Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 2

I don’t want to make this controversy my full-time job, so this post and done (if I can help it.) Here are my earlier articles the subject: introduction and part one.

My first instinct was correct; this is a work of controversy and while there are parts I do agree with, its style and form wouldn’t have convinced me.  That and it’s so blisteringly Unitarian, which is a pet complaint. The biggest plus is directing me to the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, whom I’ll add to my reading list.

I’m imagining where the harm claims are coming from. I see forms of argument that could remind people of other arguments that were abusive. Some terms Eklof uses, such as political correctness  and safetyism, are used by other authors to dismiss or belittle critics, and the fact they show up in the title of the first essay (“The Coddling of the Unitarian Universalist Mind: How the Emerging Culture of Safetyism, Identitarianism, and Political Correctness is Reshaping America’s Most Liberal Religion”) surely put examiners into high alert. I also see discussions of controversy — in particular, the district executive hiring crisis of 2017 ― that could be embarrassing to those who had thought the narrative was conclusively set. The tension around the publication itself (General Assembly is a strange time) could inflame old trauma. I still don’t see the viciousness (“vitriolic rhetoric” introduction to reposted white ministers letter;”aligned with alt-right ideology” Allies for Racial Equity letter; “dissemination of racism, ableism, and the affirmation of other forms of oppression, including classism and homo- and transphobia” UUMA POCI chapter letter; “toxic history and theologies” DRUUMM letter) its denouncers claim.  And fiat isn’t good enough; you have to show your work, if not to me, then to the laity commenting online, who seem to be at a different place.

Some writers, mainly on Facebook, speak of portions floating around, or selections that confirm their decision to condemn. I think this is a mistake, not only because that’s the oldest rhetorical trick in the book, but because Eklof has a theme that’s woven through his book that gets lost with excerpting: an ecclesiology of the free church based on universal human experience. That’s important because he doesn’t condemn those who would condemn him, but tries to re-direct the discussion to what we might have together.  It’s a basis for unity because we need one, and this necessity is what the rest of the book relies on. (His ecclesiology leave me cold, but that’s besides the point.)

The less said about the second essay the better. The “divorce” in the title is a call to redivide the Unitarians and Universalists so they could be their true selves. I’m not sure if that’s Swiftian fancy, or simply romantic misreading. But his examples ignored the economic reasons, not to mention the social realities, that lead to consolidation.  I think you can make a good case for breaking up or restructuring the UUA. For one, it’s too small to be efficient but too big to be nimble. Also, without another similar peer organization, when people leave, they’re gone. UUA1 and UUA2 could specialize, develop their own styles and volley ministers and churches back and forth, and I bet it would be bigger in aggregate than the UUA today. A little competition is good, too. But that’s not what Eklof suggests.

Yet I think both Eklof and his accusers suffer that common affliction of wanting to be right more than being successful. It might surprise non-readers that he has ideas for dismantling racism, and to continue to work on not being racist, and talks about his bona-fides at in the epilogue.  You might think them hogwash (or wonderful) but they’re there. That is, if you can make it through his argumentation, especially the extended section on logic. God help me, but he might have been a graduate of the Vulcan School for Exquisite Logic and that still would have been the wrong approach. An appeal to rhetoric (a personal favorite) wouldn’t have been any better. Where he’s sermonic, he’s stronger. So third and largest essay was a convoluted slog, and if I had been anxious or angry or good ol’ loaded-for-bear going into the book, it would have amplified my feelings greatly.

I finally finished the book, but half-way through started taking notes in earnest, and so details from the front third aren’t as fresh in mind. Plus my blasted Kindle copy resists cutting-and-pasting. But I have to put this down. I’ll keep the comments open for a while; so far everyone has been civil, which makes me happy.

If you are interested in reading the book to understand Eklof’s points, read the epilogue first, the beginning and end of the third essay and then the first. You can skim the second essay for the ecclesiological themes.

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.

“The Gadfly Papers”

The controversy around the Rev. Todd Eklof, the minister of the host church for the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUA GA; #uuaga), is one I never thought I would see.

It hinges on his book The Gadfly Papers, which he was distributing for free at the GA. He and his books were removed following a Right Relations process. I’m still waiting for a formal report-out from the General Assembly.

Generally, the claims (I’ve seen no specific examples) are that his ideas and even the titles of his essays are so hurtful as to be intolerable. That’s something I never expected to see among Unitarian Universalists, but here we are. One such denunciation is from DRUUMM (Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries) and another is from an ad-hoc group of white ministers, which I have seen but do not have a public link. (I’ll add it if and when it becomes available.) I have also seen individual statements from ministers on Facebook.

These claims map to the claims of harm attributed to the UUMA proposal response I co-wrote and signed. I am, so I hear, “being watched.” Again, is this Unitarian Universalism?

So I’m doing the most UU thing — or at least the most sensible — I can think of: read the book. You can order a copy here. I don’t promise to like it and will give my unvarnished review when I’m done, or perhaps after finishing each of the three essays depending on how it reads. I will look for what might be causing grief among its denouncers.

Update: I have found another denunciation, from the People of Color and Indigenous UUMA Chapter. It cites references to Christina Rivera in particular, and calls on the UUMA to enforce its guidelines, presumably disciplinary action against Todd Eklof.

Update: Some links to the third letter and outside commentary, plus two versions of the Right Relations interchange (one by Todd Eklof) in the comments.

