Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Can Love Have Limits?

This is the text of the reflection I offered to the congregation I serve here in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, March 4, 2018.  It is a continuation of my response to a blatantly racist note delivered anonymously to our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera.  Here is a link to the immediate response of senior congregational leadership (which includes a photo of the note), as well as a link to my sermon from the special evening service we held two days later.

Opening Readings

From Jack Mendelson.  Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age:  Why I am a Unitarian Universalist
“I made my fundamental choice long ago.  I wanted freedom.  Freedom to think, express, question, examine, grow, and change.  But freedom without a firm foundation of faith in action and a sense of history is fragile….I knew from the beginning that I did not want to go it alone.”

Forrest Church quoted in the UU Pocket Guide.
“We Unitarian Universalists have inherited a magnificent theological legacy.  In a sweeping answer to creeds that divide the human family, Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from one source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.  Unitarian Universalists are neither a chosen people nor a people whose choices are made for them by theological authorities—ancient or otherwise.  We are people who choose.”

I love that hymn.  I would sing it, for what often seemed like hours, as I rocked one or the other of my children to sleep.  I wanted them to hear that message, from before they could even understand the words.
It seems to align so well with particularly the Universalist side of our Unitarian Universalist faith.  After all, the theological assertion embedded in the name “Universalism” is that God’s love knows no bounds, that no one will be condemned to eternal damnation, that “Mother, Father God,” as some of our prayers at that time said, loves each and every one of their children, from the most angelic to the most  … not-so-angelic.  God’s love is universal.  So universal, in fact, that our Universalist ancestors said that God is Love.
And while for many of us that particularly theistic language doesn’t work, the underlying assertion still does.  That’s no doubt why some people were, and are, both confused and upset that I would stand here and say something like, “the person who wrote the blatant, despicable, anonymous racist attack on Christina Rivera, a member of our staff and of our community, is not welcome here.”  I said that during the special service on Wednesday night, right here – I was clear and unambiguous:  if you wrote that note you are not welcome here.  What I didn’t say then, but will say now, is that if you agree with the racist sentiments expressed in that note, you really don’t belong here either. 
We all agree, I hope, that such behavior has no place in the loving community we strive to be (and so often are).  This is a community comprised of extremely lovely and loving people.  I also believe that we all agree that we can – and that we ought to — say that such behavior will not be tolerated.  But what, exactly, do we mean when we say that?  The word “tolerate” means, “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of something (that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.”  Saying, then, that we will not tolerate the kind of racist, hateful attack – and it was an attack – means that we will not “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of” things like this.
But what does that mean if we say to the person who did this, “you’re still welcome here”?  What does it mean to say, “you’re still a part of this community”?  What does it mean to say that we won’t tolerate such behavior and then, in effect, demonstrate that we will tolerate it.  I don’t understand that.  I simply don’t understand that. 
Whoever did this is way outside of our covenant, perhaps particularly because because it was done under the cloud of anonymity, extending the damage as suspicion spreads, with people wondering, “could it have been them?  How about them?” (I’ve had several people tell me that they’re convinced they know who did it, and others have said that they feel like they can’t trust anybody right now because they just don’t know.)  This content of the note, as well as the way it was delivered, is antithetical to our Unitarian Universalist principles and values, and is, I think we’d agree, is in stark contrast to the expectations of human decency.  Please make no mistake, please do not minimize or deflect – this was not just some “unfortunate” thing that happened.  Although there was no overtly threatening language in the note, can’t you see that there was a threat there?  That note was intended to intimidate, intended to hurt, and it certainly seems to me that there was an implied “… or else” in it  
And the note was not just directed toward Chris.  Whoever wrote it brought her kids and her husband into it.  The person not only dismissed Christina’s humanity, denied her “inherent worth and dignity,” but also attacked her kids, her husband, and the sanctity of their family.  If someone had spray painted this on her car, or thrown a rock through the window with the note tied to it, or had come into her office while she was working here at night, come into her office with a robe and hood on and said this to her face … would any of that really make a difference in terms of the severity of this offense?  I have heard so many people this week say, “Oh, that was awful, but …”  “… but we shouldn’t make too big of a deal out of it,” “… but we should have still gotten together to eat cake and have the party we’d planned to celebrate the congregation’s 75th anniversary,” “… but this was an isolated incident and doesn’t say anything about who we are as a community.”
Immediately after the service on Wednesday, and certainly since then, I’ve heard from people who, as I said, are either confused about how an ordained UU minister – or any UU, for that matter – could say the things I’ve been saying, or are really angry that I have.  I have heard from many people who disagree with me — well-meaning people, good-hearted people, people who are really trying to apply our liberal values.  “Aren’t we supposed to welcome everyone?” people have asked. “It’s likely that whoever wrote that note has some kind of mental illness,” some have said, “and aren’t we supposed to be compassionate toward people with mental illnesses?”  “What about our affirmation of ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person’?  Doesn’t even the person who wrote that note have worth and dignity?”  “Should we judge someone – and in judging, reject someone – because of what might be the worst of their actions?”  ”Shouldn’t we reach out to them and try to, as we promise to do in our covenant, ‘lovingly bring [them] back into covenant?”  I’ve heard all of these things this week, and I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity, or the heart, of the people who are asking these questions.  I just disagree.  I just strongly disagree.
