A Unitarian Universalist ‘Black Lives Matter’ Theology

“If, while I hear the wild shriek of the slave mother robbed of her little ones, I do not open my mouth, am I not guilty?”
–Lucy Stone

In the Denver community I strive to be a racial justice activist. Whenever I introduce myself in justice circles, I say that my Unitarian Universalist faith informs my work. “My faith,” I have said, “calls me to proclaim that black lives matter—that my life matters.”
Deep down I’ve been asking myself: Is that true? I knew that I felt called; was it Unitarian Universalism calling me here? The questions lingered even as dozens of UUs joined me at Denver’s ‘Selma Sunday’ gathering of 275, and as hundreds descended upon Alabama to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, and James Reeb.

The doubts remained because of the hateful and/or ignorant comments some Unitarian Universalists have sent my way since I joined the racial justice movement. The doubts remained because of the silence and seeming indifference I’ve felt from some of my fellow UUs, even as others have gotten quite involved.

I needed a Unitarian Universalist Black Lives Matter theology. I needed more than the First Principle—I needed to dive into our history and our theology and find the deeds, words, and voices that could help me feel theologically grounded in racial justice work. In The Larger Hope, Russell Miller writes, “When Universalists opposed to slavery first undertook to launch a campaign to [stop] it, one of their first steps was to cast back over their own history to find support.”

The first of the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism reads: Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Some UU religious educators refer to the first principle as “the principle we remember.” Indeed, it’s the one we so often invoke as we tell confused friends about our faith. We believe every person is important! It’s beautiful, and simple, and too often not quite true. The story we tell about ourselves, the story we have told about ourselves, and the story we tell ourselves, all have a deeper, more somber truth.

They are stories we have been telling for centuries. In 1846, the periodical Universalist Miscellany said that belief in the brotherhood of all humanity was “one of the distinguishing excellencies of Universalism.”
“However remote we may live from each other, however different our complexions, we are family,” the Miscellany contended. Despite such rosy proclamations, nineteenth-century Universalists and Unitarians were largely reticent about involvement in abolitionist work.

When confronted with white, privileged Unitarian Universalists derailing the ‘Black Lives Matter’ message with statements like “all lives matter!” or “I don’t get why black people are so angry all the time,” the first principle starts to feel like a lie. A deep dive into the archives of our Universalist and Unitarian ancestors—and of our nation’s history—unearths a more profound explanation.

Like the Declaration of Independence and the preamble of the Constitution, the first principle of Unitarian Universalism stands as an unrealized promise. It is a map of the work done centuries and decades ago, and a map of the work yet to do. The first principle operates as what UU and Harvard Divinity professor Dan McKanan calls “radical hope.” “Radical hope,” McKanan writes in his book Prophetic Encounters, “transcends the institutions of present-day society, but it does not transcend the laws of physical or human nature. It looks to the future, not to heaven.”

In America there have always been those willing to follow the roadmap, to look, as McKanan says, to the future–beyond immediate comforts–and insist that the statements held in our founding documents meant more work needed to be done. In the nineteenth century Frederick Douglass asked, “What, to the American slave, is the Fourth of July?” Sojourner Truth, who fought for rights for black men and all women–and encountered exclusion from both–insisted: “Ain’t I a woman?”

Decades later, as Jim Crow coalesced in the South and the privileged entrenched economic inequality in the North, W.E.B. Du Bois wondered aloud, “How does it feel to be a problem?” In the wake of the civil rights movement, Dr. Vincent Harding said he was “a resident of a country that did not yet exist.”

It is on the shoulders of those willing to strive for what the Constitution’s preamble calls “a more perfect Union,” and those Universalists and Unitarians who strived for a more perfect faith, that I find a ‘Black Lives Matter’ theological framework.

In 1812, the Universalist Magazine wrote vehemently that it was “utterly impossible to reconcile slavery with the pure doctrines of Christianity.”
In October 1845, 170 Unitarian ministers signed the “Protest Against American Slavery,” published in the abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator.” In it the ministers condemned their own reticence to engage, referring to harm done “by the long silence of northern Christians and churches. We must speak against [slavery] in order not to speak in its support.”
Lydia Maria Child said of systemic racism, slavery, and segregation, “The removal of this prejudice is not a matter of opinion—it is a matter of duty.”

