Of the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Covenant, the first is the most difficult and demanding in understanding and practice. It says, “… we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
In light of the recent senseless bombings and loss of life in our country, it is hard to find within ourselves belief in the worth and dignity of perpetrators of such horrendous acts. How can we defend the notion that a bomber or torturer is such a person? How easy it is to dehumanize those responsible for acts of terror, how easy to say they have forfeited their worth and dignity by their inhuman acts.
Yet, even in the face of their incredible wrongs, our principles stand. We must grapple with them, wrestle with them and let them guide us.
Every person has value, every life is precious. This radical idea is the foundation of America; the heart of democracy means every person is important. If even in our terror and anger we continue to uphold life’s value, terror has not defeated us.
Inherent worth is an ethical idea. Our principles are not statements of how the world is; rather they are statements of the world we are trying to create.
So how do you find inherent worth in people who commit evil acts? We believe there is a spark of divine in each of us, and our religious purpose is to grow in love. We recognize people do evil things. But if you cast away your ethical commitment to the worth of a human being, you let them take away the basis of your ethics. All our principles urge us to value life; all life. Denying inherent worth is the first step in evil masquerading as good.
We tend to think of people as deliberately evil. Yet diverse factors – prenatal alcohol exposure, mental illness of chemical addiction (for which there are genetic predispositions), and brain injuries – have been linked to people who commit mass shootings and other violent crimes.
Dr. Marsha Linehan, in her text “Dialectical Behavior Therapy Treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder,” suggests that dysfunctional behavior arises from the confluence of a baby’s congenital emotional hardwiring and environmental invalidation. Could it be that “bad” behavior is much more complex than we thought?
We like to think that we are fundamentally different from them, that we would never do evil. Yet how many people participated in the Holocaust? How many stood by and allowed it to happen? Or a thousand thousand other injustices that have occurred, that occur every day? Just as all of us have committed wrongs, all have inherent worth and dignity, even those who have committed heinous acts.
What resources do Unitarian Universalists have to deal with human monsters? Belief in man’s depravity allows us to feel all too good about snuffing out evil-doers or removing those who are problematical. Belief in worth and dignity of every person forces us to own our violence as evidence of our own failure in the quest for the divine.
The First Principle is really hard. As Rev. David Sargent has written, “It is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It is not an affirmation that all people are good. But it is a call to make the world better by treating everyone with respect and trying to get others to do likewise, for the sake of all of us.”
(Written by the members of the lay-led Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Mary DeYoung, former president)