A Letter to the UUA Board of Trustees Regarding the Use of the Term Misappropriation in Our Bylaws

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.

Dear ones,

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
Senior Minister
First Unitarian Church of Providence

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  • Anonymous

    SirOnce again, thanks for speaking out on this dreadful issue.Dudley Jonesjonesdudley@hotmail.com

  • http://www.uuplanet.com Peter Bowden

    Well said James.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08336565533124142690 David G. Markham

    Hi James:I agree with you and your letter is excellent.I haven’t been involved in reviewing this revision of the principles and I appreciate your vigilance and diligence.All the best,David Markham

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02028699564003381058 Yewtree

    Hi, I don’t know the history of use of material from other cultures in UUism, but here’s an article about why cultural appropriation is bad.There was an excellent article called “Cultural appropriation and responsible eclecticism” on a site called Breathless noon but sadly the site has disappeared.It all depends on the relative power of appropriator and appropriated. If I, as a Wiccan & Unitarian, use a Christian concept or idea in a Wiccan ritual or a Unitarian service, it won't harm Christianity because it's in the dominant position; but if a Christian used a Unitarian or Wiccan concept (especially if they didn't credit it to its originators), it might harm Unitarianism or Wicca by misrepresenting the ideas. (E.g. if I hear one more Christian saying that Pagans worship Nature but they worship the Creator, I will scream.)

  • weed

    Yewtree,I think this notion of relative power relationships leads to immoral and illogical relationships. "Back in the day", as us old f*&^s say, it was used to claim that people of color could not be racist. Speaking also as a Wiccan, going back 34 years now, to the days of GBG (who "borrowed from any source that didn't run away fast enough" in the words of my old bud Isaac Bonwitz) Wicca has long benefited from cultural approbation, mis and otherwise. In fact, some of the cultural approbations I've seen in circle would, I am sure, make traditional practitioners toenails curl. But what of it? Were Dave Van Ronk and Janis Joplin wrong to sing the blues? Should the choir at James’s church (and mine … I love being in that choir more than I can say) avoid arrangements of gospel music? I think not. James' proposed wording would help. We should strive to respect each other, regardless of who is the top god/dog, discuss, rather than sanction.

  • Anonymous

    Suppose that you chose to use an authentic Japanese temple bell during a meditation session at a Unitarian church. Suppose further that a deranged and jingoistic Japanese Buddhist were to accidentally enter your church and take violent exception to your use of such a ritual object in that context. As it stands, the proposed wording makes it theoretically possible for such a person to persuade the UU church to use this framework to compel one to cease such ‘misuse’. As it has been pointed out, who is to say what qualifies as ‘misuse’? In the writing of legislation, whether of church or state, the wording must be scrupulously exact. Imprecision only leads to future misunderstanding and injustice. Thankyou for raising this important issue.(Edit: James please would you check your min@firstunitarianprov when you have a moment. Thanks. J.)

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