Fear. Anxiety. It’s free-floating among those of a liberal bent these days. This week has seen more turmoil in the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s time to do some breathing.
Let’s go back a bit in time: When our evolutionary forebears crawled out of the warm, salty sea and set out to make a go of it on dry land, they had a well-developed brain stem. They depended upon the fear-response native to that brain stem to save their little tails.
The reason part came a bit more slowly. We’re still working on it.
In my blogpost last week, I considered the Mayflower Compact—a founding document of American democracy and Unitarian Universalism—as inherently flawed. Flawed because of its hidden assumptions—racism, sexism, and so on.
One question I want to ask is this: can a document flawed at its very inception ever become an “unflawed” document, if you will? Because this is what we citizens of the US have tried to do, you see: the founders created a nation where straight white Protestant land-owning male lives mattered more than other lives. From the Mayflower Compact to the Constitution, all the documents reflect those prejudices.
Then, slowly, those straight white guys have “let”—allowed—others in. Black men. Catholics. Women. Gay people. Over long years, more and more sorts of people have been “allowed” into that original covenant—“oh, all right then, since you insist, your life matters too . . .”
But letting people in is not enough . . . . the very nature of the club, let’s call it White Club, is flawed in the first place.
The very documents themselves are too flawed, too full of assumptions. And religious traditions that have been complicit in the development of the United States reflect the rigged game that was been going on since the founding landlords set up the game.
A case in point is the current Supreme Court nominee—he’s an “originalist.” If it’s not in the Constitution, explicitly, then it’s not law.
Those of us old enough to remember the struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution know that there’s a big, gaping hole—women have never been “given” full rights as citizens in the Constitution. Never. Not now either.
Why are we as a nation working from flawed documents? Well, it’s complicated, but it’s about those founding assumptions.
For many in the US, “freedom” means utter individualistic autonomy. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the instance of fire arms: my right to bear arms trumps your right to be safe. That’s where we’re at as a nation on the question.
Rampant individualism is part and parcel of the US social imaginary, and it is part and parcel of Unitarian Universalism, which is part of the fabric of the US, having developed on these salty shores.
The contradiction in that reading of freedom, the ultimate sort of individualism, is that we are social creatures; we become individuals only when we are in community. Our being is determined only by “being-with,” as the contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy puts it.
I am because we are . . .
In the United States, many citizens see freedom as a zero-sum game: my freedom ends where your rights begin and your freedom ends where my rights begin. This is wrong, says Jean-Luc Nancy: I have freedom and rights only because you have freedom and rights.
If you don’t have freedom and rights, I don’t have freedom and rights—all I have is domination. And domination isn’t freedom or rights. Being exists because of being-with—I exist because you exist as a free agent in community exactly as I do, and visa-versa. That’s community. That’s freedom.
Throwing that Mayflower Compact and all its mythology into the dustbin of history and writing a new US Constitution isn’t likely to happen. A communal Constitution would flow not from the freedom and the rights of the few but from the freedom and rights of all—my rights existing only because yours equally exist. “We the people” would no longer have an asterisk saying, *“well, actually, to be totally transparent, ‘we’ means straight white Protestant land-owning men.”
It’s an American problem. Perhaps the US simply can’t reach consensus on
this sort of social imaginary. Might one tiny little religion? Hmmmmm.