Archive for the 'unitarian universalism' Category

Excellence in Ministry

28 November 2008

PeaceBang has closed the comments for her post about the Excellence in Ministry summit, and probably with good reason. These things always seem to get out of hand.

But I’ve had one thought about our terminology here that seems relevant, without presuming to fully answer any of the questions she’s posed. The usual term, in a Christian church, for the person UUs usually call the minister, is “pastor.” This grates against UUs for all sort of reasons, some of them legit: it smacks of hierarchy and patriarchy, among other things.

But doesn’t it undermine our stated commitment to “ministry of all believers” to confine that name to the ordained? One of the churches I work with as an organizer lists in its order of service, “Ministers: All Members of ___________ Church. Pastor: Rev. John Jones.” Doesn’t something like that better reflect our ideal of ministry?

I think that this is a place where the UU compulsion to purge all things Christian has really damaged (what I would like to be?) our understanding of ministry.

Update: Christine Robinson is live-blogging the summit here.


Simply talking does not make you a prophet. Sometimes, it makes you a fool.

2 October 2008

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” – Matthew 10:16

Bill Sinkford, president of my estranged religious home, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has decided he wants to have a dialogue with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. There’s a great debate going on about whether this, and the crowing press release from the UUA, was a good idea. I think it was a bad idea, not just because it was with the president of an oppressive regime, but because it reflects a misunderstanding of what it means to be prophetic which is wrong and naive.

What makes or breaks a democracy is not “public dialogue,” but widely distributed political power. Ahmedinejad can “dialogue” precisely because an oppressive political system means that he is never forced to be responsive to anything that may emerge out of the dialogue. This doesn’t hold anyone accountable because it doesn’t force them to be responsive.

The prophetic voice is one that builds organized, strategic power to hold power people accountable for their bad actions. Instead, we put out press releases and pass resolutions. This episode is not a prophetic stand. This is masturbation, only more dangerous. (And probably messier.)

To be prophetic we don’t just want a relationship — “king-to-jester” is a relationship — we want a relationship of mutual respect. I would want my (future) kid to talk to bullies, yes — but to stand up to them, not to “ask them questions,” and certainly not for the fleeting thrill of poking some other bully in the eye. We get respect with public officials by being powerful.

To be prophetic, we have to talk as equals. In other words, not “dialogue,” but negotiation. Moses didn’t go up to Pharaoh to get to know him better, he did it to negotiate: “Do this, or else.” And he could do that because he had power to back it up. In his case, God’s plagues; in ours, the power of organized people.

President Bush may not hold as many press conferences as I like, but he is accountable for this as for other things in a way the Iranian president never has been — witness the initial failure of the bailout, or the 2006 congressional elections. And Bill Sinkford and the UUA have never done anything I know of that has made any public official more accountable.

As for the idea that we should have a relationship with them for “pastoral” reasons, i.e. to help him see the error of his ways, this is (1) stupid, given that UUs don’t even count as “people of the book,” and are thus unlikely to be listened to by a conservative Muslim, and (2) is better done in private anyway, if we really care about the state of his soul.

Updated: a couple of times for clarity and typos.

Updated again: My further comment on this issue, in response to this comment by Fred:

There is a need to develop some level of talking points in any conflicted relationships. There is a need to have some sort of level playing ground from which to build to those more difficult points of disagreement. The current adminstration has stated that no conversations with Ahmadinejad would occur without some sort of pre-conditions. Of course, then Condi Rice did meet with his representatives so one has to wonder what were the pre-conditions if any, to allow that meeting. Some of those pre-conditions might occur at a lower level of interaction. Enter the Peace and Reconciliation folk.

They have no authority to alter current foriegn policy with Iran but they can show a different face to that country. It is the same strategy used when we invite or are invited to a cultural exchange or to have a student exchange. It is a grass roots development that allows for human interaction at the human level not the political level which is conflicted.

Me again: But, Fred, the problem is that if you want human, not political, interaction, than the last thing you should do is go meet with a political leader.* All meetings with political leaders are inherently political, and call for a prophetic stance, not a pathetic one.

[*You should go meet with regular folks. I’m told that the FOR does arrange for this, which is good as far as it goes.]

I also think it’s impossibly naive to think that political conflicts are primarily motivated by a lack of “understanding,” and if we only showed each other “different faces” our problems would be solved. Political conflicts primarily arise from serious — and legitimate and real — disputes about resources, self-interests, and values.

And I want to be clear — I think the prophetic failure here is not just that Sinkford et al. entered into dialogue without holding Ahmadinejad accountable, but that they do so having also, over many years, failed to hold our own government to a more rational, compassionate and progressive relationship with Iran (among other places). By being more concerned with ego than with being both ethical and effective in the public sphere, the UUA has enabled the current problems in our Republic no less than they have enabled Ahmadinejad. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a pragmatic stance in politics but is a sorry basis for prophecy.

