Friday, June 28, 2019

Don't Be a Boy Scout

Given the ways the perspectives of Humanists have been ignored or belittled in Unitarian Universalism in recent years, one would think that they would be the most likely to support those who are being criticized for seeking to dismantle a system that oppresses people of color, among others. Sadly, while many UU Humanists seem to 'get it,' there is an older generation of white Humanists who appear to be missing the point and failing to see their inconsistency.

In 2009 a misbegotten attempt at updating the Principles and Purposes would have had us affirming the Christian roots of Unitarianism and Universalism and only mentioning the contributions of Humanism, earth centered religion, and Eastern spirituality in passing. The desire to avoid having a creed is good, as is the directive in the bylaws to review the Principles and Purposes every 15 years to ensure that doesn't happen. The suggested text itself, however, was an affront to the diversity of viewpoints within Unitarian Universalism, and an insult to anyone who doesn't identify with Christianity.

In 2016 the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Association betrayed their non-theistic members and failed to stand up for atheists generally when they signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Boy Scouts of America. The acceptance of gay youth and leaders was enough for the UUA to drop the boycott that had begun years earlier. The weasel-words of the document and the later mealy-mouthed justifications for it made allowances for non-theistic UUs being accepted under the guise of 'Unitarian Universalist theology,' a special status not accorded to non-theists outside of Unitarian Universalism. It was enough to have UUs included, but standing up for people outside of UU cirlces was, apparently, too much to ask. The shirt-tail inclusion made non-theistic UUs feel as though they were considered second class members.

And yet, even with these and other instances of slams and slights against Humanists and atheists, many white UU Humanists appear to have no qualms about marginalizing black, brown, indigenous, immigrant, and lgbtq+ folx through accusations of 'political correctness.' I've heard rumblings of resentment within UU Humanist circles over the past few years regarding a glorious past of Humanism that has been lost. Talk of a pendulum swinging this way and that comes up, as well as accusations of 'christo-mysticism' within UU congregations, and laments over how Universalism undermined the healthy Humanism of the Unitarian churches.

It's all so ridiculous.

There was never a Golden Age of Humanism within the American Unitarian Association. Many churches, particularly the fellowships that sprang from boxes, amounted to Humanist lecture halls. Others, particularly the historic churches of New England, maintained a progressive form of Protestant Christianity. The matter was never settled one way or the other prior to the merger in the early 1960s that gave us the Unitarian Universalist Association.

There is no damn pendulum. There is the human mind looking for patterns, and making them up when sparse evidence of one can be found. People have found both traditional organized religion and the austerity of old fashioned Humanism unfulfilling, and are taking up Unitarian Universalism's offer of a free and responsible search for meaning. It isn't reason that people are rejecting, but rather certainty in particular answers and confidence in some institutions.

In this desire for a more meaningful faith, experimentation with practices drawn from Christianity, Eastern religions, and other forms of spiritual expression is taking place in both homes and congregations. Language is being broadened to include terminology found in theistic belief systems. Mistakes are being made, and in some places Humanists are wrongly being shouted down when they ask for just a bit less god-talk. After all, why adopt the language of dying Christian denominations if the largest religious demographic in the United States is the 'Nones,' many of whom grew up with no connection to a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue at all, and to whom such terminology is alien?

More grace is needed, along with more willingness on all parts to listen, think deeply, and love truly. Humanists should be heard, and they in turn should be among the most ardent advocates of inclusion within the Unitarian Universalist Association. Certainly, none of them should ever be found publishing a screed representing white fragility in print, calling for oppressed people to toughen up, and glorifying reason over relationship...as though that should ever be an either/or decision.



Resources:

Second Draft Of New UUA Principles and Purposes
Commission Appraisal - https://www.uuworld.org/articles/stub-128147

Memorandum Of Understanding
https://www.uua.org/children/scouting/memorandum-understanding

Call Out Culture

It occurs to me that perhaps what some white progressives perceive as 'political correctness' could be  referring to well-known negative tendencies within progressivism. If that's the case, then a misidentification of the underlying issue has been made, and the problem really isn't 'political correctness,' 'safetyism,' or 'identitarianism.' What's causing some us of trouble is that progressives eat their own. Callout culture and virtue signaling are rife within progressive circles, and Unitarian Universalism is no exception to that. I had my own very minor experience with it at the 2018 General Assembly in Kansas City, and found it mildly amusing.

My teenage son went with me to General Assembly that year as well as this year in Spokane, and he enjoys and participating in the youth-oriented activities. This is programming created by and for youth that's available to them during the event. Of course, they can also attend any of the other scheduled workshops as well or in place of their own programming. Also, adults are welcome to attend youth gatherings, though it's appropriate for such folks to respect that this space is not primarily for them and behave accordingly. In any event, what has happened both years we've attended is that he goes off and has such a good time that I only see him in the morning when we get up and at night when he returns to the hotel.

One of the nights in Kansas City there was a 'GA Dance' on the schedule, and both my son and I went to check it out. When I got there I realized that although there were many adults, it appeared to be more oriented toward youth. Yes, there were adults of all ages dancing and mingling, and yes I could have hung around as well. It just wasn't my scene, though, so I headed back to the hotel room, content in the knowledge my son would be having a good time. At the same time, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps others would feel the same as me and prefer to do something like Pub Theology meets UU Geeks, so I posted the following in the GA mobile app. Note as well the first comment on it.

