Thursday, July 23, 2015

Are We Becoming "the Protest Church"?

As I was recovering from surgery recently, the friends I was staying with introduced me to someone who would seem open to Unitarian Universalism. An openly gay African-American man, progressive and well-educated, interested in spirituality but not committed to any single tradition.

And yes, he'd heard of UUs. "Oh yeah – the Protest Church."

That led to a couple of conversations during my first week of recovery, followed by another last night. I don't know if Carl's perspective of is typical of the "Nones" who avoid UU churches, but it's worth considering.

Carl generally agrees with our principles, and our non-creedal approach. But how he sees us currently engaging the world bothers him. While he's glad to see UUs on the picket lines on various issues – immigration, voting rights, Black Lives Matter – he still has reservations about what he considers an "overly reactive" approach. To him, UUs seem to "jump into" a movement, and then into another, and then another. He does admire the commitment and compassion around this, and he also remembers our leadership around LGBTQ rights, especially marriage equality. But when I consider his career path, I begin to understand where he's coming from.

Carl took a master's in psychology, and would employ it in diversity training and conflict resolution. He made an effort to help build bridges – and mend fences – between the LGBTQ community and people of color, then with police and other first responders, and so on. He took the time to learn more about the kink and polyamory communities, and had begun efforts to educate others as well. From one-on-one mentorship to speaking in front of groups, what struck me the most was he didn't wait for disaster to strike, or for a particular issue or cause to make the headlines.

I'm sure many UUs, especially ministers and other leaders, will respond with a sense of indignation. "Hey, we do that, too! We do all sorts of things like that!" But I had to remind myself that this wasn't about Carl not knowing these details. It was about what he was able to see of UUs engaging the world, by marching in picket lines with matching yellow shirts and attention-getting banners – "the Protest Church."

What Carl told me has prompted a good deal of questions. I'm still struggling with the answers.

Friday, July 3, 2015

SCOTUS and the Rest of Us

As Americans waited for the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, most who knew and watched the court anticipated that the final outcome would rest with Justice Anthony Kennedy. During oral arguments, he had posed some challenging questions to Mary Bonauto (attorney for the plaintiffs seeking marriage equality), revealing that he might still be wrestling with the issue. In the end, the majority opinion he wrote included a thorough survey of precedent, analysis, and history in arguing that, just as the institution of marriage had evolved to assure greater equity and individual choice, so it must do so again with regard to same-sex couples.

Antonin Scalia, on the other hand, wrote the most scathing dissent of the four submitted, garnering about as much attention and commentary as the majority view itself. Not only did he dismiss the careful analysis that Kennedy presented, his tone was more scolding than scholarly. Perennial court watchers mused that, had a liberal like Ruth Bader Ginsberg written the opinion, this would not have been the case – but to have a supposed conservative like Kennedy break ranks was too much for him to take. And while Roberts and Alito raised the question of whether the court was moving too far too fast, Scalia seemed to be saying that the court had no purview at all to decide such a matter. To him, the issue is settled, and how dare anyone disagree.

It has often been said that the Supreme Court frequently reflects the larger society. The difference between Kennedy and Scalia – not only in their opinions on this issue, but the approach and attitude of each – likewise reflect the divisions we see in America today. Some people will summon the ability to question, reflect and come to a new understanding; others hang on desperately to the comfortable and familiar, regardless of the consequences.

Yet even we Unitarian Universalists are not immune to such foibles. How often do we resist change or cling to tradition within our congregations, then wonder why our membership numbers stagnate or shrink? How many causes have we embraced as soon as our leaders call for it, yet balk at reasoned appeals for similar issues? How many times do we denounce the zealotry of the Christian Right, only to mirror their militancy when committing to our own "just causes"?

When I studied philosophy in college, a professor once told us: "Epistemology precedes everything, because when we assert our certainty or doubts about anything, we must ultimately ask and answer the question: 'How do we know?'" For this reason, I've come to believe that our fourth principle – the free and responsible search for truth and meaning – is the linchpin upon which the rest are held. Our search must be free from the shackles of dogma and bias, yet responsible in avoiding the pitfalls of fallacy and hypocrisy. Yes, when pursuing justice, we need the fire of passion – but tempered so that we don't find ourselves consumed as our own burnt offering.

Anthony Kennedy is to be lifted up, but not merely because he agreed with us on marriage equality. It is the manner in which he came to that position, and the reasoned eloquence with which he put that position forward. As we move forward, both in engaging the world and searching our own souls, may we follow his example.