Saturday, January 27, 2007

When UUism Strayed From Christianity

Ethan Field, of FUUSE and C*UUYAN wrote this.

He has several good points. I still don't know the cut feature, but the whole sermon deserves some attention. This sermon is mostly about the unfortunate tendency to Christian bash in certain UU churches.

UUism as a Christian Faith Tradition

In the beginning – of this sermon – there were Christians. Unitarians were Christians. Universalists were Christians. Even Southern Baptists were Christians! And Unitarians and Universalists brought a radical voice to Christianity. We talked about the humanity of Jesus, more important as a human prophet of peace than as a divine personal savior. We talked about a positive place in eternity for all of us, even if you didn’t have the “right” theology.

But then something happened. Slowly, over time, Unitarianism and Universalism, and eventually Unitarian Universalism, stopped being a Christian faith. I don’t mean individual UUs stopped being Christian in their theology. I mean sometime in the last hundred years, we’ve come to a point where, if we’re asked if UUs are Christians, we’ll mumble something apologetic about history, and then say quickly, “But we’re not Christians now!!”

What happened? It’s true that lots of humanists came into our faith in the early 20th century. It’s true that as that century progressed, we came to embrace many sources of faith – which is awesome. But at some point, we kinda collectively bailed out on Christianity. Now, I would love to think that it was because we truly widened our tent until the word “Christian” just couldn’t contain what we are… but having spent my life as a UU, I’m just not buying it.

We still have “churches” and “ministers” and “sermons” and “hymns” and meet for worship on Sunday mornings, and almost all the other trappings of congregational Christian denominations. In fact, the only thing we seem to have abandoned from Christianity is the dogma, the “rules”… but with that… we’ve gotten rid of our comfort with talking positively about Jesus. As if theology were the only defining characteristic of a religion.

Maybe it’s the many UUs who’ve had negative experiences in their own churches growing up. Maybe it’s too many televangelists or clinic bombings or gay-bashings… Maybe it’s even just the increasing separation of church and state that made people comfortable even suggesting that they weren’t Christian.

But whatever the reason, we started saying, “Nope – that’s not me!” “Oh, yeah, I go to church, but I’m not religious. I mean, not like that!” Instead of defending Christianity, we distanced ourselves from it.

And let me state for the record that I have been one of those people most of my life. I did as much as possible to make it very clear that I was separate from “those people” who I perceived to be foolishly following some blind, ignorant faith. And as a young person, I was embarrassed to admit to my friends that I went to church regularly – except when I could say, “Yeah, at my church we do cool stuff like talk about SEX!”

My experience in YRUU, which was transformative and which brought me into a new place as a spiritual being, enabled me to come out of my insulated UU shell and invite more people into that space… but only after I determined that it would be “safe” to approach them about it.

In the past three years of working here, I’ve become increasingly involved in the anti-racism work that the UU Youth and Young Adult organizations have been doing. I’ve learned about the importance of working within my own community. I’ve learned that it is my responsibility as a progressive white person to educate myself about racism, and to help other white people understand racism and white people’s contribution to it – while stressing that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with being a white person, and that everyone’s cultural heritage should be celebrated.

And through that process, I’ve met lots of white people who say, “I’m not white. I’m a human being.” “I don’t see color. I treat everyone equally.” Well-meaning or not, what they’re doing is denying their complicity in racism, and by doing so, denying their own responsibility in working for change.

You might see where I’m going with this… There’s nothing wrong with being white. There’s nothing wrong with being a Christian. Many white people behave in oppressive ways without being aware of it. Many Christians behave in oppressive ways without being aware of it. It is the responsibility of progressive white folks to educate other white folks about how racism hurts, and how celebrating culture can be liberating. And - it is the responsibility of liberal Christians to educate other Christians about the oppressive traditions that have developed around Christianity… and how rediscovering and celebrating Jesus’ message can be a liberating experience.

Now, just like in anti-racism work, I run into UUs every day who, despite their willing participation in all of the liturgy and Christian forms their congregation participates in, say, “Well, I’m not a Christian. Christains are closed-minded. Christians do awful things. I embrace all religions.” And then they proceed to make some insulting Christian joke.

What I am trying to say here is that Unitarian Universalists are the rightful and responsible stewards of the liberal interpretation of the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. AND… in the last century, we have shirked that responsibility – and just look at what’s happened. Yes, Christianity is definitely “our community” to work on. And when we deny that we are part of the Christian community, we also deny our responsibility for what Christianity does in this country and in the world. It’s the easy way out.

How can I claim that Christianity is “our community”? Well, here’s just one sign: UUs can legitimately criticize or challenge conservative Christianity in a way that we cannot legitimately criticize or challenge conservative Buddhism, or Islam, or Hinduism, or even Judaism – it’s because we’re a part of the cultural Christian community. And a challenge to conservative Christianity is much more powerful when it comes from another Christian tradition, than when it comes from some renegade, self-marginalizing outside faith tradition, which is what it seems like we’re trying to be.

So what I am saying is that we have the absolute right to claim that we are a Christian denomination, not just historically, but today. More importantly: We are a Christian denomination which believes that Jesus was human (that’s Unitarianism), and that all of us are equally special in the eyes of whatever we call divine (that’s Universalism) and that there are many prophets, many beliefs, many principles, and many sources of faith, and we can all worship together as a community (that’s Unitarian Universalism!)