As is usually the case with me, my first reaction to the comment was self-criticism, assuming that I had a blind spot and had said or done something offensive. Then I realized that I was on the receiving end of call-out culture. As soon as that dawned on me, I literally laughed out loud at the absurdity of my fellow UU's comment. On further reflection, I decided to go a step beyond my reply to that comment with the GA app analog of a sub-tweet, posting the following to my feed.


There are many ingrained, habitual ways of thinking that tamper with how effectively I move through this world, and that's simply indicative of the human condition of which we all take part. I regularly need to check myself, always attempting to remain open to correction, if I am to have any hope of participating effectively in the struggle for collective liberation. At the same time, for my own personal psychological integrity and so as not to collapse into insecurity with progressive legalism riddling me with false guilt, some filtering and a good dose of courage are also required.

This was a ridiculous attempt at a 'gotcha,' mere 'ally theater' that someone hopes will set them up as a progressive saint. It could represent a bit of grandstanding for attention on the part of the perpetrator, or perhaps they do it to feel morally superior. I can only speculate. Whatever prompts it, call-out culture has no place in the 'Beloved Community' that Unitarian Universalists and others often speak of wanting to build. When possible, we can address issues between one another directly and privately, perhaps with capable independent mediation. That's why we have a Right Relationship team at General Assembly.

There is a stark difference between the nonsense I faced and the kind of harassment targeted at people of color, women, and lgbtq+ folx within the Unitarian Universalist Association. It is right for people to be advised when they behave in a way that is harmful to marginalized people, the ones most directly oppressed by white supremacy culture. Unitarian Universalism should be a community in which people are encouraged to be their best selves, free of the discrimination and constraints they face in the world at large, and maintained within a faithful covenant. Someone taking me to task for inviting others to have drinks is ridiculous. Telling someone to stop telling people who are struggling against injustice that they are 'coddled' is quite another story.
"If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another." (Galatians 5:15 NRSV)
So, on the one hand, how about if we progressives drop the nonsense of picking over each other's words looking for some angle to attack? And on the other, why don't we agree to live within covenant with one another, engaging in tireless dialog when there are misunderstandings, and work through them together, with respect and love?



Resources:

How To Tell the Difference Between Real Solidarity and 'ally Theater'
Mia McKenzie - http://www.blackgirldangerous.com/2015/11/ally-theater/

6 Signs Your Call-out Is About Ego and Not Accountability
Maisha Z. Johnson - https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/6-signs-your-call-out-isnt-actually-about-accountability/

The Problem with Call-out Culture 

Original Sin

When I learned that the Bible college in which I had enrolled taught against the doctrine of original sin, I was shocked. That, together with the teaching that salvation takes place at the moment of baptism by immersion, convinced me that these people were terrible heretics who were opposed to the core teachings of orthodox, apostolic Christianity. Within two years I agreed with them on both points, and continued to do so, for the most part, for nearly two decades. When my faith ended and turn to reason began, I jettisoned concerns about eternal salvation and maintained my conviction that no one is born guilty of their ancestors sins. I fit right in among Unitarian Universalists. And yet, I'm hearing complaints now of a doctrine of original sin slipping into this liberal religious tradition.

Before anything else, for those unfamiliar with the concept, here's how Encyclopaedia Britannica describes original sin:

Original sin, in Christian doctrine, the condition or state of sin into which each human being is born; also, the origin (i.e., the cause, or source) of this state. Traditionally, the origin has been ascribed to the sin of the first man, Adam, who disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit (of knowledge of good and evil) and, in consequence, transmitted his sin and guilt by heredity to his descendants.
The Stone-Campbell Movement, of which I was a part for many years, rejected the doctrine of hereditary original sin on the grounds of both justice and what the Bible itself says. It seems terribly unfair for an infant to be held responsible for the misdeeds of its parents, and this is acknowledged by one of the Hebrew prophets:

"The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own." (Ezekiel 18:20 NRSV)

When I was an evangelical it annoyed me that progressive religious people only seemed to talk about systemic sin. It seemed obvious to me that other, individual acts, also need to be condemned as sinful. Adultery, murder, and so forth are clearly sinful, and yet I only ever heard about religious liberals speaking out against systemic sin. I felt as though there was no accountability being advocated. Now, as a Unitarian Universalist, it baffles me that so many white progressives can't understand white supremacy as a systemic sin, and instead interpret it as an accusation of personal sin.

It turns out that progressive religious people are able to identify individual sin. The instigators of genocide, for example, bear more responsibility than those who carried it out (although both are guilty). The difference is that among religious liberals there is an ideal of reconciliation and restoration, acknowledging that situations are often complex, mental health issues can be involved, and there are often extenuating circumstances. Whenever possible we prefer to have such private matters resolved in court or on the therapist's couch, and if necessary through a right relationships process within the fellowship.

The problem is that when we talk about dismantling white supremacy in Unitarian Universalism, white people perceive it as a personal attack. White people who have marched for civil rights don't like being told that they are part of a system that is oppressive towards people unlike themselves, because they feel as though they've paid their dues and prove themselves as good 'allies.' Some have suffered at the hands of other white people for standing up for their black and brown siblings, and so to have the people they defended suggesting that they haven't done enough is profoundly offensive.

