Right Relations

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
January 25, 2015

Ordained to the ministry in 1837 and settled in a small church in West Roxbury outside Boston, Theodore Parker was a persistent thorn in the side of the more conservative Unitarians of his day. On May 19, 1841, Parker delivered a pathbreaking sermon entitled “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” A year later, in 1842, Parker published a controversial book entitled Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion. Several esteemed members of the Boston Association of Ministers were disturbed by Parker’s unusual or distinctive or unconventional theology. They came to the conclusion that Parker’s theological views were so distant from their own that he was not really a Unitarian and that he did not really belong in the Boston Association of Ministers. These more conservative ministers made arrangements for a friendly conversation between Parker and themselves in January, 1843. In the words of the great Unitarian historian Conrad Wright, “There followed one of the most extraordinary episodes in the whole history of American Unitarianism.”

The more conservative Unitarians were in something of a pickle, as Conrad Wright tells the story. During the Unitarian Controversy of the previous generation, the Unitarians had resisted exclusion by the more orthodox Christians. They had loudly claimed the right to draw their own conclusions in matters of faith according to their own conscience. Now Parker was claiming that same right, but he was much more radical in his views. How could they exclude Parker without violating the same principle of free inquiry that they themselves had lifted up against those who had wanted to exclude them? Conrad Wright offers this summary: “The position of the Unitarians was made particularly difficult because they acknowledged the right and duty of every [person] to search for truth, unfettered by creeds, confessions of faith, or other [human] standards of doctrine.”

At the gathering in January, 1843, several of the more conservative Unitarian ministers expressed their disagreement with Parker’s theological views. For example, the minister of the First Church in Boston, Dr. Nathaniel Frothingham, objected to Parker’s “vehemently deistical” theology. Conrad Wright tells the rest of the story in this way: “Chandler Robbins finally came to the point. ‘Since Mr. Parker finds the feeling [of disagreement] in respect to him is so general, I think it is his duty to withdraw from the [Boston] Association [of Ministers].’ Parker replied that he considered the principle of free inquiry to be at stake; that theological uniformity had never previously been required; and that he had no intention of resigning. It then became apparent that, while the members would have been very much relieved if Parker had taken the hint and resigned, they were not disposed to prescribe a doctrinal test for membership. Parker had been asked to withdraw; he had declined; and there was no way to exclude him without abandoning the principle of free inquiry. So several of the members said kind things about Parker’s sincerity; he burst into tears and left the room, where Dr. Frothingham shook him cordially by the hand and expressed the hope that he would come to see him soon; and the closest the Unitarians ever came to a heresy trial was over.”

Eventually Parker left his church in West Roxbury and preached to thousands of people each Sunday with the support of a church that had been created specifically for this purpose called the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society in Boston. Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was one of his parishioners. And in two instances Parker’s words have become icons of American history, for Parker was the one who first spoke of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and Parker was the one invented the image that although the moral arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice. Nevertheless, the great majority of his Unitarian ministerial colleagues objected to his views and would have excluded him, except for the inconvenient principle of free inquiry unconstrained by creeds, confessions, or doctrinal statements.

I was not around in 1843 for “the closest the Unitarians ever came to a heresy trial,” as Conrad Wright has described it. But I was around in the 1980s and 1990s when another episode of reckoning emerged among our Unitarian Universalist ministers, particularly our male Unitarian Universalist ministers. During the 1984 – 1985 church year, when I was completing my internship at the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, it came to light that the associate minister of one of our large churches in the Pacific Northwest had engaged in sexual relations with several of the women for whom he had provided pastoral counseling. A couple of years later, when I was beginning my first ministry serving two small churches in southern Ontario, it came to light that the minister of one of our large churches in Ontario had engaged in sexual relations with his female ministerial intern. And four years after that, when I was beginning my ministry here in Pittsburgh, it came to light that the minister of one of our large churches in Ohio had engaged in sexual relations with some of his parishioners at his previous church in another state. These instances of sexual misconduct were part of a more extensive pattern. And, of course, these instances of sexual misconduct were devastating for the individuals who were directly affected and also for the congregations.

The response of the Unitarian Universalist Association was to create a three-day intensive training program for our ministers that addressed sexual misconduct and then to basically insist that all of our ministers would be required to go through this training program. To the best of my recollection, this training program was presented to the ministers in our Ohio-Meadville District in the fall of 1991.

But the response did not stop there. Over the next few years, in accord with our raised consciousness, many of our congregations created “Safe Congregation” policies. Here at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, we created our Safe Congregation Policy in 2007. This policy is especially intended to provide a safe environment for our children and youth, and it covers many different kinds of harmful or abusive behavior.

In the larger society in recent decades, universities, corporations, and other organizations have increasingly realized the importance of having policies that address sexual harassment, sexual assault, hate speech, racism, sexism, homophobia, disrespectful behavior, disruptive behavior, bullying, and other forms of inappropriate or even criminal behavior. Universities and colleges in particular pride themselves on being places where a wide spectrum of thoughts and opinions are encouraged, yet universities and colleges have also recognized the need to prohibit behavior that harms members of their communities.

Here at First Unitarian Church, we are the direct descendants of those ministers who could not bring themselves to exclude Theodore Parker for his theological views back in January, 1843. We, too, appreciate the importance of being able to come to our own theological conclusions, being able to follow our own spiritual path, being able to articulate our own religious understanding. But, here at First Unitarian Church, we bumped up against the limitations of the principle of free inquiry just a few years ago. This was part of a deeply disturbing and deeply disappointing chapter in the history of our church. As a proud African-American, our associate minister, Rev. Alma Crawford, objected to instances of speech here at our church that she considered racist and offensive.

