Naming the Principles

Seven Principles Wheel (c) Kimberly Debus and Ian Riddell

Where Are UUs?

As I look at the news this week of more unmarked graves found at former “Indian Schools” in Canada, and as I hear the news of the inquiry now expanding to the United States, it feels like Unitarian Universalism has come up woefully short in how we hold our own historic role in the oppression of Native and Indigenous people.  For all our commitment to dismantling white supremacy, I carry an ongoing disappointment that we have yet to come together with our Congregational siblings to address how our Puritan ancestors established white supremacy as the unwritten law of the land.  Land acknowledgements are appropriate, but where are our relationships with the living breathing Native communities today?  To those who would say “you can’t change the past” or “my ancestors/ I didn’t oppress Native people” or “my ancestors were abolitionists”, I respond with a reminder that our theological identity with anything that holds the name “Unitarian” or “Universalism” means that we hold all of what that means.  If you are not willing to admit that, if you are only willing to acknowledge the post-merger Unitarian Universalism without everything that added up to that moment, then you are playing into the worst, most damaging aspect of white supremacy: invisibility.  Actually, dismantling white supremacy means bringing it into the light and showing it for what it is, what it was and where it comes from.  To a larger extent, white supremacy was born in the United States when the egg of Native erasure was fertilized by the sperm of African enslavement in the womb of exclusionary European individualistic capitalism.  Our Puritan ancestors were the Adam and Eve of that family.

A Principle of Atonement: We center a practice of spiritual and social atonement that begins with acknowledging the role of our faith in Native genocide and erasure and the enslavement of African people.


I am thrilled that my congregation, First Parish in Cambridge as adopted the Eighth Principle.  My hope is that others will follow suit and that the Unitarian Universalist Association can adopt this principle as a core expression of our faith.

I have written about the Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles before, specifically asking why they don’t include the word love.  There is a great deal of talk among religious professionals about how much of a refresh and revisit is needed in our theology and its various expressions.  And, this growing momentum got me wondering, what if we got rid of the numbers and named the principles instead?  The presentation of the principles as a wheel created by Kimberly Debus and Ian Riddell is a fantastic take on this idea and I think we might benefit from going even a step further.  Naming the principles could help us remember them better, make them more accessible and also let us get out of the incredibly white supremacy practice of creating hierarchies of priority.  Most importantly, naming the principles erases an implied limit to them.  Naming them gives us the opportunity to continue to grow and evolve and shape our faith as our world changes, recognizing that there will be new needs and priorities for future generations as they lead and offer insight into how our faith can work in the world.  I’m sure I’m not the first to think of this or put this forward, but I’ll take a stab at it here as an exercise:

Principle of Humanity: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Principle of Relationship: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Principle of Diversity in Belief: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

Principle of Perspective: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

Principle of Conscience: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

Principle of Global Harmony: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Principle of Interconnectedness: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Principle of Racial Equity: *“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

A Principle of Atonement: We center a practice of spiritual and social atonement that begins with acknowledging the role of our faith in Native genocide and erasure and the enslavement of African people.

My hope is that Unitarian Universalism can continue to grow and mature.  Part of that process will be our capacity to always hold onto and give context to where we come from, so it doesn’t hold us back from where we can go.

A Prayer:

May we keep in prayer and consciousness all of the Native and Indigenous people within Unitarian Universalism who are feeling these latest discoveries with a mix of horror, having their worst suspicions affirmed and their reasons for distrust of Western “society” confirmed.  We as Unitarian Universalists can and must do better at following the lead of our Native and Indigenous leaders to a place of wholeness and authentic support.


*current language of the Eighth Principle under consideration

Some of my previous writing about the Seven Principles

Where is the Love?

Unitarian Universalist Principles as Expressions of Love

Demanding Love

Why Can’t Prayer Be Our Prayer?

Over the years I’ve regularly seen the following words as part of Unitarian Universalist covenants and worship openings:

“Love is our doctrine, the quest for truth is our sacrament, and service is our prayer.”

Rev. Peter Morales published an article with UU World in 2010 that is titled “Service Is Our Prayer”[1] and he ends the piece by saying simply, “May service always be our prayer.”[2]  I have often heard congregants across the country refer to social justice as their “religion.”  But without trying to unpack that particular theological steamer trunk in a short blog post, I find myself asking why can’t prayer be our prayer?  Why do Unitarian Universalists have to apply some other meaning or framework to prayer for it to have value in our theology?  Are we really that disinterested? Are we really that damaged?  Are we really that uncurious?  My concern is that we don’t do enough to teach people (in particular ministers) about prayer and we don’t provide enlightened alternatives to people who are actually starving for the unique kind of sustenance that something as simple as prayer might give them.

Some of what I’m offering here is certainly based on a degree of generalization.  Many Unitarian Universalists do pray and they do so in a variety of ways.  But prayer is not a broadly promoted or consistently applied tool in UU spiritual experiences.  The great irony for me in the statement “service is our prayer” is that so very often, particularly in the interfaith organizing that so many of our congregations are attracted to as their form of service, the other traditions we work alongside begin and end every meeting, gathering and action with some kind of literal prayer.  For them,  service needs prayer.

I have regularly been asked to offer prayer in these settings because the assumption is that as a faith leader, I have easy access to the facility to invoke what is traditionally thought of as prayer.  I’m lucky, my first professor in seminary, Rev. Jim Mitulski gave me a direct command when I first met him, “Pray aloud every day.”  Having been raised in Christian traditions, prayer was never foreign to me, but making it an intentional, daily, verbal practice changed things for me.  It gave me fluency of language and imagery and purpose with prayer.  But even more than that, it helped me understand that prayer does not have to be as much about the words (as Rev. Morales references[3]) as it is about the practice itself and the motivation behind that practice.

I learned that prayer can be one way to focus intentionally and exclusively on what is most important to us in any given moment.  Prayer in this way is very intentionally not the “doing” but the “being.”  Often, when I speak of ‘focus’ in UU circles however, people drift into vaguely informed conversation about Buddhism and meditation.  But this does those practices and traditions a disservice and I have found prayer needs to be something very different.  For Unitarian Universalists in particular, prayer presents a tremendous opportunity.  Through prayer, one is able to pause the march of time in the mind and sink into all the many feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties and joys one may have about something and this is not the same as meditation.  Prayer is not still; it is not clearing.  I find that prayer does the opposite, it gathers and brings even greater presence, whether that is to conflict or joy.  Prayer works and wrestles; it is not necessarily calm and it is often active and alive even if it is quiet.  While prayer can ease a sense of turmoil it has the capability to exhilarate just as well.

Another key difference for me with the act of prayer is the intentional humbling to the human experience, a certain kind of surrender that happens in the act of prayer.  It is like an inner leveling of all the forces that invites both acceptance and strength, independence and interconnectedness.  Sinking into this unique place and calling up words to frame and crystalize it in my own private experience or in the experience of others listening to me publicly feels like a truly holy exchange.  This is one of the most sacred tasks I have the privilege to perform anywhere, in any faith setting.

So I ask again, why can’t prayer be our prayer?  We are just as deserving of this unique spiritual blessing as anyone.  What is the language that Unitarian Universalists, religious professionals and lay people alike can embrace that doesn’t deny us the gift of prayer?  As a child of the Civil Rights Movement, I know that service will always be more powerful with prayer not in place of it.

[1] Peter Morales, “Service Is Our Prayer,” UU World Magazine, September 27, 2010,

[2] Peter Morales.

[3] Peter Morales.