From “who” to “what”, from branch to root

The Thoreau quote is famous and forever relevant: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” All public policy, all activism, all social justice effort expended lies within the tension between branches and roots. It’s a dialectic, where no answer is fully satisfactory. If the focus is entirely on roots, the branches of injustice will harm innocent people in the meantime. If the focus is entirely on branches, society can only tread water, the problem never ending.

Martin Luther King Jr. put the issue in different words, when he eulogized Rev. James Reeb (PDF), a Unitarian Universalist minister bludgeoned to death by white racists in Selma, Alabama. His death is treated with the gruesome, horrifying tone is deserves in Selma. To King, branches are the question of “who”, and roots are the question of “what”.

Hate crimes have tangible perpetrators- those that directly order killing or participate in the killing act.  Hate itself goes beyond the individual, into the very fabric of society itself. King is right- society is complicit in racism, sexism, homophobia, and inequity of all types. All evil exists within a world that we helped create. Today, as it was fifty years ago in Alabama, we are spending so much time performing triage. There is no shortage of suffering to soften if we wish to keep looking. Yet we cannot roll into bed exhausted each day, and not think about prevention. Helping the homeless is important, but not the same as preventing vulnerable people from becoming homeless in the first place. Exonerating the innocent about decades behind bars is not a substitute from preventing the innocent from being placed there.

The tension between roots and branches, between what and who, sits in a battle between past and future. Present society is habitually bailing out past society. At least a dozen times in my life, someone of an older generation has said that the world is in the hands of Millennials. They tried to save the world, failed, and there’s nothing left to due but transfer the weight. Mending past injustices has to be mixed with preventing present injustice, for each new tragedy compounds and worsens each tragedy that emerged before.

Psychologically, how does one deal with the truth that one cannot strike both the root and branches completely at the same time? How can we take both success and failure in the same moment? We cannot do everything, but the world needs saving. Tension will always exist, and each step towards justice has to be evaluated. The process encourages self-reflection, and there is always the threat of self-consciousness rising, to become overwhelming.

Between roots and branches,
between what is and who has,
between injustice, today, yesterday, and a thousand years ago, unremedied.

Go big, or go home: where do the answers lie?

My earlier post about the state of Unitarian Universalism in 2014 has found an audience I didn’t expect, getting shared by UU PlanetI Am UU, and ministers and congregations all over the country. Typically, my blog gets a couple dozen hits a day. It’s spiked like never before. The best moment for me was when my congregation shared the story, even though I hadn’t told anyone there about it.

The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association
The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The one recurring bit of response: yeah, but what should we do? It’s a valid critique, as my piece focuses mostly on the nature and structure of the problem, rather than what solution could be. If I had easy solutions I would have written the Unitarian Universalist Association a letter with them spread out. Instead I cast some thoughts into the void of the Internet and found many people with the same concerns.

While the cliché is that youth will save us, that’s not true. Youth are the vessel by which the faith survives in the 21st century. But the people with the lived experience are the grey-haired generation. They have seen UUism go through its previous evolutions, and their perspective will inform the next evolution. Also, the struggles of the faith predate my involvement with it. A dialogue must mix youth voices with those that sat in pews in 2004, 1994, 1984, and 1974. UUism, as a decentralized institution, changes slowly and deliberately. Those that have seen the long arc have much experience that is needed, though they may be too entrenched to fully use it. That’s why growth is an exchange between the new, the old, and those in the middle.

One thing I floated, and some congregations may already do this, is the concept of exit interviews. People arriving for the first time fill out information about themselves and how they came to know about the local church. But those that stop going, or go rarely, aren’t asked why their habits changed. UUism has low social pressure- members don’t try to shame others into attending. That openness should allow us to ask departing members frankly about why the faith wasn’t working for them anymore. Only though data can we understand the problem of retention. If you’re an active UU member and absolutely love it, it’s hard to understand why others don’t. There isn’t the luxury of perspective.

The options for freethinkers, humanists, and unorthodox believers are growing rapidly. I can’t stress how quickly this process is picking up. Sunday Assembly, the new option for ‘churchgoing atheists’, isn’t even a year-and-a-half old. It has three assemblies in the Bay Area where I live. Once upon a time UUism was an oddball, clearly distinct from other gatherings. It was the political and spiritual renegade- endorsing gay equality decades before the issue broached the mainstream. It put scripture, literature, and science on equal footing and used them in conjunction rather than having Sunday service be purely religious.

It’s not an oddball anymore. The demographics are shifting. The traditional UU political stances are more mainstream, and humanists and atheists are starting their own alternatives to religious practice. On one hand, the country is moving in a direction where the Seven Principles and Six Sources sounds more reasonable. On the other hand, that movement is spawning other institutions. The political and social sands are shifting, but that doesn’t mean thousands of people are falling right into UU congregations.

I don’t want to paint Sunday Assembly and its kin as some kind of foe. It looks hella fun, and I hope to get there in the next couple months. But its existence presses Unitarian Universalists to answer key questions: what makes us different? why does UUism need to exist today and in the future? in a 2014 where the church’s signature stance on marriage equality is being accepted socially and in the legal system, how do we capitalize when we are on the right side of history? All of these ‘competitors’ allow for self-reflection. If questions like these can’t be answered with conviction and power, then we may be on the path from concern to crisis.

These discussions have electrified me, and many others have been part of this ongoing path towards finding the place of Unitarian Universalism in the second decade of the 21st century. Every congregation is full of incredibly bright and dynamic individuals; in conjunction, they are capable of incredible things.

As I transfer to a campus UU group this fall, and see how young UUs like myself are organizing their action and their thoughts, I hope to gain more of that perspective. Since the church is so diverse, every new UU (or potential UU) can help us answer the key questions: why are you here? why do you stay here?