If you’ve been following our “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” sermon series this year, you know that we’ve spent significant time with the story of the ancient Israelites and how they became enslaved in the land of Egypt. Through God’s might, and with the leadership of Moses, they escaped and, after 40 years of wandering the desert, they entered into a new land, a “promised land”: a land “flowing with milk and honey” where they might establish themselves as a society of justice and fairness the likes of which, up to that point in human history, the world had never seen.
The possibility was absolutely theirs to grasp!
It could have happened!
But it did not. The tragedy of this ancient journey towards wholeness is that the parts lost sight of the “whole” which is the justice-and-fairness-for-all goal. By parts I mean people. The people lost sight; the people forgot; fear and greed made the people turn on each other; some people established systems of oppression that harmed other people; and then one generation after another passed until those oppressive systems (which had originally been established through a great deal of violence and bloodshed) became a comfortable living background for some but, for others, a daily source of punishment and humiliation.
Specifically, for the ancient Israelites, once they re-established themselves in the “promised land,” they created a system of monarchy that echoed the situation they had left just a few generations earlier, at great cost: that of the Egyptian Pharaohs. But the Israelites were tired; they just wanted someone to tell them what to do, and a kingship seemed the best way to go. Biblical prophet after Biblical prophet warned them not to do it—warned them that oppression would return to the land.
But … the parts lost sight of the whole.
What was it that writer William Faulkner once said about the past?
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
400+ years ago, Europeans left all they knew to come to America, and the thought was ever before them: that it was their turn to accomplish what the ancient Israelites had ultimately failed to do: to enter into promised land and establish themselves as a true society of justice and fairness—a “city on a hill.” From them, we receive the distinctly American vision of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And yet. The writer of these words was a slaveholder. America was built on the genocide of Native Americans. It was built on the backs of slaves–hundreds of years of slavery, morphed into 80+ years of Jim Crow segregation, resulting in social arrangements around education, law enforcement, employment, housing, health care and so on, that, even to this day, tell a Big Lie about people who are not white: that they do not matter. That they are not worthy.
Still: right now: white supremacy is the very comfortable background of life for some but, for others, a daily source of humiliation and violence and death.
Yet another example of the tragedy of the journey towards wholeness: the parts losing sight of the whole.
And now here we are, having a conversation about a possible addition to our Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles: the proposed 8th Principle which goes like this: “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
In this sermon, I propose to do several things: (1) suggest some basic insights about the Principles to lay the groundwork for everything else that follows; (2) describe the extent of the changes that the UUA Board of Trustees has charged the Article II Study Commission to consider; (3) focus on the specific content of the proposed 8th Principle; and, (4) draw on the UUA’s Widening the Circle report to suggest what some of the consequences of adopting the 8th Principle might be.
But in everything that’s said, let’s not forget: the ancestors are among us, the ancestors who believed in the journey toward wholeness but were flawed, the ancestors who urge us to learn from their mistakes and do better today: to be parts who don’t lose track of the whole, who don’t get distracted, who keep their eyes diligently on the prize of wholeness.
Yes: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But: learning from the past is also always possible. There can be evolution. We are not condemned to repeat history, though we must work hard to know history and not flinch from whatever complicity we might have in its harshest moments.
So: begin with a basic insight about the nature of our Unitarian Universalist Principles (which are housed in Article II of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Bylaws). The insight is this: our Principles define the wholeness that we, the parts, ideally journey towards. Such wholeness can be possible for everyone, if the parts work together to make it so.
And, because the parts can lose sight of the whole—history holds ample proof of that—–the Principles need to be very clear and very memorable: ideally unforgettable, written on our hearts.
In this respect, our Principles are a little like the 10 Commandments—our UU version of that. They really are! Except in one big respect: Whereas the 10 Commandments are supposed to stay the same forever, our Unitarian Universalist Principles are meant to evolve. It is sound Unitarian Universalist theology to see our understanding of truth as evolving. As pre-eminent 20th century UU theologian James Luther Adams once said, “revelation is continuous.” We call our religion a “living tradition” because we are always learning more about our world. Changing social conditions require us to change the understanding we bring to them
And so, our Principles have changed over time. One major moment of change was inspired by the Feminist movement of the 60s and 70s, together with a broadening acceptance of the theological pluralism in our midst. Our Living Tradition was learning the hard way that when we don’t prioritize the welfare and wisdom of women in our midst—when we don’t prioritize the pluralism in our midst—we shoot ourselves in the foot. We therefore had to create new Principles that would help bring us parts back again and again to these priorities, to work towards an evolved vision of wholeness.
In 1985, a new set of Principles was finalized.
But “revelation is continuous.” Several years later it became clear that we needed to bring in from the margins the priority of earth-based spirituality, and this led to another change, made in 1995.
