Newsletter Column 2013 Nov

Covenant and Democracy

The themes for November are Covenant and Democracy. These are the themes at the center of our way of being together.

Covenant. While we acknowledge and respect faith traditions in which members connect and bind themselves together through a shared creed, we are also clear that this is not the Unitarian Universalist way. We are a people of covenant, not creed, and it is covenant rather than creed by which we are connected and bound together. The content of the covenant is expressed in various ways, one of the most prominent of which is our seven principles: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote...”

Our principles don’t declare that we believe any particular doctrine or creed – we just covenant to affirm and promote these ideals. The seven principles, however, are fairly recent in our history: they were produced in the mid-1980s. Before the seven principles, we had other ways to articulate our covenant. And if CUC adopts a mission statement then that, too, will be a covenant. Ultimately, however, the idea of covenant goes beyond any words that we might choose to express it. Beyond one or another articulation, there is simply a covenant to walk together.

While “covenant” has a legal meaning in some contexts (as for instance, in property law, where it refers to conditions tied to the use of land), in our faith tradition, covenant is not a legal term. A covenant is not a contract. In a contract, if one side breaks the contract, the other side doesn’t have to continue to keep its side of the bargain. A covenant, however, is a promise that continues to hold, howsoever often broken. No matter how many times you or I fail to support one another in the ways we have promised to do so, the covenant continues to exist, calling us back to repair the relations damaged, to honor anew what has been dishonored, to recommit to walking together in a relationship made sacred by our promised intention that it be so.

Democracy. Our fifth principle is “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” We do our best to respect the rights of conscience for those who may be outvoted. Still, the fact remains that sometimes opinions are divided and only one of them will prevail. The great spiritual lesson of democracy is humility. We’re all sometimes outvoted, and the system depends upon our ability to let go of our attachment to our own opinions enough to allow the majority-supported policy to go forward. Here there are (at least) two dangerous temptations to avoid:

First, don’t try to undermine the policy because you’re so sure it’s wrong. Remember that you might be the one who’s wrong. If you truly can’t take that possibility seriously, then console yourself with the thought that allowing the majority to make this mistake will be the best way for them to learn their error.

Second, don’t assume that, just because the majority has outvoted you, you “haven’t been heard” and are “excluded.” Neither being heard nor being included requires that a majority agree with you.

These are tough lessons, and wherever too many of the citizens are too deficient in that humility, democracy falters. Churches and other voluntary associations are the essential workshops where we learn the democratic skills. When a populace loses interest in showing up to hash out decisions at church committees, or PTA, civic club, or party chapter meetings, the strength of its democratic virtues (listening to others, accommodating diverse viewpoints, understanding how good people may disagree, etc.) wanes . . .

With predictable results.


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