Is It Religion? (part three): Communism and Capitalism

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is from one of the Bibles of communism, the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” by Karl Marx:

“The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity — and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.”

The second reading is from one of the Bibles of capitalism, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith:

“To propose that Great Britain should voluntarily give up all authority over her colonies, and leave them to elect their own magistrates, to enact their own laws, and to make peace and war as they might think proper, would be to propose such a measure as never was, and never will be adopted, by any nation in the world. No nation ever voluntarily gave up the dominion of any province, how troublesome soever it might be to govern it, and how small soever the revenue which it afforded might be in proportion to the expense which it occasioned. Such sacrifices, though they might frequently be agreeable to the interest, are always mortifying to the pride of every nation, and what is perhaps of still greater consequence, they are always contrary to the private interest of the governing part of it….”

The third reading is from an essay about Karl Marx by Charles Hartshorne, a Unitarian Universalist philosopher of the mid-twentieth century. This is from his 1983 book Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers:

“It is true that our mixed economic system has been kind enough to me, nor have I run any great risks in sometimes criticizing it. Also I can see some merits in the Soviet system, for Russia, and the Maoist system, for China, but with tragic limitations in both cases…. I still doubt that one man (or two or three, adding Engels and Feuerbach [to Marx]), writing early in the industrial revolution, can tell us in the Americas, Europe, Australia, or Japan, or even in the Third World, much of what we need to know about our problems. Population excess and pollution, or the exhaustion of fossil fuels, or the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war, for example, were poorly foreseen by any of the philosophers or economists of the past. What they nearly all missed was that our species… alone among species is capable of destroying itself and an indefinitely large portion of the other life on this planet.”

Sermon: Is It Religion? (part three): Capitalism and Communism

Is communism a religion? Is capitalism a religion? Or, at least, do these two ideologies sometimes act like religions? I’m going to try to convince you that the answer is yes — both capitalism and communism can act like religions. And I’m also going to try to convince you that the answer should be no — we don’t want capitalism or communism to act like religions.

In the United States, we usually define religion as something that is — or should be — completely separate from politics, and from economics. Our current understanding of religion is based on the assumption that the religious realm is separate from the secular realm. We adopted the separation of religion and the state in the United States in order to promote freedom of conscience. But the separation of religious and secular only dates back a couple of centuries or so. Before that, the religious world and the secular world weren’t separate at all. As one example of this, recall that our own congregation was supported by tax dollars from 1721 when it was founded up until 1824.

Now if we define religion as something completely separate from the secular realm, then obviously capitalism cannot be a religion. Similarly, communism cannot be a religion. Capitalism and communism are economic systems. Since they are part of the secular world, they cannot be religious. But once you realize that the separation of the religious realm and the secular realm has never been a perfect separation, then you can see that capitalism and communism might in fact act like religions.

Let me begin by explaining how capitalism can sometimes act like a religion.

First of all, we can pretty quickly see the ways in which capitalism resembles Western Christianity. Capitalism deifies a mythical thing called “The Market,” which can be seen as a rough equivalent of the Holy Spirit, a force with powers beyond humanity that moves in mysterious ways. Capitalism has its holy scriptures, perhaps most notably “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith; and just like the Christian Bible, “The Wealth of Nations” gets interpreted selectively. So, for example, we heard in the second reading how Adam Smith actually argued that overseas colonies were detrimental to capitalism, but this argument was conveniently ignored by the capitalists of the British Empire.

Capitalism has its prophets, economists who interpret the capitalist scriptures for us, and predict gloom and doom unless we follow their prescriptions for action. One of the the most interesting things about capitalism is how some of its prophets define sinfulness. Traditional Christianity argues that all our troubles come about because of sin, and sin comes about because humans diverge from God’s plan. Some religious followers of capitalism argue that all our troubles come about because we don’t follow the tenets of capitalism. The prophets of capitalism tell us to do one thing, and if we do something different — so they tell us — then we will suffer for it. This is true at the national level — if we don’t follow Keynesian economics, or neoliberal economics, we will suffer the torments of our sinfulness. But it’s also true at the personal level — if you live in poverty, it’s obviously because you are at fault; you have gone against the teachings of capitalism, and you’re being punished for your sins by being poor.

