(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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I’m fortunate to have a house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I moved there in 2009. One month after my move, I heard the former Minister to the Gathering had submitted his resignation. A Gathering Board member then contacted me to see if I would be interested in applying for the job – since I had ministerial experience and I had attended the Gathering for two years. That seemed impossible because I’d moved, but this member suggested a schedule of three Sundays speaking in Cincinnati, one Sunday not speaking and away, and a one year trial to see if it worked. It did and, almost ten years later, it’s the schedule I still keep.
The home I purchased in Fort Lauderdale is in a gentrified neighborhood. In the early 2000’s, so called pioneers, many of whom were gay or lesbian, bought homes in the depressed area, fixed them up, and transformed a blighted area into one that is not.
Fortunately, the Fort Lauderdale city council had mandated that a large percent of all living units in the city be affordable for lower income persons. My house is immediately next to such affordable housing apartments.
Over the past ten years, I’ve been occasionally frustrated with my neighbors who live in these units. One was an extreme homophobe who regularly harassed me and friends who visited. Another kept discarded items and furniture in his outside area – right next to my fence. Mosquitos bred in pools of water these items collected. Rats lived in the furniture. He often held loud parties. Even so, I did my best to be friendly with him and most of the other residents – who represent our great American diversity.
My parents and many friends who have visited me, however, have asked why I choose to live next to such government housing.
My reply is that I both like my house, and I enthusiastically support the idea of affordable housing – especially in gentrifying areas that are pushing out the poor. Further, If I am in favor of government sponsored affordable housing, I cannot then say, “but not next to me.” To be blunt, I don’t want to be a progressive hypocrite.
As I’ve said in past messages, I believe hypocrisy to be the single greatest human failing. I lay claim to my own share of hypocrisies. I’m ashamed when I become aware of them, or when someone points them out to me. I try my best, not always successfully, to be true to my values.
Hypocrisy was the one misdeed that Jesus also hated the most. He regularly confronted religious and economic elites of his time for their hypocrisy. He condemned those who ostentatiously gave to the poor – wanting everyone to know about it – when what they gave was a minimal fraction of their total wealth. He despised religious folk who preached the love of God, but who would then walk by and ignore a seriously injured poor man lying by a roadside. “Ewwww,” these self-righteous people would say. “He’s unclean and probably diseased. Just keep on walking by him.”
Jesus also called out a group of religious men intent on stoning to death a woman caught in adultery. He pointedly asked them, “Hey, why aren’t you also stoning the guy who was caught with her? And by the way, any of you without mistakes and sins in your life, you go ahead and throw the first stone!” Of course, none did. But sadly, stoning to death of “bad” women, and gay men, is still common in certain parts of the world.
Time and time again, Jesus preached a very progressive message for his time and for ours – one that proclaimed that real godliness was not in publicly and loudly praying, pretending concern for the poor, or judging sexual sins – when everybody is a sinner of some form. Godliness, to Jesus, meant getting your hands dirty and actively serving the poor and hurting. It meant correcting one’s own misdeeds before judging someone else’s. As he memorably taught, “Don’t point out the small speck in another person’s eye when you have a giant log in your own!” “Dear friends,” he seemed to say, “Please stop being religious or privileged hypocrites. Walk your talk and practice what you believe!”
I recently read two newspaper articles that intrigued me about progressivism. The first was in the online newspaper Vox about Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s open declaration of his progressive Christianity. As a gay man, he recently confronted Vice President Mike Pence’s evangelical opposition to homosexuality by saying, “If Mike Pence has a problem with who I am, your quarrel sir is not with me, but with my creator.” That comment captures both a politically and spiritually progressive viewpoint. Nobody should use their personal interpretation of the Bible, or any other Scripture, as a cudgel against those who don’t have a similar interpretation.
As Buttigieg has also said, liberals should… “not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.”
What the article suggests is that Buttigieg’s sudden popularity and strong defense of liberal Christianity just might encourage more Americans to follow progressive spirituality. The article notes the significant decline in America, over the past two decades, in church attendance. That decline is mostly with liberals and progressives. Twenty years ago, 71% of all Democrats regularly attended a church or synagogue. Today, only 48% do. Republicans have also had a decline in church attendance but the reduction is relatively small. 77% attended a church or synagogue in 1999. Today, 69% do.
What America needs, the article says, is a spiritual resurgence amongst liberals. More Pete Buttigiegs are needed to express pride in progressive spirituality – one that places the well-being of humanity front and center – much like Jesus did. This approach is one that can resonate across political and spiritual divides. Goodness and genuine spirituality are not about money or power or sanctimoniously judging others. To be good is to follow the Golden Rule shared by every world religion – love your neighbor equal to how you love yourself. Who can be against that?
