UU theologies: Hosea Ballou’s Universalism

Here’s the first short lecture I used in last night’s online class on Unitarian Universalist (UU) theologies:

Click on the image above to go to the video on Youtube.

For accessibility, the text of the lecture is below. Note that I may have altered the text a little when reading it.

Continue reading “UU theologies: Hosea Ballou’s Universalism”

Scholar strike for racial injustice

A bunch of U.S. professors and scholars will stop teaching and attending to routine meetings today and tomorrow, in order to have a sort of “teach-in” about racial injustice in America. On the blog of Academe magazine, Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon write:

“Scholar Strike is both an action, and a teach-in. Some of us will, for two days, refrain from our many duties and participate in actions designed to raise awareness of and prompt action against racism, policing, mass incarceration and other symptoms of racism’s toll in America. In the tradition of the teach-ins of the 1960s, we are going to spend September 8–9 doing YouTube ten-minute teach-ins, accessible to everyone, and a social media blitz on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to share information about racism, policing, mass incarceration, and other issues of racial injustice in America.” Link to full blog post.

It was Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies and Africana studies at UPenn, who started the whole thing with a tweet towards the end of August. I’ve been interested in her work for a while now: she keeps getting quoted in news stories I read, and she’s got a book coming out in the spring, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, that I’m looking forward to reading.

Butler and Gannon also acknowledge that many, perhaps most, scholars working in academia, will not be able to participate in the strike:

“We are also acutely aware of the precarity of most college faculty; many of our colleagues hold positions in which they cannot step away from their duties for a day or two, or are covered under collective bargaining agreements. It might seem odd to think of college faculty as “workers,” but the stereotype of the fat-cat tenured professor is not an accurate one. Indeed, 75 percent of all credit hours in US colleges and universities are taught by underpaid adjunct faculty, who not only lack the protections and benefits of full-time faculty, but are employed on a class-by-class, term-by-term basis. Even those of us in more secure positions still work on campuses where fiscal crises and a pandemic have combined to make everyone’s employment status precarious….”

And of course it’s a challenge to do this kind of teach-in when many students aren’t even on campus due to COVID — and of course, distance learning was already becoming the norm for many colleges and graduates schools, since distance learning is so much less expensive for the administrators to operate. Nor is it a coincidence that distance learning also makes it much harder to fan the flames of discontent among students.

Follow the strike live:
Scholar Strike Web site
Scholar Strike Youtube channel
Scholar Strike Facebook page
Twitter hashtag #ScholarStrike
Canadian Scholar Strike
News stories:
Inside Higher Ed article
Religion News Service article (emphasizes religion and theology scholars)

Click on the logo above to head to the Scholar Strike Web site.

Law and order

It has been very interesting to listen to Donald Trump respond to the protests following the lynching of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers: Trump has made calls for “law and order.” For anyone who remembers Barry Goldwater or Richard Nixon, in the not-so-distant past a call for “law and order” was code for using police to keep African Americans in their place. But that history goes back before Goldwater and Nixon, as is made clear in this excerpt from “O Say Can You See,” the blog of the National Museum of American History:

“William J. Simmons, a former minister and promoter of fraternal societies, founded the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in 1915. His organization grew slowly, but by the 1920s, Simmons began coordinating with a public relations firm, in part to chip away at the (accurate) perception that the Klan was an outlaw group involved in extralegal violence. Membership in the Klan exploded over the next few years. As part of this PR campaign, Simmons gave an interview to the Atlanta Journal newspaper in January 1921. While explicitly advocating white supremacy, Simmons played up his group’s commitment to law and order … and even boasted of his own police credentials. He claimed members at every level of law enforcement belonged to his organization, and that the local sheriff was often one of the first to join when the Klan came to a town. Ominously, Simmons declared that ‘[t]he sheriff of Fulton County knows where he can get 200 members of the Klan at a moment’s call to suppress anything in the way of lawlessness.'”

This blog post ends with a pertinent question in Latin, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Here’s my free translation of this phrase: “Who will police the police?”

And don’t forget…

As reported by Religion News Service: Breonna Taylor, a black woman, was killed by police on March 13, yet…

“‘Despite the number of unarmed Black women killed by police or who have died under police custody under suspicious circumstances, none of them, with the exception of maybe Sandra Bland, has brought a lot of widespread attention, whereas consistently we see that men get more attention,’ said Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, womanist theologian and associate professor of pastoral care and counseling in the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.”

Why is this so?

