To Be Determined


To Be Determined

Esther Hurlburt MDiv

Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky

July 26, 2009

         When I was a little kid I was just terrified of the Biblical prophets. I have a picture in my mind of the prophet Isaiah looking down … as if he was looking down directly on me. He had wild white hair, his hand was in a fist and the expression on his face was nothing but pure wrath.

I seem to remember that prophets said that the Lord would smite me, but I did not know what that meant…only that I personally had been bad. It was a poor Sunday school education that left me thinking that the biblical prophets were mean spirited and that I was a bad person.

I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to appreciate the lessons of the biblical prophets. Now I don’t think it’s even possible to preach and teach justice without understanding who the prophets were…and are…and what their role is in making justice happen…or building a Beloved Community.

Indeed, I had to grow up and become a Unitarian Universalist before I came to understand the biblical prophets. Imagine that! But…I was partially right. The biblical prophets were indeed full of wrath…but for good reason.

The biblical prophets would of course be annoyed at my behaviors, but also the prophets’ anger was directed to society as a whole more than individual persons. The prophets were angry with entire communities who tolerated and perpetuated injustice.

Albeit we Unitarian Universalists don’t use biblical scripture as a primary source to inform our faith; I don’t think we can ignore the ancient prophets. There is certainly more to like than dislike and if their prophetic messages were used as the prophets themselves intended. Just think…if we took the prophets at their word we’d actually be living in a Peaceable Kingdom or a Beloved Community….

If we look at Isaiah’s intentions we’d know that his intention was to be determined to preach, teach, and make justice happen. (I like to use the words, “make justice happen” because Micah’s text, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [1] is too passive. To do justice is to make justice happen.)

Justice. Injustice. Justice was not a word I learned in Sunday School, but it is a word that rings clearly in the halls of Unitarian Universalist churches. In my Sunday school classes I learned about love and compassion. But…justice was not Sunday School vernacular.

Perhaps we didn’t talk about justice in Sunday School because then we’d have to talk about why in the American west we stole the Native American’s land and sent them to reservations. Or in Sunday school if we talked about justice we’d have to talk about why women couldn’t be ministers or why children with mental retardation didn’t go to school with me.   I was taught to love others, but somehow I got the idea of love, charity, and justice all mixed up. Justice means living in equality, that is to receive what is due simply because of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

Imagine what a Beloved Community would look like…what a benevolent leader would do. Isaiah reminded us that the mark of a truly righteous king was his willingness and ability to protect the poor, the disenfranchised, the widows, the orphans… the “least of these.”   “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”[2] A just king was faithful not to the rich and powerful but to all humanity, especially the poor.

Isaiah could imagine what Beloved Community would look like: “The wolf would lie down with the lamb and the cow and the bear would graze together. Children could play over the hole of the asp. In the Beloved Community the earth would be full of knowledge and the will of God.”[3]

But it is not yet so. It is possible, however, to create a Beloved Community if we have the determination and courage to do so. It takes, however, the determination of the prophet, like Isaiah to do so. Who were and how did the prophets teach and preach justice? How can we have the same determination?

In his wonderful book, The Prophets, the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel described the prophets as iconoclasts.[4] They did not support the status quo of their society just because it was the safe and popular thing to do. The prophet most often responded with a resounding “NO!” to the habits and complacency that most humans embodied. And, they were most distrustful of people in power. Because religion was so enmeshed with politics, the prophets were very critical of the kings who chose power over justice.

In particular, Heschel noted that Isaiah saw “man’s false sense of sovereignty” as the cause of evil. The work of the prophets was to expose illusions and fraud. The prophets like Isaiah were almost always at odds with civil authority. Heschel said that Isaiah could not accept politics as a means of creating a Beloved Community because politic in and of itself was too full or arrogance and disregard of justice.

In fact, at least according to Heschel, Isaiah targets the moral corruption of the leaders as the most important factor undermining the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Justice calls for unification not separation of humanity.

