For Such A Time as This

The following is the sermon I gave on September 12, 2015, at the installation service of Rev. Lynn Hopkins, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery in Alabama.  May it help inform our faith and help us set the direction for the prophetic witness we are called to in such a time as this. 

Text: Esther 4:13-14

We have the story of Esther in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Born of lowly birth to a Jewish family, there was not much promise for her status in life.  She did have one thing in her favor. She was beautiful.  The king becomes enamored by her and marries her.  But the king also has an adviser who hates the Jews so much that he convinces the king to have them killed.  Esther feels distressed and also helpless in this situation since she is not the esteemed first wife of the king.  But her uncle, Mordecai says to her, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

For such a time as this.  Haunting words for Esther to engage her destiny and find a way to entice the king to give her an audience and perhaps save her people.

And have we come to our royal position for such a time as this?  Our faith as Unitarian Universalists for nearly 300 years has enjoyed the royal position of privilege—white privilege, white supremacy, class privilege. Our spiritual ancestors not only helped create this nation of white supremacy and privilege but some even held the highest office in the land. Some have been seen as prophets—William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker; even as these individuals whose legacies revolutionized Unitarian faith they did so from the framework of white supremacy and white privilege of their day.

Their lives were imbued in class privilege, in white privilege, in white supremacy which continued to influence the direction the Unitarian faith was to follow.  And it is that unfortunate legacy that led later White Unitarians to view their liberalism and progressivism as holding them at a safe distance in an enclaved haven. They saw themselves as being that beacon on a hill, high above all the rest. While some deplored the injustices in society, Unitarians, for the most part, were content in their position of privilege.  They were arrogant and haughty.

This was evident in the decisions that our American Unitarian Association made regarding people of color who wanted to become ministers of our faith.  Examine the sometimes brutal responses the AUA gave to the vision of Rev. Elthered Brown who founded a Harlem based Unitarian Church and the subdued support to Rev. Lewis McGee and his congregation in Chicago. And it wasn’t just the Unitarians, examine the dismissive and arrogant regard the Universalists gave Rev. Joseph Jordan and then his daughter, Annie Willis in their work in providing an education to African Americans in Virginia.

Our history in standing on the side of love has not always been consistent in terms of dealing with our own complicity in racism.

Today, we like to proclaim that we were good in the early 1960’s when pointing the finger at those white supremacists during the Civil Rights movement but we would rather forget that we were not so good when Black Unitarian Universalists began to hold White Unitarian Universalists accountable to our own inbred racism in the late 1960s.  We have struggled as a faith denomination with coming to terms with our own white privilege and our propensity to use white supremacy to our advantages.   But the process to become not only anti-racist but non-racist in our heart of hearts is going to take an individual commitment of all of our members.

We have seen in recent years, how merely acknowledging the issue is not sufficient to uprooting the weeds of white supremacy in the field planted with Unitarian Universalism. We need to recognize how the wheat, oats, and barley that are also planted in the field support and aid the weeds to flourish.  If we are unable to own our complicity, individually and collectively, then we will continue to miss the mark of becoming the prophethood of all believers that we know can be our destiny. James Luther Adams knew this required “something like conversion, something more than an attitude.” People in our communities need to know that we are the people of the covenantal promise of love made real.

It means we have to become comfortable with confessing our own white privilege and feelings of white supremacy.  It is no longer good enough to have an intellectual understanding of white privilege and white supremacy as it is displayed in this nation.  It is no longer enough to declare we give money to black causes or declare our scorn at those who fly the confederate flag.  We need to have a heart understanding of what every black person in America already knows.   It means we are going to have to begin living our values in ways we have yet to imagine.  It may challenge us.  It may seem uncomfortable but when has deepening spiritual awareness and transformation of lives ever comfortable?

We need to develop a spiritual practice of comfortability. Comfortability is a portmanteau of two words combined to create a new word.  I define the word as having the ability to be willing to embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable in situations in order to confront a held bias or prejudice.  In the context of being confronted on racism, it means not being defensive or deflective in response but able to be held accountable to our complicity with white privilege and white supremacy and then using that skill to transform our hearts and change our behavior.

The spiritual practice of comfortability was recently described by another Unitarian Universalist, Annie Gonzalez Milliken in her blog post entitled, Spiritual Practices for White Discomfort.  She lists these possible steps towards the skill-set needed for comfortability.

