Do I Hear the Fat Lady Singing?

No, it’s not over. (And in case you think my headline is an insult to people who are carrying around some extra body weight, perhaps I should explain that I was being deliberately ironic in running that risk. See how humorless this stuff can get?)

The Board of Trustees and Executive Team of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association has now issued a public letter of censure to Rev. Todd Eklof, whose book, The Gadfly Papers, disturbed a number of ministers. I don’t know how often such a step is taken by the UUMA, but I would guess it’s quite rare.

I discussed the Open Letter that a bunch of UU ministers sent to Eklof in a previous blog post, “Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough!”, and in a couple of follow-up posts. To recap briefly, their Open Letter never at any point explains what it is about the book that upset them. Bizarre, you may say — and I would agree.

Eklof’s crime, as nearly as I can make out, is that he was calling for an open dialog on the topic of whether segments of the Unitarian Universalist community are overreacting or overreaching in their attempts to stamp out racism in the Unitarian Universalist Association. The position of the ministers who signed the letter, on the other hand, is implicitly but unmistakably that such a dialog would be dangerous — and therefore, again implicitly, that any and all efforts meant to get rid of racism within the UU community are to be applauded.

By implication, all of these efforts are based on perceptions of real racism. The possibility that some of them might be based on imagined racism, or that, if the racism is real, the remedy might be just as damaging as the problem — those are among the questions that we’re not supposed to ask.

And now the professional ministers’ organization of which Eklof is, I’m sure, a member has felt it necessary to smack him down more forcefully. Not content to deplore, they feel they must censure. Publicly.

The possibility that they’ve got their undies in a bunch over something that they should just have politely ignored, and that by persisting they may quite possibly be creating an unbridgeable chasm down the middle of their own religious denomination, seems not to have occurred to the Board of Trustees or the Executive Team. But perhaps I’m jumping to an unwarranted conclusion. Let’s let the BoT and the ET speak for themselves. Below, unedited except for the omission of the last part of the concluding prayer, is their letter of censure.

As in the earlier blog post, I will intersperse my comments paragraph by paragraph rather than holding them off to the end. The letter of censure is indented.

16 August, 2019

Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof

Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane

Dear Todd,

As the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, we are writing this letter of censure regarding the content and the manner of distribution (at the 2019 General Assembly) of your book, The Gadfly Papers. We hope this action will be received as an invitation into awareness, acknowledgment of the hurt that has been caused, and an opportunity for restoration, reconciliation, and engagement in the ongoing work of the UUMA, not as an attempted resolution of an “issue.” The content of your book has caused great psychological, spiritual, and emotional damage for many individuals and communities within our faith. Because of the widespread impact, we are making this censure public and distributing it to all members of the UUMA.

As in the original Open Letter, this letter of censure entirely fails to describe the “great psychological, spiritual, and emotional damage.” Nor does it identify, either individually or collectively, the “many individuals and communities” who have allegedly suffered this unspecified damage. We are left to use our imaginations on this vital point.

Surely this is a mistake. Surely a public letter of censure ought to explain what harm it is censuring. And just to be clear, I’m not claiming for a moment that there is no such damage in the book, though I certainly didn’t see any when I read it. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to censure one of your fellow ministers for writing and publishing a book, you damn well need to be clear about what he said in the book that can properly be characterized using such an inflammatory phrase.

I can only infer that the position of the Board of Trustees is that the harm is so bleeding obvious that they don’t need to explain what they’re about. That, however, is a measure of their arrogance. They’re so certain they’re right that they don’t need to explain anything. If you don’t get it all at once, in a blinding flash of illumination, you’re part of “white supremacy culture” (their term; see below). Hoo, boy.

I’m not sure how to read the quotation marks around the word “issue.” Do they think that Eklof’s book didn’t create an issue for the people who think he was wrong to publish it? No, that doesn’t make sense. As I read it, the quotation marks are meant to imply that the issues he raised in his book are not legitimate issues, and therefore are not in need of response or resolution.

As the continental leadership of the UUMA, our responsibility is to uphold our values and our covenant. We believe you have broken covenant. We write this letter to ask you to seek understanding of the harm that has been done and to work toward restoration. We would welcome the opportunity to help guide and support a public process of restoration, which we expect would foster widespread learning about what it means to be a covenantal faith.

How has Rev. Eklof “broken covenant,” exactly? That’s the elephant in the middle of the room. Has he broken covenant by writing a book? That seems rather too general a theory to be of any value; it’s the specific book that he wrote that, allegedly, has “broken covenant.” But how did the book do that? And how can he “seek understanding” when the Board of Trustees has so signally failed to provide any basis for developing such an understanding?

We understand from your book that you want to encourage robust and reasoned debate about the direction of our faith. However, we cannot ignore the fact that logic has often been employed in white supremacy culture to stifle dissent, minimize expressions of harm, and to require those who suffer to prove the harm by that culture’s standards. Further, we believe that dismissing testimonies of real people to the profound and pervasive pain of white supremacy culture and its many forms of oppression by simply categorizing them as safetyism or political correctness is both morally wrong and antithetical to our values as a faith tradition.

