To Pray Without Apology
Why Martin Luther King Jr. Wasn't a Unitarian Universalist
by Rosemary Bray McNatt
Several years ago, in the middle of my seminary education, my literary
agent called with an intriguing proposition. Would I be willing to be
considered as co-writer of Coretta Scott King's autobiography? I was
one of several people being considered, but the book's prospective editor
was said to be partial to me. I was more than willing to talk about
it, and a meeting with King was arranged at the editor's office.
I didn't make the final cut, but that is not why I tell this story.
During an hour of wide-ranging conversation, I mentioned to her that
I was in seminary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. What
frankly surprised me was the look she gave me, one of respect and delight.
"Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met
Martin," she told me, explaining that she had been, since college,
a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom,
which was popular among Unitarians and Universalists. "And Martin
and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston."
What surprised and saddened me most was what she said next. Though
I am paraphrasing, the gist of it was this: "We gave a lot of thought
to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could
never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian."
It was a statement that pierced my heart and troubled my mind, then
and now. I considered what our religious movement would be like if the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had chosen differently, had cast his
lot with our faith instead of returning to his roots as an African-American
Christian. Certainly no one with King's gifts would have lived in complete
obscurity. I realized, however, that our liberal religious movement
would have neutralized the greatest American theologian of the twentieth
century. Certainly his race would have been the primary barrier. In
a religious movement engaged until the 1970s in the active discouragement
of people of color who wished to join its ministerial ranks, King might
have found his personal struggles to serve Unitarian Universalism at
least as daunting as the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Even if race had disappeared as an issue, King might have found the
barrier of theology insurmountable. Though from the very start of his
theological training he revealed a decided bent toward liberal religion,
by the time his faith had been tried by the civil rights movement, King
had said No to the sunny optimism of liberal faith an optimism
frankly untested in the heat of the battle for liberty and dignity for
In his famous essay, "Pilgrimage to Non-Violence"
published in the Christian Century's series, "How My Mind
Has Changed," in 1960 King made some trenchant comments
about liberal theology that bear discussion:
There is one phase of liberalism that I hope to cherish always: its
devotion to the search for truth, its refusal to abandon the best
light of reason. . . . It was . . . the liberal doctrine of man that
I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history,
and man's shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I
came to see the depths and strength of sin. . . . I came to feel that
liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and
that it leaned toward a false idealism. I also came to see that liberalism's
superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook
the fact that reason is darkened by sin. . . . Liberalism failed to
see that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify
man's defensive ways of thinking. Reason, devoid of purifying power
of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.
Long before I ever spoke to Coretta Scott King, I had sensed in some
of her husband's writings the tension between liberal theology and African-American
religious and cultural traditions that formed him. To read one of the
first papers he wrote in graduate school, on the role of reason and
experience in finding God, is to watch him grapple with the connections
between an experiential and relational God that is a bedrock of traditional
African-American theology and the use of reason in religion demanded
of humanity in a scientific age.
He wrote: "We can never gain complete knowledge or proof of the
real. This, however, does not destroy the stream of rational religion.
On the contrary, it reveals to us that intellectual finality is unattainable
in all fields; all human knowledge is relative, and all human ideas
are caught in the whirlpool of relativity." But in the same paper
he also wrote that "religious experience is not an intellectual
formulation about God, it is a lasting acquaintance with God."
He concluded that "although experience is not the only way to find
God, it is probably the primal way. It is a road . . . open to all levels
of human intelligence."
The notion of the self-perfectibility of human beings was an inadequate
theology in the face of the sustained hatred and embodied evil of the
segregationist South. Yet King retained his faith in the great potential
for goodness in humanity his faith in the possibilities of human
nature that Unitarians and Universalists would lift up as a central
affirmation of our free faith. Reason and experience revealed as much
to King about humanity as about divinity, and what he thought and learned
taught him the importance of both.
For King to have answered the call to a liberal religious faith, a
faith that clearly resonated with him since his earliest days of graduate
studies, however, would have meant a fatal separation from the sources
of his power a faith in a suffering God who stood with suffering
people despite their mistakes and failures, and covenantal love between
himself and oppressed African Americans, the people who grounded his
passion for justice but did not restrict it solely to themselves.
I had been a Unitarian Universalist for eight or nine years when I
moved to Detroit, Michigan. I was participating in a service at the
Detroit church, and in my part of the presentation I had talked about
God. An older woman approached me during coffee hour later that morning
to inform me that, as UUs, we had given up the notion of God. She demanded
to know how I, as an African-American woman, could possibly talk about
God when that same reprehensible Christian concept had been used to
justify slavery. I was dumbfounded by her vehemence, but not too shocked
to remind her that it was that same tradition's God most particularly,
a just and loving God whose movement was forever toward justice and
freedom and wholeness that had inspired much of the antislavery
movement, and indeed, most of the major reform movements of the nineteenth
century that we as Unitarian Universalists are so eager to claim. Finally,
I informed her that I was just as much a Unitarian Universalist as she
was, and I had not given up on the notion of God.
