Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sermon: "Who Needs Vulnerability?" (Delivered 10-10-10)

The reading this morning comes from the book Learning to be White by Thandeka, a Unitarian Universalist theologian:

I had recently moved to Massachusetts to teach at a local college. Several weeks after arriving on campus, I had lunch with a member of the college staff. My luncheon partner, a fifth generation Smith College graduate with a New England genealogy older than the state and a portfolio perhaps as wealthy, wanting to get to know me, asked what if felt like to be black.

I was not offended by her query. Her face was open; her eyes were friendly and engaged. She simply believed that nothing from her own background or experience could help her understand me. I knew better. I had been assigned a race by America’s pervasive socialization process, and so had she. I thus believed that if she drew upon her own experience of being “raced,” she might then be able to see what we had in common. But how could I make her conscious of the racialization process to which her own Euro-American community had subjected her? Searching for an answer to this question, I invented the Race Game and invited her to play it for a week.

The Race Game… had only one rule. For the next seven days, she must use the ascriptive term white whenever she mentioned the name of one of her Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for instance, “my white husband, Phil,” or “my white friend Julie,” or “my lovely white child Jackie.”…I guaranteed her that if she did this for a week and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question using terms she would understand. We never had lunch together again. Apparently my suggestion made her uncomfortable.

African Americans have learned to use a racial language to describe themselves and others. Euro-Americans also have learned a pervasive racial language. But in the racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid. […]

The Race Game unearths proscribed feelings and, as such, is a trespass. To play the Game, one has to violate limits and break boundaries. One must step outside the rules for whiteness by disinterring one’s own feelings.

In last week’s sermon I told the same story that will begin this week’s sermon. The story was told to me by a community organizer who worked with congregations in Boston, congregations as diverse as inner-city African-American congregations and churches and synagogues from some of Boston’s most affluent suburbs. As the story goes, the community organizer hosted a meeting that brought together women from the inner city and women from the affluent suburbs. The women from the inner-city began to speak openly of the challenges in their lives and they began to focus on the challenges with the schools the children in their communities attended. In particular, they identified the gangs, drugs, and gun violence their children encountered on the way to and from school as not only a significant educational deterrent, but also a grave danger.

As the African American women spoke, the white suburban women grew more withdrawn and closed. In the story I told last week I talked about how the suburban group had met later to process the meeting. I talked about how, in their own group, they were able to open up, how they named their concerns for students who were the victims of homophobic slurs and bullying, and how this group was able to act on their concern and organize to get the administration of the school system to take homophobia and bullying more seriously.

But, this week I want to focus on a different facet of the story, a facet of the story that was left unspoken last week. I want to ask why the more affluent suburban contingent became silent and withdrawn in the presence of the contingent from the inner city. Why did they react this way? When we hear this story, the first thing we might think is that the suburban group was quiet because they believed the schools to which they sent their children were perfect. But, that just doesn’t jibe with reality.

Over the years I have talked with so many of you who have sent your children to schools in the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley School Districts. And, if I learned anything from those conversations, I learned that you are fiercely opinionated, that you approach these schools with a mixture of fierce pride and fierce criticism. The criticisms have to do with intrusions from the religious right in the form of efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution, introduce bogus sex education courses, or ban the teaching of certain books in English class. The criticisms have to do with concerns about districting, where lines seem often to be drawn according to class and race. The criticisms have to do with how well the schools do at creating an environment for success for special needs students. The criticisms have to do with funding and with administrative and legislative decisions that often exasperate teachers. In short, if these women from the suburban synagogues and churches were anything like you, they would have had something to add. So, why didn’t they?

How did they respond? They responded by closing off in terms of talking about their own experiences. In fact, the community organizer told me that they responded to the inner-city stories of drugs and gangs and violence by becoming other-focused, by asking how they could help. However, their offer of assistance was rebuffed. A few of the women from the inner city countered, saying something like, “We’ve been here before. You come. You hear our stories. You offer to help. You come to a couple more meetings. Maybe you come to an event. Then you lose interest. You get busy with other obligations. Then, you disappear. You don’t have skin in this game. For us this is life. For you it is social action tourism and you’ll get bored and decide to go home. That is not going to happen again.”

