Justice in Our Denomination

In addition to working for justice in the wider world, I am committed to working for justice within Unitarian Universalism. I believe that if we’re brave enough to be honest with ourselves about the ways we sometimes fall short of our ideals, we can make our communities accessible and safe for people of color, trans people, and disabled people.

The Gadfly Response

“The Gadfly Papers” was written by Rev. Todd Eklof and distributed at the 2019 General Assembly in Spokane. I believe that the book and the manner in which it was distributed were both out of covenant. Many, many Unitarian Universalists with marginalized identities have reported that book is deeply offensive and hurtful to them. I read it, and found it to contain transphobic and racist sentiments veiled in “respectable” language.

In October 2019, I preached a sermon condemning the book, along with an original Story for All Ages (“The Suspiciously Polite Spider and the Very Angry Ladybug”) at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene.  A text transcript of the sermon follows the videos, and at the bottom of the page are updates.


So! Who’s ready to talk about ecclesiastical polity and hierarchy?


You know I wasn’t expecting such an… an enthusiastic response? …And I had the ushers lock the doors for nothing.

Of course you know, you do have a choice. And I’m pleased that you’ve chosen the right answer. You know one of the great things about Unitarian Universalism is you always have a choice: you’ll never be compelled to do or say or participate in anything that you don’t want to, that you don’t agree with, that doesn’t align with your beliefs.

I mean it doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want at all times – you can’t personally eat the entire tray of cookies at coffee hour and expect nobody to be mad at you. The Girl Scouts are here; they’re professionals. But it does mean you do have the freedom from being forced to eat cookies against your will. Communion is rare and optional.

And this brings us to the scintillating topic of ecclesiastical polity, or church governance. Think of it as a kind of a pop quiz that you’re not being graded on, and which – as always – is optional. The visitors here today are thinking “Oh my god.” Which is fine, your theology is welcome here.

But for the Unitarian Universalists in the room – which, I know who you are: what kind of polity (or governance) do we have in our tradition?

…Congregational. Yes, in Unitarian Universalism, we have congregational polity. The churches govern their own affairs. The denomination doesn’t tell us what to do. It’s one of the defining characteristics of our religious movement. Aside from the fact that we’re queer, eco-friendly, and highly caffeinated. Now the visitors are like “What if I don’t recycle?”

Repent. The ecopocalypse is at hand.

But seriously, because we believe in the free and independent church, we value reason and free speech. And because of this belief, no bishop is ever going revoke our funding or knock the cookies off our snack table as it were, just because they don’t like what we preach here. No bishop. No denomination. We govern ourselves.

We do have an association, like Sharon was talking about: the Unitarian Universalist Association of…? Congregations, yeah! It’s like a club. The church chooses to associate in this association with other churches. And we’re in relationship with them. And every year in June, we all get together for General Assembly, or GA.

And this year it was in Spokane. Some of you might have gone. And Friday afternoon – toward the end of GA – the minister of the Spokane church, Reverend Todd Eklof, began distributing a book he published himself – which is rarely good sign – called The Gadfly Papers.

And notably he didn’t hand these out until after – almost until the end of GA – until after he had appeared onstage with a black minister who lavishly praised him for funding their church. He could have handed it out at any time, but he didn’t. He asked his congregants to hand the book out at their church’s booth and other locations around GA, and from what I understand, they were not aware of the book’s contents. They were not aware that it was racist.

To be clear, I find the Gadfly Papers to be very polite. It’s also intellectually dishonest, it’s dog-whistle racist, dismissive and condescending. It’s self-absorbed, and self-pitying, and morally reprehensible. The lofty tone and polished vocabulary and pretensions at neutrality, as if this is all a thought experiment, can’t redeem the sentiment.

Do you know you can buy gold trash bags on Amazon? They sparkle. And they’re a dime a dozen.

And we’ll get into the contents a little later. But suffice it to say, the timing of the release and the way that it was done are widely regarded as – what we say in the hood as being “shady.” The table of contents alone raised immediate alarm among ministers, particularly ministers of color.

