First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

Rev. David Carl Olson

Rev. David Carl Olson

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selma@50 Still I Rise

Thursday, 16 October 2014 00:00 Published in The Minister's blog

selma @ 50 "Still I Rise"

Good evening, my name is David Carl Olson and I have the privilege to serve this community as Minister of First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. On the front of our historic building flies an angel, the Angel of Truth, and I greet you in the name of Truth, and welcome you to this Temple of Truth. Since the founding of this congregation nearly 200 years ago, the corner of Charles and Franklin Streets has welcomed people of diverse belief and coherent action amid the values of unity and tolerance, fortitude and peace.

When our founders created this congregation in 1817 and built this Temple in 1818, they were seeking a more democratic religion, a religion for our country at their time. They based their actions on the example of the Jewish prophet Jesus, and believed that a simple and reasonable reading of his story was an adequate basis for living ethically, morally and spiritually in a democracy. They committed themselves to democratic ends.

We have never been satisfied with democracy, in society and even in this congregation. Over the years, our democracy changed. We began with a small group of pew owners who ran things in this place. We extended voice and vote to include women who could vote by proxy, to Black men who had originally been excluded, to people who did not own pews but rented them. It was in the twentieth century that all members of the church, regardless of social status, were given both voice and vote. Perfecting democracy in this church required the creation of a new understanding, a new application of reason that allowed a new culture to emerge.

In our nation, the perfection of democracy has been a long and involved process—and we acknowledge that even today it is far from perfect. But the year 1965 captured the imagination of the nation as the demands for access to voting was raised as a key demand and related to questions of open violence against African Americans. Jimmie Lee Jackson had been ruled ineligible to register to vote for four years; but took as a tenet of his Baptist faith that he was somebody, and that he had every right to register, every right to vote. Marching with other civil rights workers to protest the jailing of James Orange, Deacon Jackson was gunned down by the Alabama State Police.  In response to the pain of this outrageous violence against a peaceful people, James Bevel and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called people of faith to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday,” a wall of state troopers met this people of conscience, morality and ethics with violence, and prevented them from crossing the bridge. Dr. King called on people of faith from throughout the nation to join the marchers, and what some call “Turnaround Tuesday” was planned for March 9, where 2,500 people joined in confronting—though not yet crossing—the Edmund Pettis Bridge. That evening, three White ministers were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, and Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb became our first martyr to this cause.

The events of Selma will be remembered this year in this Temple of Truth, not to wax nostalgic about those golden days of Unitarian Universalist leadership and identity, not only to raise the names of martyrs Jimmie Lee Jackson and Unitarian Universalists James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, but to take stock of where we are as a church, where we are as a country. I believe we have a long way to go, and I think our year of thinking about Selma is a year for thinking about how this congregation can reach into the community to find allies and to be part of the cultural change that this nation needs if it is to live into the promise of democracy. We need to find ways to respond to the violence that is being meted out to Black young men—often at the hands of the police. We need to face squarely the “new Jim Crow” which is permanently excising Black men from social and democratic life. We need to be part of the cultural change that this nation requires at this time if the promise of democracy is to be fulfilled.

We are so pleased this evening to be joined by the co-sponsoring people who make this night possible: our co-religionists of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Harford County, the Unitarian Universalists of Fallston; our colleagues in the struggle for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the religious community, the Faith Communities of Baltimore with Pride; and our diverse friends from Union Baptist Church, St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church and St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Parish. Welcome all and thank you for your support.

There will be other selma@50  Still I Rise events this year. Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, author of The Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism, will be delivering a Zoerheide Lecture on Religion in the Public Square in January or February (date still being worked on). In March, Charles Blackburn, who served as Minister of the UU Church in Huntsville, Alabama during those days, will preach from this pulpit on March 1.  I, myself, will preach on March 14 after returning from the Selma Commemoration. And on UU Unity Weekend, we plan a community concert on Sunday, May 3. Stay tuned as details are developed.

But here we are tonight. This Sanctuary will be blessed by the music of our artist in residence Music Director James Houston; and Orpheus Music Global, artists from Morgan State University, will present the premiere of a work that they will tour later this year, “And We Keep Growing Stronger.” I can’t say how pleased I am that Vincent Dion Stringer and Samuel Springer, joined by Evander McLean and Richard Keller II, under the direction of Dwight RB Cook, have created this evening’s feature piece, which I believe tells a great, long, important, epochal story of a people; tells the story not just to remember, although remember we must, but to prepare us all to writing the next chapters of the human story as we do our part in this living legacy of powerful faith, this living legacy of democracy and social engagement, this living legacy of Truth.  Let us begin. 


You Get What You Pay For, by Brian Williard

Tuesday, 23 September 2014 12:58 Published in The Minister's blog

Brian Williard was a member of our congregation who died on September 12 at the age of 38. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Philosphy and taught in community colleges in Pennsylvania before coming to Baltimore. We are saddened and shocked at his untimely death. Published below is a humorous column that he prepared in August he hoped to see in a local newspaper.

You Get What You Pay For

Brian Williard

I love the Circulator busses.  I usually loathe the actual experience of riding them, but who could argue with their avowed principle of “Fast.  Friendly.  Free.”?  (I’ve tried in vain to reach their Grammar Department to suggest changing the signage to “Our Service Is Fast, Friendly, and Free.”)  The degrees of the buses’ punctuality and drivers’ friendliness may vary, but the freeness is constant. 

The lack of a mere $1.60 fare makes its social leveling effects so interesting.  Where else can one find professionals so intimately comingling with drunks and addicts?  Or young children hearing the coarse talk of hoppers on their way to work (people over)?  And then there’s the many people like me, dutifully forfeiting our seats to others and disseminating helpful hints to the ever-so-earnest tourists.  I’ll admit that I feel a slight deflation when I see them asking the driver the same question I had just answered.  Do I look like the kind of person who gets my kicks by giving people false directions? 

On the Circle-You-Later, the more does certainly not make the merrier.  It’s not so much that the conditions make you pissy, but others’ pissiness is contagious.  I generally enjoy making jokes to strangers to observe their reactions; the more offbeat the quip, the better.  When the bus gets extremely packed, to lighten the mood, I may affect a vague foreign accent and say, “If this were my homeland, the next oncoming rider would have to sit on the roof.” 

If my whimsical conspiratorial mindset is correct, this is when the drivers rack up the most points in their game of Passenger Bowling.  The object is simple:  cause passengers to fall by starting and stopping abruptly.  (The elderly, infirm, and intoxicated only count for half a point; someone with two or more such qualities amounts to ¼.)  Legend has it that a Bill H. once got six standing passengers to collapse in domino fashion.

I truly relish when capacity and my conscience allow me to take a seat.  Whether I’ve had a Sisyphean day sitting at the computer or a drunken one sitting at [location redacted], sometimes I’m just in the mood to do more sitting.  Hopefully, I’ll be fortunate and will happen upon a dry one.  If I belatedly discover that I have not, I can only hope that the dampness is from an overturned beverage.  Wishful thinking has gotten me far in life.

