Worship Script 1
Limits of Freedom
Worship Script (1 of 4)
By Leslie Takahashi
Here in this place of peace, may we find hope.
Here in this place of connection, may we find live-giving community.
Here in this place of rest, let the unrest of our hearts turn us toward justice.
Here in this space made sacred by memories of connection,
Let us each feel ourselves part of the new that grows from the old
In the spiraling unity of years.
HYMN #113 Where Is Our Holy Church?
Excerpts from “Freedom is a Funny Word” by Michael A Schuler
To be sure, for Unitarian Universalists the “right of conscience” is accorded high value; it is embedded in the fifth of our seven Principles. But the fourth Principle, which calls for “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” puts the fifth in proper context and helps us distinguish between freedom and mere license.
The latter—license—tolerates no restrictions, rejects intelligent discernment, and demands absolute autonomy. No matter that my belief is ill-founded, irrational, and pernicious, it is my categorical right to claim it, license says.
Freedom, on the other hand, is ever and always subject to certain limits—the dictates of reason perhaps, or the necessity of living in community, or of ensuring our own and other people’s safety. As Barack Obama put it in his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention:
What is the American promise? It’s a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, and that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect.
Excerpts from “Power of community, the peril of Individualism” by Rev. Cheryl M. Walker
True community doesn’t happen unless everyone is willing to give up some of their identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group. If this doesn’t happen, then we are merely a group of individuals sharing common space but not becoming a community. It doesn’t mean that we go to the extremes of everyone wearing the same clothing, praying the same way, if at all, or believing the same things. However, it does mean that we move individualism from the center of our focus and replace it with a new concept of shared community, in which everyone gives up a little so that we can gain a lot.
In true community we gain a lot. We gain affirmation of who we are both as individuals and as part of a group. We gain the wisdom of others who may have ideas different from our own. In true community, we are supported in our life’s journeys because we feel safe to be known at our deepest levels, and because we are all committed to the health of the community. And finally, we gain the commitment and the power to change the world.
Individualism is so attractive in the beginning. For many people who felt the heavy yoke of being in communities of faith where they could not fully be who they were, individualism tastes like the food they have been hungering for. But it is good only when we are starving. When we have had our fill, we look for food to sustain us for the long journey of life. That life-sustaining food can be found only in true communities of shared purpose and values, where the individual is affirmed but is not worshipped.
HYMN #290 Bring, O Past, Your Honor
STORY FOR ALL AGES
Be Careful What You Say, by Emily DeTar Birt
Today across the news and in our classrooms, you might have been told about Freedom of Speech. This is a right granted by the constitution that people have the right to say how they feel and what they believe. We have the right to say whatever we want.
But people everywhere confuse that freedom to say what they want as freedom from having any responsibility for the things they say. So let’s play a small game, to show the limits of our freedom of speech.
Pass out the following phrases on pieces of paper for kids and adults to say:
I love basketball!
Everyone who likes soccer is bad person!
I believe that God loves everyone.
I really don’t like tomato sauce.
Joey is stupid!
Only people who own cars can go to college.
Ask the kids: How did these statements make you feel? How do you this it made others feel?
Now some of these statements were just that, statements of how you feel or what you believe. But some of these phrases hurt other people and effect other people. When you say things that intentionally hurt others, or cause pain, or treat people unfairly, you are the one held responsible for the consequences of hurting that person. When we say things that intentionally hurt other people, or discourage entire groups of people from being seen as human being, than we must make amends, learn and shift what we say. We are not free to say anything that hurts people or causes pain.
Why? Because we are responsible for what we say, and the ways it hurts others.
That’s why in Unitarian Universalism we teach each other about the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Because every person is responsible for what they say and what they believe, especially the ways that they may affect others. Our freedom to decide how we feel about God, the universe, or just our everyday life, rests on our responsibility to choose with care. To make sure no one, or planet, or person is hurt by what we believe.
Be careful what you say, for you are the one responsible for it.
