“Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.”
“Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”
-These are the only two places in the Six Sources of Our Living Tradition (and Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles) where “love” is referenced.
Most Unitarian Universalists (UU) are familiar with the Seven Principles and Six Sources of Our Living Tradition. We do not hold these as a creed but much more as a starting point for both understanding what it means to be a UU and for explaining to the world how and why we show up. When I started my journey toward UU ministry in 2012, I found great inspiration in the principles and sources that encourage self-definition and exploration. There is a powerful sense of self-awareness built into these loose guides. But I have to admit, that even in settled ministry, I still ask on a regular basis, where is the love?
No religious body is perfect, least of all those traditions through which racism, misogyny, LGBTQ marginalization, slavery, ableism and Native genocide have been emboldened. This specifically includes Unitarian Universalism and the United Church of Christ (UCC) which both evolved from the Puritan traditions of England. But I recently was reading about the new UCC purpose, vision and mission statements that were adopted in 2016:
Purpose Statement (from the Gospel of Matthew):
To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.
United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.
United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.
It is abundantly clear in these simple lines that love is the motivating factor behind this shared sense of community. In my estimation, these statements are gorgeous and they are instructive. Certainly, living into them is a high bar, but what a place to start! The modern UCC and UUs came from essentially the same Puritan traditions but they split in the 19th century over differences in doctrine. It is fascinating to me that the UCC, which came from the more “conservative” doctrine, would have such an open commitment to love, while the UUs, coming from the more “liberal” doctrine, seem at times to resist such an effusive declaration.
More and more, I hear people of color within Unitarian Universalism questioning the resonance of its historical theology and challenging its relevance to a modern world. When we are introduced to Unitarian Universalism, we are often presented with a procession of white men as a reference point. We are also told when we challenge the racist and patriarchal perspectives of Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson that we have to remember that they were men of a “different time”. I believe that as people of color in the 21st century, we deserve much more than excuses and exclusively white history. I have been thrilled to read Mark Morrison-Reed’s book, Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy: Black Power and Unitarian Universalism for many reasons but one of the best parts of this book is a list that appears on pages 108 and 109 where he names several key black founders of Unitarian and Universalist churches. These historical figures (names like Gloster Dalton, Amy Scott, Joseph Jordan, Powhatan Bagnal, Ethelred Brown, Marcella McGee, Errold Collymore, Sylvia Lyons Render and more) should be as prominent as anyone in UU history but they are not…yet.
These names are invisible to most people (clergy and lay) in Unitarian Universalism. And their efforts were greeted with resistance, and sometimes outright scorn. But in the face of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching and segregation they persevered. Not out of arrogance or a sense of entitlement, but when you read about them, it is clear that they were motivated to remain within the frameworks of Unitarianism and Universalism because of a deep sense of love for humanity. As a black person, I know that people of color draw so much resilience and ability to persevere within Western systems of oppression and limitation because we are trained from an early age to dig deep into the reservoir of human love. We hold this in our bodies and we learn to exhibit this way of being in the face of adversity. This is not to say non-PoCs can’t or don’t love or to say that every PoC is a love machine. But I do believe that with less cultural pressure to rely on love based relationships as a scaffolding from which every-day life must hang, non-PoCs in Western culture have more liberty to default to systems and hierarchies that prioritize the re-arrangement of power above basic human “being”. This is where faith can come in. Faith can actively cultivate love as something primary to human relationships. It can be an antidote to the impersonality and potential violence of purely power-based structures. Love is the only hope to reconcile the history of oppression. Love is the only way to actually be welcoming. And love is what reminds all of us how there is no structure or system that can be truly functional without a healthy, balanced and mutually shared relationship; without such relationships, structure becomes oppression and systems create marginalization. It is in the shadow of these mechanisms where fear and hatred grow.
Unitarian Universalists created the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign in 2009. This was bold language adopted from then UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford’s report to the General Assembly in that same year. This was a remarkable and important statement that centered love and it is no surprise to me that it comes from a black person. Delivered in the midst of the battle for marriage equality and the backlash of Proposition 8 in California, Sinkford stated clearly, “We are committed to standing on the side of love until the freedom to marry is a reality in California and in every other state in the country.” Still, the phrase proved to be problematic. Communities that support equal access felt the language of “standing” was not inclusive. In 2017 a resolution was passed to change the language to “Side With Love” acknowledging that,
“[T]he word ‘Standing’ as default justice language places a high value on the justice work and commitments of able-bodied people,” the resolution says, “while it makes invisible and excludes the justice work of people with a wide range of disabilities and autistic people.”
I support this change and still I have to ask, where is the love? Rev. Sinkford’s words and framing are incredible, in context. Quite possibly, what was needed back in 2009 in recognizing his words as prophetic was more attention to the underlying beauty and grace of what he meant throughout his address about being motivated by and coming from the perspective of love as opposed to focusing on the action taken because of that motivation.
Ultimately, Unitarian Universalists must be willing to radically affirm love as something that is a public community mandate and not just a private individual mission. We will never be in right relationship with the full and dynamic range of humanity, whether it be race, class, ability, gender or sexuality…until we openly, unapologetically and consistently put love first.