Hoping for Clarification

As I noted last month, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) has issued an official letter of censure against Reverend Todd Eklof. My earlier post contains the entire text of the letter, together with my comments on it.

I’m hoping to give a lay sermon at my local UU church on the subject of Eklof’s book and the problematical responses to it. I feel it’s a topic that should concern any member of the congregation, and most of them are not currently aware of what’s going on.

Not wanting to be unfair in my presentation, I emailed the UUMA board of trustees, who voted to issue the letter of censure, and asked them a few specific questions, both about the nature of their objections to Eklof’s book The Gadfly Papers and about the process by which they decided to issue the letter.

In the two weeks that have passed since then, I had received no answer from them. Of course these are busy professionals; it would not be realistic to expect them to drop everything in order to answer a random email from a random member of a random congregation. But the issue is obviously of some importance. It’s important enough for them to have issued a letter of censure. If I’m the only person asking questions, then it shouldn’t be too much trouble for somebody on the board to dash off an answer. Conversely, if twenty people have been asking questions, then plainly it’s in the best interest of the UUMA to let everyone know what’s going on.

I wouldn’t like to assume that the UUMA is stonewalling. But as it turns out, that’s exactly what they’re doing. The UUMA board has now officially revealed that they’re nothing but a bunch of cowards and bullies. For the full, sad story, read on.

In the interest of keeping this matter publicly visible, I’m going to share the entire text of my original email to the UUMA, the text of the follow-up I sent this morning to Wendy Williams, the president of the UUMA Board, and the response I have now received.

You may feel I’m being a little too assertive. Perhaps I am. But I don’t like to see a minister ganged up on for writing a book. You may agree with my opinion of the book, or you may not. That’s not the issue. The issue is, first, whether Reverend Eklof is being treated in a responsible, professional manner; and second, whether the UUMA upholds the value of free speech on controversial issues.

Here is my email of September 10 to the UUMA:

Hi, folks —

I’m reaching out to you because I’d like to know more about how it was decided to issue a public letter of censure to Rev. Todd Eklof.

I’m not a member of the UUMA. I’m just an ordinary UU, a member of our local congregation. I’m hoping to do a “lay sermon” on this topic in a couple of months, and I feel it’s important to present all sides of the issue. I’m sure there are aspects of what’s going on that I’m not aware of, and I’m hoping you’ll be willing to enlighten me.

My first question is this: Does the Board of Trustees often issue public letters of censure, or was this letter an unusual step? How often have public letters of censure been issued by the UUMA in the past ten years?

Second, I’d like to understand exactly what problems the Board sees in Rev. Eklof’s book. I’ve read it, and while I might take issue with some of the things he wrote, I confess that I’m baffled by the amount of animosity the book has aroused. The original open letter (back in June) that was signed by several hundred UU ministers was really quite vague as to the harm that the book caused — and the letter of censure is not, I’m afraid, much clearer on this topic. You said, “The content of your book has caused great psychological, spiritual, and emotional damage for many individuals and communities within our faith.” But what is the nature of the damage? What individuals are you referring to? Has the damage been documented? Has the Board taken any steps to ameliorate the damage?

Third, the letter of censure uses the term “white supremacy culture.” I’m wondering if you can provide a clear definition of what you mean by this term. To me, the phrase “white supremacy” clearly refers to groups like the KKK and the Aryan Brotherhood. These groups are about as far from Unitarian Universalism as it would be possible to get. That being the case, I’d like to understand whether you feel that there is an active “white supremacy culture” within the UU community — and if so, how you would define it or illustrate its operation.

Fourth, I’d like to know more about how the decision was made to issue the letter of censure. I’d like to be able to assure my local congregation that you had all read Rev. Eklof’s book before a vote was taken. I’d like to understand what specific parts of the book you took issue with, and I’d like to understand what your objections were to those parts of the book. I’d like to know whether any of the Board felt that the book had any redeeming value. Also, were dissenting voices listened to before the vote was taken? Did you seek out dissenting voices within the UUMA and ask for their input?

