Unitarian Universalists take pride in the slogan, ‘deeds not creeds.’ UU Service Committee CEO and past UUA President, William Schulz puts it this way, “We’re eager to use people power…our members, most of whom are associated with Unitarian Universalist congregations, are natural-born activists …. itching to get their hands dirty, be it on their computer keyboards taking online actions, or by building an eco-village in Haiti.”
Faith-based activism is nothing new, and it speaks to a, ‘prophetic imagination that calls us to a collective world view rooted in the love of neighbor and aflame with the passion to build beloved communities.’ But, like all good slogans, it’s one thing to say it, it’s another to actually implement it.
In her book, After the Protests are Heard: Enacting Civic Engagement and Social Transformation, social ethicist, Dr. Sharon Welch, takes this important challenge seriously; she writes, “There are moments in history when there are major breakthroughs in the power of social movements.
Large numbers of people recognize the depth of injustice, see possibilities of beauty and integrity heretofore unknown, and find new forms of coming together to bring about change. We are living in such a time.”
As an activist all my adult life, these words are music to my ears. But I’ll bet I’m not the only one who carries with them a degree of frustration. For me, this nagging sense of frustration tends to surface in those moments when I feel overwhelmed, perhaps experiencing a mild case of activism-fatigue, because it seems like all those breath-taking insights, allure of grand ideals, and that familiar and invigorating passion rising out of moral certainty – have become like individual antidotal raindrops falling into an ocean of problems. I think the root of my frustration is not the limitations of moral certainty, rather, it is the fact to care passionately about justice does not mean we know how to creatively and equitably manage the resources necessary for effective and lasting change.
Welch goes on to contend, “As we immerse ourselves in the complexity of institutional change, we encounter a defining paradox.” She describes this paradox as “a fundamental lack of parity between the moral certainty of our denunciation of existing forms of injustice, and our ethically-reasonable uncertainty about the justice and feasibility of our cherished alternatives.” In other words, it’s one thing to come up with four-hundred good ideas for change, it’s an entirely different thing to come up with four-hundred ethical and generative processes to make them work.
But, and there always is a ‘but,’ there is real hope! Welch is among a new generation of progressive thinkers who not only see what’s going on, they are writing and talking about it in ways which assure the rest of us our passion for justice, in all its forms, and our deeply-rooted faith in the inherent goodness and capability of human nature, are working their magic!
Welch quotes the French philosopher, Michel Foucault who describes it this way, “…. (the purpose of critical analysis of the current condition should be to…) bring an idea to life…. to light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it…. (it should be) … scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.”
Welch contends these actual phenomena are real and are, right now, washing over modern humanity. She describes this change movement as occurring in three waves of revolutionary politics, each with their own energy, dynamics, and challenges.
The first wave of this revolutionary politics was the forceful denunciation of forms of social injustice: slavery, the oppression of workers, and the secondary status of women – all forms of oppression defended for millennia as divinely ordained or part of the natural order of things.
These struggles for justice have been augmented by a second wave of activism: the work of identity politics – the resolute claim for the complex identities and full humanity of all groups marginalized and exploited by systemic oppression, silenced through cultural imperialism, and deprived of cultural respect and full political participation – including people with disabilities; those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender; and ethnic, racial and religious minorities.
Welch goes on to say,
While the critical work for social justice and human rights goes on, these tasks now occur within a third paradigm of pragmatic political activism. Once we recognize injustice, once we grant the imperative of including the voices and experiences of all peoples, how then do we work together to build just and creative institutions? How do we engage creatively in conflict? How do we work together for social arrangements that are equitable, sustainable, and joyous?
Again, she reminds us although it is… difficult to live justly and to use power truthfully and well, it is not impossible. The feminist-economist J. K Gibson-Graham writes,
What if we believed… the goal of theory were not only to extend and deepen knowledge by confirming what we already know – that the world is full of cruelty, misery and loss, a place of domination and systemic oppression? What if we asked theory to do something else – to help us see openings, to help us to find happiness, to provide a space of freedom and possibility?
One important concept all activists should be familiar with, is believing in the impact of speaking truth to power. When we believe in this simple statement, it is where we then find the inspiration, sense of identity, and faithful witness to ideals of justice and peace. The universal truth embodied in the phrase, speaking truth to power, is alive and well — resonating with human beings living in communities of every size around the world.
One of the reasons for this resonance, is many people are finally beginning to understand themselves as being embedded within, as belonging to this world, instead of being disconnected and outside of it. We find this understanding in Unitarian Universalism’s Seventh Principle; recognition of and respect for the interdependent web of creation of which we are all a part. When we understand ourselves to be part of the web of a living creation, then a different understanding of the relationship between good and evil emerges.
