Reckless Borrowing or Appropriate Cultural Sharing?

In the past few years there has been an increasing awareness among religious educators of cultural appropriation especially as it relates to spiritual rituals, symbols, and artifacts, so that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) begin to ask themselves whether they are involved in reckless borrowing or appropriate cultural sharing.

This is a broad and controversial subject for Unitarian Universalists. As our worship increasingly incorporates ritual and spirituality from other cultures, concerns are raised about whether it is possible for Unitarian Universalists to authentically incorporate rituals, symbols, and artifacts from many of the world's cultures and traditions. And we hear concerns about the implications of racism inherent in cross-cultural "borrowing" of various spiritual rituals and traditions.

Our Principles and Purposes affirm that "the tradition we share draws from many sources," including "wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life." And it certainly is true that almost all religions have borrowed heavily from others blending and combining religions or aspects of religions. Over time and with exposure to various religious peoples and ideas our original Unitarian Universalist traditions adopted their present pluralistic theological positions.

Since we as Unitarian Universalists seek to promote justice, equity, peace, and the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we must look at how the integration of rituals, symbols, and ideas of other traditions may be affecting those whose traditions are being "borrowed." It is important that we learn to differentiate between drawing from the wisdom and appropriating rituals, artifacts, and other elements of the spiritual traditions of other religions. In the words of author Max Warren:

Our first task in approaching
Another people, another culture, another religion
Is to take off our shoes
For the place we are approaching is holy.
Else we find ourselves treading on another's dream.
More serious still, we may forget...that God
Was there before our arrival.

T o appropriate means to take possession of specific aspects of someone else's culture in unethical, oppressive ways. Cultural appropriation is acting in ways that belie understanding or respect for the historical, social, and spiritual context out of which particular traditions and cultural expressions were born. The Reverend Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley defines cultural appropriation as consciously or unconsciously seeking to emulate concepts, beliefs, or rituals that are foreign to a particular framework, individual, or collective. It is incorporating language, cultural expressions, forms, lifestyles, rituals, or practices about which there is little basis for direct knowledge, experience, or authenticity into one's being. It is also the superficial appreciation of a culture without regard to its deeper meaning.

Incorporating aspects of different traditions is complex. With our ready access to information, it is easy to find books, music, meditation, and rituals from around the world. However, making sense of these traditions and integrating them coherently is not as easy. There is a real danger of misrepresenting and misunderstanding another tradition. Although we have access to many cultures and traditions and the freedom to appropriate them, this does not relieve us of any responsibilities for the results of appropriation.

Many Native American people, including highly respected religious elders, have condemned this practice as a theft of rituals and symbols from indigenous religions. They identify it as cultural exploitation that threatens the survival and well being of indigenous people. There are a number of questions that "borrowers" need to ask themselves:

  1. How much do I know about this particular tradition; how do I respect it and not misrepresent it?
  2. What do I know of the history and experience of the people from whom I am borrowing?
  3. Is this borrowing distorting, watering down, or misinterpreting the tradition?
  4. Is the meaning changed?
  5. Is this over generalizing this culture (remind yourself that any culture can be quite diverse). When pieces of a culture are taken out of context, robbing them of power and meaning, problems arise.
  6. What is the motivation for cultural borrowing? What is being sought and why?
  7. How do the "owners" of the tradition feel about pieces of the tradition being borrowed?
  8. If artifacts and/or rituals are being sold, where does the money go?
  9. Is this really spiritually healthy for Unitarian Universalists? When we, as a religious tradition borrow rituals from other cultures, we lose the significant meaning they take on from the community in which they are based. We risk becoming impersonators.
  10. How can we acknowledge rather than exploit the contributions of all people?

There is no one answer in dealing with issues of cultural appropriation. However, as a movement committed to a responsible search for truth and meaning, it is imperative to try to answer some of the difficult questions and to act accordingly.

About the Author

Jacqui James

Jacqui James is a longtime religious educator who focused on developing multicultural ministries and curricula. Now retired, she is a member of First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts, and enjoys spending time with her grandchildren.

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