This was advertised as a “Justice General Assembly,” and it is clear from what’s been going on at the “Ministry Days” which precede General Assembly that many people feel the center of our religious community is social justice work.
But I’m not convinced that religious organizations are particularly effective at doing social justice work. Religious communities can supply moral and ethical frameworks to motivate and support social justice work. And as the Social Gospel movement pointed out over a century ago, religious communities cannot be solely focused on individual and personal salvation; we also have to be focused on social salvation. Thus it is clear that religious communities should be concerned with social justice issues. The question is how religious communities can be most effective at pursuing social justice.
Religious communities tend to be inefficient and ineffective at providing social services. We provide food pantries, we send our kids on social service trips (what orthodox Christians call “mission trips”), and so on. But most of our efforts at providing social services do more towards making us feel good about ourselves than at actually making the world a better place. Food pantries and soup kitchens make us feel good at serving those less fortunate, but these actions do not actually pull people out of poverty and hunger. Youth service trips change the lives of youth who go on them, but a week-long service trip using unskilled labor is not going do much to make the world a better place.
We religious liberals are also fairly ineffective at direct action, mostly because there are so few of us, and we are so miserly with our money. We engage in lobbying and letter writing, we sometimes participate in public witness actions, etc. We can lobby and write letters all we want, but the well-funded full-time lobbyists influence legislators far more than we do in our once-in-a-while efforts; and there are so few of us that we will rarely get a face to face meeting with any politician who has real power. As for our participation in public witness, we might be able to muster a few dozen people in yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts, but we will be lost in the crowd in a public witness action that’s big enough to matter; if there are enough of us to notice, that means the action is too small to be of any importance.
I would say that one thing we Unitarian Universalists do moderately well is social education; that is, we are moderately good at educating people about social justice issues. I believe this is the most important social justice work we do as a religious community; but most Unitarian Universalists would probably feel that mere social education is not enough — we also have to do something.
Beyond our lack of practical effectiveness there lies a bigger problem, and I’ll tell a little story to introduce that problem.
This afternoon during “Ministry Days,” there was an hour set aside for ministers to ask questions of Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. One questioner said something to the effect that at one time, we all knew what Universalism stood for: it was a religion that affirmed that all humankind would be achieve salvation after death. However, today Unitarian Universalism has no such central, unifying theme. So the questioner asked: Did Peter Morales feel there should be some central unifying theology for Unitarian Universalism?
Morales tried to evade the question by saying he felt it was the wrong question to ask; many people had tried to answer that question without success so we need to stop asking it. But then he went on to say that Unitarian Universalism must be concerned with social justice work, with making the world a better place, with (and I think used these or similar words) “saving the world.” But to say we want to save the world is to assert that we have a central belief. And I think many Unitarian Universalists would agree with Morales: what we believe in is saving the world through social justice work.
If we feel that saving the world is our central unifying belief, however, then how are we different from a secular social service agency? (That is, aside from the fact that we are less effective than a secular social service agency.) If I want to work to try to stop human-caused global climate change, I would be better off joining the Sierra Club than a Unitarian Universalist congregation. If I want to support a variety of local causes, I would be better off supporting the United Way than Unitarian Universalism. And so on.
And if we are going to make social justice work the center of what we do, why do we bother with those pesky Sunday morning services, which eat up precious resources? It would be more effective to turn the worship space into a dormitory for homeless people, and devote the money that goes to the music director and the preacher to supporting that homeless shelter.
So Peter Morales was wrong: we do not exist primarily to save the world. It might be more accurate to say we exist to save the world and to save ourselves. It would be more accurate to say we also exist to provide a home for the spoken word, music, and other arts — and to provide a place for rites of passage — and to provide a place where we raise up our children to the highest ideals. It would be more accurate still to say that we exist to pass along age-old stories of truth and wisdom that we reinterpret for each succeeding generation. If we save the world, we do it in somewhat the same way that writers and musicians and other artists save the world: not directly, but indirectly, by changing hearts and souls.
Religious communities are not merely vehicles for social justice work; the center of religion is not social justice work. Social justice work emerges from the central commitments of a religious community; but it is not itself the center.
I think the old Universalists had it right. Everyone is saved and God is love (and for those of you who are religious literalists, please remember that “God” and “saved” can be metaphors). That being the case, it is up to us to believe all persons are worthy of being saved, and to believe love is the most powerful force in the universe. To believe these things will change our hearts and souls. Social justice will be an eventual outcome of such beliefs — when our hearts and souls have been changed for the better in this way, we will be unable to act in any other way than to make the world a better place — but social justice will not lie at the center of our religion.