Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Is Loyalty a UU Value? (September 30, 2012)

This past summer I saw a video featuring moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He identified 5 foundational moral values and showed that when tens of thousands of persons were surveyed there was a reliable difference in which values were more important to folks who identified as liberals, and which were most important to those who self identified as conservatives. The values of Compassion and fairness were considered the most important by liberals, while conservatives felt that the other three values of respect for authority, loyalty and purity were just as important.[i] It was a fascinating talk, because it gave some insight into why liberals and conservatives have so much trouble understanding one another, in seeing the world through one another's eyes.

As a self-identified liberal, it didn’t rock my sense of who I am too much to see compassion and fairness elevated over respect for authority and purity. But seeing Loyalty there as conservative value and not a liberal one… that bothered me. It made me wonder -- could we Unitarian Universalists, both liberal and conservative, get behind loyalty as a value? The psychologists who designed the test define it this way “Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."

Today we honored Andy and Joe and their marriage, a marriage which was not the union of two kids with  romantic notions about life, but of 2 adults who have already proven their loyalty to one another and to family. The 2009 Census showed marriages are now at an all time low.  Only 52 percent of adults 18 and over reported themselves as married, compared with 57 percent in 2000.[ii]  This reduction in marriages is both folks who have never been married and folks who are divorced or widowed.

Initially when divorce became more possible in our culture, I know there were some women and men for whom this was literally  life saving. Folks trapped in abusive or oppressive relationships could see no way out. The option of never marrying is a blessing to new generations of men and women who were forced into un-wanted marriage out of social convention. But I propose that the pendulum has now swung too far to the other direction. Today the media often portrays marriage and romance much like any other consumer activity, shopping around for the best sweater or TV set, and relying on the return policy if the sweater no longer fits, or if the TV needs an upgrade.

I know that in this room there are folks who don’t buy into that cultural image of marriage as one more consumer good for sale in the marketplace. There are folks here who have been married for decades, who live loyalty day by day, who have stood by their partners through mental or physical illness, through disputes over the dishes, through conflicting career aspirations, through nights with colicky babies, or arguments about whether to have children. When Unitarian Universalism comes out year after year as a very public voice for marriage equality, I think most folks look at their message first and foremost as a pro-equality movement, but I also want to lift up that this is a pro-marriage movement, a pro-loyalty movement. If we didn’t believe in marriage, why would we embrace this particular inequality? Ours is not a religious tradition that says everyone must be married, but I do think it is important to name loyalty as a religious value, and to stand on the side of commitment and loyalty.

My premarital counseling professor once told us that some of his couples wanted to promise to stay together “for as long as we both shall love” instead of “for as long as we both shall live.” He would refuse – “That’s not really a marriage” he said. Because there is something about knowing that a union is a forever promise, that it doesn’t come with a gift receipt so you can return your partner if they don’t do their share of the dishes, or if a newer fancier model comes along later. Such a promise changes fundamentally the nature of the relationship. The Great 19th century novelist George Elliot wrote “What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life—to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?[iii]” It fundamentally changes the relationship to covenant “for richer for poorer, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. ” Such a promise is a foundation you can build your lives on.

In one of Wendell Berry’s novels, his protagonist HannahCoulter, shares the view of one who has been married for many years, as Berry himself has: [p. 109] "You have had this life and no other. You have had this life with this man and no other. What would it have been to have had a different life with a different man? You will never know. That makes the world forever a mystery, and you will just have to be content for it be that way."

I think as a denomination, we have been reluctant to speak too strongly about the value of marriage in particular, because we know there are folks who build their lives on a different foundation. They chose not to be in a life partnership, and instead have strong bonds with friends, with parents or siblings, with extended family. There are folks for whom heartbreak has crumbled those very foundations they used to depend on, and those whose lives are more solitary. But I think it is the job of your beloved community to say to one another- don’t let heartbreak undermine your capacity to connect, to value connection, and to stand by those connections. 

The biblical story of Ruth and Naomi is a wonderful story about how loyalty can take unexpected forms. Some of you will remember that in this story Naomi’s husband dies, and not long after her two adult sons. She says to her 2 recently widowed daughters-in-law
“Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
One daughter in law, Oprah, chooses to go back to her mother’s household, (remember this was a matriarchal lineage) but the other, Ruth says to her
16 “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. 17 Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.” 18 When she saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

Ruth is elevated throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition as a standard-bearer for Loyalty.  Legally, she owed no fealty to her Mother in law, but she made this vow of loyalty, and as the story reveals, is true to her vow.

Certainly loyalty has a  shadow side, which is betrayal and abuse. For years religious leaders have told women or men trapped in abusive relationships that this is their cross to bear. That they must remain true to their promises and “try to work things out.” Untold damage and harm has been done with such admonitions. I attended a clergy training about domestic abuse over at Guthrie, and one of my evangelical colleagues stood to respond to this traditional dialogue and said “A woman who leaves an abusive relationship is not breaking her covenant. The man broke the covenant when he abused her.” The shadow side of loyalty is that it sometimes us into staying past the time when the covenant is broken. Sometimes the most loyal thing we can do is name the truth, is uphold the boundaries of our covenant. If we are in an abusive marriage, and we cannot restore the safety of that relationship, it is not un-loyal to leave. If we see democracy erode in our great democratic nation, it is not un-loyal to speak up and say “we can be better than this, I know we can.”

