top of page

Spare Change

John Rohrbaugh

Sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Community of Cambria

July 9, 2017


Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles, the FIRST Principle being:  the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We believe that all individuals, in and of themselves, have “standing,” have “status,” have “value,” regardless of what they have achieved or failed to achieve in their lives.

We believe that all individuals, in and of themselves, should be treated in a respectful, courteous, and considerate manner, regardless of what actions they have taken or have failed to take in their lives.

There is no philosophical justification that can be given for this first Principle.  I cannot prove to you that this Principle is right-minded.  As a social psychologist, I cannot even provide evidence from any field study that following this principle will improve your life; following this principle may make your life worse.  In short, this Principle simply stands on its own:  this is what we Unitarian Universalists believe.  This is a fundamental spiritual precept that we Unitarian Universalists hold as our truth:  the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We should not be surprised that there are many Cambrians who do not subscribe to this Principle.  Why should they?  They are not Unitarian Universalists.  They do not need to suspend their disbelief.  In their view, the WORTH of a human life must be counted up, measured, or assessed, and DIGNITY is accorded, is awarded, is afforded by others in proportion to one’s accomplishments or will to succeed. 

I recently represented our UU congregation at a community event called “A Conversation on Homelessness.”  I heard our unsheltered residents referred to as “dysfunctional opportunists,” as “panhandlers,” as “extremely mentally ill,” as “sketchy,” and as “the professional homeless.”  One discussion group suggested that “benefits could be contingent on the applicants performing productive activities in town such as picking up litter….”  In this way, the homeless would become deserving of our consideration.

To Unitarian Universalists, worth and dignity are not earned, they are inherent in each person.  Furthermore, worth and dignity are never lost.  Our first Principle, therefore, has often been disputed.  Should our first Principle apply to Hitler or more immediately to Kim Jong-un of North Korea or Jeffrey Dahmer here in the United States.  Fortunately, my commitment to our first Principle will never be tested by my having to meet any of these men.  For most Unitarian Universalists, this type of challenge to our first Principle is completely hypothetical and even somewhat disingenuous.  The real and continuous challenge to our commitment to the first Principle, instead, is how we relate to all those others whom we personally encounter each and every day.  How consistent are we in according inherent worth and dignity in all of the human exchanges that we have?

Perhaps the greatest challenge to our commitment to the first Principle--that I have observed personally--was in a UU congregation in New York.  There, the husband of our Board President was discovered to be sexually abusing several young boys in the Religious Education program; the President herself, much beloved by everyone, may have been enabling him.  How did the congregation respond?  I can tell you:  NOT in any manner consistent with the first Principle.  The revulsion and hatred that this victimization engendered, not just victimization of the boys but of the entire congregation, was deep and unsparing.  Long-standing friendships were cut off; the couple was shunned. 

Of course, we knew the right actions to take:  report the incidents, engage the police, support the prosecution under New York State law.  Only a few UU members, however, found the spiritual strength to abide by our first Principle and affirm “inherent worth and dignity.”  They, too, then were shunned.  They did not excuse or forgive the actions of this couple that were so bitterly offensive and hurtful to us all.  They did something that was even more difficult in the situation:  they lived the first Principle.

There may be one or two times in our lives when we encounter individuals whose inherent dignity and worth appear so marginal to us that we fail the spiritual test of our first Principle.  Perhaps in these extreme circumstances, such failures can be excused or forgiven.  But, in every routine aspect of our lives as Unitarian Universalists, the first Principle remains the FIRST principle of our chosen faith.  It underscores who we should be.

Of course, people of most faiths are bound at the very minimum by 3000-year-old moral codes of the Middle and Far East.

If the entire Dharma can be said in a few words, then it is — that which is unfavorable to us, do not do that to others.

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow:  this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation.

These ancient religious assertions have much to demand of us even today, and we often fall short of “do not do to others what is unfavorable to us.”  In many ways, we routinely treat others more poorly than we would like to be treated by them.  Human relations are not always fully intentional and completely rational.  But even most 21st century economists stand by the dictum first articulated by Vilfredo Pareto nearly 200 years ago that public policies are optimal (or most efficient) when societal gains are achieved without causing greater harm to even a few citizens.  Can you imagine if our political leadership today abided by both the religious and economic dictum of doing no harm to others?

But the first Principle demands much more of us as Unitarian Universalists than 3000-year-old moral codes.  Of course, we accept that “what is hateful to us, we will not do to others.”  Nevertheless, we advocate for a higher standard in affirming the worth and dignity of every person. 

We believe that all individuals, in and of themselves, have “standing,” have “status,” have “value,” regardless of what they have achieved or failed to achieve in their lives.

We believe that all individuals, in and of themselves, should be treated in a respectful, courteous, and considerate manner, regardless of what actions they have taken or have failed to take in their lives.

In this sense, Unitarian Universalists have responsibility both for NOT DOING but also for DOING, that is, for NOT harming others but also for acting in consonance with every other person’s inherent worth and dignity.  We don’t demean; we don’t disparage; in all circumstances, we ennoble, especially when and where our friends and neighbors will not.  This distinguishes us as Unitarian Universalists in Cambria.

