Monday, September 17, 2018


This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, September 16, 2018 at the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This morning I’d like us to explore two ideas:  marginalized community, and beloved community.  We hear both of these terms a fair bit, yet with one of them we have all too many examples to look to, and the other nowhere near far enough.  When I studied philosophy in college I learned that it’s really important to begin by defining your terms.  That way, when debate ensues, you can focus in on the concepts being discussed without having to spend a lot of time arguing over what terms you’re using to describe those concepts.  Over the past year in particular, it’s become very clear that I haven’t always done that here.  At least not well enough.  It’s clear that we haven’t always shard a same common of what we’re talking about.  That’s my fault, and it brings to mind Mark Twain’s cogent observation that, “The greatest obstacle to communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”

So … let’s unpack the term “marginalized community” a bit.  By “community” I mean a group of people who share some common characteristic.  (“Common” and “community” share the same root.)  As Unitarian Universalists – those of us who identify in that way – we share our sense of ourselves as UUs, and the rest of the world sees us as being UUs, and so we can say that we are a community.  Each of us is part of a myriad of communities, of course, because each of us have a whole lot of characteristics that we share with others.  And it’s impossible to really separate them, because they intermingle and intersect in our lives.  Yet it is sometimes necessary – a necessary artifice – to make our discussions easier.  So, while we are all part of various communities, it can sometimes be helpful to look at what it means to be part of a particular community.

The “marginalized” part of “marginalized community” describes a community’s relative position with regards to the center.  And who gets to decide what’s the center and what’s the margin?  The people in the center, of course.  And in the culture in which we all live, the center is occupied by people who look pretty much like me.  I’m a white, gender-conforming heterosexual male.  I’m middle-aged (because yes, I do expect to live until around 112!)  I have a good income – I’m not ultra-rich, but I’m certainly far from poor – and I have a lot of formal education.  I’d have to be a lot more wealthy, and a good deal more conservative than I am to be in the center center, yet for the sake of illustration I’m as close to the center as you can be. 

Everyone who isn’t one or more of those things is more or less further away from that center, and more or less closer to the margins of the society.  In our patriarchal, misogynist, rape culture, a woman is closer to the margins.  In a culture that is built on the depiction of gender identity as binary, a transgender or gender-fluid person is closer to the margins.  The less money, and the less formal education a person has, the closer they are to the margins.  A gay or a lesbian person, a person in a wheel chair, a very young or very old person – they’re all closer to the margins than I am.  And if someone is all of these things, and a person of color as well, that person is as far away from the center as you can get.

What’s true for these individuals, of course, is true of the communities of people who share one or more of these characteristics.  A “marginalized community,” is a group of people who the dominant culture decrees belongs not in the center, but more or less on the margins of society.  And the dominant culture does this in ways both explicit and implicit.  Take the marginalization of black and brown people as an example – tiki torch wielding white supremacists are clearly an embodiment of an explicit means by which the dominant culture – a culture that at its foundation holds that “whiteness” is in all ways superior, supreme – Jason Kessler and his ilk are explicit means by which the dominant culture reinforces itself.  Yet cultures also work in far more implicit, invisible ways, because cultures operate at an almost subliminal level.  All of us, to that extent, participate in and perpetuate the dominant culture of white supremacy because we’re so often not even aware that we’re doing so.  This is especially true for those of us who identify or are identified as white, but it’s true to some extent of everyone who lives within the dominant culture’s paradigm.  Even without knowing that we’re doing it, even though we are actively working to fight, to tear down, to undo the culture of white supremacy, it’s part of the air we breathe, the water we swim in, and we can’t help but take part in it.  Yes, even those like by far the vast majority of the people in this room who have spent a lifetime committed to a non-racist world, even people such as us unknowingly participate in and unwittingly perpetuate white supremacy. 

I think this is a part of what the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel meant when he said, “A few are guilty; all are responsible;” I know it’s what I’ve meant when I’ve talked about us as being “complicit.”  We can’t help but be, any more than we can help our breathing.  That’s why the work of undoing racism, or dismantling any of the kinds of marginalization our culture specializes in, requires of those of us who are further in toward the center an almost Herculean effort to learn, and keep learning, and then keep, keep learning to see and understand the ways we are infected by the cultural waters we swim in; it’s why the work of undoing sexism, and the dismantling of oppression in all of its ugly forms requires the less oppressed to change.  What’s required is not just less overt acts of racism, or misogyny, or the “othering” of people who have fewer resources; what’s required is a radical reorientation, a recreation of the wider culture.

