Last year, I had the pleasure of serving as a worship leader at First Parish Cambridge while the Senior Minister was on sabbatical. Over the summer, I preached a three-part sermon series about the implications of transforming that community into a multiracial, multicultural, justice-making congregation. I pulled them out recently and thought I should post them here. This is Part I of that series.
As someone who began my foray into church life much later than many of my ministerial colleagues and most of the people I spend time with in church, I can come across as a bit of an oddball. Much to the dismay of some, I often carry with me a desire to question everything that goes on within the context of church – not so much because I enjoy being contrary (well…I actually do kind of enjoy being a little bit contrary), but because I think it matters a great deal not to get too comfortable at any given point about any given thing. It is, indeed, a spiritual practice to intentionally travel the sometimes difficult road of change. Perhaps more important than that desire to question is the fact that my fairly wide circle of church-going friends tend to be the types who would encourage such questioning. They tend to see it as good to know how things are and even better to challenge ourselves to reconsider how things can be. I like to think of these folks as the church rebels and revolutionaries in my life. For those of you who count yourselves among them, you probably know who you are. Thanks!
So it should come as no surprise to you that, as I step more fully into Unitarian Universalism, I wonder about some things. I have taken it upon myself to become more acquainted with the seven principles – not just take them at face value, but really invest in understanding them. It’s important, even necessary, to take this on, both because I need to know where I am and because I hear from many of you about where you’d like to see this and other UU communities go. It also matters to me that we each have a voice that we know we can use for the common good, not just outside of this place when we stand up for what is right out in the world, but also in this place when we endeavor to stand up for ourselves and each other. So I decided to start with our fifth principle: the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
I’ll be honest with you. I thought it a little bit strange that a religious body would include a commitment to a political ideology in its defining principles. How can we hold in such high regard the notion that we each enter this place from so many different perspectives while, at the same time, holding fast to a particular way of giving voice to our hopes and desires as communities? How is that possible and how could it work? But then I was reminded that UUism is based on “two religions born in the…formative years of the American Republic, each decisively influenced and shaped by the same ideas and values that gave rise to the American Revolution and American democracy.”[i] Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a Universalist. Joseph Priestley, the scientist and preacher who helped found Unitarian churches throughout Britain and the U.S., greatly influenced people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, all of whom also espoused similar beliefs.
These men’s religious convictions were at the heart of their formulation of America’s political creed. For example, the political notion that a people have the right to self-government grows out of a religious conviction that human beings have the capacity to shape their own destiny. It’s an expression of faith in the power of human beings to shape their own lives.[ii] Unique characteristics and basic tenets of a democracy are that its citizens get to vote, figuratively and literally, and that each citizen is able to live the life of their choosing. At the heart of Unitarian Universalism’s fifth principle is the notion that we bring to life our inner sense of what is good and right by engaging the democratic process in our congregations.
As we delve more deeply into the hopes of our association of congregations, as well as into realities of our congregation’s mission and vision, it becomes important to think critically, though, about how this longstanding and deeply held process has both helped and hindered the building up of the world we dream about. We must remember, after all, that these deeply held principles were not meant for all of us. They were not meant for the female-identified people in this room, or for the male-identified people in the room who don’t own property. And they certainly weren’t meant for people who look like me.
What does our right of conscience and the use of the democratic process offer us? John Dewey, a philosopher, psychologist, and a major voice of progressive educational reform in the early part of the 20th century, believed that democracy was most powerfully exemplified in society not just by extending the right to vote, but by prioritizing communication that is effective enough to ensure a fully formed public opinion. In other words, every citizen, expert or not, and politician, progressive or not, would have a voice, and each of those voices together would serve as the foundation for who a community is. Rev. Paul H. Beattie, perhaps the most tireless advocate of the fifth principle, articulated a vision for the church that would encourage this widest possibility of diversity and pluralism. He said:
I want my Unitarian Universalist church to include Christians, Theists, Humanists, and others. I want its political discussions to include, Republicans, Democrats, Consumerists, and Libertarians. I want its discussions of economics to include Milton Friedmanites, John Kenneth Galbraithians, Marxists, socialists and capitalists, or free enterprisers. Such inclusiveness, which grows out of a radical congregational polity, and the non-creedal approach to religion, is the only possible basis for modern Unitarian Universalism.[iii]
If we stop and think about what Beattie is proposing in its broadest sense, it’s kind of mind-blowing, isn’t it? He underscores a necessary aspect of this principle, which is that every person has a voice in community. EVERY PERSON, no matter their experience or faith journey!! And not only that, but that each person should be able to trust that their voice can and will be called upon and cultivated, not because it’s the right voice, but because there will always be room for each voice to be heard. Rev. Parisa Parsa puts it this way:
It’s the turning of one’s heart toward rather than away from connection to others, the opening and the willingness to be vulnerable, that come of the deepening life of faith. Religiously, our commitment to the democratic process asks us to bring our piece of revelation, our knowledge of grace, into relationship with others in the place where God dwells in them. And it invites us to live communally from that kind of openness.[iv]
Where and when can our democratic process hold us back? The beauty of Unitarian Universalism is that we hold as authoritative the internal voice of conscience that speaks in each and every human soul. And as we grow in knowledge and experience, we come to new understandings about how to be together; our religious lives become works in progress. The process itself can and should, therefore, be a work in progress, as well!
