The Eighth Principle Project – Dismantling Oppressions

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, February 18, 2018



On the back of your order of service are the lyrics of the Seven Principles song written by my first mentor in ministry, the Rev. Bill Sasso’s, own mentor in ministry, the Rev. Tony Larsen, who just retired at the end of 2017 after serving the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine, Wisconsin, for 42 ½ years. In this song, Tony takes the principles that are part of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association and makes them easier to remember. I mean, bylaws language may say exactly what we mean, but for some of us, at least, it feels a little bureaucratic and now as poetic or spiritual. Kids can learn the principles from Tony’s song. Let’s sing them together.


“Seven Principles”
by the Rev. Tony Larsen

Oh I believe in every person’s
worth and dignity
In justice and compassion
I believe in equity
Acceptance of each other
Encouragement to grow
A free and open search for truth
To find the way to go

Affirm the right of conscience
and affirm democracy
The goal of world community
With peace and liberty
Respect the web of nature
Of which we are a part
These are UU Principles
I hold close to my heart


So those are our principles, in simplified form. And there are seven of them. So what’s this “Eighth Principle” business? What’s missing? I mean, it seems to me like they start with the individual, work their way through living in relationship and in community finally down to not just the interconnection of everything but the interdependence of all. Pretty all encompassing, no? So what’s missing? Any guesses?


Paula Cole Jones, Director of Racial & Social Justice in what was then the Joseph Priestley District of the UUA, pointed out how there are two different paradigms in UU circles: the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles and Beloved Community (deep multiculturalism). She had been working with congregations in her district around racial justice issues for 15 years and what became clear to her was that it is completely possible for people to think deeply about the commitments and guidance encapsulated in the Seven Principles without ever engaging in anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and multicultural work in themselves, their congregation, or the larger world. Without ever thinking about the way oppressions are systemic. That we inherit them and, unless people with privilege learn about them and how to dismantle them, it is possible to remain in ignorance about them. She believed that this missing element in our Principles called for the remedy of an eighth principle. She talked the need over with Bruce Pollack-Johnson and, in 2013, he wrote a first draft. Together with other activist Unitarian Universalists they fine-tuned it. One congregation voted to adopt it for themselves. And the process began to get Unitarian Universalist congregations to make it a formal principle of the UUA.[1]


This formal composing and proposing project is not the first time Unitarian Universalists have found something missing in the principles that many love deeply. In 2007, for example, the Rev. Dan Harper preached a sermon on the eighth principle, in which he argued that the current principles imply and other parts of the association’s bylaws state explicitly what could be seen as an eighth principle. He said:


We often talk about these seven principles, but it seems to me that there’s at least one more principle, an eighth principle if you will, that we need to talk about. If you read a little further in Article 2 of bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, you will come to section 2.3, which reads as follows:

“The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.”

This is what I call the eighth principle.[2]


Non-discrimination as an eighth principle. We could argue that non-discrimination is already implied in the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, couldn’t we? The First Principle. But Dan Harper’s focus on it as something left out of the principles seems to point in the same general direction that Paula Cole Jones and Bruce Pollack-Jackson aimed with their proposed Eighth Principle. What does this proposed new principle say?


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.[3]


Like I said earlier, our principles are written to be part of our association’s bylaws and were prepared by hard-working committees and voted in as part of our parliamentary procedure, with Roberts Rules of Order, and all. As a result, have a tendency toward the bureaucratic rather than the poetic, even as they touch deep spiritual chords for many. I admit I find the language of this proposed principle daunting. But, recognizing that the perfect is the enemy of the good, as the old proverb goes, let’s avoid trying to wordsmith and edit and, instead think what it aims to do.


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.


It has five levels of action. On the outermost level, we covenant together. We join our hearts and minds and hands and make a commitment to each other and the world. The second level of action is what we promise each other: to affirm and promote the deep body of the principle. At the core of the principle, the required action is, dismantling racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions. If done, this will lead to the fourth level of action: the building of a diverse multicultural Beloved Community. And building Beloved Community will constitute and result in spiritual wholeness – or, at least, the journey toward it, which is the fifth level of action layered into this proposed principle.


I don’t know about you, but it took me months of thinking about this proposed principle to see it as five layers of action rather than a simple commitment to do right by those whose identity and difference from any definable “us” with power and privilege. The layers of action embedded here are:


  1. To commit in a serious, binding way;
  2. To talk the talk and walk the walk of making this idea a reality;
  3. To dismantle racism and other oppressions in our souls and our congregations;
  4. To build Beloved Community;
  5. To center our journey on this commitment and move toward wholeness.


It is a very specific order that these layered promises and promising emerge. The grammar, parsed by people groomed in parliamentary process and commitment to serving our organizations – the grammar is clear. Commitment. Making reality. Dismantling. Building. Edging our way toward increasing wholeness.


In 1960, the year before the Unitarians and the Universalists consolidated their respective organizations into our Unitarian Universalist Association, they adopted an original six principles that contained much of what we think of as the content of our principles. The nuance and tone felt more organizational than spiritual, perhaps, but that could only be expected as they worked their way toward their organizational joining. Our current seven principles were the result of long struggle, much of it organized and taught and championed by Unitarian Universalist women. It wasn’t until 1984 that the delegates of our congregations voted at our General Assembly to adopt the restructured and less organizational seven principles. We’ve now had more than 33 years in which to grow attached to our principles as they are. Our SEVEN principles. Though some of us really dislike it, others of us have even become so attached to the sevenness and to the values embedded in the seven that an attempt has even been made to create a Unitarian Universalist winter holiday called Chalica, lighting a chalice each of seven nights in the home, and each night focusing on one of the Seven Principles in turn. Many Unitarian Universalists love, I mean they really looooove their Principles. Some people don’t want them to change because they have entered, for them, into the realm of untouchable tradition.


Others have a different connection to the seven. My beloved current mentor, the Rev. Deborah Cayer, who gave the charge to the minister at my installation here two years ago, minister at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina – she told me the other day that, though she completely agrees with everything the Eighth Principle Project seeks to accomplish, she doesn’t think we need the new principle added to our bylaws to pursue and achieve those goals. Partly she thinks that the specificity of the proposed eighth principle is different in kind from the other principles, and that the current principles, in their commitment to justice, community, and the worth and dignity of every individual, already have this covered if we would only turn them into action rather than revering them as unassailable traditions. But more importantly she describes a mystical feeling of connection to the number seven. We have seven days of the week. We come from two traditions that grew out of the same sacred stories, in which Creation itself was accomplished in six epochs called “days,” followed by a seventh “day” of cessation from the work of creation. These sacred stories became the model for or were modeled on a cycle of seven as the basis of society. Seven is invested with mystical value, symbolizing completion.


The Rev. Tom Schade, on the other hand, whom I also respect greatly, argues that we need the new principle because the seven are too unrealistically optimistic.[4] There is no hint in our principles of the evil that lurks in our world, in civilization, in our nation, and in our beloved institutions. Dominance and oppression are the legacy we have received from the past, as much as our sense that we can and should do better. We need a principle that recognizes the reality and prescribes action to overcome it rather than looking through rose-colored glasses.


From my perspective, at this time we have one overwhelmingly compelling reason for supporting and learning to love the commitments of this proposed principle: BLUU (Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism), our leading denominational group aimed at bringing racial equity to Unitarian Universalism have asked us to support this principle that provides a tool for promoting equity and the leadership of people of color. Let’s not weasel out of our implied and explicit commitments to avoid making the commitment to this five-fold action plan aiming us toward greater wholeness.


Amen and Blessed Be.








© 2018 by Rev. Paul Oakley