Liberty, Justice, and Sexual Ethics

Last week, I talked about Queer Theory and how plastic and socially constructed sexuality is. Today I want to follow up by reflecting how ethics interacts with all of that.

In my lifetime, the acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ people has changed a lot. There’s been dramatic expansion of sexual liberty. Yes, there’s still fear and hatred. As of last spring, there were “more than 400 proposed bills in states across the U.S. that aim to restrict the rights, freedom and fair treatment of LGBTQ people.” Liberty can be frightening -- and what we're seeing is the backlash against the dramatic expansion of sexual liberty. What might help address the fears is to understand that universal acceptance of LGBTQ people would not mean anything goes, would not mean there were no longer any standards of sexual ethics. But the principles of sexual ethics that serve us now are different from those in the past.

The ways that we love – with whom and how we express love – are so intensely personal and private, yet societies have always sought to regulate, to channel, the energies of romantic attraction because those energies can be destructive: violent, abusive. Human libidos can disrupt social harmony. Love should be personal and private, yet we need guidelines to define and protect that space because the drives that can express in love can also express in ways that harm and are socially disruptive.

Liberty is a tremendous good – and at the same time society has an interest in fostering stable relationships. Free ranging sexual energies – like the stereotype from earlier generations of sailors on shore leave, looking for a good time and getting into fights – can be harmful. A whole society of everyone acting like that would be miserable and unsustainable.

Love needs liberty, yet it also needs justice. Cornel West, speaking about general social justice, said that justice is what love looks like in public. We can add that romantic love needs to be what justice looks like in private.

In the world into which I was born – the world of the 1950s – the prevailing attitude was that sexuality be channeled through recognizable forms of courtship and into heterosexual marriage. Sexual ethics used to be simply: Only within marriage. And marriage was understood as a set of five tightly-linked features:
  • creation of a household of two adults;
  • sexual exclusivity to within that household;
  • production of babies;
  • raising of the children; and
  • perpetuation of the parents’ genetic lines.
That was the package deal. And, naturally, the two adults had to consist of one woman and one man because that was what producing babies required. Being married implied all five of those things -- most of the time: a two-adult household, sexual exclusivity, making babies, raising them, passing on genes. If, every once in a while, an infertile man or woman got married, or a couple past child-bearing age, that was OK. As long as that was the exception to the rule, the basic model (that those five went together), remained intact.

The sexual ethic, then, was to support the package deal, to uphold the idea that any one of those five parts ought to imply all of the other four as well. So the ethic of the time declared: don’t make babies outside a two-adult, sexually exclusive household – but do enter into two-adult exclusive households, and, once there, do make and raise children. Those were the norms. Thus, the sexual ethic included such principles as no premarital sex, no extramarital sex, and no sex that wasn’t the kind that procreates.

Over the course of my lifetime, those previously inextricable features of marriage came apart -- and with that dissolution the old sexual ethic has faded. The arrival of reliable birth control was a huge change, and that’s been within my lifetime. The year I was born, 1959, was also the year the pharmaceutical company Searle sought FDA approval for the birth control pill. I was a toddler when The Pill came on the market, and of course had no idea what that was all about or how it would change things. Reliable birth control meant that otherwise fertile opposite-sex couples could, as they chose, form a household together without producing or raising babies.

At the same time, various other social forces have brought about a rise in out-of-wedlock births and single-parent families resulting from producing and raising children without two adults making a household together.

You can have marriage without sex, and sex without marriage (which has always been fairly common but in recent decades has lost much of the stigma it used to have). You can have sex without babies and babies without sex – the former through the aforementioned new technology of birth control, and the latter through new technologies of artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. Through adoption, you can propagate your genes without raising the children, and raise children without propagating your genes. The package deal has come undone. And with its undoing, the sexual ethic that supported that package deal no longer compels.

Yet sexuality remains, as much as ever, a powerful force that can bring us into our wholeness -- or break us into little pieces. As much as ever, we need a way to say what’s OK and what isn’t when it comes to romance, and sex, and coupling.

Things that weren’t regarded as OK in the 1950s have become OK. At the same time things that used to be OK, or at least fuzzy, have become more clearly not OK. The change is illustrated by how we see a certain iconic photo taken in 1945. Amid the celebrations in America of Victory in Japan, the photo shows a US Navy sailor, in Times Square New York, embracing and kissing a total stranger, who appears to be nurse (she was actually a dental hygienist). At the time, the image was seen as a delightful expression of the ebullient celebration. What was seen then as simple joyful jubilation, we now see as sexual assault, normalized. In the 1940s, consent was not so strong a part of our sexual ethics as it is today. Along with some things becoming OK that didn’t used to be, other things have become not OK that did used to be – as our sexuality has morphed in the wake of the coming apart of the five-part package deal that used to be the meaning of marriage.

Our private relationships and our public relationships foster each other. In both cases, it’s about treating people in ways that respect and honor them to facilitate their flourishing and our own. This requires understanding, and it requires compassion, and those are skills that Unitarian Universalist congregations exist to help develop. Whether the issue is hate or the issue is love, the need is justice -- respecting and honoring personhood; flourishing by helping each other flourish; liberation from domination.

Our bodies are themselves unique vehicles of potential liberation and fulfillment. They are integral parts of our identity. When our bodies love, the first awakening of love may not be a matter of choice. It comes upon us unbidden. We “fall into” love. Yet love can be directed by choice. Even in the beginning, we can influence our loves by, as Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“choosing to pay attention to certain realities or not, putting ourselves in a position to discover lovableness...,choosing to believe (even if we do not yet 'see,'...) in the value of persons or of anything in creation....We can identify with our loves and freely ratify them....We can also repudiate, or defer, some of our loves by choosing not to identify with them.” (Farley, Just Love)
Where there is choice, there is space for ethical reflection. How shall our liberty embrace justice?

Justice means equal respect. Yet the concrete meaning of respect must be tailored to cultural differences and to individual differences. Justice is a social concern, including romantic and sexual justice -- and sometimes it is a highly contentious social concern, as we saw, for example, in Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991 and for Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

We all have a role to play in creating a favorable social context for personal integrity, freedom, flourishing – and thus for individuals to choose love that is true and also based in justice. We all have a role to play in working out sexual ethical norms. Ethics isn’t law. Ethics is a field of philosophy: a discourse in which we try to tease out from the contradictory mish-mash of culture which parts are worth trying to uphold more consistently. Its usefulness is not in settling questions, but in providing us with some tools and some angles of approach to help us think through the questions for ourselves.

