Saturday, February 20, 2010

Principles and Prejudice: How Do We Fully Apply Our Beliefs?

Principles and Prejudice: How Do We Fully Apply Our Beliefs?
by Desmond Ravenstone

When asked what Unitarian Universalists believe, we often point to our Seven Principles as a guide to our shared values. These principles are also cited in how we respond to various issues and questions in our lives, both individually and collectively. Yet this can also raise the question of how we apply them in various situations. Are we consistent, or selective? Do we apply all of the principles to a given problem, or only one at a time? And do we use them to “filter” our possible preconceptions and prejudices, or to challenge them in a more active process of discernment?

In the anthology Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Universalism, the Reverend John Cullinan recalls an incident related to him through an online message board:

A woman had come to the director of religious education at a church looking to volunteer as a teacher. In the course of their conversation, she admitted that she made the bulk of her living as a dominatrix. The DRE was troubled by this and explained that he found himself with a dilemma. “Do I,” he wondered, “ignore this information and take on a willing volunteer? Or do I reject her and avoid the potential controversy, or worse?”[1]

Cullinan further elaborated how others involved in the exchange insisted that the DRE should accept her, citing the First Principle of accepting her inherent worth and dignity – and he in turn admitted how he was “astonished” that it “had been recast … as the maxim ‘don’t say no to people’” and “transformed into a tool by which the individual was absolved of the responsibility to make judgments or to be accountable to community.”[2]

While I would agree on some level with the author that our First Principle was oversimplified, two other questions crossed my mind on reading this story. First: What about our other six principles, such as a free and responsible search for meaning and truth, and acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations? Second: Why see only two possible responses – accept but ignore, or reject but avoid – neither of which seems like a constructive response?

Our principles are not merely a laundry list of good ideas. They are expressions of our core values of justice, love and discernment; and just as each of these values is linked inextricably to one another, so each of the Seven Principles relies upon one another. We cannot, for example truly accept and encourage one another to spiritual growth, or exercise the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process, without engaging together in a free and responsible search for meaning and truth. Our desire for a world community cannot be fully realized without also affirming our inherent worth and dignity, as well as our place in the interdependent web of all existence.

This in turn leads to my second question, and the challenge to look beyond the more obvious dilemma towards a more constructive solution. For one thing, the “dilemma” posed is much deeper than merely accepting or rejecting the woman’s offer to volunteer for the church’s religious education program. There is the presumption that the only way to accept her offer is to ignore the information which she disclosed; and further, that the only way to deal with any potential controversy is to avoid it through rejection of her offer. When we cling to such presumptions, rather than seek to challenge them, then we reduce our decision-making into a simplistic “filtering” of loaded options, and invite misuse of documents like our Seven Principles to pick the least uncomfortable option rather than craft alternative courses by which we may more fully put our beliefs into action.

If we believe that each of our UU principles are linked to one another, and that therefore acceptance is linked to seeking the truth, then these principles challenge us to engage in the important step of deepening our understanding of the situation before us. The DRE in this scenario could have asked the woman to explain why she chose this line of work, how she relates to her clientele, her own insights into BDSM, and how to engage others in the congregation regarding all of this information. In turn, the DRE could give the woman an idea of the makeup of the congregation, and especially those directly involved with religious education, so as to provide her with a better understanding of what she might face as a volunteer. This conversation could lead to a covenanting process, where clear guidelines are provided regarding whether and when the subject of her profession would be discussed; they could both agree that she would make no such disclosure to any children she might teach, for example, while the issue would be raised with the church’s RE committee and ministerial staff. Last and certainly not least, he should express gratitude for her honest disclosure, and the opportunity to share and learn one from another.

Such a process of discernment is necessary not only to make the right decision whether to accept or reject, or to what degree, but to do so with authenticity and integrity. One cannot truly accept any person or how they live without fully understanding them; nor are we doing justice to someone by rejecting them out of hand, or simply to “avoid controversy”. Discernment is the antidote to prejudice in all of its forms, whether it is our presumptions about certain people, or our presumptions about which choices are available to us and how we should choose between them. Where prejudice is reactive and allows only a partial exercise of our faith, discernment is proactive and thereby calls us to apply our beliefs more fully.