Obviously, for many people, capitalism is simply an economic system that seems to work better than any other economic system. Many people — perhaps most people — are pragmatists, and if they felt there was a better economic system out there, they would drop capitalism in favor of the better system. Yet there is also a minority of people who follow capitalism with a fervent and blind belief, people are sure that only capitalism can save humankind. By the way, some of the people who believe that only capitalism can save humankind are also conservative Christians, and some of them even argue that capitalism is affirmed by the Christian Bible — what an interesting mash-up of two seemingly incompatible religious positions!

Next, let me try to explain how communism can sometimes act like a religion.

As with capitalism, we can pretty quickly see the ways in which communism resembles Western Christianity. Communism has its holy scriptures, and its Bible is Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Communism has its own equivalent of the Holy Spirit, found in the movement of the Hegelian Geist which will propel society inexorably out of capitalism into communism. Communism also has different denominations. In one example of these different denominations, communist nations have a tendency to deify their leaders. Perhaps the most important example of this is the cult of Mao Zedong in China. Mao was worshipped as an all-knowing leader, and icons depicting Mao appeared throughout Chinese society. Mao remains an object of worship even today.

As with capitalism, communism has had its prophets, people who interpret its scriptures and predict gloom and doom unless society follows their prescriptions for action. These days, it’s more difficult to be a prophet for communism than it is to be a prophet for capitalism. If you read Marx, he was predicting the imminent end of capitalism sometime in the nineteenth century. Yet capitalism continued to thrive through the twentieth century. Then with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989, it became still more difficult for the prophets of communism to explain why communism remained a viable option.

While communism is usually vilified here in the United States, I will say that the communists I have known personally have all been highly moral individuals. The ones I have known have had a deep antipathy to economic injustice, and deep sympathy with people who are poor or economically disadvantaged. The first reading gives part of their justification for this attitude — they believe that capitalism has dehumanized people by turning them into mere commodities; instead of being ends in themselves, human beings become means to the end of capitalist profit. The principled morality of individual communists reinforces my sense that communism can act like a religion.

So it is that I feel both capitalism and communism can act like religions. The religion of communism is almost dead in the United States today, and it has little or no impact on our national life. However, the people who follow capitalism as a religion remain a strong force in our society.

Religious capitalism troubles me because the religious followers of capitalism demand unquestioning acceptance of their religious doctrine. They ask us to accept without question that capitalism is the best system, in a tone of voice that reminds me of conservative Christians who loudly proclaim, Thou shalt have no other gods before the God of Christianity. This annoys me both as a Unitarian Universalist, and as a pargmatist. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m constitutionally averse to doctrine and dogma. When someone wants me to accept religious doctrine or dogma without question, I immediately doubt their religious doctrines, and I immediately suspect their motives. Then as a pragmatist, I know that any theory or proposition is subject to modification when new evidence arises. As a pragmatist, I won’t believe it when the religious followers of capitalism tell me to follow capitalism just because they say so; I want to see evidence; and if a new economic system comes along that performs better than capitalism I’m willing to adopt it.

All of this brings me to the third reading, by philosopher and Unitarian Universalist Charles Hartshorne. The title of his book, “Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers,” tells you everything about his approach: he is willing to accept worthy insights from the great thinkers of the past, but he is also not going to gloss over the things they got wrong. Here’s part of what Hartshorne said in the reading:

“I still doubt [he said] that one man writing early in the industrial revolution, can tell us in the Americas, Europe, Australia, or Japan, or in the Third World, much of what we need to know about our problems. Population excess and pollution, or the exhaustion of fossil fuels, or the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war, for example, were poorly foreseen by any of the philosophers or economists of the past. What they nearly all missed was that our species alone among species is capable of destroying itself and an indefinitely large portion of the other life on this planet.”

Hartshorne rooted his own philosophy in the understanding that the world is constantly changing. Perhaps the most familiar example of this principle of constant change is the theory of evolution: Unitarian sympathizer Charles Darwin theorized that living organisms have been constantly evolving towards states of greater complexity. But everything is changing: the continental plates are in constant motion (just ask anyone who lives on a fault line); the universe continues to expand; and, more to the point of this sermon, human society is constantly changing.

Hartshorne would say that both Adam Smith and Karl Marx had brilliant insights into how human society works. At the same time, both Smith and Marx were products of their times. Their brilliant insights were insights into human society of a century or two ago. Human society has changed a great deal since they wrote. Thus neither Smith nor Marx anticipated how environmental pollution would come to have a significant economic impact; and neither thinker had the faintest notion of the effects of global climate change. We can respect the brilliance and insights of these two long-dead thinkers, but we must also acknowledge their oversights. We cannot treat them as holy prophets whose every word we must accept without question.