A Catholic Nun, of all people, has done thoughtful and helpful work in articulating sexual ethics in this context where the old sexual ethic recognizably does not serve us. Sister of Mercy Margaret Farley was Professor of Christian Ethics and Yale Divinity School. Her book, Just Love, was denounced by the Holy See for moral views which opposed the teachings of the Catholic Church, so it's got that to recommend it. I think Sister Margaret Farley has put her finger on some excellent considerations as we wrestle with what justice requires in our intimate relationships, so let us look into the principles she offers.

First: Do No Unjust Harm.

Harm can take many forms: “physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.” In love and its sexual expression, we are uniquely tender and vulnerable -- so acute attention to the risks of harm is called for.

Sexual expression is highly variable, and just because something is repulsive to you or me doesn’t make it wrong. Pain may be a part of sexual expression, and for some folks it may be particularly central. Bodily damage may part of that. Sexuality-related cosmetic surgeries also constitute bodily damage. So we can’t simply say, "Do No Harm." What we can say is do no unjust harm. That’s the overall guideline, the overall ethic, the first rule. The other points are for clarifying what "unjust" is.

Second: Free Consent.

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Consent seems such an obvious principle that it’s remarkable how much the emphasis on consent has grown in recent years. And it’s worth remembering that there has been resistance. It wasn’t that long ago – it was in 2010 – that fraternity members at Yale University gathered outside the campus Women’s Center to chant, “No means yes.”

Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent.

But seduction is complicated. It’s certainly not wrong to try to make yourself attractive to a prospective mate. It’s not wrong to lower the lights, put candles on the table, and Barry White on the stereo. Promise-keeping and truth-telling are aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person. If promise-keeping and truth-telling are honored -- and neither party has "limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power" -- then I'd say we're in the realm of wholesome courtship rather than ethically problematic seduction.

If alcohol is going to be involved, then the consent should be clear at some point before inebriation, but does ethics require it to be clear before the first glass of wine? It starts to get a bit fuzzy. Certainly, the clearer the consent, and the more clear-minded the judgment of both parties when they consent, the better.

At the same time, one of the wonderful things about love is that it isn't coldly, rationally clear-minded. Moreover, we may be of partly divided mind when it comes to romance. Part of you may be ready to jump in, while part of you is not so sure. Yes, as we teach our children, you’re the boss of your body, but this boss is sometimes a divided internal parliament. To address these difficulties, it may help to look to the "free" part of "free consent." However swept up in nonrational feelings we may be, and however internally divided we may feel, where our liberty is not compromised, we are on solid ground. "Limited capacity for choice" means limited liberty, whether it is "because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power" (including loss of ordinary power from inebriation). Those conditions don't feel free. Exhilarating emotion, on the other hand, even if not rational, feels free -- indeed, it may feel very freeing.

Fortunately, the "consent" requirement gets some help from further guidelines like mutuality, equality, and commitment.

Third: Mutuality.

Ethical sexual expression involves mutual participation. What we’re talking about here are the old ideas of “the male as active and the female as passive, the woman as receptacle and the man as fulfiller.” That’s a violation of the mutuality principle. True relationship entails a context recognizing each partner’s activity and each partner’s receptivity -- each partner’s giving and each partner's receiving. Mutuality need not be perfect, but it does need to be present in some degree. “Two liberties meet, two bodies meet, two hearts come together” – and if they aren’t both putting heart and self into the encounter – if either partner is overwhelmingly passive, hardly participating, it isn’t mutual.

Fourth: Equality.

Justice in love means that the partners bring roughly equal levels of power and autonomy to the relationship. Inequalities of power may come from differences in social and economic status, or differences in age and maturity. Teachers and their students have an inherent power inequality, as do counselors and their clients, ministers and their parishioners. It’s not that such inequalities shouldn’t exist, just that they shouldn’t exist in a romantic relationship.

The principle of equality also “rules out treating a partner as property, a commodity, or an element in market exchange.” Thus prostitution is unethical on grounds of violating equality. Ethical sexuality may include all manner of role-playing, but if a partner is an actual element in a market exchange, that’s not playing a role. It’s an inherent inequality. Any overlap of the sphere of paying people for goods and services and the sphere of sexual relationship, any blurring of those spheres, compromises our flourishing.

Equality, like mutuality, is rarely perfect. The ethical concern is that the power be balanced enough, as Farley puts it: “for each to appreciate the uniqueness and difference of the other, and for each to respect one another as ends in themselves” – and not a means only.

Fifth: Commitment.

The important consideration is that any sexual encounter be entered into with an openness to the possibility that it may lead to long-term relationship. If it turns out to be a one-night stand, that, in itself, is not an ethical violation, as long as it was entered into with openness to the possibility that it become something more. As Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“Sexuality is of such importance in human life that it needs to be nurtured, sustained, as well as disciplined, channeled, controlled....Brief encounters...cannot mediate the kind of union -- of knowing and being known, loving and being loved -- for which human relationality offers the potential.”
The rhetoric of commitment can get overblown, and it is worth remembering that “particular forms of commitment are themselves only means, not ends.” Nevertheless, as Sister Farley reflects:
“Given all the caution learned from contemporary experience, we may still hope that our freedom is sufficiently powerful to gather up our love and give it a future; that thereby our sexual desire can be nurtured into a tenderness that has not forgotten passion. We may still believe that to try to use our freedom in this way is to be faithful to the love that arises in us or even the yearning that rises from us.”
Thank you, Sister.

Sixth: Fruitfulness.

The ethical sexual relationship bears fruit. Traditionally, this has meant procreation, but there is a deeper underlying principle of fruitfulness: that the relationship must not close in on itself. The sexual encounter occurs behind closed doors, but not in a social vacuum. Love brings new life to those who love, and that new life is to be brought outward to the nourishing of other relationships. A relationship of both love and justice strengthens the partners, and encourages them in their work in the world. Thus is the romantic love fruitful because it serves the good of all.

