Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 20, 2009
“Standing on the Side of Love
Thoughts on Making Universalism Real
Rev. Catherine Torpey
Murray didn’t start out a Universalist. In his earlier years back in England, he had been appalled by some of the Universalist preaching he had heard stories about. He became distressed when a young woman of excellent character left the Anglican church to become a Universalist. Murray went to her to try to win her back to the fold. The following is the account of their conversation as written in Murray’s autobiography.
“The young lady received us with much kindness and condescension. As I glanced my eye upon her fine countenance, beaming with intelligence, mingling pity and contempt grew in my bosom. After the first ceremonies, we sat for some time silent. At length I drew up a heavy sigh and uttered a pathetic sentiment, relative to the deplorable condition of those who live and die in unbelief. I concluded a violent declamation by pronouncing with great earnestness, ‘They who believe not shall be damned.’
”And pray, sir,” said the young lady, with great sweetness, ”Pray, sir, what is the unbeliever damned for not believing?”
… Why, he must believe that Jesus Christ is a complete Saviour.
“Well, suppose he were to believe, that Jesus Christ was the complete Saviour of others, would this belief save him?”
No, he must believe that Jesus Christ is his complete Saviour; every individual must believe for himself that Jesus Christ is his complete Saviour.
“Why, sir, is Jesus Christ the Saviour of any unbelievers?”
”Why, then, should any unbeliever believe, that Jesus Christ is his Saviour, if he is not his Saviour?”
I say he is not the Saviour of any one, until he believes.
“Then, if Jesus be not the Saviour of the unbeliever, until he believes, the unbeliever is called upon to believe a lie. It appears to me, sir, that Jesus is the complete Saviour of unbelievers; and that unbelievers are called upon to believe the truth….”
No, madam; you are dreadfully… misled. Jesus never was, not never will be, the Saviour of any unbeliever.
“Do you think Jesus is your Saviour, sir?”
I hope he is.
“Were you always a believer sir?”
“Then you were once an unbeliever…. Now, as you say, he never was, nor never will be, the Saviour of any unbeliever; as you were once an unbeliever, he never can be your Saviour.”
He never was my Saviour till I believed.
“Did he never die for you, till you believed, sir?”
Here I was extremely embarrassed, and most devoutly wished myself out of her habitation; I sighed bitterly, expressed deep commiseration for those souls who had nothing but head-knowledge; drew out my watch, discovered it was late; and, recollecting an engagement, observed it was time to take leave…. From this period, I myself carefully avoided every Universalist, and most cordially did I hate them.
This has been quite a couple of weeks for outbursts. Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You lie” during President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress last week. Then, four days later, hip-hop singer Kanye West interrupted the acceptance speech of another artist in order to state, in effect, that she didn’t deserve the award. And two days after that, this past Tuesday, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush last year was freed from prison in Iraq.
It is not only in our day that accusations and shoes are hurled at those in the middle of speeches. In Boston, some time in the late eighteenth century, John Murray, the founding father of Universalism in America, was preaching a sermon when a hefty rock came flying through the window behind him. It had been thrown with force so great that it might have killed him had it struck him just right. Fortunately, it didn’t strike him at all. Unruffled by this latest attempt on his life and the broken glass around him, Murray picked up the stone and declared “This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.”
What was so frightening, so threatening about what Murray was preaching that it engendered not just someone grabbing the microphone, not just someone shouting “You lie!” not even the more serious but still just symbolic throwing of shoes? What made some unknown assailant wish to kill John Murray?
It was Murray’s declaration that God loves all souls. That there is no eternal punishment for our sins. That you, whoever you are, are ultimately and profoundly safe.
It’s not a message we might think would enrage people, but enrage people it did. The rock-throwing incident was just one more narrow escape for Murray – he was nearly lynched on more than one occasion. This standing on the side of love stuff is dangerous, it seems.