The Fourth Principle of Unitarian Universalism is, as I’m sure you know, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It seems to me that condemning a fellow minister for publishing a book — any book, really, but in this case a book that directly addresses things that are happening within the UU community — is a violation of the Fourth Principle. I would think that the way to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning would be to enter into a dialog, point by point, with the ideas in the book, however wrong-headed they might be. As far as I’m aware, this has not been done by the UUA or the UUMA. If there has been a detailed rebuttal by the UUA, the UUMA, or an individual UU minister of the ideas in the book, I haven’t seen it. Has there been a rebuttal?

More to the point, perhaps, in what way is your letter of censure a step forward in a free and responsible search for truth? How can a search for truth be _free_ if people are being censured for speaking and writing what they perceive as truth? This is really the most important question; I hope you’ll help me understand the Board’s view.

To conclude, I recently learned from a UU minister that the UUMA has a code of ethics that forbids speaking publicly in derogatory terms about a fellow minister. I would tend to think (perhaps naively) that the hundreds of signatories of the original open letter were in violation of that code of ethics. To quote that letter: “We deeply regret the harm this publication has already caused, and we know that this is another (intentionally provocative) incident that comes on the heels of months, years, generations of harm toward our colleagues of color.” The phrase “intentionally provocative” seems to qualify as speaking publicly in derogatory terms. In addition, of course, the open letter alleges that the book causes harm, but entirely fails to document or even explain the alleged harm. Again, this would seem to qualify as speaking publicly in derogatory terms about a fellow UU minister. I’m wondering if you have any comment about this.

Again, my purpose in asking you about these things is because I would like to give members of my local congregation a well-rounded view of what’s going on. It wouldn’t be fair to you, nor to the congregation, to present only one part of the big picture. I’d very much like to have your input.

Thanks in advance!

I can see how some of those questions might make members of the board uncomfortable — but they’re not irrelevant questions. So two weeks went by with no response, other than a non-response from one member of the board, Melissa Ziemer, who said this: “I’m sorry I’m not able to answer your detailed questions on behalf of the board at this time, but I can assure you that we are collating all responses that we have received to the letter to share with the full membership of our Board of Trustees. As the board reviews, they will collectively determine whether and how to engage in further communication with individual respondents.”

Did you miss the use of the word “whether” there? Melissa left open the possibility that the board would try to sweep the whole thing under the rug. And that’s exactly what they are now doing.

This morning I sent a new email. Here is what I said:

Another week has passed, and I have as yet received no response from anyone at the UUMA to the questions I asked about the Letter of Censure.

I’m hoping you’ll be able to provide answers to my questions without any further delay. I’d like to let the people in my congregation know what motivated the decision to issue the letter, and what procedures were followed.

I feel strongly that openness and transparency are of the essence in a case like this. I don’t feel it would be in anyone’s best interest to be left with the impression that the UUMA is being secretive.

I note that the letter of censure provides almost no explanation of the reasons for its issuance. There is one sentence, however. The letter says this: “…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.”

However, the letter fails to cite a single passage in Eklof’s book in which he did that.

I have a copy of the e-book, so I did a quick search for the term “safetyism.” Wendy, there is not a single place in the book where that word is used to dismiss the testimony of anybody. Quite the contrary! The meaning of the term “safetyism” is not what your letter indicates. Safetyism is an informal mechanism used _by_ people in marginalized groups to try to shut down opinions or simple statements that they feel are hurtful. Safetyism is an attempt to shame, shun, and ostracize people (mainly white people) who have voiced opinions that others feel (quite wrongly in some cases) are hurtful. it is NOT a term that is used to dismiss the testimony of anybody in a marginalized group.

To be honest, your letter of censure looks an awful lot like an instance of safetyism in action.

Unless you have a copy of the book that differs from mine, I’m going to have to say that this accusation in the letter of censure is flat-out wrong. It appears to reflect a basic misunderstanding of what’s in the book.

And where does that fact leave us? How are ordinary UU’s to understand the action of the UUMA when the UUMA board has misread the text of the book in such a basic way and then taken a stern action based on that misreading?

This is not the only question I have. I would refer you back to my previous emails. But I feel this question is important, and I hope you’ll add it to the list of things that people will want to understand.

Thanks for your prompt attention to this matter.

