This is How You Say No

When the issue of Multi-partnered Relationships first surfaced among the UU's, there was a high level of consternation among the ministers I know and talk with. Somebody, probably more than one somebody, said, "the problem is that we don't know how to say 'no'." This is an observation that I have heard more than once, and about more than one issue.

The reason why I have been devoting as much time and energy to a discussion of multi-partnered relationships has been to publicly engage in the practice of saying 'no' to a group of people who are trying to set our agenda for us. The liberal tolerance of the many, combined with the fervent advocacy of a few, would result in the tail wagging the dog.

A friend comments " You are awfully brave to be banging your head against this particular brick wall, LT. And during your vacation, too!"

One, I am not on vacation, since I my arrangement is that I work in the summer.

Two, this is not a brick wall. I concede that I will probably not change the mind of one of the persons who have been advocating for polyamory. I would not expect that; after all, they have already been pushing for something that is not popular for a while. Why would my disapproval have any real effect on their thinking?

I am really trying to speak to, by presuming to speak for, the many UU's who are concerned that our religious movement will be led, almost against our will, into taking a position on a matter of public policy and social ministry that we don't agree with.

I think that the debate and discussion here has gone long enough to reveal what is at stake with the polyamorists and the reasoning at work.

On the side of the polyamorists, they argue that (1) they exist; (2) they enunciate a fully developed set of ethical principles that are attractive; (3) they suffer from some amount of social disapproval, even in our UU congregations; and (4) they think that UU's should be more welcoming to them.

They do not explicitly ask that UUs adopt a public position affirming their agreements as equivalent to marriages, but that is their what they believe. From here, it is hard to tell what is strategic caution on their part and what is truly the result of not having thought the matter to its logical conclusions.

But once our efforts to make our congregations welcoming to multiple partnered relationships leads us to say that those arrangements ought to be viewed as socially equivalent to 2 person marriages, all the rest of the journey to advocacy of their equal marriage rights is a matter of timing and circumstance. We will pass from the pastoral to territory of public ministry and social policy very quickly.

Whenever a group comes to us and seeks to engage our commitment to a particular position of public policy, we should have the integrity to insist that that request be made explicitly, and we should consider it explicitly. That the UUPA does not ask us to call for equal marriage rights for 3+ person weddings does not mean that we should not consider whether what they do ask to do will lead us to that place.

One of the ways that we have to learn how to say "No" is that we have to learn to be upfront and explicit about social policy implications of the steps that we are being asked to take, even if the issues are presented as pastoral. We have to guard that boundary ourselves, extending ourselves pastorally wherever people look to us in that role, but being clear about when it passes into another realm.

When people ask us to take a stand on social policy, the burden of proof is on them. They need to convince us that the social policy that they advocate is warranted (it addresses a real problem in the world), necessary (that the problem at hand cannot be solved by lesser or more desirable means) and responsible (the proposal does not run a significant risk of creating more problems). Most of us wish that the Congress held President Bush to these standards when he proposed to invade Iraq. (And no, I am not comparing polyamory to the invasion of Iraq!)

In this discussion, many comments accuse me of being unfair in insisting that advocates present arguments for polyamory that meet those criteria, AND demonstrate how that will work in the real world, as we know it. I am accused of holding them to a higher standard than I hold the present system. That''s the breaks, and not just because this is my blog, but because they are asking me (and us) to do something that breaks with a long-standing, and yet, beleaguered social and cultural tradition.

I have specifically rejected the arguments that proceed from a best-case-scenario. I insist that we consider the effects of the legalization of multipartnered marriages as it would actually exist in the broken world that we know. If we affirm the equivalence of 3+ person marriages, then, it follows that we will eventually be legalizing polygamy in all of its forms -- Neopagan Polyamory, Mormon and Muslim Polygamy, and all the newer forms of multipartnered relationships that include gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people.