Finally, we should note that sexual ethics includes obligations that everyone in a society bears to affirm for its members as sexual beings. There are claims of respect that all of us are called to honor – respect for the many forms that human sexuality may take:
“single or married, gay or straight, bisexual or ambiguously gendered, old or young, abled or challenged in the ordinary forms of sexual expression, they have claims to respect from...the wider society.”
Justice in love requires not only that we bring certain principles to our own romantic and intimate relationships, but that we participate in making a society that honors and respects romantic and intimate relationships.

The principles of justice do not stop at the bedroom door. In fact, they go through that door in both directions: entering to inform the sexual encounter, and, strengthened and affirmed there, exiting to inform all our relations.

Justice, as Cornel West said, is what love looks like in public. Recognizing, however, that love can take corrupted forms – can be manipulative, domineering, and abusive -- we do need to add that love must look like justice in private.

May it be so. Amen.


Queer Theory

Our theme of the month is Pluralism. Two weeks ago I mentioned the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity to help us think about how we might move beyond our tendency to minimize cultural difference, better appreciate how deep culture goes, and open ourselves to learning how to better adapt to different cultural contexts. Last week, in our Zoom service, we did some history as a subversive activity, looking at how the white landowners in the 17th century invented the American tradition of racism, and how that legacy affects and infects everything.

Understanding these matters helps us live out and live into our value, pluralism. It’s a value that Unitarian Universalists are considering codifying in our Association’s bylaws, with language that says:
“We celebrate that we are all sacred beings, diverse in culture, experience, and theology. We covenant to learn from one another in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.”
Today, we turn to pluralism of sexual orientations and gender identity.

In our free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we always confront two huge mysteries: ourselves, and other people. Whatever your sexual orientation or gender identity, just because you are or have that orientation and that identity, doesn’t mean you understand it. We remain mysteries to ourselves. And other people are also mysteries to us. We can’t clear up these mysteries, but we can help them seem manageable – we can acquire some helpful conceptual tools. So I propose today to lead you on a journey – a tour through a landscape of ideas and concepts. Our starting point is that last sentence from our description of Pluralism: “We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.” That’s our starting point. It’s also our ending point. What we will find is that we are led back to where we started – our covenant to “embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.”

T.S. Eliot said:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
And that’s what this exploration will be. We’ll arrive where we started – only, we might know the place a bit better.

Concept Number One: Ignore It – Or Try To.

According to this concept, the thing to do with sexuality that may be different from your own is ignore it. What consenting people do in private is irrelevant – it has nothing to do with our shared life. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Since sexual orientation has nothing to do with character, reliability, competence, trustworthiness – has nothing to do with whether a person has inherent worth and dignity, it should just be ignored. Let’s dispense with labels like lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and treat all people as just people.

In race relations, this attitude was called being – or trying to be – color-blind. Similarly, we might be, or try to be, sexual orientation blind, or gender identity blind. But then we get to:

Concept Number Two: Honoring Identity

The problem with concept number one is that people want to be seen and honored, acknowledged and respected for all of who they are. During the four years in the early 90s that I was a professor of philosophy at Fisk University – a school with a predominantly African American student body – I saw every day how important African American identity was to my students. Certainly, they wanted to be respected – and they wanted to be respected AS African American -- respected as what they were. They didn’t want white people pretending to be unable to see color.

We like to be recognized for who we are. We don’t want our identity to be socially erased. We want to be proud of who we are, not told that a key part of our experience is meaningless. Similarly, many LGBTQ folk want to be recognized and accepted for all of who they are.

We are all entitled to equal concern and respect. But we don’t have to pretend that we’re all the same. We want to be recognized for who we are.

Color-blindness, or gender-blindness, or sexual-orientation-blindness, tries, with varying degrees of earnestness, to pretend that we are all the same. This pretense has the effect of projecting the majority’s norms. That’s how color-, gender-, or sexual-orientation-"blindness" plays out. Pretending that there’s no difference between black and white is basically tantamount to pretending that we are all white. Color-blindness allows the norms and assumptions of white culture to hold unchallenged sway. In the same way, sexual-orientation-blindness amounts to projecting heteronormativity.

Now we start getting into areas that are going to be for many of us a bit more challenging. You see, while many in the LGBTQ community worked hard for recognition of same-sex marriage, not all LGBQ folk have unalloyed enthusiasm for the spread of acceptance of same-sex marriage. Marriage itself is heteronormative, they point out. Marriage takes the heterosexual model as the norm: you have one partner, you live together and run a household together, for life – or at least starting out with the intention that it be for life. But maybe that model should be challenged rather than pursued. Some queer theorists criticize the traditional family as a deeply problematic institution that ought to challenged and called into question.

Concept Number Three: Identity -- and Everything -- Are Shifting Cultural Constructs

Some queer theorists also challenge the very idea of identity. Concept one was, "let’s ignore it." Concept two was, "let’s recognize identity as a way to respect who a person is." Now we get to concept three: identity is a problematic notion.

Starting with gender, let us acknowledge that the clear black-and-white categories “male” and “female” aren’t really so clear. Some people are born intersex, where the biological sex cannot be clearly classified as either male or female. The practice of forcibly resolving the ambiguity, forcing the child into one box or the other, sometimes using surgery to help resolve the ambiguity on one side or the other, has been harmful and traumatic.

Let us learn to accept ambiguity. In fact, suggest some queer theorists, more gender ambiguity might be good for us all. We might all dress and style ourselves in ways designed to make it harder instead of easier for others to categorize our gender at a glance. I remember years ago if I saw someone – like, at the mall -- and I couldn’t immediately tell if they were a woman or a man, I wanted to know, and I’d keep stealing glances to see if I could ascertain the person’s gender. I’ve learned to be more comfortable with not needing to know.

Sexuality is culturally constructed – and culture is constantly shifting. Cultural studies professor Nikki Sullivan writes in A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (2003):
“Sexuality is not natural, but rather, is discursively constructed. Moreover, sexuality…is constructed, experienced, and understood in culturally and historically specific ways. Thus, we could say that there can be no true or correct account of heterosexuality, of homosexuality, of bisexuality....Contemporary views of particular relationships and practices are not necessarily any more enlightened or any less symptomatic of the times than those held by previous generations.” (1)
Queer theorist David Halperin describes three very different cultures in which sexual contact between older men and boys has been acceptable: the ancient Greeks, some Native American tribes, and New Guinea tribesmen. He asks: Is this the same sexuality? Such contact has some superficial similarities, including acceptability, in all three cultures, yet the social contexts and meanings of that contact was so varied, the cultural understanding of what was going on so diverse, that we can’t call it the same sexuality.

