When Word Debates Become Oppressive

In the midst of the current controversy on white supremacy within Unitarian Universalism, the number one objection I’ve heard to the idea that our faith is the fear that people will misunderstand white supremacy language as referring to racist hate organizations. So, debates have raged about whether we should use alternative language that essentially boils down to this: it makes white folks uncomfortable.

The fact is there is not another term currently in use that conveys the same idea: a system of oppression that places white people’s concerns above those of people of color. Some have suggested using the term white privilege instead, but others have already written about why white supremacy is not the same as white privilege.

I want to call this sort of argument the fallacy of imperfect language. The thinking goes that, because the language is imperfect and make people uncomfortable, we should put work on hold while we find words that will make us feel better about the concept. What these sort of semantic debates actually do is distract from the actual work of dismantling oppression in the elusive search for perfection.

It’s ironic that such debates are a massive display of the very concept they are debating since, most every time, it is a white person expressing concern over words, or else a person of color worried about how white people will take such words. White persons concerns take center stage over the actual work of dismantling a racist system.

The fact is language is never perfect. There continue to be people who believe white privilege means all white people’s lives are perfect, no matter how many times we explain that the term has a very specific meaning, no matter how many articles and books we publish that refute this belief. No matter what words we use to describe our concepts, there will always be those who misunderstand the intent of such concepts through ignorance, willful or otherwise.

Let me say that again: there will never be perfect words.

The term white supremacy has been used by activists and thinkers on the forefront of racial justice for decades with a very specific meaning. They have very specifically defined what they mean by such words.

What is infinitely more important than debating the use of words for emotional reasons is dismantling the system they are describing, unless, of course, your objection to the words is a smokescreen to avoiding the system.

I know how frustrating the word games can be every time a cisgender straight person asks me not to use the word “queer” to identify my sexuality and gender because they make them feel uncomfortable. What I feel like saying is that it is not up to them to tell me how to use such words. Queer is a word that has been used against my people for decades. It is my choice how I reclaim that word and what meaning I give to it.

As such, I stand in solidarity with people of color seeking to dismantle a system that continues to oppress them.

I’m making the decision that I will no longer engage in semantic debates about white supremacy language. I don’t believe that all people who engage in these endless discussions are racists or even bad people, but, speaking as a white person who has been engaging in this work for some time, I recognize how much this is a distraction from much more important issues, and it really is a manifestation of white fragility. The fact is that, years after the language goes mainstream in left-leaning circles, there will still be people insisting that use of the term is insisting that all white people are racists.

While others are busy arguing about white supremacy language, I’ll be out dismantling it. I hope that, as the UUA’s General Assembly comes up in just a couple weeks, others will join me.

Missional Church: A New Paradigm for Unitarian Universalism?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the problem of consumerism creeping into Unitarian Universalism. The model of church I presented in that article seems to be a service-oriented delivery system where the minister, staff, and lay leaders act to deliver goods in a supply and demand type situation that nearly always turns the focus of the congregation inward towards what we want. Left unchecked, this attitude can contribute to the death of a religious community.

But what is the alternative?

To answer this question, I want to ask, “What is the purpose of a religious community?” What would the world lose if your congregation were to go out of existence tomorrow? If the answer is a social club or a place with the occasional nice, intellectual sermon, I wonder if the world would truly lose much.

My colleague Michael A. Schuler, in his essay in The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality, suggests that the purpose of a religious community is to act as a place of transformation. In other words, church exists to transform lives, and this transformation is lost if a church goes out of existence. Congregations that are unable to become centers of transformation, he believes, are destined to die.

So many of our congregations are on autopilot, transforming few, if any, lives, and without a clear reason for them to exist in the world. With this the reality for many, how can these churches become vital centers of transformation within their communities?

I want to suggest that Unitarian Universalists pay attention to an emerging paradigm within the Christian world: the missional church movement.

The missional church movement is rooted in the idea of missional living: the idea that all Christians are first and foremost missionaries, or emissaries from God to the larger world. Thus, missional living is the idea that Christians are to go out into the world and live their values, not because it will make people want to come to our churches or to make ourselves look good, but because it is the right thing to do. It is rooted in relationship: the idea that we are in relationship with each person we meet in the world every day.

Missional living can involve simple acts, such as having lunch with a friend in need, or more complicated, like dog sitting for a neighbor who has to go out of town for their mother’s funeral. While many of us do these nice things out of the generosity of our hearts, those engaged in missional living connect these acts to their faith and values and intentionally seek out opportunities to engage in good in the world.

