Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Why You Should Read The Gadfly Papers

I can't call myself a Christian, even though it is the religion of my youth, and in spite of the fact that I resonate with the Christian story, its scriptures, and many of its followers. I'm comfortable in most Christian churches. But I differ from the orthodox faith in a few important ways. I don't believe we are meant to worship Christ. I don't believe that the Resurrection and all that has been attached to it (Heaven, Hell, sin, etc) is meant to be taken literally. But most of all, having studied World Religions, visited Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish countries and places of worship, I don't believe that God as I understand God would select only people who say the right words into God's chosen people, and into Heaven. Unitarian Universalism, even with its many flaws and foibles, is my chosen faith tradition.

"UUs", as we call ourselves, are famous for three things (at least): our social justice work and witness; our radical acceptance and affirmation of all people; and our Humanist leanings, which "counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of Science..." (UU Sources). We're also colloquially known as the church for atheists, the "No Hell" people, and, most recently, the Side With Love people, or just the Love People. Each of these monikers is partly true and partly an over-simplification. Historically, we are the far left wing of the Reformation, but we are not unlike Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, we have lots of members and ministers who are theistic and Christian, in addition to atheists, agnostics, and Buddhists. And more. I love that we are unafraid to critique ourselves and unflinching about our devotion to service and justice. So many UUs are fearless crusaders for the disenfranchised and the marginalized that we sometimes think of ourselves, when asked what we stand for, as the 19th Century Universalists claimed, people who  "don't stand; we move".

So for these reasons, and many others, I have experienced my fellow UUs to be unflinching in our examination of facts before we make statements or jump on any bandwagon. It can make congregational life very contentious at times. And, denominational life, too.

I expect the people who call themselves UUs to employ both hearts and minds when responding to events, whether local or international. I am continually amazed and inspired by the courage and conviction of my fellow UUs and especially my colleagues. As I write this, I know Unitarian Universalists are taking direct action against the migrant "camps" on our Southerm border, and even getting arrested for helping and offering food and water to undocumented immigrants. As Roe v. Wade gets eroded by state legislatures and is clearly under threat nationally, UUs have stepped up in droves to be clinic escorts and to march and petition for laws that protect women and freedom of choice.

I'm troubled, though, by recent trends in our faith tradition. I will start by saying that I may be wrong, I certainly have been wrong in the past, and I will readily admit that my words were misguided if that proves to be true. Here are my main concerns:

* UUs everywhere, but particularly clergy and particularly on social media, are afraid to speak their truth. Their fear is due to their perception that not only will they be shamed, shouted down, and piled upon metaphorically, but that they may actually lose their standing with our association and consequently their livelihoods. This I know for certain.

* When our UUA President Peter Morales was forced/encouraged to resign two years ago, along with at least four other ministers in leadership positions, a narrative was begun that because a woman who identifies as a POC (Person of Color) was not selected for a position, and for many other reasons, including that People of Color felt unwelcome and marginalized in our churches and fellowships and that it was time for White UUs (but especially white, cis-gendered and male UUs) to be quiet and listen. I know this happened, although some may quibble over my phrase forced to resign, I heard and saw enough to believe this. I also believe that UUs who are persons of color do feel both marginalized and tokenized in our culture. I've seen it first hand in my 25 years of ministry.

* Likewise, UU transpeople, UUs with disabilities, and UUs with other historically disempowered identities became emboldened to speak out and were heard. The UUA Board even pledged to raise (and fulfilled that pledge at our recent General Assembly) five million dollars for the BLUU (Black Lives of UU) organization. This would not only give BLUU access to resources they could use for attracting more POC and also for outreach to the POC in our congregations, it appeared to me (admittedly a distant observer) to help the UUA and many in leadership feel somewhat less guilty about what has come to be called the Black Empowerment Controversy of the 1960s. I believe this to be factual.

So, why am I troubled, and what does all of this have to do with The Gadfly Papers, distributed at "G.A./GA" (General Assembly)?

These new ways of understanding ourselves as part of white supremacy culture and of re-aligning our assets and resources to help ameliorate that, have led to push back and resistance on the part of (some) clergy, and many people in congregations. That is as it should be! We are, after all, UUs, and we question everything. We are also human, and with that comes resistance to change, fear of the unknown, and typical human foibles, like needing time to learn, and being dense, and trying to "look" adequate. Of course we are. I have said to congregations I've served that they should expect struggle and dissent, and that the Church is less a place to get your ego assuaged and your pre-existing beliefs affirmed than a laboratory for learning to be more human. I've had to re-adjust my thinking and my attitude numerous times. There is no shame in being wrong.

