Perhaps you are aware of Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles, a denominational statement which articulates values and attitudes that cut across all our differences of opinion—a statement which unites us and gives us a common core.
But have you ever heard of the Seven Anti-Unitarian Universalist Principles?
(The answer is NO, because I cooked them up just yesterday.)
Anti-Principle Number 7: The only existence that matters is human existence. This is exactly opposite of our real 7th Principle, which affirms “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
See how the anti-principle logic goes?
Anti-Principle Number 6: The goal of America first (vs. the real 6th Principle, which affirms “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”)
Anti-Principle Number 5: Might makes right (vs. the real 5th Principle, which affirms “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”)
Anti-Principle Number 4: The uncritical consumption of “alternative facts” (vs. the real 4th Principle, which affirms “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”)
Isn’t it interesting to see our Principles from an anti- point of view? I think it helps make them even more meaningful and valuable, and maybe you do too.
But there’s more:
Anti-Principle Number 3: Judgmentalism towards one other and spiritual apathy in our congregations (vs. the real 3rd Principle which affirms “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”)
Anti-Principle Number 2: Bullying and humiliation in human relations (vs. the real 2nd Principle which affirms “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”)
And finally: anti-Principle Number 1: The inherent shamefulness of every person (vs. the real 1st Principle which affirms “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”)
All of the Anti-Principles are at play in our world today, and as Unitarian Universalists we are called to resist. This is fundamentally not about politics but about faithfulness to our core values as a religion. No political party is exempt from critique when they endorse or implement policies that run contrary to our Principles. When I stand in this pulpit, I stand in it not as a Democrat or a Republican or a Libertarian or a something else but as a Unitarian Universalist.
I promise you that.
Now it would take years and many sermons to do justice to all the ways in which the 7 Anti-Principles plague our world, so today I’m narrowing my focus, and I will do that on something that might not get a lot of air time in Unitarian Universalist pulpits or pulpits of any kind: shame.
Unitarian Universalism’s 1st Principle says that people are fundamentally worthy; shame says people are fundamentally worthless. The 1st Principle says that a person’s essential value is unconditional; shame is the voice in your head saying “You are not good enough.” “You will never be good enough.” “Who do you think you are?”
Getting laid off and having to tell your partner who is relying on you triggers SHAME.
Having someone ask you, “When are you due?” but you’re not pregnant: SHAME.
Hiding the fact that you’re an alcoholic—hiding that fact from all the people who think you’re perfect: SHAME
Losing your temper once again with the kids, over something stupid: SHAME.
Your partner sitting in the passenger-side seat telling you how to drive: that’s SHAME.
Being infected by an STD. SHAME.
Committing a microaggression and you did not mean to: such SHAME
Infertility: triggers SHAME.
Your boss calling you an idiot in front of the client: so SHAMING.
You are just being yourself, but someone calls you out, says you’re acting too big for your britches: the SHAME.
You will never be good enough.
Who do you think you are?
Our 1st Principle is beloved because it brings us back to our unconditional worth and it makes us feel calm and centered and whole; but shame makes us forget, shame makes us feel like the life is being strangled out of us, we are being pulled down into an abyss of soul-crushing chaos…. The experience is simply so traumatic that we instinctively defend against it, we do anything to make it go away.
Shame researchers tell us that there are essentially three things people do. One is to move away from shame—to withdraw from all that triggers it, to hide, to become silent, to keep secrets. Here is where you vanish from others and you vanish from yourself.
Another thing people do is move towards shame, allow it to melt our sense of personal integrity and erase personal boundaries, so that it makes perfect sense to practice abject people-pleasing, to allow another to walk all over you, to enable bad behavior.
Yet a third thing people can do in the face of the strangling, soul sucking sensation of shame is to move against it. This looks like aggression against the person who appears to have triggered your shame. This looks like bullying. This looks like violence.
Shame is so painful. We do anything to wriggle out of its grasp.
