fewer lines in the sand, more listening (part I)

Recently, the Rev. Tom Schade published a series of posts suggesting that today’s political conservatism is wholly inconsistent with the values of Unitarian Universalism.  To those who claim both allegiances, Schade says “Show your work”—how do you get from your faith to your politics?  I take issue with this, not because I don’t think the questions are valid, but because I’m not persuaded that it makes sense, given the number of ethical and practical conflicts that we all live with each day, to level these challenges at one particular group of UUs.

Maintaining right relations—with each other, with our communities, and with the broader world—is demanding, soul-searching work.  But it’s not work that belongs most particularly to one group or another—it’s the work of all of us.  And so, perhaps we can say, to conservative UUs, to liberal UUs, and to everyone in between: Tell your story.  Explain your reasoning.  Show your work.  And then listen, in a spirit of honest curiosity, as we consider the answers.  What does our religion require of us, individually and together?

As we examine these questions—stepping up to the plate ourselves–carefully and respectfully, freely and responsibly—we create the safe space that might allow others to do the same.  This is valuable, as those who choose to worship among us have self-selected, perhaps more than they consciously know, to invest some effort in the task of living spiritually-connected lives.  As Unitarian Universalists, we are not the Nones–those who have opted for a life of secularism–but a religious people who have entered into a covenant that includes invitation to spiritual growth.

So let’s provide that challenge to grow, and Rev. Schade has highlighted some areas where discussion in our congregations might be helpful and illuminating.  But let’s also accept that the invitation to self-examination, and the discoveries that follow, are going to change not just the one we think needs to be changed, but us, too.  In talking openly with those with whom we disagree, we will be made different, and we need to be.  Not because we need to believe in equality of opinion, as individuals or as a movement, but because we believe in the power of stories to shape the world–and to reshape our perceptions of it–and we each must tell our own.

On that note, here is a little piece of my story, as it relates to opinions, values, politics, and our relationship to and with the Infinite.  Our minister–let’s call her Jane–occasionally posts an article or meme related to a social justice issue on her publicly-accessible facebook wall.  One recent post was about abortion; I responded to it explaining that I don’t think the discussion needs to be all-or-nothing on either side, and that I, for example, am both pro-choice and a supporter of the codification of some fetal rights.  Conversation up to that point had been a range of “Amen!” and “Rah-rah!” comments about the original post.  After my response–cue crickets.  (Jane respectfully acknowledged my post and looked for areas of agreement, but the silence from other participants felt deafening.  On the whole, I wondered if it was perhaps shameful in UU circles to even frame the issue as two sets of rights to balance, rather than as an outrageous usurpment of one.)

Not long afterward, some members of my church were socializing together before a meeting, and the topic of the anti-abortion movement in the U.K. came up.  Opponents of abortion reportedly staged silent vigils across from women’s clinics, handing out leaflets to women who passed by.  “Those people are just crazy!” exclaimed one member, and the others nodded their agreement.  My husband replied that he didn’t think it was that the protesters were crazy, but that they were living their values—different, but strongly-held—in a way that made sense to them.  Crickets again . . . and then a hasty change of subject.

I share this example because it is one in which my husband and I hold what is—so far as I can tell—a fairly moderate view [namely, that abortion should be safe, legal, and an option of last resort, one particularly eschewed after the point of viability] in terms of the range of opinions in our society, but which is an extreme view in the context of Unitarian Universalism. I will share more about this, from a different perspective, in my next post.  For the moment, a few words about how my take on abortion fits with my larger faith—my response to the calling to account for which Rev. Schade speaks.

I arrived at this opinion—having spent much of a decade information tabling for Planned Parenthood—through my experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and pregnancy loss.  It is a view dictated by my heart and my soul more than by my head, and it’s been both challenged and supported in my journey since then.  I have researched and written in the special education context in support of fetal rights—and the rights to life, dignity, and bodily integrity of all who cannot speak for themselves.  Far from conflicting with my UU faith, it is my deep concern for the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people that leads me to reflect upon and speak about my own views on abortion, counter to prevailing UU opinion though they may be.

