Our Unitarian Universalist Sources vs White Supremacy
Foreword: Unitarian Universalism has no creed nor dogma, we (Unitarian Universalists) vote on central Principles and Sources that guide our individual and collective religious life. Whatever religious source motivates me, its outcome shall be towards fulfilling our Principles. Here are our present (June 2017) Principles and Sources:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.
There is tension in our Unitarian Universalist world, and it comes from our lay folks and minister’s calling for reformation to the inherent racism within our internal culture. How can a religious movement that works so hard for social justice and equality still have structural racism as part of its own governance, policies and procedures you might ask? Well, like many things in life, we inherited it, and changing family systems is hard work.
A bit of background and set up… In late 2016 many Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay people went to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota to participate in a clergy action in solidarity with the Lakota Sioux and other indigenous peoples against the DAPL oil pipeline. In that action, the president of the UUA, Peter Morales, was able to participate in a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery ceremony because we UUs had renounced the doctrine at our 2012 General Assembly. The Doctrine of Discovery were Papal Bulls issued after Columbus opened the “new world” up to exploitation by Europe. The Bulls said that whatever and whoever was discovered in this new land could be claimed for ownership and exploitation since they were not “civilized.” It promoted a culture built on the belief that “white” Europeans were supreme in their power, in their right to rule, leading to massive genocides, land grabs and creation of “race” based slavery. It is this Doctrine of white supremacy, writ large into our laws and society, that allowed the pipeline company to take Indian land at will. This doctrine is in our UU DNA, since we grew up within the system, and we have said no to it. What made this ceremony significant to me was the underlying question of how the doctrine might actually be repudiated within Unitarian Universalism, what did this act really mean to us philosophically and theologically? What mechanisms and structures within UU could be identified as related to the Doctrine of Discovery and its relatives, Manifest Destiny, classism, and slavery, to be recognized and either dismantled, or reformed to a higher purpose? And who, when, and how might this work be done?
It was a timely question with the events that unfolded this spring within Unitarian Universalism. This is what I saw: Because of a disclosure about a UUA hiring that seemed discriminatory, a review of hiring practices was conducted that revealed a pattern of discrimination, of white male dominance. Fixes have been promised to this system, but were slow in coming, and the governance structures used to do the fixes are from the system, not made to dismantle the system. This led to resignations, and calls for immediate Anti White Supremacy work.
With the recent call for renewed anti racism/anti discrimination efforts, led by our BLUU and other Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression groups, laity and clergy, we may have a launching pad for dismantling the Doctrine and its siblings. But I wonder how deep and how wide our reformation will go? And again, what are the tools for change? What in our institutional and educational structures do we need to pay attention to in this effort to change?
Unitarian Universalist formative history includes the European enlightenment, and Unitarian & Universalist progressive ideas around religious pluralism, biblical criticism, and rationalism in Christianity. Unitarian Christianity was formed, only to be reformed again with Transcendentalism, which arguably helped bring about another reformation with Religious Humanism. These large movements of reformation helped develop our empathy to difference, and instigated our social justice forays into suffrage, abolition, civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ equality, environmentalism, and more… work that continues to this day. Our Principles and Sources evolved from this work to become our communal expression of “ultimate concern.” They are our ideals, used to push back at the inequalities of life; racism, classism, discrimination, inequality, injustice: the “isms” and “phobias” in our society, and within Unitarian Universalism. We have not always been successful in our activism, and in fact, our record of reformation is that of continuing to try to “get it right,” because this is hard, complex work. Our history has (at least) one glaring failure, that of our inability to overcome our white superiority culture to support our Black UU member’s internal civil rights movement in the 1960’s, and the divisions of class embedded therein. We stepped onto the bridge with Martin Luther King Jr., but we couldn’t overcome our own whiteness to bridge the gap within UU polity and culture to our own Black UU brethren. We continued into other civil rights movements, and support Black civil rights, but have always wondered what might have been when we lost the trust of many Black members.
I believe this latest call to reformation is to renew and widen this civil rights movement in UU, to dismantle our inherent relationship to the Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and finally, economic and social slavery. These doctrines and institutions are the foundations of classism and white supremacy in Unitarian Universalism, and ultimately in the United States. A tall order, and I’ve been wondering, what have we learned from the past, what tools do we have to change?
Black Lives of UU (BLUU), has offered up an addition to our Principles as a tool for change, to make anti-discrimination a part of our ideals, and I appreciate the thinking behind this.
