Expanding the Circle 4

The First Principle Project

We also know that the meat production industry produces 18% of all greenhouse gases – more than the entire transportation sector. If climate change is a concern (and it surely is), the one single most effective step would be to end meat production. A vegetarian driving a hummer is doing less harm to the planet than a meat-eater driving a Prius.

Tommy (ABC News photo)
Expanding the circle of care and concern – taking the next step in moral progress, the next step in growing our capacity for compassion, is expanding the circle to include all sentient beings – all beings that feel.

It’s been a good week for expanding the circle of inclusion: cities recognizing indigenous peoples day, states granting same-sex marriage rights. In the news this week was also this item: A state appellate court in Albany this week heard arguments on whether Tommy, held in captivity in Gloversville, NY, was entitled to a writ of habeas corpus. Tommy is a 26-year-old chimpanzee. The court was considering whether he could be considered a legal person who could – with the same assistance of a lawyer that we would all have to depend on – sue for his freedom.

Tommy’s lawyer argued: “He’s detained against his will.” No chimpanzee would want to live
“in the conditions in which he’s living. He can understand the past, he can anticipate the future, and he suffers as much in solitary confinement as a human being.”
The lawyer expressed hope that Tommy, if deemed a person, might soon be able to retire, as many New Yorkers do, to Florida. There’s an island preserve there with hundreds of other chimps.

We don’t know how the court will rule, but the very idea of chimpanzees with legal rights represents a sea change. Our attitudes about animals are shifting – the circle of inclusion is expanding, and inclusion strengthens rather than weakens the protections for all of us.

I believe in expanding the circle of inclusion. I want to say all beings matter. Humans matter more – but all beings matter.

A number of Unitarian Universalists have begun to suggest that we can do better than affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We can, in fact, affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every being. It’s called the “First Principle Project” – a project to revise our first principle to replace “every person” with “every being.”

As it happens, this congregation, Communty Unitarian Church at White Plains, had a ministerial intern some years ago -- some of you might recall him, Nate Walker -- who, way back in 2005, preached from this pulpit about the inherent worth and dignity of every being. I'm happy to tell you that consideration of that idea is, in fact, slowly growing among more and more UUs -- as well it should -- thanks in part to the leadership of my now-colleague, Rev. Nate Walker. My colleague and spouse, Rev. LoraKim Joyner has been at the forefront of the First Principle project.

At our next General Assembly, if 15 congregations ask for it, there will be a motion on the agenda to establish a two-year study commission to investigate pros and cons of changing our first principle from every person to every being. A year or two after that, the study commission makes its recommendation. If it’s a recommendation for change, it will then have to be passed by a two-thirds vote of the delegates at two consecutive annual General Assemblies.

Right now we say that every person has inherent worth and dignity. This is aspirational, and it doesn’t mean we can’t punish criminals, nor that we have to love strangers as much as our family, nor that we should support enforcing absolute equality of income for everyone. But it does function to open our spirits to a kinder regard – at whatever level each of us deems appropriate.

To say that every being has inherent worth and dignity wouldn’t require us to care as much about Tommy as we do about the humans in our prisons and warehouse nursing homes, nor would it say all beings warranted the same level of concern and respect, nor would it require us to become vegans. It would function to open our spirits to a kinder regard – at whatever level each of us deems appropriate.

Our principles are not like laws. All our principles do is point the direction in which they encourage us to explore how far we individually are ready to go.

Expand the circle of concern and respect. There are human groups who need that circle more securely expanded: prisoners, elderly, African Americans, Hispanics, indigenous peoples, women, LGBT folk, persons with disabilities.

Expand the circle of concern and respect. And there are nonhuman animals to include within the compass of our hearts. Caring about your neighbor never curtails your love for your own family. Caring about the other, the outcast, doesn’t hinder your belongingness in or support of your own community.

Expanding the circle in a new way actually helps strengthen other circles that we have incompletely expanded because all beings really does mean all of us. Inclusion strengthens, rather than weakens. Love is a model for more love.

The sacred hoop of our people is one of many hoops that make one circle. Let us stretch it wide – wide as daylight and starlight.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Expanding the Circle"
Previous: Part 3
Beginning: Part 1

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