Monday, November 17, 2008

Now, What's a Social Activist To Do?

On the verge of moving onto Obama Standard Time (OST), we have a great chance to take the best of the left to replace the worst of the right we've experienced. For the past eight years — and really since the ascendancy of the Christian Coalition in 1988 — religion was been a cudgel applied to most of America.

Instead, progressives, reformers and other lefties need to and can step up and speak out. Out of favor for so long, many of us have forgotten what we need to be about. In contrast to fundies and wingers using religion to hold people down and back, we have a long and pretty noble tradition around these parts of liberal religion doing other than keeping the rich, white guys on top.

I'll use Unitarian Universalists (UUs), first because I am one and second because I heard an impressive lecture Saturday on the topic. The good stuff from the recent and far past, we can replicate. The bad stuff we may be able to avoid. The introspection we can build on in OST.

Cautionary Note: UUs are not alone in performing social activism from privilege. That goes back to colonial times, as well as other era and locations. They continue, as many bases of such activism, to have an earned stereotype of comfortable white folk helping the poor, those denied opportunities and the other in general. While that does not diminish any good they do, as the lecturer noted, many of them likely miss out on the passion and intellectual growth from a two-way relationship with those they help and other activists.
It's wise for social activists, religious or not, to examine what they do, why they do it, and what they expect to get out of it. Like seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey with a solid background in Greek and Latin classics, UU activists can see more in the lecture, but there's plenty for anyone.

I'll provide a few key points and my take on them. The UU Urban Ministry folk say they'll put up either a recording of the lecture or a doc of it. I'll update this post with a link when that appears.

While many churches, particularly R.C. and Protestant ones, do social outreach, many do so with questionable motives. In addition to checkbook and checklist do-gooders, there's that conversion and proselytizing thing. (I recommend getting Peter Holloran's Boston's Wayward Children at the library, which includes documentation of heavy-handed 19th and 20th Century soul stealing.)

Straight social activism to advocate for the disadvantaged and undereducated is another matter. A few groups try to pick up the slack for their own religion's adherents, but largely provide some meals and clothes with no effort to change the underlying conditions.

Saturday, up at First Church in Roxbury, the UU Urban Ministry, the new Emerson chair holder of the Harvard Divinity School, Senior Lecturer Dan McKanan asked what the religious liberal should be doing now — how and why. While designed for UUs, his points are meaningful for any social activist.

Had he been a typical religious booster for his people, he would have stayed on the plus side of UUs:
The small Unitarian and Universalist congregations dominated social activism and thought for many decades. However, as McKanan added, "We also have much to regret...Unitarians made great abolitionists but they also made great slave traders."

Even in Channing's Federal Street Church (sketch left), not only was it dominated by wealthy white parishioners (typical still of most UU churches), but some owned fleets that carried slaves. They could feel pious while still profiting from distant disgraces.

Channing suffered under the church's trustees, who forbade his abolitionist sermons there. As in his famous Baltimore sermon that defined modern Unitarianism, his anti-slavery lectures and work did not happen at or with the approval of his church of 37 years.

McKanan stated that some UUs could "burn with prophetic zeal (but others) have also been stone cold and complacent." There he entered the ground strode in common by non-UU and non-religious reformers and social activists.

His scolding of UU activists carries a broad admonition. Their work "typically involves persons of privilege working on behalf of those less fortunate." In contrast, he pointed to the civil rights activities of the 1960s when many UUs and others visited and lived with black communities and others in disadvantaged areas of both South and North. They reentered their former world changed and charged up. The resulting vitality and fire for activism that resulted from such exposure cannot be duplicated by trying to recruit congregants from poorer areas and those of different races and cultural background.

I would call the exchange a frisson. He referred to it as a sacred struggle. "The idea of a sacred struggle challenges the widespread assumption that the causal relationship between religion and social change runs in just one direction." As a theologian, McKanan claims that some UUs are unusual in being able to "not only bring our faith to our activism (but also) find our faith in our activism."

As many UUs identify as atheists or agnostics, that faith is not reserving a heavenly ticket for them. Clarifying what you're about and maintaining the fire for it does not require warming a pew. That's where I see the larger lesson for all progressives and reformers and social activists. You needn't be a UU or churched at all. Instead, consider whether it is sufficient to help the other, the less fortunate and skip safely home. McKanan would say no.

In fact, he notes that "Both the black church and Roman Catholic traditions offer powerful models of how oppressed communities can work for their own liberation. To the extent that UUs have ignored these other traditions or imagined our own tradition to be self-sufficient, our prophetic witness has been impoverished."

You don't even need to use or identify with the religious lingo to benefit from his main points. McKanan holds that it is the set of interactions with other activists as well as the people you want to help that provides the energy, the drive. That was the power sparking and maintaining abolitionist, women's suffrage, child labor and other movements of the past three centuries. Social activists, face to face, mouth to ear, eye to eye, stoke each other and their movements' fires.

As McKanan put it, "For us, the revelation is not out there, but right here wherever we are asked to engage in the struggle."

Personal Connections and Disclaimer

I ordained two ministers for the UU Urban Ministry. That's of little significance because it was a happenstance of position. As chair of the board (the Prudential Committee) of the Arlington Street Church, I was the crosier-less functionary who called or ordained ministers at that church. In addition, from the Federal Street/Arlington Street congregation connection, I represented the lead church that founded the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches.

The Ben Frat was a unique social activist organization that should have been duplicated hundreds or thousands of times in this country but has not. Started in 1834, it is a consortium of churches to bring social services to the underprivileged. It has grown from 9 to over 50 churches, from Unitarian to Unitarian/Universalist members, from the Ben Frat to the UU Urban Ministry, but its basic function has remained.

The frail Joseph Tuckerman was apparently not a particularly good preacher, yet an extraordinarily good man. Under the influence of the definer of American Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing, he took his ministry to the streets in 1826, insinuating himself with Boston's poor, one family at a time. He bettered their lives through education, social programs and lobbying for them. He worked with children and adults in reformatories and prisons and established the modern and more humane youth facilities at Thompson Island. He was the force behind the Ben Frat, an effort to make the most of Unitarian churches' combined social activism.

At the Mendelsohn Forum lecture Saturday, I greeted and chatted with several key ASC ministers, each of whom has been seminal in civil-rights, anti-war and social-activism causes for many years. They included:
  • Jack Mendelsohn. At 90 and using a walker, in the 63 years since ordination, he has been a steadfast and effective noodge. He has made a lifework of fostering the inclusion and increase of black ministers and congregants in UU churches as well as women in their pulpits. He's author of key books including Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age and Channing: The Reluctant Radical. He was senior ASC minister for a decade and is known to many Americans as the minister who started draft-card turn-ins (some resisters also burned theirs). The forum named for him is in its fourth year.
  • Victor Carpenter. The ASC minister when I started in this church, he is both heroic and singled-minded in his quest for social justice. He had decades of civil rights actions in South Africa, Boston and the American South.
  • George Whitehouse. He has long been a social activist. He works with Boston's street people, is a driver in the ASC/Dignity supper program, he leads programs to advance laws for poor women and children, and he rings and maintains the 16 steeple bells at the ASC.

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