Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The barriers to love

I am proud of Unitarianism/Unitarian Universalism.  The faith to which I have committed myself has been an activist, justice seeking movement. It has been at the forefront of the struggle for GLBT rights. We have seen our male-dominated ministry turn into a majority female one. We continue to struggle mightily to combat the causes of racism and are prepared to do the hardest work of all - to look within for the persistent seeds of that poisonous tree.

But, as the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President Peter Morales describes as reported in the UUA World, the growing diversity of the leadership of even this remarkably open and accepting faith masks a deeper barrier to true diversity
When we look more closely at the change in our professional ministry, we see that the vast majority of women, gays, and lesbians admitted were middle class, well-educated people of European descent.
The barriers of race and sexual orientation, while challenging, are as nothing compared to the fortress-like walls presented by interconnected differences of culture, education, and social class.

The UUA can be justifiably proud that its two most recent leaders are not from white Anglo backgrounds. Morales is of Mexican descent. His predecessor, Bill Sinkford, is black. But these steps forward hide the fact that class and culture barriers remain intact. Morales again:
We have seen this in our nation with the election of Barack Obama and in our UU movement with the election of the Rev. William G. Sinkford and myself to the presidency. Each of us is less threatening to the dominant culture because we are the products of elite educations and have spent our lives in the dominant culture. If Barack Obama sounded like a poor urban African American he could not have been elected. If I sounded like San Antonio’s West Side barrio, I would not [be] president of our Association.
The barriers of race, gender, and sexual orientation are challenging - make no mistake about it. These differences activate strong hard-wired fears of difference. Those who look or love differently from us make us fearful and wary. But, with honest and courageous effort, we can enter into open dialogue. We begin to understand that they are like us - we have so much in common beneath the superficial differences.

But this moment of conversion happens because more basic, more essential, facilitators of dialogue are present - they are based on other similarities. If class and culture match, we have the tools we need to cut through other differences. Yet we have not connected simply on the basis of being human. We have connected because we share similar struggles, like similar writing, speak in similar vernacular, and have similar goals. We have a common 'language' to allow us to see beyond our differences.

It is when cultural and educational differences between people directly frustrates attempts and deep communication - when  common ground can not be found because we approach life with different stories, with deeply different perspectives based on educational background, and deeply different interests - that we fail to connect.

This is the continuing problem of our world. The divide between rich and poor grows larger in Britain and elsewhere and the divides are not necessarily around skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. The divides are based on class and culture which translate into the presence or absence of opportunity. This is a justice issue - perhaps the single greatest justice issue of the developed nations. As long as class and cultural differences continue to define who we can understand and who has a chance to get ahead, there will not be true equality.

But as Peter Morales adds, this is not so much a practical or political issue, but rather a deeper question of who we choose to be as human beings and to what vision we are dedicated:
This great challenge of culture and class is ultimately a religious, moral, and spiritual issue rather than a social justice issue. Perhaps the great challenge for us [...] is whether we can learn to understand, accept, include, and ultimately love our neighbors who are different from us.
The work is enormous and may never be completed. That is no reason not to begin it. The first step - as always - is the vision. Can we imagine a society where class advantages disappear? Can we imagine a society where our cultural background does not define our opportunities? I hope that we can commit to that kind of a future and begin the work today of trying to understand across the great barriers that would divide the human family.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. If you look at what drove the foundation of the great monotheistic faiths, then it was largely as a reaction to class - Jesus's message was aimed at the poor and dispossessed. Islam's great appeal (particularly in caste-based India for example) was to do away with these differences. Muslims will point out when challenged about the role of women that Mohammed (through God) was the first to give them rights, and it is true that Sharia provided a legal identity to women when in the West they were often little more than a chatel.

    The authority of God (putting aside existential issues) can be effective because it transcends the human. Nietzsche summed up the human condition as being all about power - our will to power, and in our relationships, our power over others. Class and caste seek to cement these positions - caste in India is believed to have been imported by Aryan invaders to ensure that the indigenous population - the Dalits or Untouchables - remained at the bottom. Race, as you refer, has been the lever in the US, a very new society. Why power? Presumably because of the "survival of the fittest" - its an evolutionary necessity, hard-wired.

    England, I think, is an interesting example - class was very stratified until after WW2 when "people power" - a coherent class identity, along with an ideology - asserted itself, and reforms were made which improved people's status. I benefited, the first of my family to go to university, and feel lucky to have "got through" in the relatively brief window before the elite subtly began to reassert its power - as someone pointed out, the Baby Boomers pulled the ladder up after themselves. Certainly more people now go to uni, but do they get the decent jobs? The privately-educated still dominate the professions. Social mobility is now slower than it was in the 1970s, and this is before our government - dominated needless to say by the upper class - introduces further "reforms".

    The trouble is we're now bereft of an ideology and "God" has largely been discredited, or has "he"? To me, Unitarianism means getting in touch with that other axis that Nietzsche decided to reject - love. Love crosses the vertical line of power that runs through us. Love is an evolutionary necessity too - without cooperation, caring how could we have survived? - and rather than being only about the self is by definition about others. It is greater than us alone, and could therefore be defined as the part of God in all of us.

    And God transcends, provides the authority - and yes, the power - to rise above prejudice and inequality.