UUism and Social Justice: Don't Make Me Choose

This morning UU World announced that the sale of mineral rights, donated over two decades ago by a generous Texas couple, will net the UUA close to a million dollars, and that money will allow the UUA to close its large budget deficit without borrowing from the Endowment.  I read the news with ambivalence. On the one hand, there is the generosity of the Carpenters, which shines through in the article.  And it is a great relief to not have to dip into the Endowment.  Otoh, selling mineral rights that allow companies to drill for oil means more carbon that is taken out of the ground and burned into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. Moreover, such drilling always comes with other ecological damage - pollution of the land and water.  These things directly contradict our values and numerous social witness statements that we've passed in recent years about moving away from the use of fossil fuels, combatting global warming/climate change, and care for the interdependent web of all existence.  The UUA supported civil disobedience at the White House to stop approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011 and more recently supported the People's Climate March in NYC this past Septemeber.  What's most puzzling is that this obvious conflict wasn't even mentioned in the article.

(Perhaps it should not be surprising since previous decisions such as the sale of 25 Beacon and the redesign of the UUA logo were announced similarly - with onesided positivity and no acknowledgement that some folks might find the decision troubling.)

I could go further into how the sale of mineral rights allowing oil companies to drill is so problematic and at odds with our stated values, and perhaps if necessary I will at a later time, but the thing that motivated me to write today is this: Every time the UUA does something controversial the same general pattern of conversation occurs.  Party A points out that that there is something wrong with the action.  Party B criticizes party A for being critical, suggesting that party A is (pick one or all of the following) judgemental, ungrateful, lacking joy, unwelcoming, making a mountain out of a molehill, and "no wonder we can't grow." 

It doesn't matter what the issue is, whether it's a moral/justice issue or something to do with internal organization, this pattern happens within our UU community.  And I've already seen this pattern emerge within the conversation/comments following the UU World post. 

There is some truth to the claim that we make mountains out of molehills.  For example, the mini firestorms that erupted when someone created "Standing on the Side of Love" stoles and clergy shirts.  And I totally recognize that it's hurtful to start one's objections off by attacking fellow UUs who are trying to do something for the community, no matter how vehemently we may disagree with their actions.  Assumption of good faith needs to be the foundation of our conversations with each other.  There are ways to point out how an action is problematic while still honoring the inherent worth of all parties involved, and as people in religious community we should always remember that.

That said, it is irksome to read statements suggesting that any kind of disagreement is unwelcome and/or that such criticisms are the reason why our congregations are lacking joy and no one wants to join us.  The implication being that we should never offer critique, no matter how tactfully stated, no matter how important the issue, if we want Unitarian Universalsim to be vibrant and growing, even if the criticism is that we are violating our stated values, as is the case here.  First of all, let me say that I don't believe that's true - I don't believe we have to choose between critique and healthy, happy congregations.  That is a false choice.  Secondly, even if it were true (which it's not) that one has to choose between pointing out how an action does not align with our values and growing Unitarian Universalism, I will choose the values.  Every time.  If we don't live by our values, then I don't care if we don't grow.

That last sentence should not even be considered a controversial statement.  It really shouldn't. So finally the reason for this post: Growth for its own sake is not inherently good.  Unitarian Universalism for its own sake is not inherently good.  These things are good only in so far as they promote the greater good, for humankind, for our sibling sentient beings, for our Mother Earth. 

There are so many admonitions within Buddhist traditions about confusing the vehicle for the destination.  Zen warns us to not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.  The Buddha warned us not to hold tightly to rafts that might have safely carried us across waters but then become burdensome to carry on dry land.  The point is that we need to always be aware of what the true goal is and what are just vehicles that can carry us to that goal.  For me, the goal is the Beloved Community, or as my family's Buddhist tradition would put it, the Pure Land.  The Land where systemic oppression does not exist, exploitation of the Earth and her children (both human and otherwise) does not exist, where beings are unencumbered by the suffering caused by injustice and thus can reach their fullest potentials, whatever those potentials might be.  That is the goal (for me).  Unitarian Universalism is a vehicle to help us reach that goal.  A worthy vehicle that I love, filled with people whom I love, but still just a vehicle.  (The Buddha said the same thing of Buddhism, urging us to even let go of his teachings if they get in the way.)  I believe that Unitarian Universalism can help us reach the Pure Land, which is why I am a UU. And despite occassional missteps, I have faith that we will eventually always do the right thing.  But if it comes down to having to choose between UUism and a just, sustainable world where our Earth and her inhabitants are not exploited for profit, then yes, I choose the latter.  I would hope that after careful consideration, no UU would ever really demand such a choice.

Comments

Hi Kat, thanks for this thoughtful post.

The difficulty I have with disagreement among UU circles is not in the critique itself, but in how these discussions play out in social media. Every principle of right relations calls us to resolve conflict with the person directly involved and not to triangulate, let alone on a forum as public as Facebook. Yet in this conversation and so many others exhibiting the same pattern, I see UUs jumping to conclusions and making blanket statements about "the UUA" as though it were some hidden cabal with its own secret agenda. In fact, WE are the UUA.

Can we remember that we elect our leaders, and thus presumably trust them to make decisions according to our shared Unitarian Universalist values? While it's not clear to me who made this particular decision to sell, my first course of action should be to contact one of the Board trustees and ask some questions. Did they feel this decision was consistent with others made by GA delegates? Do they share the concerns that I do about it? Is the article misleading in any way?

When I serve as a leader, I expect to be held accountable for the mistakes I will inevitably make. But I would hope that someone who wanted to question a decision I made would first come to me to talk about it, rather than posting to a church-wide mailing list speculating on my motives. Our UUA leaders deserve the same consideration.

