The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Reflections from the President of the UUA

January/February 2000

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The two of us enjoy being partners in leading this association. We are each other’s fans, wailing walls, and gentle critics. We laugh at ourselves and each other and the UUA a lot! And sometimes we also worry together. That’s why we’re co-writing this message on economic injustice and our response to it as a religious community. 

At our 1997 General Assembly, the famous sociologist Robert Bellah told several thousand of us that 

it is no accident . . . that the United States, with its high valuation of the individual person, is nonetheless alone among North Atlantic societies in the percentage who live in poverty. Just when we are moving into an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing. And this is in no small part due to the fact that our religious individualism is linked to an economic individualism which, though it makes no distinction between persons except monetary ones, ultimately knows nothing of the sacredness of the individual. If the only standard is money, then all other distinctions are undermined.

On the agenda for our General Assembly in Nashville this coming June will be a Statement of Conscience entitled “Economic Injustice, Poverty and Racism: A Journey of Action and Reflection.” It is supposed to be the product of a two-year process of study and action in the congregations. And that’s what worries us. 

In our travels to congregations, we find a lot of blank faces when we ask about the two-year study-action process. It makes us wonder how many congregations have actually been taking part. Has your congregation been engaged in the process? Does it plan to review and comment on the Statement of Conscience draft language recently sent out by the Commission on Social Witness? If not, why not? We worry that we’re not really ready for an honest GA discussion of economic injustice—not even a good, civil fight with one another—for lack of sufficient grass-roots preparation. 

Oh, it would be easy to have a politically correct affirmation of concern, after the required 30 minutes of superficial discussion. But is that what it means to issue a Statement of Conscience on behalf of our whole family of faith? Or would we instead find that we had issued a pronouncement that we weren’t actually ready to live by? That would be spiritually dangerous. Downright hypocritical, maybe.

We see two possible ways to go from here. We could try to have some robust discussion over the next months about economic issues and our obligations as religious people. Otherwise, we both feel that the General Assembly should talk about the Statement of Conscience as a committee of the whole and then have the courage to recommit this issue to the congregations for further study and action until we can be sure we mean what we say—so that what we end up with really is a statement of our collective conscience. A statement of what we know we should try to do together. A common call to reflection and action.

Attendance at General Assemblies has increased markedly in recent years. Too many congregations, however, still do not take seriously their participation in our democratic processes. Rather than whining or disagreeing with what the General Assembly does or does not do, wouldn’t it be healthier if more of us actually studied the issues on the agenda? After discussion at the local level, our delegates could really represent the congregations, as they are meant to do. The member congregations of the UUA covenant to affirm and promote, among other things, “the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” But let’s not overlook democracy in our association. 

In 2001, delegates chosen by the congregations will be empowered to cast ballots (or absentee ballots) for a new moderator and a new president. After two four-year terms each, we will both be ineligible to succeed ourselves. If we have one message for you during these last 18 months, it is this: Congregations! You belong to an association! It is your association! Take seriously your democratic rights and re-sponsibilities. You have the power. So use it—wisely and well. 

Yours faithfully,

John Buehrens, President
Denny Davidoff, Moderator
Unitarian Universalist Association

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