Except, for the most part, that isn't really what's going on. Exploitation based on race might be the original sin of the United States of America, but that does not mean that every white baby is born bearing the guilt of that sin. White supremacy isn't so much like original sin as it is the water we swim in and the air we breathe. All of us, whatever our race or ethnicity. Because of privilege, white people may bear greater responsibility for supporting anti-racism efforts, but they are not guilty of the sins of their slave-owning forebearers.

Troublingly, many white progressives can't see the problem. They consider their dominant culture to be 'standard,' what is shared by all, and all else is 'subculture.' It's difficult for whites think about it and ask themselves what is 'white culture' apart from what they see as the common culture we all share. It's easier to picture a black or hispanic subculture, to be sure. That's because, as I've said, the dominant culture is white culture, and by requiring ltbtq+ and people of color to participate in the life of Unitarian Universalism on the terms of 'common culture,' they are in fact being compelled to participate on the terms of white culture.

Further, white progressives tend to think that the only proper response to the reality of racism and white supremacy is guilt. Folks, hand-wringing white guilt won't help anyone. The guilt itself is useless, unless it leads to action for positive change. Again, this isn't about guilt, but rather about responsibility derived from privilege. It also isn't a call to action for white people to take the lead. Rather, it's about the collective struggle for liberation, one that most properly is led by those most hurt by oppression.

Unitarian Universalism does not accept original sin, and white supremacy is not the new original sin. We are all responsible to one another in the pursuit of liberation, and those with greatest responsibility own the greatest support to those most harmed.



Resources:

Original Sin
The Britannica - https://www.britannica.com/topic/original-sin


Unpacking Whiteness
Elaine McArdle - https://www.uuworld.org/articles/unpacking-whiteness

Your Feelings, Whitesplained

Tom and Sally had only been dating a few weeks when he offered her part of his Mounds bar. She looked at him and then it, wrinkling her nose. "No thanks, I don't like coconut."

"You don't like coconut?!" Tom exclaimed, looking more shocked than would have seemed likely for so trivial a topic. "How can you not like coconut? It's so good!"

"I don't know, I just don't like the flavor of coconut, or the texture of it in food," she replied, attempting to brush it off.

"No, but that doesn't make any sense. Everyone in my family loves coconut. Did you eat something made with coconut that made you sick? Maybe you have a negative association with it that has nothing to do with the coconut itself."

"Nothing like that," Sally was becoming visibly annoyed, "I just don't like the flavor or texture. Sometimes people just don't like things."

"That can't happen with coconut," Tom insisted, "everyone has to like coconut. Maybe it's been so long since you tried it that you can't remember. Here, have a piece."

Sally pushed his hand with a bit of the candy bar away, looked Tom in the eyes, and said, "Tom, drop it. I know very well what coconut tastes like. I don't like it, and I don't want it. I won't want it at any point in the future."

Tom chuckled, seeming genuinely amused. "Oh Sally, now you sound like that guy in 'Green Eggs and Ham,' and you know that in the end he liked green eggs and ham. Why not go ahead and try a piece of this candy bar, and admit you like it?"

Sally walked away, telling Tom not to follow. When she didn't come back he got on his phone to message her, and discovered he was blocked on all her social media accounts, and his phone calls all went to voicemail. So ended a weeks-long love affair, over coconut.

But really, it wasn't over coconut. It was over a young man's inability to understand that other people perceive and experience the world differently from himself. Through experience and biology people are shaped to prefer some things and avoid others. Attempting to convince someone that they should feel a certain way about something with which they are already familiar is an exercise in futility.

Perhaps it seems a bit like comparing coconuts to car doors, but something similar happens when straight, white people tell lgbtq+, indigenous, immigrant, and people of color how they should feel about being told their experience of living in a culture of white supremacy isn't real, or that it is but they should have thicker skin. As a friend and coworker who is black and a lesbian recently said to me, "if we didn't have thick skins, we wouldn't survive."

Time and again at UUA General Assembly in Spokane I heard people talking about being harmed by the publication and distribution of a book that accused them of being 'coddled' and too 'politically correct,' only to have a white man tell them that they only felt harmed because they'd decided to feel harmed. If they chose not to feel harmed by it, and only thought rationally, no harm would be done. He seemed entirely oblivious to their stunned expressions at being told to be more rational, and gave no indication that he was capable of understanding what they were saying.

It's possible I know where this is coming from. Stoicism as a philosophy has been popular in recent years, and this includes among Humanists. I'll gladly admit that I myself have relied on Stoic principles to get me through some difficult times, and refer to Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' fairly often. Seneca's work is also profoundly insightful and entertaining, in my opinion. It's among these writings that we find such wisdom evidently being weaponized against anyone who expresses pain at being treated as less-than.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In the Stoic way of thinking, a person doesn't need to suppress all emotion. Rather, we need to sort out what we have control over (very little) and focus on that. I can't control what anyone thinks or says about me, but I can control to some extent how I behave and react. I can't keep it from raining, but I can bring an umbrella. If someone fails to invite me to their party, I can be content knowing that I won't wake up with a hangover, and will have some extra time to do other things. There is a great more depth to it than this, but for this essay that will have to do. My point is that it's a philosophy that many find useful, including myself. However, it is not the be-all-end-all of human thought, is not necessarily for everyone, and doesn't cover all circumstances.

