Inherent worth and dignity of every person

The Unitarian Universalism religion–if you can call it a religion–has no specific dogma that dictates behavior or moral code. We are a group of individuals from diverse theological backgrounds and we are encouraged to seek our own spiritual truth in whatever particular theology we find it, or we are completely free to not seek spiritual truth if such does not suit us.

I think part of the reason I was drawn to this religion is the lack of rules; I’m really not very good about the whole authority thing. Nor do I believe, really, that some higher power is up there demanding my strict obedience using earthly rules. My idea of a higher power is above the rules and nature of the flesh, so I am not even sure something that created the universe has a real concept of “moral code” that we would understand.

Despite our apparent lack of our own theology, UUism has some order to it in that we all agree to adhere to seven principles. I don’t have them all memorized, but as part of an ongoing search for my spiritual identity, I decided that I would think about each one of them individually and then talk (in separate blog entries as I’m inspired) about what they mean to me. I thought I’d start with my favorite principle, and the one I always remember: We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Inherent–an innate quality, granted without having to ask for it. Everyone is born with worth and dignity. This is a very Universalist idea, the concept that we are all born equal and thus are worthy of the same dignity and respect–no matter where we come from, what color we are, what religion we follow. It’s the complete opposite of the concept of Predestination (which I believe Universalism was kicking back against during the time it took root in America). The original Universalists believed that God’s salvation was inherently granted to all his creations whether or not they knew of Christianity or accepted Jesus Christ as the son of God. They believed God was too good and too loving to damn anyone. The Universalists understood the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

This principle reminds me to be respectful of others. It causes me to bite my tongue when a racist remark or joke emerges from the depths of my brain. It urges me to listen to others rather than judge based on external factors or the “group mind” of the majority. It reminds me not to perpetuate stereotypes. It tells me to take a breath and listen to what others are saying.

But there is a more difficult side to this concept. Everyone–even people whose actions have made them seem less than worthy–are also as inherently deserving of the same worth and dignity that we assign to the most pious among us. This is much easier in concept than it is to practice. For me, it’s hard to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of a fundamentalist Christian who is shouting hate words about LGBTs; to recognize that someone else’s opinion, though apparently misguided to me, is worthy of being said. It’s especially hard for me to find inherent worth and dignity in Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, or any man who behaves like a general Neanderthal when faced with a feminist or a woman who is tough. It’s a huge leap of faith to think of a murderer or a rapist as worthy of anything, let alone dignity and respect.

And yet it is this inner understanding of a truth I never put into words, before I actually found Unitarian Universalism, that led me to alter the theology in which I was raised. It led me to find injustice and self-righteousness in the death penalty. It has guided me on my crusade to defend LGBT rights. It’s made me pause before speaking in order to analyze my feelings about someone to determine the true source of my anger or prejudice against someone. I strive always to be a better person, to avoid using language that implies prejudice or racism against someone. I don’t let things fly out of my mouth that automatically marginalize people. My husband started teaching me this behavior when he would point out to me whenever I used the words “they” or “them.” Even if I was using it to talk about a Republican I did not agree with. He would repeat my exclusive language and leave it hanging there for me to examine.

Them, they,” he would repeat which would cause me to silently repeat my sentence and hear the marginalizing words.

“As soon as you reduce someone to ‘them,'” he said once, “you’re separating yourself from the group. You’re allowing yourself to think of them as different.”

And it’s focusing on the differences that makes an interaction dangerous. Mike had it right when he taught me to think before speaking. But it’s not always easy. Practicing humanism never is. Loving mankind for everything that it is–good and bad and everything in between–is a challenging task. I think people of all faiths can agree to this. It’s hard to overcome ourselves enough to follow the call to show compassion for even our enemies. Even when we are our most insufferable selves, and we think we are more right than the person to our left, we have to accept that all people are inherently deserving of the same worth and dignity we would grant our friends. Even when they don’t realize feel they are deserving of such care themselves.

It’s easier to hate. It’s easier to marginalize. It’s easier to blame other groups of people for the faults we see in the world. Love is hard because you open yourself up to so much hurt. And too often you are slapped in the face for your efforts. But being damaged by love is not an excuse to withdraw; it’s a reason to try harder.

I don’t pretend to be totally enlightened. I struggle with practicing love, patience, and acceptance on a daily basis in an effort to make myself a kinder and more compassionate person. I struggle with realizing the inherent worth in all the people with whom I interact and treating them with dignity, especially if I feel its undeserved. But I believe the only way to become a civilized society is to behave better than our aggressive instincts. Do unto others as you would want done to you–a similar principle from another religion.

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2 thoughts on “Inherent worth and dignity of every person

  1. I have actually been thinking about the content of your post a lot lately. In fact, I posted the following phrase in response to a comment on my blog not twenty minutes ago: “I think the world would be a better place if we spent as much time focusing on our similarities as we did our differences”. Mike was right when he told you that using words like “they” and “them” is dangerous. It’s a practice I engaged in for many years myself. But the bottom line is that we’re all human and we are all worth something.

    Thanks for this enlightening post.

  2. Heidi this was really a nice read.I wish I could put my thoughts to print as easily as you do.I want to read the next ones.You sound like me when I discovered u.u ism .I was dumbstruck when I met all those wonderfull people for the first time,I kept wondering if they were real or were they acting freindly,this sounds goofy I know, but I was brought up around a different type of religion. One that wasn’t so welcoming and open. I knew I was home when someone thrust a cup of fair trade coffee in my hand!!

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