Monday, April 6, 2020

Progressive Aspirations | Monday of Holy Week 2020

Getting to where we should be and making social progress is a slow, treacherous path made up of wrong turns, potholes, and dead ends. Just look at Unitarian Universalist history.

Early in its existence, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) had a disagreement over calling for its congregations to welcome people regardless of race or class. If you know a little about UUs, that might surprise you. If you know a bit more about UUs, you'll roll your eyes and say 'of course they did.'

The UUA formed in 1961 from the union of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. While reading Conrad Wright's 'Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches,' I came across this from the 1963 General Assembly:
"Recall, for example, the bitter debate in Chicago at the meetings of the General Assembly, in May of 1963, over the question of whether the Unitarian Universalist Association may require its member churches to maintain 'a policy of admitting persons to membership without discrimination on account of race, color, or national origin.' No one was heard to disagree with the proposition that every trace of racial segregation must be eliminated from our churches; but this particular proposal was sharply criticized as an assertion of the power of the association to set doctrinal standards for its member churches, and to disciple ir expel them for ideological irregularity. In reply, the supporters of the proposal declared that it would be intolerable to let congregational autonomy to be erected into shield for an indefensible and immoral social practice. Some observers felt that there as conflict between to valid principles: congregational polity and social justice. Others insisted that it needed only a clarification of the principles of congregation polity to show that there was actually no conflict of values after all." (pp 64-65) 
Reading this, I understand the logic of those who would have the congregations free from outside impositions on their membership standards. Logic is not always the best approach for human endeavor, however, and particularly not in the field of spirituality. I hold firmly to the value of the scientific method as it is currently understood, and think it should be applied in analyzing data and making sense of the world. In human relationships, and within the context of religion, reason is at times going to fall short of the best of our humanity. If our polity is perpetuating injustice, then it is our polity that will have to change. I wish I could say this matter has been dealt with, but it hasn't. There are serious questions about hiring practices and the treatment of clergy and staff of color. Still, we grapple with these issues. There are many deniers, but many as well are those who will not give up shining the light on these injustices.
"I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon." — Isaiah 42:6-7 CEB
These words from Isaiah this Monday of Holy Week tell a story of a covenant people given a vocation to bring liberative justice to the world. Though not all Unitarian Universalists are theists, we do have a covenant that we affirm together as a people, expressed in our 7 Principles:
1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person; 
2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; 
3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; 
4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; 
5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; 
6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; 
7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Further, the nations of the world officially agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which includes this statement:
"Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction." — Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble, paragraph 8
Has Christianity failed? Yes and no. The 'yeses' are too many to be counted.The crusades, the Inquisition, the long and ingrained traditions of patriarchy and paternalism, the enabling of colonialism and the destruction of non-Christian cultures through proselytizing.

Some have tried to skip over the bad history and 'get it right' by attempting to be what they think the church was meant to be. In the 1800s many such groups arose in the United States, including the Latter-day Saints (aka 'Mormons') the Stone-Campbell Movement (Christian Churches/Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ), and Primitive Baptists. Among traditions like these exists a naive confidence that somehow it's possible to be a Christian but not be associated with the terrible parts of Christian history. It's as if to say that while former generations of Christians got it wrong, this generation or this movement of Christians will get it right. Usually this boils down to having the correct beliefs and practices. I've not seen social justice being a key feature of most such groups, although it exists to some degree as a component of some.

Many have walked away from church, having experienced the harm it can actually do. Some refer to themselves as 'exvangelicals,' and they are the ones who suffered through evangelicalism's purity culture. Too many have suffered physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse in such contexts.

On the other hand, Christianity has been a beacon of hope for millions. A community of shared values and uplifting ideals. A means of artistic expression. An opportunity for a second chance, a new outlook on life, and a source of life-transforming principles and experiences. There have been plenty of Christians who were on the right side of history. Think of Sojourner Truth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Martin Luther King Jr.

Christians have a calling, one where they often fall short. And yet it persists, and they keep trying.

The Unitarian Universalists (which includes Christians in its midst) have their ideals as expressed in their Principles and Living Tradition. They also often fall short, at times even disagreeing over whether people of color and lgbtq folx should be treated with respect (see The Igneous Quill Essays).

The nations have the UDHR, a beautiful document that expresses our collective hope for a better future. And yet, atrocities continue around the world, in the denial of worker's rights, in the enslavement of human beings, on the blood-soaked battlefields, and in violation of treaties with indigenous peoples. The United Nations even has Saudi Arabia, one of the worst offenders, on the United Nations Human Rights Council. And yet, activists and concerned citizens persist in pushing, pulling, and calling for progress. The UDHR hasn't failed, not have all the people and nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is:
"a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms."
In scriptures and covenants and declarations we find our aspirations. The better version of ourselves that we know we should be. And it is from those that we teach and educated, working to form a better future for those yet to come who we will never know. In our darker hours we can still see light, and we can still hold out hope.