Humanism for Such a Time as This

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 by Russell Moore, an evangelical Christian who forced out of the Southern Baptist Conference for speaking out against Donald Trump’s morals, calling out white nationalism as sinful, and demanding ethical accountability for clergy sexual misconduct. In an interview on NPR< Moore said:

“…Multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount… in their preaching — ‘turn the other cheek’ — to have someone come up after to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’ And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would not be, ‘I apologize.’ The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.’ And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us [evangelicals], then we’re in a crisis….”

The second reading comes from: “Anybody There? Reflections on African American Humanism,” by Anthony B. Pinn, published in the UU Humanist Association Journal in 1997:

I argue for the possibility of a humanist theology, a theology that holds community rather than God as the center of life-altering questions, accompanied by an understanding of religion and theology as centered on the problem of evil, or theodicy. Christian theology as done within African American communities is premised upon a sense of redemptive suffering as the best response to moral evil in the world. Furthermore, this theological stance is intimately tied to the Christian tradition, complete with a God who is concerned for and working on behalf of the oppressed. It continues to be my belief that, although important in many ways, this theological stance and its narrow perception of religion may not be the best means of achieving the social transformation or liberation sought by the African American community. I conclude that a theological stance on moral evil requires an alternate religious system — African American humanism. This is not meant to dismiss Christian approaches out of hand, rather, to broaden the possibilities, the religious terrain, and to foster conversation concerning liberating ways of addressing the problem of evil.

Sermon — “Humanism for Such a Time as This”

Since I want to talk with you this morning about humanism, perhaps I should begin be defining “humanism.” Like many terms that have to do with religious conviction, different individuals and different organizations are going to define “humanism” in different ways. Some conservative Christians, for example, probably lump humanism together with atheism; those conservative Christians would probably define humanism as just another name for the heresy of not believing in their God. And some fundamentalist atheists would no doubt define humanism as “atheism lite,” by analogy with lite beer — half the calories and half the flavor, and why not just drink the real thing.

In contrast with these derogatory definitions, I choose to define humanism as a positive and valid religious outlook that does not include belief in God. I would call humanism a religious outlook, although I also understand that some followers of humanism would prefer not to be considered religious. After all, these days religion in American popular culture is often equated with narrow-minded conservative Christianity. Nevertheless, I’m going to say that humanism is religious.

As its name implies, humanism puts human beings at the center of religion. The African American humanist theologian William R. Jones calls this “humano-centric” religion. Jones says this is quite different from traditional Christian religion, which — using his terminology — is “theo-centric.” That is to say, conservative Christianity puts God at the center of things, and therefore God has the primary responsibility to solve problems. Humano-centric religion tells us that we human beings are responsible for our own actions; humano-centric religion tells us that if we humans see something wrong with the world, it is up to us to try to repair it and make it better.

Humanism is not unique in teaching us to take responsibility for our own actions. Liberal Christianity, liberal Judaism, engaged Buddhism, and similar groups are also humano-centric religions; that is, each of these groups teaches us humans to take primary responsibility for our own actions. But humanism is different because it says there’s nothing beyond human beings and this present world. Humanists say there is no God, except whatever human-made gods and goddesses we might choose to invent. Humanists teach that there is no supernatural world — no heaven, no nirvana, no karma, no holy beings or holy persons — there is just this world.

I’m not a humanist myself — my current religious self-identity is Haven’t-figured-it-out-ism. However, in this current political and social moment, I find myself both inspired by and grateful to humanism. A certain kind of conservative Christianity has become very emboldened here in the United States. These conservative Christians are giving Christianity a bad reputation. No, more than that, these conservative Christians are giving all of religion a bad reputation. And this type of emboldened conservative Christians is epitomized for me in the story told by Russell Moore, which we heard in the first reading this morning. Let me remind you of this story.

A Christian pastor preaches a sermon based on Matthew 5:38-39. That’s where Jesus is preaching the so-called Sermon on the Mount. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” So this Christian pastor preaches on this classic text from the Christian scriptures, and after the sermon he is confronted by an angry parishioner who demands to know why the pastor is preaching those liberal talking points. The pastor informs the angry parishioner that, according to their Christian beliefs, those words were spoken by Jesus Christ, which is to say, those words were actually spoken by God himself. The angry parishioner says, “That doesn’t work any more”; in essence saying that the Word of God is outdated.

Russell Moore, who tells this story, has impeccable conservative Christian credentials. He was a very powerful figure in the Southern Baptist Convention. He taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was the chairman of the board for an evangelical Christian nonprofit called the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In this latter role, he would have been diametrically opposed to our Unitarian Universalist notion of the full equality of men and women and other genders. We here in this room would find many areas of disagreement with Russell Moore.

