A person can be loyal to a place, a person, a cause, an ideal, a vision, to God, to their religion or religious community, to a value, a relationship, or a promise that has been made. A world without fidelity to these would be a world without bravery, integrity, trust, and love.
But something about how that word sometimes gets used makes me a bit uncomfortable. When I hear the word fidelity, I have mixed feelings. The reason is that fidelity is sometimes used to admonish people to be loyal in a way that is dogmatic and rigid. This kind of fidelity is being “loyal to a fault,” as it is sometimes called. In reality to be steadfast to something oppressive and damaging, even selfish or simply misguided, runs counter to the whole intent of fidelity and distorts its value.
This reminds me of a wisdom story that illustrates the way fidelity can be distorted. There was a woman who was able to make fire. The people in her village were amazed. And a little afraid. The firemaker taught them how to use fire to keep warm in the winter and create light at night, to cook food and fire pottery, and to signal people from far away. The firemaker also taught them how to use fire carefully so it would not cause harm.
Eventually news spread of this woman’s incredible gift. The firemaker travelled all over, teaching whoever wanted to learn to make fire. But the firemaker’s popularity riled the village elders and the rulers of the region. They felt they were losing control of their reign and power. So one night they killed the firemaker. And they made it illegal to make fires.
The people loved the firemaker and were sad and afraid. The rulers wanted to get the people to stop thinking about the firemaker. They decided to build shrines to her to distract the people. This turned out to be a cunning plan. The people decorated the shrines to the firemaker and gathered at them to remember her. The people forgot what the firemaker had taught them. They grew accustomed to the cold once again. They stopped longing to dance and sing around a fire. They got used to eating cold food. Meanwhile, they remained faithful in paying homage at the shrines of the firemaker. But there was no fire. (adapted from various versions, http://www.stephenosb.co.uk/christian-life-room/meaning-stories/meaning-...)
Do we want to be loyal to shrines or fire? Do we want to pledge ourselves to making fire and to the vision of doing so or to those who have the power to make it happen? These questions invite us to think at a much deeper level about where to place one’s trust and commitment and about what deserves and requires faithfulness. The story of the firemaker challenges people to be discerning about what their fidelity is in service to.
Being loyal to people, causes, or organizations that do not live up to their own promises, that are manipulative, that cause harm, or simply fail to create good can be unhelpful at best and destructive at worst – to ourselves and others. Some of the most visceral examples of fidelity gone awry are the cases of radicalization, mass violence, and mass murder. Claims of fidelity to a cause, even to a “godly” cause, can in reality be cases of being overzealous and entrenched in rigid, fanatical ways of thinking. Actions taken in the name of God and righteousness that cause injury and devastation reflect a distorted allegiance. This is true whether that allegiance is being pledged to a religious or political leader, to a cause, or an ideal.
The workplace offers a more complicated example. People used to be loyal to their work places, and companies were loyal to their employees. There was a value to that. People would often stay in the same job for their whole lives, devoting themselves to an organization and thriving as a result. That kind of job loyalty is less common today due to automation, globalization, and the weakening of unions since World War II. Too often we experience or hear of companies that focus more energy on the short-term rather than the long-term, and that too often treat employees as disposable. Too often they fail to foster employees’ growth and development and fail to recognize their employees’ contributions. (Rick Wartzman, Fresh Air, NPR, www.npr.org/2017/07/05/535626109/the-end-of-loyalty-and-the-decline-of-g...)
If employers do not foster a culture of appreciation and respect for employees’ work and do not also adhere to some fundamental, reasonable standards, there is not likely going to be a deep-seated fidelity on the part of employees. In fact, loyalty to such a workplace is probably undeserved and ill-advised. This of course does not excuse employees from acting ethically and responsibly. This does not mean it is acceptable to do a bad job because the employer is unworthy. Nor does it mean that there is never a time to stick it out at such a job in service of a greater vision.
But there are parameters to fidelity. Fidelity is principled, rather than merely rigid and obligatory. The philosopher Gabriel Marcel crafted the term creative fidelity to try to describe this understanding of the term. He insisted that rather than a firm adherence to a position, to a moral code or dogma, fidelity requires something else. It requires a creative freedom that bubbles up from within a person. Marcel insisted that instead of focusing on unquestioningly fulfilling an obligation, fidelity means fulfilling creativity and love.
