Davis, Terry UU minister
Frost, Edward UU minister
Nicholson & Brown
Tremblay, Alexandra Immunologist
West, Herb & Myrna
Christianity IS a Liberal Religion
or "UU Christian" Is NOT an Oxymoron
by Myrna Adams West & Herb West
A "tag-team" sermon delivered at the Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church, 2007 September 30
Several years ago, I was in a restaurant in Athens when I realized a man whom I did not know was staring incredulously at my chest. Not being accustomed to that, I was taken aback for a few seconds until I realized he wasn't really staring at my chest, per se, but at the saying on the tee shirt I was wearing. It says in large letters in shades of purple, pink, and blue, "Jesus is a liberal." When the man realized I was looking back at him, he looked rather embarrassed, though still incredulous, so I turned around so that he could read the other side of the shirt, which says, "'Liberal': adj. giving freely, generously large/not subject to the common prejudices or conventions/favorable to individual liberty, social reform and the removal of economic restraints." At that point, the man laughed and said reluctantly though good naturedly, "Well, by that definition, he is." Obviously, I had made my point. I had bought the tee shirt at the 2000 General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist Congregations meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.
So, now that I've defined "liberal," perhaps I should define "Christian." A headline several months ago in the Times-Courier, the official organ of Gilmer County, Georgia, caught my eye. It said, "What is a Christian?" The author's name and affiliation caused me to hesitate, however: Pastor Al Plume of Promise Land Ministries Church of the Narrow Way. Since Herb and I lived in Gilmer County for around 25 years before moving to Oconee County in 2001, you will understand that I am familiar with the theology of many of the folks and congregations of that area. Therefore, I feared what his definition of "Christian" might be. However, feeling brave, I read on. He pointed out that a national news anchor had asked that very question recently and had then reported on topics that included "Pastors sounding the call to battle. Christian Environmentalist[s]. The End of Days, Christian relationship with the Jews and the subject of the antichrist. Gospels of wealth. The Unitarians. Political Christianity, the mix of politics and religion." But, Pastor Plume said, even though the program was informative, it failed to answer the question, which he would try to do in his article. He fairly pointed out that the definition probably depends on whom one asks. "To a European," he suggests, and I'm quoting Pastor Plume here, "a Christian may be a persecutor of the Jews. To a politician – a Christian may be a conservative Republican. To a criminal – a righteous do-gooder. To a drug addict – an easy tap. To the hungry – a meal." End of quote.
The article goes on to point out that the word "Christian" is used only three times in the Bible – all three times in the New Testament, and I add, none of them in the Gospels, and none of them highlighted in red as the words of Jesus. Acts 11:26 tells us that the disciples at Antioch were the first to be called Christians, meaning followers of that man called Christ, that is, Jesus. And here I will depart from Pastor Plume's definition, for he goes on to quote Saul also called Paul much more freely than he quotes Jesus also called Christ, and I do not as often agree with the words attributed to Paul as I do with the words attributed to Jesus. I believe the writings and teachings of Paul as they have come down to us helped to create what many, including Thomas Jefferson, refer to as the religion about Jesus that today is professed by so many who call themselves Christian and who focus on narrow-mindedness and petty differences. However, the religion of Jesus is more concerned with including than with excluding, and it is from the religion of Jesus that I take my definition.
The liberal Jesus that is at the heart of Christianity as I know it did not ask people what they believed before ministering to them. He declared the Canaanite woman – a woman who was not even a Jew – to be a woman of great faith before sending her home to her healed child. He turned to his followers and said that he had not found faith among his own people such as that of the Roman Centurion, but he did not ask the Centurion what his religion was before he healed the Centurion's beloved servant. As Erik Walker Wikstrom, pastor of the First Universalist Church in Yarmouth, Maine, asks, "How can I be more close-minded than [Jesus]?"
