Wednesday, September 24, 2008

White Privilege & Election Fever

The UU Blogosphere has been abuzz with discussion about an article titled "This Is Your Nation on White Privilege" by Tim Wise. To read what other UUs are saying, a brief description of some of the responses can be found at the Interdependent Web, along with links. I will say that I find the article snarky and abrasive, and at a couple of points I took exception with it, but there were a lot of places where I thought it was, sadly, right on in its analysis.

What you think of this article, I believe, comes down to what you believe about the concept of "white privilege." If it's a new concept for you, the classic essay by Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," is a great place to start reading. White Privilege is a concept we've been discussing at our church in our adult religious education group on "Building the World We Dream About," if you're interested in discussing it more and are in our area.

White privilege is by no means a concept universally accepted in this country, so there are people who disagree with it as a concept, and then people who may agree with the concept but think that Wise goes too far or that it's not applicable to an election. I think Wise may take it too far at points, but that it is a concept that's applicable to this election.

I do think racism is a factor in the presidential election. And I think it's a bigger factor than we realize. Polling numbers often can't control for racism; people don't want to admit to racism to the pollsters. Of course, there are other isms in play, too, in this election. I've heard plenty of people talking against racism against Obama one moment and turn around and use ageism against McCain. Xenophobia and religious prejudice play a part against Obama, too (since so many people continue to think he's both not a real American and is a Muslim). Sexism has been used against Hillary Clinton and now against Sarah Palin. Religious discrimination was used against Mitt Romney. I've even heard lookism--a person gloating that Michelle Obama was so much better looking than Cindy McCain! People who are on one side or the other may not want to admit that the opposing candidate faces discrimination, too, but it is there.

What I would call on us, as UUs to do is simple: listen for it, speak out against it, try to avoid using it yourself. Think twice before speaking, and don't be afraid to speak out, gently, when you hear these isms at work. Don't demonize those who disagree with you by calling them racist or sexist, but work to challenge the underlying assumptions or call people into remembering to be their best selves. Our work as religious liberals during an election season is not to tell people how to vote or change their mind about how they're voting, but to call us into, as always, living our values, to "live your religion" as our closing song at our church reminds us to do.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Should We Have a U.S. Flag in Our Sanctuary?

Our worship committee has been thoughtfully discussing this question, "Should we have a U.S. flag in our sanctuary?" for the last few months. And we have not arrived at a final conclusion yet. We have, however, done a few things:

  • Asked members of the church for their opinions,

  • Read articles from other denominations and individuals,

  • Talked to individual churches about their policies,

  • And talked to UU ministers about their beliefs.

I believe this is an important question, with strong feelings on both sides, and needs to be approached slowly, deliberately, and thorougly.

And I believe that emotions are too strong right now on the issue. I, personally, would like to see any decision delayed until at least a month after the upcoming presidential election, so that the political feelings that have reached a fever-pitch have some time to die down first.

However, we do, in the mean time, intend to do a couple of things:

  • We'd like to continue to hear feelings and impressions on an individual basis.

  • We're planning a congregational discussion to occur sometime after church during the month of October. I'll post the date here when we have it, but it should be in the newsletter, as well. This will be a time to state your opinions, but, much more importantly, it is a time to hear opinions as well. As always, it is respectful listening to opinions that differ with our own that makes us a caring community of UUs.

If you'd like to read up on this issue, here's a few articles I found through a quick Google search. I do not endorse any, nor do I pretend they represent an unbiased sample.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More Thoughts on Cultural Misappropriation

Since the Interdependent Web quoted my previous post on cultural misappropriation, I've been doing some more thinking on the subject.

