Tag Archives: UU History

the right hand of fellowship?

10 Jun

These words were given during the Ordination of Christe Lunsford at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY on June 9, 2019.

Rev. Lunsford (!!!), over the years I have watched you grow in your ministry. From those early days of being the music director at First Unitarian, to working with you on the ministry team, through your discernment to enroll in seminary and all that it entailed.

And so I am thrilled to be with you today. THRILLED!

The offering of the right hand of fellowship is one of our oldest traditions, which comes from the Christian Scriptures. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he writes that during his commission as an apostle, he received the right hand of fellowship from the other apostles. It was a symbol of their mutual relation, their equal authority, and their common affection. It was a pledge that they recognized each others gifts and that they were colleagues on a greater mission. Though they knew they might never meet again, they pledged fidelity to each other and were, in effect, bound by the ties of faith and suffering and hope.

It was the right hand, as opposed to the left, in part because offering the right hand was a show of peace, demonstrating that one had no weapon.

So this ritual is one that is grounded in our history. Offering you the right hand of fellowship today suggests a covenant among colleagues. We are fortunate to be part of a living tradition that has inspired our lives and has been passed down for generations. Fortunate to be a part of a vocation and a role that is much bigger than us as individuals.


Let’s get real. Most of those who have participated in this ritual through the ages have been cis-white men. They haven’t looked like me until relatively recently. And they haven’t looked like you until really recently. And sometimes, we fail in our collegiality with each other. We fail to recognize one another’s call and gifts for ministry. As our colleague the Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen recently reminded us at the ordination of Sara Green, professional associations are fallible, and even collegiality and the collegial covenants we create can be weaponized to serve white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and capitalism.

I can offer you my right hand and still stab you in the back with my left.

And so, I have the temerity to suggest an adaptation of this ritual as a part of our living tradition – an update to better fit the times we find ourselves in – times when it is no longer only cis-white men welcoming one another into collegiality, times when our ministers represent a much broader array of genders, orientations, cultures, races, ability levels and more.

Instead of the right hand of fellowship, I would like to offer you the hug of collegiality. With your consent, of course.

Unlike a handshake, a hug demonstrates true care and concern. With a hug, I make myself vulnerable to you, and you do to me. We welcome each other into our personal spaces. We use both hands (no side hugs!) so no hand is free to backstab. And a hug says: I have your back, and I know you have mine as well.

I offer you this hug of collegiality, knowing that it has not and it will not be easy for you. That you will have to continue to demand your right to exist, even within our faith tradition, even, sometimes, among your colleagues. But you are not alone. Many of us already have your back, and will support you, and challenge you. We will move with you in the world, in whatever ways we can, knowing that your very presence as our colleague makes us all better. Knowing, too, that we need each other.  Because the mantle of ministry is impossible to bear alone.

So in offering you this ritual today, I say for myself, and for our trusted, faithful colleagues: We are here for you. In the good and the bad, the ups and the downs. And we expect you to be there for us, too. May this ritual be a symbol of our mutual relation, our equal authority, and our common affection. Know that we recognize your gifts and that we are colleagues on a greater mission. We exhort you to be faithful to this sacred trust. I have no doubt that you will be – indeed you have already proven your faithfulness.

And so, Rev. Lunsford, in an update of the custom of our congregations, as a part of the living, changing, growing tradition we share, on behalf of myself and our trusted colleagues, may I give you the hug of collegiality?

the transient and permanent in UU ministry.

14 Jun

Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long
June 4, 2016

You can watch the entire ordination below. Sermon starts at 31:00.

Imagine the scene, 175 years ago, at the Hawes’ Place Church in South Boston. May 19, 1841, was, like tonight. the night of an ordination. The ordinand was Mr. Charles C. Shackford, a mere 26 years old. He would go on to serve the Lynn church for 19 years. The preacher that evening was Rev. Theodore Parker.

Delivering the sermon at an ordination is an honor in our tradition. Then, and today, the sermons are generally not particular to the ordinand but instead address either our larger Unitarian Universalist faith tradition or the institution of our professional ministry. Ordination sermons are a time to stand up on the balcony and survey the view – to look at trends, or challenges, that we are facing, and to offer our observations.