You saw the story of Murray’s arrival to our shores acted out earlier. The Universalist roots of our faith began with a delightful miracle. Thomas Potter, an uneducated farmer, built his chapel in New Jersey in full confidence that God would send him a minister to preach the true gospel of universalism. The ship Murray was sailing on was forced to make an unanticipated landing at what was then called Good Luck, New Jersey. Legend has it that while the ship had still been far off, Potter had declared to his neighbors that that ship bore the man who would preach universalism in his chapel. John Murray had had no desire to face lynch mobs in the New World as he had back in England. He had decided never to preach again. There is a delightful account of the encounter between Murray and Potter in Murray’s autobiography, where Murray writes that he wanted desperately for the winds to change so that he wouldn’t have to preach, but that if the winds did not change (as Potter insisted they wouldn’t until Murray preached) then Murray would take that as a sign from God.
And on a September Sunday in 1770, Murray preached in that little chapel. A couple of hours later, the winds changed, and Murray went on to his original destination.
Murray’s preaching changed the winds in Boston and Gloucester. People were hungry for his message – that Jesus had died for all souls, believers and unbelievers alike. He was asked to preach all over the area, much to the dismay of his fellow ministers, who were distressed to have their flocks hearing heresy.
Why would anyone be frightened, horrified even angered by the notion that all are saved?
Why would anyone be frightened, horrified, even angered by the notion that the government should ensure that all people have health care coverage?
Why would anyone be frightened, horrified, even angered by the notion that consenting adults of the same gender should be free to form a family?
Why would anyone be frightened, horrified, even angered by the idea that undocumented workers would receive medical treatment? Joe Wilson’s outburst has rightfully been much-discussed, but what is most shocking about it is that this is what set him off: the idea that an “undeserving” human being would receive medical treatment.
Universalism frightens people. The idea of universal rights to marriage; the idea of universal health coverage; the idea of universal salvation. There seems to be something frightening about the idea. I think that what frightens us about universalism is the idea that there are no rules, no boundaries. Although I wish we could easily embrace the notion of a generous universe, the fear is understandable. The fear is that an ordered universe will become hopelessly disordered: If everyone goes to heaven without regard to their sinfulness while on earth, then what incentive is there to behave well while here?
Unitarians were among those, by the way, who denounced this dangerous theology. And there were Universalists, too, who, although they believed that all souls would be eventually reconciled with God, they were also uncomfortable with the notion that there would be no consequences for egregious sin. And so there developed two strains of Universalism: the ultra-Universalists didn’t worry about any punishment in the afterlife. They were purists – God doesn’t damn people to torment, period. But in opposition to them were the Restorationist Universalists, who believed that, yes, all people will be eventually restored to God, but first they do suffer in the afterlife, for some appropriate but limited period of time.
Likewise, some fear the universalism of gay marriage. They fear that something foundational, something stable and fundamental to society is being eroded and that – pun intended – all hell could break loose. Though it is difficult to tease out such fears from mere prejudice, I think it is worth understanding that not everyone who is opposed to gay marriage feels animosity in their hearts toward GLBT people – it is just deeply frightening to people to have things that seem basic to them being altered.
And the universalism of health care seems to be striking fear into many. There is deep fear, it would seem, of a lack of fairness and a lack of autonomy. The fear seems to be: I’ll have to pay for everyone else, and I won’t get to have what I want. The fears of folks like Joe Wilson seem to be that President Obama and those wanting universal coverage don’t care about the ones who work hard and play by the rules; they only care about the lazy and undeserving.
Universalism is deeply frightening to the human soul because it seems to cast all logic and order aside. There seem to be no rules in Universalism.
I sympathize with the fear of a lawless universe. I think it’s important for people to play fair. I find that when rules are clear, and when it’s clear that they are upheld evenly, then people tend to feel safe and are therefore willing to be patient and act in a spirit of cooperation. In my experience, when rules are absent or very fuzzy, everyone is filled with anxiety. How do I know if I’m being treated fairly? Will I be mistreated, or will others who are weak be misused?