The brilliant French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, pioneered new ways to think about and understand ourselves. Foucault is a founding figure for a number of kinds of study, including queer theory. His three volume History of Sexuality revealed how sexuality has been culturally constructed in Western civilization. In Britain, and much of Europe, prior to the 1880s, Foucault points out, “sodomy” meant any form of sexuality that did not have procreation as its aim. Using birth control counted as sodomy – and penalties against sodomy were severe.

Analysis of the time reveals that the laws were directed against acts, not against a particular type of person. There was no understanding of sexual orientation as an identity – any more than we have an understanding of adulterer as an identity -- or, say, “person who parks in a no parking zone.”

It wasn’t until the later 1800s that
“particular acts came to be seen as an expression of an individual’s psyche, or as evidence of inclinations of a certain type of subject.” (Sullivan 3)
Certain forms of sexuality moved from being seen as horrible acts to which anyone might succumb, to being seen as the expression of a particular type of person. As Sigmund Freud expressed and magnified the new way of thinking, sex was at the root of everything about us. Thus, “the homosexual” became a personage – a life form, characterized as a certain type of degenerate whose entire character, everything about him, was corrupted by his sexuality.

Such a viewpoint hardly seems to us like progress. Yet, as traumatic and disastrous as that cultural phase was for many, it paved the way for our later attitudes. Once we saw sexual orientation as an identity – subject to treatment rather than to criminal or moral judgment -- the ground was laid for the next step. Only then could culture move to seeing that identity as not harming anyone else.

From there to: not harming themselves either. And then: to being tolerated, to being accepted, to being welcomed, to being celebrated as a worthy and beautiful part of the diverse spectrum of human expression. That’s a huge change – a series of huge changes – all within the last 130 years or so.

The field of queer theory, then, examining the vastly different ways that sexuality manifests and is understood in different cultures and times, raises for us the possibility that our cultural changes in the last 130 years might not be a matter of finally seeing the truth that has been there all along. Rather, they might be a matter of the contingent, accidental evolution of concepts – evolving in ways outside of anyone’s explicit control or intention, yet not dictated by something called "objective reality" either.

The evolution metaphor here is apt. In species evolution, the objective environment establishes conditions in which many species will fail – will never appear or will quickly die out – yet the objective environment does not guide and direct evolution toward one true species. Rather, the objective environment is one in which increasingly diverse species emerge and find ways to be successful. By analogy, we might say that the reality of our biology establishes conditions in which some concepts of sexuality would never appear or would quickly die out – yet biological reality does not guide or direct our understanding toward the one truth. Rather, the array of possible ways of thinking about sexuality, while constrained by facts of biology, remains as infinite as the array of possible species.

(Are you having a hard time wrapping your mind around how it can be constrained, yet still infinite? Look, suppose I tell you to pick a number. Then I say it has to be a prime number. Your choice is now constrained: the number has to be a whole number, a positive integer, and prime. But there are an infinite number of prime numbers. So: constrained, and still infinite.)

Biology gives us some constraints – but the possibilities for cultural constructions of what to do with those constraints are infinite.

OK. Where are we? Let’s review. First level: forget about labels, categories. Just love people. Second level: it’s not so simple. People want to be recognized and respected for who they are. We have an identity as a man or a woman – or as nonbinary. We have an identity as a person of color, or not. And we have an identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight. My identity in these areas is not relevant to my rights, not relevant to whether or not I may be oppressed or discriminated against, not relevant to my claim to equal concern and respect. My identity IS relevant to my sense of who I am, and I want my society to recognize and honor and respect who I am. A "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy requires me to hide who I am. (Actually, it doesn’t require straight white men like me to hide who we are because under white heteronormativity my particular identity happens to be the one that is assumed rather than hidden – which is why recognizing and respecting alternative identities matters.)

Then comes a third level: the notion of identity itself is challenged. Not only are the categories fuzzy and unreliable, with people falling along continua rather than into one neat box or another, but the continua themselves are contingent social constructs subject to deconstruction and reconstruction into something different. Sexuality is plastic, and the ways we make meaning of it are even more plastic. Which brings us to:

Making Peace With Ambiguity

It’s confusing, it’s changing, we can’t really get a handle on the right way to think about it – because any way to think about it is one more temporary product of culture and language and power. No matter how enlightened our attitudes may be, no matter how up we are on LGBTQ literature, the latest books on gender and transgender biology, psychology, and experience – no matter how conversant we are in heteronormative critique – it’ll all be different in 50 years, if not sooner. And your currently enlightened attitude will seem to people then benighted.

Queer theory helps us let go of our assumptions and not replace them with new ones. Queer theory itself is not so much a "theory," as an understanding that no theory can be the one right theory. Queer theory helps us resist the temptation to resolve ambiguity, for in that space of ambiguity, we come back to where we started: simply embracing our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.

Tell me what’s important to you. It might be your sexual identity, your gender identity, your racial identity, or it might not be. Tell, or don’t tell. It's up to you. And I might ask, or not ask – though keeping up, amid the constantly shifting cultural landscape, with what questions are inappropriate is part of the ongoing task. If I do ask, you can answer, or not answer, or say it’s not important to you, or tell me that you really just don’t know. This is how “We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.” It requires the courage to stand in ambiguity and shine a warm embracing light. There may once have been good reasons for wanting to resolve the ambiguities of sex and sexuality. It may have even felt unbearable "not to know" -- and know instantly -- who was and who was not "automatically" in the category of potential mates for reproduction. With a little practice, though, we can be comfortable not knowing.

Our journey through queer theory has led us back to “arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” What we know about this place now is just how indefinite and undefined everything is. Embracing our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect requires neither a rejection of, nor an insistence on, any notion of identity. What it does require is courage: the courage to take each ambiguous moment as it is; the courage to love each ambiguous person, however he or she or ze presents.

May it be so. Amen.


