Our Unitarian Universalist faith comes with a yardstick that measures truth. Truth, we believe, is present and lives among us when things are changing for the better, when good things are happening. More specifically, we ask, To what degree does a person or a community or a nation affirm
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person?
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations?
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations?
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning?
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large?
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all?
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part?
Seven Principles. Truth lives and moves and has its being when these principles are being affirmed in our living…
Truth is what our Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles are all about. Why they are important. How they guide us. How they keep us above water and afloat even when we’re talking clashes as big as the one John Hinkle illustrated to us a moment, over whether or not America should go to war…
And I would have you see that we need them all. The Seven Principles need each other. Some are yin to the others’ yang. There is an inner balancing mechanism at work.
This is nowhere better illustrated than looking at the First and Seventh Principles together—at the “inherent worth and dignity” of the individual side-by-side with “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” One stresses independence, the other interdependence. One says,
- Be vitally and authentically yourself;
- hitch your wagon to a star;
- free yourself from injustice and inequity and all that prevents you from fully living;
- learn how to love yourself and take care of your own basic emotional needs.
As for the other, it says
- You are connected in Mystery and Miracle to a Life that is far larger than your ego and what IT wants;
- find your true self by understanding your place in the flow of this Larger Life;
- outside of relationships of earth and community and family and friendship, it is impossible to be well;
- when we exist out of balance with our environment and take more than we give back, it is impossible to be good.
Our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles are telling us: we need both. One checks the excesses of the other. Too much interdependence and the individual is swallowed up by the collective. You can’t claim your life against toxicity; you don’t think you’re worth it. You aren’t thinking for yourself. You can’t speak up. Passivity and codependency claim you.
Too much independence, on the other hand, and, well, there’s no sense of obligation to anything larger than yourself, which explains the rate of voter turnout just this past week. It’s like someone on an airplane who takes the directions of the flight attendant regarding oxygen masks way too far. Not only do you put your mask on first, but you don’t worry about anyone else at all. It’s only after you’ve safely exited the airplane that you might wonder about how others are doing—but by then, it’s probably too late, so why bother at all?
Now, religious liberals, God bless us, can often become imbalanced on the independence side. And no wonder. Independence is something that has liberated us for freedom. We do not have to think alike to love alike. That is precious.
But we can take independence too far. And to punch up this point, listen in on this snarky re-write of our Seven Principles which expresses them in hyper-individualistic terms. I take no credit, by the way, for the snarkiness. Various ministry colleagues, presumably to let off steam, came up with this…
Snarky First Principle: Me. It really is all about me. (Alternate version: What do you mean I can’t be a jerk and a bully?)
Snarky Second Principle: Justice, equity, and compassion in how people treat me.
Snarky Third Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth as long as nobody says any of those icky religious words.
Snarky Fourth Principle: A free and responsible search for others to find the truth and meaning that I accept.
Snarky Fifth Principle: I can make this committee meeting last as long as I want because democracy. (Alternate version: If somebody voted, I get to complain.)
Snarky Sixth Principle: I have a right to read even the ultra boring parts of my master’s thesis on the League of Nations during the worship service that honors United Nations Sunday.
There’s even a Snarky Seventh Principle, the Principle that’s supposed to be the antidote to hyperindividualism! Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, as long as it’s cheap and easy and doesn’t demand anything of me.
How many of you have ever witnessed our Seven Principles being abused like this?
Well, we’re human. Unitarian Universalists and everybody else.
Independence is strong in us. “Hitch your wagon to a star” is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our most influential ancestors. Or this, from yet another of our most influential ancestors: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Henry David Thoreau.
And it’s great! Bring on the star! Bring on the different drummer! But not to the extent that we become so independent and individualistic that we fail to feed the relationships of earth and community and family and friendship that sustain everything and literally make everything possible. We need to vote. We need to pledge.
This is why the spiritual practice of covenanting is central to what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. “We need not think alike to love alike,” we say, and yes, what tends to strikes us immediately in this statement is the idea that we are free in our thinking and questioning. That’s our declaration of independence. But don’t stop there. Go on to the “love alike” part. If we’re not doing that—if we are not nurturing our interdependency with each other—well, not many people are going to want to sign that declaration of independence. Covenanting holds us together and makes this place work. Through covenanting, we offer up our time, talent, and treasure to build community and keep it strong; through covenanting, we agree on standards of behavior and, when we screw up, we make amends; through covenanting, the vegetarians and the carnivores can sit at the same worship table and be at peace.
I am because we are. We are in support of I am. And you. And you. And you.
I bring up the independence/interdependence dichotomy for a number of reasons. One is simply to highlight how it is a fundamental teaching of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Another is to suggest how there can be clashes among us when we don’t get the balance between them right. A third is to point out how all this makes Unitarian Universalism especially relevant for 21st century living.
