“The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.” (“From Singing the Living Tradition.”)
Last spring, the Supreme Court struck down Provision 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The provision required states with a history of disenfranchising black voters to get preclearance from the Justice Department before adopting changes to their voting laws. In the first month after the Supreme Court struck down that provision, six states enacted new, regressive voting legislation that disproportionately represses voting among people of color, poor people and people with disabilities.
Since then, my Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues in North Carolina, together with many members of their congregations, have regularly participated in Moral Monday actions of civil disobedience, organized by a coalition called Forward Together Moral Movement. The movement is advancing a moral agenda that includes reversal of some of the most far-reaching, repressive new voter legislation in the country, and of drastic cuts to funding for public education, unemployment and health care that have a devastating impact on people living in poverty.
Two months ago, a call went out from Unitarian Universalist ministers in North Carolina, asking ministers and lay people from around the country to join them for a Mass Moral March on Raleigh. On Feb. 8, I answered that call, along with eight members of the Unitarian Society of New Haven.
Mind you, this wasn’t a Unitarian Universalist action: The 1,500 Unitarian Universalists who participated were among tens of thousands in a broad-based coalition representing well over 100 organizations, under the undisputed and extraordinary leadership of the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP. Those who gathered share the goal of advancing a progressive agenda that includes the repeal of restrictive new voter legislation, the restoration of full funding for public schools, the right of state employees to collective bargaining, support for marriage equality and GLBTQ rights, immigration reform, environmental protection, women’s health care, restoration of unemployment benefits and a host of other causes imperiled by the sitting government of North Carolina.
This is a coalition of religious, secular and nonprofit organizations, people of every color, creed and identity, who have freely chosen to look beyond the many things that might divide them in order to advance the justice that might be denied to any of them, or to others. Instead of separate marches for each progressive cause, this was the expression of a big-tent movement of religious and secular organizations devoted to a broad progressive agenda.
Drawing on the scriptures of his Christian tradition, the Rev. Barber called upon those assembled to be “repairers of the breach.” Truly, the moral commitment of the United States to freedom, liberty and justice for all has been breached and is sorely in need of repair.
One need not be part of a religious tradition to work for justice, but many of us find that our religious traditions ground and nourish our work for justice. They give us communities within which to learn about justice issues and develop skills for service, witness and advocacy. They provide companionship in the work, and a place to reflect on what we’ve done, which enables us to become more effective and to grow as human beings and be strengthened as justice-seekers.
As my colleague the Rev. Morrison-Reed says:
“It is the religious community that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.”
The Rev. Emily Melcher currently is serving as interim minister with the Unitarian Society of New Haven, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Hamden.
The late Unitarian Universalist Minister Jack Mendelsohn (1918-2012), parish minister and ardent advocate for social justice, penned these words for worship, but they speak so clearly to the purposes of religious community that I share them here:
“Here in this sanctuary of ancient dreams and wisdom, we come to grow, to be healed, to stretch mind and heart, to be challenged and renewed; to be helped in our own continuing struggles for meaning and for love; to help build a world with more justice and mercy in it; to be counted among the hopers and doers.
In the face of the cynicism, darkness, and brutality around us and within, we seek to align ourselves with a living community that would affirm rather than despair, that would think and act rather than simply adjust and succumb.
Here we invite the spirit of our own humanity and the healing powers under, around, through and beyond it, to give us the nerve and grace, the toughness and sensitivity, to search out the truth that frees, and the life that maketh all things new.”
Forty years ago, I saw darkness and brutality expressed in my childhood religion. I was young, and had not yet developed an appreciation of paradox, so I dismissed religion entirely, despite the fact that it had, indeed, helped me to face the darkness inside of me and in the world. I claimed the label “spiritual but not religious,” believing that in doing so, I had retained that which was good, and separated myself from that which was evil.
I was wrong.
It’s probably natural that we human beings think in polarities: darkness and light, good and evil. I have come to think of polarization as a psychological sleight-of-hand. It allows us to feel as if darkness and evil are external to ourselves, and if they are external, and identifiable, we can protect ourselves from them and from our own responsibility for them.
But on a deeper level, polarization is also a spiritual sleight-of-hand, for the separation it engenders denies others their humanity, and in so doing, denies us our own.
I prefer Jack Mendelsohn’s assertion that the cynicism, darkness and brutality are not only all around us, but within us as well. I have certainly experienced that in my own life. It is my religious community that has taught me “to affirm rather than despair, to think and act rather than simply adjust and succumb.”
In this season, when darkness blankets the northern hemisphere, let us remember that hope, light and kindness likewise exist all around us, and within.
Indeed, it is the paradox that makes us human. Joining with other people of faith to remember our homeless neighbors who have died is one tiny but powerful way of affirming that fact.
If you are out there in the cold this longest night of the year, won’t you please join us?
The Rev. Emily Melcher is currently serving as interim minister with the Unitarian Society of New Haven, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Hamden.