African Wisdom

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.

The first reading is from Cornel West’s 2004 book Democracy Matters. West is professor of religion at Princeton University. In the chapter titled “The Crisis of Christian Identity in America,” West writes:

“The religious threats to democratic practices abroad are much easier to talk about that those at home. Just as demagogic and antidemocratic fundamentalisms have gained too much prominence in both Israel and the Islamic world, so too has a fundamentalist strain of Christianity gained far too much power in our political system, and in the hearts and minds of citizens. This Christian fundamentalism is exercising and undue influence over our government policies, both in the Middle East crisis and in the domestic sphere, and is violating fundamental principles enshrined in the Constitution; it is also providing support and ‘cover’ for the imperialist aims of empire. The three dogmas that are leading to the imperial devouring of democracy in America — free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism — are often justified by the religious rhetoric of this Christian fundamentalism. And perhaps most ironically — and sadly — this fundamentalism is subverting the most profound, seminal teachings of Christianity, those being that we should live with humility, love our neighbors, and do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Therefore, even as we turn a critical eye on the fundamentalisms at play in the Middle East, the genuine and democratic Christians among us must unite in opposition to this hypocritical, antidemocratic fundamentalism at home. The battle for the soul of American democracy is, in large part, a battle for the soul of American Christianity, because the dominant forms of Christian fundamentalism are a threat to the tolerance and openness necessary for sustaining any democracy. Yet the best of American Christianity has contributed greatly to preserving and expanding American democracy. The basic distinction between Constantinian Christianity and prophetic Christianity is crucial for the future of American democracy….”


The second reading is from a speech titled “Protect Human Rights, Protect Planetary Rights,” which was given by Wangari Maathai at the initial meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, in Geneva, Switzerland on June 19, 2006. Ms. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in protecting the environment in Kenya. In her speech, Ms. Maathai said in part:

“The Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 was… historic because it emphasized, for the first time, the need for the world: to rethink peace and security vis-à-vis the environment, to recognize the close linkage between sustainable management of resources, good governance and peace.

“You will remember that some people wondered aloud, ‘What is the relationship between peace and trees or peace and the environment?’ That was the challenge! To reflect and discover the linkage between our ability to maintain peace, respect for human rights, and the way we govern ourselves and manage our limited resources. Unless we understood this linkage, we would continue to deal with symptoms of war and conflicts. Yet the root cause of most conflicts is the desire to access and control the limited resources on our planet earth. We find many justifications for our actions because we are not willing to say upfront what drives our willingness to violate the rights of other human beings. We often argue that our actions are for the good of our victims. We know better what is good for them. Sometimes we many even claim that the divine have been in touch with us and has entrusted us with the power to decide the destiny of others.

“Therefore, to pre-empt conflict we must consciously and deliberately manage resources more sustainably, responsibly and accountably. We also need to share these resources more equitably both at the national level and at the global level. The only way we can do so is if we practise good governance.”


Originally, I had planned to preach a sermon titled “African Souls” this Sunday. I decided to preach a political sermon instead. No, I’m not going to endorse a presidential candidate; the Board of Trustees would prefer that I don’t endanger the tax-exempt status of our congregation. Rather, I’m going to preach about the absence of morals and religious values in American politics — that is, the absence of morals and religious values with which I feel comfortable — and I’m going to suggest that we might turn to some overlooked sources to find morals and religious values that we religious liberals could inject into American political life.

To begin with, let me see if I can be more precise about this absence of morals and religious values in American politics. Many politicians do talk about morals and religious values, and they often couch this talk in terms of moderate or conservative Christianity. However, they typically seem to profess the curious form of Christianity known as “prosperity Christianity,” whose adherents seriously believe that “God desires Christians to be prosperous” [Partridge 2004, 91]; many of our politicians seem to seriously believe that the mark of a good Christian is being rich, whereas it’s a moral failure to be poor or even middle-class. I’m not making this up, as Dave Barry is wont to say: prosperity Christianity really does exist, and scholars tell us that in liberal, free-market economies, the prosperity gospel actually promotes church growth.

But for someone like me, the accumulation of money and wealth, while pleasant enough, does not tell me much about the ultimate meaning of life; nor does it represent an adequate moral framework. If our only purpose in life is to accumulate wealth and protect free-market economics, then I would say that we Americans no longer seem to have a larger purpose in life; our only purpose is to get lots of money. We see this tendency in our politicians: it is a commonplace to say that American politicians are beholden to the moneyed interests that elected them, which is another way of saying they really don’t believe in anything at all, except money.

Of course this is an age-old problem, arising from an age-old question: Do we hold ourselves to some sort of higher value system, or is the only true value political expediency? In the Western religious tradition of which we are a part, this problem goes back at least to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity, and who incorporated Christianity into the political life of the Roman Empire by watering down its more radical teachings. As Cornel West says, “The Roman emperor Constantine’s incorporation of Christianity within the empire gave Christianity legitimacy and respectability but robbed it of the prophetic fervor of Jesus.” [West 2004, 147] The early prophetic Christians had striven towards the timeless values of living in humility, loving your neighbor, and doing to others as you would have them do to you; whereas Constantinian Christians were willing to compromise these values in order to gain political power and protection. This tension exists as well among religious folk who aren’t Christians: do you take a prophetic stance and declare your deepest values despite the inevitable political cost of doing so? — or do you find political expediency more important than clinging mindlessly to certain values? — or is there some middle ground between these extremes?

