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Sermon – March 25, 2018
To be honest, before I found Unitarian Universalism, I thought all religion was patriarchal, and sexist.
Finding this faith nearly 20 years ago, however, I discovered a new hope, and a new vision: a church where women’s lives, voices, and stories were respected equally, where bodies weren’t scorned but valued, and where healthy sexuality was considered integral to healthy spirituality.
Even more revolutionary: here was a church that promised to help each other to be their best selves, most of all by seeking and speaking – rather than covering up the truth, in love. Here was a church that practiced mutual learning, and mutual accountability.
A few months after I joined my first UU church, however, I realized, despite these stated promises, or our feminist intentions, and even regardless of our sexuality education that teaches consent and the complicating nature of power starting in Kindergarten – we, like all religious institutions and all humans, have a shadow side – the things we don’t want to or can’t talk about, the things that we aren’t even able to see.
Little by little, the stories of the past minister of my new church started to emerge. He had assaulted women in the church under the guise of pastoral care; families had been torn apart in the name of “free love.”
I wasn’t too dismayed by the news of the misconduct itself, however – Unitarian Universalism had never promised to be anything other than a human institution, filled with humans.
What gave me pause was the response.
First, the length of time this misconduct continued – nearly three decades – without any direct response from leaders, or the church as a whole.
And, more disturbingly, many years after he’d left, there appeared to still be no shared understanding of the damage his behavior had caused, no open conversation about power or religious authority, and no apparent attempt to restore the broken covenant.
Instead there was a sense that “we dealt with that, let’s move on.” But clearly, they hadn’t.
Since then, I’ve learned that my first Unitarian Universalist congregation’s story was far from unique. The Rev. Deborah Pope-Lance – our faith’s foremost expert in sexual misconduct – estimates that nearly 70% of our congregations have a history of misconduct or abuse by their ministers. In a recent phone call, she confessed she was starting to believe the prevalence was actually much higher. The stories are still surfacing, after decades of shame, pain, and flat-out cover up.
Last month, in a gathering with other Unitarian Universalist ministers when talked about the #MeToo movement, and the way it is playing out in our congregations, one of my colleagues leaned over to me and half-whispered, I wonder how many of our male colleagues are out there right now, worried, that their story is the next one to surface?
We both took a deep breath because this is not news. It’s all family.
#MeToo always begins here. In our family, our lives, our stories. In all our struggles, and pain, complications and questions, challenges, and opportunities. There is no “them” in #MeToo, it’s all us.
Nothing brought this home to me more than over the past few weeks as I received some of your – that is, our – #MeToo stories. They were slow to come in at first, and I worried maybe we wouldn’t have enough. And then spring break ended, and I started worrying about having too many.
It’s one thing to hear statistics on the prevalence of sexual violence, or to hear the experiences themselves, one at a time.
It’s another to absorb in a few moments the many, many stories of pain, confusion, shame, anger, violence, secrecy, and also resilience, hope and resistance, that are present, not somewhere else, but here.
Later in the service we’ll have a ritual where we’ll share some of these stories on the screen. I want to tell you now that I was right to worry – it is too many. Way too many.
Hearing these stories requires a tolerance for truth-telling, and truth-receiving, beyond what we usually ask of one another, and ourselves, in this space.
And still this is what we’re asking today. Because these are our stories, and this is us. These are our lives that we have often kept hidden, in an effort to protect – first, to protect ourselves, afraid we would be judged, shamed, or worse. And these are our truths we’ve kept hidden because they are dangerous not just for us – but for at least one other person, the one who harmed us, who failed us, or who failed to believe we mattered enough.
And these others are also often not “them,” but still, us. People we admire, and trust, and love.
Last January, when we discovered that our beloved and brilliant music director had been misconducting in our congregation, when the stories began to be told –it was confusing for many of us, even those of us who had all the details. Even for me. I mean, I had all the facts, but still, it made no sense.
It felt impossible to reconcile the good – his good, the good we’d received from him – with the news of his harm. And the loss we felt with his absence, and the pain we imagined him being in, losing this community, and his reputation…some wondered if it was really so bad, what he did, to have to suffer so much.
This is the theological question at stake in the #MeToo conversation: whose suffering matters, and whose pain?
I ordered the new street signs to say “We Believe Women” because I know the conversation has to start with a willingness to believe – women, and also marginalized people of all kinds, to center their voices.
But ultimately, I’m not convinced that belief has ever been the main issue.
When the news broke about Harvey Weinstein, my first thought was – of course this was happening, and of course people knew. The reason he didn’t fall sooner wasn’t because no one talked, or because the ones who didn’t weren’t believed– it was because people weren’t sure that these women’s experiences mattered enough to upend the life and career of a powerful man.
Belief is just the beginning. The bigger issue is about whose life matters – enough, whose stories, whose suffering.
This was the pressing question behind Tarana Burke’s call to action in 2007.
She’d spent the prior decade listening to stories of sexual violence, especially among youth of color in low wealth communities, where they were too often left without sufficient resources, including adults who had the training, capacity or power to help.
Burke witnessed many young girls holding their story as if they were the only ones, and in their isolation, internalizing the blame, believing that there must be something uniquely wrong, or broken about them.
This, despite the fact that at least 60% of Black girls will experience sexual abuse by the time they are 18.
Burke believed that if they knew how many of their peers shared their story, they could release some of their internalized shame, and instead believe that their lives mattered enough, and that they were worthy of a better life – and, gain the strength and courage in community to fight for change.