Their proposed Principle #8 is this:
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
I see our Principles as the ultimate outcome of what our various individual religious sources would lead us to in our lives. Humanist, Christian, Buddhist, Earth Spirit, etc.- the Principles are our collective version of “ultimate concern, ultimate outcome,” or what God may want for us, if you will. But arguably, I also see the Principles as needing to be spare, sharp in their focus, with little wiggle room on definition or meaning. The concepts of Worth and Dignity presently need deep personal thought by anyone wanting to practice them, and maybe some honing would help, but when boiled down they are as succinct as a golden rule. I do not see the Principles as perfect, and when I read the proposed BLUU 8th Principle, I see seeds of change within, working to bring them into better focus. But for a broader anti-racism/anti-discrimination move, to dismantle our inherent racism, classism, intolerance, and ultimately end our relationship to the Doctrine of Discovery, I believe we need to change our relationship to our Sources of Being, learn the tools of Inter-religious, inter-ideological Dialogue, and further develop our underlying theology of reformation as tools for change.
Whenever I ask my ministerial colleagues about teaching the Sources, about how we navigate the differences in our supposedly collective communities, I rarely get an acknowledgement of their usefulness, or even limitations. They seem to be there to show folks that “they too can be Unitarian Universalist,” an advertising gimmick. But to me, this could be one of the most powerful pieces of community, of Unitarian Universalist theology, we have… it is a collection of our evolutionary history, it throws open our potential scriptures, and it widens the circle of our people; of who belongs. I believe we need to step into our Sources deliberately, examin and teach them as UU, hold them up in light of each other, and educate Unitarian Universalists how to dwell in community in their various Sources. This is necessary to continue our reformation, our religious evolutionary journey. And most of all, I believe we need to update our Sources to include what it means to be human, to break the bonds of exclusion, of racism, of all kinds of discrimination. This is where the Doctrine of Discovery and its minions will be broken, when we learn how to listen to, collaborate with, and truly respect each other at our individual and collective source of being.
With dialogue between our sources as the base of our religious work, we can begin the deep work of dismantling racism and discrimination. First, we update the Sources to acknowledge personal experiences and life realities of class, ethnicity (race), culture, sex, gender, ability, and family and national history as deeply informing to our religious being. Religion I believe, at its base, is our instruction and expression of how we are human and interconnected: how we live in relationship to ourselves, and how we engage the world given our Sources. Our Sources need to become an active place of inter-religious, inter-personal, and inter-ideological dialogue, of learning about ourselves and each other deeply, with integrity and love, so we may accomplish our Principles together as a whole people. I’m proposing an addition to the Sources, a work in progress that will take others input to complete:
The living tradition which we share draws from many sources”… [add new] that are part of our active religious fabric in understanding each other, and the world we live in.”
“We acknowledge and honor the personal journey of the individual and the community that they were formed within; the family (whether genetic or chosen), education, local and greater culture, sex, gender, abilities, personal and ancestral history, religious journey, and experiences in relationship to other peoples and cultures. We listen to and acknowledge the experience of all people as valuable, and measure our own against their experiences to open ourselves, our religion, and our community to change that makes all of us more free, more equal, more accepted, and moves our society towards justice and equity.”
I believe the Sources are the place where our circle of understanding should be widened and Interfaith Dialogue learned as our tool to make it so. A place of tension and learning where no one culture, history, religious source or experience of being is held as more important than another, but as part of the whole. We should only reject sources that would teach and act to promote evil, causing intended, unnecessary suffering and harm, or are incompatible with our Principles.
I acknowledge that this is not how the Sources have been used in Unitarian Universalism, as an active place of dialogue, and because of this I believe we still feel the resonance of source rifts in our history such as our Humanist/Theist tensions. We rarely address our tensions, to our continued detriment, and because we do not live in our Sources, we let our inherent racism, ties to patriarchy, and underlying white supremacy continue to occupy them and us. This is where the real work is done, in the trenches of difference, where the sources of our being should be shared with trust and vulnerability, so there is equality and equity built between us. Where a source is measured for its worth, and held accountable for its harm. Our curriculums of change, like “Welcoming Congregation,” and “Building The World We Dream Of,” are built out of this kind of dialogue, so why do we not make it part of our living tradition, part of our vision and goals.
We can tout the Principles as the ultimate goals for our religious life, but without tools to get there, without a theology of collective difference to draw upon, we’ll never get there. “Being UU” is about learning to accept each other with our human differences, and working to make sure that our differences are equal in worth, dignity, and acceptance… and that a dream of equality and equity can only come to being when we truly acknowledge and honor difference. May we learn to truly be in dialogue, to clearly see each other, to become the community that has the tools to continue to build the world we dream of.
In Love and Tension,
Rev. Jim Parrish
Example of inter religious/inter-ideological dialogue: http://dialogueinstitute.org
Example of inter religious/inter ideological dialogue principles: http://dialogueinstitute.org/dialogue-principles/