Within 48 hours, numerous groups had publicly responded with statements condemning the book, including

– DRUUMM, which stands for Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries
– LREDA (The Liberal Religious Educators Association)
– the newly formed POCI chapter of the UUMA
– ARE (Allies for Racial Equality)

– and a group of white ministers, who wrote an open letter – now referred to as “The White Minister’s letter (…they’re not wrong) – disassociating ourselves with the Gadfly Papers and everything it represents, and voicing our support for marginalized Unitarian Universalists, and marginalized people everywhere. This signature list grew to include over 500 of us, including me and Rev. Lo (Reverend Lois Van Leer).

Now, major argument from supporters of Rev. Eklof is that so many ministers around the country couldn’t possibly have seen the book before we condemned it. And it’s true: I was 460 miles away and in sweatpants. And they point to our rapid response as “proof” that we merely jumped on a bandwagon and have given up on reasoning. A couple things.
1. The internet exists, and so do cell phone cameras. And we talk to each other.
2. You could read a couple select passages and get the gist of it. And
3. I trust my black colleagues. And my indigenous, Hispanic, trans, genderqueer, and disabled colleagues. And when the response from all of those who had read the book was so swift and decisive, I chose to be with them.

…But I had seen the book.

With regard to the bandwagon claim, I think some people need to take a look at their own wagon, so to speak. For instance: is your wagon actively driving away from racism, or has it stopped to argue about directions? Is your wagon entirely full of white people and nobody else? Have you noticed how much cooler our wagon is because of the awesome people we have in it? We have a disco ball and better music.

Numerous colleagues, staff, and leaders within our denomination attempted that day and the following day to meet with Rev. Eklof, urgently, to talk about the book and how he chose to distribute it. They tried to call him back into covenant, back into relationship. And ultimately, it was his refusal, his steadfast refusal, to meet with GA staff that led to him being asked to leave GA. He broke covenant and refused to repair it.

And you can’t have a private gathering of several thousand people with one of them who has decided to go rogue, follow no rules, do whatever they want, not talk to anyone about it, and be no longer accountable. That won’t fly.

So some of Eklof’s supporters claim that he has been unfairly attacked. They’ve pointing out his long history of fighting for marriage equality, which is on the record. And you can have a long history of a clean driving record. And when you get arrested for drunk driving because you ran people over, the judge will not care. I’m not saying his prior activism doesn’t matter. But it doesn’t redeem the book.

A constant refrain in the pro-Gadfly circles is that Rev. Eklof’s freedom of speech was trampled when he was asked to leave GA. And as Unitarian Universalists, this is not nothing – this is actually a religious concern for us. But our belief in the freedom of the individual conscience doesn’t mean you’re allowed to do whatever you want at all times and expect no consequences, expect to hear no word from anyone about what you’ve done wrong. The backlash against the Gadfly Papers is not an infringement on free speech. That backlash is free speech. That’s how free speech works.

Another refrain is that the book was banned or that Eklof was censored. I think people need to look up wat the word “censorship” means. Both are untrue. He was censured – different spelling – by the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association, which means they wrote a public letter of censure asking him to do better. He could just easily crumple it up and throw it in the trash and have no consequences to his life or free speech. That’s not censorship. Nobody censored him. We don’t have a Pope. Who would even do that? The book is still on Amazon. You can buy it; it’s terrible. Go for it!

Let’s get into the book. The first essay in the book is called “THE CODDLING OF THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST MIND: How the Emerging Culture of Safetyism, Identitarianism, and Political Correctness is Reshaping America’s Most Liberal Religion.”

Now this essay alleges that our faith movement has been taken over by a kind of political correctness. Now nobody is allowed to say anything offensive, because certain identities demand not to be exposed to anything that would upset them or hurt their feeligns. This climate of political correctness is spurred by “identitarianism,” a word that seems made up to me, but okay. And “identitarianism” he defines as “the promotion of the interests of certain marginalized or oppressed groups without regard for broader issues than their own, or for the greater concerns of the larger political party or society to which such groups belong”. Let me read that back to you. The promotion of interests of certain marginalized or oppressed groups without regard for bigger issues, broader issues than their own.

So in other words – if this escaped you – black UUs care more about being their own interests as black people than they do about Unitarian Universalism. They don’t care if they hurt our religion along the way, as long as they get what they want. I don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s true.

He writes, “the result of identitarianism often ends up being a segregated, fractured organization that becomes unable to come together to work on its common concerns”. As if the concerns of white UUs should be the ones that unite all of us. Naturally! Clearly! But the concerns of black UUs, disabled UUs, transgender UUs – those? those are just distractions, those are special interests that don’t apply to all of us, and insisting that they be heard divides us further, and you should stop.

