Whatever happened to We?

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

To make a difference in the world, being a committed individual is not enough.

By Douglas K. Smith

In the autumn of 1968, close friends of my parents invited me to preach at the Unitarian Universalist church I had attended as a child in Natick, Massachusetts. My family had long since moved away, but I had returned to New England for college and had fond memories of the community we were part of in Natick.

I might have used that opportunity, in those turbulent months following the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations and the Democratic Convention violence, to explore what it meant to be one people in a nation so divided over war, civil rights, and law and order-a question that seems as apt now as then. I was, however, just 19 years old. My sermon was a teenager's earnest cry against hypocrisy rather than a mature reflection on political community.

Dressed in the black suit of a fundamentalist preacher and glaring out from the pulpit with an equally severe look, I excoriated the Natick Unitarians about "Sunday churchgoers"-individuals who parade righteousness on the "Lord's Day," then go out and sin Monday through Saturday. I kept up the theatrical fire and brimstone just long enough to see my polite listeners get uncomfortable, then left a long silence and asked: "How many of you thought I had found the wrong church?"

Were they relieved! It was both fun and serious. After I dropped my mask, we had a rich discussion about individual responsibility and religious values.

Now older than my parents' friends were in 1968, I have to smile with a bit of embarrassment at my youthful idealism and rage. Yet I still find a truth in the Sunday churchgoer problem-it has shaped my life's work. Over the last three decades I have helped people in organizations of all kinds-workplaces, executive teams, for-profits, nonprofits, government agencies, voluntary groups, churches, schools-learn how they can achieve performance and success in part by infusing their "Sunday" values into their day-to-day work world. In doing this, though, I've discovered that our contemporary challenge is more profound than the one I discussed that Sunday in Natick. Today, we must integrate values across our week not just as individuals-as "I's"-but also in the groups we're part of-as "we's."

Certainly, we all must strive to connect our most heartfelt values to our everyday lives. But in our culture that challenge has often been a highly individual, even private, one. The harder challenge is figuring out how to put our shared values to work in the groups we're part of-especially our workplaces, which demand so much of our time and energy, and voluntary groups like our congregations, which we choose explicitly for our shared values. The catch is that the groups in which we celebrate our most cherished values are not often the groups in which we spend most of our time and energy-and few of our groups overlap or intersect.

Navigating among the diverse we's that claim our loyalty has grown harder as our lives have grown more complex, but understanding how to do it well has never been more important. Too many of us have watched with a feeling of powerlessness as the self-serving have taken control of our economy, the self-righteous our politics, and the self-indulgent our culture. The self, the individual, stands at the center of our contemporary moral despair. Isolated and lonely, the self cries out for community-for a real experience of we beyond friends and family. If we are to solve our contemporary moral dilemmas-the pervasive conflict between a concern for value (profits, wealth, winning) and a concern for values (family, environment, religion, and more), an eroding democracy, the weakening of the rule of law, and growing poverty, to name just a handful-we must look beyond the individual to the group. We cannot and should not, of course, forget the individual. But there can be no reform of our terribly troubled society until we identify the truly meaningful we's in our lives and take action in them together.

A World of Places or a World of Purposes?

For most of our nation ' s history, the most significant relationships in people's lives-the ones they meant when they said "we"-were based in their hometowns.

The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s that the genius of American democracy resided in its small towns. "The native of New England is attached to his township," he wrote in Democracy in America, "because it is independent and free: his cooperation in its affairs ensures his attachment to its interests; the well-being it affords him secures his affection; and its welfare is the aim of his ambition and of his future exertions."

American democracy depended on human relationships based in places. The experience of self-governance in small towns helped democracy flower in the country as a whole. In the towns, people who were not necessarily friends or family learned to participate together democratically and effectively because they shared fates- because they had to. They were born into a place and, for the most part, stayed there. Their shared fates meant they had no choice but to find some way to share responsibility for balancing their values against one another; the well-being of the place-of the community-depended on shaping and pursuing some common good together.

Most Americans no longer live in that world. Yes, there are millions of people in the United States and beyond who still have an everyday, tangible, and gritty sense of sharing fates with others mostly because of the places they live. For those of us who no longer live in a world of places, our most significant relationships beyond our friends and families-the ones based in a sense of shared fates, the ones we mean when we say "we"-have moved from places to organizations.

In thinking about what has happened to we in our lives, I have built upon the concept of thick and thin relationships introduced in contemporary Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit's The Ethics of Memory. What is it in our relationships-in our we's-that gives them different depths of meaning?

