People Are Basically Good

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


From Hosea Ballou’s “Treatise on Atonement,” 3rd. ed.

The origin of sin has, among Christians in general, been very easily accounted for; but in a way, I must confess, that never gave me any satisfaction, since I came to think for myself on subjects of this nature. A short chimerical story of the bard, Milton, has given perfect satisfaction to millions, representing the introduction of moral evil into the moral system which we occupy. The substance of the account is: Some time before the creation of man, the Almighty created multitudes of spiritual beings, called angels. Some of these creatures of God were much higher in dignity and authority than others, but all perfectly destitute of sin, or moral turpitude. One dignified above all the rest, stood Prime Minister of the Almighty, clothed with the highest missive power, and clad with garments of primeval light; obsequious to nothing but the high behest of his Creator, he discharged the functions of his office with promptitude and dignity, suited to the eminence of his station, and to the admiration of celestial millions. But when it pleased Jehovah to reveal the brightness of his glory and the image f the Godhead in humanity, he gave forth the command (see Psalm xcvii. 7), “Worship him, all ye gods.” And (Heb. i. 6) “and again, when he bringeth the first begotten into the world, he saith, and let all the angels of God worship him.” Lucifer, Son of the Morning (as Christians have called him), surprised at the idea of worshipping any being but God himself, looked on the Son with ineffable disdain, and in a moment grew indignant, brushed his strongest pinions, and waved his wings for the throne of God, challenged supremacy with the Almighty, and cast his eye to the sides of the north as a suitable place to establish his empire. Legions of spirits followed this chief in rebellion, and formed a dangerous party in the kingdom of the Almighty. The Son of God was invested with full power as Generalissimo of Heaven, to command the remaining forces, against the common enemy. And in short, after many grievous battles between armies of contending spirits, where life could not, in the least, be exposed, Lucifer and his party were driven out of Heaven, leaving it in peace, through in a great measure, depopulated!

God, having created the earth, and placed the first man and woman in a most happy situation of innocence and moral purity, without the smallest appetite for sin, or propensity to evil, the arch Apostate enviously looked from his fiery prison, to which he was consigned by a command of the Almighty, and beholding man placed in so happy a situation, and in a capacity to increase to infinite multitudes, by which the kingdom of Heaven would be enlarged, was determined to crop this tree in the bud. He, therefore, turns into a serpent, goes to the woman and beguiles her, gets her to eat of a fruit which god had forbidden, by which means he introduced sin into our system.

I have not been particular in this sketch, but it contains the essence of the common idea. I shall now put it under examination, looking diligently for the propriety of accounting for the origin of moral evil in this way….


One of the most basic propositions of Unitarian Universalism is the simple statement that people are basically good. We Unitarian Universalists know perfectly well that all of us human beings have our problems, and we know perfectly well that some human beings are worse than others. But we are firmly convinced that on the whole, and taken as an average, human beings are basically good.

This is a simple conviction to state: people are basically good. This simple conviction of ours comes out of a long history of theological reflection from both our Unitarian heritage and our Universalist heritage. Let me just briefly outline something of the history of our conviction that people are basically good.

From our Unitarian heritage, we inherit the concept that people have a certain freedom of choice; that we have some measure of free will that allows us to make moral choices. And with this concept of the freedom to make moral choices, we have also inherited the concept that, if we are given the option, we human beings tend to choose what is good over what is evil. As Unitarians, we feel that if given the option, human beings will make morally good choices.

From our Universalist heritage, we inherit the concept that all human beings will be redeemed in the end. Originally, this concept came from the Universalist understanding that God is essentially good, that God is so good that God will redeem each and every human being and allow each and every human being into heaven. Those old Universalists felt that ultimately it is God who is so good that God will redeem us human beings, but at the same time they were quite sure that every human being had enough goodness so as to be capable of being redeemed. As Universalists, we feel that all human beings have goodness as a part of our constitution.

Well, these old concepts have evolved and changed over the centuries. Today, as Unitarian Universalists, we might articulate these concepts somewhat differently. Today we would be more likely to speak of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” we would affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations,” and because we trust that people are basically good we would assert that everyone should participate in governance and would therefore affirm the “use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.”

That is the briefest outline of the history of our conviction that people are basically good. But of course this conviction leads to certain complications in practice. I suspect most of you would in general go along with this notion that people are basically good, yet I also suspect that each one of us here might wish to qualify this statement in various ways. We might wish to expand upon what we mean when we say that we are convinced that people are basically good. Let us therefore take some time to expand upon this simple statement.

