Widening the Circle of Our Heritage – Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt

In her book, “On Being Wrong” Katherine Schulz argues that it’s hard to know when we’re wrong. We get it at an abstract level; we understand that people aren’t perfect, we get that people make mistakes. But it’s harder when we think about the beliefs we personally hold, here and now, to know which ones of them will prove to be wrong. “I can’t actually think of anything I’m wrong about” she says. 

Then she invites us to think for a moment about what it feels like to be wrong. Maybe it feels embarrassing, maybe it feels humbling, depending on the situation I guess it could be pretty dreadful. But as Schulz points out, those things actually describe what it feels like to realize we are wrong. 

It’s like the Looney Tunes coyote character who always chases the roadrunner. Inmost episodes he runs right off a cliff, and at first doesn’t even notice until he looks down and realizes he’s in mid-air and panics. Schultz writes:

When we’re wrong about something –not when we realize it, but before that –we’re like that coyote after he’s gone off the cliff and before he looks down. You know, we’re already wrong, we’re already in trouble, but we feel like we’re on solid ground. So I should actually correct something I said a moment ago. It does feel like something to be wrong; it feels like being right.

UUs like to be right. You may recall the old joke about the UU who dies and arrives at the pearly gates and chooses to go to a discussion about the existence of heaven instead of going to heaven itself. Many people come to our faith disillusioned with the religions of their childhood, fed up with institutions that they feel sacrifice what is right for the sake of hierarchy, that sacrifice justice for the sake of doctrine. Over the years I’ve heard people describe this faith I love as “the only reasonable religion” or “not even a religion” as if somehow that’s automatically a good thing. Now, I could preach a whole sermon about why Unitarian Universalism is absolutely a religion, regardless of whatever strongly held opinions people on different sides of various ideological divides hold. But my real point today is that strongly held opinion doesn’t undo fact. And no matter what any of us individually has come to believe about this faith, Unitarian Universalism is not perfect, it is not inherently right, and though I’m very proud of many of our ancestors in faith, it’s important that we be name that they didn’t always believe or do right, either. 

John Calhoun is perhaps the best example of the thousands of prominent Unitarians who supported slavery in the 1800s. A few decades later, in 1902, the American Unitarian Association published a book by then-Stanford president, David Starr Jordan, entitled The Blood of the Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races Through the Survival of the Unfit. Sadly, his support of forced sterilization of poor women, often of color, and his teachings about eugenics were not on the fringe of the Unitarian movement; he was a coveted speaker at Unitarian events for over a decade and Beacon Press published nineteen of his books between 1902 and 1916. And then there were the droves of Unitarians and Universalists who supported the temperance movement which, though noble in its goals and intention, turned out to be a horrible failure when put into practice. 

The truth is, our heritage includes story after story like Don Goodloe’s who we heard about in our Time for All Ages. We will never even know the people whose brilliance we lost out on because our Association and congregations didn’t live up to what we say we promote and affirm. But we rarely talk about them. And we never really talk about John Calhoun and the other Unitarian and Universalist forebears who wrought such incredible harm in the name of our faith. And yet, it must be remembered that they pursued their work just as enthusiastically and passionately as Michael Servetus, Dorothea Dix, Norpert Chapek, Pete Seeger, and all of the Unitarians and Universalists whose work we love to champion and claim as our own. 

Every year, when Black History Month rolls around, I find myself incredibly moved. I’m moved by Black excellence over and against the horror of this country’s racist history. I’m moved by the many people who worked during enslavement to bring about abolition, those Black leaders whose ideas formed the Black Social Gospel during Jim Crow, the civil rights leaders who marched and changed policy. I’m moved by movements like the Poor People’s Campaign and Black Lives Matter today. But the thing that always haunts me, the thing about every movement to bring about justice – no matter the time or place – is that the people working to thwart justice and maintain an unjust status quo, those people feel that they are right, just as strongly as those whose positions wind up on the right side of history. 

While Dr. King and millions of others were working for equal rights and protections under the law for people of all colors, there were millions of other Americans who thought with just as much fervor that segregation was right. And that makes me wonder what attitudes or prejudices or beliefs I have that will turn out to be wrong. Which of the beliefs I cling to are holding back the tide of justice in my corner of the world? Because just like everybody else, I don’t know what I don’t know, and I very well may be running out over that cliff on any number of ideas and issues, and never even know it. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that we become theological or ideological doormats, ready at the slightest challenge to change our minds about the most important values we hold dear. But I do think if we are going to widen the circles in our lives, circles of heritage and otherwise, we need to practice some humility. 

The Widening the Circle report from the Commission on Institutional Change integrates a lot of information and recommendations. But if there is one major take-away, for me it’s how harmful the legacy of individualism has been in our congregations and movement as a whole, and how important it will be for us as Unitarian Universalists to make our covenant more of a priority. Our traditions have long valued rigorous debate, the right to conscience, the responsible search for truth and meaning. But as the Widening the Circle report points out, for some this value has come to outweigh our faith’s many other values. Debate and the right to conscience are important, but we don’t get to debate the truth of someone else’s lived experience. We don’t get to debate the impact of racist and white supremacist customs and structures and preferences on those who come to call this congregation their home.

We may never know all of the ways we aren’t right, but we can be sure that the need to be right about the attitudes and assumptions these and other issues bring up in our minds and hearts is a barrier to the search for truth, a barrier to justice, a barrier to growing in community. And as we are seeing play out in this era of alternative facts, the need to be right is making people on all sides of every issue hunker down even more firmly in their entrenched world views. 

Letting go of the need to be right, even about things we feel very strongly about, doesn’t mean we abandon our commitments, ready to change our minds with the direction of the wind. But it does mean cultivating a sense of humility, a sense of curiosity about why others might feel and believe and need what they do. And it means putting others’ safety and inclusion first, ahead of our own preferences and comfort.

Letting go of this need to be right frees us to learn about our history with eyes wide open, to widen the circle of our heritage with honesty. And maybe most importantly, it can help us understand we don’t actually need to get it right all the time, because that’s impossible. We are going to screw up sometimes. So is this church, so will the UUA as a whole. Perfection, conflict avoidance, those are parts of white supremacy culture and they don’t serve us well. 

Our faith is not about perfection, it’s not about orthodoxy or right belief. Our faith is about faithfulness, it is about orthopraxy, or right practice. Our faith is not about being right, it is about getting it right. It’s not about arriving at a set of iron clad beliefs we never have to change, it’s about the responsible search for truth that lasts our whole lives long. This precious faith, the mixed bag of our heritage, is about our willingness to look down, chuckle when we realize we’ve run off a cliff, and lean into the strength of community while we find a path that leads closer to truth. 

May it be so for us, and for all Unitarian Universalists. Amen.