175 years ago, Unitarians were facing a challenge – the theological challenge of Transcendentalism. Parker had heard Emerson give his Divinity School Address three years earlier and had been powerfully moved by it. In that address, Emerson had defined many of the tenets of Transcendentalism, comparing it to a more traditional Unitarian theology. The Divinity School address had begun a major controversy within Unitarianism, a fire to which Parker’s sermon added fuel.

The title of Parker’s sermon was “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” His main idea was that, in Christianity, there are some things that are permanent, enduring through the ages – such as what Jesus taught: Love your neighbor and the meek shall inherit the world. And there are some things that are transient, changing over the passage of time – such as how particular Biblical passages are applied, an even, Parker said, the authority of the Bible! Hearing his sermon, some declared, “If that is Unitarianism, I am not a Unitarian!” Sean Dennison writes that “Parker’s main point at this particular ordination was that the Christians of the day were missing the point. They had confused what was transient, changeable, and impermanent for what was enduring in Christianity. He challenged them to look at their habits, their rituals, their practices and their doctrines and let go of much that was more about fear than about the core message of their faith.”

So it is with some trepidation that I take my title today from that historic ordination sermon Parker gave 175 years ago. I am not Theodore Parker. I am older than he was when he gave his address. And a woman. And I doubt history will take notice of me the way it did this man who could turn a phrase – the moral arc of the universe and “government of all, by all, for all” are both his.

And at the same time, I believe we are at a turning point not unlike the turning point that Parker found himself in low those years ago. I believe we are at a time when the old ways are rolling away, and the new ways that are coming in are scary, unknown, overwhelming, and challenging to how things have been done in our lifetimes.

But while the crisis in Parker’s day was a theological one, the one today is a crisis around the sustainability of religious life. Church attendance is at its lowest rate in the history of our country. More and more people understand themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Not only are there fewer people in the pews on Sunday morning, but many of those who are there have less time to volunteer to help make the church function. The volunteer bench is not as deep as it used to be as retirees are often finding part-time jobs to help make ends meet, and many families with two parents find that both are needing to work. This might all be fine if people were able to give more financially, but church giving is not increasing at pace with other charitable giving – certainly not at the rate needed to fund positions that used to be filled by volunteers. So we are at a critical juncture within our religious institutions: how do we adapt to this changing religious landscape? I’ve written about some ways congregations might adapt – tonight I’d like to explore what this might mean for our professional ministry.

For there’s no doubt about it: our ministry is changing. I entered seminary in 1997. The ministry that I do now is not at all what I expected going in less than 20 years ago. Speaking with colleagues with more experience than I, I know that I am not alone. One colleague boldly told me that ministry used to be much simpler – more scholarly and more pastoral, not like today with all the distractions.

What might the future hold for the beloved vocation of parish ministry? During the recent summit on The Economic Sustainability of Unitarian Universalist Ministries, many religious professionals (parish ministers, community ministers, directors of religious education) shared that they live paycheck to paycheck, as hours are cut, student loan and seminary debt increases, and salaries don’t keep pace. There is much debate within our professional associations about bi-vocational ministry – professional ministers who have other jobs outside of ministry. In truth, because we are not yet certain how congregations will adapt to the changing religious landscape, it is hard to predict what professional parish ministry will look like 50 years from now. Things are changing. Quickly.

Reverend Khoren Arisian addressed this onslaught of change in his 1998 Berry Street Lecture, which had the subtitle “The Transient and Permanent In Life And Ministry.” Arisian shared that, “As time goes by in this marvelous, maddening world, things get more and more complicated, events move faster and faster, so that we need more than ever to have a reliable point of view, an existential epistemological compass, as it were, by which to discriminate one thing from another.”

In this time of great change in our religious landscape, when events move faster and faster, I am inspired to take a page from Parker and look at what is transient, and what is permanent, in our Unitarian Universalist ministry, for this can provide us with the “existential epistemelogical compass” Arisian mentions. I don’t have the luxury of an hour long lecture or 45 minute sermon, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view – I hear those sighs of relief!), so there is much I don’t have time to address. My hope is that the five points that I touch on here become fodder for further thought and exploration – something (perhaps) to be expanded upon, particularly for those of us engaged in, or contemplating, the professional ministry.

