“Been Down That Road,” February 12, 2017, Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
If you were accused of being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Not long ago, this question was so absurdly hypothetical that it clearly constituted a kind of thought experiment, an examination of what difference, if any, your announced religious commitment makes in your life.
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The challenge is a classic sermon ploy in a variety of traditions. For our purposes, it goes like this: If you were accused of being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Not long ago, this question was so absurdly hypothetical that it clearly constituted a kind of thought experiment, an examination of what difference, if any, your announced religious commitment makes in your life. “Well,” you could argue, “there is a signed membership card in the church files. I’ve had several arguments with my fundamentalist brother-in-law. I brought my kids to Sunday School for years. I went to a protest rally one time, and an interfaith Thanksgiving event. I have given money to the UU service committee, and I support my congregation with a monthly pledge. I host dinners for eight. If I had to have a memorial service, I would want it to be at the UU church. Isn’t that enough?” And then the minister, or someone else, could ask if there was anything about this faith that had changed your heart or saved your life or made any difference in how you treat other people or given you joy, and the conversation about the purpose of religion would be fairly launched – and everyone would dismiss the original premise of accusation and conviction, which was clearly artificial anyway.
In the current cultural climate, this intellectual exercise takes on a more sinister tone. And I am led to ponder it by the even more tangible concern about our Muslim neighbors, and the appalling possibility that it could become a real thing for them. This is how halfway ‘woke’ I am: a couple of weeks ago, I announced blithely – in all earnestness, but from my own position of privilege – that should a government registry for Muslims ever come into existence, I would sign up, and encourage every person of good conscience, whatever their religious identity, to do so too. I was sure this would be the right thing to do; it did not occur to me in that moment that this intended act of solidarity might be seen as an inappropriate usurpation of a status to which I am not entitled, and perhaps not be welcomed, by actual Muslims. Happily for me, as I considered what it would mean to have the courage of that commitment in actual practice, I asked myself how willing I would be to perform the first and simplest pillar of Islam – to announce “There is no god but god, and Mohammed is his prophet.” That attestation might be a requirement for being added to the registry, don’t you think? Doing so would not bother me – I don’t believe the heavens are going to fall, no matter what words I take into my mouth – but I did wonder how it would feel to someone whose faith is profoundly grounded in that statement, to hear me making free with it for the sake of establishing a political point. Again, fortunately for me, I have a resource ready to hand in the form of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, on which I serve as the UU representative, and which meets here in our building. So at the last meeting I posed this question to the Muslim directors on the council – and did not get an answer, which I’m thinking is an answer of sorts. They were more immediately concerned, as we all were, with the statement we are crafting as an Interfaith Council, opposing the prospect of any such registry; that’s where the energy is right now. If, in spite of that resolution, and the Constitution, and everything that people of good will can do to prevent it, this despicable registry comes about anyway, I will ask again, with more urgency, for the guidance of my Muslim colleagues. Their answer I suppose will depend upon the facts on the ground at that point, but it seems clear to me now that while they welcome our collective efforts to preserve religious liberty, they are not enthusiastic about my prophylactically mis-identifying myself with Islam.
A couple of weeks ago we talked about the Enlightenment Humanist ideal of the free and rational individual, and the limitations of that vision as a full description of the human condition. The history of racism in this country, and our awareness of racial injustice as a central issue in the current struggles for political power and cultural conscience, offer an enduring challenge to the notion of the individual as the locus of moral agency. People of color have been aware for a very long time that they were not, as Martin Luther King once put it, “judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin.” People of color participate in a group identity, whether they want it or not, because it is ascribed to them. Much more recently, white people have become aware that we, too, are not, as we had been accustomed to think, merely default humans; rather we, too are members of an identity group, whether we like it or not. This is most definitely not to say that all white people think alike – nothing demonstrates that more clearly than the recent election! Neither do all people of color think alike, or all women, or all immigrants, or all gay men, lesbians, trans people or bi-sexuals, or all differently-abled people, or all Muslims, or all UUs, god knows, or all Americans, or all poor people, or rural people, or urban people, or indeed all of any group. This is the truth highlighted by the concept of individuality – each of us is different from, and more than, any of the groups we may be part of. We each cherish that about ourselves; we want to be seen as unique, not reduced to a set of assumptions based on our appearance, or what we might have in common with some other folks. We don’t want to be held responsible for what people who resemble us in some way might have done, or might believe, or prefer, or even be good at, if that’s not how we are.
