Sacred Choices

“You have to pick. That’s the fundamental problem. And one interest has to prevail over the other at any given point in time, and that’s why this is so challenging, I think.”[1] – Justice Brett Kavanaugh during opening arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, Dec. 1, 2021

Where is the voice of liberal religion in the spiritual debate about abortion?  Is liberal religion only concerned with the secular question of personal liberty and autonomy?  For liberal religion, does reason vacate any sense of the divine?

The insistence by some people to have a secular argument about something that is a uniquely spiritual question for others is always problematic.  The primary basis for the anti-abortion argument is the religiously motivated question of when life begins.  Either there is life, or there is no life.  This is what sits subtly behind Kavanaugh’s statement.  The definition of “life” may be scientific, but the impulse to raise the question is, for most religious conservatives, deeply spiritual.

Liberal religion has the potential to be a powerful spiritual language in this conversation and would do well to reclaim some of its power of persuasion at the table.  Liberal religion is woefully thin when it boils itself down to reason only; indeed, when it does so, it stops being religion altogether and becomes politics.  What is most useful about liberal religion as it has evolved in today’s world is its capacity to hold complexity.  Within these spaces and communities and theologies, there is not just the space for reason but also the ability to fully embrace divergent religious belief, diverse embodied experience and conflicting political agendas.

These are ethically expansive spaces where humanity in all of its variation is held at the center.  As a result, liberal religion calls us to a deeply nuanced understanding of what it means to create life.  It asks us to think about the fact that people who are able to become pregnant hold incredible responsibility.  But more than responsibility, they hold immense power that informs us all what it means to be alive.  Within their bodies is not only the ability to bring life into existence (for no fetus ever willed itself into being) but also, the ability to end that life, either by naturally occurring or artificial means.  It is this dual potential for life and death that becomes an embodied expression of human wholeness.

Indeed, birth does not come without death.  We “learn” death from the fact that we are born.  Once you are born…even once a being is conceived, it is capable of death…and the death of the body is inevitable.  This is at the heart of human being…even in the most God-centered religious beliefs.  The ability to create life from within the body (whether you believe it comes from God or science or both) does not come without the inevitability of the end life.  This is the awesome power of one of the most important theologies of womanhood* that is so often missed in a male-dominated phallocentric society.

The pro-choice movement is not doing itself any favors by totally secularizing the argument.  Our embodiment is not exclusively political or governmental.  It can’t be.  Embodiment is emotional, sensual, ethical, individual, communal and by extension for some, spiritual and profoundly religious.  As I look at it, the pro-choice movement actually has a much stronger spiritual argument than the anti-abortion movement because it can embrace the fullness of the spiritual mandate that is embodied in the potential to create mortal life.  In fact, the pro-choice movement is more pro-life than the pro-lifers. Women and people who give birth are the only ones who introduce every single human to the fragile balance between life and death that we call “being.”  Denying them the totality of that power, responsibility and the divine genetic script because of politics or narrow enforcement of human imposed orthodoxies is a violation of their total humanity.

People who believe that the spirit animates us from conception and who insist that intentionally ending pregnancy is a crime (against God), are not wrong.  But they must remember that their definition of life that is based on their religious view of the world is not shared by everyone.  Nor can it be, nor should it be.  Alternately, people who do not adhere to a religious framework and who insist that the right to one’s body is an inalienable right that can never be infringed upon in a secular society are also not wrong.  But they must remember that we co-exist with the kaleidoscope of ways in which each of us (sometimes individually and sometimes in community) make sense of knowing we are alive while also knowing that we will die.  This is knowledge that is most often answered in our world by religion.  Liberal religious perspectives provide language and frameworks to carry both.

I will pray that the current debate about a woman’s right to choose the arc of pregnancy is decided in such a way that embodied, spiritual or human rights are held with greatest care.  From a liberal religious perspective, I believe it is possible.  Despite what Justice Kavanaugh and other conservatives on the court say, it is not a choice of one or the other, but really must be a “both, and.”  Sadly, the courts have never done “both, and” well (think Plessy v. Ferguson.)

One thing is for sure, although all of us know we will die, none of us knows that we will be born.  That is a sacred, exclusive conversation held between God and/or being and those who are blessed with the bodies in which we are conceived. No court or law required.

ALD

[1] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, p. 106.

* Here I am referencing womanhood that is not defined by birth or assigned gender…rather womanhood that can contain both.

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.

Progress

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.

ALD

*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