Herein lies the danger of making either capitalism or communism into a rigid doctrine. We se the same sort of problems when religion is reduced to a rigid doctrine. These problems can be summed up by saying that once you have a rigid doctrine, people stop thinking critically. Sometimes they just stop thinking at all. They stop investigating and observing. They stop trying to make their mental models conform to reality, and instead demand of reality that it conforms to their mental models. People in the thrall of rigid doctrines can wind up abandoning their humanity to become rigid ideologues.

It would be wise for us to remember that any one of us could become an ideologue — yes, even you and me. We human beings like certainty, and we become anxious when faced with uncertainty. We human beings like to be right, and we get cranky when others point out where we might be wrong. It can be so difficult for us to remember that things are constantly changing. It can be so difficult for us to face up to the fact that a brilliant idea from a hundred and fifty years ago no longer fits our current reality.

So how do we keep ourselves from becoming rigid ideologues? One way to keep from falling into the trap of ideology is to remember that human beings are ends in themselves, not means to an end. Human beings do not exist to serve capitalism, or communism, or any other religion. Capitalism, communism, and religion are things that are only good insofar as they serve all human beings. An idea, or an economic system, or a religion, is only good when and if it serves real human beings, or when it helps pull real human beings out of poverty, or when it reduces human suffering, or when it increases love.

May we save ourselves from becoming rigid ideologues. When we’re confronted with a new reality, may we learn to adjust our mental models to fit that new reality. May we be constantly thinking and observing and investigating. And may all our actions, and all our thoughts, be guided by love.

Is It Religion? (part 2) — Christian Nationalism

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is an excerpt from a poem written in 2007 by Margaret Atwood:

The Last Rational Man
in the reign of Caligula

The last rational man takes his old seat in the senate.
He’s not sure why he’s still here.
He must be on some list or other.
Last year there were many more like him,
but they’ve been picked off one by one.
He bathes daily, and practises slow breathing
and the doctrines of Stoicism.
Lose your calm, he reminds himself,
and you will lose everything.
Nevertheless he’s getting tired.
The effort of saying nothing is wearing him down….

The second reading is from The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart. In this excerpt, the author has just attended a meeting of the Family Research Council, a Christian nationalist group, with Rev. Chris Liles, a Bible-believing Southern Baptist preacher. As they leave the meeting, Rev. Chris begins speaking:

“‘It’s ten degrees hotter than normal, and these people don’t believe in climate science,’ he grumbles. Then his words start tumbling out like a waterfall.

“‘Do we not owe people more than simply reducing “pro-life” to one issue?’ he says. ‘I mean, no one wants babies to die. No one is “pro-abortion.” That is a false dichotomy. Do we not owe people more than to force them into one box or another? As much as abortion is a pro-life issue, so is affordable health care, access to contraceptives, and real, comprehensive sex education. Minimum wage. Fighting poverty. These should all be part of the “pro-life” conversation.’

“Chris falls into silence for a few minutes, then speaks again.

“‘And shouldn’t we show compassion to people regardless of how they identify? They, too, are made in God’s image. We find in Scripture the imperative to love our neighbors and care for the least of these. That is by far one of the clearest messages we receive.’

“I feel bad for Chris [says Katherine Stewart]; he seems dismayed by the event precisely because the Bible is his greatest source of comfort and moral direction….. Stopping at a red light, Chris picks up his Bible and turns to the Old Testament book of Amos.

“‘Here, for instance, in chapter five, the prophet says, “You, Israel, you were supposed to take care of the poor and you’re not doing it,”’ Chris says. ‘“You’re using power and wealth to tilt the system in your favor.” For society to be just, it was necessary for everyone to be seen as equal.’ He falls silent for a few moments. ‘Sometimes,’ he adds, ‘it’s almost like people are reading a different Bible. That’s the trick with Scripture. You can make the Bible say just about anything you want it to.’”…

Sermon: Is It Religion? (part 2) — Christian Nationalism

So. Is Christian Nationalism a religion, or not?

Probably everyone in this room wants to believe that Christian nationalism is NOT a religion. We want to be able to say that Christian Nationalism cannot be a religion because it so clearly violates the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. We want to be able to say that Christian Nationalism cannot be a religion because it so clearly violates the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. How can a movement that treats poor people as less than human be considered Christian? How can a movement that demonizes immigrants be part of the (to use their term) “Judeo-Christian tradition”? We would much prefer to say that Christian Nationalism is not a religion, but a political movement that uses religion as a cover.