Throughout the book, Eklof argues that the goal of Unitarian Universalism is, and always has been, to create a universal religion for humanity. …Thank you for that knowing gasp! I’m so proud of you. I mean.

A universal religion for humanity. He writes that we have “a still unfulfilled mandate to establish a religion of humanity” – which, what could go wrong with a white person using the word “mandate” to refer to the rest of the planet? that’s how we wind up with the British Empire – and he says that focusing on the needs of specific groups (such as people of color, because white people aren’t a specific group, they’re just normal) – focusing on the needs of a specific group of people undermines that goal.

First of all, that’s not the goal. It never was. Second, to assume that your historically white religion could totally replace all the other ones, who needs those? – in other words, to assume that the white version is best – that is the definition of white supremacy.

Eklof argues that as long as you mean well, you shouldn’t be accused of harming anyone when your words harm people. And he argues that the meaning of the word “harm” is being thrown around these days unfairly by minorities who claim to be “harmed” by everything and anyone. This “helps explain the angry and defensive reaction to the well-intentioned UU World article” about trans people. Which – if you remember that debacle – crushed our trans siblings. Which one trans minister, who visited here last month – Alex Kapitan – begged the magazine not to publish because it was so hurtful.

Eklof expresses disbelief that “simply using the wrong pronouns” for someone could be a problem, and he writes that “The puritanical pressures now being instituted by internal domination forces” – sorry we’re trying to be nice! they “… represent a form of oppression,” he says. “…Using shame, self-righteousness, and enraged warnings about dangerous ideas and hurtful speech … is no less than the same excuse some once used to burn Unitarians at the stake”.

While I appreciate the impassioned appeal for free speech, no one is kicking around what pronouns they want to use in marketplace of free ideas. It’s not up for debate. It’s not. And while cisgender people feel like they’re being metaphorically burned at the stake when they get asked “just please don’t misgender someone intentionally,” over two dozen trans women have been murdered this year. I am not here for this burning at the stake metaphor; sorry.

Meanwhile, back at the Gadfly Papers, Rev. Eklof says that microaggressions aren’t real. The term – yes – has “been misappropriated,” he says – he uses that word, yes, it’s true – “by the suppressive cultural phenomenon known as political correctness.” He writes that it’s “another mechanism for dismissing and silencing the voices of others” – and here he’s talking about white men being dismissed and silenced – by openly shaming them and making them chronically anxious about saying anything for fear it might be misconstrued as inappropriate.” Fear of saying anything, in case it might be misconstrued as inappropriate. It’s almost as if in Eklof’s world, there are no inappropriate comments – only people who take offense.

In other words, white men are afraid to speak at all, because they might get in trouble for no good reason. White men, he does you a disservice. He’s selling you short. I know that it can be uncomfortable when we’re trying to do better. I know that fear of wanting to not hurt people, to say the right thing. But I’d like to think that if we’re careful about our speech, it’s not because we’re merely afraid of getting in trouble, it’s because we care about other people.

I’m reminded of the quote from the Rev. Sofia Betancourt in which she asks how religious leaders “can undermine the notion that it is okay for a personal small moment of discomfort to silence an entire tradition, an entire people, an entire faith perspective in our congregations.” And it’s not okay. You’re allowed your personal small moments of discomfort. And it’s not okay to use that to silence others.

Other greatest hits from The Gadfly Papers include Eklof arguing that we shouldn’t update our ableist hymn lyrics like “Standing on the Side of Love.”

He refers to ”witch hunts” within LREDA, which I remind you is our professional organization for religious educators, who are mostly women. “Witch hunts.”

He argues that not enough white men are shown in official UUA publications, and to this point he actually asked the Communications department whether there was a policy against using pictures of white men. (Now, y’all know that’s not a real question.)

He insinuates that the UUA has decided to “exclude persons who are ‘white and male’ from being seen and heard.” …Yeah.

He uses anonymous Facebook comments to present the point of view of those he disagrees with, while quoting from philosophers to support his own arguments. At every turn, he portrays those working for change in our denomination as being stupid, uninformed, reactionary, emotionally unhinged, and illogical.