“‘Black women are often romantically imagined. We are “warriors.” We are “mothers.” We are “queens” … People don’t consider us as human. And our institutions, including churches, schools, workplaces and even our movements are guilty of exploiting the labor of Black women. We are forever invisible and, yet, simultaneously, always to blame,’ said [Baptist minister Candace] Simpson.”

Back to Walker-Brown for a final quote:

“‘We believe when Black women are free and when Black women’s lives matter, everyone’s lives will matter.'”

A word to my fellow white guys

On Saturday, Clarissa-Jan Lim, a journalist with BuzzFeed News, reported on the violent protests against police violence and George Floyd’s murder:

“In a video that has been shared online widely, [Tay] Anderson [a Denver school board director and activist], who is black, is seen confronting a white man with a cloth covering on his face after the man spray-paints ‘ACAB’ — ‘all cops are bastards’ — on public property. Anderson said he was doing a news interview when he saw the man vandalizing, so he turned around and tried to stop him.

“‘I said, “We asked allies to step back so that we can make sure that you’re following what we’re asking you to do,”’ he recalled. ‘And he was like, ‘I’m not your ally, you guys want to protect the status quo….”’”

Well, actually — that white guy is doing his best to reproduce the status quo.

We white men are brought up to believe that we always know best, that we always have to be in charge. Just like that white guy that Tay Anderson confronted in Denver. I get very skeptical when I hear about white men talking about joining or helping organize protests against racism. Us white guys need to — to paraphrase Tay Anderson — step back and follow the lead of people who are not white guys. If we can’t do that, for all we may talk about being allies we’re actually just protecting the status quo.

How does this protect the status quo, you ask? Let’s go back to Tay Anderson:

“Anderson … said he knows that others ‘are going to blame black people for the violence and destruction, whether or not they started it. When we aren’t asking people to destroy things in our name and people do it anyway, we know that this is something that’s going to blow back on us,’ he said. ‘I’m pissed that this is going to blow back on us, because we don’t deserve this. We didn’t ask for this.’”

You see how this works, right?

White guys go to a non-violent protest march organized by black people. The white guys can’t stand not being the center of attention, so they start getting violent. This displaces the center of authority from the black organizers of the protest march to the white guys. Suddenly, it’s no longer a non-violent protest march organized by black people, it’s a violent protest organized by white guys. And as usual, if anything goes wrong, black people get blamed. The status quo of American racism is preserved yet again.

Here’s a word of advice to my fellow white guys:

If you really want to change the status quo, then when you go to one of the protests, make sure for once in your life that you’re not in charge of anything. In fact, if you go to a white allies protest, let white people of other genders run it. When you’re at a protest, don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t do anything to cause others to photograph you. Don’t be a rugged individualist or a lone ranger. Don’t even go bragging all over social media about what a social justice warrior you are because you, a white guy, were brave enough to attend a protest. In short, for once in your life, you’re not going to be the center of attention. I’m a white guy myself, so I know how hard that will be; but that’s what we need to do.

Because if us white guys could actually stop trying to be in charge all the time, that would go a long way towards changing the status quo.

Learning from the Gadfly Papers controversy

I have been following, at a distance, the controversy about the publication and distribution of The Gadfly Papers, a book of essays critical of the UUA’s antiracism approach, written and self-published by Todd Eklof, the minister at the Spokane, Wash., Unitarian Universalist church. Eklof distributed the books at General Assembly (GA), the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA); GA was held in Spokane this year.

As someone who didn’t go to GA, and as someone who doesn’t trust social media for reliable information, it wasn’t easy to figure out what went on. So far, UUWorld.org, usually an excellent source of information about GA, has not reported on what happened; instead, in their media round-up column, they pointed to an article from the local newspaper.

That local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., published an article on June 25 titled “Unitarian Universalist minister in Spokane stirs controversy for calling church too politically correct.” The article gives a basic outline of the story. Unfortunately, while they interviewed Eklof, they didn’t interview anyone opposing him, relying instead on public statements issued on social media platforms. (The simple, non-conspiracy-theory, explanation is that the reporter was under deadline pressure, interviewed the local guy, and relied on public statements to fill out the opposing side.)

If you want to see some of those public statements, UUWorld.org provides links to statements from Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUM), and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Assoc. (UUMA) People of Color and Indigenous Chapter, and an “Open letter from white Unitarian Universalist ministers,” as well as a letter from the Board presidents of the Liberal Religious Educators Association. Elswewhere, I found a statement from the Allies for Racial Equity, and most recently a UUMA letter formally censuring Eklof.

