Reflection on Race, Class and Theology UUA Urban Church Conference
Robette Dias is a member of the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee (the UUA board of trustees-appointed committee which monitors and assesses Association's anti-racism initiative), and Anti-Racism and People of Color Program Coordinator for the Faith In Action Department.
She said, in her remarks:
"Here we are almost at the end of this wonderful conference, and it has been a wonderful conference. I want to thank Tracey and all the folks in the Department for Congregational, District and Extension Services and the Conference Planning Committee who have worked so hard to make it happen, and to make it happen successfully.
"So… here we are almost at the end, and I want to take us back to the beginning. To the beginning of when all these "problems" we have been talking about first came to this land. When did classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and all the rest become such a problem? When did they get woven in to the fabric of society?
"As an Indian person, as a Karuk person, my elders have taught me that these things did not exist before the White invasion of the Europeans; that all these oppressions, these "isms" came with the White folks. Concepts of race, class, heterosexuality, ability, are all culture bound concepts, and they are not indigenous cultural concepts.
"I am not trying to idealize Native peoples; back in the old days they also had the concept of "the other" and there were often competition for resources and territory. But Indian conflicts before the Europeans came were highly ritualized and were never, ever attempts to dehumanize the enemy, nor to obliterate them from the face of the earth. All that changed with the coming of the European invaders. And Indians have been suffering ever since.
"When I come to events like this, I always listen very carefully to the discussions, I listen especially carefully to the suggestions for fixing the problems because I wonder how the fixes are going to impact Indian people. And you know, runaway busses and freight trains end with impacts too, and those are rarely good things.
"Going back to the beginning again…back to a time when we were all tribal people; because if you go back far enough, we all were tribal people. Indian people still are tribal, but everyone was at one time. And this is important because as tribal people, all of our ancestors had a very different sensibility, a different perceptual reality than we have today.
"The difference is that they knew who they were. They knew they were sacred beings, they knew because they knew the land on which they lived. Knew it like a mother, because it was. Gradually, however, tribal people in Europe began to change and evolve in very dangerous and destructive ways, and they forgot who they were, where their lands were and who and where their mother was.
"At one time all our cultures were based on the peoples' harmonious relationship with the earth and all creation; culture told the people who they were as members of tribal groups, and what their responsibilities in life were. But at some point in Europe, that started to change and the cultures became cultures of forgetting. The people forgot who they were, forgot their relationship to the earth, their mother, and forgot their responsibilities. And they brought this forgetting, and all its problems, with them when they came to the so-called New World.
"Now…culture is a collective enterprise. Individuals don't have culture. I can talk about "my" Karuk culture, or "my" Indian culture, but I am talking about me as one person within a larger collective of an identifiable group of people. And I am a bi-cultural person because I also exist within the larger United States society, which also has a distinct, well-defined culture. When I say culture, I mean the language, life ways and most importantly, the world view of a people. When I talk about a people forgetting who they are-I am talking about all three of those things; people forgetting their language, their way of life, but most importantly I am talking about people forgetting a world view that puts them in harmony with creation rather than at odds with creation.
"What we have in this country, is a dominant world view that is a dominating world view. We have a culture that is based on domination, a culture based on oppression. We have a culture of violence. Violence toward the earth, violence toward the plants and animals of the earth, violence toward all the peoples of the earth. And now our president wants to take that violence beyond the confines of our small planet and he is talking about waging war in space. Violence is everywhere around us, between us, within us. We cannot escape it, it is in the air we breathe. It is the culture in which we live. That is why we HAVE to forget, who wants to remember that?
"So what does this mean for us as Unitarian Universalists? Are we above or outside this culture of violence? No, we are fully within its mix, right smack in the middle of it. It controls and dominates our lives. And it defines who we are. BUT! It does not define who we could be. We are intelligent, emotional, sacred beings. We could begin to remember who we are, we could begin to take responsibility for our lives, our actions, our families, our faith, our religious community, our country and our world. Take responsibility for creating a just world.
"I believe we want to do that; that we, as a religious community, want to accept our responsibility to create justice. Some of us have done it. We have set ourselves, our lives, on a course of justice making. I think of Jose Ballester and his dedication to the UU Service Committee. Of Mel Hoover, the director of the Faith In Action Department and the Faith In Action staff. Of Norma Poinsett in the many leadership roles she plays in our institution. Individuals are taking responsibility and leading us, prodding us to take responsibility too-not as individuals, but as a collective. As a religious movement for justice.
"This requires a new cultural consciousness. This requires us to think of the collective, of the group as the unit of action-not the individual. Individuals accomplish very little-it is the power of the collective that makes real and lasting changes. In this new cultural consciousness it is a question of what can we do? What must we do? Where are we going as a religious collective?
"I think that opens up some other very interesting questions. What is the vision of Unitarian Universalism? Where are we headed? I see a very clear justice making vision; I suspect Jose, Mel and Norma and many of you see a justice making vision. But do we have a collective justice making vision? Are we sharing the vision? I wonder if we do.
"If we had a collective vision, does that mean we would all have to work for justice in the same way? No, as long as we are working toward transforming this culture of violence, we can work in many ways. We must work in many ways.
"I personally have chosen anti-racism, because that is the place I found in Unitarian Universalism to work on issues that are important to Indian people. The place I can dig in and be most effective. It's the place from which I can talk about colonialism, culture and cultural racism, and this culture of violence in which we live. And the Journey Toward Wholeness allows me to strategize processes to change our Unitarian Universalist culture, toward justice. Toward a culture of taking responsibility and relationship. A culture which supports and nurtures people for remembering, for actively opposing the forces in our dominant society that make us forget who we are as sacred, powerful beings.
"So, I do anti-racism. I love the Journey Toward Wholeness, it is my passion. Do I want you to do the Journey Toward Wholeness? Of course I do! But I want you to do THE JOURNEY. It is the journey that is important. I want you to see that all is not right in the world, all is not right in our faith community. There is justice that needs to come in to this world. The Journey Toward Wholeness is a vision of justice making. I am talking about the resolution that was passed by the General Assembly that calls for the transformation of Unitarian Universalism to becoming anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multi-cultural. Journey Toward Wholeness is a call to transformation, a call to cultural transformation.
"There is also a program of the Faith In Action Department called 'Journey Toward Wholeness,' but the program itself is not the vision, it is not the transformation. It is a tool to help us get there. Is it the only tool? No. Do I want you to do Journey Toward Wholeness, the program? Sure, I'm committed to it and I get paid to do it. Is it the only thing I think we should be doing? No. We need to work on all fronts to challenge this culture of violence that confronts us. But we need to work collectively. Both within our congregations and outside them. We need to work collectively, working toward a shared vision of justice.
"Whatever you chose to work on, which ever part of this crazy machine you take on to dismantle-make it inclusive. Don't leave anyone behind! If you choose to focus on anti-racism, don't forget about homophobia; if you choose to focus on class, don't forget about race. Remember, all these oppressions, all these "isms" work together in complicated ways to create this hideous culture of violence in which we live.
"Take responsibility. Remember who you are. Remember where you came from. You are sacred beings. But you must resist and you must struggle to remember."
Following Dias' remarks, conference participants had an opportunity to offer final reflections before boarding busses to worship together at Peoples Church.