The prophets were wise…but they were not considered theologians or philosophers. They were more like ethicists who put stock in consequences of human behavior. The prophets knew, based on human history, how to predict the outcome of human behavior because humans —for as much as we have always wanted to live in the Beloved Community, we are slow learners. Isaiah and his kind knew…they knew what could happen if humans behaved themselves and lived for the good of all rather than the good of a chosen few.

And in this regard, the prophets were anything but silent.

The prophets were good listeners in spite of their outspokenness. They heard the cries of oppression; thus, the role of the prophet was to speak up for those people who had been silenced. They believed that being silent in the face of oppression meant complicity and tolerance of injustice. They were the mouthpieces of God…that is, they spoke for ALL of humanity…not just a chosen few. They were harsh judges, knowing that even though only a few people were guilty…ALL people were responsible for creation of the Beloved Community in which justice prevailed. Thus, their indictments were on society as a whole.

The prophets words ring true today in Unitarian Universalist theology.   Heschel said, and I agree, that justice is not an abstract idea but is a concrete and supreme manifestation of God. According to Heschel, the impact of God came from the power placed by God into human hands. Heschel’s theology is not so different than our Unitarian Universalist theology of the interdependent web of all existence.

That is…we depend on each other to survive…what is good for one person is good for the whole of humanity. What harms one, harms all. Or, if humanity is harmed, God, for the theists, is also harmed. Thus, the bottom line at least from a religious humanist perspective, I think it’s safe to say that the prophets were most concerned about how humans treated one another.   And if humans continued to ignore the power of the God of justice, then humankind would fail to exist.

The prophets were not popular with the royalty and those who wielded power over the oppressed. If anything they were threatening. At times the prophets seemed to be harsh and even a little hysterical. They were impatient and out of this impatience came determination and persistence.

Justice had to happen as soon as possible, because in the minds of the prophets, there was no such thing as a minor or insignificant act of injustice. They were simply preoccupied and obsessed with humanity and with everyday human needs. Therefore, they took their concerns to the shrines and tabernacles and they took their concerns to the streets.

But do not think of the prophets as being annoying gadflies. While they spoke on behalf of the God of all humanity, the prophets were not simple mouthpieces. Nor were they lobbyists! They were passionate about their cause. They were on a mission. The prophets were determined to make justice happen not only within their lifetime but for future generations as well.

The life of a prophet like Isaiah was not easy. Not only was he misunderstood, but he was also maligned, teased, and persecuted. He “gave his back to those who struck him and his cheeks to those who pulled out his beard. He did not hide his face from insult and spitting.” [5] Isaiah was not rebellious. He did not turn backward but continued to preach justice. Herein lies an incredibly paradox! Isaiah’s rebellion was manifest in his obedience to the God of ALL humanity.

In spite of the ridicule and persecution for their unpopular position and they remained determined …morning by morning … every single day…to fight for justice. The prophets knew they were accountable to God rather than the ecclesiastical royalty. Isaiah continued to prophesy because he had help from God.

From our humanistic perspective, it’s hard to believe that some type of anthropomorphic controlling God simply handed the prophets the help they needed on some type of silver platter or that God did the work for the prophets.  But from a theology of the Divine Spirit that resides in each of us, it’s easier to believe that a prophet remained determined because he was supported of the greater community. The biblical prophets were not working in isolation…they were working within a community of faith! Indeed! A prophet like Isaiah and his followers were the ideal of a faith-based initiative!

The prophets, while leading lonely lives, truly did depend on the support of God found in the greater community. Their hope was that one day their prophecy would be institutionalized. James Luther Adams, one of Unitarian Universalists’ greatest theologians agreed.

