Last month, I spoke about the background of our Unitarian Universalist principles. Specifically, that they constitute Article II of the Association’s bylaws, and that they are a covenant wherein we agree to affirm and promote seven values we hold in common, like the inherent worth and dignity of every person, democratic process, and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, among others. This month, I want to address the proposal to add an 8th Principle to the seven that have stood the test of time.
The proposed 8th Principle is this:
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
Black Lives Matter
I first I preached about the Black Lives Matter movement in the fall of 2015, when we hung our banner on the outside of the church in Ithaca, NY. I spoke about how I had become aware of the injustices that African Americans encounter mainly through seeing videos shared on Facebook. I came to realize that the injustices aren’t new—only the videos are, and the capability for mass distribution. Since around the time Trayvon Martin—the kid with the candy—was killed by the neighborhood watch volunteer in February of 2012, the videos have been coming and coming.
Not only have the reports and the videos of the injustices been coming without ceasing, there have also been many well-written, ground-breaking books that reveal just how racist our institutions and systems are. My understanding of race has increased at least tenfold in the last five or six years.
The shift in calling our attention to systems and policies that uphold a white supremacist system, as opposed to racist individuals, has been helpful. We Whites don’t need to feel guilt, but we do need to change our systems and policies. It’s easier to do the work to move forward when we can move away from blaming ourselves or others.
Another shift is that the conversation is finally coming to include other people of color and indigenous people. I have long felt that our Native populations were harmed at least as much as our Black populations, but that their numbers just weren’t as large and their voices not as loud to get the attention to their issues that Blacks were getting. That is changing, and I’m now seeing more and more attention being paid to the injustices faced by indigenous people in the past and in the present. And the color issues have become more inclusive as well to include people who don’t identify as Black, but still have darker skin than Whites, and experience oppression because of it.
Just as the conversation about oppression has become louder and more urgent at the national level, if not the international, it has also become louder and more urgent within Unitarian Universalism.
Our UUCNH History regarding racism
We have a history around race that is complicated and not real pretty. I’ll try to summarize.
Before the Civil War, we had our share of abolitionists, but we also had slave-holders in our pews. Our moment of pride happened in 1965, when a number of UU ministers answered Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to come to Selma. When one of our own, a young minister named James Reeb, was killed in an attack by white racists, it galvanized not only Unitarian Universalists but the nation. King himself gave the memorial address, and Congress finally passed long-delayed civil rights legislation.
As the civil rights agenda was gaining ground, some started calling for black empowerment. Even as Martin Luther King led the non-violent civil rights march in Washington, Malcolm X was preaching not integration but separatism. This divide was experienced within Unitarian Universalism.
In response to the race riots of 1967, some UU’s got together and a group of them formed a Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus. This group, with the acronym BUUC demanded that the UUA board establish a Black Affairs Council (acronym BAC), to be appointed by the Caucus and funded for four years at $250,000 a year, or a million dollars total. The funds would go for grants to fight political repression and economic exploitation in the black community and support black cultural expressions and community education. In addition to overseeing the grants, the proposed group would allow members to explore their identities as black UUs.
Their approach bothered many Black UU’s. Cornelius McDougald, an African American and chair of the UUA Commission on Religion and Race, refused to join the caucus, saying he was unwilling “to submit to intimidation by blacks or whites.” Thus began a split among black UUs that soon threatened to tear apart the denomination.
McDougald co-founded and co-chaired a group called Black and White Alternative, and later called Black and White Action (acronym BAWA). For some 10 years the acronyms BAC and BAWA signified the deepest division in UU history, according to Warren Ross in a UU World article from 2000.
The UUA Board refused to meet the demands of the Caucus. At the 1968 General Assembly, the Board and President “urged delegates to substitute voluntarily raised funds for the million dollars demanded by the caucus and to accept both BAC and BAWA as affiliate members. However, the delegates voted to form the Black Affairs Council (BAC) and fund it from the association budget. BAWA got neither funding nor affiliate status.”
The UUA leadership tried again to fund BAWA at the 1969 General Assembly. Ross says, “the agenda included a proposal to allocate the second quarter million to BAC and $50,000 to BAWA. BAC insisted that funding both groups would be contradictory—that the UUA either supported black empowerment or it didn’t—and therefore it would refuse funding if BAWA got even a penny.” The BAC and their supporters walked out when a BAWA co-chair attempted to speak. Many left the denomination and never came back.
Later that year, faced with a substantial budget deficit, the UUA pulled some of the funding. The full million dollars never was given. By 1972, both BAC and BAWA ceased to function, yet this past is with us still.
In 1997, the General Assembly voted to commit to intentionally becoming an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural institution. We have been doing this work all along, yet we continue to fall short of our commitments and promises.
Our Renewed Interest in ending Racism
Just as anti-racist efforts in our nation have seen renewed energy in the last few years, so have they in our faith as well. Black Lives UU, also known by its acronym BLUU, was formed in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and they’ve been shining the spotlight on our own faith. In the spring of 2017, triggered by the hire of another white male to a prominent position in the denominational structure, people of color started speaking out about our own insidious racism, our own participation in a culture of white supremacy. President Peter Morales, and two other very senior staff members at the UUA resigned.
