Us, Them, We: Walking the Fine Line of Unity and Diversity

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clemson, S.C.

Almost three years ago to the day, August 21, 2005, I stood before this congregation with Rick Bailey. We were charged with “encouraging” you as a congregation to vote to establish UUFC as an officially Welcoming Congregation.

That vote came after a prolonged process of exploration of which I had the privilege of being a part. We met back there in that large room and tried to deepen our understanding of the lives of those individuals who don’t fit the exclusively heterosexual mold or who present themselves in such ways as to challenge our previously held notions of gender expression.

More than that, that two-year process also took us along the path of considering how UUFC might, in a more visible and meaningful way, open its doors for full participation of such folks in the life of this congregation, how UUFC might be more supportive and affirming of these individuals, how UUFC might be more welcoming.

But even further, it was, to borrow a phrase, the journey inward. I’ve long maintained that the ultimate purpose of the process through which congregations must go in order to be designated by the UUA as “Welcoming” is self-examination and exposure. It’s a self-examination of our own attitudes toward any folks who ain’t like us — whether those attitudes are acknowledged or not. Hence, it’s an exposure of those hidden, buried attitudes of prejudice and exclusion of which we may not be aware. In my view, the Welcoming Congregation Process is heart surgery.

The uncomfortable fact of the matter is, none of us is free of those buried attitudes. Because I grew up in the time and place which I did — just down the road in Anderson during the 1960s — I am still discovering hidden prejudices in my own heart; prejudices which I long ago thought I’d vanquished. But then, that’s a large part of what spiritual growth is all about; being redeemed from those framing stories of prejudice which we’ve adopted in the past by the exposure of them to us now. When we see them in ourselves, when we recognize them in ourselves, then and then only can we begin to deal with them with a view toward changing them.

That, to me, is the great genius of the process: not that it makes us as a community more welcoming and accepting, though that’s wonderful and great; it’s that it forces us to look deep within ourselves and learn things about ourselves which may disappoint us and even shock us — forcing us to question such statements as “I could never be like that! I could never harbor such awful attitudes as that!” — and it also forces us to realize that we can very well be corporately welcoming while at the same time still clinging to prejudicial attitudes deep within ourselves as individuals.

I will always remember a comment by one of the young people, a 14-year old boy, in the Spartanburg UU congregation to the effect that his parents, when among the congregation, were outwardly accepting of GLBT folks, but when it came to private conversations at home, they were, in his view, extremely prejudice and intolerant and spoke of such folks with disgust.

And so Rick and I stood before you and encouraged you to vote to become an officially designated Welcoming Congregation. And you did; 100%!

And so at the outset this morning, I want to ask you: How has this changed you individually and as a congregation? What difference has it made, having this designation? What difference has it made in your life as a religious community here in the South Carolina upstate? What difference has it made in your life as an individual? How are you, as individuals and as a group of like-minded people, living out that commitment which you made? I not only want to ask you these questions, I want you to ask them of yourselves, individually and corporately.

These are questions to which only you, individually and corporately, can provide the answers, but I think you really need to provide them, at least to yourselves. Maybe now, on the third anniversary of this move, this vote, maybe now is a good time to assess that, to look seriously, with an open mind and heart, at those questions and see what answers you come up with. I can’t do that for you. Cynthia can’t really do that for you. Only you can. So, in the words of Tim Gunn from Project Runway, make it work!

Secondly, this morning I’d like to use the anniversary of that vote to prompt some thinking in another, but related area: How do we walk the fine line between unity and diversity? How do we approach this question of Us, Them, We?

Let me share with you the words of Catholic writer Father David Mclean: “There is a human tendency to create dualisms or divisions. so we perceive opposing forces of good and evil at work around us. Human beings are seen as being made up of a body and soul. And to a great extent perceiving dualisms or divisions is probably not a wrong thing to do. However, as is often the case, taking matters to extremes leads to error.”

Listen now to the error, the words of George W. Bush spoken on January 21, 2000: “When I was coming up it was a dangerous world. And we knew exactly who ‘they’ were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who ‘them’ was. Today we’re not so sure who ‘they’ are, but we know they’re there.”

Let me ask you, Do we always have to have a “they?” Is our identity wrapped up in knowing that “they” are there, even if we don’t know who “they” are?

Groups such as this, you, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clemson, (by the way, Holley’s book has given me a much greater appreciation of that nomenclature, almost to the point where I think every UU congregation ought to call itself a fellowship) or the new Peace Congregational Church or North Anderson Community Church (Presbyterian), are all about real and genuine diversity. We are all about celebrating diversity, about living diversity. And that’s a great thing.

We cannot forget, however, that on the other hand, we are also about a very tangible unity. We are joined together by a common thread of spiritual seeking and expression without fear of disapproval or discrimination based on the differing labels we might wear.

We affirm unity and diversity. My own belief is that one cannot genuinely celebrate diversity without first embracing unity; that without unity, diversity is meaningless and without diversity, unity is ugly.

