Guest Author: Rev.
Minsiter, Fourth Unitarian Fellowship, in Mohegan Lake, New York
Green Sanctuary Manager, Unitarian Universalist Association
The mission of the First Principle Project is a beautiful thing. One of the objectives is to encourage conversations that might lead to a change in the language of the first of our seven principles. “We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” would expand to include non-humans as well. “We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every being." I honor and welcome the conversation about this possible change, and I do not believe adopting the change is the right course unless and until some other things happen.
First, there may be many more UUs who embrace, at least in part, the First Principle mission, if not the objective. I think it is really possible that in every congregation there is at least one UU who has the sensibility and passion to organize others in support of a particular species of beings from butterflies to cranes, and wolves to whales. Compared to other kinds of things UUs work on, this can be a relatively ‘easy’ campaign to mount in a congregation. We love our bird and bat houses, especially as hands-on grounding for religious education of all ages. Supporting the individual beings within a species connects beautifully to many UU hearts and souls, including mine. We/I are often very willing to contemplate and put time, sustained action and money into caring for individual creatures and species as part of our Beloved Community.
But far more difficult it seems is contemplating and putting time, sustained action and money into developing Beloved Community that intentionally brings us into right relationship across human cultures. In two decades as a UU, I think we and I have made progress. But I notice a strong thread running through our congregations as I consult with dozens of leaders through the UUA Green Sanctuary Program.
The Green Sanctuary Program requires congregations to do environmental justice projects that grow through and in relationship to people in marginalized communities. Some do it very well, but for most this is tremendously difficult for us because, too often we lack those direct, partnered connections. We seem not to overcome cultural boundaries to include marginalized communities as part of ‘our’ Beloved Community. We care, for sure. But overall, it seems we tend to contribute money as our social justice work, or do projects that do not bring us into direct relationship with those we hope will benefit from our work.
To advocate a change in the First Principle, I would need many more of us to build intentional bridges over human boundaries. Over these bridges, we can more often listen in order to be changed by the stories from the “other side”, and become real neighbors and allies (maybe through environmental work). I have difficulty increasing the reach of the first principle to non-human individuals when we have so much more intentional human bridge-building to do.
I am inspired by the dedication and commitment of our UU leaders to the environment whose collective creativity is profoundly hopeful. I adore hearing the stories when we incorporate class and race in our environmental analysis, and practice the humility and skills to be good allies. The stories that get shared enrich us all. Building leadership across boundaries is often slow and not easy, but the effort has a powerful impact on congregational life. When congregations do the work in this way, their inspiration and excitement runs somehow deeper and broader. It builds the capacity of our sight and our souls.
Building capacity of hearts and souls may be another outcome of the conversations around the First Principle Project. Those who face environmental degradation and climate change head-on (I speak more here of working to change it rather than surviving it) have to grow our larger selves or spirits in order to face the truth and continue to respond from a place of possibility and gratitude. If we don’t, we more often operate from despair, alienate others and miss the opportunity to include them in the movement for change.
As people look at changing the First Principle, this kind of pain may rightfully surface even more. Specifically, in the environmental movement we often spearhead campaigns to ‘eliminate’ invasive species. We destroy plants by the thousands, and remove and kill species of fish, mollusks, birds and mammals in order to support ecological diversity. If we are called to honor the dignity and worth of every member of an ‘invasive’ species we decide to destroy, then the First Principle change may be problematic. Choosing to go forward to destroy “invasives” in order to protect the larger ecological systems our hearts have to grow big enough to register, rather than ignore, the implications for the individuals within the invasive species.
Being awake in this way is overwhelming for me sometimes, and I know for others as well. I believe as a person of faith, I am called to remain open as I try to make changes in the world. To me, work for Beloved Community includes relationship to non-human beings and environment. Building connection to people our culture separates me from is core to my understanding of Beloved Community. Each springs from the same impulse to live my beliefs and work for a better world. One without the other will ultimately fail.
So bring on the conversation to change the First Principle, knowing that we need all the conversations and actions, from as many different perspectives and angles as we can muster. It will be important though, to remember that work towards Beloved Community will likely require us to work with competing values and needs even as we seek to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every being”.