I don’t want to suggest that these changes are taken lightly, or are easy. Every change to Article II of our Association’s Bylaws (which, remember, houses the Principles) is major, and takes years and tons of effort to accomplish, and the consequences are across the board. Just one example: if you open your gray hymnbook, you will see our current Purposes and Principles statement around 5 pages in, right before Hymn #1. If and when we change this statement, what does it mean? A need for new hymnals? Or maybe stickers of the new statement placed in each and every hymnal to cover up the old? What about the poster that hangs near the entrance of our church? What about all the materials used in our RE classes?
I mean, the change impacts everything, down to the details.
There’s nothing simple about a change to our Principles.
But if we must, we must.
Which takes us to the next part of this sermon: the extent of the changes that the UUA Board of Trustees has charged the Article II Study Commission to consider.
The Article II Study Commission (composed of six people) was convened by the UUA Board in the Fall of 2020 to be the group that would lead the review/revision process and ultimately present a new version of the Principles to the Board in January of 2023, for its consideration. In turn, the Board will place the new Principles on the 2023 General Assembly Business Agenda for the consideration of all. To this end, the UUA Board said to the Study Commission [and I quote]: “[You are] charged with reviewing all sections of Article II, and [you are] free to revise, replace, or restructure them as needed to meet the objectives stated above. There is nothing sacred about the number of principles or sources, nor their specific wordings, nor in the way that Article II is laid out.” In other words: the Study Commission’s end product could feature 15 Principles, or 5.
I know we are talking of adopting an 8th Principle, but, after all is said and done, we might not end up with 8.
Do you see what I mean?
Besides this invitation to a wide-open process, the UUA Board had things to say about what they wanted the form of the Principles to look like. They said to the Study Commission: “We recognize that one steady criticism over decades has been that the language of the principles is not poetic. We encourage the Commission to consider framings of our principles that allows them to be brief and poetic (perhaps by transferring explanatory clauses and expansions to a subsidiary document that expounds on what the Commission sees as included and intended in that shorter form).” Hearing this, perhaps one concern about the proposed 8th Principle—that it is extremely wordy in comparison with the other Principles—is defused. It looks like the UUA Board wants the overall statement of Principles to be poetic and brief.
It may mean that the language of the 8th Principle is modified accordingly.
Finally, the UUA Board spoke directly to content changes. One is of course related to antiracism and anti-oppression [and I quote]: “Our commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism is love in action, and should be centered in any revision of Article II.” Echoing this and adding to it is the observation made in the Widening the Circle of Concern report, where it says: “Despite periodic and episodic attempts to address [racism and] to address personal bias, we have not sustained these efforts and now find many of our congregational practices lacking in the standards of multicultural competency found in many workplaces.” Note the implication of that last part: how if we don’t center the priority of multicultural competency, the world is going to pass us by. Prioritizing antiracism and anti-oppression is not just the right thing to do; it is the pragmatic thing to do.
But note that this is not the only content change that the UUA Board is looking for. The UUA Board also said to the Study Commission:
(1) Love is a central value for UUs. “Justice is what love looks like in public,” they said, quoting Dr. Cornel West. So, the next version of the Principles ought to center the priority of the loving liberation of all.
(2) Additionally, we speak of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, but are we not shooting ourselves in the foot if, in this time of climate change and eco-catastrophe, we do not prioritize the inherent worth and dignity of all beings?
(3) Finally, the Board said that it is time to revisit the Six Sources. My personal interpretation of this is a concern with listing just six specific sources when, in reality, far more are in play. The Board seems like it is wanting a radical revision of this part of Article II, when it says, “We particularly urge the Commission to review the Sources…”
So, this is the full picture of what is happening with the Study Commission’s work on evolving our Unitarian Universalist Principles. The commitment is to reimagining the vision of wholeness we are lifting up so that our spiritual journeys are headed in the right direction for the world as it is today. Part of this does indeed relate to antiracism and anti-oppression, but there is yet more involved.
Let’s keep this larger context in mind as now we hone in on the proposed 8th Principle itself, and its specific content. Again, here is the language: “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
One of the ways this statement seems (at least to me) categorically different from the other 7 Principles is that nowhere in those 7 Principles is an acknowledgement of personal ownership of injustice. “Justice, equity, and compassion;” “peace, liberty, and justice for all;” “respect for the interdependent web of all existence:” such language fills the 7 Principles, and so do their implied reversals: injustice, unfairness, lack of empathy, war making, tyranny, disrespect for the interdependent web. And my point is: the 7 Principles make it easy to project all of these implied reversals onto other people. But what about our own injustice, our own unfairness, our own lack of empathy, and so on? What about the religious duty of holding ourselves accountable for the ways we personally screw up? Jesus once said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
It is spiritually healthy to make the searching of one’s own heart for one’s own biases and vices a priority. And only the proposed 8th Principle explicitly names this, when it names “racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
Furthermore, note the language of accountability in the proposed 8th Principle. The idea is that, in this interdependent web of all existence, we live not just for ourselves, or for our family, or for our preferred friendship circles and community.
