Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Toward a Theology of Anti-Oppression -- or not

[image courtesy of Earlham College Brown Bag Concert Series]

Well, once again sister PeaceBang has managed to brew up a fine tempest in a teapot of the archetypal UU sort. This time, though, it’s not the validity of traditional names for the Divine that is at issue. No, now the brew that she is provocatively stirring has to do with whether brown bag lunches are offensive on religious grounds to the faithful devotees of our beloved community, or at least ought to be.

The knot she has so deftly tied in our collective knickers finds its origins in the reported censorship of the term “brown bag lunch” at the Starr King School for the Ministry. Seems some of the delicate hothouse orchids that SKSM lovingly cultivates in its exquisite temperature-controlled environment have discovered palpable evil in the term. This is apparently because once upon a time it was the practice in some segments of the African American community for its lighter-skinned members to use brown paper bags as a test for discriminating against darker-skinned members. Accordingly, all references to brown bags now carry the eternally indelible taint of racist oppressiveness, and must be avoided at all costs by those of us who would grow in spiritual purity, beauty and enlightenment.

PB weighs the proposition that the term “brown bag lunch” is inherently oppressive and offensive in the balance of common sense, and finds it breathtakingly lacking. For this audacity she has become the object of both plaudits and righteous indignation. The indignant faction emphasizes the compelling need to be alert to all the insidious forms of oppression in human society, and the corresponding moral mandate incumbent on UUs to prophetically lead the vanguard of “anti-oppression”, even when others are reluctant to follow or even understand. In their apprehension our UU mission, like the mission of the starship Enterprise, is “to boldly go where no [human] has gone before”. In contrast, the applauding faction seems to share a general sense that sometimes we precious UUs just need to get real and get over ourselves, and that this is one of those times.

All of which makes good fodder for much merry debate in an overly-earnest UU sort of way, especially if you approach it with an attitude of detached bemusement rather than one of urgent moral crisis. However, some significant issues are not finding traction in the discussion over at PeaceBang’s place, so I thought I might raise them here.

First is an assertion by one participant in the debate that PeaceBang was mocking SKSM’s anti-oppression efforts, and that such mockery is unjustified. I think both assertions are wrong. What PeaceBang was mocking was not a commitment to resisting oppression, but the notions that brown bag lunches have any logical nexus with oppression and that avoiding the term “brown bag lunch” combats oppression in any effective way.

Indirectly, I think, she may also have been mocking the tendency of some UUs to become so caught up in the earnestness and righteousness of whatever their cause du jour may be that they end up utterly missing the point. When this happens, I will assert, these folks end up looking so ridiculous that in fact they mock themselves. It does not make a mockery of resistance to oppression to point out that brown bag lunches are not inherently oppressive. Rather, it does make a mockery of resistance to oppression to insist that we can strike an effective blow against oppression by avoiding brown bag lunches.

To extend my argument, I will further assert that whenever we UUs in our strident moral posturing miss the point as completely as we did here, we mock ourselves, and it happens far more often than some of us would care to admit. When a person is behaving like a clown, and a bystander points and says, “What a clown,” it is not the bystander but the clownish person who mocks. That the self-mockery is unwitting and unintentional makes no difference. If we UUs want to be taken seriously by the rest of the world as prophets, we need to stop presenting ourselves as clowns. And the first step in that direction is to learn to recognize and admit the behavior we need to change. As often as we see it.

Second is the apparent belief that vesting brown bags with overtones of racism is worthwhile in itself, even if only to build wider awareness of the vanishing practice of discrimination by skin color within the African American community. By this reasoning, clueless white folks may have been aware of discrimination against blacks generally, but not of discrimination by lighter-skinned black folks against darker-skinned ones, and building such awareness by whatever means has value. To which I respond, the practice and the values it represented were never as unknown as the current generation of grad students may suppose; and anyway, almost everyone who doesn’t know about the practice today probably also doesn’t have a dog in the hunt. Those practicing such discrimination back in the days when it was more prevalent, as well as those affected by it, knew it perfectly well. However, those who have no personal connection to the practice are able at best to object only on abstract grounds and express sympathetic support for any victims they may know; they have no personal culpability and little if any means of effective direct intervention.