What about the book itself? Well, I refuse to buy a copy: Eklof self-published the book on Amazon, and I won’t buy books from Amazon because they reduce the already meager incomes of working authors. I haven’t talked to anyone who has actually read the entire book. And most of the online reviews of the book that I have found simply state that it represents a white supremacist point of view, but don’t offer critiques of the actual arguments of the book.

However, Scott Wells did read the entire book, and posted a two-part review of the book on his blog: part one and part two. Scott reports: “It might surprise non-readers that he [Eklof] has ideas for dismantling racism, and to continue to work on not being racist. … You might think them hogwash (or wonderful) but they’re there. ” However, says Scott,”some terms Eklof uses, such as political correctness  and safetyism, are used by other authors to dismiss or belittle critics,” meaning that Eklof’s sugestions for anti-racism probably aren’t going to be heard. The book also offers at least one solution that I can only characterize as bizarre: in one essay, Eklof proposes splitting the UUA back into separate Unitarian and Universalist denominations, which Scott sums up as “Swiftian fancy, or simply romantic misreading” of Unitarian and Universalist history. Scott does not seem to care much for the book; if I were to pick one statement from his review to sum up the book, it would be this: “This is a work of controversy.”

After Scott’s dismissive review, I concluded I won’t spend my limited free time reading this “work of controversy.” And if I haven’t read the book, I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. But I do feel qualified to comment on the controversy surrounding the book, from my perspective as a religious educator.

Progressive religious educators like me spend a lot of time thinking about how to move people to a place of greater understanding; how to get people to change their perspective; and how to get people to act in more humane ways. While a confrontational approach utilizing a “work of controversy” might work in a few educational situations, if the goal is to move people towards greater understanding and more humane action, then there are many situations where a confrontational approach will not be effective. One such situation is when you, as the educator, are talking about racism and anti-racism and the U.S. today, and your auditors include people who have been rubbed raw by racism; in that situation, a confrontational approach is less likely to lead to greater understanding or more humane action, and more likely merely to piss people off. Thus, speaking as an educator, passing out a “work of controversy” on the subject of racism seems to me to be a waste of everyone’s time.

So where do we go from here? As a religious educator, I’d say it’s fairly obvious we in the U.S. all need to deepen our understanding of how racism has affected us, and continues to affect us. And I believe we would all like to figure out a more humane way to act with one another. The Gadfly Papers has proved yet again that controversy is not a particularly useful anti-racism strategy here in the U.S. — but that doesn’t mean we should give up.

Still speaking from an educator’s perspective, I would suggest that race is such a difficult topic here in the U.S. that we are going to need a wide range of strategies to address it; no one strategy is going to work for everyone and in every situation. But how do we judge what is a good strategy? I would propose a pragmatic criterion: if an educational strategy reduces systemic racism in a measurable way, then it is a good educational strategy. For example, for a religious educator working within a majority-white local congregation, if an anti-racist educational strategy leads to an increased proportion of non-white people in the congregation without a decline in absolute numbers of white people (beyond the usual losses to death or moving away), that strategy has succeeded quite well indeed.

Speaking from my own experiences in several local congregations, I believe that educational strategies based on behaviorist models (where we modify external behaviors) are generally more successful than therapeutic models (where we attempt to influence the way people feel). Similarly, educational strategies based on progressivist models (where we work together to confront or reduce racism in the wider world) generally work better than models based on logic or rhetoric (where we try to get people to think differently about racism). While I am not good at creating educational strategies at the denominational level, I suspect the same will hold true there; in which case, books about racism, or blog posts about racism, or social media chatter about racism, are not going to be particularly effective, except where they show us how to change behaviors and increase external action.

A must-read interview

Religion News Service (RNS) published an interview today with Rev. Lenny Duncan, a black minister in the 94% white Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA). Duncan has written a new book, “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.” According to RNS, Duncan’s book counters the notion that churches are dying, and challenges the ECLA to overcome white supremacy within the denomination.

The interview goes on to talk about other topics. And since the Unitarian Universalist Association is something like 95% white, I was very interested to hear what Duncan had to say about his own overwhelmingly white denomination. Here are a few key quotes from the interview:

In speaking of the necessity of reparations to person of African descent, Duncan says such reparations must go beyond money: “It is time for all straight white males in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to remove their names from ballots for bishop. It’s the same thing when we come to some of the positions that we see in our churchwide organization — to just self-select their way out.” The equivalent for the UUA, of course, is that all us straight white men should stop applying for senior staff positions in the UUA, e.g., Regional Leads — and of course we should not run for elected positions like UUA Moderator and President.

