The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person

Rev. Dr. Furrer preaching on the first UU principle. This is the first of seven-part series on UU faith.

“The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person”

This morning’s sermon is the first of a seven-part series on our Unitarian Universalist Principles. Over the course of the series I hope to make clear: these principles at touchstones of our faith. They’re shared values we pledge to affirm and protect. And they’re also, for those who wish to go deeper, touchstones of inner discipline—a UU spiritual practice. The UU Principles are printed on the back of the Order of Service every week. I want to consider these Principles in order and in light of the mayhem we witness every week domestically. There were more mass shootings in the U.S. last year, than there were days in the year. Internationally, in Syria, Yemen, and northern Nigeria; fueled by the same impulse that leveled the twin towers in New York City.

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Western religion begins with the Book of Genesis. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look back to the so-called biblical Patriarchs as the progenitors of our traditions. All three traditions begin with the two Creation myths found in Genesis—including the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This event, according to Christian orthodoxy, tainted all subsequent humanity to the curse of Original Sin. What is “Original Sin?” According to orthodoxy it is the condition of being “conceived” in sin. That is, being intrinsically sinful by nature. Hopelessly flawed. Without a prayer, were it not (orthodoxy also maintains) for God’s grace.

Mostly orthodox Christianity holds to this day that Original Sin sullies everyone. Of course there are passages in the bible that suggest otherwise (like Rom. 5:18 where St. Paul declares that “as all fell in Adam all are saved in Christ”), but for the most part the idea that people are inherently and hopelessly sinful is the prevailing view. It is not, however, the Unitarian Universalist view. How did we come to hold a belief so different from that of almost all mainline Christians?

While there have always been non-prevailing biblical interpretations, they have tended to be shuttled aside. This was especially true during the Middle Ages when the Roman Catholic Church was at its pinnacle of power. That pinnacle began to wane with the advent of the Italian Renaissance during the Fifteenth Century. It was then—thanks to Islamic scholars—that Europeans rediscovered the writings of ancient Greece and Rome. Suddenly they began to read the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius and the rest. And to consider alternative views about human nature. And to publish those views. And promote them. These were the first people, by the way, to call themselves humanists. They were Christians, most of them, but their reading of the Classical literature gave them a new, hopeful understanding of human nature. A different, non-prevailing view. And one that has remained for over half a millenium now, as what we might call the minority view. The view so clearly articulated by Pico Della Mirandola in his Oration on the Dignity of Man: that it is up to us as individuals to make of ourselves what we want to become—and that the possibilities are infinite. And that it’s up to us collectively to make what we want of our world.

It’s weird. There’s something appealing about pessimism: it keeps coming back. But there is something appealing about hope, faith, and optimism, as well: they also keep coming back. Over the ensuing centuries and despite the reactionary efforts of orthodoxy, the humanistic beliefs of Pico Della Mirandola and others blossomed and grew. In the open, free society established here in America by our forefathers and mothers, these ideas flourished. Mostly. Pessimism and doubt have their allure too, even among the free. Given the choice there are those who choose them still; witness the ascendency of Donald Trump within the Republican Party. Fortunately for America, our founders opted for hope.

There is a story about Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary War hero. Allen was the leader of the Green Mountain Boys who captured Fort Ticonderoga. Lesser known is the fact that Ethan Allen was the author of an important humanist tract: Reason the Only Oracle of Man. One day, it’s recounted, Allen and his comrades attended a church in frontier Vermont. The preacher was a stern Calvinist, committed to the ideas of Original Sin and Predestination. “Humanity was so depraved,” he bellowed, “that not one in a hundred would even want to be saved. And of those, not one in a thousand would actually strive to get into heaven. And of those, not one in ten thousand….” At which point Colonel Allen stood up and loudly declared for all to hear, “You can have my chance, boys, I’m going outside to attempt doing some good here on Earth.”

