Monday, September 30, 2013
Tolerance, Inclusion, and Unitarian Universalist Evangelism
There are those days. I'm fairly confident we all have them. Nothing seems to be working right and what should be easy is complicated. Perhaps lack of sleep or stress or a host of other things ensures a less than stellar day. Over a lifetime, I've noticed that when the body/mind are run down and vulnerable, it's as if there was a silent signal going to the world saying simply "Kick me while I'm down!" Okay, yesterday was such a day for me. I'd not slept the night before so thank heavens the service was amazing as was the workshop afterwards. Towards the end however, two separate incidents occurred. Not huge earth-shattering events, nor intentional in retrospect. But from my perspective with a mind screaming for sleep, it seemed huge at the time. Let me explain what happened and why after a good night's sleep, I think two tiny events could point to something larger worth mentioning.
First circumstance, I see a friend who I know has worked really hard losing a lot of weight. I'm happy for him. So I tell him he's looking really good. Someone present immediately chimes in and reminds him he's always looked good, and follows with something about size normative assumptions. Okay, look. I'm a big woman. No wait. I'm a BIG woman. I'm married to a woman who is even larger and size doesn't even enter into how we evaluate the other. I know what she is talking about because I've been judged based on my size a thousand times or more. In this case however my friend was looking good because he had worked hard and was happy with himself. I'd have loved to discuss context in all this, but she asks him to come with her, they walked off and nothing gets said. I'm just shaking my head.
So I'm heading for the elevator and a couple are there as well. One looks at my church and mentions my shirt which says "Practice Tolerance. The word tolerance is written with symbols of various religions, spiritual paths etc. The other of the two then announces loudly that he can't stand the word "tolerance." I mention clumsily that having experienced intolerance often (goes with the turf as a transgender gay woman) I'd welcome some of it. He insists no, we need inclusion! as the door opens and he walks off. Okay, there is a conversation to be had about this. I think in matters such as religion, tolerance IS the appropriate word. I can be tolerant of another's spiritual path without any need to include that in my own. I'd venture to say that if one of my evangelist aunts or uncles were to come to preach at First Universalist, there would NOT be a resounding applause at the end of the sermon. There is a place for toleration and a place for inclusion. If we confuse those two, would we not be setting ourselves up for unwanted conflict? Time to go to the dictionary. Mine says this:
tolerance noun The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with, i.e. an advocate for religious tolerance
inclusion noun The action or state of being included within a group or structure.
Now granted, if the group being considered is the family of humanity, then inclusion might be appropriate. But with the implied group being various religious journeys, the word would in fact be tolerance.
Yes, these were silly little incidents that in my place of vulnerability got blown out of proportion. The messages I perceived were to be very careful what you say lest you cross some line of unacceptability, and please, can you please wear something else that doesn't offend so. Practice Tolerance? Seriously? Feelings are funny things and with the clarity of a good night's sleep I could see how the message had gotten twisted in my mind. The backdrop of all this was a workshop on race and privilege, as we prepare to carry the message to other white people about the nature of race and privilege.
Which brings me to what this post is all about. Not only is what we say important, but how we say it is also crucial. When we carry the message to others, whether about impressions of others according to size, a conversation on toleration vs inclusion, the existence and nature of race and privilege, the environment or any of a litany of liberal causes for which we realize as the underpinnings of our faith, if the message is that of a critical parent, the evangelist who is intolerant of any other way, then the likely result is not to change that person but to make them build a wall around their position. A message given in love rather than judgement is usually received in the spirit of love. Yesterday there were two real possibilities for viable conversation. Instead, I felt judged and convicted. If I felt that way as a long term member of the church, how much more might that person who is visiting or the person to whom we are carrying our message. We often view the "Pharisees" of the Bible as those who intolerant souls in religion speaking a Gospel devoid of love and caring but rather absorbed by intransigent dogma and intolerance. I would venture to say that among us liberals, myself included, there's always the danger of doing the same. Recently in the campaign to bring about marriage equality, our message was well received. In great part this was not because of telling the other side they were wrong, but of showing the human side of why we were right on this issue. We told our own stories rather than trying to change the stories of others. Our good news led others to follow that message. To me, it's the difference between a witness and a rant.
Oddly, I'm glad of what happened yesterday. It brought home to me the importance of looking closely at my own message to others, as well as confronting this nagging concern I've felt for a long time regarding the dogma too often seen from those of us we call liberal as well. May I go forth and carry the good news, but as one sharing my story in a way that illustrates why a better way is possible. "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."