The Basic Human Covenant

September 14, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


READING            from "Our Covenant"            Alice Blair Wesley 

We human beings are promising creatures, in the sense that we can only do great and worth things – indeed we can only survive – when we make and keep promises of loyalty and faithfulness to the ways of love with others.  For distinct and different as we are as individuals, we are also thoroughly social creatures. The options and choices we have as individuals are effected and affected by those of others;  our decisions and actions and inactions effect and affect many others.  None of us can fulfill our promise as individuals without the faithfulness and loyalty of many others.  Therefore, the aim of our worship services is a renewal of our sense of gratitude for and loyalty to the spirit of love which summons and creates and re-creates right loyalties within us.

The mutual spirit of love is alone worthy of our greatest, our ultimate loyalty.  For when we kill it, life loses its savor and we open ourselves to destructive, deadly evil, unworthy doing.

We human beings, especially in a culture so complex as ours, are part of many communities.  We need one – our freely covenanted church community – in which our purpose is to be reminded of, and to take account of the promising character of human beings in the widest possible sense, that we may answer the summons, the call of all that is holy, to live with authenticity and integrity and joy and resolve. 

THE SERMON            "The Basic Human Covenant"            Rev. Victoria Weinstein

I'm going to start in a strange place, with some thoughts about capital punishment.  I was having a conversation with a friend about ten years ago, and we were talking about serial killers.  I said that most of the time I really can't support capital punishment – but when someone totally violates the basic human covenant so egregiously, they deserve to die. 

This isn't a sermon on capital punishment (which I do not support… on most days).  It's about that word covenant, and what it means, and what it demands of us.  I think that conversation with my friend was one of the first times I had ever used the word "covenant" in casual conversation. It isn't the kind of word that comes up in typical chit-chat.  I don't know how or why it came out of my mouth – this was long before I came to this church and engaged in our covenant revision process with you.  I remember feeling a bit startled as I heard myself say the words "violate the basic human covenant."  What did I mean by that? What is the basic human covenant?

Covenant is a serious word.  It is weightier and more serious than the words agreement or promise, or even law or vow or oath.  It is a weighty word and a solemn idea that, in the Western world, has its origins in ancient biblical history. Although all societies and cultures honor the concept of covenant, the idea of covenant as we know it in the West originated as a kind of legal agreement between God and his people as recorded in the books of Genesis and Exodus.   The idea of covenant evolved over time to refer to a spiritual commitment voluntarily held between members of a community, and with the entire community and their God.  There is therefore a horizontal dimension to covenant – between equals – and there is a vertical dimension – between a people (or a person) and Ultimate Moral Being, however one defines that.

That was the understanding of covenant which the men and women who founded this congregation had in 1642 when they covenanted to walk in the ways of faith and to do God's will as best as they could understand and discern it together. 

And so we do to this day. We have a congregational covenant that we revised in 2002, and we're clear on what it asks of us.  We affirm it every Sunday in our worship service, and I think it's a beautiful statement that guides our sense of purpose as a community.  There's a lot more to our covenant than meets the eye, too.  For instance, cultivating reverence is a simple phrase but it is not a simple task. You don't look around you once, say "Wow, this is an awesome creation," and be done with it.  Cultivating reverence is the inner work of a lifetime.  If we commit to an attitude of reverence, we see the world as an "ensouled" place – not just a playground for our happiness but a garden to tend with care and a sense of responsibility and stewardship.  Sacred ground.

The rest of our covenantal promises are just as demanding and just as deep. If we all posted our covenant on our fridge or bathroom mirror and referred to it every day to guide our thoughts, words and deeds, we'd be making a beautiful commitment with lasting benefits to ourselves, our families and our world. 

With this in mind, let me share with you these beautiful words from the Book of Deuteronomy: "Therefore inscribe these words upon your heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children-reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up."

But returning to the comment I made to my friend all those years ago: what did I mean when I said that someone violated the basic human covenant?  I was so sure back then -- but I'll tell you something: I'm confused about that question today.  I'm really confused about it.  It seems that every time I look up lately, what I might intuit as the basic human covenant is being egregiously violated somewhere – and greed and nationalist zeal are almost always the cause, although sometimes it happens out of good intentions gone wrong. 