I couldn't decide what was more frightening, that she seemed oblivious
to our historic roots as a liberal Christian community of faith, or
that she wanted to make sure no mention of a higher power of any kind
ever disturbed her worship experience. It is not that her question had
not occurred to me before; indeed, I had engaged in a spiritual struggle
only a few years earlier that nearly ended in my leaving our faith for
a more traditional expression of Christianity. Yet in the end, I could
not go. Unitarian Universalism won my heart and mind because both God
and freedom are precious to me, and it is only within our non-creedal
tradition that I felt there was a chance, however slight, that I might
lay claim to both.
I asked myself then, as I have asked myself hundreds of times since:
How much do we mean it when we talk about inclusion, about becoming
an anti-racist religious community, when we are not willing to acknowledge,
incorporate, or engage the historic theological realities alive among
many people of color?
Do we realize what we are risking in pursuit of this goal of an anti-racist
Association? Do we realize that we are risking being informed by varieties
of religious experience not entertained in our churches for decades,
if ever? Are we prepared to know what informs the survival strategies
used by people on the margins? Are we prepared to accept that even when
there are people of color within comfortable economic levels
as opposed to those poor uneducated people who don't know any better
than to praise God there may be not only a theological but cultural
understanding of the divine that travels with them into our sanctuaries?
Sometimes a person's experience is informed by structural oppression.
Sometimes, it's just life itself that has weighed on them. But there
are many people who have found help and hope and strength from a source
greater than themselves to endure what has often seemed unendurable.
Do we risk their sharing with us how it is they have survived? What
if they tell us, "God brought me through"? Do we dare make
room for them to share and to celebrate, to witness to what they have
seen and felt and intimately known?
What if our liberal brother, King, had come to one of our congregations
on a dark night after being bombarded with threats on his life and the
life of his family? What if he had said not to God, but to one
of us that he couldn't go on anymore, that he was afraid? What
if he had said, as he did say to God, "I am here taking a stand
for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking
to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and
courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have
nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone"?
Might members of our congregations have prayed for him, or with him?
Or would he have been consoled with words like these from the Rev. Charles
Francis Potter, author of Humanism: A New Religion: "If
man habitually leans upon God when the going is hard, and expects God's
help when he meets a difficulty, he loses the strength of character
which is gained by the extra effort in emergencies. . . . And when,
at a time of crisis, man does pray and depend on God, and help does
come, does that prove that the help came from God? . . . Too often,
man thanks God for what man has done."
In the end, King chose to forego the liberal religious enterprise among
Unitarian Universalists and leaned instead on the God who promised never
to leave or forsake him, even in death. Yet many of us who believe in
the work of anti-racism have not left the Unitarian Universalist movement.
Many of us, in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,
have found our way back to belief in God after a long sojourn elsewhere.
Many of us who grew up in the black church, and many others who can
say that the black church grew up in them, have followed our various
paths to the doors of the liberal church. Are we here to provide interior
decoration for our congregations, here to do spiritual domestic work
on behalf of those wounded by God, by racism, by white privilege, or
by the circumstances of their own lives? Can we who are called to serve
as religious leaders discern when we are doing ministry and when we
are doing minstrelsy? Might our own wounds stand in the way of clarity?
Will there ever be a time when we can authentically be who we are, believe
what we believe, speak our own truth, sing our own song and be
with one another?
The work of becoming an anti-racist religious movement is not an adventure
in which I am willing to participate under false pretenses. I want it
all: for us to be anti-racist, religious, and a movement. I respect
that the theological stance of others will differ from my own. But I
am as hungry to be freed from the narrowness of our religious assumptions
as I am to be released from the wary dance we engage in around race,
class, and gender. I am waiting for our congregations and my ministerial
colleagues to end our long exile from the marketplace of religious
ideas. I long for us to engage once again contemporary religious belief
and in such engagement to give voice and substance to the liberal religious
way of life. I nurse a secret wish that one Sunday, my Pentecostal mother
might wander into a Unitarian Universalist congregation and stay for
services, even if I'm not in the pulpit. Above all, I am praying for
the transformation of the religious movement I love so much and
hoping for just one day when I won't have to explain why I might choose
Rosemary Bray McNatt is senior minister of the Fourth Universalist
Society in New York City and a contributing editor to UU World. This
essay was adapted from a paper presented at a UUA Consultation on Theology
and Racism in January 2001, the proceedings of which have just been
published by Skinner House Books in Soul
Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue. Available from the UUA Bookstore ($20; 800-215-9076).
UU World XVI:6
(November/December 2002): 30-32