Confronting Evil

CONFRONTING EVIL with justice, compassion, and love
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, November 11, 2018

When all that you see is children starving,
poisoned forest, and cities burning —
And their eyes, haunted eyes, empty eyes…
When all that you know is pain and hunger,
fear and hiding, and ancient hatred,
And the lies, shining lies, lethal lies…
Something dies, honor dies, innocence dies…

With those words, the lyrics of Kendyl Gibbons begin poetically expressing the Second Source of the living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism. Set to music by Jason Shelton, the song “Transformation” is the second in their Sources: A Unitarian Universalist Cantata.

Our Second Source, as expressed in the documentary language of the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association is: “Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Or in the simpler language composed for our children’s benefit, wording that avoids the big words and complicatedly abstract words, this source is, “People long ago and today whose lives remind us to be kind and fair.”

This is the third sermon in a series of eight on our tradition’s sources, so you’ve heard me say before and will hear me say again that, in my mind, I first organized these sources as a list of nouns found in the first few words of each source and that they are many times so summarized in Unitarian Universalist websites and documents as well: Direct Experience; Prophetic People; World Religions; Judaism and Christianity; Humanism; and Earth-Based Spirituality. But the more I came to understand our tradition, the more this summary seemed to be ahistorical, bordering on misrepresentational. In my sermon on the First Source last month, I compared such a list to the DNA of our movement’s life – it tells us a lot about looks and predispositions but tells us nothing about what was learned, the ways character developed from training and example. The list is my wide feet that I inherited from my grandmother Ethel Annie Bunting – my Grandma Harris – and my tendency to overweight that I inherited from my grandmother Cora Jennie Edith Myers – my Grandma Oakley – while my learning includes my enjoyment of languages and word play that I learned from Mrs. Frances Danforth – my high school French and Latin teacher – and my spirituality, which I learned from a host of teachers and fellow learners and fellow journeyers, in person and in books and other resources, through my whole life. It takes more than the nouns, these statements of identity, to form and support our faith. But let’s break this source down, phrase by phrase and see where it takes us in this faith that has always valued “Deeds not Creeds”.

So, what does this source mean when it uses the word “prophetic”? A friend in the community asked me yesterday what I was preaching on today, and as I laid out the topic in a couple of sentences, I told him about our Second Source: “Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” He liked what I said about confronting evil with justice and compassion, but he had a question: “So does that mean your church believes in the foretelling of the future or that knowing the future is possible?” I told him that Unitarian Universalist individuals may believe or disbelieve in such a thing. It is not about right belief. Nor is it important to us together to have an opinion whether such a possibility exists. The denomination and its congregations take no position on whether prophecy and prophesying in that sense is possible or desirable. Instead, we use the adjective, the describing word “prophetic” to refer to a kind of speech and action. It orients us to the future – not through special revelation and knowing but through what we say and do now can bring us to the emergence of a future in which our values in action have given shape to a world made more just and compassionate.

Our spiritual ancestors, the nineteenth-century Unitarians and Universalists knew the prophecies of the Bible. They knew the stories of, say, a prophet living in a cave and coming out to warn the people of the impending disaster. They knew about the Prophet Jonah who ran from his responsibility to warn people of avoidable disaster. The ancient stories of the prophets are replete with supernatural incidents that, in their society, lent credence to the message about a feared evil. But those stories were never about a set future but about how that foretold disaster was avoidable if the people would change their action and orientation, become more ethical and caring and just, turn toward God as described afresh to them by their prophets. In a society and time when sacrifices were a given, when that was simply how people approached God or the Gods, the Prophet Jeremiah told the people that what was more important that sacrifice was the ethical life of the nation. The Prophet Hosea told the people that God wasn’t desirous of sacrifice in itself but of a people who embodied mercy. Sacrifice? It’s a metaphor! What’s important is how we live. Foretelling the future was always a matter of warning about avoidable things to come, never about the disaster but about avoiding disaster by changing the nation’s spiritual orientation.