As much as I’d like to say that Christian Nationalism is just politics, I believe it is in fact a religion. Mind you, it is a very different religion from ours. Christian Nationalism is the kind of religion that relies on unquestioning acceptance of authority. Christian Nationalism values hierarchy and submission over individual conscience. Christian Nationalism does not welcome dissent, nor is it tolerant of other worldviews. When we list all these attributes, Christian Nationalism looks very much like one of those creepy cults we used to hear so much about — the cults that suck people in and modify their way of thinking so that converts cut ties to the rest of society. And like some of the worst of those creepy cults, the Christian Nationalists want to remake society in their image.

Let’s not begin by calling it a creepy cult, though. At the end of the last century, scholars who study religions mostly stopped using the term “cult.” When you begin studying a religious movement by calling it a “cult,” that terminology tends to stop you from thinking clearly. When you call something a “cult,” you have already made a strong judgement about it, and often you feel like you don’t have to think any further about what it is you’re studying. Christian Nationalism may be a cult, but calling it a cult isn’t going to help us address the threat it poses to our democracy. Instead, we’ll use the appropriate term from religious studies and call it a New Religious Movement.

Once we call Christian Nationalism as a New Religious Movement, we begin to think more clearly about it. First, we realize that it’s not all that new. In its current incarnation, its roots go back to the middle of the last century. A decade after the Civil Rights Act extended full rights to Black Americans, the Internal Revenue Service began threatening to take away the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University, an all-White college that was committed to segregation as a religious principle. The conservative Christians who ran Bob Jones University got together with other White conservative Christians and began to come up with strategies to maintain what they saw as their religious right to segregation. Journalist Katherine Stewart tells what happened to these conservative Christians:

“…They had a problem…. Building a new [political] movement around the burning issue of defending the tax advantages of racist schools wasn’t going to be a viable strategy on the national stage. ‘Stop the tax on segregation’ just wasn’t going to inspire the kind of broad-based conservative counterrevolution that [they] envisioned. They needed an issue with a more acceptable appeal. What message would bring the movement together?… School prayer worked for some, but it tended to alienate the Catholics, who remembered…that for many years public schools had allowed only for Protestant prayers…. Bashing communists was fine, but even the Rockefeller Republicans could do that. Taking on ‘women’s liberation’ was attractive, but the Equal Rights Amendment was already going down in flames. At last they landed upon the one surprising [issue] that would supply the key to the political puzzle of the age: ‘abortion.’”

So writes journalist Katherine Stewart.

In other words, the core religious belief of these White conservative Christians was that White people should not be forced to mix with non-White people. They felt that U.S. society was changing such that they were unable to practice their religion properly. They felt there was another competing religious point of view that had come to dominate the United States, threatening their very existence. Those White conservative Christians called that other religious point of view as “secular humanism,” choosing what was to them the most pejorative term possible.

But the true opponent of these conservative Christians was not secular humanism. The true opponent was actually a broad coalition of religious groups, including mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics, liberal Jews, and a smattering of other religious groups like the Unitarian Universalists. Back then, most presidents, senators, congressional representatives, and Federal judges belonged to one of the religious groups in this broad coalition. While this coalition of religious moderates and religious liberals included both political liberals and political conservatives, on the whole they mostly agreed that racial segregation was an evil that must be ended.

The White conservative Christians who wanted to keep their schools and universities segregated did not want to fight the battle of re-segregating society. So they used the abortion issue as a political strategy to build support. And they took the battle beyond the political realm, into local congregations, where they helped their supporters turn abortion into a key theological question.

I’d say it was at this point where they became a New Religious Movement. Their earlier focus on racial segregation was nothing new, for segregation was part of American religion from the beginning. (Even our own First Parish was segregated during its first hundred years — African Americans and Native Americans were not allowed to sit on the main floor of our Meeting House, they had to sit in the gallery.) But to put such a strong emphasis on abortion — that was new. And, as we heard in the second reading, they emphasized abortion to the exclusion of other issues that formerly had been important to most American Christians — things like helping the poor, showing compassion to others, and recognizing that all persons were created in God’s image.

