Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Standing on the Side of Love

Last week, a representative from Standing on the Side of Love contacted UUFHC and asked if we would be interested in writing a post for their blog about the recent interfaith vigil that was held in McAllen to show support for the refugee children being detained by Border Patrol. You can read it here.

To find out more about the crisis and what UUFHC is doing, visit our response page.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The First Principle and its Evil Twin

This sermon was given by JoAnn Friedman on June 29th, 2014, as part of our Seven Principles series. 

First Readings:

“For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry  

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” 

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Second Reading:

“Our capacity and freedom to reach consensus with others to determine what is appropriate behavior is, in fact, one of the most foundational aspects of what I would call our inherent worth and dignity. To me, inherent worth and dignity does not excuse inhumane behavior; rather it challenges us to respond appropriately, acknowledging that there are consequences to our actions, just as there are consequences whenever we demonize any part of humanity without considering how interconnected and interdependent we truly are. Inherent worth and dignity, therefore, is not a theological end-point, but rather a starting place in our understanding of ourselves and our sisters and brothers.  It accepts that we are all much closer to evil than we may want to acknowledge and that, if we deny human rights to any person or group, we are, in effect, diminishing ourselves.”   
-UU minister Rev. Mark Stringer, Des Moines
Sermon: The First Principle and its Evil Twin
Welcome to the Church of the Living Worth and Dignity, as my husband says. 

As of this writing our President is considering bombing Iraq again.  Where do we UU’s who claim our first principle to be affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of others stand on such action?  How is it safe or even useful to assume that all people have inherent worth and dignity in a world where we compete for foraging and for control, where there are factions that take, rape and pillage portions of the global environment without concern for others, factions that believe that we are that way or worse, factions that are bent on destroying our favorable balance of power? 

How do we use our principles to come to an answer?  Whose worth and dignity are we talking about, and to what does it mean to affirm it? If there are levels of worth and dignity where does the judgment end, at what price, and who decides? 

Our desire to affirm inherent worth and dignity infers a dark side twin called inherent capacity for evil.  What is evil and who gets to decide?    As far as I’m concerned you can’t talk seriously about inherent worth and dignity without talking about inherent evil or the potential for it.

The Rev. Walter Royal Jones chaired the committee that drafted the principles and purposes that the UUA adopted in 1985.  He says, “Against "the horrible reality of the other side of our nature" is our potential for those human impulses that are summed up "by the fine word 'love.'" This paradox is one with which most of the great religions have always struggled. We have two potentials, and "our responsibility as religious liberals is to lean on the scale on the side of compassion and mutual helpfulness."

The 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant provides conditions for moral status or dignity (i.e. inner-worth).  Kant’s conditions are self-awareness, capability of reasoning and making free choices, and, consequently, having responsibility for actions. What makes an action right according to Kant is that the action treats people as ends in themselves and not merely as means to another's desired end. As Kant states in his "respect for persons" principle, morality requires that we "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity . . . never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end." Actions that objectify, manipulate or otherwise use people against their will are immoral because they conflict with the basic recognition of the freedom and dignity of the person.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" he claimed that a self-evident truth. Most cultures throughout history including today reject the idea. It seems absurd to claiming human equality when all around us we see dramatic evidence of inequality. People are unequal in height, in weight, in strength, in stamina, in intelligence, in perseverance, in truthfulness, in ability, in their success in foraging, and in just about every other quality. Inequality seems to be the self-evident reality of human nature.  Dominance rather than equity is an important part of what rules in nature generally.

Rev. Dr. William F. Schultz, former president of the UUA and head of Amnesty International USA says, “Is the worth and dignity of every person inherent? No, inherency is a construct, a useful myth perhaps, but a myth nonetheless, designed to cover up the fact that we all are sinners and that we are not always certain which sins, and hence which sinners, are worse than others. Each of us has to be assigned worth—it does not come automatically—and taught to behave with dignity. As Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “If it were not for the petty rules of bourgeois society, we humans would destroy each other in an instant.”” 

Thomas Jefferson himself had slaves despite his declaration that “all men are created equal.”  Women and Native Americans apparently also weren’t included.  Jefferson’s wording in the Declaration of Independence was a brilliant political move using the dominant Jewish and Christian ideas of humans being created in the image of God.  Jefferson’s language had transcendent power because it articulated a grand vision of how the world could be if people could be fair to one another to a people who were starving for freedom for themselves, not necessarily for others.  Our first principle too is a political statement.  Therein lies some of its power.

