Ten Commandments for Relevant, Reparative Ministry:

A reinterpretation of the Hebrew scriptures for those of us who are white. 

Ashley Horan
June 2017

197th Ministerial Conference at Berry Street

1.) And God spoke: “I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD. YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BUT ME,” or, The freedom and flourishing of all people is our ultimate concern, and our highest loyalty.

Our faith’s central premise is that we must shape the world so that every person can fulfill the promise of our inborn capacity for wholeness and love. But such a world, in the words of Langston Hughes, is “The land that never has been yet—and yet must be.”  As we grapple with the white supremacy in our tradition’s DNA, and the magnitude of injustice in our society, we know it is a leap of faith to commit our lives’ work to building another world with no proof of its possibility.  And yet, it is the only thing worthy of our deepest allegiance.

2.) YOU SHALL NOT HAVE GRAVEN IMAGES, or, We shall not worship the structures of our faith over its spirit.

Unitarian Universalism is a core set of beliefs and values, enshrined in institutions and practices.  And it is heartbreakingly clear that our current incarnation prevents us from living out our deepest commitments. 

When we worry more about the financial risks of making reparations to Black Unitarian Universalists than about the spiritual costs of not making them; when our congregations refrain from taking bold moral stances because members might quit; when we are more committed to preserving our institutions and culture than to creating a world in which all of us are free, we commit idolatry—the sin of mistaking that which is finite for that which is ultimate and most worthy.

3.) YOU SHALL NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD IN VAIN,

or, We shall not claim to be allies without being transformed.

My friend Caitlin Breedlove regularly poses the clarion question of her former organization, Southerners on New Ground: “Are you willing to be transformed in service of the work?” 

Our hearts yearn to say “yes” to this question, individually and congregationally.  Yet it will require us to engage in surrender, a spiritual practice at which we white people are largely novices.  But when we decide that what what the world needs us to be is more important than what we are comfortable being, we will exchange our fear and fragility for the deep belonging and belovedness of collaboratively building a different reality. 

4.) YOU SHALL HONOR THE SABBATH, or, We shall engage in practices that prepare us to show up.

Our faith—and our world—need us white people to bring thick skins, tender hearts, and real skills.  We’re being asked to take our shifts for the revolution; the question is whether we’re ready to clock in. 

So it’s time for some intensive spiritual training.  What are we doing, individually and congregationally, to strengthen the muscles of resilience that will allow us to hear and believe hard truths from people of color, even when they’re delivered in a tone we don’t like?  How will we become humble and courageous enough to say “yes,” even when we don’t know that we will be either safe or right?

5.) YOU SHALL HONOR YOUR MOTHER AND FATHER, or, We shall claim our history in its fullness.

Whiteness robs white people of our sense of belonging to the arc of history and the web of humanity. When we awaken to the white supremacy culture that has shaped us, our instinct is often to further dissociate ourselves, because owning our lineage also means owning the sins of our forebears.

But we must reclaim our ancestors and our history—both that which nurtured death, and that which planted seeds of life.  Susan B. Anthony’s fierce feminism and her intense racism; our congregations’ civil rights work and our white flight; our denominational commitments to becoming anti-racist, and our defunding of the very work to do so.

Our history is not our fault, but it is our responsibility.  In accepting this, we will find a sustaining connection to our ancestors who resisted; who struggled; who passed along the unfinished work of their lives to us.

6.) YOU SHALL NOT KILL, or, We shall refrain from doing harm, and make amends when we do.

We have a rosy theological anthropology, which one might sum up as “from love we are, and to love we shall return.”  But our rightful resistance to religion that told people they were sinful and unloved has left our theology, our rituals, and our leadership ill-equipped to respond effectively to behaviors that are sinful and unloving.

We know intent is less important than impact—it matters more that your foot hurts than that I didn’t mean to step on it. Our ministry as, and with, white people, then, is to both do less harm in the first place, and when we do, to help our people engage in rituals and processes of confession, atonement, and repair—long before we seek absolution.

7.) YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, or, We shall be faithful to those whose personhood is most consistently dismissed and denied.

Liberation theology reminds us of God’s preferential option for the poor. “Liberation universalism” might say, the only hell is here on earth, where we are called to both save and be saved by one another. 

This theology requires that our deepest loyalty be with those who are farthest from the center of power—many of whom will never be Unitarian Universalists.  The dynamics of power mean that we cannot credibly side with both the system of policing and the Movement for Black Lives; we can’t prioritize both “including” Trump voters and telling our undocumented trans congregant that her life is of supreme worth.  We have to choose whose vision we affirm and follow, because a world in which we are all safe and free is better for all of us.

8.) YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, or, We shall learn to take up less space, and hoard fewer resources.

The payoff for doing scary things in public is not that we will be seen as special, but as trustworthy.  When we show up at the Black Lives Matter vigil or the ICE protest, will we leverage our privilege and introduce the reporters who want to talk to “the yellow shirt people” to the Black and Brown organizers who put the event together? How are our sanctuary congregations also giving away money from our endowments and giving meeting space to community organizers and accompanying the undocumented to deportation hearings?

9.) YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS AGAINST YOUR NEIGHBOR, or,

We shall trust those who have known oppression.

Many of us who are white respond to the lived experience of our siblings of color with incredulity and interrogation.  But—simply—when those whose humanity is regularly denied tell us that they have been harmed, we must stop…  listen…  and believe them. When we are de-centered or confronted with anger, our discomfort is not equivalent to the trauma of living within a system designed to diminish and destroy our siblings of color.

10.) YOU SHALL NOT COVET, or, We shall trust that our needs will be supplied.

For those of us who are white, our ministry now is to preach the good news that yes—everything is falling apart.  But as it does, the possibility of transformation is born. We shall not be neutral and non-anxious—neutrality is fiction and anxiety is inevitable.  Rather, we shall be faithful, trusting that we can harness courage and clarity while we are anxious; that we decenter ourselves without disengaging; that we can wield our faith in service of the grand enterprise of collective liberation and universal salvation.

Thank you, dear ones, for the privilege of sharing these commandments, all learned from gracious teachers and comrades of color.  My prayer is that they help us to receive the gift of my co-panelists’ wisdom here, and help those of us who are white to be worthy of this faith that our siblings of color, against all odds, have proclaimed worthy of redemption.  May we all be instruments of bringing a faith—a world—“that has never been yet,” into glorious being.