So, what happened? The suburban group had not spoken of their own struggles. They hadn’t anteed up, so to speak. They didn’t have skin in the game. When the community organizer told me this story, I immediately thought of a book from about a decade ago, Thandeka’s Learning to be White.

In Learning to be White, Thandeka writes about the cost of white privilege. This is an unusual way to put it. We are used to thinking of privilege in a different way. We are used to thinking not of the costs that come with privilege but of the privileges that come with privilege. W. E. B. Du Bois coined the term “wages of whiteness” to describe the advantages enjoyed by whites by virtue of living in a white supremacist culture. Thandeka argues that privilege isn’t free. It exacts a cost. It comes with a price. So, while I don’t have the time to reconstruct her argument, I will share her conclusion, which is that racism also hurts white folks just as sexism also hurts men and homophobia also hurts straight folks.

Thandeka evokes the work of Juliet Schor, a sociologist formerly of Harvard and currently of Boston College, who studies American habits of work and consumption. Schor studied the spending habits of middle-class Americans, in particular overspending, status buying, and the intersection between class and race. She found, for example, that “Caucasian women were much more likely to engage in status purchasing than African Americans or non-Caucasian Hispanics.”

Using Juliet Schor’s economic findings, Thandeka argues that with privilege comes a need to demonstrate that privilege in the form of appearances of wealth. Thandeka writes, “Middle-class poor whites who overspend to create the illusion of economic success and stability are thus, in a certain sense, financially recapitulating the legal history of their own racial creation. In effect, they are disempowering themselves as a class for the sake of a constructed appearance.” Or, put more simply, one of the root causes of overspending and financial imprudence is a desire to appear to belong to a particular socio-economic strata. These findings by Thandeka and Juliet Schor imply a paradox: Many Americans spend in ways that make them economically vulnerable in order to avoid the appearance of economic vulnerability. Being poor, it would seem, is preferable to appearing poor.

So, what does any of this have to do with the story told to me by the community organizer? We are going to hold that question for a moment while I add some more information to the equation. During the Connecting Conversations that we engaged in as a congregation, two members of our church each spoke with me independently about the cards they were filling out. Both members told me that increased diversity was a part of their answers to the question, “What do you most hope for our church?” This is something that is hoped for not only in our own church, but in UU congregations throughout the country. As one of my colleagues puts it, “We endeavor to bring the reality of liberal religion closer to the aspiration of liberal religion.”

Over the years Unitarian Universalism has tried all sorts of different strategies to increase diversity and virtually all of them have failed, often disastrously. One strategy focused on offering anti-racism training to all churches. The assumption was that our lack of racial and ethnic diversity could be solved by better education. Another strategy was to call attention to the historical contributions made to Unitarian Universalism by members of historically marginalized communities. The assumption was that we could increase diversity by celebrating the contributions of those from historically marginalized communities. The danger in this message was that we would welcome anyone, as long as they were exemplary and exuded greatness. This assumption also led to some rather bizarre attempts to try to claim people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama as partial or even “closeted” Unitarians.

A further assumption posited that what was holding us back from growing more diverse was past injustices and oppression. Only through a cathartic recounting of our sins and a process of atonement would we increase our diversity. Others have argued that what holds us back from becoming more diverse is boring worship, which is an interesting argument because it sort of suggests that boring is worship is okay for white folks. And some have even argued that our congregations don’t attract as much diversity as they could because our congregations are too intellectual. Even to suggest this is condescending, offensive, and downright racist.

I have an answer that I would like to suggest as to why our congregations aren’t more diverse than they are. How do we bring the reality of liberal religion closer to the aspiration of liberal religion? Of course, the answer to this question is hopelessly complex and nuanced and multifaceted. But, if I had to reduce my answer to the five minutes I have left in this sermon I would say that the answer to this question has to do with vulnerability.