Seeing Race

On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, as we celebrate what would have been Dr. King’s 95th birthday, race-based distrust, prejudice, and bigotry continues to bedevil and rive our nation. Our world, too – but I must say especially our nation.

The first balm for the wounds of division is truth. The bandages of programs, the splints of institutions, and the sutures of social justice will all fail without the salve of truth: the awareness of what is so, shared knowledge of how things are. Let us begin with the truth about our history, for that will help us understand why racial harmony is so particularly difficult for this country. Some of us know the history in, at least, the broad outline that I will recount – but perhaps not all of us do. In these times when simply teaching African American history is being banned and restricted in some states, simply to tell this history is a subversive act. Come, let us be subversive together.

America did not invent prejudice, or discrimination against people that, in any physical way including skin color, looked different. Indeed, as I mentioned last week, anxiety about people who are different appears to be an innate condition in a certain percent of the population, and it can certainly be a learned condition in many more. What America did invent was the modern conception of race, and the racism based upon that conception.

The word “race” used to mean any other group of people. If you lived in northern France, the people a couple hundred miles south of you were a southerly race. Protestants referred to the Catholic race, and vice-versa. Nobles spoke of the peasant race. The emergence of the modern sense of race was a deliberate device of the wealthy landowners in the colonies in the 1600s. They invented racism as we know it in order to co-opt the poor whites into helping sustain slavery.

The first enslaved Africans on soil that became the US were brought along with Spanish exploring expeditions. They came and went from what is now the US starting in 1526. The first Africans held in slavery by settler colonialists in the English colonies were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 – one year before the Mayflower. They were brought on a ship called (ironically? aptly?) The White Lion.

By the middle and late 1600s, much of the manual agricultural labor of the colonies was being done by what we would now call white indentured servants. England’s anti-poverty program of the time was to make poverty a crime punishable by deportation to America essentially as slave, but with the provision for earning one’s freedom after 10 or 20 or sometimes as much as 30 years of labor. From what we can tell, when enslaved people from Africa appeared to work beside them in the field, the darker skin color aroused no particular animosity. Whether you had paler skin or darker skin, you were kept in separate quarters, supervised by an overseer, whipped as a means of “correction,” often underfed and underclothed, and stereotyped as vile and brutish and subhuman. The two groups, both despised objects of the contempt of the bourgeoisie, saw each other as sharing the same predicament. As historian Edmund Morgan notes:
“It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.” (American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, 1975, p. 327)
And sometimes European servants combined with enslaved Africans to rebel against the ruling elite.

In Colonial America of the 1600s, the main difference between indentured servants and enslaved ones was in the economics for the landowners. The workers that came from Africa cost more, but they paid off in the long run because the landowner didn’t have to release them after a certain period of time – and because any children of an enslaved woman were also enslaved. For that reason, the slave demand brought a steady increase through the 1600s in the population of enslaved African.

As time went by, the trend of increased numbers of African slaves combined with more and more of the indentured serving out their time and more and more European-born poor freedmen in the population. Only then did the landowners begin to draw the sort of race line that today is so familiar to us. They did it as a strategy against rebellion.

The freedmen were persons without house or land, rankled by unfair taxes, the greed of legislators who then, as now, were in the pockets of the wealthy, and land use regulations that made it very difficult for them to ever own land. Freedmen with “disappointed hopes” and enslaved people of “desperate hope” were joining forces to mount ever more virulent rebellions (Thandeka, Learning to Be White, p. 45). The landowners strategy was to invent American racism as we know it. Whereas previously the big divide was between the vile rabble over there and the landowners over here, the new way of grouping people encouraged the European-born part of the rabble to think of themselves as “white” – as sharing something crucial with the landowners which the African-born did not. Thus the freedmen were co-opted into betraying their own economic self-interest to support the landowners’ interests with which they identified by virtue of their shared whiteness.

It was a brilliant divide-and-keep-conquered strategy “to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt” (Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, 1975, p. 327). The trick was accomplished by such means as passing new laws offering some protections to whites even while still indentured. As of 1705 in Virginia, any enslaved person of African descent could be given 30 lashes on the bare back, but it was forbidden to whip a Christian white servant naked. The whipping happened, but the extra indignity did not – which helped the indentured begin to learn to be white, to identify with their oppressors against the even more oppressed.

That same year, 1705, horses, cattle, and hogs were confiscated from enslaved people and sold to benefit poor whites. Any white was given the right to whip a black servant. Land owners were urged to bar the people they enslaved from learning the skills of a trade in order to preserve that work for white artisans. In ways subtle and obvious, a dignity based on whiteness alone was created where nothing of the sort had been imagined 50 years before.
“The gap between the wealthy and poor widened as a result of slave productivity. Thus the sense that poor whites now shared status and dignity with their social betters was largely illusory.” (Thandeka, p. 47)
But that illusion was powerful. Being white meant despising blacks, which afforded this illusory dignity that kept poor whites from agitating for economic reform on their own behalf and instead adopting attitudes and behavior to assist the landowners in keeping the blacks down.

We carry that legacy today. Many of the whites among us, if we think back, would be able to tell a story of how we learned to be white. For me, it was on the school bus when I was in first-grade. A big third-grader, sophisticated and worldly-wise in my six-year-old eyes, asked me if I liked President Johnson. I shrugged. He said he didn’t like Johnson ‘cause he lets – and here he used the N word – go to our school. The look of contempt upon his face made me feel such a relief to not be the object of that contempt.

I learned to be white on that day. I was whited by a system invented in this country two and a half centuries before by landowners who wanted to suppress rebellion, a system that took on a life of its own and long outlived its original purpose.

If you are white, when did you learn that? If you are not, when was your earliest significant lesson about what your race was, and what it meant? We are all wounded by the race line that slashes across our psyches, whatever side of that line we may think we’re on.

Once the race line has been established, there’s a projection that occurs. Learning to be white means learning to project upon darker-skinned people everything in the white person that feels low, vile, or shameful. A constant, nagging sense of unworthiness is part of the deal. Here, you get to be white, like the rich folks, but you can’t help noticing that you’re still poor, so maybe you’re not really worthy of your whiteness. The more whites were made to feel unworthy, the more they projected unworthy qualities on the group they were allowed to, and told to, despise. The more whites internalized that message, “You’re white, so if you just work hard enough, you’re bound to be OK,” the more they projected upon blacks the laziness they feared in themselves.