O Deep Mystery of Our Lives by Sheldon W Bennett
O Deep Mystery of our lives -- voice in our hearts and light in our minds -- in the joyful freedom of our fellowship, we are here together as adventurers called forth in spirit, men and women moving, yearning, questing, pushing the limits of our lives outwards to what is more loving and just, more beautiful and true.
Here in this meeting house, this place made holy by the memories, the aspirations, the purposes and ideals of those before us, we would be inspired by their example. These were women and men of vision. These were people of spirit.
We, here today, are also people of spirit. We, too, are struck in awe before the great mystery of the cosmos. We, too, are powerfully moved by a deep concern for our world and our care for one another. The spirit moves also in us -- as a free religious community joined in a common covenant of aspiration, commitment and hope.
May ours be a faith that is more than just beautiful words and high ideals. May ours be a faith of vitality and commitment, a faith that burns in our hearts and blazes in our minds. May ours be a faith that shines to the world as the light of deeds and the witness of actions.
O Source and Spirit of our lives, may we respond boldly to your call to adventure -- for justice, for love, and for joy. Amen.
CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN
Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives. As you do, you may briefly share what it is. We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.
"THE LIMITS OF FREEDOM" A sermon by Rev. Roger Bertschausen
Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
In the early and mid-1990s, I earned a reputation in the Unitarian Universalist Association as one of the most outspoken proponents of individual freedom. I won an award for a sermon on the subject and preached the sermon at a General Assembly, the annual gathering of American Unitarian Universalists. I served as President of Unitarian Universalists for Freedom of Conscience. Most notably, I engaged in a brief but intense debate about the limits of freedom with another minister in a widely read monthly publication for Unitarian Universalist ministers. When I googled myself shortly after Google was invented, another colleague's sermon attacking me popped up. Basically he accused me of making a false idol of freedom. How can this be? I wondered. Isn't the freedom to construct one’s own beliefs the hallmark of our creed-less Tradition?
In recent years I've hinted at something that I want to make explicit today: I was wrong. wrong, wrong, wrong! Today I'm coming clean about this.
At its heart, my mistake came from a profound misunderstanding of freedom. I confused freedom with individual license. I believed that because of the primacy of individual freedom of conscience, each Unitarian Universalist has the categorical right to come to his or her personal beliefs and understanding of the world. Really? Does this mean that I have the right as a Unitarian Universalist to believe in white supremacy? Do I have a right as a UU to believe that I have no responsibility to care for those who are suffering, impoverished, or discriminated against? Do I have a right as a UU to believe something that is completely contrary to the historical tradition of our faith—say, that it's really the afterlife and not life in the here and now of this world that truly counts?
In the 1990s, I would have answered yes to these questions. Okay, maybe not that it's okay to be a white supremacist Unitarian Universalist. I acknowledged that there is some outer limit of what's acceptable as a Unitarian Universalist, but I declared that boundary to be very, very far out—so far out as to be almost meaningless. Basically, aside from that very rare kind of exception, I would have subscribed to the simple understanding of Unitarian Universalism articulated by many of Unitarian Universalists in recent years (including here): In our faith, you can believe anything you want. Ours is pretty much an "anything goes" faith.
What I was advocating was license, not true freedom. My colleague Michael Schuler from First arian Society in Madison defines license as tolerating no restriction. It demands absolute autonomy. License, according to Schuler, says that "no matter that my belief is ill-founded, irrational, and pernicious, it is my categorical right to claim it."
More than anything else, my mistaken understanding of freedom opens the door for ours to be a h of narcissism. It's all about you. It's all about what you want to believe, what works for you. Reason, critical thinking, the common good: don't worry about these things! As long as what you believe makes sense to you—more to the point: is good for you—well, then
everything's cool. What I would say now is that true freedom has constraints. Balance is inherent to freedom. Of
course freedom includes individual autonomy, but this individual autonomy is not an absolute. It's not a categorical right. Individual autonomy must be balanced by the common good. And in the context of our faith, individual autonomy must also be balanced by the tradition of our faith. This isn't to say that tradition trumps individual autonomy—it doesn't—but it's something to consider, to balance.