This, then, is what I believe a Christian to be: One who follows the example set by Jesus of loving the neighbor, of feeding the hungry, of clothing the naked, of sheltering the homeless, of healing the sick, of comforting those who need comfort; one who gives freely, without regard to common prejudices or conventions, who is in favor of individual liberty, social reform and the removal of economic restraints; one who takes care of the needs of "the least of these."
Erik Walker Wikstrom, in his book Teacher, Guide Companion: Rediscovering Jesus in a Secular World, says, and I quote, at some length here:
One thing that stands out about Jesus – both as he is remembered in the scriptures and as he is rediscovered by the scholars – is his radical freedom. [Wikstrom retells a] story … [recorded] … in all of the synoptic Gospels: A group comes to ask Jesus a question and begins by describing him in this way, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with particularity, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth." [Wikstrom notes that] Jesus lived a life in which the distinctions between rich and poor, holy and unholy, righteous and sinner, male and female, became increasingly meaningless. The lines of demarcation and division that we humans draw with ever greater clarity became invisible for this holy man. Looking at the world with God's eyes, he came to see all people as divine and all things as sacred; for him there were no distinctions. Reflecting on this aspect of Jesus, [Wikstrom goes on to quote Paul in a passage that I find I can agree with,] "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." [Wikstrom asserts, the] life Jesus lived, the life he calls us to follow, is a life unbound by expectations – either of oneself or of others. [He ends by saying,] the life Jesus lived, the life he calls us to follow, is a life that is truly, and in all ways, free.
Therefore, I wear my tee shirt with assurance: Jesus is a liberal. As a Unitarian Universalist Christian, I strive, with varying degrees of success, to be like Jesus.
Many have set the example of liberal, Christ-like living. Let us name some who have followed his example:
Some are so familiar to us they need no further explanation:
- The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Coretta Scott King
- Rosa Parks
- Jimmy Carter
- Rosalynn Carter
- Mother Teresa
- Desmond Tutu
- Nelson Mandela
- The Amish who forgave the mass murderer of their daughters
We may need to be reminded of some others:
- The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, a community that reaches out to the homeless, the needy, the displaced of Washington, D.C.
- Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, who has devoted her life to caring for and working with the men and women on Death Row.
- The Rev. Millard Fuller who founded Habitat for Humanity
- The Rev. Murphy Davis and the Rev. Edward Loring, a husband and wife team who run the Open Door Community which ministers to the homeless on the streets of Atlanta
There are even some whose religion is not Christian, but whose actions are Christ-like:
- The Dalai Lama
- Thich Naht Hahn
You may think of others, living or dead, Christian or non-Christian, whom you can name as examples of Christ-like living.
Nine years ago in Ellijay, when Myrna & I were leaving Cartecay United Methodist Church to help establish this UU church, some of our more conservative religious friends began to look at us as if we had suddenly made a radical change. It was difficult for them to comprehend that who we were and what we believed had not changed despite our new label as "Unitarian Universalists." To their way of thinking, a Unitarian Universalist simply could not be a Christian.
From a different perspective, at our present church, the UU Fellowship of Athens, I've been asked at least a few times, "How can you be both a Christian and a Unitarian Universalist?"
It isn't surprising that many who are Christian, especially the more conservative ones, feel that being a UU excludes you from being a Christian. Unfortunately, what is more surprising, even disturbing, is that many supposedly tolerant UUs, even some at our own congregation, feel the term "Unitarian Universalist Christian" is an oxymoron, a contradiction.
It is important to remember that both Unitarianism and Universalism arose as liberal movements within Christianity. As the UUA's Commission on Appraisal states in its recent report, Engaging Our Theological Diversity, "The roots of both Unitarianism and Universalism are historically Christian. That the majority of Unitarian Universalists today do not personally identify themselves as Christian does not change the fact of our origins."
More disturbingly, the COA's four-year study of our theological diversity revealed what it describes as an "almost instinctive resistance to all things Christian, which has become a strong undercurrent in the UU movement." I think this tendency contributes in large part to the perception among many supposedly open-minded UUs that one cannot be both UU and Christian. In fact, that perception may help reinforce the similar viewpoint held by many Christians.