Empowerment and entitlement.

8 March 2008

Like Scott Wells, I’d been reluctant to wade into the discussion about youth and young adult funding within the Unitarian Universalist Association, mainly because I care only slightly more about intradenominational politics than other people do. And most of you who read this aren’t Unitarian Universalists, anyway.

But this whole mess is a nice excuse for me to talk about organizing, which I love. Back to youth and young adults in a bit.

In organizing, we spend a lot of time talking about self-interest. Self-interest is distinct from selfishness (concern exclusively about the self) and selflessness (concern exclusively with others); a working definition might be “concern for the self in relation to others.” I have short-term self-interests: I’m hungry, so getting some food is in my self-interest. I have other, deeper self-interests: I want to have a family. I want to be respected. I want to be right with God.

The only way to relate honestly with other people is by finding common self-interests. Read that sentence again, and then again until you believe it.

A simple example: It’s in my self-interest to eat. It’s in the self-interest of the grocer to sell me food. So we come to an arrangement that satisfies both self-interests (namely, me buying food and paying for it) and then we’ve had an honest interaction. Viola! Our self-interests are different, but they come together in ways that are mutually satisfactory. The same is true of all honest interactions; they’re just more complicated or subtler. With me?

Now, power is just the ability to engage other people’s self-interest. The power that large groups of people have relative to elected officials is that officials have a self-interest in not ticking off people who vote for them. The power that my boss has relative to me depends (in part) on my self-interest in not being fired.

All of that stuff is in the first day of organizer training. So what does that have to do with Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults? If y/ya want to be “empowered” – which I can only assume means to be, well, powerful – they need to stop whining and find ways to engage the self-interest of the rest of the Association. Funding is being cut because y/ya “leaders” have not managed to engage the self-interest of the people who control the UUA.*

So what would a process leading toward real y/ya empowerment look like? Well, off the top of my head, it would involve introspection, one-on-ones, small group meetings, etc. — whatever was necessary to identify the individual and collective self-interests of UU Youth and Young Adults. It would, as Scott said, involve “creat[ing] institutions that create the desired goals.”

Then, with a clear understanding of what they want, they would meet with the key power people in the Association, and try to figure out how they could make what they want be in the self-interest of the power people in the denomination. They would need to be very clear in their own minds that denominational politics, like all politics, is about power. And political power is the ability to induce and/or engage the self-interest of whomever can give you what you want.


* This resolution uses the language of “investment” in y/ya programming, but doesn’t tell the rest of us what the dividends will be. It could be any number of things: Maybe the self-interest they engage is our desire for there to be strong UU institutions after we’re gone. Maybe it’s something else. But to be “empowering” for everyone involved, it will have to be negotiated out of our respective self-interests, not whined into existence.

El Dios que nos queda pequeño

30 December 2007

“Ustedes universalistas”, dijo J.M. Pullam acerca del año 1900, “están ilegalmente ocupando la palabra más grande del idioma. El mundo ya empieza a querer esa gran palabra, y ustedes universalistas deberían mejorar la propiedad, o marcharse”.

En aquel entonces, la gran tensión dentro del movimiento universalista era si el universalismo sería una fe cristiana, y hasta que punto. Al respeto Brainard Gibbons en 1949 se preguntó:

“¿Es el universalismo una confesión cristiana, o es algo más, una religión verdaderamente universal? Este asunto es el más vital que hemos enfrentado nunca, porque el cristianismo y este universalismo más grande son irreconciliables. Un decisión grave debe ser tomado, ¡y pronto! Si el universalismo no significa algo distinto y afirmativo, caerá hasta ser naderìa. Ni amado ni odiado, sólo ignorado”.

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The God Who Outgrew Itself

30 December 2007

Sermon delivered at the UNMC on August 15, 2004. See also the associated pastoral prayer.

“You Universalists,” said J. M. Pullman around 1900, “have squatted on the biggest word in the English language. Now the world is beginning to want that big word, and you Universalists must improve the property, or move off the premises.”

At the time, the great tension within the Universalist movement was whether, and to what extent, Universalism would be a Christian faith. Brainard Gibbons asked this very question in 1949:

“Is Universalism a Christian denomination, or is it something more, a truly universal religion? This issue [he continued] is the most vital Universalism has ever faced, for Christianity and this larger Universalism are irreconcilable. A momentous decision must be made, and soon! Unless Universalism stands for something distinctive and affirmative, it falls in[to] indistinguishable, negative nothingness—neither loved nor hated, just ignored!”

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