Do my fellow congregants agree with my thoughts about this?  I’m not sure, as we haven’t found a space or format in which we can really discuss it [aside: this space is sorely needed, as are the willingness and practical skills to engage, and it’s not just UUs that are missing these–it’s our society], but my guess is no.  Should I be called to account for my reasoning should I decide to stand and speak for what I believe to be just and humane?  Definitely.  But do I have a higher burden of obligation to do that than someone speaking on the other side, simply because my opinion is less common in this faith?  What presuppositions do we make about the values and scruples of those who reach different conclusions—and what do those judgments say about us, as a movement?

To those who would assert that this calling-to-account of some members is not because their opinions are different, but because the opinions conflict with our principles, I ask: how do we get from “our principles” to the intolerance of some theological beliefs within individual UU congregations?  How do “our principles” guide our blindness to the empty plate at our own congregational table, or inspire us to do first for ourselves and share with others what is left over?  They don’t, of course, but our congregations deal with both of these issues–or in some cases, choose not to deal with them–constantly.

I suspect that we each struggle, at least insofar as our eyes and hearts are open, to discern the meaning and the imperative behind our values, and to live in accord with that.  That’s part of why we need religion–it’s hard to live a life of worth and decency without examining our choices.  Thus, the hypocrisy we’re talking about today is just easy pickings–it’s visible, and it’s about “someone else.”  Just this once, let’s skip the low-hanging fruit and see if we can go deeper into what matters.

The reality is, those who disagree with us are, in general, not crazy.  They are people, often people who care deeply about the same sorts of things that we care about, who have arrived at different conclusions.  But a common reaction—perhaps even our default reaction, these days—is to view those people as “the other,” and to see them only through the lens of our disagreement on an issue.  And there are tangible benefits to doing this.  First, fear of the Other can unify a group into a cohesive Us like nothing else—for an extreme example of this, consider the instant national unity, from the mountains to the prairies to the halls of Congress, after 9/11.  Further, it feels good; righteous outrage stimulates the pleasure centers of our brains, and makes the complicated, headache-inducing dilemmas we face everyday seem much simpler.  And while it’s disappointing, we UUs are not immune to this simplification-by-way-of-Other . . . sometimes it is even preached from our pulpits.  (Perhaps this surprises you—I hope it does, actually, as that might mean it is rare—but I have seen it happen.  And friends, it is ugly.)

Drawing a line in the sand.  An old metaphor.

Why is this call to establish [and enforce?] a UU line in our politics happening now?  Is it necessary?  And where else might we choose to go in the call to deepen our commitments to living our spiritual principles?

More on that soon.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of this discussion.


6 thoughts on “fewer lines in the sand, more listening (part I)

  1. And this is where UU is baffling to me. For as much as it wants to be seen as a “I’m okay, you’re okay” group, I don’t think it’s that way. If it is truly a gathering of people from different walks/faiths, why wouldn’t an open dialogue ensue? My knee-jerk reaction is then, “You’re no better than (fill in other religion/group).”

    And, a story. Each year the ladies at work adopt several families from WCS, which assists single mothers and facilitates adoptions. Each year I take my child with me and we shop for toys for these other children, talking about how we have enough and we’re making their year special. We’ve been lucky enough each year to buy for a child my son’s age. Last year we received the thank you letter. In it, the mother disclosed that it had been a tough year. They have four children and found themselves expecting another. They were forced to give the fifth child up for adoption, knowing they would not be able to care for it. Here is a married couple, with children, having to make this decision. I was floored. It was an important reminder to me that if I’m going to live pro-life, I must take efforts to support pro-life.

    • I think the problem is less a failing of our religion than one of our individual humanity. Leaving aside that while we are a “you’re ok, I’m ok” faith, we’re not a “believe what you like and live how you like” faith-The ‘Responsible’ part of our fourth principle is a very important one that is often overlooked- I think if we lived up to our highest ideals, open dialogue WOULD ensue when issues like these presented themselves. But we are fallible people, which is why we need ministry, and sometimes blogs, to gently guide us back to our path.

