Thursday, May 31, 2007

Henry Louis Gates' Bag Party

Jfield comments on how recent the use of the brown bag as a measuring rod has been, saying that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. experienced it in the Ivy League.

Here is Gates describing the incident on Book Notes, in an interview with Brian Lamb.

When I was at Yale, for example -- I went there in '69 and...

LAMB: Undergraduate?

GATES: Undergraduate.

LAMB: Studying what, by the way?

GATES: American history, though I took a lot of Afro-Am courses on the side, but I was a history major. I remember the first year I was there -- the first month I was there, we had this special meeting of the Black Student Alliance to talk to the black men -- young black men from New Orleans, some of whom were very light complected. And they wanted to have something called a bag party. So, you know, what's a bag party? They wanted to put this paper bag over the door and anyone who was darker than the paper bag couldn't get into the party. So, you know, I looked at them -- I was secretary of the Black Student Alliance -- everyone from the North and everyone who had any kind of sense and was not from New Orleans said, "We've never heard of a such a thing. You guys can't do this. I mean, this is some sort of antiquated, sick relic of the past. I mean, you can't do that."

And that practice stopped, and then I later found out through black history classes that that sort of thing had been going on in New Orleans for a very long time. The point is that you can internalize your own oppression. You can take on the forms of sickness, through which oppressors try to control you, whether you're a woman or a gay person or a person of color. And our job, in part, as academics is to fight against those sort of tendencies within those respective groups. That's not sufficient reason -- I mean, reasons of self-esteem are not sufficient reasons to justify the existence of, say, women's studies or gay studies or African-American studies in the academy by any means. But that is an aftereffect of the kind of work that we do in the academy if you're in, say, ethnic studies.

Jfield says "that's good enough for me."

Good enough for what?

No one doubted the information -- what was questioned was whether the information called for the consequences that were stated as having happened in the original Mummert sermon: that SKSM would change the name of the brown bag lunch to something else, and the unmistakable implication that this was what good people ought to do.

Now, it appears that the consequence was stated inaccurately -- that nobody took this that seriously because they still use brown bags and go to brown bag lunches throughout the GTU.

So what happened? It's all quite unclear. Under critical questioning initiated by Peacebang, who gets reviled in the process, the thing becomes misty and vague. But the surviving message is that "don't ever question the important work that the SKSM is doing."

Brown Bags

Ok, I will get into this one as well.
For those who stepped out briefly: here is the backstory.

Melissa Mummert, in a sermon reprinted in Quest, describes Starr King School for the Ministry's decision to cease using the phrase "brown bag lunch".

Peacebang comments on this, and not in a supportive way.

Much commenting ensues. Most of it is a defense of SKSM's curriculum's focus on anti-oppression.

My interest was piqued by the blog entry of the Left Coast Unitarian.

Key paragraph:

For me the actual matter of dispute is fairly simple. If a person of color, especially an elder, suggests that a particular term is not the most inviting way to title or describe a gathering, I will take them at their word absent a good deal of evidence.

On a very small scale, herein lies the weakness of much of the anti-racism and anti-oppression work that has been done among Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century. This paragraph describes an asymmetrical relationship and a lack of mutual critical accountability. It goes far beyond the small things -- titles of gatherings -- but extends to highest levels of analysis.

Read over Melissa Mummert's sermon again, which describes in detail, how she learned that the phrase "brown bag lunch" was unacceptable at SKSM. It was just announced. She was silent, but did not understand. Someone else cautiously raised the question as to why this change was necessary, and Mummert internally cheered. A brief explanation was given, and that was sufficient to end the discussion.

