Whose Right of Conscience Matters More, Mine or Yours?

This morning, we will be talking about our fifth UU principle, by which we covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and the society at large. we’ll be exploring questions like Whose Right of Conscience Matters More, Mine or Yours?, What responsibilities does our 5th principle demand of us?, and does our 5th principle help us get unstuck from ideological polarity?

With whom do you believe your lot is cast?

By Maureen Killoran

February 15, 2017 (http://www.uua.org/worship/braverwiser/whom-do-you-believe-your-lot-cast)

Ethical question (although this really happened): You are in a local grocery store. An elderly, poorly-dressed white lady is pushing a cart, moving with obvious difficulty as she adds to her hoard first one item and then another. She finishes, then proceeds slowly – not to the checkout, but to the exit, where two security guards are chatting. The woman pauses, waits for perhaps 30 seconds under the guards’ noses. It is as though she is invisible to everyone but you, for no one even blinks as she moves through the door, pushing the cart and its stash of unpaid-for goods to her waiting car.

What would you do?

How would you balance respect for the elderly (Honor thy father and mother) with the issue of theft (Thou shalt not steal)?

How about individual need versus corporate greed?

What about assigned responsibility (the security guards) versus your own “right to privacy” (mind your own business)?

What about your potential embarrassment (what if she’s the manager’s doddery aunt and they reclaim the goods each night?) or her potential shame (an “old lady” hauled off to jail)?

On the other hand, are some people more equal than others? What would you have done if the thief had been a body-pierced teen? A person of color? A white man in dirty overalls?

What would you do? What would you not do? And what difference does it make?


Spirit of hope and challenge, help me sort through the complexities of our days.  
I long to live on the side of love. Help me not to turn away.

So, whose right of conscience matters more, mine or yours? Especially if I disagree with you?

For me, my answer is that is just as important for me to acknowledge and protect the right of conscience of others as it is to exercise my own, even if I don’t agree with them. I feel this is a responsibility our 5th principle, in the context of all the principles, imposes on me.

If I am concentrating only on my own voice, my rights to express my version of “the right thing,” I find I am too easily drawn into my ego place, away from a place of spirit and love. I also tend to close my ears – you know – cover my ears and sing “la la la” . I already know how I feel; I don’t need to hear anymore!! What’s that saying – don’t confuse me with the facts! Really… how is that going to help me grow spiritually?

What do I mean that this is a responsibility “in the context of all the principles?” Please turn to the back of your order of service and take a look at the seven Principles which UU’s covenant to affirm and promote. I want to relate to you some excerpts from a discussion about the principles from the UU church of Puerto Rico (http://www.uupuertorico.org/Examples_eng/Principles/3and5.)

“The overall structure of the Principles reflects the fact that as human beings we are always in dynamic tension between separateness and connection, between individualism and community, between autonomy and interdependence. The poles (or pillars) of this tension are represented by the first and seventh Principles: the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the interdependent web of all existence.

As we move from the ends toward the center, paired Principles balance one another, expressing related concepts but reflecting a different point on the continuum from separateness to connection, a different resolution of the tension between the two poles. For example, the second and sixth Principles both address the issue of justice; but one sees it from the more individualistic perspective of justice, equity and compassion for each person, while the other offers the perspective of community, affirming peace, liberty, and justice for all.

A similar balance exists between the third and the fifth Principles, where acceptance of one another as individuals corresponds to the right of each person to speak and act publicly – in the context of community – according to their conscience; and the encouragement to individual spiritual growth corresponds to the affirmation of democratic process as the means by which the community itself can grow toward its greatest potential.

In the center of the Principles, at the point where individualism and interdependence meet, is the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The Principles not only affirm the search for meaning as central to the human enterprise, but also suggest that the very meaning we search for, the meaning of human existence itself, is to be found in the fact that we are at once separate individuals of worth and dignity and interdependent parts of an indivisible whole. Moreover, that same structure also suggests that a “free and responsible” search for truth and meaning does not mean a purely individual search because none of us is a purely individual being. Rather, it is inherently something we carry out both in the privacy of our own souls and in community with others.”