Yet there are several key issues where we would agree with Russell Moore. For example, in 2016 Moore condemned Donald Trump’s derogatory comments about women and his alleged sexual misconduct. But Moore was forced to recant by Southern Baptist leaders and say he had been unnecessarily harsh. At about that time, Moore made a public statement saying the Confederate flag was not compatible with Christianity. Once again, some influential Southern Baptists took him to task for standing up for the dignity of African Americans. Then a few years later, Moore began calling on his co-religionists to face up to the serious clergy sexual abuse crisis among Southern Baptist churches. Once again he faced bitter backlash from other Southern Baptists for taking a moral stance. He finally grew tired of being forced to apologize for taking moral stances that he felt were based in the Bible. In 2021, Moore left his post as president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and left the Southern Baptist Convention entirely.

Unfortunately, this is what American conservative Christianity has come to — Christians rejecting the teachings of Jesus, Christians ignoring sexual misconduct in politicians and in their own pastors, White Christians refusing to deal with racism. A growing number of people don’t want to be associated with the excesses of conservative American Christianity — the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the blatant introduction of partisan politics into religion, the Confederate flags in churches. And the reality is that American conservative Christianity has become the paradigm for all religion in the United States. As a result, a growing number of people don’t want to be involved with any kind of religion at all.

And so it is that humanism has a lot to offer in this current moment of history. In a time when the conservative Christian God appears to be a deity which is sexist, racist, and homophobic, many people are ready to reject all religion. Humanism provide an alternative to conservative Christianity that can help Americans see new possibilities for religion.

And we actually do want people to be part of organized religion. Sociological studies have shown that religion is good for people. This apparently has little to do with belief or lack of belief. After reading some of these sociological studies, and comparing them with my own observations, I would say religion is good for us in large part because we participate in a community of shared values. The shared values I’m talking about are not abstract theology like: do you believe in the Trinity or not; I’m talking about more basic shared values like: being kind to one another; helping one another; working with other people to make the world a better place.

Humanism can help us see this truth about religion. It doesn’t much matter whether everyone believes in God. It does matter that we attempt to lead moral lives, that to the best of our ability we treat all human beings with respect. If someone becomes disillusioned with God, they may feel compelled to leave all organized religion behind, thus cutting them off from the benefits of a religious community. Humanism offers the opportunity of having a religious community without the perceived hypocrisy of today’s American religion.

Humanism can also serve as a healthy challenge to those who may not be humanists, by insisting that we human beings are responsible for our own actions. Humanists teach us that when we see something wrong with the world, it’s up to us to repair it. By contrast, conservative Christianity promotes a kind of passivity — everything is up to God; it’s God’s will if you live or die; all you need to do is pray. As an example of this kind of thinking, some conservative Christian pastors right now are saying we should not strive for peace in Israel and Gaza, because they believe the war there is a sign of the End Times when Jesus comes back to earth. God has decreed this — so these conservative Christian pastors say — and so we should let the warring parties do whatever they want. If the war escalates, then so be it, that’s what God wants. Humanists help us understand why these conservative Christian pastors are so wrong. Humanists teach us that when human society goes wrong it’s up to us to fix it. Progressive Christians, progressive Jews, and progressive Muslims might word this a bit differently; they might say God has given humans freedom to act, or something similar. But it comes down to the same basic principle: the war in Gaza and Israel was started by humans, it is being fought by humans, and therefore it’s up to us humans to put an end to the fighting and violence.

Humanists apply this principle to many other contemporary social problems. In the second reading this morning, Anthony Pinn, an African American humanist, argues that humanism offers the best hope for repairing the evils of racism. In his opinion, the Black churches have responded to racism based on “a sense of redemptive suffering as the best response to moral evil in the world.” Pinn rejects the notion of redemptive suffering — in Pinn’s view, suffering the evils of racism is not going to redeem anyone. Instead, Pinn argues that a religious outlook focused on the problem of evil, a religious outlook which relies on community rather than God to address the evil of racism, is what we need. No more redemptive suffering, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Once again, I don’t think that humanism is all that different from progressive Christianity or engaged Buddhism or progressive Judaism. The main difference I can see is that humanism doesn’t have a central personage like Jesus or God or the Buddha. Yet all these religious outlooks are similar in placing a very high importance on community. God, or Jesus, or Buddha remains important, but human community is also critically important.

And here is where we find the main distinction between religious humanism and organized atheism. Both atheists and humanists do not believe in God, or in any divinity. But the most important thing for organized atheists is their disbelief in God. By contrast, the most important thing for religious humanists is that they come together in community to try to solve the problems facing the world. Thus, the well-known atheist Richard Dawkins spends much of his time trying to convince others that God is a delusion. By contrast, humanist Anthony Pinn is mostly concerned with addressing society’s problems, and he brings up his disbelief in God only because he feels it can get in the way of fighting evil. Theoretical physicist Peter Higgs — who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson — once quipped in an interview that “Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.” I think there’s some truth in that. Just as the conservative Christians feel they have to defend the purity of their belief, atheists like Dawkins feel they have to defend the purity of their disbelief. Whereas atheists like Anthony Pinn don’t spend much time on purity of belief or disbelief. Humanists believe that instead of spending so much time on purity of belief, we should be spending most of our time on ending racism, or on promoting world peace, or addressing any number of other social evils.

