What Ministers Can Do

The public life of the country is roiling and boiling.

The incredible upsurge of the anti-racist movement, led by young people of color, since Ferguson has brought racism front and center.

Now, we have the inevitable counter-attack, led by the New York City Police Union. An article posted yesterday by Max Blumenthal at Alternet details talk among the police union and New York Tea Party Republicans for an on-going campaign to "support the police." It's white backlash political opportunism.

It's on. The whole, messy, angry, honest, painful "Conversation About Race" that everybody said they wanted is on, and it is not being moderated by Jim Lehrer.

Ministers of liberal religion, such as the Unitarian Universalists and others, are used to conducting our ministry in the political climate of the 80's and 90's, when conservatism was culturally dominant. And we need to think about how that is changing in a new historical era.

I had only served a year when 9/11 happened, and I participated in the temporary insanity that affected much of the country for the years afterwards. That's another story.

But after that, I felt that I was usually somewhat to the left of most of the congregation I served. I know that I was more interested and informed about current events than most of the congregation. There were some peace activists to my left and some serious conservatives in the congregation, as well as an older group of New England Republicans. The dominant politics in most UU congregations is a well-meaning liberalism united in outrage at the latest shenanigans of the rightwing. A lot like Jon Stewart but less funny.

The influence of the whole conglomerate of institutions, individuals and groups that I just called "the UUA" seemed to be to aimed at educating me, and through me, the congregation about political, economic, and social issues that were not on the public radar. Thinking back, it was through 'the UUA" that I learned about 'the war of drugs', water rights, mass incarceration, immigration and other issues. That influence made the local church a place more connected to these realities than the surrounding society.

It seemed that for most of my active ministry, my role was to keep those on my left (the activists and "the UUA") from dominating the congregational conversation with issues that few knew about or cared about, while keeping those on the right still in the tent, while representing what I personally felt was crucial to talk about. I felt that I had become the guardian of the vessel in which all of this was to be contained. And so, I participated in maintaining the dichotomy between the "Spiritual" (the proper work of the church) and the "Political" (the acceptable passions of the individuals in the congregation, but not the work of the church). I could titrate the amount that the "political" dripped into congregational life, through my teaching and through the programming. I could open the  E.B. White valve and be prophetic and save the world; or I could close the valve and savor it and be pastoral.

But what if conservatism was not dominant? How does the role change when there is an active, insurgency going on in the streets? What if there is a really active presence of radicalism on social media?

Then, the attempt to protect the congregational vessel becomes building a shelter from reality. When there are rich conversations about white privilege everyday on Twitter, trying to introduce the concept from the pulpit in a way that lets people get comfortable with the idea is too little and too late. Whites are struggling through their discomfort all ready, and some will take longer than others. The houses of liberal religion are no longer somewhat more liberal islands in a sea of conservatism, but may now be little islands of pseudo-safety and moderation in a much more stormy sea.

I am reminded of 1969, when I left the UU movement. I wanted to be connected with a vigorous and radical movement. The First Unitarian Church of Youngstown, Ohio had nothing for me. I could have my opinions there, but had no opportunity to act on them. It not ahead of the times, but behind the times. Is that where we will be?

The most important thing a minister can do in this environment is to indicate what is important. People tend to figure out what to think and do by watching people they respect. How we visibly act out our priorities is our most salient message. It may be even more important than the sermonification on Sunday. Showing ourselves taking this anti-racist movement as more important than the day to day work of the church, and the calm we are used to is what we can do. It starts there.


  1. The Standing On The Side Of Love Facebook page has had a series of posts lately featuring "Black Lives Matter" signs in various contexts. Each post has received a flood of comments angrily insisting that all lives matter, and the commenters have not responded well to various patient explanations of why this undeniably true statement is not an adequate response to police violence against black people. Judging by this, what you're calling for may be a tall order (which of course is no reason not to do it, quite the contrary).

  2. Here is where you and I will disagree, my friend. You assume that most people in UU congregations are "well-meaning" liberals. I don't. I assume most of them are "don't rock the boat" centrists; except on matters of sexuality.

    There have been moments in UU history where the "race conversation" could have happened that are not attached to the Empowerment Controversy. Look at where those got us...mostly in rebellion (I'm thinking about the post-Thomas Jefferson Ball incident in 1993).

    Outside of a very few, there was almost universal UU silence after the death of Trayvon Martin. Sure, there were some who thought the result of the George Zimmerman trial was unjust, but that's not majority of the UU reaction that I heard. What I heard was that wonderful, well-educated condescension which said, "well...you know...maybe Trayvon should have just kept walking..." or "at night, Zimmerman wouldn't have known that Trayvon was a kid."

    Maybe the almost 3 years since Trayvon was shot and the year-and-a-half since the verdict have changed more minds in UUism than I think. Maybe the Eric Garner non-indictment and the upcoming decision about whether to indict the officers in the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland really has opened many UU eyes to the systemic issues involved. Who knows?

    But I guess I'm wondering how many UU parish ministers are really willing to step out on a limb on this. Since most UU congregations are not filled with the people most directly affected by the systemic issues involved, won't the conversation become what most UU conversations about anything other than sexuality become...niche discussions of those who are already involved in the work.

    All-in-all I think you are much more hopeful about this moment than I am.

  3. I don't think it's so much that minds have changed as that demography is working its slow magic.

  4. Am I being charged with the ideological error of optimism?

    From the gospel of Mark

    3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”


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