I will try to not read nor write, preferring instead to be mindful of the scenery.  I will feel smug self-satisfaction by noting how many people are too engrossed in their electronic toys or their chemical oblivion to just be, to take the world in.  With my Luddite leanings, I deem cell phones a scourge upon society.  They act in concert with many other cultural factors to erode civility.  Speaking or pretending to speak for nonessential purposes to others in a publicly enclosed space is a flagrant sin in this regard.

I’ve thought of taking obnoxious countermeasures in acts of self-righteous absurdism.  I could pretend that they’re talking to me:  “What do you mean, ‘Where am I?’  I’m sitting right across from you!”  Or, I could intrude into their conversation in a faux knowing way:  “Dude, you’re forgetting the best part!  Tell ‘em how Gina had just downed four shots of Jack when that went down!”  What I actually do enjoy doing—see my aforementioned penchant for oddball humor—is saying “I’m not here” when another’s phone rings.

What truly baffles me about public transportation in general is the people who use it to kill time.  In clement weather, surely one can find something better to do.  I understand that sometimes one just needs to sleep and may think they’re in the safest place to do so, but I’m talking about alert and awake people.  And the drivers know such regulars.  They note that so-and-so got on at such-and-such a spot and will have to disembark after one lap.  After all, “There’s [always] another one right behind me.”

But hey, there’s also a pedestrian world awaiting your circulation throughout it.  For better or worse.


Brian Williard is a failing humor writer and online businessman.  His less tame humor can be found at 

Waking up on Labor Day

Monday, 01 September 2014 22:29 Published in The Minister's blog

Rev. Raymond H. Bradley Jr.
(July 25, 1929-August 29, 2014)
a minister of the United Church of Christ

In the summer of 1992, I was unable to sleep. I had had a bad breakup in the late spring, and each night tossed and turned until the sun rose when I would sleep for a couple of hours before going to work. Finally, on Labor Day weekend, I slept straight through for a day and a half, and woke up on Labor Day noticing a cooler air, a brilliant and clear sky, and even a touch of hope in my heart.

I spent the next nine months considering whether I would answer the long-felt call to divinity school (and perhaps to professional ministry). I had three significant conversation partners during that time: the late Rev. Dr. Lucius Walker (Baptist), with whom I went to Cuba as part of Pastors for Peace; the late Rev. Dr. Jack Mendelsohn (Unitarian Universalist), who supervised my year of working as a church sexton; and Rev. Raymond H. Bradley, Jr., who died last week of complications after a car crash on August 10.

I can’t capture my relationship with Mr. Bradley with a little parenthetical. I was one of the first people in Riverside, RI to get to know him. I was a college freshman and sophomore when I served on the Pastoral Search Committee that found Mr. Bradley and recommended him as our first choice candidate to become our Pastor. He counseled me as I came to terms with being gay–something I knew about myself for as long as I could remember, but which I feared I could never share with my community of faith, or even my family. He made me the choir director of our children and youth choir, and supervised my work assisting the church organist as I led the senior choir and created wild theatrical moments for the church. And as I struggled with my doubt, with my search for deep meaning, with my thirst for a spirituality that included emotion and mystery, and my struggle for intellectual satisfaction in religion, Mr. Bradley was open, supportive and encouraging.

He married us; he baptized our kids; he stood with both my Mom and Dad when they served on the Board of Deacons and were called to share in the Lord’s Supper; he helped us welcome people into our family, and when Dad died, he played a significant role in standing with a family in their grief.

Christmas Eve was, for many years, a special time for the two of us. We had an early service at church at 7:00 o’clock or so, and then there were a number of families that had open houses and we’d go to a couple or few of those. But the late service at 11:00 o’clock was the candlelight service that was simple and poetic, very present and full of time-beyond-time. I sang three or four quiet solos in the earlier years; Mr. Bradley read the scriptures and led us in prayer; and all of us would sit in wonder as the announcement was made of the God-with-us in ways that we could know and never fully understand.

After the service, I would go to the Bradleys’ home for a little quiet time. Ever our pastor’s wife, Sally would make tea and light candles, and we’d sit around the Christmas tree and exchange gifts and stories. As I moved on in my life, moved to Boston and beyond, the routine was altered; the late service louder and more energetic, and the after-church visitation sometimes waiting for Christmas Day.

One last time of sitting and speaking came, years later, when I visited their home in Peace Dale after my dad died. We shared tea and shortbread and more stories about our lives and our loves. I confessed my failures in ministry, and he comforted and encouraged me about what it means to be human, and to fail, and to use failures as a way to learn. He shared with me about not giving up, and discerning what was the special quality that each day presented for living a life of faith, striving for wholeness and justice. And he encouraged me to keep thinking theologically; to understand the authority that ministers have in the congregational tradition, and the responsibility we bear for nurturing the life of the congregations we are called both to serve and to lead. And he asked me to hear the divine will in the living of our collective life; to nurture a practice of quiet prayer and enthusiastic detachment, with a view toward a longer life, a richer effectiveness, and a deeper identification with all the human hearts we encounter and are called to love.

Since adulthood, I’ve never known life without Raymond H Bradley, Jr. Now he is gone. This is something entirely new. My fervent prayer is that my life will shine with just a glint of the hope that his life represented, and the deepest conviction that each new birth, each new accomplishment, each new relationship, each new act of justice and each new kindness is proof that God has not given up on us yet; and that we dare not give up on each other.

“Oh Love, that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee. I give Thee back the life I owe that in thine ocean depths, its flow may richer, fuller be.” (George Mattheson, 1882)

"the use of the democratic process"

Monday, 14 April 2014 00:00 Published in The Minister's blog

I was happy to see this Letter to the Editor of the Baltimore Sun written by a member of our congregation:

Maryland First . . . The Other States Will Follow

by Joe Garonzik

Hardly a day goes by without a story exposing wealthy special interests sticking it to the average Joe. One day it’s Wall Street bankers bringing down the economy, foreclosing on the unsuspecting poor, and getting off virtually scot-free. The next day, it’s insurance companies charging exorbitant rates for health coverage yet denying claims whenever they can get away with it.  Drug companies and pesticide manufacturers lobby the FDA to delay pulling a harmful product from the market while unwitting patients or phosphate-breathing farm workers pay the heavy price.  The Sun’s Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin’s article, “Kochs have stake in oil sands,” raises concerns about who really stands to gain from the purported Keystone Pipeline. And then there is Sheldon Adelson.

Maddie Hanna’s March 27 article posted on the Sun’s website described Adelson’s  blatant intentions to hold court for the Republican presidential contenders wishing to compete for his financial support. The victor in this “winner take all” bid for the casino mogul’s backing, stands to pocket a fortune in TV ads from the man who spent  $93 million in his 2012 bid as kingmaker.,0,4184062.story

Adelson, the Koch brothers, a handful of other billionaires, working with their front groups and superpacs use their fortunes to control the political dialogue in America’s elections, in large part, because of the Supreme Court’s verdict in Citizens United .  This game of “billionaire bingo” could get even more out of hand if the Court rules similarly in McCutcheon.

