Bending Towards Justice

Our Deepest Explosions, and Theodore Parker

Rev. Anthony David

October 10, 2010

A couple of days ago, I had the genuine pleasure of meeting the Rev. C. T. Vivian, a key leader in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, a colleague and close friend to Martin Luther King Jr. I shared with him a little of this congregation’s role in that movement, how initially it had been unable to step up to the challenge of racial integration and had folded in the 1940s—but then, in the early 1950s, it rose again like the Phoenix, as an intentionally integrationist congregation, the first one in Atlanta. I told him this, and he smiled a sweet smile. Said it gave him hope. And then he shared a story with me, back from his high school days in Illinois, when he was on the debate team, the only African American. The team was off to a competition, checking into their hotel room. All the other boys were admitted, but not him. No room for him, said the manager. But when the rest of the debate team heard this, every white boy said that if C. T. wasn’t welcome, well, neither were they. It was acts like this, he told me, that gave him courage to keep on.

A quote from writer D. H. Lawrence comes to mind: “Whatever the queer little word ‘god’ means, it means something we can none of us quite get away from, or at; something connected with our deepest explosions.” That’s what I want to talk about today. Our deepest explosions, that send us into the world to do acts of justice and mercy. Rock and roll explosions, that drive us skyward into becoming our truest, highest selves. Connection with “god,” whatever that queer little word means.

Our path into this is both general and specific. General, in that it is organized after the work of Laurent A. Parks Daloz and colleagues, in his book Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. There, he talks about the several different kinds of deepest explosions that can motivate people to devote themselves to the common good, and these include: messages and models from family, the impact of one’s historical era, and personal experiences of suffering and marginalization. Different kinds of deepest explosions, which rocket a person out of obliviousness—get us out of our silos and give us a high-level vision where we finally see that in life there is interdependence, and I can’t fully be who I am until you can be fully who you are.

We’re going to look at this, but in the specific context of one of our greatest Unitarian Universalist ancestors: the Rev. Theodore Parker. These different deepest explosions, as he lived them throughout his fairly short but very busy fifty years of living, from his birth in 1810, to his death in 1860. We go to our ancestor today, but only so that his story might illuminate our own and help us to become more aware of our own deepest explosions—our own god moments—and how we today can carry forward the perennial vision of Justice and Love.

So we begin with messages and models from family. Let me ask you this: is there a parent or grandparent or other mentor figure you can point to, who exemplified empathy and generosity and self-sacrifice for the larger good? Theodore Parker could point to his grandfather, Captain John Parker, who had fought in the Revolutionary War. Says Henry Steele Commager, in his biography of Theodore Parker, “The musket that John Parker had used, together with another that he had captured at Bunker Hill, hung always in his grandson’s study; and the bold words which family tradition credited to the Captain came to have for Theodore special meaning: ‘If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.’” Now just let that settle for a moment. It is no wonder that Theodore Parker would courageously proclaim the truth as he saw it, and act on it, consequences be damned. On his roll-top desk, where he wrote all his famous sermons, for which he got the title “The Reverend Thunder and Lightning Parker,” sat two sculptures. To his left, a bust of Jesus. To his right, a bust of the Roman rebel slave Spartacus.

Captain John Parker made up part of his DNA. But so did tender moments with his mother. The story was, when he was four, little Theodore found himself at a neighborhood pond, and there, within reach, was a little tortoise, sunning himself. “ I lifted the stick I had in my hand,” says Parker, “to strike the harmless reptile; for, though I had never killed any creature, yet I had seen other boys out of sport destroy birds, squirrels, and the like, and I felt a disposition to follow their wicked example. But all at once something checked my little arm, and a voice within me said, clear and loud, ‘It is wrong!’ I held my uplifted stick in wonder at the new emotion—the consciousness of an involuntary but inward check upon my actions, till the tortoise … vanished from my sight. I hastened home and told the tale to my mother, and asked what was it that told me it was wrong? She wiped a tear from her eye with her apron, and taking me in her arms, said, ‘Some men call it conscience, but I prefer to call it the voice of God in the soul of man. If you listen and obey it, then it will speak clearer and clearer, and always guide you right; but if you turn a deaf ear or disobey, then it will fade out little by little, and leave you all in the dark and without a guide. Your life depends on heeding this little voice.’” Parker concludes, “I am sure no other event in my life has made so deep and lasting an impression on me.” You can trace the impression, in fact, all through his mature theology of Transcendentalism. That’s how far the influence of this experience goes. Theodore Parker believed in something he called “Absolute Religion,” but all it means is that the core of religion is “Love and Justice.” Love to God, love to humankind. Religious traditions come and go, worldwide, with all their saints and prophets, all their scriptures and rituals, all the traditions and institutions; and ideally, all try to articulate this Love and Justice in such a way that it speaks to people in their historical context and time. But whereas the temporary in religion can pass away, the permanent never can. Love and Justice God has put in our hearts—it’s the Voice that young Theodore heard, and which his mother validated, told him that his life depended on heeding it. This is what’s in the back of Parker’s mind when he says theologically that divine inspiration is nothing more than to obey the call of Love and Justice in our hearts—that divine inspiration is not the special possession of any one Bible but is natural and universal and ongoing—that many people in modern times can be more divinely inspired than many of the Biblical writers—that there were ways in which Jesus himself failed to preach and exemplify Absolute Religion and made mistakes. Theodore Parker said this more than 150 years ago. If he was alive today and heard people justifying the bullying of gays and lesbians because of certain Bible passages, he’d say throw out those unjust, unloving passages. God’s law is Love and Justice, and we can know God directly, in our hearts.

