For Workshop 1, Leadership Journey, Activity 4, Five Smooth Stones
This text originally appeared as a March 1, 2019, blog post by Renee Ruchotzke titled “A Theology for Leaders.” It was inspired by James Luther Adams’ essay, “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” in On Becoming Human Religiously: Selected Essays in Religion and Society, edited by Max Stackhouse (Beacon Press, 1976, pp. 12–20).
It was not Adams, but one of his editors, who lifted up the metaphor of five smooth stones, drawn from the biblical David and Goliath story, to name the five liberal religious principles Adams discussed.
Unitarian Universalists often look to the Seven Principles as a guide for ethical discernment, but there is another source that should inform our decisions, especially for leaders in our congregations: The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism as imagined by Unitarian theologian and ethicist James Luther Adams (1901–1994). The five stones refer to those scooped from the river by young David as he went to fight the giant Goliath in the Hebrew Scriptures. The metaphor for today’s religious liberals is: What “stones” will help us take down today’s giants of racism, patriarchy, environmental destruction, and other ills of the 21st century?
One: Revelation Is Not Sealed
Healthy leaders are lifelong learners. They are curious about the world, they question their assumptions, and they are nimble in when responding. Instead of saying, “This is true,” they say, “This is my best thinking with what I know now.”
The best place to learn, the place with the most potential for Creative Interchange, is in the interaction between different cultures, experiences, and worldviews. Whether in nature (think of estuaries or coral reefs) or in community, it’s at the edge—where differences overlap and engage—that there is more potential for transformation.
Two: Use the Ethic of Mutuality to Guide Relationships
In a real sense all life is inter-related. All… are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail
Most faith traditions have a version of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But that statement has the subject (you) at the center, and the other as a separate object. True mutuality is the meeting and interaction of subjects creating a shared sense of meaning and agreeing on a future that benefits all.
This ethic is especially helpful when trying to understand cultural (mis)appropriation. Is the sharing of culture consensual? Is anyone exploiting anyone else’s culture for reputational or financial gain? Is the culture being extracted out of the context that dishonors or ignores its deeper meaning?
It is also helpful during times of disagreement or conflict. Is there time and space for everyone to share their story or opinion and for the others to listen deeply? Is there a way forward that all can agree to?
Three: The Beloved Community Is a Just Community
Our faith communities are laboratories where we practice creating Beloved Community, where our values of mutuality, interconnection, and love are made real. We do this through our covenants, calling one another to our highest aspirations with accountability to living out our promises.
Four: The Beloved Community Creates Justice in the World
We are also called to organize and work with other communities to do the hard work of dismantling systems and structures that support patriarchy, racism, other oppressions, extraction, exploitation, colonization, dehumanization, pollution, climate change, etc.
Five: We Are the Ones Who Can Bend the Arc of the Universe
The hope that can sustain us for the long haul is grounded in the belief that there is an arc to the moral universe that bends toward justice, but it needs our participation. It’s this belief that can make a way out of no way. It’s this belief that can give us a shared purpose and reason to embrace our interconnection and shared destiny of Beloved Community.