Solidarity and Authenticity

I have made a call that UU's (and other religious liberals) make a commitment to solidarity with the working poor.  I have called for us to work for a higher minimum wage, for medicaid expansion, for increased social security benefits.  We should publicly oppose food stamp cuts, unemployment benefit cuts, public sector worker layoffs.  We should publicly support fast food workers and retail workers efforts to unionize.  We should be for anything that improves the standards of living of the poor and working poor.  We should be visibly against every form of austerity that inflicts pain on them.

I am inspired by Pope Francis, I admit.  I don't think that he objects.

My fellow UU's raise objections, though.  And from what I perceive as the "left" side of the spectrum.  (I had expected to hear from the "right" side of the spectrum: people who thought that such public ministry would be partisan and make Republicans feel unwelcome and from Libertarians who claim solidarity with the poor but were willing to see them suffer before watching the government do something about it.)

The left criticism is that Unitarian Universalists are too wealthy and too privileged and too self-distancing to have any "authentic" or "sustainable" solidarity with the working poor.  It would the work of "dilettantes".  Further, Unitarian Universalism must first address the issues of class within our own house.

I think these criticisms misunderstand public ministry.  In fact, they don't even deal with the category of public ministry, at all, being unable to separate the pastoral leadership within the church (the spiritual growth of the committed people) from the public ministry of the church in society.

I am saying that the liberal religious movement, and particularly Unitarian Universalism, must take on the work of advocacy, teaching and organizing out in society.  Our message is that the workings of our economy and government are violating the worth and dignity of the poor and working poor of our country, and it is immoral.  We are on their side, and we publicly preach that it is our intention that everyone, from the workers at the local McDonald's to the highest level of government know that we are on the side of the workers.

This is a political struggle for the soul of the nation.  It is a spiritual struggle for the political soul of the country.  It is struggle occurring out there in the world of voting, and lobbying, and coalition building and arguments in the letters to the editor and in the comment sections of blogs.

Low wage workers will not have their lives changed because they have some UU friends who prove to be resolute and trustworthy allies.  But a raise to $10 per hour will make a real difference.  Medicaid expansion in 20 some states will mean health care for their families.  And those good things will come about because of two things: more poor people voting and more middle class people voting to protect the poor from the rich, rather than the other way around.

We have influence in formation of middle-class opinion.  What we say publicly matters.

Let's look at recent history.  There are lessons for both the power of our public ministry when we choose to exercise it, and for the relationship between our public ministry and our own spiritual growth and development.

A few decades ago, Unitarian Universalism declared itself to be on the side of gays and lesbians.  I think it began with some GA resolutions, which I am sure were thought to be empty posturing and dilettantish at the time by some.  Internally, we were not ready to back that up with our internal practice.  A lot of time and energy and resources were spent to make this ultra-respectable religion welcoming to gays and lesbians.  We added more initials.  We discovered that "they" were not people "out there" but "us" and always and already "in here." Old habits were abandoned. New leaders were developed.  Reluctant people were patiently brought along.  Some left.  But meanwhile, in our imperfect, incomplete and even inauthentic state, we kept raising the rainbow flag over iconic New England village greens, and showing up as the only non-MCC churches in Pride parades.  And now, our members are instrumental in coalitions of all sorts of people winning at the ballot box.

Lesson one: we know how to do public ministry.  We've done public ministry.
Lesson two: We don't change as a precondition to public ministry; public ministry changes us, challenges us.  Our spiritual development happens as we run to keep up with our intentions and commitments, and by the people we meet.

These criticisms from the "left" are good questions, important stuff, and we will have to take them up as we engage in the practice of solidarity.   But are they reasons not to do it?


  1. All too often a "Call to..." turns out to be "A Call To Ignore Reality". We must find a way to help the working poor, but the simplistic call to increase the minimum wage has never been the answer. Here's the kind of workers you'll have to find solidarity with if the minimum wage is raised much further:

  2. I love the point the public ministry changes us, that we don't have to have already been changed, be perfect, before engaging in it. This is true on so many fronts -- the one you name here -- economic solidarity -- and regarding anti-racism cultural competence work. It is like that quote attributed to CS Lewis in the movie Shadowlands: I don't pray to change God, but to change me. Well, public ministry is both: to change the outer and the inner, simultaneously, alternatively, some staggered-time way.

  3. Clyde Grubbs7:01 PM

    The worst idea in UU top leadership was the decision by that we must do anti racism work in house before we did any solidarity work around racial oppression. The argument was that we were too compromised by white privilege and power, and that we would embarrass ourselves when we mixed it up with people of color. Marjorie and I called it "spring cleaning with the windows closed." People learn by practice, doing some kind internal "class awareness" exercises but skipping the kinds of struggles that you talk about would be turn into moralizing, solidarity is a deep learning experience, overtime it changes ones heart.

