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My Friend Aaron Sawyer who runs a UU Blog shared this piece with me.
Yesterday I was asked by a delightful young lady to attend her church, the “Evangelical Orthodox Church”.
“Oh, I don’t think I’d like that,” I said.
“No really,” she smiled back. “It’s not like that.”
“I’m not exactly into the Evangelical thing. Or the Orthodoxy for that matter… How do those two things even mix?”
“No, really, you don’t have to be an Evangelical, really! I’m not, and I go! And the Orthodox thing comes from some obscure history of the church. No one even pays attention to that stuff anymore.”
I shuffled my feat.
“Really?” I said. “Then what’s it like?”
“It’s a very welcoming environment. I’m sure you’d like it. We’ve got a bunch of people just like you.”
I stopped. “Like me? What do you mean?”
She tossed her hair back and laughed. “You know. Free thinkers. People who aren’t afraid to ask questions.”
“Well, thank you. But… it’s still a Christian church, right? I’m not a Christian, per se.”
“See, that’s what I’m telling you. You don’t have to be a Christian either. It’s a pretty magical place. You’d really have to come to the service to get a feel for what I’m talking about.”
“Gotcha. You know? Now that you’ve told me more about it, that actually sounds a lot like my church.”
“You go to church?” she said.
I pointed. “It’s the Unitarian Universalist Church up there on the hill.”
“The Unitarian Universalist Church. You should come.”
“Oh.” She paused.
“Oh?” I said.
“I don’t think I’d like that.”
Is it just me? Does anyone else feel like we’re one of the most inappropriately named religions? The only religion that has NO STATED THEOLOGY is named with TWO THEOLOGICAL TERMS. I find it extremely prohibitive when introducing the religion to others, and feel almost zero connection to the terms when attending services. What’s more, as one reads quotes from famous UU’s, one finds that we’re connected- not so much by a theology, but- by a chain of independent thinkers and social organizers.
And that might be just as good a place as any to talk about liberating theology. Like so many of my sermon titles this is a play on words. I am considering both a theology that is liberating and liberating theology from the clutches of religious orthodoxy. While it is true that theology means the “study of God” etymologically (from the Greek theo meaning God and logy meaning study of) the meaning of the term has expanded to a study of any system of ultimate meaning. Ultimate meaning answers the ultimate questions of life; “who am I? where did I come from? where am I going? And my favorite “what is the purpose of life?”. I will give you hint on that last one, the purpose of life is to find purpose to your life. But that is another sermon for another day.
We are all theologians. All of are about the work of discerning meaning to our existence. Indeed, it’s the reason we are a church at all; not to bow down before a god but to discern, collectively, the meaning and purpose of our life and then learn and act from that meaning. This may be what truly makes us human beings; we are, it seems, the only species that contemplates our death and what we are going to do with our life before it comes. So a liberating theology then is a theology that liberates you from an existential angst of having to die before you have really learned how to live. Theology is both about what we believe but, more importantly it’s about what we do with what we believe. This last point is important so let me repeat it: A liberating theology is less about what we believe and more about what we do with what we believe together. There are dozens of theologies out there from the orthodox Christian belief in the Trinity and the saving power of Jesus Christ to a new theology known as process theology which says we co-create the Holy in the creation of a better world. While we might give ourselves all sorts of theological labels individually; agnostic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan, even atheist (which is a theology), collectively I believe that we are all really process theologians, we gather each week to figure out how what we believe can be used to create a better life and world.
In order to liberate theology for ourselves we need to move beyond thinking of ourselves in a little belief boxes and start thinking about what we want to do as Unitarian Universalists. As I wrote in my doctoral thesis “Theology in the Unitarian Universalist tradition has become so individuated as to be sterile. Theology should speak to that which we hold most cherished together. Our congregations need to create a common, shared theology that goes beyond the little boxes of post enlightenment belief with which our love for individualism has left us. We need a way to create a new normative theology in each congregation that helps us collectively formulate spiritual reasons for what we do, at once both accessible to us as individuals, but definitive enough so that each congregation could refer to that theology as a foundation from which to make justice.”