Our UU first principle, however, in my view, does not demand as much as the so-called “Golden Rule.”  The earliest written version of that standard may have appeared in the Torah:

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself (Leviticus 19:34).

Jesus has been quoted as teaching this doctrine as “Do for others what you would want them to do for you” (Matthew 7:12).  He also is reported to have elaborated on this idea in more detail:

When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:37-40).

And, then, of course, there is the Parable of the Good Samaritan that I adapted in the earlier reading to our situation here in Cambria.

These teachings are extreme, in my view, and not expected by our first Principle.  Unitarian Universalists are not held to the “Golden Rule.”  I would even argue, though I know that this is controversial, that doing for others what you would want them to do for yourself is a weak moral precept because it rests all human engagement on a variety of values, beliefs, and attitudes that may be unique to the individual adherent and perhaps even aberrational.

If I like to take cold showers at 5 a.m. each morning, do I wake my houseguests at 5 a.m. and insist that they try a cold shower, too?

But more seriously, this has been a long-standing difficulty over the centuries as Christians have attempted to impose the beliefs that they cherish on others--because if they were one of the heathen, they would want others to bring them into the Christian fold.

A further problem with the “Golden Rule,” in my view, is that it raises the bar of moral action far too high for an individual’s responsibility to others.  And here I need to stress:  an individual’s responsibility.  I have high expectations for how I want to be treated. Does this require me to treat every stranger I meet in the same way?  Or should I lower my expectations of how I want to be treated to the way I engage the next stranger on Main Street?  Our first Principle demands that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but it does not demand that we, as the Good Tourist from Bakersfield, draw on our MasterCard on every occasion that we observe a stranger in need.  Even our second Principle that affirms compassion in human relations falls well short of the “Golden Rule.”

Let’s be quite clear on one point here:  The first Principle does not mean that we UUs, in affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, also must affirm the worth and dignity of every idea, of every belief or opinion that we hear. 

If I said that I believed the Bible that God accepted the institution of human slavery, I should not lose my inherent worth and dignity, but you should not be bound to respect my opinion.

If I said that climate change was a hoax, I should not lose my inherent worth and dignity, but you would have every right to falsify my claim.

If I said that every dollar that you put in the offering basket this morning will be returned to you ten-fold, I should not lose my inherent worth and dignity, but you…. Well, just consider that as a possibility in a few minutes….

To be Unitarian Universalists does not mean that we are not allowed to make critical value judgments or that we are bound to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every idea or behavior.  Meg Barnhouse, senior minister of the Austin UU Church, once said, "I don't have to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every idea, ‘cause some ideas are dumb!"  And living in Texas, Meg has heard a lot.

To make our first Principle into a spiritual practice requires us to acknowledge that we have been socialized to ascribe status to certain categories of people over others and to thereby differentiate, perhaps “discriminate” is a harsher word, in assessing their individual value or worth.  If we do not do this explicitly ourselves, our national policy makers will do these calculations for us.  Republicans have distinguished the Makers from the Takers, and Democrats have trusted economists whose cost-benefit analyses are based on projections of income from one’s remaining work life.

As we explicitly recognize the many ways that we have been socialized to differentiate--or discriminate--on the basis of an individual’s status, it is very, very difficult to avoid positioning ourselves as we assess a lifetime of our own hard work, accomplishments, and the good fortune to have found a place to live as wonderful as Cambria.  Even having lived here for only two years, I certainly take pride in having a license plate on our car that says “Cambria:  Pines by the Sea.”  Kris and I have made a home here.  So I know that I can feel a kind of privileged pity or condescending charity toward our unsheltered residents and seasonal transient visitors.  Terms that I heard at the “Conversation on Homelessness” such as indigent, vagrant, and destitute--even when spoken in a kindly and seemingly understanding way, still can imply a perceived lack of worth and dignity.

As Unitarian Universalists, we do not need to be as generous with our time and our money as the Tourist from Bakersfield when encountering a stranger on Main Street.  But let’s consider as least the respectful form of greeting in Hindu custom Namaskaram that is common in India and Nepal.  Namaskaram is based on the concept of Namaste meaning "The divine in me greets the divine in you." The inherent worth and dignity in me greets the inherent worth and dignity in you, whoever you are.  It is used for both a “hello” and a “goodbye.”  Namaste usually is spoken with a slight bow and hands pressed together,  palms touching and fingers pointing upward, thumbs close to the chest.  In Hinduism it means “I bow to the divine in you.” 

Remember Mary Oliver’s poem:  She looks upon everything as a sisterhood and a brotherhood, “I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy…and as singular, and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth." 

I would like to close with the words of Victoria Weinstein, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Lynn, MA when she addressed the first Principle and meditated on this poem.

“What a challenge to be in the presence of another person and to remember that they are a lion of courage and precious to the earth. Not to be sentimental and gooey about that fact, but to live into what it demands of us: humane presence, basic respect, an audit of our own feelings of superiority. Some will be good, some will be bad. What they choose to do is their business.  How I am present myself to them is mine.”

bottom of page