Karin
Karin

Karin, namaste.
Thanks for your response.

Having worked for the UUA for several years, I remember full well what it's like to be accused of things as if we are the enemy. I vowed to never forget that there are people of good faith making these decisions, and I do not think I have here. The only things I've said that the UUA has done is sell mineral rights to a piece of land, which was stated in the UU World article, and that this announcement (like others before it) comes with no apparent recognition that it might be controversial. That again is objectively verifiable (and extremely puzzling to me). I've made no accusations of secret agendas. Their goal, I know, was to close the budget deficit. The issue is how it was done.

Your suggestion that concerns should be raised privately, as opposed discussing them in a semi-public forum has been made before, and I believe you make it in good faith. However, I do not agree with it, and never have. I am wondering about the efficacy of translating principles of right relations designed for members of a congregation into rules of how constituents should act with publicly elected leaders. For one thing, if everyone tried as you suggest to have one-on-one discussions with our Board and the administration, they would be completely overwhelmed. With respect to elected leaders, public discussion has always been a recognized part of the democratic process. That *is* part of how feedback happens. I doubt that you would automatically intepret an op-ed critiquing Obama's immigration policy as a personal attack against him. So why then would a public critique of a UUA action automatically be considered an attack on our leaders?

Our mutual friend Ethan Contini-Field once wrote a great explanation as to why the request to keep things private is untenable. Basically, discussion in public allows us to see who else feels the same way, whereas a requirement that such discussions only happen privately prevents us from seeing others and effectively keeps us isolated.

So basically, respect and assumption of good faith, yes, always. But as for keeping all critique private, I respectfully disagree.

In faith,
Kat

Hi Kat.

It's interesting that you view UUA politics as closer to national politics, whereas I view it as closer to congregational politics. The difference is in the size of the community and the closeness of our relationships within it.

I consider my UU leadership, even the people I don't know personally, to be part of my community which is tied together in covenant. For the most part, I'd try to treat them as I'd treat my friends. When a friend of mine does something that makes me go "WTF," I go to them first and say "WTF?" (in somewhat more diplomatic language :) ) I don't go on a forum and write about them as if they were part of a body separate from me, particularly a forum they read. I've had that done to me before, and it's painful. I don't think that the UUA board is likely to be flooded with questions; if they were, I imagine they'd quickly realize that something needed to be clarified and take measures to do that.

Also, I never said that all criticism should be private; I said that I wished people would FIRST go to those they wished to criticize to learn their perspective. And there are plenty of ways to discuss things and find out who agrees with you other than Facebook; private emails, talking to friends at church, etc.

For the record, I think that comments worded in the form of questions are fair, and I think for the most part, that's what you do. I also acknowledge that I'm highly sensitive to criticism, particularly public criticism, and that has prevented me from taking on leadership positions where I think I'd serve well. It so often seems to me that UUs distrust and disempower their leaders, not by questioning them but by doing so in public ways and by means of triangulation rather than engagement.

So yes, we can respectfully disagree. And I still love you.

Karin

Karin, namaste.

Yes, I view UUA politics as closer to national politics than a congregation, for the simple reason being that we're not always - in fact, usually not - in direct contact with those making the decisions.  As is often the case, it's not even clear who exactly made the decision in question, as you yourself recognize here.  Let me be clear, that I think discussions of national politics should be equally respectful.  Our political leaders are part of our community as well.  (I do not think that we should only be nice to UUs and then treat others differently.) 

When you say that you always try to treat others as you would like to be treated, I would hope that you recognize that I do the same.  The difference here is in what we each think is appropriate action.  If you said something that I found questionable in a public forum, I would likely address you in the public forum (as you are doing now :) ).  The reason being that the action itself was public. Other folks have already seen the action (and are forming opinions on it).  So the discussion about it should be public, respectfully of course.  (If otoh, you did/said something between us privately, then of course, no, I would not take to the internet with that.) 

Lastly, I'm a little perplexed as to why you're focusing on how I view/treat UUA leadership, given that my blog post was about the UU community.  I specifically referenced the conversation that happened in the comments following the UU World article, and those comments were by fellow UUs.  What I see, following any kind of controversy in our community, is an attempt by some UUs to silence other UUs, and that is specifically what I am rejecting.

In faith, Kat

Dear Kat,

It has never been my intention in this entire conversation to accuse you of mistreating UUA leadership. I'm sorry my words have come across that way; I've tried to use only I-statements and own my perspectives. I'm not even referring to your comments in this conversation or any other. I'm thinking of those who express their disagreement in ways that are personal, public, and loaded with assumptions, and it's my belief that this is more common in a form like Facebook -- similar to the comment section in news articles. By suggesting a different venue or modality of communication or other actions that one might take first, I'm not trying to silence anyone, but recommending a different space that I believe is more conducive to a constructive dialogue.

I think you and I are responding to different aspects of what's going on; you not wanting to be labeled as ungrateful or anti-growth (which I'm not doing), and me defending fellow volunteer leaders whom I see being labeled as sellouts (which you are not doing). Maybe we can agree that controversial issues can often lead to people behaving badly, and that both of us are bothered by it -- me enough to suggest that such discussions not be held in this manner.

I'm glad to see that the discussion on the sale has become less flippant and more thoughtful, and I think you ask good questions and make excellent points, and I'm glad Ken Carpenter and Tim Brennan are part of the conversation now too.

Karin

I find both Mr. Carpenter's and Tim Brennan's responses greatly troubling.  They certainly indicate that we are not on the same page with respect to divestment.  And Tim is basically saying that we've sold drilling rights to oil speculators in order to fund our work against climate change.  Really, I'm flummoxed. 

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