White racism against blacks is always a version of self-disgust adopted in a desperate attempt to hold onto worth and dignity in the face of exclusion from the upper classes. This begins to explain a few mysteries. Martin Luther King brought his war on slums to Chicago for his 1966 campaign for open housing. He encountered greater hostility in Chicago than he had ever seen in Atlanta, growing up, or in Montgomery, leading the bus boycott, or anywhere. Rocks and bricks were thrown. As King marched, someone hurled a stone. It struck King on the head. Stunned, he fell to one knee for several seconds. As he rose, aides and bodyguards surrounded him to protect him from the rocks, bottles and firecrackers that rained down on the demonstrators. King was one of 30 people who were injured. The disturbance resulted in 40 arrests.

He later explained why he put himself at risk: "I have to do this--to expose myself--to bring this hate into the open." He had done that before, but Chicago was different. "I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today," he said (Chicago Tribune).

What could account for this intensity of hostility from whites whose every economically-visible interest was unthreatened? Why were the lower and middle-class whites more virulently racist than the upper-class whose interests were more directly challenged? Because if worth and dignity didn’t come from whiteness, they just weren’t sure where it could come from.

Over and over, a substantial portion of white lower and middle-class voters vote against their own self-interest and in favor of wealthy interests. Why? Because learning to distance oneself from the interests blacks would have – even if, in reality, one shared those interests – was part of learning to be white. "White" has meant identifying with the wealthy, identifying with a shared paleness over and against shared economic needs.

Why is the US unable to enact a fairer, much more effective, and even cheaper health-care system – a single-payer government National Health Insurance – while Europe and Canada and Japan have this eminently sensible system? It's because the US's specific heritage of racism taught us to identify with the wealthy, and the wealthy don't need national health insurance.

Why is the US unable to provide adequate public schooling, affordable housing for all, and progressive taxation? It's because the US's specific heritage of racism taught us to identify with the wealthy, and the wealthy send their kids to private schools, aren't at risk of homelessness, and don't want to be progressively taxed.

Why is it that when Black men open-carried firearms as the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and 70s, gun control legislation passed, and when that perceived threat was gone and whites wanted to open carry, those controls were rolled back, and white people heavily armed in public are celebrated as patriotic and freedom loving? Why is it that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created much harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine, used mostly by blacks, than for a quantity of powdered cocaine, used mostly by whites, that produced similar effects? It’s because the national psyche has developed the longstanding habit of projecting upon dark skin color everything it is scared of, and is unconsciously convinced that black people doing a dangerous activity is much, much more dangerous than white people doing the same thing.

Why is it that the percentage of African Americans who are incarcerated is nearly five times higher than the percentage of European Americans who are? Why is it that otherwise identical resumes yield a 50 percent greater chance of being invited for an interview if the applicant’s name is stereotypically white than if the name is stereotypically black? Why is it that black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units and black homebuyers are shown about one-fifth fewer homes? Why is it that blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate, but a 2016 study found African Americans are arrested on drug charges at a nearly three times higher rate? Why is it that from 2010 to 2012, according to a study analyzing data of that period, a young black male, age 15 to 19, was 21 times more likely to be shot by police than his white counterpart? Well, we know why.

And what is the Unitarian Universalist history, along with the race history in this country? We should know, too, how our Unitarian Universalist story intertwines with the American story, because we need to know what we inherit if we are to know who we are.

Unitarian Universalists have struggled with the legacy of racism created in Colonial America as a way to co-opt indentured servants and minimize rebellion. On one hand, yes, Unitarians were among the leaders in the movement for abolition of slavery. Unitarian minister Joseph Priestly, then in England, preached a sermon denouncing the slave trade as early as 1788, and continued to preach against it after coming to America. Unitarian minister Rev. Charles Follen was a leading abolitionist in the 1830s. (This, by the way, is the same Rev. Charles Follen that I mentioned in the Christmas Eve service as having brought the Christmas tree tradition to America.)

On the other hand, monied interests in the North supported the slavery in the South – and Unitarians have been well-represented among monied interests. So Rev. Follen’s abolitionism led to his dismissal from the New York City congregation now called All Soul’s Unitarian. When Follen died in 1840, pro-slavery members of William Ellery Channing’s Boston congregation refused Channing’s request to host a memorial service for Follen.

In 1836, Rev. William Henry Furness, minister of First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia preached an abolitionist sermon to his congregation. Reverend Furness had begun serving that congregation when he was 22-years-old, and had been serving it for 12 years the day he stepped into their pulpit to preach abolition. He knew it would be divisive. One of his most prominent members held 300 people enslaved. Furness’s stance split the congregation in half. Membership plummeted. Furness thereafter had armed guards at his side as he preached. Later, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker encountered considerable controversy when he also began speaking against slavery and became a leading figure in the abolition movement. Parker took to keeping a pistol in his pulpit for his protection.

Many Unitarians – clergy and layfolk – committed their lives and fortunes to the cause of abolition. Yes, Unitarians were rancorously divided over the issue of slavery. Yet we were at least divided: while some other churches of the time were unified in support of slavery, many Unitarians were leading this denomination and this country toward a new moral awareness. We can be proud of that -- a little.

A century later, many of us were likewise in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Among the 30,000 who marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965 were
“about 500 UU lay people and about 250 UU ministers. The ministers who went to Selma represented a quarter to a third of all UU ministers in full fellowship. Add to that the dozens who spent time with the Mississippi Summer Project, the Delta Ministry Project, and other efforts in the South afterward; those who led their communities’ response; and the dozen ministers who participated in the UU presence in Selma through the summer of 1965. It isn’t a stretch to estimate that half of the 710 UU ministers in full fellowship were actively engaged in this struggle.” (Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, “Selma’s Challenge,” UUWorld, 2014 Winter)
We can be proud of that, too. Yet let us also grieve that our moral awareness was not greater sooner.

In the 1920s the first two African American Unitarian ministers, Rev. Ethelred Brown and Rev. Lewis McGee both encountered continual discouragement and resistance from the denominational leaders at the time who saw no place for a black man in the pulpits of their predominantly white congregations.

In 1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and just three years after so many UUs had transformative experiences in Selma, our General Assembly was torn apart over race issues.