The Enlightenment thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries wanted to free people from the assumption that if your family were peasant farmers, then you could never be anything but a peasant farmer, as well as from the dubious notion that if you happened to be born into the royal family, you would necessarily be good at being a king. Just because you were educated as a Lutheran, or a Jesuit, or a Jew, didn’t mean you would always adhere to the ideas you were taught as a child. Hence the notion of individual ability, individual achievement, individual conscience. 20th century American liberalism took that idea even further, and embraced the concept of pluralism; that our differences are not just inevitable and to be tolerated, but actually a source of strength, resilience, beauty, and wisdom – something to celebrate. Just as biological and genetic diversity are good for the health of the natural environment, so the diversity of individual human personality is good for our collective well-being; no society could thrive if all people were the same.
Since the election, there has been a somewhat contentious debate about the function of what has been called ‘identity politics.’ African-American trans-gender activist Monica Roberts writes, “All politics in the United States is identity politics. Until folks realize that basic fact — that all politics in the United States is identity politics — we’re going to continue to get our butts kicked by conservatives. Protests without a long-range strategic plan to get liberal progressives in office are a waste of time and energy.” Many liberals that I know are wrestling with the question of whether our focus on seeking to protect and expand the rights of certain groups – women, people of color, GLBTQ folks, immigrants, the differently-abled – has led to some kind of ‘backlash.’ Are we to attribute the election of Donald Trump to having pushed too hard, too fast, on behalf of these ‘special interest’ groups? Would we be well advised to back off from this kind of advocacy, and seek some more inclusive consensus about the values of our society? As I understand it, this is a two-layer question; on the more superficial level, it is strategic: if we are going to actually win elections, don’t our candidates need to appeal to a wider expanse of voters, rather than just the fringe elements, no matter what each of us may privately believe about the issues? At a deeper level, it touches the moral foundations of democracy: shouldn’t we be attending to what the majority of people need and want, rather than constantly agitating for change that keeps challenging what everyone is used to?
If ever a question needed its premise challenged, it’s this one! Because as Martin Luther King could have told us, identity politics is not something anyone has a choice about. The thing that has changed, it seems to me, recently, is the emergence of specifically white identity politics, so let’s explore this for a moment. As I understand our history, there was a time when the word ‘man’ referred to two concepts; one, the male of the species, the opposite of ‘woman’; and two, the species as a whole, men and women, inclusive. ‘The Descent of Man’ was not just about males, but about the whole human race; the implication of this was that the default human person was male, and if you meant a woman, or women, specifically, you had to say so. In the same way, the default human person was also assumed to be white, and if you meant a person of color, that had to be specified. Same thing with heterosexual, and not physically challenged – just think of how much classic western architecture simply assumes the ability to climb flights of stairs. This means that any time the concerns of a member of any of these non-default groups are advocated, it comes across as a ‘special interest.’ Whereas the ‘public interest’ is assumed to mean everybody, when what it really means is the default assumption, which is white, and male, and straight, English-speaking Anglo-Saxon Protestant – it’s really quite a specific group. In fact, it’s such a specific group, that it is actually a minority when you think about. But look at who runs the country, or has until very lately. Look at who have been the politicians and the professors and the policemen; the doctors and judges and CEOs. The presidents of everything, from corporate boards to colleges to the country. To be the default is to be the privileged; the not-other, and the presumptive majority. To be the default is to identify the common good with your group’s interests, because after all your group is ‘everybody’. And this perception need not be malicious; it is the basis for the earnest assertion of colorblindness, that “I just don’t see race.” When you unpack such statements, what you find they mean is, “I am content to be the default human, and to live and move in the unexamined assumption that everybody is like me, and everyone experiences the world the way I do.”
Identity politics proposes that there are many ways to experience the world, depending on one’s status as either a default human person, or an ‘other.’ It suggests that those who are identified as other, because they do not fall into the default paradigm, may have some common cause among themselves, as well as a bone or two to pick with the dominant culture’s assumptions about them, and their access to its resources. The thing is, that we have very little choice about the groups that we belong to. Barak Obama had no choice about being black; neither did Dr. King; it’s not something you can hide. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton and I have no choice about being women. Nor do we want to have to disguise the truth about ourselves; to pretend to be a gender we are not, or straight if we’re not, or typically abled if we’re not, or Christian – or Muslim — if we’re not, or any other way of being in the world that we’re not, just to get a fair chance at life. But here’s the catch: we are not the special interest group, we ‘others;’ the special interests are the ones that already have power, and are clutching for more; the minority that thinks it’s the norm, or ought to be, because it’s somehow better and more real to be a man than a woman, and a white person than a person of color, and born at a northern latitude rather than a southern latitude, and praying to this god rather than that god. What Donald Trump got right about this election is precisely identity politics; he appealed directly to the identity group with the most power and privilege to lose when they cease to be the default, as they are ceasing to be the majority day by day.