Sit with the discomfort and acknowledge it with mindful meditation, the art of breathing in and breathing out.  Instead of judgment turn judgment into a curiosity.  “Where is my discomfort coming from and what can I learn about myself?”  In other words take some time for introspection. Read up on the subject—find out the social context for the action taken that caused our discomfort.  Process our emotions with other committed allies privately.  Focus on the big picture. Practice deep listening and keep quiet.  Unitarian Universalists love to share opinions but that is expressing our own sense of privilege and is not always helpful. In fact such sharing before we have fully processed our own stuff can result in deflection away from the focus of ending racism.  When people of color spend their energy answering white discomfort it can be ‘especially draining.’

White liberals, all whites regardless of political stripe, need to develop the ability to sit in discomfort of how the system whites created serves to oppress, demean, and destroy Black Lives and other people of color. White Liberals need to recognize how they continue to benefit from this system even when putting on the mantle of being progressives with anti-racist rhetoric. White privilege protects white liberals from these feelings of discomfort.

I have heard some white liberals declare their protestations when confronted with supporting the system of white privilege and white supremacy, to deflect ownership by stating their support of petitions, giving money, marching in unity marches, and having friendships with people of color.

All of these actions are good in and of themselves but these actions become distancing tactics meant to make ourselves feel good when confronted with our complicity. They mean very little if we are not also on the vanguard confronting the system that gives one group protection over and above another group.

We have hid behind our principles without living the spirit of our principles.  When Black Lives Matter banners are displayed, the cry from some of our Unitarian Universalist members point to our principle of inherent worth and dignity of every person therefore, the logic goes: all lives matter.  This is a deflection because All Lives Matter is the idealized dream but Black Lives Matter is the living reality that they should yet do not. It is a painful reminder that in our society today, we have the walking dead.  These are the people who are seen in society as already dead socially so when they die physically, there is no further loss felt.  How does a nation grieve the loss of someone who is already dead to society?

But it isn’t just Black lives that are socially dead.  The mentally ill are socially dead.  The elderly are socially dead. The poor are socially dead. The disabled are socially dead.  And now that our society has found the slaughtering of children bearable because our nation has placed 2nd amendment rights as more important than the lives of our children, our children are socially dead.

When the walking dead begin to resurrect and claim their voice; whites with privilege, whites with power, whites who bask in the benefits of white supremacy become nervous and uncomfortable. There is a scramble to enact laws to keep them dead.  Voting ID laws, gerrymandering voting districts, laws to prevent municipalities enacting minimum wage standards, laws to limit or destroy unions, welfare reforms, all are geared towards disenfranchisement and all to keep the socially dead, dead.  Don’t believe me?  Look where we slash our budgets on the state and federal levels?

Medicaid, Mental health services, Aid to families, education services, children services, food stamps. These cuts are allowed because these people are not valued, their lives do not matter.  When we are not outraged when a mentally ill person wielding a serving spoon is shot by police because the police officer feared for his life at a distance of 24 feet; when we are not outraged when a Black person is shot and killed at a simple traffic stop; when we are not outraged when Medicaid is cut and lives are lost then we declare these people already dead in society. We do not fund the dead.  The only thing left for them is to be buried.

What does our faith call us to do?  It certainly does not call us to huddle in our predominant white congregational havens where we can wag our fingers and heads at those outside these doors who shoot Black Lives with impunity.  No, our faith calls us to love mercifully, to act with justice, and to walk humbly in our place in the universe.  This is not a time to act all high and mighty and laud our liberal faith of acceptance yet do nothing to create substantive change.

It is a time to speak up boldly on behalf of those who have lost their voice or are having their voices constricted.  It is a time to stand on the side of love not just along the side of the road in picket line formation but in the office, in the park, in the grocery store, in the daily interactions we have with everyone we meet. Our being in covenantal relationship does not end once we leave these hallowed halls.  Rather it begins. It is time to be an anti-racist anti-oppression faith, not just in the ideal pretty words on a page, but in the hard daily reality.