There are now 14 proposed Constitutional amendments in Congress that would address Citizen’s United; however, Congress’s failure to act on any of them speaks volumes about national legislators’ own dependence on corporate donations and the power of “dark money” in our political campaigns . Accordingly, the burden now rests  with states like Maryland, who are empowered to call for a convention , under Article V of the U.S. Constitution, expressly to (1) affirm every citizen’s individual right to vote, (2) reject the doctrine that artificial entities have inalienable right, and (3) regulate campaign contributions and electioneering expenditures.”  In all, 34 states (2/3) must issue the call for a Convention to take place.  Maryland, in all its diversity, would be among the first.

We must not delay any longer in responding to the crisis posed by Citizens United .  Maryland can show the way forward now, much as our 17th-century forebears did with the first statute for religious toleration in America. Maryland is poised to accomplish a significant milestone and should summon the courage to act boldly in the face of an existential threat to democracy.


Joe Garonzik
224 Blenheim Road
Baltimore, MD 21212

Joe Garonzik is a volunteer with the non-profit organization, Get Money Out Maryland

Argow on Darwin

Wednesday, 12 February 2014 00:00 Published in The Minister's blog

Someone gave me a copy of this sermon by our mid-20th century minister, Rev. Dr. W. Waldemar W. Argow. I thought it would be especially interesting to post it on Darwin's birthday.

“Our Debt to Charles Darwin”

A sermon by Rev. W. Waldemar W. Argow, Th.D.

When one thinks about Charles Darwin and his contributions to our common life, it is inevitable that the words of Victor Hugo should come to mind. Said he, “The most irresistible power in all the world is an idea whose hour has struck.”

This is the centennial year of Charles Darwin’s book, “The Origin of Species through the Method of Natural Selection.” As I contemplated the coming of the centennial, I have felt for some time that I wanted to speak about Darwin’s contribution, made through this book, to the understanding of our common life and ourselves. Also, by this small token of gratitude, I shall pay tribute to Charles Darwin for what, through “The Origin of Species” and his other great book, “The Descent of Men,” he meant to me personally in those Babylonian years when I was struggling for a rational, reasonable and sensible interpretation of this life of ours, It is, therefore, out of a sense of profound gratitude that I speak this morning.

So stupendous was the effect of Darwin’s writings that it shattered man’s intellectual world, scattering pieces into every nook and cranny of civilization. So revolutionary was it and so overwhelmingly that it produces an entirely different intellectual, moral, social and spiritual climate in which men from there on were bound to live.

It is my opinion that Charles Darwin ranks among the four great men in our Western culture. The first was Copernicus who added vast new areas to our lives. The second was Sir Isaac Newton who gave us an altogether new understanding and concept of this universe of which we are all a part. And lastly there was Sigmund Freud who likewise gave us a revolutionary new understanding, not only of ourselves, but also of our identity with our human past.

And so it is as we contemplate Charles Darwin and his revolutionary contributions this morning that I want to place him in his proper niche in man’s unfolding story.

Perhaps it might be well for just a moment to try to understand who he was and how he came to make his historic contributions. First of all, he was born on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, February 12, 1809, in the little village of Shrewsbury, England. His father, Dr. Robert Darwin, and his grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, were men of profound intellectual power. Both of then were physicians.

Early in life young Charles showed a propensity for inquiry into the mysteries of life all about him. Everything fascinated him. By the age of ten he had already amassed a collection of many hundreds of different insects and flowers. Not only had he collected them, but he had also classified them and he knew wherein they varied from one another.

Understandably, it was the father’s wish that Charles should follow in the family profession of physicians, but the boy was too much interested in the mystery of life all about him. As a consequence, when Charles was in his late teens, his father sent him to Cambridge in the hope that the influence of the intellectual climate there might change his viewpoint. But—fortunately, as things turned out—the boy fell under the influence of some outstanding naturalists.

When I use the word “naturalist” this morning, you must bear in mind that there were only two types of intellectual discipline in Darwin’s time, One was the so-called classical, and the other was the so-called natural. There was no such thing as science, in our modern sense of the term, and anyone who was a philosopher might conceivably also be a naturalist if he were interested in the natural phenomena about him.

While he was there at Cambridge, young Darwin’s soul was electrified by the consideration and interest shown him. His father hoped that if he did not go into medicine, Charles might become a clergyman. This was not in the cards for Charles, however, for the study of theology interested him not at all.

(I often reflect upon the fact that if you fail to make good at everything else, or if you aren’t interested in anything else, people will want to make a preacher out of you! The story is told of the father who, as was the custom in an earlier generation, selected and elected the professions and vocations of his sons. Said he to his wife, “My dear, this oldest boy of ours has a very fine analytical mind; I’m sure we can make a lawyer our of him. Our second son has a sympathetic feeling for people; I’m convinced we can make a doctor of him. But our youngest son—. Well. He’s something of a dullard, as you know. So it must be that he will be our preacher!”

Too often this has been the case. And usually the implication has been that if you can’t succeed at anything else, at least you can putter around in the ministry.)

By the end of his Cambridge career Charles had become more interested than ever in the vast array of facts and bits of information about the natural world that were beginning to pile up everywhere. So in separation he went to his uncle, Josiah Wedgewood, to ask him to intercede with his father.

Now it just so happened that at this particular time the British Crown announced that the Royal Navy was to send a ship around the world for the study of natural phenomenon and to gather all the information it could for the benefit of the navy. Charles was overwhelmed with joy at the possibility that he night be appointed official naturalist for the voyage.

Finally his father consented; and on December 22, 1836, HMS Beagle set sail on her historic five-year long voyage. Perhaps no other voyage, with the exception of Columbus’ first one, has accomplished as much for civilization as the long, long cruise of Her Majesty’s Ship, Beagle.

Month after month, Beagle slowly circled the earth, avoiding the North and South Poles, of course, but sailing into almost every other area of the earth’s surface. Every time the ship dropped anchor, Charles would go ashore, with to the mainland or to some island, and, driven by his insatiable curiosity, would collect seeds, flowers, rocks, bits of stone, fossils, insects and animals that he might bring them back to the shop.

Then, during the night or when the vessel was under way again he would study and analyze and correlate until at last a tremendous amount of facts and information began to take shape which gave him an insight into many new things new and mysterious. Darwin himself did not quite know what he was looking for, but somehow he felt that he was in the midst of a great mystery that was gradually unraveling.

During this time he acquainted himself as much as possible with breeders of plants, animals, fowl, cattle and horses so that he might learn how breeds and new species came into being. After five eventful years, he returned to his home base.

An omnivorous reader, Darwin became acquainted with the work of Jean Lamarck, the French naturalist; Carolus Linneaus, the Swedish naturalist; and Sir James Hooker, the English geologist. Ideas were everywhere in the air. An intellectual hunger was manifesting itself. And Charles was constantly seeking, seeking, seeking for answers.

