Did Michael Brown steal the cigars from the convenience store in Ferguson that day last August? National headlines wrapped themselves around that question as if the answer to it changed anything at all, including the death and the suffering and the loss. I thought then and I think now: what the hell does it matter in this grand tragedy of national and international pain if the boy stole the cigars?
Unitarian Universalists are the inheritors of a dual heretical tradition born from the radical branches of protestant Christianity. We have taken our foundational doctrines in all sorts of innovative directions over the centuries, but our theological heritage remains the same.
Unitarianism: one God, not three, not mediated or modified by Jesus or any other prophet—but one God. And Universalism: the unyielding belief that each and every person is endowed with an original blessing that calls them and claims them regardless of circumstance or even of worthiness. Every single person. Inherently endowed with worth and dignity. Original blessing, for every single person, with no categorical exclusions in the least.
We are so far removed from the theological underpinnings of those founding days that it can be difficult to interpret our heritage. But if each and every one is endowed with inherent worth and dignity then humankind cannot be categorized, and thus whole groups of humankind cannot be dismissed. It is not just one kind of person or one category of persons who are offered every blessing of life and every dignity.
It is everyone, whether you deserve it or not. Whether you stole the cigars or not. It does not matter. By focusing our national discourse on Michael Brown’s perceived culpability or lack thereof, we seem to be asking, as a nation, if he did or did not deserve to die that day.
In this nation we focus not only on whether or not Michael Brown was guilty, but whether or not he was the right kind of young black man. Was he the kind of young black man who deserved to walk free or was he the kind of young black man that ultimately got what he deserved?
In a parallel mode, we ask if a young woman raped on her college campus was the right kind of young woman. Was she wearing fishnets and heels? Did she get drunk at the party? Did she lead him on, we ask—as if to determine once and for all into which category we can sort the beaten, the injured, the oppressed.
Are you the right kind of woman? The right kind of immigrant? The right kind of American? The right kind of young black man? Because if you are not our culture is ready to wash our hands of you. And that is an unstated but deeply lived doctrine of hell on earth. It runs contrary to every thread of the Universalism at our core—a tradition that calls us to universally, uncategorically, love the hell out of the world.
You do not have to be a good enough young black man to not get shot on the street. You do not have to be the right kind of immigrant to deserve basic health care when you are dying. You do not have to be the right kind of girl to not be raped. You do not have to be good enough to deserve basic human rights. You do not have to earn safety.
We are inherently enough. We do not have to prove it.
This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of UU World (page 22). It is adapted from a sermon delivered on October 26, 2014, which was inspired by an exchange with the Rev. Christian Schmidt about congregational responses to Ferguson.