(1) Let us begin with the notion that we can all be redeemed. This is a fine proposition to state in the abstract, but it is a challenging moral standard to live out. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

On Sunday, July 29, just four weeks ago today, James Adkisson of Powell, Tennessee, went into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, during their weekly worship service and he opened fire with a shotgun. The children of the church were about to begin a musical production in the worship service. Adkisson killed two people and wounded six others. He left a letter at his home that morning saying he hated the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church for its liberal views, and for its support for gays and lesbians. In addition, his ex-wife, who had a restraining order out against him because of his violence, was a former member of that church, so he apparently hated the church for that, too.

Now in this example, a self-professed hater of religious liberals enters a Unitarian Universalist church during a children’s play and kills and wounds eight people with a shotgun. If the members of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church believed in original sin or if they believed in hell, they’d give up on that guy. They would have said: that Adkisson is going to straight to hell. They would have siad: See how hard it is to escape from the bonds of original sin? Adkisson is damned for all eternity. But that’s not what the poeple of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church have said.

John Bohstedt, a member of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, took issue with some of the media coverage of the recent shootings at his church. Bohstedt, a retired history professor from the University of Tennessee, sent an email message to Michael Paulson, religion correspondent at the Boston Globe, giving his viewpoint about what really happened:

“An eyewitness who was protecting her children a few feet from the gunman said it was remarkable how everyone was doing exactly what they needed to do — subduing the gunman, calling 911, tending to the victims, and evacuating the sanctuary….

“The reason I am saying all this is — Media have done much to make us a fearful people — to emphasize the danger in the world. Real life is often NOT like that, and in this case — evil was overcome efficiently by LOVE.

“I have been studying the behavior of crowds for decades, in old documents and in our University of Tennessee football stadium, and more often than not there is METHOD in the ‘madness’ of crowds — the METHOD of our Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church is organized Love.”

So said a member of the church where this shooting took place.

We Unitarian Universalists do believe in the power of love. We may not all believe in God any more, but we are pretty sure that anyone can be redeemed — or more properly, we believe people can redeem themselves if they wish to. This is like the old Universalist belief that, while we surely don’t understand how it happens, God somehow manages to redeem even hate-filled destructive persons like the killer at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. We would say: James Adkisson is capable of redemption — with a lot of help, and acknowledging the very real possibility that we probably won’t want trust him in one of our Unitarian Universalist churches ever again.

Redemption remains mysterious to us. People whom we think are beyond redemption manage to redeem themselves; others who seem capable of redemption never manage to find redemption. But I’m pretty certain that redemption has to be something that we strive after actively. You can’t just wait passively for someone else to be redeemed, you can’t just wait passively for yourself to be redeemed. We have to encourage redemption in others, and when it is necessary we have to actively seek redemption for ourselves. The basic goodness of human beings is not a passive characteristic; it is an active process.

So you see, being convinced that people are basically good is not mere abstract belief:– this conviction forces us to seek after redemption for ourselves, and to encourage redemption in others.

(2) How else might we expand on the simple statement that people are basically good? One obvious way we do this is that we organize our church communities around our simple conviction that people are basically good. Thus our church communities are organized on the basis of trust: if people are basically good, we should be able to trust them, right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

Back on a Sunday morning in February of 2001, the New Bedford Standard-Times ran a front-page article that included allegations that a recently retired minister of this church had engaged in [quote] “inappropriate sexual behavior towards ten women in his former congregation.” Now mind you, these were allegations, and the Standard-Times also published a statement by the recently retired minister that the allegations were not true. And so in such a situation, it may become difficult to know whom to trust — are the allegations true or false? Whom do you believe? In such a situation, it would be easy to give up on trust altogether, give up trusting the church community at all.

Let me give you a less serious violation of trust, from my own experience. A couple of decades ago, someone from the Unitarian Universalist church I was then attending called me up and asked me to volunteer for something. I asked her about it, and then said that I did not wish to volunteer. Why not? she asked. I said because I felt the program concerned involved cultural misappropriation; at which point, she raised her voice and told me in no uncertain terms that I should reconsider. She came pretty close to yelling at me. Let me tell you, it is not pleasant to have a church leader raise their voice at you, and question your integrity. It took me a year before I wanted to volunteer for anything at that church again. I mean, why stick around a church when someone treats you like that?