This last reason became plain for me after reading a book entitled Clash: Eight Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are, by Hazel Rose Markus, Ph.D. and Alana Conner Ph.D. “What kind of person,” they ask, “will not just survive but thrive in the 21st century?” “With new technologies bringing our outsize populations together, we more often interact with people whose ways of being don’t jibe with our own, and who therefore leave us baffled. As resources disappear, we must compete even more fiercely with these mysterious people for degrees, jobs, and a decent standard of living. At the same time, we increasingly help people whose intentions and actions we don’t fully understand, from neighbors and coworkers of different races, classes, and genders; to people around the world suffering from war and poverty. Meanwhile, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and other global threats demand that we all cooperate more than ever before. As our planet gets smaller, flatter, and hotter, what sort of self will rise about the fray and flourish?”
That’s the question, and there is a sense in which the fundamental answer is ancient. “Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in being right.” Paul in First Corinthians Chapter 13 nails it. But Drs. Markus and Connor give these words a 21st century spin for the specific world we find ourselves in by saying, “To build a more prosperous and peaceful world, everyone must be both independent and interdependent.” There must be a capacity for “seamless switching” when the situation calls for it. Exactly because love DOESN’T insist on its own way; exactly because love DOESN’T rejoice in being right.
Love wants to understand.
Love reaches out.
Love appreciates differences.
Love learns how to translate.
This is the book in a nutshell, and how cool to hear our spiritual way of the Seven Principles and covenanting affirmed so strongly—as directly relevant to the real world. In our living here, we are learning how to be better citizens out there.
The world really does need us.
One of these places of need is race. Such a difficult thing. Clashes all the time around this. White people can’t hear enough about how their out-of-balance independence makes it hard for them to really love people of color as they need to be loved—and themselves as well.
Consider this exchange between Debbie Elliot, a journalist for NPR, and a caller named Cecille.
ELLIOTT: Cecille, I understand that you’re black, [your husband John is white], and that became an issue at a party recently.
CECILLE: Yes. This is a while back, and this was a party that took place in our home, and this was towards the end of the evening when one of the guests at our party made a comment that was slightly shocking to me. She said, “Oh, Cecille, I don’t think of you as black.”
ELLIOTT: And what did you think?
CECILLE: Well, I had been in that situation before, actually, but I – my response at the time was, well, what’s wrong with being black?
ELLIOTT: And what did she say?
(What do you think she said?)
CECILLE: She just waffled a bit, and it was just a very uncomfortable short period right there. And I just, at that point, didn’t at all feel that there was any malice and that what was intended was a compliment in her eyes and that she was complimenting me, thinking that I wasn’t her stereotype and that I was different.
That’s the exchange. Absolutely no maliciousness meant. But the African American host found her race minimized, and this is crazy-making. African Americans and all people of color know only too well how they are judged as members of a group first and not as individuals. This is a great example of the negative side of interdependence, when you feel your personal identity erased by stereotyping. It happens all the time. But who is this person all of a sudden denying my reality, saying, You have no race? How can they possible think that race doesn’t matter—unless they’ve been privileged enough to escape being stereotyped to death…
Second of all, what if I like my race? What if I value all sorts of aspects of it—the positive side of interdependence? Are you saying that there’s nothing I can be proud of in my racial and ethnic heritage? Are you, in effect, affirming a Snarky Fourth Principle: A free and responsible search for others to find the truth and meaning that YOU accept?
The implied messages are so very White. No maliciousness is meant. But White people’s experience is largely that of independence—a reality where they do feel like they are self-created and self-determined. It is almost incomprehensible to imagine a cocktail party where someone is greeted with, “I don’t think of you as White.”
Whites also, for the most part, still haven’t received and absorbed the news that they actually do have a culture and a race just like everybody else. They may feel completely independent, but in fact they are formed deeply by the communities and connections that support them. There is a reason why, when you “introduce a white person to a new cheese, it’s like introducing them to a future spouse.” That’s from Christian Lander in his book Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions. The title says it all.
Now I’m not trying to say that this is bad. Stuff White people like is stuff White people like. White folks: be white! But go beyond that to understand the dynamics that make you White so in your heart you understand people who are not White and what they go through. Become more empathetic, more interdependent…
As for people of color, your move is in the direction of more independence. Speak up. Don’t be silent. Don’t go along to get along. Don’t let someone at the cocktail party talk to you like that. Or in the social hall. Don’t do it.
Listen to this psychology experiment: “[P]sychologist Jacquie Vorauer and her colleagues studied conversations between White and non-White college students. The researchers told half the White participants, ‘at our core, we are really all the same,’ and told the other half, ‘different cultural groups bring different perspectives to life.’ In a subsequent conversation with non-White partners, White participants who received the ‘we’re all the same’ message focused more on themselves, made fewer positive comments to their partners, and felt worse during the interaction that those who received the ‘difference is good’ message.”
Isn’t that interesting? You’d think that message of “at our core, we’re really all the same” would have built a bridge of love, but it didn’t. 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 says
Love is patient and kind,
love is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in being right.
But love like this starts flowing only when we say “difference is good.”
And we want the love to flow. That’s what our Unitarian Universalism is really all about, for our 21st century world. “We do not have to think alike to love alike.”
Let’s find the balance. Independence/Interdependence.
Not the snarky Seven Principles. But the real ones.