And so: the transient.

Example number one, appropriately enough – the sermon, or, more specifically, how we deliver our message. If it is true that today’s people have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, I can only imagine what it would be like to magically transport Parker through time to be here today – his hour long sermon, bereft of stories and full of academic theology – would undoubtedly find many minds wandering. When I entered seminary, the ideal was a three point sermon, 20ish minutes, logically and coherently arranged. Today, sermons are shorter, and many experts in homiletics recommend one point. One. Ideally, that one point is made through the use of stories. By todays standards, this sermon this evening is dry, long, and uninspiring. Sorry, folks!

There is nothing wrong with this shorter, story-telling style of sermon – the stories keep the listener engaged, and with just one point it is easier to be clear, and go deep. Sermon style falls into the transient category. But I would also propose that the sermon itself may, as well. As we begin to gear our message to a wider audience, with more educational diversity and neurological diversity and generational diversity, we may find that other ways to share our message become more useful and have greater impact. Time will tell.

What hasn’t changed – what is permanent – is how we arrive at the content of our message. In the Divinity School Address that so inspired Parker, Emerson said that it is the role of the preacher to deal out “life passed through the fire of thought.” Whether it is three points, or one, full of stories or full of academic quotes, the role of the minister is to take our experiences – our educational experiences, our life experiences, the catalog of our lives and of the world around us, and to examine them deeply – to take the personal and use it as a lens with which to reflect on the universal. Whether we share that message through a sermon, or a blog posting, a facebook post, or a tweet (hashtag “jordinnation”), a snapchat story or a self-published novella – the medium of the message transient, but passing life through the fire of thought is permanent.

This leads to the next area of the transient: the tools we use. Once upon a time, it was letters and personal visits via horseback. Then it was phone calls and car-rides to the hospital. Today, it is email and facebook. The amount of email needing to be read is never-ending. Facebook presents us with boundless opportunities for positive connections with colleagues and with congregants. The shadow side is that digital connection sometimes has replaced, not enhanced, in-person connection. I vividly remember the time facebook was the method from which I learned that a congregant had died. But facebook is choosy about what it shows. This can cause problems when congregants believe that the minister has seen and been made aware of something that we are clueless about. The relationship between a minister and a congregant can end up broken when a congregant relies on social media to inform the minister of important events in their lives. And the relationship, the connection between the office of ministry and the people we serve while in that office, is something that is permanent.

Those whom we serve want the minister to know them, to see them, to walk with them in times of crisis and sit with them in times of need. With multiple generations in a congregation, this means some will want us to call them, some will prefer email, some prefer facebook or texting, others, well, you’ll have to ask them. The tools of relationship are transient, but the need congregants have for a relationship with their minister is permanent.

Our connections with people both within and outside the congregations we serve, combined with our reflections on our lives and relationships, will lead us to an awareness of the vast injustice present in our world. Which brings us to a third example of the transient and the permanent in our ministry. The specific nature of an injustice we see may be transient since even as we make advances in one area, another arises – racism, sexism, homophobia, fat-phobia, ablism. Our capacity as human beings to turn someone into “other” seems to have no end. And so, while a particular type of oppression might be transient, oppression itself is permanent, and so too is our responsibility as ministers to call out oppression when we see it. We may say that we work to create God’s kingdom here on earth, or say that our role is to “endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few.” We may say that we are putting our hands upon the moral arc of the universe and bending it towards justice or that it is our job to love the hell out of the world. How we phrase it changes with the generations, just as the form of oppression changes. What is permanent is our role, as liberal ministers, to hold and proclaim the vision of a world made fair and all her people cared for – to call humanity to its best self.

Prophetic voice, staying in relationship, sharing our message- it can all get overwhelming. Rev. Sharon Ditmar, preaching at my installation at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, shared something that has stuck with me and that I have held onto for years. Ministry, she said, is a marathon, not a sprint. She was talking about how it is necessary to pace ourselves, to understand that we can’t run mile after mile at a sprinter pace or we will burn ourselves out. And she is so right! Trying to juggle church life, family life, personal life – it can be exhausting. But this is also misleading, because unlike a marathon, there is no line that we cross where we suddenly say to ourselves “We have ARRIVED!” Or at least, I haven’t found one.