What I learn from this is that when we explore one concept in our principles, like the right of conscience, we must remember its context – it’s full meaning can’t be derived in isolation. I’ve come to view our principles holistically – they are all connected and interdependent – balancing the tensions between the individual and the community. Viewing the principles holistically, I can’t promote my right of conscience in the fifth principle without considering how I can also promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person as called for in the first principle. The 3rd principle encourages us to accept everyone, wait… everyone? How can I accept those who don’t agree with my version of “the right thing?” Really? To accept everyone ? – now that requires some spiritual growing – some stretching of the sphere of who and what is worthy of my care and my love, and my voice.

Now, how really can I do this? What do I need to work on so I don’t just cover m ears and do the la la la , or let my emotions get out of control and shut me down so I can’t even use my own voice effectively? Well – here are three things I’ve been working on – 1) to acknowledge the complexity of humans and our world, 2) to practice self-reflection, and 3) to make my best efforts to value and understand those who disagree with me.

Let’s go back to The story we heard earlier about the elderly woman in the grocery store. So what would you do??????? Would you take different action if the thief was a pierced teenager or a person of color? This story really gets to me, because it illustrates very well how darn complex we humans are… how darn complex our world is, how deep our biases lie, how darn hard it is to determine what’s the right thing to do, and how well-intended people, could try their best and still arrive at completely different conclusions about what the “right thing” is. I feel that one of my responsibilities in exercising my right of conscience is to acknowledge this complexity of humans and our world, and to guard myself against faulty “black/white” simplistic thinking.

Next, let’s talk about my responsibility to practice self-reflection. To begin, let’s talk a little bit more about the phrase “right of conscience” : Is it a “right” to speak, as in a “civil right?” Or is it something different? I want to share some excerpts from a sermon given by Rev. Audette Fulbright, currently the minister of UU Cheyenne, but this particular sermon she gave at the UU church of Roanoke VA (http://uuroanoke.org/sermon/principles56.htm).

“Principle five begins with “the right of conscience.”  Used in this way, I think it doesn’t mean as much that we have a right to our conscience as it is saying that we must give way to conscience, as in “the right of way.”  It is an affirmation of our first principle …. to affirm the right, the imperative power, of conscience is to assert again our conviction that every person has worth and dignity.  Every person is able to access a source of truth and wisdom.  Each of us has a conscience which speaks to us, and as a people, we affirm that this voice of conscience has weight with us.  We bow to the right of conscience.

1 Kings 19 tells the story of the prophet Elijah, who has escaped to the mountaintop, wishing to die because Israel has broken its covenant with God.  On the mountaintop, Elijah first sees a great wind, that blows down everything in its path, but God is not in the wind.  Then comes a tremendous earthquake, which destroys all the land, but God is not in the earthquake.  Finally, a fire burns all that has not been blown down or fallen down, but God is not in the fire, for God is not destruction and disaster.  After this devastation, when all is quiet again, Elijah hears a “small, still voice” that speaks to him, and asks him why he has come.  This, at last, is God.

This is the first time in the Bible that the presence of God is described as something internal, knowable through the spirit rather than as a mighty presence separate from humankind.  The small, still voice of God becomes our own voice.  It is the voice of conscience.  This Elijah story represents a huge paradigm shift, pointing as it does to God’s absence in these disastrous occurrences, and God’s presence being discerned in the silence of Elijah’s heart.”

Doubtless, many of you do not resonate with this “God” way of describing the power of that knowing that comes to us when we must choose the right path, and we seek it in silence and reflection.  The Buddhist would describe that moment when we “know” the right way as the up-swelling of the Buddha-nature, which is also sought in silence and reflection.

In our hymnals, we can find one of the most familiar verses in Wicca, or the pagan form of this idea: “ And for you who seek Me, know that your seeking and yearning shall avail you not, unless you know the Mystery:  for if that which you seek you find not within yourself, you will never find it without, for behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.”

