What is an Ethical Society for?

We live in a larger world that increasingly encourages polarization, to privilege those who are already powerful while treating as disposable those who are not, and to economically value a narrow range of “productivity” over work that promotes long-range human survival and thriving.

An Ethical Society, at its best, is about transforming people so that we are better able to face those challenges, and help to build a more caring, just, peaceful, and sustainable world.

We are shaped by the culture around us, and we bring the habits of that culture with us. How we deal with conflict and make progress on challenging us within our own community will be shaped by the habits we bring in – and habits that we intentionally develop here, and then can take out into the wider world.

A phrase that comes back to me from earlier in my life is community as “cradle for our dreams and a workshop for our common endeavors.” An Ethical Society is a container – a container to not only hold our values and ideals and nurture them – but also help us build skills and, sometimes, to build new ways of thinking about our work and world, and to change habits, habits which have taken lifetimes to become ingrained in us. An Ethical Society is also a place to belong, and be accepted, for who we are, by people we care about and trust. Sometimes the dual goals of change and acceptance are in tension.

We are a community that welcomes diversity in many ways – and that means that when individuals come together in this community, each comes with her or his old stories, old experiences of success and failure, old wounds and old learnings, habitual behaviors and viewpoints. These differences can help a community or group take a wider view, see challenges with fresh eyes because we’re not individually limited to our own experiences as we share and understand our different viewpoints – and our different stories and viewpoints can also create friction and conflict, even where we share a common goal.

So another function of an Ethical Society, at its best, is to increase the capacity of our members to tolerate and even welcome the tensions of difference, seek and foster understanding even where there’s still disagreement, question our own assumptions, sometimes see where our own behaviors are getting in the way of living our values, learn ways to address injustice and privilege honestly and authentically, and learn and practice ways of being in relationship with people even when we disagree. We need to be the change that we want to see in the world.

The Quakers have a phrase, “speaking truth to power.” Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader, once said that the real purpose of any religion is to speak truth to power. Whatever you think about being a religion, I suspect that phrase resonates as one of the purposes of Ethical Culture. In more recent years, the Quakers have often modified that phrase. Speaking truth to power can be done in ways that increase polarization, raise defenses, trigger aggression in return. If we “speak truth in love and understanding,” we’ll be more likely to be heard and to spark change.

In both the wider world and our community, people long to trust that they can speak their own story about truth –their perspective – and be heard and understood, accepted and cared about as a person. (Thus the impulse to affirm at this moment of history that some lives haven’t been mattering as much as other lives do, and we want them to matter equally.) Each of us is enriched by our unique perspective, and also limited by it.

To create a container where that trust can be found requires that each also is able to be the listener, the receiver. A world in which everyone focuses only on speaking and being heard is a world where no one is listening, hearing, or understanding. To be able to trust in speaking honestly, we need to create a container where trust is possible. We can increase our patience and skill to hear another person’s truth, also both enriching and limited, and seek to understand even while disagreeing. When our individual stories come together, in a container that encourages authenticity, understanding and caring, then we’ll find deeper truths and ways to move ahead on our common values and dreams.

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