I take this question very seriously. How do we balance our highest moral and religious values with political expediency? Sadly, I find that the mainstream political writers in this country do not help me answer this question as a religious person — because in today’s United States, most of the religious folk who write about politics are either political conservatives who are also conservative Christians (you know who they are); or politically liberals who are moderate-to-conservative Christians (people like Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine); but neither group offers me much religious inspiration. Thus I find myself looking outside the American political mainstream for inspiration. And, appropriately enough for Black History month, recently I have been most inspired by contemporary Africans and people of African descent. So in order to explore this question of how we balance our moral and religious values with political expediency, I’m going to tell you three stories of Black history — not Black history from decades ago, but Black history being made right now.


I’d like to begin with Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan citizen who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Wangari Maathai is a truly remarkable woman on many counts. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to receive a doctoral degree; after receiving her master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, in 1971 she was awarded a Ph.D. in biology by the University College of Nairobi. She worked as a professor of veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi for many years. She was elected to the Parliament of Kenya, and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources from 2003 to 2007.

But the most remarkable thing that Wangari Maathai did was to found an organization called the Green Belt Movement back in 1977. Dr. Maathai became aware that the countryside of Kenya was undergoing significant environmental degradation [Maathai 2006, 121]. Being a trained scientist, she couldn’t help wondering about the causes of these changes in the environment: what had lead to this deforestation, devegetation, and unsustainable agriculture that she observed? She decided that part of the problem lay in practices imported by the European powers who colonized Africa. She said,

“Many aspects of the cultures of our ancestors had protected Kenya’s environment. Before the Europeans arrived, the peoples of Kenya did not look at trees and see timber, or at elephants and see commercial ivory stock, or at cheetahs and see beautiful skins for sale. But when Kenya was colonized and we encountered Europeans, with their knowledge, technology, understanding, religion, and culture — all of it new — we converted our values into a cash economy like theirs. Everything was now perceived as having a monetary value. As we were to learn, if you can sell it, you can forget about protecting it.” [Maathai, Unbowed: A Memoir, (New York: Knopf, 2006), p. 175]

Thus, Dr. Maathai began to question the free market values. Using free market values, what is most important is whether or not you can sell something: if you can, it has value, but its value lies in how much money you can get for it. However, she saw this was a questionable kind of moral value scheme.

In one of the most famous incidents from her career as a social activist, in 1989 she became aware that the government of Kenya was preparing to sell off Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Remember that in 1989, the government of Kenya was a one-party state run by the corrupt political regime of President Daniel Arap Moi. Dr. Maathai already knew that this corrupt regime did things like clear-cutting forests that were supposed to be protected. But the proposed destruction of Uhuru Park was too blatant to be dismissed: President Moi was going to illegally turn over the land of this national park to some of his close business associates so that they could build a 60-story skyscraper that was of questionable economic benefit to anyone. So Dr. Maathai notified the press, wrote letters to the international community, and generally stirred up questions about the proposed development. The government slandered her, calling her a “wayward” woman. But Dr. Maathai persevered, and continued to make efforts to work with the government to resolve the problem. In the end, she won her point: the government decided to abandon their plans to develop Uhuru Park.

In this story of Uhuru Park, we can see how Dr. Maathai made connections between democratic principles, sustainability and environmentalism, and larger moral issues. She made it clear that democratic principles require openness and transparency in all government dealings; she held the government to the highest standards of fair governance. She made it clear it was not acceptable to destroy a park in the middle of Nairobi just so that some people could profit under free-market principles. She was able to show the women of Kenya that a woman could have power and influence; indeed, within a decade, Dr. Maathai herself had been elected a member of Parliament.

Over the course of her career, Dr. Maathai has consistently stood up for her highest moral values. She is a Christian, the kind of Christian who takes seriously the Christian teaching that we must consider the plight of poor and powerless persons. She acts on behalf of such people as a matter of moral principle. Her deep moral values allow her to see the essential connections between women’s rights, democracy, environmental activism, and sustainable practices. But she is also willing to work with the government — even to work within the government as a member of Parliament — in order to further her highest moral goals.

We Americans often feel that we ought to be helping out those backward Africans; but here is an example of how we might learn a great deal from an African woman who is more advanced than we are: we can learn from Wangari Maathai’s ability to use morality and ultimate meaning to transform the world around her, creating a sustainable and democratic society.


We don’t have to travel as far as Kenya, however, to find Black history in the making. Dr. Cornel West, a brilliant philosopher who happens to be of African descent, is another person making history now. He has been inspiring me to think in new ways about morality and religious values in a free market world, and about how to balance my religious values with political expediency.