The idea that a Christian church can do all that would be a powerful message, if we have the will to accept it. How many people would go to our churches if they knew you could believe those things at our churches and still be a “good Christian”? How many Christians would leave their more conservative denominations if they knew they could pursue a more liberating Christianity with us?

I have to admit, that I had a really hard time facing up to some of my personal stuff to write this sermon. But in the end, I realized that the biggest thing getting in the way was my own ego. I was just too proud to take the risk of calling myself a Christian. It’s different for everybody -- my own personal issue with the word “Christian” is the whole “Christ” thing. I don’t really get into the divine messiah bit, and I personally find it a little distasteful that the symbol for Christian faith is the cross – the instrument of death of one of my favorite prophets. I’m much more into Jesus as a bold and radical organizer, and would be much happier calling myself a “Jesus-ite” or something.

But you know, that’s really just an ego thing. Get over it, Ethan! Stop using semantics and word choice as an excuse for not facing the hard stuff! (My anti-racist activist friends know what I’m talking about!) We just don’t have the time to waste. Because in the end, I had to admit to myself that the harm done to the world by the Christian Fundamentalist Right running around unchecked and unchallenged, is far more important than my own petty worries that I might be mistaken for something I’m not.

Now, the atheists and the Pagans and the Jew-nitarians in the room have the right to say, WHAT are you trying to impose on me? I want you to understand that I am not talking about anyone changing their individual personal theologies or culture. There is a difference between our individual beliefs, and our corporate responsibility as a denomination. Understanding that difference is key to what I’m trying to get across.

The idea of having a cultural religious identity independent of individual beliefs is not at all new. There are Jews out there who have all different kinds of theologies, but who still very much identify culturally as Jewish, and who would be offended if someone started insulting Jews.

In the same way, I think that, regardless of our individual beliefs, we need to claim Christianity as our cultural heritage, and to challenge people who would insult or harm Christianity… which means the Christian Right, but it also means ourselves. Now that’s a big step. Anyone who’s been a UU for a while knows how common it is to hear Christians insulted in our congregations, even from the pulpit.

UUs who have Christian beliefs need to be given a safe space to practice our faith in our congregations, where we won’t be insulted. And, UU Christians should be outraged that Jesus’ powerful anti-oppressive message of peace and equality for all has been abusively co-opted by people who use it to justify war and oppression.

And the UU pagans and Buddhists and Jews and Atheists should care about this, because like it or not, we can’t really run away to our churches and hymns and ministers and liturgy and pretend we’re completely separate from Christianity. The rest of the world just won’t believe it, or at best they’ll just be very confused.

Let’s face it: When the hate and intolerance spewed by the Christian right puts a nasty face on Christianity, all Christian denominations -- including ours -- get put in with that stereotype. That’s why so many of us, whether or not we’re Christian in theology, are embarrassed to admit we go to church and that we really like it. And no amount of distancing yourself from Christianity is going to convince people that you’re not a part of that larger tradition.

But if we really do our job, and publicly stand up to the Christian Right from within Christianity, we won’t have to be embarrassed, because then everyone will know exactly what kind of ‘churchgoer’ you are when you say you’re UU. You’ll be proud!

UUs here in Massachusetts got a taste of that pride last year because of our public witness around same-sex marriage. In certain circles here in Mass, when you say you’re UU, people know that you’re from a progressive church committed to justice. We should be proud of that. Let’s take that pride to the nation, and the world!

To you folks who grew up Christian and had painful experiences that led you to UUism, I haven’t forgotten about you. To you I say, don’t get mad and label Christianity awful and spend the rest of your spiritual life trashing it. Instead, be upset at the people who hurt you - for not being very good Christians. And instead of spending your time holding a grudge against a whole religion because of what happened to you… do the healing you need to do, and then get out there and show the world what your ideal Christian would be!

So if you’re still not comfortable with being a part of a UUism that is a Christian denomination, I honor and affirm that, but I do want you to think about how much of that discomfort is about theology, and how much of it is about pride, and ego, and fear of association.

And if you’ve resolved that, I’d ask you… if you go to a church, and sing hymns, and listen to a minister go through the liturgy; to use all those rituals and elements of Christianity for your own personal spiritual enrichment and enjoyment… then what does it mean to you to do all of those things -- and then object to that tradition being called Christian?

And if you’re still not convinced, please at least be convinced that the unhealthy fear of association with Christians that is present in so many of our congregations, makes UUs with Christian theology feel unwelcome. At the very least, there needs to be a space for people to safely and comfortably say that Jesus… was way cool.


Joel Monka said...

Fantastic post! Coincidentally, I make many of the same complaints here , as does Jamie at Trivium . You, however, take it one important point farther- the need to reclaim and defend Christianity. Although a Pagan, I can also quite legitimately claim to be a Unitarian Christian- I tell people that I am a Mark 12:29 Christian, rather than a John 3:16 type.

jim.mcfarland said...

Great sermon. I am one of those who came to UUism from Christianity, but who was not "traumatized" by it. I just wanted to go beyond being just Christian, and be in a place where there were no creeds and pledges which I could not honestly make. My beliefs had changed, but an interest in Christian history and alternative Christianities remained. I was also impatient with my denomination's willingness to change its stand on homosexuality. Finally, I wanted to be in a religious community where I could explore other spriritual and philosophical traditions alongside my heretical Christianity, and have it be accepted and "normal".

In theory, UUism was the perfect match, but the way many UUs view Christianity within and outside of UUism is a big problem for me. And, how this attitude affects our ability to be relavent in US religion and politics is a big concern. So, this sermon you posted speaks for me.