What Accountability Is


These are our times.

This week the party not currently in the White House announced its nominee for Vice-President – and the party in the White House responded with sexist and racist attacks. Said party also stepped up its voter suppression efforts, attacking the credibility of mail-in ballots, and seeking to make cuts to the postal service to reduce its capacity.

World-wide deaths from covid-19 in the last week are back up to a seven-day-average of 5800 a day. US deaths in the last week averaged over a 1,000 a day.

The households that could be at risk of eviction in the coming months are tens of millions.

We did not ask for these times. It simply falls to us to live them – to respond to them as people of compassion and wisdom, and to mine the hardship for emergent possibility.

The indigenous American poet Joy Harjo has some words for that. She suggests we take a journey – which, if we cannot do literally, we can do metaphorically – and the party she says you can have when you get back, might have to be a zoom party.

For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet
Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop.
Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.
Open the door, then close it behind you.
Take a breath offered by friendly winds.
They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean.
Give it back with gratitude.
If you sing it will give your spirit lift to fly to the stars’ ears and back.
Acknowledge this earth who has cared for you since you were a dream planting itself precisely within your parents’ desire.
Let your moccasin feet take you to the encampment of the guardians who have known you before time, who will be there after time.
They sit before the fire that has been there without time.
Let the earth stabilize your postcolonial insecure jitters.
Be respectful of the small insects, birds and animal people who accompany you.
Ask their forgiveness for the harm we humans have brought down upon them.
Don’t worry.
The heart knows the way though there may be high-rises, interstates, checkpoints, armed soldiers, massacres, wars, and those who will despise you because they despise themselves.
The journey might take you a few hours, a day, a year, a few years, a hundred, a thousand or even more.
Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.
Do not hold regrets.
When you find your way to the circle, to the fire kept burning by the keepers of your soul, you will be welcomed.
You must clean yourself with cedar, sage, or other healing plant.
Cut the ties you have to failure and shame.
Let go the pain you are holding in your mind, your shoulders, your heart, all the way to your feet. Let go the pain of your ancestors to make way for those who are heading in our direction.
Ask for forgiveness.
Call upon the help of those who love you. These helpers take many forms: animal, element, bird, angel, saint, stone, or ancestor.
Call your spirit back. It may be caught in corners and creases of shame, judgment, and human abuse.
You must call in a way that your spirit will want to return.
Speak to it as you would to a beloved child.
Welcome your spirit back from its wandering. It may return in pieces, in tatters.
Gather them together.
They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.
Your spirit will need to sleep awhile after it is bathed and given clean clothes.
Now you can have a party. Invite everyone you know who loves and supports you. Keep room for those who have no place else to go.
Make a giveaway, and remember, keep the speeches short.
Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way through the dark.


The times are changing – and what a journey. Our Journey Groups start back up in September, when our theme for the month will be journeying and wandering. “Journey” may be what you call it as you look back to see how you got where you are, and “wandering” is what it feels like when you’re in the middle of it – which, in some sense, we always are.

Oh, what a journey. Joy Harjo in that opening reading enjoined us to a journey. "Ask forgiveness," she said. Yet she also said, "Do not hold regrets," and, "Don’t worry," and, "Cut the ties you have to failure and shame." She describes a journey of cleaning ourselves, and putting our spirits back together.

As we arrive at today, this 9th Sunday of summer, our congregation’s journey through the summer so far has crystallized and articulated the important learnings of the last several years, or decades, or centuries. I want to take some time today to do something I never do: recap – because: this summer’s Community Unitarian Universalist worship services have been urgent and beautiful and wise, and I want to recognize that and not let the messages get lost, but kept at the forefront of our minds.

On this Sunday when we dedicated our chalice to our second source: "words and deeds of prophetic people that challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love," let’s review some of the words of prophetic people this summer who graced our pulpit, and who, indeed, challenged us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.

Collectively, this summer’s services tell us that a reckoning and rectifying really could happen, and is happening. Four hundred years of racial hatred is finally turning in the direction of fairness and respect – the direction of beloved community. The prospect of living in a world of substantially greater justice feels greater than I have ever felt it – and this summer we heard that from a range of different preachers.

Remember six weeks ago -- July 5? Petra Thombs shared a service commemorating Juneteenth and traditions of liberation among indigenous and African-American peoples. We learned or remembered Frederick Douglass’ stark exposure of the meaning of Independence Day.
“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him more than all other days in the year the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham, your boasted liberty an unholy license, your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass-fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery.”
Petra made vivid for us the environmental injustice of using Lanape-Ramapough land for toxic waste dumps – and the effort to save their sacred area, Split Rock. She spoke of the black lives that didn’t matter to police officers. “The over-reach of policing,” Petra said, “enables the arm of white supremacy.” Linking the crises, Petra noted that “the devastation of the covid pandemic has exposed the greater virus that has lived in our nation from its inception.”