And he compares the supporters of a Christina Rivera – the Latina leader who was passed over for a job in 2017, which we’ll get to – because he thinks they have dehumanized white men, he compares them, on page 48, to Hitler.

Let’s talk about the Hiring Controversy. In the third essay in the book, titled “LET’S BE REASONABLE: A Rational Frame Regarding Charges of Racism and White Supremacy Within the UUA”, Eklof pontificates at length about Rivera, without ever having called her to ask for her input. According to him, the 2017 Hiring Controversy – in which, again, a highly-qualified Latina candidate was passed over for a regional staff position on the grounds that she wasn’t a “good fit” with the rest of the all-white staff – according to Eklof, all that controversy was just a failure of people to use logic and reasoning properly.

And I want you to know that there’s a difference between the actual use of reason, and the use of so-called “reason” as a tool to quietly bludgeon people that you disagree with. And there’s a difference between real logic, real logic! and the kind of so-called “logic” that confuses a lack of emotional intelligence with neutrality, that conflates lofty prose with a moral high ground.

The Gadfly Papers isn’t logical, it just pretends to be. When I taught composition and argumentation at the University of Oregon, we covered intellectual honesty in Week 1. And if one of my students had turned in an essay as badly written as the Gadfly Papers, they would have failed.

But back to the Hiring Controvery. According to Eklof, “Some view the organization’s decision to hire a white male candidate instead of a Latina candidate … a result of the liberal religion’s culture of white supremacy.” Yes, that is true. “The other side,” he says, “which has remained mostly muted, if not suppressed, wonders if the decision was based on the prospective employees’ qualifications rather than her race, and if the unexpected appropriation of the term “white supremacy’ … isn’t extreme.” Maybe Rivera isn’t as qualified as she thinks after all.

The next 40 pages attempt to use “logic” to debunk the idea that white supremacy exists in UU culture. Which I’ll spare you that entire section, but to say that a white man expecting their entire audience to sit through 40 pages of bland pontification is like the height of white supremacy.

He points out logical fallacies he thinks people of color have, as if his only problem with all this talk about racism is that people aren’t using sound reasoning to his satisfaction.

He claims also that Christina Rivera was lying. “As understandably painful and personal as this matter obviously is for this individual, being reasonable also requires us to consider the truth value of her statement, especially given its impact on our denomination.” Being reasonable also requires us to consider the truth value of her statement.

So let me unpack this, in case you missed the dog whistle. In other words, it’s okay feel sorry for her, we can feel sorry for her, she doesn’t know any better. But because we’re smarter and more intellectual than she is, we know that she might not be telling the truth – and we give greater weight to the fact that it doesn’t benefit us to believe her.

You know, you can destroy your relationship with an entire community of people without ever using an explicit slur against them. This is how it’s done.

Christina Rivera suggested that she was passed over for a job because she’s a person of color, Eklof writes, and that part is true. Or perhaps she’s suggesting “that the UUA has a moral obligation to hire her because she is nonwhite.” Dude, nobody said that.

Throughout this section, Eklof claims to analyze the Rivera’s arguments in a “logical” way, but repeatedly misstating them in a way that makes her sound insane. Not only is this gaslighting, but to do this to a woman of color makes it Deluxe Gaslighting.

The Rev. Dennis McCarty, a retired white minister, wrote a series called “I’m Reading the Gadfly Papers So You Don’t Have To.” And you can find it on his Facebook page, “Thoughts from a Gentle Atheist.” It’s great, it’s hilarious. And in installment #11, he writes: “This is one more situation in which the white guy refuses to believe the Person of Color is being hurt until the Person of Color convinces the white guy—TO THE WHITE GUY’S FULL AND COMPLETE SATISFACTION—that the harm is taking place [at all]. And of course that will never happen—no matter the evidence—unless/until the white guy is willing to take the Person of Color’s complaint seriously.” And he’s not.

Eklof rejects the term “white supremacy” with respect to our denomination, stating: “Are we to take such an association to mean [that] the UUA is to be grouped with the Ku Klux Klan, … as many would naturally presume?” Not what I was thinking, but go on, Eklof. “[W]e must additionally ask if it is reasonable to associate the [UUA] with the unjust rule of people and lands, theft of lands and resources, enslavement, and genocide?” Genocide? That’s your bar for calling something racist? Good news, nothing is racist anymore!

