Why we need to clarify our values in Unity regarding Peace and Justice
Charles and Myrtle Fillmore saw Unity as an educational movement, not as a church. So the scope of Unity activity, for them, really didn't include works of charity nor works for peace and justice, which are typical concerns of churches and their congregants. The "works" that concerned the Fillmores were what Tom Thorpe once called "works of consciousness." The Fillmores believed that the greater work was "holding the high watch," forming in consciousness that which we seek to see manifest in the material world.
So it may seem to many that when we wander into activism and charitable works that we have strayed away from the classic Unity teachings, that Unity "doesn't get political." I believe that is a mistaken notion about the Fillmores and their teachings. We need to read the Unity commentary on James 2:14-26, a core New Testament teaching on faith vs. works, and we also need to hear Charles Fillmore preach about the injustice of the Teapot Dome scandal, which, before the Watergate scandal, was regarded as the "greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics."
Even still, it is fair to ask how activism and charity interact with Unity teachings and theology. This section, on values, is my attempt to address that concern. I would be delighted if these values become a part of a wider conversation within Unity about the "metaphysics" of charity, social justice and activism.
Here are the values that align Unity and Bread for the World, in my opinion.
Bread for the World describes itself as "a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad." Note that Bread for the World's identity begins with the term collective. The term collective implies that power is found in the individual and that the strength of any endeavor is found in the willingness of individuals to align in a common work.
Just as Unity has placed responsibility for sanctification in the consciousness of the individual, so has Bread for the World placed responsibility for social justice in the conscious hands of the individual citizen. We are the government, of both our individual lives and of our country; and it is our journey, as equal individuals, to carry out the mission of eliminating hunger and poverty. We are, collectively, on a deliberate and undeniable journey to co-create, in consciousness and in society, a "world that works for all."
Bread for the World's identity continues with the term "Christian". And it does so for a reason. Christian ideals, like American ideals, are high standards. We have fallen short in achieving them, but, without those ideals and the strength we gain by attempting to live them fully, we would have not have achieved what we have achieved so far.
Many in Unity wish to abandon our Christian identity because of the baggage of past sins in the name of religion. My opinion is that Unity should not run from it's Christian identity, but rather should embrace and reframe Christianity. We are an educational, reform movement.
We should self-identify Unity as an "authentic and distinct branch of the Christian faith" and align ourselves with other Christian groups who work for justice. I use the word align intentionally. Alignment allows Unity to become part of the "collective Christian voice" without agreeing with theologies that victimize people.
This also allows Unity to share the distinctive theology we bring to the Christian faith (See the TruthUnity vision statement) and contribute our unique gifts with the wider Christian community. Unity's sense of positive prayer, individual empowerment and prosperity are unique and creative expressions of God working in our lives. The work of the historic Christian church in forming a better society is enriched when we share them. This only will happen if Unity does not back away from proclaiming itself a distinct member of the Christian faith.
The next term in Bread for the World's identity, voice is about advocacy.
Advocacy is about going to places where by all appearances God is not recognized and not heard, and, when we get there, speaking truth to power. Moses went Pharaoh, Jesus went to the Temple, Paul went to the Emperor. If we really want to be spiritual, we must also go to the heart of where God needs to be heard. That place today is Washington DC. And, like Moses, Jesus and Paul, we need to go there and deliver God's message that health and prosperity for all is possible and that no one needs to be hungry.
One of my favorite stories about Charles Fillmore was shared by Victor Williams at the 1998 Fillmore Festival. Charles had fallen in love with radio broadcasting and the radio station he used was shared with the powerful Kansas City Star. In clip 193, Williams says that Charles went to the KC Star editor and said that "the Holy Spirit has told me that I need more of this radio time." Charles lost the battle, but he never shied away from speaking Truth to power.
Our final phrase in Bread for the World's identity, to end hunger at home and abroad" has three facets. Those three facets are:
- Ending hunger at home and abroad begins with restoration of the body; in Unity this is known as "healing and wholeness"
- Ending hunger at home and abroad continues with the empowerment of of the individual, and we will get to that next
- Ending hunger at home and abroad concludes with the establishment of Prosperity, which will be our final value.
Let's look now at the restoration of health and wholeness.
"Ending hunger" begins with healing and wholeness. Bread for the World and Unity are aligned in the idea that the norm for humanity is not poverty and death, but rather fullness in Jesus Christ and a well-nourished body.
