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|NPR’s This American Life recently ran a story on evangelical
Christians who systematically walk the streets of Colorado Springs, block
by block, praying for strangers in their houses. They don’t ring
doorbells. They just walk and pray.
They pray for the reporter, too. They tell her she has come there not to do a radio story but to come home, to know Jesus as her friend and savior. The reporter, a secular Jew from Chicago, finds herself strangely drawn to these people, to their communal life of faith, love, and service. A minister tells her he has prayed she won’t sleep until she becomes a Christian, and for three nights she can’t sleep as she contemplates forsaking her old life. She goes home to Chicago in the end. But I was struck that loving community has such a powerful appeal that it can make a liberal Jew ponder conversion to evangelical Christianity.
Liberal religionists often lump together a lot of people in a blob we call the religious right. We smile at their Biblical literalism. We call them haters, and sometimes we hate them for their hating. But do we love as well as they? As these people who walk block after block praying, for strangers?
How well do I love? It’s the most demanding, concrete, radical, and important question I can ask myself. How well did I love my spouse at breakfast this morning? How well did I love my friend, my neighbor, my co-worker the last time we spoke? How well did I love the cashier who was so slow, the bagger put the vegetables on the bottom, the driver behind me who honked when I hesitated one split second after the light turned green? How generous am I with my love? How universalist? Do I visit the old, the infirm, the sick? Do I visit the prisoner? Do I welcome the stranger? Do I assist those in need? How far will I go for love? How much will I risk?
Unitarian Universalists have a rich tradition of freedom of belief. But proud as I am of this heritage, I don’t think our beliefs matters nearly so much as our acts, and especially how we treat each other. Judging even from what we say we believe, Unitarian Universalists don’t set a high priority on love and kindness. Back in 1790, Universalists at the Philadelphia Convention affirmed their belief in a God “of infinite, adorable, incomprehensible, and unchangeable Love.” But two centuries later, in our Seven Principles, with all their high talk of justice, dignity, freedom, and democracy, the words love and kindness cannot be found. (The word compassion does appear, but in the context of justice and equity, implying that we should feel compassion for those less fortunate but not necessarily those we disagree with!)
Charlie Brown of "Peanuts" seems to speak for many UUs when he mutters, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.” As Mary Pipher wrote in these pages last year, Unitarian Universalism “attracts bright, opinionated people who just clobber each other when they get in meetings.” I have heard Unitarian Universalists call each other racists, sexists, and homophobes. I have heard us speak derisively of others behind their backs. One need only read the letters in the World to conclude that love and kindness are not principles to which we all subscribe.
For most of us, loving-kindness must be a deliberate decision and a conscious practice, because our natural loving-kindness is so easily exhausted by the cares of our lives. Christians have before them the model of Jesus, who preached love of neighbor and enemy alike, to inspire and test them every Sunday morning, if not every moment. “What would Jesus do?” some ask themselves. Despite our lip-service to Jesus as moral exemplar, many Unitarian Universalists have all but purged him from our religious life. Whether or not we choose to talk about Jesus, we must reclaim, celebrate, and live the values he taught.
As our congregations create or review our covenants and mission statements, we can explicitly affirm love and kindness as core principles alongside freedom and justice. We can emphasize our responsibility to speak the truth in love. We can gently confront members of our community who verbally abuse others. We can incorporate the Buddhist practice of metta, loving-kindness meditation, into our worship and church life. We can model loving-kindness for our children and our neighbors. As we do so, our attention will turn naturally to serving others and working for justice.
In a course on spiritual practice at my church, whenever anyone wishes to speak he or she bows slowly to the group, who bow in acknowledgment. Upon finishing, the speaker bows again, and the group returns the homage. It’s a practice that deepens conversation, reduces interruption and attention-grabbing repartee, and expresses reverence for each person’s contribution. “They should do that at standing committee meetings!” exclaims a former member of that body.
Some complain that Unitarian Universalism today lacks an authentic core or center. I believe that loving-kindness can, must, be the warm heart of our living faith. Without it we can neither honor each individual’s inherent worth and dignity not accept and encourage one another. I know that Unitarian Universalists share the deep hunger in our troubled society for loving-kindness. I once asked a lawyer in my congregation why he comes to church, and without hesitation he replied, “for the opportunity to be kind.” Kindness is the immediate expression of love, and as the poet W.H. Auden wrote, “We must love another or die.”
Fred Small is intern minister at the Winchester Unitarian Society, Winchester, Massachusetts.
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