I went to the website yourmorals.org and took the survey, and one of the questions stuck out to me: “should you give help to a member of your family even if they do something wrong?” I believe that you should. I believe that there must be some network, some community looking out for each and every person, even those who commit grievous errors. Now, let’s be clear that one must also put up boundaries. This is not disloyal. One should think carefully about giving money to a cousin you know is a heroine addict. We must keep our children protected from relatives or friends who have transgressed sexual boundaries. Keeping those boundaries is part of loyalty.

Here’s a question that often pits liberals against conservatives: “should you be loyal to your country even if you think it has done something wrong?” Remember the old rallying cry: “America: love it or leave it?” I want to challenge that old chestnut and say that is not really loyalty. I think real loyalty sounds more like “America: love it or work to make it a great country for all.” I want folks who think critically about government to reclaim the word “loyal.” Do you believe that those folks out shivering in the cold in an Occupy tent city are disloyal? I don’t believe they are. I think it takes a tremendous amount of loyalty to speak truth. And I have to say the same thing about those standing on tired cold feet at Tea Party protests. To me it is more loyal to stage a protest than to just give up on the democratic process and stop voting, stop paying attention, stop caring. To me political loyalty is not a passive thing, but an active one. We show our loyalty by showing up, by paying attention, and by hanging in there on good days and on bad.

After I realized that I was never going to be a professional opera singer and before I knew that I wanted to be a minister, I went to work for a company called Clendenin Brothers Inc. They made non-ferrous fasteners, and had been doing so since the 1865, because a port town like Baltimore needs rivets for ship-building and repair. Almost everyone in the front office had started in one of two jobs- the switchboard operator (my job) was the entry level job in the accounting department, and from there folks  advanced to biller, then to accounts receivable, then payables. The Sales intern usually became a sales person, and in fact the head of sales had been the sales intern almost 50 years back. I didn’t understand the politics as well in the factory, which was right there in the same building, but I knew that many of those who worked in the factory had been with the company for a long time. The company was loyal to its employees. If you were hired at Clendenin Brothers and worked hard, you could spend your life there, and each year the boss would stand in the loading dock handing out Christmas Turkeys and Hams.

When I spilled soda on the switchboard, a mistake that cost the company over $1000, I wasn’t fired, I got a very serious talking to by my boss, the comptroller. I confess I made a number of mistakes on that job, and each time, quietly, patiently, my boss and talked about what changes I could make so that those mistakes wouldn’t happen again. Hardly anyone ever got fired, and hardly anyone ever quit. One of my jobs as the switchboard operator was to interface with the vending machine guy. Being the kind of entrepreneurial young woman I was, when we received a proposal for a new vending machine contract, I presented it to my boss. I had heard enough complaints at the front desk about moldy food in the machines that I thought it was time to make a change. My boss said, “we have to think really carefully about this. We never leave a vendor lightly. Try to work it out with the current guy first, then we’ll talk about it.” This was a company that was loyal to its employees, to its vendors and to its customers. And I know that at least the employees in the front office were very loyal in return.

Is loyalty a Unitarian Universalist value? And if it is, do we believe that Unitarian Universalism is something we could trust with our loyalty? This, I think, is a question we struggle with mightily. So many of us grew up in other faith traditions, that we often speak most loudly about the importance of “Our chosen faith” …of choosing. We value so highly the wisdom of diverse religious traditions that we just spent 18 months teaching our teens about those neighboring faiths, and visiting those traditions as they gather in worship. But we have to be careful not to let loyalty to this faith become the null curriculum, that is, what we teach by what we leave out. Instead, let us fearlessly say to our children, if it is our truth, this is a good faith, and one that will walk with you all your life as you search for meaning and try to live lives that are compassionate and just.

Let us not forget to tell our children that if they choose to commit to this Unitarian Universalist tradition, it will be there for you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.  When we speak of “our chosen faith”, I encourage us to think of choosing in the same way that we may choose to enter into a marriage, rather than the way we choose a new TV at the electronics store. Because when you new get your TV home that first day and you’ve figured out the remote, that is about the best that relationship is ever going to be. But when you enter into relationship with a faith tradition, with a particular beloved community, that relationship has the potential to get deeper and richer and closer year after year as live itself changes and grows. Perhaps loyalty is like putting down roots- which takes time. The deeper the roots, the more the tree is able to weather storm and drought, the more channels of communication and sharing are open between and among the trees and other life forms in a grove. 

As Olympia Brown, the first Ordained woman preacher in America, Preached to her Racine congregation in 1920:
 “Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals, which has comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty and made the world beautiful.”

Loyalty takes many forms. Loyalty to country, to a partner, to friends, to family, to employer or employee. Loyalty sometimes runs in the face of cultural patterning that we should always crave something better, something more, as if the next friend, the next partner, the next job will be better than what we have now. When we claim Loyalty as an important value we are remembering  that some things only grow slowly with time and commitment, and that these things are of profound and satisfying value, even when they are hard, even when exciting new things sparkle in the distance. Loyalty is about giving relationships time to put down roots, to spread their branches, and to blossom and bear fruit.

[i] There is also a lovely interview with Haidt on Bill Moyers here 
[iii] From Adam Bede, George Elliot, 1859. Cited in We Pledge out Hearts ed. Edward Searl. Skinner House Press 2006.

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