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.

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