So against this Anti-Principle, the real 1st Principle brings peace. The real 1st Principle that affirms our inherent worth and dignity is like the poem from Rolf Jacobsen I read during our meditation time, that says,
All people are children when they sleep.
They open their hands and breathe
in that quiet rhythm heaven has given them.
They pucker their lips like small children
and open their hands halfway,
soldiers and statesmen, servants and masters.
When people sleep, and all our social distinctions and differences fall away, we are all equally children of God.
But shame—shame is the war in us. Shame is the sickness. Shame makes us vulnerable to aggression, depression, eating disorders, addictions, violence, suicide.
I would even go so far as to suggest that the seeds of Anti-Principles 2 through 7 are planted by Anti-Principle number 1.
This is why it is urgent that we talk about what researcher Brene Brown calls “shame resilience,” but what we Unitarian Universalists could also call, very simply, the practice of our 1st Principle.
The practice of our 1st Principle begins with raising awareness, which is what you and I are doing right here and right now. Shame is real, and it’s not just an internal state that stays inside; it infects the world. We need to know this, and we need to speak it. “Shame,” says Brene Brown, “derives its power from being unspeakable. […] Shame hates having words wrapped around it.” But we are wrapping words around it today. We are naming it today.
And then the next thing we do (as part of the practice of our 1st Principle) is to reality check the shame.
President Obama once said something in his book Dreams from My Father that we need to hear right now. He said, “We might be locked in a world not of our own making … but we still have a claim on how it is shaped.” One of the ways we are locked into a world not of our own making is through “racialization.” We are made “black” and we are made “white” and we are made “brown” and on and on—with all that that entails. An impersonal prejudicial system, backed by social power, is reproduced through us. Biases and prejudices are implanted in us, without our permission. And the white supremacy system—I’m just going to name it as I see it, because it sure ain’t a black supremacy system—reinforces itself through shame. Shame is what locks us in. Black women shamed when they wear their hair naturally. The internalized racism that shames people of color. A white child shamed when he notices that his friend’s skin color is different from his, and he asks about that loudly in public. “Be silent!” the white mother says, feeling ashamed. And she says what she says and feels the shame she feels because she has been racialized all her life to be blissfully ignorant of all matters race-related, therefore she thinks that the very act of talking about race is racist.
Shame keeps us locked in! So we must name it. We must reality check it. We must practice shame resilience!
Our Black Lives Matter message outside for all the world to see is about shame resilience!
Our Unitarian Universalist 1st Principle promises something to us: all the forces that want to lock us in? They can try as hard as they want. But we still have a claim on how our story is shaped.
Yet another dimension of this relates to the world of gender identity–how gender messages and expectations are foundational shame triggers. Patriarchy is the word for a system of meanings and practices that shapes “appropriate” masculine and feminine identity. Patriarchy wields a cattle prod to keep people toeing the line, and that cattle prod is shame.
Consider this gender expectation: “Be perfect, but don’t make a fuss about it and don’t take time away from anything (like your family or your partner or your work) to achieve your perfection. If you’re truly worthy, perfection should be easy.”
(Is this a primarily masculine or feminine expectation—what do you think?)
Then there’s this gender expectation: “Never allow people to think you are weak. Be all-adequate, in all aspects of life. Don’t ask for help.”
(Primarily masculine or feminine?)
Or what about this: “Say what’s on your mind, but don’t upset anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings.”
(Primarily masculine or feminine?)
Or this: “Never cry or show emotion, except at sporting events, especially the Cleveland Browns “Factory of Sadness” stadium—it’s ok then. But anger? Anger is always permissible, everywhere, because anger is strength.”
(Primarily masculine or feminine?)
