The most profound theological gift I received from Unitarian Universalism is the belief in and commitment to Beloved Community. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described Beloved Community as one of unconditional love, which seeks the fullest unfolding of the personality of every person. In the Beloved Community, racism, poverty, and discrimination would not be tolerated and would instead be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of kinship.
My deeply held and unshakable belief in the Beloved Community was instilled in me growing up in my UU congregation. It was then I was taught of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It was there I was taught that I was a part of an interdependent web connecting all life and all people. And it was within that UU community that I learned that justice, equity, and compassion were our abiding core values and the necessary foundation of human relationships.
These lessons from my early life shaped my religious and prophetic imagination. When I am asked to explain the theological foundation for our commitment as Unitarian Universalists to nurturing an antiracist, antioppressive, multicultural, just, and equitable society—I respond that it is our belief in and commitment to the Beloved Community that calls us to this work.
However, if the Beloved Community is so foundational, why do we struggle to live into its liberating and inclusive practices within our own communities? One obstacle is the very real theological tension within Unitarian Universalism between individualism and interdependence.
Our Unitarian and Universalist theology emerged as a rejection of orthodox notions that humans are inherently “depraved.” Unitarians, shaped by the Enlightenment, emphasized the inherent goodness, virtue, and value of the individual. The Rev. William Ellery Channing spoke of a “Likeness to God” within each person. Rather than believing in the predestination of souls to heaven or hell, Unitarians believed that through love and commitment to God, we might strive to develop our character and virtue. They believed salvation was open to anyone and that virtue and character were the pathway. These notions of the perfectibility of character and society were at the time valuable liberal reforms in religious thinking and are still present in our religious thought as UUs.
However, there is a negative side to this theological frame. The emphasis on perfectibility leaves little room for struggle, failure, the reality of how we hurt each other, and legacies of harm. Centering the individual and a model of works-righteousness also fosters a culture of paternalism, which reinforces—even unconsciously—ideas of hierarchy and superiority. The roots of white supremacy and colonialism, which manifest in domination and conquest, are these same ideologies of paternalistic superiority. This connection explains how a number of prominent Unitarians in our history were proponents of and participants in the shameful and racist field of eugenics.
Freeing ourselves and the culture of our congregations and communities from mindsets and practices rooted in white supremacy is a complex task. It is joyful, powerful, and liberating work. It requires humility, mutuality, and the recognition that we will all make mistakes. We must also embrace the complicated and messy history and present of these legacies. It simply cannot be done amid expectations of “perfectibility.” In fact, the work of Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun identifies “perfectionism” as a value of white supremacy culture.
Universalism had a different theological framework than Unitarianism. The belief in universal salvation meant that no one was ever cast outside of God’s love. Yes, paternalism could still manifest in Universalism, particularly with the image of God as a loving father, but the individual was not centered. God’s grace and unconditional love for all of humanity was at the center and inspired the religious imagination. The Rev. Hosea Ballou spoke of God’s desire for human joy and a society that reflected in its conditions the quality of love and care that God has for
While I am not a Christian, there is a verse from the Bible that always speaks to me as a Universalist: “the kingdom of God is within you.” In the Gospel of Luke (17:20-21), Jesus says this when asked when the kingdom of God is coming. It is also sometimes translated as “the kingdom is among you.” This is a reminder that we are not here to perfect ourselves, but rather to unveil the grace and mutuality already present.
Universalism has come to the forefront of my own theological imagination because of its emphasis not on the individual but on relationship and our fundamental interdependence. And as someone whose initial professional field was molecular biology, I know, scientifically and morally, that all life is fundamentally interconnected.
Over these last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the existential reality of our interdependence undeniable. We experience the virus spreading quickly through communities and across the globe, reminding us that our lives are indelibly woven together. This means that we have a responsibility to each other, and when we allow racism, greed, exploitation, or neglect to define and defile our relationships, suffering thrives. In contrast, our faith as Unitarian Universalists calls us to respond to this fundamental interdependence by nurturing equity, compassion, and justice across the threads that connect us.
As the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed says, “The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.”
There are those who mistakenly believe that justice is the heart of our faith as Unitarian Universalists. What I so appreciate about Morrison-Reed’s words is the clarity that our theology—our understanding that there is a connectedness—comes first. Our work for justice and equity—our work to dismantle white supremacy culture, racism, and oppression in ourselves and in our world—is the faithful response to our theology of interdependence.
To do the work of culture change, to live into antiracist, antioppressive, multicultural practices of the Beloved Community, we need abiding compassion, grace, and practices of solidarity and mutuality. These are antidotes to the perfectionism and paternalism that continually reinforce barriers and separation that pull us farther from Beloved Community. And it offers one of the most important lessons for the work: that the liberation we all need starts with centering the leadership and experiences of those most directly impacted by systemic racism and oppression.
In these times, it is more important than ever to realize that we belong to each other, and we share a responsibility for the conditions and qualities that define our relationships of interdependence across the globe and with our planet. May we continue to turn away from paternalism and toward the practices of humility, solidarity, compassion, and equity in fostering the Beloved Community in our culture, our tradition, and in our communities.
And in our world . . .
May it be so.