For me our theology has yet to be discovered here in this congregation. Part of my ministry with you will be to help us together agree on a theology that we can call OUR own and use to co-create the beloved community. This was the same project that Martin Luther King had before he was killed, he believed that we could as a people unite behind the loving message of Jesus and wrap that in the practice of non-violence as taught by Gandhi. We can liberate ourselves from Building our Own Theology to Creating a Shared Theology. It will take time but we can do it.
Some of you have been commenting on my preaching and sensing that I have a larger meta-narrative at play. I do and this is it: I dream of us as a learning and liberating community that considers and agrees on the best of our liberal heritage – freedom, respect, equity, fairness, love and hope – as our theology and at the same time we commit as a community to changing our world. In other words I want us to develop over the next three or four years a shared theological statement that liberates our deepest shared desires into the world. We will do this work in several ways. The first was in calling me to be your senior minister, the second has been our intentional turning outward to the world we serve, the third which we will start in the fall is to co-create a covenant of right relations so that we may be in community according to the spirit of this church, which is love – to learn confrontation can be managed and is the sign of a genuine relationship. The fourth step will be to revisit our mission statement so that we are in alignment with the beloved shared community we are becoming and the last will be to co-create a share theological statement that we can all live with.
That’s it. That’s my master plan. Along the way we will become more efficient in our business, more impactful in our justice work, more compassionate in our dealings with one another, and more relevant to the generations of people who desperately need to do this work.
I originally titled this sermon Liberation Theology, in recognition of the work by courageous Catholics in central and south America who re-interpreted Jesus message of love in a radical and loving way. Liberation theologians take seriously the mandate of Jesus that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, advocating for the world’s poorest peoples as worthy of an equitable share of the worlds resources. While a small movement, it is still alive today, underneath such causes as the Black Lives Matter Movement. Liberation theology recognizes that oppression hurts everyone.
As Gustavo Gutierrez, a prominent theologian of the last century has demonstrated the oppressor shares oppression with the oppressed; not in the same way, but each are equally bound by fear. The oppressed, in his case, poor peasants who were starving. The oppressors, mostly the white upper class who fear that their standard of living are at risk. This is as true today for us around the immigration issue as it was for Salvadorian peasants during their civil war; immigrants are oppressed by their marginal status, and oppressors are oppressed by the fear that immigrants are taking their jobs.
Unitarian Universalists proclaim a theology of acceptance and love. In order to realize that theology we must move beyond the fears surrounding this issue and engage with the oppressed directly. In so doing we will understand that this is less an issue of legality and more an issue of human rights. This will free us, at least in part, from the system of oppression that dismisses the humanity of undocumented immigrants as illegal and help us to focus instead on the changes needed to solve this tragic hypocrisy that condemns immigrants on the one hand but requires their services on the other.
The response among Unitarian Universalists has been mixed. While most sympathize with the plight of undocumented workers they are reluctant to speak out in favor of policy changes or even to the human tragedy so many immigrants experience. I believe that we, as liberating theologians, are slowly coming to realize how what we believe about justice equity and love needs to be practiced. Our own immigrant rights committee meets today in the East Wing. You might want to see what they are up to.
What is needed is a theology of liberation that engages those well-meaning progressives in shared power with those who are being exploited. It will not be enough to proclaim the system broken or to blame the progressive middle class for being racist. It will not be enough to proclaim a theology of liberation based on the Christian gospels when the appeal must be broader than to those Latinos who might resonate with that Christian position. What is needed is a theological perspective that engages us in the actions of those involved, oppressed and oppressors. What is needed is an unfolding of divinity through human contact and direct action.
Any religious order, including Unitarian Universalists, has a moral imperative to speak out against the status quo even as they themselves participate in that status quo. We should never underestimate the power of education as a first step for both the oppressed and oppressors to begin to realize koinonia, the union of God with her people. 
