Monthly Archives: April 2017

A Hard Rain

Over the last few years, I’ve been watching and contemplating a revival of the Civil Rights Movement. And while I have not been silent, I have also wanted to be sure I knew my song well before I started singing, because the hard rains are gonna fall. We are entering a hard, painful, trying time in our history, religiously, nationally and culturally. We are trying to heal a divide that has existed for millennia, and the hard truth is that none of us will live to see it fully healed.

I am 72 years old. I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Jim Crow had to die. The struggle was long and hard. People bled and died in the struggle. Friendships and families were broken. Hearts were broken. And people were called upon to see their worlds differently. Not everyone could do that, though more could than couldn’t.

By about 1970, many of us, mostly Euro-American, thought that the work was essentially finished. We thought that all that remained was working out the details and correcting the oversights. We thought the world had changed. We were, of course, wrong. What was changed was the law, not the souls of the Euro-American people. And that is the task we face today: changing the soul of white America. What we are being called to do is to let go of a consciousness that we do not even know we have.

Before it will be possible for white privilege/white supremacy to evaporate into no privilege at all, the world that we Euro-Americans build out of our deep and unknowing racial consciousness, must die that a new world can be built. This cannot happen without struggle. It cannot happen without people being offended, hurt, and angered. It cannot happen without good and well-intentioned people saying things that are wrong, misunderstood, offensive.

Some will insist that things are moving far too slowly, that they cannot wait because people are dying. Some will insist that things are moving far to fast, that they cannot change their consciousness that quickly. Both will be right.

This is a time when compassion and strength will often be in conflict, because all of us will be called to do what we cannot do. Our compassion will sometimes fail, and our strength will sometimes fail.

There will be times when we want to throw up our hands n despair and give in to the violence that lurks with the hearts and souls of all of us, kept in check only by our commitment to a greater love and a cleansed world. And sometimes we will question that very commitment.

Each of us will falter and stumble sometimes. When that happens, may we have the humility to reach out to those strong hands and hearts walking beside us. And each of us will sometimes be the strong and the faithful. In those times, may we reach back to those who falter and stumble.

The newer, cleaner, just world call us, though it is over the horizon. The journey to that world is long and hard and filled with stumbling blocks. And the hard rain is falling. It stings our eyes and threatens to blind us. But that world is there. Its song calls us onward.

 

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Murmuration

Stiff with death, last summer’s corn
Rattles as a breeze invites it to dance.
As aimless as fog, I wander through the field
To a marsh at its edge. My heart is empty.

The marsh is cold and lonely, the color of fall.
The breeze drifts through broken cattails.
A flock of starlings has settled into the rushes,
Each bird speaking its own complaint.

All is silence except for the rattling corn,
The shaking cattails, the complaining birds.
Afternoon falls, silently and deliberately,
Carefully into evening. My heart shivers.

Shattering the silence, a distant dog barks.
My heart stops like music reaching a cadence.

Shards of birds explode out of the marsh.
They gather into a flock that comes alive.
It turns on itself, each bird knowing
What to do and when to do it.

Obeying unspeakable commands from no one,
The flock whirls and weaves, twirls,
Makes undulant patterns in the sky,
Birds moving together, many and one.

I stand on the edge of the marsh watching:
This living flock, these birds,
This air, these unspoken patterns.
The dog barks again. The flock returns.

The gateless gate opens.

On Unearned Privilege

Something happened Thursday within Unitarian Universalism that has the potential to shake our foundations. The President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA) resigned just three months before the end of his term of office. Now, this might appear to be no big deal. “So? The President of the UUA resigned a little early. So what?” The big deal is that this resignation is actually the tip of a much larger iceberg. It is an expression of something that has been a wound in our religious body politic I assume for as long as there have been Unitarian and Universalist churches, but certainly since 1961 when the two denominations merged to form the UUA.

The issue behind the visible issue is unearned privilege: unearned white, male, straight, cis-gendered privilege. Like so many institutions in America, especially churches, unearned privilege seethes in our ranks. It is usually barely noticed and unaddressed. The controversy that led to the President’s resignation centered on unearned privilege in hiring UUA staff. This, though, is only one expression of unearned privilege in our movement.

I have spent the past 10 years researching slavery and my family’s involvement in it, and in the course of that research, I have learned a lot about unearned privilege. Among other things, I have learned that unearned privilege is nearly invisible to the privileged but painfully obvious to unprivileged. As an example, unearned privilege is part of the sea we Euro-Americans swim in. As a result, it is very difficult for us to see this water. For some, it is impossible. But people of color swim in a different sea, and they see our privilege every day of their lives.

The typical reaction to being called out on unearned privilege is first to be defensive, denying any privilege and trying to point out why it can’t possibly be true. Then we try to explain everything we have done to counter the oppression in question. And finally, we start to attack the person calling us out, using increasingly aggressive language. And finally we walk away angry, mystified, feeling misunderstood and unappreciated.

How do I know this is how people react when called out on unearned privilege? Because I have seen it in myself more often than I want to admit. This is how I have reacted over and over, and this is what I constantly struggle to overcome. And, struggling with it in myself, I have learned to see it in others.

So what happened at the UUA Thursday? Precisely this drama was acted out over a period a few weeks. A top leadership staff position came open, and the short list contained two fully qualified candidates. One was a white, male, minister; the other was a Latina, female, lay Director of Religious Education. The white male minister was hired. Reaction to this hiring was been loud, careful, and articulate.

It was clearly pointed out that the reaction was not at all about the person who was hired. He is fully qualified, and he will do a fine job. No one has any qualms about that. The reaction was about how this hire perpetuates a pattern of discriminatory hiring, especially at the upper levels of the UUA staff. The UUA was being called out on unearned privilege, and discussion swirled for a couple of weeks. And then the UUA President joined the fray and acted in exactly the manner I described above. The response to his behavior was quick and sure, and Thursday he resigned.

The reason that this has the potential to shake our foundations is that there is a pattern in our congregations when controversy arises. The pattern is quite simple. Someone is offended or hurt by something they see happening and speaks out. In response, there is a flurry of expressed concern, breast-beating and promises to deal with the issue. But then the flurry dies down; the breast-beating stops; and the promises are forgotten. And nothing happens. The congregation has managed to ignore the issue by pretending to address it.

Essentially the same thing happens at every level of our structure. But this time we have the opportunity to change that pattern. Our Bylaws state that when there is a vacancy in the Presidency, the Board will fill the vacancy until a new President is elected. The Board’s next regular meeting is in about three weeks. So a new President will be appointed by late this month. Since the next regularly scheduled election for President will occur this June, this appointed President, whoever it is, will be a caretaker. On July 1 we will have a newly elected President.

Both the appointed interim President and the new President have the opportunity to open a genuine conversation about how unearned privilege is expressed in our movement and to act to correct it. And that would shake our foundations to a fair-you-well. One of the Presidential candidates has already published what she would do about this were she elected. I call on the other two candidates to do the same.

We have an opportunity to make major changes in the ways that we Unitarian Universalists carry out our mission. Let us not simply fall back into to old patterns that do nothing to heal injustice within our own ranks.