Making a Case for Darwin Day as a Recognized UU Holiday

I recently attended the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford, Mississippi.  The theme of their service was Darwin Day. Charles Darwin, Unitarian, is credited for developing what is now known as the theory of evolution.  He wrote the book On the Origin of Species in 1859 which revolutionized our understanding of creation.  During this service, I came to the realization that Unitarian Universalists could embrace the idea for a recognized holiday in honor of Charles Darwin, if not in the secular world, then certainly in our faith tradition. Just as Unitarian Universalists celebrate Christmas to honor our Christian heritage, Darwin Day would celebrate our Humanist heritage.

Since 2006, Michael Zimmerman has been the proponent of the Clergy Letter Project which seeks to have congregations hold  a service that would highlight that science and religion are not opposed to one another.  And more emphatically that the theory of evolution can be embraced by people of faith.  Michael Zimmerman recently wrote an article for the UU Humanist Association urging Unitarian Universalist clergy to sign on to the UU Clergy Letter; which is parallel to the Christian Clergy Letter.  I am a proud signatory of this letter. There is also a Christian Clergy Letter, Rabbi Letter, and Buddhist  letter.

The Unitarian Universalist version of this letter begins by stating:  As Unitarian Universalists, we draw from many sources, including “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life,” and “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” While most Unitarian Universalists believe that many sacred scriptures convey timeless truths about humans and our relationship to the sacred, we stand in solidarity with our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters who do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. We believe that religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

I am in full agreement of this letter and I urge my colleagues to consider adding their signatures in support of Michael Zimmerman’s efforts to demonstrate that religion and evolutionary biology are compatible.

But the reasons given in this letter are not the reasons that dawned on me as I listened to the speaker at the Oxford congregation on Sunday that we need to create a UU holiday honoring Charles Darwin’s work.  The reasons given above are certainly  a part of my reasoning. But what began circulating around in my brain as I listened on Sunday was how important and relevant a holy day such as Darwin Day would be for Unitarian Universalists given our nation’s shift towards religious fundamentalism. Such a declaration would sharpen the contrast of where we stand on matters of faith and science in a culture that is increasingly anti-science.  And to be clear, being anti-science is not just reserved to conservative religious fundamentalists, the recent outbreak of measles at Disney Land is the responsibility of anti-science liberals.

In addition to the sources and the principles of our covenanted association, Unitarian Universalists have proclaimed that truth and revelation is forever unfolding. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson we propose that not one book can contain the whole of wisdom and revelation for all time.  Here in the works of Darwin is evidence of that unfolding revelation.

For Unitarian Universalists to embrace Darwin Day as a holiday not only honors the compatibility of science and religion as the Clergy Letter Project seeks to do but also highlights one of the unique distinctions of our faith–the belief that  revelation is unending and is revealed through a variety of sources–including scientific study. Our faith is based on a heritage of revelation from its earliest days to the current day. From their earliest beginnings, Unitarians and Universalists have evolved in their understandings of truth.  Today we have a statement of principles and sources for our faith which we have amended and changed as new revelations have become known.

As a people of faith, we have often been at the vanguard of liberal thought and social change–even while the majority of our members may have resisted these very changes. But individuals began with an idea, a revelation if you will, that grew into a movement that not only transformed our faith but the society in which we live.  Whether it was abolition of slavery (Theodore Parker), women’s equality (Judith Sargent Murray), Transcendentalism (Ralph Waldo Emerson),  women’s suffrage (Susan B. Anthony), or ending racism (Mary White Ovington); Unitarian Universalists have been at the vanguard of these transformational movements.  Given that Charles Darwin was a Unitarian, places Unitarian Universalists at the vanguard of the revelation that all life on this planet has a common ancestry and origin. Our faith has added to wisdom of the ages.