One of the ways that you say 'No' is to retain the right to make your own judgments about the implications of a position that someone wants you to take. The advocates might want to limit the implications to only that which they approve, but we are responsible for the all of effects of our decisions. The advocates of Polyamory now say that they are quite distinct from the advocates of Open Marriage in the 70's. That is their right to maintain, but we have to retain the power to judge for ourselves what will happen if 3+ relationships are affirmed as equally valid in our congregations. Will that change lead to an environment where open marriage is then also affirmed and then swinging and then a sexualized environment? We have to decide whether we think that is possible or probable -- we are not obligated to let the advocates of polyamory decide that for us.

Finally, saying "no" also includes retaining the right to say "I don't know." One poster predicted a day will come 50 years from now when my concerns will be seen as a petty obstacle to the eventual emergence of a society in which many-partnered relationships are seen as normal. I suppose I will be an object of as much contempt as we have for politicians who denounced race-mixing and feared the mongrelization of the white race in the past. This is a hard thing to imagine about oneself. I am already carrying the burden of eating meat, which I am also told will be considered outrageous a hundred years from now. And I am a trying to be a Christian, too. Talk about quaint.

But as frightening as those possibilities are for my future reputation, I don't think that we know enough to say that multi-partnered relationships are the wave of the future. If they are, it does not depend on UUism affirming them, any more that the hundreds of thousands long-term gay partnerships did. I have been watching for signs that M-PR's are a growing trend that brings health and stability to families and communities -- that they are, indeed, the new thing that will arise to address the epidemic of broken marriages, fatherless children, abandoned single mothers, and sexual acting out that are the symptoms of the crisis of marriage in our culture. If they do appear to be that new thing, then I will change my mind. Those who know me personally know that I am willing to recognize when I am wrong. But I have not seen that yet.

And so I have to say "I don't know" and in the absence of knowing, I think that it is proper to say that we oppose giving up the struggle to challenge people to make commitments of love and fidelity to one person, and to face down the myriad temptations to betray those commitments, and to let deeper love flower in the space and time created by those commitments.

And finally learning how to say no means that you accept the inevitable result that some people will think that you are bigoted, prejudiced, ultra-conservative, the same as Pat Robertson, or James Dobson. They will make historical analogies in which you are compared to some really awful persons in history. This is hard to take, because the great sin in UU circles is to "be on the wrong side of history." But we always face that possibility. It would mean that one could see everything all at once to never make that error, and that is reserved to God. We can only use all of our faculties to do what we are given to see to do.


  1. LT:

    I don't agree with you on this issue (that's been obvious), but you have carried on your part of this conversation in an honorable way, and I respect and appreciate that very much. Maybe it's because I'm Christian too--Protestant, more specifically--but it's hard for me to resist a good, engaged "Here I stand."

    I agree with you that pastoral accommodations lead to public policy positions, and that these implications must be considered up front. I disagree that the scenario you lay out is the inevitable one, though. Still, that is for you and your fellow UUs to ascertain.

    I do think that a UU community (local and national) that is grounded enough and vibrant enough to resist a putative incursion by polyamorists, would also be grounded enough and vibrant enough to resist being pushed towards any unsound social policy. So, my wish for UUs is that everyone work together to grow in groundedness and vibrancy, so that if polyamory does become more accepted, it is accepted within a context of strength.

    I also encourage you specifically to work visibly and vocally for your convictions on what right relationship looks like in a troubled world. I can't promise everyone will feel the way I do, but I can embrace people who are clearly working for what they believe in, instead of simply working against me and mine.

    Best wishes and prayers to all.

  2. Anonymous1:25 AM

    LT, thank you for writing We have to guard that boundary ourselves, extending ourselves pastorally wherever people look to us in that role.

    I hope that means that should another PolyHeartRachel to come to you, suffering much as I had [other readers: see comment to prior post for my story], that you would be able to bring her the good news that she's not wrong or bad for having a heart that's open to loving more than one. That she's not alone. That others have been through what she's going through.

    That kind of validation of my nonmonogamous feelings (not of any cheating behavior) is what rescued me from misery and despair and self-hatred. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that even the simple act of pointing out a UUPA ad in UUWorld to someone in that kind of pain, or directing them to an online community like the poly/mono list I found, just might save their life.