Humanists have observed that there is no such thing as inherent worth unless other humans agree. Our job, humanists say, is to defend the advances made in human rights to "help to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice," to quote Rev. Shultz of Amnesty International. 

Rev. Schultz continues, “This means that our job as religious people, as builders of the blessed community, is tougher and more important than ever. For if we can’t rely on the inherency of human worth and dignity, if we have to assign worth and teach dignity, then we must confront those who would reserve worth to only a few and save dignity for their immediate neighbors—people like those children and grandchildren of immigrants, for example, who would not be where they are today if their forebears had been treated the way they propose to treat a new generation of Americans. If the individual is not the ultimate source of authority when it comes to some of the most important decisions on earth, like who lives and who doesn’t, then our own personal religious stories are inadequate—not deleterious or to be shunned, but insufficient for a faith that would not just engage the world but transform it.” 

Constructing and embracing the UU principles is a starting point for a vision of being in relationship with the world.  While as Shultz says we need more than individual commitment to our stated vision, making our vision a reality starts with individual very personal understanding and commitment. Sarah Lammert wrote that some Unitarian Universalists use the first principle as a "celebration of individualism" using it to support, in her words, "a defensive arrogance about our particular point of view.” We’ve all heard the sentiment: Don’t tell me what to do, I have worth and dignity.  Your rules don’t apply thank you very much.  Rev. Victoria Weinstein points to a more spiritually congruent approach, a humble awareness of those whose voices are not heard, whose presence has historically not been welcome, and who are forgotten and devalued.

The poet Rilke says, "In the most important ways, it's not about what we owe them — other beings. It's about how connecting with all beings in compassion is our own road to awakening."

Having the humility and compassion to affirm worth and dignity in others requires empathy.  Historically the word evil implies that the person is possessed by a supernatural source but there is an earth bound side of the concept worthy of thoughtful examination.   If we replace the opposite of evil with the word empathy, then we get more insight into human behavior. If the definition of evil is the absence of good, then there is no neutral or gray area.  Are you evil simply because you are not good, or are you in danger of crossing a line toward dehumanization when you are not empathetic?  Are good and evil opposites or a continuum of behavior and thoughts common to us all?  Can evil be recognized as aberrant behavior chanced by the emergence of uncomfortable circumstance?

Empathy can be divided into cognitive and affective branches.  Cognitive empathy is the ability to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings.  Affective empathy is the drive to respond with feeling to what someone else is thinking or feeling.  Low affective empathy is a necessary component to explain human cruelty.  Low affective empathy is a protective tool that we use to defend ourselves when we are threatened.  Like any tool if it is overused it becomes a weakness or worse.  Avoiding cruelty and its attending evil is a compelling reason for embracing inherent worth and dignity in others. Affirming worth and dignity is another protective tool that we can use to promote peace.  Remember the old slogan, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Living the vision of inherent worth and dignity in every person requires mindful practice on an everyday level.  Empathy isn’t all or nothing.  It comes by degrees and in different balances between cognitive and affective empathy.  Empathy can be partial, permanent or temporary.  When a person’s empathy seems misplaced to others, the person with empathy can be seriously rejected by peers who lack it for a certain group. 

Rev.  Victoria Weinstein, UU minister says “ ..why ask about Idi Amin when really, our biggest struggle is with the obnoxious next door neighbor, the teacher we think is being unfair to our child, the condescending co-worker who steals our ideas and takes credit for it, the family member who talks trash about us behind our backs, the Blue Cross/Blue Shield case worker who keeps losing our file? The challenge is there, isn't it? The challenge is navigating through the people we meet – the job applicant sitting in front of us with the broken teeth and the heroin tracks on her arms, the prisoner who wants to write to our mother, the Latino immigrant who got the job your son wanted, the friend who keeps sending you those incendiary political e-mails that make your blood boil.  What a challenge to be in the presence of that person and to remember that they are a lion of courage and precious to the earth.  Not to be sentimental and gooey about that fact, but to live into what it demands of us: humane presence, basic respect, non-violence, an audit of our own feelings of superiority.  Some will be good, some will be bad.  What they choose to do is their business. How I am present to them is mine.”

We can make the choice to add an “e” to the word “human.” Living toward the vision of the first principle, affirming the worth and dignity of every person starts by people acting on heightened awareness of spiritual qualities.  Each of us can mindfully choose to cultivate spiritual qualities, such as acceptance, understanding, respect, humility, forbearance and kindness. Practicing these qualities as a spiritual imperative enables us to respond with compassion and respect to people who are slightly, or perhaps very different from us, and encourages self-acceptance.  A strong sense of grounding about what you can and cannot accept has to be a spiritual imperative as well.