And so, another half century on, Unitarian Universalists, and America generally, today continue our stumbling struggle to heal the hobbling wounds imposed on us by 17th-century wealthy landowners. As we celebrate the birthday of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, junior, may we renew our commitment to find a path toward healing. Knowing that a better future requires an honest acknowledging of our past, and that history itself is a subversive activity, may we attend to our histories that we not perpetuate the worst in them. That would be the birthday present that is due to the memory of Martin Luther King – and that is due to all of us. May it be so.


Opening to Pluralism

Happy New Year! What are the chances of that? I mean, what are your prospects for 2024 being happier – or, if last year was great for you, as happy - as 2023? I am mindful that there will be health challenges for some of us in the year ahead. And health challenges come, eventually, for all of us including, eventually, inevitably, the one we will not surmount. Connected to our physical health, there is the matter of our social and spiritual health. Put simply: We need each other. We need community. We need our peeps. A happy new year means a connected new year, a caring new year. A joyous new year means a loving new year. And a more liberated new year means steps taken not just toward your individual liberation but toward collective liberation.

Natural selection made us into hyper-social beings. Not merely social, like other apes are, like wolves and elephants and dolphins are, but able to connect our brains and see through each other's eyes at a level beyond any other species. I've mentioned before, no single human knows everything necessary to build a cathedral, or an aircraft - yet we can build them because we can connect our brains in shared enterprises. That's an amazing and beautiful thing. We were built to do that, and to want to do that, and to need to do that.

Natural selection also made us highly competitive at the group level. One key reason that bonding with each other has been so important to our species' survival is simply that it allows us to care for each other and carry out cooperative ventures that benefit all of us. But another key reason is that by bonding together we can fight better against that tribe on the other side of the hill.

Throughout our history as a species, the cozy warm feeling of US has been inextricably intertwined with hostility to THEM. Early human and proto-human groups didn't merely band together, they banded together AGAINST other groups. If they hadn't, they wouldn't have survived to pass on their genes to us. We are a deeply cooperative AND a deeply competitive species - cooperative within our group, so that we can better compete with other groups.

The trick is to expand our circle, to train ourselves, in this complex multicultural, multi-ethnic world we live in, to comprehend more and more difference as nevertheless part of US rather than indicative of THEM. Fortunately, this expand-the-circle impulse is also embedded in the human history we inherit.

If there were only two groups - us and them - that would be fairly straightforward and stable. But from the dawn of humanity, there have been multiple groups. So then our earliest ancestors started seeing if they could work out ways to be more cooperative with group B, so that together they could outcompete group C. So along with a very strong tendency to bond with our in-group and compete with out-groups, we are built also with a somewhat more cautious readiness to welcome the stranger; to appreciate, not merely be suspicious of, difference; to want to expand our circle.

This openness to pluralism is, among humans, a variable trait. Some of us are more open to difference and others more interested in protecting the given US. Unitarian Universalists tend toward the appreciation of diversity side of the spectrum. We tend to score high on openness to difference. Some of our fellow humans are instead wired to feel a need to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness. Difference scares them.

The work of Australian political scientist Karen Stenner helps us understand this. Stenner argues that underlying racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia is something more fundamental: difference-ism. The various forms of harmful prejudice are all variations of a basic anxiety about difference, an anxiety that produces, in Stenner's words, "a fundamental and overwhelming desire to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness."

Another term for this is: authoritarian personality – because these folks see authoritarian structures as the best way to keep us safe from those different people who are, in a recently exhumed turn-of-phrase, “poisoning the blood of our country." In one of Stenner's studies, people scoring high for authoritarian personality
"were told that NASA had verified the existence of alien life -- beings 'very different from us in ways we are not yet even able to imagine.' After being told that, the measured racial intolerance of authoritarian subjects decreased by half.”
In other words, they are afraid of whatever is most different. If there are space aliens out there, then suddenly all humans are "us" because the authoritarian personality's animosity focuses on whatever is the most different. Stenner writes: "black people look more like 'us' than 'them' when there are green people afoot."
"Under these conditions, the authoritarians didn't only become kinder to black people, Stenner noted; they also became more merciful to criminals that is, less inclined to want a crackdown on perceived moral deviance." (Friedersdorf, Atlantic Monthly)
Stenner's book, The Authoritarian Dynamic, concludes that not everyone can learn to respect and value difference. She writes:
"All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference...are the surest way to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors."
Journalist Conor Friedersdorf estimates that, "perhaps 15 percent of humans are psychologically ill-suited to dealing with difference." He doesn't indicate where that 15 percent figure comes from; it seems to be his impressionistic guess. As a rough, ball-park estimate, maybe that's about right. Whatever the number might be, we're never going to “fix” every individual - never going to train our way to universal understanding and embrace of diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. And that's OK, because pluralistic inclusion has to also have a place those who don't like difference. We just need systems that neutralize the authoritarian personalities from inflicting their phobias on others.

It's a point increasingly recognized. Lily Zheng, a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion strategy consultant, for instance, said:
"We should design organizations that are equitable and inclusive whether or not every single person inside those organization is inclined the same way.”
That's something to keep in mind as this congregation considers how we might move toward greater inclusion and pluralism. If, as Friedersdorf conjectured, "perhaps 15 percent of humans are psychologically ill-suited to dealing with difference" - the percentage of Unitarian Universalists who are is lower than that, but it isn't zero.

A happy new year means a connected new year, a caring new year. But there is variability among us not only in how much difference we are comfortable including in that circle of care, but also variability in how much difference we ever could learn to be comfortable including. Still, pluralism is our overarching value, as a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It is our Unitarian Universalist covenant, as the proposed language for revising the UUA bylaws expresses, that:
"We celebrate that we are all sacred beings, diverse in culture, experience, and theology. We covenant to learn from one another in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect."
Our watchword shall be: everybody belongs. And everybody belongs here. We know that there are other churches, other faith communities, out there, and that some people will prefer those, but we are determined that we would welcome any of them, whatever their culture or beliefs, and that our welcoming pluralism be so conspicuous that is widely known that we would welcome them, and that any who do walk through these doors will quickly perceive that they belong and are appreciated – even those who aren't quite able to appreciate difference as much our congregation as a whole does.