It comes to this.  Our faith does not require that we all believe in the same God or in any God.  Our faith does not require that we profess a creed of doctrines that would enable us to enter the gates of heaven.  Our faith does require us to love one another as we love ourselves in the here and now.  Our faith does require us to be stubbornly determined in loving life into society’s socially dead—because black lives matter.

That is our resurrection miracle.   Lazarus, a black man, raised from the dead is now seen as crucial to the prosperity and general welfare of the entire community.  To remove the blindness from the eyes of those who would oppress to suddenly see Lazarus’s inherent worth and dignity as vitally connected to their own inherent worth.   Lazarus’s resurrection and liberation is tied into our liberation and resurrection. We cannot be fully alive and liberated without the liberation of Black Lives.

These are the times in which we are found. Do not think that because you are in a white liberal and progressive faith, that you alone of white liberals will be protected from being held accountable. For if you remain silent in the crisis facing Black Lives, relief and deliverance for liberation will arise from another place, but this faith will be found irrelevant and will vanish from society.  And who knows if you have come to this faith for such a time as this?

The Theological Doctrines of the Alabama State Legislators

We live in a country that was founded on the notion of religious freedom in the broadest sense.  Unlike the Diet of Torda in 1500s Transylvania, religious freedom was extended not just to the Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians but to all expressions of faith and non-faith. This country early on determined that there was to be a wall of separation between the government and the people in regards to the practice of religion.  The government was not in any way to endorse or promote a specific religious belief above all others.

Welcome to Alabama.  Where our elected officials flout their religious doctrines as supreme above all others.  Chief Justice Roy Moore has made it a quest to make Alabama and the United States a Christian nation branded with his version of Christianity.  He has not once but twice in his terms as Chief Justice promoted his brand of Christianity in the State.  The first time was his insistence to have a statue of the Ten Commandments in the State Court House.  He was removed from office for that battle.  He is now, once again at odds, with the federal courts regarding his refusal to honor a Federal Court order to commence same sex marriages in the state.  Based on his past flagrant disregard for Federal Court Rulings, I predict he will continue his ban on same sex marriage in the state if the Supreme Court rules that the ban on same sex marriages is unconstitutional in June of this year.

He has support for his actions in the State House.  The Republican controlled house has submitted bills and resolutions that suggest that the Alabama State Legislators are operating on a Theological doctrine of how they view not only their role as legislators but also how they view the people of Alabama.  Last year the Health Committee passed a resolution that they believed that Life began at Conception and therefore the bills they were going to pass would reflect that belief.

This is a theological statement.  It is a religious doctrine of a specific sect of Christianity.  It is not a universal belief across Christianity nor across other religions. Jews, for example, teach that life begins at birth, the moment that the child draws their first breath akin to the breath of God that was breathed into Adam.  So here we have one example of the State House imposing their religious doctrine unto the citizens of the state.  Recently a public hearing was heard on House Bill 405, a bill that last year passed the house but did not make it through to law, makes it a criminal Class C Felony if a doctor performs an abortion without determining if the fetus has a heartbeat or if the doctor performs an abortion of a fetus that has a heartbeat.  When does a fetus develop a detectable heart beat?  Around 6 to 7 weeks.  When do most women learn they are pregnant?  Around 6 weeks.  The fetus is still in embryonic stage meaning it still looks more amphibian like rather than human.  Given that most women receive confirmation that they are indeed pregnant around 6 weeks, their decision to abort the pregnancy is one of urgency under this bill.  This means that if the woman was raped and becomes pregnant, she may have to live with the painful reminders of that rape for a long time. And in Alabama, the rapist has the right to demand custody and visitation rights.  This bill would negate anyone’s religious belief that life begins when the fetus can be viable outside of the uterus. In fact it declares their religious belief as a false doctrine.

There was another public hearing on House Bill 491 which authorizes health care providers to refuse to perform services that violate their conscience.  This means that a health care provider can refuse to perform an abortion but it also means that if they have an aversion to Transgenders receiving treatment enabling them to live in a body congruent with their gender, they can refuse to serve them as well.  This bill allows for shaming and discrimination against women and transgenders who claim the inalienable right to have control over their bodies. Rights that are taken for granted by cisgender males in our society. Again, it is a very narrow slice of Christianity that sees women’s bodies as not their own but their husband’s as the head of household.