The nineteenth-century Universalists and Unitarians who worked to denounce slavery fought three battles: the battle to end slavery, the battle against silence from within the congregations, and the battle against their own prejudices. We fight the similar struggles today.
In the early and mid-nineteenth century, the majority of Unitarians and Universalists were not actively engaged in the abolitionist movement. Those willing to attempt fully living out their espoused values pushed their colleagues and religious siblings to eventual understanding and greater action. Taquiena Boston and others call this “leading from the margins.”

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought Jim Crow segregation and, again, silence from too many churches. Neither stopped black woman and Unitarian Fannie B. Williams from saying, in 1893, “It should be the province of religion to unite, and not to separate, men and women according to the superficial differences of race lines.”
Denominational fear and ambivalence in 1953 did not stop the white minister A. Powell Davies from proclaiming, “I shall myself…not eat a meal in any restaurant in [Washington D.C.] that will not serve meals to Negroes. I invite all who truly believe in human brotherhood to do the same.”

Tragic indifference from fellow clergy about Jimmie Lee Jackson’s February 1965 murder did not stop James Reeb from traveling to Selma. Finding some of her religious siblings unaware of the horrors facing blacks in America did not stop Viola Liuzzo from making the same journey.

In 2014, that many Unitarian Universalists had (and have) yet to dive into the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement did not stop Elizabeth Nguyen from joining a Christmas Eve vigil against police brutality across from the Beavercreek, Ohio Walmart in which unarmed black male John Crawford was murdered. It did not stop UU teenagers in Denver from marching down Colfax Avenue and demanding justice.

It has not stopped Leslie Butler MacFadyen from organizing nationally to assist protestors from Oakland to Ferguson to Philadelphia. It did not stop the UU Congregation of Columbia, Maryland from calling the nearby, historically black St. John Baptist Church about co-planning a vigil against police violence. It has not stopped Raziq Brown from challenging a racially biased police system in Fort Worth.

To fight for black lives now is to participate in radical hope. It is to battle for salvation on this Earth. It is to fight for life, for love, for justice. It is to demand more out of the first principle. It is to demand a more perfect faith.

Most of us in the faith are here because we felt welcome—at last–here. Some of us were too agnostic somewhere else. Some of us weren’t vindictive enough somewhere else. We were too working-class somewhere else. We were too lesbian somewhere else. We were too nerdy somewhere else, too introverted somewhere else, too gay-married somewhere else.

Many of us are here because this faith and the people in it affirmed: you may not be perfect, but your life matters just the same.

That’s what’s on the line now. Through racism and posthumous victim-blaming, through silence and bullets and indifference and vilification, black people are being told that our lives do not matter—or that they matter only conditionally. Black lives matter if. If we are educated. If we are respectful. If.
And sometimes, not even then do our lives matter.

Right now we as Unitarian Universalists are being called to act. We are being called by our ancestors–those who insisted, who demanded that we help end slavery, that we fight for suffrage, that we join the struggle to end Jim Crow, that we listen to and honor Black Power. Lydia Maria Child and William Lloyd Garrison are calling us. Lucy Stone is calling us. Fannie B. Williams and Frances Ellen Harper are calling us. James Reeb is calling us. Viola Liuzzo is calling us.

Guided by that principle—that enduring, unfulfilled promise of the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person–ours is a faith that has said, or worked to say to those who have been marginalized:
You are a woman, and your life matters just the same.
You are gay or lesbian, and your life matters just the same.
You are transgender, and your life matters just the same.
You are bisexual, and your life matters just the same.
You have a disability, and your life matters just the same.
You were not loved as a child, and your life matters just the same.
You struggle with depression, and your life matters just the same.

Right now we are being called—by our ancestors, by our principles, by young black activists across the country—to promote and affirm:
You are young and black, and your life matters just the same.
You stole something, and your life matters just the same.
I have been taught to fear you, and your life matters just the same.
The police are releasing your criminal record, and your life matters just the same.
They are calling you a thug, and your life matters just the same.

Wayne Arnason said, “The way is often hard; the path is never clear, and the stakes are high. Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth. You are not alone.”

Our ancestors, principles, and fellow humans are calling on us to promote affirm, with deeds and words: Black lives matter just the same.

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47 thoughts on “A Unitarian Universalist ‘Black Lives Matter’ Theology”

  1. Kenny, I am so moved by your words and your actions. I am more grateful than I can say for the strong connection you are creating between the Black Lives Matter movement and our shared faith as Unitarian Universalists. I believe that I will be better able to be part of the movement with that strong connection. Thank you so much!

