Assistant Minister's Corner - Rev. Monica Dobbins

30 October 2017

Earlier this year, many of us watched in shock as Jeff Sessions, despite his long history of racism and hateful conservatism, was nominated to the office of the nation’s Attorney General. His confirmation hearing, however, gave us a moment of hope, as his fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke against his confirmation. She quoted the words of Coretta Scott King, who in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 wrote that Sessions was unqualified to serve in the Justice Department due to his abysmal record on civil rights.

As she spoke, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked a Senate rule against impugning the character of a colleague, and warned her to desist. The Senate voted along party lines to silence her testimony. But – as we all now know – she persisted:

“Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

“Nevertheless, she persisted” became a rallying cry for feminists around the world: women who have been silenced by men in power, women who give voice to the injustices that affect them and keep them in second place, women who refuse to uphold the status quo.

Women who make noise, who persist despite the explanations and warnings, have forever been called “difficult”: “What a difficult woman…. Why does she have to be so difficult?” And not just women, for that matter: people of all genders who are marginalized by social groups are called “difficult” by those who benefit from the systems that marginalize those systems, especially when they cannot see their place in sustaining the oppressions.

We Unitarian Universalists are people who champion freedom, fairness, and liberation – and yet, we sometimes find ourselves in the company of “difficult” people. Yes, they can be found around us at work, at school, in society – but let’s look closer to home too. Right here where we worship, here in our church family, where we presume to share the same values and principles: do we have “difficult” people in our church?

When someone begins to get labeled as “difficult”, it’s important to keep in mind that difficult people have almost always had difficult lives. Every person you meet is carrying a burden that they don’t show to the world; do we dare to imagine that our beloved church may not be helping to carry the burden, or may actually be making the burden heavier? No institution is perfect, but the best institutions are those that have practices for checking out their “blind spots”, their unexamined prejudices and the ways in which they may be perpetuating injustice without even realizing it.

We can also adopt practices of pastoral care which help to lift these burdens. It is our duty as members of the church to adhere to our shared covenant of relationship to one another – engaging in and encouraging direct communication, and discouraging gossip and anonymous complaining. It is also our duty to prevent healthy boundaries from being violated, and harmful or uncovenantal behavior must never be excused as someone “just being difficult”. However, we must also listen to others with a mind to believe them, even if it sometimes means we ourselves are implicated, even if it means we ourselves have to change or make sacrifices.

Elizabeth Warren certainly isn’t the first persistent truth-teller in history to be told to sit down and be quiet: in ancient times, these truth-tellers were often called prophets. While we may no longer believe in prophets who receive direct messages from God, we still have prophets among us, in the form of truth-tellers who make us uncomfortable as they point out injustice. Let us rejoice and be grateful! There’s no better gift than honest feedback, even if it’s uncomfortable. It makes us better and stronger, and gives us the courage to be persistent in our own prophetic pursuit of justice