People thought that Universalism would create lawlessness, but what struck people when they actually went to Universalist churches was that the people, far from being desolute, were sober and upright. In fact, Universalists were prominent advocates of the temperance movement. They were prominent social reformers, advocates for health care, schooling and protection of the poor, and, of course, abolition.
One of Murray’s contemporaries, another prominent Universalist minister, Elhanan Winchester, gave a sermon in 1774 entitled “The Reigning Abominations” in which he denounced swearing, drunkenness, gambling, fighting, gouging out of eyes and sabbath-breaking. His greatest condemnation was, of course, against slavery, “A trade,” he wrote, “conceived in iniquity, carried on in the most base and barbarous manner, productive of the worst effects, and big with the most horrid and dangerous consequences.” In 1843, the Universalist convention passed a strong resolution opposing slavery, with only one dissenting vote.
Universalism is not lawlessness, but it advocates for rules that come not from a place of fear and lack but from a place of gratitude and abundance – not from a belief that some human beings are hopelessly fallen, but that we are all worth saving.
The essential message of Universalism is that you are – right now, today, just the way you are – loveable, loved, of infinite worth, precious, wanted, needed. The Universalists of Murray’s day experienced that truth through a particular set of beliefs, which today many of us do not share, though many still do. Traditional Universalism took people who had been raised to believe that they were pitiful, despicable worms in God’s sight. They were taught thatGod could only stand to look at some people and then only because of the atonement achieved by Christ. Christians in those days were being taught that chances were that they would burn in hell for eternity, and that they deserved it. For people steeped in that belief, to have it shown to them that the Scriptures say that they will all go to heaven because God loves them profoundly – well, that message was so liberating that it was able to produce an incredible spirit of gratitude and joy.
For most of us, our belief systems are different, and so the story of Jesus atoning for the sins of all of us might not be the thing that generates in us the knowledge that we are loveable, loved, of infinite worth, precious, wanted, needed. And yet it is true of each and every one of us. You are beautiful just as you are.
To be a universalist, your task is to know, the way your forebears knew, that you are profoundly loved by that which brought you into being; you are beautiful and whole and all your sins are forgiven. If you haven’t been kind enough, you’re forgiven. If you haven’t worked hard enough, you’re forgiven. If you lose your temper easily, you’re forgiven. If you sabotage your own life all the time, you’re forgiven. If you haven’t been generous, you’re forgiven. Now, knowing how precious you are and how perfectly suited you are to live your life, begin being that best self.
Out of that place, let us stand on the side of love in the world – not out of disdain for those with whom we have disagreements, but out of faith that the world is abundant and we are enough.
For me, standing on the side of love will include raising my voice in support of universal health care. It will include speaking out for the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. It will include advocating for the decent treatment of undocumented people, because as a whole they are undocumented not because they want to be, but out of desperate circumstances – circumstances which make them easily exploited.
These may not be your causes – Unitarian Universalists need not agree on causes. In the words of the great Universalist, Hosea Ballou, we need not think alike to love alike. But while the causes may differ, the spirit should not. We can approach our causes, our conflicts, and our debates with a Universalist heart. This heart is illustrated by one last incident from Murray’s life.
There was a minister who was pretending to be friends with Murray, while defaming him behind his back. One day when they encountered one another on the street, Murray let it be known that he was onto his deceit. The man admitted: “I will do all in my power to obstruct your progress, in every place.” More words were exchanged.
Murray wrote “I left this good man beyond measure enraged…. I immediately repaired to the pulpit of my friend Dunham, where, preaching peace, I recovered my lost serenity; and it gladdened my heart to believe that the inveterate enemy, with whom I had parted upon the road, was included in the redemption it was my business to proclaim.”
The inveterate enemy was included in the redemption it was his business to proclaim.
Let this business be our business – to believe in our own redemption, in that of others and in the redemption of our world. In this spirit, may we ever find ourselves standing on the side of love.