Right Relationship: Acceptance without approval

I want to share just a little bit of Unitarian history with you as I begin this message today.


In this day and age, and in this nation, A Unitarian is not a dangerous things to be. Yes, a few very homophobic people might object. Dogmatically religious people may tell you you're going to hell. Most of all perhaps, you may not want your friends to know you go to anyplace that sings hymns and looks so much like a church.


For the most part though, you would not put yourself at risk today if you went out in the public square today and screamed "I am Unitarian!"


This was not always the case.


On 27 October 1553, a man called Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva. His crime? Unitarian belief.


Servetus was condemned by Catholics and by Protestant Christians alike. The great protestant reformer John Calvin himself was behind Servetus's execution.


Servetus was a one of those geniuses we call a polymath. He was annoyingly smart and accomplished in multiple areas of knowledge. He was knowledgeable in mathematics and several fields of science. He made important medical discoveries and he served as a physician. 


But it was his language and scriptural study that got Michael Servetus into trouble. Having learned to read in numerous languages, he studied the bible in its original tongues and compared these to the heavily modified editions and translations of his own time. Through this study, Servetus discovered that the doctrine of the trinity had little or no scriptural support and he spoke about and wrote about his conclusions.


On 27 October 1553, his books were burnt along with him.


It didn't end in the 16th century. In this country,100 years later, In 1697, medical student Thomas Aikenhead was executed under English blasphemy law for denying the doctrine of the trinity.


In fact, it wasn't until 200 years ago this very year - in the 19th century - that English criminal penalties against Unitarianism were finally abolished.


But it's reasonably safe now... Just tell people you're doing something more socially acceptable than going to church - like attending an early morning orgy or studying to become a rapacious unethical banker.


I think the remarkable thing about this short history is not that we have had brave martyrs in our history - although these people who stuck to their convictions despite threat of persecution and death were extraordinary indeed.


What strikes me as most remarkable is what this persecution represents: the inability of people to accept those who hold different beliefs.


This happens at different levels. It was not, of course, simply a difference of opinion between himself and John Calvin that got Michael Servetus executed, but rather with a whole system that was organised around having a common belief - and a very specific and detailed one at that. Any challenge to this belief threatened to disrupt systems of power and that is certainly part of the issue.


But completely lacking is in this story is any sense at all that we can love and live together with our differences rather than be divided by them. And that is a tragedy indeed.

This will be our subject for today - accepting those we disagree with - acceptance without approval.


This is the first of four services on the subject of right relationship.


You may be familiar with New Unity's guidelines of Right Relationship, a set of statements that describe how we aim to treat one another in this community. You can find the complete guidelines in the community section of our website.


Right relationship is a way of being together in community that allows each of us to be ourselves, to grow, to be accepted, and to be safe.


That is no easy task, of course. Human beings have many foibles that lead to all manner of conflict. Moreover there is a basic trade-off in society between freedom and safety. If everyone is completely free to do whatever they wish, no one can be safe. If everyone is completely safe from any risk of harm or offense, then no one can be free.


As a community, we are constantly trying to find the right balance between freedom for all and safety for all.


So let us now turn our attention to acceptance. 


This is the essence of the meaning of radically inclusive. Acceptance means we aim to accept everyone, whether or not we agree with them.


Acceptance is more than admitting entry. It is not that we'll let someone come but then ignore them or ridicule them behind their backs. Acceptance implies that we will respect and honour each person for who they are.


The immediate challenge that frequently arises is often spoken in words that descend level and level and finally culminate in something like this: "What? Would we accept Hitler?"

The objection puts a very reasonable question in the extreme. Do we honour and respect anyone, no matter what they do or have done?


Acceptance - as the title of this message implies - is not the same thing as approval. Accepting someone does not mean agreeing with her. It does not mean saying that we think what he does is OK. It does not even mean we won't call in the authorities or toss her out the door when we find out what she is doing.


We will toss her out - but we will do it with respect and with love.


