Finding Common Ground
by Jen Simon, Ministerial Intern
This month at First Unitarian, we enter into the theme of common ground. Theological common ground has been on my mind a lot of late, as Connections and FUSE discuss how best to extend our welcome to as many - and as diverse - a spectrum of people and experiences as we can, and as the Food team begins to discuss not only how we might serve a meal at FUSD every Sunday, but whom we might ultimately be serving.
And one of the questions that has come up more than once as I speak to people about inclusion and diversity is, “Does Unitarian Universalism really have anything to offer to those who aren’t white, middle class, and college-educated?”
In “Not My Father’s Religion,” (UU World, Fall 2007), Doug Muder wrote about the theological contrast between the Lutheranism of his working class father, and his own Unitarian Universalism. He pointed out that the questions our churches have historically asked have been about why the structures of our society are the way they are, and how to change them. “Why can’t the minimum wage be higher? Why can’t the government hire the unemployed? Why can’t college be free?” And these are all necessary and worthwhile questions to ask. But for those directly impacted by these issues, the most pressing questions are of course, “How do I get by on $7.25/hour,” and “What and how am I going to eat this week?” Muder points out that often, working class people adhere to what he calls “harsh” theologies - because those theologies speak to how to navigate a harsh and unforgiving world.
Does this mean that our Unitarian Universalism has nothing to say to people who are struggling to make ends meet? Does it mean we will never be more than what Muder calls a “boutique religion,” serving a niche of upper middle class, college-educated philosophers?
I don’t believe that. So here’s the thing: we do have working class people in our congregations. We do have people of color. I know; I’m one of them. And while the difficult truth is that sometimes the cultures of UU congregations require that we leave some of our racial, ethnic, or class backgrounds at the door, it is also true that, for those of us who do show up in UU congregations, we have found a thread of truth in Unitarian Universalism that sustains us. That is liberatory and, yes, even practical.
Yes, it is important to acknowledge that we have, by and large, been a religion of privilege - that our outlook on the whole has been shaped largely by the Enlightenment values of the late 18th and 19th centuries, which has both given us tools for exploring our world and provided us a limited and stifling narrative about whose perspectives matter in our society. (Enlightenment philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, for instance, had very specific - and disgusting - ideas about who is able to reason.) And it is absolutely imperative that we untangle these unhealthy, white supremacist, classist notions from our theology.
But, dear friends, it is also crucial that we not confuse the current limitations of our religion for the religion itself. Part of the beauty of a Unitarian Universalism that embraces among its sources both direct experience and words and deeds of prophetic people, is that we are not defined solely by what we have been, and not limited to what we currently are. We get to continually redefine what salvation in this lifetime looks like. We get to take a hard look at the tendencies of UUs to want to save other people, when in many cases we should be looking to our own salvation from assumptions based in the dominant class and race. We get to examine our theology and our way of being and ask ourselves what is getting in the way of its speaking to those our hearts most long to be in community with. These are hard truths, friends, but examining them is holy work, and it will bring about a Unitarian Universalism that is more just, more loving, and more whole.
Now, I’m not saying that our tendency to ask the Big Questions is wrong. Those questions need asking. They need addressing, and they need addressing in the thoughtful, systemic, thorough and intelligent ways that UUs often do so well. But I’m also saying that, if you haven’t eaten all day, having your inherent worth and dignity recognized looks a lot less like a heady discussion of the finer points of microeconomic theory, and a lot more like soup and a sandwich. And the sandwich is just as much an expression of our theology as the discussion - possibly more, if we count real unity, community, relationship, and solidarity among our core values.
If we are as dedicated to Beloved Community as we say we are - if we truly believe in the unity that makes us one - then it isn’t a question of whether we can worship together, but how we find expressions of Unitarian Universalism that speak to everyone. This work is happening in many quarters in our denomination right now - in organizations such as BLUU, DRUUMM, TRUUsT, and EqUUal Access, through programs such as Beloved Conversations and Class Conversations, and through the voices of so many religious professionals and lay volunteers. And I truly believe that if we continue to seek out these expressions, Unitarian Universalism contains the tools to equip all of us - working class people, people of color, disabled people, able-bodied people, white people, middle class people - to present a truly unified resistance to the powerful forces that are trying to divide us as human beings right now. Because finding common ground doesn’t just mean finding a few issues we can all support; it means recognizing that the struggles that most harshly impact some - poverty, racism, sexism, ableism - are struggles that face and ultimately diminish us all. May we dedicate ourselves to finding ever new and ever more inclusive expressions of our faith.