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Limiting vs. Liberating Covenants

By New England Region of the UUA


We understand covenants as being an attempt to make promises together that are grounded in a shared understanding of something unenforceable but to which we want, collectively, to be faithful or obedient. Ideally, in the context of congregational covenants, the “something” we practice collective commitment to includes our shared values and mission, and we often include these in our understanding of behavioral covenants. However, lots of other stuff can tend to creep into our covenants, too, things more grounded in a particular dominant culture than in our values.

In their bookDismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun describe elements of white supremacy culture, and we’ve relied on their descriptions in our thinking about this. In this paper, we focus particularly on those elements of white supremacy culture that resonate with our experience of the dominant culture in Unitarian Universalism.

Comfort and Control or Beloved Community?

One of the features of white supremacy culture as identified by Jones and Okun is an expectation of comfort. We see this in the way that covenants are often written and practiced in UU spaces to preserve this comfort by controlling behavior. In fact, we often call them “behavioral covenants.” There is something valuable here: a recognition of our right to a basically safe space, meaning space that is free from harassment, bullying, physical violence, or dominating behavior.

However, we can take this too far and it becomes a stifling focus on controlling behavior to make the majority comfortable. This saps us of our creativity and authentic connection. It also limits who feels welcome and included in the covenant. When we practice covenant like this, we can be misled into thinking that the way to be faithful to our covenant is to practice basic politeness, rather than deeper connection. It also leads us to hide parts of ourselves that don’t conform to the established norms as we understand them.

Liberating covenant, by contrast, is covenant that moves toward Beloved Community. Beloved Community means many things, but one of them is a community everyone can bring their whole selves. Faithfulness in this kind of covenant means bringing our full presence, including our authenticity and our vulnerability.

Rather than seeking comfort, this kind of covenant calls us to the creation of braver space together, that is, a space where we are all supported to take risks and repeatedly move out of our comfort zones in the service of our own spiritual growth and true liberation for all.

Limiting or Liberating Conflict?

Closely tied to this ideal of comfort are some of the ways we use covenant to approach conflict in limiting ways. Jones and Okun identify a fear of open conflict as another feature of white supremacy culture. In Unitarian Universalism, this often manifests as covenants that are written in an attempt to prevent any open conflict, and then to strictly control behavior during the few conflicts we cannot prevent.

There are several problems with this, but one is that many communities writing covenants like this don’t fully understand that different cultures have quite dramatically different understandings of what makes for “appropriate” behavior during conflict. One key difference is the degree of emotional expression that is considered appropriate during conflict. In some cultures, including the dominant culture in the US and in most UU congregations, appropriate behavior in conflict means a restrained expression of emotion. Elements of that restrained style include quiet, even voices and still bodies. Other cultures define appropriate behavior in conflict as a more expressive style, including voices that get louder and also vary more in pitch and volume, and lots of body movement. Many African American communities, Jewish communities, and some working class communities use this style of conflict.

When we use covenants to control behavior during conflict, we also often define one cultural style as covenantal, and other cultural styles as uncovenantal. This means that some people will find it easier to live within the covenant than others on the basis of our home culture, and again, writes some people into the covenant while writing others out.

What would a more liberating approach to covenant around conflict look like? It would start with a recognition that conflict is actually inevitable in real community. Indeed, it may even be necessary for real community. Many people have said this, but one is M. Scott Peck who writes about the difference between psuedocommunity and genuine community. A pseudocommunity, to Peck, is one in which everyone is trying to be polite and get along, but at the expense of really bringing their whole selves. A genuine community, by contrast, is one in which people are fully themselves and able to be open and vulnerable. Peck says that genuine community can only be arrived at through the fire of conflict, and genuine communities continue to experience periods of conflict. He defines genuine communities as people who have learned to fight gracefully.

Liberating covenants do not try to get rid of conflict, nor do they see conflict itself as evidence that the covenant is broken or ineffective. Rather, they are designed to hold the space for engaging conflict creatively and lovingly. That means conflict where we can bring our whole selves, including with our own cultural conflict style. It also means respecting others’ whole selves, including diverse cultural conflict styles. Doing so, we can work through conflict and into a creative solution to our problems or disagreements.

Letter or Spirit?

Another element of white supremacy culture is what Jones and Okun call the “worship of words,” which is a spot on description of so much of Unitarian Universalism. There is something good here. The love of words has produced some beautiful covenantal language, words of poetry and power that inspire us to compassion and courage.

However, if we take this too far, we get to a place where we believe that the meaning of a covenant can be entirely captured in the words. For an example of this, a congregational leader recently described to us a conversation with a congregant about their covenant, and the congregant was concerned about loopholes, or all the ways to get around the language of the covenant. This is clear evidence of a focus on the letter of a covenant over the spirit. When we are attending to the spirit, loopholes are not a thing.

A more liberating approach is to recognize that covenantal practice involves acting from obedience/faithfulness not just to the unenforceable but also to the indescribable, to our shared commitment to something beyond or larger than ourselves which cannot be entirely captured in words. In liberating covenants we focus on the spirit of the covenant more than the words. The words are important. They point us toward what we are trying to be faithful to together. But they are useful in the way a map is useful. Like a map, the words can point us to the terrain, and draw our attention to certain key features, but they are not, themselves the covenant, just as a map is not, itself, the terrain.

Perfectionism or Forgiveness?

Two closely related features of white supremacy culture as identified by Jones and Okun are perfectionism and either/or thinking. They show up in conversations about covenant most clearly in the idea that we are eitherin covenant and perfectly keeping our commitments orout of covenant, having broken our promises. We often encounter the idea that in or out of covenant is a binary division. This binary idea can lead to shaming ourselves or others when we fall short, and a certain hardness where that is not helpful.

A liberating view of covenant knows that we are both keeping and breaking promises at the same time quite often. We keep our covenants to the best of our ability but we also break them despite our best efforts, and we are also always learning to do better. Liberating covenantal practice accepts the reality of human imperfection, of our flawed nature and brokenness, the inevitability of falling short and failure. It is inherently forgiving and when violated seeks restoration and renewal. UU minister Victoria Safford says of covenant that “It may be reinforced by forgiveness and grace, when we stumble, forget, mess up.” So, when there is a breach of covenant, that does not mean we are completely out of covenant. Rather the covenant holds us as we find our way back to right relationship through reconciliation.