Archive for July, 2012

A Tremendous Responsibility

Freedom is one of the traditional values of Unitarian Universalism.  Unitarians across the centuries from Reformation Europe to Enlightenment England to the Revolutionary United States embraced their own trinity of freedom, reason and tolerance as essential conditions under which the true ends of religion might be attained.  Universalist minister Olympia Brown preached that freedom of religious thought and a liberal church would supply the groundwork for all other freedoms, while Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing praised the free mind “which is not passively framed by outward circumstances, and is not the creature of accidental impulse, but which discovers everywhere the radiant signatures of the infinite spirit, and in them finds help to its own spiritual enlargement.”  Today we consider ourselves freethinkers who have freely formed a free church and, should we need some hymn or reading to emphasize the point, there are literally a hundred or more that refer to freedom in Singing the Living Tradition alone!

Unitarian Universalism is not, of course, alone in declaring the importance of freedom.  The exodus story of the liberation of the Israelites from ancient Egypt is one of the definitive narratives of Jewish tradition, and it was similarly adopted as a powerful source of hope for African slaves in the United States in their own yearning for freedom.  Indeed, it took long beyond Thomas Jefferson’s own life-time for the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” to be offered to all Americans — at least in principle, since the processes of emancipation through liberation from oppression still continue on many fronts.  Nevertheless, Independence Day is one of the most important holidays in the United States, a celebration of our national faith in the causes of freedom and justice as articulated by the Declaration of Independence.

And yet, freedom is not something we should be satisfied to merely have; it is something that always calls us forward and outward.  As Universalist minister Clarence Skinner wrote in The Social Implications of Universalism, “the fight for freedom is never won.  Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradition.  Each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and peculiar.  Therefore those who have been reared in freedom bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever larger and more important liberty.”  Indeed, we humans are very good at finding a comfortable accommodation with whatever restrictions and blinders are placed on us — particularly if we’re convinced that they’re for our own good — and if we can be gently steered into an apathetic acceptance of tradition rather than an unceasing striving for liberty, then so much the better for those who stand to gain from our willingness to disengage from democracy by transforming ourselves from free citizens into indentured consumers.

As my wife and I count down the days until our daughter is born, I have found myself wondering what sort of future is in store for her.  Being a Unitarian Universalist gives me hope that hers will be a future where she can enjoy the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, because I believe that Unitarian Universalism offers us not just a vision of such a future but possible paths toward it, too.  After all, both Universalism and Unitarianism co-evolved with the United States — indeed, our religious forebears declared their own independence from the Anglican church well over a century before the nation declared its independence from Great Britain — and Unitarian Universalists continue to strive to be free people who freely choose to be together.

We strive because it’s important and because it’s not easy.  This is something that takes work.  Freedom takes work.  Being a Unitarian Universalist takes work.  Being a citizen of the United States takes work.  I’ve been told many times over the last few months that being a new parent takes (a lot of) work, but I believe that one of the biggest gifts I can give our daughter is a chance at a future free of tyranny, where she can be fully human, fully realized and, most importantly, fully loved.

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