As the German religious philosopher, Martin Buber, reminds us: “Humans are a promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing people.” When we come together and formally make promises to one another as Unitarian Universalists, we enter into covenant. These mutual agreements are the cornerstone of our shared faith.
Unitarian Universalists are not bound by a set of prescribed beliefs. Rather, we are bound by these promises we make, that we enter into freely and, sadly, sometimes break. When covenant is broken, how we respond matters. We say we should begin again in love. But what does that look like? What conditions are needed to begin again in love?
For me, to root a new beginning in love requires that we come to a mutual understanding of how the breach of covenant caused harm while taking care to minimize further harm in the process. This requires that we honor the 5th Principle of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism:
PRINCIPLE #5: Most directly affected people are experts in their own lives.
When we are working to repair broken covenant, we must prepare ourselves for something few people are ever ready for: to realize we are wrong about a thing. We must listen deeply to the folks who are directly impacted by the breach. We must open ourselves to the possibility that we do not have all the information and that another’s experience that contradicts our own is valid and real.
And, we must do all of this in the context of understanding how power dynamics play out in the situation. To understand power dynamics in Unitarian Universalist spaces requires us to recognize how some voices have historically been, and are currently, privileged over others. Some people have more access and platform than others. Even in this “faith of the free,” inequity exists.
So when we say we should begin again in love, we must reckon with the fact that not all harm is equal. The harm that comes from being consistently, systemically marginalized is simply not equal to what a white person feels when confronted with the reality of our complicity in a system that was designed to benefit us at the expense of all “other” people. Yes, it is disorienting to realize this. It can be quite painful, but harmful? No. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is the beginning of knowing better, so that we can do better. It is the beginning of healing.
At Allies for Racial Equity, we do not agree to “assume best intentions” of one another. We have come to understand how this agreement, in an environment where power dynamics still function to keep people marginalized, requires people to be complicit in their own oppression. Rather, our covenant calls us to “privilege impact over intention” and to choose “curiosity over defensiveness.” When we resist the urge to claim “we didn’t mean to” as a way to minimize the impact of our words and actions on another person, we are countering oppression. When we listen deeply with holy curiosity rather than defensiveness to how our actions have caused harm, we set some conditions conducive to repairing trust and coming back into covenant.
Our faith is going through a very tumultuous time right now. Many are feeling disaffected (which is not the same as being marginalized) by the cultural shifts we are undergoing. For those of us whose needs and comfort zones have always been prioritized, this is particularly disorienting. For those of us who are finally being seen in the fullness of who we are, we are experiencing a new kind of vulnerability in spaces where donning spiritual armor as an act of self-preservation has been required for far too long.
A Prayer for Renewal and Growth
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we who are feeling the disorientation of being de-centered, learn to appreciate the difference between what we are feeling and actual harm. May we come to understand that suffering is not a zero-sum game; the alleviation of another’s suffering does not require the increase of our own. May we continue to open up to the possibility that another way is possible. May we come to know better, so that we can do better, so that we can truly begin again in love.
Amen and Blessed Be.