In my previous blog post about the letter of censure, I missed the point that they flatly misunderstood the meaning of the term “safetyism” and that in consequence they accused Eklof of something that he did not do. This raises anew the question of whether the people on the UUMA board actually read the book before issuing the letter of censure.

Assuming they did in fact read the book, we can only conclude that they were so blinded by righteous indignation that they failed to understand what they were reading. This is not the sort of thing that we would hope any minister would do, ever.

Only a few hours later, I have received a response from Melissa Ziemer, which I think we can safely assume is the official response. Here is the entire text of her response.

Dear Mr. Aiken, [note that she misspelled my name — but I guess that’s okay; everybody does it]

I understand that since we last corresponded you directed additional questions to our Board President, Rev. Wendy Williams.  I assure you that we have received your emails, that Rev. Wendy Williams and I have read them and that we have also shared them with the full Board of Trustees for their consideration.  Also since I last corresponded with you, the Board of Trustees has met and taken some time to discuss the request for additional information that has come from you and others.

As the leadership of a membership organization, we are called to make decisions about members from time to time. Those decisions are never easy but reflect the purpose, mission and integrity of our organization and our ministry.  While we have issued a public communication to a member in this instance, we will not be engaging in public discussion about that communication or that decision.

You might want to read that second paragraph again. Shorn of nice rhetoric, what Melissa is saying is, “We’re not going to respond to your questions. We have determined that ordinary UU members have no right to expect transparency or accountability from their official ministers’ organization.”

Bunch of fucking cowards. Slag one of your fellow ministers and then stonewall. These are the leaders of Unitarian Universalism?

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8 Responses to Hoping for Clarification

  1. mfidelman says:

    Might want to contact Rev. Rick Davis – Todd’s Good Officer. He just gave a rather burn-burning sermon on the matter. A transcript, video, and a letter of support from his Worship Committee are floating around the net. He’s reachable on Facebook.

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

  3. melhpine says:

    Reblogged this on Truly Open Minds and Hearts and commented:
    I think more of us ought to write to the UU Ministers Association, as Jim Aikin did. — Mel

  4. KJR says:

    It seems to me that it is not just laity they are stonewalling. It seems they are claiming they have no accountability to anyone. At least that is how I see it. It doesn’t limit its non-response to ordinary UU’s.

    • midiguru says:

      There’s a process through which Rev. Eklof is, in theory, allowed to defend himself. It’s possible that some answers will be forthcoming as a result of that process. Whether those answers, if there are any, will be made public is not yet known.

  5. humanist7 says:

    Jim, i’ve been reading your posts on the topic of Eklof’s censure with great relish. but haven’t commented here. Congratulations on presenting lucid, thoughtful, and well-reasoned commentary on this painful episode. I was present at the UU Humanists Association booth in the Display Area at the G.A. in June when Todd brought his book around and asked if we would like to pass out free copies; we said, “Sure!” Imagine my dismay (i am one of two principal staffers of the G.A. booth since 2003) when someone came around awhile later and asked to confiscate copies of the book!! In the meantime, Todd had JOINED the UUHA as a Life Member with a check for $600 – something only about 3 dozen other UUs have ever done. And so i was chagrined to see that our current UUHA President, Rev. Amanda Poppei of Washington D.C., and Past President, Rev. David Breeden, of Minneapolis, had signed the infamous clergy letter. And just recently, as we anticipated publishing a newsletter to our membership, Amanda rejected a simple paragraph i wrote touting Todd’s membership gift on rather flimsy grounds. It seems obvious to me that a lot of judgmentalism and ill-will is at work here, and already affecting the present moment in circles quite removed from the G.A. and the UUMA. I’d like to suggest that it’s time for us “ordinary UUs” to start thinking about a bylaws change to put political correctness that censors free expression, and support for segregated meeting facilities (as backed by DRUMM, BLUU, and others) outside the margins of acceptability within the UUA and its official meetings. Do you have any thought on this?

    Peace and power, Jack Reich, DeKalb, IL

  6. katebraestrup says:

    I wish I’d seen this sooner, Jim Aikin (everyone misspells my name too, usually as “Bra-Strap”) well done.

  7. Frank Casper says:

    It’s been a good while. Did you ever hear anything in reply to your letter to the UUMA?

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