Deconstructing “covenant,” pt. 2

…My point in the previous post was to deconstruct “covenant.” But why do we need to deconstruct “covenant”?

Unitarian Universalists today love to talk about covenant as if it has a long history. I’m arguing that covenant was a mid-twentieth century invention by Conrad Wright and James Luther Adams. It does not have a long history. And that’s a good thing. The history that Conrad Wright invented for covenant has too many negatives for me to feel comfortable.

When we deconstruct in the Conrad Wright conception of covenant, here are some of the things that we begin to understand:
— Historically, covenant was designed to promote theocracy;
— it was dependent on patriarchy;
— it was rooted in enslavement of Africans and Natives;
— and it supported British imperialism and colonialism.
Plus the Wrightian history of covenant ignores our Universalist heritage.

These are some of the things that Wright either wasn’t aware of or ignored. I don’t think we can remain unaware of these things, or ignore them, any longer. We have to deconstruct “covenant” so we can reconstruct it without quite so many negative aspects.

Since the time of Wright and Adams, others have tried to articulate a vision for Unitarian Universalist covenant, most notably Alice Blair Wesley in her Minns Lectures from the year 2000. But all these visions for covenant start with the assumptions laid out by Conrad Wright and James Luther Adams, and don’t really question those assumptions. I feel that none of these new visions for covenant adequately addresses theocracy, patriarchy, enslavement, or colonialism. And in my opinion, none of the visions for covenant takes Universalism seriously enough. To put it succinctly — none of these new visions of covenant adequately deconstructs the underlying assumptions of “covenant.”

Deconstructing “covenant” in this way has helped me to understand why I’ve been feeling increasingly uncomfortable when Unitarian Universalists talk about “covenant.” When we talk about “being in covenant,” we have to start listening for echoes of patriarchy, colonialism, enslavement, and so on. When we accuse others of “breaking covenant,” we have to start have to listening for echoes of the old Puritan practice of public shaming of church members. When we think of covenant as an organizing principle, we have to ask ourselves why we are ignoring the Universalist tradition.

If we’re unwilling to deconstruct “covenant” — how are we going to reconstruct “covenant” to remove the lingering taint of sexism, enslavement, anti-democratic theocracy, and colonialism? Perhaps deconstructing and then reconstructing “covenant” would allow us to make some much-needed progress in our anti-racism work, our ongoing efforts to get rid of patriarchal structures, and our beginning efforts to understand the role of religion in colonialism

If we’re unwilling to deconstruct “covenant” — how are we going to include Universalism once again in our central organizing principles? I’m afraid the answer here might well be that most of us don’t care about Universalism any more. Perhaps it would be better if we’d openly acknowledge this, because we’re “sitting on the franchise,” getting in the way of other groups trying to spread the happy religion of universal salvation. Or perhaps it would be best if we re-engaged with our Universalist heritage, with its incredible diversity of belief and practice; perhaps that would help us more than an attempt to unify ourselves with a tainted vision of “covenant.”