Inherent Worth and Dignity

a sermon by the Rev. Paul Oakley
10:00 AM, Sunday, June 3, 2018



This church year I have been preaching an eight-sermon series on the Principles of Unitarian Universalism. In September, I preached on the Seventh Principle, concluding that the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part brings the paradox of independence and belonging, autonomy and need into our expressions of commitment. In November, I preached on the Fifth Principle, concluding that the reform of our voting system to include every adult citizen in our formal decision-making process is not just a good idea, a just idea, a compassionate idea, it is a mandate of our faith. In December I preached on the Sixth Principle, about being part of a great world community that is covenanted to nudge, to urge the world to an evolving greater love, which will overcome hate because we trust that the moral arc of the universe can be bended toward justice. It is a long game, and it defines us.


In January we took up the Fourth Principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” And I said, “The broader your circles of interdependence and right relationship, the greater chance you have of parlaying the power of your freedom into a core of truth, meaning, and value.” In February we looked at the proposed Eighth Principle, which would call us to be actively engaged in dismantling racism and other oppressions. I told you that, from my perspective, we have all the reason we need to support this proposed principle in the support it receives from Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, whom our delegates to General Assembly have voted to support. We may see anti-racism/ anti-oppression/ multicultural work in our congregations as fulfilling the mandates of other principles, but the other principles do not unambiguously name this work as necessary work of Unitarian Universalist congregations.


In March we turned to the Third Principle, in which we commit to accept and encourage the spiritual growth of those in our congregations. I noted that this principle does not call on us to evaluate the spiritual growth of the person next to us, but to encourage it. Then in May, the Second Principle. I drew your attention to the contrast between justice in its general, legal sense and in its value as a spiritual practice. Legal and cultural justice adds pain to the system to balance the pain a perpetrator has inflicted on another, while the spiritual practice of justice seeks to reduce and remove pain from the system. Legal justice may seek to punish, but spiritual justice seeks to redeem. We looked at how equity calls on us to make it possible for people to pursue equal outcomes rather than simply providing equal resources to people with different needs with no care for how one is able to access and gain benefit from those resources.


Today is the last sermon in the series, in which we will focus on the First Principle. In the words of the song, “Oh, I believe in every person’s worth and dignity…” In the Tapestry of Faith curricula, the simplified version for children goes, “We believe that each and every person is important.” Or, in the formal, bureaucratic language of the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The significant difference between the song or the children’s version, on the one hand, and the formal principle, on the other, is that the First Principle, as it appears in the Bylaws, just like all the other principles, is not concerned about belief but action. We covenant to affirm and promote these things, and nary a word is said about belief. We commit to some for of action, not to the content of what we believe to be objectively true.


When I became a Unitarian Universalist, this was not just the first principle I heard, it was the principle that was easiest to latch onto. At the beginning, the other six principles didn’t sound very religious or spiritual or even compelling to my ear. When I came to this religion, I had already been a civil libertarian, or, to be precise, a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union for more than 20 years. Walter and I met at an ACLU meeting. When I thought about civil rights and human rights, it was the rights of the individual, not the rights of a group or through a group that I thought about. I was easily able to plug into the Enlightenment, humanist value that placed the citizen, the individual in the position as most sacred. So, new to this religion, it was the principle whose perspective was right where I already was. The values of the Declaration of Independence or of the French Revolution, the values of our Bill of Rights, the values of Locke – these were the values I read and interpreted in as I first bathed in the soothing waters of the First Unitarian Universalist Principle.


At Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, our many discussions of the Seven Principles frequently made their way back to the question of what we believe. Do we really believe that the person who has done great harm to others had inherent worth and dignity? Does the murderer, the rapist, the serial abuser, a torturer have inherent worth and dignity? Does a Hitler or a Stalin or a Pol Pot have inherent worth and dignity? Is the person who has suffered massive abuse at the hands of another really able to retain their dignity, or does it get stripped away? If worth and dignity are inherent, that means we are born with it, but does that mean it is a permanent feature of our lives? Or can we damage it or lose it or have it taken from us. These were essential discussion points, forcing us to think more deeply than merely saying blithely, “Oh, I believe in every person’s worth and dignity.” We future ministers in our seminary classes did not all agree with each other, nor did our seminary tell us what the right answer was. And how could they? The Seven Principles to not speak about belief but about commitment.


