Practicing Inherent Worth and Dignity: Keeping It Real With The First Principle

September 30, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


I saw a movie a few years ago that I can't get out of my mind.  It is called "Monster" and is the true story of Aileen Wuornos, a serial killer who was executed by the state of Florida in 2002.  

The entire movie is incredibly haunting and disturbing but there's this one scene that I especially can't forget.  It's near the beginning of the film, when Aileen is struggling to get her life back after being a drug addict and prostitute.  She has met someone and fallen in love and she wants very badly to start her life over again and to set it in a positive direction.

So Aileen gets herself all put together in the best clothes she has (which are definitely not very professional) and she goes for a job interview at a law firm.  She's full of bravado and although she obviously doesn't have the experience or the skills to get this job, she's all ready to bluff her way through the interview.  You can see how badly she wants a chance, and you really root for her to get it, to get her off the merry-go-round of violence and criminal life.  Even though you know how this tragic story ends, you can't help hoping that something will turn for the better for her.

The man interviewing Aileen barely hides his contempt and disdain for her.  He asks her a few questions which she fields pretty well, but again – you can tell she has no experience or skills.  And then in the most sneering way possible, this guy says something like this to her, "You've got a lot of nerve. You must be kidding me coming in here with no experience, no abilities, nothing to offer, no education" – and he just lays into her, and the worst thing is that he looks like he really enjoys humiliating her.  This movie is full of sadistic characters like this: people who get their jollies treating this woman like scum.

Aileen sits there and her face is just a mess of pain and shame and disgust for the man and for herself, too, and she walks out of there and gets drunk or high and I think it's pretty soon after that that she commits her first murder against a man who brutalizes her.  The story is like this horrific sleigh-ride after that interview – a bad, out of control downhill skid. I can't get it out of my head.  Because what would have happened if that one man had said, "You know what, Aileen? You've got a lot of nerve coming in here unqualified and inexperienced, but I like that in a person. Let's not kid ourselves: I can't give you this job.  But why don't you tell me what kinds of things you think you can do, and I'll see if I know someone who might be able to hire you in some capacity?" 

For me, that's the Unitarian Universalist first principle right there.  "The inherent worth and dignity of every person."  On paper, it looks like a nice motto.   You can see it, and the other six principles, on the front page of your hymnals.  Take a look.  Let me give you some background before we get back to "Monster." 

The Unitarians and the Universalists were two small denominations that merged in 1961.  They both had had a fascinating history separately –Unitarianism was a movement that emphasized the freedom of conscience, the use of the intellect in discerning religious truth, and the dignity of each human personality, and Universalism was a movement that preached the everlasting love and benevolence of God and the salvation of each soul. 

Both Unitarianism and Universalism had their heyday in the 19th century as liberal Christian denominations, but by the end of that century each had moved theologically farther and farther away from traditional Christianity. When the two traditions merged to become "UUism" in 1961, both movements had embraced appreciation for other world religions, free thought, and a commitment to religious humanism. 

Methodist bishop William Willimon once remarked that there has never been a merger of any religious traditions that didn't weaken both, rather than strengthen them.  If you study religious mergers at all, you can see what he means.  Hybrid, hyphenated religious traditions – and America is full of them – (the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church being two that immediately come to mind), are a complicated phenomenon, bringing together not just theological traditions but different cultures of church governance, different ways and understandings of what it means to be church, and vastly different ideas about the role of the ordained clergy.  Unitarian Universalism, born in the year my parents were married, is no different.  Because it involved the joining of two non-creedal denominations – that is, two denominations that did not require a statement of faith from its members (even though the Universalists often shared professions or confessions of theological belief), it was (and still is!) a serious challenge to articulate what this religion is all about. 

You know how this goes yourself, if you have been a church-going Unitarian Universalist for any significant period of time and you get that inevitable question, "What do you people believe?"  Here, on this page containing the Principles, is part of how you may choose to formulate your response.  You can start by saying, "Well for one thing, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person."  It's a fine phrase, amended to its final form by the General Assembly of the UUA in 1985.  And it's as good a place to start as any in the articulation of what we are trying to do and to be together.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person.  What do we mean by "inherent?" We mean that every human being is born with a value to them, that each life matters and that no one is born with more potential to inspire, heal or harm the world than any other.  Equal start, inherently. God-given.   As far as I'm concerned, this ties us together with the rest of the world's people, many of whom are treated as though they're dispensable, throw-away creatures. 

I've been reading about the war in Sudan, Africa lately, and I think "You know, as an American woman I have such a keen sense of the preciousness of my own life.  I've been raised since birth to think of myself as so special.  I live in a culture that treats every mishap, accident, cancer diagnosis, and natural disaster that affects me and people like me as an enormous tragedy.  What I learn from this is that my life is so valuable, it's terrible when something unfortunate happens to me or someone like me.  If I or a member of my congregation got shot or killed in a bombing it would make the front page of the local Mariner.  And yet I live in a world where hundreds of thousands of children -- no less loved by their parents, no less inherently special and precious – are wasting away in refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa, not to mention other places of conflict in the world.   If I believe in our first principle, I cannot walk past this. I cannot not be sickened by this, because to allow it makes the claim that SOME people have worth and dignity, not all of us." 