I already told you that I’m not a humanist myself, that I’m what you might call a Haven’t-figured-it-out-ist. Yet as a stalwart proponent of Haven’t-figured-it-out-ism, I find myself inspired by humanism, and by humanists like Anthony Pinn. I admit that I really enjoy talking about abstract issues like the nature of God, the requirements of the Dharma, and the ways the rabbis have interpreted the Torah. (I have an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a graduate degree in theology, of course I like talking about such things!) But I feel Anthony Pinn is correct. It’s more important, as he says, “to foster conversation concerning liberating ways of addressing the problem of evil.”

In other words, what I learn from humanist is that our top priority as a religious community should be ending racism, sexism, homophobia, war, and so on. What each of happens to believe or disbelieve about God, or Dharma, or Allah, or any of those abstract religious questions, deserves less of our energy at this particular historical moment. Let’s take care of racism first. Let’s end hunger and poverty first. Let’s solve the looming environmental crisis first. Let’s focus on the human problems that human beings can solve. Once we have those problems taken care of, then we can find the time to argue about the existence or non-existence of God.

The Problem with Grief

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 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.


The first reading is an excerpt from the poem “Two Dreams” by Margaret Atwood:

Sitting at noon over the carrot salad
my sister and I compare dreams.

She says, Father was there
in some kind of very strange nightgown
covered with bristles, like a hair shirt.
He was blind, he was stumbling around
bumping into things, and I couldn’t stop crying.

I say, Mine was close.
He was still alive, and all of it
was a mistake, but it was our fault..
He couldn’t talk, but it was clear
he wanted everything back, the shoes, the binoculars
we’d given away or thrown out.
He was wearing stripes, like a prisoner.
We were trying to be cheerful,
but I wasn’t happy to see him:
now we would have to do the whole thing over again….

The second reading is from a book by Elaine Pagels titled Why Religion?: A Personal Memoir. In this book, she tells about her son Mark’s death, followed by the death of her husband a year later, and how she made sense of their deaths.

“Shaken by emotional storms, I realized that choosing to feel guilt, however painful, somehow seemed to offer reassurance that such events did not happen at random. During those dark, interminable days of Mark’s illness, I couldn’t help imagining that somehow I’d caused it If guilt is the price we pay for the illusion that we have some control over nature, many of us were willing to pay it. I was. To begin to release the weight of guilt, I had to let go of whatever illusion of control it pretended to offer, and acknowledge that pain and death are as natural as birth, woven inseparably into our human nature.”

Sermon: “The Problem with Grief”

The sermon this morning is titled “The Problem with Grief.” So there is no suspense, I’ll tell you right up front what the problem is with grief: Grief seems to be cumulative. That is, all the individual instances of grief we happen to experience in life seem to add up. And a lot of times the total sum of grief seems to add up to more than all the individual instances of grief. The memoir by Elaine Pagels, from which came the second reading this morning, is a perfect example of what I mean. In that memoir, Elaine Pagels tells about how her son died, and then a year later her husband died. As you read her memoir, it becomes clear that these two overwhelming experiences of grief, happening so close together, added up to something more than each experience of grief on its own. And this tallies with my own less intense experiences of grief: when I was grieving one thing, I seemed to be extra sensitive to other feeling of grief.

So why is this a problem? Grieving has been a fact of life for human beings as long as there have been human beings. Surely we should be accustomed to it by now. Except that this has becomm a problem because there are at least two major sources of societal grief right now.

First of all, there’s the grief that we’re all feeling as climate change and other environmental problems become more pronounced. Lack of ice in the Arctic, too much plastic in the oceans, diminishing natural habitats near us: there are so many environmental changes to grieve. A field biologist friend calls this “eco-grief,” the grief that comes from the knowledge of the looming ecological disaster.

In addition to that, most of us are experiencing pandemic grief. This is the grief that most of society continues to experience every time people remember what we lost during the pandemic. Of course there are people for whom the pandemic went smoothly, and they don’t have any personal pandemic grief. But even if you’re not experiencing pandemic grief yourself, you’re surrounded by people who are. It is endemic in our society right now.

Thus nearly all of us are experiencing the effects of both eco-grief and pandemic grief. These add up with whatever individual grief we happen to be experiencing. The sum total is a lot of grief.

That’s it. Now you’ve heard the whole point of this sermon. Now there’s no more suspense, and you know the worst. If you want to check out now and stare out the window, I’ll try to talk softly.

Now that you know the problem with grief, I’d like to devote the rest of the sermon to talking about how we can manage grief — how we can manage it both individually, and as a community. What can we do to make ourselves feel better?

