Bearing Witness — Unitarian Universalists Go Forward

By Kenneth Hurto

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. … Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. … This may well be mankind’s (sic) last chance to choose between chaos or community.”

---The Reverend Dr. ML King, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, 1967, republished in 2010 by our UUA Beacon Press.

Dear Unitarian Universalists,

It seems fitting that, on his birthday, I draw on Dr. King’s words: Where indeed do we go from here? Many social progressives and religious liberals are wondering, even fretting about our nation’s direction this week.

Since the election, I’ve heard many Unitarian Universalists feeling deflated. What happened, they ask, to our values — the worth of ALL persons, compassion, justice, peace, truth-telling — so dear to our sense of being in the world? I’ve also heard others emboldened, saying it is time for us to stop moaning and get on with the hard work ahead. The moral arc of the universe may someday bend toward justice, but it won’t bend enough without our help. No doubt, many among you will be in Washington or other places for the Women’s March or otherwise mobilizing your faith witness.

In our work with congregational leaders, my team and I teach the importance of differentiation — the ability to clearly state your values and your life direction, while staying connected to those who see life differently. Central to our way of being religious is valuing many pathways to the truth and the sacred. We are defined by an open-minded, large-hearted engagement with one another. It is a spiritual discipline to stay connected when deeply held values are at risk. Easier to cut and run, or to push out those with whom we disagree. That’s what makes being a Unitarian Universalist a challenge and a discipline.

If we often have trouble staying connected and differentiated, our nation is even less adroit. The national elections manifested deep divisions of value and discomforting evidence that civil engagement may be lost to an insistent pattern of my way or no way. Brooding within that is a palpable sense for how thin the veneer of civility might be, a genuine fear that violence will erupt somehow.

There’s some of that in our congregations as well. A pastor said to me, “How do I minister, preach to my people who are so saddened by the Presidential election outcome — knowing full well there are many in my congregation who are rejoicing?” There is fear our congregations will fall into conflict or some will up and leave. Equally important, how do we minister to those who suddenly appear in our sanctuaries looking to us for moral guidance (reports everywhere of a surge of new guests to our worship since November)? How will we guide them?

I appreciate the colleague’s challenge. I have no glib answer. It’s the real work of a covenantal rather than creedal community. Mulling further, I think our leaders need to do a better job of differentiating our core values. Unitarian Universalism is more than a catch-basin for those who like to argue for the sake of opinion mongering. If you begin with the core value, “Love is our teaching,” certain very clear things follow: compassion for those at the margins, respect for those who think and value differently, commitment to economic and environmental justice, devotion to democratic process, and, especially, a reasoned discernment of truth and value.

It has been said religious liberals predilection is to be “for” our values. Yet, now we have to learn how to play defense, ready to be “against” a number of things that appear to be on the rise around us: blatant racism, xenophobic fear of difference, shameful misogyny, mocking indifference to the most vulnerable, exploitation to serve short-term greed, a political Calvinism giving ever more to the already too wealthy, and — perhaps most worrisome to me — a legitimation of violence as a means to address those who disagree, across the street or across the ocean. Differentiation is about knowing what you stand for. It is also to know what you stand against. What will we not tolerate?

We Unitarian Universalists have the comfort of a privileged place in society. Every week, we practice reflection on and naming of our transcendent values and helping each other to incorporate them into how we live every day.

That’s good, but not enough: It is time we step up to the responsibilities of protecting as well as affirming our values of love and justice. It is time we move from seeing our congregations as sanctuaries from religious orthodoxy to using them as launchpads of courage. It is time to stop our all too many “fake fights” over words in hymns or the paint color in the vestibule and get on with being faithful stewards of truth, love, justice.

So, I need to say it plain: No, you cannot be Unitarian Universalist and believe whatever you want and expect others just to be nice. We need to hold each other to account to and for our values. We need to find a way to stay connected and speak the truth. I also say it plain, some among us may discover they cannot remain among us:

  • If you think abusing women is to be tolerated, then, by God and by truth, you are not a Unitarian Universalist.
  • If you’re ok neglecting those with unmet health issues and think that is good public policy, then, I say, you are not a Unitarian Universalist.
  • If endorsing a hatred of people of color or failing to speak up to the entrenched racism, and ignoring the pervasiveness of white supremacy is ok, then, sadly, I must declare, you are not a Unitarian Universalist.
  • If threatening mayhem or hurling ad hominem insults is mere rhetoric, I ask, how can you claim to embrace Unitarian Universalism?
  • If you succumb to the notion that we live in a post-truth world, then I tell you straight out, you are not a Unitarian Universalist.
  • If you think dividing society into just the wealthy and the undeserving poor is the American dream, simply, you no longer are a Unitarian Universalist.

The Free Church tradition historically is founded on the use of Reason, Freedom of personal commitment, and Tolerance of diverse belief. In these times, we need to add to this: the Free Church teaches Love in all we say and do, and we embrace a Covenantal connection with one another to learn how to be faithful to our values. This is our real work. Let’s be on with it, now more than ever. This is where we go, toward community, not chaos.

With gratitude and solidarity, Kenn

About the Author

Kenneth Hurto

The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto served our ministry for over 45 years in a variety of parish settings in Indiana, Iowa, Wyoming, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, and in New Zealand and Australia. He also served in the UUA’s Department of Ministry, authored several UUA congregational resources,...

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