Otis Moss III is senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the church Barack Obama attended before he began his campaign for President of the United States. Rev. Moss has written a book entitled Blue Note Preaching in a Post -Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair. These words come from that book:
Jesus knows all about my troubles. Jesus walks and talks with me. Jesus picks me up and turns me around and plants my feet on solid ground! Jesus is a mind regulator, a heart fixer, a friend at midnight, balm in Gilead, trouble over deep water, and bread in a starving land. Jesus understands my predicament.
Why does Jesus understand my predicament? Jesus lived a life as a colonized person and as a minority in a community that was under siege by an occupying army. Jesus understands poverty created by an empire, Jesus knows about racial profiling, Jesus understands mass incarceration, Jesus is frustrated with the traditional church, Jesus experiences state-sponsored torture, Knows what it’s like to have a public defender who lacks competency, Was executed for a crime he did not commit, And understands character assassination in the media before and after one’s death. Jesus even knows what it’s like to be stopped and frisked. Jesus is acquainted with patriarchy since not a single brother would listen to any of the sisters when they announced: “Guess what y'all, the tomb is empty!” Jesus knows all about our troubles . . . Jesus wrestles with tragedy but does not fall into despair.
I included these words in my prayer/reflection/meditation on Sunday, September 17. I thought this was kind of risky! After all, you know the old joke about how the only time you hear the word “Jesus” in a Unitarian Universalist church is when the minister stubs his or her toe. But several people asked about these words in an appreciative way, so I am including the text here.
Historically, as I understand it, the characteristic Christology of our faith tradition has been a belief that Jesus was simply a human being – a human being with profound spiritual insight, to be sure, but nevertheless no more divine than any other human being. We have been Unitarians rather than Trinitarians: we have understood God as a unity rather than a trinity.
For many Unitarian Universalists, this has been our story going back hundreds of years and we are sticking with it. We admire the teachings of Jesus; we understand him as a great religious figure along with Buddha and Moses and Mohammed; we believe that he was a human being, no more divine than any other human being; we step away from all that complex doctrine about original sin and salvation and sacrifice and atonement and resurrection; and that is just about all we have to say on this particular subject.
In large part through my connection with the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), I have become acquainted with another way of understanding Jesus. This other way of understanding Jesus simply sets aside the unitarian-trinitarian dispute and instead invites us to hear the life and the stories of Jesus from the underside of history, from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized and neglected. I am not at all well-schooled in the academic development of this perspective; I suppose it would include A Theology of Liberation, by Gustavo Gutierrez (1973); Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman (1976); and A Black Theology of Liberation, by James Cone (1986). But the intuitive appeal of this perspective should be immediately evident in the words of Otis Moss III – words very similar to words I have heard from my African-American colleagues in PIIN.
I wonder sometimes whether we Unitarian Universalists still have an understanding of Jesus that speaks to our time and our circumstances and our growing aspirations to be in solidarity with those who have experienced oppression and injustice. No, I personally would not want to abandon the historic Unitarian Universalist understanding that Jesus was a spiritually gifted human being who was no more divine than any other human being. But I no longer think that simply proclaiming that classic unitarian understanding of Jesus is enough. Being able to understand the life and stories of Jesus as exemplary resistance to oppression – now that is a challenge that could point the way toward the transformation of our movement and help move us from the privileged sidelines to far more decisive engagement with critical contemporary issues such as structural racism and economic inequity.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
What if that deeply prophetic passage from Luke became a new cornerstone for how we Unitarian Universalists understand Jesus? !
See you in Church!