Which brings us to the idea of the “beloved community.”  The term itself was apparently coined in the early 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce (who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation).  It was unquestionably popularized, though, by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (who, perhaps not coincidentally, was also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation).  It’s a term that we use, often, yet we don’t often talk about what we mean when we use it.  I know that I am not alone in lifting up the importance of those of us closer to the center of the dominant culture to work diligently to undue the marginalization of people and communities further “out,” if you will, and that the only way of doing so will require us to be discomforted, to be, as Dr. King also said, “maladjusted,” to be changed.  Which is hard; which we understandably resist; which, truth be told, when we really begin to experience directly (rather than abstractly) that discomfort, that maladjustment, that pain which always comes with change, when we really begin to experience all of that directly we often find ourselves pushing back against it, not really wanting to change all that much, if at all.

[There’s a great two-panel cartoon.  On the top there’s a drawing of a preacher saying, “Who wants change?”  Every hand in the congregation is raised.  In the lower panel the preacher asks, “Who wants to change?”  Silence.]

I’m not alone in lifting all of this up.  I’m also not alone in frequently forgetting to lift up at least equally as clearly why.  It’s so much easier to be focused on what we need to do than it is to remember why we need to do it. In part that’s because we often assume we all know why, that we all understand the why.  To paraphrase Twain, though, the greatest obstacle to understanding why we’re putting ourselves through all of this discomfort is the illusion that we do.

It’s also true that we have many more examples of marginalized communities than we do of beloved community.  That means that we see more clearly what needs to be changed, and far less clearly what it needs to be changed to.  In other words, just why we’re doing the work.

There is a rather remarkable example to be found, though, on Martha’s Vineyard Massachusetts in the 17th and 18th, continuing until, roughly, the 1950s.  Martha’s Vineyard at that time was not the tourist destination it is now.  It was largely isolated from the New England mainland, and some parts, like the village of Chilmark, were even isolated from the rest of the island.  This isolation was, at least in part, a reason that something truly remarkable happened there.

One of the early Europeans to move to Chilmark was a man named Jonathan Lambert.  He was deaf, and his children were born deaf.  The isolation of Chilmark, even isolated from Martha’s Vineyard as a whole, meant that nearly all of the families there were related to one another, and that the gene pool was not tremendously varied.  It was not long before there was a large deaf community.  To give you an idea of just how large – in the United States as a whole it is estimated that one in 5,700 people was deaf.  On Martha’s Vineyard it was more like one in 150.  In Chilmark, it was one in 25.

Still, even in Chilmark, those people who had a serious hearing impairment were outnumbered by the hearing community.  And the history of deaf people demonstrates that they have been a marginalized community – excluded from much of what might be called “mainstream” society because of “mainstream” society’s holding hearing as normative.  In fact, for a good bit of that history it was the practice to segregate people with hearing impairments into their own, isolated communities – “for their own good,” of course.

That’s not what happened in Chilmark.  Perhaps because the gene that caused the majority of deafness there was recessive, meaning that it would express itself in some members of a family and not in others, the deaf community and the hearing community were intermingled, and directly related to each other.  Nearly every nuclear family had both deaf and hearing members.  Separation, segregation, simply was not possible.  They were kin.

Back then, there was no unified “American Sign Language.”  There were, instead, regional variations, and there was a Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.  But if the incidence of deafness in Chilmark was one in 25, the number of people who knew (and used) Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language was roughly 25 in 25.  Everyone used it, and not as an accommodation the hearing community made, but as an excepted necessity.  It couldn’t be otherwise.  There could be no marginalizing of the deaf.  There was only one community there. 

Hearing people used sign language even when there were no deaf people around.  (In my research I came across the wonderful detail that kids used it to talk behind their parents’ backs, and people were able to carry on conversations during Sunday morning sermons.)  Yes, of course, this “one community with no marginalization” picture I’m painting was true pretty much only in this regard.  Women were marginalized; people of color were marginalized.  Yet in this one perspective, which provides the illustration we need this morning, despite the differences between the hearing and deaf communities, there was no division.

And this, expanded further to include all of today’s historically marginalized groups, is the picture I hold in my heart of what beloved community is all about.  It’s the why of the what of my anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural work.  One community.  Only a center, no margins.  Yet this isn’t achieved in some kind of homogeneous way.  The differences that make life rich, and beautiful are still there.  No one, though, is considered the less.  No one is considered, “Other.”  Each is recognized for the gifts they bring; each adapts to the other because we’re all kin.  The village of Chilmark could not have worked, could not have survived without this erasure of the barriers that typically separated the hearing from the deaf.  So it will be in the beloved community – each of us, all of us, will recognize that our human community will not work, will not survive, without the erasure of all the barriers that have separated us one from another.

And this vision, this understanding of beloved community, a world in which no one is relegated to some artificially constructed concept of “margins,” is one that I think is worth the discomfort, the maladjustment, worth the pain of change that will need to be endured as we make our way to making it reality.  As we continue to encourage one another, and support one another, and strengthen one another for the what of it all, let us remain equally clear and mindful about the why of it.

Pax tecum,


Print this post

No comments: