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A sermon by Rev. Dr. William R. Murry for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on November 2, 2008

Spirituality and Social Justice

Several years ago when I was minister of River Road Unitarian Church I received a call from a woman who identified herself as the newly elected chairperson of the new social responsibility committee of her church. The church was a 600 member church in another state and it had never before had a committee to deal with social justice issues. She had heard that River Road had a strong social justice program and she was calling to find out what we did and how we did it. After I told her about our program she thanked me and said that her church had not been doing anything in terms of social justice, and she thought it was time to change that. I agreed and wished her luck.

After we hung up, I realized how shocked I was that this large UU congregation, the largest UU church in its state, had no social justice ministry. I simply could not imagine a Unitarian Universalist church like that, for as you know, our religious movement has a long and cherished tradition of social involvement.

One reason I became a UU minister some 30 years ago had to do with my commitment to social justice. I felt that Unitarian Universalists shared that commitment to a greater degree than others. That’s why I was so shocked to find a large congregation with no social justice program.

Religions scholar Karen Armstrong, best known for her book, A History of God, wrote in her autobiography: “The religious traditions were in unanimous agreement. The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrine, spiritual experience or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion… Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul and for Muhammad…”

In our UUA principles compassion is spelled out as the affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person, and as justice, equity and compassion in human relations. These principles are absolutely fundamental to UUism. We are not united so much by what we believe but by our commitment to love and justice. “Deeds, not creeds” is basic to us.

Our faith calls us to work to transform the world. If we preach the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we will be led to end poverty and homelessness and hunger and discrimination due to race, gender or sexual orientation. If we truly believe in justice, equity and compassion in human relations, we will be concerned about a more equitable distribution of resources and wealth. If we truly believe in the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, we will be working for these in every way we can. These, and not doctrinal correctness, are the true measures of a religion that is vital and relevant to today’s world.

A religion without responsible ethical action is not genuine religion.

When I say love and compassion I do not mean a mere sentimentality. Love is an action. It is extending yourself on behalf of others. It leads to a concern for justice, for love without justice is mere sentimentality. Love that is meaningful is active. For us caring for others is a spiritual matter. Service is a spiritual matter. Social justice work is spirituality at work.

In every church I know anything about there are two groups of members – those who are devoted to spirituality and spiritual growth and those who are committed to social action. And the tragedy is that they see their commitments as two very different concerns whereas in my view they are two sides of one coin. For I believe that genuine spirituality should lead to social concerns and people working for social justice need a spiritual basis or they will burn out quickly. Moreover, spirituality that does not lead to social justice concerns is in my view bogus spirituality. Genuine spirituality will result in love and concern for one’s fellow human beings and for the environment and that leads to social justice work. True spirituality does not mean that we turn our backs on the world but that we have a foundation and a center for our lives from which we can live more meaningfully, with greater awareness of life’s joys and life’s sorrows, and greater service to others. Spirituality and social justice go together—when we split them apart we lose both.

As UU minister Richard Gilbert put it: “The social without the spiritual is rudderless; the spiritual without the social is vacuous.”

Moreover I believe that social justice work is a form of spiritual growth. It has been for me. I know that one of the ways in which I have grown spiritually has been through the things I have done in the area of social justice ministry. Social justice and spirituality – not either/or but both/and. They go together. As James Luther Adams, the foremost UU religious thinker of the 20th century put it: “A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion.”

One of the foundations for social justice work is the sense that we are not isolated individuals but part of the human community. Instead of every person being devoted to his or her own selfish desires, we need to be devoted to the common good. The failure to care about the common good is one way of explaining why we are having the current economic crisis. Only when we the American people put the common good ahead of our own personal interests will be begin to become the nation we should be. This sense of human solidarity is part of our UU spiritual foundation for social justice work.

So to me the spiritual foundation of our social justice work is to be found in love, compassion, empathy, caring for others, affirming the worth and dignity of every person, a sense of human solidarity and a sense that what we do for others is a deeply spiritual matter. A now retired UU minister once said: “I measure the spirituality of a congregation by the concern it expresses for those who are oppressed and suffering.”

Many UU congregations and individuals think that social action means doing works of charity. We’re pretty good at giving money to worthy organizations, working in soup kitchens and helping to provide shelter for the homeless. That’s fine, but it does not change the unjust structures of our society that cause hunger, homelessness, poverty, etc. We need to work for justice, not simply do charity. Charity is like a pain-killer for cancer. It provides temporary relief but it does not cure the cancer. As the Rev. Lindi Ramsden has said,” To dole out charity without justice is betraying with a kiss.”

I’m not ready to go that far, but I do believe we should not stop with charitable work and charitable giving. We need also to be working for social change, and that usually means working to influence policy and policy makers. Injustice is systemic, institutionalized, and advocacy tries to get to the roots of injustice and effect change. It tries to change unjust laws and social structures that are the cause of suffering and inequality. It’s not aspirin - it’s surgery.

The great 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker depicts the difference between social service and advocacy graphically in this quotation: “There is a hole in the dim-lit public bridge, where many fall through and perish. Our mercy pulls a few out of the water; it does not stop the hole nor light the bridge nor warn people of the peril. We need the great charity that palliates effects of wrong and the greater justice which removes the cause.”

