Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Resolutions are a terrible way to do social justice

So, how are you doing with your General Assembly resolutions then?

What are you, or your congregation doing about… what was it again? Ah yes: Thought for the Day, gold mining in Romania, the Red Cross and books in prisons?

Can I ask another question? What are you and your congregation doing about the resolutions passed in 2013? Um, let’s see. It was something about… drug reform was definitely one of them… no I can’t remember the rest. Can you?

How about how we’re getting on with the resolutions we passed in 2010? Can you remember any of them? Or the ones we passed in 2000? Can you remember any of them?

If, like me, you struggle to think what the issues were a couple of years ago, can I make a suggestion? Can I suggest that our current system is actually not working?

Every year I have the faint hope that there will be no motions at all at the Annual Meetings. I think it would be wonderful if we could not talk so much one year and find something more useful to do with our time. But every year my heart sinks as I open the post to find a whole long list of things we’re all going to yak on about again. The same congregations have put forward more motions that the same old people are going to get up and talk to and we’ll pass it with 99% in favour and then…

And then, what, exactly? “The Unitarian General Assembly has said we’re in favour of this thing or against this other thing!” So what? So what? Who cares? Who is listening?

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think engaging with current societal issues is a bad thing. I long for us to be a more justice-centred, radical prophetic religious body. My contention is this: passing resolutions is a terrible way to do social justice work. It’s not only that it’s ineffective (it is); I have a feeling it might actually be counter-productive because it is a distraction from the activism we should be doing. I think it is about our collective egos more than the needs of the world. “Oh we are good liberal people,” we think to ourselves, “We care about the world. Look! See – we passed a resolution and everything – aren’t we a good liberal people?”

OK, so, so what did we actually do? Was the pain of one person alleviated? Did government policy change? Did we actually reach out to be in relationship with people beyond our community? Did the world become more beautiful and good? The American Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka asks the question: “Do we believe that simply to think about an issue is the same as to live in a way which exemplifies our concern for the issue?” And that questions rings in my ears as I think about this. We think, we have opinions, we talk. And this distracts us from actually doing anything effective.

Meanwhile the vast majority of our congregations ignore the whole process. They don’t discuss motions before or after the meetings. They take no action. Some disagree with the positions taken.

And I don’t blame congregations for this. Not in the least. Most congregations simply do not have the energy to deal in any meaningful way with five or six different social justice issues every year. Dealing with one would be ambitious enough.

Our system is broke. It does not engage the grassroots congregations. It rarely makes any impact whatsoever beyond our little community. It is not an effective way of doing social justice.

So, what is the alternative? I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions but these are some of the things I’ve been thinking about.

Firstly, let’s be clear what the purpose of a motion should be. A motion should either establish internal denominational policy or establish our communal response to a genuinely new issue in the world. “We believe in same sex marriage” is a genuinely new position, and establishes a unique voice for Unitarians. “We believe in human rights and freedom of expression” is not new. It has been said. It does not need saying again.

Secondly we need to understand something about definitions here. Resolutions say “This General Assembly…” Who is the General Assembly? We can tend to think that this means staff at Essex Hall or volunteers on denominational committees. It does not. It means all of us. It means you. It means your congregation. If we say “the General Assembly calls for this…” then we need that to mean all of us, or at least the majority of us. If you think your congregation is not able to address this issue then should you be saying the “General Assembly” is going to do or campaign for this or that? If your congregation isn’t going to do that, then is it meaningful to say that “the General Assembly” is?   

So, can I suggest something radical? We have one motion that we take three years to consider. That’s right: we take three years to consider something. “But this will slow things down to a snail’s pace!” – I hear you complaining. Yes, it will. But for our social justice positions to be actually effective and owned by the whole denomination I think this is what it takes.

An effective social justice process would have a number of stages. Firstly education – we would all take the time to really get educated about an issue; this could easily take a year. Next we discuss the issue in congregations, in districts, in societies. Any wording is hammered out to be much more meaningful at this stage. Next we actually take a vote as an informed, thoughtful and faithful denomination. The final stage is that we are empowered for our activism. We are provided with activist resources: sample letters to MPs, ways to protest, to network, to campaign. As I say I think this process could easily take three years.

So let’s take one example. In 1977 the General Assembly passed a motion that Ministry would be “open to all regardless of sex, race, colour or sexual orientation.” Well  great. How progressive of us, we think. And indeed it was. A stand still too radical for most Christian denominations.

But I understand that being an openly gay minister in the 1980s was still incredibly difficult in this denomination. There was a huge amount of prejudice and discrimination in our congregations still. Congregations did not actually embrace this position.

So let me suggest an alternative scenario – what if in 1977 the denomination started a deeper conversation that involved the grassroots and effectively dealt with homophobia and prejudice in every congregation? What if that motion waited until 1980 to be passed, but by then it was really and truly owned by the whole denomination? Would that not be more effective?  

For these big, new, complex issues a deeper, longer, theological conversation is needed. And yes, it needs to be theological. I despair at our embarrassment to speak a language of faith around these things. Take same sex marriage. We said, “the government should do this.” I wish we had said, “as people of faith who believe marriage is about this…. we believe the government should do this.” I wish we could take the time to root our positions in our faith, not just in liberal politics that could be said by any trade union or political party.

But many issues do not need a motion at all. Most motions coming before the Annual Meetings are unnecessary. The question is not what we think about something (that is already well established) the question is what are we going to do about it? More useful than passing motions at the Annual Meetings would be activist training. If we spent our time getting better educated, and then were sent back to our congregations with tools and resources that would be truly useful – what difference would that make? What if instead of being one denomination “having a position” (again, who cares?) we were four thousand effective grassroots activists? What sort of a difference would that make?

Or, if you think all my ideas so far have been rubbish – how about this one? Instead of debating motions at the Annual Meetings us three hundred delegates go to the nearest town to pick up litter for two hours? Because honestly, most years I think this would be a much better use of our time that would genuinely be more effective in making the world a better place. 


Anonymous Marty said...

An insightful post here Stephen. But the issue is now much bigger - the General Assembly was designed to be an assembly of all congregations working together on agreed issues. Yet some do not want to work together on such issues, a reticence rooted in more than ambivalence or energy. And others are a step further ahead, not even wanting to assemble.

The GA is broken. Game over.

6:53 pm  

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