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  2. In your litany at the end of the piece, would you please change “You are transgendered” to “You are transgender”? There are many reasons, all available online, that we prefer “transgender.” Thank you.

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  3. Very moving and inspiring. Thank you. One thing puzzles me: “The doubts remained because of the hateful and/or ignorant comments some Unitarian Universalists have sent my way since I joined the racial justice movement.” Really? This is disturbing. This sentence, which you did not expand upon (apologies if you did I failed to notice), distracted me somewhat from the rest of your powerful piece. Thank you!

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    1. In every congregation I’ve been part of for the last decades, I’ve heard racially bigoted remarks and experienced and witnessed overwhelming evidence of white privilege and white fragiliy. We are no different than any other random cluster of Americans. I think it is worse because we want to believe it is not so, so we pretend, and we cling to our UU exceptionalism. This is a double whammy against actually doing something. (And also true re: sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression.)

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  4. “When confronted with white, privileged Unitarian Universalists derailing the ‘Black Lives Matter’ message with statements like “all lives matter!” or “I don’t get why black people are so angry all the time,” the first principle starts to feel like a lie.”
    Really, “all lives matter” is a “white, privileged Unitarian Universalists” attitude? So, have we swung the pendullum so far that now ONLY black lives matter?
    On the other hand, the events leading up to these slogans conform to all such movements since recorded history- The French Revolution being the most noteworthy example.: a redress of social injustice never stops at the center; rather, it proceeds to the opposite extreme!
    It’s sad to see the UU organization joining this trend.

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    1. Yes, stating that “All lives matter”, especially in an effort to derail the “Black lives matter” message, is a “privileged Unitarian Universalist” attitude, for the sole reason that all UUs have a much more eloquent way of saying exactly that with the first principle of Unitarian Universalism. The very idea that one can read this post and comprehend Kenny’s message as “Only black lives matter” is comic. Bringing up the French Revolution is equally as ridiculous. I have no wish to see a response or continue this dialogue with you.

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  5. Kenny, part of my own struggle right now is coming to terms with my ancestors, who owned slaves and fought (and died) to see the practice continue, in the Civil War. These people lived a long time ago, and I shouldn’t be haunted by them, but for some reason I am. I’ve known about this for 20 years, but have kept ignoring it as it was too hard to confront. Keep pushing us. UUs, like any other group are not all consistent, do not all give the same message, and are as often as not wrong. Our principles are ideals that we strive to live up to, not descriptions, and your highlighting places where we are inconsistent is important spiritual work. And the Haters? They’ll come around eventually. Anger is the first stage of a long process that ends in acceptance of change.

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  6. Thank you so much for this moving piece. I got chills reading it. The staff and Board of First UU Church of Richmond, Virginia (of which I am President) have been trying to keep the Black Lives Matter camapign at the forefront of our church’s consciousness. This is a challenge in the capital of the Confederacy, but we are determined. One of our members, who is also on UUA staff, encouraged us to adopt a pledge, based on an effort out of Birmingham, Alabama, to fight racism as individuals and as a church. The pledge has been expanded to the Richmond community at large. Please visit richmondpledge.org for more information.
    Anne Joseph

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  7. Who are we in relationship with?

    Earlier this year, in Birmingham, Alabama, on Friday, March 6, UU minister Mark Morrison-Reed asked me, and the 350 intentionally multicultural members in his audience: who are you in relationship with? We were all in relationship with him at that moment and our raw emotions and vulnerability were real. His question keeps resonating with me: who am I in relationship with?

    Seven Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church members made a pilgrimage to Alabama this year (Ariel Mora, Cathy Knapper, John Gubbings, Kim Clarkson, Liz Nadeau, Marge Dimond, and Michael Benefiel). Mark Morrison Reed had served our congregation as Minister in Internship during 1978-79. We read Mark’s 2014 book, The Selma Awakening, to prepare ourselves for this religious journey. That book mentioned the six Cedar Lane members who had traveled to Alabama in 1965: Stevie Backus, Bob Ballantyne, Aileen Burchard, Harry Klugel, Bob Lincoln, and Tom Eliot. Harry Klugel had spoken with us and given us his blessing. They were in relationship with one another and with the Civil Rights Movement, and most had been at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, where they had listened to “I Have A Dream” spoken there by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Who are we in relationship with today? That’s an important question both for our faith movement and for our Cedar Lane religious community now, just as it was in 1965.

