As a young theology student, James Luther Adams watched the Nazi rise to power. For the rest of his life he insisted that voluntary associations are the key to resisting oppression—voluntary associations such as congregations.
When facing the breakdown of the rule of law, voluntary associations provide a place of both resilience and resistance—resilience for the individuals sustaining the struggle; resistance amplified by its collective nature.
JLA’s conviction has remained topmost in my mind as the multi-cultural, multi-faith clergy group I belong to has engaged in deep discussions since the November election.
Some clergy in our group have congregations split down the middle, left and right, Democrat and Republican. Others, such as clergy serving United Church of Christ and Presbyterian congregations, are mostly bastions of old-line Euro-American liberals with a few conservatives thrown in—conservatives who are quickly opting out as the preaching becomes explicitly liberal.
Also involved in our group are the rabbis and the imams for whom present circumstances feel all too familiar. We discuss the model of the recent voluntary but wholesale Jewish evacuation of France. Will white privilege protect most Jews in the US?
As to Muslims, those who have the means are planning their escape. But what about refugees from Somalia or Syria? Many Muslims are African Americans who have seen all this over and over before.
Due to our creed-less tradition, Unitarian Universalist congregations are all over the map in terms of resistance. Many fall into the category of Roman Catholic and Episcopal congregations, too politically diverse to offer much support. We saw this with the recent support of Black Lives Matter, and I suspect that the region congregations are located in will make a great deal of difference.
Still conveniently ignored by UU history is the politics of congregations during the “Yellow Peril” of the late nineteenth century, and of course the McCarthy Era. Where congregations stood on those issues would be a good indication of where they will stand now as immigration, immigrants, and what Edward Said called “orientalism” become the hate de jour.
The congregation I serve, with a century of explicit Humanism as background, is considerably left of center. Facing up to and living into the “atheist” label for a hundred years has built resistance into the DNA of the congregation. Times have changed—now we’re accused of arrogance rather than heresy—but the scars of loyalty oaths and explicit calls for atheists to be barred from legal protections and citizenship remain.
After all, the Boy Scouts still require a loyalty oath, an affirmation of a belief in not just any god but the European colonial one. Trump’s calls for denial of citizenship to atheists have not been as explicit as those of Ronald Reagan, but we expect that those calls are coming.
Then there’s the alarming circumstance that the US traditionally totters close to a de facto theocracy.
My clergy colleagues who have a mix of right and left-leaning folks envy the clarity of mission I enjoy. The theology of Humanism centers on Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”—freedom of expression; freedom of (and from) religion; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. These are non-negotiable, and the methods toward achieving them for everyone tend to be fairly straightforward, since those nations that have approached achievement of them have followed a clear path of secular and communal behaviors.
That’s where we stand.
Resilience and resistance. Resilience is about bouncing back from fear and despair and sustaining resistance for the long-haul. UU congregations—if we are to have any relevance—must be those voluntary associations where truths are told.