    Half of all UUs are not "too privileged" or "too bourgeois" to engage in solidarity. The UUs in congregations that are the doers of justice work are can and do identify with working people. I wonder if these people who critique your "Call" are really Left, or just armchair pundits.

  4. Clyde Grubbs7:04 PM

    There is nothing "simplistic" about raising the minimum wage, economic history shows it to raise wages. Right wing "economists" (usually on the corporate payroll) make noises against the idea but most of their arguments have been shown to be empty.

  5. The idea that we should keep wages low in order to prevent further automation in the service industry does not make sense even at first glance. The fast food industry will deploy robots to dispense hamburgers as soon as it is technologically feasible, whether or not the minimum wage is raised.

  6. Clyde, you refer to an unshared history and untold stories.
    Can it be that the "top leadership of the UUA" had drawn some one-sided lessons from the controversies of 1968 and 1969? Lessons that over-emphasized the role of unexamined white privilege in the crackup of the coalition between white liberals and the African American radicals -- a crackup that was much bigger than the UUA.

  7. Clyde Grubbs10:44 AM

    The President of the UUA articulated this view that "we can't do public ministry around anti racism until we get our own racist house in order, or we will be look white liberal" in a the UUMA ministers gathering with the President in 2000 or 2001. He was asked directly why are we just doing AR trainings, why aren't we tacking the public manifestations of recism.
    So it isn't unshared exactly, just unheard by many of the UUs in attendence. But the ministers of color heard it and said "seems he wants to look good." This idea that we can do learn to love each other within the walls of our churches before we take love outside of our walls is heard again and again.

  8. There are two big problems with the internal "left" critiques to which you refer. You clearly identify the first, that it is incorrect to assume that we must change ourselves before we can be in solidarity with the working class through public ministry. Your analysis of the history of gay rights/marriage equality within UUism is spot on. The second problem is the assumption that UUs are overwhlemingly middle class. If you equate "middle class" with "middle income", this has been true in the past, but with the collapse of middle income occupations -- which include unionized blue collar occupations -- this is changing. If you understand the working class to include all non-professional occupations, it is arguable that it has been a long time since UU has been overwhelmingly middle class. My experience in interim and settled ministries in several (but not all locations) is that there are significant numbers of working class UUs by either definition. That is, there are more than nominal numbers working in blue collar occupations (some well-paid, some not) and with incomes below the middle income range.

  9. Clyde Grubbs11:00 AM

    Whether the President was reflecting on conclusions of white leaders on 1969 is not for me to say. I was a young person in 1969 etc. and partisan to Black Empowerment, but my observation as a young, angry, Indian disillusioned UU was that the UUA leadership was afraid to deal honestly with BAC and FullBAC. BACs demands were logical (white UUs had taken assets out of the "inner city" when the UU churches fled with white flight), but misdirected.

    Demanding the Association fund reconstruction required fund raising from all UUs and allowing the demand for "restoration" to be seen as a raid on the endowement set the empowerment forces up for isolation. But neither side was talking to the other and it set us back. But it is possible that some folks in 1999 were over psychologizing the failure of white liberals in 1969, rather than seeing the failure of leadership to lead.

  10. Clyde Grubbs11:09 AM

    Interesting that the "white liberals" were divided in 1968 and 1969 on the value of caucusing and "demands." The women's caucus was mostly white liberal, and their agenda was acted on and has transformed the Association and its churches. But the African Americans, who were mostly academics,social workers, and other credentialled workers were seen as radicals and outsiders.

    I think that is how "radical" baiting works. Angry black men and women making unreasonable demands.

    They wanted money to build UU churches in the city.

  11. Clyde Grubbs11:16 AM

    We might have such "unplesantness" as we embrace the preferencial option for the poor. It would be easier if we could get ahead of the radical baiting with some theology and worship that sees the Love of Neighbor as a work in progress.

    Thin skinned leaders who divide rather than embrace the change are not a relic of the 60s.

  12. Clyde Grubbs5:21 PM

    More reflection, this question bothers me. I think the theology behind the cure yourself before you cure the world may be a misunderstanding of what prophetism is all about.

    This springs to mind.

    1 JUDGE not, that ye be not judged.
    2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

    3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

    4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

    5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
    —Matthew 7:1-5 KJV

    Some may read this as "cure yourself before you attempt to cure the world. But this is only if curing the world is understood as judging the world,

    rather than acting in solidarity and being in community of those who are curing the world. Loving the world into justice, must involve a different kind of judgement than the mote and beam judgement is condemning.

    So perhaps the mote and beam was involved in Northern white liberal judgment of Bull Conner type racism, and they didn't criticize their own out of sight out of mind style racism. But the cure ourselves first posture was just more of the same old white middling strata folks self segregating from engagment with the poor.


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