Occupy Unitarian Universalism

The Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence has extended an invitation to members of their local Occupy movement to camp at their church.  The initial expected numbers are about 12-15 people in six tents.  Details about the regulations of the arrangement are available at Occupy Northampton’s website, as well as a report about the meeting between Unitarian Society representatives, Occupy participants, and the mayor of Northampton that produced the agreement, and a report of the discussion that subsequently occurred within the Occupy Northampton group.

Meanwhile, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has created open letters in support of the Occupy movement  which can be read and signed online, one for individuals and another for congregations and organizations.  The former has 4200+ signatures at this point, suggesting a widespread support for Occupy ideas within Unitarian Universalism.  UUA president Peter Morales visited Occupy Boston in October and participated in a UU vespers service at the site; subsequently he released a statement of sympathy and solidarity.  Later, the Board of Trustees of the UUA visited Occupy Boston as well.  Perhaps the best place to keep track of the ongoing interaction between Unitarian Universalism and Occupy is via the tracker set up by Peter Bowdon at his UU Growth Blog.  UUpdates, the UU blog aggregator, also helps one keep tabs on the online discussion (and is one of the only places you can find the few–but vocal–conservative UU voices opposing Occupy).

Unitarian Universalism’s alignment with progressive political/social causes is well known.  Perhaps the most direct precedent for the actions of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence is the participation many UU churches had in the Sanctuary movement in the 1980s, or perhaps the shelter provided to draft resisters during the Vietnam War era (if one wants to go back much further, shelter and aid to fugitive slaves by Unitarian and Universalist churches might apply as another example of offering church space for people to sleep at).

In 1841, Rev. William Ellery Channing, founding father of American Unitarianism, wrote a letter to miners in England, detailing his mid-19th century prescription for the elevation of the laboring classes:

1. Temperance: “Ardent spirits have been the curse of the laborer.”
2. Renunciation of violence in the cause of class warfare: “Your true strength lies in growing intelligence, uprightness, self-respect, trust in God, and trust in one another.”
3. Avoidance of atheism: “It is under the cross that the battle of humanity is to be fought.”
4. National education: “To make [the laborer] enlightened and efficient, at once able and disposed to discharge wisely his public and private duties.”
5. Focus on inward satisfaction: “Good wages are not happiness.  A man may prosper and still be a poor creature. . . Our very thoughts may be the means or occasion of signal virtues, and in this way may bring a peace and hope which no mere prosperity can give.”

From this we can see both that Unitarianism has had a long-standing interest in the plight of workers, and that it has often been approached from the perspectives of the middle and upper classes.  Paternalism and concerns for propriety have often been mingled, therefore, with genuine sympathy and actual assistance.  This pattern has by no means passed away today, though in the contemporary context the gulf has grown so great between gigantic corporations unimaginable in Channing’s time and everyday workers (including so-called white collar workers in many cases) that class lines must be drawn differently than in his day.  The situation of the Universalists, who generally occupied a notably lower class standing than the Unitarians is somewhat more complicated.  Readers interested in UU class history can get a good start with Mark Harris’s Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History.

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