Friday, September 12, 2008

Cultural Misappropriation and More on the P&P

UU minister James Ford has written a very thoughtful piece on one piece of the proposed revision of the Principles and Purposes here. It's definitely worth reading. He focuses in on the proposed sentence in the section on "sources":

“Grateful for the traditions that have strengthened our own, we strive to avoid misappropriation of cultural and religious practices and to seek ways of appreciation that are respectful and welcomed.”


I completely skipped this sentence when I gave some of my thoughts a week ago, so let me address this sentence, as well.

James Ford says (I've deleted some, show by the elipses; the entirety is worth reading):

The problem is enshrinement in By-Laws, and therefore raising the possibility of institutionally defining appropriate behaviors and with that the possibility of punishment and expulsion for offenders, particularly ministers.

And this is not paranoia. Already a trial balloon of this sort was raised for the minister’s ethical guidelines. Objections to enshrining what I hope I've shown here as an ill-defined behavior “cultural misappropriation” as an ethical concern prevailed and it was withdrawn....

If the proposed language were to be adopted as a By-Law, I am absolutely convinced there are those among us who will volunteer to become the purity police, attempting to enforce private and wrong-headed definitions of cultural misappropriation....

I sincerely hope this sentence will be deleted.


The ministers in our association have, indeed, been debating this issue for a while, both on-line and in person. I wasn't at the UUMA meeting when a proposed revision along these lines was being discussed, but I do know that I heard a lot of discussion among ministers about this proposed change to the UUMA Code of Conduct for ministers.

The biggest questions with a guideline or bylaw that deals with misappropriation are: Who decides? What guidelines do we follow as to what is cultural misappropriation and what is not?

Every description I've seen of what is cultural misappropriation has been very sweeping and poorly defined. For example, the UU Musicians Network defines it like this:

Cultural misappropriation is the term given to the set of injuries marked by:

using music, reading, symbols, ritual, or iconography of a group without a willingness to engage in their struggle and/or story and connecting their struggle and/or story with our own (UU and community).
the use of cultural practices as bait rather than an as organic part of our cultural experience
an unwillingness to respect the community of origin or dishonoring the refusal of a community to share
disrespect or casual engagement with a practice, or
unwillingness to share the pain caused by intentional or unintentional misuse.
(Found here.)

By this rule, we would have to carefully show with each piece of music we use, each reading we use, each ritual we use, that we had "engaged the struggle" of the author/composer's "group". The presumption is that this means any group that we're not a part of. And then we would have to connect that struggle to our own. So before you use a hymn from our hymnal that's not a part of your own culture, think about what that would mean. For me, if I'm not a Christian, does that mean that songs from the Christian tradition need to be put through this rubric before I can use them in worship? Before we can sing Christmas carols, do we need to engage the struggle of Christianity as a group, and then connect that struggle to our own? Maybe we can just sing Christmas carols? Maybe we're close enough to that tradition that we can enter it without offending? Maybe not? Who decides? Would some Christains be offended that last Easter I had a communion of grape juice and bread and pomegranate juice and eggs all together? Undoubtedly. Especially if they heard how I introduced it.

Today we’re going to have a special communion. Because we come out of different theologies, we have different ways to honor our religious traditions, but we do them together in community—the root of the meaning of communion. So today we have different elements—the traditional bread and grape juice (not wine today), for in the Gospels it is said, “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ 27Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; 28for this is my blood of the* covenant,” and so we remember that we are covenanted together in community, in remembrance of the message of Jesus—that message of justice, of God-consciousness, of soul-lifting. For our bread, remembering that the last supper was a Passover Seder, we have Matzos. Wine is also common at the celebration of Purim, and it so happens that Purim was this week as well. But we are also a community which remembers the older, Pagan traditions, and so we have in memory of the Goddess Eostre, eggs, and in memory of Persephone, pomegranate juice. I invite you to come forward, and partake in communion, using whatever elements are comfortable for you, but to join in the celebration of religious community, that we might be fed by our presence and witness to the hope and power of these traditions, and fed by the mission of this congregation. May it be so. Please join me in a moment of silence for prayer or meditation, and then following I invite you to come forward for communion.

Does that mean we shouldn't do this? I don't think so.

We've engaged this conversation around misappropriation at several levels in our church. We've talked about it at the worship committee, where after discussion of our display of the Hanukkah menorah around the winter holidays led to my discussing that display with a Rabbi. We've had the discussion in RE and adult RE around how we engage other cultures through our curricula and whether or not this crosses this line that's being drawn. There are no easy answers that we've found in our own discussions. Surely, we do want to be sensitive; however, it's not always possible to make everyone satisfied.

Much more discussion of cultural misappropriation is definitely needed before we enshrine the concept in our bylaws. Thanks to James Ford for his attentiveness to this issue!

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