Instead, ministry is like trying to drink from a firehose – there are hundreds of little things that constantly need to get done, so that as ministers we can try to guzzle it all, or to take little sips. And sometimes we need to pull away from it entirely, lest we drown. Jordinn, I promise, when you miss a Board or Committee meeting, or neglect to answer every email within 72 hours, the church won’t fall apart. This is the message I tell myself every year, especially this time of year when my energy is low after Easter, the pledge drive, the annual meeting, and a year’s worth of guzzling from the firehose.

And so these trappings of ministry, these things, events, activities – they are a fourth aspect of the transient in ministry that distracts us from the permanent, which in this case is that ministry calls us to be our whole selves. To be authentic human beings. And for me to know, at my core, that I am enough. For you to know that you are enough. That ministry is not something we do, it is something we are. Ministry, this call to be in the world, to speak truth in love, to meet people where they are, to challenge the world to be better, to walk with those in need, and to model all this for those we serve – this is the permanent, and my imperfect, insecure, constantly falling short self is exactly enough to live this ministry into life. And so is yours.

I am enough. You are enough. But it is not about me, and it is not about you. In fact, the reality is that as individual ministers, WE are what is transient. This is the fifth and final observation of the transient and permanent in ministry. Us. We live our lives, we do the best we can, we hope to make a difference- and I think that we usually do. But our ministries end, and someone comes behind us to take our place. As Mark Morrison Reed observed in his Berry Street Lecture from 16 years ago, we must die so that the ministry will live. It is our duty to fill the jar and leave it for the next traveler. And this is as it should be! This is what it means to be part of a living tradition that grows and changes with each generation. What is permanent, what is lasting, is this tradition that we are a part of. We have beloveds who came before us, paved the way and broke through barriers and ceilings; beloveds who will come after us and drink from the wells we tend; and beloveds who are on this journey with us, who can encourage us when our energies flag, who can call US to be our best selves. One generation passes over into another and our ministries will end. But the ministry continues.

Indeed, from time immemorial there have been shamans, priests, wise-women, and elders who have been the voice of the divine, the keepers of wisdom, the face of God for those in need interpreting the mysteries of the universe and what it means to be human. Those in this role have buried the dead, welcomed the newly born, told the stories, kept the rituals, communicated with the divine, and shown the people where to go. The specific manifestation looks different in each cultural incarnation, each human epoch, but the need for such religious leadership itself remains constant. People will always needed ministers, in some capacity.

The transient changes, with time and generations. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad – just that it’s shifting sands upon which to build a ministry. It often demands our attention, urgently. It can distract us and we can get lost in it’s cacophony: read this email! Write a blog entry! More stories in your sermon! Go to more community meetings!

As ministers, we sometimes get caught up in what is transient and lose sight of what is permanent. And so it behooves us to look at our habits, practices and the stories we tell ourselves about ministry – and let go of that which demands our attention so that we might dig deeper and remember what is enduring about ministry.

When we pause and listen, we can discern that which is permanent, hear it whispering to us, sustaining us. It tells us that we will be neither the pinnacle nor the nadir in this ageless institution, but that we are enough just the same. It tells us that our vocation is about relationship, paying attention, and speaking the truth as we know it. We are called to watch where we are going. Lean in toward love. And when in doubt, tell our truth. May that which is permanent sustain us, and may it set us free. Blessed be.

an angry God.

27 Mar

Easter Sermon delivered March 27, 2016
First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY


So, let’s say that I am at your house. We are sitting down, talking, drinking some tea. We are talking about something and I am getting passionate. I tend to gesticulate quite a bit when I speak passionately, so my arms are flying all over the place, and I knock over your favorite lamp, which shatters. Of course, I am apologetic! And so now you have two options: you can either demand that I make restitution and pay you back for the lamp, or you can decide to forgive and forget.

