The first image of “conscience” that I remember in my own life was that of Jiminy Cricket singing to Pinocchio, advising him to “always let your conscience be your guide.” The challenge that Pinocchio faced, of course, was how to make the transition from puppet to real boy, and how to live as a human in a complex world. As humans in the world, we learn that our conscience is not always so clear in a world of competing choices, each of which may carry a mix of benefit and harm, and often some risk.
I was reminded of this recently as someone was describing the conflict in this congregation over the sanctuary movement several decades ago, in which there was a vote on whether to give shelter and sanctuary to refugees from Central America. As has been told to me, some members felt called to provide sanctuary, while other church members had signed a pledge required by their employer not to take any action that broke US law. For them, being part of a church that sheltered undocumented refugees could cost them their livelihood, placing themselves and their families at risk. So the congregational vote did not pass, and some members left the church, feeling that the congregation had failed to live into its social justice commitments. Reminders of that conflict have come up in recent conversations, as the US government has heightened enforcement of immigration laws throughout the nation, and we wonder how to stand in conscience on the side of those who suffer oppression, especially for those for whom returning to their countries of origin can be a death sentence.
The Unitarian Universalist Association and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee have collaborated to issue an unprecedented joint declaration of conscience in this time of turmoil in our nation, and the language is powerful and compelling:
At this extraordinary time in our nation’s history, we are called to affirm our profound commitment to the fundamental principles of justice, equity and compassion, to truth and core values of American society.
In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes, we affirm our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
In opposition to any steps to undermine the right of every citizen to vote or to turn back advances in access to health care and reproductive rights, we affirm our commitment to justice and compassion in human relations.
And against actions to weaken or eliminate initiatives to address the threat of climate change – actions that would threaten not only our country but the entire planet – we affirm our unyielding commitment to protect the interdependent web of all existence.
We will oppose any and all unjust government actions to deport, register, discriminate, or despoil.
As people of conscience, we declare our commitment to translate our values into action as we stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us.
We welcome and invite all to join in this commitment for justice.
The time is now
The question for all of us at this juncture of our nation’s history is, how do we live into our values and commitments? How are we guided by our conscience, as real people faced by real risks when we take action? There are no easy answers, and so our faith community becomes more important than ever. Standing together in love, let us grapple with the complexities of conscience, and learn ever more deeply how to be a presence for justice in the world. See you in church!