The autonomic stress response cannot be controlled through philosophy. In a situation the brain reads as fight-or-flight, the body prepares for either option. Adrenaline and blood pressure spike in response to stressful circumstances. For all my Stoic practice, this response happened naturally to me at General Assembly this year as I attempted to rein in the glowing comments from others about a book to people who were clearly targeted by it and hurting. Through the practice I have chosen I was able to maintain some perspective and not either flee the exhibition hall or beat anyone over the head with a chair (I'm such a hero...where's my parade?). If that is how I felt, I can only begin to imagine how people felt who have been struggling so hard to obtain a place at the table within Unitarian Universalism without denying who they are.

As a relative newcomer to Unitarian Universalism, some who know me were surprised when I got a chalice tattoo on my left wrist during a trip to Amsterdam. One person in particular commented that I was making quite a commitment. Before I got the tattoo I thought long and hard about what I wanted for the future and how I felt about where I am right now. I decided that I'm sticking with this religious tradition, come thick or thin, and would have to be knocked down and dragged from it to get me away. That 'commitment' is thin and shallow in comparison to the grit that lgbtq+, indigenous, immigrant, and people of color within Unitarian Universalism have had to demonstrate over the past few decades, in the face of patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, and transphobia.

Black and brown folx are passed up for job openings and promotions, and their complaints of discrimination at the local and denominational level too often go unheeded. Women now outnumber men in ordained UU ministry, though they still have to deal with implicit sexism that comes with longstanding patriarchal modes of thought and practice. Many UU congregations have done the hard work to become open and affirming, and yet others still remain unwilling to do this work, because 'of course' they welcome everyone. What they don't understand is that it's more than letting people in the door and behind the pulpit. It's about fully including them, and not engaging in microaggressions that push them away. This takes careful thought and definitive action.

To the forgoing paragraph some white progressives will say that it's all an exaggeration. Such a problem doesn't exist, at least not at any scale worth noting. We're told that this is the case by the people who have to live with it daily, but those people are not believed by their fellow UUs who are white. According to the latter, the former are being too emotional, irrational, and at times even hysterical. Therein lies the problem. Whitesplaining doesn't improve how people feel, and it doesn't make the realities that create such harm any less harmful. Rather, it makes matters worse. In the face of this, it's incredible that anyone who isn't straight and white hangs on in Unitarian Universalism. It must mean that there truly is something of value in this group's history and theology that people want for themselves, even though the culture of the association is hostile toward them.

For there to be room for everyone at the table, no one needs to leave. We just need to build a bigger table, with more respect for others and no more telling others how to feel about being told their non-Western table manners aren't appropriate. Also, I'll be glad to pass along the coconut cream pie, as it really isn't my thing, and I'll certainly be happy to see someone else enjoying it.



Resources:

Meditations
Aurelius et al. - Penguin Classics - 2014

Understanding the Stress Response
Harvard Health Publishing - https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

Unbaking a Cake

Dave baked a cake following a new recipe he had seen online. With one bite he knew he didn't like it. He regretted using his last few eggs to make it, and so decided to extract them to use for another purpose. He tried liquifying the cake and running it through a centrifuge, to no useful effect. He then worked through the night doing this, that, and the other thing to retrieve his eggs. One night became two, and then stretched out over weeks, months, and years. Every spare hour was used in his ovular quest. He obtained advanced degrees in biology and chemistry to inform his research. He tinkered with every piece of technology he could find that he thought might help. Finally, nearly two decades after that fateful day of the unpleasant cake, he excitedly called his young niece into the garage, proudly showing off his machine.

The size of a refrigerator, the egg reclaimer was covered in wires and gauges, and looked very complicated. He set a cake identical to the original (which was long gone) inside, but not before his niece managed to grab a piece. Securely locking the panel, he turned some knobs. The lights dimmed to near-darkness both in his house and across the neighborhood as the machine rumbled, whirred, and buzzed. Finally, he sat a bowl under a spigot at the side and twisted it open. Out dribbled a dense, yellowish fluid, which he triumphantly presented to his niece. Looking into the bowl, munching on the last bits of her piece of cake, she said, "that's pretty cool, uncle Dave, but how are you going to get the yolks separated from the whites, and everything back in the eggshell? Dumbfounded, Dave watched her walk back into the house. She paused, turned, and said sweetly, "by the way, that was really good cake...do you have any more?"

"The union of the Stone churches with the Campbell churches was a terrible mistake."

The older man sitting across from me at his desk was a long-time preacher with the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. In fact, he ran his own unaccredited seminary from which he taught a particularly conservative brand of Stone-Campbell doctrine. He would say he was teaching the pure and simple truth of the Bible, of course. His objection to the union of the two major early branches of this movement in the 1800s was due to the tendency among the churches connected to Barton Stone for being a bit loose with doctrine and high on emotion, at least in comparison with the churches affiliated with Alexander Campbell's wing of the Restoration Movement. Barton Stone's churches found their beginnings on the early American frontier in revival meetings, most notable of which was the massive Cane Ridge Revival. The churches that formed referred to themselves simply as 'Christian,' and faith in Christ was the only real requirement for membership. They practiced immersion baptism, like the Campbellite churches, but for the most part didn't make that the point of salvation. After the union, preachers from both fellowships swapped pulpits and planted new churches, spreading the Campbellite doctrines among established churches and in new territories. 

Still, this old preacher saw it all as a big mistake. He believed that the fuzzy-headedness and emotionalism of the Stoneite churches were the cause of the eventual split in the 20th century, which left us with three major branches of the formerly united movement. 

