Now that the weekend designated to whitewash MLK Jr. and the Civil Rights movement is over (thank goodness), I thought it was time to talk about some issues that don’t get talked about publicly much in UU churches.
Rev. Thomas Perchlik has written a post on his blog asking whether Dr. King was Unitarian. Read it, comment on it, think about it.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. But before I get into my thoughts on it, I think maybe it would be good to remember what Dr. King actually said on the subject of liberal religion:
There is one phase of liberalism that I hope to cherish always: its devotion to the search for truth, its refusal to abandon the best light of reason. . . It was . . . the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history, and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin. . . I came to feel that liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism. I also came to see that liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin. . . Liberalism failed to see that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify man’s defensive ways of thinking. Reason, devoid of purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.
So let’s say it out loud. No, Dr. King was NOT Unitarian; at least in the modern sense. And there is a reason for that.
There is a communal experience of G-d in the African American psyche that liberal religion has a hard time dealing with. It is an experience of G-d borne in slavery, matured through Jim Crow, and is redefining itself in the era of the new Jim Crow. While individual African Americans might have problems with G-d , there is a vocabulary that that communal experience gives which helps us navigate what can often be a very hostile world. [and before you write comments about African American humanists, I know they exist; they have always been around. But I should remind you that the uber-humanist, WEB DuBois, wrote a book of prayers]
This G-d is the G-d of liberation theology. And the G-d of liberation theology is a critique of the G-d of liberal theology. This is a G-d who suffers and weeps WITH its creation; a G-d that picks people up when they are down and broken; a G-d that provides manna when we are wandering in the wilderness. In other words, this is the G-d of “the least of these.” This is the G-d of the afflicted.
The G-d of the Unitarians (and Universalists to a much lesser extent), on the other hand, has mostly been the G-d of the comfortable. It’s easy to talk about “the free mind” when you are not somebody else’s property and under the constant threat of bodily violation.
Now, on Dr. King, there is a need for a little honesty here. And the truth is Dr. King wouldn’t have survived amongst Unitarians (and later Unitarian Universalists). First, his theology would have gotten him run out of most U/UU congregations of the time. But second, if history is anything to go by, his being African American would have been an equal stumbling block. What’s really sad is that, if we faced facts, both of those would still be issues. While things have gotten better, how much better have they really gotten?