Keeping the Protest in Protestantism

The Unitarian Universalist church emerges from the left wing of the Protestant Reformation, which is to say, we are as Universalist as Protestants can be. “Wait!” you may be thinking, “There are Jewish UUs and Buddhist UUs and Atheist UUs –How can you say we are Protestant?” It’s easy. Here’s how.

The Unitarian Universalist Association is a product of the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America in 1961. The American Unitarian church emerged from congregational churches in New England, which makes us cousins with the United Church of Christ (UCC.) For this reason it is sometimes suggested that UCC stands for Unitarians Considering Christ.

The American Universalist Church has its roots in the Wesleyan revival movement, which makes us cousins with the Methodists. It makes sense that both Universalists and Methodists embrace John Wesley’s dictum, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

So our historical roots are Protestant. So is our architecture. If you walk into a Catholic Church or a Hindu temple you will be inundated with images, statues of saints or gods or goddesses, stain glass windows with pictures that tell stories. Walk into our sanctuary and you will note that it is almost imageless, unadorned walls, clear windows. It is a place of light for all people.

Unlike our Protestant forebears we did not topple the statues or smash the stain glass windows – we simply opted out when we built our new building in 1998. Protestants remove images for the same reason a person might take curtains off a window, to let in the light.

One of the more visible ways we are still Protestant is that we produce a disproportionate number of protestors. Like Martin Luther we want to nail our 95 theses to the door of the church and state, Our history has been marked by protests against slavery, racism, bigotry and injustice.

This past Saturday when a white supremacist group held a rally in Fort Sanders there were members of this church there to protest. Kathy Poese held up a sign that said, “Love Not Hate.” Katy Benson held up one that said, “Make America Kind Again.” Eddie Chin’s said, “Will Trade Racists for Refugees.” And the winner of the contest for the lengthiest protest sign was Lauren Hulse whose sign read, ““No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”

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Not every one of us is temperamentally inclined to be a protestor but even so we find ways to speak up rather than remain silent. Some of us change the world in quieter ways. Even so, we know democracy does not work if we remain silent or do not participate. We are not passive consumers of the society we are active shapers of a common future.

On Monday many members of our church were present at a rally by The Torch on the campus of the University of Tennessee protesting for a living wage and against the outsourcing of state jobs to private corporations. As Ken Stephenson’s sign said, “We want an education not a corporation.” Another sign read, “People Over Profits.” Lately, I have been contemplating that protest signs may be our answer to stain glass windows and statuary; our outward and visible signs of our inward and invisible convictions.

One could argue that Protestantism has a reputation for being mainstream, predictable and domesticated. However, this need not be true as long as we are willing to speak out on the issues that really matter and keep the protest in Protestant.

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Bad on Both Sides?

8.16.17 bad on both sidesWhen the President addressed the nation about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying that there was “bad on both sides” it was disorienting to people of goodwill everywhere. To equate the actions of nonviolent protestors to Nazis is to make a comparison that would have been deeply offensive to every President of every political party from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Barrack Obama.

The Southern Poverty Law Center described the rally of Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Confederate revisionists as “the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States.” It was a gathering that quickly turned violent. One young woman, Heather Heyer, died and many others were injured when a car plowed into a sea of counter-protesters.

Heyer died on Saturday. On Sunday there was a rally organized on Market Square here in Knoxville to “Stand Against Hate.” If you had divided the crowd of hundreds of people into groups of ten every single one of those groups would have contained a member or friend of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Rarely, have I seen so many of us turn up for something so important on such short notice. There we joined people of conscience of every faith and belief; finding common ground and organizing for the common good.

By temperament, I am a peacemaker not a polarizer. However, there are times when we need to ask ourselves the question made famous by an old labor organizing song, “Which side are you on?” The Unitarian Universalist church is often described as a liberal church. It has been said, “Liberals are people who know both sides of an argument so well they are unable to take their own.” I reject this notion of liberalism. I believe there are times to say with the Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell the words set to music in our hymnbook, “Once to every soul and nation, comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.” Heather Heyer made a decision. She knew which side she was on. She fought the good fight. She finished the race. She kept the faith.