Wielding Our Power

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

We the Powerful

Unitarian Universalists are a mainstream, middle-class association far closer to the center of both politics and power than we generally like to admit.

By Rob Eller-Isaacs

/Christopher L. Walton

/Michelle Bates Deakin

It was more than just a dinner party. The idea was to gather a group of people from our church in St. Paul, Minnesota, who are seriously engaged in shaping public policy. The guest list included a member of the Minnesota House, a state public health official, two professors from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, a member of the city council, a federal judge, and the director of the Metropolitan Council (arguably the most strongly empowered regional authority in the United States). All but one of the guests describe themselves as liberal Democrats. The one exception, though known as a right-leaning Republican, regards himself as an independent libertarian.

We Unitarian Universalists often claim that our church is a place where people of diverse opinions are able to communicate openly without fear of ridicule, but in preparing for our dinner I was aware that we too rarely practice what we preach. Our guest list, however, offered an opportunity to do just that--and so my wife and co-minister Janne and I were a bit anxious, anxious enough to prepare a question in advance, a question we hoped would deepen the conversation and help keep the peace. We offered a toast at the beginning of the meal. We acknowledged the importance of all of our guests' work and assured them that the church would always be there for them as a source of nourishment and inspiration. Then Janne popped the question:

"When have you taken a public stand that required real courage?"

The first response was from the state representative, who is an outspoken supporter of gay marriage. He talked about how uncomfortable he was the first time he spoke out on the floor. Two others spoke of their support for extending the full benefits of marriage to same-sex couples and of negative reactions from colleagues and constituents. There were murmurs of appreciation when Janne and I spoke of the pioneering work of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the many ways the work of the church helps inform its members as they work for equal rights and progressive public policy. Even our so-called conservative guest forcefully defended the efforts of both the UUA and the local congregation in standing for and with our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends and neighbors.

Just as the conversation was threatening to become a bit self-congratulatory, our freethinking friend spoke up from the end of the table. "May I suggest a second question to accompany the first? When have you held back from taking a courageous stand and why?"

He went on to talk about how lonely it can be to take an unpopular stand. He talked about being a conservative and a Unitarian Universalist. And when I pointed out our commitment to diversity of opinion, he smiled and reminded me that we don't really welcome political diversity; we just believe we should.

That moment marked a turning point. By speaking of the loneliness of leadership he deepened the conversation. What had begun as a dinner party had become an unplanned sacrament. Everyone around the table understood that something rare and valuable was happening. There was power rising in the room. No one wanted it to end.

Religious liberals tend to shy away from power. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the English Romantic poet, wrote, "Power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whate'er it touches." He was imagining a ruthless power born of the ambition to control. But there is a different kind of power: a power born of the proximity of opposing forces. It is the power that engenders depth and makes transformation possible. It is the kind of power to which religious liberals should aspire. Power with, not power over.

An analogy from nature may serve well here. Think about electrical power. Electricity is generated when opposite magnetic poles come into proximity. If kept too far apart there is no power, no energy, no charge. The world is shaped by those most willing to engage. We can't afford to be naïve: There are times we have to break off contact in the interest of self-preservation. Such times are rare and few and far between. We can avoid them best by doing our utmost to stay in touch with those with whom we are least comfortable. Church is the place we do our best to learn to love the people we like least.

There was a time we Unitarian Universalists recognized the power of the people in our pews. Think about William Ellery Channing's congregation at the old Federal Street Church in Boston, where people like Horace Mann, the Peabody sisters, and even Daniel Webster found the strength and inspiration to pursue their work. Or, more recently at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., during the 1950 s ministry of A. Powell Davies, when large numbers of those with direct responsibility for shaping public policy crowded into the pews each Sunday. They also had their disagreements, but I want to believe they knew better than to bring their ideologies to church.

These days we Unitarian Universalists prefer to imagine ourselves to be peripheral and powerless. We prefer to make believe we represent a tiny minority voice drowned out in dominant culture by a hegemonic chorus of ignorant prejudiced people. This belief takes us off the hook. It allows us to avoid the loneliness of leadership. It lets us pretend we're not in complicity with privilege. In the name of political purity we make it clear who is welcome at the so-called welcome table and who is not.

Ask a religious liberal who happens to be a Republican or a businessperson how it feels to be part of most of our congregations. You're apt to hear how they feel pushed away by unfounded assumptions and thoughtless remarks made by well-meaning people made foolish by their ideology. We say we want to be among those who "speak truth to power." But we deny what power we might have when we drive away the very people to whom we claim we wish to speak.

It is time to leave the land of make-believe and recognize our full complexity. We are far more closely aligned with the status quo then we would like to believe. We are children of the Enlightenment. We are laissez-faire liberals whose great strength has always been our ability to organize associations for social betterment. Though we look back with pride at our radicals--at the abolitionists and suffragists, at those who marched for peace or stood up courageously to face down prejudice--they have always been a small minority among us.

That's bad news for those who wish to continue to pretend that Unitarian Universalists are a saving remnant of progressive activists holding out against the onslaught of the Right. We are, in fact, a mainstream, middle-class association far closer to the center of both politics and power than we generally like to admit. The good news is that as we clarify our identity, as we begin to own up to our history, we become far more capable of wielding what power we do have in service to society.

The second question asked at dinner--"When have you held back from taking a courageous stand and why?"--still sounds inside me. We humans tend toward tribalism. We want to be with people who look and think and act the way we do. There is a reason Sunday morning at 11:00 is still the most segregated hour in America. Worship is an intimate experience. It is difficult enough to surrender into faith among beloved friends. Why would anyone want to worship with strangers? The answer is that we Unitarian Universalists stand in a theological tradition that calls us to welcome every stranger as a child of God, born whole and holy and already saved. It will take courage to attempt to actually become the church we claim we want to be. And it will matter whom we invite to join us at the table.

There is always a gulf between how we behave and what we aspire to be. This tension has played out in our tradition in our ambivalence and lack of clarity in matters of identity. Are we an intellectual elite? Are we a church intended only for progressive liberals with advanced degrees, the people Garrison Keillor calls "the chronically overeducated"? Or are we compelled by our theology to expand our understanding of whom we mean when we say "we"?

Some say we are the leaven. I insist that we can be the bread. But only when we can confess our own impoverishment, only when we can enter back into respectful conversation with those with whom we disagree, only when we ask ourselves again the covenantal question: What shall we promise one another and in what interest?

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
UU World : Page 23-25

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