She said: “A child who can grow up and never be confronted with how they benefit from racial violence is levels behind. A society that creates schools and culture like this has failed in its humanity.”

With this clearer understanding of our predicament, positive moves forward become possible.

Remember five weeks ago – July 12? Rev. Leslie Becknell Marx spoke to us about the power of covenant. She cited the great Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams that human beings become human beings by making promises to each other, for such covenant brings us out of our separateness and brings us into accountability. The relations of accountability – giving account of ourselves to each other -- is liberating. It brings us into our own, into a structure of belonging. This means we have to be ready to learn from each other – to hear how our words or actions have done harm – without getting defensive, and, here’s what’s often the harder part – without feeling shame. No shame.

Rev. Becknell Marx cited Brene Brown that shame is a tool of oppression, and she cited Audre Lourde that the master’s house will not be dismantled by the master’s tools. So: no shame. Shame kills empathy, and empathy is what we need most.

Yet shame may arise -- it comes unbidden (and when have we ever bidden it?). So we must learn to recognize the feeling, identify how it manifests in the body, and manage it – and not talk, text, or type while we are in its grip.

Some slogans can be helpful. For Brene Brown, the slogan she repeats to herself is “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” Rev. Becknell Marx’s own reminder slogan, she said, is “Kind, awkward, brave.” Oriented toward kindness, brave enough to not run from what is awkward. Be kind. Be awkward. Be brave. We actually can do that.

Remember four weeks ago, July 19? Reggie Harris in song and story told us about Sankofa – the symbol of the Akan people of Ghana: a bird with its head turned backward taking an egg from its back. It expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present to make positive progress. And that’s just what Reggie’s service did: drawing on knowledge gained from experience, he limned the possibility of a future of greater racial justice.

Three weeks ago, July 26, I took a turn and spoke about Widening the Circle of Concern – and the way that efforts for racial justice have played out in Unitarian history, including particularly these last few years. Unitarian Universalists have expressed ideals of equality, but we haven’t done the work to learn what we need to learn to make our congregations truly welcoming places for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. The one line from that service that I’d most like us all to remember is where I cited Aisha Hauser, a Unitarian Universalist religious educator of color. Aisha said: “I feel like we [meaning: we Unitarian Universalists] are at a precipice. Either we are going to be who we say we are, or we will be a country club for white people.”

Two weeks ago, Rev. Karen Brammer called our attention to this liminal time – the threshold we are on of a new possibility. Whether you say "precipice," like Aisha, or “threshold of liminal time,” like Karen, there’s a sense that we are in a time of transition and great possibility -- both for our denomination and our world.

Rev. Brammer spoke of "catastrophic success": that our economic and political systems have been so successful – catastrophically successful -- at generating wealth for the wealthy. That "success" brought along with it our three catastrophes: the pandemic, environmental collapse, and racial injustice.

We Unitarian Universalists are well-suited, she said, to encourage just change, and understanding how liminal the present time is will help us be oriented toward making positive change happen.

Rev. Brammer cited Eric Holthaus’s point that that climate crisis is the result of centuries of injustice, that we now stand of the brink of righting the wrongs of the past and rebuilding our society. Thus, says Holthaus, “the next few decades are going to feel like falling in love.” He says it’s about “setting aside everything you thought you knew and trusting that you’ll end up in a radically different place you never could have achieved on your own.” So – yeah – that’s what falling in love does to us.

The world of justice that we now but dimly apprehend, but which powerfully lures us forward, will bring together planetary sustainability, public health, and full-scale racial and multicultural respect.

And then one week ago -- last week -- Rev. Jef Gamblee said, even if we do not engage overtly in white-biased behavior, we are inheritors of White Supremacy. He told of how echoes of his racist childhood live within him all the time, he asked us to reflect on ways we mindlessly sustain White Supremacy – and ways we sustain what Paul Scanlon called the White Compact – that we won’t call out another white person.

Guest preachers at Community Unitarian Universalist have free reign to talk about whatever they find most compelling, and yet every service this summer has been about race and justice – because that’s the compelling theme of our time. We’re all talking about it because finally it feels like we might be getting somewhere. We’re all talking about it because the prospect of living in a society that’s actually coming to grips with its white supremacist culture is the most exciting thing any of us can think of.

