The ReverendKathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of GreaterNaples
SPIRIT OF JUSTICE
In January I was asked to give a lecture to a group atSt. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the subject of the spiritual discipline of working for justice. They were trying to find speakers from different groups that they thought epitomized a particular kind of spiritual practice. It didn’t take them a moment to decide that this spiritual way belonged most directly to us. In fact, there is little else outsiders think of (unless they think we practice devil worship or witchcraft) when they think of us. Several people hearing that I was going to do this asked me to repeat it for you here.
I couldn’t precisely do that. A lecture is not the same thing as a sermon, although it’s sometimes a little difficult to tell the difference. It’s an important one, though. A lecture’s primary aim is to instruct and inform. Although a sermon may certainly do that, there’s got to be a “so what?” attached to it. What is this going to do to inspire, to change, to bring my spirit closer to service to the highest and the best? It often fails, either by its own inability to fulfill its purpose or by the hearers inability to hear — or more likely both — but that is the difference.
When I gave this lecture to Episcopalians in certain spots I used some metaphorical language with which they are comfortable, as am I, but which for some of you may raise some hackles. I thought about changing it for this occasion and then decided not to, so bear with me.
Neither Unitarians nor Universalists ever had any truck with being a pietistic faith. Neither of them was even remotely concerned with personal salvation. The Universalists, called in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the “no hell church” believed that all people, whatever their sin, would eventually be reconciled with God, whereas the Unitarians…. Well, it was said that the difference between the Unitarians and the Universalists was that the Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believed that they were too good to be damned. The consequence of that was that the Universalists felt that the way that they could show their gratitude to God for his goodness was to be as good as they could be themselves, and specifically to do what they could to establish God’s kingdom on earth. The Unitarians thought much the same except for them it was not gratitude but a rigid sense of duty. Establishing God’s kingdom meant for both that all people, without distinction of color, creed, sex or any other irrelevant characteristic, should live in peace, plenty and equality. Nor was it wholly limited to people. Often animals as well were in the mix, though the question of equality is still open. For both of them it was clear that although they could get spiritual support in their work, they themselves were God’s instruments for its completion, that to sit back and wait for the miracle of God’s intervention not only was an idea without integrity, but was probably way too long to wait. They were, therefore, from the very beginning of the two faiths, and still today since they have become one, convinced that social action and working for universal justice was a necessary way to live a spiritual life.
First it was the issue of slavery. William Ellery Channing, probably the first organizer of wide-spread Unitarian sentiment whose statue stands on Boston Common in front of the Arlington Street Church, which is still one of our churches most devoted to social activism, nearly lost his status and his job because (being a reflective person and seeing more complexities in the issue than most) it took him so long to come out on the side of abolition. Another Unitarian, Theodore Parker, was the guiding spirit of one of the stops on the Underground Railway and wrote his sermons with a pistol on his desk as a protection against violent attack from the supporters of slavery. It was from one of his sermons that Martin Luther King, Jr. took the idea of the arc of the universe tending toward justice. However, he, too, was pretty sure that the only way to make the tendency become a reality was through the work of human hands. Clara Barton, a Universalist, organized nursing the wounded soldiers and founded the Red Cross, and the Sanitary Commission was established and staffed primarily by Universalists and Unitarians. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, that great militant hymn, was written by Unitarian Julia Ward Howe, who later argued for the establishment of Mother’s Day as a time for women to stand for peace in the world.
The next issue to consume us was the matter of women’s rights. It is only logical that after spending all the effort that they did on justice for black people women began to think they might get some for themselves. Susan B. Anthony attended theUnitarianChurchinRochester,NYand Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, was also a Unitarian. Besides working for votes for women, other issues of significance to women were established by Unitarians and/or Universalists, like the first family planning clinic in the United States in New York City by Margaret Sanger. One of the first — arguably the first — woman ministers to be commissioned by an established faith was Olympia P. Brown, a Universalist. I have preached from her pulpit inBridgeport,CT.
Everyone thought that when slavery was abolished and women got the vote that the problems were solved, so for the next 50 years or so the activists in our movement concentrated primarily on relieving the sufferings of the poor and the oppressed like the founding of the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches in Boston, and the establishment of the first Goodwill store at Morgan Memorial, also in Boston, where I did my Clinical Pastoral Education. They also agitated for universal public education so that true equality could be achieved in that way. Horace Mann, educational theorist and founder of the first public schools was also a Unitarian. Universalist Jane Addams was the founder of Hull House inChicago. During the Second World War the Unitarian Service Committee was established to facilitate the escape of Jews and others from the Nazis, and is still a worldwide service organization, now the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, seeking to establish justice, feed the hungry and nurture the environment throughout the world. Their theory of teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish became the theory of the Peace Corps.
