Black Rifle Coffee Company. Have you heard of it? I hadn’t, being of the Starbucks, or more locally even, the Snowy Owl ilk, but there they were in a recent New York Times Magazine article. The brainchild of two Iran and Afghanistan veterans, at least one of whom was possessed of a love for coffee and its processes, they entered the scene in 2014, touting themselves as pro-military, pro-law enforcement and “anti-hipster.” Their brand appealed to that segment of our culture which leaned more conservative, and their branding was in fact, designed as the antithesis of that of the ‘latte loving liberal’ we have all come to know. This was all well and good until more recently when their merchandise – because every good brand has merchandise – started showing up in places that the company’s founders were less aligned with – T-shirts on anti-Black Lives Matter protesters and those accused of gun violence, hats on participants in the January 6th activities at the nation’s capital. Still, as they managed to talk their way out of these unfortunate connections and took up the varied plights of veterans in our country, they didn’t change much – just became more thoughtful – careful – about the impact of their branding. And it is hard to control who will take a liking to your graphics and catchy coffee labels, and further, to control what they will attempt to do in your name. What they didn’t let go in all of this was their values. Because, as we say, “The personal is the political.”
Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, points to the fact that life is political because the world reacts to what we do; our choices are a vote of sorts. Our everyday words and gestures, or the lack there of, matter. Today’s symbols make possible tomorrow’s reality. Bringing this down to the everyday couldn’t be more relative than the cup of coffee we choose to drink! As I read about Black Rifle, I began to think about what other ways we make choices – what simple things we say and do and purchase or not – how they express a political leaning. In the early days of my exploration of vegetarianism it was based on politics, not preference or anything sentimental about animals. We can more easily feed ourselves on vegetables than grow enough soil-depleting corn to feed the animals we consume. It’s better for our health and the health of the planet. We here on the Cape have taken up the ban on single-use plastics, some of us taking care to buy products packaged with this in mind, refillables becoming a thing in the current climate. And maybe we try to buy local in order to cut our carbon footprint. These are political statements because they relate to the public affairs of our region, our nation, our world.
Mid-twentieth century Unitarian Universalist minister and ethicist, James Luther Adams sheds a theological light on this. His quest involved the use of our liberal religious tradition as a resource in the opposition of fascism. He looked to the prophets and to the separation of church and state which encourages dissent, believing that if there is to be revelation it will come through the minority. Our task is that of voluntary association with an eye toward critique and direct engagement with the social organizations of power. Our penchant for social justice work as a faith tradition is very much grounded in the thought and teachings of Adams. He cites the early Christians as an independent community that refused to seek the approval of Caesar or to come under bureaucratic control; a manifestation of the values they professed.
We do this, too, as a people joined in covenant and bound by our Principles, the things we state that we affirm, what matters to us, the reasons we say we are here. We are the dissenters in the history of the Christian tradition. We lend a prophetic voice as we lift up the causes that effect the world community – things like immigration, human rights, world hunger, the distribution of wealth, equity among all people. We marry our faith and our politics all the time and do so without a second thought. It turns out that just as the personal is the political, so too is the religious the political. Because it is all about the values that bind us one to another and to our larger society. Religion and politics spring from a common root.
The Rev. Dr. James Gertmenian, now retired, but still quite active in political organizing and social activism, shared an interesting story. He came upon a group of folks leaving the retreat center where he was setting up for the event that followed theirs. They were “oddly jolly,” he says, and he wondered why. Then he saw that one was wearing a sign that read, “No politics, please.” Healthy boundaries aside, it occurred to him that this is part of why so many churches may be dying. He wondered why any of us might think we have a right to religion without politics given all that is going on around us; wondered what the point of religion is then. He said that,
“Love without justice is not love. Compassion without deeds is not compassion. Faith without action is not faith. And religion without politics is not religion.”
While religion offers much in the way of comfort and spirituality, we are foolish to think all that can come without conflict. They come, in fact, in the midst of it. If the world is groaning in travail and waiting for something good to be born, for Gertmenian it is at the intersection of faith and politics that this will happen, amid struggle and pain is where the action is and where we need to be.
We may be of the mind that, yes, this is where we need to be – at the forefront of movements that usher in social change and bring about the beloved community we strive for. And I couldn’t agree more! It is through the door of social justice, activism, education, and advocacy that I entered into Unitarian Universalism. Maybe this is so for some of you, too. But we also shy away from the political inside these walls, fearing its potential to create an unmendable rift. We say it is politics, at least, and we caution ourselves and our minister to be careful about that, to tread lightly. What I think, though, is that it isn’t so much politics that is at issue, because the values at the center of our being are likely what have drawn us all here to begin with. I think, instead, that it is partisanship which we actually want to eschew. It is the allegiance to a party or a person in particular, to the exclusion of other thoughts or ideas. The problem lies in an inability to trust that which binds us enough to engage in the struggle, to have the conversations that go deep and evoke growth and change. It is risky because it is so very personal. And yet, isn’t this what a spiritual home is all about?
Clarence Skinner, pre-eminent social prophet of the Universalist Church during the first half of the 20th century, suggests in our reading this morning that it is the Universalism that we espouse that provides a radical cure. He talks about a partialism that divides; that denies one’s rights to think and express out of our core and in all of our humanity, frail as that may be. It is endemic to our culture as a whole still, even nearly a century later. The cure is in the supplanting of our fears, our partialism, our partisanship if you will, with an enlarged view of humanity as one. And to do so in words and actions. To do so with a mind toward our interconnectedness and the power of relationship. To believe in the genius of each to contribute to the whole. For Skinner, this is our great work, the work of our faith.
These days we see branding taken to extremes, the co-opting of brands like Black Rifle in ways that divert from intended goals, ways that adopt for purposes other than the original. Our religions are a brand, too, and we see them being used to garner partisan support. Some go willingly down this path, seeing in the connection something for their own gain as well. Companies like Black Rifle go along for the ride to an extent in order to improve their bottom line. I wonder what this means for us as Unitarian Universalists. Who is co-opting our brand if anyone? And if not, why not? What does that say about us? Do we have a message that is of value, something folks will show up for on a weekly basis, like a good specialty coffee drink? I certainly think so, but we tend to be a little quiet about it, for fear that we might impose. Adams would say that the prophets didn’t worry about imposing and Snyder that our vote must be counted! Gertmenian, with a nod to Skinner thinks that there is enough love to get us through the struggles of today and on to the birthing of a new tomorrow. Where will we, here at UUMH, come down on this? Can we trust in who we are and who we are still to become, and proclaim our faith boldly enough that others might find it suitable to align with their cause? I pray that this may be so.
Amen and blessed be.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
August 15, 2021