James Russell Lowell was a 19th Century Unitarian American abolitionist, a poet and a diplomat. In this poem on Freedom we can hear his opinion of slavery – an obvious evil – full of hatred, scoffing and abuse. But here Lowell is going much further than simply commenting upon indentured servants.
Slaves are not only the shackled, but all those men and woman paralysed by social convention, locked into narrow conceptions of the world around them, unable or unwilling to step out from their comfort zones. In this poem we get a sense of Lowell’s exasperated frustration; why can they not simply receive the liberty afforded to them? I value immensely this ideal that Lowell is grasping after, a world in which each can act according to his or her own conscience, a world in which appeals are made to reason and not to authority.
In my own spiritual journey, as I have moved from Pentecostal Christianity, through traditional Anglicanism, and on into Unitarianism, there has been a recurring theme of butting up against the walls of acceptability. In this journey of spiritual discovery there are always other avenues to explore, other insights to flesh out. The breadth and openness and warmth of Unitarianism lends itself to that ever unfolding journey – which is not to say that Unitarianism is in any sense directionless, for just as Lowell grasped after a world in which each and every person is wholly able to realise themselves and be liberated from within, so we collectively journey to that indefinable end.
James Lowell lived in a world divided along racial lines, an America on the brink of Civil War. He and his contemporaries stood up for the voiceless and the oppressed, the factory workers, the slaves, and those on death row; his spirituality was not a lofty endeavour, but was outwardly expressed in political and social action. Unitarianism and social justice have always gone hand in hand. This has been our unifying rallying cry, no creed or dogma, but justice for the marginalised.
The social justice issues of today are in part quite different and in part disturbingly similar. In the world at large, race is still a defining factor, the labourer is still exploited, and the dispossessed still wander the lands without home or roots. But other issues have also come to the foreground: sexual equality, transgender equality, ethics of war, drones and nukes, and the ever ticking ecological time bomb. In as far as we, like Lowell, remain belligerently ahead on these issues of equality, giving voice to the issues of today and tomorrow as they arise, we remain – and our faith remains – relevant.