Cultural Misappropriation and the Proposed UUA By-Laws

In an earlier post I expressed my profound concern with a line in the proposed revision of the Statement of Principles and Purposes of our Unitarian Universalist By-Laws. It is so important for the continuing life of our Association I feel a need to expand a bit on my feelings and thoughts regarding this matter. While we are a fiercely non-creedal people, and indeed the draft contains an “escape clause” in section C-2.6 “Freedom of Belief;” this statement is enshrined in the Association’s By-Laws, and while not binding in regard to anyone’s thoughts or personal beliefs, it does have the effect of defining appropriate behaviors. And implicit within that is the possibility of punishment and even expulsion for those deemed to violate the By-Laws. This is particularly relevant for ministers.

My problem is with the closing sentence to Section C-2.3 “Sources.”

“Grateful for the traditions that have strengthened our own, we strive to avoid misappropriation of cultural and religious practices and to seek ways of appreciation that are respectful and welcomed.”

It seems innocuous enough. And on the face of it seems a generous attempt to engage the cultures and religions of the world from a respectful stance. And I believe the authors of this draft are indeed writing from that generous spirit. I have no argument with the spirit it seems to wish to promote.

And here’s the problem as I see it.

The issue of cultural and religious misappropriation has been on the table in UU circles for years. The argument turns on who has a right to use the rituals and symbols of another religion or culture. The deeper question seems to be how can the dominant (white) culture assimilate the rituals and symbols of oppressed peoples?

The question is considerably (and to my mind fatally) muddied by multiple layers of concern that are carried within the rubric “cultural misappropriation.” Some argue that shamanistic practices are so much a part of larger cultural frames that those who attempt to extract those practices are doomed to failure while at the same time trivializing the original cultural matrix. In our North American context this is specifically a concern for non-Native Americans “appropriating” rituals such as vision quest and even symbols such as “dream catchers.” This is rich and difficult territory. And I think quite worthy of engagement.

Others, however, go on to claim a necessary, sometimes even genetic, connection to specific practices and even ways of thinking. They assert if you are not of the original faith community you have no right to those practices or even spiritual perspectives. (East is east and West is west…) Ultimately it is a seeking of religious purity. Most importantly, this argument extends beyond indigenous cultures to include world religions. And in the process presents what I find to be a complete misunderstanding of what a world religion is and its relationship to any given culture.

As far as this later point goes, UU minister Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, generally an advocate for the anti-cultural misappropriation movement within our denomination, acknowledges some of the difficulty when she writes. “There is probably no such thing as a pure religion or a pure culture. To some extent we all appropriate culture. Since time immemorial, religions have borrowed from each other. Judaism was shaped in part by encounters of the ancient Hebrews with the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians. Similarly, Christianity is rooted in the Jewish tradition, Islam begins with both the Jewish and Christian traditions, and so on.” My only quibble would be with the modifier “probably no such…” I would state unequivocally, there is no such thing as a pure religion.

And specifically our contemporary Unitarian Universalism has strong eclectic and syncretistic threads.

While no doubt dangerous in some ways, and we need to be wary; at the same time I am a UU specifically because of its eclectic and syncretistic inclinations. This inclination, dangerous as it is, is, I believe, the hope for the future.

I would assert and celebrate how beyond our historic roots in Protestant Christianity, and through that world Christianity and its roots in Judaism and classical Paganism and Judaism’s root in Near Eastern antiquity, our faith has been informed by world religious sensibilities since at least the early part of the nineteenth century, as well as our profound debt to the European Enlightenment and the rise of scientific method, and since the second half of the twentieth century the rise of a comparative mythology which nearly all of us have embraced to some degree.

There have already been powerful and compelling consequences to this inclination to eclecticism and syncretism. For instance, somewhere between ten and twenty percent of us now consider Buddhist perspectives, at least to some degree, as a significant part of our Unitarian Universalist identity. In fact the Buddhist influence has become so persuasive it could be argued there should be a specific acknowledgement of this in the Principles and Purposes.

I think Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, who I particularly admire for, among other things, her clarity of thought, and others who have expressed concerns with cultural misappropriation ask some important questions we need to explore. Among these questions, as Marjorie has framed them, are what is a possible “creative integration,” who decides what is authenticity, what defines racial and cultural identity, what is appropriate and what is misappropriate in adopting or “borrowing” rites and symbols, and intriguingly (from a Buddhist perspective, anyway) what is the intent, and finally she asks how “can cultural traditions that are not our own be honored, respected, appreciated, affirmed, and respectfully shared?”

Important questions. No doubt. And questions I feel we should constantly ask ourselves. Even as we go forward, acknowledging ours is a dynamic movement, based upon “new revelation,” new possibilities, new integrations…

And there’s a real problem in making this concern a By-Law.

The problem is enshrinement in By-Laws, and therefore raising the possibility of institutionally defining appropriate behaviors and with that the possibility of punishment and expulsion for offenders, particularly ministers.

And this is not paranoia. Already a trial balloon of this sort was raised for the minister’s ethical guidelines. Objections to enshrining what I hope I’ve shown here as an ill-defined behavior “cultural misappropriation” as an ethical concern prevailed and it was withdrawn.