Now then, what was the marvelous thing that was happening, and why did it come about? In the first place, what Charles Darwin did with his discoveries and his correlation of facts was nothing less than to shatter man’s existing concept of creation! Up until Darwin’s time it had been universally believed and universally taught that on the Day of Creation, which had occurred only 6,000 years previously, God had created every blade of grass, every plant, every tree, every insect, every fish, every bird, every animal, every living organism exactly as it was. There had been absolutely no change whatsoever. People believed in what was known as the immutability of the species. That is to say, everything that exists today is merely a continuation, a reproduction of something that God originally created. There has been no variation, no change.

When fossils were found, particularly the fossilized remains of the great prehistoric animals, men did not believe that these ancient creatures were no longer living. Instead, they maintained that the animals must still be alive—the skeleton remains were those of contemporary creatures—even thought no one had seen them. The world was still a big place with unexplored hinterlands in many directions, and men believed that if only they ventured far enough into the undiscovered regions, and men believed that if only they ventured far enough into the undiscovered regions, they would find these fabulous creatures still alive. The basic concept, you see, was that there had been no change whatsoever in any way in any existing living thing.

The first thing Darwin did was to build a stairway down into the past, and, instead of being 6,000 years long, the path of the stairs was proving to be millions of years long. Down and down and down it went into a post that was utterly different from anything man had dreamed of before.

This was the way in which Darwin built up his conception of the past: in all of his studies, during all of his voyages, he had seen the rise of volcanoes and the disappearances of land masses. He had seen sedimentary rocks, and in the3wse rocks he had seen the skeletons and fossilized remains of animals which no longer existed upon this earth. He looked and looked and found that there was a total dissimilarity with everything that lived today.

Another thing that was startling was the fact that a species of plant or animal which he found in one place was very different from the same species found in another place. He first discovered this phenomenon in the Cape Verde Islands where he found that the birds, the flora, and even the animals on the Cape Verde group were completely different from those in the Galapagos group. Also he found that the mice on the East side of the Andes were significantly different from those on the West side.

All these discrepancies caused Darwin to ask questions. During the Beagle’s long voyage had kept a detailed account of everything he saw and found. In his notebooks he made voluminous notes indicating exactly what he had found in this insect, this fossil, that plant. He noted the soil, the moisture content, sun, winds, rocks, and the chemistry of anything that could give him any clue. And still he had no answer as to why this was different from that.

But now he was convinced that there was a power at work somewhere in the nature of things, an orderly power that apparently worked according to some definite law which, as yet, he was unable to put his finger on.

In addition, he became an astute and careful student of anatomy, not only human, but anatomy of all skeletal substance. By a process of comparison, he discovered that the hand of a man, the paw of a mole, the flipper of a seal, the wing of a bid, and the hoof of a horse were similar in function and must have a common origin.

All this anatomical similarity began to persuade him back, back, back down the long corridors of time, life had suffered certain changes n form, and that one fragment of life must have grown out of another fragment of life. As yet there was no real science, certainly not of genetics and very little of biology, and all that he did had to be done by the long tortuous method of induction.

One day he came across Thomas Malthus’ famous book on the problem of human population. In this book Malthus had written that population, be it of plants, or animals, or insects, or men, increases or decreases according to environmental factors, such as food supplies of enemies. As a consequence, Malthus contended that the force behind these various population problems was basically the same: it was a struggle for existence. When this struggle for existence is intense and powerful, the weak are pushed aside and the strong survive.

At long last Darwin had found the clue he was looking for. What happens, he maintained, is that the fit mate with the fit and the unfit with the unfit, and sometimes either way, but in the end it is the fit who are able to survive in the struggle for existence. So here, finally, was his answer to the mysterious something he had sensed at work in life, and he defined it by calling it the survival of the fit by the process of natural selection.

Now just at this point there occurred one of the most remarkable episodes of which I know so far as humility and deference of one mind to another were concerned. Way over on the other side of the world in Australia lived a naturalist buy the name of Alfred Russel Wallace who independently had been doing a lot of research very similar to Darwin’s. The two men had corresponded, but only in a vague and desultory way.

Darwin’s friends had been trying to persuade him to publish his conclusions. Said they, “You should now gather all the information you have, out it into book, and give it to the world.”

Darwin was about to do this when one day he opened a letter from his friend Wallace in which considerable length Wallace presented a theory which was almost identical with Darwin’s theory. Darwin gasped in amazement! To think that another human being, without any interchange of ideas or information, could come to the same conclusion!

And yet, instead of being angry, instead of brushing aside Wallace’s letter and trying to ignore it, Darwin went to his friends and said, “I am not entitled to publish my book because if is really Alfred Russel Wallace who has made this great discovery, and he is entitled to the credit.”

Wallace, it turned out, was a man of equally fine character. After some further correspondence, he urged Darwin to go ahead and publish, which Darwin did.

When the book was published, a veritable earthquake took place in the intellectual life of England. The abuse that was heaped upon Darwin’s head was almost beyond belief. He was called a God-smasher, a man whose insane desire was to disrobe and dethrone God. Leader of the attack upon Darwin was Bishop Wilberforce of the established Church of England. Speaking out in behalf of Darwin was—as you might guess—a Unitarian clergyman, Dr. Charles Kingsley. Said he, “Let God smite men dumb not with ignorance, but with understanding! If this be denied, let the truth be told.”

Darwin’s staunchest defender at this time was the great Thomas Huxley whose grandsons we know today by their writings. Huxley published a long, approving article on the book in “The London Times,” and when Thomas Huxley put his stamp of approval on what Darwin had discovered, or at least on his theories, the climate of opinion began to change and it became respectable now at least to inquire into Darwin’s concept.

What was that historic concept? What contribution has Charles Darwin made to our understanding of ourselves? It is almost impossible to give it to you in any categorical fashion, for you need to disabuse and empty your minds of such concepts as we have today and try to think yourselves back a hundred years to the time when Darwin’s book was published.

In essence, here is what he gave us: first of all, this is a living and growing universe. Such a position is commonplace today, of course, but you remember that Darwin pioneered it. Ours, said he, is a living universe in which all life has had a common origin. Furthermore, it is an infinite universe in which life, not biological life, exactly, but life substance in its mysteriousness is triumphant and universal. Still further, said he, by the change from the simple to the complex, all human beings share in the common life stream and we are all related part and parcel to all other living things and pulsating things. And, finally, it means that all life carries within itself the best qualities of its own past.

It remained for Sigmund Freud to make us aware of how immediate the past is in every one of us; that the past is not dead and that we belong to a great, unbroken human stream; and that therefore we carry a kind of immortality within us.

Take, for example, your own personal case. You are the child of two people, and these two people are the children of four people, and then sixteen, and then thirty-two, and so on, and so on, and so on. And after you get through the human stream, you go to the prehuman stream, and after that you go on back and back and back with ever an unbroken line. There has never been a moment in that long, mysterious record of billions of years in which there was one single break between you and the origin of life. If there had been such a break, you wouldn’t be here! All of this means that we carry within ourselves an immortality that goes back to the very heart of things.

Still another thing Darwin gave us is this: in the evolution of man, with the emergence of reason and intellect—first instinct, then reason, and then the spiritual qualities of love—it is as if the Creator had said: “now I am finished with the evolution of man. I am turning the process over and placing it in your hands. With instinct, reason and live you now have the power either to destroy yourselves, and all other life too, or you can go forth and create a world more nearly to the heart’s desire.”

