Theological Reflection

The First UU Principle states that UU congregations covenant to affirm and promote "the inherent worth and dignity of every person."

Today, the concrete expression of that principle is to say "black lives matter." That assertion is going up on banners on UU churches. Here in Ann Arbor, the congregation has given away over 900 buttons with that message.

How does one get from one assertion to the other? What is the path from the first principle to the present movement. As purely abstract principles, they seem to be born of a different spirit -- one, a universalizing impulse and the other, a particularizing gesture.

There are many explanations out there as to why "black lives matter" is the contemporary concrete application of the "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." I am not going to rehearse that argument, but make the following observation about it.

You can't go from one to the other without acknowledging the reality of systemic racism and oppression in the United States. The reason why black lives must be particularly lifted up is because black lives are systemically devalued under white supremacy.

Question for UU's: is systemic oppression a theological concept, or a political or historic particularity?

My premise is that theological concepts are descriptions of fundamental human experiences and conditions. That people are capable of "love" for one another is a fundamental. That people are social animals is a fundamental. That every person is invested with 'inherent worth and dignity of every person" is a fundamental, foundational theological concept.

Is "oppression" such a foundational concept, without which it is impossible to understand humanity?

Do human societies exist without systemic oppression? Is such a society possible? Is Beloved Community possible, or is it like the horizon, always visible, but never attainable? Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was "at hand", and yet it seems still ungraspable. Despite the enormous contrast between his time and ours, it does not seem that 'oppression' is less a part of the human condition.

My reading of UU theology is that it now rests on three assertions: one is the worth and dignity of each person, the second is the interdependence of everything, and the third is that oppression is an unavoidable part of human sociability. It is to be resisted and opposed and overcome, but it will never go away. It is protean, changing shape and form, but always re-emerging.

I think that this is a learning that we are in the process of acquiring.

If we accept this point of view, then we can look back on the Principles and see them in a different light.

The Principles are relentlessly positive. They outline a list of social virtues: key nouns in them are words like "dignity", "justice", "truth", "conscience" and "community".

The Principles never hint at the obstacles to all these virtues. They never indicate why these virtues are not universally practiced already. Oppression is the unacknowledged shadow that falls across their sunny optimism. Consequently, they are not dialectical; they do not situate themselves in the push and pull of actual human history.

The statement that Unitarian Universalism intends to be an anti-oppressive religious movement is the emergence of dialectical theology, a theology that contends with the realities of world as we know it. Of course, we have never not been part of the real world, the actual push and pull of human history. It is just that our theological language did not give us the tools to name it.


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