Closed Practices and Appropriation

In my sermon on Sunday, I talked about how we are a Big Tent religion, drawing wisdom and inspiration from all the world’s faiths, but we’ve learned about how to do this in a respectful and responsible way.

I received a few questions about why, for example, it wouldn’t be respectful to hold a “UU Passover Seder.” Great question!

My short answer is “Go watch ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas.'” That answer is short, but I 100% mean it. In that movie, Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. He wanders into Christmas Town and falls in love with Christmas, so much so, that he wants to give Santa a holiday. He and his fellow members of Halloween Town put on Christmas … and it’s a disaster. Children open up shrunken heads in the presents, Wreaths go rogue and scare people … it’s a mess.

When a religious ritual is not part of our tradition and we attempt to produce it, chances are high that we will do just like Jack and make a mess of things. Because rituals and ceremonies emerge from long histories that it is hard for someone new to see. Symbolism brings layers of meaning to even the simplest of ceremonies. In the example of putting on a “UU Passover Seder” … there is no such thing. Not a “UU” version, not a Christian version. This is strictly a Jewish tradition.

And the other reason why it is not respectful to  integrate traditions that are not ours into our community is this: it’s theft. For those for whom these are deep and meaningful traditions, there is an emotional cost to seeing people who do not have claim to the tradition effectively “playing” with their ritual. (If a non-UU church began lighting a chalice at the beginning of their worship services, I would feel the same way.)

So how do we respectfully draw wisdom from other traditions?

First, we look at our specific congregation. Who are our members? If we had a member who grew up Hindu and wanted to lead a service about Diwali, that IS theirs to share, and they can share it bringing it the full breadth of the culture and history.

Second, we don’t confuse “appreciation” with “appropriation.” Discussing Passover in a sermon or a faith development class, talking about why this holiday is important to Jews is a way of appreciating other faiths. Holding a Passover Seder with no one present who is Jewish is appropriation.

Understanding issues around appropriation is fairly new knowledge, not only for Unitarian Universalism, but for our Western culture as a whole. Clothing designers have had to grapple with learning how to appreciate clothing from other cultures without misappropriating them. Parents are learning that to put their children in a Halloween costume of “an Indian princess” is disrespectful to indigenous tribes. The Pagan world has learned that taking from closed practices (say, smudging with sage) from shamanic traditions that they were not raised in is considered offensive.

We are all learning together … and that is also part of the “continuous revelation” that is a cornerstone of Unitarian Universalism.