First of all, let’s talk about guilt. Grief and guilt often seem to come hand-in-hand. In the second reading, Elaine Pagels talks about the guilt she felt while she was grieving. She felt tremendous guilt after the death of her son. Surely she could have done more for him. Surely she could have fought more aggressively for treatment for him. Looking back, knowing his medical problems, she worried about what choices she made that might have made his situation worse. She felt guilty that she didn’t do more for him. She felt guilty that she didn’t advocate more aggressively for him. She felt guilty about choices she made that she thought might have made him worse. The guilt was dragging her down, and she had to find a way to deal with it.

This mixture of grief and guilt happens to all of us. A friend dies, and we think: I should have reached out more, I should have been there for them. We think about the state of the environment, and we think: I should have gotten rid of that gas-guzzling car sooner. A parent or a spouse dies, and we think: I should have done more for them. I should have done this. I should not have done that. Those feelings of “should-have-done” are what lead us into guilt.

But Elaine Pagels points out that when you’re feeling guilty, it is because you have convinced yourself that you have a great deal of control over your life, and that you have a great deal of control over the lives of those close to you. After my father went into his final illness, my sisters and I talked a lot about what we should have done differently:– we should have talked Dad out of thus-and-so, we should have told him to get a second opinion… there were many things we felt we should have done differently. But after his death, when we could think more calmly, it became clear to us that we had done the best we could with what we knew at the time. It’s easy to look back on the past and say, “I should have known.” But the fact of the matter is that we didn’t know, nor could we have known.

This gets at a fundamental theological point. We human beings do not have a lot of control over our lives. We like to think we have a lot of control over our lives. We almost have to live our lives as though we have a lot of control. But in reality, we really don’t have as much control as we’d like to believe.

This is one area where the conservative Christians maybe have an advantage over us. For them, God controls absolutely everything, and once they die they feel fairly secure that they’re going to go up to heaven and everything will be fine. We Unitarian Universalists live in a more complex reality. We acknowledge the possibility of random events; that is, God does not control absolutely everything. We acknowledge the possibility that well-intentioned actions can have unanticipated consequences; that is, even when we are doing out best to do what is right, things can go wrong. As for an afterlife, some of us believe a pleasant afterlife, and since we are Universalists we know we all get to go to heaven. Some of us, like Socrates, see death as the most perfect night of sleep you could ever have, untroubled by dreams or fitfulness. Some of us are quite content with oblivion. But nearly all of us tend to focus on this world, not the next world. We worry less about what happens after death, and more about what happens here in this life. We want to make this world better. We believe that we have the ability, and the free will, to make this life better. In short, we are perfect candidates for guilt.

Back in the 1970s, the Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones pointed out that within Unitarian Universalism, while the theists among us believe in God, and the humanists among us don’t believe in God, both parties believe in “radical [human] freedom and autonomy.” We are all existentialists. We have been thrown into an absurd world, and it is up to us to make meaning out of that world. The way we make meaning is through our actions. We cannot know all possible results of our actions, and fairly often our actions result in unforeseen consequences — because it is simply impossible for us to foresee every consequence of each action we take.

If we can seriously acknowledge this, we have taken the first step towards releasing ourselves from some of the burden of guilt that we might carry around. We do the best we can, knowing that oftentimes things are not going to turn out as we had hoped. There will always be things we could not anticipate. Of course we’ll still feel guilty about decisions we made that didn’t turn out well. But once we can accept that we have less control than we’d like to think, guilt will have a lot less power over us.

Once guilt has less power over us, then grief becomes a lot more manageable. If we’re not spending all our time thinking: “I should’ve done this,” or “I should’ve done that” — once we relieve ourselves of some of the burden of guilt, then we can actually do something with our grief.

Which brings me to the next point. Grieving is usually a fairly lengthy process, and there’s no good way to speed it up. I’ve learned a lot about the grieving process from hospice workers. They typically tell us that after someone close to you dies, the most intense grieving will take about a year, often with a moment of intense grief on the first anniversary of that person’s death. Then, so they tell us, we can expect another year of somewhat less intense grief. After the second anniversary of that person’s death, the grief tapers off to a much more manageable level. Of course everyone is different, but the general experience of hospice nurses and hospice chaplains tells us that after someone close to us dies, most of us can expect about two years of grief.

However, our society expects us to be done with grieving in a few weeks. As a minister, I’ve noticed this again and again. I’ll watch as someone loses a spouse, or a parent, and they get a lot of support from their workplace for about two weeks, and from their friends for about two months. Then they’re expected to be back to normal. Yet what I’ve seen again and again — and what I’ve experienced myself after the death of each of my parents — is that the worst of time grief seems to come about three months in, give or take a month. It’s at about three months in when the numbness wears off, and suddenly the feelings of grief become most acute. And three months is past the time when our society expects us to be done with grieving, when everyone expects us to be “back to normal.”