System break down happens when we as a people make movements forward, but how we make meaning of those movements remains stagnant and stale. When we hold up any longstanding principle without an ongoing assessment of how effective it continues to be as times and people change, that principle or process becomes itself a kind of creed. And when we have more faith in the process than in each other, we can lose sight of our covenantal relationship with one another. And if we don’t ask the hard questions about whether or not there is another way to come together and stick together, we may not even realize who we’ve left out or left behind. And for those who have gone, we may never fully understand the extent to which we’ve welcomed and engaged them merely at arms’ length.
I’m reminded of the dancer I encountered in church one Sunday morning at a church I frequented in the early days of my church life. We’d had powerful worship that day, and the music had us all on fire! At the end of worship, during the closing song, a young man, who I knew had AIDS and had been quite sick earlier that year, suddenly got up from his seat and started dancing. He’d been a ballet dancer before he got sick and, according to congregants who knew him well, had not danced in years. But that day, he danced! Up and down the aisle, he moved, with his arms outstretched, even managing to do a pirouette or two in the process! It was clear that the Spirit had moved in him and he needed to do something about it! It remains one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen happen spontaneously in church.
Not too long after he got up, though, the pastor of that church quietly walked up to him, tapped him lightly on the shoulder and whispered something in his ear. A rush of sadness came over his face, and he quietly sad down. I found out later that he’d been asked to sit down…because that was not the right time to dance. The worship leaders of the church had never incorporated dance into the liturgy, so it just wasn’t done. It didn’t matter that this was probably the first time he’d danced like that in at least a year. It didn’t matter that the dance came directly out of being so moved by the service that all he could do was dance. It didn’t matter that he’d lost his voice in so many ways as a person living with AIDS and that his dance was his voice being heard. It had never been done, so it wasn’t allowed.
The UUA ‘s Commission on Appraisal, who’s mission it is to provoke deep reflection and to evoke timely, creative transformation of Unitarian Universalism, our congregations and the UUA, spent a number of years engaging hundreds of UUs on the question of our theological diversity, its foundation and how we articulate it (or don’t). In trying to understand whether or not there is a theological perspective that can ground all of us, numerous participants in focus groups that had been formed to aid them in their research expressed a sense of marginalization within the UUA. Not marginalized by folks from a particular theological perspective, but by the majority of eclecticism of belief that we espouse as critical to our faith. Essentially, the Commission found that folks who tended toward a particular understanding of themselves in relation to other people, the earth and to spirit felt voiceless. They felt voiceless because topics with the potential to create conflict were often avoided in congregations, as the Commission noted, “in the name of harmony but ultimately to the detriment of religious depth.”[v] Their positions weren’t going to be taken seriously, in either form or substance, so they chose not to speak up at all.
This notion that we have to make room is no small task, folks, especially in the context of this or any community of faith. But it is possible. Historian, author and civil rights activist, Vincent Harding once said, “I think that that determination to find a truly democratic society and to create the truly Beloved Community are things that can be available to us if we’re willing to work with each other and to work with the universe on developing them. They don’t come free and easy. They are tough, tough tasks for us to take on.” And despite the fact that Harding believed that “we are absolutely amateurs at this matter of building a democratic nation made up of many, many different peoples, of many kinds, from many connections and convictions and from many experiences,” he also seemed clear that, to know how, after all the pain that we have caused each other, “to carry on democratic conversations that invite us to hear each other’s best arguments and best contributions, to figure out how to put these things together to create a more perfect union, is what helps us see the best possibilities in each other and make lasting change.”[vi]
But how do we even begin to take stock of what’s brilliant and beautiful about our fifth principle and what’s potentially damaging and dangerous? We have to do what the heretics, truth-seekers and revolutionaries have done since their Unitarian and Universalist beginnings. We have to continue to find ways to honor our stories, individual and collective. It’s in our stories. Story is a source of nurture that we cannot live without. We cannot become true, human beings for ourselves and for each other without story. To find ways to tell it, to share it, to create it, to encourage it allows a deep opening to take place. Stories bring together what I know, how I know, why I know and why it matters that you know what I know. What I believe, how I believe, why I believe and why it matters that you understand the essence of that belief. And when we make room for our stories, it matters much less what process we employ because how you show up and how I show up is made manifest in how we engage in shared ministry with one another.
Harding was the one who drafted Martin King, Jr.’s historic speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence”. In that speech, King quoted Arnold Toynbee, who said that our “first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”[vii]
May we continue to grow in our awareness of what the voice of love sounds like and remain ever mindful of the platform through which love can be heard, not just when we leave, but especially as we enter.
Amen. Ashe. Blessed Be.
[i] With Purpose and Principle: Essays on the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. Edward A. Frost, Ed. UUA: Boston, MA 1998, p. 63.
[ii] Ibid at 64.
[iii] Ibid at 67.
[iv] The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, Ellen Brandenburg, Ed. Skinner House Books: Boston, MA 2007, p. 79-80.
[v] Engaging Our Theological Diversity: A Report by the Commission on Appraisal, Unitarian Universalist Association, May 2005, p. 33
[vi] “Vincent Harding, In Memoriam – Civility, History and Hope,” NPR’s On Being. http://www.onbeing.org/program/civility-history-and-hope/79