This morning I sent this to each member of the UUA Board of Trustees. This version incorporates a few minor grammatical corrections I wish I’d caught before sending the original off. Anyway, if you feel inclined to share your own thoughts about this matter with the Board, you may get their names and addresses by visiting here. They can of course also be contacted collectively through the single address: board (at) uua.org.
This brief letter is my fervent plea that the proposed language regarding cultural misappropriation be deleted from the draft principles and purposes before they are presented to the 2009 General Assembly, gathered in Salt Lake City.
The sentence reads: “Grateful for the traditions that have strengthened our own, we strive to avoid misuse of cultural and religious practices while seeking ways of appreciation that are respectful and welcomed.”
This sentence is a modification of the first public draft version for the proposed revised Principles, which read, “…we strive to avoid misappropriation of cultural and religious practices…” The revised language was the response of the Commission on Appraisal to the concerns raised by a number of advance readers, including myself. This change however does not address my concerns, or I suspect those of the others who expressed dis-ease; rather it simply substitutes the controversial usage turning on the word “misappropriation,” while retaining its basic definition.
I am in no way disputing concerns about the appropriation of someone’s spiritual practices into another’s life, or the right of people to express those concerns. In fact I believe this is a worthy discussion. In fact I hope this discussion will lead us to a deeper understanding of what we are doing in our own liberal religious quest for meaning and depth. As a matter of process I believe all sides need be open to challenge and if done with care and respect each individual as well as our Association can be enriched by the dialog.
My concern, however, is the placement of this language or its substitutes within the legal framework of our Association, and its possible consequences. I am profoundly concerned that this term is too vague to be used in either our bylaws or in any enforceable code of conduct without creating at the very least the substantial potential to do more harm than good.
As regards the difficulty in finding a commonly acceptable definition of misappropriation, our UU Musicians network has established a code that defines the use of music in terms of political struggle and defines someone resistant to that definition as a perpetrator. I suggest there’s not a lot of room for honest discussion with these ground rules. Of course there’s not a lot of consequence to being dismissed from the UUMN. It is a rather different matter, however, for parish ministers, many of whom are contractually bound by their congregations to remain members in good standing of the UUMA. And similar language to that used by the musicians has been proposed, although at least for the time being, tabled, for the UU Ministers’ ethical codes.
When speaking of our spiritual lives and practices, when speaking of our religious community, when drafting language of our principles and purposes, we are speaking of the great matter of life and death, and so humility needs to be at the heart of the discussion. Here we need to meet each other at the place of our vulnerability and hurt. But I believe the enshrinement of this particular perspective will not lead to that dialog. Rather it simply opens the way for those who have certainty about their position to enforce that certainty on others. The question of “who decides” could tear us apart.
This said, I request, as passionately as I can that you eliminate this sentence from the draft revision.
If there is strong feeling among you that the concern regarding misappropriation needs to be held up within an official document, then I propose the spirit would be contained in the sentence: “Grateful for the traditions that have strengthened our own, we strive to engage them with humility and respect.” This has the advantage, at least, of being counsel we all should heed.
And, who knows, maybe we will.
(The Rev’d) James Ishmael Ford
First Unitarian Church of Providence