Third is the apparent implication that mockery is an unacceptable form of religious or social discourse. In rebuttal I'll simply observe that thirty years ago, when I was in college, I remember watching a skit on Saturday Night Live in which dark-skinned comedian Garrett Morris and lighter-skinned civil rights leader Julian Bond used mockery to address the very topic now at issue at SKSM, but far more effectively and to a far wider audience:

[ logo: “Black Perspective” ]
Garrett Morris: Good evening, and welcome to "Black Perspective". I'm your host, Garrett Morris. Tonight our guest is Mr. Julian Bond, and we'll be talking about the myths surrounding black I.Q. Specifically, the myth that whites are inherently more intelligent than blacks.

Julian Bond: Good evening, Garrett.

Garrett Morris: Now, Julian, perhaps you could explain something to me. In all these studies comparing black I.Q. to white I.Q., what kind of test is used to measure I.Q.'s in the first place?

Julian Bond: Well, this is the major problem with these studies. The measurements of I.Q. which form the basis of comparison come from tests composed by whites for whites. The tests are culturally biased; it's not surprising that whites would score better than blacks.

Garrett Morris: Could you give us an example of what you're talking about?

Julian Bond: Certainly. Here are some questions that have appeared on recent I.Q. tests. Number one: You have been invited over for cocktails by the officer of your trust fund. Cocktails begin at 4:30, but you must make an appearance at a 6:00 formal dinner at the Yacht Club. What do you do about dress?

A. Wear your blue-striped seersucker suit to cocktails and change into your tuxedo in the bathroom, apologizing to your host for the inconvenience.

B. Wear your tuxedo to cocktails, apologizing to your host for wearing a dinner jacket before 6:00 PM.

C. Walk to the subway at Columbus Circle and take the "A" Train uptown.

Garrett Morris: Uh.. I guess I'd choose the last one.

Julian Bond: I'm sorry, that's incorrect.

Garrett Morris: Damn.

Julian Bond: Here's another: "When waxing your skis for a cross-country run, you should..."

Garrett Morris: [ interrupting ] Well, I think I understand the problem with the tests. But the fact is that people have been saying that white people are smarter than black for hundreds of years. We've only had I.Q. tests for 20 or 30 years. How did the idea of white intellectual superiority originate?

Julian Bond: That's an interesting point. My theory is that it's based on the fact that light-skinned blacks are smarter than dark-skinned blacks.

Garrett Morris: Say WHAT?

Julian Bond: I said I think it might have grown out of the observation that light-skinned blacks are smarter than dark-skinned blacks.

Garrett Morris: I don't get it.

Julian Bond: It's got nothing to do with having white blood. It's just that descendants of the lighter-skinned African tribes are more intelligent than the descendants of the darker-skinned tribes. Everybody knows that.

Garrett Morris: This is the first time I've heard of it.

Julian Bond: Seriously? It was proven a long time ago.

Garrett Morris: Well, I still don't quite understand. We're out of time right now, but perhaps you could come back on the show again and explain it further.

Julian Bond: There's very little to explain - it's just like I told you.

Garrett Morris: Well, we are out of time. Good night. [ to Julian ] If you could repeat it just once more..

[ logo up: "Black Perspective” ]

[ fade ]

Fourth, there was once a time when the defining characteristic of the UU approach to religious questions was (as the Chalice Chick likes to put it) "faith filtered through reason". In other words, any moral or religious proposition worth honoring was worth submitting to the test of rational skepticism before it went live in real time. I don't think the proposition that brown bag lunches are inherently racist would ever have survived such a test. What has happened to this discipline? It seems that it has been replaced by a "follow your bliss" ethic in which any half-baked proposition with the faintest superficial tinge of morality or cosmology can be offered to the community as a whole, and the duty of the community in return is not to run it through a probative gauntlet of skeptical inquiry, but to accept it as inherently worthy because its proposer is inherently worthy.

Fifth, and perhaps most significant, is the supposition that “anti-oppression” is a valid religious principle to which all sincere UUs should commit both private devotional practice and public prophetic advocacy. I deny the premise on its face. Justice, equity, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, karma, dharma, atonement, salvation – these are all legitimate religious concepts worthy of devotion that can stand on their own merits. Negative principles, however, are by nature antitheses that cannot exist without a thesis against which they are defined. Valid religious principles therefore cannot be negative, but must be affirmative.

