To pray without apology

illustration of hedge maze inside the shell of a church

What would have happened if Martin Luther King Jr. had cast his lot with the Unitarian Universalists? A reflection on race and theology.

Image: © Mark Steele

© Mark Steele


This article appeared in the November/December 2002 edition of UU World.

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.”

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.

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 African Americans.

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 to pray.