Getting On Message: Challenging the Christian Right
General Assembly 2006 Event 2045
Sponsor: Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Staff
Speakers: Rev. Peter Laarman, Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting, and Rev. William Sinkford, UUA President
The Rev. Peter Laarman and UUA President William Sinkford spoke to an overflow crowd of more than 500 Thursday morning in a workshop based on their new Beacon Press book Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel. Laarman edited the book and Sinkford contributed an essay to it.
Perhaps the most succinct summary of the book's message came from a bumper sticker the Rev. Meg Riley quoted in her introduction of Laarman and Sinkford: "Jesus called. He wants his religion back."
Laarman, the executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, urged progressive Christians "not to surrender the Bible ... or Christ to the American jihadists." Sinkford encouraged even those who do not consider themselves Christians to "reclaim the ability to use religious language" and not to allow the religious right "to take these words away from us." Laarman quoted Burton Mack as saying, "You'd better get busy working on your figure of Christ, because that figure is not going away."
Laarman identified the core principle of progressive Christianity as "Go and do likewise." In other words, the Christian should be seeking to emulate Jesus' example as a healer, a peacemaker, and a reconciler. "The point of Christianity is discipleship." If all those who call themselves Christians would truly attempt to emulate Jesus, "that would have real implications."
Instead, Jesus has been co-opted by those for whom he is predominantly an apocalyptic figure, one that Laarman described as "a fire-breathing Christ on a horse." He cited a review of recent Southern Baptist sermon topics, few of which used the Sermon on the Mount as the principle text, preferring harsher texts from Old Testament law or speculative texts from Revelations.
But Laarman also blamed liberals and progressive Christians for losing Jesus to the Right. Discomfort with "difficult texts" in the Bible caused liberals to shy away from the Bible altogether. "We allowed a vacuum in discourse about Jesus and the Bible." Progressive Christians underestimated fundamentalism, believing that it had been "decisively routed about 1930." But now, he says, "we have to get back into the fray."
"Civil religion," he admitted, contains "good and bad strands." But liberals should promote the good strands rather than let the bad strands predominate. "The cadences of old-time religion are there, deep down, even among people who say they aren't religious." For this reason a "purely secular message will lose" to a "Biblically resonant" one.
He reminded the audience how religious language has been used historically by champions of democracy like Abraham Lincoln, Harrient Tubman, and Martin Luther King. "We won't let the bad actors lay sole claim to that legacy."
William Sinkford used his time to speak more directly to Unitarian Universalists, most of whom do not identify themselves as Christians. He noted that the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of our sources and said, "We have every right to mine that tradition." He urged UUs to find "meanings in those words and stories that we can affirm in a whole-hearted way" and not to "be silent while the fundamentalists have stolen our language and our scriptures."
In order to change the world, Sinkford said, "we need partners." He recommended a strategy of partnering with other religious groups on an issue-by-issue basis, rather than restricting our alliances only to those groups with which we have broad agreement. He gave Catholics as an example: UUs cannot ally with Catholics on issues of gender and sexuality, "but on economic justice you can do it."
In response to a question from the audience, Sinkford addressed the conflict between theists and humanists within the UU movement. Sinkford described this as a "false dichotomy." He described humanism as a belief in human agency, that human hands were the only tools through which the good could be accomplished. He did not believe that this is a controversial position within Unitarian Universalism. "Each and every UU is at heart a humanist," he claimed. "If you allow false dichotomies to keep us apart, then we are truly lost."