In the state of Alabama, we do not yet have a personhood law that states that the fetus has all the rights and protections that other citizens have but this is the direction the State House is headed and it is a matter of time for such a law to be presented and passed.  HB 405 is the closest to making this claim and it would restrict further the ability for a woman to receive a medically supervised abortion in the state of Alabama. Personhood laws in other states have resulted in manslaughter charges if the woman is addicted to drugs and miscarriages or is unable to access prenatal care and miscarriages.

The doctrinal belief of the Alabama State House based on the bills they have passed and are proposing regarding human life is as follows:  Life begins at conception. Regardless if the conception was through an act of love or through violence, it must be protected at all cost. Any attempt to choose an abortion, regardless of the reason–life threatening to the woman, life threatening birth defect, rape, economic viability–is inconsequential to the shaming and shunning bestowed on the woman by medical providers because their personal religious beliefs trump the woman’s circumstances.  Any attempt by providers to perform an abortion that does not adhere to this doctrine are to be punished with a Class C Felony branding the provider as a criminal to be shunned and faces loss of career.  While not all of these reasons are currently codified as forbidden by law, this is the direction the State house is going and with each passing session they move closer to their goal of enforcing their doctrinal beliefs on the rest of the state. This is akin to the coercive moves the Taliban and Isis have taken where they are in control, though done at a much slower pace so as to be imperceptible to the populous until it is too late. Alabama State House is not afraid to spend millions of dollars of taxpayers money to defend their doctrinal stances, in fact they are poised to do so at every turn and then cry poverty after wasting taxpayers money.

To be clear, religious practice is a very personal and intimate expression of faith that each person has the right to hold but it is not in the purview of any government, federal, state, or local to tell people how they are to practice their faith.  And for the State legislator by passing laws that favor a specific religious doctrine over others is to violate the sacred trust that this country was founded on. In this country where religious freedom is highly valued, no one should have the right to impose their religious beliefs on another.  Not an individual, and especially not any governmental entity or any representative of that government.

It would be one thing if the State House were consistent in their doctrinal beliefs in all of their creation of laws but their doctrine of protecting the fetus at all costs unfortunately ends at birth. Once the child is born, the theological doctrine I have just described is no longer on the table. The actions of the State House are antithetical to the ability of a person to pursue life, liberty, and happiness once the child is born.

On April 21 of this year, the Senate passed a  resolution forbidding the expansion of Medicaid, sentencing up to 700 individuals to death this year because they along with 300K Alabamians fall into the gap between Medicaid and the provisions covered in the Federal Affordable Care Act. Refusal of expanding medicaid will result the closure of some dozen hospitals, many of them located in rural and inner city areas where the majority of Alabama’s poor live.

How our state administers Food Stamps also reflects a conflicting doctrine to their doctrine regarding the sacredness of life.  Federal guidelines include employment requirements such as being registered for work but Alabama places added twists to this requirement. Striking employees, even if the strike is justified for better wages that would lift the family out of poverty, disqualifies the household unless the strike occurs after the household applies for food assistance. Food Stamps are not eligible to undocumented citizens.  This stipulation follows the federal but there is a caveat in Alabama–the income the undocumented citizen brings into the household is counted towards eligibility. Alabama legislators have already spent millions defending its hatred of immigrants. Here is their hypocritical stance, Alabama Legislators hate foreigners unless their presence helps keep citizens off the public dole.   And here is something of a catch-22; Social Security Numbers (SSN) are requested for each member of the household in order to receive food stamps.  The provision of SSN is stated as purely voluntary but not providing them disqualifies that member of the household.  If a SSN is a requirement for qualification, then providing it is not a voluntary act; it is coerced.

Apparently, the doctrinal belief of the State House is that each life is precious until it becomes a burden and then it can be ignored or thrown away or incarcerated for slave labor. Alabama has passed more laws restricting the freedoms of its citizens  Their approach to the welfare of the citizens of this state is one of total disregard of their inherent worth and dignity.

And then we have the infamously named HB 56--in its latest incarnation as a Religious Freedom Act.  This bill was created in response to the striking down of the same sex marriage ban by federal court and the upcoming SCOTUS ruling on same sex marriage.  The proponents state this is not in any way an anti-gay legislation because it merely states that clergy and judges (the current people authorized in the state) can refuse to marry anyone for personal religious convictions and not face litigation for doing so.  They claim this is a save people from litigation bill not a codification of religious discrimination against the LGBTQ community.  Clergy have always had the right to refuse to marry any couple for any number of reasons–domestic violence, couple not of their faith tradition, and yes, doctrinal beliefs regarding what constitutes a marriage.  This bill is really aimed at giving judges the legal right to discriminate against those who do not hold their religious convictions regarding marriage.