Why? There are so many questions unanswered here, which require a critical spirit to raise. Just from my knowledge of history:

  1. My understanding is that the brown bag test was a means of enforcing color lines within the African American community in New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century. Was it used by whites as well? (Whites in the South did not distinguish between light-skinned and darker African Americans when it came to segregation.)
  2. Is this practice in the current memory of African Americans, or is it a recovered historical fact?
  3. Was the phrase "brown Bag lunch" itself used as a code to describe who was and who was not welcome at lunch?
  4. Are brown paper bags themselves objects that are avoided in African American communities because of their role in the racial history of the US.
  5. What attitude should white people take toward color prejudice in the African American community?
  6. What does knowledge of this piece of US racial history require of us? So what? Does it follow that we ought to not use the phrase "brown bag lunch"? Should we not use brown bags at all?
In order to raise these questions, which could conceivably require more research and reflection, one has to be able to hold as a possible answer: this fact about brown bags is interesting, but essentially unimportant. But in an intellectual environment where the value of information is determined by who provides it, such criticism is not welcome. The only question really allowed, is "Please, I don't understand and it troubles me, explain some more, so I can be reunited with you."

Such an attitude, as so briefly summarized by the Left Coast Unitarian, leads first, to intellectual laziness, secondly, to relationships of domination and subordination and finally to the abuse of power.

What the Left Coast Unitarian describes is, in compressed form, is a theory of the sociology of knowledge, an essential piece of the whole construct of Dialectical and Historical Materialism, as developed by Lenin, Stalin and Mao. It has a history, and has been put into practice, and the consequences have been made clear. It is a theory of knowledge that does not advance understanding and greater knowledge, but subordinates knowledge to the acquisition and maintenance of power.

When I talk about this, I am not talking about far away places and times gone by. The attitude toward knowledge, criticism and mutual moral accountability that the Left Coast Unitarian describes explains why our Unitarian Universalist movement has been studying racism and oppression for about a decade now, and is less sophisticated in its understanding of it than people were in 1975.

A final self-advertisement. Click on my longer paper "Anti-Racism Decoded" in the right column for a much longer analysis of anti-racism in the UUA, as I saw it at the time of the Nashville GA in what? 2000?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The hidden cause

It is my belief that the hidden cause of the anxiety-provoking weakness of the UUA is simple. We are a religious organization that marginalizes and disempowers its religious professionals in the leadership of its affairs, especially its most successful ministers.

  • We hold our annual convention at the time of the year when our ministers are least ready to exert any leadership.
  • This year we are inviting our congregational leaders to come and learn together at UU University, at a time which competes with minister's meetings.
  • Our national leaders understand that national leadership positions are not possible for successful parish ministers.
  • We think that communicating with the larger culture is "marketing" and we hire marketing consultants to do it. Communicating to the larger culture is "sharing our gospel" and it is a religious/theological/evangelical task. Did Jesus hire a marketing consultant to come up with "The Kingdom of God is at Hand."?
  • Much of the conflict over "congregational polity" is, in my opinion, a shadow conflict between the national staff and the parish ministers.

No wonder that we are "The Lowest Common Denomination." (snark)

My suspicion is that the culling of the IA herd is an attempt to minimize the distractions that keep the association from doing the work that it needs to do to fashion the liberal religious message and ministry to this culture at this time. But that work is first and foremost the work of our parish ministers, who have to preach such a message every week. Empowering them to do that work of clarifying our message and ministry at the association level is the necessary step.

It does not follow

that "congregational polity" means that trans-congregational organizations, memberships and networks are somehow illegitimate.

Whatever you think, the way that information flows and the kinds of connections that people can make means that Unitarian Universalism, like all movements, parties, denominations, and organizations will exist in an open network of many-to-many connections. UU's from across the county and across the world will form connections around special interests, shared identities and common causes. That toothpaste is already out of the tube.

More on the IA Mystery --Going a Little Deeper

Unitarian Universalism is an organizationally anxious denomination.

  • We know that we are not growing fast enough to keep up with the population.
  • It is hard for us to articulate what we feel are our shared message, mission and goals.
  • We feel weak in the overall religious environment of the country.
  • We are diverse in our understanding of what we are and are doing, enough so that when we look around at other UU's, we often feel that we are not sure that we belong. It is easy to imagine that the whole thing could go in a direction where we would no longer feel comfortable.

In sum, most of us want Unitarian Universalism to be stronger, more organized, more powerful and more united, and more capable. At the same time, we see other UU's as potential threats and rivals and obstacles.