Forgiveness has been our theme this month, and as Linette shared, we have looked at it from a variety of angles: forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, and what forgiveness could look like when practiced in public schools. And so we come to Easter. Among other things, in the Christian tradition Easter is about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. It is about atonement – that is, how to put right the relationship between God and humanity when humanity has sinned, has fallen short. There are many different atonement theologies that look at how the life and death of Jesus allows or assists us becoming reconciled, at one, with God. Some atonement theologies deal with original sin – the idea that from the time of Adam and Eve humans have carried with us the stain of their actions. Some atonement theologies deal more with individuals and their relationship with God. Some understand Jesus as a model for an at-one-ment with God, while others believe that his blood and his suffering were necessary for salvation.

It is one of these latter atonement theologies that I want to address today, and from which the lamp metaphor comes. It is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA. After I break your lamp, if you decide to forgive and forget, then PSA says you end up paying a cost: either you do without the lamp, or you have to buy a new one.

Now, imagine that you are God. And I have not broken a lamp, but I have sinned. PSA says that just as you as a lamp owner had to pay a cost if you decided to forgive and forget, then God, too has to pay a cost if God decides to forgive and forget our sins.

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches...

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches…

In the lamp-scenario, I would probably offer you the money to buy a new lamp. But according to PSA, as sinners, we “are not capable of making a sufficient payment to rectify our sin problem because our righteous deeds are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Since we are not capable of making a sufficient restitution payment, the only one left to do this is God.”i And not only that, but the only restitution God will take is not money, but death. Someone has to die.

PSA sees humankind as unworthy and our natures as inherently sinful. Our sinful natures keep God from allowing us into heaven when we die, and doom us to an eternity of suffering in hell. Salvation can only come from some form of restitution. It says that God can’t break God’s own law, since God is just, and so God took our sinful debts, piled them high on Jesus, and had him killed instead of us. And so the law is satisfied, our debt is repayed, and we are forgiven.

This theology looks at the cross, at Easter, in purely legal terms. “You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free…”ii

I know a number of us came to Unitarian Universalism in direct reaction to our horror at this merciless, angry theology. Many former-Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, when the water is tainted with PSA. But believe it or not, PSA is actually a relatively new theology of atonement, and it is not what the Christians originally believed. And our history as both Universalists and Unitarians demonstrates that we have been in opposition to this faulty theology since the very beginning.

The PSA theory began to emerge approximately 1000 years ago. Before this time, Christians didn’t focus on the death of Jesus at all. In researching their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker found that images of the crucifixion did not even appear in churches until the tenth century. Instead, the early church focused on “how Jesus’s teachings and the practices of the early church affirmed life in this world as the place of salvation. Within their church communities, Christians in the first millennium sought to help life flourish in the face of imperial power, violence, and death.”iii

It was in the 16th century, in the Reformed Church, led by John Calvin that PSA really blossomed. Reformers found that the atonement theologies of the time stressed a merciful God rather than a just God. And so it is not surprising that PSA has legalistic overtones. “This idea is also called the ‘satisfaction’ theory because it asserts that’s God’s righteous requirement for justice was satisfied by Jesus’ death.iv Calvin even claimed that it was “necessary for Jesus to suffer through a judicial process and to be condemned as a criminal (even though the process was flawed and Pilate washed his hands of the condemnation).”v

Today, PSA is the dominant atonement theology for Evangelicals. Al Mohler, of Southern Baptist Seminary up the road, has emphasized the significance of PSA for galvanizing “the Conservative Resurgence that took place within the Southern Baptist Convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”vi Mohler tells the story of how, when he attended the seminary in 1980, his “first early morning class was with Frank Stagg on the Gospel of Matthew. Professor Stagg repeatedly and emphatically rejected what he called ‘bloody cross religion.’ He vociferously denied the necessity of the cross, insisting that ‘God did not have to arrange a killing at Calvary in order to forgive sin.'” Mohler disagreed, and now Southern Baptists are known for their belief in PSA.

Outside of the Southern Baptist Convention, one can see PSA’s influence woven in to the weft and weave of our country. Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. Writing for Sojourners in 2014, he said:

“For 500 years we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice. When we allow this broken framework to influence the application of justice (as we have) we see criminal acts in terms of “need to punish as justice” instead of “need to restore as justice” …Yes, there are many criminal acts that require a person to be removed from society for their protection and for ours, but this theological framework has caused us to view “justice served” when a person receives what we feel is an appropriate sentence instead of seeing “justice served” when both the offender and the offended (even if that’s just society in general) have had their lives reconciled…

Justice becomes punishment, not healing and restoration.

