Building a New Way pt. 1: Prophetic Voices in Liberal Religion

This week, we are thrilled to present the words of a Unitarian Universalist who went to General Assembly and was asked to give a sermon based on what she learned. She has graciously contributed her words to this website so that we can hopefully incite two very important discussions about two very important words that some Unitarian Universalists find distasteful if not outright offensive. The sermon is posted in two parts, and the second can be found with this link. The video at the bottom is the bulk of the service, though we’ve book marked it to start at the sermon, where these two parts are delivered together. ~Thomas

In 1568, in the country which we now know as Transylvania, King John Sigismund issued the Edict of Torda. The edict said that preachers would be free to teach the Gospel as they understood it and that no one would be threatened with jail or loss of their position because of their theological beliefs. For its time, this was exciting stuff. This was a time in history when heresy was still a capital offense. So to have a ruler who would say that your beliefs are a protected, personal decision, that’s a game changer.

Now, the proclamation was far from perfect. To start with, it only protected Christians. Actually, it only protected certain Christians—Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Unitarians. Over half the population at the time was made up of Eastern Orthodox Romanians who, “were tolerated,” but like the Jews and Muslims of the country, weren’t granted the same legal protection. There also was no specific protection for the individual layperson. The Edict of Torda extended the right of the free pulpit to preachers, but didn’t necessarily make room for individuals to speak openly about their beliefs. Congregations were free to choose a minister whose particular message they liked, but that was about as much leeway as the common folk had to make their voices heard. And, after King John II abdicated the throne, subsequent rulers overturned the edict entirely. But still, the ideals of religious freedom and a personal search for truth and meaning would continue to serve as a foundation for the Unitarian Church in Transylvania and, eventually, would become the foundation of our own denomination of Unitarian Universalism.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have an incredible heritage of people who have gone before us. People who stood up against the status quo, risking and sometimes losing their lives. Reverend James Reeb was murdered in Selma for his support of civil rights and three years later, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for the same cause. Clara Barton risked her life on the battlefield to tend to the sick and injured soldiers of the American Civil War. She would then go on to become the founder of the American Red Cross as well as a member of the American women’s suffrage movement with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Jane Addams, another suffragette, was the founder of Hull House, a settlement house which provided a place for study, debate, and art. Addams is credited as the founder of American social work and worked to establish citywide sanitation practice to stop the spread of disease and the deaths that would result from it. In more recent times, we’ve seen the likes of President Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela who have worked to ensure basic human rights not just in their home countries, but across the world.

These are just some of our prophets, just as King John Sigismund was a prophet in his own time. Now, when I say prophet, I’m not talking about someone who has or claims to have a direct pipeline to the Man Upstairs or someone specially chosen to be the messenger of the will of some great Cosmic Power.

When I say prophet, I’m referring to liberal prophetic practice and prophetic witness which author Paul Rasor describes as the work of justice carried out by members of a liberal faith. Not liberal in a necessarily political sense, but liberal as in a faith-based on the idea that religion should be oriented to the present and must be in keeping with our modern knowledge and experience. A faith where there’s room for change and progressive ideas and that supports the individual search for truth and meaning. With liberal prophetic practice being focused on the present, it’s maybe a little surprising that we have so much in common with Christian Old Testament prophets. These individuals were not just theological conduits. They challenged the established ways of their time and called out to their societies, asking them to remember and to return to their values of justice.

The word “prophet” comes from words meaning “speaking” or “spokesperson” and these Old Testament prophets were a voice for the disenfranchised—for the poor, the widows, the orphans—people who otherwise had no hope of being heard. In the book of Deuteronomy, the prophet Moses instructs the Israelites to ensure that hired workers are paid fairly, a portion of each harvest saved for feeding the poor, and that justice be rendered for the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan. This was his prophetic witness.

This past June, thousands of UUs gathered in Portland, Oregon for our annual General Assembly. We celebrated together as the news broke of the Supreme Court ruling which ensured marriage rights for ALL Americans regardless of their sexual orientation. We shared in sacred public witness to the dangers of climate change and stood in solidarity with the Lummi Nation whose sacred lands at Cherry Point are endangered by the proposed establishment of the largest coal port in North America. Our assembled delegates passed a Statement of Conscience on Reproductive Justice, encouraging study, action and witness from our member congregations. Also passed were three Actions of Immediate Witness—actions to support the Black Lives Matter movement, to act for a livable climate, and to end the practice of immigrant child and family detention centers. These resolutions draw directly from our theological values.

Our denomination affirms the worth and dignity of all people, the necessity of justice, equity, and compassion in our relationships, and the importance of the democratic process because every voice must be heard. And when you really take these ideals to heart, it’s hard to sit on your hands and not say or do something to promote those values in the larger world. Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams makes the claim that, because of these values and their moral imperatives, “the role of the prophet is central and indispensable in liberalism.”

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