I would love it if Unitarian Universalism grew more bigger and more powerful and more organized, IF it still includes me, and the kind of church I serve. If on the other hand, it grows more powerful and strong, but is composed of congregations, theologies and social stances that don't include me, then I am a bit more skeptical.

The Independent Affiliates are the "identified patient" in this anxious system right now.

For a start, the IA's include almost every kind of group.

  • When person X says that they think that the IA's need to be culled, they are thinking "Good, let's get rid of those theological caucuses like CUUPS and the UUCF and the UUBF, who are preventing us from uniting theologically."
  • Person Y is in complete agreement with culling the herd, but is thinking "Great, let's get rid of the weird cause groups: the Polyamorists, the Ethical Animal Crowd, and everybody who creeps me out and stands between me and the bookstore in the exhibition hall."
  • Person Z is thinking, "Get rid of them all, they are distorting GA and keeping it from being a representative body of congregational leaders."
We should understand that no one is stopping us from doing what we need to do, and that culling the herd of Independent Affiliates is not going to strengthen our congregational role in association decision making, nor bring about the discussion that creates greater theological clarity among us, nor strengthen our sense of mission. The IA's are at worst a small distraction to those tasks, if we let ourselves be distracted, but could be important assets in that work.

Why the Independent Affiliate Mystery matters

So, the UUA board rejects the applications for a bunch of Independent Affiliates?
  • Weren't there too many of them anyway?
  • Aren't they an "organizational irregularity" in "An Association of Congregations" anyway?
  • Aren't some of them just kind of support groups?
  • Aren't others just political pressure groups that have as their purpose to lobby for certain political stances by the Association?
  • How many have more than token memberships?
  • Aren't they part of the problem of GA -- that bazaar of the bizarre that our substitute for a serious meeting where the work of the association can be carried out by representatives of our congregations?
  • And aren't some of those IA's responsible for our fracturing into hyphenated-UU's and actually prevent the kind of clarifying and unifying theological discussion which we need?
Independent Affiliates have been part of the organizational ecology of the UUA for many years now. They are trans-congregational memberships and networks, and this single form has become a catch-all form for almost any sort of grouping.

Somewhere, there is an analysis of what kinds of groups serve our larger purposes and fill a needed niche in the ecology, and which ones don't. Or is there such an analysis? So the first reason that it matters is that there needs to be some accountability and transparency about the real reasons why things like this happen.

I get the sense that the real reasons are hidden behind a veil of UU-speak. When the rule says that an organization needs to "model interdependence through engagement with our member congregations" that somebody somewhere has a pretty specific idea of what that means, and who is and who is not doing it. I think that we all have the right to know.

The Independent Affiliate Mystery

At its most recent meeting, the UUA Board rejected the applications of 15 of the 17 organizations who were re-applying for Independent Affiliate Status. I have read elsewhere that the board voted as follows. I have not been able to find the minutes online -- I suppose that they are still in process.


Council of Unitarian Universalists Camps and Conferences
Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry.

IA status was denied to the following groups:


Unitarian Universalist Men’s Network
Unitarian Sunday School Society
Faithful Fools Street Ministry
Lambda Ministers Guild
New Massachusetts Universalist Convention
Project Harvest Hope
The Unitarian Universalist Psi Symposium
Unitarian Universalist Retired Ministers and Partners Association
Unitarian Universalists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
District Presidents’ Association
Council on Church Staff Finances
Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice
Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship
Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans

The rules that spell out what is required for Independent Affiliate Status are here:

Rule 3.8.1. Application for Independent Affiliate Status.