So our task in this new year - as in every new year - is twofold: (1) to cultivate our capacity to embrace and appreciate ever greater difference - And, (2) given that this capacity itself is and will be variable among us, to seek ways to better ensure that our congregation as a whole is equitable and inclusive anyway.

And a more liberated new year means steps taken not just toward your individual liberation but toward collective liberation. Freedom is relational. It really is true that none of us is free until all of us are free, for freedom, to whatever extent it is achieved, is a collective achievement. The master is as enslaved as the slave, even if not subject to the physical abuses, and that does matter.

We are all in this together, and what we do to another we do to ourselves. Because freedom is relational; because every interaction we have with every other person can function to restrict ourselves and them or it can help liberate us and them; because we all have some kind of power, and we can use it against itself to diminish itself, or we can use it to nourish and expand shared power, what we call power-with rather than power-over; because power-over is always at the same time powerlessness-under; because freedom is for most of us the half-won, half-discovered blessing, and we need each other to proclaim the further emancipation - we have work to do.

Because faith without works is dead; because it will not do to simply say, "go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill," go, be emancipated; because we need each other to reach the promised land; because the kingdom of god is within us, yes, but equally it is between us and among us, we have work to do.

Because otherwise identical resumes today yield a 50 percent greater chance of being invited for an interview if the applicant's name is stereotypically white than if the name is stereotypically black; because black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units and black homebuyers are shown about one-fifth fewer homes; because blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate, but African Americans are arrested on drug charges at a three times higher rate; because 14 percent of nonhispanic white children are growing up in poverty while 40 percent of African American children are - we have work to do.

Unitarian Universalists have been struggling with how to do the work of dismantling racism for as long as I can remember. We have been noticing that our congregations usually look a lot whiter than their surrounding communities and have been trying to figure out what to do about that for as long as I can remember. I've been occasionally participating in Unitarian Universalist efforts at anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multi-culturalism efforts, workshops, programs and readings for thirty years, and, sadly, haven't seen much progress.

I was given a new hope for the possibility of congregational anti-racism work about 10 years ago by the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity - DMIS. It's an approach that doesn't call anyone a racist. It's not really about unconscious prejudices so much. It deftly bypasses any temptation to detour into squabbles about such things as whether members of oppressed minorities can be racist themselves or whether "racism” only applies to certain members of the privileged majority. It gives us a way to talk about important issues of cultural difference without bringing up the word “racism” at all. I think we do need to confront actual racism, recognize it and call it what it is, but we can work our way to that point more effectively with a stronger foundation - which it seems to me the DMIS (Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity) provides.

It's a developmental model – that is, it says that people develop through stages - like Piaget's stages of cognitive development of children, Kohlberg's stages of moral development, or James Fowler's stages of faith development. The model was created by Milton Bennet and Mitch Hammer - who had been going to anti-racism trainings and noticing just what I had been noticing: that about a third of the white people were annoyed rather than enlightened. They began to wonder why. Why do some people react this way and other people react a different way? Perhaps they're at different stages in their development! Perhaps every stage is an important, helpful, and adaptive response to certain conditions - it has values which we can recognize.

It's true that whatever is identified as a later stage of development will unavoidably seem to be judged "better," but Unitarian Universalists with our third principle ought to be able to handle this. Our third principle says we affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. Notice the two aspects at work here: Acceptance of one another - exactly where they are and who they are -- while at the same time encouragement to growth, encouragement to grow into something other than what they are now. Is this a contradiction? Can we truly be accepting people just the way they are if we're also encouraging them to change, to grow? If you've ever been a parent or ever had a moderately loving and effective parent - then you know this is no contradiction. We love our children for just what they are - while also encouraging their growth and development because a growing, changing being IS what they are, and that process of development benefits from guidance.

Many of us carry that same approach into our relationships with peers, with friends. We accept them for what they are, while also, when the time is right, call them on their stuff, offer them guidance, encourage their growth, as they do for us. So I'm hopeful about the prospects for UUs to work together to guide ourselves to greater levels of intercultural sensitivity – while also understanding, welcoming, and appreciating those who may happen to be at an earlier stage.

Development of intercultural sensitivity happens in stages. There are five stages, which I will briefly describe. There is more detail in this month's Pluralism issue of "Connecting" - and still more detail available on the internet - just search DMIS.

Stage 1: Denial.

There is a lack of awareness of diversity. It's not possible for adult members of minorities to be entirely unaware of diversity, but some members of a majority can exist within a bubble such that they rarely encounter a cultural difference.

Stage 2: Sometimes called Polarization, sometimes called Defense.

This comes in two versions, and both versions involve an "us" vs. "them” mindset. The first version is straight defense. We bunker in, defensively protecting "us" and demonizing "them" - those who are different.

The second version is reversal. This is where one romanticizes and privileges a culture other than one's own. In reversed polarization, one privileges “them” while demonizing "us." But it's still polarization of good culture and bad culture.

Stage 3: Minimization.

This is kind of a return in the direction of denial except that people at this stage do recognize cultural differences, but they downplay their importance. Cultural differences are all seen as superficial because deep down we're all the same. Minimization over-emphasizes commonality.

Stage 4: Acceptance.

We might also call it openness and curiosity. At this stage there is an understanding the cultural differences are real and profoundly meaningful. This much was also understood at the Polarization stage, but whereas polarization involved demonizing one side or the other of that difference, the acceptance stage involves curiosity and openness about differences. Difference is recognized as important, but difference is explored without judgment or evaluation.

Stage 5: Adaptation, also known as intercultural competence.

Intercultural competence is the ability to shift cultural perspective and adapt behavior to fit with the other person's culture, recognizing both the similarities and differences of their culture with yours. It's not assimilation. Assimilation is a permanent change from your original culture to a new culture. Adaptation, intercultural competence, involves the ability to make temporary shifts into a different culture in order to be more effective in a particular situation.

At what stage do you think you are? Most Unitarian Universalists are in the middle: at the minimization stage. We love to say people are basically the same - minimizing the powerful difference that culture makes. And there are commonalities. Yet let us not diminish real difference.

The path of liberation leads ultimately beyond minimization to acceptance and adaptation -- and many of us, if not all, can joyously take that path. May it be so. Amen.