What troubles me is not the fact that UUism is changing and as ever, is somewhat ahead of the curve of society in general. (Who was it that said UUs are the people who are always reading the next page? I love that) . What bothers me is that so many of us have either left the Chat groups we used to love on Facebook, have withdrawn from groups and associations we once took part in, and have, in some cases, left UUism altogether, not because we don't agree with the ultimate goal of these changes in our culture, but because we are so intimidated and feel so unable to engage in the conversation, at all. We are afraid to say one wrong word.

The Gadfly Papers is one person's well-researched (although his sources and methods have been questioned) and carefully constructed argument (some question that, too) about what he perceives as a culture of shaming, shunning, and alienating anyone who does not go along with the words and the narrative that has been given. The reason I started by explaining why I'm not Christian is that, to me, UUs are the people who live in THIS world, doing good and fighting injustice as best as they can, NOT people who have said some magic words of a creed, and are therefore among the "elect". Most of us have been shamed and shunned  for practicing and sharing this faith. We look to our fellow UUs to help us evolve with good humor, acceptance, and respect.

I've now read The Gadfly Papers twice, the second time trying to see the essays from the perspective of those who feel harmed by their publication and by their distribution. I will likely read them a few more times. But I'm UU. Just reading them wasn't enough. I saw a comment claiming that one of Todd's sources, "The Coddling of the American Mind..." had been discredited and debunked. I looked it up and found it had been a bestseller, had been given 5 stars on the website, and had been nominated by the New York Times as one of the best non-fiction books of that year. I followed through by looking up other resources he used. I've read all of the responses that I have seen, and I list them below.

 I saw a reference to someone I had known years ago, in my early ministry. He (Mel Pine, a UU from VA who has now left the denomination) wrote a column after the resignation of Peter Morales, UUA President, and questioned the means by which it occurred. I then saw a 17-minute video made by a leader of BLUU, calling this (now seventy-something) man a "fuck-shit" and his whole column "shit", and then equating him with acts of racism that had occurred in his county, as if he were guilty of them just be being there. Video links here    (since yesterday, when I saw the full 17-minute video, and had to listen on earphones because it was full of the F-word and other language, and my 14 year old was nearby..I've been blocked, and can not see it.) She also physically threatened him in a Facebook post. I know how he felt, because the same person wrote very nasty comments on my homepage (I've since de-friended her). More on this here.

Since you may not be able to see the video (removed after being up for two years) here's a bit of humor at the expense of its creator. Daily Show clip

I do wonder why the 300 ministers who want to see Todd Eklof face consequences are OK with this blog post written by a UU minister, in which she admits she does not know him, but calls him a white supremacist, abhorrent, and his writings 'fuckery'. Read it here 

(added 8/20): The link I posted to the Fuckery post somehow disappeared. Here's a new one.Here is the blog post I will also add that the minister who wrote it is now the Organizing Strategy Director for the UUA. 

According to the UUA, her 'fuckery' rant doesn't matter, because: 

“Ashley brings a depth of experience and relationships both within and beyond Unitarian Universalism. Her experience working with congregations and in movement spaces is a tremendous asset in this role. Additionally, her experience in organizing bold actions, taking risks for justice and weaving spiritual depth, growth and reflection for groups engaged in justice making mirrors the understanding that the work of justice is inseparable from our religious and theological foundations,” writes UUA president, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray.

Or maybe it is part of her "taking risks for justice."

Let's just assume, for argument, that Mel Pine's post was less-than-enlightened. His writing about his need to feel "safe" certainly would trigger POC and others who have felt so unsafe for years and decades, not just in UU congregations, but everywhere. If we look deeper, we can see that Mel has a Jewish heritage, so in spite of his white male identity, he carries a legacy of danger and fear. I don't see where that blog post about his 'fuckery' OR Leslie Mac's calling him fuckshit numerous times starts a Beloved Conversation. (Ashley Horan was or maybe still is the "Beloved Conversations" creator/moderator).

Although it's far from true that everyone who is against The Gadfly Papers is being nasty and shaming both the author and anyone who is seen as aligned with him, many, many are. And that appears to be okay with my colleagues.. I am actually the cheese who stands alone here, because I think he had the right to write them and to distribute them. I can't even begin to count the number of pamphlets, broadsides and even books I've been handed at GA. He says he had hoped to start a dialogue, and instead he's having hellfire rained upon him. A minister who commented on my post of the newspaper article about him said his acts were evil. Others called it ego-driven, manipulative, a stunt, and dishonest. He dropped a bomb and ran  was one comment. As I wrote this, another minister called him hurtful, clueless, and appalling. (this after I explicitly asked people NOT to leave personal attacks, but to go directly to him).