It is much easier to just run away from the church and stop trusting that church community. In fact, now that I think about it, it would be much easier to just accept that people are basically evil. If I could just accept that people are basically evil, then I could stop trusting anyone except a small circle of people I have decided are trustworthy. Of course, if one of those people I have decided to trust then violates that trust, then I’d really be in the soup, wouldn’t I? I wouldn’t be sure if I could trust anyone at all.

We build our church communities on trust in part because the alternative is so grim: if we’re not willing to trust our church community, then we’re left with a pretty small circle of people whom we can trust. At the same time, we are realistic about trust. We have to be realistic. Yes, people may be basically good, but people are never perfect. Anyone can do bad things to someone else. We are also quite clear that some of us are less likely to do evil things than others. Jim Adkisson, the man who shot people at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, has proven that he is more likely to do evil things than me. When we base our communities on trust, realistically we have to understand that there are some people we just cannot accept into our church communities. Thus we would say that when it comes to James Adkisson — no, he cannot come into this church!

This means we also expect certain behavioral standards of each other. If someone violates those standards, we may have to call them on it. When that woman raised her voice at me, I wish I had had the courage to say: “Hey, stop yelling at me, that’s not acceptable!” And of course, calling someone else on their behavior is not always possible: if you’re being physically or emotionally abused by someone, I’m here to tell you that you need to get away from that person; don’t waste time calling them on their behavior, just get out. Yet generally speaking, we should expect the people around us to live up to certain behavioral standards; and it is up to each one of us, and up to us as a community, to gently maintain a high level of trust in our church community.

It’s up to us to maintain a high level of trust in our church. Trust requires forgiveness. I guarantee you, nearly everyone whom you trust will violate your trust in some way, large or small. We may trust our parents, but most of us can give some example of how our parents violated our trust in some way, whether large or small. The same is true of spouses, relatives, friends,– and all of us here at church. Now again, if you’re in an abusive situation, you need to know that forgiveness need not be face-to-face;– sometimes trust has been so violated that forgiveness has to take place at a distance. But the general point here is that in order to trust anyone again, we have to forgive those who trespass on our trust. In order to continue trusting, we must reach forgiveness in the honesty of our own hearts.

So you see, being convinced that people are basically good is not mere abstract belief:– this conviction requires us to trust one another, and it requires forgiveness; and boy is it difficult to trust and to forgive!

(3) How else might we expand on the simple statement that people are basically good? Let me give you one example of how we live out this conviction of ours here in our church.

Because we are convinced that people are basically good, we are convinced that when we’re born, we are not somehow stained with evil. That’s why we do child dedications, not baptisms. (Explain how this works.)

I don’t mean to imply that children are like little angels — they’re not. They need firm guidance from us adults, and they need firm boundaries re: acceptable behavior. The opposite of goodness in human beings is often not evil, but chaos and lack of social structure. We are social animals who live within social constructs that we must maintain.

Thus, living out our belief that people are basically good requires that we train up the next generation in how to act so that we can teach them how to be good instead of chaotic. This is why I want to be in a church that has children in it: because while I am convinced that people are basically good, I know too that I have a moral responsibility to help move humanity towards increased goodness through raising children; and that responsibility is yours whether or not you have children of your own, whether or not.

Again we see that being convinced that people are basically good requires more than abstract belief: it requires the hard work of raising up the children and moving them away from chaos. This is hard work!

Well, when I started out, you may have thought that this was going to be one of those feel-good sermons. You may have expected me to talk about people’s essential goodness — and instead, here I mentioned mentioned murder, and clergy misconduct, and other difficult topics. On top of that, I have said that we have responsibilities:– we’re supposed to keep children from being so chaotic, and practice forgiveness, and base our church communities on trust, and encourage redemption.

After all that, original sin may start to sound very attractive! It almost seems easier to just accept that people are basically evil, tainted with something called original sin, that will prevent them from being good, dooming most people to an eternity of torment after death.

So, if you want to believe that people are basically evil, I for one will fully understand — it is the easier path — even though it involves a certain amount of self-loathing. But I’m going to remain convinced that people are basically good — even though it requires me to help move children away from being so chaotic, and practice forgiveness, and base our church in trust, and encourage redemption. Even though it requires work on my part, I’m going to stick with the proposition that people are basically good.