The White Supremacy Controversy in the UUA: Our Call To Covenant

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.

 

Outliving A Parent

When I turned fifty in January, it was big for one reason: my dad had died at fifty.

Had it not been for that, I wouldn’t have cared much. Age doesn’t bother me but this milestone bothered me a LOT.

Many of you will understand. Over the years I have collected stories from sympathetic people who get it. They too live with ghosts: siblings who died young whose unlived lives occasionally walk into the room on an anniversary and afflict them with love and sorrow and survivor guilt. Veterans who sit in impenetrable silence after the Memorial Day service, barely able to speak of the thick presence of spirit around them of men who died in battle while they went home.  Was it they who died with their comrades or is it that their comrades are living in them, taking up such subtle residence in their own lives that they go unnoticed until bidden forth and openly acknowledged in prayer and ritual?

An entire graduating class of students who will never walk by the diploma on their wall without a pit-in-the-stomach remembrance of a classmate who accidentally strangled on the monkey bars or died when the bus returning from the field hockey tournament overturned on an slick road. Time is not linear, it is series of overlapping and intertwined playground slides.

I don’t want to live an unhaunted life.  I believe it is our duty to the dead to carry them as they carry us within the multiple dimensions where souls and time swirl in some intricate pattern that Einstein never imagined but possibly intuited.

My father died at fifty. He had had heart problems that were exacerbated by his Type A+ personality, his uncontrollable (and now, I see, utterly ridiciulous and narcissistic) rages, his workaholism and his “bum arteries.” It was also the 1970’s and early 80’s when the end of his story unfolded and cardiac care was in its infancy. When he had open heart surgery he had to travel from Connecticut to Ohio, and his recovery was long and serious, endured by the whole family around a rented hospital bed in the living room. He was considered an invalid, and a ticking time bomb.

Nowadays, the Carl Weinsteins of the world go in for a triple bypass and come out a few days later with instructions to return to normal activity as soon as possible. I’ve seen men in their seventies have quadruple bypass surgeries and live happy subsequent decades of golfing and Sunday prime rib dinners.

My father died at fifty and it was a personal tragedy for me. There are greater losses and more serious injustices in the world than a child of 17 losing her father on a Tuesday afternoon in April. But we do not tell our stories to compare suffering. I should know better than to even mention the relative scope of my loss. Pain that crushes, crushes. This loss crushed me. It is my “original wound,” as Henri Nouwen put it.

As the decades wore on, I had time to “heal,” or to put the loss into perspective, and more importantly, to dismantle the private religion of Weinstein worship in which I had grown up and been ordained. My paternal extended family has a gift of  huge charisma, self-mythologizing, warm grandiosity, pride and (thank God) self-directed humor. We are an intense tribe, a sarcastic one, and a loyal one. We are as colorfully dysfunctional as any family. I have come to understand that the devastating persecution suffered by our kin in Europe — and the slaughter by the Nazis of those Weinsteins who did not emigrate to the United States — is the foundation of the American Weinsteins’ zealous commitment to survive, thrive, contribute to society, and tell our stories.

I learned only recently, in fact, that a branch of my Romanian family escaped the pogroms and fled to Paris where they lived well and happily for decades until they were rounded up by the Vichy government and sent to Dachau. On my most recent trip to Paris I had “just happened” upon the very small memorial marker near the Eiffel Tower Metro that identified the place where Jews were rounded up before deportation and “happened” to mention it to a family member. Didn’t we have relatives who escaped Romania for Paris? Yes, and they fled from virulent Romanian anti-Semitism right into Hitler’s gas chambers.

How had I never heard this?

These stories were too traumatic to tell, so we told stories of success: educational, professional, personal. We romanticized ourselves and our domineering papas watched their children with eagle eyes for evidence of the talent, brilliance, poise, beauty and integrity we were damned well expected to have. We were Weinsteins. 

Being a Weinstein is no longer my primary identity. It is one of the many things that I am.

In 1983, Carl Davis Weinstein “succumbed,” as they said in his obituary, at fifty. His second child turned fifty in 2016 and celebrated her birthday and then released a sigh of relief that it was over. Continue reading “Outliving A Parent”

Teacher

One of my very favorite ministerial tasks is to teach. I wish I had time to do more of it. Last night, I started a three-session course called “Encountering Jesus” and we began with Jesus As Healer and the healing miracles. I happened to look up just as a participant got an “ah ha” light in her eyes — that “I just learned something really cool” expression, and I felt an actual thrill go through my body.

I did get a call to ministry, but the first and really supernatural call I got was to be a teacher.

