Today is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the second day of the “Thirty Days of Love” sponsored by our Association. I’ve waited until today to address something that happened just about a month ago. I waited to make sure I wasn’t over-reacting. I waited, thinking maybe I’d feel better as time passed. I waited to give us all some time to calm down. Just under a month ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association posted a holiday greeting on Facebook that led to a long painful discussion.
At least, it was painful for me. So painful that I had to consider whether Unitarian Universalism is a place where I can or should continue to pour my energies, ideas, and hard work. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.
The words and image chosen for the greeting are not the primary issue for me. Yes, I understand the intention was to remind Unitarian Universalists that the most important thing about the holidays is not the gifts and materialism. But I also understand that those words and the accompanying image left some feeling painfully excluded.
Yes, Unitarian Universalists are, in general, well-educated and economically privileged. But there are those among us who do not have what they need. There are also people like the woman I sat with in my office on December 23 who wept because she could not find a way to give her children the Christmas she felt they deserved: no tree, no big dinner, and most painfully for her, not a single gift. She chose to pay the rent and keep the heat on, but doing so made her feel like a failure and she knew her children would be disappointed.
The greeting also uses language that assumes that all of us can see, hear, and embrace with arms of love. Some say the language is simply metaphor, and it may be. But in a world where barriers to inclusion and microagressions are an everyday thing for folks with disabilities, exclusive metaphors still sting.
When they are coming from your faith community–a community that says it is working to be inclusive and counter-oppressive–the sting becomes a burn. (This is something I’ve learned from my experience as a trans* person and by listening to others in my beloved community who struggle to be included–let alone, celebrated–in their fullness as human beings with abilities and disabilities.)
But it was not the greeting that broke my heart.
After the greeting was posted, a few brave souls pointed out that it may have been hurtful and/or excluded some folks in our beloved community. They did so gently and carefully, being clear that they knew that whoever had posted the greeting did not intend to exclude or hurt anyone.
And then all hell broke loose. And my heart broke.
First, Peter Morales, the President of our Association of Congregations replied:
I am sorry you were offended by the UUA’s Facebook page posting… However, I believe you misread both the intent and the content of the posting and that your criticisms are misdirected and counterproductive.
(I’ve deleted a story from President Morales’ childhood about being poor and information about how the new UUA headquarters will be accessible to people with disabilities.)
…What troubles me about your letter is that it falls into a pattern of what I have called UU’s who arrive “pre-offended.” The result is a kind of bullying that ends up having people become so cautious that our discourse is trivialized. To say that we need vision is not to demean those who are blind. To say that we should stand on the side of love does not disrespect those who cannot stand. To say that we should listen deeply does not marginalize those with hearing disabilities. Are we to avoid singing “Guide My Feet” in fear that someone without feet might be offended?
I do not believe we should ever give offense deliberately. And, yes, we should be thoughtful and sensitive. However—and this is critical—we should not take offense when none was intended. I rarely go to a major meeting of UU’s when someone does not come to me in righteous anger about some imagined offense. It is counter productive. Frankly, it is silly.
There are real issues we must confront together. I am convinced that economic inequality does enormous emotional damage and threatens our democracy. We need to work together to make our congregations and our society more open and accessible.
I look forward to working with you and others to confront real issues of injustice and marginalization that affect thousands. I suggest we spend more energy taking action and less taking offense.
The scolding, paternalistic tone of President Morales’ words was the first (and deepest) wound. Calling people “pre-offended” is to say that no offense was given and the critique offered is a figment of the imaginations of those who are “too sensitive”–an age-old way of silencing people who dare to speak up and name oppression.
President Morales continues to dismiss his critics (or critics of the greeting since the response to the greeting was never aimed at Morales personally) calling their critique a “complaint” that is misdirected, counter-productive, and a form of bullying. He admits that people approach him all the time in “righteous anger at some imagined offense.” Then he tells us what he really thinks: “Frankly, it’s silly.”
Sadly, President Morales is not the only one. After he posted his response, hundreds of people chimed in. It was like a floodgate opened and instead of compassion and love for those who felt excluded and hurt, what came pouring out was defensiveness, dismissal, and anger. And that was when I began to wonder, “Am I on the wrong team?” Are we so invested in our own culture, structures, and self-importance that we can’t even listen when someone says, “Hey, that hurt. Ouch.”?
The holiday greeting was a relatively small thing: a picture and some words. Yes, those words were written by a beloved UU leader. And the picture is pretty and represents something we’re proud of: a grassroots effort to create images for social media that carry our values and message into the world. When people critique a well-intentioned greeting, it’s painful. When they point out that our words (and images) may have effects that we did not intend, it can be frustrating. But isn’t this exactly the kind of thing we have to be willing to do if we are to live out our commitments?
Our Association has adopted Global Ends, which is a fancy way of saying Big Goals that are supposed to guide all that we do. One of those Ends is:
- Congregations and communities engage in partnerships to counter systems of power, privilege and oppression.
I can’t help but wonder if we mean it. Today, many of us are quoting Dr. King. But what about tomorrow? During the Thirty Days of Love, we’re studying up on multiculturalism, but is our beloved community truly welcoming to all? And if it is not, are we willing to change? Next time someone asks us to look at our words and consider that they might not be as loving as we thought, how will we respond? Will we accuse them of being the problem and dismiss them as silly? Will we tell them we’re too busy doing the real work of justice to be bothered?
Is that what we mean by Love?
The chance might be here already. Today, a Unitarian Universalist posted a lovely reflection called Love means it’s time to kill your darlings. How will we respond?