There is very little patience for a moderate view. People of color are saying, “enough! Listen to us!” Look at the power structures, look at hiring practices, look at everything we do as a faith, and look at it through our eyes. See how the oppression still goes on, even here, even in our justice-loving, oppression-fighting faith. Look deeply, look honestly, and make the changes that need to be made.
The latest effort to address the unconscious support for White Supremacy in Unitarian Universalism is a proposal to add an 8th principle.
From the website about it, I learned the following: Paula Cole Jones, in working with congregations on these issues for over 15 years, realized that a person can believe they are being a “good UU” and following the 7 Principles without thinking about or dealing with racism and other oppressions at the systemic level. She realized that an 8th Principle was needed to correct this, and talked with Bruce Pollack-Johnson about some of the components that should be in it. Bruce, who was serving the UU Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, put together an initial draft in 2013, and the two of them worked with a group of anti-racist activists to refine it. In May 2017 they recommended that the UUA adopt it. This was right after the white men in top denominational positions resigned over the hiring issue I just mentioned.
The 8th Principle came from a feeling that we need something to renew our commitment to this work, to hold ourselves accountable, and to fulfill the potential of our existing principles.
When it first came to my awareness, and the awareness of the larger UU world, it was right after the proposed revision to the 1st Principle had been getting some attention. This is the proposal to change it from “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” to “the inherent worth and dignity of every being.” I have long thought we need that change, to remind us that other beings besides the human ones are inherently worthy and deserve our support. By assigning animals, plants and other beings a subordinate, non-sacred status, we can continue to justify using them for our ends. Making that change in the first principle would help us to acknowledge that other beings do not exist to serve humans and we might finally get serious about seeking justice for the natural world without concern for whether it benefits humans.
Unitarian Universalists are apparently not ready to go that far. The conversation was just getting started when the 8th Principle was proposed, and the first principle change got set aside as the support for the 8th Principle swelled.
I resisted the proposed 8th Principle at first, because to me, it felt like we were seeking to be more articulate and inclusive of oppressed human populations at the expense of the non-human. It allows us to remain anthropocentric, or human-centered, putting human needs before that of any other beings.
But I realize that this is what’s needed at the moment. At this moment in time, especially with the events of last summer, the continued visibility of injustice against Black and Brown people, and the inclination to finally listen to them and do something to right the injustices—at this moment it feels necessary.
Ours is not an exclusively White denomination, though it often looks that way, including here in this congregation. We have a growing number of Black and Brown people joining us, if tentatively. People like Shannon Lang, who wrote what Scott read earlier, who says “Black people tend to become a part of UU congregations because of the theology, not because of the community.”
We offer a unique theological mix that many find attractive, but we also have a culture that is historically and predominantly White. While many of us find the best part of being a Unitarian Universalist is the community, often referred to as a community of “like-minded individuals,” it turns out that “Black people, when they show up in ways that are culturally divergent from white, middle- and upper-class culture, do not feel welcomed.”
Given our history, given the prominence of the issue of race in our national consciousness, the time feels right for this 8th Principle to be added to our 7 Principles. But more importantly, if our Black UU cohort says we need it, I think we need to listen.
Just as our women challenged us during the Second Wave Feminism in the 1970;s and we made changes—to our language, to our awareness. It feels like now we may be in what William Barber III calls “the Third Reconstruction.” And if we’re not, we should be!
We need to do our part
We need to embrace this 8th principle.
The process for doing so formally is guided by the Article II Study Commission. As I mentioned last month, the process of examining and possibly revising Article II of the UUA Bylaws is a scheduled effort of the UUA Board, demanded by the bylaws themselves. So the Study Commission has been charged with making a proposal to the UUA Board in January of 2023—the year when our national General Assembly will be here in Pittsburgh!
Though the 8th Principle project has been a grassroots effort, outside of the work of the Commission, the Commission wholly supports it. They say, “When the 8th Principle project began, it addressed something vital that had been missing in our UU movement, namely that anti-racism and anti-oppression must be central to congregational life and our community building. The mammoth project of fostering conversation within congregations and other communities, and then calling on those communities to make an explicit statement in the form of the “8th Principle” has become a true groundswell within Unitarian Universalism.” (UUA website)
The UUA Board of Trustees has charged the Commission to include the essence of the 8th Principle in its formal review process. There will be votes at the 2023 and 2024 General Assemblies before it can be formally added to the bylaws.
But we don’t have to wait for the slow movement of institutional bureaucracy. Congregations are adopting it already. The Commission says, “Adopting the 8th Principle at the local level is an act of covenant-making among the members of that Congregation to be anti-racist.” Within our congregation, we can covenant with each other to journey toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
We can add it to our congregational covenant. It’s about time that was revisited, in any case. Maybe in the spring, if it’s safe enough to all be together again by then?
Whether we do a formal process to adopt the 8th principle here or not, let’s live it. Let’s work to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community. Let’s hold ourselves and each other accountable in our actions. Let’s dismantle racism and other oppressions I ourselves and in our institutions.
Let’s start today.
Rev. Jane Thickstun