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the most progressive group, though it dwindles in number as do the other, more well-known mainline denominations. The Church of Christ is the most fundamentalist division, one that emphasizes the necessity of explicit authorization of specific acts, such as using musical instruments in worship. They are further subdivided regarding whether or not to offer Sunday School, support charity and foreign missions with church funds, use one cup or multiple cups in communion, and much more. Finally, the independent Christian Churches, of which the preacher in question was a representative, is a mixed bag. Go to one such church and you might not be able to distinguish it from the trendy evangelical church down the road. Go to another, perhaps even in the same town, and you would think you were in an ultra-conservative Church of Christ, were it not for the piano.

The trouble is, you can't unbake the cake. Try as you might, separating the eggs, flour, and sugar are well-nigh impossible. The eggs certainly won't be recoverable, and if you do manage to centrifuge it all apart somehow, the yokes are forever undone, and good luck gluing the shells back together.

And so, when I read recently about the union of Unitarians and Universalists being a grand error, I sighed and wondered yet again why humanity is so predictable and unoriginal. The argument generally goes along the lines that the Unitarians were a reasonable folk who appreciated science and eschewed belief in gods, while the Universalists were soft-headed liberal Christians. Further, after their union, the whole enterprise of both was undermined, with not even members able to explain what Unitarian Universalism is or stands for. The fact that UUs feel free to identify themselves as UU Christians, UU Humanists, UU Pagans, and so forth is a sign of weakness, we're told. This diversity keeps us from having a single, shared identity.

First of all, that sounds suspiciously like the arguments used against immigrants. In the 1800s the Irish were said to be 'un-American' in their customs and fidelity to the pope, and in the present century we're told that people from majority Muslim countries are a threat and Hispanic people don't 'blend in' sufficiently. All this diversity is confusing and leads to a weakened identity as a nation.

Of course, that's complete bullshit. I work in New York. I've joked that every type of human can be found in the city, and that if you look hard enough you can probably find Hobbits. And yet, New Yorkers know who they are. There have been racial, ethnic, and religious tensions over the years, but overall the city is incredibly cohesive for the number of cultures and languages represented. Children who grow up in the school system and play in the streets and playgrounds know the background of their families, but they also know that they are New Yorkers and Americans.

Those of us who are UUs and identify with one or more perspectives are not suffering from an identity crisis. We're engaging in a free and responsible search for meaning, and not getting dogmatic about it with others.

Second, I have yet to encounter UUs in a normal congregational context who sit around talking about specific religious beliefs. You'll find this in RE, book clubs, and small group discussions where the topic is comparative religion or a specific belief system, but you'll be hard-pressed at coffee hour to find someone who wants to compare navel-gazing ideas about the divine. This is a stark contrast from what I experienced among evangelicals, among whom it is common to ask "what's your position on the correct form of baptism" or "how do you feel about churches that have the Lord's Supper every week?" The more conservative the church, the more important the details of doctrine. What you will hear in UU conversations is immigration reform, environmental concerns, and chatter about where the kids go to summer camp or where to buy knitting supplies. We care about this world and the life we are living right now, as well as what we will leave for future generations. Heaven and hell can wait.

When I tell a fellow UU that I'm an atheist (and it rarely comes up), they don't usually so much as bat an eye. It's really not a very interesting topic, after all. Sure, I've encountered a crank who tried to convince me that since I accept evolutionary science, that therefore evolution is a 'higher power' than myself that fits the category of 'god.' Aside from such irrational babbling, I've had very little trouble as a non-theistic Unitarian Universalist.

Now, I do know that UU Christians and UU Pagans have experienced a certain level of othering from UUs who have no particular use even for symbolic, metaphorical theism. For that reason we need to intentionally create space for such people in our midst, ensuring that they know they are valued and fully included in the life of our religious tradition. There is work to be done, for sure, but overall what comes after 'UU' in one's self-description generally has little bearing on what we uphold communally as our shared progressive values.

When Unitarianism and Universalism united in the 1960s, it seemed like the fulfillment of an inevitability. Unitarian and Universalist churches had been calling ministers from each other's fellowships for quite some time already, and doctrinally they were on a very similar wavelength. Unitarians were key in founding contemporary Humanism, and yet they never were the majority within the American Unitarian Association. Travel New England to this day and you will find UU congregations that were always Congregationalist and then Unitarian and which maintain a Christian style of worship. Universalists held on to many of the elements from the Christian tradition, but in 1961 you would have been hard-pressed to find a trinitarian among them, and many had already set aside the idea of a personal, interventionist god at that point. To equate pre-merger Unitarians with Humanism and Universalists with Christianity would be a gross oversimplification that ignores the historical record.

We are diverse as we want to be, and we seek to maintain our union through covenantal relationships. This is a different way of thinking from most religions, which hold that beliefs shared in common are what unite people. The truth is that no group of people is always on the same page about anything, no matter how many debates you hold or creeds you compose. I was raised Catholic, so I know a thing or two about faithfully practicing a religion without agreeing with all of the ideas. Among UUs our covenants, together with an established process of dialog and reconciliation, are what can keep us together. We admit that people will always diverge on specifics of belief, and value people over doctrine, without denying the need for some consensus. When covenant is broken, it will only stay broken so long as one of the parties involved refuses to come to the table to listen and talk things out with an open heart and empathetic mindset. The flavor might not be to everyone's liking, and that's okay. Whatever else happens, the cake will never be truly unbaked.



