Relationship Trumps Theology
First Unitarian Church of Alton
In July, one of our sibling congregations, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans experienced a protest during the pastoral prayer by Operation Save America. Operation Save America had descended on New Orleans for a week to engage in an intense effort to close abortion clinics in the city. On this particular Sunday morning, Rev. Deanna Vandiver was in the middle of leading the congregation in prayer when members of the OSA stood up and began exhorting their opinions about abortion referring to the UU congregation as a synagogue of satan and handing out anti-abortion information to those gathered. Meanwhile, outside of the building other protestors were holding up posters of aborted fetuses against the windows of the religious education classrooms where the children were gathered for classes.
Let me ask you this question- what would you have done in this situation? What would we do if that were to occur during this very service? (pause) What the congregation did was dig deep into our religious values and respond with compassion, patience, and boundaries. They strived for relationship where theological difference was a barrier. What is most interesting is that, while this was a traumatic event for many, relationship won the day. The minister invited the OSA protesters in the sanctuary to either leave or to stay and quietly be with the community. It just happened that there was a group of high school age youth from the College of Social Justice participating in justice and leadership and training in New Orleans visiting the congregation that day. They sang hymns about love during the loudest part of the protest. The congregation modeled disagreeing respectfully.
At the same time, they did not accept this behavior as welcome. The thing about relationship is that it requires communication and listening. The protesters had not come to listen. So, the minister and the congregation quickly set guidelines for what was necessary for the protesters to stay. Those who could not comply agreed to leave the space. The children were moved to a classroom that had no windows and with the support of the police, the protesters moved off of the property onto the sidewalk to protest. After worship was over, Rev. Vandiver called the local Planned Parenthood who immediately sent volunteers to walk people from the church to their cars much like they do for women attending the clinics. That week, the congregation worked with area organizations to send a message of love and community that was counter to the OSA protests occurring in New Orleans that week. All in all, given the situation, this congregation handled everything very well.
That is not to say that it was easy and certainly the minister’s and congregations training and skill played a part. As a covenantal faith, we have long since had a focus on relationship over and above theology. Theology has been important in our formation, true, but we have long been more about deeds than creeds even going back to our Puritan days.
The reading this morning is from a modern reflection on a historical document called The Cambridge Platform. That document set forth our polity- or way of organizing- as a denomination. How churches choose to organize says a lot about what they believe or think as a religion. In our case, this document was written in response to another platform document written in England. The one in England set the churches relationship to the government and monarchy and formalized a hierarchy of sorts. The Cambridge Platform, on the other hand, stated clearly what the Puritans had long believed- that churches are the responsibility of the community- of the members gathered. Emphasis was placed on personal responsibility to your church community and the importance of lay leaders to the everyday implementation of church life. Ministers were there to study and preach. Lay leaders handled everything else. These communities believed that they were creating Heavenly communities here on earth in anticipation of the world’s end. They were to make these communities holy now, not after death.
Even today, that informs the theologies and philosophies of today’s Unitarian Universalists. You may or may not believe in an afterlife, but most Unitarian Universalists do believe in the importance of doing good work in the here and now and not waiting for justice deferred to heaven. For me this is the heart of relationship- how we act in the here and now- our deeds and not just our words.
The phrase “relationships trump theology” comes from a sermon at our national Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Rhode Island this year. Next Sunday, the entirety of that sermon, which covered a different array of topics will be played, but for this week, I want to expound on this one concept from that sermon. One of our military chaplains, Rev. Rebekah Montgomery shares in her sermon her experiences as a military chaplain in Afghanistan and domestically. At one she explains that one of the most important things that we, as Unitarian Universalists bring to the table is the importance of relationship over belief.
We, as a religion, encompass people of a wide array of theologies, philosophies, and ontologies. In fact, we somewhat rely on the differences between individual values. As Rev. Judith Walker-Riggs puts it, “how welcoming is your Unitarian Universalist church if there is not something happening there that you do not approve of?” In other words, we are not here to like everything or everyone. That said, we are not called to be unkind, spiteful, or highly critical. That can be a difficult line to walk.
This brings us back to the language of covenant. As a covenantal faith, we rely on the agreements that we make among one another about how we will be as communities. Congregations and groups that fail to name these expectations often find themselves in heightened church conflict or discomfort when these expectations are not stated and agreed upon. In some ways, this idea of being covenantal is radical even if it is hundreds of years old. Why? Because that is not our society’s norm. How do we have norms in diverse communities that are not based on the cultural norms of the privileged community in any given place?
Let me give you some examples of what I mean. With the events in Ferguson, MO, Beavercreek, OH, Sanford, FL, Oakland, CA, and on and on, we have had some really open and honest conversations about race. What is truly fascinating is the tendency for people from privileged community- those who have the power whether wanted or not- to deny the lived experiences of those who are marginalized. One woman shared her realization that once a friend questions whether her experience as an African American woman is real or not they are immediately moved to acquaintance status. How can she be friends with someone who does not trust her experience of receiving tickets unfairly, being followed in stores, or needing to pay attention to what clothes she wears so that she is not hassled?
Unfortunately this is all too common. I personally have experienced discrimination and distrust at the hands of police as a transgender person. I, like many gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer individuals, make decisions about my day based on whether I want to deal with discrimination or not. Planning when to drink water so that you do not need a bathroom before you are near one that is safe to use. Refusing to go out at certain times of day. Avoiding towns where cops are notoriously problematic, etc.