James Luther Adams, a Unitarian theologian and ethicist rejected the doctrine of total depravity, he resurrected the notion of “sin”.  He says,

“Whether the liberal uses the word “sin” or not, he cannot correct his “too jocund” [blithe] view of life until he recognizes that there is in human nature a deep-seated and universal tendency . . . to ignore the demands of mutuality and thus to waste freedom or abuse it by devotion to the idols of the tribe. . . . It cannot be denied that religious liberalism has neglected these aspects of human nature in its zeal to proclaim the spark of divinity in man. We may call these tendencies by any name we wish but we do not escape their destructive influence by a conspiracy of silence concerning them.”

Lois Fahs Timmins — the daughter of the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs — once criticized her own liberal religious education for failing to address the reality of evil. "We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humanity," she said in 1996. "I was taught not to be judgmental, not to observe or report on the bad behavior of others. Consequently, because of my education, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent to observe it accurately, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed of talking about evil."

Rev. Dr. Schultz adds, "It is helpful not to understand evil cosmically, or to call upon cosmic powers in the struggle against evil. We should not assume that we are somehow aligned with the forces of good in the universe. Instead, evil is defined by culture and by power."

Unitarian Universalist understanding of the way in which evil is a reality in the world has evolved. Schulz says that we have given up the 19th century notion of "progress onward and upward forever," as well as the 20th century naïve humanist belief that evil could be overcome by human intelligence and scientific progress. We are now more realistic, he thinks, but if he could do one thing to disabuse UU ministerial students of any lingering pieties, he would take them to the slums of Calcutta. "Once they were acquainted with evil as reflected by such immense poverty," he maintains, "no one could ever again preach about the dancing leaves of fall."

Doug Muder, in the UU World Summer 2014 issue says “So, do I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person? No. I am committed to envisioning it. Together with others, I hope to imagine it so well, so convincingly, and so beautifully that the vision becomes viral and takes over the world.”

I see the first principle as not something to believe but rather as a starting place to bend the trajectory of society toward justice, equity and compassion.  The principle is not so much a commandment as a vision statement.  As a practical matter the worth and dignity of individuals has to be assigned to self and others, learned through spiritual practice of mindfulness and compassion.  The principle cannot always be first when survival is at stake, but when do you cross the line into evil?  Who decides where the balance should be, and on what basis do they decide?  How do you avoid dehumanization leading to cruelty and still protect yourself?  How do you accept inherent worth and dignity for yourself and not lapse into self-righteousness?  Rather than seeking a pat answer it is important to live the questions.  Keeping the first principle in mind helps me to stay grounded when I am tempted to lose compassion. 

Certainly this presentation does not pretend to be the final word on the first UU principle.  Hopefully others of you will take up the gauntlet and make a presentation of your own.  In the meantime here are a few questions for you. 
  • Does regard for someone's inherent worth and dignity require that we tolerate all their behaviors and accommodate all their needs?  If not on what basis do we establish boundaries? 
  • If we use our own survival as criteria to establish boundaries, how do we define survival?  Just how much do we need to preserve our own sense of well-being in the face of another’s view of the world?  What are we willing to take from others to keep our own sense of worth and dignity?
  • How does this play out in family relationships?  How does it show up at school, and work and in the world?
  • How do you determine what your beliefs are?  When you do, what gives you strength to follow up on them?
With that I’ll throw the floor open to discussion.  

The next sermon in this series will be on July 27th and covers the Second Principle. For more information on our schedule, visit our sermon calendar

A Beginning, a Welcome, and Making Sure this Thing Works


Welcome to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hidalgo County's new blog, powered by the UUFHC Worship Committee.

We are a small, lay led fellowship. Every Sunday, we hear from someone new. With permission from each presenter, we will use the blog as a place to share their sermons and other content from our services. We intend this to be a place to share the varied ideas of our congregation, both as a resource to ourselves and to other small, lay led fellowships.

We will also sometimes blog about our events, and invite members of our fellowship to write about important local issues involving our congregation or our principles.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are people of many different opinions and faiths who come together around a set of shared principles:
  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person
  2. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
We will begin by posting some recent sermons from our ongoing Seven Principles Series, and then hope to update every Monday with the previous Sunday's talk.

For more information about our church, visit our website or follow us on Facebook.