Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The First Principle

This first appeared in Outwords for Dec. 2009

Unitarian-Universalism is a covenantal, not a creedal religion.  This means that rather than agreeing to give our intellectual assent to a series of non-testable metaphysical assertions, we UUs agree to certain ways of relating, of being together.  These ways of relating are codified in the Seven Principles of the Unitarian-Universalist Association.  I would like here to examine the first of these principles: respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. 

To me, this principle is at the core of what it means, or should mean, to be a UU.  Too often, it seems, we are encouraged to divide the world into boxes; one for “us” and one for “them.”  The majority of our social discourse is carried on in terms of  liberal vs. conservative, secularist vs. sectarian, gay vs. straight, red state vs. blue.  While this urge to divide and label may not be negative per se, it has led to an undercurrent of antagonism in contemporary society that largely precludes the possibility of any real dialogue between members of differing groups.  The reason for this antagonism, more or less visible in all sectors of our social life, is, I think, that we not only divide others into categories of “us” and “them,” but we reserve our respect for the members of the “us” group and have little to spare for “them.”  But as UUs we speak out, or at least should, against this trend in modern culture; we know that worth and dignity are inherent and exist in every individual, not only in those who share our lifestyles or political outlooks. 

It is easy enough, of course, to say that we respect the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, unlike, for instance, those “closed-minded fundamentalist Christians,” but it becomes another matter altogether when we are confronted with an actually existing closed-minded Christian whom we are called to respect.  In other words, it is much easier to respect the worth and dignity of a Barney Frank than of a Rick Santorum, much easier to respect the war protesters than the abortion protesters.  Yet, as UUs we commit ourselves to respecting every individual, even the protesters outside the abortion clinic, even Senators who equate same-sex marriage with bestiality, even Rush Limbaugh's ditto-headed followers, Goddess bless 'em.  This is hard spiritual work, and not for the faint of heart or weak of spirit.

This is hard work, but necessary if we would like to see the world look more like a community and less like a battle field.  Maintaining respect for the worth and dignity of others, especially others with whom we disagree, is essential to creating any type of dialogue between people.  This is why few people will brook the rhetoric of the evangelizing Christian: who wants to spend time  conversing with someone who thinks that you are unworthy until you become more like them?  Conversely, why would a conservative Christian want to spend time conversing with a secular liberal who thinks they're crazy until they start thinking more like them?  No dialogue can take place in the absence of respect, and in the absence of dialogue we end up with what we have today: a social sandwich heavy on the demagoguery, hold the civility. 

Rabbi Yeshua ben Joseph (aka Jesus) taught that we should love our enemies.  Another rabbi once said that love is like a bridge between souls, and if our neighbor fails to meet our love half-way we must love all the more from our side, in order that the bridge may be completed.  These are not statements about the nature of the “afterlife,” or the “soul” or “God(dess),” they are guidelines for relationship, for being together that, when applied, lead to a healthier and happier society.  One way or another we are all members of one family and, at least for now, we're all stuck on this planet together.  To the extent that we are concerned with “making the world a better place,” we must commit ourselves to abandoning the mentality of “us and them” and replacing it with the mentality of “only us.”  Having respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every individual is both the precondition and the result of such a commitment. 

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