The peril of general reform

For the last two days I’ve written about the strong tendency of Unitarian Universalists to engage in political activity that addresses the emotions more than having demonstrable, desirable policy outcomes.

So, what kind of outcomes should we expect?

Perversely, I think we think too large, too grandly, and this is something we share with other churches. Our own story of our sense of mission tells us that “nothing human is foreign to us” and we’ve long suspected that if certain key ills — slavery, alcohol, and binding undergarments come to mind — systems of sin and oppression would fall. Sometimes that meant building institutions like schools, settlement houses and hospitals; at other times the actions were direct, both pious and political. But this kind of general reform only makes sense in the age before the secularization and specialization of the skills the church once kept to itself. Consider, for instance, social work and community organizing. (And I suspect Unitarian Universalists have our share or more of these professionals within our ranks.) And churches are much weaker now. Even if general reform worked — and it’s so tempting to hope it would — it’s day for churches is long over.

So, it seems to me that there are three immediate actions Unitarian Universalist churches can make.

  1. Recruit for the world-changing professions.
  2. Support and encourage those that enter them.
  3. Orient the religious lives of the people to the good that could be rather than blessing the crap out of what is.

(I think I touched my own nerve there. We really, really need a language of the world that doesn’t keep ending up in rural Vermont.)

But the mission of the church isn’t just about encouraging, orienting and commissioning, even though these roles — keeping the big view — are ideal for a church.

In our own congregational tradition, we have developed habits that help us appreciate national and global conditions while applying our own solutions to local needs. What we may have best to offer is this localizing capacity, twinned with a social capital.  I bet there are many people in Unitarian Universalist congregations today that have detailed content knowledge around real world problems, if not thousands on one issue.

And local solutions are terribly important, because these become the models — best practices, thought leadership, policy choices, leadership development, even legal precedent — for action in other localities. So we need to cultivate what we have capacity for, and promote and encourage helpful participants, even if they’re not in our congregations. That’s our mission, too. And we’re more likely to know and live with decision-makers when we work at the local level.

2 Replies to “The peril of general reform”

  1. In the 1950s Chicago Universalists and the Universalist Service Committee had the Ryder Center, later renamed the Clarence Darrow Center, located in Chicago’s first integrated Public Housing project: Le Claire Courts.

    I think the first GA of both Unitarians and Universalists put an end to local “social service” like efforts for financial reasons. I don’t know if that was in favor or more national like efforts we see today, or if those national efforts simply took over as all that remained.

    My experience in Congregations were many people active in a variety of local activities and the Congregation made an effort to financially support them too.

    There is a big UU and then little congregations/individuals out there. You may be describing the difference between the two here (and remember for many UUs, the UUA is a distant and not particularly relevant thing).

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