There is a difference here– marriages performed before a judge or justice of the peace is not a religious ceremony.  It is a civil union.  Regardless of what a judge may personally believe about religious marriage ceremonies, a wedding officiated by her is not under the auspices nor  blessing of her church. It is not a religious ceremony.  It is merely a legal recognition by the state and federal government of a contract between two people. In the eyes of the Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic god, the same sex couple married by the state is not married. In the eyes of the Presbyterian (USA), United Church of Christ, American Baptist god, the same sex couple is married.

So what is this law really about?  It is about a subset of Christianity imposing their doctrinal belief of marriage onto the citizens of the state. It is declaring their doctrinal belief as supreme trumping all others.  Judges have taken an oath to uphold the laws of the state and federal government and regardless if their personal religious convictions place them at odds with those laws be it officiating a same sex marriage or enforcing the death penalty, they are required to do so. They do not have the right to impose their religious doctrine onto the people as an act of shaming and discrimination.

But this is Alabama– where theocracy is well rooted into the archaic 1901 state constitution.

Coming out of the Shadows: Whole and Upright

I have been reflecting on The Book of Job recently.  In Stephen Mitchell’s introduction of the translation of this text he defines “The Hebrew … tam v’-yashar, which literally means ‘whole (blameless) and upright.’” Then later comments, “When Job is handed over to the good graces of the Accuser, he is turned into the opposite of what the words mean in their most physical sense.  He becomes not-whole: broken in body and spirit. He becomes not-upright: pulled down into the dust by the gravity of his anguish.” [Italics Mitchell’s]

Since the end of July, the No Papers No Fear: Ride to Justice have been crossing the country stopping in various communities where immigrant communities have been assaulted by SB 1070 copy cat laws or had families torn apart by the federal 287 (g) or Secure Communities provisions in immigration law.  I am beginning to see connections between Job and the undocumented and larger connections in how America views herself.

I believe it was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who said “… the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”  

One of the tags the No Papers No Fear group has been using is coming out of the shadows.  Their greatest gift to us as a nation is to come out of the shadows.  The average person does not think about where their food or clothing comes from.  Nor do we think about who is cleaning our hotel rooms or mowing our public lawns.  We simply expect that there is food and clothing, clean hotel rooms and manicured public lawns readily available and in ample supply.  These are the people in the shadows, whether they are in a poultry processing plant in Mississippi, a day laborer in Alabama, or a migrant farm worker in Immokalee, Florida; these are all people in the shadows in this country.  Their shadow supports the rest of us to be in the sun, without them all would be darkness.

When I worked in public education many years ago, I had students when asked where milk, eggs, and vegetables comes from, answered me ‘from the store’ with a look that stated what kind of question is this.  Telling them vegetables did not come from a can or a frozen box but were first grown in a field where people stooped over in the hot sun and hand picked them for pennies for a bushel was like telling them that Santa Claus was not the one who made their presents but some worker in China who works 15 hours a day did. It didn’t make sense to them.  These are the shadows we do not like to expose to the light of day. The truth behind our economy is one shadow we prefer to remain in the dark about.

But being whole and upright is what we Americans like to proclaim on the mountain tops.  We have bought the lie just like Job’s friends that if all is well with us, then we are blessed and favored by God. All is well is defined as being able to have multiple safety nets below us that will catch us and keep us from harm. This is the privilege that many in America–White America especially–have come to expect to be here as if it is a natural law like gravity.   We do not need to look down from the trapeze wire to see the scattered bodies of those who fell before us because we have the nets to catch us and bounce us back up to the wire.  But many are discovering too late that the net, without our notice, has suddenly disappeared until we slip and fall.

Melissa Harris-Perry spoke passionately about this recently: “What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner. I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I’m sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No, there’s a huge safety net, that whenever you fail, we’ll catch you, and catch you, and catch you. Being poor is what is risky. We have to create a safety net for poor people and when we won’t because they happen to look different from us, it is the pervasive ugliness. We cannot do that.”

