Circle Round for Freedom

The opposite of liberal religion is not conservative religion. It is fundamentalism – the deep certainty that there is only one truth and only one way of knowing that truth. As a liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism acknowledges a plurality of possibilities; lifts up that the Dominant Culture may dominate – but that it is dominating other cultures, other truths, other experiences of the world. The work of our faith is deeply grounded in this vision of a multiplicity of stories being seen, heard, and respected.

I did not know when I drafted these words, an early Sunday morning handwritten addition to the printed text, that they would be radically embodied that day by events in a congregation I serve as a community minister. In the midst of our prayer and meditation, fundamentalist disruptors began spewing hate and vitriol into our holy, sacred space.

Beloveds, I have never been prouder of my faith community. The youth led the way in circling the congregation together, forming a ring around the sanctuary and singing sustaining songs. Soon it became clear who was choosing to be beloved community and who was trying to destroy it. Even in this distinction, all were notified that they were welcome to remain in worship if they could do so respectfully. If not, they were respectfully invited out the front door, to protest outside.

The congregation met the challenge of religious terrorism with courage and a commitment to the values of our faith, standing on the side of love without surrendering to hate.

Now is the time to stand together, beloveds.  Now is the time to remember that we are not alone and that we are called forward to live lives of radical hospitality grounded in courage and compassion.

Whatever your faith tradition, I invite you to stand with Unitarian Universalists and other liberal religions besieged by hate-filled rhetoric that can trip so easily from violent words to violent deeds. Stand with us against those who would destroy the concept of religious freedom, those who invade and desecrate sacred worship space, who terrorize children and adults with their malice.

Stand with us on the side of love.

  • Bill Baar

    re: …the deep certainty that there is only one truth….
    The one thing I’m certain of is there’s only one truth, and that every proposition can be tested as true or false. It’s the testing that’s problematic.

    • Deirdre Hebert

      BIll, that, exactly, is the problem. There isn’t only one truth – sometimes there can be contradictory positions, and both can be true. Sometimes the problem is that we don’t even know the right question to ask.
      Take the case of quantum physics – one single object can be in two different places, at the same time. Its’ not a mater of 1/2 of an object being in one place, and 1/2 in another, but the same physical object can be in two places. Now the question of “is it here, or is it there” becomes irrelevant, because the question itself is false. (This work was done with visible objects at the University of California in 2010.)
      Wave / Particle duality is another example where an either / or question is proved insufficient. Light is shown to be both particle and wave, depending on what we are looking for. Our determination to find the answer actually affects the answer.
      If our basic laws of physics recognize that some aspect of reality depends as much on our point of view than anything in nature, how can we possibly believe that matters of faith are any less complicated?
      Years ago in a talk that I gave, I posited two children growing up in the same family. One was sickly, often bed-ridden, but had a keen intellect. The other was very athletic, and by no means dim-witted. But both children had their own strengths and challenges.
      The parents, recognizing the needs of both children, catered to them individually. The sickly one was cared for gently, and her intellect was nurtured. Despite her illness, she went on to receive an advanced degree in her studies. The athletic one was pushed, often to work through the pains and rigors of sport, to achieve what she could.
      One day, a visitor asked the two about their parents. The sickly one described parents who were very gentle and nurturing, while the athletic one described parents who were encouraging, pushing the child to strive physically.
      The same is true about how we see the Divine. That relationship is every bit as much about us, as it is who we call God.
      Sometimes, there is no True / False. Sometimes the answer is within us, and it may well be a different answer for each of us. And until we can all accept that, there will be people using violence trying to demand that we see things the same way they do.

      • Bill Baar

        I find little evidence a belief in truth compels forceful conversion. Liberalism’s a belief in truth and that it can be logically descerned and proven with scientific method. Part of that method is a healthy respect for error because it’s often in the errors that we understand truth best. It’s often how truth revealed. Violence stems from a lust for power over others often by people not much concerned with truth. It is raw ego and lust overpowering any logic or love.

        • Deirdre Hebert

          Bill, look at the people using violence right now – people feeling that it’s okay to enter a church and disrupt a service because “they are right”, people who would kill a man because he performs abortions, people who feel it’s their right to intimidate others at abortion clinics, people who feel that any religion except theirs is “right”, and that those who believe differently should be exterminated …

          Certainly, it’s very human to use violence to get what one wants, but often – I’d say much more than not – it’s the conservatives who use overt violence and coercive tactics to achieve those ends. Look at the struggle between fundamentalist and more liberal Christians, Muslims, etc.