One of my instructors was the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, who had been the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1985 to 1993. He was executive director of Amnesty International USA from 1994 to 2006 and then president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee from 2010 to 2016. In his work with Amnesty International, he studied deeply and reflected and wrote on torture and other human rights abuses. In his books and articles, as in the class setting at my seminary, he reflected on the First Principle in relations to such abuses. A significant point in his reflection was on the nature of rights themselves. Where do rights come from? A traditional Christian understanding of rights is that they are granted by God. With different parameters and understandings of what that meant, the Deists who were instrumental in composing this nation’s foundational documents believed that rights are inalienable, that they come with the human person. Civil Libertarians and other Humanists, while not making a point of the divine origin of rights, nonetheless tend to see the rights of humans as a function of right and wrong. It is, after all, not uncommon for privileged citizens of the wealthy countries of the world to put great effort into fighting against the human rights abuses they see in very different cultures around the globe, where at least some of what they see as abuses is bedrock deep in the culture.


With good reason, Westerners look at the treatment of women, female genital mutilation, the treatment of the outcast, and many other things that are so “self-evidently” crimes against humanity and against the rights of the individual, and looking at these things are horrified and demand change. What we see as human rights is more like a growing rights-consciousness in privileged societies than it is something that is self-evident in any literal sense. Steeped in the global abuses that came before him at Amnesty International, Bill Schulz spent more time than many Unitarian Universalists thinking about the nature of evil in the world and the nature of our rights in our current global context.


In this religious movement, we have a culture and history of optimism. We do frequently believe that humanity is good and that everyone has within them everything they need to be all they can be. As a group, we tend to believe this even when the evidence points another direction. It’s in our religious DNA. Our spiritual ancestors rejected the idea of Original Sin that held sway in early 19th-Century New England Calvinism. The Unitarians rejected Predestination, the idea that God determined who would be saved and damned from before the foundations of time. Instead, they held that humans choices shaped human destiny. The Universalists believed that God’s nature as the source of life and love meant that everyone was predestined to spend eternity with God rather than in hell. As a movement we are spiritually primed to see humanity in positive terms.


But Bill Schulz was forced to be more realistic about human nature and history. In several forums he presented an analysis that rejects the notion that everyone IS essentially good. What we can observe in human behavior belies that simple understanding. Those who torture or who are damaged by torture are not simply not in the same psychic and spiritual position as the person whose life is relatively untouched by horror. So when Bill Schulz looks at the First Principle, he simply cannot make the leap from the words on the page to a belief about humanity. It was from him I first learned to go back to the language: “We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Some individuals may seem irredeemable. But our own redemption, if you will, is tied up in our affirmation and promotion of inherent worth and dignity even of that person we find irredeemable. Creating conditions where inherent worth can be recognized and where the dignity of each individual can flourish is not dependent on our belief but on our commitment to act together. Our own liberation is tied together with the liberation of others.


And so we behave as if each individual has inherent worth and dignity and we behave in ways to create the conditions for the worth and dignity of others to emerge and grow. We don’t have to agree about whether a future or current torturer is inherently good, of inherent worth, of inalienable dignity before committing to make the world into the kind of place that encourages good and builds the possibility of good, together. For Bill Schulz, it is that commitment to prophetic action that transcends descriptive reality that makes the First Principle compelling – not what it seems to say about human nature.


Of course, we live in a society grounded in individualism, where the individual is monarch or dictator with a right not to be offended, a right to be catered to. David Books, conservative columnist for the New York Times, recently noted that there is a book by Dr. Seuss that has been referred to frequently in the season of graduations: “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”


Congratulations! / Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places! / You’re off and away!

You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

And will you succeed? / Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)



Brooks notes, among other fallacies in the story, that it shows a misplaced faith in individual autonomy and a misplaced notion of the self, building a narcissistic idolatry that ignores the core importance of connection and interdependence.[1] Our history of reaction against the self-annihilating aspects of a rejected Calvinism and our national cult of self sometimes lead Unitarian Universalists to see the First Principle as a stand-alone principle that lifts the individual in similar sorts of disconnected, autonomous ways. Inherent worth and dignity, like the biblical assertion that the human is made in the likeness and image of God, is an affirmation a corrective in a world that has frequently denigrated the worth of the individual. But it is only in connection with all the other principles that we avoid the “idolatry of the mind” that is toxic individualism.


Emma Lazarus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lilla Watson and others have each reminded us that our freedom is only an illusion if it is not connected to the well-being of all. “We are none of us free until all of us are free.” Our First Principle, separated from its history and context and our other promises, brings no life. But as part of an interdependent web of obligation and purpose, inherent worth and dignity prompt us to build systems of justice as we dismantle racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and other oppressions. Our First Principle. Will we make it an idol? Or use it to build the equitable world we dream of?


Amen and Blessed Be!




© 2018 by the Rev. Paul Oakley