What is the role of religious institutions in justice? A dialogue

Dear friends, I stumbled across an old paper I wrote about congregations and justice. It’s an imagined dialogue between four giants of Unitarianism and Universalism: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Clarence Skinner, Olympia Brown and Clarence Skinner. I apologize for the “in jokes” for those unfamiliar with these figures. But the basic topic of discussion – what role should churches and other institutions play in public policy, and how they might help the cause of justice – is a question far larger than Unitarian Universalism. I don’t know whether I agree with any of what I wrote, 7 years ago – but that’s the great thing about writing it in the form of a dialogue!

Bob Janis Dillon
“Problems in Public Ethics”
Prof. Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz

Paper: “Why should religious institutions be engaged with public issues and how can they do it most effectively?” – A Monologue in Four Parts

Notice: the characters in this sketch are fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely incidental – and due to litigiously bad fortune, rather than good academic form.

Setting: Ralph, Olympia, Clarence, and Kenneth meet, as usual, in the town square of a fine old New England town.

Ralph: Ken! Still marveling at the leaves?

Kenneth: You bet, Mr. Emerson. Still oversold?

Ralph: That’s over-soul, my good man.

Kenneth: That’s not what your agent tells me!

Ralph: Ha! Well, I must admit I’m self-reliant. Hello, Olympia.

Olympia: Hello, Mr. Emerson.

Ralph: Hey, Clarence, where’s Bob today?

Clarence: He’s sick, I’m afraid.

Ralph: That boy, always sick! Why, he’d be sick to his own ordination!

Olympia: Well, then, I suppose it’s just us.

Ken: Quite so. But what shall we discuss, just us?

Clarence: Justice!

Ralph: Ah, Clarence. You can always rely on the clarion call of the unrepentant Skinner.

Clarence: Quite so. I was hoping we could discuss the congregation’s right and proper role vis-à-vis public issues.

Ralph: Clarence, I take back what I said about a taste for fun being universal to our species.

Clarence: You jest. But you also said reason is serious. Now let us face squarely the question of institutions and justice. As I hope we can agree, justice needs institutions if it is to survive and thrive in our species.

Ralph: Not sure I agree with that. Institutions, on the whole, are mostly neutral. Some ennoble; many corrupt. Our institutions are only as good as our people – if that – what they produce and propagate, tragically, is a caricature of the works of the prophets. When institutions get involved in justice, injustice follows. (I note the Devil’s Dictionary gives as a definition of justice: “A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.”) The Tao Te Ching explains that people are poor because institutions take their money, rebellious because institutions take their time.1 The great woman (or man) finds a way to get beyond her institutions. What are needed in our society are people of virtue, people whose integrity cannot be swayed, who will stand up for what is right and good.

Kenneth: But such people can be nurtured and supported by the institution. For instance a great sermon – which you yourself, Mr. Emerson, are not unfamiliar with – can inspire individuals to take on the oppressions of their day. When people worship truly, they become less likely to blithely accept the injustices of their day, and more likely to celebrate life – and as they celebrate life, more likely to support it, and make it better for all of us.

Olympia: This is an interesting opening construction, Kenneth. But to withstand Mr. Emerson’s questioning, I expect your elegant words are going to need a deeper foundation.

Kenneth: Only too happy to supply. Let us conjecture here that there is only one virtue and only one sin: honesty and dishonesty, respectively. By “honesty” what I am referring to is not merely telling the truth when one is speaking, although that is certainly a part of what honesty means. No, a full sense of honesty is living true to one’s deepest calling. And worship is the bringing of a soul towards this honesty.

Ralph: OK, I see what you’re getting at – but let’s bring up a couple of obvious objections here. How do we know we are living to our deepest calling, and who’s to judge? Could not a mass murderer, motivated by his own inner cruelty, honestly claim he was living up to his own deepest calling?

Kenneth: I couldn’t say no with absolute certainty. But I think most of us, at heart, want to do good. So my feeling is that most mass murderers are being dishonest to themselves by engaging in what they were doing. As for the exceptions: look, if a mass murderer really had no inkling of any sort in his conscience that what he was doing was wrong, I’m not sure we could truly define that as sinful. After all, there would be nothing we could appeal to, with such a person, to revise his behavior, short of force. And absolutely, we would want to restrain that person from murdering. We would think of such a person as fundamentally disturbed – not just off the path – or sinful, if you will – but incapable of being on the path.

Ralph: Fine, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the ordinary person wants, on some level, to be justice-seeking. If so, how does the institution help the person fulfill such a goal? And when this drive is fulfilled, how can we ensure that meaningful help with public problems will follow?

Kenneth: A church is a place for the exchange of ideas, a place of democracy. A person, left on her own, will never grow to any kind of spiritual or ethical maturity. She needs to be exposed to ideas that bring her out her best self.