It's not that I don't think cultural misappropriation is to be avoided. We all should strive to be as sensitive to other cultures as possible. It's that I think a code of conduct, at this point, on the issue is not really possible. (And putting cultural misappropriation in our bylaws feels close to establishing a code of conduct on this issue and may, indeed, lead to one.) We haven't defined sufficiently what is and what is not cultural misappropriation. I was at a workshop on this issue at our General Assembly a couple of years ago in which it was seriously suggested that, essentially, if something is done well, it's okay, if a piece of music is done poorly, then it's misappropriation. I have significant disagreement with that rule, as one is who is not the greatest musician! Can I never, therefore, be using something from another culture appropriately, if I am a poor musician? If someone is a great musician, is he or she always appropriate? Frankly, it makes no sense.

The problem with trying to judge someone's appropriateness is that you're looking at the person's actions and trying to judge the content of the person's heart and the nature of the person's character. Did this person study this religion or culture enough? Has this person engaged the struggle of the culture that the piece is from? Is the person from the culture? Does the person have connections to the culture?

We can't know all these things. Nor can I, as a worship leader, spell it all out each time. When I use a song from our hymnal, take "Shalom Havayreem" (#400) for an example, you can't know whether or not I've engaged the struggle of the Jewish people enough that I'm allowed to use the hymn. And have I? I've taken only one actual class on Judaism, if you don't count a class on the Hebrew Bible. I've had some Jewish people who were close to me in my life. I've studied the Holocaust. I've gone to synagogue. I've talked with Rabbis. I've preached about issues related to Judaism (although this may be another sign of misappropriation). Is any of this enough? Perhaps not. It's all fairly superficial. I'm not currently engaged in the work of anti-Semitism in any significant way, beyond the occasional preaching about it.

But here's another side of it, for me: "Shalom Havayreem" was the first song I learned in church. For me, it carries that meaning, of a song I learned and loved as a child. And it's in our UU hymnal--it's part of, to me, what it means to be UU. Maybe that's enough. Maybe we should sing the song, and proudly.

I don't really think we should be in the business of judging the content of people's heart and character by the choices they make in leading worship. Maybe the only rule that is reasonable to put forward is, "Did they sound respectful when they introduced it?" Maybe the workshop was right, and the rule really should be, "Was it done well?"

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hurricanes, Reaching Out, and Our Interconnectedness

We spent a rainy weekend here in Michigan this weekend. It was a reminder, every time we stepped outdoors, of what was happening on the other side of the country from us, down in Texas.

Some may remember that I served a congregation in Houston briefly before heading North again. I checked that church's webpage and other church's webpage as we anxiously awaited news of how our fellow UUs were surviving the storm. The Southwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference now has more information posted here. No news of my old congregation, the Northwest UU Community Church, has been posted, but there's a lot to learn about other UU congregations, especially, the UU Fellowship of Galveston, which is presumed flooded.

The UU world is a small one, and the interconnection easy to observe, from the fact that I served a church in this area and a former minister of our church, the Rev. Susan Smith, is now district executive of the Southwestern Conference. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her, to the churches, their ministers, members, and friends.

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!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Banned Books

Between my sermon series of last month on books that changed my life, and the discussion of banned books happening in the media and blogosphere due to recent political events, it seemed like a good time to remind you that Banned Books Week is coming up later this month.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

New Principles and Purposes?

The UUA's Commission on Appraisal (COA), which is an review body independent of the UUA board, takes on a different subject pertinent to the UU association every three years. Recently, they have been studying Article II of the UUA bylaws, better known as our "Principles and Purposes," as Article II was required to be reviewed every 15 years (we're a bit late). The COA has just posted their draft of a proposal for the P&P, including many large changes. If you're interested, they can be found here. It's important to note that the COA can't change the P&P document, which is part of the UUA bylaws. Nor can the UUA board of trustees. It has to be voted on in two subsequent general assemblies by the delegates--that means representatives of churches and their ministers. If you follow the link and read the draft document, you will find a survey there where you can leave your thoughts and feelings. Then the COA will meet again and consider the survey responses before creating a final document that goes to the UUA board and then to the general assemblies.

So... here's some highlights of what it says and does, and what I think.