The last thing to come out of Darwin’s revolution is some realization of the supreme dignity, majesty, and awful responsibility of man. Do you suppose we could get this concept across to people? This feeling of identity? This sense of intimacy with the greater cosmic stream of life? If only we could get this across to people—particularly our political. Military and other leaders—would any of them still tinker or flirt with the possibility of destroying life upon this earth with the atomic or hydrogen bomb? What tremendous moral responsibility rests upon us of this generation! For all we have it in our power to destroy all life from the face of the earth, every last vestige of living protoplasm, until only a burned out cinder is left.

Now I am willing to grant that perhaps we have a right to destroy ourselves; maybe our own little lives do belong to us to do with what we will. But do we have the right, the moral right, to destroy all other living substance which shares the common quality of livingness with us? Certainly it is a madness that has possessed us, something only an insane man would tolerate—much less conceive.

What does all this mean for our day and generation? Assuredly it means this: that traditional religion must face up to the facts of evolution as Charles Darwin gave them to us: that all life is one; that we have all sprung from the great universal heart of life, and that we all have a moral responsibility to one another and to life in general. I say, unless traditional religion accepts these foundation facts in place of its childlike image of a magical creation in a mythical Garden of Eden, it is morally derelict to its great responsibility and it needs desperately to be awakened to the facts of life.

In the year 1882 there came one day a lovely Spring morning when the earth was being re-carpeted with its perennial green velvet, blossoms were bursting forth our of the darksome earth, and birds were relearning their almost forgotten, throaty songs; and on this day—it was Aprul1 17th—the magnificent heart and mind of Charles Darwin returned to the great world soul which he had learned to revere and so splendidly honor.

In a few days Darwin’s body was carried from the manor house where he had lived, taken to Westminster Abbey, and there placed alongside the remains of another great man who had also added much to the realm of human knowledge—Sir Isaac Newton.

How true of Charles Darwin are the words of James Russell Lowell when he said:

“Great truths are portions of the souls of men;
Great souls are portions of eternity.”

Darwin, I thank you for what you have contributed to our understanding of the greatness, grandeur, and magnificent glory of life!

Raise the Minimum Wage in Maryland!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014 18:49 Published in The Minister's blog

Here's a copy of my testimony presented to the General Assembly of the State of Maryland this week.

  Support SB331/HB295
Maryland Minimum Wage Act of 2014

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee
House Committee on Economic Matters

The Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland represents 24 congregations from across the state, approximately 4,700 people of faith who understand that “love is the doctrine of this church, and service its prayer.” Our congregations include people who are working for the minimum wage. Our ministers provide pastoral care to minimum wage workers trying to better themselves and care for families. We do service to those who live in and near poverty, and we profess the worth and dignity of every individual.

Our principles affirm justice, equity and compassion in human relations. We live in a moment when nearly half a million people will benefit directly from raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as proposed by Senate Bill 331/House Bill 295. I see this as a matter of equity in the richest state in the nation—that those working people on the very bottom of the economic ladder may see some benefit from the general prosperity our state is experiencing. I see this as a matter of racial and ethnic justice, as the majority of minimum wage workers are people of color; and of gender justice, as most minimum wage workers are women. Raising the minimum wage is, too, an act of compassion, recognizing that special attention must be paid by society at large—in this case, through the mechanism of our legislature—to those persons least represented in the halls of power and most affected by the indignity of a wage that keeps their family in poverty.

Unitarian Universalists call particular attention to the provision of SB331/HB295 which increases the tipped sub-minimum wage from 50% to 70% of the minimum wage. Our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee works to raise consciousness among our members and the larger community about the reality of restaurant work, and 1,000 congregations nation-wide are participating in a common read of the book Behind the Kitchen Door, written by Unitarian Universalist-raised attorney and labor leader Saru Jayaraman. The three features of SB331/HB295—a stepped increase to $10.10 an hour, indexed for increases in the cost of living, with a raise of the sub-minimum wage for tipped employees to 70% of minimum wage—comprise a law that will address the dignity of labor and the laborer, and be about justice, equity and compassion.

On behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland, on whose Board I sit, I urge a favorable report for this important legislation.

Please contact Rev. David Carl Olson, Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore at (410) 350-9339 if you have any additional questions.

Rain barrel!

Thursday, 23 May 2013 11:37 Published in The Minister's blog

IMG 0614

I watered my garden today with rainwater collected last weekend by the new rain barrels I bought, courtesy of Baltimore County (not the jurisdiction I live in). Although I have not connected them to the downspouts oF my house's gutter system, I was able to collect nearly a hundred gallons just leaving them under the biggest cracks in the copper gutters.

There is something satisfying to me knowing that I am conserving rainwater for my own recreational purpose. Water is a problem at my house. The water provided by Baltimore City is very expensive, and my house has a serious flooding problem that I am beginning to alleviate. To capture rainwater means that I don't have to pay for it (beyond the cost of the barrel); that the rain will be controlled and not run into my basement; and it will be available for my gardening hobby which is also part of my spiritual practice. Satisfying!

Caring for this system which sustains us is my tiny but conscious contribution to the long-term sustainability of our planet. I depend on the planet; I hope the planet can depend on me.

Unitarian Universalists congregations affirm and promote . . . the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Two Who Dared: Waitstill and Martha Sharp

Thursday, 02 May 2013 00:00 Published in The Minister's blog
Martha and Waitstill
The LGBTQ Humanist Council of Baltimore tonight viewed the film, "Two Who Dared: The Sharps' War," a new documentary about the young couple who left the comfort of their life in Wellesley, Massachusetts to aid people persecuted by the Nazi regime in Czechoslovakia and later from Lisbon, Portugal. The movie is devastatingly powerful, and I am nearly speechless.


Waitstill Hastings Sharp was ordained to the Unitarian ministry in 1933, the year when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of the United States and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Martha was, by training, a social worker, having been trained at Hull House in Chicago. The couple's son, Hastings, was six years old and their daughter, Martha, two years old when the Sharps were asked to go to Europe to provide direct aid to the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, the Unitarian Church of Prague.

The Prague congregation had always been a cosmopolitan center, but as intellectuals and radicals fled the Nazi regime in Germany and the Sudetenland, the congregation became increasingly a home for dissent and aspiration for freedom. The Sharps provided some material aid to refugees, but grew increasingly convinced that what they really needed to do was to help people escape. And so they worked the extensive relationships of Unitarians with people in London, Paris and the United States to find governments ready to take refugees and situations that might provide housing and jobs.

When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, the Sharps learned through their underground contacts that they were going to be arrested. Waitstill was, at the time, organizing illegal money transfers in London, and Martha was able to flee Prague to join her husband in England. The two then returned home.

But not for long. The American Unitarian Associaiton President Frederick May Eliot convinced them to travel to Europe to help set up a more permanent operation in Lisbon, and the Unitarian Service Committee was born.