Thin we's have abstract bonds: all humans, all Spanish speakers, all Roman Catholics-or, in the parlance of demographers and pollsters, nascar dads, soccer moms, and red or blue voters. Thin we's share a description of motive and interest but little else. We may identify strongly with labels of religion, politics, or personal passion, but by themselves these identities do not reflect essential relationships in our lives. Nascar dads might vote for the same candidates and buy the same beer, but their connections with each other remain thin.

In contrast, thick we's inescapably, consciously, and meaningfully share fates. They have no choice but to figure out how to get along with one another. In Natick in the 1950s, my family intersected meaningfully every day with other families who lived in our town. Our whole town was a thick we. Yes, some people-mostly fathers-commuted to work in other places. But day to day, the majority of Natick's residents threw their lots in with one another: in schools, churches, the Little League, the town's businesses and government, in short, the life of Natick. People in our town implicitly understood that the health of the community depended on our shared relationships and values.

Today my family does not live together with other people in the way the community of Natick did in the 1950s-nor, in all likelihood, do you. Certainly, each of us resides somewhere. We have homes, maybe even in small towns. Mine is in Union Vale, New York, about eighty miles north of Manhattan, where I've lived for nearly twenty years. Yet my fate does not intertwine in daily, tangible ways with other residents of Union Vale. I do not depend on them for my livelihood, my education, my spiritual well being, my safety, or even my commerce. I am not atypical.

Along with most of my fellow citizens of Union Vale, I look to our town to keep the roads cleared, educate my children, and deliver police, fire, and environmental protection. We are customers seeking services more than citizens shaping a common good together. We may vote, like good citizens, but that is often our primary connection to fellow townspeople, and it's a thin one. Occasionally, an issue does attract widespread participation. Some years back, for example, a developer cozy with the town council proposed a 15,000-seat cricket stadium in our town of just 4,000. A vocal citizens' opposition at a monthly council meeting squelched it. But uprisings are rare, and even when a major issue ends up on the ballot, less than 20 percent of the voting-age population votes. Our relationship to our town government-and state and federal governments, for that matter-is not so different from our relationship to Ford or Chrysler, IBM or Microsoft, CVS or Shop Rite. We do not expect to participate in problem solving and shared responsibility. Rather, most of us hope to receive good government services, and if we don't get them, we grin and bear it or vote with our feet.

I am friendly with many people in my town, and I have relationships with my children's teachers, service providers, and other local people. But my most meaningful relationships come from being part of we's who depend on one another because we share fates. These we's crop up in the consulting work I do with clients, the nonprofit organizations in which I volunteer, and my interactions with close friends and family-almost all of whom are located in different places, many quite far away.

Try making a list of twenty people who play an important role in your life, even if only by phone and e-mail. How many live within walking distance? In your town? In your state? How many live even farther away? One hundred and fifty-or even fifty-years ago, nearly all twenty people on your list would live in your neighborhood or town, and they would show up in multiple parts of your life: school, work, church, volunteer and social groups, the business of your day-to-day life. Today, chances are, a good number do not.

Even if you still live in the same small town where you were born, attend the church of your childhood, and have lifelong friends there, I'll wager this dramatic shift of the past fifty years has profoundly affected how you find meaning and use your values. You may choose to get involved in local organizations whose purposes are important to you. But that is a choice you make because of purposes you share with others. Almost nothing forces you to interact with the people who live near you.

In the past, getting involved with neighbors and townspeople was a necessity. Place was like a forge that melded us together and provided the purposes we shared. Today, place has lost its heat. We participate with one set of people at work, another in worship, still another in our kids' events or voluntary organizations-all the while trying to keep up with family and friends we've made along the way. We must intentionally seek purpose in our commitments and relationships. We can no longer rely on the hidden force of place to fuse our lives. Today, most Americans live in a world of purposes, not a world of places.

In this new world, organizations are now our towns. What the Greeks called the polis, a political community of people with an everyday sense of inescapable and tangible shared fates, has been uprooted from place and replanted in organizations. Indeed, organizations are the only thick we's in our lives where we throw in our lots-our fates-with others who are not friends or family.

None of this is a bad thing in itself. But it is a different thing. And unless we understand the consequences of this profound cultural shift, it will continue to fragment our lives in ways that thwart democracy and our ability to use our values to make a difference in our world.

Is Your Congregation a 'Thick We'?