In his popular essay, “The Prophethood of All Believers,” Adams insisted that no one person…no one minister…no one prophetic leader… could do the work in isolation. James Luther Adams insisted we should be communities in which there is the prophethood of all believers! Adams said, and I quote: “In the name of the Holy One the prophet shakes us out of our pride and calls for a change of heart and mind and action! With fear and trembling the prophet announces crisis AND demands ethical decision to be made here and now!”[6]

In short, Adams said that our future is shaped by pure determination to make justice happen. Not only did Adams suggest that each of us could be prophetic but insisted that we are OBLIGATED to do so. We must live out this prophecy, Adams cautioned, because, he said “false prophets do not teach us to live in a new coming age but reinforce complacency. We will not have peace in our own time unless we make peace happen.”

To continue to quote Adams, we hear “The prophetic liberal church is the church in which persons think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in the light of their faith, to make explicit through discussion the epochal thinking that the times demand. The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both institutional and individual), with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it! Only through the prophetic work of all believers can we together foresee doom and mend our common ways.”

Another contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian and prophet is Richard Gilbert. Like James Luther Adams, Gilbert also insists that it takes the institutional power of the Church to make justice happen. Gilbert calls it our Prophetic Imperative, the title of his inspiring book.[7]

Yet herein lies a paradox: Gilbert reminds us that while we are free to choose how we manifest our religious beliefs, prophetic ministry, by definition, is not done in isolation. Thus, while our individual consciences direct us, we are not free agents. Working in isolation, without an anchor to the Unitarian Universalist Movement, whose theology is to support the interdependent web, is nothing short of being arrogant.

Working outside the interdependent web is the antithesis of Unitarian Universalism. Early American Unitarian William Ellery Channing also insisted that free agents couldn’t accomplish what a corporate body can accomplish when it comes to promoting justice, truth, and peace.

But there is more: Adams and Gilbert insisted that public life is where religious experiences occur; so if our Movement does not enter public life the spiritual growth of the Movement is threatened! So what is this about the Spiritual growth and what does it matter to our Movement? Further, what does spiritual growth have to do with our prophetic imperative?

One answer, I think comes from a biblical prophet like Isaiah who preached the necessity of creating a caring beloved community. So, this is my all time favorite verse in the Bible. Isaiah said, “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like noonday.”[8]

The wise biblical prophets knew that while they worked to transform the world they were also transformed. Morning by morning …with their pure determination to live out their prophecies…to live as though it was true, they changed the world by changing themselves. I believe this theology of the great prophets is TRUE !

We Unitarian Universalists need to reclaim this theology! We need to preach it and teach it!   Prophetic institutionalized ministry which teaches determined and intentional acts of justice can indeed transform our world.

It’s summer. The dog days of summer are here and it is all too easy to be complacent. So, even in the dog days of heat and humidity, we can renew our resolution and be determined to make justice happen.  Contrary to the belief of our former president who preached false prophecy, WE are the deciders.

We can decide what to do. As a Movement we must resolve to be determined, because as James Luther Adams said, “retreat does not give us freedom from power.” Retreat, that is, waiting to see what will be determined by others, interferes with our ability to make justice happen.

We, as a religious movement, have two choices: We can resolve to be determined to make justice happen or we can have the future determined for us by others. We do not want the outcome to be determined by the false prophecy based on power over the oppressed. We can influence or we can be influenced.

As a religious body we can manifest our theology of the interdependent web of all existence to make justice happen or we can retreat and allow continued destruction. To be determined is our prophetic imperative!   Live as though it is true. As we transform ourselves we transform the world.

Let your gloom become like noon day.

Let it be so.



[1] Micah 6:6-8

[2] Isaiah 11:5

[3] Isaiah 11: 6-7

[4] Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001

[5] Isaiah 50:4-9 Entire text: The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. 5The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. 6I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. 7The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. 9It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.

[6] James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers, George K. Beach (Ed), Beacon Press, 1987

[7] Richard Gilbert, The Prophetic Imperative, Skinner House Books, 2000.

[8] Isaiah 58:10

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