Deepest explosions: messages and models from family. Also this: the times in which we live. I mentioned this in connection with Thoreau last year, and it’s appropriate now: how the world the Transcendentalists lived in echoes our own, so exactly as almost to be eerie. In the 1830s and 1840s you had the invention of such things as the telegraph and the railroad; in our times, it’s the invention of international air travel, satellite technology, the internet, the cellphone. Technological changes, leading to the breakdown of old traditions in every sphere of life, together with new opportunities, though hardly yet grasped.

Then there’s the reality of economic meltdown. America in 1837 became a nation of bankrupts and discovered its painful vulnerability to the booms and busts of capitalism. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. It’s our story, today, as we still creep in the shadow of the Great Recession. You know, it’s been said that Unitarian Universalists shrink back from social justice work because “by and large we benefit from the status quo.” The assumption here is that “status quo” means “middle class,” and maybe there was a time when this was so. But no longer. You just have to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book entitled Bait and Switch to know that the middle class is getting squeezed out, under attack as never before. Actually, you don’t have to read any books to know that. Just look at your bills, look at your debt, feel the fear that your parents’ standard of living is impossible for you. The status quo has never been safe for the poor, and now it’s not safe for the middle class either.

Theodore Parker lived in a time that echoes our own with almost eerie precision. A world in transformation, economic meltdown, and also this: legalized hypocrisy. Laws of the land that were far from expressing the Higher Law of Love and Justice. For Parker, it was the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which essentially established a federal bureaucracy to catch slaves who had escaped to the free states. Parker would not take this sitting down. From the pulpit, he flamed this as against all that is good. In the streets, he led a Boston organization which provided fugitives with material aid, legal assistance, and help in eluding capture. At one point, he hid a fugitive slave in his own home until arrangements could be made to send her to Canada, and during this time, he’d be writing his sermons at his desk, with Jesus to the left of him and Spartacus to the right, and beside him, a loaded gun, to defend the house in case of emergency.

This is the United States of America. Says our Declaration of Independence, for whom Captain John Parker sacrificed, and so many died: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet what was the America of Theodore Parker’s time doing? The legislators and judges and authorities? Passing the Fugitive Slave Law.

As for our own time—Exhibit A is unjust laws surrounding sexual orientation. Gay marriage still illegal in too many states; beloved members of our very own congregation having to go elsewhere to be married. It’s also Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Reminds me of a picture making its way around the Internet: a room full of coffins, covered with American flags, and this caption: “Can you spot the gay soldier in this picture?”

The Law of the Land can be very different from Higher Law, the Law of Love and Justice, which Theodore Parker said was eternal, and absolute, and a Voice speaking to us, which is our duty to obey, and the only practical meaning that a phrase like “divine inspiration” can have.

Yesterday’s slavery—today’s violation of the civil rights of gays and lesbians, as well as of people of color. Arizona passing Senate Bill 1070, which tries to address the issue of immigration, but makes a terrible mess of it, makes an already difficult situation worse. Deepens fear and division over issues of race. Makes Latinos fearful to report crimes in their neighborhood to local police. Latinos who are legal residents, fearful of facing harassment or suspicion simply because of the color of their skin. Children, afraid to come home from school only to find a mother or father gone, because they have been detained or deported.

Listen to what the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association says about it—the Rev. Peter Morales. He describes the immigration issue as a problem of “push and pull.” He says, “First, the push. We have to understand that the US has helped to set in motion the forces that drive people to risk their lives to come to America. In the case of Guatemala, our CIA overturned a democratically elected government in the 1950’s. The massacres of the 1980’s were carried out by a military government we supported, by US-trained officers and by military units using American weapons. More recently, our economic policies have helped contribute to massive unemployment and dislocation in Mexico and Central America. The vast majority of immigrants from the south are not criminals, they are economic and political refugees. And then there is the pull. American employers have been more than happy to hire Mexicans and Central Americans to pick crops, cook in restaurants, clean offices, do landscaping and provide cheap child care.

