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From the Ministers

In Care - April 2017

The Freedom to Be Unitarian Universalist

by Rev. Deborah Cayer

Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal religious tradition with roots that go back to the ancient Hebrew prophets who fought for the human right to freedom. What holds us together are our promises to one another, rooted in the radical notion that human freedom is for the purpose of making ultimate choices. Whatever happens to us in life, whether things go as we wish or not, we choose the good things, the right things, the better things that our religious tradition and our own experience has showed us. When we do this, the sacred, however we each understand it, is with us too.


Hannah Arendt was a Jewish intellectual who escaped the Nazis. She understood firsthand how important our choices, our promises, our covenants with one another are. She came to believe that when we make covenantal promises to one another, we create something like small islands of certainty in a vast, uncertain future. Our promises and covenants keep us above the rough waters and offer us safety amid what would otherwise overcome what is most essential within us.

To attempt to show up for something this big and difficult is to risk failure. So what happens when we fail at these big things, or when others fail us? Do we throw in the towel, throw curses at each other and storm out? No…at least not every time. We have the choice to dig deep and remember that we can do hard things. We have the choice to forgive ourselves and one another and begin again in love.

Hannah Arendt believed that covenants require not just promises, but also forgiveness. Without forgiveness we might become trapped forever in one deed, one act that then comes to define us. And without forgiveness we risk becoming trapped in seeking vengeance. Once we begin that cycle, the transgression gets enacted over and over, and we get stuck in that debilitating story.

But forgiveness, Arendt said, actually opens up the possibility of a new kind of time, one in which the future is not determined. So taking responsibility and offering forgiveness is an ultimate expression of human freedom that sets us free from a cycle of vengeance and retaliation.
Those who can forgive become emotionally, interpersonally powerful. Empathy becomes possible, and we gain the ability to imagine life from the perspective of others, to walk a mile in their shoes. Mutuality, equity, and respect also become possible. Love becomes possible. These are core values, and core spiritual qualities that we cultivate, because these are practices that help us maintain our essential human freedom, and even more importantly our relationships. As we cultivate these qualities they become signs, guideposts, markers of how we practice our faith.

When people blithely write off Unitarian Universalists as people with a shallow faith I’m tempted to laugh. This is a difficult faith that asks us to be bold and take courageous risks. It asks us to settle for nothing less than the right of every human being to make choices. And it offers us the chance to do this together in ways that offer both intimacy and ultimacy.