The why becomes not just that it’s a nice thing to do, but that their faith demands they do good in the world.

The missional church movement sees preparing people for the work of missional living to be the primary function of the congregation. Missional churches may hold a variety of educational opportunities to equip people for the task of missional living. This may involve small group ministry, spiritual practice groups, Bible study, and engaging worship. The minister and other staff are around to guide this process of discipleship, or preparing people to live out their values in the world, but the work of the church is everyone’s work.

Paradoxically, though they are not seeking converts, missional Christians find quite a few because their lifestyle allows them to clearly communicate that there’s something different about their lives.

Why does the missional church work?

For one, unlike the consumerist model, missional church looks outside at how can our congregation be the best center of transformation for our communities and the larger world. Sure, the church will still have some degree of inward focus as they provide discipleship and pastoral care for members, but this will be balanced by a rich program of mission.

The missional model also requires every member to be an active participant in the life of the community. There are no more free passes as people coast in consuming the services of the church or expecting that someone else will get something done. Programs bubble to the surface among the laity in missional churches because people are inspired to live their values in the larger world. Becoming a part of the mission of the church becomes an expectation for every member, not just a hope.

Most important, people see a purpose in their faith, a reason to be religious people rather than simply going out and joining a secular organization that does a lot of good. Their religious values become more connected to their faith tradition in ways that help them to become more holistic people.

Of course, the fact that relationships are so important to missional church means that encounters are authentic. Rather than some stranger knocking on your door and telling you the good news of Jesus, missional living means that people show their faith rather than telling people about it, and, as any good creative writing teacher will tell you, showing is always more powerful than telling.

These churches grow because they become well known for the good work they are doing in the community in relationship.  People begin to think that they would like to be a part of such an exciting community.

Now a few radical thinkers are already beginning to adapt the missional model to our Unitarian Universalist congregations. I want to suggest a few things UU churches that are considering the missional model might think about:

  • What is your church’s mission? Is it simple enough to remember but powerful enough to drive everything your congregation does? Rev. Thom Belote says that if your minister, staff, and board don’t know your congregation’s mission, you don’t really have one.
  • How is your congregation equipping members to live their Unitarian Universalist faith in the world? Do most of your members only engage for an hour on Sunday morning?
  • What are the messages your members are hearing about money and volunteerism? Do they hear that these are chores, to be done until one burns out or runs out of money, or are they viewed as important, even vital, to living out the mission of the church?
  • Does your minister and staff encourage a consumerist mindset, or are they actively encouraging members to put their good ideas into action?
  • Do your members understand how their Unitarian Universalist religious values inform and direct their everyday actions, or are these merely nice sounding principles to be touted out once a week?
  • Does your worship service involve some way to connect to the wider world? Some good examples of this I’ve seen are congregations who acknowledge their building is built on stolen Native American land, naming murder victims within the city every week, or lighting a global candle of concern along with joys and sorrows.

In the future, I’ll be looking at various elements of the missional church much deeper and how we can adapt this model to Unitarian Universalism. For now, I encourage all of us to ask how our congregations can become hubs of transformation whose members live out our values every day. When we have the answers to these questions, I believe our faith will be renewed in a way we have not seen in a long time.

Consumerist Unitarian Universalism

We’ve all witnessed it: congregations dominated by those who expect to receive a product in exchange for their pledge. They expect that the minister and the board will kowtow to their every demand and, directly or indirectly, threaten to withdraw their pledge or cease attending if they don’t feel like we’re living up to their expectations. Too often, leaders feel like they have to give in to these demands, and the church suffers for it every time.

I’m defining consumerism here as an obsession on using stuff, those items defined very loosely. For example, a person who has to have all the latest gadgets, the newest car, and the best clothes merely for the social status they’re afforded could be thought of as being consumerist. Many authors, from Naomi Klein to Noam Chomsky to the Adbusters Collective have written about the dangers and spiritual hollowness inherent in consumerism, so I won’t repeat their arguments here. Suffice it to say, consumerism is destructive to body, mind, and soul if left unchecked.

We sometimes think of consumerism merely as the consumption of material goods. This misses the real danger of consumerism: viewing our lives merely through what other people and institutions can give us. It’s not that we shouldn’t get anything out of going to church, but when we hold institutions in emotional hostage because a narrow set of expectations has not been met, we do everyone a disservice.

Catholic mystic Richard Rohr once said:

Most Christian ‘believers’ tend to echo the cultural prejudices and worldviews of the dominant group in their country, with only a minority revealing any real transformation of attitudes or consciousness. It has been true of slavery and racism, classism and consumerism and issues of immigration and health care for the poor.