To embrace the UU first principle is a way of being in relationship with the world.  As Sarah Lammert points out in her essay on the subject, it has been the tendency of some Unitarian Universalists to make this principle a "celebration of individualism" and to use it to support, in her words, "a defensive arrogance about our particular point of view."  I know what she's talking about; I've seen it in our congregations.  "You can't tell me what to do, I've got inherent worth and dignity!"  But that's a misunderstanding of the whole point of the thing, which is to draw us, I think, into a really humble awareness of those whose voices are not heard, whose presence has historically not been welcome, who are forgotten and devalued.  When I think of this principle I think of my favorite poem by Mary Oliver where she says that she looks upon everything as a sisterhood and a brotherhood, and "each life as a flower, and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth."

Each body.  A lion of courage and precious to the earth. Oh, isn't that something to live up to.

Did you see the recent article that Deanna Riley's daughter wrote in our newsletter, where she describes how worried she was for her mother getting involved in prison ministry, mentoring a man named Wayne Boston, a student in the Prison Behind Bars program? At first, Elizabeth thought of Wayne as "some convict," and refused to let Deanna bring a photo of her and her husband to share with him in prison.  "Absolutely not," she said "I don't want some convict having my picture!"

Eventually, Elizabeth decided that she would "rack up some good karma" by writing to Wayne.  She and her husband thought it would be wise to get a post office box, because they didn't want a convicted criminal to know where they live.  But out of laziness, Elizabeth writes, she never did get that P.O. box… and eventually she found that she has no need for one. She wrote, "Two years ago we wanted to hide from Wayne. Seven years from now [when he has finished serving his sentence], I will open my front door and see a friend."  Here is a perfect example of being drawn into the relational implications of being willing to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

My friends, as you well know by now, our societies are set up in such a way as to dazzle our eyes with the illusion that some people are good and worthy and others don't make it onto that list.  Naively, we walk around actually thinking we know which is which!

People who hear of our first principle ask me, "Well, what about Hitler, what about Idi Amin? How about Osama Bin Laden-- do they have inherent worth and dignity?"  I answer that I believe that they, like every other person, were born with inherent, innate value and that they chose to violate the human covenant so egregiously that I consider them to have negative worth and no remaining dignity.  

To be a Unitarian Universalist does not mean that we are not allowed to make value judgments or that we have to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every idea or behavior.  As my colleague Meg Barnhouse says in her wonderful South Carolina accent, "I don't have to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every idea, ‘cause some ideas are dumb!"

Evil and badness do exist.  I don't know if they're genetically programmed or socially induced or brought about by frontal lobe damage or what, I just know – and so do you – that not all people have made good on that original worth they were born with.  Not even necessarily when they're given that job, or treated with respect. I'm not trying to sugarcoat this.

But why ask about Idi Amin when really, our biggest struggle is with the obnoxious next door neighbor, the teacher we think is being unfair to our child, the condescending co-worker who steals our ideas and takes credit for it, the family member who talks trash about us behind our backs, the Blue Cross/Blue Shield case worker who keeps losing our file? The challenge is there, isn't it? The challenge is navigating through the people we meet – the job applicant sitting in front of us with the broken teeth and the heroin tracks on her arms, the prisoner who wants to write to our mother, the Latino immigrant who got the job your son wanted, the friend who keeps sending you those incendiary political e-mails that make your blood boil.  What a challenge to be in the presence of that 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, non-violence, 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 to them is mine.

I'm not really that interested in whether or not Idi Amin, and Osama Bin Laden or Hitler have inherent worth and dignity.  They've done their damage and we can't change them.  We can only change ourselves and try to develop such a strong ethical heart that even if we were dying of hunger or thirst and everything we loved threatened with extinction, we would still not be attracted to their philosophies. 

To make our first principle into a spiritual practice requires us to honestly acknowledge that we have been programmed by our society to treasure and cherish certain kinds of people over others, and to see only a select few as bearing as much worth, value and dignity as we ourselves have.  The rest, we have been trained by many forces, to regard as Other.  We are either afraid of that Other, or we feel superior to that Other, or  -- almost as bad – we have learned to feel a kind of privileged pity or charity toward those Others.  And please God, spare us from that latter perhaps most of all.

What if Aileen Wuornos had had an interview that fateful day with a kind-hearted liberal man or woman who said to her, "Oh yes, I know all about the life you've led.  Prostitution and drug addiction are so degrading and unhealthy. You must have been abused in your childhood to make you turn to such options.  It's such a shame you didn't stay in school and get an education and make professional contacts.  I really affirm your inherent worth and dignity, but I have nothing for you. There's the door.  Thanks for stopping by."

It would not be enough.  It is not enough for this religious tradition or any other to simply try to have the right, virtuous thoughts and feelings.  Something more is asked of us, and the name for that something more is love -- that enormous, demanding, divine idea that asks us not only to feel virtuous things but to shape our actions around those feelings.  The poet Rilke says that "human love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other."  Isn't that beautiful.  That gives us a clear idea of what we are supposed to do, not just to feel; we are to protect and border and greet each other. 

The Hindus have a beautiful word for this idea.  "Namaste," they say. It means, "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.  

That's the essence of our first Unitarian Universalist principle. There are six more, but those we'll leave for another Sunday morning.  Trying to embrace the spirit of Namaste is certainly enough for this morning, and probably for a lifetime.