One of the reasons Welch’s analysis resonates with me is that she finds a palatable way to account for, in traditional terms, the presence of evil. If we look around the state of American society these days, we see, what Welch and other academics describe as a rise in authoritarianism. According to some political scientists, we are experiencing, “… a rise of authoritarianism in the U.S. (and Europe) …. as dangerous as the anticommunism of the McCarthy era of the 1950’s; and potentially as deadly as the eradication of the basic political and human rights for African Americans after the Reconstruction period following the Civil War.
One of the likely reasons for this resurgence, is a significant portion of the human population remains orientated toward authoritarianism — in that they perceive the world as a threatening place and so value community based on hierarchy, order, and sameness. They seek and respect leaders who are ‘simple, powerful and punitive.’
Authoritarians also take a significant degree of satisfaction in violence against those perceived as threatening and inferior. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler contend a fundamental driver of this aggression and intolerance is a need for order and a lack of tolerance for ambiguity.
Political scientist, Karen Stenner, argues,
The overall lesson is clear: when it comes to democracy, less is often more, or at least more secure.
We can do all the moralizing we like about how we want our ideal democratic citizens to be. But democracy is most secure and tolerance is maximized, when we design systems to accommodate how people actually are, because some people will never live comfortably in a modern liberal democracy.
All of this speaks to an inherent tension between the desire for social order and the expansion of freedom. A good example of this tension is found in a values parents teach their children, like:
Obeying one’s parents Thinking for yourself
Respecting elders Following one’s conscience
Following the rules Exercising good judgment
Being well-mannered Being responsible for one’s own actions
You get the picture. The good news is we are finally beginning to understand life doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition, it can be a both/and. Welch describes it this way,
What we who are liberal and progressive embody at our best, is a beloved community of generative interdependence. (In this way), there are alternatives to either emancipated individualism or authoritarian community based on fear, exclusion, domination and control.
At this moment in history we can and are combatting authoritarianism and exercising countervailing power. We are living for justice and saying no to hatred: no in our votes; no in our laws, and no in our policies. … and, it is vital to remember our no to hatred, fear, and violence is grounded in a deep, generative, and expansive yes: a yes to difference; a yes to the richness of diversity, to the gift of reason, to the joy of cooperation, to the deep soul satisfaction of compassion.
As you can probably tell, I am a huge fan of Sharon Welch because her writing brings me, not only hope, but a new and improved way to understand the sometimes overwhelming and scary state of the human world – including how global and national issues impact my life here in Wyoming.
Because this is a very worrisome time, especially for liberal and progressive-minded folks, like Unitarian Universalists, it is important for us not to lose sight of all the good change that has been happening. Psychologists Jeffrey. S. Sinn and Matthew W. Hayes contend one of the great strengths of liberalism is that it is best understood not as a motivation for increased individualizing, instead, liberalism is a universalizing motivation.
In this sense, universalizing points to that which fuels interdependent creativity and expansive civic-engagement…. An openness to the new grounded in the solidity of the same. In this way, ‘same’ is generative connections between adults and youth; community practices of resilience; and acknowledging and learning from both mistakes and successes.
As we reach out to each other as UUs, and at the same time to friends, neighbors, and allies who are not necessarily UU, but who also are committed to leaving this world a better place — when it comes to deeds not creeds, there is one more very important thing all of us must take to heart: the challenge of working with so many different ways to implement our shared values, requires us to fully recognize that ideological purity does not necessarily lead to tactical success.
I agree with Welch who urges us to stop and think about why it is essential for those of us who are comfortable with ambiguity; who will embrace as much diversity as nature can create; who reject outdated authoritarian models of governance; who understand the need for a greening of the world’s economies; who see the possibilities within generative relationships; and who are willing to speak truth to power every chance we get – it is essential for us to remember, “…it is not the purity of our ideals and the rigor of our critiques that will check ongoing and future exploitation, instead it is the resilience of our communities – our ability to learn from and with each other; to work with each other; to see and learn from unintended mistakes and unexpected success – all of which add up to an ongoing immersion in an ethic of risk.
Welch reminds us, “While we cannot predict the results of our actions, we can know them: we can examine the impact of our actions and refine, revise, and correct policies and procedure in an ongoing commitment to justice and flourishing.”
It is possible to work for social justice without an expectation of triumph, of fundamentally changing human nature, but with a wide-eyed, openhearted engagement with the worst as well as the best in who we are now, as human beings.
So when we think about the more than four-hundred great ideas about what in the human world needs fixing, rest assured, we will find ways to fix all of them, because so many of us have faith in what is powerfully right.
“This movement is not a protest. It is not prophetic critique. It is not charity. This movement is people living justly, working where we are and with what we have to build relationships and institutions that embody social equity, generative relationships, and environmental flourishing – a universal struggle which is grounded in a deep, generative, and expansive yes!”
*Primary source: After the Protests are Heard: Enacting Civic Engagement and Social Transformation; Sharon D. Welch NYU Press, 2019.