This has been much on my mind recently.

All of us have a spiritual family of origin of some sort. My is the Christian Church. I grew up a Presbyterian, was ordained in and served in that denomination as a Minister, and still have strong ties to the Presbyterian church. I’ve served as the Director of Faith Development in a Unitarian Universalist Church. And I’ve recently become involved in an Episcopal congregation of the Anglo-Catholic tradition (if that sounds strange to you and you want to know why, ask me at lunch).

Aside from the religious schizophrenia which some folks might see in that, you might ask, What do all three of those groups have in common? They are all currently struggling with maintaining the delicate balance of unity and diversity. Yes, all of them, including the UUA.

Not only are those three groups struggling with this, groups which have heretofore been exceedingly monolithic, like the Southern Baptists, are struggling with unity and diversity, as are other denominations like the United Methodist Church. In fact, I think you’d be fairly safe in saying that there are very few, if any, religious groups left on the planet who are not trying to figure out their balance of unity and diversity.

Not only are religious groups struggling with this, our nation, our state, our counties, our cities and towns are struggling with this: unity and diversity and how to maintain both. Used to be a long time ago there were maybe three or four religious groups represented in the population of South Carolina. Now there is an exceedingly diverse multitude and the state is a long way from coming to grips with this diversity.

Each of us as individuals knows the difficulties of walking this fine line and keeping both concepts lively and balanced.

Every day we are confronted with questions or statements of us and them: Who is right? Us or them? We have a tendency, whether it’s inborn or acquired, to create those constructs of us versus them, both as individuals and as groups. Perhaps a desire to experience both unity and diversity is hardwired into us. I don’t know. I do know it’s there, however.

Something in us drives us to be a part of a group, to identify ourselves with a group and thereby establish part of our own identity. If you look at the three reasons why people associate with a faith community, you’ll notice the last two are directly related to this. Here are the three reasons that study after study indicate motivate people to join a faith community (and notice not one of them has anything to do with theological stance): People join a faith community (1) to experience personal spiritual transformation, (2) to make meaningful connections with other people, and (3) to be a part of something larger than themselves.

Notice those last two. They are directly related to this desire to be a part of a group, to draw a sense of identity from that group.

The first one speaks to this desire to establish an individual identity which does not rely on some unifying factor like membership in a group.

The ancient Christian church at Corinth apparently had issues of unity and diversity. Apparently, based on Paul’s words to them in his first encyclical to that group, they had lost sight of their unity and were focusing on their diversity. Groups were forming within groups. It makes me think of the Presbyterian experience as it’s been related to GLBT issues: we had the Witherspoon Society, then the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, then the Presbyterians for Gay and Lesbian Concerns, then came the More Light Presbyterians, then came the That All May Freely Serve Presbyterians. I often wonder how long before we’ll have the Gay and Lesbian Presbyterians in Favor of Ordaining Short, Left-handed People.

The UUA has been recently dealing with this in terms of identity-based groups, which ones to officially tie to the denomination, which ones not to. I think, and would be happy to be corrected, but I think the number of officially Welcoming Congregations is still around 50 percent. And there is still a very palpable tension within the UUA between theists and non-theists, and, among theists, a tension between Christians and non-Christians.

The worldwide Anglican communion is in danger of being ripped into various parts, particularly between those in the global north and those in the global south, over the issues of biblical authority and the full participation of women and GLBT persons in the church.

But I drift.

I guess what I’m getting at is this: in our efforts to navigate the streams of unity and diversity, there are dangerous shoals on which our boats may wreck.

One of those shoals, pointed out by Father McLean and personified by President Bush, is the tendency to always frame things in terms of Us versus Them. Think of the binaries we are all far too aware. Gay versus straight; liberal versus conservative; progressive versus fundamentalist; humanist versus theist; creationist versus evolutionist; Republican versus Democrat.

There is something about us that seemingly has this need to always have someone in opposition; something about us that seems to long for an opponent, someone over against which we can position ourselves. The UU tradition is not immune from this. There is the very real perception that groups like the UU’s are very good at saying what they are not and saying what they are against, and perhaps not so good at saying what they are.

Maybe that’s simply a characteristic of a number of groups: to define themselves over against something rather than simply stating what they are.

Maybe it’s just easier to say what we’re against rather than what we’re for, especially among those who are typically self-identified as religious liberals.

Maybe the reason it’s easier is because to say what you are for, as opposed to what you’re against, requires that we become more aware of our unity.

I recently sat in on the first organizational meeting of a group seeking to establish a United Church of Christ in Greenville. The one thing that struck me during that meeting – and this is not necessarily a criticism, just an observation – is that people talked a lot about what they were against, but I didn’t hear one single word about commonality, about what they as a group might have in common beyond this opposition to this or that. They talked a lot about what they would like to do, but not at all about what held them together beyond these common perceived enemies. They didn’t talk about what sense of unity they might have. I tend to think that groups which begin by focusing on what they want to do in opposition to some perceived enemies out there, while ignoring what might hold them together, what they might have in common in a positive sense, will have a relatively short lifespan.

