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The Advancement of Creative Maladjustment – 1/19/2014

Each year, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations holds its General Assembly in a different city of this nation. This is where representatives from our congregations do the business of the association, but a lot of other things happen there besides. There are worship services and workshops, meetings of various kinds – and several different lectures. The most prestigious of these is the Ware Lecture – one of the centerpieces of the conference. Over nearly a century, the address has been given by scholars, activists, and artists, generally on issues of pressing social concern. In 1966, the Ware Lecture was given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to begin my message this morning by quoting, at some length, from his lecture:

“I talk a great deal about the need for a kind of divine discontent. And I always mention that there are certain technical words within every science which become stereotypes and cliches. Modern psychology has a word that has become common—it is the word maladjusted. We read a great deal about it. It is a ringing cry of modern child psychology; and certainly we all want to live the well adjusted life and avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But I must say to you this evening, my friends, there are some things in our nation and in our world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted. And I call upon you to be maladjusted and all people of good will to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry .I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity. I must honestly say, however much criticism it brings, that I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and to the self-defeating effects of physical violence…Yes, I must confess that I believe firmly that our world is in dire need of a new organization – the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Men and women as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, cried out in words that echo across the centuries—”Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, cried in words lifted to cosmic proportions—”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.” As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could say to the men and women of his day “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”

This is a weekend that is purported to celebrate Dr. King’s life, but often seems to lose sight of his work and message, content to mythologize and pacify a complex critic of the status quo. So I want to focus on his words here: ‘creative maladjustment.’ To be out of alignment with the rest of the world in a way that demands that world acknowledge and adapt to your difference. Reading his words forty-two years later, there is a temptation to place Dr. King in that same pantheon that he outlined, along with Lincoln and Jefferson and Jesus of Nazareth: the cohort of the creatively maladjusted. But rather than drone on with accolades, the highest praise for any other person is always this: to ask, ‘how must I apply the example of their life to my own?’ Creative maladjustment was a theme that Dr. King returned to in several of his speeches – he chose to raise that theme when he spoke to our movement directly. So on this Sunday it seems not only appropriate but necessary, that we consider what it is in our world that we ought to be creatively maladjusted to.

This year, I am preaching once each month on the deep social concerns held by our movement, and their roots in our theology. Today the topic is the goal of racial justice. From time to time, through the mechanism of our General Assembly, our association takes a public position on issues in the larger world. In the fifty-two years since the consolidation between the Unitarians and the Universalists, we have made roughly sixty-five declarations specifically connected to discrimination, persecution, exploitation or other forms of injustice based on race. That’s an average of more than one per year – which would suggest it is something we feel the need to say something about.

It has been thus for a long time, now. There are versions of this sermon that have been preached by other preachers in other congregations at this season in years past, devoted to recounting the exploits of our noble ancestors. Unitarians and Universalists working for the abolition of slavery; Unitarians helping to create the first regiment of free black soldiers in the union army; our connection to the first person of African descent formally ordained to any ministry in the United States. Our opposition to segregation, our role in the founding of the NAACP, the two members of our faith who were murdered in Selma, Alabama for their participation in the Civil Rights movement. Our long collective history of campaigning for an open immigration policy free of racial quotas or xenophobic limitations. And our more recent history of struggling to find a way to justice and wholeness through the terrible truth of the genocide perpetrated from the beginning of white settlement on this continent to now, against the native inhabitants of the land where you and I are sitting and standing.

There is a version of this sermon that is about all that, but that is not the sermon I believe this day requires. You see, we have always been heretics – it is how we got our start. In 325, the Council of Nicaea established Christian orthodoxy for the first time; setting a certain creed and a few points of dogma that would now be

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compulsory within the Christian movement. Our theological ancestor, Arius, was on the losing side in that debate. We sometimes label him as the first Unitarian – he was the leader of some of the churches in Alexandria, in Egypt, and came originally from Libya. This was at a time when people moved relatively freely within the Roman empire, and while skin tone wasn’t invisible to most people, things like what language you spoke, or how much wealth you had, were considered far more important. Whiteness, as it exists today, had not been invented yet. So, to my knowledge, we can’t say for certain what someone from 2014 would guess about Arius’ racial background, based on his appearance. But I can say, in all honesty, that the ‘first Unitarian’ was from Africa.

Nicaea made Arius, in the eyes of the newly centralizing church, a heretic: someone who chooses a belief outside the accepted boundaries. Someone who is maladjusted to the expectations and requirements of their place and time. This is the moment we often point to as the beginning of our movement.

But every time we have found ourselves at the margins of prevailing doctrines, one of three things has happened: 1) the people who were violently obsessed with those doctrines successfully murdered us or coerced our conversions, OR 2) we made just enough accommodation to the powers that be to survive, quiet and even more marginal, OR 3) eventually, the popular consensus shifted far enough that we weren’t on the margins any more. Three-hundred years ago it was a serious criminal offense to declare that Hell does not exist. Two-hundred years ago it was socially stigmatizing to argue that reason is an essential tool of faith, and that anything other than the bible could be used as a source of truth and meaning. Today, those ideas may not be

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completely universal, but they have become largely mainstream. It’s not exactly that we won, but we did see a lot of other people start moving in a direction we were already heading. Our heresies have grown less heretical over time.

