By Rev Kate Braestrup
The introductory passages of Sarah Skochko’s sermon, delivered October 20 from the UU pulpit in Eugene, Oregon, offers us a vivid example of why there is a crisis — I think that’s the right word — in UU-land, and why the free and responsible search for truth and meaning is in such peril.
Ms. Skochko, the coordinator of membership and outreach for the church, declares upfront that “one of the great things about Unitarian Universalism is that you always have a choice. You will never be compelled to do or say or participate in anything you don’t want to, that you don’t agree with, that doesn’t align with your beliefs.” You can’t do anything you want, she says — can’t rudely take all the treats at coffee hour and expect that no one will be mad at you. But “you do have the freedom from being forced to eat cookies against your will. Communion here is rare and optional.”
Much laughter from her congregation.
I recognize that laughter with a sinking heart. It is the smug laughter of Unitarian Universalists pleasurably reminded of our own superiority. How free, enlightened and moral we are compared with all the other benighted church folk who, at this very moment, are being forced to eat “cookies.”
Oh, that we Unitarian Universalists were not so very much inclined to measure ourselves and our virtues against a straw man, especially one so flimsily and sloppily constructed.
This should be obvious but it evidently isn’t: Communion is voluntary at all churches. No one is compelled to eat, drink, do, say or participate in anything that doesn’t align with his or her beliefs.
I’ve been to Catholic and Protestant services of all kinds. No one asked, let alone “forced” me to do more than sit quietly and not interrupt. Even the most aggrieved disaffected Catholics of my acquaintance do not claim to have had wafer and wine shoved down their protesting throats, and no fundamentalist friend has revealed that he had a gun to his head when accepting Jesus as his personal savior.
Why, then, are there “recovering Catholics” and former fundamentalists in UU pews? In what sense did they not feel free in their communities-of-origin?
If a Catholic or fundamentalist (you’ll notice I’m leaving Muslims out of this; slightly different thing) questions or contradicts doctrine, or renounces it altogether, he or she will be (or fear being) subject to shaming, shunning, sandbagging, erasing and all the other means short of physical violence by which human cultures and subcultures enforce orthodoxy.
Anyone familiar with the story of Carlton Pearson, now an affiliate minister with All Souls in Tulsa, ought to recognize some similarities between what our betters in Boston are attempting to do to Todd Eklof and what the Joint College of Pentecostal African American Bishops did to Carlton Pearson.
Hint: They didn’t beat him up. They didn’t threaten his family. The wound inflicted was ”not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door” but it served. Pearson left the church and — note well, all you coordinators of membership and outreach — he took a bunch of fellow-apostates with him. And by the way, he is considered heroic — they made a movie about him.
If the UU version of “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” means “we won’t actually beat you up or burn you at the stake for disagreeing with us” then Unitarian Universalism isn’t any different from — and we certainly aren’t superior to — Catholics, Pentecostals or, indeed, any other church or synagogue in the Western world.
That’s worth re-emphasizing, so I shall: To be free from the fear of physical violence is necessary for a culture of freedom of conscience, thought and speech, but it is nowhere near sufficient. A “free” church that promises merely to refrain from physical attack upon dissenters isn’t truly free. It is, at best, totalitarian-lite.
To their rather obvious chagrin, the UUA, UUMA, BLUU and all the other acronymic subdivisions of the “club” cannot actually defrock Todd Eklof, though I suspect this is a defect in UU polity that some, at least, are eager to correct. For the time being, however, “no Bishop can ever revoke our funding or knock the cookies off our snack table…”
What can happen — what is happening — is that a highly respected, beloved and successful UU minister (and/or a congregant thereof) who deviates from the party line can and will be arrogantly and ignorantly misrepresented, insulted and scornfully reviled in, among other places, sister churches, in sermons (or “sermons”) that will be videotaped and broadcast to the world.
Or rather to the UU-World: Unitarian-Universalism is a boutique religion. Ms. Skochko’s UU church in Eugene has about 275 members (down from 290 in 2015, but who’s counting?) and even if every Unitarian Universalist in America watched her video on YouTube it would amount to fewer than 200,000 people (compared with, say, 50 million Baptists). Not enough people to gin up an actual lynch-mob, but more than enough to create a virtual one vindictively eager to savage a reputation and threaten a livelihood, and — perhaps most significantly — to send a warning to others who might be inclined to overestimate just how open-minded and open-hearted our liberal faith really is.
How many UU seminarians, watching Ms. Skochko’s sermon on YouTube, could imagine themselves genuinely free to think and say (or decline to say) what they honestly believe?
How many of Eugene’s UUs in agreement with Todd Eklof’s book, or just interested in his argument — there probably are a few — would be willing to argue the point at coffee hour after that “sermon” was delivered?
Ironically, perhaps, October’s theme for Eugene’s UUs is “belonging.” How many of those sitting in the pews and listening to the downright Trumpishly self-confident co-ordinator of membership and outreach received the message, loud and clear, that belonging is contingent upon agreeing — or appearing to agree — with an implicit doctrine, the one that Todd Eklof transgressed against and must be punished to preserve?
Tell me, again, how this is different from a Christian at a fundamentalist church not being free to say, over cookies and coffee, “I don’t believe that Jesus was actually God?”
We know, from the testimony of members converted from those other, “not-free” religions, that it is perfectly possible to sit in a pew, mumble a creed, sing a hymn or listen to a sermon without agreeing with a single word.
We know that when the cognitive dissonance for a Catholic or an African American Pentecostal becomes too painful, the heretic will leave. Sometimes, as with Carlton Pearson, the reason will be publicly declared. More often, the congregant will simply lapse, or stop showing up.
“Good riddance!” the Catholics, Pentecostals and Baptists might say, even if they spare a sigh for checkbooks the heretics take with them when they go. But who knows? Perhaps their strict adherence to Christian dogma will gain them new “pledging units.” There are, after all, Christians actively in search of churches willing to stick to that particular, counter-cultural bottom line.
Our bottom line, however, is not Anti-Racism and no, it’s not supposed to be green-ness or queer-ness, whatever Ms. Skochka might imagine. Our bottom line is intellectual freedom combined with inclusive love. That’s what drew so many of us from wherever we were before to where we are now. What will draw our replacements to the new UU?
Copyright 2019 © Kate Braestrup