A few weeks ago I was having dinner with a board member of SC Equality, a group headquartered in Columbia dedicated to trying to achieve a sense of equality for GLBT in South Carolina. It is a group very much in danger of ceasing to exist because of a number of reasons, not the least of which is almost constant infighting and bickering. In our conversation we talked about this notion that groups which see themselves solely in terms of Us versus Them, who are always looking for a Them to be opposed to, tend to live way beyond their original purpose and perhaps should be allowed to simply die off. Sometimes they even look within their own ranks for the “they” or the “them.”

The problem with looking for unity in a framing story of “Us versus Them” is that you have to keep coming up with Them’s to be against.

Why do we always seem to want to think in terms of Us versus Them? The problem with finding your own identity in who you oppose is that once you vanquish the enemy you have to come up with a new one or else lose your identity.

A while back I planned a moderated debate at the UU congregation in Spartanburg on the subject of proposed hate-crime legislation. When I pitched the idea to one of our members over coffee on day her immediate response was, “Who’s going to be the bad guy?”

Well, the “bad guy” turned out to be a gay Quaker who, for a variety of reasons, opposed such legislation, as do a number of other GLBT folks. She just couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that not all GLBT folks think alike; that we’re all “good guys” and that anyone who doesn’t think like us is a “bad guy.” Why do we always have to have a bad guy?

The point is, we have this tendency, a tendency which often rises above our notions of being a liberal or progressive folk, a tendency to always be looking for, or at least assuming that there will be, a bad guy.

Albert Einstein said “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

If we continue to live in a paradigm which emphasizes our diversity over against our unity, we’ll never free ourselves from Us versus Them. We’ll never arrive at We.

Our unity is based on our humanity. In the tradition with which I’m most familiar, that of the three great Abrahamic faiths, that is underscored by the presentation of God as the source of all humankind, created in his image. In more Emersonian terms, it is the spark of the divine which exists in every person you encounter. This is reflected in the first of the principles around which Unitarian Universalism organizes itself: that every person has an inherent dignity and worth, that they are, just by virtue of being, deserving of our respect. I believe that means we don’t ignore the WE, that we don’t position ourselves only in terms of US versus THEM.

In the current situations, for example, in the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, I must constantly remind myself that those members of the Christian church who seek, for a number of reasons theological and psychological, to discriminate against people who don’t fit the exclusively heterosexual mold are no less human than I, that they are deserving of the same respect that I long to have from them.

I must constantly remind myself that those folks who may not share my theistic worldview are no less human than I, that they are deserving of the same respect that I long to have from them. Hey, humanists are people, too!

I must constantly remind myself that those folks who may not share my particular political views, whether to the left or the right, are no less human than I, that they are deserving of the same respect that I long to have from them. Hey, Republicans and Democrats are people, too!

I sometimes get strange looks from my associates and friends when I use the term gay fundamentalism. One of the characteristics of fundamentalism, no matter what flavor we’re talking about, is that its rhetoric is characterized by misstatement, misrepresentation and manipulation, if not blatant distortion, of opposing views, usually with an end to frightening existing and potential “converts” into action and, more often than not, into giving financial support. We call it the politics of fear. It’s a politics of Us versus Them.

GLBT organizations, liberal religious groups, are not free from the sin of using the politics of fear and that both angers and saddens me.

I also have to keep reminding myself that I am not the sole depository of truth. When a member of the Presbyterian church or the Anglican communion says that they believe homosexuality is a sin, I can surely disagree with them, but I must also recognize that they are as free to hold to that interpretation as I am to mine and that in many cases we are both simply trying to discern the truth.

We must not become liberal fundamentalists. Fundamentalism, no matter what kind it is – Christian, Islamic, Judaic, secular, gay, straight – fundamentalism has several distinguishing characteristics. Not the least of those is a claim to have exclusive possession of the Truth, while opponents, the “they” are said to have untruth and it is incumbent on those who possess the truth to show, sometimes by violent methods, nonbelievers the error of their ways.

We must, we must always celebrate our diversity. I don’t know who wrote this, but I like it:

What would it be like to walk down the street and have everybody look like you? What would it be like to walk into an ice cream parlor and only see vanilla flavors? What would it be like to look at a meadow and see only one type of flower? What would it be like to look around and see only one color? What would it be like to be best friends with someone exactly like you? What would it be like to see the same thing around you every day? What would it be like to live in a world with only you?

But in our celebration of diversity we must always, always be aware of and boldly affirm our unity, as Patton pointed out, of our sharing existence itself with the rest of the universe. We must resist the temptation to always frame our lives in terms of opposition, resist the notion that there is a bad guy around every corner, a bad guy in every situation we encounter, every issue we address.

Surely there must be a better way and perhaps the key to that better way is in a firm commitment to both the unity which binds us all together and the diversity which makes us wonderful. Walking the fine line of unity and diversity requires a whole-hearted embracing of both.