Justice, Equity, and Compassion in Human Relations

Rev. Furrer preaching on the 2nd UU Principle as part of a continuation on his series of all 7 Principles.

9:00 a.m. Bulletin11:00 a.m. Bulletin

“Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relationships”

February 23, 2020

This morning I continue my sermon series on our seven Unitarian Universalist Principles, focusing today on the second principle: Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relations. The UU Principles did not arise ex nihilo; that is, (as the theologians say) out of nothing. On the contrary, they were an attempt, in the early to mid-1980s, to update earlier UU covenants, in more gender-free universalistic language; to modernize the language, as it were, while maintaining the spirit of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears.

One of the more recent, and poetic, of those earlier covenants was the 1935 Universalist Avowal of Faith, which included, among those avowals, “the power of persons of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil.” This 1935 covenant was itself a reformulation of earlier statements, going all the way back to 1790. But in fact—1985, 1935, 1790—all these declarations of faith have their roots way, way further back than that; they all have their roots in the prophetic tradition of the Bible.

What I want to do this morning is uncover those roots. Do my best to explain how it is, and how it came to be, that justice, equity and compassion matter to Unitarian Universalists; and that longtime, committed UUs actually try to live these values. I also want to ask each of you to consider whether the application of more justice, equity and compassion to balance the overwhelmingly martial values exemplified by our government might not be a good Unitarian Universalist idea.

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Religion is an organic phenomenon. It keeps changing, growing, evolving. Some people bemoan this and cry out for a return to what they call “Old Time” religion. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and their ilk come to mind, but they are not the only ones. The Imams of the Taliban wish for the same thing—rigid adherence to unchanging forms. Such things, of course, are impossible—freezing religion always means killing it. Like natural language, like any animal or plant, religion is alive; constantly evolving, transforming and adapting to new situations. This has always been true.

That fundamentalists do not like it that way has always been true, too. There have always been Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Talibans. In Jesus’ time, such people were called Pharisees. And they gave Jesus unmitigated grief—constantly accusing him of violating “the law,” (i.e., “the rules” of how things have always been done around here) and ergo, of being totally wrong. Pharisees and fundamentalists always miss the point that any living tradition—and the Spirit of Life that it celebrates—is constantly in flux. Religions (like everything else that’s alive) are spirited, or dead.

Of Unitarian Universalism’s several roots, surely the deepest and most ancient is the Bible. Sadly, for some contemporary UUs, the Bible is problematic. Many of our members grew up in other traditions—or in no tradition at all. For those who grew up in other faiths (all too often) what was told to them about the Bible they learned from a modern-day Pharisee, who insisted upon what it all allegedly meant and what they were supposed to think about it. By the time they become UUs many such people are more than happy to leave it all behind. This is unfortunate. There is a lot in the Bible.

Especially when one considers how overwhelmingly the Bible has influenced Western culture, it makes sense to me to get to know it and get to know it well. One has to admit, however, that the good book can be pretty bad: complex and confusing, filled with anachronisms and often incredibly brutal. And yet…despite all that, the overall story (it seems to me) is uplifting: a myth of growth, renewal and regeneration. In which new understandings and new ethical virtues are constantly encountered, challenging us to grow. My point is that justice, equity and compassion are not intrinsic to human nature; indeed, they don’t appear to have been practiced much at all, beyond the family, during humanity’s early years. Nor today are they among the cardinal virtues of Eastern tradition that they are among Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Ideas about justice, equity and compassion first came into Western consciousness during the Eighth through Sixth Centuries BCE when Hebrew prophets first recognized and articulated them as attributes of a healthy society. The years following the conquest of Canaan had been good ones, leading to the rise of an urban mercantile class. Which in turn—over the decades—had led to the economic bifurcation of Hebrew society, and a growing inequity and insensitivity among the people.  It was this condition—economic inequality—to which the Prophets spoke, with poetic originality. The power and self-evident truthfulness of their words struck a chord deep in Western collective consciousness. Our ancestors gradually came to understand that justice, equity and compassion were, indeed, foundational to any healthy, wholesome community or state. Eventually these values were adopted, and over the centuries they became the basis of our growing understanding of all that is good and holy.

Of course, the Bible is written on many levels. Clearly, the fifty chapters of Genesis—the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the rest—are myth and pure myth alone. Starting with Exodus, however, the beginnings of Western history emerge. A history in which, from the beginning, the protagonists’ self-understanding of who and what exactly the God they are worshipping is, keeps changing. And growing. And expanding. Causing them continually to update their idea of God, as it gets increasingly more sophisticated.  What started out as little more that an all-powerful family Super God is gradually understood to be (or is it revealed to be?) that which we hold, or rather which holds us, in common: the shared spirit of the tribe. Over the centuries and through the influence the Hebrew and later more contemporary prophets like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., what was once understood as a tribal spirit was universalized to include the spirit of all Humanity and beyond that, the spirit of all Life. Each of the prophets did their poetic best, each in their own way, to help their contemporaries—and to help us today—wake up to the value of treating one another fairly, and of sharing. By giving expression to the ideas of justice and equity, the Hebrew prophets were the first of our ancestors to encourage their integration into the fabric of civil life. If God is only to be seen and known in and through encounters with one another, they cry, then we must act accordingly!

