Friday, June 24, 2016

Reflections on Religious Democracy

I am currently attending my sixth consecutive General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations (UUA). 

Unitarian Universalism is a "covenantal" religion. There is no agreed upon "creed", no religious test of faith required for membership. There are Buddhist UUs, Pagan UUs, Humanist and Atheist UUs, and yes, even Christian UUs!

What holds us together are covenants, at the congregational level between congregants and, at the denominational level between the separate congregations. These covenants are not at all about what we "believe" in a religious context. Instead they're about how we agree to be in community together as congregants and as an association of self-governed congregations. 

The congregations agree to the seven principles. The seven principles start at the individual level (we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people) and progress to the communal (we affirm and promote the interconnected web of life, of which we are all a part), each of the principles existing in a precarious tension: How do you affirm the inherent worth and dignity of a Hitler or a Manson? Is, the mosquito as integral to the web of life as a human being? But, we often don't think about the tension inherent in our fifth principle (we affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large). 

The sounds so simple! How else would a group as diverse as UUs get anything accomplished without using a good and fair democratic process? But, think for a moment: is democracy always good, is it always fair? 

Democracy, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is the worst form of government, except for all the others.  While a democratic process might be good at getting near a concensus (arguable) that "consensus" is usually that of the least marginalized subgroups in any polity. 

How inclusive is our American democracy to indigenous people, to people of color, to women, to the poor, to our LGBTQAI siblings? It is very inclusive if you're white, and a man, and cis/het, and upper middle class. But it is pretty clear that we (America, the collective) have done a piss-poor job of supporting and providing for those on the margins. Sadly, I have too often seen that same dynamic play itself out within my religion. 

Our General Assembly is a meeting of UUs from all across the country and from all aspects of UU identity including ethnicity, gender expression, sexuality, family structure and on and on. But, as with American society writ large, the voting body of GA is primarily white, primarily middle class (or above) and primarily over the age of fifty. 

It is too often concerned with money (or lack thereof), too often concerned with propriety (G_d forbid there be conflict). And, although UUs, in general, are rabidly in favor of being anti-racist and anti-oppressive, that too often only goes as far as can be accomplished without actual systemic change. 

This post isn't a treatise on the bad old UUs though. What I really want to ponder and what I really want my UU siblings to ponder is this: can our democracy, as we practice it today, ever lead us to the beloved community to which we aspire? Can Roberts Rules (revised or otherwise) ever really address the needs and concerns of our most marginalized groups without substantial change in their implementation. Personally, I am really on the fence as to that notion. 

And here is why that's so concerning to me: ours is not a nation state or a municipality, ours is the governing body of a religion. Let me state that again for emphasis. Ours is a religion! We come together once a year to guide the fate of an institution devoted not to meeting the physical needs of protection and defense but the SPIRITUAL needs of protection and defense. There is no higher calling. We are in ministry to each other and to our religion as a whole. When we miss the voice of the voiceless in these halls we can take away hope. We can destroy trust. We can insert our need for "process" between our siblings and their higher selves, their higher spirits, their deity!!!

We have choices in how we engage in our denominational polity. We can choose to let every voice have its say. Or we can listen to the voices that are, even in our houses of worship, far too seldom heard. We can listen to those voices first; we can give weight to those needs first; we can step back from our own need to be heard or counted and make sure that they are heard and counted. First. 

As we move forward as a denomination and yes, even within our congregations, may we make that choice. After all, what would Jesus do?

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