Over the years I’ve heard repeated nearly word for word the same question from people who want to better understand our commitment to welcoming everyone:  “What about Hitler?,” they ask.  “Did Hitler have ‘inherent worth and dignity’?   If you really do ‘welcome everyone,’ shouldn’t Hitler have a place in your community?”  I’ve been asked this not only from non-UUs; I’ve been asked this by a whole lot of UUs over the years.
So what about this Universalist thing?  What about our commitment to “welcome all?”  Well … I don’t think we really ought to be welcoming to all people.  God’s love, as our Universalist ancestors would have put it, may be unending and unconditional, but our human love needs to be.  Yes, I’m saying that human love needs some kind of limits, some kind of boundaries, if we are to be healthy and whole.
Consider a woman in an abusive relationship.  She loves her husband, and when he’s not beating her he is contrite and demonstrative.  Yet who here would seriously suggest that she stay in that relationship because, after all, there shouldn’t be any limit to our love?  Is that really what we’d say, or would we tell her that she should get out of that relationship as fast as possible and never look back?  Wouldn’t we tell her — or him, since men are also abused — that their safety takes precedence over any commitment to compassion? 
I don’t mean that we can’t be — should’t be — compassionate. We can understand that the abuser was very likely abused themselves as a child and is, then, also a victim. We can hope that they get the treatment that they need.   And that doesn’t preclude our saying that for their own safety they need to sever those ties, break those bonds, and end that relationship.  And we’d no doubt tell them that any time, every time, their abuser came back to them bearing roses and remorse, they ought to say, “I may still love you.  I may still care about you.  But you are no longer welcome in my life.”  Isn’t that what most of us would do?
And what about that prescription for health and happiness we’ve all heard, which says that we shouldn’t surround ourselves with people who disrespect us, put us down, do what they can to crush our spirits and our sense of self-worth?  Such people are “toxic,” we’re told – or, in my favorite description, “psychic vampires.”  For our own well-being (and, really, safety), this philosophy council’s that we should disassociate ourselves from such people.  Once again, we can understand the psychological conditions that have probably affected the way they act in the world.  We can have all sorts of compassion for them.  But would we invited them over to hang out and sleep in our guest room?  I don’t think so, and I don’t think it’s a betrayal of our Unitarian Universalist values for us not to.
The ideal of “welcoming all” is laudable, it comes from a good place.  Yet the reality of our lives is that we often we find that our ideals can be in conflict with one another.  The conviction that we be welcoming to everyone, for instance, can be in direct opposition to our conviction that we create a safe place for the most vulnerable in our society.  Take a look at the Words of Welcome we say each week.  We say:
Whoever you are, whomever you love, however you express your identity, whatever your situation in life, whatever your experience of the holy, you presence here is a gift.
That is a welcome particularly to people who do not find themselves welcome much of the time.  It all boils down to this:  if you have been marginalized in any way, if your identity has been diminished or denied, in this place you are seen as a gift.  If the dominant culture is unsafe for you, we strive to be a community in which you will be safe. 
That’s why, for the past several years I have not been saying in the greeting, “ours is a congregation that welcomes all.”  I’ve been saying that “ours is a congregation that welcomes all who want this be a world in which all are welcome.”  I say that now, because I’ve learned that the warm and enthusiastic welcome and embrace of everyone — including the victimizers, the oppressors of our society — makes this an unsafe place for those whom the wider society has oppressed and victimized.  To say that we should welcome absolutely everybody is to directly contradict and undermine our saying that here we are striving to be a place where those who have been historically marginalized can find safe haven.  As much as our ideals may think that there should be a “both/and” here – and you know how I have always preached the theology “both/and” – there is just no practical way, no way on this earth, for this to be anything but an “either/or.”  As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”  This is hard for us well-meaning, good-hearted liberal folks to hear – especially us well-meaning, good-hearted liberal folks who identify or are identified as white. 
I can hear people still saying, nonetheless, that it goes against our Unitarian Universalist values to tell someone that they’re not welcome.  Our bylaws have no provision for the removal of someone from membership, only for a person withdrawing on their own.  So let me rephrase what I’ve been saying about the author of that letter, and those who agree with its sentiments not being welcome here.  Let me try saying that a different way:
To the person who wrote that note:  you have, by your actions, effectively and clearly demonstrated that you do not ascribe to our covenant, and don’t agree with our vision and our values. And as Unitarian Universalists our communities are not bound together by creeds, but by covenant, and shared vision and values.  So by your own behavior you have shown yourself to be someone for whom this community and all that it stands for is not the kind of place you want to belong.   Because of what we say about ourselves, because of who we are and have committed ourselves to being, the kind of behavior you have demonstrated is intolerable, and by thinking that what you did should be tolerated, should be accepted, you have effectively demonstrated that this is not the community for you.  You have, effectively, withdrawn yourself from membership in this community.  I’m not asking you to leave, I’m just making it clear that you already have.