We are in the middle of one amazing journey – a journey that seemed impossible just a few years ago.


Holy Creation:

In the fog of our uncertainty, may we find moments of clarity. In the fatigue of our grief, may we find the strength to go on. In the social distancing of our lives, may we know that we are not alone.

Let our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers go out to every neighborhood in the world where protests over life and death concerns continue, though the media vans have moved away. Let our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers go out to every village and every city where people seek to safely gather in the name of peace, asking for recognition and reparations for their neighbors -- in Belarus, Hong Kong, Portland, and everywhere there are demonstrations for justice. May we learn how to speak words of solidarity that matter, how to take actions that make a difference, how to walk with each other down the long road of justice.

Our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers go out to Beirut, Lebanon and all Lebanese people, as their communities are convulsed by the aftereffects of the ammonium nitrate explosion – to the brokenhearted, and to the rescue workers. May we support and accompany their journey towards recovery and justice.

Our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers are with students, teachers, parents, and communities facing decisions around the start of school. Our earnest hope is that those who are making decisions on behalf of our most vulnerable will act with wisdom, discernment, and compassion.

Our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers are with our planet as we learned that the Milne ice shelf – Canada’s last intact ice shelf – has split and collapsed into now-free-floating parts. As the ice vanishes, so do the ecosystems dependent on it, and the shelf’s break-up removes a stopper that was preventing melting glacial water from seeping to the ocean, raising sea levels.

Our thoughts, hearts, and prayers are with climate refugees all over the world. And with those affected by the mud slide in Kerala, India. And with those caught in the cross fire of violent battles in Mocimboa da Praia, Mozambique. And with those living through the emergence of deadly conflicts in Port Sudan, Sudan.

In all these things, we discover again our finitude. We ask of ourselves the mindful intention to delight in what is good, to confront what is cruel, to heal what is damaging.



We are in the middle of one amazing journey – a journey that seemed impossible just a few years ago. We are not there yet – not by a long shot – and there’s no guarantee that the inevitable backlash won’t prevail. Just that we could get there is so exciting that I – and evidently a lot of other ministers and leaders of faith congregations – can’t stop talking about it.

And when I say “we” are not there yet, I don’t just mean that the country isn’t there yet. I mean you and me. We have to keep learning. Robin DiAngelo tells this story:
‘In my workshops, I often ask people of color, “How often have you given white people feedback on our unaware yet inevitable racism? How often has that gone well for you?”
Eye-rolling, head-shaking, and outright laughter follow, along with the consensus of rarely, if ever.
I then ask, “What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change that behavior?”
Recently a man of color sighed and said, “It would be revolutionary.” I ask my fellow whites to consider the profundity of that response. It would be revolutionary if we could receive, reflect, and work to change the behavior.’
That’s it. That’s the revolution: to be a people that can graciously learn. Not get defensive, or insist that we didn’t intend any harm – as if that made everything OK. And not succumbing to shame because we didn’t already know. Graciously learn from feedback. That’s what accountability looks like.

I know that we often hear angry voices calling for somebody – a police officer, say, who murdered an unarmed black man – to be held accountable. And what “held accountable” amounts to in that context is punished: charged with the crime they have evidently committed; and, if they are guilty, found guilty; and then sentenced according to the same formula applied to a black man or anyone else found guilty of that crime.

Punishment is our institution of last resort for holding people accountable. The call for a wrong-doer to be held accountable amounts to a call for punishment only in a context where no other means of accountability is available. When we have run out of all other ways to uphold the principle that everyone has a responsibility to other people – a responsibility, among other things, to not cause certain kinds of harm designated in law – punishment is the last resort for insisting on that principle of responsibility to one another.

Certainly there’s a legitimate question that needs serious examination whether our prison system ever does any good for anybody – for the convicted, for the victim, for public safety generally. Proposals that we should close all prisons -- and the thesis that fully developed institutions of restorative justice without imprisonment would better reduce crime, promote public safety, a healthy society, the healing of victims, and the redemption of offenders -- are worth taking seriously. In that conversation, we would also address the very difficult questions of how could we get there from here.

But if we’re going to have prisons at all, we need to use them equitably. It’s funny how in America today, the thought that prison is harsh and unnecessary, and an alternative to prison would be more appropriate, seems to enter certain heads only when the accused is white.

Punishment is our institution of last resort for insisting that we are all accountable for how we treat each other. We arrive at that last resort when all other structures of accountability have failed. When they don't fail -- that is to say, when proper accountability exists at all -- no punishment is involved.