This emphasis on abortion was a radical reworking of American religion. Prior to the 1970s, about the only religious group to explicitly ban abortion was the Roman Catholics — and the Catholic ban on abortion only dates to 1869. Even considering the Catholics, abortion simply wasn’t an important religious issue for most Americans. When religious Americans thought about social issues, they were most likely to focus on things like poverty, hunger, and so on. So it was a dramatic change when, in the space of just a few years, abortion became a central issue in American religious life.

Since the 1970s, those conservative White Christians added other issues to abortion, such as opposition to LGBTQ rights and opposition to feminism. At last they came up with this notion that the United States should become a Christian nation (by which they seem to actually mean a White Christian nation). So now we have a name for this New Religious Movement — we can call them the Christian Nationalists, and indeed some of them have begun to use this very name to describe themselves. Just remember that they started out as a segregationist group, so a more accurate name for this New Religious Movement might be White Christian Nationalists. But for now, we’ll stick to the name they seem to prefer, and we’ll call this New Religious Movement the Christian Nationalists.

Now, some New Religious Movements have no interest in seeking out money and power; I think of the Neo-Pagans, whose groups mostly seem to operate on a shoestring. Most other New Religious Movements have other priorities besides money and power. So, for example, many scholars consider the Unitarian Universalism and the Reform Jews to be New Religious Movements, and when I look at myself and my friend the Reform rabbi, we don’t spend much time seeking out money and power. So most New Religious Movements aren’t concerned with money and power. But a small minority of New Religious Movements make money and power one of their top priorities. One example is Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (sometimes called the “Moonies”) which has been in the news recently because it obtained unprecedented access to the halls of power in Japan. That’s the goal of the Christian Nationalists — like the Moonies, they want to obtain unprecedented access to the halls of power here in the United States.

As you can see, we have learned quite a lot by thinking of the Christian Nationalists as a New Religious Movement.

First, we have gotten some clarity about their core religious beliefs. They were founded to maintain racial segregation, to keep Black people out of their all-White institutions; while that original purpose is somewhat hidden today, that remains one of their core beliefs. We can also see that they believe a rigid hierarchy — most obviously the hierarchy of White people over Black people, but also the hierarchy of men over women, the hierarchy of heterosexual people over homosexual people, and so on. Because they believe in a rigid hierarchy, their support of democracy is going to be limited. They claim to be Christian, but as we heard in the second reading, people like Pastor Chris say that Christian Nationalists interpret the Bible very differently from more conventional Christians.

Coupled with these core religious beliefs, we learned that they are extremely effective at organizing. In the political realm, they have begun to wield unprecedented power. In the religious realm, they have used wedge issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights to cause schisms in moderate religions like the United Methodist Church, and they have used this power to effectively immobilizing their primary religious opponents. They have even managed to fragment American Catholicism by converting several key bishops to their cause, bishops who have become emboldened enough to openly defy Pope Francis.

Their organizational effectiveness extends to the individual level. They’re very good at spreading their religious message. They still mostly hide their core religious belief of racial segregation, and instead focus attention on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. At this level, they prefer to organize using diffuse networks; scholars call this strategy “network Christianity.” This clever organizational strategy allows them to have their people infiltrate other religious groups, without having to found new local congregations.

Thinking of the Christian Nationalists as a New Religious Movement helps us to take them more seriously. I hear people talking about Christian Nationalists using terms like “crazy whackos” and “nut jobs” and “idiots.” These are inaccurate terms. The Christian Nationalists are smart, sane, and well organized. They’re quietly spreading their religion everywhere, and indeed they’re here on the South Shore. They’re here, and they’re not going to go away any time soon.

So how do we take back America from the Christian Nationalists? This is not a time for Stoicism; this is not a time to say nothing and to do nothing; this is a time to actively engage with other people. Remember that a core religious belief of Christian Nationalists is hierarchy. They are inherently anti-democratic. So one of the most important things we can do is to strengthen democracy.

We can strengthen democracy by participating in democracy, and in democratic institutions. It may be more comfortable to sit at home and play video games, or watch NetFlix, or whatever you prefer — but we have to get out of the house and do things like attend meetings of local government bodies; volunteer at democratically-run nonprofits; and so on. When it comes to our online lives, we have to do more than post cute cat pictures or engage in flame wars with political opponents — we can build up our own networks to spread our own messages of inclusion and love.