[1] “Digging Deep: Our Communal Responsibility to Our Principles” by Reverend John Cullinam; in Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Universalism, edited by Tamara Lebak and Bret Lortie (Jenkins Lloyd Jones Press, Tulsa OK, 2008). Page 72
[2] Ibid, pp 72-73

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Getting Our Act Together on Sexual Misconduct by UU Leaders

By Desmond Ravenstone

At the 2000 General Assembly, UUA Executive Vice-President Kay Montgomery acknowledged shortcomings on how UU leadership has dealt with sexual misconduct, and pledged a number of changes. Certainly there have been improvements, principally in prevention through education, screening prospective leaders and other proactive measures. Yet when looking at the whole picture, there are still questions which need to be addressed, the most central being how to file and pursue a complaint of sexual misconduct.

The reader will also notice that I am not limiting this discussion to ordained ministers, or even to professional leadership. Volunteer lay leaders are also entrusted with authority and access, and must be held just as accountable for their actions. And when a member or attendee of a UU congregation feels exploited or abused, to whom should they go for support, healing and justice? What can they expect in terms of process and responsive actions?

In my own research, I’ve not seen any clear answer to these questions. There is much talk about “restorative justice,” but little clarity about how that is to be achieved. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which oversees ordained UU ministers, does have a process for handling complaints, but even this has been criticized for falling short in terms of openness and clarity. In my opinion, the UUA needs to develop and present a clear protocol for handling sexual misconduct within congregations, and this article is my attempt at developing and presenting a model for such a protocol.

First, we need to define what we mean by sexual misconduct. This definition should be rooted in our core values of individual dignity and right relationship; it should focus on the emotional and relational context in which sexual activity takes place. Our sexuality can and should be a source of joy, pleasure and nurturing, a way of expressing intimacy and love. In contrast, sexual abuse and exploitation occur in a context of fear and intimidation. To avoid the latter, and foster the former, our sexual and relational ethics need to be based on two central principles:

a) Consent – Each person should be able to give and receive sexually with full knowledge, power and agreement. We are deprived of that power whenever there is deceit, intimidation and/or coercion.
b) Safety – Each person should be able to give and receive sexually without fear of bodily or emotional harm. While no one can assure this with absolute certainty, each person should take responsibility for minimizing the risk of harm to all concerned.

With clergy and other religious community leaders, another factor must be taken into account. Whenever someone is entrusted with leadership, they are given access to power and knowledge; and when there is an imbalance of power and knowledge, consent can be compromised. For this reason, our leaders must take great care to avoid what Reverend Marie Marshall Fortune refers to as dual relationships – maintaining two conflicting relationships with the same person at the same time, in particular a personal/sexual one (which should be equal and mutual) and a pastoral/leadership one (with its inherent power imbalance). This is not to say that a minister or leader can never have an intimate relationship with someone in their community, but that providing pastoral care or direct supervision with an intimate partner is a conflict of interest which must be avoided.

Education and pastoral guidance are essential in both preventing and recognizing sexual misconduct. But how do we respond when such breaches occur? To whom should a complaint or concern be taken, and how should they respond?

My suggestion is for the District office to appoint an impartial ombuds whenever a complaint is filed, to look into the facts and recommend the appropriate course of action. This would take pressure off the congregation’s leadership, while assuring that the process is handled by someone with direct access to all involved. The ombuds can also look beyond simply determining the respondent’s culpability, by considering what role the congregation’s policies, practices and awareness of issues played, and how these might be corrected.

There may also be cases where a formal adjudication would be necessary, in the form of a hearing before an impartial board. Once again, I would suggest that the District office appoint impartial members to the board, in consultation with all concerned. Additionally, the ombuds role would now shift to one of advocate for the complainant. The hearing itself should follow specific guidelines, and the board be required to make its decision by consensus, to assure confidence in the process. This confidence is essential, given that congregational polity makes the board’s decision advisory rather than binding. Likewise, the board would not have the power to suspend or revoke ministerial or DRE credentials, but their findings should be forwarded to the appropriate bodies for action.