Resources:

"Should The Unitarians and Universalists Merge?"
Carl A. Storm - http://www.firstunitarian.org/FUSArchives/files/original/cbae423bf221036fffc5b6a1b5f92f73.pdf

Why Unitarians and Universalists Belong Together: A Fifty-year Recollection
Marilyn Sewell-Marilyn Sewell - https://www.huffpost.com/entry/unitarians-and-universalists_b_873972

Fifty Years After the Vote To Form the UUA

Surveys: 'UUism' unique / Churchgoers from elsewhere
John Dart - https://web.archive.org/web/20081122075528/http://www.uua.org/news/011205.html

Essay 1: Debates To Dialogue
https://www.igneousquill.net/2019/06/debates-to-dialogue.html

Essay 2: Speak Plainly
https://www.igneousquill.net/2019/06/speak-plainly.html

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Speak Plainly

The lament of white progressives about Unitarian Universalism becoming 'too politically correct' is puzzling to me. Mind you, I'm no fan of call out culture or virtue signaling. I got plenty of that nonsense on Twitter, and have limited my use of that platform as a result. Seeing progressives either pick one another apart online for seeming to make a misstep in terminology or else pontificate with tweets that begin with 'be aware that' led to me repeat rather often the refrain 'progressives eat their own.' At the same time, while it's true that there is a certain toxicity of righteousness within contemporary progressivism that is not unlike the legalism and othering found in fundamentalist circles, I really don't understand complains about 'political correctness.' What, exactly, is the alternative?

Now, I expect this sort of griping from conservatives. White conservatives in particular are prone to expressing frustration over being expected to accept that lgbtq+, indigenous, immigrants, and people of color are human beings with the same rights and dignity as they claim for themselves. Even the ones with a 'live and let live' attitude become annoyed when marginalized people make noise about being discriminated against. Since whites don't experience bigotry, they assume that no one else does. And, when their white privilege is pointed out to them, they protest it as 'reverse racism.'

On the other hand, white progressives are supposed to be the good guys, right? They marched for civil rights, equal rights, positive immigration reform, and lgbtq inclusion. They've supported progressive causes financially and have campaigned for political candidates who call for a more just, inclusive world. The trouble is that, like their conservative counterparts, white progressives often don't realize the nature of the water we all are swimming in. White supremacy is built into Western civilization, from history to the arts and sciences, in government at all levels, and in organizations of every kind. It is so deeply a part of us that we are oblivious to it. As my mother often said when I was young, 'we cannot see ourselves.'

Going back to my question above, what is it that white progressives expect to have as an alternative to 'political correctness' within the Unitarian Universalist Association? Perhaps we should stop trying to ensure that every voice is heard. Maybe it's okay for us to have panels composed of only straight white men, unexamined hiring practices, no programs to educate congregations on being welcoming and affirming towards lgbtq+ folx, and zero accountability when a UU clergy or staff person makes a complaint about discrimination. We could glide happily through life feeling good about ourselves for theoretically and mentally considering other people fully human, content in our beliefs without concrete expression.

No, not really.

It's a genuine struggle for me to understand the alternative that some white UUs are seeking. They complain about marginalized people wanting safe spaces where they can be themselves without interference from straight white people. They don't understand that a room with 20 black people and one white person is fundamentally different from a room with 20 black people and no white people. Whites feel excluded when they are asked to give people who have to deal on a daily basis with racism, homophobia, or transphobia a little time among themselves. It makes me wonder if they really think they have something to contribute, or if they're just looking for another gold star for being a good white progressive and showing up. These particular white UUs don't seem to want people to have a break from the dominant culture in a zone free of speech that is harmful to them. If any such escape from both microaggressions and the constant pressure to conform with the dominant white culture is allowed, these white UUs opine, then surely people are being coddled.

When white progressives tell marginalized people to grow a thicker skin, what I think they are really saying is that they themselves are thin-skinned, feeling the condemnation of white supremacy as a personal attack on themselves as racists. They want everyone to embrace colorblindness, even if that's not what they would say outright. They like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's idea of  "all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics" joining hands and singing so much that they demand we go directly to that, without doing any of the hard work of dismantling racism, homophobia, and transphobia among us and within us.

What I would like is for white UUs who have trouble with 'political correctness' to speak plainly. Don't keep using jargon to hide what you really think. What some call 'political correctness' others of us think of it as respect for others. Describe to the world, for all to see and hear, how you envision Unitarian Universalism without respect for others as a fundamental concept. Don't give us more abstractions like 'safetyism,' 'identitarianism,' and 'political correctness.' Be proud of who you are, exercise your free speech, and please do tell us in concrete terms what you think of black, brown, indigenous, immigrant, and ltbtq+ people. What is it you want to say that you feel cannot be said now, specifically? You have already told us that such people have it too easy within Unitarian Universalism, so surely you won't worry about saying something that offends them. Hey, you won't even worry about providing a trigger warning for those snowflakes, will you, because they have to learn.

Please, do go on. Drop the vagaries and sophistries and tell us what you think of our covenantal siblings who aren't straight or white. I'm just so anxious to know, really.


