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


Will we be in danger if we open?

Danger.  This word stuck with me in a recent meeting with congregational leaders. I think it resonated with me so deeply because of all the moral implications of church being a danger…even a Unitarian Universalist one.

As we discussed the prospect of re-opening as the coronavirus pandemic changes and as government leaders focus on economic solvency, the word came up in relation to who might be in danger by coming back to our space for worship.


One of the toughest considerations in this conversation is trying to understand what it would mean to create a two tiered system of doing church where one group was able to attend in person because they were apparently healthy, non-immunocompromised, young, etc. and another group was not able to attend because they were none of the above, and/ or simply afraid.  How long would that be sustainable? Who are the haves and have not’s in this situation? More importantly, what is the equitable solution?

The only concrete thing we really know about the coronavirus at this point is the number of people it has killed; and even that is in question due to underreporting and inconsistent tracking of data and causes of death.  We do not know conclusively how it is transmitted, or how contagious it is.  As of this writing, we do not know if one is immune to it after exposure and we don’t have 100% efficacy in testing either for anti-bodies or for the virus itself.  There is no vaccine, no cure and only the most basic of therapeutics. There is the very real potential for everyone and anyone to get this disease which means we are all in danger.

Still, many religious institutions are having the conversation about what a “re-opening” strategy needs to look like. I will offer my insight as a spiritual and organizational leader and I will support my own congregation’s decision as a community regardless of my own personal opinions.  It is my job.  At the same time, I have to ask the question as part of any re-opening strategy: if our space represents a potential physical danger for some in this situation, why would we open for anyone

And then there is the existential question about what are the ways in which our church (or any church for that matter) has represented “danger” before this pandemic? Do we need to find a vaccine for those viruses as well?  How can we be sure that no one will be in danger culturally, spiritually, socially, emotionally?

In this moment, those of us with great safety and privilege in traditional church and religious settings, have an opportunity to experience a small portion of the literal danger that has prevented some people from coming into our spaces.  Dangerous histories of slavery, genocide, erasure and silence.  Dangerous messages of sin and punishment, dangerous rituals that reinforce sexism, disembodiment and fear.  Dangerously conditional salvation.

The physical church space in limbo suspends the dangerously limited physical accessibility for some and alters the danger of the one-hour worship experience, in one dominant language, seated facing one direction for others.  It eases the visible impact of the dangerous physical manifestation of ministerial power and presence as an extension of patriarchy and domination.

And what of dangerously narrow musical and worship styles?  The dangers of appropriation of both music and ritual and the dangerous re purposing of sacred texts.  How dangerous does the segregation of 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning look now when we see it from where we are today?

If by reopening, we are creating vectors for people to continue getting sick with a disease for which there is no cure or therapy, it does no one any good.   And if the spiritual practices and traditions that we are trying to return to are equally toxic, we are only compounding the infection.

For me, this feels like a pivotal moment in liberal religious life. Our faith is being called to answer the most basic question of our very existence.  Can we survive? Are we in danger?

It depends….

A truly liberal spiritual community is not open for anyone if it cannot truly be open for everyone.


UPDATE: The Unitarian Universalist Association has released guidance to its congregations encouraging virtual worship until the medicine/ science indicates it is safe for all.  Congregations are being asked to remain in virtual gathering until May 2021: Read more here: UUA Guidance for Gathering