    50 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent President Dana Greeley of the UUA a telegram, asking this white ally of black voting rights and the empowerment of African-American leadership to come to Selma, Alabama, and to bring a cloud of UU witnesses. The Sunday nonviolent, orderly march had met with armed resistance and brutal violence by the Alabama police authorities and a white posse. King and Greeley hoped to show that fear, intimidation, and police violence—which all the nation had witnessed in the news footage of Bloody Sunday–would not prevail. Allies committed both to the inherent worth and dignity of one another, and also to the nonviolent process of democratic self-government and Constitutional protest for voting rights would join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“Snick”) and make another attempt to cross the bridge on Tuesday, March 9. On March 25, 1965, the marchers – who by then numbered more than 30,000 — reached Montgomery, and in August 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which remains the law of our land, despite changes required by the U.S. Supreme Court majority.

    Why did Dr. King ask, and why did President Dana Greeley say yes—and gather hundreds of UU ministers, seminarians, and lay leaders for the work of racial justice? Martin Luther King, Jr., had given the Ware Lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in 1964. He and President Greeley had a personal relationship that created mutual expectations for equity and justice in human relationships. As religious leaders, they shared a prophetic vision for justice and as organizers for social change they lived in a tradition of bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice by organizing communities to collaborate in order to achieve common purposes.

    In 2015, who are we in relationship with? Do our consciences and our faith motivate our response to the Black Lives Matter movement to advocate for fairness and equity in our criminal justice system?

    Opal Tometi, one of the three co-founders of Black Lives Matter, engaged us in Birmingham and is in a relationship with the UU racial justice allies.

    From Boston, in 1965, UU ministers called classmates from Harvard, Meadville-Lombard, and Starr King schools. Personal relationships and the networks of teachers and students spread the call around the country. Rev. James Reeb, who lived with his family in the Dorchester/Roxbury neighborhood in Boston, working with the American Friends Service Committee to fight the effects of discrimination in the North, told his wife, Marie, that he had to go to Selma. Jim Reeb was in relationship with a community of color in Boston, and shared their aspirations for human dignity and full participation in American self-government and the nonviolent process of free and fair elections to choose political leaders. Ms. Viola Liuzzo told her husband and children in Detroit that she had to drive to Alabama to add her own efforts to the struggle for freedom.

    One of the memories I will keep from my pilgrimage to Selma is the evening when our UU leaders, an intentionally racially diverse and multicultural team, honored the surviving family members of Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo. Several hundred UU witnesses, intentionally multicultural and intergenerational, gathered to re-consecrate ourselves to the unfinished work of racial reconciliation and justice. The Jackson family, the Reeb family, and the Liuzzo family accepted our gifts and reaffirmed their relationship with us. We grieved our shared losses together, and we promised one another in these moments that our efforts for justice would be renewed.

    As President Obama observed this year in his March 7 speech from the foot of the John Lewis Bridge in Selma,
    • it would be a mistake to think that nothing has changed since 1965, and
    • it would also be a mistake to think that everything has changed.

    We UU’s did good work in 1965 and every day since, though a moment’s reflection will produce a rueful recognition that big challenges remain and that resistance is strong. And as Republican President Lincoln once said, let us, the living, take from these honored dead a resolve to re-dedicate ourselves to the proposition that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

    In 2015, we know that people means all of us – our diverse, multilingual, intergenerational, multiracial, multicultural, interrelated networks of all lives – and that our historic sacrifices in Selma in 1965 give us both an opportunity and a responsibility to remain in authentic relationship with the new civil rights movements for immigrant justice and criminal justice reform of our times and in our place.

    Black Lives Matter, White Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, because our liberal religious tradition teaches that All Lives Matter.

    Let us bow to the mystery of a power that creates community from our diversity, learn to love one another more deeply, love justice enough to struggle for it, and humbly walk forward together into the light.
    -/-

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  8. My friend at First Unitarian Universalist church of Detroit told me a story about a cotillion held at our church when it was a Universalist church. Her mother-in-law recalled a time (1912, may perhaps be the correct date, or it may not) when black young folks were not allowed at the prom, so they were invited to hold their own party at the church.
    -Margaret Wilkie

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  9. Thank you. Your words would stand as a powerful, beautifully articulated sermon from any UU pulpit. Or, as I plan to use them, to deepen the discussion of Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” in our Cincinnati congregation’s study group on racial justice.
    Beyond her truth-telling and scholarship, her call is a call to compassion for the marginalized. By it’s very nature, that is a spiritual call. And to answer that call well, and for the long-haul, we need a Black Lives Matter theology. Thank you for getting us started.

