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

Where is the Love?

“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.

Vision Statement:
United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.

Mission statement:
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.”[1]  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.”[2]

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.




7 Principles of Black Lives (BLUU)

Proposed 8th Principle for Unitarian Universalism

7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism

Six Sources of Our Living Tradition

United Church of Christ: Purpose, Vision and Mission