But if you try to get “back to normal” too quickly, you can actually prolong your grief. During those two years of more intense grief, you have to take the time to allow yourself to grieve. If your life if filled with busy activity, allowing you no time to grieve, what seems to happen is that it takes longer than two years to get through the worst of grief. This, by the way, is one reason some people come here to attend Sunday services. Quite a few people start coming to Sunday services in the aftermath of the death of someone close to them. They come here to have some time for themselves, where they can grieve without being interrupted. Because you can sit here, going through the motions — pretending that you’re listening to the sermon, standing up and mouthing the words to the hymns — but what you’re really doing is dealing with grief. We need places like this, where we are allowed to sit and grieve if we need to.

Our society doesn’t allow much space for grieving. Yes, we have developed grief support groups, and you can go see a therapist. You can install a grief app on your phone to help you grieve. Unfortunately, our society wants us to use grief groups and therapy and grief apps to hasten the grieving process, so that people can become more productive. That’s what our society wants us to do — be more productive. Whereas actually what we need is time to just be — we need to spend less time doing, less time doing therapy and doing grief group and doing our grief app — we need to spend more time just being human.

Trying to hurry through grief doesn’t work. Of course you should use a grief app if that works for you. Of course you should see a therapist if you can afford it and if that will help you in your grieving. Of course you should participate in a grief support group if that’s going to help you. But don’t expect these things are going to make the grieving end more quickly. If you try to hurry through your grief, it will come back later to haunt you — just like a ghost in those old ghost stories. When we try to hurry through grief, what we are actually doing is ignoring our essential humanity. We are trying to pretend that we are machines that just need a little metaphorical oil to function more smoothly. We are trying to pretend that we are computers that happen to have a software bug called grief, and if we just get the right app, or if we just update our operating system, we can get rid of this bug. As a minister, I see this happening again and again. People try to hurry through grief, they try to hack their grief, they try to fix their grief as if grief is something that is broken — and it doesn’t work. You can’t hurry grief. You can’t hack grief. You can’t fix grief.

Grief happens when someone we love, or something we love, is gone. If you want to get rid of grief, the only way to do that is by getting rid of love. If you don’t love anything, then you won’t grieve; you will be nothing more than a machine. Once you open your heart to love, you open yourself to the possibility of grief.

This brings me to the final point I’d like to make about grief. Grief happens when something or someone you love is gone. From this, a logical consequence follows: When we are surrounded by love, then we will be supported in times of grief. Family, friends, and/or communities like First Parish can surround us with love. Love is what we need as we move through grief.

Because of this, it makes sense to strengthen our ties with those groups where we can be surrounded by love. For many of us, our immediate families will be one of the most important groups to surround us with love. (However, I do want to acknowledge that not everyone’s immediate family has the possibility of being filled with love, and sometimes some of us have to get out of our immediate families.) But even those of us with immediate families that are filled with love need something beyond our immediate families. To that end, we might cultivate circles of friends and acquaintances. Even more important, in my opinion, are communities like First Parish, organized communities of friends and acquaintances where we share common values and where there are mechanisms in place the help us reach out to one another. We need communities like First Parish where people know what it is to grieve, and where people know what it is to love.

All this takes time. Strengthening our families takes time. Building networks of friends and acquaintances takes time. Making caring communities like First Parish takes time. Yet we are pressured by society to spend less and less time on these things. We are pressured by society to spend more and more time being busy and productive.

I’d like to suggest that this is where we want to be counter-cultural. Let’s resist that pressure to be busy and productive all the time. Let’s strengthen our families, nurture our friendships, be part of communities like First Parish. These are the things that allow us to be fully human.

To grieve is to be human. To love is to be human. And maybe this is the real problem with grief these days, and the problem with love — our society does not value the time we need to spend in being human. But I would suggest to you that you will find it to be worth your while to become more human, even if that means you are less productive. Become more human. Fill your life with love. That is what we are meant to do.

“Is God a White Racist?”

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) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning comes from Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, written by Frances Anne Kemble in 1838-1839. Ms. Kemble was born in England, became a famous actress, and left the stage to marry Pierce Butler of Philadelphia, a respectable Unitarian man of wealth — who was also the owner of seven hundred slaves on a vast plantation in Georgia. Mr. Butler took Ms. Kemble to live on that plantation during the winter of 1838-1839. Her journal from that time paints a harshly realistic portrait of the institution of slavery, and in this excerpt she tells of the role of churches in maintaining slavery:

“Some of the planters are entirely inimical to any [prayer meetings], and neither allow their Negroes to attend worship of to congregate together for religious purposes, and truly I think they are wise in their own generation. On other plantations, again, the same rigid discipline is not observed; and some planters and overseers go even father than toleration, and encourage these devotional exercises and professions of religion, having actually discovered that a man may become more faithful and trustworthy, even as a slave, who acknowledges the higher influences of Christianity, no matter in how small a degree. Slaveholding clergymen, and certain piously inclined planters, undertake, accordingly, to enlighten these poor creatures upon these matters, with a safe understanding, however, of what truth is to be given them, and what is not; how much they may learn to become better slaves, and how much they may not learn, lest they cease to be slaves at all. The process is a very ticklish one, and but for the Northern public opinion, which is now pressing the slaveholders close, I dare say would not be attempted at all. As it is, they are putting their own throats and their own souls in jeopardy by this very endeavor to serve God and Mammon. The light that they are letting in between their fingers will presently strike them blind, and the mighty flood of truth which they are straining through a sieve to the thirsty lips of their slaves, sweep them away like straws from their cautious moorings, and overwhelm them in its great deeps, to the waters of which man my in nowise say, thus far shall ye come and no farther.

