Thursday, September 01, 2016

Visions of Liberation: A Lesson on Freedom

Visions of Liberation: A Lesson For Politicians on Freedom, and A Call to Civic Engagement for those of us who complain about them
Sermon to Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, OK July 24, 2016
Rev. Ron Robinson

 It seems to be a custom for me to preach the Sunday before our denominational church camp begins, and to tie my sermon into it in some way. This year the theme speaker at the camp now called The Point ( open to all) will be the Rev. George Kimmich Beach. He is known for much among our UU movement, especially as an author, and especially as an editor of collections of essays by our renowned 20th century theologian James Luther Adams who was his teacher. James Luther Adams was known as “the smiling prophet” and it is no wonder that the theme talks are on both the “savoring and saving” of the world.

So this Sunday, instead of giving you a preview of what my workshop will be about at The Point—missional church as you have heard from me before-- I want to preach about the lessons on liberation from JLA, as he is known. 

I have also been moved this week to preach on James Luther Adams theology because of how in political circles especially, and in some political circles more than others, the word Freedom is thrown around too freely, you might say, and how community is constructed in such a way as to foster a disunity at its core, and anything but a sense of vastness or greatness to its reality; how the concept of freedom is misunderstood to the point of it being twisted to very opposite ends, along with the perversion of what it means, in a religious sense, to be strong.  

Free Community is our tradition’s historic territory; Lord knows we have struggled with it and learned about it more than most, and so we better have something to say about it these days.

Yes, Our religious history, our tradition, our faith communities that go back to the very beginnings of this nation’s history, and in fact back before that into the church dissent for congregational freedom in England, our central force as a movement has been about upholding and embodying the depths of what it truly means to live in freedom. Our debt is to the Cambridge Platform of 1648, a synod attended by some of our oldest churches among the Unitarian Universalist Association, as it spelled out in the first document of radical congregational freedom how one actually lives in the depths of freedom, and that is through covenant.

You want to secure freedom? Then it only exists as you become members of a free community, one based on covenant more than creed, and you form a series of other relationships also built on freedom’s other names—love and responsibility—such as covenants between churches, between the church and its leaders, especially ordained ones, between the leaders, between the church and its wider community, and between the church and how it understands and experiences the Sacred. All of these are associational realities, and Associating was at the heart of James Luther Adams life and theology.

James Luther Adams—who taught at Meadville Lombard and Harvard and Andover Newton seminaries—was not our only theologian of freedom, but he was living and working before and after World War Two, with its very challenges to freedom, and also during the liberation revolutions of the Sixties and Seventies on up to his death in the 90s. In fact he was inspired by our process theologians with whom he was pretty much contemporaneous, like Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne and Henry Nelson Wieman, whose views were about the whole of cosmology and God as exhibiting both Freedom and Relationship and Novelty and Risk, especially Risk, not safety, at the core of existence itself. Existence which risks to be and become.

But JLA, a parish minister before professor, an always social justice activist and organizer beyond the academy, was the most connected to Unitarianism and then Unitarian Universalism. He rose to prominence among us for leading the very first Commission on Appraisal review and report, critique and challenge, of the American Unitarian Association in 1936 called Unitarians Face A New Age; it was really the beginning of his constant critique of religious liberalism as a whole; the report called for stronger association within our churches, between our churches, and with our wider communities, particularly those in our communities whose very freedoms were being most endangered by those in power. He always called for us to be more powerful to challenge others in power, and to share our power in solidarity with those struggling to claim and live out theirs. Make America Powerful Again, by amplifying the power of the powerless, not by concentrating it in fewer hands. In voluntary association is freedom born and strengthened; freedom is a reality only in relationship (all else is simply loneliness and license not true liberty); freedom requires the presence of others in order for it to freedom.

His personal story also mirrored many among us in our churches, at least those born in the first two thirds of the 20th century. His father was a fundamentalist preacher in the Pacific Northwest; JLA worked for a railroad that sent him to college in Minnesota. There, away from his family and in a higher education setting, he left the faith of his childhood and became a vehement opponent of religion, writing and speaking constantly in his assignments against religion, until one of his liberal arts professors commented back that JLA should be a preacher because religion was obviously the passion of his life, and introduced JLA to the humanist Unitarian tradition at First Unitarian of Minneapolis.

Not six months later he was a student at Harvard Divinity School. And his free to change theology didn’t end there either. He became one of the leading Unitarian Christians among us, and in connecting us ecumenically to other faith communities and other Christian theologians, especially his introduction to American audiences of the major German Protestant theology of Paul Tillich.  But he is also remembered for his pivotal work for us re-shaping us again coming out on the tail-end of World War Two, as he had going into it with the Commission on Appraisal. He was an author and advocate in the late Forties of Unitarian Advance which led to a greater room for theological pluralism, more communities, more commitment, more growth, and helped to quell the humanist-theist divide (or to make it a constant marginal rather than front and center issue among us) and which gave us some of the language that continues to be reflected in our current principles language.

Through it all, this pre-eminent theologian of freedom insisted that “freedom from” is secondary; that “freedom to” is primary. Freedom’s reason to be is to work and live toward liberation, toward a more just and loving community around us. A “freedom from” various risks can simply lead to the continuing of a status quo that oppresses those without status in society.

There is in this vein the famous anecdote he tells of his time in a Unitarian church in Chicago while he was a nearby professor. It was during the Sixties and the civil rights movement and the struggle to end segregation and its legacy of poverty that had children of Chicago living with rat bites. And during church board meetings there were debates about how visible the church as the church, as an association itself existing only in and for its wider relationships, should be in trying to end these racial injustices. One particular Board member insisted it was not why he went to church and what the church was about, that church was only for cultivating personal spirituality, the freedom of the individual mind—what our 20th century pre-eminent church historian and Harvard professor Conrad wright called such church as mainly being “a collection of religiously-oriented individuals” rather than church as a freely covenanted body, which has been our way, and our struggle, for centuries. JLA says the discussion on action the Chicago church should take went on for hours, into the night.  Then at one point when pressed by others to say not what he thought the purpose of the church was not for, but what it was for, the Board member thought and said: “I guess it is to get ahold of people like me, and change us.”