With the Supreme Court's McCutcheon decision this week, I couldn't help but think about freedom being a balancing act between personal autonomy and the common good. The McCutcheon decision struck down any limit on the total an individual can contribute to candidates in an election cycle. If freedom only means individual autonomy—or license—then
the Supreme Court majority absolutely came to the right conclusion. Giving money to candidates you endorse is an expression of free speech. Placing a limit on what you can give circumscribes this right.
What the Supreme Court majority failed to do is balance individual autonomy with the common good. Unlimited money flooding our political system does tremendous harm to the common good. It puts enormous power into the hands of a few super-wealthy people who can now arguably buy elections and elected leaders. In recent days, Americans have been using "oligarchy" in disparaging ways to describe the current political system in Russia, where Vladimir Putin and a cadre of super-wealthy business leaders are calling the shots (oh, and, by the way, squelching individual autonomy). My dictionary defines oligarchy as "a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few." That is exactly the kind of government the Supreme Court majority made more likely with the McCutcheon ruling (as well as the earlier Citizen's United ruling).
With these rulings, the Koch brothers or George Soros have way more of a say in who gets elected and the legislation and regulations they pass than you or me. Throwing up our hands and saying "What's the use in being involved?" further propels us down the road of low investment in the process by those of us who are not super rich people, and declining election turnout. I don't see any way you can argue that these Supreme Court decisions enhance the common good.
And let's not forget that the common good is not some concept foreign to our nation's founding principles. The concept of the common good was very much a part of the founding principles, even though it was neither completely embraced nor understood by all the founders. (Exhibit A: the enshrinement of slavery in the Constitution.)
How do we balance individual autonomy and the common good? This is not an easy question to answer. Tension between the two is implicitly part of the equation of freedom. We can err too far in one direction or the other. The Citizens United and the McCutcheon decisions are examples of erring too much on the side of individual autonomy.
In the McCutcheon majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.” I would argue that flag burning, funeral protests—even those horrible protests by the recently deceased Fred Phelp's "church"—and Nazi parades are far LESS injurious to the common good
than flooding our political system with unregulated money. Phelps' picketing Matthew Shepherd's funeral with incredibly offensive signs was hurtful and outrageous, but it didn't threaten the core of our democracy. So I would allow flag burning, funeral protests (from a respectful distance) and Nazi parades. But I would not allow unlimited campaign contributions.
To me allowing the former and not allowing the latter stakes out a good balance point between
individual autonomy and the common good.
This same tension between individual autonomy and the common good plays out in our Unitarian Universalist congregations, too. My colleague Peter Boullata wrote in a blog a few years ago:
There is a contradiction inherent in liberal religion. We are free, autonomous individuals in community with one another. Tension exists between freedom and connection, autonomy and community. There is no getting around it. Our calling
is to live gracefully in that tension, holding them with equanimity, without being weighted as we are now toward individual freedom and autonomy. Our capacity for being a transformative presence in the world is diminished when we neglect
the communal, connected, covenanted aspect of our life together and when we focus primarily on the individual and their freedom. Our institutions suffer.
Here at our Fellowship, we uphold this idea of balancing individual autonomy and the common good in our "Principles for a Healthy Congregation." This is the statement our Fellowship adopted that describes how we aspire to interact with one another in our spiritual community. One of the principles lifted up in this statement says that we strive to "keep our individual needs in balance with the health and vitality of the community as a whole." This explicitly says that we aspire to find that balance point between individual autonomy and the well-being of the whole. This statement lifts up that none of us has a categorical or absolute right to believe, say, or do whatever we want here. If what we believe, say, or do causes significant harm to the common good of the Fellowship, then it's not allowed. "Anything goes" is NOT the spirit of this
Fellowship. None of us has the categorical right to do something harmful to others because well, it's what we feel like doing. Balancing our individual needs with the health and vitality of the unity as a whole: this is the spirit of the Fellowship.