Each applicant for independent affiliate status shall submit with its application:
  1. an attested copy of its charter, and, unless it is included in the charter, an attested copy of its purposes, objectives, and bylaws;
  2. the number of members or member groups in the organization;
  3. a list of the principal officers with their personal mail addresses, congregation membership or congregation where settled if the officer is a fellowshipped minister serving a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and the principal mail address of the organization;
  4. the contribution contemplated by rule 3.8.9;
  5. a financial statement showing income and expenses for the latest fiscal year preceding the date of filing and showing assets, liabilities and net worth as of the end of such fiscal year;
  6. the dates upon which its governing board met during the twelve months immediately preceding the date of filing;
  7. any yearly reports of its governing body and its principal officers sent to members during the twelve months immediately preceding the date of filing;
  8. evidence of whether it enjoys tax exempt status:
    1. under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code of 1954;
    2. as a registered charity as provided for in the Income Tax Act (Canada); or
    3. under the laws of the country governing the applicant's tax status;
  9. if the applicant does not enjoy tax exempt status, the reason or reasons it does not;
  10. a statement outlining how its purpose, mission and structure models interdependence through engagement with our member congregations, coordination or collaboration of effort and resources; and a statement outlining how the organization supports the transformation of institutions and our world to be aligned with those values expressed in our Principles; and
  11. any other information which the Board of Trustees of the Association shall require.
The letter sent out in April, 2007 inviting the applications for this board meeting is here.

The letter does not spell out the meaning of point "J" in the new rules.

Summing Up: The official document trail does not provide any real insight into the reasons and purposes for sudden disaffiliation of 15 of 17 applications for IA status. So, why? What purpose is being served? What was the precipitating event?

If you have any additional information, please leave it in the comments.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Testing What You Would Do

How bad a thing would you do, if it were to save something really good? Apparently, this is the dominant discourse in public moral theology these days. Is it OK for Jack Bauer to torture people on '24'? Do US Muslims think that suicide bomb attacks against civilians are justifiable? US soldiers and marines in Iraq have been recently quizzed on whether they think that abuse of civilians is OK. A wag recently commented that the Republican Presidential candidates are uniting around the position that they would relish the opportunity to send to Gitmo and torture illegal alien women until they give up the names of their abortion providers.

It is the Abraham and Isaac story again -- if you say that you will obey God, would you then murder your own son, if you thought that God commands it? It is a line of questioning that probes for the exact spot where two values which are normally seen as complementary become contradictory. After all, in most circumstances, protecting one's children and serving God are not seen as competing goods. The resulting moral inquiry is conducted by constructing speculative hypothetical situations, trying to uncover the ultimate value.

Most people are pragmatists when it comes to morality. They know that there are few moral absolutes so clear that it is impossible to imagine violating it for a greater good. Thou shalt not steal, but what about a man stealing bread for his hungry children? Thou shalt not kill, but what about shooting a guy who has opened fire in a schoolyard? So polls will, I would think, exeggarate the number of people who will not rule out really awful actions, simply because they resist absolute rules. Pragmatic people keep all options on the table.

In order for pragmatism to work, one has to delve deeply into the concrete reality of every situation. One commentator on one of the blogs writes that he would torture and kill a three year old child to save the country. But that is not the question anyone faces. Now, people are being asked to look the other way when three year old children are damaged because a desperate, politically unpopular President with a history of poor judgement has determined that such damage to three year old children is an acceptable cost to saving his reputation and his party's chances in the next election cycle.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

An Obvious Point, but needs to be said

UU's should encourage tithing.

UU leaders, ministers, staff, and lay, all agree that it is crucial to build "a culture of generosity" among Unitarian Universalists if we are ever going to do any of the things to which we aspire. In fact, it is the one thing that we agree on. Everyone from the flattest of the flat earth Humanists, to the most crusty nostalgic Christian, to the grooviest New Age hipster, to the UU comrade fresh from the barricades, all decry our legendary cheapness.

So why doesn't someone start thinking about how to encourage and recognize those who tithe? After all, we have national programs designed to encourage all sorts of other good behaviors, and to recognize those who are good examples. One gets all sorts of ribbons to wear on one's name badge, and one's congregation can be listed in lists in the UU World for all sorts of good things. One can even have little icons next to your congregations link if you are welcoming, or accessible. So, we are not afraid to make distinctions. So why are individual tithing not encouraged or recognized. Why isn't anybody thinking about this.

OK, I will.

1. We should define a suitable level of tithing. I think that the formula of 10% of income going to charity, and half of that going to the local church, and other UU institutions and organizations is a good measure. I think tithing should be definable by looking at the relationships between certain numbered lines on one's income tax return.

2. There should be national definition of tithing and national emphasis on tithing. So, it is not just old Rev. So and So trying to get a raise.

