Rebecca Parker: What We Have Been Given: A Community of Resistance

This is an excerpt of a sermon given by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker at General Assembly in 1998. You can read the whole thing here:

What We Have Been Given: A Community of Resistance

… What we are given, most of all, is membership in a community of resistance to oppression. Let us wake up into the dream they dreamed of abundant life for all, and, in our time, put into practice the way of life that will embody the realization of that dream.

The words of English Puritan Richard Overton, 1647:

“It is a firm…and radical principle in nature, engraved in the tables of the heart by the finger of God in creation, for every living, moving thing, wherein there is the breath of life, to defend, preserve, guard, and deliver itself from all things hurtful, destructive and obnoxious thereto, to the utmost of its power…..By all rational and just ways and means possible.. to save, defend, and deliver [life] …. from all oppression, violence and cruelty …”
—Quoted in Woodhouse

The Free Church tradition emerged in the 16th century as part of a reforming movement that resisted the corrupt hierarchical power of the church and the economic alliance between the feudal aristocracy and the church. The making of church covenants asserted the power of people to determine their own lives, and to choose who would govern them. It was a grassroots empowerment movement that became a decisive factor in the rise of modern democracy and the emergence of a post-feudal economic system.

In the presence of injustice and oppression, our forbears embraced freedom. They advocated for free speech, dissent, open debate, tolerance of different opinions in a disciplined search for truth. This free speech was important, not only as an end in itself, but as a means to social change. They challenged economic systems that neglected the poor, justice systems that were unfair, prison systems that were cruel, and economic practices that concentrated wealth in the hands of a few.

The covenant of which we are a part is a tradition that resists oppression by directly challenging the authority of oppressors, acting to remove them from power, and establishing new structures or alternative communities that put what is hoped for into practice. Most importantly, in this covenant, oppression is resisted finally not by argument, not by protest marches, not by passing resolutions, but by the practices of covenanted church life.

Betty Reid Soskin, a contemporary Unitarian Universalist community activist, articulates this radical principle this way: “The way to change the world is to be what we want to see.”

Quaker Jim Corbett, the leader of the Sanctuary movement, speaks of this as civil initiative. Civil initiative, in contrast to civil disobedience (as important as civil disobedience can be) brings about change by proposing and manifesting, more than by dismantling and opposing.

Our Puritan forbears resisted oppression by putting into practice a way of life that manifested an alternative to the structures of oppression that dominated their lives. This was the heart of their covenant: to be what they wanted to see, to live as if the day of justice had arrived. They organized their church life to include the free conscience of each individual in a mutual commitment to the common good. They manifested an alternative to the oppressive use of power by a small elite, uninterested in the welfare of all, exercising economic and religious power without consent or accountability.

As matters evolved, what the Puritans first practiced in their congregations transformed nations. Puritan scholar, A.S.P. Woodhouse, remarks,

“the congregation was the school of democracy. There the humblest member might hear, and join in the debate, might witness the discovery of the natural leader, and participate in that curious process by which there emerges from the clash of many minds a vision clearer and a determination wiser than any single mind could achieve. … If the Leveller [radical Puritan] emphasizes the contract on which the authority of just government depends, and insists on the principle of consent, he has had, in his church, experience of a community organized on these very principles.”
Woodhouse, Puritans and Liberty, p. 76

The Fulfilling the Promise Survey asked, “What are your dreams for the UU movement?” A strong majority of us said our highest hope is to “become a visible and influential force for good in the world.”

The history of covenant-making shows that the means for tremendous influence for the common good are in our hands. We do not need more money, though it always helps when we are as liberal regarding money as we are in other matters. We do not need more people, though it would be good to have them, and many in our society need what congregational life can give. To be an influential force for good, what we need to do is establish more strongly in our congregational life the practices that embody loving, just, and sustainable community. We need to be what we want to see, and make visible an alternative to the forms of oppression, alienation and injustice alive in our time.

Doing so will be a form of keeping faith with the covenant we are already in—the covenant of resistance to oppression. To not do so, will be to break covenant with those who came before us, who built…

the house we gratefully inhabit.
Though the path be hard and long,
Still we strive in expectation;
Join we now their ageless song
One with them in aspiration.
One in name, in honor one,
Guard we well the crown they won:
What they dreamed be ours to do,
Hope their hopes and seal them true.

It is exciting to contemplate what might be asked of us, and what promise we might fulfill, if we took this task with seriousness, and gave our lives to it.

But it will take courage to do this. It will take spiritual stamina and strength. To find it, we will have to go by a path that we may not want to follow. We will have to look at the complicity of our religious tradition in the failure of our society to be just and sustainable.