The movement to have Darwin Day recognized as a holiday is also an international one. International Darwin Day will inspire people throughout the globe to reflect and act on the principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking, and hunger for truth as embodied in Charles Darwin.  This mission is spearheaded by the American Humanist Association.  Darwin Day is celebrated on every continent with various events.  This year’s observance of Darwin Day during the week of February 12th, the 206th birthday of Charles Darwin, has 151 events registered at their website. The mission statement of International Darwin Day is a statement that succinctly reflects Unitarian Universalist principles.

The Clergy Letter Project–Evolution Weekend has 459 congregations registered as participating in their event.  Sixty eight of these congregations were Unitarian Universalist offering an impressive 15% of the congregations listed. Impressive because we are such a small association in comparison to other faiths listed.  But if my experience at the Oxford, Mississippi congregation is any indication, there are many more UU congregations celebrating Charles Darwin’s ideas than are registered on this site.

Attend a Darwin Day event, honor our Unitarian Universalist faith by declaring that revelation is unending and new truths are being made known about the universe in which we live and new truths are being revealed as to how we might live justly with our neighbors on this planet.

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Alabama, Equal Marriage is Here February 9th

Alabama is a special breed.  On February 9th the stay that Judge Granade placed on her rulings on two cases that Alabama’s constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage is unconstitutional will expire. The 11th circuit has refused to extend the stay until the SCOTUS rules in June.  The backlash has begun. First we had the the Probate Judge’s Association stating that the first ruling only applied to the couple in the law suit and therefore they did not need to heed her ruling. Attorney General Strange applied for and received a 14 day stay on her decision. Her second ruling clarified she meant the entire state must comply.  Then we have the ongoing chest beating of Chief Justice Roy Moore stating the federal courts have no jurisdiction over the state in matters of defining marriage. And now we have the magistrates and counties stating that they will simply no longer officiate civil unions of any marriages regardless of gender make-up.

“Marriage licenses and ceremonies are not available at the Pike County Probate Office,” the judge’s office said on Facebook Friday afternoon. “Pike County residents who are seeking marriage licenses can do so at any Probate Judge’s office in the state that offers that service and are not required to apply for their license in their county of residence.”

[Pike County Probate Judge Wes] Allen  said in a news release that the decision allows him to obey the law and his Christian beliefs. He cited state law that says marriage licenses “may” be issued by probate judges. “I am choosing to take the Pike County Probate Office out of the marriage licensing business altogether.”

He is not alone.  Several counties in the state are taking similar stances.  And some magistrates have reportedly resigned rather than fulfill the court order leaving a void for Monday’s enactment of the court ruling.

Before this latest protest stance against enforcing same sex marriage, I have been in several debates with colleagues within Unitarian Universalist circles, as well as with gay friendly clergy of other faiths regarding the sanctity of marriage and what we should be doing come February 9th.  Should ministers rush to the court houses to marry gay couples in a civil union when it is not a religious service?   The concern is an ethical one.  Clergy see marriage as a holy union, sanctified by a higher calling and therefore should not be a commitment that one enters into lightly.  They require pre-marital counseling.  The style of counseling varies with faith tradition.

One non-Unitarian Universalist clergy person who has been officiating holy unions between same gender couples for decades stated this is a spiritual journey that requires prayer, contemplation, discernment and the development of a covenantal relationship before entering this path together.  Therefore, on the 9th, they will only sign marriage licenses for those couples who have already under gone a holy union ceremony. This is according to their doctrinal beliefs and the state is merely catching up in recognizing the spiritual reality of their holy covenanted union.   If a couple comes to them on February 9th seeking to be wed in their church, then they will have to under go their traditions prescribed process which takes time. No jumping on the quick-marriage-ceremony-just-because-it-is-legal band wagon.

Many Unitarian Universalist clergy also require some form of pre-marital counseling.  And there have been UU clergy who are concerned with the suspension of pre-marital counseling for same gender couples when equal marriage rights are first enacted. Pre-marital sessions have been used by clergy to get to know the couple and to discern with the couple any areas of potential concerns that might need addressing in order for the relationship to thrive in a legally binding marriage.