Letters have been written and signed calling for his resignation. One person said they hoped he didn't get away without facing consequences; another said Oh, no, he won't. Presently Todd, whom I've called a friend/colleague, although we've been out of touch since he left KY, is deeply chagrined and in pain. Yes, he knew what he was saying was controversial and he'd be attacked, but he had no idea it would be so swift and so merciless(only a few people claim to have read the whole thing; many refuse to buy it and help promote the book, even though it's 2.99 on Kindle,  and believe me, I'm a writer... he'd be lucky to recoup the costs of printing it). What he's not doing is gloating, which a reliable source told me they saw too much of among his adversaries. I also saw comments saying it would take years to unravel the harm he and the book had caused.

So, I'm left with more questions than answers: if his thesis and his supporting documents, anecdotes, and arguments are so wrong, what's the big deal? Why not ignore him and the book, and let it fizzle out?  UUs are smart and savvy; they can think for themselves.

Why are ministers signing a letter condemning the book in the strongest terms when they have read none, or 5 lines, or 20 pages, or as a few people said, "I don't need to read it; the titles were enough". Or, "I won't read it"? (I'm not mad at my colleagues; I choose to believe, as I always have, that they are overwhelmingly loving, honest, and exceptionally dedicated humans).Indeed, I acknowledge that new evidence or facts may cause me to change my mind entirely about the book.

Update! I based the above statement on social media posts and interactions. I still have heard only a handful of ministers say they've read it in entirety. As far as I can see, no open dialogue or debate about the content of the book itself  has been held among ministers, unless there was one that I wasn't informed of, in which case...not "open". There is a private but open to anyone group that is discussing the actual book. Only 3-4 ministers have spoken in Todd's defense, or at least in protest of the book being censured. On that group, I was called a "liar" by a colleague (publicly, in a forum open to anyone) along with another colleague for the statement, "most ministers who signed the letter had not read the book." In my opinion her comments to us are a breach of the UUMA covenant.

But I imagine some are mad at me, for signing the "Clergy Letter" , for asking people to at least read Todd's book before condemning it (and him) and may even call me racist or worse. I'm not going to talk about the 25 years ministry I've devoted to anti-racism, because the reply of some will be (as it was to Mel Pine) that it's just evidence that I'm a white savior, or a hypocrite. I will say that I have a disability (chronic daily migraines) and I'm raising a child, family member who is autistic. Hence, I resonate with a sensitivity to how people say things and what they do. Seth's 14 years have been a long story of micro-aggressions, exclusion, and stereotyping, much of it from UUs. So, yes, I can relate, if only marginally, to the urge to be angry, demand justice, and look for someone or something to blame. But there is no "one" to blame. Can we try to work together, believing that people will come around?

Maybe Todd made a gross miscalculation by using GA, a GA in which the new direction for our faith was being held up, a GA held on the 50th anniversary of the Black Empowerment Controversy , to publicize his treatise. Maybe he was wrong to employ terms like PC Culture, Call-out Culture, Virtue signaling and  safetyism, terms that are often used to disavow and defuse legitimate movements and arguments. If he is wrong, can he be forgiven?

The current narrative is that Todd was asked to meet with Right Relations team members to discuss his book, and would not. He says he refused to do so, upon advice, without a Good Officer, and was asked to leave GA. Since the Assembly was held in Spokane, where he is the UU minister, this was swift and harsh punishment. But I've also heard that other ministers, some of whom signed a clergy letter (link above) responding to the proposed guidelines changes for our Ministerial Association, were asked not to lead workshops at GA or Ministry Days because of their association with the letter. Whence comes this ethic of punishment and scolding?

Are UUs expected to be automatically "woke", aware of anything they might say, anxious and self-censoring, and fearful of making a misstep? What kind of faith is that?

And what kind of justice is it if all you've done is make people afraid to speak up?

I became a UU in Cherry Hill, NJ, not long after our initial Welcoming Congregation workshops were launched, and I attended a training with Rev. Scott Alexander, who authored the workbook. He said that day, "You never change people by should-ing all over them." What can we glean from that?

As a child from a family where alcoholism was rampant and charity rare, I am somewhat conflict-averse. But mostly, I recoil from situations and people who use shaming, bullying, and metaphorical finger-shaking to force their ways upon me. UUism needs to evolve, and it will. Perhaps we should try again, with love, acceptance and good faith, treating others as we would want to be treated?


"The Gadfly Papers" 3 part series by Rev. Scott Wells
here. Todd Eklof also writes a reply.

Statement by DRUUM

Statement by POCI(Persons of Color and Indigenous Persons)

UU Ministers' Response Statement

ARE letter (Allies for Racial Equality)


Chris Rothbauer Column

Some extensive rebuttal of the GP by UU Minister DennisMcCarty