Perhaps these differences are most apparent when people come from other countries to interact in our systems of oppression. A Catholic priest friend of mine from Kenya once shared that anger and embarrassment of being pulled over in a predominantly white major Midwestern city when he was driving an old parishioner home. She was sick and did not feel safe to drive in the increasingly deteriorating icy weather. They were stopped by an office her repeatedly asked him whether this was his car, what he was doing there, and asking the women if she was safe. Eventually, the officer let them go. My friend commented that never in his life had he experienced such things as intensely or frequently as racism in the United States.
The truth is that our society does not do healthy relationship between differences well. This means that our tendency to focus on covenant and relationship is truly a revolutionary and prophetic act and one that requires our vigilance and practice. Practicing this prophetic witness begins with us. The differences between one another here are already so varied that it can be complicated to navigate how to be in relationship because we do not all speak the same cultural languages.
Someone sneezes. What is the appropriate response? In Arizona and much of the Southwest the majority of people say “salud.” “Bless their heart,” is an insult in the South. Let’s take this up a notch for a moment. This is based on the work of Margaret E. Anderson who is a consultant and trainer in consensus building gives a “You Can’t Lose” quiz to help get at some of the diversity within our own communities. Here are a few examples- just do your best to answer them based on the information given.
Listen to each of these and determine which you prefer, A or B.
You walk into the Fellowship’s office and someone asks:
- “Would you make ten copies of this?”
- “Could you make ten copies of this?”
A man and yourself are assigned to work on a project in two parts. You would really like to work on Part 1. When you meet with him, he says, “I want to work on Part 1. So, you take Part 2.” You say,
- “Hey, you’re not my boss.”
- “No, I want to do Part 1.”
- “I’d sort of like to do Part 1.”
You are eating dinner with your friend Roger. The butter is on the table next to you, but too far for Roger to reach. He says, “Would you like some butter?” Do you:
- Say, “Yes, thank you,” and take some butter.
- Say, “no, thank you,” and continue eating.
- Pass the butter to Roger saying, “Please help yourself.”
((Ask about the answers to each one)).
Today and in the next few weeks our children and youth will be creating covenants for their classrooms. So often, our children lead the way for our faith. What they will hopefully learn is that covenants are not rules. They are promises. Covenant is originally from the Middle English meaning to agree or convene. At that time, it referred to a legal contract with the assumption that was agreed to would be followed. Over time, the meaning has morphed to the changing culture of religions. You can see an example of covenants in our hymnal beginning at number #471. Lets take a moment to read #473. (read it)
You notice that the language is not law based. It is a statement of how we are to be together- what the church does. Covenants are active, short, and easy to understand when they are at their best.
For Unitarian Universalists, here are some basic assumptions about covenants:
- it is created jointly by the community that agrees to follow them
- it is reviewed regularly to make sure that they are current and relevant
- it will be broken and it is as important to know what to do if the covenant is broken as it is to follow it
- when the covenant is broken, the response is not punitive, it is about reconciliation
I want to close with this last concept. Covenants are not hard rules that require some form of retribution and atonement. That is one of the many ways in which Unitarian Universalism is unique. We aren’t about judging, damning, or putting up walls. We are about setting healthy boundaries. What might this look like?
There was a congregation that had a covenant in place as well as a Right Relationship Team that helped members, friends, and staff, to respond to particularly difficult breeches of covenant. A man had slapped a woman on the behind and, as you might imagine, the woman was highly offended. The man refused to apologize thinking that what he had done was not so egregious. As you might imagine, things escalated. Now in a punitive system, there might have been a hard rule that said, if he had done this that he would be asked to leave or fined or made to do penance. In a reconciling system, the parties are encouraged to speak with each other, to set agreements about how things will be in the future, and to set boundaries.
In this instance, conversations were had between the relevant parties. The man agreed to apologize. He also understood that future actions like this would result in him being asked to leave the community for a period of time. One interesting thing about covenants is that there is an avenue for asking people to leave the church for a while and an avenue for return. For example, the guidelines for returning to a community may be a formal apology, attending a class on anger management or preventing sexual harassment, having an accountability partner, or simply refraining from having a similar breech in the future.
In other words, actions have consequences, but that is not the same as punitive measures. We are about relationship with and among, not power over. The promises we make to each other are mutual and those who chose to come into this community would agree to those promises as a part of participating. It is an active and dynamic system that models for our greater society how to be imperfect and whole all at once.
How would things have been different in Ferguson if this had been the model? How did First UU New Orleans benefit from awareness of such practices?
Relationship trumps theology. This is a call for us to be in healthy relationship ESPECIALLY when it isn’t easy. When we are faced with a protestor telling us we are going to hell in our pews. When we say something or do something racist, classist, homophobic, agist, whether we meant to or not. What we are called to is to foster healthy relationship with healthy boundaries, first in ourselves, then in our communities, and then in the world. It is a lifelong process. There is not check it off the list goal involved. Covenant is malleable like the humans that informs it and are informed by it.
Relationship trumps theology. This is a call to celebrate difference and diversity. To embrace the beauty and struggle of a world where we cannot even agree on how to ask for the butter. J It is a call to strive for a healthy world transformed by our care. A call to build bridges and live into love and grace.
To close, I wish to share again the words of Alice Blaire Wesley,
“But if one does not speak of the covenant that constitutes the community as a church, the promise that all are cordially invited to enter, then what does one say is the basis of a liberal church? Long experience teaches that it cannot be a creed. I hope the day comes when many can explain, ‘Ours is a covenantal church. We join by promising one another that we will be a beloved community, meeting together often to find the ways of love, as best we can see to do. We have found there is always more to learn about how love really works, and could work, in our lives and in the world.’”
May it be so.