The First Principle – Affirming the Inherent Dignity and Worth of All People

Contributed by Caitlin McGinn

Wandering Wonderingly is Caitlin McGinn’s blog about her experiences living and traveling in Europe. She published this post a year ago, in September 2017.

The UU first principle is dear to my heart, it is one of the reasons I joined UU. I was so tired of the idea that we are inherently sinners and that our worth can only be redeemed by the love of a god-man, and only if we believe in the correct doctrine. It was freeing to believe that everyone is inherently worthy. Yes, we all make mistakes and have the potential to make very bad, or even violent actions. But if we do so it is not because our very souls were damaged from the beginning. I think the affirmation of inherent worth and dignity of all people is the most encouraging and uplifting idea. There is a reason it is number 1, for all things after it work toward this concept.

But lately I have seen the practice of this idea separate itself from the theory. We are not perfect beings so there is always going to be a disconnect between belief and practice. But for me the gulf has been growing. I have become depressed because I have felt like this principle is failing all over the place. That it may not even matter if we hold this Truth or not. For me it really started with the campaign last year. As we approached the U.S. election I got more and more caught up in Facebook “discussions.” The hatred and name calling from friends and family members caught me off guard. Part of this pertains to the distance that social media gives. They’re not saying “to my face” their hateful thoughts. But they have no problem spewing it on my Facebook if I posted a comment or article they didn’t like. Strangers too would say what they feel. And then there are the “trolls” who get on and just try to provoke, whether they know you or not. And it certainly didn’t die down after the election. If anything, it intensified as people dug further into their entrenched views. It has gotten so ugly. It has been commented on a lot that all civility has gone out of political and social life. But it’s more than that to me. People, whether it’s social media influence or something else, are losing sight of each other’s humanity. They may not word it that way to themselves, but when you can write truly hateful and scary things, showing no compassion for another’s point of view, that is dehumanizing. And sometimes people are literally dehumanizing too, outright denying their personhood.

I have lost my head on Facebook too and gotten in fights with people or said nasty or sarcastic things in anger. But I realized I was falling prey to this and pulled back. I don’t want to hate someone because I know it eats me up but does nothing to them. So I started trying to think more compassionately again. But it is hard when people are behaving truly badly, online and in real life.

A few weeks ago I was deeply troubled by the rhetoric on Facebook. Even though I agreed with their sentiments and what they were saying about the actual issues, I felt offended and upset about the way they were saying that people are worthless, or don’t matter. It is what made me start thinking about that first principle. I started thinking about how humanity’s role models kept this idea in the forefront whether they were UU or not. That made me think that this is not unattainable, that we can learn to value people as we try to teach them a better way. Obviously, we don’t know what lurked in the hearts of people behind the scenes, but we do know that in the face of great evil and turmoil, Martin Luther King Jr. was able to say “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  This has been quoted so often that it has almost become mundane, but its meaning is profound, and all religions promote this. Love first. And there was Jesus, who being arrested in the garden recognized the humanity of his attackers and healed the soldier’s ear when Peter cut it off, in an attempt to protect him. Like the famous aphorism says, “And eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” These examples are extreme, most of us will never be in these types of situations. So what can we do ourselves to uphold our 1stprinciple? I tried a while ago and now feel like I was misguided.

I’m sorry to go back to Facebook, it’s just a good example of how people are forgetting each other’s inherent worth and dignity. One day, after the tragic Charlottesville situation and Trump’s immoral denial of it, I made a post that some of you saw, calling for an end to the dehumanizing comments. I tried to say that we need to take action and address these serious issues in a productive way, and that sitting around calling people inhuman doesn’t change things. Well, a lot of people supported me, which made me feel good. All of them were UU. But there were two people, one whom I am very close to, who had a very different reaction. They are both women of color and they called me out for my privilege, my ability to sit around and call for compassion when “real things” are going on.

At first I was really mad. Especially at my dear friend. She knows that I am not racist but suddenly she was calling me an “ally” in quotes. She was saying that I was trying to tell people of color how they should behave and feel. That was not my intention at all, but I can see how it appeared that way, and felt chagrined. I also feel like people hear what they want to and that my timing was bad. Maybe if I had made my statement at a different moment she would have read my intentions better. So I questioned my motives. Was I wrong to write what I did? I’m not a civil rights leader or a religious figure, or even a scholar. Is it my place to try to get people to think differently? I still feel that my intentions were good, but maybe instead of being helpful or thought provoking, I was just naïve and provoking.

