This sermon was delivered at First Church Unitarian in Littleton, MA, on April 13, 2014.
I want to come out to you about something, and that’s this: I am not an advocate for equality.
That might sound a bit odd, and it is a bit odd, because it’s not that I don’t think all beings are equally divine and have equal worth and dignity. And I can assure you that I don’t think there should be undercastes and overclasses of people in this culture and in this world.
But I am not an advocate for equality. I am not an advocate for the way that we have come to talk about equality, the way that the United States mainstream culture has started to define equality.
On June 26, 2013, a sea of red equal signs took over social media like a tide. Do you remember that? Those equal signs, the logo of the Human Rights Campaign, this country’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender political lobbying organization, have become strategically synonymous with the concept of LGBT equality. And on June 26, as the Supreme Court was ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, the message was clear: marriage equality equals LGBT equality.
But what is this equality?
Do I believe that women should be able to marry each other, and that men should be able to marry each other, and that those relationships should not be viewed as lesser than by our society? Yes. Do I believe that all people should have their family ties respected and honored, including the ways those ties impact children, medical decisions, visas and green cards, inheritance, and more? Yes.
Do I believe that the legal institution of marriage is the measure of equality? No.
To me, this conception of equality declares that there is a plateau of sameness that all people aspire to. This sameness is that which is most valued and normalized by mainstream society. The assumption is that all people aspire to the same things, that everyone wants a house with a picket fence in a suburb and a spouse and 2.1 children and a 9-5 job.
We know this is not true. Does everyone want a house? A picket fence? Children? A 9-5 job? A spouse?
The answer is no, but our mainstream society, our institutions, our media, our leaders—all communicate yes. And right now I am being taught that equality is the day when everyone has a spouse—and a house with a picket fence in a suburb and 2.1 children and a 9-5 job.
It’s a funny thing, because… I just bought a house. I bought a house in western Massachusetts when I never thought I’d be able to afford a house. But I’ve always wanted a house in the country. And I realized one day when my partner and I were in the middle of this house hunting process that I somehow had this unconscious idea, deep down inside, that everyone secretly wants a house in the country, and all the people I was surrounded with every day in Boston, we were all just suffering together until the magical day when we would escape to a house in the country. And I came face to face with this preposterous idea and said to myself, no! Of course that’s not true. That’s my experience. I’m living in a city and pining for a house in the country. But a lot of people living in the city want to live in the city! I was laughing about it to my colleague Audra and she said heck yeah, my dream home is a studio apartment on the 17th floor of a Manhattan skyrise!
The joy comes when each of us is able to realize our own dream come true—when each of us is able to live the life that we are called to live, in the way that calls us alive and makes us thrive. I want everyone to have a place to live that is safe and that is Home, for them.
So what sticks in my craw is that equality, as it is being painted by our cultural mainstream right now, is the notion that each person should have an equal chance to have a house with a picket fence in a suburb. But that’s not what calls me home.
Let me tell you another story and come at this another way. When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in the thick of the struggle against segregation, he didn’t call it the civil rights movement. He didn’t call it the racial equality movement. It was the Freedom Movement. We’re coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer. And the 1963 March on Washington? It wasn’t a march for equality, it was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Around the same time, the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation movement were also developing.
Freedom and liberation from what? From oppression. From everything that keeps us from being truly alive. From everything that keeps us from living out our full potential. From everything that keeps us out of real relationship with one another.
These movements—the freedom movement, the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement—they called for a radical restructuring of our society. Only then, they said, would oppressed peoples be free.
But equality? I see equality painting a picture of the life that everyone should strive for and have access to. I hear equality presupposing that we all want to get to the same place. That deep down inside we’re all the same and we all want the same things. Equality tells us that we know what the pie looks like and tastes like, we just need to find out how to divide it equally.
With liberation, we don’t know what the pie looks like. We don’t know if it’s apple or pumpkin or pecan. We don’t know if everyone even wants pie—some people might want a cupcake, or vegan gluten-free cookies, or something else entirely.
Equality teaches us that the world as we know it now is as good as it gets, and there’s no impetus to imagine a different world. Liberation constantly questions the pie. And you know what? That can be profoundly uncomfortable.
But you know what else? When our efforts to change the world are grounded in liberation and freedom instead of equality, it’s beautiful.
For me, being grounded in liberation means that I’m constantly holding as a sacred vision and goal in my sights a world where everyone is free. Free to be their whole, complete, vibrant selves. Where our differences are valued because of what we each add to the whole. Where friends, we sing in harmony—because unison is so much less interesting.
Where I don’t judge my colleague Audra for lusting after a studio apartment simply because I don’t understand it, and she doesn’t question my sanity for wanting to live somewhere where I have to look for bears before I let the dog out in the morning. In the world I’m working toward, family will be celebrated in all of the incredibly diverse ways that we choose to form it, and none will be seen as more normal, more valued, or more deserving than any other.