Duncan also believes in the value of shutting up: “As someone who shows up as a cis male, if I’m quiet long enough typically a female or femme in the room will say the same thing I was gonna say much more succinctly and probably more intelligently than I would.”

How can you motivate white people to actually do things like leave their names off ballots? Duncan suggests that “…the American white Protestant church is obsessed with legacy. If you want your church to survive, if you want your denomination to be relevant in the 21st century, if you actually want a viable Lutheran legacy in the American context, then you’ll take these suggestions….” Same goes for white folks in the UUA: if we want the UUA to survive even another couple of decades, then we had better start dismantling white supremacy now.

Duncan also believes that, just because your pews aren’t filled up on Sunday morning doesn’t mean that your local church is dying: “I think we need to rethink church and we need to rethink the way that we count membership. I might have, like, 40, 50 people in my church on a Sunday. But there’s 200 people who are engaged in our community in various ways.” This point ties in with what we know of Millennials (who are a white-minority generation): they want to do church the way they want to do church, and if you tell them that the only way to do church is to show up on Sunday morning they’re going to ignore you.

The interview is short and worth reading in its entirety. Read it here.

Battling implicit bias

Questions have been raised about the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a psychological test which purports to find implicit bias in individuals. Olivia Goldhill, writing for Quartz, an online business journal, reports that the IAT has a low reliability, or test-retest, score; where perfect reliability would score as 1, and strong reliability would score as 0.7-0.8, the race IAT has a reliability score of 0.44, or unacceptable. Goldhill also reports that several meta-analyses have found that the IAT is a poor predictor of behavior.

I have my own criticism of the well-known race IAT, which you can take online at the Project Implicit Web site. I took this test online, and scored as having a low to moderate bias in favor of African Americans. As much as I’d like to think I’m Mr. Egalitarian, I had a problem with the test: it required me to make fast judgments about low-resolution photos of facial characteristics, and I know myself well enough to know that I have poor facial recognition ability — I once passed my mother and younger sister on the street and only recognized them when I realized that these two women were laughing at me — so any test that requires me to recognize facial characteristics is not going to produce accurate results.Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of the actual test, I’m still skeptical of using tests for implicit bias to implement organizational change. In my experience, that’s not the way organizational change actually happens: it’s not as easy as administering a test, identifying who has implicit bias, and then watching the complete eradication of bias. If it were that easy, we already would have eradicated racism, sexism, etc.

“What the ‘Bias of Crowds’ Phenomenon Means for Corporate Diversity Efforts,” an article by Liz Kofman (a change management consultant with a doctorate in sociology), suggests a different path towards changing organizational biases that I find more pragmatic. Writing for Behavioral Scientist, an online non-profit magazine, Kofman identifies three recommendations for organizations wishing to get rid of bias.

First of all, Kofman suggests that we “focus on changing processes, not people.” In other words, forget all those training sessions where you make individuals in the organization confront their inner biases; instead, change your organizational processes to reduce chances for bias. Why don’t more organizations do this? I suspect it’s because it’s much easier to hold a workshop on implicit bias than it is to do the hard and detailed work of changing organizational processes. It’s fine to hold those workshops, and Unitarian Universalist congregations wishing to address bias should continue to offer, for example, the excellent “Beloved Conversations” class developed by Mark Hicks at Meadville/Lombard Theological School. Just don’t expect one workshop to take the place of lots of rather boring but necessary detail work.

Kofman’s second recommendation is to “prioritize process change and stick to it.” She points out that this is not easy; it takes “organizational will and discipline to implement and sustain … new processes.” Furthermore, Kofman says, an organization needs to focus on a few key process changes, making those a priority; otherwise, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with too many changes and then nothing happens. Prioritizing process changes, and sticking to them, has proved to be an insurmountable problem for most Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve known: lay leadership changes from year to year and so priorities change from year to year; new and attractive projects arise and draw attention away from ongoing projects. It’s easier to do that high-profile capital campaign, or to add solar panels on your building, than it is to stick to the hard work of implementing new organizational processes designed to reduce racism and sexism.

And this brings us to Kofman’s third recommendation: “provide resources and incentives for change management.” Because “everyday processes influence the bias of crowds” in any organization, you need to change those everyday processes; but too often there are not resources to help people change those processes, in addition to which there’s little incentive for change. Take for example a Unitarian Universalist congregations which wishes to become less white. Clearly, one thing you’ll need to do it completely overhaul the intake process — how potential members are greeted on their first visit, the processes used to integrate newcomers into the congregational culture, and so on. All that is hard work, so one critical resource required for change will be staff time, from both paid and volunteer staff; and because staff time is a limited resource, other projects will have to received fewer staff hours. And how will you provide incentives for those staffers, particularly for the volunteer staffers? None of this is easy.