I understand the debate.  But here is where I am in my internal debate with myself. There are factors that need to be considered.  I know many same gender couples that have raised and are raising children together. I know many same gender couples who have already spent up to 50 years together. I have a difficulty making a couple that has already proven their commitment to each other over the years  in the face of severe prejudice and down right hatred to go through pre-marital counseling as if this is the beginning of their journey together.  Doing so discounts the reality that their relationship commitment is already further down the journey than most newlyweds. By my denying services unless they jump through our unique hoops is in my mind and heart creating an injustice upon injustice.  Who does this hoop serve–the couple who has been together already through thick and thin or the minister?   For same gender couples already committed to each other for years– my role as officiant is in restoring to them the affirmation that society should have already affirmed.

After this law has been in effect for a few years and those looking to marry have been together for a brief time then yes, I will resume pre-marital counseling for same gender couples.  They are beginning a new journey together and are seeking to deepen the relationship. But it is arrogant of me to insist on this as a requirement of marriage for a couple who already have raised children together and maneuvered through their children’s experience of being taunted for their parent’s relationship.

But we now have counties where courts are saying — ‘fine, the federal courts are making courts give out marriage licenses to same sex couples then this court will not offer the service of a civil marriage to any couple.’ One court said about 42% of the couples receiving licenses have the magistrate perform the marriage. Because I am a minister willing to officiate same gender marriages, should I insist that they have a religious service which includes the pre marital sessions because that is my personal preference religiously?  Especially when they do not want a religious service and a civil service is not being offered to anyone? This is another form of oppressive coercion that is in my mind equally as unjust as Alabama banning same gender marriage in the first place.

Unlike my Non-UU ministerial colleagues, I am not bound by an ecclesiastical doctrine of marriage that requires a series of steps in order for a person to enter into marriage.  I interpret my UU faith to see the sacred in the ordinary.   For me, justice is not served when I mandate a set of religious requirements on a couple who have been denied recognition of marriage status for decades and now have the freedom to marry.  For clergy to do this is what the courts who are refusing to perform civil ceremonies are hoping for. By denying all marriage licenses to couples or denying the service of a civil union is an attempt to prevent same gender couples from getting married because they know that here in Alabama, the majority of clergy will not officiate their weddings as a matter of doctrinal belief.

Yes, Alabama is a special breed.  And I am sure even after February 9th when equal marriage is the law of the state, we will not have heard the end of this.  There will be people who will angrily protest. Judge Moore will  beat his chest some more until he is once again removed for disobeying a federal court ruling.  And the legislature will dream up new ways to circumvent the federal ruling as they have in every federal civil rights issue in the past.  Integration of schools, voting rights, and reproductive rights to name a few.

Alabama, equal marriage is here February 9th!  It is a victory but it is a victory that will come with a price. In Alabama employers can still fire a person for being gay or transgender. If there is any deterrent to marrying on the 9th, it is the injustice of being fired on the 10th.  My willingness as clergy to officiate on the 9th is not going to be one of them.

Is Justice a synonym for Vengeance?

Our second Unitarian Universalist principle reads We … covenant to affirm and promote:  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. On Sunday, I visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo, MS; a small lay led congregation.  The speaker was discussing this principle by asking questions about the meaning of these words.

One comment made was that when we hear people in society demand justice it is usually in the context of condemning the person who has grievously wronged another. Is this justice?  We want justice for Michael Brown.  We want justice for Eric Garner.  We want justice for the hundreds of others unarmed men and women whose lives were cut short by police officers.  Is it justice, true justice, to bring the cops to trial and seek condemnation for their actions?  I understand the emotional surge behind these cries for justice.  I understand the racism behind these brutal acts of violence.  But will prosecuting a handful of police change the system that targets young black men?  Will it bring justice and healing to the heart of the families who lost their children, husbands, brothers, too young and too soon?

I have read that when families watch the murderer of their loved one executed the pain of grief is not abated by the justice meted out.  I have read they feel a bitterness take firm root in their hearts.  Justice in this manner does not always yield to peace of heart for the survivors of such violence.