Significantly, Unitarian Universalism is rooted in the same culture of small New England towns that de Tocqueville identified as the foundation of American democracy. Americans have always placed a strong focus on the individual, from the rights and responsibilities that were the concern of the Founders right up to the recent marketing concept of customizing products for "a market of one." The liberal religious tradition, too, has emphasized individual choice, tolerance, and respect for differences. For centuries liberalism has protested oppressive we's. The Puritans (the unlikely parents of American Unitarianism) struck a blow for individual freedom in leaving the Church of England. But in celebrating these hard-won individual freedoms, we too often forget that the Puritans struck this blow as a group -as a thick we. They set up places-New England towns-to practice their values, and however oppressive they turned out to be, they planted the seeds for generations of conscientious freedom seekers.

The intellectual tradition of liberalism is anchored in an assumption that is no longer valid, however-namely that individual choice and respect for differences are rooted in place-based we's that share values and fates. In twenty-first-century America, that's a bad assumption. Today, choice and respect for differences happen on TV and at the mall-but not necessarily in towns and neighborhoods. Choice and respect have little meaning in the absence of thick we's who practice them. In our concern for individualism, we have neglected the other essential element to human fulfillment: we.

Think about the groups that give meaning to your life-where you find basic security, satisfying friendships, material and spiritual well-being. Many of us think of friends and families, and perhaps our congregations, as our only thick we's. That is not enough. We cannot grow as individuals and society cannot thrive unless we embrace all the thick we's that are central to our lives-the people with whom we work and learn as well as those with whom we pray and play.

Many of us are better at being true to our values as individuals than at conscientiously linking our values across the many organizations in our lives. The social action committee or minister in your congregation may encourage you as individual consumers to do business with locally owned stores instead of large corporations, for example. Or perhaps you encourage each other to make sure your retirement savings are invested in a socially responsible way. As laudable and important as these choices are, they nonetheless remain the actions of individuals acting in markets.

In contrast, imagine that your congregation asked each member to begin a discussion in his or her workplace about living wages or affordable health insurance. Yes, such an action would be taking a kind of individual step-but, and this is key, it is a step taken as an employee, not a consumer, and within the thick we of an organization, not a market. Could you, for example, challenge your workplace-where you have a thick involvement and must take a much greater risk-to adopt a living wage, humane layoff policies, and a commitment to local job creation? Could you then work as a congregation to persuade large employers in your area to do the same? Would you be agreeable if your congregation's leaders said, "We've decided we want to persuade other churches in our community to adopt more welcoming policies toward gay and lesbian people-and we want all adult members to come along on a visit to a minister of a local church?" You might not feel nearly so comfortable as making consumer choices in markets. You might think, "I could get fired," or "My church has no business telling local companies, other churches, or me what to do."

But there are churches across the nation doing these very sorts of things. Many conservative churches make no secret of how they'd like their values and priorities to contribute to what they see as the greater good of society. Their congregants take their shared values into other thick we's in their lives, such as charter schools, local political parties, and workplaces. These organizations are reshaping society in ways that affect you and your future. You-and your thick we's-ignore them at your peril.

In more liberal churches, many of us are ill at ease with these approaches. A commitment to individual liberty has invested us with a belief in individual will and freedom of action. We have a deeply ingrained conviction that it's oppressive for the group to put strictures on the individual. But that attitude is not serving us well in this age.

We must see that the organizations that matter most to us-and for many, the most important are our workplaces and our congregations-are our new towns. We must demand more self-governance in our day-to-day real lives and use our organizations' values, especially our congregations' shared values, to shape our world. Otherwise, we will be left to live in markets and networks dominated by values we don't share and where we have no voice.

Sharing Values in the Workplace

A s a consultant, I have helped all kinds of organizations become more democratic, create community, and align their ethical values with the financial value they create. I have seen them succeed when they blend democratic and hierarchical principles in service of the sustainable performance of their organizations.

These days, for example, you are more likely to have participated in a town hall meeting at work than in the town where you reside. Also, whenever changes are afoot, all types of organizations now routinely seek buy-in, an economic-sounding but essentially political concept about the expectations and obligations of members of a group. Many organizations are realizing that they perform best when their members share a belief in their missions, values, and strategies, when they operate as a thick we.

Whether formal or informal, work or volunteer, large or small, for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental, organizations can become the communities in which we connect our shared values to the greater good of humankind, but only if we see them as thick we's and only if we take responsibility to help shape those shared values. Our workplaces ask for and often get that level of participation from us with regard to financial success. We all know how critical it is to participate if we hope to stay employed. Now, however, we must find the courage to pursue both value and values in our workplaces-to set and achieve a sustainable blend of financial and nonfinancial success.

