Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On Cultural Mis-Appropriation

Monkey Mind, who is a Buddhist religious leader as well as a UU minister, has commented wisely, here on the problem of adding language to the UUA bylaws dealing with this sticky topic of cultural mis-appropriation. I agree with everything he said, and added a comment that writing bylaws to attempt to regulate practices about which there is not clarity or even agreement, not to mention experience with appropriate procedures is a dangerous mis-use of bylaws.

I want to also add that my experience with this "I know it when I see it but can't define it" area is that our lack of clarity on this subject already puts a dampening effect on robust sharing in our ministry of spiritual and worship practices and does not help ministers take spiritual risks with their colleagues or in their congregations.

We UU's have a profound ambivilance about spirituality of any kind already, and a tendency to pounce, sometimes viciously, on the scary notion that any bona fide UU's would be experimenting with ways to deepen our own spirituality and our corporate experience of spirituality.


Ours is a faith which is open to the wisdom and practices of human religious experience, and that can not simply mean that we learn about other people, although many a preacher or RE director has done only that. Of course understanding others is good, but if our knowledge is only a head-trip, we really have not finished learning. Anything we try to practice is going to fall, at least loosely, into the category of cultural misappropriation. There's not much new under the sun. We don't even all agree that practices like Sweat Lodges are disrespectful to Native Americans. (Nor do all Native Americans think that. ) What about using the tactic of having children ask questions of their elders about the history of their faith to engage them? That harkens to the Jewish Seder practice, and that's where I came across it, so it is a mild form of appropriation. How mild is mild? Who decides? The Orthodox rabbi up the street, the person of Jewish heritage in my congregation? Is the well-established UU Thanksgiving Seder a bad thing? Only a bad thing if it's called a Seder? Only bad if it is a congregational meal? Do we apply the same rules to the communion service? On and on we could go with the questions. They are interesting questions, and I'm not against asking them. What we need is not a by-law but a respectful conversation and learning opportunity. Simple prohibition will only dampen our already small talent for spiritual seeking together.

1 comment:

kim said...

"Is the well-established UU Thanksgiving Seder a bad thing? Only a bad thing if it's called a Seder? Only bad if it is a congregational meal?"

I don't know about in other congregations, but I was taught that in San Francisco, the tradition of a UU Seder started in 1906 when the Earthquake damaged the synagogue and the two congregations did the Seder together at the Unitarian Church, and ever after have alternated venues. (Well, I don't know if they still do it, since I haven't been there lately....) but it never seemed like a misappropriation to either congregations as far as I know.