Having said that, we need to acknowledge that the focus of Bread for the World is food security and the alleviation of hunger. Unity has traditionally focused on vegetarianism and the ethical treatment of animals, and, more recently in some Unity circles, advocating for a plant-based diet. But the common value shared by Unity and Bread for the World is that there is a direct line which can be drawn between the development of spiritual potential and the food we eat.
It may be fair to say that Charles Fillmore was obsessed with how and what we eat. That obsession is apparent in his statement that "We do not eat matter, but life." I hope you will click through to watch the videos that I have assembled with Charles Fillmore's essay "As to Meat Eating."
Taking this a bit further, two long-time friends of Unity, Catherine Albanese and Will Tuttle, have contributed insightful commentary about Unity's difficulty in embracing the vision of the Fillmores.
Catherine Albanese, a long-time friend of Unity and perhaps the world's leading scholar on metaphysical religion, recently wrote in a letter to The Peaceable Table (Issue 123) about "the current obliviousness of the denomination (Unity) on issues around food and plant-based eating." She wrote:
I spent nine years as a member of the local Unity church in Santa Barbara. The community was quite loving and caring on so many issues. Yet the then-minister (who is gone now) had a Buddhist and vegan son, and used her relationship with him as a way to poke gentle fun at veganism from the pulpit. Potlucks were meat-lucks and cheese- and dairy-lucks. Baked goods, with their hidden animal ingredients, abounded at snacks after Sunday services. Since I am myself macrobiotic and very much aware of the energy in food, I did not care to indulge. Nor was I able to do much to raise consciousness and awareness around food. People were happy to eat the alternatives I might occasionally bring, but that wake-up feeling never came. This is to my regret because they are all lovely people.
In frustration, she eventually left Unity.
Will Tuttle, in World Peace Diet, writes:
This taboo against speaking about our treatment of animals for food is so strong that I can often feel it as a living force. For several years, I've been speaking on Sunday mornings at progressive churches and centers, primarily Unity churches, and giving seminars on developing intuition. I find in addressing groups of even apparently progressive people that when I begin to raise the topic of the inherent cruelty to animals involved in viewing them as things, and the ethical and spiritual ramifications of our cultural practice of eating them, it seems I must push through an invisible psychic wall that absolutely resists hearing these ideas articulated. It seems to be the unconscious collective denial of the group.
I have included these commentaries by Catherine Albanese and Will Tuttle because they highlight Unity's ambivalence toward vegetarianism and the ethical treatment of animals. I have found in Bread for the World a similar ambivalence in their willingness to embrace sustainable development without directly addressing the production side of our food supply. We have work to do; I believe that in time both Unity and Bread for the World will find the right and perfect collective Christian voice regarding wholeness and sustainability.
"Ending hunger" continues with the empowerment of the individual. Freedom, for the metaphysician, is freedom from self-imposed constraints. Many, if not most, of our self-imposed constraints are internalizations of hard lessons learned in our external life. The task for all of us who are enslaved in one form or fashion is a belief in the possibility of freedom and the willingness to declare ourselves free. Unity's teachings on affirmations can be an empowering tool in the hands of those who are poor and hungry. When empowered, the focus of our speaking "Truth to power" is internally focused; we are speaking to our own inner faculties, and what we are saying is "let my people go."
Charles Fillmore famously said "it is a sin to be poor" (Prosperity 60). Three notable Unity teachers elaborated on his declaration. Catherine Ponder's seminal book, The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity, opens by declaring that the "shocking Truth" is that it is a sin to be poor. Martha Giudici repeats the same in her audio series, Why Not Be Rich, when she declares (clip 25) that poverty is a sickness of the mind. An Johnnie Colemon, Unity's most succesful congregational minister and founder of the Universal Foundation for Better Living wrote,
What my mind can conceive, I can achieve. In other words, if my mind conceives lack and limited thought, poverty, inflation, I will achieve just that. God never created poverty. God as not created inflation. In fact, it's a sin to be poor! (It Works If You Work It 16)
That "it is a sin to be poor" is an incendiary and radical statement in the context of orthodox Christian theology. That statement may be, however, the central message of the prosperity gospel. I find it incongruent that mainline and evangelical Christian churches are hesitant to shun well-known prosperity gospel preachers who are Pentecostal while they skewer Unity and other metaphysical Christian churches which preach a similar but less extreme message of prosperity.
A few well-known spiritual leaders are also teaching empowerment as a path to prosperity, such as Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen. We don't need to agree with all of what is taught by Oprah or Joel Osteen. But it should be obvious to anyone that the positive message of hope and prosperity we in Unity share with these notable spiritual leaders is an essential component in empowering people to overcome hunger and poverty.
God loves a cheerful giver (II Cor. 9:7)