No one, of course, can devote that much energy to every organization touching her or his life. We have no choice but to adopt the role of customer with regard to most organizations. We must rely on them to provide the goods and services on which our very lives depend. In turn, the customers of our work organizations depend on us.

Each of us can-and, I argue, must-make some organizations into communities for ourselves. Our thick we at work can be among the most important in our lives, a community where we both make a living and bring our values to the table. At many workplaces, however, creating financial value and winning at all costs are the answer to every question. Certainly, profits and competing to win are essential to every successful business. But if they always trump every other value, then the values promoted by our thick we at work will overwhelm and overshadow all the other values we'd like to think we care about.

If your work organization has a great deal of openness, or if you have a management position, you may be able to raise questions about the values and practices of the organization at staff or executive-team meetings. Low-ranking employees can find ways to introduce beneficial changes, starting with conversations with fellow employees. But it takes courage, and it takes support. In order to put our deepest values to work in the world, we must get involved thickly with other organizations as well.

Congregations and the Common Good

I challenge you to turn your congrega tion into an essential thick we that takes explicit action together. It is no longer enough for churches to adopt a circle-the-wagons mentality, to provide a Sunday sanctuary for a group of people with shared values without taking action together throughout the rest of the week.

No thick we is taking its responsibilities seriously unless it defines its common good and the performance it seeks to achieve. That last phrase may scare you. "Performance" is a word we don't often use at church. We're more comfortable saying, "We wish to do good." But too many nonprofit organizations-including churches-assume that intention will somehow translate into results. Too many congregations assume they know what values their members share. Failing to be explicit about values and goals, however, prevents church members from taking themselves seriously as a thick we connected by shared values in their work both inside and outside the church.

I urge your congregation to do some soul searching, to discover the soul of your "we": What do we want to do? How do we want to influence other "we's" in our larger community? Involve your entire membership in this three-step process: What is our mission? How do we accomplish it? And how do we know if we have succeeded? (Click here for more discussion questions.)

First, identify your common vision, your shared purposes and values. Some congregations have a mission statement that does this. If your congregation does not, write one. If respect for the inherent dignity and worth of every person is the value that defines the heart of your congregation, ask yourselves how you can express that value not just in worship on Sunday mornings or in your interactions with each other, but in other groups in your community as well. Perhaps you will decide in talking about this core value that your mission as a congregation is to empower people to spread respect through every group in your community.

Mission statements are abstract, however, so don't stop there. Next, in order to make your mission real, define the strategies you'll use to achieve it. Do other people know what your congregation is about? Some of your strategies will focus on the public face of your congregation-the programs it sponsors, the way church leaders talk to the media and participate in community events, how the congregation advertises or market itself, the way your congregation spends its money and interacts with neighbors. In talking about your congregation's strategies, though, don't focus simply on things like marketing or publicity, as important as these institutional activities are. The strategies that matter most are ones that involve you as members. What can you do as members of your congregation to bring your values into other groups you're part of? How can you spread respect, for example, in your workplace and other organizations? How can your congregation empower and assist you-and hold you accountable-for bringing this core value into your other thick we's? One strategy might be simply to ask each member to initiate a conversation about respect in their workplace, community, or school with a coworker, neighbor, or classmate.

Third, set measurable performance goals that will tell you when you've succeeded. You might set an ambitious goal: Within eighteen months, we will help persuade two other organizations in our area to adopt more respectful practices toward their gay, lesbian, or transgender employees.

Too few churches now have this degree of explicitness. But to be effective in this new world, churches must do this kind of soul-searching organizational work and actively seek to inject the values they share into the other thick we's of their lives as well as the world beyond their doors.

The question now is: Will you? Will your congregation commit to supporting one another as you take shared values into the workplace, the school, state, local and federal politics, and so on? Will you risk your participant status in other thick we's on behalf of the shared values you profess? Will you insist on respect in your workplace as well as in your church work? Will you join with others at work to argue that all your company's employees should earn a living wage and have access to health insurance? Will you bring your Sunday concern for truth-as-accuracy to influence your parent-teacher organization's position on choices in textbook purchases?

We awake each day to a world that substitutes certainty for faith, marketing for democracy, celebrity for leadership, profiteering for economics, and selfishness for charity. No single church or organization alone can change this world. But every church-and every thick we in our lives-can ensure that its shared values contribute to the greater good of humanity. They can do so if their members will do the hard work of all successful and effective organizations. This discipline will ultimately strengthen both our communities and ourselves and bring us closer to the kind of society we want.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
UU World : Page 26-32

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