Presented on November 7th, 2021 Rev. Fiona Heath
Today is the third of an occasional series on our eight principles and I am looking at our fifth principle: We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
This principle has its origins in the work of the 20th century influential Unitarian minister Rev. A. Powell Davies. He added the phrase, “the democratic process in human relations” in the original six principles adopted in 1961. (From https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2867631-with-purpose-and-principle)
To Davis, democracy is the social and political expression of [a] religious principle – “that all human beings are kin and humankind a family”. I like that idea that for us democracy arises out of relatedness, out of kinship.
As UUs we take the fifth principle seriously, we want each person to have a say in the choices we make. But we also know that majority rule has its limitations. That we need more than fifty percent plus one to make a good decision.
The lived reality in most UU congregations boards and committees is informal consensus – making sure people agree with decisions made. If there are too many objections we stop and check in. Adjustments may be made or a decision made to wait.
No one of us has all the answers or “the truth” and as we hear one another’s concerns and ideas we usually end up with a better decision. This doesn’t mean one person can block the needs of the whole, but that they aren’t ignored.
Decisions may take longer but in the end they are stronger. Church moves at the speed of trust.
Decisions happen when people trust one another, trust that they are listened to, trust that what needs to be discussed will be discussed, trust that leaders have the interests of the whole paramount.
This trust arises from relationships, from the time we take in check-in to get to know each other.
We build from conocimiento (Con – o – cee – myento), a Columbian word which means “to nurture connection by sharing knowledge of each other.” In Columbia conocimiento creates connections, finds common values, which leads to a stronger commitment to shared work. Congregations work best in this way. (Mark Nepo, More Together than Alone, 2018)
All this is to say that for me the essence of democracy is not “one person, one vote” but people talking together.
We talk together well when we develop what American educator Parker Palmer says are five “habits of the heart” that create a healthy democracy.
The first is to understand that we are all in this together. That we are, in UU terms, part of the interdependent web of all existence. “We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent upon and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger.”
For Parker Palmer, the second is to appreciate the value of the stranger, the other. To remember and respect that we aren’t all alike, that we can learn from the person not like us. I had a professor who used to say that inter-faith groups couldn’t succeed until faith leaders were willing to speak of the differences between them.
The third habit of the heart is the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Creating connections with others who are different involves tension. Palmer suggests we learn to manage contradiction creatively: “The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life.” From tension can come growth.
Palmer’s fourth habit of the heart is to own our own voice and agency. We speak and act out our understanding of the truth. We value our own voice and use it.
The fifth habit is a capacity to create community. Without a community who is there to hear our voice? Community amplifies our voice, helps our power to grow and increase. As Palmer says “We must all become gardeners of community if we want democracy to flourish.”
These five habits of the heart make democracy possible and effective:
To know that we are all in this together.
To appreciate the value of the other.
To hold tension in life giving ways.
To have a sense of your voice and agency.
And finally, the capacity to create community.
Palmer calls these habits of the heart – and I think that’s important – these aren’t intellectual stances but embodied abilities. All of them reflect the values we aspire to as Unitarian Universalists and are growing in the soil of this community. They need tending and care to grow.
Parker Palmer speaks of having a sense of our own voice and agency as necessary part of democracy. Of knowing our truths. Another way to say this is in the fifth principle – the right of conscience.
Democracy, talking together, works best when we speak from the “still, small voice within”, that sense of what is right and needed.
The right of conscience can be easily misused to push individual rights to the exclusion of all else, which we can see happening in this pandemic around vaccination policies.
Conscience is knowing what is right and what is wrong for you, conscience is not about imposing your right and wrong on others.
We know that there are many truths, that each of us can only say what is true for us, to create our common truth we have to talk together, and the common truth will not be a perfect fit for each of us.
And we know that the collective good sometimes outweighs the individual. That’s okay – when it is not part of a long standing pattern of oppression. The task of our time is to ensure that the collective good stops resting on the exploitation of indigenous nations and people of colour, on the most vulnerable.
Our conscience checks in and lets us know if we are living in alignment with our values, if we are treating ourselves and others with care.
The other day I was leaving a building and as I approached the doors I saw there was an elderly woman begging for change on the right. I turned left as soon as I got outside and didn’t look at her.
Now I have a personal policy that if I pass someone begging and I have money in my pocket I share. If I don’t have money I smile and say sorry and take care.
The appointment had taken longer than I expected so I felt in a bit of a hurry and I was grumpy, I remember thinking “I am not in the mood…” Not in the mood for what? To help a fellow human?
I wish I could tell you I turned around and gave her a five dollar bill. But my grumpiness carried me into my car and I left.
But my conscience told me clearly that I acted against my own values. It has bothered me for days that I didn’t help. Not because I believe the money would have made so much difference to her but because I made myself less myself with that choice.
We feel better when we live by our conscience, when we listen to that still small voice.
One of the reasons I give to people struggling on the street is because I feel their vulnerability. I can hide my vulnerable self with money and words but they are so exposed.
What is vulnerability but “the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state… the essence of our nature”? (David Whyte, Consolations, 2014).
We are vulnerable beings in vulnerable bodies subject to the forces of life, we need constant watering and feeding, our bodies age and stop working.
Our spirit are vulnerable too – wild animals that shy away from exposure. Our hearts hurt from pain and sorrow. We are vulnerable all the way through.
Part of the human experience is learning how to live into that vulnerability. And part of being vulnerable is to live by our conscience, being willing to speak out, to name problems, to express what we need. At the same time we fear exposure and try to protect ourselves from judgement.
I think most of us know how we protect ourselves – building a bright shell to present to the world, speaking around what we really mean, letting others speak for us, there are lots of options. Distance, disengaging, even turning to extreme or aggressive rhetoric.
Democracy doesn’t work so well when people stand apart yelling at each other. It works when there is honesty and openness.
American activist Adrienne Maree Brown says that in her social movement work she asks herself: “Am I being as vulnerable as I need to be in order to keep growing as a human being and keep learning?” And, “Am I being vulnerable enough that people can experience my humanity?”
Now these questions are for people who can hide their vulnerability, who can choose not to be vulnerable, not people whose bodies mean they are always vulnerable.
It may sound strange to say democracy rests on vulnerability but I believe it does. It rests on people talking together, sharing of themselves, growing bonds that help everyone.
It also rests on people knowing when the issue isn’t about them. On being able to step back and listen to the people who are vulnerable, who are most impacted by a decision.
Conocimiento, that Columbian word which means “to nurture connection by sharing knowledge of each other.” Conocimiento works when people are honest and vulnerable – even just a little bit – so that connections grow as common ground is found.
Here at UCM we are creating democracy out of conocimiento, out of building trust, each of living by our own conscience, sharing vulnerability, talking together to find our common ground.
May we continue to develop healthy habits of the heart.
May we continue to, imperfectly and partially, live our fifth principle.
Today and all days.
So Say We All.