Berry St 2017: Beyond “both/and”

Rev. Dr. Adam Robersmith


I have spent much of my life and all of my ministry thinking about formation. How do we become who we are? How do we become the Unitarian Universalists that we are? How do we form communities and institutions, and how do we make sure they embody our best ideals and values?


I go back to Emerson and bell hooks, Sharon Welch and Maria Harris and Bill Jones who remind us that how and what we are taught actually determines who we will become and how we will act. They tell us that formation is a process of development sustained and limited by the ways we frame our theology, ethics, and language. I don’t think we spend enough time examining what shapes us and whether or not it is appropriate to or adequate for this holy task. If we did spend enough time on it, I don’t believe we’d be where we are right now.


For example: when I was in seminary, it was the exciting thing to ask people whenever they heard someone preface a phrase with the word “but…” to say “and!” There was a lot of “not either/or, both/and!” — which has now become our common, often unexamined, frame. By using that language, we teach ourselves that we can either distinguish between things or include everything fully, but we can’t be inclusive while distinguishing what is important in a given moment. I think that is a mistake.


I want to go beyond the “both/and” into a larger collection of possibilities. I don’t just want an agreement of opposites. I want an interconnection of layers and options and truths that make room for the changing needs of our people and our world and our faith.


I come to this as          a parish minister, formator, and spiritual director,

a multiracial person who is often misinterpreted as white

a queer person who is often misinterpreted as a gay man

(sometimes by my own self)

                                    a behavioral and ecological biologist

                                    a weaver, spinner, knitter, and creator of interconnection

a person who has been disappointed by the institutions and people   

             of our faith, and also held and uplifted by the                                           institutions, and the people, and the faith itself.


When I look at all the things that I am and the experiences I’ve had, both/and isn’t enough to describe it. Both/and is too small. Frankly, it doesn’t do enough to encourage us to go beyond the kinds of binary thinking that produces winners and losers. In the life of faith, when there are winners and losers, we all lose.


I want a frame that includes intersectionality, focus, and fluidity. A frame that acknowledges

   intersectionality: the presence and interrelatedness of many, many things all at once;

   focus: the understanding that those many, many things each need direct attention; and

   fluidity: the ability to notice when it is the right moment to concentrate our attention in one place now, and another place when needed, while still holding to what requires our attention most.


I see this occurring in practice in the work of Black Lives of UU. In her essay, “Will We Repeat Our Sins?” Lena Gardner writes: “…we are harnessing and tapping into the energy of a global movement for Black empowerment and using it to work not just for Black liberation, but in solidarity with many groups across a stunning array of issues for our collective liberation.”


She points out that even as BLUU is focused on the empowerment of Black Unitarian Universalists and Black people overall, that BLUU has “also contributed an immense amount of organizer time and resources to the #ReviveLove Tour, put boots on the ground at and contributed material donations to the #NoDAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) Standing Rock protest encampment & the #CharlotteUprising, partnered with and sent people to the Women’s March on Washington and endorsed the Vision for Black Lives comprehensive policy platform."


I also recognize this intersectionality, focus, and fluidity with the members of my parish—Second Unitarian Church in Chicago—who have been active with Black Lives Matter and the fight against police brutality; and then, when people were gathering at airports to protest the attempted travel ban of Muslims to the US last January, saw no problem with heading to the airport to protest loudly, and then come right back to keep organizing with the Movement for Black Lives.


Often we talk about focus though the language of centering. It’s a good word. Yet, when we talk about centering people or issues or ideas…and we use the image of a circle with an inside and an outside, we miss real complexity. When we say that we need to draw our circles wider and larger, we still are stuck with something that has an in and an out, a center and a margin. We miss the truth that we exist in sprawling networks of interconnection. We marginalize people because we are formed to create and recreate a world with margins.


I often wonder what would happen if we thought ecologically, instead. In high school, I performed an ecological survey of a plot of land, exploring the connections between animals, plants, fungi, soils, water, and weather. What became clear was how complex the system was, how many relationships existed, and how few of them I was able to understand.


I continued to study ecology, and it became a religious experience for me. Nature leaves me awe-struck with its intricacy. Each piece of the world is intimately and necessarily connected to the others, each affecting the others, changing them, supporting them in the process of living. Within it are the ideas from which we build meaning and belief: life and death, time and the seasons, the elements, the relationships, the interconnectedness of everything. Ecology has given me a framework and language far beyond both/and: many layers and relationships, communities and individuals, all interconnected, all intersecting in ways we understand and in ways we don’t. When one part of that system is out of balance, the whole suffers.


Our theological, institutional, and social systems – our own ecosystems – are out of balance. I believe a significant part of why we are so far out of balance is that we have allowed ourselves to be formed by win/lose binaries, by our willingness to create margins and push people to them. I believe that we need to expand our religious and liberatory imaginations, expand our vision and then figure out how to shape ourselves to meet that expanded framework.


An example: I grew up as a Universalist in a Lutheran home. I was formed, in part, by parents who told me “God is love. God doesn’t throw anyone away and neither do we.”

We need to stop throwing people away individually and systemically – when they don’t believe what we wish they did, or do things that we don’t agree with, or when they are inconvenient, or when they need to learn and aren’t quite there yet, and especially when they are saying important things that make us uncomfortable and aware of our failings. We need to stop throwing people away, pushing them to margins that are artifacts of our own malformation, our either/or both/and thinking.


I wonder who we would become if we took our Universalist heritage seriously…if we understood it as demonstrated by an ecology that shows the interconnectedness of all things. Who would we become if we chose to embody and make earthly the love of a God who would restore all people to itself in love made tangible, made just?


Imagine how we would be formed if we held one another in our ecosystems, in our networks, insisting on movement toward health and justice, recognizing that where our focus for empowerment and wholeness must be at any moment may shift or swell or subside for a time to dismantle oppression. Who would we be if we truly understood that our collective existence is not binary, not circular, but networked, intersectional, multiple?