Our world is one world: the thoughts we think affect us all:
the way we build our attitudes, with love or hate, we make
a bridge or wall.
But in particular, what of the folks in our communities and our world who are most oppressed, and worst off? Shall they not be prioritized when decisions are being made? As the Widening the Circle of Concern report says, “Just as we can understand that the current paradigm of white dominance centers white identity and the comfort of white-identified people, we can also understand that a more just and effective system would center the comfort, safety, growth, agency, and capacity for self-realization of those who are currently most oppressed, which would have a benefit for all.”
Accountability means we always ask, How will this decision impact those whom the world marginalizes—the “least of these,” as Jesus would say? How?
Accountability thus means that the journey towards wholeness can at times be uncomfortable for folks who benefit from the status quo. Therefore, courage is essential—courage to reject the temptation of hiding in privileged enclaves, courage to keep showing up to church, where the learning process of uncovering unconscious biases and things you didn’t know you didn’t know can be tough.
Courage is also needed by those who endure every day of their lives the cuts of microaggressions and the threats of living in a world that is a danger to you—courage for these people to keep showing up to church, too, and to never stop believing that this can be a truly Beloved Community for them too.
There’s lots to the content of the 8th Principle, but my time is quickly running to an end. So I will say one more thing about content and then turn to a few brief thoughts about what adoption of this Principle might mean.
Here is the “one more thing”: the phrase is “racism and other oppressions.” I am noticing in conversations about this proposed Principle that often that phrase gets shortened to simply “racism.” I hear that, and it concerns me greatly. Our social and political identities are interconnected in such a way that the result is, as Kimberlé Crenshaw says, a “many layered blanket of oppression.” If all we are talking about is racism, then we are not on the journey towards wholeness and we will not be able to show up the way the world needs us to show up. Read bell hooks. Read Kimberlé Crenshaw. These Black women are leading the way. At the very least, if we don’t understand what it means to be middle class, and how that interests with race, then we Unitarian Universalists can never act in a way that is accountable.
And now, finally: what might the adoption of the proposed 8th Principle lead to?
For the Association at large: it could mean any number of significant changes. As the Widening the Circle of Concern report says, we have “an overly complex and confusing” denominational system which needs streamlining. General Assembly, the annual business meeting of the Association, is very expensive to go to and therefore prevents a genuine democratic representation of all our churches. The role of the President of the Association is problematic. Then there is the lack of multicultural skills in regional staff and good offices people, and this only exacerbates conflicts.
For individual congregations, the Widening the Circle of Concern report says that one significant area of concern is “overreliance on informal structures to carry out governance work.” The report goes on to say: Informal structures rely on social relationships and thus tend to privilege people from the dominant culture in a community or organization. In the interest of not being “bureaucratic,” we leave structures informal because “we all know and trust one another.” In other words, without publicly defined rules of the road for how we do things, and clear entry points for participation in decision-making, only those who are already on the “inside” can exert power. It’s power hoarding.
Now–moving on–let me ask this: Has West Shore ever had an “equity, inclusion, and diversity” audit? Has that ever happened before? If you take a look at the Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression timeline in your order of service, you will see that lots has been happening over the years and that we’ve been doing it all without having endorsed an 8th Principle. The Board established anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism as a congregational priority back in 2008 and created a “Diversity Change Team” in the same year, charged to “to manage and monitor our institutional work in fulfilling the end of becoming an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and multicultural congregation.”
But now, in 2022, for this congregation to endorse the proposed 8th Principle, as I see it, is to send a mandate message: that we are not done with this work, that it is time to re-engage it with redoubled passion and commitment. But first and foremost: this must include remembering all that has taken place since at least 2008; to take account of lessons learned; to organize ourselves for greater effectiveness; to truly understand that we are indeed on a journey towards wholeness and we need the parts pulling together and not apart.
And then there is this. Finally and above all. Listen to these wise words from the Rev. Sophia Betancourt, when she addressed General Assembly in 2018 as the Service of the Living Tradition’s preacher. She said, “Poet and prophet Audre Lorde told those embarking on a next great journey that it was their small actions, their everyday decisions, and how they moved through this world that not only gave them power, but would define our future. She did not offer them a great redeeming moment, she simply steered them back to the daily struggle, to what we might call faithful living.”
I commend these words to you wholeheartedly this day. This congregation’s adoption of the 8th Principle would be important: an important mandate message about what our priorities are and vision of our future.
But let us not see it as some “great redeeming moment”—as though the mere adoption of the Principle was the end of the work. That we were somehow done.
It’s just a way station. It’s just a gut-check.
For me, it would be a celebration, a confirmation.
And then we get right back to the daily struggle of faithful living.
We get right back to the continuing journey towards wholeness.
We honor the Ancestors by knowing their history and absorbing lessons learned.
And then we do as Maya Angelou says:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”