Take the example of poverty. David Shipler, in his book The Working Poor, writes: “The man who washes cars does not own one. The clerk who files canceled checks at the bank has $2.02 in her own account. The woman who copy-edits medical textbooks has not been to the dentist in a decade.”

In this, the richest nation in the history of the world, millions of people work full time but are too poor to enjoy anything but the basic necessities of life and sometimes not even those. Why? For one reason the minimum wage is too low. And as we now know many of the working poor and middle class have lost their houses because they could not afford to pay the mortgage -- thanks to unscrupulous lenders.

Currently in the United States 20 percent of the population has 85 percent of the wealth, and that means that 80 percent of the people have only 15 percent of the wealth. In terms of income the richest 40 percent make 75 percent of the income and thus 60 percent of the people make only 25 percent of the income. These huge disparities have been growing over the last 25 years.

Now my point is that these are systemic problems, problems brought about by government policies such as income tax rates, minimum wage laws, subsidies to certain industries, tax loopholes, the abolition of needed regulations, and so on. Billionaire Warren Buffet famously noted that his secretary was paying income tax at a higher rate than he was! Charity can help some but only social change -- changes in the laws -- can make a lasting difference.

We can play a role in social change by voting for leaders who have the common good at heart, leaders who are committed to social justice, as many of us did on Tuesday. But we can also work for social justice between elections. It is tempting to throw up our hands and say, “I’m only one person. I have no power. There is nothing I can do.”

But there is much we can do together. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s is a good example of a successful grass roots effort to effect social change. Sure, racism and racial discrimination are still major problems in our country, even after Tuesday’s election, but many of the most egregious forms of discrimination were banned by law as a result of what thousands of people did. The feminist movement and the gay rights movements have also contributed significantly to greater equality of women and people with same sex orientation, and they too have come about through the work of many committed people, people like you and me.

To change unjust structures requires power and in a democracy means organizing people to bring pressure to bear on legislators. Often that means countering the power of the huge sums of money given by corporate interests. We religious people often think that power is somehow evil, but there is nothing inherently wrong with power. ˆIt depends on how it is used. Martin Luther King said: “Power without love is reckless and abusive (we see examples of that everyday); love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Our task then is to use the power we have on behalf of love and justice.

I am involved in the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland, an organization that gives voice to UU values in the state legislature. We are the Maryland version of Rhode Island UUs for Social Justice (RIUUSJ). There are often very important issues in state governments that impact people and that reflect UU values one way or another. During the three years of our existence UULM has mobilized Unitarian Universalists throughout the state to contact their state senators and delegates in person or by phone or mail. We have advocated on behalf of three issues -- health care for all, global warming and civil rights for same sex couples. Since we UU’s are small in number the UULM works in coalition with other groups. On health care we work with a Maryland organization dedicated to universal health care for the people of Maryland. We are not there yet, but last year the state legislature approved a bill extending health care to an additional 100,000 low income people, many of whom are children. Working together we feel that we played a role in getting that legislation passed.

With respect to global warming we worked with another coalition and helped to get the legislature to adopt a bill that will lower automobile emissions, and with regard to civil rights for same sex couples we worked with Equality Maryland to beat back efforts in the legislature to pass a bill that would ban same sex marriage. Same sex marriage is not yet legal in Maryland, but it was important to stop a Constitutional Amendment that would make it impossible to approve it in the future.

I believe strongly that we UUs need to work with others when it comes to social change. We are too small and lacking in power to go it alone, but we don’t have to because there are other organizations, secular and religious, that share our values. And they want us. An interesting by-product is that they learn about us and appreciate what we do. The head of Maryland Health Care for All refers to us often as a group he relies on. The leaders of the other groups call on us to testify when there are hearings by legislative committees on their issue.

Working together is another way of emphasizing our interdependence and social solidarity, and it’s also very personally fulfilling to know that there are many others who share your commitments.

“Well,” you may be thinking, “but the church doesn’t have any business getting involved in politics. We should stick to matters of spirituality.” It is certainly true that we must stay out of partisan politics as a church. But the separation of church and state does not mean that the separation of religion and moral issues and many political issues are moral matters. I’m not suggesting that congregations should take stands on issues -- although when that’s possible, it’s great. But UUs as individuals can band together and act to influence legislation. Most of us would agree that global warming is a moral issue since it threatens the very existence of life on this earth. Yet global warming is an issue that requires political solutions. Its solution involves too many aspects of the way we live and the industries we depend on for it to require anything less than government action. For UUs not to be involved as individuals or even as congregations on global warming goes against our principles and values.

The same can be said for economic justice. It is a travesty for this nation to have as many people as we have living in impoverished conditions.

And the same can be said about health care. It is truly unjust that nearly 50 million people in this wealthy nation are without health insurance. For us to remain silent on this issue is unconscionable.

If we truly care about people we will want to be involved in issues that deeply affect their lives, and that means we will be involved in political issues.

I am pleased to report that the woman who called me 15 years ago was successful in starting a social action program in her congregation. That program is now a vital part of that church, and the church is helping to start a UU legislative ministry in that state. One person CAN make a difference. Many of us working together can do even more.