Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dignitarianism: Treat Everybody Well

One of the things that always amazes me when I read American history is that we've never had a major movement to treat everybody well. It's always been way too easy for the Powers That Be to turn one oppressed group against another.

In the 19th century, for example, women's rights and anti-slavery groups were sometimes allied and sometimes opposed. Each tended to think that associating with the other would muddy their issue rather than sharpen it. (When the proposed 15th Amendment gave the vote to black men, but not to women of any race, Susan B. Anthony spoke out against it. On the other side, Fredrick Douglass opposed revising the text to include women, for fear the thing would never get passed.) Veterans of the union organizing movements of the early 20th century often fought against the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. And today, some civil rights veterans express resentment when their rhetoric is adopted by advocates of gay rights.

Imagine if we'd had a consistent centuries-old movement to treat everybody well, one that built concepts and rhetoric that applied to every oppressed group.

I didn't realize until today that treat-everybody-well has a name: dignitarianism. Its opposite is rankism, the belief that some people inherently deserve more respect than others, or that having an advantage in one social setting (like outranking somebody at work) makes you a superior person overall.

Robert Fuller and Pamela Gerloff have an article in the current UU World promoting dignitarianism. I have to admit that at first glance it seems a little abstract and thin, and that I get an instinctive that-would-be-nice-but reaction. But I'll bet abolitionism and feminism sounded that way at the beginning too.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What Do UUs Need To Go Deeper?

In addition to whatever else is going on in this post, it's a good place for you to comment on my recent UU World column That Elusive 'More'.

If you didn't chase the link, here's what you need to know from it: Half of this year's Association Sunday money is going to fund projects in Lay Theological Education. I'm on the task force that is figuring out what to do with the money.

Now, on a purely superficial level the task force knows exactly what it's going to do: We're going to look at proposals from a variety of UU organizations -- churches, districts, seminaries, etc. -- and give some grants. But there's also a discussion that needs to happen, and it would be great to get as many voices involved in it as possible. Namely: What should the programs we fund be trying to accomplish?

Getting a little more specific, we're looking at this situation: Imagine someone who has already taken the first steps into Unitarian Universalism, belongs to a congregation, and may even be a leader there -- committee member, RE teacher, and so forth. S/he listens to sermons, goes to discussions, takes the occasional adult RE class ... and wants something deeper.

Now, several things might happen at this point. Sometimes we lose people here; they find another faith community with a better-defined spiritual path. Some people go exactly the opposite direction; they decide that the way to go deeper as a UU is to go to divinity school and maybe even become a minister. Some augment their UUism by taking some other kind of training; Buddhist meditation, pagan ritual, Christian prayer group, etc. Some just stay vaguely dissatisfied. Some find what they're looking for in UUism through an idiosyncratic path. (My own idiosyncratic path is what my column is about.)

Ideally, what would come out of the projects that get funded by our task force is a different set of options for such people. Something more intense than, say, your typical adult RE class or one-day district workshop, but not requiring the kind of drop-everything-else commitment that divinity school represents.

So what I'd really like to hear -- either in comments here or on your own blogs or at the task force blog -- is your reaction to this image of an individual UU at a plateau. (I guess I've mixed up and down in my metaphors. If you're at a plateau you need to go higher, not deeper. But you get the idea.) Somebody who is happy with their UUism as far as it goes, but who wishes it went further.

Have you ever been in such a place? Did you start growing again? If so, how? If not, do you have a sense of what is missing? Do you look at some other faith community and say, "Damn! Why can't we do that?" If you've seen other people at this point, what do you think they need?

If you want to tell your story, but don't want it exposed to the whole Internet, send me an email at the task force address: uulaytheology@gmail.com