The right of conscience is a spiritual principle which resonates through all the world’s religious traditions.  People in every land throughout human history have acknowledged that there is something within us that knows the truth, that knows how to uncover the right.

So, Rev. Fulbright asserts that people of all the world’s religions embrace this concept of the “still, small voice…” or the right-ness of conscience. I wonder, though, about the organized religions that encourage individual conscience only within the parameters of their teachings. I think of Kate Kelly who was excommunicated from the Mormon church in 2014 for establishing an organization and holding demonstrations to push the church into allowing women into the lay-leadership. In most religions, maybe it’s more like, we’ll teach you what your conscience should be telling you, and then we want you to listen to that!

As a Unitarian Universalist, it is especially meaningful to me that our UU principles specifically promote the personal right of conscience, and that it’s not trapped inside a doctrine or creed.

However, I don’t necessarily trust my conscience, or the right-ness of my conscience…. And this is where I feel the responsibility to practice self-reflection- to dig deeper, continuously question, evaluate, and clarify my beliefs. I’ve come to turn more and more to the UU principles and the idea of covenant as tools for self-reflection. And I’ve found that for me, self-reflection is a much more worthwhile endeavor than railing against those I disagree with.

Humans and societies are complex! I need to dig deeper. If I don’t believe that “still small voice” is coming from an angel or a heavenly father, it means it is coming from deep inside me, and I have flaws…. so and it’s my responsibility to question it! That’s something UU’s do well – you’ve heard the saying Unitarian Universalism: Where All You’re Answers are Questioned. I don’t believe the same things I did 20 years ago, and self-reflection and study grounded in the 7 UU principles are a big reason why. I’ve come to use the Principles in this questioning of my beliefs: what’s my motivation? Who benefits, and who is harmed? Is this coming from ego or from spirit?

I want to dig deeper and clarify my beliefs. Sometimes I’ve thought “this just feels wrong.” Well… WHY? In conversations about beliefs, I find that my ego and emotions take over when I get flustered and I can’t effectively put into words what I believe. To me, it’s not enough to say “it’s just not right!” or “because my religion says so!” – my beliefs must be logical, they must make sense. Self-reflection has helped me here – leading me to study, research, and discover what we are constantly learning and relearning from science and the great thinkers and prophetic voices of our age. I’ve even started writing things down, so that I can better express myself in conversation. This is a never-ending process, since we are learning more and more about ourselves and our world every day.

Think about our “covenant” as a tool for self-reflection: Some of you may remember the leadership covenant the board and committee chairs adopted last November. We covenant in the spirit of love and compassion to share honestly, listen actively,……… These are our aspirations which we pursue in good faith…. This covenant is not a weapon, it is a tool of self-reflection – How am I doing? How are we doing? Am I listening actively, or is my ego causing me to speak so much and so loud that others are discouraged from sharing their beliefs?

Now, turning to the responsibility I feel to learn to value and understand those with whom I disagree: I believe that what we do to others we do to ourselves, that we’re all in the same boat, on the same team, part of the same tribe, part of the same body. I don’t want to be raging with anger and self-righteous indignation at myself and my kind. That only hurts me… hurts my spirit. I want to speak and act from love.

I saw an article yesterday that said there are more so-called “hate groups” across America now than in a very long time. First of all, calling them “hate groups” – what does that accomplish? Does it clarify for us what the beliefs are of those groups? No. Does it help us understand their perspective, their journey? No. It allows us to write them off – to dismiss them – they’re no longer worthy of being within the sphere of people I care about. I don’t have to understand what they believe because they are haters and I am not. That might allow me a little self-righteousness, but it’s not going to get us very far toward creating a world of peace, liberty and justice.

So, I want to practice putting myself in the shoes of those with whom I disagree: I recall the words of Dr. MLK Jr:

Reading: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – speaking about the night his home was bombed on January 30, 1956 (The Radical King, Cornell West):

“I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I thought about the city commissioners and all the statements that they had made about me and the Negro generally. I was once more on the verge of corroding hatred. And once more I caught myself and said: “You must not allow yourself to become bitter.”

