Unitarian Universalists see Democracy through a value-laden lens | INTERFAITH


At the latest Frog Rock Forum (Sept. 30 at Islandwood, on “Citizenship: The Heart of a Resilient Community”), I was among 60 folks encouraged by our facilitator to express what was on my “citizen heart.” This simple yet evocative phrase moved me, as did the articulations of others in my small group. The encouraging work of sociologist Parker Palmer inspired the day’s workshop, especially his recent book, “Healing the Heart of Democracy.”

I believe I responded well to this profound image of a “citizen heart” because of my religion. I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist to apply a value-laden lens to both my inner life and my activity in the world, striving for harmony between the two.

That lens focuses on two significant principles that animate me thoroughly: Unity and Love, as in the interdependent web of all existence (a broad Unitarian oneness) and the inherent worth and dignity of every person (a deep Universalist love).

These are actually quite radical values (“radical” deriving from the Latin word for “root”). Unity and Love radically challenge me to live in fundamental coherence with such a worldview.

Beyond those two large, guiding modalities, however, Unitarian Universalists are free to hold a stirring variety of beliefs; we have no other dogma or creed, per se. There are a few more principles we promise to uphold, though, one of which affirms “the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”

Generally, we unite to build and sustain a Beloved Community; thus the resonance with my “citizen heart.” For us, “community” means both our local congregational life and the wider affiliations we share with diverse neighbors.

In this pursuit, we often seek “both/andian” paths. So Unitarian Universalists tend to be active in both individual empowerment and whatever supports the commons, the commonwealth, the common good. (We’ve been at this since our important role in the early colonies and nation. Presidents John and J.Q. Adams were Unitarians, for instance, as were Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau; Universalist Benjamin Rush signed the Declaration of Independence.)

My years here on this Island have been especially rewarding for the opportunity to contribute to various programs of Sustainable Bainbridge, which sponsors the annual Frog Rock Forum, among numerous projects that benefit the whole community. This month, as part of Positive Energy (“A Bainbridge Alliance for Clean Power”), I’ll meet with others who are tracking prospects for remediating the creosoted soil on the Wyckoff property at the mouth of Eagle Harbor. The challenging demands of cleaning up that wasteland are definitely on my citizen heart.

In a fierce national election season, it behooves us to remember that democracy is less an absolute destination and more of a both/andian process, one that calls forth both authentic individual voices and the creative holding of group tensions.

The devil is in the details, of course, but Parker Palmer reminds us that our most productive insights and solutions usually emerge from respectful, balanced, patient interaction among often divergent voices, which is a radical feature of the American system as designed by our founders. My religion teaches that Beloved Community has democratic legs and a citizen heart.

And relationships matter, as we discover by participating together over time, such as in our thriving Interfaith Council. Democracy is not a spectator sport at any level, at least not when most effective, and it demands an inclusive courage from its adherents. I honor those among us who can both speak forthrightly from their passionate citizen heart and listen well with their equitable citizen ears. Unity and Love inform me at a depth level on this meaningful journey.

Rev. Jaco B. ten Hove is co-minister (with spouse Barbara) at Cedars Unitarian Universalist Church.

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