Resources:

Even Acknowledging My Own Racism Is Controversial
Doug Muder - https://www.uuworld.org/articles/responding-white-defensiveness

Nothing We Do Will Be Perfect
Nancy Ladd - https://www.uuworld.org/articles/let-perfectionism-go

Dismantling White Supremacy
https://www.uua.org/justice/dismantle-white-supremacy

"I Have a Dream," Address Delivered At the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom
https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom

Essay 1: Debates To Dialogue
https://www.igneousquill.net/2019/06/debates-to-dialogue.html

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Debates to Dialogue

As a relative newcomer to Unitarian Universalism, most of my prior religious experience as an adult was with the Stone-Campbell Movement. This is the tradition from which arose the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), independent Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ, among others. From its beginnings in the early 1800s, this movement was founded on debate. This was not really unusual, given the religious foment of that era. In the time before mass entertainment, debate was a common means for getting ideas out into the public square. Unitarians and Universalists also participated widely in debates, often against one another before the two churches united in the mid-20th century. In the present contention within Unitarian Universalism over inclusion and against white supremacy we are seeing the clash between this old mode of dispute with the new model of dialog that seeks reconciliation.

The Christian Chronicler exemplifies the fondness for debate I'm talking about here.
"There is not much interest in debates today. Most think that debates result in tension and further controversy. High schools and colleges teach debate but it receives little attention. Even "so-called" debates during political campaigns receive little attention.During the nineteenth century, debates and debaters offered interesting diversion. Debating helped men find truth and offered entertainment. J.J. Haley in Debates that Made History says Alexander Campbell's debates had three results:

'These debates commanded the attention of the leaders of their day both in the religious and political spheres. They strengthened the love of the truth and fired the passion to place Church and State on foundations in which no flaws could be found.... 
They also hastened rather than retarded Christian union. After they were over men understood Christianity better than before and realized that with all their seeming differences they were closer together than had been supposed.

These learned arguments quickened interest in religion in general. They kindled a new zeal for spiritual things. Tidal waves of evangelism rose again and again, and swept many thousands into the Kingdom of God.'
Campbell never intended to get into debating. Thomas Campbell felt debate clouded the movement's spirit and that it was no proper means to "contend for the faith." Alexander Campbell said that "he had a natural aversion to controversy." In spite of this, Campbell became one of the day's premier debaters. His debates increased his stature in Christian circles and went far to make the plea palatable. As a result, Haley's assessment rings true. Thousands did come to Christ as a result."
Despite the glowing description of debate as a great unifier, the reality is that its focus on winners and losers resulted in more division. Yes, some groups grew as a result, and in some cases others atrophied and died. Overall the proliferation of sects only continued, and the fruit can still be seen among the a cappella Churches of Christ, among which there remain divisions over whether to offer Sunday School, support charity and missions with church funds, and use multiple cups or a single cup in communion. I've even heard of some tiny groups that divided over whether one loaf should be used in the Lord's Supper, and further whether it should be broken up before distribution or pinched off by each member as it passes. There is an ethos of debate and division that lives on to this day, and it is one I found deeply tiresome in my time among those churches.

The debate format is deeply rooted in European history, and so can be related to 'whiteness.' People of color have engaged in formal debates, though by doing so they are participating in an aspect of 'white culture.' That makes it neither good nor bad, except in as much as it goes unrecognized as such. With Unitarian Universalism sharing this long history, it stands to reason that any different approach is going to be either viewed with suspicion, or simply not understood at all. 

Although I've only been to two General Assemblies of the Unitarian Universalist Association, personal experience and the comments of others have led me to believe that the business sessions are always contentious. Last year, my first time at GA, I was confused and then amused at the way discussion played out. In particular I enjoyed the 'rules lawyers,' as I think of them, who repeatedly went to the procedural mic before anything really got underway to make certain that they and everyone else understood the ground rules. They picked apart the rules, calling procedures into question and asking for clarifications. When finally the actual agenda items were discussed, these procedure geeks stepped up whenever the moderators strayed, or else supported the moderators when others questioned the proceedings. My initial annoyance with them was replaced with appreciation for their role in the GA business meeting ecosystem. 

This year, 2019, I found myself caught off guard not by the legalities and technicalities, but by those attendees who couldn't seem to even hear explanations contrary to their expectations for how events were to proceed. Robert's Rules of Order was invoked repeatedly, despite the fact that the GA publishes its own rules to be followed, which are not identical to what Robert's Rules propose. This was communicated over and over again, in response to each complaint, with a GA representative stating clearly at one point that the General Assembly follows its own rules, and not Robert's Rules. And so it was virtually breathtaking to me when, almost immediately after that statement, a woman at the procedural mic literally read from Robert's Rules, as though it were authoritative. In order to quell the micro-rebellion and keep things moving, a co-moderator led a vote on whether to suspend GA rules in favor of Robert's Rules. The overwhelming majority of delegates voted to proceed with the established GA rules. 

Watching this unfold, it slowly dawned on me that the people objecting to variance from Robert's Rules of Orders were older white people. The format that they considered tried-and-true, handed down through the generations since 1876, was no longer in the ascendancy. They argue that Robert's Rules are time-tested, good, and fair. What I see are people discovering that the ground they relied upon is no longer solid. Traditions can become a prison.

When I was a missionary in Brazil I often commented to our nucleus of believers that no matter what we did, the practices we established would eventually become hidebound traditions. That being the case, we needed to do everything possible to maintain some level of flexibility, but especially take care not to create rules or procedures for ourselves that could eventually become unsustainable or divisive. The best we could do was take measures to mitigate the risk, since human nature requires well-formed habits. Despite Unitarian Universalism being a 'progressive' faith, progress itself can become code for the status quo, demanding a thoughtful and yet also urgent reconsideration of what we are attempting to be and to do.