We have no option for refusing identity politics; can you refuse your skin? Your heart? Your vision? Your tragedy, whatever it may be? The hope within you that will not die? My colleague Forrest Church said that religion is our response to the twin realities of being alive and having to die. I say there is another pair, equally potent, that shape us; the truth that we are each unique, and the truth that we are not alone. There is no generic, default human, from which all difference is measured. Not you; not anyone else. And at the same time, there is no facet of your being that does not bind you, whether you like it or not, to a specific set of others with whom you share that characteristic and all that it implies in the world of our culture. Nothing about that bond requires you to think, or to vote, in any particular way, but does give you what we are pleased to call interests; propositions that would appear to be to your advantage, or to your detriment, as part of that identity group.
Now democracy is a funny thing in this regard. On the one hand, it can be understood as a process by which everyone votes for what is most advantageous for themselves, and the outcome therefore yields a statistical greatest good for the greatest number. But that kind of mechanical, consumer approach was not what those who envisioned it as the way to create a better society had in mind. Democracy as a spiritual practice assumes that people are capable of seeing beyond their immediate self-interest, to imagine and to choose the common good, even when it may cost them something as individuals. To vote, in short, against their own self-interest, and this is a good thing. As I read his message, Martin Luther King believed in the second kind of democracy. He believed that people would choose justice, when they understood what justice was. He believed that people would choose human dignity, and equality, when he got them to open their eyes, and see where dignity and equality were sorely lacking in this nation. He knew that you had to get people’s attention; wake them up, and make them face the reality that they would prefer to ignore; he knew that was hard, and tedious, and dangerous sometimes. But he believed that democracy was a moral process, and that identity politics could be a politics of ethics; of appeal to human ideals above human selfishness. He taught that people could lead each other to higher ground, to greater freedom. He taught that the community of those he called negroes could together reclaim their stolen dignity and rightful equality; that they had a task with each other because of their identity, like it or not. And he challenged the politics of white identity also to be a politics of ethics and honor, of ideals over selfishness. He called upon the dominant culture to recognize that it, too, was an identity, like it or not, with a shared history with a covenant called the Constitution, and a shared future with a shared responsibility.
Fifty years later, we confront the result of an abject failure to grasp that identity and give it moral substance. Instead, white identity politics has mildewed into a resentful and belligerent sulk; a conviction of having been deprived of glory and honor earned, usurped by all the unworthy ‘others’ who intend to destroy everything that the dominant culture has achieved. And white folks? My friends, that’s on us. There is no way for us not to be white, not any more. We are not the default human, we are a political identity group, whether we like it or not. What we can do is to contest the definition of that identity; not allow the KKK and the NRA and Wall Street bankers to decide what it means to be white. We can do the difficult work that Dr. King challenged us with decades ago; the same work that Black Lives Matter invites us to undertake today – to get over the notion that ‘we’ are ‘everybody’, and recognize what our history and our power and our advantage look like to people who don’t experience the same world we do.
Identity politics are not optional; identity politics landed Martin Luther King in a Birmingham jail cell, and got him shot and killed. But identity politics also gave us the Civil Rights Act, and Title Nine, and Marriage Equality. We don’t need to get rid of identity politics; we just need to be better at it – not more manipulative, or devious, but more visionary and articulate and honorable. Wouldn’t it be encouraging if being white began to stand for something noble and principled? We are the ones who have to do that; the only ones who can. Our task is not to try to be anything we are not, but rather to embrace the bonds that bind us together in similarity, in the knowledge that we are each unique, but not alone. In the end, I suspect that my Islamic colleagues would rather have me convicted of being a courageous and faithful Unitarian Universalist, than a phony, opportunistic Muslim, even as a show of solidarity. If we are going to build any society at all, we have to move out of our absolute individual uniqueness into what unites us; if we are ever going to be free, we have to learn to honor rather than despise our differences, and claim our identities as a source of moral clarity instead of grievance. Maybe that’s easier to see, and to do, from the position of being an ‘other’; when you don’t have to overcome the illusion that you are the essential human, the ‘everybody.’ But remembering Martin Luther King and the movement he helped to lead, it seems to me that we don’t get to Freedom Land one by one by one; we are only going to get there together, helping each other out, sharing our identities, our aspirations, and our determination. We are only going to get there marching together; walking together, talking together, together sustaining a vision that lets nobody turn us around. Let’s lift our voices, and sing together.
Copyright © Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons 2017