However, prophetic denunciation and education will not be enough to change the dominant system of oppression. I believe we must broaden the theological framework to include action not as a mere means to alleviate our guilt as oppressors but to create the kin-dom of Love for all, liberating the oppressed immigrants and those oppressors who see this co-creation as an extension of their basic humanity. After all as Catherine Keller so eloquently observes “Those who know suffering come closer to a truth about the creation: the future is open, alarmingly and promisingly.”  The co-creation of justice through direct interaction is the realization of the divine impulse. As Keller writes “when it corresponds to the lure that calls us each into the creative coordination of our desires, it protects us from each other.”  Co-creating justice with the oppressed is the creation of heaven on earth. I believe we will only begin to change the status quo by realizing our place as co-creators alongside those who are oppressed. Only when we work alongside those who are oppressed will we realize a new collective theology. Anything less, such as working for a policy change from within our class, no matter how noble, leads only to sympathy for the oppressed and not to empathy for our shared identity as human beings.
Our liberating theology, will move us away from worrying about whether God exists, to working together to change the world, starting with our own. Some of you have been concerned that my message maybe too outwardly focused at times. I admit when dealing with such themes as resistance and liberation we might feel that little heed is paid to the personal crisis and struggles we are going through. However this I do know: suffering is suffering, whether it is in our world or in our hearts. We can and do love one another within these walls and beyond, and loving those who are in need is only another focus for that love.
This July marks the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death. In remembering my parents I often remark that my father gave me my grit while my mother taught me grace. But even then the lines are not so stark. Because my mom knew a lot about the liberating power of love and hope in the face of suffering. At the very end of her life, she was deeply involved with working families who had lost a parent to cancer. As a cancer survivor herself, who had lost both of her parents to the disease she showed incredible compassion and grit when bringing food and visiting children who had lost loved ones. Hers was a theology of personal liberation; showing that human companionship and love were as important as justice and equity. She lived her life and her love as her faith as a Unitarian Universalist. As so many of you do here, including our pastoral care associates. Liberation affects everyone. As my mother lay dying that summer she asked me to be sure that the family she was caring for were taken care of. It was a profound moment of faith for me. After she died we held a memorial service in the Croton Unitarian Fellowship she and my father had help to found and the mother of that family came to pay her respects. I knew then that our theology was shared and liberating.
Liberation is much more than freedom from violence. I know this is true of some of you here as it has been true for generations before us. As it is true for those immigrants we support directly and indirectly. The fact of the matter is that immigrants face powerful opposition from a society that sees them as less than citizens with few or no rights. Without health insurance or even legal status, many immigrants, including children die from lack of health care. Workers are often robbed of their earning by employers who refuse to pay them. Families are torn apart by a barbaric deportation policy. Even harder to measure is the toll such oppression takes on us as the middle class. We are often afraid to engage immigrants for fear we might be breaking the law. Our tax dollars are used to imprison and deport otherwise innocent people or turn them into hardened criminals. We live with fear as well. Different fears but fear none the less.
The travesty of Donald Trump’s rallies is not just his racist, xenophobic, misogynist, narcissist opportunism, it is a reflection of the fear and lost hope of generations of poor mostly white Americans. They too are in need of liberation. We are desperately in need of a theology liberated and liberating; free of the fetters of proof and claims of realities we don’t see. Our only chance of undoing this fear is to meet it with the hope of re-imagining our justice work as a co-creation with the Divine. Imagine the power of our actions, however small, in the larger scheme of things, as a creation with consequences, over the long haul. Each “drop of existence” to borrow from Whitehead is helping us realize this di-polar God, both primordial in our very existence as beings of action and consequential collectively . We can make a difference if only in saving ourselves from a system of oppression that robs people of their dignity and humanity. Our theological imagination can change the world, at the very least our own.
We need a theology that liberates us to see the common humanity and its care that rests in our arms, and in our hearts, and in our tears. Life will go on, and we can make its going so much better. Morning follows night, and healing follows suffering, even if only in the healing release of leaving our mortal coil. I close with this poem by Mary Oliver entitled “A Thousand Mornings”:
‘All night my heart makes its way however it can over the rough ground of uncertainties,
But only until night meets and then is overwhelmed by morning, the deepening, the wind easing and just waiting, for redbird to sing.’ (from A Thousand Mornings)
 Gutierrez page 264 and Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum Books, 1970)
 Catherine Keller On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008) page 9
 Catherine Keller page 117