We already do this here at First Parish. We use democracy to run this congregation, and this congregation is a great place to learn how to do democracy, a great place to teach kids how to do democracy. In addition to running our congregation by democratic principles, we serve as a clearing house for information about democracy: we tell each other about what’s going on in our local governments, we raise up social issues that need to be addressed. We’re also quite good at building face-to-face networks, an essential skill for keeping democracy strong. And we’re not bad at building our online network to spread our messages of inclusion and love — and with that in mind, thank you to all of you who “like” the First Parish Facebook and Instagram posts, helping spread our message.

The nice thing about all these efforts is that they feel good when you do them. We’re not just fighting the Christian Nationalist power grab. Doing democracy here at First Parish feels good. Building face-to-face networks feels good. Building positive online networks to spread positive messages feels good. And once we manage to restore manage to democracy to health once again — once we help it recover from diseases like Christian Nationalism — we just keep on doing democracy, which means we can keep on feeling good.

Christmas Eve homily

Homily copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Thinking back to when my sisters and I were Unitarian Universalist children, I don’t remember my parents or my church ever telling us much about the beliefs associated with Christmas. I don’t remember spending any time on the virgin birth, redemption from sin, all that traditional theology — theology which, I have to admit, I still don’t fully understand today.

The story we learned as Unitarian Universalist children was fairly simple and straightforward: We were taught that we celebrated the birth of Jesus because he grew up to be an amazing human being whose teachings transformed the world. And tonight I’d like to speak briefly with you about how his teachings could transform the world today.

When I was a Unitarian Universalist child, I didn’t hear much about traditional theology, but I do remember hearing the story of the Good Samaritan. This was a story that Jesus told after he had grown up, and it gets at his most important teaching.

If you recall, the story goes something like this: A man was traveling down the winding, steep, dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell in among thieves, who took everything he had, and left him, injured and dazed, on the side of the road. Along came a priest of the great temple of Jerusalem — a very holy person — looked at the man lying by the side of the road, turned his head away, and rode on by. Along came a Levite, another very holy person, looked at the man lying by the side of the road, turned his head away, and rode on by. Then along came a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a despised race; today we would call them a marginalized group. Along came this Samaritan. He got down off his mule, he bandaged up the man lying by the side of the road, he took him to an inn and paid for him to be cared for until he recovered from his injuries.

Part of the point of this story is that the priest and the Levite were very good at theology, and they could explain all sorts of religious doctrines to you. However, as the story makes clear, they were not so good at practical religion. By contrast, whatever his beliefs may have been, this Samaritan was very good at practical religion; he was good at things like having courage, helping the suffering, and loving his neighbors.

This was a point that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made when he talked about the Good Samaritan in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. He said: “The first question that the priest [and] the Levite asked, was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ Then the good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question. ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” This was how Dr. King explained the difference between theoretical theology and practical religion. (1)

Anyway, this was the kind of thing my sisters and I were learned growing up as Unitarian Universalists: perhaps we didn’t get much instruction in theoretical theology, but we were taught practical religion. So we heard the Christmas story pretty much as you are hearing it tonight, but the emphasis was always on what the Christmas story called us to do, not what we were supposed to believe. That is still true of us Unitarian Universalists: we don’t worry much about what to believe, but we are concerned with what the Christmas story calls on us to do.

Of course it’s not just Unitarian Universalists who focus on the ethics of Christmas. Rev. Howard Thurman, a Baptist minister, wrote a poem that sums up Christmas for those of us who prefer practical religion. His poem is titled “The Work of Christmas,” and it goes like this:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart. (2)

I would only add that Howard Thurman’s poetic description of Christmas can be boiled down to that most profound teaching of Jesus: love your neighbor as you love yourself.

This, to me, is the central teaching of Christmas. Perhaps you are an atheist who doesn’t believe in God at all. Or perhaps you believe that Jesus was the son of God. Or perhaps while you believe in God, you believe Jesus was a son of God only in the sense that any one of us is a child of God. Or perhaps you believe in something entirely different. Yet what we happen to believe matters less than what it is we do with our lives.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, a person who became a great teacher, a person who explained in simple terms the great truth that we are here on earth to help one another. Jesus taught us that we should try to be more like the Good Samaritan. Jesus taught us: We don’t need to be priests or Levites, we don’t need to be really smart people who knew a lot about theological theory. Instead, Jesus taught us that we are here to heal the broken, to strengthen the fainthearted, to feed the hungry, to have courage, to rebuild the nations, to return to no one evil for evil — to make music in the heart.

This is the real message of Christmas. This is the real miracle of Christmas.


(1) Transcribed from an audio recording of the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, April 3, 1968.

(2) Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985).