About ten years ago when I was working on my doctoral thesis on the covenant tradition in the congregational church from the Puritan era through to the contemporary, I blogged quite a bit about my research. In one post, I wrote that there is no legitimate religious use of the word “covenant” that does not explicitly include or at least imply what I called a “transcendent referent,” ie, either God or some shared concept of a greater reality that calls a people out of individualistic concerns and into community ethos.
UUs absolutely freaked out.
It didn’t matter that we’re a supposedly rational people and an intellectual tradition, dozens of Unitarian Universalists poured into the comments section with raging remarks and irrational denials of simple historical fact. Suddenly the great UU respect for scholarship and academic bona fides was given the big heave-ho as people who were, as we say, getting all up in their feelings denied that they were, in fact, getting all up in their feelings. People whose entire acquaintance with the concept of covenant amounted to a few years in a congregational setting and zero formal study on the matter felt entitled to inform me that I was wrong and they were right. They were right because they had feelings, not because they had any actual knowledge – but they were unable to acknowledge that, preferring to deny my expertise in favor of their emotions.
Rationalism works kind of funny that way. Unitarian Universalists might do better to honor emotional intelligence and maturity as deeply as we (claim to) prize intellectual prowess.
The whole experience was so disturbing I actually quit blogging for years.
So I recognize what’s happening right now as Unitarian Universalists petulantly refuse to adjust their concept of the term “white supremacy” because it makes them personally uncomfortable.
Suddenly, and again, our vaunted intellectualism disappears as UUs throw temper tantrums on Facebook decrying the use of “white supremacy” to refer to anything outside of their mental map and accustomed usage. Because “white supremacist” means Ku Klux Klan member to them, and because they consider themselves good liberals, and non-racists, they are literally throwing themselves on the floor of the classroom that is our faith tradition and refusing to listen to the teacher.
What none of them will admit is that their resistance is deeply racist (and sexist, since so many of our teachers are women of color), no matter how much they claim they are miraculously untouched by that particular social evil. White Unitarian Universalists are not used to being told that class is in session by non-white leaders unless they have invited those leaders to speak to them within the confines of a lectureship or guest preacher role, where the white UUs can pride themselves on their inclusivity and openness to different perspectives — and then maintain their systems and norms after the guest has left the premises.
Class is in session! Healthy and mature Unitarian Universalists know we must learn and catch up fast, and we are being given tools to do so by academics in critical race theory, who have given us a helpful — if painful — broader definition of white supremacy than we have worked with before. This usage is not that hard to understand — it’s not rocket science. Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation,
In academic usage, particularly in usage drawing on critical race theory, the term “white supremacy” can also refer to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy a structural advantage (privilege) over other ethnic groups, both at a collective and an individual level.
NOT. THAT. HARD.
But white Unitarian Universalists who are having a very difficult time removing themselves from the center of the universe that has always revolved around them are interrupting, disrupting, arguing about this term and hijacking the conversation because they feel that their liberal credentials are being called into question, and that hurts their feelings.
If I hear one more white UU tell me that they marched for Civil Rights, as though marching fifty years ago (and then returning to spend the next five decades in an all-white town) magically conveyed lifelong wisdom and “wokeness.” Touching the hem of MLK’s garment didn’t save anyone’s soul for all time. We are in continuing education here. Class is in session.
If I hear one more white UU tell a woman of color why she’s wrong about racism, that she’s going to “turn people off” if she persists in using the term white supremacy in the broader way — ! This noisy white nonsense is Exhibit A of race privilege. Apparently it is a problem to potentially offend white UUs, and not a problem that we have already offended at least thousands of potential Unitarian Universalists who tried to find a home with us but could not endure our unexamined white supremacist institutions, practices and attitudes.
Do an audit:
Are all the books on your shelves by white authors?
Is it possible for you to spend days without ever seeing a person of color (who isn’t in a service industry position)?
Are all the leaders in your town or city government white?
Have you never worked under the authority of a person of color who had the power to hire and fire you or your family?
How white is your local police force?
Are all your kid’s teachers white?
Do you have any friends who aren’t white, and do you feel that people of color owe you their friendship and trust just because you “made an effort?”
That’s white supremacy. That isn’t “just how life is” or “beyond my control.” Unitarian Universalists are implicated in white supremacy and we have a lot of work to do. Those who don’t want to be in the classroom should stop dominating the conversation and disrupting the rest of the class. We know who our teachers are, and we do not need consensus approval to want and need to be taught by those people.
A common complaint when such conflicts arise is that someone is denying “my” inherent worth and dignity” or “violating our covenantal commitments.” Some well-meaning Unitarian Universalists fall for this blatant manipulation and even try to adjust the terms of the conversation to try to “include” these individuals.
This instinct has destroyed more Unitarian Universalist conversations and congregations than I can count.
The first premise of a covenanted community is that all those who voluntarily join it have consented to be made a people. See my blog post here for a further explanation. Those stubborn, exhausting, combative individuals who suck all the air out of the room because they will not (and perhaps cannot) consent to move forward with an initiative to grow and learn are in violation of our covenant, not the impatient or even angry others who are urging them to get over themselves, acknowledge that the concept is difficult for them personally (these people never admit that their reluctance to concede a point is personally, emotionally hard for them — it’s always a philosophical or historical or linguistic error they claim to be correcting) and stop hogging the microphone.
Anger is not a violation of covenant. Frustration is not a violation of anyone’s inherent worth and dignity. What is a violation of covenant is to loudly occupy a central location in a conversation and derail it because of individual immaturity, sexist entitlement, white privilege or what the Bible so wonderfully names “hard-heartedness.” What is a violation of covenant is to prevent, by constant interruption and debate, the community from moving forward in the work to which it has committed itself. What is a violation of covenant, however well-meaning, is for those who are uncomfortable in the presence of discomfort to enable the perpetrators of covenantal violation. Just today I saw a thoughtful and kind Unitarian Universalist woman ask such a person, “What term would work for you?”
This is the essence of individualistic enabling. We cannot literally change the terms of the conversation to pander to those who don’t think we should even be having the conversation. Nothing will mollify these people but that the subject be dropped and they have had their way. They are anti-progressive; they are regressive in ways that white liberals fail to recognize and name in the service of keeping the peace or ostensibly respecting someone’s inherent worth and dignity. Such keeping of the peace is, ironically and sadly, a favorite tactic of white supremacist systems.
We may make some real progress in the Unitarian Universalist Association when we begin to actively and consistently shut down invocations of the first principle that are intended to protect privilege and regression. I hope our new UUA president will speak directly to this abuse of a beautiful and worthy moral commitment.
In the meantime, class is in session. I invite you, in the comments, to name and provide links to articles, videos and posts by those people of color in UUism who are leading the effort and whose work inspires you.