Embracing an Ethic of Love

Red heart made of yarn

Living into Beloved Community is spiritual work.

Image: © iStock


Being raised a Unitarian Universalist and like many little kids, I had lots of questions about life and death, God and existence.

One night, I asked my mom, “Do you believe in God?” She told me she didn’t, but that if she did, she’d believe that God is Love. That message shaped my early theological development. It also taught me I wasn’t asking the right question. Love, which is more a verb than a noun, describes a far more important question, “How are we to live?”

Theology is generally defined as the study of the nature of God, but for Unitarian Universalists theology is not dogma. It is not a fixed creed to which we must all adhere. We do not have one shared belief system about a divine being or beings. What we share are core values and understandings of our fundamental interdependence and responsibilities to one another.

Covenant is one of the ways that we articulate our shared values and the promises we make for how we will live together and be in relationship with our larger community and world. The language of our Principles is written as a covenant. They are a promise we make, as a wider Unitarian Universalist Association, to affirm and promote our shared principles.

In 2006, the late Warren R. Ross, a historian of the UUA, wrote that for UUs this process of defining our faith has involved an ongoing process of self-reflection and discussion. And he suggested that this exploration will continue to evolve along with time and circumstances:

In 2020 . . . our current Principles and Purposes may also be perceived to have inadequacies that demand radical rewriting. And therein lies our genius. It’s a process that is rightly called renewal or regeneration. And that is what has not changed and, let us hope, will remain unchanged twenty or even 100 years from now.

It struck me that the Commission on Institutional Change, in its report Widening the Circle of Concern, began its recommendations by first discussing our theology and challenging us to embrace the idea that “A Unitarian Universalism rooted in its theological traditions has no choice but to engage in practices of inclusion, diversity, and equity.”

Leaning into our theology . . . can help us reweave stronger threads of belonging, equity, justice, and wholeness that are so desperately needed.

Living into practices of the Beloved Community, living the transformative culture changes we seek, is not just an intellectual exercise. It’s not about checking boxes, getting everything “right” and taking pride in our achievements. Fundamentally, it is deeply spiritual work. It calls us to lean into the theological callings of our faith, which in their promise (if not always in practice) are anathema to the larger societal culture that has shaped us and continues to prevail. Leaning into our theology, our spiritual teachings, and the best of our history can help us reweave stronger threads of belonging, equity, justice, and wholeness that are so desperately needed.

During World War II, the Unitarian Service Committee was instrumental in securing official-looking documents to help people escape Nazi persecution. These documents needed a seal, and Hans Deutsch, an Austrian refugee artist, created the flaming chalice—the symbol we later chose for Unitarian Universalism. To Hans Deutsch, it was a symbol that evoked the ideas of sacrifice and love. Today, we have many different interpretations of the flaming chalice, including the light of reason, the warmth of community, and the flame of hope. This is all true. And it is more. Unitarian Universalist Shige Sakurai expresses the significance of our chalice as a clarion: “The symbol of our religion is a symbol of Nazi resistance and safe passage for refugees.”

While I know this history, to have it said so succinctly reinforces the power of what this symbol means about who we are. It reminds us that in the face of evil, in the face of policies, rhetoric, and violence that dehumanize, denigrate, divide, and destroy, our chalice is a symbol of resistance to this evil. The flame is a symbol of courage, of power, of risk, of truth and resistance. And the cup is a symbol of compassion, hospitality, refuge, and mutual aid. Could there be a more striking symbol for our faith and the values and practices we need in these times?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by the Rev. Paul Tillich’s teachings to observe that “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

The symbol of the flaming chalice, and the acts of bravery that inspired its creation, are proof that our theology is no mere abstraction, but an expression of our theology made real. In the past our faith inspired members of the UU community to help people escape the horrors of the Nazi regime. Today it inspires our commitment to defending voter rights, organizing for equality for LGBTQIA+ people and all women, and combatting criminalization and the violence of the state against immigrants and refugees, people of color, water protectors, and people oppressed by poverty.

An ethic of love lives at the heart of our UU faith. It reflects the core question, “How are we to live?” It calls us to courage to continually grow and learn and adapt in ways that foster love and justice. It is not a weak or sentimental love. It burns like the fire at the center of our chalice. It’s fierce in a way that compels us to demand justice in our world, but also fierce in how it calls us to courageous conversations, to radical practices of welcome, compassion, forgiveness, and belonging. Let this love burn brightly in hearts and in all our communities. May it be the energy and resilience we need to keep on loving, to keep on learning, to keep on showing up for each other and our neighbors in resistance to evil and in creating refuge from the trauma of oppression.

Let us build with love a solid foundation for the work we do in our families, our faith communities, and our world. May we always enlarge our circle of concern to create inclusive communities of resilience and wholeness, of resistance and courage. May we live the bold, brave, loving theology that lives at the heart of our tradition.