In this Second Source of our tradition, the opening phrase is “words and deeds of prophetic people.” A few years back when we were in the process of changing the words “men and women” to “people” as our intention of inclusion expanded, I argued with those who cared that it would make more sense to say “prophetic words and deeds,” rather than separating our words and deeds attributed to people who could be identified as prophetic. My thinking was, not every word and deed of a person identified as a prophetic leader is itself prophetic, leading toward a more just world. Take for example those biblical prophets whose stories our spiritual ancestors knew. Jonah ran away from his responsibility to teach and even decided that allowing this ship’s crew to sacrifice his life was preferable to telling people he did not like how to live more justly. Or Elijah, a bald man like me, got angry when youngsters taunted him on his baldness, so he called bears out of the forest to eat them. Those actions of prophetic people are not the kind of examples we would hold up as source material for our tradition. These actions were not prophetic, even though the individual was identified as a prophet. No, I thought we should identify and praise prophetic words and deeds regardless of who says or does them, whether or not we would think to label the person as prophetic. But in the end, in choosing the phrase “prophetic people,” the delegates of our Unitarian Universalist congregations honored our historic instinct that people are precious over the slogan of “Deeds not Creeds.” They chose to honor our history of expanding inclusion over technical correctness about the deeds and words themselves being more important than whether we identify the doer and sayer as a prophetic person. In our First Principle, we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and this new wording of our Second Source, mirroring the earlier wording, calls us to pay attention to people, as well as to their words and deeds.

So who are these prophetic people whose words and actions we should pay special attention to, who produced and produce an approach that calls us to a more just and compassionate world transformed by our care? We could make a list, draw up hagiographies of our prophetic saints, both within our Unitarian Universalist family tree – in our DNA, if you will – and from among those who have taught us and given us new learning to direct how we engage with the world. These are imperfect, flawed people who have sometimes rejected their responsibility or called out the bears but who, nonetheless, have given us special guidance about what we need to do to escape the potential disaster that looms in the future if we do not act to prevent it, if we do not change ourselves and our world.

Such a list would include both religious and secular reformers. Some would be people in the spotlight of national attention, while others would be people we learn about in a history seminar rather than from the evening news. But the list would include: Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin, Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Norbert Čapek, Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, Harvey Milk… The list would be long, and it would always inadvertently leave out someone whose contributions toward making the world better, more just, more liveable are key to the best parts of the ways we sought to address past evils and grow the future. I won’t deliver up to you a list. Rather, it is our responsibility, it is your responsibility to learn, to study, to continue to fill in the gaps in knowledge and find inspiration for the path forward to the time we dream of.

What about the living prophets of our age? Do you know the words and deeds of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi? They are the founding leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Do their names ring a bell? How deeply do you know and feel what their work and words call us to do? Do you know the work of Bryan Stevenson? Of William Barber II? John Leguizamo? Within Unitarian Universalism, do you know the prophetic words and deeds or our own Christina Rivera? Of Aisha Hauser? Leslie Mac? Kenny Wiley? We are surrounded by a great cloud of prophetic people – if only we would pay closer attention to those whose inherent worth and dignity we celebrate. What do they call on us to do?

Kendyl Gibbons’ closing lines of the song “Transformation” go:

Clouds of witness surround us,
honored prophets, faithful workers, daring leaders
speak the truth, heal the world, light the dawn.
And we journey together, in the struggle,
make connection, find forgiveness
through the work, through the pain, moving on.
We must build for the future peace and plenty,
truth and justice, hope and freedom,
not oppress, not destroy.
Righteousness shines like a golden city, a mighty river
bringing hope, bringing peace, bringing forth joy!

The words and deeds that comprise our second great source are an ever-expanding resource for justice. They do not stand alone but “challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” That is, prophetic people are not our source. Their words and deeds are not our source. Rather, the basis of our faith and our tradition encapsulated in this source statement is the learning from and putting into action the program of our prophets. We can only truly be the Unitarian Universalists we aspire to and that the world needs when we ground ourselves in our values and the message of our prophets that compel us to confront evil, to deny evil its power by working with compassion for justice. This is the power of love, a power that transforms us and our world.

We live in a time with many opportunities not just to be good and to think good thoughts but to bring goodness into the world through opposing the evils of our age. As our prophets teach us. As they continue to lead us in action.

Amen and Blessed Be.

What are the words and deeds of our living prophets that shape how you will choose to live in the world for justice?


© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley