My immediate reaction to the Lively Tradition’s post (by blogger "LT") entitled Mission and Worship, is an inspired ‘amen’. I appreciated his attention to our current state-of-affairs, one in which he argues places the social justice activist/mission at the top of the church hierarchy. I have both experienced, and heard lamented widely this dynamic in Unitarian Universalism. Complementing this preferential-option-for-the-activist critique, specifically that it lacks accessibility and a framework for building community, is the underlying question "what do we mean by activism?"
I believe that we are all activists, moving along a continuum towards justice (i.e. the Theodore Parker-ism cum famous MLK line the arc of the universe is long, and bends towards justice). We develop our sense of justice through experience and empathy in our relationships, we are changed by these. LT names the Unitarian Universalist fixation on activism as "deeds not creeds" in the wider world, something that is a source of frustration summed up in the common cry for "less talk, more action".
In my worldview, we are all activists, and we all have different roles. LT names the most common:
young adults, people without children, the healthy and active seniors who have that as an experience, the mid-lifers whose jobs allow it
Drawing this boundary around activism may reflect the reality of our UUA congregations, and is a sad state of affairs that deserves to be not only re-examined, but eulogized. The sentiment that the "activist" is the person on the street, struggling 24/7 with injustice everywhere, leading a politicized life, and critical of the apparent mindless obedience of the mainstream is problematic. Dealing with the problem is two-fold, activists need to think critically and act with clearer intention to be uniters of the whole community. The larger community needs to own a broader definition of activism, or perhaps more easily understood as a belief in justice-making, and the multiple ways in which this is acted upon in day-to-day life.
We do not see change simply when a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has, as Margaret Mead is famously quoted for saying. Such a small group is only successful in their efforts at change when they are united with the broader community they seek to impact, and have both a relevant message (which often requires serious public activism), and positivist vision for the new world. To think that a handful of persons, unconnected, interested only in their own mission for the world, unaccountable, represent our social justice activists horrifies me.
Unitarian Universalism has both real and imagined power for social justice, and both stem from a worship and faith-centered community. Our internal, spiritual growth, in the Unitarian Universalist living tradition, history, theology and practice, I believe strengthens our justice-making whether we are 5 years old or 95 years old. As a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, this seems like a no-brainer to me, yet obviously there are stress fractures in our communities around activism. I have experienced this acutely in the youth and young adult worlds, in my home congregations, even overseas in our Unitarian Universalist communities of Transylvannia, India, Philippines and England.
We have tension between those who seek Unitarian Universalism with a rampant individualism and those justice agents who use Unitarian Universalism purely for social change initiatives. These feel like extremes to me. Individualists complain, intellectualize, and are generally pessimistic when it comes to ideas and actions of a community. Justice agents cry bitterly at the lack of "others" to join their cause, the inconsitency with church principles and GA resolutions, and sometimes operate out of a sense of superiority, closed to being amazed by the spirit, and are generally pessimistic about the causes they champion. In fact there seem to be similiarities in both extremes, that may come out of a rigid worldview that sees a static definition in place of our dynamic way of life.
For social justice to be realized, we need not only the small group, but authentic relationships in concentric circles and venn diagrams, with persons in multiple places, identities, roles and responsibilities aligning and shaping a justice vision. When I think about issues I’ve worked on, particularly with respect to racism, sexism, environmental justice, and youth, we need persons in all places throughout the systems of institutions to consider our concerns, dialogue and commit to action.
In our churches, I see all persons as activists. There are different levels of intensity, but all have the power, and our faith helps convert the imagination of justice into the reality of action. Children live out of Unitarian Universalism, learning the values and steps to activism. Parents and other peers, adults, and elders mentor, train, teach, and perhaps most importantly relate stories that are embedded with values of justice, love, compassion. Those busy with work have access to current events through their own participation in Sunday Worship, family member experiences, and have a place in the community in which they relate to ‘others’. The Unitarian Universalist hermit, if there be one, grows deeper in knowledge, understanding and history, a resource to others.
What is beautiful about the current incarnation of the Unitarian Universalist Young Adult Network is that we have grown our ministry with a worship-centered theology, philosophy and strategy. Spiritual growth, the search for truth and meaning, understanding and living our tradition, have been the hallmarks of our programs and services. Our justice work has grown significantly as a result. This story is for another post.