I also have come to believe that in the context of this spiritual community, we need to balance tradition of our faith with our individual autonomy. We are not completely bound by tradition--to say we're bound by tradition would actually be contrary to our tradition because Unitarianism and Universalism have never lifted up the binding nature of tradition. But we have to take into account our tradition. If we believe that it's the afterlife that matters and not this world; if we say that some people are saved and others are condemned to hell—either in this life or the next; if our actions show complete disregard for the well-being of the earth: these things are so contrary to our tradition that I believe they are out of bounds here. It's not to say you can't eve or say or do these things as a human being. You can. But in my view, saying or
believing or doing these things is fundamentally incompatible with being a Unitarianersalist.
I want to suggest one additional question to ponder as we contemplate the idea of freedom this month: What are you going to do with the precious gift of the freedom you have been given? What are you going to use it for? If your answer is all or mostly about what benefits you, then I want to challenge you to balance your focus on self with a focus on the common good. As Unitarian Universalism skewed toward individual autonomy and away from the common good in
the twentieth century, our faith became increasingly characterized by narcissism. Peter Boullata writes in the blog I quoted earlier that we managed to institutionalize narcissism--and that's a pretty extraordinary accomplishment. And it's not a good accomplishment! This skewing reached its zenith in a marketing campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the 1990s: Unitarian Universalism is "the religion that puts its faith in you," the add proclaimed.Maybe a more apt motto would have been: "Unitarian Universalism--putting the “I” back in religion." Is that really what our faith is all about? I hope not!
This impacts our understanding of the minister's role in a congregation. Peter Boullata tells the story of a workshop for a congregation and its newly settled minister. The facilitator of the workshop asked the members of the congregation, "What is the minister's primary job?" Boullata writes:
Somebody answered, "To make us happy." "To serve our needs," somebody else chimed. The (facilitator) replied, "Guess what? The minister's job is not to make you happy. The minister's job is to serve the mission of the church." There was a sharp intake of breath in the room. That moment was such a shock of recognition that the people who were there remember it still. It's not all about me. It's not all about my needs.
We would do well to consider this over the next six weeks as we collectively contemplatewhether to call Leah Hart-Landsberg as our Associate Minister. The question before each one of us is not whether Leah makes me individually happy or whether Leah serves my individual needs, but whether she serves the mission of the Fellowship.
I'll conclude by talking about the Fellowship's mission: welcoming everyone, growing in mind and spirit, and leading in social justice. My colleague Leah has helped me understand these three legs of our mission as thoroughly interrelated. Welcoming newcomers into the Fellowship helps us grow in mind and spirit. Growing in mind and spirit helps us become more welcoming. The radical inclusion of truly welcoming others helps us be leaders in social justice in our increasingly diverse and multicultural community. So does growing in mind and spirit. Leading in social justice helps us grow in mind and spirit. It's all connected. It's all mutually reinforcing.
And our mission isn't all about meeting our individual needs. It's not all about me or you as an individual. Welcoming everyone obviously calls us beyond our individual needs. This piece of our mission has beckoned us forward to change the Fellowship so it can be more welcoming—even though we may love the Fellowship exactly as it is at the moment. Growing in mind and spirit isn't just about me or you as an individual growing; it's also about you and me helping each
other grow. And leading in social justice isn't about patting ourselves on the back or marketing Fellowship. It's about doing our part—fulfilling our responsibility as a progressive Fox Valley congregation—to help build a better world.
May we embrace the tension implicit in freedom. May we balance our individual autonomy and needs with the health and vitality of the community as a whole. May we live gracefully and creatively in the tension
HYMN #287 Faith of the Larger Liberty
Between the Dawn and Dusk, by Carl Seaburg
Between the dawn and dusk of our being, let us be brave and loving.
In our little passage through the light let us sustain and forward the human venture—
in gentleness, in service, and in thought. Amen..