Ethan Allen’s minority view—that people are not predestined to depravity—is at the heart and forms the foundation of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Indeed, his book—repudiated, actually burned, by the orthodox of his era—had a powerful effect on the great Universalist, Hosea Ballou. Ballou, along with the Rev. John Murray, were, without question, the two foremost early American Universalists. Their theologies were different—Murray was far more Christian and less humanist—but what they believed about human nature was the same. That it is up to us to make ourselves loving, faithful and ethical human beings. And up to us to make our society a loving, faithful, ethical place in which to dwell. Clara Barton was the founder of the American (and International) Red Cross. She grew up in a Universalist family and was well known to Hosea Ballou. “I defy the tyranny of precedent,” wrote Clara Barton. “I go for anything new that might improve the past.”

The Unitarian root of our tradition shared Universalism’s minority view that we’re not depraved and predestined but called upon to make of ourselves what we hope to become. “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “will determine our lives, our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

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The current Purposes and Principles of our UU faith were adopted about thirty-five years ago. I remember in the early 1980s when members of my congregation in exurban Connecticut all did our part in crafting a statement of shared purpose. We studied old, earlier Universalist and Unitarian covenants and did our best to incorporate their spirit as well as feminist and other modern viewpoints. In the end, voila! It’s important to note that these words are a covenant, not a creed. They are shared sympathies not shared beliefs, and no one is required to profess them in order to join one of our congregations. Like Buddhism’s Eightfold Path they are aspirations and goals, not requirements. They are not some kind of test, such that someone has to follow them resolutely in order to be a Unitarian Universalist. But they are touchstones of value, worth keeping in mind and doing one’s best to practice as best they can.

I am reminded of one of my members in Pittsburgh, Marcus Uhler. Following a sermon one day, Marcus called me and asked for an appointment to come talk with me. When he came he solemnly declared that he did not think he could be a Unitarian Universalist anymore. Here was a sixty-seven year old man who had discovered our faith as a teenager listening the sermons of A. Powell Davies at All Soul’s Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., who met and married his wife, Jean, there and who had been a member of the East Suburban Pittsburgh congregation for thirty years. “Why not?” I asked. “What’s the trouble?”

“This business about ‘the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Human Being,’” he explained. “I’m not sure I believe it, Steve. There are some real bastards out there!”

“I’m not sure I believe it either, Marcus,” I replied. “Not all the time. But what I do believe, and what I believe our faith encourages, is that it’s better to act as though everyone had inherent worth and dignity. Better because of what it does to us; how it makes our lives more whole when we afford dignity and worth even to the bastards with whom we sometimes have to contend.”

I kept thinking of Marcus Uhler, and his wife Jeanne, as I wrote this sermon. Do terrorists have ‘Inherent Worth and Dignity’? How about the Reverends Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson, who have said that civil liberties groups, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights supporters bear partial responsibility for terrorist attacks on America because such actions have turned God’s anger against us?  Do they have ‘Inherent Worth and Dignity’? How about head-severing ISIS militants, now silently filtering back into the general Syrian population? How about Russian cyber-terrorists? Or South Carolina terrorist Dylan Roof? Or the Las Vegas music festival shooter who killed 58 people and wounded hundreds? Or the local serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgeway?

It is at times like these when one realizes that our faith is not an easy faith. You begin to understand why, so frequently across the ages, people choose instead to believe that we’re depraved and predestined to brokenness and sin. During periods of horror—such as the world of today—one begins to realize how hard it is, truly, to love one’s enemies.

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People of the East Shore Unitarian Church: you asked me to be your Developmental Minister, in part, that I might help infuse you with a greater sense of UU identity. I speak to you this morning out of the depth of my understanding of our tradition, and also out of my own sorrow and anger and grief about all that’s come down in our country in the last twenty-five years. Does ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person’ include people whose views are so inimical to ours and all we profess to hold sacred? Yes. However hard it may be, we are called to extend to them what they would not extend to us—their basic humanity.

Like all people of conscience, Unitarian Universalists struggle with the problem of evil. Yet whenever I struggle with affording basic humanity to those who would deny the same to me I think of the words of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prizewinner Elie Wiesel, words found in his haunting memoir of the Holocaust, Night. Weisel had grown up in heavily Unitarian Transylvania until 1944 when he and all of his family were rounded and up by the foremost terrorists of that era and sent to concentration camps. Formerly a devout Jew, Weisel stopped believing in God, he wrote, “when I got off the train in Auschwitz.” Yet…somehow, something inside him kept him alive, kept him going, kept him struggling to understand. Standing in bitter cold one morning watching a child hanged by the Nazis he heard a man behind him ask, “Where is God now?” And “I heard a voice within me answer him,” writes Weisel, “‘where is He?’ He is here on the gallows.”