“The community I now speak of, the white population of Darien [Georgia], should be a religious one, to judge by the number of churches it maintains. However, we know the old proverb, and, at that rate, it may not be so godly after all. Mr. [Butler, her husband] and his brother have been called upon at various times to subscribe to them all; and I saw this morning a most fervent appeal, extremely ill-spelled, from a gentleman living in the neighborhood of the town, and whose slaves are notoriously ill-treated, reminding Mr. [Butler] of the precious souls of his human cattle, and requesting a farther donation for the Baptist Church, of which most of the people here are members. Now this man is known to be a hard master; his Negro houses are sheds not fit to stable beasts in; his slaves are ragged, half-naked, and miserable; yet he is urgent for their religious comforts, and writes to Mr. [Butler] about “their souls — their precious souls.” He was over here a few days ago, and pressed me very much to attend his church. I told him I would not go to a church where the people who worked for us were parted off from us as if they had the pest, and we should catch it of them. I asked him, for I was curious to know, how they managed to administer the sacrament to a mixed congregation? He replied, oh, very easily; that the white portion of the assembly received it first, and the blacks afterward. A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you. Oh what a shocking mockery!”

So ends the first reading. Ten years after Ms. Kemble wrote this journal, her husband Pierce Butler divorced her, in large part due to her opposition to slavery, and he managed to retain custody of their children. Ms. Kemble returned to England, and finally published her journal in 1863, to show the justice of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The second reading comes from the 1971 book Is God a White Racist? by William R. Jones. Jones is a theologian, and African American, a humanist, and a Unitarian Universalist minister. His theological concepts have been a major influence on me personally; unfortunately his uncompromising language has scared away the wide audience he deserves.

“It has often been said that asking the right question is as important as supplying the correct answer. Whether correct of incorrect, this generalization describes the purpose in this book. To paraphrase Kant’s admonition, my objective is to force the black theologians and their readers to pause a moment and, neglecting all that they have said and done, to reconsider their conclusions in the light of another question: Is God a white racist? My concern throughout is to illuminate the issues this pregnant question introduces into the arena of black theology and religion. The black theologian, I contend, cannot avoid this issue of divine racism….

“No doubt the combination of terms ‘divine’ and ‘racism’ is novel — some will say blasphemous. But the ideas and categories the concept expresses are time-honored and familiar themes in philosophy and theology. To raise the question of divine racism is actually to revive a perennial issue in black religion: what is the meaning, the cause, and the ‘why’ of black suffering?…

“In a more general vein the issue of divine racism is simply another way of addressing the traditional problem of evil and human suffering. ‘The Problem of Suffering Revisited’ is an apt description of a central emphasis of this book….

“An obvious place to look for parallels to the black experience in religion is the theological treatment of Jewish oppression, the suffering of another ethnic minority. One work stands out here, Rabbi Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz. His analysis of Jewish suffering forced me to pose a troublesome question that he does not explicitly consider: Is God an anti-Semite? The implications of his study for my own explorations in black theology were direct and immediate. In the light of black suffering, a suffering that may exceed that of the Jews, the unsettling question becomes: Is This is the second in a series of three sermons for Black History Month. Black History Month is, in part, a time to celebrate our heroes and heroines who are black; and this morning I’d like to speak with you about one of my black heroes, William R. Jones.

Chances are that you’ve never heard of William R. Jones before this morning. He’s a theologian, and these days when most people hear the word “theology” they either fall asleep from boredom, or run screaming from the room. Worse yet, he’s a humanist theologian, which is to say that in his view religion can do just fine without a concept of God; and I’m afraid most of United States culture today tends to revile rather than revere humanists. On top of that, he happens to be a Unitarian Universalist, and being a theologian in our tiny heretical denomination is not exactly a path to fame and fortune. For all these reasons, chances are good that you’ve never heard of William R. Jones before this morning.

I also have to acknowledge that there are those of you in this room this morning who couldn’t give two hoots about theology. You’re probably not going to like William R. Jones, or this sermon. As always, if this sermon bores you, you have permission to fall asleep, write in your journal, read, or let your mind drift; as long you don’t bother anyone else. Because there are some of us who care deeply and passionately about theology, some of us who think theology has the capacity to change the world for the better. I know theology is out of fashion, but sometimes I have to preach sermons for those of us who are theology-lovers.