Here, as earlier in the Open Letter, the UUMA is explicitly dismissing the use of logic, on the grounds that logic has, admittedly, been misused in the past “to stifle dissent.” As I pointed out in my previous rant, the way to deal with the misuse of logic is to be better at it than the people who are misusing it. Dismissing the use of logic leaves you with no arrows in your quiver, other than, you know, childish whining, which is pretty much what we have here.

The question of whether logic is universally applicable or whether it is a reflection of some “culture’s standards” is not, I think, worth going into. Yes, the Greeks invented logic, and they were pretty much a bunch of white guys. But so what? Newton invented modern physics, and he was gay. Does that mean that the principles of physics are irrelevant unless you’re homosexual? Probably not.

It should be noted that Eklof does take aim specifically at what he calls safetyism. In his opening discussion of this, he refers to it as “blatant disregard for the free speech of others, especially by socially progressive students, [which] is increasingly present on college campuses….” We could certainly have a useful debate about the limits or dangers of safetyism! Perhaps he’s being insensitive. But in order to engage in a debate, the Board of Trustees would have to articulate their opposition to the the points Eklof makes (or attempts to make) in his book.

They’re not willing to do that: Note the word “simply” in the phrase “simply categorizing them as safetyism.” The word “simply” is a way of minimizing a whole topic — trying to make it disappear.

What’s worse, the letter of censure gets the meaning of the term “safetyism” backwards. What Eklof is doing in his book is objecting to safetyism. The UUMA board, conversely, is actually engaged in safetyism. They’re guilty of precisely the thing they’re accusing him of.

The shoe pinches, don’t it?

Here, as in the Open Letter, the ministers are using the phrase “white supremacy culture” as a verbal hand grenade, without troubling to define what they mean by it. As far as I can see, there simply isn’t a trace of “white supremacy culture” anywhere in the Unitarian Universalist community, so the use of the phrase is a red herring. If the Board of Trustees feels otherwise, it’s incumbent upon them to provide evidence, and to be prepared to defend that evidence using, ah, what we might loosely call logic.

We believe that you have violated the spirit of the Ethical Standards in our Code of Conduct detailed in our Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry, which call us to:

  • Honesty and diligence in our work
  • Respect and compassion for all people
  • The work of confronting attitudes and practices of unjust discrimination on the basis of race, color, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability, or ethnicity in ourselves and our ministry settings

Oh, good. They’re going to give us some specifics. Let’s have a look. Evidently the Board is accusing Rev. Eklof of not being honest or diligent. Gee, you’d think some evidence of that particular violation would be forthcoming, but I guess not. Having written several books myself, I can testify that diligence is required, so we’re left with an accusation about the book’s honesty. If the book is dishonest, how is it dishonest? Specifics, please.

Has Rev. Eklof failed to show respect and compassion for all people? This, it seems to me, is crux of the matter. The real accusation against him is that he is not taking the testimony of persons of color, members of the LGBTQ community, or disabled people seriously enough. He is not showing sufficient respect or compassion for them. And never mind his good works in the Spokane community; you won’t find a word of praise on that subject anywhere in the letter. No, as far as the UUMA is concerned, he’s just a nasty, nasty man. (And white too. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention that.)

How much respect and compassion are enough, and how are respect and compassion to be shown? I can certainly understand that his book hurt some people’s feelings by implying that their grievances were, in some cases, overblown, or that their methods for attempting to bring about redress for legitimate grievances were inappropriate. But if one is required to silently acquiesce as to the truth of the things people are saying and the demands that they make — if that’s the only way to show respect and compassion for them — then we have a serious problem. And that’s precisely the difficulty that Eklof’s book addresses! In accusing him of lacking respect and compassion for all people, they’re trying to dismiss the content of his book without discussion. They’re saying that the only way for him (or anybody else) to show respect and compassion for the oppressed would be to acquiesce to all of their demands and, rather than raise critical concerns, remain silent.

That’s a violation of the 4th Principle of Unitarian Universalism. The 4th Principle calls for a “respectful search for truth and meaning.” But you don’t search for truth by asserting baldly that you have it and the other guy doesn’t. No, the Board of Trustees has fucked itself.

The third bullet point alleges that Eklof has failed to do “the work of confronting attitudes and practices of unjust discrimination….” But here’s the thing: That’s not what he set out to do in his book. What he set out to do was to deflate the overreach of those who raise the flag of discrimination in ways that don’t actually make sense.

Here’s a quick quote from the book, which I trust will show what I mean by that. “Around the world societies have developed different criteria for discriminating against others. For some it has been economic class, for some it has been caste, for some religion, and, here in the U.S., such discrimination has largely been based on [the fallacy of] race, where it has been the privilege of whites to discriminate against nonwhites, leading to hundreds of years of genocide, slavery, inequality, segregation, poverty, police brutality, mass incarceration, and all the other horrors of injustice that go along with such cruelty and bias. Hence, it’s understandable that many of us cannot help but associate such discrimination with ‘whiteness,’ including many whites troubled by their own feelings of shame and guilt. Nevertheless, it’s about as reasonable to conclude being white automatically makes one a racist as it is to conclude being Muslim makes one a terrorist, or to conclude a mostly white organization is white supremacist as it is to conclude a Muslim organization must be a terrorist organization.” [Brackets in original.]