I have many personal connections with the Sharps. Martha went to Pembroke College at Brown University (my alma mater), and Waitstill served the Unitarian congregation in Flint, Michigan, which was my own ministerial call before coming to Baltimore. But the moment in the film that took me by surprise was the interviews with Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, who had been my mentor in the early years of my ministry and who challenged me to be a minister with a civic vision pursuing a public ministry. And as I am, in general, a bit of a cry-baby, you may imagine that I was (and am!) moved deeply by tonight's viewing.

A version of the film suitable for classroom use is available on the Facebook page of "Facing History and Ourselves." [Two Who Dared classroom version]  The LGBTQ Humanist Council, a project of the American Humanist Association, plans a viewing of the full theatrical release during June.

Arguing with Capital Punishment

Monday, 01 April 2013 16:45 Published in The Minister's blog

“Arguing with Capital Punishment”
Rev. David Carl Olson

Happy Easter! That’s a greeting that is easy to say on the street on a morning like this, but the same words can be challenging in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. What does Easter mean for a theologically diverse community like ours?

In many UU churches, today is a celebration of Spring, and certainly Easter is that. Flowers are breaking through whatever is left of winter—at my home, the crocus emerged two weeks ago, the daffodils are blooming now, and green leaves of hyacinths and tulips are now emerging, and as they do my heart is filled with hope and joy. Easter is a celebration of Spring—no doubt about that.

In some UU congregations, we’ll link Easter to all the Spring religious festivals, to the northern goddess Oestra (or Ostara) and the fertility rituals around the vernal equinox, when bunnies, the nocturnal animals which represent the moon and the fertile and Divine Female lay eggs which represent the sun and the male and the seed. We’ll tell the Greek story of Kore, the maiden-daughter of the Grain-Mother Demeter. Kore was stolen by her uncle Hades to the world of the departed spirits to become Persephone, no longer a maiden; she is permitted each spring to return to her mother’s world, to earth and to us. We’ll tell of Isis lovingly putting the broken parts of Osiris together as he lay dead on the riverbank. Mother Nile returns bringing nourishment to the great fields of grain, and Osiris is brought back to life. Babylonian Ishtar rescues Tammuz from the Underworld. Phoenicians tell a similar story of Adonis and Aphrodite.

And in some UU churches, we’ll tell stories this morning about spring cleaning, about feeling the warm sunshine, about getting out of Winter’s confinements so that our bodies and minds might be set free. Easter, we might say, is about renewal and liberation, rescue and revivification.

But I say, Easter is also about our friend Jesus. A Jesus who we have long called our leader. (You can see it written right there, on the wall!) Easter is about the aftermath of Jesus’s experience of being put to death by the state. Easter is about capital punishment.

This session of the Maryland General Assembly has been about capital punishment. Our senators and delegates have outlawed capital punishment in Maryland, our Governor gave this issue his highest attention and will soon sign the bill into law. From one perspective the matter is now settled, capital punishment has been replaced with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. We needn’t bother to talk about it any more.

But I imagine that we yet have something to say about the death penalty. I imagine we will have an extended conversation among our citizens in the next 18 months as supporters of the death penalty organize to take this law to popular referendum, as they have sworn to do.

In Maryland, a recent Washington Post poll reports that about sixty per cent of Marylanders think we should have some form of death penalty. The poll shares some expected data: that men tend to be stronger supporters of the death penalty than women; that white people tend to be more supportive than people of color; that Republicans by a very slim differential tend to be more in favor of capital punishment than Democrats. But overall, even in as Democratic Party-dominated a state as ours, fewer than forty per cent of the people think that the death penalty should be abolished, that capital punishment should be replaced by life in prison.

As a matter of fact, many people think that the law adopted three years ago limiting the death penalty to those with a positive DNA identification, with videotaped confessions or video footage that proves the guilt of the person committing a heinous crime makes the death penalty in Maryland flawless. With such evidence, they say, the state will never make a mistake.

And yet . . .

And yet, every day the Innocence Project identifies new cases of people sitting on Death Row where verdicts were proved by current forensic standards to be wrong. Most infamous in Maryland was the case of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was convicted in 1985. He spent 8 years in prison, two on Death Row, before being exonerated 20 years ago. Eyewitnesses misidentified Bloodsworth, the government misconducted its case, and ultimately more modern DNA testing disproved his involvement in sexual assault, rape and first degree murder. Bloodsworth was the first person exonerated from Death Row due to post-conviction DNA testing; he was released from prison and later pardoned.

Many argue that as our current law provides a much higher evidentiary standard, so no innocent person will be sentenced to death according to this theory. Yet what this law does is to make the evidence available in a case more important than the crime. Once, the nature of the crime put someone at risk for capital punishment. The most heinous crimes would result in the most extreme punishment.

If the factor that leads to the death penalty is not the crime but the available evidence—DNA, video recording, etc.—then the application of a sentence of death becomes frivolous. Many Death Penalty opponents already argue that capital punishment is not applied evenly, that poor people and people of color and especially people of color who committed crimes against white people are far more likely to face the death penalty. The law as it has stood in Maryland for the past three years has not addressed this concern. Instead, it has added its own set of inequalities.

Some argue, “If you take a life, why should you be allowed to keep your own life?” This is not consistent with how we attempt to find justice under our law. If you are an arsonist, for example, the state does not set fire to your house. If you are a belligerent, the state does not beat you up. If, forgive me, you are a rapist, the state does not rape you.

Our system seeks to find justice by depriving you not of your life, but of your freedom. Liberty has a high value in our culture, and depriving someone of their liberty is a high penalty for the commission of crimes against people, against property, against the state.

For these reasons, I stand in support of the law passed by our legislature on March 15. I share Holly Near’s sentiment when she asks the question:

Why do we kill people who are killing people
to show that killing people is wrong?
What a foolish notion that war is called devotion
When the greatest warriors are the ones that stand for peace.

I believe that this is consistent with my own sense of my own worth and dignity, my sense of the worth and dignity of each person, the offended, the offender, the victim, the executioner. I struggle with this, but I believe that my faith has called me to this position; and I have signed a statement that if someone were to take my life, I would not want the state to take the offender’s life.


The Jesus story that we tell on Easter includes this beautiful mosaic, this icon, that stands before us each week, this picture of our Rabbi, our teacher, our leader (the sign says). Look at that—this is a story of invitation: a welcoming chalice at the center of a welcoming table. All are welcome, even, in this iconography, those who are confused, those who are indifferent, those who are excited, those who will betray, who will participate in the death of the teacher, will offer the teacher up to be handed over to the state for execution.

The Jesus execution story itself is riddled with challenge. Was the trial fair? Could it have been? The story is told of a mute defendant, a silent Jesus arrested and dragged to trial, railroaded by a complicated court system—a religious court making one finding, an imperial governor asked to carry out the execution. Even a frivolous application of the sentence of death is there in the story. Governor Pontius Pilate asks the crowd: who shall I kill and who release? Two Jesuses are before you. Shall we kill the one who calls himself the Son of [Hu]man[ity], or shall we kill Jesus bar-Abbas (Jesus the son of the Father)? And the crowd says, “Set the son of the Father free; set the son of the Father free; kill the son of humanity!” It is a frivolous decision. It could have gone either way, the capital punishment in this story, it could have gone either way. The story connected to that mosaic says that it was the son of the Father who was released, the son of humanity that the crowd chose to be killed.