I have long been interested in Cornel West as a thinker. My undergraduate degree is in philosophy, so I first learned about Dr. West through his work on American pragmatism, particularly his 1989 book The American Evasion of Philosophy.

But I got interested in Cornel West as a person back in 2001. At that time, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, reportedly chastised Cornel West for doing things like recording a rap CD and working on political campaigns. Summers apparently thought West should focus on publishing scholarly books; but West said he thought Summers was just being disrespectful. So West left Harvard for Princeton; and I have to say, I don’t blame him. I don’t like this idea that we have to distinguish between scholarly intellectual activity on the one hand, from popular and political action on the other hand. That’s an artificial distinction, akin to the artificial distinction that says religion should not try to change the world.

In any case, when his book titled Democracy Matters was published in 2004, I bought it immediately. I wanted to hear what this topnotch thinker, and interesting person, had to say about the current state of American democracy.

Dr. West says that the greatest threats to American democracy “come in the form of… three dominating, antidemocratic dogmas.” As a Unitarian Universalist who hates dogma in any shape or form, that helps me to understand what I find so frustrating about American politics today:– American politics is dominated by dogmas, that is, by beliefs that are taken on faith alone and which cannot be questioned in public without risking censure from those in authority.

Dr. West names those three dogmas: free-market fundamentalism; aggressive militarism; and escalating authoritarianism. As a religious liberal, I found myself nodding in agreement. Yes, our obsession with free-market economics is a kind of fundamentalism, something we are supposed to believe in literally and without question, just like fundamentalist religion. Yes, our militarism goes far beyond the idea of loving our neighbors. Yes, I do see escalating authoritarianism in the United States, and it reminds me of fundamentalist religions which demand unquestioning obedience.

In short, Dr. West makes the case that a certain kind of fundamentalist Christianity is dominating American culture, forcing us to think and act as if we are fundamentalists ourselves. For example, when it comes to free-market economics, we are supposed to either accept the concept without question, or reject it completely and be branded as a “pinko” heretic — thus effectively stifling any possible religious objections to free-market principles. No wonder I have been feeling so alienated from the American political scene — as a religious liberal, I am anti-dogmatic and anti-authoritarian, and so I simply cannot feel comfortable in an American political scene that has been shaped in the image of fundamentalist Christianity.

From his liberal Christian perspective, Dr. West puts it this way: “The battle for the soul of American democracy is, in large part, a battle for the soul of American Christianity, because the dominant forms of Christian fundamentalism are a threat to the tolerance and openness necessary for sustaining any democracy.” I took that statement to heart, and that is one of the reasons I now preach on the Bible so often. The fundamentalists have so much power in our country that they have taken the Bible, a book that is all about how we are supposed to take care of our neighbors and help the poor and oppressed; they have taken the Bible and turned it into an excuse for ignoring the poor, oppressing women, and invading foreign countries. As Cornel West might say, rather than putting religion in service of authoritarianism, it’s time for us to reclaim the prophetic function of religion.


I have one more example of Black history in the making, but this example is very short, because it is so new. Back in 2004, a group of students at Makerere Univeristy in Mampala, Uganda, started small Unitarian Universalist congregation. I have been told that they found out about Unitarian Universalism via the World Wide Web, although I have been able to find very little in the way of solid information about this congregation.

This small group of students kept meeting, and they have grown until now, four years later, they have 150 members in Kampala, and another 50 members in another region outside the city. Their Web site says that they are mostly English-speaking, that they dress casually, and that their worship services are lively. And, in a statement that reminds me of our own congregation, they say that they welcome all people, no matter what age, sex, culture, or skin color. That’s about all I can tell you about the Unitarian Universalists in Uganda, except to add that a central focus of their congregations is an AIDS outreach program. Small as they are, they have begun an ambitious program to support children with AIDS, and children who are AIDS orphans.

I am very curious about this four-year-old congregation. How did they grow from nothing to 200 members in two congregations in just four years? This is an especially remarkable achievement given the general religious climate in Uganda is quite conservative — the fastest-growing religious groups are Pentecostals, evangelical mega-churches spouting prosperity gospel, and the like. How has this group of Unitarian Universalists grown as fast as they have? I suspect part of their secret for success is that they reject the idea of a free-market prosperity gospel:– they know you don’t go to church to learn how to become rich, you go to church to live out the timeless values of living in humility, loving your neighbor, and doing to others as you would have them do to you. Expediency is less important to them than actually living out their deepest values.


As I watch the Democrats and the Republicans during the presidential primaries, I am really unsure that either party is going to be able to put political expediency in service of their highest moral values; I worry that they will,, as usual, sacrifice their values to political expediency. So I turn elsewhere for inspiration on how to live out my own values inn the real world — I turn to people like Wangari Maathai, Cornel West, and the Ugandan Unitarian Universalists. These three examples of Black history in the making; these three examples of Africans and African Americans living out their values in the world; these are three examples are inspiring me as I try to live out my moral and religious values in the real world.