Olympia: So a church is an idea mill for the proper sort of person?

Kenneth: There is not just one type of person, nor should there be. We are like flowers – each with their own beauty, and elegant in our diversity. Some will attend rallies, some will make art, but the church will help the whole of human experience to be a more nurturing, more justice-seeking whole.

Ralph: Flowery words, but lacking in substance, I’m afraid.

Clarence: With a little grinding I believe I can make a meal of it, Kenneth.

Kenneth: So get cooking.

Clarence: You say a church is a place for the free and open exchange of ideas. Yes, but so is a newspaper, or an internet chatboard, and these are not a church. What a church does is foster greatness in men and women by connecting the individual with the immense beauty of the universe. Only by rising above “man’s sinful partialisms” and realizing our universal potential can we have the greatness necessary to thrive, ethically and spiritually in today’s modern situation.2 We do this by realizing the self in relationship, which is the only true self. The self in relationship is realized in church – we are in relationship with those around us, and those whom we serve, as brothers and sisters, around the world.

Olympia: And how does this relate to public problems? Are these to be bettered through relationships?

Clarence: Yes! An honest relationship must give One and the Other both their due; full relating without justice is impossible. We fall short of this all the time, of course, but to honor a relationship is to be accountable. But while this point is – I hope – obvious in one-one-one relationships such as the institution of marriage, it becomes more sublime with our relationship to larger and more complex organizations. Yet the principle is the same. Let us take poverty, as an example.

Ralph: Better that than in practice.

Clarence: True. So how does an institution address the issue of poverty in a public way – not just feeding the poor but changing the conditions thereof? Through sermons – and even more through small groups and spirit-filled committee work – the persons of the church nurture their “cosmic affinity” through which we “develop a social outlook” – which causes people to try and make the world a better place for all people and for all beings. As people of reason, they naturally look for the best way to do this. They see that their attendance at food shelters, while noble, is only a part of the solution, and so they look for other avenues of action, to address underlying problems in a systematic way.

Kenneth: I follow, but be a little more specific here – how does a congregation attack the problem of poverty? Does it lobby? And how does this social outlook take shape in action?

Clarence: Jack Fortin, a professor who has studied congregational change, said that the best way to change the culture of a congregation and install programs that are effective and lasting is by gradually instilling a culture of “friendly experiments”. 3 You introduce new initiatives with the sort of energy that says “let’s give this a try”, all the while praising the resourcefulness and adaptability of the congregation (both historically and in their most current incarnation), and a few of the initiatives – though by no means most – prove they have staying power.

Kenneth: Well, I can certainly appreciate that. I tried a few friendly experiments in my day. But what initiatives would you try, in the instance of poverty?

Clarence: It’s not me trying, but us. The ideas in large part come from the congregants. Let’s say one congregants has as interest in the web and is a librarian – very well then, encourage her to set up an informative website with a bibliography so that people could learn more about modern-day poverty. But I would also recommend she lead a meeting or two to introduce the website, for there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction when it comes to producing eagerness. Another congregant has accountancy skills – excellent, look into the feasibility to the congregation giving a portion of its income to a microcredit institution. And each person is developing these ideas in relationship with others and, furthermore, in commitment to one’s realized partiality to the universe.

Ralph: And are there no means of predicting which experiments will work, and which will fail?

Clarence: I have two criteria that I keep in mind. The first is the quality and level of connection/relationship. The second is the opportunity for a “flow of success” – one success following another in due order, with plenty of opportunities for discernable progress. So, let’s continue with poverty. Suppose there was a group within the congregation who were initiating a letter writing campaign, to political and business leaders, on a change in regulation on the minimum wage. Those involved, if not on minimum wage themselves, should establish a dialogue with those that are, as well as being in continual, meaningful, fun-filled, worshipful dialogue within the group. And when they do write these letters, they should gather first to discuss the situation – with envelopes and stamps at the ready – then write the letters, and then analyze and celebrate how the experience was. In other words, it should follow the reflection/action/reflection model. But the leadership of the group should be ready with other possible actions to follow on, each one slightly more ambitious. And at some fitting point, the project should stop, and celebrate what has been accomplished.

Olympia: You have added some flesh to Ken’s arguments, but I feel they still lack spirit.

Clarence: Well then, my dear Olympia, pray offer a breath of fresh air to our humble creation.

Olympia: Thank you. The congregation, as we know, can be thought of as a body. For the congregation is a cluster of individuals that is capable of acting as one – just as a molecule is a cluster of atoms, or the United Nations a cluster of national governments, and so on. The entity of the congregation has the ability, the right and the obligation to function as a single body. Social justice initiatives are the most prominent ways it does this. This does not mean that every member of the congregation needs to be in agreement, of course – merely that they are in sympathy with the democratic process of that congregation, the covenant by which action can be agreed on and taken as a body.