Rohr’s words about Christianity could have so easily been written about Unitarian Universalism as well. Most of us have, to some degree, bought into the dominant paradigms of our society, including consumerism. As a result, our attitudes bleed over into church life until our congregations look like stores where a person can “buy” our product through pledges and offering. This attitude is so inward-focused that it can scarcely see beyond itself.

Don’t believe me? Read a congregation’s search packet when they’re seeking a new minister. I’m amazed how many read like shopping lists for the qualities of the perfect “product” and how few seek a visionary who can challenge their institution to grow. So many want their churches to grow in numbers, with little focus given to the inner growth that will enable a community to live out its deepest-held values.

The irony, of course, is that there will not be any growth in numbers either as the congregation has failed to do ther own inner work.

How can we tell a church has fallen into the consumerist trap? A sure sign is the expectation that other people will put our good ideas into action, usually the board or the minister. These will usually be people who have a thousand good ideas but no desire to actually do any of them, preferring instead to make demands on other people. They will often react in anger if the their “service provider” refuses to take on all their good ideas, and their is often a lack of awareness of the boundaries on other’s time.

Consumerist Unitarian Universalism is not just about fulfilling our spiritual needs or having great ideas to improve the life of the church. It’s about expecting the congregation to give to us without the need to put in anything more than our time and money.

All of our congregations has at least a few people who have succumbed to consumerist Unitarian Universalism. It becomes a much larger problem when the desire for the perfect product dominates the mission and vision of the congregation. In my experience, consumerism creeps into the life of a congregation when the community has lost direction, often in times of great stress, anxiety, and change. It rears its head in congregations of all sorts, from small, family-sized congregations to the very large, in humanist- and theist-dominated congregations, and in urban, suburban, and rural environments.

The problem with consumerist Unitarian Universalism is that it allows one to believe the problems of the congregation are being handled without dealing with them at all. As a substitute for mission and vision, consumerist Unitarian Universalism will kill a congregation if left unchecked. The inward focus of this consumerist brand of our faith is precisely what makes it so dangerous: we learn to like ourselves so much we’re unable to see why others wouldn’t want to flock to us.

It is my belief that consumerist Unitarian Universalism is actively killing many once thriving congregations within our faith. We must counteract this trend if we are to survive.

Consumerist Unitarian Universalism can’t succeed because religion isn’t a good that can be bought and sold on the open market but, rather, a way of life. Next week, I’ll provide some suggestions on a radical model that can overcome the consumerist mentality.

Open Letter to the UUA Board of Trustees

Hello, UUA Board of Trustees,

I’m hearing that some of my colleagues have been less than generous with you regarding your appointment of three interim co-presidents to fill the gap until the election of the new president in June. I know how frustrating this must be, especially since I know you must have carefully considered how to precede in this unprecedented governance situation. Their words must hurt.

I wanted to offer my words of encouragement to you because you need to know not all of us agree with their assessment. Sofia Betancourt, Leon Spencer, and Bill Sinkford are an extremely qualified trio of people who I have every confidence will be able to develop a transition strategy to effectively pave the way for our new president. Each brings their unique skills and abilities to the table, and I have no doubt they will serve our association well, as they have in the past. I have absolutely no reservations about having the three of them at the helm for the next three months.

I also want to affirm this is not about you. From serving in parish ministry, I know that people have a tendency to act out when anxiety is high. We find ourselves at a crossroads, torn between our comfortable complacent existence and the call to live out our highest values. I’m sorry you’re being caught in the middle of it, and I want you to know I’m here to advocate for you in any way I can as I think you have handled this crisis the best anyone could possibly expect of you.

I hope my colleagues will take some deep breathes and examine the beams in their own eyes. Where we should be focusing as an institution right now is not on the board or our interim co-presidents, but rather on what we will expect out of the next administration. Three qualified people currently stand for the office, and I sincerely hope we can use this moment in time to clarify who we are as an institution and where we will go in the future rather than being bogged down in the same old tired debates of white supremacy.

I fear that, if we continue this path of anxiety, it will tear us apart in a controversy the likes of which have not been seen in decades. This moment is an opportunity for us, and I know that Revs. Bentancourt and Sinkford and Dr. Spencer will provide the leadership needed to move forward. The hard work is up to us, though, and, in order to do this, we must move beyond the second guessing of three very good appointments.

Again, my love and support to you in all that you do. It is not an easy time to serve our association, but your leadership is needed now more than ever. You are in my prayers in all that you do.

In faith,
Rev. Chris Rothbauer
Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Houghton, Michigan