When you are wealthy in America one can ignore the poor, the undocumented, the sick, the elderly, and the disabled, all of the pervasive issues of our day because we can shove them inside the shadows where they cannot be seen.  The middle class is expected to follow suit and ignore these people as well and when we cannot any longer we pass laws to oppress them back into the shadows.  The middle class is taught in this mobile class society to always keep our gaze on the wealthy because maybe, just maybe, we could be one of the elite.  But this upward gazing is equivalent to navel gazing and keeps us from looking where we need to step. Now many are finding our footing slipping, the upstairs climb has become covered in the oil of greed which dictates mine first and the rest be damned to the shadows. We desire a scapegoat to allow us to keep  casting long shadows to hide our failings as a society.

Jon Stewart pointed out an interesting aspect to America recently: If we are successful, then we built it, if we fail, it is the government’s fault.  I would add this twist… if a poor person, Black or Latino especially,  is successful in America it is because of a hand out from the government; if they are not then they are simply lazy and deserve their lot in life.  Our nation is certainly contradictory in describing itself.  Eric Fleischauer writes about the Cruelty of Kind Alabamians but this trait is not limited to Alabama but extends to all Americans when discussing how we treat those in the shadows.

Job was whole and upright until disaster befell him and pulled him down to be not whole but broken, not upright but immoral and defiled.  If only he kept his mouth shut.  If he only kept silent and accepted his fate as just the way things are but No, he had to state he was still whole and upright.  He had to declare he was still a human being and not something to be tossed aside as worthless trash to be,  at best, composted.  And so, too, are the people on the No Paper No Fear: Ride to Justice Tour declaring their inherent worth and dignity and the brightness of their truth stings our eyes.  They are bringing America’s shadow into the light and we can do something about it once our eyes adjust from leaving Plato’s cave.

When we begin to realize that safety nets for the poor in this country will keep all safety nets intact and ready to catch us, at any level, then we will be able to truly be the class act we proclaim ourselves to be.  The poor includes all of the poor; the franchised and disenfranchised, the employed and unemployed, the abled and disabled, and the documented and undocumented.  If we can bring the poor out of the shadows then we truly will be whole and upright living in the noon day light of love.

Inherent or Bestowed Worth and Dignity?

Transient and Permanent’s blog asks the question whether or not the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations define us a liberal religion?  I find the question interesting on a number of fronts. 

I wrote this as an answer to the question at the blog site: “The principles could be a manner in which we define liberal religion. I know that I refer to the principles when I am confronted with an issue that makes me uncomfortable. For example, today I preached on torture. I needed to wrestle with the principle of inherent worth and dignity when the torturers of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo are displaying themselves as monsters of intense evil rather than as humans with inherent worth let alone dignity. I don’t know how successful I am with this question. But if the principle is true regardless of what I see expressed, then how do I reach that essence that reveals it to be true when everything shouts the opposite? I could not gloss over the principle as some rote phrase of rhetoric. If my faith has any chutzpah, any substance to it, then it has to be able to answer this question. Does/Can a person steeped in providing torture have inherent worth and dignity? Does/Can our principles help us in answering these more critical questions of our 21st century reality? I believe they can but on the way, it means that we are going to fumble and sometimes err in our living out the question, but if we are able to maintain our openness to the question, then we can have a fairly exciting journey along the way.”

But I want to explore this a bit further.  In the last decade or so of my being a Unitarian Universalist I have taken the seven principles to define for me, a prescriptive yardstick that I will measure the questions that arise in my journey. 

I will use what is perhaps our most beloved principle, the Inherent worth and dignity of every person.  In the face of evil emanating from a human, does this person have inherent worth and dignity?  It’s a tough question.  It is one that some of my esteemed colleagues have responded with an emphatic no.  

Rev. Bill Schulz, former UUA president and former executive director of Amnesty International, has come to the position that inherent worth and dignity is something that needs to be assigned.  That it really isn’t inherent at all but rather is bestowed upon others.  [For more in-depth on his opinion read Bill Schulz’s 2006 Berry Street Lecture  What Torture Taught Me]  There is documented proof of the power of bestowing worth and dignity.  It is the power behind successful programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters and other similar mentoring programs.  For a child to have at least one adult person in their life who is in a positive relationship with them is a powerful influence on how that child will approach and experience adulthood. 