Oppression is objectionable and worth resisting, yes; though not because “anti-oppression” is a valid principle, but rather because justice, equity, and compassion are valid principles, and oppression corrupts them. Oppression is overcome not by promoting “anti-oppression”, but by promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. “Anti-oppression”, just like the nemesis against which it necessarily defines itself, falsely divides the world into the worthy “us” and the unworthy “them”. But in reality, it’s all a broken world, we’re all them, and the most valuable lessons of any religion help us come to terms first with the element of that reality that abides within ourselves before we can even attempt to cure it in those other evildoers over there.


At May 30, 2007 at 4:07:00 PM EDT, Blogger blah said...

One commenter at ministrare said that s/he didn't doesn't want to be "reasoned out of my anger." I found the comment amazing in its overlooking of the role of reason in emotion.

Usually we get angry because... [insert reason here] We justify our emotions and our emotions also color the way we argue. To imply that people who disagree are coldly calculating logical machines (which is the sense that I get) doesn't seem to do justice to what being UU is about.

At least for me, anyway--and I've only been involved in one local congregation for a couple of years. But hearing you say that, as someone who has a good grasp of the history of the movement, makes me feel better about my gut reactions to all of this.

At May 30, 2007 at 5:37:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Hearing me say what, exactly? I said a lot, but none of it was directly on the topic of anger. I was trying to contrast reason not with anger but with credulity. Anger can intensify either one, I suppose.

At May 30, 2007 at 7:29:00 PM EDT, Blogger blah said...

Hearing you say In other words, any moral or religious proposition worth honoring was worth submitting to the test of rational skepticism before it went live in real time. I don't think the proposition that brown bag lunches are inherently racist would ever have survived such a test. What has happened to this discipline?

No, you weren't talking about anger--but the other individual I cited was, and contrasting the discipline of reason against a morally justified anger. I thought that was a false dichotomy. To stubbornly hold on to anger without reason is absurd, in my opinion. And to imply that if someone else uses reason and is not angry, they are morally inferior... that's not right.

Sorry if the inference was unclear. Hope that helps...

At May 30, 2007 at 7:43:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Well, I agree with you there. Anger can be channelled for good or ill, reasonably or unreasonably. Reason can be applied passionately or dispassionately. The opposite of reason, though, is credulity or gullibility, not anger or any other emotion.

At June 2, 2007 at 3:56:00 PM EDT, Blogger Ellis said...

You know, I'm struck by your denial that anti-oppression is one of our core religious values. I think the things you list definitely are at the core of my faith. And I would like to think that anti-oppression work is too, but if the "brown bag lunch" squabble is typical of AR/AO work, then I think maybe it's not. It is indeed a tempest in a teapot, and I feel like I'm huddled under my raincoat, umbrella long gone. I’ve commented more on this topic here.

At June 2, 2007 at 10:57:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Welcome, Ellis!

I would say that overcoming oppression and healing its injuries is an entirely valid way to apply one's core religious or moral values, but it is not a value in and of itself, much less a core one.

Because of this, I don't like the way AR/AO has been promoted recently as a core collective value within the UUA, or as a necessary part of our collective identity. I don't like the way it divides the world into the self-righteous "us" and the contemptible "them". I don't like the way it replaces a soteriology of grace with a soteriology of victimhood and conflict. I don't like the way it sanctifies victims for things they had no choice over and demonizes even unwitting "oppressors" for harm they may never have intended (or even have participated in), or the way it eagerly and gullibly finds oppression and victimization even in the most unlikely and dubious of instances. (Like a "brown bag lunch", for instance.) I don't like the fact that too often its response to oppression, whether real or imaginary, fails to include any meaningful physical, emotional or spiritual ministry or healing to the actual victim -- other than perhaps nurturing and encouraging the victim's sense of anger and injustice. I don't like the overemphasis of faultfinding, and underemphasis of our historic Universalist gospel of love and forgiveness even (or especially) when it has not been earned. And I especially don't like it when the extraordinary attention and resources that are devoted to AR/AO in some corners of UU-dom seem to crowd out nearly any other avenue or approach to faith formation.

There are many effective ways to combat racism and oppression, and it is a worthy undertaking, but standing like the Pharisee in the Temple court and piously proclaiming the purity of one's observance of the AR/AO mitzvot is not a particularly good way to do it.

At June 3, 2007 at 9:43:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another comment I agree with 100%, Fausto.

At June 5, 2007 at 3:15:00 AM EDT, Blogger Robin Edgar said...


Please allow me to deny that anti-oppression is one of U*Uism's core religious values. . .


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