Monday, June 04, 2007

Truth to Power

[Marc Chagall, Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh, 1956. Courtesy Spaightwood Galleries, housed in the former Unitarian church in Upton, Mass.]

I said it in the thread below, but I think it deserves repeating in its own thread:

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.

I'll add to this that while fighting racism and oppression is a worthy way to express one's faith, there are also many others. Not every UU can, or should be expected to, succeed as a prophetic witness against social pathology while also holding a day job and supporting a family. Perhaps especially our ministers.

In my observation, the disproportionate attention that our (badly framed) denominational "AR/AO work" commands from us shortchanges both our adult laity and our future ministerial college, but it is partlcularly a problem in the area of religious education for teenagers. This is the age where we call ourselves to begin to support our youth on a “free and responsible” journey of faith formation. To my mind, that should be a process of inquiry and elucidation in which they would examine several alternate models of faith and devotional discipline in some degree of critical depth, including especially our own historic religious paths of Unitarianism, Universalism, and Religious Humanism. Instead, the “Coming of Age” program in many of our congregations is cobbled together from a patchwork of old and incomplete pedagogical materials, while much of the fresh material for this age group offered by denominational staff to our RE directors deals narrowly with the topics of either anti-oppression or sex.

Now, oppression and sex are two topics that resonate strongly with most teenagers, and both racism/oppression sensitivity and sexual ethics are very good things to teach adolescents. They do not, however, comprise a necessary or complete guide to faith formation – in fact, for some of the reasons above, our AR/AO efforts as they are presently framed can encourage the formation of a resentful and aggrieved rather than uplifting faith, both in our adolescents and in our much more educated but in many cases only slightly older seminarians. Some of our more astute youth intuitively recognize this and give up on UUism as offering little of value, while many more simply become bored and disengaged. After all, teenagers have more than enough of their own reasons to feel horny and resentful without having to endure adult know-it-alls telling them how to do even that, too.

It’s long past time to stop letting only those two programs suck all the air out of the room for our youth and RE directors, and instead to provide fresher, broader and deeper resources for faith formation to youth, seminarians and adult laity alike. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that our future as a successful denomination depends on it.

And I suspect that’s why PeaceBang’s comments have “gone meta”, as Philocrites puts it. Deep down, consciously or unconsciously, on both sides of this seemingly small conversation about something as prosaic as what to call "brown bag lunches", we all have a sense that the stakes are in fact not inconsequential, but rather, immeasurably high. Avoiding the conversation as some have urged may avoid ruffling feathers, but allowing AR/AO advocates to continue to stake out such a dominant position in our overall religious agenda and leave so little room for other concerns is, ironically, to allow "AR/AO work" itself to oppress our denomination. So IMHO, it’s very good karma that a daughter of Moses has risen up among the Unitarians and Universalists in bondage to speak truth to power.


At June 4, 2007 at 2:19:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...our AR/AO efforts as they are presently framed can encourage the formation of a resentful and aggrieved rather than uplifting faith, both in our adolescents and in our much more educated but in many cases only slightly older seminarians..."

It's not just the adolescents and seminarians. How about all our adult converts from other religions? Around here (Boston, where the Catholic presence long ago overwhelmed the Unitarians and Congregationilists combined) I'd guess we have more wounded, angry ex-Catholic UUs than cradle UUs. Why should we encourage them to nurture their resentments here? If we were doing AR/AO well, they would be healed, forgiving ex-Catholic UUs instead.

At June 4, 2007 at 3:12:00 PM EDT, Blogger Ellis said...

Right on to you both, Fausto and anonymous.

In my home congregation, we have a huge number of social workers, teachers, pro bono lawyers, and other service-oriented people. I don't know if this is typical of UU congregations, but it certainly is the case here. We struggle against oppression full time, and don't need self-criticism sessions or to be told we don't measure up to someone's AR/AO lens.

We know we don't measure up: despite our best efforts, people are sick, hungry, unemployed, lonely and scared. Despite our best efforts, children are ignorant and unsafe. Despite our best efforts, the world is broken and suffering.

When I come to church on Sunday, I need support for my week, help maintaining my faith against all odds, encouragement that I am in the right place and doing the right thing. I need to be told that I'm right to choose justice over money, that I'm right to believe people matter more than things. I need a community that loves me more than it judges me. And the AR/AO work I've seen hasn't done that.

At June 4, 2007 at 6:50:00 PM EDT, Blogger Steven Rowe said...

and a big right-on to Ellis as well.
I have to admit that I havent paid much attention to the AR/AO people, partially because of the name (I personally think being "anti-" anything focuses one's thinking in just one direction, when your eyes ought to be o the prize, but YMMV).

But yes, if "Anti-Oppression" is oppressing those that is is designed to be helping, then it isn't "Anti-Oppression".

At June 5, 2007 at 11:10:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yours is very good post, I think. If there is one area of social concern that has been of importance to me in my own life, it has been a concern about the various peoples and groups who have been treated as "lesser". I have worked on women's rights, civil rights, gblt issues, sanctuary, etc. for decades. Yet I have not felt that the UUA has ever been particularly helpful or persuasive in working on these things. I have felt that their approach has always been more of a "purification" and a test of right doctrine , rather than encouraging thoughtful, diverse debate and approaches. We have always said that when it comes to faith there are many approaches. Debate on how to address these issues should be open and without a party line. Yet there is a kind of "litmus" test for the "good" congregations, ministers, etc. who follow the AR/AO as laid out. (For example, you cannot get certain grants for your congregation or its programs unless you can prove you have done this work in an approved way.)

I think it is not unimportant that we are using "anti" language rather than positive, pro-justice language. "Anti" language is reactive and takes no positive stands. Our most admired social change leaders lay out agendas framed in positive language.

At June 6, 2007 at 10:38:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen to fausto and all comments. I had an uneasy feeling about the whole AR/AO program from the get go. The whole idea of seeking any form of purification is way off from my understand of UUism, especially Universalism. To take up Kate's point about positive frames - this anti- approach makes it that much more difficult when I try to lead religious education programs geared towards positive definitions. Rather than what is wrong, what would it look like to be ok? How about that as a goal?

At June 7, 2007 at 7:00:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not involved with UU politics, but was surprised to hear about that bag lunch silliness. Things like that only add to an atmosphere of fragmentation and defensiveness, as you suggested. There must be a more helpful direction to focus on.

Side note: I wish the rest of the US had the same sensible gun control laws that Massachusetts has. Now there's a conversation that's being avoided.

At June 13, 2007 at 1:23:00 AM EDT, Blogger Robin Edgar said...

What best efforts are you referring to Ellis? If people genuinely put their best efforts into dealing with the issues you raised and others there would be a lot less brokenness and suffering in the U*U world and the real world. A lot of brokenness and suffering is due to the fact that people put little or no effort into repairing the damage and healing the suffering.

At June 13, 2007 at 6:21:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

I understand Ellis's point perfectly well. Upholding and encouraging virtue while acknowledging the inadequacy or ultimate futility of human efforts at righteousness is a strong theme in some religions. (I'm thinking particularly of Christianity and Norse religion, but it appears in others as well.) When we do fail, which will happen, we need to be encouraged to try, try again, not be berated for our failure or inherent depravity.


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