In 1919, in the United States, in the wake of World War I and in the midst of a severe economic recession, and especially after the consolidation of the Russian Revolution, immigrants with radical political views began to rounded up in the cities of the United States to be deported to other countries that would take them. This wave of anti-immigrant hysteria was headed by Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer with his rising special assistant J. Edgar Hoover. President Woodrow Wilson, who sang in the choir of this church when he was a student at Johns Hopkins, said that immigrants “had poured poison into the very arteries of our national life. . . . Such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy must be crushed out.”

In South Braintree, Massachusetts, a robbery occurred on payday at the Slater-Morrill shoe factory. A payroll clerk was killed. The police quickly settled on two immigrants, two Italian activists, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco. When they were taken in for questioning, they were evasive, fearful in the anti-immigrant political climate, and halting in their use of English. Anarchist and union literature was found in their homes and the car they were using to visit worksites—to agitate—and they were quickly identified as the prime suspects.

The Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee included Gertrude Winslow, a founder of the Community Church, an early Universalist and Unitarian congregation. Guided by their social vision, Mrs. Winslow and her co-religionists raised funds for Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense, translated their letters, wrote their own opinionated letters to the editor, and gave English lessons to the men in prison and to their community. When the trial ended in convictions for first-degree murder, Mrs. Winslow sought grounds for appeal, and later clemency. After Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on a newly-constructed electric chair, as 20,000 people gathered on Boston Common to hold vigil and protest, and then after more than 10,000 people marched in a funeral cortege that took two hours to pass, Mrs. Winslow and her Committee began to raise questions not only about the trial, but about the judicial system in Massachusetts and the death penalty itself. Four months after the executions, a judicial commission charges with examining the case questioned Judge Webster Thayer’s refusal to grant a new trial, and recommended a change to practice, that the Supreme Judicial Court be given the authority to call for a retrial over the objection of lower courts. They questioned a number of judicial and police actions, and expressed doubt that Sacco and Vanzetti should have been executed.

Mrs. Winslow mounted a broad campaign to do away with the death penalty in Massachusetts. This campaign energized a generation of activists, and began a movement that led to the repeal of the death penalty in Massachusetts and seventeen other states and now, for the first time south of the Mason-Dixon line, in Maryland, the Free State.


It feels like something hopeful. It feels like a possibility for the human family. It feels like a resurrection.

Easter, in my mind, is about hope. Hope that in spite of the many challenges we human beings encounter, hope that in spite of the many mistakes our human systems engender, hope that in spite of our confusions and fears, we humans have the capacity to change things. We have the capacity to hold to the vision of a Beloved Community which will inspire lives of hope: corrective action beyond mistakes, richer knowing beyond misunderstanding, cooperation beyond mistrust, maybe even life beyond death; Easter is about hope. What we learn from many instances of capital punishment can inspire us to be another people, can encourage us to do it another way.

And then I may say, in even as theologically diverse and welcoming place as this, “Happy Easter,” “Happy Easter,” and fully mean it. Blessed be. 

The Liberation of Theology

Sunday, 24 March 2013 00:00 Published in The Minister's blog

The Liberation of Theology

Journalist of progressive faith communities and activist for peace Joyce Hollyday shares these words in her book on spiritual formation and social witness, Then Shall Your Light Rise:

 During my fifteen years in Washington, I helped give out food on Saturday mornings at the Sojourners Neighborhood Center. People still refer to the area at the center’s location as the Fourteenth Street “riot corridor,” three decades after violence swept the city following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It still bears the scars: vacant lots and abandoned buildings, broken glass and shattered hopes.

Every Saturday, up to three hundred families came through the food line for a bag of groceries. Before opening the line, those of us serving the food clasped hands and bowed our heads. Mary Glover, an older neighborhood resident who had lived there for decades, offered a prayer. It was the same prayer every week, but it never seemed redundant. (Olson: I bet some of you know at least some of these words.) I will carry it with me always:

We thank you, Lord, for our lying down last night and our rising up this morning. We thank you that the walls of our room were not the walls of our grave, that our bed was not our cooling board nor our bedclothes our winding-sheet. We thank you for the feet that are coming through this line for food today and that hands that are giving it out. We know, Lord, that you’re coming through this line today, so help us to treat you right. Yes, Lord, help us to treat you right.

I had a conversation with a member of our church a while back, a person who suggested that calling our after-church conversations on the second Sunday of the month a theological conversation was not welcoming for people who didn’t believe in God. I listen hard to this kind of feedback, because I know that we as a church our proud of openness and welcome, and when there is language that we use that makes people feel excluded, we need to be careful. (Not that we can ever be “all things to all people,” nor that we will ever be readily welcoming to everyone!) But to lose the word “theology” because someone doesn’t believe in theos, God, is something about which we might show care.

Theology is a collection of thoughts that help a people make sense of their lives. A classical definition says theology is fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” (Anselm of Canterbury, Benedictine monk and founder of scholasticism, 11th century CE) Theology as a system traditional asks some basic questions: What is this universe? (cosmology) Who is humanity in this cosmos? (anthropology) What is good/Who is God and why is there evil? (theology and theodicy) How does the good/God interact with humanity; and specifically, Who is Jesus? (christology) What is the enduring good/Who is the Spirit and what is the church? (pneumatology and ecclesiology) How are we saved? (soteriology) What will be the end of all this? (eschatology). Theology is the broad and systematic approach to addressing these questions about life and death and the understanding we have, the meaning we make, to the question of what does it mean to be alive.

My basic theological assertion is that being alive means being about the process of promoting freedom. Being alive is about the work of liberation. Any theology that does not promote this essential task is, to me, a theology that must itself be liberated.

I am reminded of others who have called for the liberation of theology. The towering 20th Century neo-orthodox Protestant theologian Karl Barth asserts as much when, after the Second World War, he promoted “the humanity of God” as a corrective to his own earlier diastatic philosophy. Barth had decades earlier resisted the progressive notion of a common theology that could be shared almost indistinguishedly among highly educated, highly cultured, upper middle class people who promoted a polite and civic-minded ethos. These people in power, Barth thought, needed to know that real power was vested in a God that did not go to the best schools, run the finest factories or have lunch at the Maryland club. The real God was not like us. That the purpose of being the church was to proclaim a faith that was not like our democratic and progressive ideals, but was based on the God of the Bible that could not be contained by our expectations, but that rather asserted a way that was entirely different from our comfortable and casual and polite way of being. Not a synthetic philosophy that saw God in reasonable discourse and deduction, Barth called for a diastatic philosophy, a different state theology, an understanding of how different, how distinct, how distant God is from our own understanding.