In the mid-20thcentury it became clear that justice had not been done merely by freeing the slaves, and Unitarians and Universalists were again at the forefront of the battle. I know personally many ministers who were at the march on Selma, and James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister, was one of the three murdered by the Klan the night before the march. The Civil Rights Movement consumed our energies until nearly all the Jim Crow laws were repealed, and then again women realized that they had done all that heavy lifting for one set of the oppressed, and they were still licking envelopes while the men got all the attention and credit. The next wave of feminism was at hand and it was at that time that I entered the ministry. Although I would have done it anyway, never having spared a glance at the roadblocks that might have been in my way, it is undoubtedly true that the fact that other women were agitating for equality made my acceptance into Harvard Divinity School easier, and though I was told that I was too female and too old by the Director of Ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Association (I was 36) he was nevertheless compelled to do what he could for me. One of my predecessors by just a few years had taken a job as receptionist at our main office building and asked him daily for two years if he had found her a position yet. I suspect that it was only the pressure of the feminist surge that forced him to send her name to the congregation that finally called her. She is retired now having had a distinguished ministry. So it hasn’t been all good. None of these justice actions have been entirely without internal opposition.
The saga continues, of course. It was Beacon Press, the UUA supported publishing house that published thePentagon Papers,establishing the injustice of the Vietnam War. We have been in the forefront of the fight for gay rights, and I may even have been one of the first ministers to do a same-sex service of union inNew London,CT.Today it would actually be legal. Then, of course, it had no legal standing, but the spiritual significance of that rite was patent.
Two issues are now at the center of our justice work. The first is environmentalism. Ever since the Transcendentalists, almost entirely Unitarian thinkers, writers and poets, (Emerson,Hawthorne, Longfellow, Cooper, etc.) became a force in our movement, the idea of seeing a reflection of the holy in nature and our place in it has been highly important to us. The fight against air and water pollution, environmental injustice and related matters, and for a sustainable ecology has become the center and focus of the spiritual life of many of our members. The other, more recent, issue is that of the rights of immigrants. The fight over whether to boycott our General Assembly inPhoenixthis year or go and witness to justice consumed just about all our energies two years ago. Our congregations in southFloridaare all involved to a greater or a less degree with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and other immigrant issues on our doorstep.
I am very proud of our record on these issues, but like everything, spirituality through actively working for justice has its shadow side. Those for whom this is the only route to service of the holy too readily tend to become self-righteous, which along with hubris is what is meant by the word pride in the list of seven deadly sins. They cannot accept that anyone of a different temperament — artistic, perhaps, or reflective or philosophical — could also be serving the holy. They simply can’t believe that someone who might disagree with their tactics or question the ends for which they work can still be a good and useful person who lives in the love of God. Since we know at the very core of our faith that the whole meaning of life is to be found in service to the holy, it is easy to define that service narrowly as activism and pressure people with guilt and shame if they cannot join the activity.
There is also the danger of idolatry. Many people seem to think that idolatry can only be defined as the worship of graven images, but it seems to me to be the worship of anything that is not God. It has always amazed me that that got left out of that list of seven deadly sins when it pervades the ten commandments, and surely it is a deadly sin if sin is defined as that which separates us from God. Although you can make an idolatry of anything — money, an individual, good works — I think that the environmentalism that is the center of so much of our social justice work today is particularly vulnerable to it. With its beauty and wonder, its essential importance to our own lives, survival itself, it’s easy to say as one of our leaders did, “Nature is ultimate.” But, of course, it is not. Nature is material, finite, and however beautiful, marvelous and necessary, not God. Among those who really believe in the ultimacy of nature, I have known those who would, at least in theory if not in practice, support the demise of the whole human race as a blot on the environmental landscape. Which, of course, it is, but without human beings, who, so far as we can discover, are the only animals who can recognize nature’s beauty and wonder, nature would then be playing to an empty house.
The danger of idolatry is that it distracts your attention from seeking to serve what is truly holy, or causes you to dismiss aspects of it as having nothing to do with the spiritual life. The danger for us Unitarian Universalists is that we can make that so much our defining characteristic that we cannot be distinguished as a religion as opposed to a social justice agency. That, of course, is a sermon that I preach my own congregation. Those for whom social justice work is not the only spiritual path don’t need to hear it.
It seems to me, and I wasn’t asked to talk about this, but I’m going to anyway, that what we need — all of us — is a broader definition of spirituality. To too many people, too often those who define themselves as spiritual but not religious, it means a kind of aesthetic and emotional high, that without that you aren’t really experiencing the spiritual life. One of my colleagues on a Unitarian Universalist ministers’ email list asked how we would know if our congregations had become more spiritual, and the answers were mostly that more people would be doing meditation or journaling or going on retreats or the like. I seldom post on this list, but this time I did. I said that I would know that my congregation has become more spiritual if besides those things, or for me even without those things, its members were living more upright lives, were becoming less self-absorbed, were seeing more beauty around them, were being kinder, more generous, more loving, were working harder for justice for everyone — any or all of these. I think the life of the spirit is any life that calls us beyond the material needs of life, that helps us respond to the call to serve God in whatever way our temperament or circumstances allow.