Mother of Us All

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 by James Lovelock, the person who developed the “Gaia hypothesis” that the Earth taken as a whole acts as if it is a living being:

“…Had it been known then that life and the environment are closely coupled, Darwin would have seen that evolution involved not just the organisms, but the whole planetary surface. We might then have looked upon the Earth as if it were alive, and known that we cannot pollute the air or use the Earth’s skin — its forest and ocean ecosystems — as a mere source of products to feed ourselves and furnish our homes. We would have felt instinctively that those ecosystems must be left untouched because they were part of the living Earth.

“So what should we do? First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act; and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. Civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered descent….

“Unfortunately our nation is now so urbanised as to be like a large city and we have only a small acreage of agriculture and forestry. We are dependent on the trading world for sustenance; climate change will deny us regular supplies of food and fuel from overseas.

“We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.

“Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in human civilisation the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe.

“We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.”

[This opinion piece by Dr. Lovelock is from The Independent (London), 16 January 2006.]

The second reading is from Homeric Hymn no. 30 to Gaia. Please excuse the gender-specific language of this old translation from ancient Greek:

To Gaia, the Mother of All.

I will sing of well-founded Gaia (Earth), mother of all, eldest of all beings. She feeds all the creatures that are in the worlds, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly: all these are fed of her store. Through you, O queen, men are blessed in their children and blessed in their harvests, and to you it belongs to give means of life to mortal men and to take it away. Happy is the man whom you delight to honour! He has all things abundantly: his fruitful land is laden with corn, his pastures are covered with cattle, and his house is filled with good things. Such men rule orderly in their cities of fair women: great riches and wealth follow them: their sons exult with everfresh delight, and their daughters in flower-laden bands play and skip merrily over the soft flowers of the field. Thus is it with those whom you honour O holy goddess, bountiful, wife of starry Heaven; freely bestow upon me for this my song substance that cheers the heart!

[Homeric Hymns, ed. & trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classics (Cambridge, Mass.: Havard Press, 1914.)


This is the fourth and final sermon in series of sermons on Greek goddesses. You may recall that when I began this series, I said that the ancient Greek goddesses are examples of female god images from our own Western culture — these are goddesses who are an integral part of our Western cultural inheritance. For this final sermon on Greek goddesses, I would like to speak with you about Gaia, or Mother Earth. And while the previous goddesses I spoke about — Artemis, Athena, Demeter, and Persephone — are no longer all that familiar to us, we all know and are familiar with Mother Earth, Mother Nature, the goddess who comprises all living beings on the broad earth.

Furthermore, the ancient Greek goddess Gaia is of interest today because today we face vast ecological problems. These ecological problems require a religious response from us. A few of our Christian brothers and sisters do a better job — they’re the ones who talk about “creation care,” meaning that God created the earth so we better not mess it up, because if we do we’re going against God’s will. I don’t happen to feel comfortable with that theology, but I respect the fact that this a genuinely religious response to the ecological crisis.

So what might be a genuine Unitarian Universalist religious response to the ecological crisis? Of course we already promote religious respect for the Earth; people in this congregation do this in a variety of ways. Some among us are neo-pagans, and may in fact understand the Earth as worthy of religious veneration. Some among us are humanists, with a religious appreciation of the importance of scientific insights, including the insights of ecology and climate science. Some among us — and this is our oldest religious tradition — are Transcendentalists, and like Emerson and Thoreau we feel that there is some transcendent reality in Nature.

These are three of our religious approaches, and we could probably come up with several more. It would be easy to emphasize the differences among us. Instead, let’s meditate for a while on the ancient Greek goddess Gaia, a Mother goddess who is part of our Western cultural inheritance, and see where such meditation leads us.

1. To begin with, I’d like to tell you a little about that ancient Greek goddess, Gaia. In the second reading this morning, we heard an ancient Greek hymn to Gaia, extolling her many virtues. She is the “eldest of all beings,” the first to emerge from the chaos that existed at the beginning of everything. Gaia “feeds all the creatures that are in the worlds, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly.” It is she upon whom we human being depend for our very lives, and she can either bless human beings with a good harvest, or remove from them the means of life. If the ancient Greek goddess Gaia smiles upon humanity, then our farms produce good food for us, our houses are “filled with good things,” our cities are orderly, our sons “exult with everfresh delight,” and our “daughters in flower-laden bands play and skip merrily over the soft flowers of the field.”

All of which makes old Mother Earth sound like a delightful goddess indeed. But the ancient Greeks knew a Gaia who had her dark side, too; a goddess who was quite different from the sanitized versions of Mother Earth that seem to float around popular culture today. Let me tell you one of the gorier stories about Gaia:

In the beginning was Chaos, which was unformed stuff, or some say a bounded gap. Out of Chaos emerged Gaia, Mother Earth. Now after some indeterminate time, Gaia bore a son, who was named Ouranos, or the Heavens. Ouranos and Gaia had various children together, among whom was born Cronos.

Ouranos did not like some of his children, and he took his children Cottus and Briareos and Gyes and hid them away beneath the Earth. Gaia was angry at Ouranos for doing this, and she asked her other children to wreak revenge on their father. But only Cronos would follow Gaia’s plan — he took the sickle she gave him, ambushed his father, and castrated him. That was the end of Ouranos’s rule.