But this philosophy of a powerful God ruling from a distance did not give the Protestant church of Europe the power to stand up to Fascism, and after the Second World War Barth spoke of the God’s humanity. “[God] want’s in [God’s] freedom not to be without [hu]man[ity], but with [us] and in the same freedom not against [us] but for [us], and that apart from or even counter to what [we] deserve[]. [God] wants, in fact, to be [our] partner, [our] almighty and compassionate Savior.” In the later Latin American tradition of the theology of liberation, we call this God’s desire for solidarity.

Personally, I have long been drawn to these liberationist notions of Latin America. You may know that as a young adult developing my own worldview, I had many interactions with people who challenged the basic perspective of our government toward Latin America. I knew older activists who had been life-long internationalists as undergraduates had been part of the founding of the US Anti-Imperialist Movement. I knew idealists who had gone with the Venceremos Brigade in the 1960s to harvest sugar cane in Cuba. I sang at meetings of the Smedley Butler Brigade of Veterans for Peace as they struggled against our foreign policy in Guatemala. I helped raise funds to send friends to revolutionary Nicaragua. And when I was able to visit El Salvador as an election observer for the United Nations, I spent several days visiting the chapel at the University of Central America, a chapel dedicated to the martyr archbishop Oscar Romero, who has long inspired me by his courage. To have a bishop who fully identifies with the poor and against the actions of the ruling families of his country was an eye-opener to me—and, of course, a threat to the powers that be.

Liberation theology that says that we exist in complicated systems—economic and cultural, gendered and classist—which collect the evils of human beings into unconscious behaviors of oppression. Liberation theology says that “faith seeking understanding” in a culture of extreme poverty is to understand the systems by knowing the lived lives of the poor. God expresses solidarity with humanity not by God’s distance and difference, but by identification and relationship.

The Theology of Liberation is a Liberation of Theology. It moves our focus away from speculation about distant Gods, away from the re-stating of Biblical truth, away, even, from those philosophies that see not an anthropomorphic God but rather a distant divine force, an impersonal moral law. The liberation of theology frees us to know our deepest truths in the lived encounter—not the speculative poor of the Welfare Queens, but the authentic poor of the Wal-Mart worker who asked me on Thursday night if he could be excused from speaking to our Candlelight Processional to Raise the Minimum Wage because he was tired, because he wanted to have dinner with his children. The liberation of theology gets us out of our heads only and into the hands which reach out to welcome and which pick up the task, the shoulders that can be leaned on for support and to allow tears, the feet which are willing to walk the walk of the others. “Spend a mile in my moccasins,” the Indian invites, and our theologies will be liberated.

Such a call for a new look at religion is not unusual in this church. Indeed, out of respect for both the Bible and the human intellect, it was from this very pulpit that a rational and reasonable faith was proclaimed. We honor the Bible not by worshipping the book, but by doing the book. “Religion is not worshipping what the prophets of old did,” William S. Alberts argues, “but doing what the prophets of old worshipped.” They worshipped courage. They worshipped truth. They worshipped unity. They worshipped justice.

In our day, the struggle for human rights is the struggle for liberation. When we demonstrate in Annapolis, we don’t demonstrate for some abstract rule, some distant people, especially for some lower and unfortunate people. We demonstrate out of a sense of connection, moving toward, being in relationship with. Rev. Dr. Harry Seawright addressed our candlelit assembly on Thursday. As an employer, he runs several companies that employ over fifty people. When you add the employees of his church and the five small businesses that his church runs, he employs over a hundred people. Rev. Seawright sees himself in community with his workers—his life is wound up in theirs, his success in their success. This notion of solidarity contrasts with the attitude of some big box employers who say they can’t possibly raise the minimum wage. This attitude pits employees against stockholders as if they are diastatically distinct, not synthetically one. The liberation from that kind of thinking can lead to a richer identification among the human family.

Saru Jayaraman tells of the work of Restaurant Opportunities Center United.  The restaurant union HERE welcomed her efforts with workers who lost their jobs in the terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center on September 11. Dozens of workers—mostly lowly paid cleaners and prep workers in the kitchen of the celebrity restaurant Windows on the World—dozens were killed, burned alive when they encountered a locked access to the roof. Dozens leapt over 100 stories to their deaths. But hundreds were laid off and promised jobs in a new restaurant being opened by the owner of Windows on the World.

When the owner reneged on his promise, when the owner declared that not a single Windows worker had the capacity to work at his new restaurant, Saru and the workers organized an embarrassing demonstration at the gala opening of the new restaurant. Those who stood with one another expressed the ethical stance of solidarity—not standing distant from, not being distinct from, but standing with, identifying with, organizing with.

Saru Jayaraman was raised at First UU Church of San Diego, CA, and her work among restaurant workers and her book Beyond the Kitchen Door are promoted by our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Our Service Committee seeks to connect our eating in restaurants with the Statement of Conscience on Ethical Eating that we generated and adopted at General Assembly in the last four years.

The Statement of Conscience reads in part, “Our [Unitarian Universalist] Principles call for recognition of and respect for the other. As we search freely and responsibly for truth, meaning, and spiritual wholeness, we will make a variety of individual choices about food . . . [and apply] our Principles to our food choices. What and how we eat has broad implications for our planet and society. Our values, Principles, and integrity call us to seek compassion, health, and sustainability in the production of food we raise or purchase.”

Tens of thousands of UUs have embarked on a journey the UUA calls “ethical eating” and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, or UUSC, calls “choosing compassionate consumption.” Both processes invite us not into common answers but into common engagement. As UUs we will arrive at varying answers and approaches. The point is to take seriously our responsibility to examine the spiritual, ethical, and environmental questions involved in our interdependent lives.

Karl Barth said that

through the humanity of God, a quite definite theme is given to theological culture in particular. Yes, along with pyramid-building, pre- and post-Kantian philosophy, classical poetry, socialism and theoretical and practical nuclear physics, there is also a theological culture! Since God in [God’s] deity is human, this culture must occupy itself neither with God in [God’s] self nor with [hu]man[ity] in [it]self, but with the [hu]man encountering God and the God-encountering [hu]man, and with their dialogue and history, in which their communion takes place and finds its fulfillment.

Communion finding fulfillment. Faith seeking understanding. Universalist minister Clarence Russell Skinner wrote a hundred years ago, our current comprehension “is not a tombstone marking the resting place of truth, but is rather a milestone on the long arduous journey to the truth.” Journeying together, to find fulfillment together, to seek understanding together. This is the content of our work, and this is the foundation of our promise.

Our promise will be lived into one candle at a time, one changing of the human heart at a time, one UUSC membership at a time . . . and as the new culture of liberation is created, we will be set free to be free, that quintessential aspect of God—God is free, God is the freedom that we long for, God is the act of setting people free.

Mary Glover said it in her prayer. “We know, Lord, that you’re coming through this line today, so help us to treat you right. Yes, Lord, help us to treat you right.” Our theology may be liberated enough not to see the Lord coming through the line, but another human being—a sister, a brother, a friend—but our liberal and liberating faith asks us “to treat [each person] right.” Treat each person right. May it be. May it ever be. Blessed be. Ashe, ashe. Salaam. Shalom. Amen.

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