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Selected Presentations

John Buttars (September 16, 2012)

Unitarian Universalist Principle #2

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations

The last time I was here as a speaker, the 15th of January of this year to be specific, the topic was the first of the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Months later, Harold emailed me asking if I would come four times over the year and address each of the principles in turn so this would take more than one year. Rather blithely I said yes only to wonder whether I really will have something to say about each of them. In addition, I am not a Unitarian and that causes me to make two points. First, I cannot speak as a Unitarian about these principles even if I agree with them. Inevitably I look at them through my Christian lens and through my own personal story as you are about to discover this morning. Second, I am aware that the principles leave out a major part of my faith/value system so you might even ask yourself not only whether you agree with these principles but whether they encompass all of your values or principles.

Maybe I should also acknowledge that I will be back on the 11th of November and I was here last year for Remembrance Day. However, my talk is going to be on the third principle and I am planning, whether I actually do this who knows, but I am planning to rewrite a sermon that I gave at Harcourt United Church last March. I am not sure if I am trying to warn you or what but there it is.

So the second principle is this: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote ‘Justice, equity and compassion in human relations’.” Some rough definitions might be in order. Justice: Right relations as opposed to the justice of a law court or the justice of an eye for an eye. Equity: Fairness. Compassion: Deep empathy from the core of our being. And, as I often do, let’s begin with a story.

I was three years old when, in November 1946, a number of college friends gathered in the United Church manse in Bloomfield, now a tourist destination just outside of Picton in Prince Edward County. Bloomfield was the first of three small villages where I grew up. That gathering formed the Waupoos Cottage Cooperative and the friends were from Queen’s University, Queen’s Theological College (now the Queen’s School of Religion) and Union Theological Seminary in New York City. My parents were the connection between the Canadians and Americans as my Mom and Dad had lived in New York while my Dad studied for a year at Union in the early years of World War II. The friends were socially engaged young married folk just starting their families. Most were United Church ministers. In short order not only was it a Canadian/American enterprise but it was also an interracial summer community that gathered every August for fun and work and intense conversations. The values shared by that first generation of founders were rooted in the Social Gospel movement. I am very aware that I was shaped as a growing child by that very movement as was the United Church of Canada of which I am a part. And this country has been shaped by that movement; you could argue that Medicare, as just one example, is a product of the movement given that it was inaugurated in Saskatchewan under the leadership of Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister, and member of the CCF party which was, in turn, founded by J. S. Woodsworth, a Methodist minister and key Canadian figure in the Social Gospel movement.

If you look ‘Social Gospel’ up in Wikipedia, for instance, you will learn that the movement was a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in early 20th century United States and Canada. It applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice understood as wealth perceived as excessive, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, bad hygiene, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to make real the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:10): "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Social Gospel leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing of the Progressive Movement and most were theologically liberal, although they were typically conservative when it came to their views on social issues. An example of that liberal/conservative tension in my home was that my parents were strong CCF and later NDP supporters and there was little alcohol in our home.

A few years before my father died, Dad and I were talking about the Cottage Coop which now, 65 years later, still exists, my grandchildren belonging to the fourth generation although it is a much different kind of place physically and relationally with members stretching from Vancouver to Kingston and California to Arizona to the American eastern seaboard. My Dad said, “We had high ideals but we really didn’t know how to get along with each other.” And indeed I have childhood memories of my mother in tears because of hurtful words and actions as just one example.

The second principle, “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Maybe it is because of those formative childhood experiences during the month of August at the Waupoos Cottage Coop that I find it absolutely fascinating that the second principle combines justice and compassion. That summer community had high, high ideals of Social Gospel justice and some of the people there were absolutely remarkable in their commitment, in the prices that they paid personally and in their accomplishments but also sometimes there was not much compassion shown to each other. A lot of intellectual jousting took place as people staked their claims for their opinions and in that environment it can be like a war, winner take all and relationships sacrificed for some perceived higher good and some higher truth. Equity, fairness, gets totally lost.

I don’t know how many of you know the name of Temple Grandin who received an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Guelph this past February. In the press release from the University she is described this way: “As a person with high-functioning autism, Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, knows the anxiety of feeling threatened by her surroundings. Motivated by this, she has introduced and designed humane handling systems for livestock-processing facilities across the U.S., Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand, and consults with the meat industry to develop animal welfare guidelines.”

Recently I discovered a biography of her written for young people; it had been misshelved at the library so it was in the adult section of new books at the Scottsdale branch but I was delighted to read it since I had read one of her books previously. At the end of the book there is a description of her home and, if I remember correctly, in Temple Grandin’s bedroom is a quotation on the wall from Albert Einstein: “The Ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been kindness, beauty and truth.”

I want to draw this talk to a close by asking some questions:


  • When it comes to principles and values like the seven Unitarian principles, what experiences do you have with such principles being of such importance that their importance overrides compassion and kindness for the wellbeing of other people?
  • At the same time, principles are important. Do you have a principle that is like a line in the sand and you don’t want to be nasty about it but you will not cross over?
  • As much as I agree with the second principle I think if Temple Grandin were here she would admonish us by saying that it is too exclusive, “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations?” I think she would want us to consider justice, equity and compassion in, yes, human relations but also in our relations with the animal world and maybe in particular the animals who feed human bodies. In naming that I am not trying to strike up a debate about being a vegetarian for Temple Grandin is not one but maybe we are living in this planet earth where we need to give up a sense of our human centrality and realize that we live within a huge web of life that sustains and blesses us in innumerable ways.
  • Finally, I have a distrust of opinions so I am hoping that as we engage this second principle and the next five principles we can do so from the point of experience, personal experience. I mean, we could try more rigorously to define justice, equity and compassion but I think far better to share what these words mean to us and why we value them in the way we do. So to that sharing whether in the circle after the service or in this coming week I invite you.

I wonder if we might end this talk together by singing from the hymnary just remaining in our seats 123, “Spirit of life.” Maybe even more than once, chant like.

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