And so, our prisons are overflowing. Why? Because our theological framework has told us that justice can only be satisfied when someone has been properly and fully punished, instead of telling us that justice is most fully satisfied when a life has been restored .”vii

Brock and Parker agree, and they are astonished how, in retrospect, they never questioned the centrality of this theological framework to contemporary Christianity. They write “The doctrine of substitutionary atonement uses Jesus’s death as the supreme model of self-sacrificing love, placing victims of violence in harm’s way and absolving perpetrators of their responsibility for unethical behavior.”

Theologian and activist Brian McLaren see’s the influence of PSA in our demonization of people who don’t agree with us. He writes that his “special concern with the theory comes up in relation to our attitude towards ‘the other’ – people of other faiths. If God’s default mode is ‘against’ all in hostility, then those who identify with this vision of God will find it too easy to justify a similar attitude towards ‘the other.’ ”viii

And if you believe in an angry God, how far of a leap is it to follow an angry man? Indeed, a powerful, angry man might seem God-like. Cognitive scientist and author George Lakoff found the theological connections between Strict Father Figure conservatives and Nurturing Parent liberals years ago. In a recent article examining why Evangelicals are drawn to Trump, Lakoff writes:

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.<ix

White evangelicals are drawn to someone who represents a strict father-figure identity, and who does that more than Trump? He is authoritarian, he says the things they wish they could say, he operates in moral absolutes – there is no grey area. Something is right, or it is wrong. There are winners, and there are losers. Losers, and wrong-doers, must be punished. Strictly. In fact, because PSA removes all mercy from God, “sin must be paid for, even if an innocent person must die. It can never be simply forgiven.”x So it is not a far leap to see how those with a penal-substitution view of atonement could be drawn to an angry, hate-filled, authoritarian rhetoric.

But PSA is not the only or final way to understand the Easter story. Far, far from it. Remember, as Brock and Parker found, the early Christian church focused on creating paradise, here on earth. It wasn’t for 1000 years that PSA evolved.

An earlier atonement theory is called moral influence view, and this is one in which both the Universalists and the Unitarians have their roots. “The moral influence view of the atonement holds that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. It is one of the oldest views of the atonement in Christian theology and a prevalent view for most of Christian history.”

In the 16 century, as PSA was being developed by John Calvin and the Reform tradition, Fausto Sozzini, an Italian theologian, was advocating instead for a moral influence view of atonement. Socinianism, as Sozzini’s theology was called, was an early form of Unitarianism.

Sozzini wrote a pamphlet supporting a moral influence view of atonement that came into controversy with PSA because the two systems have very, very different criteria and definitions of salvation and judgment. PSA says that the blood of the cross saves us from an eternity of suffering in Hell while Socinians rejected the concept of original sin, rejected the concept of Hell, said that Jesus was fully human, and that his sacrifice serves to inspire us to abandon our sins.

Fast forward a few hundred years and, we find that “as a result of these conflicts, a strong division has remained since the Reformation between liberal Protestants (who typically adopt a moral influence view) and conservative Protestants (who typically adopt a penal substitutionary view).”

One of those liberal preachers who had a strong moral influence view of the atonement was Hosea Ballou. Ballou was raised in a the Reform tradition, in a Baptist home that was very Calvinist. But he could not reconcile his “belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the idea of eternal punishment for most of humanity.”xi And so he searched through the Bible, and ended up at the concept of universal salvation.

In 1805, Ballou published his Treatise on Atonement, which outlined his beliefs on atonement and universal salvation. In celebrating the 200th anniversary of this pamphlet, Charles Howe wrote in the UU World:

Orthodoxy [that is, the set of doctrines approved by the Church] considered humanity’s punishment for its infinite sin as separation from an angry God. Ballou, by contrast, saw [people] struggling to turn toward moral good and away from the sins that separated them from a loving God.

Orthodoxy required Christ to take on the burden of humanity’s sin by being sacrificed on the cross, thereby atoning for sin and making it possible for an appeased God to be reconciled with humanity.

Ballou, on the other hand, contended that Christ’s death released a great spirit of love into the world, making [people] who were receptive to this spirit better able to atone for their own sins and be reconciled with God.