There was a section in the current Article II that many people think is the "Purposes," but which isn't, but which does not have it's own name. The proposed version calls it by another term we've often called it, "Sources." It currently lists several sources we draw from, including naming separately the Jewish and Christian teachings, direct experience, words and deeds of prophetic men and women, wisdom from the world's religions, Humanist teachings, and earth-centered traditions. The draft version says:

Unitarianism and Universalism are grounded on more than two thousand years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions, and experiences. Unitarian Universalism is not contained in any single book or creed. It draws from the teachings of the Abrahamic religions, Earth-centered spirituality, and other world religious traditions. It engages perspectives from humanism, mysticism, theism, skepticism, naturalism, and feminist and liberation theologies. It is informed by the arts and the sciences. It trusts the value of direct experiences of mystery and wonder, and it recognizes the sacred may be found within the ordinary.

Wisdom and beauty may be expressed in many forms: in poetry and prose, in story and song, in metaphor and myth, in drama and dance, in fabric and painting, in scripture and music, in drawing and sculpture, in public ritual and solitary practice, in prophetic speech and courageous deed.

Overall, I think it's good. But there are a few problems or discussions to be had about it. First of all, the bullet-type approach of the former was handy for responsive readings, as well as for literature like bookmarks, wallet cards, etc. This doesn't lend itself to ritual or propaganda (whoever thought I'd pair those two things together?) nearly as well in paragraph form. Second, while it is impractical to list out all of what is meant by "world religions," it replicates the problem the current version has of listing out some things while not focusing on others. I agree with highlighting Judaism and Christianity separately, because they have a different relationship to our religion historically. I like the inclusion of feminist and liberation theologies, particularly. But I know many specific world religions have had large impacts on our beliefs and practices. How many people do you know in UU congregations that participate in a yogic practice or a Buddhist meditation practice? I know in our congregation it is several, and we're a small congregation with a strong historic and contemporary emphasis and connection to Christianity. It would be extremely controversial to lump in earth-centered traditions with world religions (although I believe they are), but when we pull them out, I believe others similarly deserve to be pulled out. And with Judaism and Christianity mentioned first, I don't think they need to be with "Abrahamic traditions" mentioned again. And I would love to pull out Islam in particular, as I think it's not the largest impact on us but it's very significant right now in our country and world that we include Islam in our living tradition.

As for the second paragraph above, I think it's completely unnecessary. We know that, right?

As for the principles themselves, the COA leaves them largely intact, and does not add additional principles. What they do is add an explanation after each principle, which I really have no problem with, as they're still somewhat bulleted and the principle can be pulled out still for, as I said, ritual and propaganda. In fact, it now reads something like a responsive reading, which I like. There are a couple of minor changes to the principles:

  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations - "in our congregations" is dropped and "to" is changed to "of." I like the dropping of the congregation-specific (why wouldn't we encourage spiritual growth everywhere?) but dislike the preposition change. It now sounds like we accept spiritual growth, rather than we're trying to spiritually grow. Any church that doesn't accept spiritual growth, well, I don't even know what to say to that.
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large - the "within our congregations and in society at large" is dropped. Fine. Unnecessary. Reads better without it.

That's it. Of course, they didn't change what I dislike, which is that justice is mentioned twice in two different trinities: "justice, equity, and compassion" and "peace, liberty, and justice." I dislike it both for redundancy (although one is talking about human relations and one about world community), and because I get them mixed up and invariably forget one.

There are also changes to the other sections of Article II, which the average person probably cares less about, but which are interesting discussions to have, as well. I encourage you to read the original Article II (here) and compare it to the COA proposal, and then leave your comments on the draft with the COA. They've been trying hard to make this a process where the congregations are involved. We did a COA-suggested adult religious education class on Article II and I submitted our thoughts to them, for example, and they had similar things at district and denominational events. So let them know what you think. They are, after all, your principles and purposes, because this is the bylaws of your association.