Rev. Jane Rzepka, whose words you heard in the reading, tells another story that is relevant to today’s topic. She says:
I performed a wedding not long ago, and had a little trouble with the marriage license: it blew away. That’s right–in all its signed, stamped, sealed and ready-to-go splendor, it, hoping no doubt to avoid eternal life in a file drawer, just sailed into the heavens on that windy wedding day and was never seen again.
So I went to Boston City Hall. Having had previous trouble proving conclusively that I was a “man of the cloth,” I had my ordination certificate along. Having occasionally been suspected of I never knew quite what, I thought to bring the actual wedding ceremony, the couple’s check, our parish register, church letterhead, and my driver’s license. (I had a few nice wedding pictures along too, just in case.) But the woman said, “No dice. I have to see the ‘church records.’” It did no good to point out that this hefty stack of offerings was the church records–she wasn’t budging. Neither of us, it turned out, could imagine exactly what kind of “church records” would suffice. In fact, none would. She concluded that this was a problem that couldn’t be solved.
I hated to go to jail, which is what I always figured happened to ministers who didn’t properly file marriage licenses, so I kept at it. After a couple of hours, I, too, began to doubt that I’d ever performed the wedding, become a minister, or been born and given a name, though eventually the evidence did suffice.
As an adolescent, when I sometimes doubted my existence or my place in the universe, I turned to the existentialists if only to confirm the legitimacy of the doubt. But the actual healing came from the love, or even the nonchalant acceptance, of folks around me. May we remember to do that for each other.” (“The One that Got Away”, by Jane Rzepka, from her meditation manual: A Small Heaven.(p. 23))
Was Rev. Rzepka’s worth and dignity dependent on her credentials? Was her existence dependent on there being a birth certificate? For that matter, does the marriage of that couple depend on there being a marriage license? Have you ever doubted your place in the universe? Wondered if you really deserved to take in the air around you? Have you ever felt that your stupidity disqualified you for membership in the human race?
Our First Principal
The first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This is no lightweight assertion. It is not something easily achieved. To affirm and promote the worth and dignity of everyone means believing everyone has it, and that can be quite difficult, especially when it comes to certain people. Even when we believe it, in the heat of the moment when someone is behaving badly, it is easy to forget. The first principle is something to shoot for, to strive for, something that can challenge us and engage us and even frustrate us.
This first principle is the very foundation of who we are as Unitarian Universalists. It was what caused the separation from the Trinitarians when our faith was just forming. We grew apart from our siblings in faith over the view of humanity. Coming out of a context of Calvinism, which believed only an elect are saved and the rest of us go to hell, and which believed that Jesus was divine and we were not, Unitarians lifted up humanity because they saw the divine principle in human beings. The Trinitarians saw this as denying that Jesus was divine, and called us Unitarians for that, but really we were lifting up humanity to the level of Jesus, not demoting Jesus.
The first principle revolves around the doctrine of original sin, the idea that we are all sinful at birth because Adam and Eve at the apple from the tree of knowledge. Unitarians believed—indeed, believe—that we are all innocent at birth, and can lose our way, but don’t need to believe that a savior died for our sins in order to save us. This view of humanity has always been the hallmark of Unitarian faith.
Universalist Tradition for Worth and Dignity
The Universalists arose around the same time, also in contrast to the dominant Calvinist faith in this country. The Universalists formed a denomination based on the doctrine of Universal Salvation—the belief that everyone would be saved. In their case, it wasn’t because they thought so highly of humanity, but rather, they believed God was too good to condemn anyone to an eternity in hell. Thomas Starr King, who served both Unitarian and Universalist congregations, famously said: “The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn [humanity], while the Unitarians believe that [humanity] is too good to be damned by God.” It doesn’t matter what you or they have imagined salvation or damnation to be – the fact that everyone gets equal treatment is what is important to this discussion.
