Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 1

I am a slow reader with a day job. So I am less than a third of the way done reading The Gadfly Papers, but do have some general observations both of the book and the three letters denouncing it.

First, I never intended to read it. My very first instinct was “not again.” Itchy political analysis of the UUA was common fifteen to twenty years ago, created “more heat than light” and inspired me to be more strategic and analytic whenever I met something in the UUA that seemed like a bad idea. I spiked a lot of my own stories. The table of contents reminded me of the old days. It was the denouncing letters that prompted me to buy and read the book.

Why? The letters were sure of their reasons, were very confident but gave no examples. (The UUMA POCI letter cited an Christina Rivera as an injured party, but not what in the book caused the injury.)  And the lists grew so fast, that I thought “surely they didn’t read it yet,” which raised a red flag. So whatever the motives of the signatories — which I trust as a matter of principle was based on conscience, duty or both — the letters read to me as a pile-on. For example, does being “intentionally provocative” (white ministers letter) merit hundreds of signatures against a single colleague?

I took it both as a matter of conscience and duty to not be swayed by numbers and see for myself. And for this I was criticized and chided for buying the book. By ministers. It is currently the #1 and #2 books (Kindle and paperback respectively) about Unitarian Universalism on Amazon, despite an attempt to displace it by strategic purchasing of another book. Clearly, others want to read it, too.

You can quietly ask someone to stop writing. You can make a reasoned, convincing argument why someone is wrong. You cannot make forceful, public demands, and then expect people to not start Google-ing.

As for the book, so far it’s not great literature. It could use a copy editor and is a bit self-conscious of its place in history and the weight of criticism that did, in fact, come. Even the “white ministers letter” calls it a treatise, and I think that’s the right genre. The interpretation of Unitarian history, in my opinion, is not good. But it is exactly the kind of folk-history, transmitted through sermons and pamphlets, that built the long dominant idea that Unitarianism is the “faith of the free.”

I will provide examples of some recent embarrassing Unitarian Universalist episodes  later, but again I’m a slow reader trying to read for comprehension and the meaning of the controversy. So far, I do not see in Eklof’s book a narrative equal to the outrage.

6 Replies to “Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 1”

  1. I probably should read Todd’s book too, to have an accurate understanding of the problem (instead of taking it 2nd hand). Although it does sound like it is probably a self-important rant. And I’m not sure what to make of the White Ministers’ Letter. It is very broad, and somewhat vague. I’m troubled by the assertion that “logic and reason” are manifestations of White Supremacy. Logic and reason are present in all cultures – although we will differ on what constitutes data, and what makes a reasoning process desirable. And I feel a certain sadness about the utopian desire to eliminate all forms of oppression. The last being an impossible task – like Christians trying to eliminate all sin from the world. This impossible task will come with a high human cost, and will ultimately fail. Although I think we can name specific oppressions, and work against them. So much to unpack on this utopian turn, and not nearly enough time.

    The tone, as well, makes me nervous. There is an implication that if you are not in unity with any portions of the letter, that you too must be a racist. And so careful discernment (both compassionate listening and speaking) is shut down. What remains is likely to become broken relationships, which perhaps is simply another form of oppression.

    Is our mutual oppression inevitable? That makes me gulp and want to cry. But it is certainly looking like it. Leaving me wondering if original sin is actually more real than Liberal Religion cares to admit. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” So I will pray and walk forward.

  2. From what I read in the sample you can read on Amazon, I got a bit of the flavor of what Todd’s concern is. He envisions a wide universalist modernist religious perspective that is way out of favor today’s post modern universe. The idea of the free exchange of ideas with the idea that the best ones will win through reason and argument is way, way out of date. Some ideas, particularly ones that link in with subliminal racism, homophobia, sexism, able-ism, etc. are extremely dangerous to articulate and promote as they work to undermine the work of dismantling toxic elements of our culture, both UU and otherwise. Trump is a powerful illustration of how toxic ideas can get traction by coming out of his mouth and undermining American society. Social media has given fuel to evil because it has created mini echo chambers for people to reinforce their venal ideas and beliefs. Free speech isn’t free in these enclosed environments where those who argue against them are targeted with death threats. Everyone needs to know Leonard Pozner’s story of his fight against Alex Jones and those saying the Sandy Hook Massacre was a hoax. Pozner is a real hero of our time.

    That said, there is implicit danger too here in labeling thought harmful. Robin DiAngelo is wonderful in her humble confession of the harm she has done as a lesson for the rest of us. Words can create great harm by supporting our implicit racial bias. AND, like anything human, one can use the term harm to silence those who may be speaking an inconvenient truth.

    The refrain I hear regularly is, “Trust us when we tell you, you are harming us.” UU’s are by nature not very trusting as we have often been harmed in other religious settings. My EXPERIENCE has been, when I hear that from someone, I usually have done something that has caused emotional harm that I was unaware of. After listening to an explanation of the harm I have caused, I usually have an “ah ha” moment when I make a connection to my actions and recognize what was missing from my awareness when I spoke or wrote. I’m grateful since my intention wasn’t to harm anyone and I learn something valuable, often about implicit bias society has planted in me that I can now uproot.

    My hope for Rev. Eklof is for him to create a “brave” space to engage with those who feel harmed by his words so that kind of insight and growth can happen for him. He is not alone I suspect. There are a lot of quiet UU ministers probably thinking what he wrote who could benefit from this kind of dialogue that I suspect will happen best in private where egos will not need to be defended publicly. I’d be really interested in what happens after that dialogue and what ways he might (or might not) amend his words.

    I am committed to being part of dismantling any culture of oppression that causes harm to people. There are lots of them and being a cis-gender white male who grew up in academic UU culture, I’m woven into many of them. I recognize I need to do that work in relationship and in an accountable way to minimize the harm I might cause while doing it. I’m measuring my words here as best I can with that in mind.

    My hope for Unitarian Universalism is that it can become a counter-cultural force (as good religion always is) against oppression and victimization and harm. Those who wish to do so are starting with a tradition riddled throughout our history with white supremacy from the Boston Brahmin forward. What we have are some beautiful values and religious ideas to build on. Serving as a UU minister, I’m in the struggle and will stay anchored in our principles of love, justice, equity and compassion as we strive to steer the UU ship in a way that brings us together on this difficult road we’ve chosen to walk toward liberation for all.

  3. Regardless of the opinion offered, the means and method Rev. Eklof used was pastorally problematic, in my opinion. He used the opportunity of hosting GA to promote his book and the knowingly controversial points of view therein. From what I gather, he did not consult the church he pastors about this. Some of UUC Spokane’s church members were likely hurt. On a related note, speaking as a pastor myself, it is important to note and honor where hurt and pain lies and understand that such hurt and pain is often caused by structures and systems that dehumanize and disempower. In this case, as a pastor, I side with those expressing their hurt and at the same time do what I can do to dismantle the work of dehumanization and disempowerment causing such hurt. Sometimes this means the pastor taking off one’s thinking caps, which are always self-contextual, and sitting with those who’ve been hurt and just listening. This is especially true considering that religious hierarchy, which the pastor cannot escape being part of, has often been at the head of the table when it comes to dehumanization and disempowerment.

  4. Thanks for reviewing this book. I just finished reading it and I would say it articulates many concerns I have about our UU faith at this moment, including hypersensitivity (the Standing on the Side of Love debacle – when I tell people about that they literally do not believe it), our excessive inward focus at the very time we need to be visible, and the tendency to call “harm” to shut down discussion. One can quibble with some points, but overall the book lays out important issues with facts and logic, and raises questions that need to be asked and responded to. It should not be dismissed.

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