Conversion from “freedom from” to “freedom for.” Especially, for JLA, “freedom for excluded people.”

In the splendid trilogy called “The Making of American Liberal Theology”, which runs from the 1805 Unitarian theological takeover of Harvard University up to 2005, Gary Dorrien highlights the work of James Luther Adams and says acts of conversion are key to JLA’s understanding of the religious enterprise, even and especially for liberals. That is, Conversions that pivot us away from our own concerns, especially those middle class concerns that have tended to shape and reflect us, and toward the plight of others. Conversion even away from liberalism, which has tended he says to keep us focused on providing “religious sanctions for the values of middle class respectability” while the forces of oppression rise.

Dorrien treats JLA in the same group of theologians as he does Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, JLA leads off that chapter devoted to “Visions of Liberation”. JLA’s critique of liberals is similar to that MLK gave in his Epistle from the Birmingham jail. It is about liberalism’s lukewarm nature, its posture of passivity, what today we might call its captivity by its own (now waning) privilege. JLA’s conversion toward what would be known as liberation theology came in his early travels to Germany and Europe before World War Two, but after the rise of power of fascists. He witnessed both the timid capitulation of the liberal German church to the Nazis and met with leading members of another way of being church relating to society, the Confessing Church of Germany struggling against the power and values of those controlling the state, struggling even unto death. 

Historically, the roots of religious liberalism for Dorrien, and which he finds Adams critiquing, is a drive for the “third way” or middle ground of response to the Enlightenment. Religious liberals did not want to reject religion or reject the Enlightenment so they are always tempted to remain in the middle critiquing both extremes of each, and that makes them {us) susceptible to being a people who live in critique only, and who think it freedom, whose religious DNA or default mode is intellectual argument (religion is not this perspective or that perspective but this other perspective) which makes religion tilt toward emphasizing the mind and reason, and makes it about identity (who are we?) rather than about the “powers and principalities” within and among and around us creating and sustaining sufferings and injustices.

Adams came of a theological age in the wake of the deflating of the social gospel movement that, for all its strengths of compassion, had its overly optimistic view of “progress and brotherhood onward and upward forever” dashed by so many forces that culminated in World War One and the rise of fascism that led to World War Two. Adams, like many theologians of his era, had a more tragic view of history. It is why, for him, the deeper forms of freedom that come through voluntary associations and commitments to and for others especially “the excluded” the so-called “least of these” are so vital to the Common Good. Something we need to remind the nation of today. After all, it is the Common Good which binds us not the Common Great.

 If he were here today, JLA might say: we can’t just say we are going to make a country great again by the sheer power of our personal will, and beware of those who claim and ask for your trust to let them do it especially by themselves alone, and quickly, even if you might agree with what greatness might mean, because history shows, millenias of history shows, where such hubris, especially in the form of rampant nationalism, leads: to rubble.

Instead, as another theologian summarized JLA’s theology, “free [people] put their faith in a creative reality that is re-creative.” And for him, it is the very fact that “humans possess the…power to participate in the divine creativity” that warrants our faith in humanity. After all, he noted, freedom itself can also be used to dominate and oppress; it is only when it is rooted “in a will to mutuality that it is redemptive.”

Dorrien describes Adams’ belief that we are fated to be free, and that freedom and responsibility [how does your freedom lead you to respond, and where, and for whom?] are intertwined; “every attempt to escape from freedom and its responsibilities is an act of freedom; thus the burden of moral responsibility can not be relinquished…every faith is a faith of the free, but many faiths are unworthy of being chosen.”

For Adams, first, God is that kind of freely creative responding in love power that is a “commanding reality that sustains and transforms all life.” Second,  freedom “rightly used seeks freedom and social justice for others”—not for excluding the vulnerable so some can have more supposed safety, and more supposed freedom and choices and resources. True freedom is a liberating love, then, for all. And third, It is also a community forming power, and has a moral content and character and orientation to justice. It is more than just about freedom of belief and how one believes differently from others. Liberty is not simply license; that is a false sense that has more to do with being alone with a selfish will. It is instead a vision and action of liberation, and is inherently relational, associational.

Freedom “cannot abide a social evil such as racial discrimination,” he said, “and be genuinely free.” Such limited understandings of freedom as we encounter, that are not part and parcel with the Common Good, are masks, he says, “for a hidden idolatry of blood or state or economic interest, a protection for some kind of tyranny.”

These days, just as Adams experienced in pre-war Germany and in segregated America, there is the temptation to cultural pessimism and retreat; as I suspect Kim Beach might tell us this week there is always the temptation to only savor or only save, to lose oneself in the Is—ness of being or the ought-ness of doing, instead of letting the one lead us into the other as we see our freedom bound up in the freedom of others, particularly of “excluded others.” And pessimism and retreat is often a characteristic of those with the privilege to do so.

Instead, We need to resist the calls to a false freedom that would have us retreat from the risks of suffering, ours and others, and that would wall us off from the experience of deeper conversion to love and justice that happens when we open ourselves and embrace the radical associating with one another, especially those different from us, which the prophets of many ages have called us to do.

We need to remind our communities of the soul of our communities, that we need one another in order to experience real freedom, and commit to making such soul greater.

We need to restore one another, not repel one another; let in to our communal lives that creative reality of love and liberation that can re-create us, that moves forward not back, that can make all things new, and truly great, for all.

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