          Liberalism isn’t a believe that “truth” can be logically discerned. Liberalism is simply a world view that espouses liberty and equality, and which has room for many different viewpoints. It is not dogmatic; it does not mandate belief in some dogmatic truth. It recognizes that what is “true” for one, may not be true for all. It recognizes that even science sometimes gets it wrong, and, further, as expressed above, that sometimes, science shows that there is no single right answer to a question.

          Moral relativism would be a more liberal position, as opposed to moral absolutism, which would be more conservative. Jean Valjean demonstrates perfectly Liberalism’s struggle – Stealing may be wrong, but stealing to save the life of a starving child is something else entirely. Is it right to let someone starve if you could feed them with stolen bread? Is there a “right” answer here? What is “truth” in such a situation?

          • Bill Baar

            True and False are not Right and Wrong. If I take bread from you and give it to a starving child, that’s an event that happened. It’s true.
            Whether it’s right or wrong is a judgement.
            A judgement needs criteria and ethics to help form it. It needs someone with authority to make it. And the criteria (law if you like) is balanced by equities.
            So a wealthy person who takes bread to feed a starving child (perhapes for sport as one might throw a dog a bone) may well be judged a thief and dealth with harshly, while a average person who takes bread to feed the starving out of empathy for the hungry may well be found “not guilty”; which is in no way right or innocent. It’s just equity mitigating the rigor of law.
            The violence that abounds (in my case only a few blocks to the west of where I sit at the moment in Chicago) rises from people taking the authority to judge and then deliver punishment.
            It is a lust for power, and my neigbhors take that power of judgement into their hands with no authority.
            It has little to do with truth or falsehood, or right or wrong; it is pure will to power.

          • Dirk Prophet

            Deirdre and Bill, thank you for your well considered conversation.

    • ValPas

      Bill Baar, I agree with you that there certainly is a “Truth.” But I am also completely convinced that humans can never know that Truth. The truths we “know” are simply best-but-inadequate guesses. To reference Winnie the Pooh and pun you, we are bears with very little brains.

  • Dorothy

    Love this essay! Appreciate how wonderfully the UU congregation dealt with the hatred brought to them. And yes, I agree: There most certainly is a plurality of possibilities out there. :)

  • Patricia Bianca

    Rev. Vandiver, is there anything specifically I as a UU based in the Baltimore, MD, area can do to support your congregation? Perhaps a letter to the Mayor of New Orleans requesting sanctions against Operation Save America to keep them from doing this kind of thing ever again?

  • Karen Steiner

    I am so sorry this happened to your church. It was an invasion of your sacred space and an affront to everyone’s freedom of religion. It seems you and your congregation handled the situation with dignity and compassion.

    But, I have a question for you, the LA Times quoted you as saying you first “thought the noise might be coming from, oh, maybe a visiting Quaker,
    someone who didn’t understand the congregation’s tradition of silence
    during meditation.” I’m curious about this because if I, a Quaker visiting your church, walked in late and found everyone sitting in silence, I would have felt right at home, quietly found a seat and joined you.

    Just wondering if you could clarify. You’ve no doubt had a difficult week and I don’t want you to feel like Quakers are now on your case about an off-hand remark. (Though at least one Quaker Facebook group has had a message thread about it; I’m not alone in wondering what you meant). Thanks.

    • Dirk Prophet

      I will not speak for this church but as a lifelong UU and member of several congregations, I can’t imagine anyone be less than welcoming to any Quakers or anyone respectfully attending a service. It has been my experience that most UUs see Quakers as kindred spirits. Personally, if there was no UU congregation available, I would seek out a Quaker group.

    • Susan

      I am a UU in North Carolina and when I read Rev. Vandiver’s “visiting Quaker” comment, I took it as a lighthearted poke at Quakers (perhaps implying that UUs meditate more quietly?) because my experience regarding Quakers is much like Dirk Prophet’s.

  • Dirk Prophet

    I attended this church as a child. To this day, I am a Unitarian Universalist as well as my siblings, my wife, her siblings and my adult children.
    To have the sanctuary of this church so violated is a vulgar transgression of the free practice of religion and a violation of me personally even though I haven’t felt the safety of that sanctuary for over 50 years.