The Spiritual and the Political in Unitarian Universalism

I think that we have to stay true to what we have learned in contemporary UUism. 

We put forth an idealistic and utopian set of social values in 1985, the Seven Principles.

Most know the story of the Seven Principles and how they came about. Those that know our theological traditions recognize them as a summation of our public theology, the only kind of theology that the Unitarian Universalists could agree on. Battered and bruised by the intractable humanist/theist conflict, Unitarian Universalists adopted an agnostic pluralism about cosmology and unified around a public theology summed up by the Seven Principles. 

It is not surprising that a statement of public theology would become the cornerstone of our contemporary faith. We have long said that what matters in religion are “deeds not creeds.” And we have long thought, along with all the other practitioners of liberal religion, that the true test of religion was the effect it has on people and its society.

The seven principles describe our vision of the Beloved Community, both in our congregations and in the world at large. And so, we went forth to put them on posters in the entry ways to our sanctuaries, and to carry them on little cards in our wallets to give to curious strangers, and to teach them to our children as the highest order statement of our faith. 

Since then, however, we have learned that the obstacle to the Beloved Community the Principles envision are the systems of oppression that rule our world. 

There are many ways that we came to learn this: the influence of the women’s movement, the leadership of African American Unitarian Universalists, the anti-racism education efforts, the experience of the Welcoming Congregations program, struggle to come to grips with clergy misconduct. All of these, and more, brought home the fact that simple justice, fairness and equity in social relations were prevented by engrained habits and perceptions of reality. Bigotry and prejudice were tips of the iceberg; much more was beneath the surface. 

We learned that to live in the world imagined by our Principles, we had to root out and dismantle systemic injustices.

We also began to see that oppression itself was encoded in human behavior. There is a human proclivity to create and sustain relationships of domination and subordination, a proclivity that requires constant awareness and vigilance to even see. Oppression changes shape and form and surfaces even in institutions and organizations that commit themselves to fighting oppression.

The realization of the pervasiveness of oppression carries with it the knowledge of individual complicity in it. 

To see one’s own complicity with systems of oppression is not possible as an individual. To forego the rewards of that complicity requires a strength beyond individual character. Anti-oppression requires dependence on others, and on sources of personal strength beyond the self: on a covenanted community, and on however conceives of a “higher power.” As James Luther Adams has put it, “there is a sustaining, creating and transforming power”  In other words, sustaining resistance to systemic oppression is spiritual work, bringing the self into dependence on and alignment with that power.  

The realization that the obstacle to justice and equity is systemic oppression irrevocably merges our political/social stance with our spiritual message and religious traditions. 

Our collective path to these revelations has been not a straight line, but by following our noses, UUism is moving from being hyper-respectable to an emerging radicalism. Our story is our story, but lots of others are following the same trajectory. 

We are now a part of a large scale social movement(s) against systemic oppression. 

Our particular angle on this work include (1) the necessity of building local, wholistic communities, (2) the insistence that overcoming systemic oppression is not just political, but a spiritual transformation, and so the process needs time for worship, (3) the importance of holding everyone along the path with love, (4) the necessity of forming children and youth in anti-oppressive values. Not everyone wants to do this work the way that we think it needs to be done, and that's OK. 

Our problem is not knowing what to do, but explaining/teaching that what we have learned is life-giving, empowering knowledge.


  1. Renee Ruchotzke8:00 AM

    Thanks for this, Tom!

    My Christmas Eve homily had a similar theme. May I share part of it here?

    150 years ago, Unitarian Theologian Theodore Parker predicted the end of slavery as inevitable:
    "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
    I believe that we connect to that arc of the moral universe when we are able to open to the Spirit of Life and Love, to be vulnerable, to be interdependent. Our religious practices and our humility connect us. Our participation in religious community connects us.
    Many talk today of a new Great Turning, one that is grounded in our interconnectedness. This Great Turning sees that power is not a zero-sum game, that power shared is power multiplied.
    What we call Liberal Faith may actually be the seedbed of a faith for the future. Another UU Theologian, James Luther Adams witnessed the rise of Fascism in World War II and the weak and ineffective opposition of the liberal academics and politicians. He articulated 5 core values of our faith that resonate with my own Theological understanding.
    First, we need to be in a continuous process of learning and growing, in alignment with the Spirit of Life and Love. We do this in communities with accountability, with an acceptance of mistakes as part of the learning. Science uses peer review, we use small groups and congregational meetings.
    Second, all relationships should be mutual and free of coercion. We want everyone to flourish and thrive, and we abhor it when people are forced to do anything that harms themselves or others.
    That being said, third, we also have an obligation to create a community based on love and justice, and where we prevent infringements on our freedoms. Ironically, freedom has conditions so that all might be free.
    Fourth, we have an obligation to shape history in a way that bends the arc of the moral universe toward justice. If not us, then who?
    Fifth, we humans know how use hope to sustain the troubled times. Our oppressed siblings of color have been doing this for centuries, “making a way out of no way.” They can be our teachers.
    Our faith—and its potential—gives me hope. We have a theology of mutuality and interconnectedness that the world needs to hear.


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