Yet even with that framing, I feel certain there will still be resistance.  I know, I am certain, that there are people who are hanging on to their hope, their faith, that we can “all just get along.”  I have no doubt that there are people who think this because they truly and deeply believe in that ideal of all-embracing love and the power of both forgiveness and redemption, and I ams sure that there are people who simply resist any kind of limit to their freedom, chafe at any assertion that some things are beyond the pale, rebel against there being any expectations or demands put on them, perhaps especially in a UU setting.  Yet whatever reasons, whatever motivation, I know that there are people who staunchly believe that this ought to be a place in which everyone – absolutely everyone – is welcome without exception.  That no one should be left out of our circle.
As a person who identifies as white, one of the things I’ve learned — and will not doubt keep learning — is that I have grown up unquestioningly in a society that is steeped in racism.  It’s in the very foundations of the dominant culture.  It’s seeped into the beams, the flooring, the walls.  It is in the air I breathe.  It is, and always has been, all around me, and it’s there in so many ways, part of the systems and structures that make up our culture, and I so often simply don’t see it.  Can’t see it, really, because it is all around me and it just seems like “the way things are.”  Even after years of trying to unlearn what the dominant culture of white supremacy — the culture in which white people, and all things connected to “whiteness” are kept in a “supreme” position — even after years of trying to unlearn what the dominant culture of white supremacy has taught me, I continue to be amazed at what I don’t see.
 A month or so ago one of our Sunday services was designed entirely around the words — the stories, the experiences — of people of color.  And many of us were amazed at what a different experience UUs of color have had, and continue to have, from the ones those of us who identify as white have had.  That service provided us an experience of what we white folks who want to see the end of racism have to learn how to do — listen to people of color.  Really listen to what they’re saying about how the world looks to them.  Really listen — and really hear — what they need in this struggle for our mutual liberation, and not keep imposing our ideas of how things are supposed to be.  Because whether we know it or not, whether we want it to be or not, many of our ideas of how things are supposed to be keep things they way they are.
I saw this post on Facebook the other day, written by DiDi Delgado.  It’s an expression of how our (white) commitment to embracing absolutely everyone is experienced by people of color.  (With apologies, I’ve edited it a bit.)
Can 'allies' please stop trying to "get through" to racists and change their minds.  […] That's not why we confront white supremacy.  When we debate and argue with racists with the intent of saving them from themselves and/or changing their minds, we're centering the oppressors and not the oppressed. [,,,] The reason you're arguing with racists, confronting Nazis, challenging your xenophobic grandma, and ruining Thanksgiving dinner is to uplift and center the voices of the marginalized and situationally make being a racist as uncomfortable as being a person of color. […] The goal should be advocating for and defending the oppressed.  Anti-racism work isn't about changing the minds of racists. It's about changing the environments that allow them to practice their racism freely.  It's about speaking up for the voiceless.  If prioritizing the mental and emotional growth of oppressors is your reason for intervening, you've already lost.
If we’re going to change the culture from a paradigm of white supremacy — a paradigm which privileges people with white skin in hundreds and thousands of ways and penalizes people of color to at least the same extent — if the dominant, racist culture we say we want to undue is ever going to be transformed, then those of us who identify as white are going to have to give up some of our privileges.  I’ve been saying it here for years — we are going have to become uncomfortable. We may even have to come to see that some of our benevolent, compassionate, well-meaning values, are not as wonderful as we think, and actually cause people harm.
This attack on Christina was not just an attack on her.  The perpetrator also did real harm to every person of color, and every multi-racial family, who have called this place their spiritual home, and those who might.  To me it’s no question whether to align myself with those who have been harmed or those whose actions caused it.
You all called me here and loaned me this pulpit, asking me to speak the truth as I understand it, and I believe that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to choose, as Forrest Church said, to be a people who choose — choose to ally ourselves with those who have been historically cast off, even if that means I must let go of my conviction that the lion should lie down with the lamb.  If I care to listen, the lambs will tell me that that’s never really worked out too well for them.  I believe that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls on us to choose to not accept the unacceptable, to nor tolerate the intolerable.  I believe that our Unitarian Universalist faith demands that we sometimes choose not to do the thing we’re conditioned to do, perhaps even convinced we must do, instead doing the thing that brings us into the Beloved Community we say we we’re working toward.  It’s nothing less than a new world we’re trying to build, and that’s never easy.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith is not easy.  But if our 75 year history here, and the thousand year history of our Unitarian and Universalist faith, tell us anything, it’s that we UUs are strong enough, committed enough, and loving enough, to take the harder road, which is the only way to get where we know we need to go.

Parting Words
In his letter he wrote while incarcerated in the Birmingham jail, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had this to say:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […]  Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Pax tecum,


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1 comment:

Mona Murray said...

Thanks for speaking out, Rev Wik, and suggesting, among much else, that while 'welcoming' folks to unsafe spaces may be a comfortable thing to do, and superficially justifiable, it is NOT courageous, generous or especially helpful.