Aware of this tendency, the UUA bylaws were written to require review of the Purposes & Principles every 15 years. Included in this category are the well-known 7 Principles and 6 Sources of Unitarian Universalism. In 2009 a draft revision was proposed that made light changes to the Principles, and a complete replacement of the latter. The proposed sources statement would have been a drastic and less inclusive change from what we have in the 6 Sources, one that upheld the historic connection to Christianity and marginalized earth-centered spirituality and Humanism, along with everything else. 

Here's the draft:
Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages. Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions, and experiences. The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one. The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God. Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds. 

Unitarian Universalism is not contained in any single book or creed. Its religious authority lies in the individual, nurtured and tested in the congregation and the wider world. As an evolving religion, it draws from the teachings, practices, and wisdom of the world’s religions. Humanism, earth-centered spiritual traditions, and Eastern religions have served as vital sources. Unitarian Universalism has been influenced by mysticism, theism, skepticism, naturalism, and process thought as well as feminist and liberation theologies. It is informed by direct experiences of mystery and wonder, beauty and joy. It is enriched by the creative power of the arts, the guidance of reason, and the lessons of the sciences. 

Grateful for the traditions that have strengthened our own, we strive to avoid misuse of cultural and religious practices while seeking ways of appreciation that are respectful and welcomed.
As noted in a mini-assembly at GA 2009 by Roger Brewin, "What bothers me most is what’s missing—the poetry." Of course, much more than that bothered him and many others. The overt and twice-repeated use of a patriarchal and monotheistic term for a deity establishes what kind of statement this is, and who is in favor within the UUA. At the same time, mentioning other viewpoints in passing is tantamount to dismissing their role in and contributions to contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Doing so does no harm to those perspectives, but it is most certainly harmful and exclusionary towards those that hold them.

The idea of reviewing the Purposes & Principles is a good one. If we are to continue calling ourselves a non-creedal religious tradition, we have to avoid allowing anything to take the role of a fixed creed. The various Christian denominations have volumes of such documents, many of which are wholly ignored by the mainline churches that espouse them, and which are thus irrelevant. The Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism is dynamic, responsive, and adaptable, and should always remain so. The challenge is embracing change without excluding anyone who is willing to continue on the journey.

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is attempting to do something rare within religious circles. Within this one body we are attempting to hold together independent congregations and people of diverse beliefs and walks of life. This is no contractual matter or mere marriage of convenience among progressives. Our ideal is to form our relationships within covenants. The Purposes & Principles of the UUA are the heart of the covenant between congregations, and within congregations, ministries, youth groups and more we also establish covenants. By this means we seek to recognize the worth and dignity of each other, upholding one another while also creating accountability. If I behave towards a fellow UU in a manner outside of our covenant, then the work becomes dialog and reconciliation.

A saying I heard many years ago says it best: it's a mighty thin board that only has one side. There are clear-cut cases of people being in the wrong and others in the right. Most of life, though, seems to be very muddled. The old ethical dilemma of the man stealing bread to feed his family comes to mind, but it's usually far less dramatic. Think of the sort of arguments couples have. Familiarity breeds contempt, and so as in marriage, so also in congregational life. Petty disputes can escalate quickly, and through triangulation pull a lot of other people into the fray. Holding a public debate is not going to be the best way to solve the problem.

And yet, there appears to be no shortage of predominantly older white people who not only need a debate to settle matters, with well-defined winners and losers, but who also feel threatened when approached for dialog to restore the covenantal relationship. Even in instances where they bring along friends for moral support, as in a recent episode at the General Assembly in Spokane, they feel ganged up on and refuse to carry the conversation forward. They are expecting a debate, and if not that then censure, and so that is what they experience despite the intentions of the Right Relationship team. The story that then circulates through rumor, buoyed by what I call the Bogeyman Syndrome, is one of censorship and exclusion.

The departure from Robert's Rules of Order, together with the embrace of dialogue over debate and covenant over unfettered autonomy is deeply unsettling to some white people. While this makes the work of reconciliation and ongoing progress more challenging, it should only motivate us to redouble our efforts to live into the new reality we want for ourselves and future generations of Unitarian Universalists. We must continue to welcome all who welcome all, and sadly wish the best to those who do not feel the need to do so as they find or form communities more in line with their vision. The goal, however, is for that latter extreme to be avoided through helping one another to engage in empathetic, respectful, and productive dialogue. We only 'lose' if Unitarian Universalists fail to uphold people of color and lgbtq+ folx in the collective struggle for liberation.



Resources:

Restoration Movement
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restoration_Movement

Campbell's Great Debates
http://www.christianchronicler.com/History2/campbell_debates.html

Article II: Moving Forward: Assembly on the Proposed Covenant For the Uua Bylaws
https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/ga/covenant-for-bylaws

Second Draft Of New Uua Principles and Purposes
Commission Appraisal - https://www.uuworld.org/articles/stub-128147

General Assembly Narrowly Rejects New 'principles and Purposes'
Christopher Walton - https://www.uuworld.org/articles/ga-rejects-new-principles-purposes

Your Co-worker, The Bogeyman
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-co-worker-bogeyman-adam-gonnerman/