Now in Arizona we have the kind of thinly veiled racism and fear, stoked by demagogues, that can lead to violence.” That’s what our UUA President has to say.

The times in which we live, for Theodore Parker and for ourselves, are definitely a source of our deepest explosions. And Parker would absolutely agree with something the German theologian Karl Barth once said, which was this: that true Christians should carry a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In other words, religious vision becomes hypocrisy unless it changes the specifics in our world, which newspapers report; but our change efforts will lack resilience and focus unless there is higher vision, which we can discover in sacred scriptures like the Bible. There is a reason why, on some Sundays, you hear me praying words straight out of The New York Times. Spirituality and social justice go hand in hand. Two sides of the same coin.

The story of our congregation is inextricably tied to Civil Rights. C. T. Vivian heard only a tiny part. But what will our contribution to the Civil Rights of today and tomorrow be? This is a call to action. Let’s hear the call when as a congregation we go into our long range planning process, in the new year. Some UUCA groups are already hearing it. Interweave. Racial and Ethnic Concerns. Cultural Mosaic. Others. Rev. Keller and I are organizing an Immigration Summit in November to begin gathering our stories and our energies around immigration reform. Be on the look out for more information. I want you there.

A moment ago I quoted our denominational president, the Rev. Peter Morales, and his description of the immigration issue as a problem of push and pull. In particular, the “pull” part, which says, essentially, that undocumented immigrants are here because American employers pay them to be here. If no one was paying them, they wouldn’t be here. All this reminds me of a very pointed observation by Theodore Parker, where he says, “It was when you began to trace the infection to its source that you got into trouble. When you described the drunkard’s fate your parishioners applauded you, but when you told of the distillers who made the rum and the merchants who sold it, they called you a fanatic and turned you out.” That’s right. Speak truth to power, and there are consequences.

Which leads us to the last deepest explosion we’ll look at today: experiences of suffering and marginalization. It’s not exaggeration to say that Parker was one of the most hated people in Boston in his day. A Unitarian most hated by other Unitarians. Of course he contributed to it. Emerson once saw him preach, and he came away with this observation, which he wrote in his journal: “T. P. has beautiful fangs, and the whole amphitheater delights to see him worry and tear his victim.” So he tore away at the spiritual deadness and social irresponsibility of the Unitarianism of his day, and soon he began to be aware of the hard looks and painful slights of his fellow colleagues. The norm back then was to exchange pulpits with fellow preachers, but none would exchange with him. In 1843, a gathering of leading Unitarian ministers invited him to “tea”—but really it was a “come to Jesus” meeting, where they pressured him to resign his membership in their ministerial association, but Parker refused. At his installation in his new church in Boston, in 1846, no one would preach his installation sermon, which is unheard of. He had to preach it himself. And then, after this, around the time when he was not only nationally famous but world famous, and his congregation was the largest in the land—I’m talking 3000 people on a Sunday—letters would come in like this one: “Sir, I take the liberty to state to you that your clerical robes are too transparent to conceal the viperous serpents that nestle in your bosom and twine around your heart.” Then there were preachers, praying things like this from their pulpits, “Oh Lord, send confusion and distraction into his study this afternoon, and prevent his finishing his preparation for his labors to-morrow….”

You can’t experience stuff like this, and hear stuff like this, and not feel hurt. I don’t care if you are the grandson of a Revolutionary War hero, and you have Jesus to your left and Spartacus to your right. You feel it keenly. Have you ever felt this? Punished, because you heard and obeyed what you sincerely took to be the Voice of Love and Justice?

Yet the deepest explosion here, in the midst of all this adversity, is when we realize we are not alone. It’s C. T. Vivian when his white friends rallied around him. “If he’s not welcome, neither are we.” It’s us together, at our best—when we’re singing our songs and learning new things and risking new things and supporting and challenging and encouraging each other, all within our congregational covenant. Theodore Parker once lamented, “I am the most unfortunate of all men, abandoned by all mankind,” but that was not true. His churches stood by him loyally, through thick and thin; loving friends like George Ripley and Elizabeth Peabody rallied around him; still other letters from around the world poured in, telling him how much his witness meant. And then there was his Grandfather, Captain John Brown. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s beautiful vision. Jesus to his left, Spartacus to his right. His mother. The Voice of conscience he heard for the first time when he was four years old. He was never alone.

And neither are we. Adversity comes, when you take a stand. But then comes our deepest explosions of life, moments of god connection, moments when we experience directly the truth of who we are. The Rev. Theodore Parker, one of our greatest Unitarian Universalist ancestors, is calling each of us today to our greatness, whatever that might look like, large or small. Take up the legacy.