“Should we create a covenant?” These are familiar words to Unitarian Universalists. I’ve found that in UU circles covenants are as common as coffee and dounts. Bless our bleeding, left leaning hearts, it seems that UUs more than any group are always determined to be in “right relationship” with one another, and we frequently begin any kind of process or group exercise with a “covenant.” Although I admire this eagerness to have level playing fields and understand how this can be a useful tool for helping groups stay on point, the specific use of the word “covenant” is a bit of a hot button to me. As I delve deeper into understanding faith traditions and magnify that understanding in the lens of our modern world, I caution us all not to miss the point of true covenant or how the assumptions built into social covenants can actually harm us.
The covenants that most people are familiar with are those from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament. The covenants entered into between God and Noah, God and Abraham, the Mosaic covenant, the covenant beween Jonathan and David and the Covenant of Christ are those which inform much of our modern interpretation of the word in Judeo-Christian culture. I do not have the scholarly or linguistic heft to venture into a sufficiently deep explanation here of each of these examples, but suffice it to say that these are solemn agreements with God that assume two important absolutes: a) that one believes in God; b) that one believes in a God that believes in them. Again, this is a much longer conversation…
I believe, however, it is useful to explore how in modern relationships, we take for granted a certain culture of covenant that has its own built in assumptions. One of the basic definitions of a covenant is as an agreement. It is first and foremost an agreement that two parties will fulfill certain obligations to one another. One could call a covenant a “contract” of sorts. One key difference however, is that a covenant is entered into between people or entities, or groups who know one another and hold a common goal or purpose, whereas a contract is generally between people who only have that agreement as their primary means of relationship. A covenant serves to bind or enhance an already existing relationship.
The Biblical agreements that I mentioned before are definitely not just contracts. Often involving blood commitment, God (for those who believe and/or follow Abrahamic scripture) surely “knows” mankind. God “knows” Noah, Abraham and Moses. David and Jonathan “know” one another intimately and because of that intimacy, enter into their covenant. The Covenant of God made through Christ, giving his Son for the forgiveness of man’s sin is one made based entirely on God’s omniscience, Jesus’ knowledge of his predestined mission and the acknowledgement man is willing to make in recognizing Christ as savior. There is a lot of “knowing” going on here.
In today’s environment of deep political and social divide, it could be argued that we are in need of a covenant. We are in need of an agreement that obliges us to protect one another and serve a common good. Of course, we already have many agreements that are intended to do this, from the US Constitution to the Kyoto Protocol to NAFTA…and certainly the Judeo-Christian covenants I point to should serve the purpose of making our world safe and nurturing. We put on a good show in treating these agreements like covenants. We see entire governments shaping the course of history based on some of these agreements. We watch people protest for their rights based on their spiritual covenants. But in a world that stumbles along on fractured social relationships…fractured by inequities and ignorance and fear and broad assumptions…even these solemn agreements with God become merely contracts that are too easily broken.
We all know what assumptions make….
The conservative LGBTQI hating Christian assumes that the world should want to function in their paradigm of truth. The rich American capitalist assumes that everyone wants success in the way they see it. Likewise, some of the the best ultra liberal Unitarian Universalists assume that the most damaging force to people of color is white privilege. These are just examples. The point is that “right relationship” cannot happen until you are actually IN relationship with the other party. How well do you know me? How well do I know you? How deeply do our communities of trust actually engage one another in today’s world? Are we willing to sublimate our personal desires, agendas, guilt, etc. to acknowledge the world as it is seen through the eyes of others long enough to offer them the respect and love that would allow us to enter into a true covenant of human dignity? A covenant is not a contract, so much as it is a commitment. It is a commitment to be not just in right relationship, but to be in genuine relationship with one another.
Pardon the mixed cliches here…love your neighbor, but do not suffer fools. If your neighbor is not willing to genuinely know you, and you are not willing to genuinely know your neighbor, you never stand the chance of embracing the true covenant of peace.