Ralph: You say a congregation has “the ability, the right, and the obligation” to tackle problems in public ethics as a body. I grant it may have the ability – if it doesn’t, it’s a moot point, after all – but how do you arrive at the conclusion that it possesses the right and the obligation?

Olympia: Would you agree that an individual has certain inalienable rights? We perhaps can’t prove this with philosophical certainty, but there is an emerging consensus that this is the case.

Ralph: And it’s a consensus I agree with heartily. In fact, my fear about this “right of the congregation” you espouse is that it infringes on the right of the individual. If we all gang up in these petty religious fiefdoms, those not in congregations are left at an unfair disadvantage. Who will listen to my small voice, if the booming hordes of the First Religio-Politicist Society are shouting next to me? What will become of the original mind of the prophet, if, in order to be heard, she must align herself with “like-minded masses” that don’t yet exist?

Olympia: If we have a million small voices, piping for attention, and they are all saying something different, then, if those with power to use hear anything at all, it will sound as the chirping of agreement, no matter what the content of each voice. And so many must speak as one. Man’s nature is to congregate, and it is a nature that should be embraced. It is only in society that the individual can flourish. This is true of justice especially – justice occurs to groups, and by groups, first and foremost.

Ralph: If this is true, Ms. Brown, this is a sorry state for all of us individuals – to always be subjected to the will of one group or another.

Clarence: But it is true, I think. I know of some fine, upstanding anarchists, but nevertheless I cannot think of a single historical instance where anarchy has led to justice.

Olympia: Being a part of groups is the state of humankind, and I am not sorry. I did not fight that I be given the right to vote – we fought that women be given the right to vote. I do not measure happiness by the idle pleasures that come my way – no, true happiness is a commitment to a cause, to stand by something that is more important than we are. As for the prophet: every prophecy needs both a prophet and a megaphone. The Hebrew prophets had great minds, certainly, but they also had a community, one that gave them the strength and the occasion to speak, one that heard their voice – even if it killed them for it, and that maintained a readership generation after generation. The individual changes the world only through institutions and groups. The institutions determine their support, their audience, and the context in which they are heard. This is true of all voices, from Elvis Presley to Martin Luther King to Jesus Christ.

Ralph: I am not sure you have replied to my initial question. It may be true that institutions control the world, but does that mean they should?

Olympia: Not control the world, but help their neighbor. An institution that does not fight for the cause of justice is no better than the priest or the judge in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Ralph: Ah, but case in point – the Good Samaritan here is an individual, not an organization. Surely this is what the great prophet Jesus was getting at.

Olympia: Did not the Good Samaritan find a hotel to put up the traveler? And did he not pay with money, money that was accepted in lieu of goods? It seems to me, the story is one of functioning organizations, tended by good souls.

Ralph: And I suppose the Good Samaritan was a member of the Automobile Association, or some such?

Olympia: We do not know. But we do know he was going somewhere, and he came from somewhere. Someone had nurtured him. Some ideals had led him forth, something had gotten him out of bed that morning and onto that road, with a spirit ready to help – ready even if he did not know he was ready. That he was a good individual, I do not reject. But I would not let the credit stop at his door. Surely, he springs from groups worth commending, and is motivated by ideas worth preserving.

Clarence: Yes, quite so. And these groups must be preserved, if we are going to be a society of good Samaritans.

Olympia: And not just preserved, but motivated. The congregation is a body that marches to the beat of justice. Each member is a marcher and a drummer. We have no true identity standing still, just as we have no identity alone. At any point in time our spirit is the relationship between the entirety of where we have come from and the actuality – unknown, as yet, to us – of where we will be.

Kenneth: Stirringly put. But I fear we have upset dear Mr. Emerson with our degradation of the individual.

Ralph: Not so, friends. “A friend is one before whom I may think aloud.” And such should think before me.

What point, what merit, what good to me,
Are friends that constantly agree,
A true friend will challenge, now and then,
Support, console – and challenge yet again.

Notes: 1)A loose translation of 75.
2)Quotes from “A Religion for Greatness”. This section generally follows Skinner’s thoughts, which I am in considerable sympathy with. Patton’s words follow Patton’s ideas much less closely, and should not be taken as much of an approximation.
3) (Fortin, in “Faith at Work” lecture, Mutual Ministry Project, Warwick, NY 2006) I’ve seen this model work very well at the congregation I currently serve.

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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2 Responses to What is the role of religious institutions in justice? A dialogue

  1. uucsrmsc says:

    May I please share your work on the UUCSR Facebook page? Thank you.


    Jen Sappell
    Marketing and Communications Associate
    Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock
    48 Shelter Rock Road
    Manhasset, NY 11030

    You can follow UUCSR on Facebook or Twitter!

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