      • But isn’t “believe what you like” at the core of UU? That’s how Christians, Atheists, Humanists, etc. end up all together, right? I think this is the part I don’t understand. Is there a place for an open discussion between these groups about something as deep as abortion? If one person believes the fetus has a soul and should be protected, won’t it conflict with a person who doesn’t believe in souls? Where is the middle ground for something like that?

        And, since typing leaves much to interpretation, I’m legitimately asking from a place of curiosity.

      • Let me first say that my response is just that – MY personal understanding of UU values and principles. You will undoubtedly get other answers from other UUs because yes – we value “free thought.”

        To answer your first question: yes and no. We do believe in people making their own spiritual and religious decisions. We’re not out to convert anyone, UU evangelism is more about getting the message that we exist out to people who might already be seeking us. That said, however, you cannot believe anything you like AND BE UU. As I said before, this is a common (and damaging, in my opinion) misunderstanding. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal faith. If your beliefs are primarily conservative, you’re likely to find a better match for your religious home elsewhere.

        Further, our principles very clearly state that individuality and humanitarianism, kindness, personal, spiritual, and social responsibility, democracy, justice, and environmental responsibility are what make us who we are as a religious movement. As with anything else, what those principles mean, exactly, is up for interpretation. But if you flat-out disagree that those things are important, meaningful, and worthwhile, you can’t really call yourself a Unitarian Universalist. Responsibility is a subjective word, really, but I take “responsible search for truth and meaning” (fourth principle) to mean that we are searching within our understood shared values. If your search for truth leads you to believe that only white men should hold power, you’re not being responsible in the UU context.

        Relating that back to the topic at hand – you can interpret the first principle (and several of the others, but let’s take that one as an example) in different ways. “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Well, what is a person? That might be and certainly IS a more personal question. J stated above, “Far from conflicting with my UU faith, it is my deep concern for the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people that leads me to reflect upon and speak about my own views on abortion.” I have given much consideration to this question as well, and my current conclusion is that I have to match the inherent worth and dignity of the mother (and the fetus) with the right of conscience (fifth principle) and the interdependent web of existence (seventh principle). These lead me to a place of a pro-choice stance. Neither of us are *wrong* in the context of our UU principles. Our applications may be different, and yes, that is ok.

        To answer the second question: If we as a religious movement, as a faith, as a denomination, as a congregation, cannot find a place to have an open discussion about deep topics, we are doing it wrong. Why do we exist, if we can’t openly and gently discuss these issues–if not with the world at large, then at least within a safe space of people who agree with us In Principle?

        Our third principle calls for acceptance of one another (to my understanding, in the context I’ve described above) and encouragement to spiritual growth. That’s what I read as the crux of this post – that if we are living up to our third principle, and to the highest ideals of our religious movement, we will find a way to stop drawing lines in the sand, to step away from the polarization of these sensitive topics and discuss them in meaningful ways. We should wrestle TOGETHER with how our principles apply to the momentous challenges we face in our lives.

        End novel. And thank you for your open inquiry and honest listening. It’s refreshing. Anyone else out there “listening,” please chime in, correct me if I’m wrong, or guide me to new understanding and growth as you see fit.

  2. Well you already know my thoughts about those “others,” and I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that I applaud your post and your nerve loudly. I’m curious what you mean by “fetal rights,” because what I’m thinking of doesn’t go with “abortion should be legal.” – I’m guessing you mean something different than I’m thinking.

    But I agree that I wish these polarizing conversations – about abortion, guns, and all the nitty-gritty one-sided issues of politics – could be undertaken with more compassion. We covenant to “seek the truth in love.” Doesn’t that mean we explore together what the truth might be, with a spirit of love and compassion?

    As ever, I am glad to read what you’re writing.

  3. Pingback: Crossing borders, the words we use, generosity, and more UU blogging « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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