3. And there should be some way that tithers can be, at their own voluntary choice, be recognized as tithers. ANd we ought to encourage people to seek that recognition. Every person who tithes publicly helps set a new higher expectation for others.

When I consider my own congregation -- I think that the main effect of having tithing recognized as a general category -- even if no one was actually identified as a tither -- would be to turn our thoughts away from the "angels" as being the financial backbone of the church to the tithers.

We have people who I suspect are tithers in my congregation. I am close, but not yet. But I know that our largest givers are not anywhere close to being tithers -- they are just very wealthy people. We, of course, do not do anything to honor these large givers and do not recognize them, but just talk about them all the time, either in gratitude or envious resentment. We would be healthier if the financial contribution that was the projected ideal was the tither -- who might not be wealthy, but was just generous. The message of tithing is that anyone can do it; the message of angels is that only a tiny few can do it, and they better not expect anything in return.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

One's theology of religions is central

The Band-Boy scores again with this comment:

I think the first piece of literature — whether it be a position paper, a pamphlet or webpage — I think any new Christian church needs to get down is its understanding of and relationship with non-Christians.

To which I would add, this is also true of Unitarian Universalist congregations. UU congregations actually seem to have 2 or 3 (maybe more) observably different understandings of other religions, including Christianity. For the most part, these theological positions do not even have names, nor even much theological reasoning behind them.

There is a strong strain of old-school supersecessionist Humanism: as modern science burns away all superstition, all religions will eventually be purified into a single ethical humanism.

There is a strong strain of supersecessionist syncretic Unitarian Universalism: all religions will eventually be replaced by a single religion that combines all the best of others into one new world religion.

There is a thought that Unitarian Universalism is a Skeptical Liberal Protestantism that looks world-wide for certain kinds of textual inspiration.


But I agree with Boy in the Bands that nailing this down is one of first tasks of self-definition of any religious body in this here world.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

For a Healthier Unitarian Universalism

The Band-Boy asks:

what would it take for Unitarian Universalism to be healthier, so that would could meet some realistic goals for improving the material and spiritual estate of this corner of liberal religiousity? If we’re going to fight, it might as be for something epic. If we’re going to struggle, it should be more than topping up the endowments.

He also says

So how are we to be healthier? One sign of bad health is that, as an Association, we seem incapable of holding more than one model of anything at one time, or for very long. In a great arc, some great cause sweeps the landscape, obliterates other options, the failings appear, and it is discarded. The Fellowship Movement is one example. I think the Big Plant church start — a late-adopted darling from the 1970s — is already showing sign of strain. I wouldn’t get too attached to the Carver Model.

My thoughts: (1) give up "terminal uniqueness", (2) one way to get better is to stop assuming that you're sick (3) promote excellence in worship (4) let ministers be religious leaders again.

(1) UUism is just one survival strategy for liberal, cultural Protestantism as it confronted an increasingly secular society. Other people chose other strategies. We are better positioned to respond to the increase of personal spirituality as a replacement for organized religion. But nobody has the whole problem figured out -- we will rise and fall with others.

(2) Our internal story is that UUism should be huge (after all, "so many people are UU's without knowing it".) so our question is "what is wrong with us that we are not what we think we should be?" Focus on failure and ignore what we do well.

(3) Each of our churches and congregations has "a worship tradition" which includes such things as content boundaries, formality, musical taste, congregational participation level, production values etc Some worship traditions are very strong and serve their congregation well and are a real service to the larger community. Some are weak, promote anxiety and conflict in the congregation, exclude the larger community and are exercises in organizational self-promotion. If there is any "one big thing" we should be focusing on, it is strengthening the worship tradition of each local church/congregation/society.

(4) A religious movement should be led by its religious leaders. We should learn how to recognize excellence among our ministers and allow ourselves to be influenced by that excellence. The role of bloggers? Excellence in ministry tends to be focused on the local church primarily -- hedgehogs. Bloggers are foxes, and help break down the isolation of local churches, and carry the news back and forth, and recognize excellence at work and raise questions, and argue about things that are too much for a sermon.