To summarize: While Implicit Association Tests might be fascinating, they are probably not particularly useful tools for implementing organizational change. Instead, congregations seriously committed to, e.g., becoming less white, should pay attention to the change management technique of process change.

Not thinking about being human

At the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, writes about what it’s like to be a black professor.

Back in December, 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Yancy titled “Dear White America,” a thoughtful essay that asked white Americans to reflect on their position as white persons in a social system that provides structural benefits for white people. From my perspective as a former student of philosophy, this op-ed piece was primarily philosophical: it was written in the spirit of dialogue and openness, and designed to evoke serious reflection on an insistent social situation.

Rather than evoking reflection, Yancy reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he received “hundreds of emails, phone messages, and letters, an overwhelming number of which were filled with racist vitriol.” Yancy offers quotations from perhaps a dozen of the communications he received. Sadly I was not astonished by the level of vitriol; it was about what I expected. I was mildly astonished at how badly written these communications were, and how thoughtless — I mean “thoughtless” not in the sense of a lack of civility (though they did lack civility), but thoughtless in the sense that the writers had not actually thought about what they wrote.

Since Yancy’s essay was structured to provoke thoughtfulness about the topic of race, how is it that hundreds of people responded thoughtlessly? Part of the problem may be the American cultural tendency towards “evasion of philosophy” — the phrase used by American pragmatist philosopher Cornel West to name the American propensity of avoiding systematic thinking. Another part of the problem is American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon which includes those ostensibly well-educated Americans who value entrepreneurship and “business” over the life of the mind.

But I think the major problem here is the inability of most white Americans to think seriously about race and racism in America — to think, to think seriously. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has identified the problem of “white fragility,” but there is more to Yancy’s experience than white fragility. Yancy was attacked for asking white Americans to think, reflect, be introspective. The refusal to think can only be called intellectual fearfulness.

Another way of saying this is that white Americans are fearful of thinking seriously and deeply about what it means to be human. This fearfulness on the part of white Americans is, I suspect, amplified by the general American anti-intellectualism which is in large part a fear of thinking outside the narrow boundaries of technical achievement or outside the even narrower boundaries of American white Protestant evangelical theology. Thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence and other technical matters is acceptable. Thinking about, and either accepting or rejecting, the Protestant evangelical conception of God is acceptable. Thinking about what it means to be human as a white American is not acceptable, and evokes fearfulness rather than serious reflection and introspection. I find that very troubling.

What’s killing Sunday school

A follow up to this post.

If Sunday school is going to die, what’s going to kill it? Let’s look at four social and economic factors that are leading to declines in U.S. Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools — and when I talk about decline, I’m talking about decline in enrollment, decline in attendance (which differs from enrollment), decline in interest among children and teens, and decline in interest among adults.

(1) The biggest single demographic factor affecting Sunday school enrollment has to be increasing diversity in the U.S. population. The majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations remain racially and ethnically segregated. That segregation may result from one or more of several causes: (a) Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are located in racially homogenous municipalities, typically upper middle class white towns that have the political power to keep people of color out. (b) Power structures in many Unitarian Universalist congregations are dominated by older white people who remain uncomfortable with the increasing racial diversity of the world around them, and enforce the whiteness of their congregations through a variety of means, including so-called microaggressions, blindness towards their congregation’s biases, talk about how “those people” wouldn’t want to be Unitarian Universalists because they’re all Catholics, or all Buddhists, or what have you; and still other means beyond these. (c) The way Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to imagine diversity primarily in terms of a white congregation adding a few black members, thus ignoring the stunning racial, linguistic, and ethnic diversity of much of the country, including the incredible diversity of people who are lumped together as “Hispanic” and “Asian,” and also including the way that some racial or ethnic groups get obscured by overly broad categorizations (such as Lusophones who are lumped in with Hispanics, or the treatment of “blacks” as a monolithic ethnic group).

For many people, our workplaces, schools, and community groups all have some racial and ethnic diversity. Thus, a parent who walks into a Unitarian Universalist congregation that is overwhelmingly white — and this includes a white parent — is going to feel that this is a strange place, and maybe a place they don’t want their children to be part of.

How can we address this demographic factor? Continue reading “What’s killing Sunday school”