One of my favorite books is Finding Your Religion, written by the Rev. Scotty McLennan who is a Unitarian Universalist minister and currently serves as Dean of Religious Life at Stanford University in California. Scotty was also the inspiration for the Rev. Scott Sloan in the Doonesbury comic strips, written by his college roommate, Gary Trudeau.
In his book, Scotty uses the metaphor of a spiritual mountain that all of us are trying to climb. There are many different paths to the top. They may be rough or smooth, steep or easy, boring or colorful, tiring or exhilarating. Some are well-established and heavily traveled, while others may be narrow and winding with few travelers. But they all lead to the top.
Many of us started at the bottom of the mountain along some of the established paths, such as the Christian path. We journey with our fellow travelers who help us see and experience things along the way. At times, our paths intersect with other paths where we may stop briefly to learn from travelers on those paths, or we may even turn to follow a different path. Some of us may later return to our previous path, but often with greater understanding and insights gained from other experiences.
Scotty tells of a personal experience during college when he traveled to South Asia with a theology group, staying with families from different religious faiths and learning something from each. In particular, he spent a number of weeks in India with a Hindu Brahmin priest from whom he began to learn and experience a great deal. In fact, he found that the priest knew the Bible better than many Christians, was also very familiar with the Qur'an and Buddhist scriptures, and spoke of many avatars, or incarnations of divinity, including Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus.
Scotty began to think, "Maybe this is the way to spiritual maturity. Be open to all religious traditions. Pick and choose from what rings true for me in each." However, the priest kept emphasizing that while there are many paths up the mountain that all reach the top, Scotty should pick one path to follow, and become committed to a teacher and a set of teachings.
By the end of that summer, Scotty decided he wanted to become a Hindu. But when he told the priest, instead of being excited, the priest was disappointed and responded, "You've missed the point of everything I've taught you. You've grown up as a Christian and you know a lot about that path. It's the religion of your family and your culture. You know almost nothing of Hinduism. Go back and be the best Christian you can be. Go back and find a way to be an open, nonexclusive Christian, following in Jesus' footsteps yourself, but appreciating other's journeys on their own paths."
Like Scotty and many other UUs, the Christian path is the path I know best, the one in which I am most rooted. However, it is not exactly the same path I started out on with my parents over 59 years ago. I've followed other paths at times and I've stopped at intersections to learn from others. Hopefully I've grown and matured in my spiritual quest. And, while my path is a Christian path, it is a liberal Christian path – the somewhat narrower, more winding path that, metaphorically, veered sharply to the left many years ago from the broader and more traditional Christian path.
However, many of us may be reluctant to consider ourselves "Christian" because of the more prevalent conservative meanings that the fundamentalists and the religious right have given to that word. But I am not willing to allow the conservatives to re-define "Christian" in their narrow, exclusive terms. When I choose to call myself a "Christian," I do so at least in part because I want to try to rescue that term from the fundamentalists.
For me, there is no contradiction between being a UU and being a Christian, as I define it. In fact, it is Unitarian Universalism which has given me the freedom to seek out and to reclaim the true message of Jesus, which Myrna previously summarized. At the same time, Unitarian Universalism has given me the freedom to go beyond this one path and to explore and learn from other theologies and perspectives and practices.
Those seven principles of our association of congregations which are so important to me, and hopefully to most of you, arose in large part out of our Judeo-Christian heritage. They mesh perfectly with my understanding of the message of Jesus and my liberal Christianity.
So, "Unitarian Universalist Christian" is NOT an oxymoron. It's a description of a large number in our denomination, certainly of some at my congregation in Athens, and probably even of some here in Ellijay. My hope is that all UUs can recognize and accept our Christian heritage, can appreciate if not value the Christian perspective some of us hold, and can extend the religious tolerance we profess to the Christian path and the Christian source as much as we do to other paths and the other sources Unitarian Universalism now claims.