The first principle is thus foundational to both our parent faiths, and to our current merged incarnation as well. I believe it is the theological foundation that underlies all the other principles and defines us as a unique religion. We are not a philosophical society that embraces all religions; ours is a religion in its own right that, while open to learning from other religious traditions, yet has its own identity. And that identity is encapsulated in the first principle.
Worth and Dignity is Inherent
It is important to note that the worth and dignity we seek to affirm and promote is inherent. It is inseparable from our being, from our existence. It has nothing to do with what people DO, it is what they ARE. No matter how we behave, we cannot lose our inherent worth and dignity.
In spite of the best intentions of parents, most of us got the message growing up that our worth depended on our good behavior. Then we spend the entirety of our adult lives in therapy unlearning it. And for those of you who haven’t gotten to therapy yet, let me proclaim it to you: YOUR WORTH DOES NOT DEPEND ON YOUR BEHAVIOR! You are of value no matter what you do. Some call it God’s unconditional love. In theistic language, God still loves you even if you have made yourself pretty unlovable in the eyes of most humans. Or, in non-theistic terms, you are worthy of love no matter what you do. And the realization of that, if you truly internalize it and believe it in your core—it should be enough to redeem you, to enable you to find the way again, to enable you to love and so to be loved again.
There are human beings who push to the limits our ability to live this principle, or even cause us to doubt it. The classic example has been Hitler, but he has competition now. And the examples keep coming now. For a while, in the aftermath of 9/11, everyone was talking about the evil man, Osama bin Laden. More recently, certain American politicians have caused some to wonder. Then there are the mass shooters, the ones who kill people just because they’re Jewish, or black, or peacefully protesting. Does our first principle require us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of even people like them? Don’t they forfeit their worth and dignity by such heinous actions? Don’t Hitler and bin Laden and mass murderers by their deeds and by their intentions cut themselves off from humanity? Don’t they lay their humanity aside when they do such evil things?
The answer is No. The worth and dignity belongs to every person. It is inherent. It is not something that can be laid aside, no matter what anybody does. This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be stopped when their behavior is destructive. By all means, stop them. And if the only way to stop them is to kill them, then perhaps that is justified. But they still have inherent worth and dignity.
I am bothered by the way the word “evil” is being thrown about these days. It is all too easy to absolve ourselves by declaring the other to be “evil” and so outside the pale. It is all too easy to break the world down into good and evil — so black and white – and of course the ones who do so always believe themselves to be on the side of good. It is the other who is evil. And in declaring the other to be evil, we deny them their humanity, and we justify our own violent reactions to them.
People justify the proliferation of guns by saying the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. If it were only that simple.
Good and Evil Co-Exist
But the fact is that good and evil exist side-by-side in all of us. We all have the capability for goodness, and we all have the capability to do evil. In the bible story, when the people were about to stone the woman who did something awful, like adultery or prostitution–I can’t remember– Jesus says to them, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” Nobody throws a stone.
If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we have desires that our more noble side advises us not to act on. It is a constant struggle to obey the voice of the higher principle within us, or even to identify it and its message. To assign evil elsewhere and deny it exists in us is what modern psychology calls “projection,” and there is a real danger in doing that. When we don’t acknowledge our own stuff, we can’t control it. Unacknowledged power gets abused. And if we are incapable of seeing the potential for evil in ourselves, we are more likely to act it out.
The balance of good and evil in any individual is merely a matter of degree, or maybe a matter of whether we’re under stress or not. It is not an either/or; it is not black and white. Furthermore, we cease to try to understand the other once we write them off as evil. To declare another evil and then using that to justify withdrawing their rights is self-righteous. It is the position of terrorists. It is the position of the Donald Trumps of America. It is incompatible with a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
I am aware that there are Unitarian Universalists who support a death penalty, but I find it incompatible with our first principle. If we truly believe every person has inherent worth and dignity, how can we justify taking a life? If we truly believe that our value is not dependent on what we do, then nothing we do can take it away. Nothing.