And there are many more rather grim stories involving Gaia: stories of monsters, stories where Gaia gets involved in a war with some other gods, more stories of revenge and hatred. There is a dark side to the ancient Greek goddess named Gaia. She was not all flowers and greenery; she was capable of wrath and destruction as well.

Our ancient Greek cultural inheritance portrays Mother Earth as a primal religious power. Gaia is not a greeting-card version of Mother Earth:– she is a powerful Mother Earth, who nurtures but who also participates fully in the total life cycle of birth and death. She is a goddess who is in some sense beyond real human comprehension. So the first part of our meditation on Mother Earth recognizes her great power.

2. From ancient Greek myths we jump forward a few thousand years to modern science, and we find that the name “Gaia” appears in the scientific world. Perhaps you have heard of the Gaia hypothesis. First proposed by James Lovelock in the 1960s, this scientific hypothesis proposed that the earth is a self-regulating system. as I understand it, the proponents of Gaia theory state that it is possible to understand the Earth as a living being, in the very specific sense that the Earth can be understood as the complex interaction of various systems. These interactions can best be modeled using non-linear mathematics, and a serious study of these interactions require scientists to look beyond the confines of their specific disciplines, so that biologists have to consider the effects of geology, and atmospheric and hydrospheric science on life forms, and vice versa.

Lovelock is a serious scientist who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and doctorates in medicine and biophysics. In spite of his academic credentials, his use of the name “Gaia” turned out to be quite controversial. Some scientists seemed to think that using the name of an ancient Greek goddess made it seem as if Lovelock was proposing that the self-regulating system of the earth is somehow conscious and capable of willful action. Lovelock has explicitly denied that he intended this, and he has said that he does not believe that we should consider the Earth as a thinking, feeling being. And in the ensuing years, others have begun talking about earth systems science, or geophysiology — terms which are perhaps less inflammatory.

While the term “Gaia theory” may sound imprecise to some scientists, from a metaphorical standpoint I think that name can be useful to us. We all know that widespread worship of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses has long since died out. But using the name for an ancient goddess might help us keep in mind the complexity embodied by Gaia theory — just as those ancient goddesses were complex and in some sense impossible for us humans to understand, the complexity of the relationships between the various systems of the planet Earth is beyond our current comprehension, and impossible to model with any degree of accuracy. This in turn might help us to be aware that our actions may have consequences that we cannot foresee and that we do not intend. And that should prompt us to be wary of anyone who proposes a simplistic solution to the ecological problems facing us.

We know that we should be wary of simplistic answers to complex questions; we know that human beings often do things that turn out to be pretty stupid in retrospect; and we know that the solutions to life’s problems are rarely simple. We don’t have to know anything about the non-linear mathematics behind Gaia theory to understand this. So the second part of our meditation on the goddess Gaia reminds us that while we know a lot more about how the universe works than did the ancient Greeks, there’s an awful lot that we still don’t understand.

3. And now I’d like to turn to consider our own religious tradition. For me, one of the central points of our Unitarian Universalist tradition is that we are ultimately hopeful. In spite of everything that is wrong with the world, we continue to believe that the arc of the universe tends towards justice; we continue to believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Even in the face of evidence that things are not going particularly well, we continue to believe that we can make a positive difference in the world.

Right now, there is a fair amount of evidence that things are not going particularly well. I mentioned the scientist James Lovelock earlier; in the first reading this morning, from a recent article by Lovelock, he calmly states his belief that we are already past the tipping point of global climate change. Many of us would disagree with Lovelock on this point, but even so there’s plenty of other evidence that things are not going well in the world. If you pay attention to the news you can find plenty of evidence that implies that the world is currently in a handbasket, and it is not heaven to which we are headed to in that handbasket.

It is in times like these that we need hope. I would suggest that the image of Mother Earth can serve as a powerful symbol of hopefulness. Mother Earth is a mother. By definition, mothers are mothers because they have children: whether they have biological children or other kinds of children, by definition mothers care for children, nurture them, believe in them. Referring to this image as Gaia might help remind us that this remains an image, a symbol, not reality; that we are constantly striving to turn that image into reality. But it is an image that can lead us forward in hopefulness.

Raising children is an act of hope. Whenever we see a child, whenever we see new life starting out, we have the hope that this child will be one of the ones who helps make the world a better place. In the first reading this morning, James Lovelock says that human civilization should be the heart and mind of this planet. Whenever we see a child, we have the hope that this child will participate in the great work of maintaining civilization as the heart and mind of our planet. Yes, we adults do our part, to the best of our ability: but we always hope that the children in our lives will soar beyond our own efforts.

I would say that children are central to my religious outlook, even though I have no children of my own. Caring for children is central to my religious outlook, because in caring for children lies my hope for the future. For me, a central purpose of any religious community must be to raise children to help them become good adults; to instill in them the idea that there is more to life than being a good consumer; that we human beings must always strive to reach the highest moral and ethical ideals. In this sense, religious communities act like the best of mothers: nurturing, caring for, and believing in the children in our midst. As Unitarian Universalists, we can believe whatever we wish about God; but we are religiously called to create a religious community that nurtures the rising generations. This is how we live out the essential hopefulness of our Unitarian Universalist faith.

So in closing, let me say: happy Mother’s Day. Care for the children. Care for the earth. The two are synonymous. And mothers are central to it all.

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.