So again, I feel stuck. If we’re supposed to do more than just feel our first principle, how do we go about that? Obviously, my unintentional soapboxing was not the way to go. Instead of calling for compassion, I was unintentionally not showing compassion to people of color. People say “just live your daily life following UU principles.” But how do we do this when we’re facing bigots, politicians who are destroying social gains, people who don’t want to do anything to help refugees, or prevent further climate damage? How do we do it in a world that is once again facing a growing nationalism? How do we not hate people who do hateful or evil things? Are they just evil? I guess the heart of it is, how do we act on affirming inherent dignity and worth in people who seem to be doing their hardest to tear humanity apart? Or who hate us and what we stand for?

Recently, I had an experience with a person who embodied this struggle in a very real way. I was reminded that this principle has been around for millennia and from many sources. UUs did not invent it. We uphold it.

Some of you know that I spent 8 days in Bosnia & Hercegovina. I went to pay witness to some incredibly painful realities. I have been reading about the area for a while so intellectually I knew what I was in for. But my heart took a battering anyway. I felt shaken. How can this have happened again? I visited Srebrenica and went to the genocide memorial and museum. I walked through the cemetery for the Bosniaks who were murdered there. I looked at the horrific photos in the museum and watched an unbelievable documentary that was put together from tapes made by Serb soldiers as they were carrying out their genocide. It is the worst thing I have ever seen. I have struggled for a long time trying to understand what happened, and seeing this video made me feel even more depressed. It felt like the world was run by monsters. That there was no point in saying that humans beings have inherent worth and dignity, when so clearly the people in this video had given theirs up to some evil political idea. And they were trying to take away the humanity of the Bosniaks. I was truly doubting if I could even call myself UU.

His book is available on

Then Hasan Hasanović, a Srebrenica survivor who now runs the genocide museum there, stepped into the room, and for an hour or more told us his story. It was as painful and unbelievable as the documentary. As his story was drawing to a close, most of us were in tears and visibly disturbed by what we had just seen and heard. It was a reminder and softened my heart a bit to see that others are horrified by this, we have worth and dignity because we recognize the suffering of others, that they were stripped of theirs, and we knew that was wrong, inherently.

Hasan continued on to talk about the aftermath. He lost many members of his family and friends and neighbors. Life will never be the same for him. Srebrenica will never be the same politically or socially. Yet he carries on. He educates in the hopes that this will never be repeated. And then, in the midst of my aching doubt, he said the most extraordinary thing. He said that for years he was stuck in his life, just floundering and filled with hate. One day someone at the museum asked him if he had General Mladic or any Serb soldier in front of him what would he do to him? His response floored me. He said, as if he knew what I had been struggling with,

“I looked at the questioner and had an epiphany. I suddenly knew I would do nothing to the soldier. He is a human being. I am a human being; I am not an animal. I would do nothing to him because he is a human being. I realized then that all that I thought was hate and was holding me back, was really fear and anguish.”

In this moment I felt the significance and urgency of the First Principle again. The First Principle is not only about those who are perpetrating evil. It is about ourselves. We strip ourselves of dignity when we put ourselves on the same level as those we are against. We wound our own selves in the deepest way when we succumb to hate. And it doesn’t change anything. Hasan has more chances of changing people’s minds and helping through his attempts at education, then if he spent the rest of his life hating. They took so much from Hasan and all survivors, but they didn’t succeed in taking his inherent worth and dignity, this he understood. The First Principle is not about saying that all things and all people are good and acceptable. Clearly this is not true, our world has always suffered from people who try to take our humanity and our lives. Clinging to and valuing the First Principle is what allows us to potentially make changes, and it protects our souls. If this man can recognize the inherent worth and dignity of an enemy, because he is human, well, he is way ahead of me. But he encourages me to keep trying and not to lose faith in humanity. He helped me understand that our rage and struggle to uphold the Principle also comes from fear and anguish about what is going on in the world, and in our own lives. The moment we do that, then there is nothing possible but chaos. The First Principle is everything, or there is nothing.