One of my relatives tells a story about having to go find food with his mother when he was a young child still living in Ukraine. After the Nazi invasion, older male relatives couldn’t leave the house for fear they’d be shot or conscripted – by any number of factions not limited to Nazis. “They thought my mother would be safer if she had a small child with her,” he told me. So they bundled the little boy up and sent him out with his mom.
As they walked toward the market, hand in hand, he noticed bodies hanging from the trees. There were signs tied around their necks. He looked to his mother, but she didn’t react. “I didn’t know it wasn’t normal,” he told me. “It was only later, as an adult, that these memories took on a greater depth in me.”
“What did the signs say?” I asked.
“I hadn’t learned to read yet,” he said. “I never found out what they said.”
That one detail haunted me for years, more than the stories of neighbors informing on each other, land being seized, family members abducted. What did the signs say? Do we need to know what the signs said? The hand that writes it is the same in every language. It doesn’t have to sign its name. The message is the same.
As the child of a refugee, I feel a deep sense of obligation to my ancestors, which has become a core component of my theology. I can neither live nor speak for my ancestors, but the way I live and the words I speak are informed by their lives and words. I was raised to think for myself, hold fast to my convictions, and above all to value human lives and experiences. It’s been 75 years, and my family has not forgotten what it looks like when humans claim absolute knowledge and moral authority over others. These days, when I hear dehumanizing, soul-stripping political rhetoric in America, I think: this is what the signs said.
I believe the rise of authoritarianism is the most pressing social justice concern in America today. Its effects are far-reaching and related to nearly every other social justice concern from systemic racism to income inequality. Every shade of oppression is informed by a conception of power that is zero-sum, unitary, and absolute. Either you’re in the group that hangs the signs, or you’re the body in the tree. From an authoritarian perspective, if you get shot by the cops, you must not have followed directions; if you’re impoverished, you must not be working hard enough; if you demand rights and protections, you must want to strip them away from others; if you criticize institutions or systems, you must be a traitor.
My call to ministry is founded in my sense of ancestral obligation and my unwavering belief in tolerance, humanity, and uncertainty. My family history compels me to acknowledge the fundamental humanity of others, and my faith as a Unitarian Universalist compels me to defend it. A belief in the inherent worth of all humans is incompatible with authoritarianism, which hinges on the dehumanization of “the other.” To promote a radical respect for alterity, to value otherness, to allow for that which we do not understand, is to undermine authoritarianism. Likewise, to model epistemic modesty, to insist that neither I nor anyone else has absolute knowledge or a sole claim to righteousness, is to undermine authoritarianism. My ministry must put forth these values in deeds as well as words.
Oppression, I believe, thrives on absolutism and ignorance. “Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved.” The virulent anti-intellectualism in modern America, the devaluing of reason and expertise, and the celebration of purposeful narrow-mindedness are not just symptoms of the rise of authoritarianism – they are, in fact, perpetuating it. In Unitarian Universalism, ours is a tradition of learned ministry that upholds reason, knowledge, and open-minded inquiry. It is a tradition that is needed now more than ever.
But countering the rise of authoritarianism does not necessarily mean countering “authority” as a concept. It does, however, mean reconceiving it. The authority for my ministry will ultimately be based in community, covenant, tradition, right relationship, and accountability. The very nature of ministerial authority in our tradition undermines authoritarianism: we cannot claim the exclusive blessing of God. And in a time when the political right so frequently claims a religious authority for their authoritarian ends, it is vitally important that other forms of religious authority remain visible.
At this stage in my seminary career, I am working hard to become the best possible minister I can. There is a lot at stake. When the time comes to leave the house, so to speak, I must be able to read the signs. Nearly every facet of social justice in this country depends upon educated and diligent people confronting not just unjust policies, but the underlying ideologies that justify them.
This is our work.