Measure passed

Just to close the loop. The measure passed with the friendly amendment and now goes to the UUMA membership for a year of study.  I’ll keep the documents up for the record, since I’ve heard some rather outrageous interpretations of them and of the motives of those who signed.

I still stand by them, but the moment has passed, so moving on….

New congregations to join the UUA?

I had been waiting for the UUA Board agenda and packet for their meetings that surround General Assembly; they published them last night.

Why? To see what great things the UUA is planning? No. Something simpler. Will there be a new member congregation celebrated at General Assembly? Not that many years ago, welcoming new congregations was quite the event. Pictures of smiling faces, maps pointing out the new starts and delegations on stage. Then fewer. Then one. Last year, none.

The last congregation to join the UUA was two years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Benton County, Bentonville, Arkansas. Meanwhile a few others, all very small, have since disbanded or disaffiliated. I have my opinions why this is the case, and no, the covenanted communities aren’t a replacement, but I’m not keen on shouting into the wind.

Instead, I’ll say thank you to the people of the recently-disbanded Peter Cooper Fellowship, Memphis, Tennessee (as noted in the packet) and wish them well for whatever the future brings.

Changes made to General Assembly workshop

Earlier I was checking to see if there was any update about of the Ware Lecture and other events at General Assembly, and so noticed that the link to the preliminary schedule (PDF) was marked as unread. Had the document changed? Had the workshop I complained about?

Revised workshop description

 

It had, and at least the description has. I’m still not thrilled by the title — based on the presenter’s book’s title — but if I’d seen this description before I wouldn’t have complained.

I’m glad that the powers-that-be responded to the complaints by Christians like myself and took affirmative and constructive action. In the process, the deccription has become less divisive — and less prone to be an anti-Christian dogwhistle — and I hope more representative of the workshop itself.

And I’m proud that the Christians stepped up. It’s important to remind those who resent or reject our presence (whomever that may be, and they certainly do exist) that we have a wide set of opinions of our own; are constant, creative and productive members; and that we don’t exist to fill in someone else’s idea of how Unitarian Universalism should be.

Unwelcome news at General Assembly

I was thinking the schedule of General Assembly was very late this year — who’s giving the Ware Lecture? — but then at lunch saw that a partial and preliminary schedule was posted at UUA.org/GA. It didn’t take long before I saw the Allies for Racial Equity offering from this eye-watering title:

Because there’s nothing like celebrating Holy Week then discovering other people in your denomination denounce Christianity with such a broad brush. What a punch to the gut. Shame on you.

And before someone pipes up by saying “Oh, surely that’s those bad Christians and not you good Christians”, I’m not buying such an easy distinction. Because in this of all years, and after 30 years of minimizing, sidelining comments by other Unitarian Universalists, a plausable denial of Christian bating — or any coded insult to any group — won’t fly.

Christians are the only religious group that Unitarian Universalists regularly and freely denounce. Christians are the only religious group who have their acceptance based on the condition of being similar to other Unitarian Universalists. The option to be a bland and domesticated version of Christianity in no option, but a double standard, and sickening besides.

And if forced to choose, I will always choose the body of Christ, which understands sin, repentance, forgiveness and grace. And, unlike the Unitarian Universalist Association, isn’t likely to worry and convulse itself to death.

The bit of Jewish liturgy hidden in plain sight in the red hymnal

For reasons too long to go into now, I was tracking down threads in the Classic Reform tradition of Reform Jewish liturgics a couple of weeks ago. Suffice it to say that it was in parallel with some of the liturgical developments in Unitarian churches in the late nineteenth century. There were some friendships crossing the divide, or at least cooperative parterships. It’s hard to tell how far or wide without a deep dive.

So, I was reading the Adoration ending sequence from the Sabbath evening service in the Union Prayer Book, in wide use in Reform temples through the early 1970s. This is the Aleinu, for those familiar with the traditional Hebrew name. I thought, “this looks familiar.”

As well it should. Capitalization aside, the first part of the Aleinu was dropped in almost verbatim as the Exhortation — that is, a beginning sequence — of the First Service of the Services of Religion, the services prepended to the 1937 joint Unitarian-Universalist Hymns of the Spirit.

So, it reads:

Let us adore the ever-living God, and render praise unto him who spread out the heavens and established the earth; whose glory is revealed in the heavens above and whose majesty is manifested throughout the earth. He is our God and there is none else; wherefore in awe and wonder we bow the head and magnify the Eternal, the Holy One, the Ever Blest.

That’s the same hymnal that has the Jewish text translated by a Unitarian minister, “Praise to the Living God” as its first hymn.

And if you’ve read this far and are at the UUA General Assembly in New Orleans, you may be interested in Shabbat Worship, presented by Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness on Friday, June 23, 5:00 pm in the Hilton Riverside Windsor Room.

Cross-posted to HymnsoftheSpririt.org

Universalist Christian Initiative at #uuaga

I’m soft-launching my new project, the Universalist Christian Initiative at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, which begins today in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s mainly about creating resources and finding direction for Universalist Christians, and at this point I’m looking for people interested in this work.

Please join the newsletter list here, and follow our Twitter account (@universalistci) here.

If you’ll be at GA, meet me at the UU Christian Fellowship booth (#115 in the exhibit hall)

  • Thursday, Jun 23 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Friday, June 24 from 11 a.m. to 12 noon

… or send a direct message to the @universalistci Twitter account if you’d like to talk.