Punishment and Universalism

Dear Friends,

I’ve heard from many of you that the sermon from August 16, on Punishment & Universalism, was especially timely and meaningful. Below are excerpts from that sermon. As always, you can listen to it in full on our website under worship and archives. I look forward to your continued reflections.

With care,
Rev. Kim

“I used to think that I was an Ultra Universalist; I used to say that we UUs are Ultra Universalists – because, I’ve always said, we don’t believe in Hell. But I think the questions that have been coming up at these new member classes force us to admit — that’s just not true, is it?

Nature takes, our own wounds turn against us, other people’s actions or inactions bring Hell to this life and this world in every form every day. As Sartre said, Hell is other people. (Now, so is Heaven, but that’s another sermon.) But it’s true that we could quickly name the actors, absences, illnesses, and so much more that bring about turmoil and strife. And guess what, our very own names are likely on someone else’s list!

So the theological statement is wrong: It’s not that we don’t believe in Hell. Because that’s not about belief; that’s about being in the world and living in it with eyes wide open.

What’s so much harder is that God as Love, or Right Behavior Without Fear of Damnation, those are actually statements about punishment. That we don’t believe in punishment — Exclusion, separation, shaming, shredding, calling out for the game of taking down. Our faith tells us we shouldn’t want for punishment.

Sounds right, doesn’t it?

Punishment is easy. To doll out and to thirst for. It gives us a sense of control in a time that is erratic, ferocious, and dizzying. It allows us to create some sense of division between us and them, right and wrong, knowing and unknowing. And it allows us to take out all of our deep fear and grief about whatever it is, and place it onto some one, some flesh, some thing, some place that is not of us.

Punishment is easy because it’s what we know; because it simply reenacts the pain, the violence, the trauma that has already happened. And it deflects from having to actually sit in our feelings and feel them – our fragility, our complacency. It distracts from wondering what ways we’ve participated in the making of this moment. And I have to tell you –

We don’t believe in that. We don’t agree to that.

Universalism’s priority and greatest tool has always been the collective, always the community. So it is now, too. We must be responsible, again, for each other and for each other’s transformation. Not, as adrienne maree brown writes, “the transformation from vibrant flawed humans to bits of ash, but rather the transformation from broken people and communities to whole ones.”

So when the urge rises within us to hunt that external enemy, I am going to ask my faith of Universalism to show up like a swaddling cloth, like a weighted blanket, that asks us to choose deep shifts in our being. To slow down. To tend to our healing, to consider what we own, and to create opportunities for safety, connection; to build resiliency in caretaking rather than energy for and from punishing.

“We cannot “go back to normal.” Our UUA President wrote this past week. “The lesson of our time is that we must renew the moral foundation of care in our society. We need to be organizing, agitating, preaching, loving, and practicing now for a post-pandemic society that is more equitable and just.”

“You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting– over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” (Mary Oliver, Wild Geese)

May it be so. And blessed be.