I believe the police need to be held accountable and prosecuted for their disregard for another’s life. I simply do not believe that doing so is going to create justice with a capital J because condemning others is not a healing justice. When we scream we want justice, we want those who have committed heinous acts to suffer a severe consequence for their actions. It is not justice we want.  We want blood for blood.  It does not prevent another mass shooting, or terrorist bombing, or even another police officer from exerting excessive force (a twisted euphemism for torture and murder) on an unarmed person. Prosecute yes, but this action does not necessarily create Justice in the system.

My heart grieves that in this country we incarcerate nearly 7 times more blacks than whites. Roughly 9% of our Black young men are in prison. Our nation incarcerates 23% of the world’s prisoners. This is a horrendous wrong that needs to be addressed.  But how do we address it so that not one more young black man is targeted simply because he is wearing a hoodie or walking in his family’s neighborhood with his friends? How does this nation of laws enact justice when the system itself supports injustice?

When we target a specific population for alleged crimes, it is no longer justice that is the motivator but rather the motivation is maintaining power over a population. Power over others is how justice becomes twisted and deformed.  It is this perversion of justice that we are seeing in our nation today.  Convicting with inflated felonies and incarcerating a skewed percentage of a population removes the power of the vote from the population.  This is an act of oppression not justice.  We continue to pass new laws that expand the oppressive weight on a specific population.  The unjust revival of debtor’s prison is part of this expansion of an oppressive weight. This is good news only for the for-profit prisons looking to expand their industry.

Creating a for-profit business around incarceration is not providing justice–it is exploitation. For-profit prisons are an insatiable beast that craves more incarcerations.  So those who believe that the answer to our overcrowded prison system would be to be build more prisons, especially those of the for-profit ilk have a very twisted and deformed sense of justice. These corporations have a need to have laws passed that criminalize more people in order to keep their prisons filled to adequate operating levels. This is not justice, this is creating a market for an industry.

When Al Qaeda hi-jacked passenger jets and slammed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killing 3,000 people.  We demanded justice.  And in our anger the United States of America invaded two countries to bring justice to the lives lost. In the seeking of justice American and coalition forces lost 8,259 lives and the number of Iraqi’s lost is over 206,000.  Up to another 20,000 Afghan citizens are estimated to have lost their lives in that long war.  But was this really justice or revenge?  It was the latter.  The ongoing struggle of this region to stabilize and rebuild is not going to end any time soon.  Again, we did not mete out justice, we meted out vengeance and created enormous suffering that will endure for generations. We are seeing the consequences of our vengeance with the rise of ISIS.  We exacted suffering 78 times greater than what we experienced and upon the wrong countries if there even was a country that deserved such retribution.

What does it really mean in one of my favorite hymns, We’ll Build a Land when we sing  “where justice shall roll down like waters?” Are we seeking justice or exacting vengeance on our enemies?  In the context of Iraq it was surely the latter.  Vengeance was indeed a terrible swift sword and it cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives before we found and killed the person responsible for that terrorist act. If justice is a synonym for revenge and condemnation, then we have to find another word for our second principle because I don’t think it means what we think it means.

However, when I read our second principle, I think of what it might mean to love my neighbor as myself.  What does it mean to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?  What does that look like in my daily encounters with others?  I look first to the macro level. Am I being as loving as I can be in this moment?  Am I being generous in thought and deed?  Am I seeking to understand rather than be understood?  From here, I expand beyond those I know in my circle to those beyond my circle.  How do my actions relate to the neighborhood? the larger community?  How might I expand this notion of loving my neighbor to the larger community?  Then I begin to think about the systems I live in.  How do these systems limit the way we live?  How do these systems expand our ability to breathe?  How might I work to change these systems to be more inclusive in the ability to breathe free?

Justice then is not the exacting of revenge on a wrong committed.  Justice is a humble act of living day to day.  What does Life require of you?  But to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with this gift of Life.    (Micah 6:8 paraphrased)