 I tried to put myself in the place of the three commissioners. I said to myself these men are not bad men. They are misguided. They have fine reputations in the community. In their dealings with white people they are respectable and gentlemanly. They probably think they are right in their methods of dealing with Negroes. They say the things they say about us and treat us as they do because they have been taught these things. From the cradle to the grave, it is instilled in them that the Negro is inferior. Their parents probably taught them that; they schools they attended taught them that; the books they read, even their churches and ministers, often taught them that; and above all they very concept of segregation teaches them that. The whole cultural tradition under which they have grown – a tradition blighted with more than 250 years of slavery and more than 90 years of segregation – teaches them that Negroes do not deserve certain things. So these men are merely the children of their culture. When they seek to preserve segregation they are seeking to preserve only what their local folkways have taught them was right.”

This is the ultimate in putting yourself in the shoes of another. You may not feel emotionally empathetic, but you may come to understand their perspective a little better, and realize that they are not simply EVIL, and attacking them as a one-dimensional and simply “EVIL” entity will only create larger divides and heightened animosity. This simplistic thinking ignores the role of our society and our flawed systems of economics, justice, religion, and education have in the ideas and beliefs of our citizens.

One interesting method for self-reflection and for learning to value and understand others is the model of Nonviolent Communication, or NVC: A couple months ago at a Kindred Spirits gathering here at the church, Marilyn Mullen shared with us the principles of non-violent communication based on a model developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenburg and the Center for Non-Violent Communication. Marilyn teaches classes at Casper College on non-violent communication. We’re not talking just violence of action, but violence of thought and heart – anger and rage and despair and hopelessness – all those things that prevent meaningful conversation. The premise is that our beliefs and behaviors are rooted in our basic needs, and if we can reflect on and discover our own needs, and if we can communicate in ways that help us learn the needs of others, then we can find common ground. The Center has created a “Needs Inventory” of about 100 needs and Marilyn said that she keeps this at her desk to refer to when she’s trying to figure out why something is triggering her, or when she trying to help others communicate.

Yes, humans are complex, and sometimes our needs cause conflict even within us – I have a need for harmony – I abhor arguing and disagreement!, but I also have a need for independence and fairness. The point is we need to understand what needs may be driving our “small, still voice,” or driving the voices of others. Do we have any of these needs in common? Can recognizing these needs lead us to more constructive ways to communicate and to create solutions that can meet our common needs?

Again, I believe with all my heart is that we are individuals AND we are all one: What we do to each other and to our world we do to ourselves – we’re in the same boat, on the same team, in the same tribe, part of the same body. To me, that is the key to viewing the UU principles holistically: and I want to practice and learn to evaluate everything I do through that lens: is my speech or behavior honoring the one-ness of our humanity? Am I exercising my right of conscience in a way that honors every person’s inherent worth? Am I recognizing that everyone is on their own journey, just as I am, and I can’t control someone else’s journey? If I call someone who disagrees with me a derogatory name… a racist, or a bigot, aren’t I de-humanizing them? Creating a divide? Aren’t I speaking from anger? If in exercising my right of conscience I scream “I hate haters!” haven’t I become one? Aren’t I hating myself?

In closing, what responsibilities do I feel the 5th principle imposes on me in exercising my right of conscience? For me, those responsibilities are 1) to acknowledge and protect the right of conscience of others as being as important as my own, 2) to acknowledge the complexity of humans and our world, 2) to practice self-reflection- to dig deeper, continuously question, evaluate, and clarify that my beliefs so that I can use my voice effectively, 4) to make my best efforts to value and understand those who disagree with me so that I am able to speak from love, and 5) to ground all of this in a holistic view of all of the UU principles.

Can the 5th principle help get us unstuck from ideological polarity? Well, let’s think about all we’ve talked about this morning… my answer is yes; practiced within the context of all the UU principles, it could help us reduce anger and extreme rhetoric, and it could help us learn to show love and respect for each other, and that could lead to constructive communication and finding solutions that fill our common needs… All I know is – if that is the change I want to see, I need to make happen in myself first.