In some ways, our congregational response to these instances of racist speech was prompt and appropriate. In other ways, our congregational response was somewhat weak and confused. Rev. Crawford wondered whether Unitarian Universalism had a moral center, or whether we valued only free inquiry and free speech. Part of the problem was that First Unitarian Church did not have a set of policies addressing sexual harassment, sexual assault, hate speech, racism, sexism, homophobia, disrespectful behavior, disruptive behavior, bullying, and other forms of inappropriate or even criminal behavior.

For several different reasons, Rev. Crawford resigned as our associate minister in the summer of 2011. In the fall of 2011, I put together a Behavioral Covenant Committee. This group of about eight church members and friends drafted a behavioral covenant for our congregation, which was subsequently adopted by the congregation at our annual meeting on May 20, 2012.

Meanwhile, I did some research and looked at many different policies which govern the relationships of individuals within an organization. Some of these policies came from universities and colleges. Some came from corporations. Eventually, I wrote a right relations policy for our church. It included the best principles and processes that I could find. It also included some ideas of my own, including, as best I recall, the term “identity-based expressions of disrespect.” This was an executive policy and did not require the approval of the Board of Trustees, just as our personnel policy, our building use policy, and our finance policy are executive policies and do not require the approval of our Board of Trustees. Our Right Relations Policy went into effect at the end of January, 2012, just before I went on sabbatical. No doubt it is far from a perfect document, but prior the Right Relations Policy, we had nothing at all to guide us in responding to allegations of identity-based expressions of disrespect; harassment; abusive behavior, including bullying, hate speech, intimidation, threats, and stalking; and disruptive behavior.

The Right Relations Policy states, in part: “Behavior which communicates judgments of personal superiority or inferiority, whether individual or collective, based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, age, or genetics are disallowed and will not be tolerated at First Unitarian Church.” The Right Relations Policy goes on to say: “Identity-based expressions of disrespect include easily-identified instances such as hate speech, but may also include more subtle instances such as promotion of race-based intelligence theory; social Darwinism; Holocaust denial; characterizing homosexuality as a mental disorder; and eugenics.”

In the background, behind this language, but in plain sight nevertheless, you can see a collision of two streams of principles and values that we deeply affirm as Unitarian Universalists. On the one hand, there is the principle of free inquiry that the Unitarian side of our tradition claimed from its inception. And on the other hand, there is the principle that we ought not do harm to one another, in other words, that we as a religious community do not tolerate racist or sexist speech, that we do not tolerate harassment, that we do not tolerate bullying or intimidation or threats, that we do not tolerate disruptive behavior.

How shall we resolve this collision of two streams of principles and values?

In accord with the principle of free inquiry, one could argue that we as Unitarian Universalists should welcome a variety of views on such topics as race-based intelligence theory, or Holocaust denial, or characterizing homosexuality as a mental disorder. In other words, one would argue that free inquiry and free speech are the more important set of values.

Our Right Relations Policy instead has a preferential option (to use the language of liberation theology), a preferential option for disallowing speech and behavior that is harmful, speech and behavior that divides us from one another by diminishing some and exalting others, speech and behavior that undermines our aspirations to be a multiracial and multicultural community, speech and behavior that blocks us from becoming a beloved community. The Right Relations Policy thus represents a deliberate choice to place a higher value on community and relationship over individual license to say and do whatever one pleases without regard for the well-being of others.

I understand that some will object to this policy because they have a different hierarchy of values. I understand that some will be startled by the implications of this policy even though they may support the goal of a healthy, respectful, and diverse community.

People all over the world were shocked when armed extremists burst into the Paris office of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and murdered twelve people. This was in response to cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that Charlie Hebdo had displayed on its front cover. “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” – “I am Charlie Hebdo” – was the statement of solidarity that appeared in many other publications, including our own Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a statement of solidarity, not only with those who died in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, but also with the principle of free speech and freedom of the press.

How does this incident intersect with the collision of principles and values in the background of our Right Relations Policy?

Of course as Unitarian Universalists we are all saddened and even angered by the needless deaths of the dozen people killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the victims. We do not accept that murder is an appropriate response to what Charlie Hebdo published, no matter how offensive it may be to some. We certainly do not blame the victims of the attack.

On the other hand, as Unitarian Universalists, our values are not exactly the same as the values of Charlie Hebdo. I cannot imagine that we would find it acceptable to put a mocking cartoon caricature of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover of our Chalice newsletter – just as we would not find it acceptable to mock or satirize or insult a leader or symbol or ritual or practice associated with any other religious tradition. We may support strong safeguards for freedom of the press and free speech in our civil society, but we may have higher standards for ourselves as members of a covenanted religious community.

In a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Leila Richards writer raised yet another consideration. She pointed out that satire is most appropriately directed against the rich and powerful and privileged. It is far less appropriate when directed against the downtrodden. Richards pointed out that the majority of the ethnic Muslims in France are North Africans who occupy a relatively marginal position in French society. She was not questioning the right of Charlie Hebdo to exercise its freedom of the press, but she was questioning its kindness or compassion. It’s one thing to take the rich and powerful and privileged down a notch or two, by satirically puncturing pretentiousness; but why attempt this for people who are already at the bottom? She compared it to bullying.

In his Devil’s Dictionary, the American writer Ambrose Bierce offered the following observation about human nature: “The personal pronoun in English has three cases, the dominative, the objectionable, and the oppressive. Each is all three.” Here at First Unitarian Church, we would do well to recall that we all sometimes have self-centered tendencies, and that in a religious community we need to take special care to counteract these tendencies so that we can all get along together. Like sticks and stones, words can indeed also hurt us. Let us speak our truths, but let our truths be spoken in love.

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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