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Selected Presentations

John Buttars (April 14, 2013)

Unitarian Universalist Principle #5

The goal of world community, with peace, liberty and justice for all

As I was contemplating the fifth principle, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and in society at large,” it tumbled to me that we have not considered the preamble in these talks: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote.” There are three potent words in that prologue: Covenant, Affirm and Promote.

Let’s start with affirm. The word derives from the Latin, firmus, strong, and that should give us a clue as to its significance. This calls us to a truth telling statement, a line drawn in the sand. Unitarians are saying that these principles are rock bottom essential. I remember a person telling me of the experience of being offered a sexual favour and he hesitated being truly attracted and far from home and then turned it down. “But nobody will know,” came the reply. “True,” the person said, “Nobody will know except me, except me.” That’s an affirmation relying on inner strength and an inner recognition that, “I have to live with myself first and foremost.”

The congregation is called to “affirm,” take a stand on these principles and promote them. Promote means being, do I dare say it, evangelical, promoting the ‘good news.’ ‘Good news’ is the origin of the word evangelical. I hate the fact that the word evangelical has been captured by conservative Protestants for it is a good word in and of itself. These seven principles are good news. Any community that can affirm these principles is promoting good news. Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket, Unitarians!

Finally, in the prologue, is the word “covenant.” Now there is a foundational word straight out of the Bible, originating in the Hebrew/Jewish experience but continued in the Christian tradition: Old and New Testament, just as one small example, the word testament being the old English word for covenant. It means an agreement or a contract, really a solemn promise made binding by an oath which may be either a verbal formula or a symbolic action. Such a verbal formula or symbolic action is recognized by all parties as the formal act which binds the actors to fulfill the promises made. There is ceremony in covenant making. Making a covenant is a hugely solemn affair biblically and in the world of the church it has gotten translated into the promises made in baptism, ordination and marriage. You as Unitarians might consider how you make real, (Do you ever make real?), your covenant promise to make these principles living realities in your congregational life.

A final thought about covenant might be to contrast the word with ‘treaty,’ a word more in the news these days with the Idle No More movement, a movement that some of you I know have been quite involved in. My own particular involvement has been to make the commitment to get myself better educated as a settler descended Canadian. It is, I can report, a profoundly disturbing business, this educating or expanding one’s consciousness process. Thanks to American historian, Francis Jennings, as one small example, I have had Columbus discovering America in 1492 turned into a new image, Columbus stepping on that Caribbean island on an October day of 1492 and initiating the invasion and conquest of the Americas by European nations. Invasion and conquest: Those words present an image and a process totally different from discovering a new continent. And what role did treaties have in that invasion and conquest? Well, ask yourself, “What did the Europeans want?” They wanted land and the wealth from the land and truthfully, we still want land and the wealth from the land. Treaties have served the function of getting chunks of land until something could surface that required a new arrangement that would secure even more land or more privilege. Such a use for treaties is profoundly different than the original meaning of covenant.

That prologue has some very strong words in it, affirm, promote but most of all, covenant, an agreement like my word is my honour but our experience with treaties reminds us that sometimes we are a very long way from that sense of covenant! Finally, the fifth principle is about the right of conscience and democratic process.

I would invite us to centre most of our thoughts around the notion of the democratic process. It is a process, an unending process, and maybe it is a process far more significant and complex than casting a ballot in an election and then washing our hands of the whole messy process until the next election. Many Canadians see only the messy and sometimes corrupt process and don’t even cast a ballot, something that is completely unthinkable to a person my age, I must say, but I totally get the feeling of being offended and disengaged with the politics of our country. As one who writes letters to elected officials it can be a pretty mind-numbing enterprise.

As a person who pops up in this congregation on occasion I get hints of the democratic process here among you. There was the decision to put solar panels on the roof, a remarkable decision really for a congregation this size and I don’t know the background to your decision but as I have solar panels on my house and I attend a United Church with solar panels on its roof I understand that it would have taken a process to come to that decision. Or a new carpet here in this room and then the process to determine that tea and coffee in the discussion time after the service wasn’t the best decision. If you think about the congregational processes that went into the solar panels and the carpet decision-making (or maybe there are other items before the life of the congregation), you see that it is all very complicated, complicated because there are very few issues that are straight black and white and complicated because of our complexity as human beings.

Congregations are family systems. I live in my family system with its health and its pathology and when I walk into and become a part of a congregation I bring not just me, visible me and you bring visible you, but we each bring in the health and pathology of our own family systems. For instance, I am the oldest child in my family and like all eldest children I am pretty responsible and a little resentful of those who don’t carry their weight. You can be sure I will carry that dynamic into any congregation, ready to get things done when sometimes I should just sit back and let things unfold without my jumping in and doing it. Well, I hope you get the picture. Congregations are messy because families are messy and we bring, even if we are the only member of our family in the congregation, we still bring all of our personal and family dynamics into the congregation. So, individual conscience as central in this fifth principle, I think needs to be interpreted with some wisdom. Yes, of course ‘the right of conscience’ has to be respected, profoundly respected but it requires some wisdom and some willingness to do some introspection. For instance, as a person who has been through the wars in the United Church over homosexuality I can tell you that sometimes what was being said in the guise of ‘respect for individual conscience’ was hate, misunderstanding, bigotry, a refusal to listen and many times those things were rooted in personal experience and family dynamics dating into childhood experiences or decades old realities. One person who left Harcourt Church over homosexuality told me that he could not abide it because when he was in the army in World War II a man had propositioned him. It offended him profoundly. This was early in the wars on the issue and I wasn’t fast enough to say to him, “Aren’t you fortunate for having that situation happen to you because as offensive as that was to you as a man you just had a first hand experience of how offended women sometimes feel with come-ons from men.”

Finally, let me say that in our culture we have profoundly differing views on what democracy looks like and the Idle No More movement, I think, shows up some of that reality. From the aboriginal experience I would suggest that democracy involves a circle of listening, each having the right to speak, and the horizon of engagement including seven generations behind and seven generations ahead, not to mention the four-leggeds, the birds and fish, the plants, the air and water and earth. We who are settler descended have a much more bureaucratic notion of democracy, the Roberts Rules of Order, motions and amendments and 50% plus one. It is a clash of world views and it has been made profoundly worse through negative style political advertising, demonizing opponents and techniques like omnibus bills, silencing federal scientists and centralization in the Prime Minister’s Office but obviously I am showing my political bias.

Whether you are off to home after this service or gather in the discussion circle, these are the words that I would invite reflection on: From the preamble, covenant, affirm and promote; and from the fifth principle, right of conscience and democratic process. And I leave you with two questions: How do you as a congregation make real the covenant that these principles point to? And the democratic process, to remain healthy, always needs to be monitored so how is that process going in this congregation, let alone in your own family?

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