Finally, while we all hope that sexual misconduct will not occur, we also have to admit the fact that it will. Even with the best preventive measures, our leaders are human and capable of error – or worse. To that end, we not only need to continue proactive education such as the Safe Congregations program, we also need to train select individuals to serve as ombuds and hearing board members. Such training can be seen in the same light as first aid and self-defense preparations – we hope never to use them, but realize their ultimate necessity and benefit.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

UUA and partisan politics

A news story today reminded me of a problem I've had for years with the UUA- taking partisan political stances, minimally fig-leafed with a transparent religious veil.

The news story was about how the Democrats were discussing changing the Senate rule requiring a 60 vote majority for a vote of cloture- the "nuclear option". It particularly drew my attention when Senator Barney Frank said there was nothing special about that rule- God didn't create the filibuster . My mind immediately went back five years to when we were saying he did.

The time was the confirmation hearings for Justice Alito. The Democrats were filibustering, and the Republicans were considering changing the rules to allow a cloture vote on a simple majority vote. President Sinkford gave speeches about how sacred the filibuster and the supermajority requirement for cloture were, and the UUAWO sent out emergency action letters asking us to ACT NOW to save the filibuster! (I couldn't find the alert on the official site, but fortunately CC had copied it in the Chaliceblog . They insisted that this was not political; they were opposing the "nuclear option" on purely religious grounds.

Funny things is, this time I've received no urgent emails or letters calling us to act against this renewed threat to democracy. If we really were "...religious people committed to protecting the rights of the minority to speak on issues that effect all Americans,..." then, are we not today? Does "Our Unitarian Universalist faith" no longer "guide us on a path of affirmation of difference and preservation of the democratic process."? Have our PPs changed in the last couple years?

This is the problem with religious movements hitching their wagons to political movements; politicians, who often base their principles on pragmatism and effectiveness can change their positions as necessary for political advantage. People demand higher standards for their religious leaders, however- and so does the IRS. I really believe that the only reason our tax status hasn't been challenged in a lawsuit is that we're actually too ineffectual to appear on the Republican radar screen.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Humanism vs. Theism: Does anyone actually care anymore?

This was a comment from Chalicechick to the Discuss! thread, promoted to a post of its own for pertinence

A few months ago, as an experiment, I asked the UU theology mailing list if anyone had seen or experienced any atheists giving theists grief or vice versa IN THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS. I emphasize that last bit because lots of people have stories of mistreated theists that are a decade or two old, and they always seem to tell them as if they happened yesterday. I wondered if it ever happened anymore or if we just talked about it like it did.

I got one "yes" response, and that it was an incident from several years ago and soon after, his/her church got a new minister who made it clear that this behavior wouldn't be tolerated and there hasn't been an issue since.

That one "yes" aside, literally no one had seen any anti-theism or anti-atheism in their churches on the last couple of years. But several people still announced that "theism vs. atheism" was this incredibly important divide within UUism. I really don't understand why. To me it seems like the idea of people being actually mistreated and churches being divided on "theism vs anti-theism" or "atheism vs. humanism" is a big Boogeyman that scares lots of UUs but is mostly illusory.

Do you see "the God question" as something that divides your church right now? Have you seen anyone actually treated badly because of their faith in the last couple of years? If not, are se sure it's really that big a deal anymore?


This blog is intended to be a neutral ground where all can discuss their issues with the Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations. It is also a place where those criticisms can be answered and challenged in turn. The only ground rules are these: No personal insults, no armchair psychoanalyzing, no spamming. Address people by their proper names; no nicknames or "cute" references; something you may find funny another may find offensive. No links unless they are absolutely necessary to understand the issue. Keep the discussion about the discussion; don't label the arguments made (such as "DIM" or "irrational")- labels do not advance understanding. Simply agree with them or refute them.

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