    Namaste.

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  10. I, too, got chills reading this. THANK YOU for your prophetic witness. I clearly need to start following your blog so I see these posts sooner!

    I’d also humbly ask that “bisexual” or “bi+” get added where you’ve listed gay and lesbian. Its absence is conspicuous, especially when the next line acknowledges transgender folks as well. Much appreciated!

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  11. Glad to find your words Kenny! Inspiring and moving. Preaching on this topic this Sunday in Albany, NY and shall be quoting your wisdom and research. We are raising a “Black Lives Matter” banner on the side of our building at the end of the service. It will make our commitment public and enduring and silently hold us accountable. Started this fall with an ice bucket challenge to raise funds for Ferguson. Did several big events around Selma ( http://albanyselma50.org/ ). Hoping the Albany UU congregation will rise to the challenge of that banner … and also know the road is rocky and rough … but we’ll get there.

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  12. Thank you for your insightful words! I’m currently writing about the second source of UUism (words and deeds of prophetic women and men) and would love to include your prophetic voice with a link to this article.

    I also just happened to read your article “Nights Can be Tough”. It’s a great companion piece to this one!

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  13. This is a very powerful piece. Thank you for it. I also appreciate your article on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in the 2015 UU World. One of my Denver colleagues is an ancestress of hers. I’m also glad you mentioned Lydia Maria Child in this blog plus the UU World article. I only have one small critique. Many people, like you, identify Maria as UU but she was not. Her brother, Convers Francis, Jr., was a very famous UU minister and professor at Harvard as well as one of the founding Transcendentalists. It seems that this strong connection is why today’s authors and audiences include her as UU. She actually was Swedenborgian. Swedenborgianism or the New Church was a new Christian sect on the American scene in the 1820s when Maria joined the Boston congregation. Even though she left it in 1828, this theology remained the foundation of her philosophy of life. Swedenborgianism is based on the life and writings of 18th century Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg. I’ve written two thematic biographies on Child: I explored religion and politics in her career for my doctoral dissertation; the second one examines her spiritual biography (forthcoming 2016). Even though not a UU, she most certainly is one of our fierce foremothers! Thank you again for bringing her and Frances E.W. Harper’s memories alive for us in the 21st century through your engaging contemporary writing.

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  14. Unfortunately, I can’t relate to this article. For me black lives matter is a personal challenge to consciously affirm black lives matter and in a daily manner translate that affirmation into behavior. I don’t relate it all to the preamble to the constitution or a UU article written in an obscure magazine in 1812 or a letter written by UU ministers in 1845.
    I’ll fess up, because it doesn’t matter to me, if it matters to the author and if it gets others to value black lives then by all means, go for it. My only problem is I’m going to an 98% white UU GA later this month, and I’ll hear plenty of whites declaring that Black lives Matter. I’ll fess up to this too, I don’t BELIEVE them. I served on UU racial justice committees and saw 95% of black people leave UU churches all the while having the church administration holler about how black lives matter. UU pews remain among the most segregated pews or anything else in America. For me actions and warmth towards black people by the people sitting next to me in a church in 2015 are far more important then centuries old letters and papers.

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  15. As a new UU member I venture to identify my role in continuing the change our denomination declares in our Principles and Covenants. Thank you for your words…..

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  16. My problem with the slogan is that it says too little. It almost trivializes the existence of our black fellow citizens, as though we are saying their existence is JUST BARELY important. Don’t they more than matter? Don’t they enrich our culture and our country? Is it necessary to enumerate the vast richness they bring us in a wide diversity of fields? Aren’t they full time partners in the life of this nation? They far more than matter! If we used the same words referring to a white family member, like “sister Jessica’s life matters,” needing to say it hints at the suspicion that it is not really clear that Jessica does matter. I have the same sense of inadequacy in the slogan “Black lives matter.” How about “Black lives enrich us?” Oh and BTW, another inevitable consequence of the whole conversation is that if forces us into talking about black lives as though THEY are separate from US. They ARE us, and we are they. The fact that so many people continue to see our society in a dualistic light leads to many of the injustices our black fellow citizens suffer. Our diversity enriches us! We are one vast body of people with diverse gifts to offer the country.

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  17. The biggest problem with the first principle is that too often we ignore the second. The first principle is a belief. The second is action. The first says, “I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.” The second says, “Act like it” in its rephrasing of the Hebrew prophet, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”

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