There’s a broadly shared misunderstanding that prophecy is predictive of future events. In fact, the predictive element in prophecy is incidental, not primary; it extends the margin of the moral and religious present into a future that is its immediate consequence. “If you don’t start treating the population fairly, there will soon be hell to pay.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and the Prophets—is no static or abstract “Being,” but an Active, “Do-ing” kind of God, fully engaged in nature and history. To serve such a deity means discerning and honoring its presence by living in covenantal social relationships [Right Relationship]. Religion for the Prophets is the response through loyalty, obedience, and trust to the ethical reality of God.

[ And it starts here—Beloved Community is a VERB! Talking to one another respectfully, gently. (“We are a gentle, angry people”)]

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One reason many Unitarian Universalists shy away from the Bible, I think, is that we don’t know it that well. Or think we don’t. We are intimidated, too often, by fundamentalists spouting chapter and verse. They know the letter, it’s true; but the Unitarian Universalist view, has always beentrying to understand, and to live by,its spirit. So it is that most UUs see Jesus as another in the line of the great prophets; not as anyone supernatural, but rather as an exemplar of what is means—what it looks like—to be fully human. Someone so open-minded and full-hearted that he can love without reservation or fear. Across stereotypes; across class; and across barriers of faith, too.

This understanding, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the consensus among UUs. It’s also, I believe, the deep understanding at the heart of early Christianity, and of every faith tradition. But it is not, sadly, the viewpoint among Pharisees, including the majority of their televangelistic brethren we most frequently see on TV. Throughout my adulthood, I’ve been astonished to watch the political class fall over themselves to line up behind Jesus, while failing to ever follow his well-known policies for conflict resolution or economic health. Maybe that is for us to do: remind our leaders—especially the ones who repeatedly quote scripture—what the Prophets make clear: that however committed a people are to any martial or any commercial strategy, all such plans are bound ultimately to fail unless—and until—they’re balanced with the religious values of justice, equity and compassion. It’s that simple.

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This, in a nutshell, is how these values of justice, equity and compassion in human relations, entered into and became part of Western culture. And part of our Seven UU Principles. But what does this mean? How do they “call” us today to grow as a living tradition? First, it seems to me, they call us to transcend our individual and tribal consciousness and to embrace a global one. To embrace a global consciousness in which justice, equity and compassionate are more than buzzwords but are at the heart of our country’s political policies.

I realize that given the popular anger following the 9/11 attacks, whipped up ever since by advertisement-hungry radio hosts, makes a less bellicose foreign policy unlikely anytime soon. Nevertheless, to heal the causes of terrorism, it seems to me, we are going to have to deal with the systemic injustice and inequity—and lack of compassion—underlying the global economy. That America’s 5% of the world’s population manages to consume something like 30% of its resources has to be seen as having moral consequences. Recognizing global inequity as contributing to political instability does not condone the use of suicide attacks or any other violence against non-combatants. It does, however, commit us to trying to understand what might motivate such behavior, no matter how criminal. And to encourage balancing our nation’s military policies with non-military efforts and balancing our pursuit of international terrorists with relief for the dispossessed who continue to proliferate in their midst. This is true regarding the Administration’s harsh immigration policies, too: refugees the world over are all fleeing desperate third world conditions largely caused by our own first world exploitation.

Those of us who understand the prophetic tradition as being alive today have to do our best, it seems to me, to share our views. By expressing them publicly, we may slow down the ever-increasing war footing that our economy rests upon—so clearly evidenced by President Trump’s pandering to the evil Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salmān bin ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Al Sa’ūd (MBS) because he’s hot to buy lots of our country’s military hardware. We also need to increase pressure to offset American militarism with compensatory humanitarian efforts across the world and here at home. Efforts that—our faith tells us—are the best method, perhaps the only method, to lessen the growing resentment of the desperately poor and disenfranchised everywhere.

Sometimes one gets the sense that putting in place more just, equitable, and compassionate policies in itself would not accomplish much in the public sphere. Not at first, anyway. I remember back in 2009 attending a poetry reading in Venice by Amiri Baraka in which the poet answered a question by reminding us that the recently elected Barrack Obama had been charged, metaphorically, with turning around a Battleship and that the members of the left from center/left to the Communists should line up behind him and always remember that the enemy is the extreme Right. Now ten years later, we see that Obama did, step by step, actually accomplish a lot. Things do change. Twenty years ago, freedom to marry was a pipedream; today it’s the law of the land.

And here’s something else; something very important: whether our efforts change public policy or not, they will accomplish a great deal personally for those who work for them. Such efforts are redemptive. Which, ultimately, may be our UU Principles’ greatest value. Especially now, in the midst of ever-increasing gun violence at home, protectionist immigration policies, and experimental military adventurism overseas, working for greater justice, equity and compassion balms each of our weary souls. Offering us peace—in our hearts—and a growing sense of connection (internally in our hearts and externally) in our shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity with allies and comrades across the country and the globe in the face of both terror and militarism. And engendering the resonance, in each of our heart of hearts, of aligning oneself with the living prophetic tradition at the heart of our faith. Let it be so. Amen.