The 8th Principle: A Few Remaining Questions

I have tried to resist the urge to write yet another post on the 8th Principle. However, following the debate on eFlame has left so many thoughts echoing in my head that I felt that I needed to amend my previous submission. In my prior entry, I suggested a framework for viewing the 8th Principle that essentially posed questions for each of us to examine, asking if we felt racism had particular attributes (distinct from other issues and oppressions) that would merit its own principle and/or warrant critical focus in our personal lives, congregations, and society at large.

In this commentary, I pose a different set of questions: (1) Can we place anti-racism work at the core of UU concern and activism without judging one another for treating the issue differently? (2) What might we learn from the process of decision-making around the 8th Principle in terms of its implications? (3) Beyond words, how do we want to act?

Three comments in particular stuck in my head recently and triggered the above questions because I could not stop mulling them over:

I shall address each in of these in order. Regarding the first one, I had not initially seen the 8th Principle as a weapon but, after reading Robin’s comment, I wondered if one could repurpose it as such. After all, declaring that anyone “knows” “the problem” andthe solution” seems to presuppose a sort of God-position complete with the moralistic good-bad dichotomy that we hear in Christian fundamentalism.

I trust Robin knows I love him and very much respect his dedication to anti-racist work. However, I see that type of moralistic “us-versus-them” mentality as highly toxic anywhere and particularly antithetical to the UU spirit.

It seems telling that he quoted Eldridge Cleaver who helped tear apart the Black Panther Party with this type of divisive attitude (feeling that he knew the solution, whereas the founders of the Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Huey Newton did not, and anyone who challenged him “was part of the problem”). Less than a decade later, Cleaver came to reject the Black Panthers’ progressive cause altogether. He converted to fundamentalist/sectarian Christianity, joined the Republican Party, and supported Ronald Reagan.

I can understand if people hesitant to adopt the 8th Principle wonder if its adoption would mean that we would empower that type of moralistic and divisive attitude. I do not think adoption of the 8th Principle would need to do that, nor do I think we can ignore potential risks.

Yes, we live in a highly moralistic society, and it can feel difficult not to moralize in the face of so much violence, inequality, and apathy around us. But we need not succumb to moralism. I believe that UUs can combat racism much like we would combat a superstition that very clearly has harmful, even devastating, effects. We need not judge or moralize about it, nor can we afford to ignore it or downplay it. I emphasize this point because it seems that this significant nuance tends to get lost. I see it as the difference between going into “warrior mode” versus “doctor mode.” In “warrior mode,” we already “know” that someone or something “is wrong” and we want to destroy it. In “doctor mode,” we want to understand a situation, complex relationships between various causal factors, and assess our resources, timeframe, and opportunities in order to optimally heal. Yes, it can mean that we get stuck acting like doctors in a war zone. With “bullets” flying metaphorically (or literally) around us, we may feel tempted to pick up a “gun” of moralism. But I believe that weaponized moralism helped get us in this mess and, despite John Brown’s example (as Lucy van Tine helpfully described), more weapons will not help lead us to healing.

I would like to highlight what Bek Wheeler wrote: “You may vote ‘no’ and still be committed to anti-racism in both thought and action.” In other words, we do not need to disparage our fellow UUs as “part of the problem” even while they work very differently than we do in our shared attempts to both understand and respond to problems.

We can love and care about one another even when we believe our fellow UUs make mistakes or disagree with us. Does that not constitute a core of our community?

Regarding the second statement above by Bek, I think even many proponents of the 8th Principle can agree that the process and wording have issues that leave them feeling uncomfortable. As emphatic as I feel about centering anti-racism as part of our mission, I found the statement (“It is said that challenging the specific words and phrases of the proposed principle insults and demeans minority and marginalized peoples”) incoherent, mystifying, and a form of bullying (not accusing Bek of bullying! Just responding to the statement itself whoever wrote it).

First, it began with “It is said….” What does that mean? Nothing “is said” without someone saying it. Who said it? (I cannot find the phrase or variants of it anywhere on the Internet). Removing anonymity seems important especially in this case because it refers to a proposed Principle that speaks of accountability which (if we want that) requires names and faces and people whom we can address.

Second, how could changing the wording in itself possibly demean and insult minority and marginalized peoples? Did the authors somehow get a mandate from all minority and marginalized peoples to write it? Can no other minority or marginalized peoples speak up at this stage? I simply cannot see the logic in it, and I understand that many UUs seriously wonder what more awaits if we buy that line of reasoning.

Third, I can only interpret this type of statement—much in the spirit of Bush’s “you’re with us or with the terrorists” or Cleaver’s “you’re part of the solution or part of the problem”—as an attempt to bully people into compliance rather than assuming that through honest communication, perseverance, assuming good will in both directions, we will eventually figure it out together. If taken at face value and accepted as valid, it would completely, unilaterally, and arbitrarily shut down dialogue. One could support the 8th Principle without supporting tactics like this that advocate its support, yet we need not ignore these notable acts of micro-violence.

How would accepting this seemingly nonsensical and unaccountable statement translate into action in the wake of adopting the proposed 8th Principle? Would we backtrack and retroactively create a new “accountable” process? Or would we co-dependently enable this type of “good vs. bad” thinking that shuts anyone down for questioning by labeling their sincere questions “demeaning and insulting”? If anything, asking questions seems integrally Unitarian Universalist and the type of reasoning implicit in this statement seems very much counter to that spirit. As Mary-Elizabeth Cotton commented “What if the change is still awkward, confusing and unacceptable? Will there still be the refusal to listen to dissenting voices?” In defense of the 8th Principle webpage on “accountability” (which Michele Hirsch critiqued), “a People of Color Caucus within congregations, districts, etc., to discern and express needs and concerns to the rest of the community” could ostensibly look less like a court and more like the Right Relationship Team. Nonetheless, I understand that both the wording and process of writing and advocating the 8th Principle has left her with the concern that “Black, White and UUs of ‘other oppressions’ […] might chafe at having accountability handed over to a caucus chosen based solely on the members’ skin color. While my fellow Black UUs may inform my opinions, I still affirm that I am accountable only to God and my conscience for my religious, moral, and social decisions.” The process, thus far, has raised considerable red flags.

