Don’t be Guilted into Giving Up the Seven Principles: Reflections and a Strategy.

By Dr. Kenneth Christiansen, November, 2022. Updated July 2023.

This discussion is part of a conversation about changes in the wind for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). While Unitarian Universalism is a relatively small denomination, the approaches to race and antiracism in the UUA mirror many developments in the larger culture. 

When newcomers first enter our churches and ask what Unitarian Universalism is, they are usually pointed to Seven Principles and Six Sources. The UU church where I was most recently a member had them printed in the Order of Service each week. Even UU members who may not know the finer points of the UUA bylaws know the Seven Principles, and for many, it is what defines us as a faith tradition. The Seven Principles and Six Sources can be viewed here. A statement of the new Article II as voted at UUA General Assembly 2023 can be found here. A comparison of old and new texts of Article II can be seen here.

Adopting a new Article II is a two stage process. 95% of the delegates at the 2023 UUA General Assembly voted to go ahead and make the change. That was the first stage. The second stage requires a 2/3 vote at the 2024 UUA General Assembly.

This topic is very relevant to the concerns of this website. The strongest intellectual force driving the changes is the belief that racism is exclusively a white thing, and that all whites are racist by reason of benefits bestowed upon persons with white skin. The UUA argument against the Seven Principles as currently written can be summarized as follows:

1) The Seven Principles were written by white people of European origin.

2) White people live and work in a racist culture that awards them numerous unearned benefits based on skin color.

3) Thereby, the Seven Principles are racist and must be discarded to create a “Beloved Community.”

4) The actual content of the Seven Principles does not need to be considered; only their source need be considered.

5) Being against the Seven Principles is part of the UUA approach to antiracism.

6) Antiracism itself is the hinge issue, the justification for everything else in the UUA.

There are precedents for these ideas. I first heard arguments still part of the current conversation after joining the UUA in 2009. The focus then was on “White Privilege.” I shared an earlier version of the words below in the Fall 2020 edition of the MAC Arrow. This time, I’ve added more details and followed with a possible strategy for action.

Four ways to view “White Privilege.”

1: Discussion tool. When Peggy McIntosh wrote the article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, (1989), I used it as a discussion starter in the Cultural Diversity classes I was teaching at the time. Looking at the list of privileges with my students, I did not enjoy many of the fifty privileges Dr. McIntosh enumerated even though I am white. They were more like class privileges. Other items in the list did identify privileges based on race including freedom from covert or overt discrimination in employment, housing, and policing. The list raised awareness, created good class discussion, and increased the level of empathy in the room.

2: Empathy block. In the 2010-2012 period I actively participated in an integrated anti-racism email list set up by the Unitarian Universalist Association. I remember one very painful exchange where a white participant discussed his father’s very hard life. The response from several of the African American participants was that he was still better off than they were because he had White Privilege. White Privilege was used as an excuse to deny empathy. I heard a similar attitude expressed in an invitation to a Beloved Community discussion, that white people’s problems would not be a subject of conversation.

3: Guilt wedge. In Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, White Privilege means all the advantages received by participation in White Supremacy Culture. White Fragility refers to the defensiveness whites demonstrate when pressed to admit these advantages and their participation in White Supremacy Culture. When their White Fragility resistance turns on, Caucasians become emotionally disabled in DeAngelo’s argument. I view this as exactly what happens with Guilt-Based Anti-Racism. The energy available to accomplish needed policy changes is greatly diminished both by the emotional paralysis created by guilt and by the mis-directed use of energy required to force Caucasians to own up to their collective guilt for participating in White Supremacy Culture

4: Resource inventory. To change racist policies and laws wherever they may be found, everyone’s positive energy needs to be mobilized. This is a point where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ibram X. Kendi are in complete agreement: the focus of antiracism needs to be on policies rather than on people. Every access to power possessed by anyone, whether based on class, race, gender, age or anything else, is desperately needed in the struggle to change racist policies including policies that unfairly assign privilege. Power responds only to power. We need to collaborate with strong personal commitments and relationships across race and class lines to accomplish the goals we seek. In other words, privileges can and should be put to good use.

Where should UUs who treasure the Seven Principles go from here?

It’s important to help people understand the difference between antiracism that focuses on White guilt and antiracism that focuses on racist laws and policies. The former paralyzes White people with guilt. The latter helps people, both Black and White, build a coalition powerful enough to challenge unjust systems. Unfortunately, 99% of the focus of the UUA antiracism program is on white privilege and racially inherited guilt.

The UUA plan for remediation does NOT involve the mobilization of collaborative energies to change racist laws and policies that permeate our culture. Rather, the early proposals for an 8th Principle and the text of Widening the Circle of Concern, the 2020 report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change, both state that Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC) need to monitor white people in the Unitarian Universalist Association. White people are to clean out their souls with BIPOC people watching and grading. Empathy is allowed in only one direction. People who feel intense personal guilt for the condition of their communities buy into this kind of thing and it paralyzes them. This is segregated antiracism. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The contents of the Seven Principles strongly support the kind of antiracism that works tirelessly for needed policy changes. When we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we overcome our hesitancy to join multiracial coalitions for positive change. Justice, equity and compassion are top values. Spiritual growth deepens our justice commitments. Being free to talk about what is going on is essential. Without democracy, we become timid enablers of uncertain truth claims. World community with peace, liberty, and justice for all is our goal. We must not trash the environment by our actions. These principles are what the current leadership of the UUA is ready to throw away.

What can we do? We can share our commitment to keep the Seven Principles. Here’s a possible strategy:

1) Listen to where people are.

2) Recognize the centrality of the antiracism question in decisions the UUA is making. It is the ultimate concern of current UUA and UUMA leadership.

3) Explain that real antiracism is integrated action to achieve change in racist laws and policies.

4) Explain ways UUs are already doing this and can be doing more of it. This includes participation with Church Based Community Organizations and numerous other advocacy initiatives in all our communities and nation.

5) Focus on issues in your own community first and foremost.

6) Acknowledge that strong personal feelings about racist actions that you or people associated with you may have committed are normal and natural. Help direct those feelings and that energy into action for positive change.

7) Find, or create, relationships with people from any background who share your specific concerns and take action.

8) Check out the Save The Seven Principles website here for more information and ideas.

A wise colleague of mine used to say, “What reason did not put into a person’s head, reason cannot take back out of it.” He wasn’t ditching reason. Rather, he was acknowledging reason is only one component of knowledge. Stories we tell ourselves, stories other people tell us, powerfully shape our knowledge and our commitments. An entire field of sociology called “Symbolic Interactionism” is built around the power of stories to organize communities and nations.

In this short article we have acknowledged two very different stories about antiracism. One says all white people, and only white people are racist. Antiracism is a process of purifying the white soul. The other story locates racism in the policies and laws of our communities. Antiracism is challenging and changing those policies and laws. The first is passive, the second very active. The first separates people between guilty and innocent based on race. The second unites people across lines of race, age and gender in a common challenge to bring greater justice into the world.

We need to share the second story with our UU siblings who are convinced that the first story is the only way. The fate of UU religion is at stake.