Sadly, as this article says, many progressives are the ones ushering in a decline of American spirituality. They are rapidly choosing to avoid attending any spiritual community because many, including many youth, associate church or synagogue with outmoded thinking, conservatism, or both. Conservatives, it seems, have co-opted what it means in America to be spiritual. They prioritize so-called bedroom values like opposition to abortion, sex outside of heterosexual marriage, pornography, same sex marriage, and feminism.
Spiritual progressives, as we know, prioritize humanist values like full equality of opportunity and justice for everybody – especially people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, the middle class, and the poor. Simplistically, progressives prioritize practicing the Golden Rule.
What must happen, the Vox article implies, is a renewed revival of progressive spirituality – much like so many of our forebears had – people like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, and Bishop John Shelby Spong, to name just a few. Today, instead, there are thousands of preachers and advocates of fundamentalist faith but very few public advocates of progressive spirituality. America needs a lot more progressive spiritual pride that spreads the gospel of Golden Rule love for everyone!
The other article on progressivism that intrigued me appeared in the New York Times on the Friday before Memorial Day. The opinion piece by Farhad Mangoo laments the recent rejection in California of a new zoning law to create more affordable housing in cities like San Francisco, where it takes an annual income of $320,000 to afford a median priced home. The blame lies, Manjoo says, with wealthy California progressives who openly practice NIMBY – not in my backyard – toward affordable housing and homeless shelters. In a city as progressive as San Francisco, one represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, technology millionaires and other rich liberals defeated this bill that would help address California’s housing crisis – one that has wage earners making over $50,000 living in their cars because they can’t afford an apartment. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3500 a month. The homeless population in California is at an all time high while the number of people who are fleeing California for cheaper housing states increases every year. As one online commenter put it about Manjoo’s opinion piece, California is a bastion of liberal hypocrites – people who loudly criticize the President’s desire to build a border wall, but who have nevertheless built a figurative wall of wealth that excludes all but the richest. Other online commenters say many other US cities are much the same as San Francisco – filled with privileged progressives who don’t seem to care that their communities exclude much of the middle class and poor.
For me, this opinion piece was an eye opener. How do I, with my privilege, implicitly help to also exclude the less fortunate from neighborhoods where I live?
What these two articles about progressivism tell me is that progressive pride in its values and spirituality is desperately needed in our nation. In order to spread the gospel of progressive spirituality and values, liberals must walk their talk, and then be openly proud in what they believe.
For us at the Gathering at Northern Hills, I encourage progressive pride, during this June month of pride. While we are not perfect, just as no church is, I believe the accomplishments and history here are reason enough to be proud, as humbly as possible, in what we represent and do.
In a metropolitan area of well over one-million people, we are one of only a handful of spiritually progressive congregations. That offers us an enormous opportunity to extol the benefits of progressive faith. Quite simply, we stand for – and practice as best we can – what all religions ought to stand for and practice – inclusivity, non-violence, compassion, justice for all, and service to those in need. Just as our framed picture above the chalice table depicts, one also on the cover of your programs, we celebrate the shared ideals of Brahma, Muhammad, Abraham, Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, and others. Love for humanity is the overriding ethic of each world religion and we, right here in this congregation, both endorse and practice that.
As spiritually progressive people, we stand against intolerant forces that seek to divide people into competing groups. Fundamentalist religions that deny the dignity of other faiths, nationalism, racism, sexism, and excessive greed are forces this congregation and Unitarian Universalism do not support.
Offering positive ideals, we instead call people to unite in agreement that everybody seeks the same basic things in life – happiness, love, dignity, and equality of opportunity. What the world needs is that kind of progressive, humanist approach. The world needs advocates of mutual understanding, peaceful coexistence, and economic justice not just for a fortunate few, but for all. 50% of the world’s population should not own only 1% of the world’s wealth. Is that something any religion, any faith, any form of spirituality, any belief system can possibly tolerate? Of course it isn’t and that means we as progressives can point the way to a human unity of shared goals that improve everybody’s well-being.
And so I implore each of us to be proud of what we do here and what we believe. June should not just be LGBTQ Pride month. It should also be for us a month of pride in the progressive values and beliefs that are the foundation of what we do here. We can improve things about this church, as always, but such improvements are only to advance the very high cause that brings us here. Let us lift up what we do and be positive about this good place. Let us share our principles and our actions with youth, family members and neighbors, and give a reason why this congregation, and others like it, are important to both support and regularly attend.