Something that benefits one group of people has a detrimental or even destructive effect on another.  Protect my freedoms and safety and totally violate someone else's.  Try to protect an endangered species and destroy the livelihood of an entire human community.  Come to the rescue of one suffering region and use resources that therefore can't be used to alleviate suffering somewhere else.  Globalization has made the question of how to define the basic human covenant a monumentally difficult one to answer.

Is there a basic human covenant that transcends any group, any class, any race or creed, that is truly universal and universally agreed-upon? If so, please tell me what it is.   Where is it written? Who got to write it, who signed onto it, and how do we all, globally, hold each other accountable to it? 

Could we find a workable basic human covenant in a United Nations document? Is it best articulated in the Constitution of the United States, or the Declaration of Independence? How about the Ten Commandments, or perhaps in something Buddha or Mohammed or Jesus said? Maybe the basic human covenant for the 21st century could come from the treaties of the Geneva Conventions.  Or … our own Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles.  If we beamed them up into space and they could be read or heard in every language by every person on this little blue planet, could we agree that they'd be the basic human covenant?  Here they are, as a reminder.  They are promises to affirm and promote:

I could certainly sign onto that with a drop of blood from my finger, and I know you could too. That's why you're here.  But I'm afraid that not everyone sees things the way this community does.  We'd have to endure a lot of revisions and deletions before we got a working document.  When I think of how long that would take, how many hours of debate, how many translators working diligently, how many squabbles and how many angry walk-outs by various delegates of the human community (with no representation whatsoever by delegates from any other species), I get very sad.  

Is it our destiny that some members of our species will always be alienated from some others?

This is a question-asking sermon, and we're going to leave here this morning with more questions than we have answers.   That's not any more comfortable for me any more than it is for you, but some questions are just that big.  I started to write this sermon on September 11, 2008  -- a day heavy with horrible memories and with implications for what it means to affirm anything like a "basic human covenant."  I thought that I was clear on at least my own nation's sense of basic human covenant before 9/11, but since that terrible event that plunged us into moral chaos, I have watched it erode like a sand castle as the tide comes in. 

Was it just a castle built on sand in the first place?  

"These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine at the beginning of the American Revolution.  He might have written, "These are the times that try men's covenants." 

We live in such times.

Two things have become clear to me since 9/11.  First, no matter what noble and carefully-crafted covenants humans make with each other, abject terror can and very likely will lead them to renounce them or to interpret them in "creative" ways that undermine their integrity.  When that happens, it is of utmost importance for people in power to take responsibility for what has happened and to re-covenant together, humbly and in the spirit of reconciliation.  When those in power model this moral leadership, the people can follow.

The second clarity I have about covenants since 9/11 is related to the first.  It is simply this: covenants call us to live out the best of our natures, and will therefore necessarily be violated when people cannot or will not live into their best, whether for legitimate or for immoral reasons.  James Luther Adams, our great Unitarian theologian, reminds us that because we are not perfect beings, our covenants will not be perfect. He wrote that "[humans] are the only animal that makes promises.  We are the "promise-making, promise keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creatures."

As I think about the myriad evils perpetrated by corrupt and contemptible individuals and institutions in the past century, my head spins.  There is not a continent upon which we cannot find terrible oppression and devastation of people, of landscapes, of cultures, of human rights.  I admit that I am complicit in some of it.  Is this just the ancient story of human nature continuing as it has always been, and we just know more about it now thanks to mass communication? I don't think so, but to make my argument would require another sermon. 

I will argue this, though.  As people of faith, we have an important choice to make and an important stance to take.  I think it is this: in spite of evidence to the contrary, we must believe in the power of mutual promises, human covenants, to call forth something basically decent and honorable in the soul of a man, woman and child.  We must believe, affirm and witness to the essential usefulness and goodness of making promises and crafting covenants and then earnestly trying to live by them. 

Our covenants will not be perfect and neither will our living of them be, but if there is to be a center that holds in the madness of the modern world, it can only be found in the promise-making center in the soul of the human being. 

Just words, you say? Not muscle-y enough?

I don't think so.

I don't think so.  There was a time when a solemn oath meant more than it does today.

I believe that there is a primordial desire in most men and women

to be regarded with respect and to be included in the honor roll of humanity. 

Let's keep faith with that.  And let's do more.  Let's bring that desire forth, let's treat it as the greatest natural resource we have going for us, and let's dare to build a vision of the future on the promise-making, promise-keeping form of life we call humanity.

Note: This sermon was inspired in large part by Dennis McCarty's article, "The Tyger & The Lamb," UU World, Fall 2008.