The primarily feminine gender expectations are the first and third, and both are classic double-binds. There’s no way to win. Think of our current female Presidential candidates and the hoops they have to jump through. Anything they do—anything women do—is going to disappoint the rule of patriarchy and trigger shame, so one common solution is to repress one’s Wonder Woman potentials—to learn to stay small, stay sweet, stay quiet, stay modest. But the side-product of this is inevitable repressed rage, and it comes out as mean-spiritedness, very often towards other women who refuse to stay small….
This is what happens!
As for the primarily masculine expectations—the second and fourth—it’s all about not being a wimp. Don’t show fear. Don’t show inadequacy. You do that and people shame you. Other men shame you. Other women shame you. That’s right—the keepers of the patriarchy aren’t just men. One of the many refreshing and surprising things that Brene Brown surfaces through her shame research is the finding that “In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most [women] recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.” She goes on to quote a male friend who says, “Men know what women really want. They want us to pretend to be vulnerable. We get really good at pretending.”
It’s just hard for everyone, however you have been gendered under patriarchy. But it gets more manageable when you are aware of the unrealistic standards that send you into your shame spiral and, on this basis, you can reality check it. As someone who identifies primarily with the feminine, you can say NO to the double-bind. As someone who identifies primarily with the masculine, you can say NO to the demand that you are always and in all ways strong. And if you’re gender non-binary or gender fluid, whenever one or the other set of standards tries to get you to dance to their tune, just say NO.
We have to reality check the unrealistic expectations and name and claim the shame!
I wish someone had preached this sermon to me years ago. Years ago, male shame was a factor in ending my marriage and I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it until recently, actually. Over the years I’ve gone over the whole thing again and again, as you can imagine, and I thought I had sifted through the experience thoroughly and discovered everything there was to be discovered, but I hadn’t. Reflecting on shame this week led me to connecting some dots that I hadn’t connected before.
It’s actually rather simple. My wife back then was fully in her world of work. It was a world that I was not a part of, even as my work world was separate from hers. And that fact—that she gained such satisfaction and grew so much from a world completely apart from me—triggered shame. It meant I could not provide all she needed, and to the male in me, there was only one conclusion: It meant I was weak. It meant I was unworthy. Years of feeling this unworthiness melted my insides. I did not know how to talk about it. I did not know what was happening. I could not reality check. I could not recover. What I did was withdraw into my work, withdraw into my figure skating. Hide. My wife would reach out, and I would step back. The result was mutual desperation.
I just didn’t have the awareness and the reality checking skills! I do now. I’ve earned them the hard way. And I am telling this story despite the fact that I might very well have committed the grave sin of pastoral oversharing—of pastoral TMI—but I risk this because I want to demonstrate through my own life yet another way to practice the 1st Principle: tell your shame stories to people who love you and you trust them. Tell your shame stories to people who will respond—not with criticism or condescension, not with armchair quarterbacking—but by turning right back around and telling their shame stories to you. What happens is the building of empathic connection. Shame can’t survive shared empathy.
It just can’t.
We have been locked into racial identities and gender identities and other identities not of our own making, and shame—not recognized, not reality-checked, not spoken—keeps us there. But our Unitarian Universalist 1st Principle tells us that we don’t have to believe in that shame, in the lie that that shame is trying to spread. Black people and white people and people of all colors can grow into racial identities that are healthy and liberating. We can grow into forms of manhood and womanhood and gender fluidity any other -hoods of gender orientation there may be that liberate, not constrict and wound.
White supremacy culture be damned and patriarchy be damned!
I am asking you to love me in my shame and love eachother in your shame.
Do it because you are Unitarian Universalist and this religion calls you to it!
“We cultivate love,” says Brene Brown, “when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
That’s what she says.
All I know is that the Seven Unitarian Universalist Anti-Principles plague our world right now,
but if we can start with cultivating love,
if we can practice real First Principle love,
if we can love ourselves and love each other even in the midst of our deepest shame,
then there is freedom
then there is release
then there is humanity
those Seven Unitarian Universalist Anti-Principles?
They don’t stand a chance.