At the turn of the 19th century, Universalism had a vibrant and passionate voice in Hosea Ballou. Having converted to Universalism in 1789, he also came to reject the concept of the Holy Trinity, making him a Unitarian Universalist long before the consolidation of the UUA. He wrote many sermons designed to empower Universalists to talk about the unconditional love of God. He also established Universalist publications, and was known to welcome public questions of his beliefs.
One of the constant questions he faced was along the lines of “How can you believe God saves everyone, no matter how much they have sinned. Ballou confronted the idea of damnation, saying that love required salvation at all costs. He asked, given the Christian assumption of a fatherly creator:
“Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”
He did not make these declarations to shame people. He was not trying to lure them to his pews for prestige or tithes. He wanted people to feel loved. His desire was to save people; not from damnation at the hand of God, but from the condemnation of the society they lived in. He argued against Calvinism and the idea that bad things happen only to bad people, and good things only to good. He had more than faith, and more than a message. This was a man with a mission.
This is what Unitarian Universalism needs; not more “social action” or “welcoming” language. We need a mission to actually change the world, with our faith in humanity and the power of love and knowledge, as the core of that mission. We don’t need more people to join us because of how we do politics; we need people to feel compelled to activism by our message that people deserve to be treated with respect and empowered to live lives that make them happy.
To reframe the question posed by Rev. Ballou: Do we embrace our faith because it promotes things we want to do, or are we doing things to help the world because we have a loving and humanist faith? Do we love the world because we are making it better, or are we making it better because we first loved it?
There are people in the world who are lonely, who have been hurt, and who are angry. They don’t want to talk about religion, and they definitely don’t want to hear about divinity and love. They are the people who need us the most. We can reach them, because our divine love doesn’t come after you are dead. Our religion doesn’t even require that you believe in gods, much less worship them. We can offer them a community and a home for their spirit to heal, so that they can find the path that makes them happy and healthy again. We have that, and we shouldn’t be at all afraid to tell people about it. They may say no, but that isn’t a reflection on us, and it isn’t an insult. The insult is presuming that they don’t want the invitation or might not deserve one.
There are people in the world who have been oppressed. Our movement is overwhelmingly made up of people who are white, educated, and middle-class. As a group, we have a lot of privilege. As a religion of love and justice, we owe it to the world to use our individual privilege to work for equality and justice. In effect, our mission should be to leverage our political, economic, and intellectual power to reduce our own impact, much as Jesus said to his followers to give all their goods to the poor in order to follow him. If the poor are elevated, then poverty is eliminated; if cultural privilege is shared, then oppression can be eliminated. Both are essential to achieving social justice and giving everyone an opportunity to contribute their best back to society.
We need to love the world enough to want to change it. Too many Unitarian Universalists seem to come from the other end; operating from a place of dissatisfaction or even disgust and a desire to change things so they are tolerable. We need to care about more than what we can personally stand to allow. We need to make sure the mission is about making things as positive as we can for as many people as we can help. We need to make sure that we are building an all-inclusive community, that makes room for everyone who truly desires to join in our spiritual and social work.
I’ve previously argued that our creator must love us all, and must either have one final destination planned for all of us, or be a being unworthy of my personal reverence. Now I am making the point that our churches must do the same. We have to actively embody that belief, encoded in our Principles, that all people have an inherent worth and dignity that needs to be nourished, and deserve the chance to build a life that makes them happy so long as it doesn’t harm others. It needs to be rooted in our shared belief and a desire to build a better world. We also have to tell people about that mission, because there are people who want to help us, and we need them. There are others who just need the hope that they might have a place in the community; that we are working to have their dignity recognized and respected.
That is missional Unitarian Universalism, to me, and it leads me to be evangelical about our faith. Even those who have no desire, even those who truly have no need, for a religious community do need to know that we are different, and that religion can be a force that helps unite society and undo the idea that God has picked winners and losers and that the oppressed don’t deserve better from their society.