What Eklof is objecting to is the concerted attempt on the part of a bunch of angry, determined people to make white men the bad guys, quite irrespective of what those men may or may not have done as individuals. The fact that he’s being attacked for raising this concern is a strong indication that he’s right. (For the record, there are some important women of color who agree with him!)

As we call you to be accountable to your colleagues, we also call ourselves, as UUMA leadership, to be accountable to our members and to our covenant and values. We recognize that our current ethical standards leave room for ambiguity about what kinds of speech and behavior are racist and oppressive. Our commitment to the ongoing work to revise our Guidelines, clarifying expectations of anti-racist, anti-oppressive conduct in the practice of ministry, seems more crucial each day. We are also working to revise the accountability processes to ground them in values of justice, integrity, and healing rather than in their current legalistic frame.

How that will play out remains to be seen. I doubt I’ll have the patience to wade through the revised Guidelines, but I’ll bet anybody five dollars that the revisions will make matters worse, not better.

In passing, I wonder whether the UUMA is holding itself accountable to members who feel that the letter of censure was a mistake. Not being a member, I’m not in a good position to learn whether that’s happening.

It is our deepest desire, not to exclude people, but to welcome everyone into this work, recognizing that our members represent a wide spectrum of perspectives, experience, readiness, and willingness to engage. While we wish to be sensitive to that spectrum, we also must balance that against the stark and painful fact that people of color, indigenous, trans, disabled and other marginalized communities have testified over and over again to the spiritual, psychological, emotional, physical, and moral damage that racism and oppression have caused. Those impacts are not up for debate.

Let’s see if I understand this. They want to welcome everyone — but they want to welcome everyone “into this work.” If you aren’t committed to the work in the way they define it — if you’re not “willing… to engage,” they’re damn well going to exclude the fuck out of you. And they’re refusing (again) to debate the issues that Eklof raises in his book.

Grounded in our mission, with profound sadness for hurt that has been caused, and with deep longing for the promise of what can be, we close with this prayer of lament:

Spirit of Reason and Passion,

We hear again the cries of pain from those of marginalized identities

Pain inflicted all too often in the name of UU values and principles.

I’m going to omit the remainder of the prayer of lament. I was going to omit the whole thing, but I think the second and third lines tell us something important. Those lines allege (without evidence) that the values and principles of Unitarian Universalism are “often” used to inflict pain. This is a direct slap at Rev. Eklof, and it’s a direct slap at anyone who disagrees with the position of the Board of Trustees and the 300-plus ministers who signed the Open Letter.

What they’re saying is, if you don’t agree with us, your principles are not the true principles of Unitarian Universalism. If you try to defend yourself using the principle of freedom of speech, you’re trying to excuse your abusive behavior by hiding behind the value of freedom of speech. If you don’t agree that we’re right, you’re causing pain.

There is, in the crabbed and rigid world view of the people who are responsible for this letter, no room for true dialog.

Before I bring down the curtain on today’s heartwarming episode of Shut Up! We Love You!, I’d like to draw your attention to a paragraph in the UUMA’s official Guidelines for ministers: “The history and expectation of the Unitarian Universalist movement is that ministers are free to speak the truth as they understand it. The long standing tradition of freedom of the pulpit extends to ministers in all professional settings. This freedom applies to both spoken and written public statements.”

In D.C. that’s what they call black-letter law. There’s no ambiguity about it. Ministers are free to speak the truth as they understand it … unless the UUMA’s board of trustees doesn’t like what you’re saying.

What a pathetic mess. You have to wonder how a bunch of supposedly intelligent, supposedly liberal people could jam their collective heads so far up their collective asses.

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6 Responses to Do I Hear the Fat Lady Singing?

  1. Pingback: Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough! | Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

  2. melhpine says:

    What I find particularly disturbing is the last line you included: “Pain inflicted too often in the name of UU values and principles.” I was at the 2017 General Assembly when a commission was approved to take a complete look at Article II of the bylaws. That means possibly changing or eliminating the current Principles and the current relationship between congregations and the UUA in favor of something more “covenantal.” And I’ve seen elsewhere lines like the one I quoted beginning to chip away at the Principles. Stay tuned!

  3. Kate Rohde says:

    Just want to say as a disabled person, I resent people using me to condemn my colleague. I’d like to attend their churches and see how easy it is for me to attend worship. Almost none of our churches pass and plenty of the signatories of the letter are clergy in churches where they don’t even bother to give info on the website.

  4. Marian Elizabeth Hennings says:

    The Board of Trustees can take a flying leap with their condemnation. They are the ones trying to stifle dissent, but they sure as hell aren’t using logic to do it. Far be it from them to make a logical argument proving Todd Eklof is out of covenant.

  5. Pingback: Hoping for Clarification | Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob


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