Changing Our Metaphors

By Erica Baron

watering plants

Several years ago the New England Region team was creating the first version of our Spiritual Leadership framework. We identified 5 practices that help UU congregations to bring forth and support the spiritual leadership of everyone in the congregation. One of these practices we named “Binding to Tradition.”

The word binding was chosen deliberately. The word religion comes from latin meaning “to bind fast.” It’s related to the word ligament. And the word obligation. We chose to use the metaphor of binding to tradition to emphasize that claiming Unitarian Universalism creates obligation. We are obligated to carry on the tradition we have inherited. To bring its blessings and gifts forward into the future. And we are obligated by the harms our tradition, our congregations, and our association have committed. We are obligated to repair and to heal that harm.

Binding has a sense of constricting - of being constricted. Although we imagined the one doing the tying to be the person freely choosing Unitarian Universalism, that sense of constriction remains. In fact, it was key to the metaphor. Some Unitarian Universalists, we thought, could benefit from a little constraining. Constraint to counter the often said, “we can believe anything we want” and still be Unitarian Universalists. This statement ignores the important commitments to the value of every person and our understanding of the way all things are connected and interdependent. Constraint to the rarely said but often acted, “we can do anything we want and still be Unitarian Universalists.” There is so much unkindness, injustice, and inequity among us, which is a betrayal of those commitments. We chose the metaphor to evoke that feeling of constraint. To center that actually, there are limits.

However, we are becoming aware that some Unitarian Universalists will hear echoes of other experiences in this metaphor. Binding also calls up associations to being tied, caught, held captive. For Black people, this wording might activate the generational trauma of enslavement. And it might activate the trauma of the ongoing systems that steal the freedom of Black people, such as mass incarceration. These are not associations we want to evoke. The fact that these images are not what we had in mind does not mean that our language will not bring them to others’ minds. Given the harm this metaphor can create, we need a new one.

After some careful consideration, we have decided to rename this practice “Tending Our Tradition.” What a different set of images this metaphor brings up! We chose tending because it implies a continuous process. You can’t tend something for one day and then be done. Tending is an act of continuous care. It also allows us to think about the choices we make when deciding which aspects of our tradition to carry forward, and which to let go. We might think of this discernment as weeding or pruning our tradition. Where the things we have grown have invaded other gardens or harmed people, we have to do more than just weed and prune. We need to actively make amends and repair harm.

We often speak of Unitarian Universalism as a “living tradition.” Tending keeps this sense of caring for something that is alive and growing, blooming and becoming. We hope this new language will remind us all of the responsibility to care for Unitarian Universalism. We hope it will remind us that we did not start this garden. We are accountable to those who did, to keep the most alive and life-giving parts thriving. We are accountable, too, to those who will tend it after us. It is our job to tend not just the places of abundance, but also to repair the places damaged by neglect and harm. So that we can hand on the most beautiful, thriving, diverse, and abundant garden we can.

About the Author

Erica Baron

Rev. Erica Baron joined the New England region staff in 2019, focusing on helping congregations live into their missions and develop their gifts for spiritual leadership. Before joining the Congregational Life staff, she served as parish minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the...

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