That does not mean that the proposed principle (the idea in whatever formulation), however, must necessarily fall due to its problematic delivery. Yet (and I cannot emphasize this enough), nor does it mean that we do not need to talk about how we make decisions and the process thereof.

Regarding the third set of statements by Mary-Elizabeth Cotton, I feel like she opened a potentially fruitful avenue for discussion regarding how we relate to words vis-à-vis action. What do words do, what do they not do, and how do they sometimes give us false hopes?

I get the desire to craft a new Principle. For one thing, if anything among UUs seem “sacred” the Principles do. For another, for many decades, white UUs have largely failed to adequately address racism and we can painstakingly witness the results of that inadequacy in congregations all across the U.S. Hence, we desperately and urgently want to fix it and we want to fix it now. Yet, a hurried response does not entail an adequate response. It does not make up for or erase decades of inadequate responses. Nor does intense desire for something or resolute devotion to a cause necessarily translate into intended results.

Writing something down seems like an instinctive UU reaction. Because we believe words matter. Even Mary-Elizabeth, while critical of the emphasis on words (“Justice requires more works, less words”) granted them a power of primacy (“works can be sparked by words”). If anything, I think we even more grossly overestimate the power of words than she indicated. I think we have it precisely backwards. I believe we change our behavior more effectively by beginning with behavior rather than words, doing the hard part first. We can change our behavior in a zillion ways from how much of our day or month we spend learning about a particular issue to where, with whom, and how we spend our “sacred” time on Sundays to which campaigns we devote our time, money, and creativity toward.

In fact, Lucy van Tine provided a useful history lesson in how many white Unitarians responded to racism in the 1800s (without an 8th Principle to guide them!): “Lots of Unitarians began joining Abolitionist Societies. They attended meetings, heard speeches, wrote letters to the editor, lobbied and rallied for abolition. Some also took it to another level; they took physical risks, bravely defying the federal government’s Fugitive Slave Act, to help people who had managed to escape enslavement.”

What might that type of dedication look like today? Whether prison abolition, job safety, alliance-building, reinventing community security (versus the current system of policing), working for equal opportunity in work and resources, addressing addiction, or shifting our relationship to health, pollution, and militarism, we can find countless ways to engage in anti-racist activity that could lead to material improvements and social healing. We can do that with or without an 8th Principle.

Besides, words don’t always matter how we want them to. Sometimes the very act of writing them makes us feel like we have done our action. Sometimes they give us a moral high ground. Sometimes words intended to heal cause harm. (And if anyone feels harmed by my own words here, I hope they let me know.)

To clarify: the 8th Principle and debate around it, whether it gets passed or not, will not in itself resolve UU racial issues.

I very much empathize with her intentions and aspirations when Rachel Bevins wrote: “By uniting as UUs to acknowledge and call out systemic racism, we become a powerhouse of community that shows that we are aware of the injustices in the world, and we want to do something about them.” And I understand Robin’s hope that embracing the 8th Principle means “we are an anti-racist congregation working to accountably dismantle systemic racism within ourselves, our congregation, and our larger community.” Yet changing words does not, in itself, constitute action or signal anything different about whom we “are.” We remain what we do.

If we can change what we do, we don’t need any of the Principles. If we cannot, they will not save us.

That does not mean that words can fill no useful function. Principles can remind us what we have done, what we have affirmed and promoted in the past. They can help us further that work together as a sort of compass. Might adopting the 8th Principle signal “to the public that we are committed to anti-racism” and do we need that signaling for the UUFP to thrive, as Bek and Jeannine Christensen (happy bday!) suggested? I don’t know. I do believe it could signal UUFP priorities but I don’t know how it would work as a compass given its present wording. After hearing Alan Sheeler and particularly Michele Hirsch’s specific critiques over its wording, I wondered: if we had a proposed Principle that sounded something like “We covenant to affirm and promote: Active dismantling of racism and restitution of its harms in our quest toward inclusive and caring congregations,” if that would even matter? Or if, on principle, many naysayers simply feel we have 7 Principles that cover our needs and adding “anti-racism” just opens an undesirable can of worms of too many oppressions screaming for their own Principle.

Finally, in regard to how we make decisions, we have the “democratic process” in our 7 Principles, but I don’t think voting works better than consensus to make effective decisions such as these. It can also mask over conflict, letting one side seemingly “win.” It can give us extra work in healing and understanding by seeming to “resolve” the matter so quickly and “efficiently” without requiring either side to actually understand the other. I don’t think voting unites us, but listening carefully and respectfully to one another may help ease tension and preemptively resolve some conflicts.

So no, I do not think passing the 8th Principle will unite us any more than the adoption of the 7th Principle united us. Tensions remain and will remain in a denomination intentionally filled with people who think quite differently from one another. Yet, we need not let it further divide us either. And I think part of our anti-racist work can entail ensuring that we maintain and build bridges with those among us who think, feel, and act very differently than we do.

This process leaves me with many questions. For now, I must leave it to the rest of you to find answers. (Although I deliver this now from Sweden, I plan to return to Virginia soon. I do not, however, expect to see you all very soon. As I have understood it, I cannot, as an unvaccinated person, attend services. So until the times change, we have the written word…).

Well-wishes to all of you this Sunday, June 5, and much appreciation for the thought and work you all put into maintaining and improving our shared community!

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