    I hope you have also gathered that many different relationship models fall under the umbrella term "polyamory." Some people are part of a committed, living-together triple or quad, much like a monogamous couple. Some are part of a married couple but have another beloved sweetie (or more) living elsewhere. Some see themselves as part of a network of intimates. In other words, some polyrelating involves agreements that seem to me to be equivalent to marriage, but certainly not all polyrelating does. Just wanted to clarify that.

    Thank you again.


  3. LT:

    "On the side of the polyamorists, they argue that (1) they exist; (2) they enunciate a fully developed set of ethical principles that are attractive; (3) they suffer from some amount of social disapproval, even in our UU congregations; and (4) they think that UU's should be more welcoming to them."

    It seems to me that your response to these arguments is:

    (1) Agree.

    (2) Do not disagree on its face.

    (3) Agree.

    (4) Disagree, because of (a) the law of unintended consequences, and (b) the sanctity of individual and collective conscience.

    Assuming I have summarized your response fairly...

    My first reaction is: that's actually a fair amount of common ground between you and me. I'm comfortable with (1)-(3) and can't comment on (4b) because I can't speak to how UUs covenant with each other to resolve differences of conscience. Which leaves (4a) as the unresolved question, in my mind.

    The tension hinges, for me, precisely on the distinction you are making between pastoral care--which, from a theological perspective, I'm interested in how you see that operating not only at the ministerial level, but at the congregational level--and public advocacy.

    My question is: what would affirming the existence, ethicalness-ability, and marginality of poly folks look like during the time when we are collecting enough testimonials (literal and figurative) to have a chance of moving you from viewing us as saying "this will hopefully work out" to "this is working out"?

    I can promise that, if you do give an answer, I won't reply with "but that's not good enough." I hope others would follow the same conversational groundrule.

  4. Desmond Ravenstone4:59 PM

    In response to this, your latest post, I am compelled to ask the question: Where exactly is this boundary you wish to maintain?

    You've made it clear that plural relationships should not be sanctioned by the UUA or any of its member congregations. But you also seem to be arguing that such recognition (a) is the inevitable end of a slippery slope, and (b) would be inherently dangerous to the UUA and Unitarian Universalism.

    Would any individual who identifies as polyamorous be welcome in your congregation, regardless of whether they are in any kind of relationship?

    Do you think think that candidates for ministry who identify as polyamorous should be denied ordination solely on those grounds? If a current UU minister identifies as polyamorous, should that minister face formal sanction?

    Would you insist that the UUA Board cease any dialogue, formal or informal, with the UUPA?

    I would appreciate some clarity on this -- just what exactly are you saying "no" to?

  5. Kim Hampton5:26 PM

    Bravo LT....

    There's an old saying.....if you don't stand for something then you will fall for anything. This whole polyamory issue goes into the "falling for anything" category for me.

    If this makes me a bigot, fine, I'll carry that label proudly. This reeks of being a snow job to me. Most people have a hard enough time being in a relationship with just ONE person; that for any religious movement to sit up and even be debating sanctioning more-than-one partner relationships is beyond the pale to me.

    (yes....I know that Islam has rules on multiple wives....but even Mohammed emphasized having only one partner)

    Part of the reason that UUs are seen as kooks by a good number of people is because we just run headlong for any liberal-sounding cause that people come up with. It's time for this to stop. Discernment is a beautiful thing, and it would help our movement out greatly if we encouraged people to do it more often.

  6. LT,
    I really appreciated this post. It articulated a lot of the things I had been thinking but couldn't quite put into words. I appreciate your willingness to want to set boundaries and challenge "new ideas," things that are hard for UUs to do. I'm with you - we could be "on the wrong side of history," but for now, our society has a hard enough time with monogamous relationships, and there's still work to do for marriage equality.

  7. :This is hard to take, because the great sin in UU circles is to "be on the wrong side of history." But we always face that possibility.

    Indeed U*Us do. . . Here`s the latest bad news for U*Us courtesy of Montreal Unitarians.


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