There are no easy answers for human suffering. We should not be like the comforters of Job, mouthing platitudes about God being in Heaven and all things right with the world—which only made Job—or anyone in a Job-like situation—feel worse. Far better an honest atheist who offers human compassion than a true believer who will not let us grieve. The pre-9/11 world is over. Global Islamic terrorism and domestic assault-weapon terrorism are now a part of our everyday lives. It is so terribly sad! Grief is necessary for healing, if we are ever to carry on.

And carry on we must. But how? Not by hating those who hate us. Not by abandoning our faith and acquiescing to the belief that we are damned to live in perpetual sin. Not by following our tormentors’ lead and sowing death and destruction on others, because others have sown it upon us. No. Let us follow instead the faith bequeathed to us by the likes of those I’ve been holding up this morning. People like Pico Della Mirandola, Ethan Allen, Hosea Ballou, Clara Barton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and people like my wonderful members in Pittsburgh, Marcus and Jean Uhler. Let us carry on—as they have enjoined us to—as if every human being had worth and dignity.

I have no doubt what Unitarian Universalism teaches us in this regard. It teaches us that every human being has worth. And that love, ultimately, is as strong as death. And stronger than the mightiest army. Finally, it teaches us the law of reciprocity and attraction—sow love and it will come back to you; sow hate and it will fester, grow, and come back to you as well. This is what Pico Della Mirandola—and Ethan Allen and Clara Barton and the others have all understood. That the love you make is equal to the love you take. That it is up to us to make a heaven or a hell of all that is before us, not up to God.

If Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson believe that God has abandoned America, it’s because that’s what has happened to them. They have alienated themselves from the possibility of multicultural reconciliation, and now they are paying the price—and articulating a vision—of their own inner brokenness.

You want to see God in the midst of contemporary life? Look for Her in the firemen and police officers who without thought of their own safety, rush daily into danger to help terror victims they don’t even know. Look to the members of Emanuel AME Church who immediately forgave the misguided, racist shooter who killed their pastor and ten other members of a church prayer group. Look to Darryn Frost, who immediately and instinctively grabbed the closest thing at hand—a narwhal tusk—to fend off a terrorist attack a couple of months ago on London Bridge.

I am not suggesting that we should not feel anger. Anger is good. Anger is healthy. We need to accept our anger and express it honestly. And also to channel it, wisely. Channel it, too, so that we may grow in understanding of what motivates the hateful rage so many are expressing. We have every reason to be angry. But we have to channel our anger carefully, thoughtfully and spiritually if we don’t want to become just like those who, by virtue of their anger, have created ours. We must keep in mind Emerson’s clear counsel: “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, our character.”

Let our thoughts and imaginations, then, be dominated by love and hope. In the manner bequeathed to us by the prophets of our own faith. These great leaders believed what I believe, that returning violence for violence only increases the violence. If it is always to be an eye for an eye then before long everyone is will be blind or dead.

There is another way to respond: by living what we say we believe and what we know is true: that every human being has worth and dignity. We are all God’s chosen people. Violence is not the answer to injustice. As the labor activist Mother Jones put it, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Not only our religion, our democracy is founded on the conviction that all people are created with inherently equal value; that all of us, no matter what our ethnicity or religion—even those with whom we passionately disagree—are endowed with inalienable rights. Fighting for the living means believing this; our democracy is built on this idea and our faith is built on this belief too—in fact, the faith of our detractors is made possible by this, if they would but search their inherently worthy and dignified hearts.

No matter how dark the hour, life is good. Moreover, ultimately love and hope, not hate and destruction will prevail. Hardheaded, hard-hearted types may call us naïve, or even fools. Perhaps, though I hardly think so. Because living as though such notions were true can make them true. As it always has, for the careful and optimistic and hopeful souls who have learned, and who are learning, how to love.  May it be so. Amen.