How Deep the Roots?

Contemporary Unitarian Universalist social theology is now pithily summarized as "Standing on the Side of Love." A criticism of it, and of the UUA, is that our public theology is shallow and rooted in secular movements.  I think that critique is wrong (someday soon, I will explain why I think that we are prone to such self-beating-up), but that our public theology has a long history with roots in the earliest Christian movement.  To stand on the side of love is to stand in a long line of Christian thinking about justice. 

The Christian conception of Justice arises out of core themes of the New Testament, themes which are summed up in some cases from some pithy verses, and in other cases from certain extended themes.

One is the story in Matthew 25, in which Jesus is tells of how the Son of Man will someday return as King, and judge the world.  We will be judged on how we treated Him: did we feed Him when He was hungry, clothe Him when He was naked etc.  When we will have done this?  When we had done these things for “the least of these” answers Jesus, for the poor, for the insignificant ones, for it is in these that we encounter God. The first theme in the Christian conception of justice is the holiness of every person, especially the least of these.

The second theme comes from Galatians 3:28, a famous statement in which Paul says that there is no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no freeman, no male, no female; for we are all one person in Christ.  The second theme of the Christian conception of Justice is that all of the social divisions that mean so much in our world, mean nothing to God.  The radical equality of all souls before God. 

Paul’s writings and many of parables, carry a third theme: our liberation from legalistic moral commandments.  One of the accidents of history is that Christianity started out as a subset of Judaism, but soon was filled with Gentiles.  And the early Christian movement went through a very difficult split with Judaism, and one of the issues over which that split was argued was over the obligation of gentile Christians to observe Jewish law. Eventually Christians concluded that they did not.  While there have been many negative effects of the conflict with Judaism in early Christian history, there are also two positive results:  
  1. Christianity has always carried a powerful antinomian spirit.  Laws and rules promoted by human beings in the name of God are to be suspected and critiqued.  They are never to be to be understood as the path to salvation, since we come into the presence of God through God’s amazing grace through Jesus Christ.  No human being ever holds the key to another’s salvation.   This is the theological foundation for the final authority of the individual.  In the end, spiritual salvation, whatever that would mean, would be a matter between each individual human soul and God. 
  2. Because of the arguments over including the Gentiles, Christianity carries within its DNA a preference for forgiveness and inclusion.  For example, the story of the prodigal son.  The story of the Good Samaritan.  The story of the woman caught in adultery. 

These are the main themes of the Christian conception of Justice, which is radical (meaning unqualified), universal (meaning pertaining to every single person in the world no matter what), and egalitarian (meaning that there is “no least of these” nor “most of these” in God’s eyes) individual liberation. 

As it developed, justice-seeking Christians turned away from utopianism:  a society in which there is universal peace, happiness, equality, and social order.  Instead,  they have focused more on creating a  society that works justly: Procedural justice. The primary test of justice is whether society protects the sacred freedom of each human soul.  

For millennia, Christianity on the whole has been unconcerned with economic inequality, but more concerned about people restricted by human social limitations.  The equality of women, the equality of all ethnic groups, the abolition of slavery, the concept of human rights, political democracy, government by the consent of the governed, religious diversity, the rights of gays and lesbians, the right to own property, the right to join in organizations such as labor unions, all of these are the fruits of the Christian conceptions of the radical universal equality of each individual soul.

Certainly, I am not making any claim that these principles are unique to Christianity. All I am saying is that the concept of justice has the history that I have described in the Christian West. 

And further, I am talking about the Christian conception of Justice and how it developed, and not talking about the actual  Christian practice.  I will say that the anti-institutional bias, toward critiquing institutions from the point of view of how it affects the individual soul, has made Christianity an extraordinarily self-critical regime.

The self-critical tendencies of Christian social theology has often generated revolutionary and radical movements in the West that have aimed at actually creating a perfected society, one in which there is not simply procedural justice, but the substance of justice – economic equality most of all.  

The Christian conception of Justice leads directly to what I see as the social program of liberal religion: Pluralist and diverse cultures, secular states, free religious institutions, freedom of conscience, human rights, the equality of women, political democracy, and now, we realize, in that process of continuous uncovering of new dimensions of justice, the full embrace of gays, lesbians and transgender people as equal members of the human community. 


  1. Kim Hampton5:53 PM

    hey Tom.

    I agree that the roots go deep. But if you cut down the tree, does it really matter how deep the roots on the stump go down?

    As one of the ones who believes that UU public theology is shallow, and says so publicly, it is not because it is rooted in "secular" movements. I say it's shallow because, most of the time, UUs don't stick around long enough to do the real dirty work; that, in reality, UUs are social justice dilettantes. In order for something to be a "living tradition," the people involved have to stay in touch with the tradition. And UUs have made an art form out of avoiding the tradition from which we came.

    Roots only grow and deepen when they are nurtured. And in too many places UUs seem intent on not nurturing those roots.


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