals we place ourselves in contradistinction to religious conservatives by gaily (and gayly) leaping out of the closet of fundamentalism and conservatism.
Our Puritan ancestors took a risk when they chose to give power to the people in their choice of a church governance structure that was fair and just. Some of those Puritans after arriving in America, along with Unitarians in Transylvania, took a risk and cast off Trinitarian theology. Our many Universalist founders took a risk in declaring that a loving God would never see his children suffer in hell and condemnation. Standing on the side of love, with an ethic of fairness, and innovation in thinking; they all took the risk of being called heretics.
In 2017, and in these trying times, we are asked again to look at what we are holding onto that keeps us from moving forward. Is it our traditional and orthodox beliefs about how we have always done Unitarian Universalism? Are we willing to risk being heretical in the way we do church, to risk being heretical towards our own deeply held beliefs about what Unitarian Universalism should be?
In the 20th c. there arose from both the Jesuit order and the Black Church, prophets who had listened deeply to the voice of the divine in the words of the poor and oppressed. From their communion with the poor and oppressed, God revealed to them a new and heretical theology, now called Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology declares that the only God worth worshiping is the God that is solely concerned with the pain of those who suffer at the hands of the elite and privileged. Liberation Theologians declared that Jesus was sent to save the oppressed, the prophets were born to release slaves from bondage, the scriptures were written to declare that God had preference for those predestined by birth to be poor and oppressed. It was an intentionally subversive theology.
Black and Catholic Liberationist Theologians broke from the doctrinal interpretation of the scripture of their own denominations. They were not concerned with preserving their respective traditions, nor were they worried about losing years of theological history; they were focused on the liberation of the poor and oppressed in society. As a result, both are still thriving and doing the work of justice in the world. They are sustained because people are attracted to their commitment to justice.
What is God/Spirit/Wisdom speaking in 2017 to us Unitarian Universalist heretics? Many of us had hoped that our historical gains in the past had achieved freedom and justice for all (or at least put us on track to achieve this goal). We felt hope when we elected the first Black president in US history. We hoped, yet, for years we didn’t quite listen well to those who told us that our hopes were a bit misguided.
With open hearts, Unitarian Universalists are now listening to the many voices of the marginalized in the U.S. The oppressed in this country are crying out to us that their suffering is unbearable and that they need help from our faith to achieve freedom. In spite of the emotional feeling of hopelessness in this moment, we are allowing our hearts to open to something beyond optimistic and motivational hope. We have long cast off the polar opposite of hope, fear. What is left when we go beyond both hope and fear? Risk, we are beginning to take risks.
What do our risk-taking founders speak to us in this moment, what do the Liberation Theologians have to tell us? Can we begin to picture a denomination that is primarily concerned with the welfare of others and less concerned about its own self-preservation? The voice of revelation is here in this moment asking us to look at how we do church. Is our worship inclusive, are our many projects beneficial to the oppressed in this country? Is our religious education building ethical Unitarian Universalists or are we more concerned with indoctrinating Unitarian Universalism in our children?
When we take risks on our own behalf the results are often mixed. I have known many people who live lives of risk, veering into what I would call recklessness. I struggle to explain the fine line between risk and recklessness. A dear elderly friend of mine helped me with this in saying that no risk that she has ever taken with the benefit of others is reckless. I believe this is what constitutes responsible risk taking: We are responsible to the needs of others.
Risk is that action taken when our traditions no longer serve its purpose, when there is no proven formula that would guarantee our next action will be beneficial. Risk happens in the moment that our calculated and previously held “hope” falls into hopelessness. It also requires that we have moved beyond the fear of hegemonic power. Risk happens in the present moment and there is no right or wrong way to do it. There is also no guarantee that it will work, nor does it require that we feel hopeful about it working.
If done well and responsibly, it is done with the concern of other’s well-being in mind. We can be assured that those risks that we take as people of faith, as religious liberals, and as Unitarian Universalists are the right ones when we are taking them for the sake of the marginalized in this country. We must risk losing all for the sake of others.