The Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who began serving this congregation in 1847, came here an ardent abolitionist who was morally repulsed by slavery in the very core of his being. He spoke against it passionately from this pulpit many times. As he explained, "I felt I should be a recreant to humanity if I let one Sunday pass in the professed preaching of Christianity and leave the name of Slavery unmentioned! I felt it would be base sluggishness in me to ever let that loathsome institution so pass from my thoughts as to miss the mention of its name, at least in prayer or preaching: SO HELP ME GOD I NEVER SHALL AGAIN!"
Apparently he didn't. Two years and one day after his ordination, he resigned as minister. Although the congregation considered his preaching ability and pastoral skills excellent and liked him and his intelligent young wife, some objected to his abolitionist messages. In all fairness, Higginson likely hit the same self-righteous and superior note too many times. But it's also true that Newburyport's population, including wealthy members of this congregation, had powerful financial interests in slavery. It may have been a case of his afflicting the comfortable.
Either way, history highlights the dilemma: how to sort through the intersection of religion and politics. It comes up in every generation of congregational life, but the time is now to reflect on it again, when our values are threatened in the body politic, and, quite frankly, our ministry and laity are on fire with activism. Here's the thing. To us opposing slavery would not seem a political issue, but a moral imperative reflecting the deepest values of this tradition. The passing of time has a way of recasting controversial issues of the moment into a narrative of the progress of justice. When we are inclined to assess the wisdom of any current trajectory of our faith, we might also ask how history will judge us all two or three or ten generations from now. Or as Rev. Henry Meserve once asked, "If you were arrested for being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"
I understand the need not to bring partisan politics – party affiliated actions or advocacy -- into congregational life. Ours is a diverse congregation, and we seeks to be inclusive; we do not want a litmus test of acceptable affiliation. Additionally, the Internal Revenue Service holds that no religious organization can promote or oppose a specific candidate and retain its tax exempt status, though it is perfectly alright to advocate for issues. But the distinctions are inevitably difficult, or, as the ever wise Julie Parker-Amery calls them, "murky."
The time is now to be willing to sort through the murk as best we can and then to speak and act boldly. Many thing happening in this country threaten the realization of our core values as religious people. Take the recently proposed national budget. Isn't a budget a political issue? I don’t think I've ever mentioned a national budget in a sermon before. Yet religious leaders and social commentators, including Martin Luther King, Jr and Popes John Paul and Francis, have said that budgets are moral documents revealing moral commitments and moral failings. Compassion and caring for the least among us are not only basic duties in most democracies, but, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, religious mandates as well. Treating people equally and justly is a core principle of our Unitarian Universalist faith. And whether we live the values is a moral matter.
What do we make, then, of the currently proposed national budget? I can't help but think of Lily Tomlin's observation that, "No matter how cynical I get, I can't keep up." Seriously, what would Unitarian "Mother of Social Work" Jane Adams, who founded Hull House in Chicago, say about eliminating funds for Meals on Wheels and Head Start? What would Unitarian Horace Mann, a leader in spreading public education in this country, call us to say about gutting public education? How would Universalist nurse Clara Barton, a founder of Red Cross, judge defunding health insurance for 24 million people? Would Henry David Thoreau cringe at hearing the Environmental Protection Agency will be powerless? And what would Margaret Sanger, early advocate of "birth control" and founder of organizations that evolved into Planned Parenthood, say about slashing funds to an organization providing basic reproductive health care to women? What's next to be taken from women -- the vote?
Again, bold words from the past can give us courage. On whether to teach girls "the alphabet" -- in other words literacy --- the Rev. Mr. Higginson wrote, "What sort of philosophy is that which says, 'John is a fool; Jane is a genius; nevertheless, John, being a man, shall learn, lead, make laws, make money; Jane, being a woman, shall be ignorant, dependent, disenfranchised, underpaid?' . . . Give an equal chance, and let genius and industriousness do the rest. Every man for himself, every woman for herself, and the alphabet for us all." The article, it is said, influenced Sophia Smith in the decision to found Smith College.
Our tradition of free faith has long upheld "the prophethood of all believers." Prophecy is a long religious tradition. When the great Hebrew Bible scholar G. Ernest Wright asked my husband, in his oral exam at the end of theological education, why the Hebrew Bible is so important to the Unitarian tradition, Terry, I think, blanched and froze. Then came the thundering answer, "Because it is a story of liberation, Mr. Sweetser!" The Hebrew prophets viewed prophecy as calling out the failings of social order.
According to Richard S. Gilbert, the prophetic church is "a religious community that seeks to intervene in human history on the basis of religious conviction." We have the core we need for prophecy, for if we have the duty to welcome the stranger, we have the history to know we can be the stranger. If we have the command to love our neighbor, we have the experience to know our neighbor may not look or sound or believe like we do. And if we are free, we have the awareness to remember that the person next to whom we sit in a pew may not have the same politics, but may well share the same love at the core of this faith. Speak and act boldly, but above all love boldly.
If you believe the time is now to act, join in the ongoing work of our Justice Action Ministry, the new work of the Action Faction, or the service of our Human Services group. The Climate Action group is hoping to join the People's Climate March in Washington, D.C. In April. Consider going to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in late June; this year's theme will be expanding the notion of Sanctuary and exploring how actions congregations can take around related issues. (As an addition inducement, G.A. is in New Orleans this year.) Wherever you are, when you work for justice in the name of the congregation, keep it focused on issues and open to everyone.
Most of all, my friends, in a time like this, let us give each other courage. The word en/courage comes from the Latin cor, which means heart. One member of our congregation says it best. "My activism began before I knew that's what it was, and when I was a UU, but didn't know it yet. Now that I have been a UU ... and known it ... for 45 years, practicing justice action ministry has its foundation in my very heart and soul at a depth not reached even by my patriotism, which I revere."
In the tradition of those who have come before, and, I trust, those who will follow, we will face whatever comes. The time is now to find our core, to speak and act and love boldly, to know that we shape the history our children will seek to understand.
Copyright Susan Milnor 2017.
Atkinson, Minnie. A History of the First Religious Society in Newburyport, 1933, reprinted 2001.
Gilbert, Richard S. The Prophetic Imperative. Boston: Skinner House Books. 2000.