William R. Jones is one of my heroes because he makes theology, and therefore organized religion, relevant to the real world. Jones concerns himself with human suffering and the problem of evil, and he is interested in figuring out how organized religion can actually make a positive difference in the world. He is particularly interested in the evil of racism, and he points out that organized religion could do a lot better in terms of combating the evil of racism.

In the first reading this morning, we heard a little bit about how organized religion in the 19th C. managed to perpetuate the evil of slavery. Fanny Kemble writes:

“I saw this morning a most fervent appeal, extremely ill-spelled, from a gentleman living in the neighborhood of the town, and whose slaves are notoriously ill-treated, reminding Mr. [Butler] of the precious souls of his human cattle, and requesting a farther donation for the Church, of which most of the people here are members. Now this man is known to be a hard master; his Negro houses are sheds not fit to stable beasts in; his slaves are ragged, half-naked, and miserable; yet he is urgent for their religious comforts, and writes to Mr. [Butler] about ‘their souls — their precious souls’.”

All too often, that kind of thing has been typical of the way organized religion in the United States has dealt with slavery; and later with racism. Organized religion in the United States has had a persistent tendency to ignore real evil and real human suffering in this world, and to concentrate instead on getting people into heaven after they’re dead. Fanny Kemble said there was a difference between the truth of religion, and the way religion was actually carried out; she said, “The light that they are letting in between their fingers…” — that is, the little bit of true religion that the white slave owners allowed their slaves to have — that little bit of light “will presently strike them blind, and the mighty flood of truth which they are straining through a sieve to the thirsty lips of their slaves, sweep them away like straws from their cautious moorings, and overwhelm them in its great deeps, to the waters of which man may in nowise say, thus far shall ye come and no farther.” In other words, Fanny Kemble felt that the truth of religion, the permanent core of religion, would one day win out and the flood of truth would wipe away human suffering and evil.

Unfortunately, Fanny Kemble apparently was wrong. In the 19th C., plenty of churches in both the North and the South condoned slavery. In the 20th C., plenty of churches in both the North and the South practiced outright racism. Why, there was even a handful of Unitarian Universalist congregation which did not allow African Americans to become members of their congregations right up into the 1960’s. Even today, Sunday morning at 11:00 is probably the most racially segregated hour of the week. Yes, it is true that some churches in the 19th C. fought against slavery, and some churches in the 20th C. have fought against racism. But they have been in the minority, and the majority of churches have remained silent or passive. So far, no flood of truth has yet come out of organized religion to wipe out all human suffering and evil.

I’ll grant that true religion should not permit the evils of racism. The problem is, “true religion” (whatever that might be) only exists in the form of embodied human communities. Thus when William R. Jones asks his uncomfortable question, “Is God a white racist?”, the real answer appears to be — as far as most white congregations are concerned, anyway — yes.

Even if you don’t believe in God, as is true of many Unitarian Universalists, the fact remains that much of organized religion in the United States has not been particularly good at addressing the evil of racism. So even if you don’t believe in God, you might ask: is organized religion racist? You might begin to ask: is my own congregation racist? You might even ask: Should we just do away with organized religion altogether?

These are some of the uncomfortable questions that William R. Jones raises. These questions are particularly uncomfortable because most of us have asked these questions of ourselves. But William R. Jones was brave enough to raise these questions in public, bringing all the weight of his intelligence and learning to bear on these questions. Jones even goes further, and he asks whether the historically black churches have actually practiced the liberation that they preached; and in light of this he states, “The initial task of the black theologian is to liberate the black mind from the destructive ideas and submissive attitudes that checkmate any movement towards authentic emancipation.” [p.67] And Jones goes even further than that: he asks us to consider when and if rebellion might be an appropriate and necessary response; and in light of this, he even asks whether those who are oppressed might have to “seek a realignment of power”; in short, whether those who are oppressed must engage in rebellion. [p. 43]

I said that Jones was brave to ask these questions in public. Years later, in 1997, Jones wrote that his book “triggered a xenophobic response. Most black theologians decided that Is God a White Racist was not a faithful trustee of liberation theology’s philosophy and practice, nor of the black religious tradition. In fact, they found it to be a fraudulent traitor to these traditions. As a result of this criticism, Is God a White Racist was essentially removed from the theological market and consigned to the pariah status of Ralph Ellison’s ‘invisible man.'” [p. xi] Jones paid a price for asking these difficult questions — he was made something of a pariah by black theologians. Of course white theologians simply ignored Jones, and ignored his questions.

Yet we can’t ignore those questions, can we? We know that Jones asked — continues to ask — the correct questions. In the face of continuing racism here in the United States — the de facto segregation of many public schools, the de facto segregation of most suburban communities, the reality that in many communities you can get pulled over by the local police for the crime of DWB, driving while black — in the face of continuing racism, those of us who belong to some sort of organized religion have to face up to the question of whether or not our religion, our congregations, allow God to be a divine racist.