I see this proposed By-Law language as the next step, the next attempt at defining appropriate behavior for us in this Association. And in doing so framing what we may think…

So, an example of what we might face should the proponents of this position prevail. Online I found a herbal school that has embraced this question, and presented this qualifier to admission to their program.

No matter your skills as an herbalist, or your good intentions, we will not hire teachers who have a history of repeatedly either selling or leading ceremonies or selling or leading religious/spiritual instruction based in cultures of which they are not members and from which they do not have cultural empowerment as religious teachers, nor will we hire teachers who hire and promote others within their own programs who either sell or lead ceremonies or religious/spiritual instruction based in cultures of which they are not members and from which they do not have cultural empowerment as religious teachers.
This is my problem. And it is a big problem.

If the proposed language were to be adopted as a By-Law, I am absolutely convinced there are those among us who will volunteer to become the purity police, attempting to enforce private and wrong-headed definitions of cultural misappropriation. By adopting this language we are opening ourselves to a reign of terror where those who feel they know where the lines are, will enforce those lines with all the passion of the true believer.

I sincerely hope this sentence will be deleted.

  • Christine Robinson

    Thanks for your clear words. As I say to my church leaders when they are thinking about bylaws, “First let’s decide what we want, then experiment with it until we think we’ve got it working, THEN we amend the bylaws.” I’m all for a study resolution, an initiative like “Beyond Categorical Thinking,” which gets a variety of experts into congregations, a set of programs for ministers groups and District gatherings, to really dig into this issue and get some shared clairty about it. Until we do that, a by-law on the subject will only bring us to grief.

  • Jess

    I have a big problem with this sentence, too, and have post brewing on the subject at some point this week.In addition to your assertions about the impossibility of a “pure religion,” with which I wholeheartedly agree, I see the sentence as an overly broad statement that could lead to the loss of our uniquely Unitarian and Universalist historical traditions as well. Who judges what “misappropriation” really covers?For example, couldn’t a typical UU Water Communion ceremony come under this umbrella, as a “Communion” of any sort has roots in the traditional Christian Eucharist? Who is to judge?I think there is good intention behind this trying to codify cultural misappropriation in our By Laws, but I think it goes too far.

  • fausto

    I appreciate your thought on this too. The only authentic, “culturally appropriate” religious orientations we can claim as our own are Christian Universalism, Christian Unitarianism, (arguably) Transcendentalism/”Free Religion”, and (arguably) Religious Humanism. Yet many of us are unwilling to affirm those orientations, and we have long favored a more eclectic approach to religious understanding that sees all religious insight from all sources as partial apprehensions of a larger reality that exceeds the constraints of any one apprehension. If we adopt bylaws that discourage the use of apprehensions outside our own authentic religious heritage, we either must cut ourselves off from much of the richness that can inform our understanding, and limit ourselves to a religious palette that no longer holds much meaning for some of us, or we must hypocritically ignore the bylaw we pretend to uphold.

  • Cynthia Landrum

    Thank you for writing one of the clearest pieces I’ve read on the problems we’ve been facing in UUism around the question of cultural misappropriation.

  • Dennis

    Thank you, James, for raising the profile of this problematic language. I have gone on record as an unreconstructed borrower of materials, music, and even rituals that have come from other cultures. I do so deliberately, with the intention of challenging my congregation with a wide variety of understandings and viewpoints. I take very seriously Sharon Welch’s advise that in order to comprehend other cultures, especially non-dominant cultures, we need to read the literature produced by those whose task it is to hold those cultures together, which usually means reading literature written by women. My goal is not to take over someone else’s cultural heritage but to encourage American UUs to see life from the perspective of those whose basic assumptions are often quite different from our own. I do this for the sake of broader awareness, tolerance, and spiritual growth. I have frequently found those who take the “non-appropriation” line to be lacking especially in tolerance. They also have seemed, to me, to think that distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate usage are clear and well defined. My experience is quite the opposite. This is an area of our practice where the lines can be quite fuzzy.

  • serenityhome

    James: I began to leave a comment here,then decided to write further about it on my own site. Anyone interested can find my comments here:

  • weed

    Contemporary Paganism can be considered a religion based on cultural approbation. In fact one of the contemporary “founding fathers” Gerald Gardner, was said to have “borrowed from any source that did not run away fast enough”. Is it safe to say that the difference between approbation and mis-approbation is one of creativity and taste? It seems that we are talking to a large extent about ritual here. Ritual can be an art form. Is there any such thing as art without influences?

  • Anonymous

    Recently I was somewhat bothered by a comment made by an individual in our congregation regarding “cultural missappropriation” relative to planning a Day of the Dead celebration. I really wasn’t sure what bothered me about it. Soon after the congregation was reminded to comment on the new UU by-laws and there it was again. I did comment about my uneasiness with the statement on “cultural missappropriation.” As is like me, I decided to do a little research of my own and googled the words only to come up first hit with this absolutely enlightening commentary. Thank you so much. At least now I understand my own uneasiness a lot better and feel more affirmed that I’m not an insensitive dolt for having questions. Additionally I found a great resource for my questioning mind. Thank You

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