Acceptance means that we value the essence of each person - their essential humanity - their potential. It means that we recognise the worth and dignity to which they are entitled solely on the basis of their humanity.


This is at the heart of what it actually means to be Unitarian - not denying the Trinity - which is not quite the hot issue it once was!


That every person has an inherent worth and dignity simply as a fact of being human is our first, most important conviction. And - truth be told - it is extraordinarily difficult to live and relate in a way that honours this principle.


Honouring this principle, in practice, means being present to and respectful of people as they are - not only as we would want them to be. 


It means listening and hearing without turning to that automatic process of judging in which we so easily engage.


Rachel Naomi Remen writes this in her book "Kitchen Table Wisdom":


"Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us, not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence. It is hard to find. In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life. Silence is a place of great power and healing."


And this is terribly, terribly hard sometimes.


In the meditation, I invited you to imagine being in the presence of someone whose behaviour or values or beliefs you condemn. You didn't have much time, but I wonder if that sense came to you anyway. Honouring the essence despite all of that - raises so many challenges.


For one, we may tend to believe that listening without argument or judgment implies approval - implies that we think what we are hearing is OK. 


Along with this, when we disagree with someone's beliefs, actions, values, we want to change them. 


Stop smoking - it's self-destructive. Start eating healthy. Get more sleep. Leave your abusive partner. Dress more professionally. Be more polite. Be more tolerant.


We do this and do we really think that our saying so is likely to make anyone change?


One of my favourite quotes comes from Carl Rogers, the psychologist I spoke of last week who developed a therapeutic method that relies on unconditional positive regard, 

Rogers' approach was criticised by those who feared that offering so much acceptance meant that people wwould not change for the better. He said this:


"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."


Although our objective in honouring the essence of each person is not to change them, it is most certainly tied up with giving them the strength and security and confidence so that they can venture from where they are and explore new directions - so they can create the change and growth they want and need.


Our challenges in acceptance don't stop there with wanting to change and argue and judge.


Perhaps most difficult of all is our own internal dialog. When we listen to something with which we disagree, an inner conflict can emerge.  You may have based your life around a certain way of being and here, you are, faced with a denial of exactly that - faced with a way of being that is completely incompatible with what you hold dear - incompatible perhaps even with what you hold on to and what holds you together.


The feeling you have is dissonance. Like musical dissonance, it cries out for resolution. You need to make harmony somehow - to make sense of it - to make it feel better.

Of course you do.


And this is what gets in the way of being there openly, authentically, and non-judgmentally. This is what keeps us relating on a polite but arms-length level - what keeps us from opening our hearts.


The truth is though, that unless we can find a way to surmount this obstacle, our interactions remain wary and distant. The people with whom we interact feel constrained and know that they must maintain the face they keep on for strangers. They know that they are not OK as they are.


I don't have a miraculous answer to this conundrum. 


I do find it helpful though to recognise that we have many different ways of interacting and that we have a choice of which mode we are using at any given time.


We may be interacting to come to an agreement. We may be interacting to convince someone to do things our way. We may be interacting to be polite - a good skill to have for social hour while sipping coffee or tea.


We may be interacting as advisors or teachers. 


And we may be interacting just to listen and to accept. This final way of interacting is the one where we say the least and yet can be the hardest of all.


And all we have to do is be present, encourage, listen, and be accepting of what we hear.


This way of being is emblematic of what we mean when we say we are here to help one another to grow toward wholeness.


It is not something we could or should do all the time. It takes time, it takes patience, it takes gentle strength, and it takes a very big heart.


It is not about playing at being a therapist. It is about offering unconditional acceptance because we know that this is how we can support others, how we can build a more loving community, how we can grow ourselves as deeper more whole people, and how we can do our part to build a better world.


And all it requires is that we set aside time - put ourselves aside - put our dissonance aside - and be truly present to another sacred, wounded, blessed, loving, fearing, needing human being.


Welcome to a radically-inclusive community of faith.


May it be so