So now I’m going to tell you how William R. Jones saved organized religion for me. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but only a little. But William R. Jones helped me to see that organized religion could make a difference, at a time when I had become quite discouraged with Unitarian Universalism.

A few years ago I was working as a Director of Religious Education three-quarter time while attending theological school half-time. Religious education was fun, because you got to work with these cool Unitarian Universalist kids who were so open and receptive. Because I’m a Universalist, I have a strong religious belief that every person is worthy of dignity and respect, so I would teach this to kids. Based on my Universalist principles, I would teach radical feminism to girls and boys in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school, and they really got it, and suddenly you’re surrounded by these young people who really believe in their heart of hearts that girls are just as good as boys. Based on my Universalist principles, I would teach Unitarian Universalist kids that homophobia is bad, and we would give them a safe place to discover their own sexual identities as they matured. Teaching anti-racism was a little more difficult because the congregation I was serving at that time was mostly white, but by the time they were teenagers those kids were anti-racists; and based on Universalist principles, they started noticing that their church was predominantly white, and they didn’t particularly like it.

That’s what we do with our Unitarian Universalist kids. We teach them Universalism, that all persons are equally worthy of dignity and respect. As they grow up and look at us, they start to look at the way we adults run our congregations. When the kids do that, all too often they find that our Unitarian Universalist congregations don’t live up to the Universalist ideals that we adults taught them in Sunday school.

As a religious educator, this began to really bother me. What could I tell kids when they realized that our congregations aren’t living up to the ideals we teach? I wasn’t going to lie to them and tell them that everything was really just fine in our congregations. Obviously I wasn’t going to try to tell them about original sin, or God’s will, because I don’t believe in those things. And I didn’t want to tell them to leave organized religion altogether. So I was stuck. That’s when William R. Jones became my hero.

In a 1974 essay, William R. Jones said two things that saved organized religion for me, and gave me something to tell to Unitarian Universalist kids. First, he said that his religion “permits but does not dictate a human response of rebellion as soteriologically authentic.” Let me translate this sentence from theological jargon into plain English. “Soteriologically” simply means having to do with salvation — what it is that will save your soul. Jones is saying that rebelling against injustice can save your soul. Not that religion requires you to rebel, but if you decide that rebellion is necessary, it can save you. Even if it means rebelling against God, or against the way things are.

Second, Jones talked about the “functional ultimacy of humankind.” If we translate that sentence into ordinary English, it basically means we have to act as if we are the ultimate authority in the universe. Even if you believe in a God that rules the universe, you have to act as if you are the ultimate authority, not God. And if you don’t believe in God, you can’t blame things on chance, or on evolution, or on fate — you still have to act as if you are the ultimate authority.

Which means that rather than worrying too much about whether or not God is a white racist, we should accept the fact that we have to act as if we are the ultimate authority, and as if we have the ultimate responsibility. In other words, if we find racism in organized religion, the racism is there because we human beings have put it there. We heard that in the first reading this morning, when Fanny Kemble told us how white people twist and pervert religion in order to perpetrate the incredible injustice of slavery. William R. Jones tells us that if we find something evil in organized religion, it’s only there because we put it there.

But of course if we put it there, we can get rid of it. This is where rebellion comes in handy. You can save your soul by rebelling against injustice. It might cost you your life, as was true with Martin Luther King, Jr. But the very act of a human being rebelling against human injustice is an act of salvation.

That’s how William R. Jones saved organized religion for me, by pointing out how rebellion could be a saving force in my life, and by pointing how I have to act as if I am ultimately responsible for what’s going on in my organized religion. So when I look around at this congregation and notice that it’s ninety percent white, I don’t blame it on God and I don’t throw up my hands in despair — I just say that this must be a problem that was created by human beings so it is a problem that can be solved by human beings. I might also get a little rebellious and engage in subversive acts. Like I might engage in the subversive act of telling you that instead of sending your minister out into the wider community to do good works, I might focus my attention on this congregation so that together we might engage in the much more subversive act of creating an intentionally multiracial, multigenerational community here within these walls — and we might also grow this congregation so that instead of fifty of us, there would be three hundred and fifty of us, and our power would multiply exponentially to the point where there would be so many of us we could really effect change in the surrounding community.

In any case, I began by telling you that William R. Jones is a hero of mine, and now you know why — because he saved organized religion for me. Here is what this hero of mine taught me:

Is God a white racist? — only if we allow God to be a white racist. Is organized religion hypocritical? — only if we allow it to be hypocritical. Do we have to remain a congregation that’s ninety percent white? — only if we allow ourselves to remain that way. Do our congregations contradict the ideals that we teach our children? — only if we allow them to do so.

We hold it in ourselves to rebel against injustice and oppression — and such rebellion can be the act that saves our souls.