When I was in college, I dropped out of the music major my second week of school. I knew it was wrong for me. I ran from the School of Music to the English Department and nicely and desperately demanded that they enroll me late in a Freshman Seminar. My only requirement was that it be meeting that day, that hour. The administrator was aghast. “There are waiting lists for all the seminars,” she said. I stood there and pointed at the enrollment list. “Just add me to that one,” I said. “That one looks good. Yes, that’ll do. That looks like the perfect seminar to add me to right now” until she relented and gave me the pass slip to class. (I actually couldn’t even see the title of the seminar — I just knew I needed to get into one).  I arrived late, sat next to a guy who would wind up becoming one of my best friends and who would introduce me the boy who would be my boyfriend for the next seven years, and switched majors.

I never doubted my impulsive decision. Not only was it the prompting of my own soul, I decided that my dad had come through from the spirit world to give his support and approval.  I felt it was a sign that, as I was crossing campus to bolt for the English Department, I heard someone playing “Clair de Lune” on a dorm piano in one of the quads. That was the last song played at my father’s funeral two years prior.

People ask how God works in people’s lives who believe in God. To me, God works as a felt presence, intuitions and uncomfortable and often disturbing inbreaking of inconvenient truths. When I try to detour around the promptings of the Holy, I inevitably get busted. And I mean truly, deeply busted in real time, and sometimes for a long time.

God is an energy with which I try to sync myself; a wave I try to ride without flailing against it. I love the last line of our church affirmation, “to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine.”  I am always trying to be obedient and grow into harmony with God. It doesn’t make me sweet, it doesn’t make me nice, it doesn’t make me not irritated or angry, it doesn’t necessarily make me more likeable to others. I used to think it would.  What it does make me is peaceful and very happy. All is well with my soul. The peace that passeth understanding, and still no time for foolishness.

I understand now that God blesses and graces — God doesn’t grant personality transplants.

You may wonder what caused me to bolt out of Concert Choir that fateful morning in September of 1988 in Evanston, Illinois at around 10:00 AM, rush to the registrar’s office to find out what I would have to do to quit the School of Music and be admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences and make a break for the English Department in time for a noon seminar.

Here’s what happened. I had started classes a couple of weeks prior, and had felt a sense of real grief and dismay when I looked at my course line-up of all music studies, all semester. Voice lessons, Italian lessons, keyboard, music theory, concert choir. No literature, no history, no humanities? My advisor assured me that I’d have some electives in junior year and could diversify at that point. My heart sank, but I wasn’t old enough yet to respect that sensation and get the heck out then and there.

Holding onto that unexpressed dismay and sense of loss of broader academic study somewhere in my heart and soul, I stood that morning to sing with a large ensemble of other first year music students. We were singing “Carmina Burana.” The sound was extraordinary. The young singers were serious and amazingly talented, happy to be there, excited to devote their lives to music, and all skilled at sight-reading. I knew I was out of my league and more than that, that I was not willing to do the work required to become as good as any of them. I had neither the discipline nor the desire. I felt like laughing out loud. “Oh my GOD, I am SO not qualified to be here!”

I have always had the happy ability to recognize talent and appreciate it, and not to feel threatened by other people’s talent. I felt great admiration for my peers and in no way diminished by their excellence. I simply knew that I couldn’t rate and that was okay.  I had such clarity.

The funniest part of this story is who God/Fate/Trickster put me between that morning. On one side of me was Sarah Pfisterer. On the other side of me was Mary Dunleavy. Both of these lovely, now highly-acclaimed sopranos lived in my dorm and hung out with me after I quit the voice major, telling me that I had a great voice and shouldn’t be discouraged. I said to both of them, “No, you guys — YOU have great voices. You have great voices, you stand a chance at really making it, I’m fine but I’m not anywhere near your calibre.”

(I see that Mary just played Musetta in “La Boheme” at the Met in January, which I actually saw on the 13th for my birthday!!– I’m sorry I didn’t see it one of the nights she was singing! I was happy to be able to see Sarah play Christine in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and as Magnolia in the national touring company of “Showboat”).

The next year, after the dust had settled on my dramatic transition from voice to English major, I was required to choose a major within the English major. The choices were English Literature, The Teaching Of English and something else I have forgotten — maybe writing? Or poetry? Anyway, I do remember sitting with my course catalogue in my lap wondering which one I should choose. I idly flipped through the pages, assuming that I’d choose the literature track but glancing at some of the other track’s requirements. I had no desire to take the boring education courses, and I wasn’t a writer, so…

And then I heard a voice, as loud as if the person had been standing right next to the bed where I was sitting. It said, “You are going to be a teacher.”

Here’s how I reacted. I said to myself, “Hmm. Okay, I guess I’ll go for The Teaching Of English concentration, then.”

No fanfare, no questioning, no wondering, no second-guessing. A mystical experience that set the course for my life and I was completely matter of fact about responding. I still marvel at that.

I was to hear that same voice speak one other time the next year, but that’s another story.

I heard a voice say, “You’re going to be a teacher,” so I obeyed.

And that obedience has given me a life of joy and fulfillment, although the forms of my teaching have changed over the decades.

Last night, the thrill of that original calling returned to me full force. It may not be a big thing, but because it has been exactly the right thing, I shall not want.