Complaining about the terms being used is a distraction. And I ask you to consider why a person would create such a distraction, and what’s in it for them.

I’ll say that I think Eklof and this book speak to a small but growing resentment in our denomination. Not just against our focus on anti-racism, but against the UUA itself. Many of his supporters claim that the UUA is betraying our tradition of congregational polity by forcing us all in a heavy-handed, top-down kind of way to confront racism.

Which even if that were true, it’s certainly not the worst thing that could happen, is it? But it also isn’t true. Nobody is forcing this church to do anything. There’s no Unitarian re-education camp. Unless you count youth con. But they all seem pretty happy.

And in any event, our church has joined with churches around the country in association, in confronting white supremacy culture within our faith movement, because we want to, because we want to! and because we know it’s the right thing to do. And we now have an Association to help us do it together.

So whenever I hear from a disgruntled UU that the UUA has been “taken over” by people who are pushing a politically correct agenda – and that is the language they use – I think, “you know the call is coming from inside the house, right?” The UUA is us.

At GA, a survey asked UUs how important they feel anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multicultural work is, to the future of our faith. And on a scale of 1 to 10, 91% ranked it as an 8 or above. Nearly 60% – well over half! – ranked anti-racism work as a 10 – the most important thing we need to do now.

The UUA is not being taken over by a couple politically correct insurgents. I don’t think the UUA is pushing an agenda so much as responding to a need. A real need. But in every church that takes on this work, a few white people feel that it’s unfair to them, that they’re being left out and ignored, that it’s illegal to be white now, now that people of color get to talk.

And now Rev. Todd Eklof from Spokane has convinced a bunch of them around the country that they’re the oppressed ones, that they’re the only true defenders of Unitarian Universalism left, that the rest of us are being brainwashed and jumping on the bandwagon.

And I’ll say that I’m not actually concerned with winning them over. I’m not. I am not concerned with winning over the loudest and most public Gadfly supporters. You can find them on social media being politely hateful and generally repellant. Because I’m not sure anything can change someone’s mind once they are willfully committed to defending their own ignorance as a matter of honor and freedom. And they’re not engaged in real dialog; they just pretend to be.

Please remember that as evidence mounted that cigarettes caused lung cancer, tobacco companies didn’t so much seek to disprove the studies, as they deliberately sowed doubts about whether the studies could be trusted at all – what was the methodology? were they reasonable? – claiming to be merely engaging in dialog. And it was the same thing with oil companies and global warming. You can forestall real conversation for decades that way. But not forever.

And so it’s not so much that I’m interested in avoiding Gadfly supporters, it’s that I’m not interested in getting trapped in an endless sticky nightmare-web of make-believe dialog from which there is no escape or resolution because it was designed that way.

“But how can I debate the ladybug if she won’t get into the web?” said the spider indignantly, using his impressive powers of logic and reasoning. And then he started a blog to complain about the illogical ladybugs oppressing him.

No, I’m not interested. To those who feel that getting the Gadflies on board is necessary to move our anti-racism work forward: no it isn’t. That’s like saying we can’t raise a sunken boat from the bottom of the lake without adding more rocks first. “But what’s the point in having a boat if it can’t even float when it’s loaded with rocks?” says a blog written by rocks, which has previously held a dialog about whether ships matter at all, without inviting any ships. …Also the rocks are racist.

Whether or not we should be doing anti-racism work is not up for debate anymore. It’s not even the question. It’s happening. We’re doing it. And itt’s not because it’s been imposed from the top down from the dictatorial UUA imposing creeds and religious orthodoxy on us.

I’m reminded of how at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago in 1948 when a vote came up about desegregate the church, one member loudly and vocally insisted that it would be to impost a creed, the creed of desegregation. And that this was against our religion. And as the story goes, the theologian James Luther Adams stood up and asked “What is this church for?” “I guess, to reach people like me,” the member said, and they desegregated.

It’s happening. We can do this. We are not being divided.

UPDATE: October 29, 2019
Rev. Kate Braestrup published the following blog post in response to my sermon:
Free, Responsible, and Imperiled

UPDATE: October 31, 2019
In response to Rev. Braestrup’s blog post, I recorded a video message for Facebook about freedom of speech within our faith movement:
Explanations, Elaborations, Shout-Outs, and a Response to Rev. Braestrup’s Blog Post