In her own words, the Race Game that Thandeka challenges her co-worker to play disinters suppressed feelings and names the great unsaid. According to my friend the community organizer, when the representatives of the urban and suburban congregations came together, one contingent became withdrawn and closed.

Let me cut to the chase and propose a simple statement. Members of historically marginalized communities (it could be race, ethnic background, socioeconomic class, or sexual orientation) tend to be wary of and cautious around members of historically dominant communities who are not in touch with their own vulnerability.

Who needs vulnerability? We do if we are to bring the reality of liberal religion closer to the aspiration of liberal religion. In last week’s sermon, the prequel to this sermon, I talked about the truth that everybody hurts, that not one single person alive on this planet lives a life that is free from some measure of affliction. This week I am challenging us, and challenging myself, to move beyond just understanding that everyone hurts. I am challenging us to the practice of becoming more vulnerable with each other about our struggles and afflictions. I don’t always do this well. Sometimes I put up my walls of invulnerability. Sometimes I put forward a fa├žade that says that I need nothing from anyone.

I wonder what it would look like for the interpersonal emotional climate of Unitarian Universalist churches to be one of risk and vulnerability as opposed to pretense.

If this theory of mine is at all correct, we should be able to look to places in our religious life together where we do exhibit diversity and be able to observe habits of vulnerability there. If there is one area where we would seem to excel at diversity it would be in the realm of theological diversity. We don’t always get it right. There is work to be done here. But, we do have some things going for us. When it comes to the theologies we hold, the culture of this congregation embraces people telling the stories of their religious journeys. We embrace articulations of struggle, doubt, and uncertainty. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are places where we could improve. But, my point is that in the realm of theology and faith exploration we are robust not because we are right, but because we are open, because we are honest.

We do theological diversity extremely well here. I am proud of how we practice it. Can we extend this openness and honesty to other areas of our being together? What would that look like? Last week during the Family Focus portion of the service I told one of Aesop’s fables, the story of the lion with a thorn in its paw. The moral of the story is that our lives require that we both ask for help and offer help.

One of the most challenging and at times frustrating parts of religious leadership is when I see others refuse to ask for help or even refuse offers of assistance from others. It is something that I wonder about. Why do some of us decline offers to be visited when we are in the hospital? Why do some of us decline offers for rides to church or not ask others for help? Our church directory divides names into neighborhood groups. Would we ever call a neighbor and ask for help.

Since my parents are here this morning, I thought I’d share a story from childhood: As a family we were making some kind of dessert. It was a holiday or maybe a Sunday evening and all the grocery stores close to us were closed, because they used to close on Holidays and Sundays. The recipe called for a cup of sugar.. We were out. We ransacked through every cupboard, every shelf. We were stuck. I decided to take action. I put on my coat and boots and mittens and dragged my siblings along and went next door to ask if we could borrow the needed cup of sugar from our neighbor.

Somehow I had gotten it in my mind that it was acceptable to go next door and ask your neighbor for a cup of sugar. (Maybe my subversive religious education in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday School taught me this message.) That is, after all, sort of what being a neighbor is about. But, at the same time, and this is what I remember most about that time from my childhood, I remember experiencing mixed emotions. On one hand I knew that neighbors were supposed to do things like this. On the other hand, I felt like I was doing something really transgressive. Was it OK not to have sugar in your house? Was that something to be ashamed of? If even the simple ask of asking a neighbor for sugar was so challenging, what might that say about developing the capacity for sharing our vulnerability that I believe is necessary for us to manifest the beloved community?

I close by re-invoking Marge Piercy’s words with which we began the service. Marge Piercy writes about how connections are made slowly. She writes about the persistence, tenaciousness, courage, and determination of plants that fight persistently, spread like squash, gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar. But we don’t use the sun to make sugar. We must get our sugar elsewhere. Piercy writes:
If we are live a life we can endure and make love that is loving… if we are to weave real connections, create real nodes, and build real houses we need to reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
Amen and amen again.