Contents: UU World Back Issue

First things first

by Hannah Wells

Jesus was a political activist, but first he was a Jew. We can be political activists, too, but first we need to be Unitarian Universalists. Engaging in dramatic acts of social justice is sometimes noble and sometimes reflects our religious values—but it is not a religion. If Unitarian Universalism is to flourish it needs to be much bigger than liberal political ideology or dramatic anti-oppression gestures. We need a larger language.

There are no more Unitarian Universalists today than there were forty-three years ago when the Unitarians and Universalists merged. I believe the reason we stay small is that potential religious liberals see through our politics-as-religion.

Our life experiences are different depending on our class, our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, our ability. But can we move beyond our differentness? Can our religion affirm, before anything else, the very highest, noblest, most demanding ideals of our capacities as human beings?

What beliefs inspire people to transcend themselves and live and work in the larger spheres of life? It seems to me that people of every faith strive to live with integrity, honesty, and commitment to their families. They serve their communities with little fanfare, honor their agreements, work to rebuild trust, and live with gratitude and humility. These ideals transcend our identity groups and individual oppressions. And people desperately need to hear the larger language of these themes when they come to our churches.

Political and social issues are important, but we sell ourselves short if we begin there, and we sell ourselves short if we stop there. How can we enlarge our faith to serve the ideals that inspire everyone? How can we strengthen the religious center that sustains people's motivation to serve the common good? For our religious movement to make a difference, a commitment to our faith must precede a commitment to build a better world. Right now we seem to have it backwards.

We fancy ourselves as bravely questioning everything, and yet it isn't true. We don't question the adequacy of our allegiance to individual rights, which is so often unbalanced by an equal concern for the individual responsibilities a stable society needs. We grant ourselves the authority to judge who is oppressing whom—the authority to define whole classes of human beings as victims—without asking how demeaning it is to define humans as victims, without asking whether we aren't imposing our own style of oppression through the very self-righteousness that we exalt as our badge of virtue.

But real virtue doesn't need an audience. We don't need to wear badges. We do need to exalt the most compelling ideals at the center of our faith.

From remarks at the Starr King School for the Minstry commencement ceremony in Oakland, California, May 20.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
: 24-25

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