Now, as I alluded to early there are points worth taking pride in from our movement’s part in the racial history of this country. But there are also numerous points to be ashamed of: abolitionism was never a consensus in either branch of our faith prior to the Civil War. We know that we have slave owners in our spiritual family tree, and not only Thomas Jefferson, whom we go back and forth about one week to another as to whether he counts as a Unitarian or not. We also know that many of the folks who founded and built up our present congregations in New England did so with money made in the shipping trade. If you profited from that industry in the 1700s, you were profiting from the international slave trade, whether your ships carried kidnapped people or not. And if you profited from it in the 1800s, you were profiting from the economic engine of slavery, whether your ships carried cotton or not. Even when some of us were opposing segregation, some few were still supporting it. In the 1940s, there was a Unitarian congregation in Atlanta that staunchly refused to integrate. This was despite the prevailing spirit in the association as a whole, which had helped the Atlanta congregation many years before to buy their own church building, and still held title to it. Our movement doesn’t allow for much coercive authority – something which stubborn injustice can exploit. Eventually, though, a solution was found: our association couldn’t convince that congregation’s membership to meet its most basic moral standard, so they sold the building out from under them instead.

This is just to make it clear that we were never the cutting edge of the struggle for racial justice: some few of our number have been great leaders, more of us have been good followers, some of us have worked on the wrong side of history, and too many of us have just stood still. Our tradition teaches the fundamental equality of all people, and has done so going back to when that that was a fairly radical statement. It is now more the consensus. Fifty years ago, if a Unitarian Universalist declared that race is an invention based on drawing arbitrary lines across the human family, they were far from alone, but they did have a number of powerful forces arrayed against them. Today, this is more broadly understood. What was maladjustment then has become simply adjustment now.

Unitarian Universalism is maladjusted to the world as it is. I can say this because when we adjust ourselves to it, when we reconcile ourselves entirely to the status quo – that is the exact point at which we cease to be Unitarian Universalists. In choosing to take up the company of heretics, we choose to be out of alignment with the larger world. That creates two responsibilities: The first is to stay ahead of society’s own realignment. We are who we are as a faith movement because in times past, when the consensus shifted and we found that we were now hanging out in the middle, we looked towards a larger love, grounded in the best truth we could find, and ran in that direction, towards the margins once again. When assessing the moral choices of figures from history, it is sometimes suggested that we should make exceptions for their context, and remember that certain things we may deem bad or wrong were widely accepted in their day. It is our determination not to be satisfied with the grading curve of history. The buying and selling of human beings was as wrong 150 years ago as it is today. The Chinese Exclusion Act was as wrong in 1882 as it is today. The practice of redlining – of designating certain towns or neighborhoods for one race, and others for another – was as wrong 60 years ago as it is today. And there are evils in this world that will be as colossally wrong to the person who stands in this sanctuary one hundred years from now as those things are to me – and so it is up to me to recognize their wrongness and give into or hide behind the status quo.

The second responsibility of being a people defined by heresy, is not just to make sure we stay maladjusted, but to strive to be maladjusted creatively. Not just to be at odds with whatever we consider to be wrong in the larger world, but to live out that position in a way that pulls the center towards our parcel of the margins. We must be imaginative and determined at making our maladjustment effective.

In the case of the matter before us this morning, our counter-cultural values challenge us as a community to be a place where issues race and of privilege and oppression can be and will be engaged with, actively and openly. It means an imperative to interrupt conversations and challenge “the way we do things here,” in order to disrupt dynamics that keep the comfortable comfortable and the afflicted afflicted. It means really coming to know that the line between privilege and oppression, somewhat like the line between good and evil, cuts through the heart of every human being – it harms all parties concerned, and what’s more, there is no pure status on either side of the line. Race connects to class, connects to ability, connects to gender-expression, connects to sexual orientation, and on and on.

Because of the overlapping, interlocking nature of privilege, it is impossible to be entirely this or that, at all times and in all ways. And yet we must also affirm this truth without allowing it to serve as an excuse for a relativism that ignores the immediacy of specific forms of injustice. We must train ourselves, over and over, to understand racism not as a series of disconnected and individual acts of meanness, to paraphrase Peggy MacIntosh, but as an invisible network of systems conferring dominance on one group. And finally, we need to be ready to hear and to take to heart when someone else points to a privilege we are abusing, or a calls us out on a system of oppression in which we are participating or just expresses the spiritual ‘ouch!’ that comes naturally when we encounter the 50th unconsciously hurtful thing of the day. We have to be strong enough to want to change from the people we are to the people we are capable of being, if we want to move our world from the way that it is, to the way that it can be.

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