The successes that Psychotherapists such as Carl Rogers, Bruno Bettelheim, Victor Frankl have had with their clients also stem from the establishment of authentic relationships in which the psychotherapist has bestowed worth and dignity on the client.   Many years ago, I worked with a developmentally disabled adult who was formerly a client of Bruno Bettelheim’s as a child.  This relationship was so very potent in her life, that to mention his name, she would simply gush with adoration.  Understand this was a person who usually spent most of her day in deadpan expression to any and all activities she engaged in.   So this notion of bestowing worth and dignity is a powerful one and necessary one for all sorts of healing of woundedness in our lives. 

My experiences in working with people with developmental disabilities and with people living with AIDS reinforce this notion that worth and dignity can be bestowed upon another and have remarkable impact on the person’s life and well-being.  I have used in sermons a story about a young man living with HIV/AIDS who was homeless, heavily addicted to heroin and cocaine, considered violent by the police and convicted of many serious crimes.  I worked with this young man and his significant other for several years.  When I first met him, in conversation on the phone, I called him Sir.  A title he was taken aback by.  He told me he was never called Sir ever, he had been called lots of worse things and given the description stated above you can imagine what those things might have been; none of which very affirming.  In my working with him and his common law wife,  he began to soften in his attitudes towards life.  He reconciled with his family.  After he died, his family told me that his relationship with me had reached him in ways that his family never was able to and they were grateful for my assistance of their son.   Bestowing worth and dignity on another can be a very powerful and transformative event in a person’s life. 

But is worth and dignity already inherent?  Unlike my esteemed colleague Rev. Bill Schulz, I still claim that it is inherent. When a child is born, before that child has developed, the child has inherent worth and dignity.  That worth and dignity is the potential of a life well lived.  It is the seed longing to sprout and become a mighty oak.   Life circumstances and experiences might crush that potential. Choices may be made in response to those events that lead the developing child down a path of destructive behavior, much like Sir, described above.  But that seed, remains waiting for any opportunity to break forth.   I call that seed, the spirit of life that pulses through all of creation.  There is such potential.   Even when a person has made choices, even if they are coerced choices, that lead to behaviors that we find detestable, it does not mean that worth and dignity is no longer inherent in the person.  It means that the person is in need of someone who is able, willing, capable, of bestowing worth and dignity upon them in an authentic relationship calling forth the inherent seed of worth and dignity to break through.  In other words, redemption is still possible. 

Finding such a person willing to do this for another is hard.  This is why the iconic Jesus is so palpable for many people today because when a person imagines themselves being in the presence of this Jesus, all forgiving and all merciful, they are bestowed worth and dignity in a world where few people will do this act.  These individuals then find within themselves the ability to turn their lives around, find the strength for recovery from drugs and alcohol, find the will power to hold steady employment.  They then credit this iconic Jesus with the miraculous.  What usually really happens is that after their initial event with the iconic Jesus, someone then takes them under their wing and bestows this worth and dignity upon them.  It is this person who in relationship with them, aids them along.  Christians call this discipleship.  Business men call this mentorship.

Our Inherent worth and dignity comes to fruition through authentic relationships with one another.  This is why coming together in community is so vitally important.  We have an opportunity to be redemptive for one another.  It is a wonderful gift that we can offer others.  We cannot offer it, however, by walking up to someone and say, “Hi, I am here to offer you redemption.”  This is where evangelical Christians quest to save the world misunderstand Jesus’s message.  In bestowing worth and dignity, redemption comes from the day to day relationship with that person.  It comes from doing the mundane things of daily living with that person.  It is in the daily routine of seeking to make choices that will harm none.  It comes from the spiritual quest to be mindful in our thoughts and actions.   Redemption is not a commodity that can be offered.  It is a transformation process that develops within the daily life of community.

For me, our principles offer a touch stone where I can wrestle with the issues of the world.  They are more than just words for an association of congregations.  The principles do define my liberal religious life.  I believe that engaging these principles can be a spiritual practice for many people.  Blessings,  

 

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 5:45 pm  Comments Off on Inherent or Bestowed Worth and Dignity?  
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