But here is the kicker. It is not just creativity to do whatever a person feels like doing. It is a creativity that is both free and responsible. One without the other can be shallow and short-lived, or even dangerous. Marcel insisted that creative fidelity is rooted in giving part of ourselves to others whether this means sharing, friendship, creating art, or other ways of giving of the self that binds us to others. That’s the love part.
He took this idea a step further. Because people are fickle and changeable, he believed people also needed to be able to draw their strength to be loyal from something greater than themselves. Marcel called that source of strength the transcendent. This is the wellspring or the source, which holds us in its embrace, and which informs and animates our lives. Marcel also called it hope. Some people call it God.
The point is that the fidelity a person has to their own creativity connects them to others and is supported by a greater unity than themselves. Fidelity is undergirded by something holy, by a connection to something positive and a force greater than oneself. (Gabriel Marcel, “Creative Fidelity,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/marcel/#H4)
When we force ourselves to try to serve or act or be in certain ways that are not true to who we are and are not connected to that greater unity, we can do serious damage to our souls and also to others and to our planet. We can fail to be faithful to our own self and to the dream of Beloved Community which are inextricably linked.
Understood this way, fidelity can be seen as being in service to the betterment of life and all existence. It is congruent with the urge toward the good that is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist principles. The urge to the good is expressed in the value we place on the worth and dignity of each person and the interconnectedness of all life.
Olympia Brown exemplifies this idea of creative fidelity. She was born in 1835 and devoted her life to ministry and women’s rights. As you might imagine, there were many hurdles. She was one of only a few women to graduate from college and the first woman to go to theological school. Women were not welcome in theological school. She became the first woman graduate of a regularly established theological school, St. Lawrence University. In 1863 she was ordained as a Universalist minister. This made her the first woman to achieve full ministerial standing recognized by a denomination. Olympia Brown’s daughter Gwendolen Brown Willis wrote that:
The ministry was the first objective of her life, since in her youthful enthusiasm she believed that freedom of religious thought and a liberal church would supply the groundwork for all other freedoms. Her difficulties and disillusionments in this field were numerous. That she could rise superior to such difficulties and disillusionments was the consequence of the hopefulness and courage with which she was richly endowed.
Her first full-time parish ministry was in Massachusetts, followed by ministry at a Universalist Church in Connecticut where after having her first child the congregation agitated to terminate her. She resigned and went to the Universalist church in Racine, Wisconsin, a church which was struggling and in decline. Writing of her work as a parish minister she said:
Those who may read this will think it strange that I could only find a field in run-down or comatose churches, but they must remember that the pulpits of all the prosperous churches were already occupied by men, and were looked forward to as the goal of all the young men coming into the ministry with whom I, at first the only woman preacher in the denomination, had to compete. All I could do was to take some place that had been abandoned by others and make something of it, and this I was only too glad to do.
She left ministry in her fifties to become an activist for women's rights. She led the Wisconsin Suffrage Association and served as Vice-president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. She believed in education as an avenue to women’s advancement and worked to have women admitted to colleges.
In the Fall of 1920 she spoke to the Racine church about the changes since she was their minister. The reading from our hymnal, which we read responsively this morning, is an excerpt from that sermon.
It demonstrates Olympia Brown’s fidelity to her own vision and to women’s rights and Universalism supported by hopefulness and courage. She drew her strength she says, “always trusting in the one God which ever lives and loves.” She remained loyal to women’s rights efforts and Universalism not because either was perfect. As she says of Universalism, “do not demand immediate results but rejoice that we are worthy to be entrusted with this great message.” The message resonated with her own deep-seated convictions and her own deep-seated abilities.
In her sermon, she testified to the value of Universalism to her life. She described it as
the faith in which we have lived, for which we have worked, and which has bound us together as a church. . . . Dear Friends, stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important to you as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before you the loftiest ideal, which has comforted you in sorrow, strengthened you for the noble duty and made the world beautiful for you. (http://uudb.org/articles/olympiabrown.html)
May we, like Olympia Brown, draw strength and courage from the source of love and spirit of life, always held in the embrace of hope.
This morning I encourage you to spend a little time this week reflecting on what fidelity looks like in your life. What makes it possible for you to be loyal to something beyond yourself – to be deeply bound in interpersonal relationships and to your principles? What step, word, prayer or song is yours to share so that there will be peace and love and joy and beauty and singing for everyone?
Amen. Blessed be.