From this impulse, Burke started the Me Too movement, and her organization, Just Be, long before hashtags or the full explosion of social media – and also, she was a Black woman working on sexual assault and not a white Hollywood actress….so it wasn’t until last fall when Alyssa Milano tweeted out the hashtag that the call really took off.
It is important though – and Milano has recognized this in her public speech since –that at the heart of this movement is the call to hear and empower the most marginalized voices, people of color, indigenous and undocumented people, transgender and other gender-non-conforming folks – to move these voices that have been the most silenced, but also who have an even greater likelihood of experiencing sexual violence – to the center, to flip the cultural script, and even more importantly, the balance of power.
Which is perhaps why we’re starting to hear about a #MeToo backlash. When those who are accustomed to having their stories and their lives central to our social script are suddenly de-centered so that other stories can be heard and believed and acted upon – they often – we often experience this shift as loss. As the saying goes – “when you’re accustomed to privilege; equality feels like oppression.”
This brings us to the other critical theological question at stake in the #MeToo movement – which is how seriously we’re going to take our Universalist good news that we share the same destiny, that we are all in this together. How much do we mean it when we say, as Sean put it last week, that as one of us “walks the plank” of inherent worth, tied around our ankle is a chain that if one of us goes, would bring us all down.
Because if we mean it when we say that our liberation is a collective pursuit, then this re-centering act is about saving ourselves. It’s about hearing ourselves, knowing ourselves, and ultimately healing ourselves. Believing that we are worthy of healing. All of us, connected, together.
For this reason, I take no pleasure in the idea that my male colleagues may be wondering if they are the next ones to be called out, any more than any of us should enjoy the downfall of any of the powerful men we’ve seen fall in recent months, regardless of their often-despicable actions.
The increasingly-small and often toxic box of acceptable norms for masculinity, and the messaging that to be a man is to be dominant, angry, aggressive – all of this connected so deeply to the March that happened across the country yesterday – these messages and norms oppress us all – and deserve their own sermon.
This is still all us.
On the other hand, this same Universalist faith has from its beginning, rejected the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. (Here’s your lesson for Holy Week.) Substitutionary Atonement is the idea that one innocent person’s sacrifice should stand in to make up for the sins of a bunch of others.
Which is to say – by our faith, we reject the idea that victims of assault and misconduct should remain silent and shamed in order to save the reputation, ego, or the employment of those who failed to take their humanity into consideration.
Instead, by our faith, we believe that each of us must be accountable for our own actions, our own harm, in order to restore the ties that bind each to all.
We misunderstand our Universalist tradition when we decide that “we all go together” requires an “anything goes ethic.” It is because we all go together that we cannot settle for cheap grace, or a laissez faire neutrality that inevitably, as Elie Wiesel said it, helps the oppressor, but never the victim.
As my first foray into Unitarian Universalist congregational life showed me, we are not good at this idea of accountability, historically, as religious liberals. We want to believe that people are good – that we are good. Anything that goes against this image, then, becomes hard, even impossible to accept, remember, the shadow. We wouldn’t do something that would violate another, we are good people; we aren’t the sort that would commit sexual violence, assault, harassment, misconduct; we’re good people – nor would the people we know and love. They are good people.
This singular focus on human goodness leads often to a moral fuzziness, and an ethical toothlessness, as we start to imagine that because some things are a grey area, everything is a grey area. As if just because some things are simple mistakes made by people with good intentions, every painful action must have been done inadvertently. As if evil does not exist.
But our sometimes willful, sometimes not – ignorance about our own power, and our desire to be a good person does not negate the real harm we are capable of enacting. Our inherent capacity to choose the good does not mean we always will, and evidence seems to indicate that as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, the line dividing good and evil does not run between human beings but through us.
It is possible, and even regular, to be a good person, and hurt someone, even terribly, even intentionally. It is possible that someone we love is lying to us, cheating us, manipulating us, abusing us.
People are complex, and none of us are reducible to either our most abhorrent or our most admirable qualities.
Nearly twenty years after I first discovered Unitarian Universalism, I’ve come to realize that built into those covenantal promises I found so revolutionary, is an acknowledgement that we’re not always going to perform perfectly – as Sean reminded us last week – we’re going to fall short, we’re going to break faith with one another, and with ourselves. But the covenantal promise is that when this happens, we’ll acknowledge the harm, and seek to restore relationship.
If we are going to be that church that seeks, and speaks the truth in love, then we will need to keep growing our tolerance for truth-telling, and truth receiving, and, which I want to suggest needs to happen by re-introducing a practice of communal confession.
But restorative justice can’t happen without an acknowledgment of the harm done. Confession is the religious practice that helps us deal with our shadow, and doing it in community makes the chance that much greater that we can together find the light.
I would never wish that our country would elect a man who bragged about sexual assault, and I wouldn’t ever have wanted to confront sexual misconduct in our congregation in the way we did this past year. And yet these same painful experiences may have stirred up in us, and in this moment, a new hunger, a renewed commitment – to be that church where we do this differently. Where we bring our real stories, our real wounds, our confessions, our confusions, and our regrets, and where we use these as guideposts to map the way forward.
On brave path we travel together, may we remind each other that although we are not always good, we are all always worthy of love, and healing – no exceptions.
May the liberating power of this courageous, universal love, flow in us, and inspire us, and propel us forward in to this liberating work – for us all.