Of course we have to protect ourselves. But if we have captured the evil-doer and put them into custody, we are safe. If we don’t believe we are safe from our prisoner, then we need better security. The point of capital punishment is not to protect society. It is to satisfy a desire for revenge. The desire for revenge, while perfectly natural and understandable, is not one of our nobler instincts, and not one we should feel good about acting on. Violence is justifiable to protect from harm, and only to the degree that protection is achieved. If a child is poking you in the eye, you hold her hands so that she can’t do it; you don’t throw her across the room. If a person is resisting arrest, you restrain them, you don’t shoot them.
Sometimes killing may be needed to stop more killing. A more interesting question than capital punishment is the issue of war. Is it ever justified? Can we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person while doing it? Or at least not violate that principle?
I’ve talked about what it means to have inherent worth and dignity, but what does it mean to “affirm and promote it?” In a book called, Our Seven Principles in Story and Verse, UU minister Kenneth Collier says, “Sometimes affirmation and promotion require nothing more than listening and agreeing, or no more than a friendly disagreement, an intellectual conversation. Sometimes it requires me to hold myself in respectful opposition to someone and to speak truths that are painful to others or myself.
Sometimes it requires me to hold people accountable for their actions, and sometimes it requires me to do things that are difficult and painful but ultimately healing. Sometimes it requires that I go in harm’s way and take risks for myself and others. Sometimes it even requires me to hurt someone. And probably more often than I like to admit, it requires me to change my behavior, my way of living, my way of thinking about things. It requires me to admit that I have been wrong.” (p. 17)
Our recognition of the inherent worth and dignity of others is intricately tied to our recognition of our own inherent worth and dignity, and vice versa. If I can’t see it in myself, I will have a hard time seeing it in others. And much of the time – oh, stupid, stupid me! – it is hard to see it in ourselves, hard to feel worthy. And if our childhood training has been really thorough, it may be very difficult to believe we have inherent worth and dignity. It can be one of those things that we may accept and believe at the level of thinking, yet find hard to really believe at a deeper, more gut level. In that case I recommend good, old-fashioned faith. We need to take it on faith, or in the language of modern psychology, to act as if we believe it.
It is also easier to see it in ourselves if we can see it in others. In the words of Ken Collier, “I cannot recognize the worth and dignity within myself unless I also recognize it everywhere I may look, even in people within whom it is dark and hidden, rejected and forgotten. . . . As far as I fail to recognize the Profound Beauty in another, I fail to see it clearly in myself. As far as I deny it in another, I deny it in myself. The extent to which I affirm it in myself, I must affirm it wherever I look, for, as every religious genius who has ever lived has affirmed, the center of the universe is everywhere, not least in the hearts of every human being.” (p. 19)
One way I’ve viewed this principle is in the second formulation of the categorical imperative, the foundation of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ethics. The imperative says
“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” In other words, don’t use people as objects.
As I mentioned in my sermon on the 8th principle, I believe we need to change our first principle to refer to all beings, not just human beings. I believe everything that lives has inherent worth and dignity, and that we need to respect that. We could learn from indigenous peoples about how to do that. Our anthropocentric view is killing our planet, and the sooner we can recognize that other beings don’t exist to serve our ends, the better.
Striving for Worth and Dignity
But even if we are only applying it to humanity, the first principle is demanding. Do we always live up to it? Of course not. It is something to strive toward, an ideal, a belief that can guide our actions. When Jane Rzepka was doubting her existence or her place in the universe, she says “the actual healing came from the love, or even the nonchalant acceptance, of folks around me.” By affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of others, by behaving toward others as if they matter, recognizing and honoring their worth, respecting them no matter what they do, we can facilitate healing. We can help others see their worth and realize their potential, and in the process, we see our own worth. We can make a difference in the world.
May we do that for each other, every day.
Rev. Jane Thickstun