And here’s where Unitarian Universalism comes in. Because the thing that I find absolutely fantastic about my religion is how different we each are from one another in a way that is really rare for people who share a religion: belief. There are probably as many different beliefs within Unitarian Universalism as there are Unitarian Universalists, and that, my friends, is our greatest uniqueness and our greatest strength.
In this very room there is someone who worships the natural world, someone who believes in incarnation, someone who speaks to the ancestors, someone who believes in the scientific method, someone whose holy texts are the Bible, the Koran, and Mary Oliver’s complete works of poetry. In this room there is someone who believes in a single God, someone who believes in many gods, and someone who believes in no god. Just think: there are quite likely as many unique beliefs and understandings of the world and our place in it as there are people in this room. That is staggering. It is overwhelming. It is fabulous.
And we are also vastly different when it comes to the ways we act on our beliefs, and the practices that connect us to our beliefs. Among us today there are people who find grounding and strength in meditation, in prayer, in ritual, in dance, in music, in being near water, in sex, in working with their hands, in touching their forehead to the ground, in being of service. There are people here who think that this service is okay but would feel more spiritually connected if it were in Latin, or Yiddish, or Spanish. And there are a thousand other practices that people in this room use to call us home or connect us to something larger than ourselves. Somehow, not in spite of this but because of this difference, we are Unitarian Universalists. Each of us in this room feels called or connected in some way to this UU religion.
If we follow the equality pie approach to difference, then it’s just like we said a few minutes ago: if you are black and I am white, it will not matter. If you are straight and I am gay, it will not matter. Equality says, “It’s all good! We’re equal because we are all Unitarian Universalists. So you see, we’re really all the same—our differences shouldn’t matter.”
But begging the great Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley’s pardon—and I do have to beg her pardon—I want to tell you something. It does matter. If you are Christian and I am Jewish, it matters. When we approach our differences as strengths instead of things to overcome, it changes everything.
And I know in 1987 when she wrote that piece Rev. Marjorie wasn’t trying to argue that we should forget our differences, or gloss them over, or that in the Beloved Community all souls will be colorblind. But it can be tempting to think that the vision she was painting was one of equality, rather than liberation. I think what Rev. Marjorie calls for us to remember is that our differences need not divide us. That we can build a world where the identities, backgrounds, and beliefs two people bring to the table will not predetermine how those two people will interact with one another. You see what I’m saying? It’s not that in such a world our differences won’t matter, it’s that in this world our differences won’t keep us apart and out of relationship.
That’s what liberation calls for. Liberation says: tell me what you believe, and I’ll tell you what I believe, and let’s be curious about how different we are—the different experiences we’ve had, the different ways our minds work, the different truths that we feel in our bones. Liberation says that my truth does not depend on you having the same truth. When both of us can live from a place of truth—different truths!—when both of us can come fully alive from those places of truth, then both of us will be free.
So let me ask you this: how often do you take the time, in this community of faith, to learn about your differences? Do you know what the people around you believe? Do you know what practices make them feel connected and grounded? Do you know what religious, spiritual, or philosophical language most resonates with them? Are you curious about what has informed their truths? Are you eager to explore each others’ worlds? To more authentically and deeply get to know each other by sharing the practices that call each of you home?
This is my charge to you: Take this time. Be that curious. Take that risk—because it’s a huge risk. It’s incredibly vulnerable to share the truths and practices that live close to our hearts and souls. It can be incredibly uncomfortable to try to understand something foreign to us—or worse yet, embrace the fact that something that feels constricting or painful to you makes another person feel freer and more whole.
What would happen if centering curiosity, wonder, and real care meant that if I asked you what you believe and what calls you home you could answer fully and freely without fear of judgment or reaction or critique?
What if I could simply bear witness to what you believe, honor your vulnerability in sharing something that personal with me, take joy in your joy, and feel a sense of wonder at the difference between you and me?
That, my friends, is what liberation calls us to do. All I know is my one narrow slice of the pie—what it looks like, smells like, tastes like, what it reminds me of and how it makes me feel. I don’t actually know what your slice is—and the idea that I understand the whole pie based on my one slice? Oof. Not a chance. If that’s the way I approach the world, I’ll never understand that there’s so much more out there than pie. And I firmly believe that it’s only by taking those risks that we can tear down the walls between us built out of assumptions, that we can challenge what we have been served up by our mainstream culture, and that we can be truly in relationship with one another.
So when you leave this room today, take at least one action at some point on this beautiful Sunday to embrace difference. Ask someone what they believe—and think about what you would say if someone asked you. What does it mean to you to be a Unitarian Universalist? Why and how are you UU? Let go of critique and fear and practice curiosity and wonder—not only curiosity about what another person’s answers are and why, but also curiosity at what another person’s answers bring up for you.
Our differences matter. Your liberation matters. What I will leave you with is my sincere wish that you will discover what differences you can embrace within yourself and within this community that will set you free.
Amen, Ashé, and Blessed Be.