This is so different from what we normally hear about the resurrection, isn’t it? The idea that in that final act of forgiveness on the cross, Jesus’s death released a great spirit of Love…??? Howe continues…

Thus Ballou argued that the orthodox had things backward: It was humanity that needed to be reconciled to God, not God to humanity. Moreover, this atoning spirit of love was available not only to Christians, but to all people, irrespective of “names…denominations, people, or kingdoms.” In no case would anyone be sent to eternal punishment by a loving God. No sin was that great; salvation was universal.xii

Ballou detested PSA and the concept of eternal suffering. It was repugnant to him. In his Treatise, he wrote “A false education has riveted the error in the minds of thousands, that God’s law required endless misery to be inflicted on the sinner.” Instead, Ballou saw God as a nurturing parent, who loves us unconditionally.

And again, you can hear Lakoff’s theory about the difference between conservatism and liberalism. Ballou was firmly in the nurturing parent view, even 200 years go. In his Treatise, he wrote “There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away sin, but love; and we have reason to be thankful that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of [humankind], and to make us free from the law of sin and death, to reconcile us to God, and to wash us pure in the…life, of the everlasting covenant.” We see a modern interpretation of Ballou’s theology in our affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Today, the divide between those who believe in PSA and those who take a moral influence view of the atonement could not be more strained, or more obvious. Liberal theologians ask, “how can justice and mercy be achieved through an act of injustice? If God is just, how can an innocent person be punished?” We ask this of theologians, and we ask this of our court system.

Others point out that the problem with PSA is that it is based on a faulty premise that sin needs to be punished, that God “cannot just sovereignly decide to forgive us, he also has to punish sin.” xiii Once this premise is dismissed, PSA makes no sense logically.

Additionally, going back to the metaphor of the loss of a lamp, if one believes that God is infinite, one assumes God could just write off the loss. If God is infinite, then “infinity minus five million billion trillion is still infinity. In the words of St Therese of Lisieux, even the worst sin in the world is like a drop of water in the burning pyre of God’s love.”endnotes

These days, as much as we still seem to love the themes of peace, love, and hospitality embodied in the Christmas story, Unitarian Universalists have a mixed relationship with the Easter story. We love the idea of hope and rebirth. We connect it to Spring, and renewal. We like the bunnies, and egg hunts. But talk about the cross and watch us squirm. I think the reason why is because the metaphor and magic of Easter have been lost to penal substitutionary atonement. PSA has become, in some ways, the loudest, if not the dominant, view of atonement. And so we want to make sure that we are not celebrating THAT view of this important, culture-shaping, story.

Our own history provides an antidote to the toxicity of penal substitutionary atonement and it’s angry God. And it is an antidote that the world desperately needs. Like the early church, in the face of imperial power, violence and death, we believe that salvation is something for this world, for this life, here and now. As inheritors of a tradition of a moral influence view of atonement, we understand Easter to be inspirational rather than a form of punishment. That Jesus’ final act of forgiveness of the imperfections of humanity is something we can aspire to for ourselves and for others. And as our early forbears taught, we know that the divine, by whatever name we call the numinous, mysterious wonder of the universe, is love – the very spirit of life itself. May we share this saving message, broadly, with a world so in need of it, and in this way love the hell out of the world and love one another out of hell.Blessed Be!



i. https://carm.org/is-the-substitutionary-atonement-doctrine-immoral

ii. https://sojo.net/articles/how-poor-theology-cross-created-americas-broken-justice-system#sthash.deJFTKcQ.dpuf

iii. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/early-christians-emphasized-paradise-not-crucifixion

iv. http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html

v. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution

vi. http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/08/12/the-wrath-of-god-was-satisfied-substitutionary-atonement-and-the-conservative-resurgence-in-the-southern-baptist-convention/

vii. https://sojo.net/articles/how-poor-theology-cross-created-americas-broken-justice-system

viii. http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/q-r-penal-substitutionary-atonem.html

ix. http://georgelakoff.com/2016/03/02/why-trump/

x. http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html

xi. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto

xii. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto

xiii. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/thoughts-against-penal-substitutionary-atonement/

xiv. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/thoughts-against-penal-substitutionary-atonement/

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