Accountability is what we long for. I don’t mean that we long for other people to be held accountable for behaviors we don’t like. I mean we ourselves long to be held accountable, to be in relationships of accountability, to be, in other words, in community – seen for who we are – giving account for ourselves.

Accountable means answerable – liable to be called to account. To be accountable means you count – you matter. To be accountable means you belong.

It’s been ten years since I read Peter Block’s book, Community: the Structure of Belonging, and it left a permanent impress on my understanding of accountability. Accountability means community, and it means belonging.

Peter Block says:
“The essential work is to build social fabric, both for its own sake and to enable chosen accountability among [members]. When members care for each other, they become accountable to each other. Care and accountability create a healthy community." (30)
In another passage, Block says:
“Restorative community is created when we allow ourselves to use the language of healing and relatedness and belonging without embarrassment. It recognizes that taking responsibility for one’s own part in creating the present situation is the critical act of courage and engagement, which is the axis around which the future rotates. The essence of restorative community building is not economic prosperity or the political discourse or the capacity of leadership; it is members’ willingness to own up to their contribution, to be humble, to choose accountability, and to have faith in their own capacity to make authentic promises to create the alternative future. This means that the essential aspect of the restoration of community is a context in which each member chooses to be accountable rather than entitled. Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole, and it flows out of the kind of conversations we have about the new story we want to take our identity from. It means we have conversations of what we can do to create the future. Entitlement is a conversation about what others can or need to do to create the future for us. . . . (48)
"Entitlement is essentially the conversation, ‘What’s in it for me?’....Entitlement is the outcome of a patriarchal culture,...The cost of entitlement is that it is an escape from accountability and soft on commitment. It gets in the way of authentic membership. What is interesting is that the existing public conversation claims to be tough on accountability; but the language of accountability that occurs in a retributive context is code for ‘control.’ High-control systems are unbearably soft on accountability. They keep screaming for tighter controls, new laws, and bigger systems, but the scream, the expose their weakness. The weakness in the dominant view of accountability is that it thinks people can be held accountable – that we can force people to be accountable....It is an illusion to believe that retribution, incentives, legislation, new standards, and tough consequences will cause accountability. This illusion is what creates entitlement – and worse, it drives us apart;...Every colonial and autocratic regime rises to power by turning members against each other....Commitment and accountability are forever paired, for they do not exist without each other. Accountability [remember,] is the willingness to care for the well-being of the whole; commitment is the willingness to make a promise with no expectation of return....Commitment is the antithesis of entitlement and barter. Unconditional commitment with no thought to ‘What’s in it for me?’ is the emotional and relational essence of community. It is to choose a path for its own sake.” (70-72)
For 400 years the white power structure has relied on its entitlements – incentives and coercions – and has avoided accountability. This is the source of our defensiveness and shame when we are called out for something that is hurtful to a member of a less dominant culture or group. When we're called out, we are prone to respond with defensiveness, or shame, or both because we are products of a system of entitlements that uses shame as a primary coercive strategy. We’ve been conditioned to feel judged and ashamed – punishable – when in fact we are being invited into relationships of care in which we are learning from each other how to more effectively care -- how to make love real.

It's striking that three years ago when UUA President Peter Morales resigned in the face of being strongly called out, the people who had been criticizing Peter's actions felt no satisfaction. Instead, just the opposite: they felt hurt that he withdrew from the conversation, withdrew from accountability. They really were not seeking his punishment or replacement -- they were seeking accountability, and they wanted him to hang in there with them -- to graciously and thoughtfully consider the feedback and work to change. If you had been watching that conflict unfold, and concluded, "the critics won," then you were looking through the lens of the old paradigm of power. There's a new paradigm -- a new culture for understanding what it means to call someone out. In this new culture -- more in evidence among the younger folks and among activists -- what sounds like criticism in the old paradigm is a call for accountability. It's not seeking to banish you in shame, but to draw you in to a greater belonging.

When we are called out for a white supremacist assumption (which we made because white supremacy is baked into the neural pathways of everyone of whatever race – pretty much throughout the industrialized world) we are, in fact, not being judged. We are called out because this is how assumptions get unbaked: slowly, and piece by piece, and person to person.

We really aren’t being judged -- or blamed or shamed. And that’s the hardest part to grasp of what’s going on in this liminal time of emergent possibility. We aren’t being judged. We are, very differently, being called to community – a wider and richer and more beloved community than we have ever known. May it be so. Amen.

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