The Blame Game

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

Since the Katrina hurricane disaster in August last year, voices from every level of our political establishment and social critics have been pointing out what might have averted the seriousness of this event and its inhumane aftermath. Blame. Who is to blame? Who should say “we’re sorry.” I haven’t read of anyone saying this so far. I have read justification after justification for inaction and ignoring the voices that had predicted this would happen.

While no one is willing to accept blame, and many voices are assigning blame, wouldn’t much of this discussion be unnecessary if there were accountability at all levels of our government? And what of smaller problems and failures of smaller systems. Where is the accountability at lower levels? Where is accountability here in our church? Hindsight is 20/20, the old saying tells us. But perhaps looking forward with a view to avert failure or at lease do our best to insure success, is a better approach.

This morning I will suggest something that is heretical. When things go wrong in a congregation there are always those wags who will say I could have told you this or that would have happened. My heretical suggestion is that we need to have the benefit of this thinking now. With so much at stake during the next few months, let’s take inventory of how we are going forward and how much each of us has to bring to the discussions and to the process of building our community and our new facility.

When things go wrong in any system, in our families, in our work, or in our congregations, we often blame others when the responsibility lies in our own laps. At the same time, we have been taught not to blame others, but to accept what others do with loving kindness. To blame or not to blame, is that the question? In twelve step programs we talk about the elephant in the living room. This refers to a serious problem in a family, that people walk around, clean up after, and pretend doesn’t exist. Their addict. Learning to respond appropriately to the addicted family member is difficult and often requires the support of a group like Al-Anon for the healthier members.

While I do not suggest that First Unitarian Universalist Church has an elephant in our library, I do suggest that we may respond to problems in much the same way. We walk around the problem, clean up after the problem and pretend it doesn’t exist. I believe we do this because in spite of our commitment to the church, and the importance of its health for the larger community, we can’t stand confrontation. As a result no one will step up to the plate and interrupt either a bad decision or a weakness in a program. I have noticed that the barking dog will keep barking will if we don’t confront the neighbor – that is meet face to face – and ask for relief. Confront is a word that makes us nervous. Confrontations, however, are not always hostile. Confront means literally to meet face to face. To meet with a focus.

I believe we have been taught that any meeting with a focus or confrontation is so distasteful that we avoid them at all costs. We value those who do not make waves. We try to find ways to get around things rather than face them. We avoid the hard work. I remind you of my old story of the Los Alamos church which Will and I attended for many years. Rather than ask the choir director to change his ways, the church disbanded the choir.

We see something that concerns us in our congregation. We are uneasy. Yet we do not want to assign responsibility, question authority, or blame anyone. In order to make a change or even suggest a change we must assign blame or if you prefer responsibility. In a volunteer organization responsibilities are not clearly drawn and it seems to me that blame is really a more useful concept.

But we’ve been taught not to do this. We’ve been taught to literally turn the other cheek. And it’s difficult to overcome this training. One of many slogans of Tibetan Buddhism is “Drive all blames into one.” And who might that “one” be? None other than we, ourselves; in other words, take the blame. The authors of the Talmud, the sacred Jewish commentary on the Bible, advise, “If someone calls you a donkey, put a saddle on your back.” It’s the same directive: take the blame!
Then there is this from Taoism:

“Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
There is no end to the blame.
Therefore the Master
Fulfills her own obligations
And corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
And demands nothing of others.”

Something about this makes me uneasy. Certainly I can take responsibility for my own feelings and my own actions. But that avoids assigning accountability when others involved in something I care about are not doing their part. Sometimes blaming just feels like the right thing to do. And maybe blaming isn’t the right word. What I really would like to see happen is suggesting change, interrupting patterns that aren’t working, and the like. But don’t we have to pinpoint the problem area before we can suggest change.

Now this part is really heretical. I think we make a mistake trying to be so nice to each other that we never point out behavior that endangers our relationship. I do not deny that each of us must take responsibility for our actions. We must learn to say I’m sorry when we drop the ball. And we must continue to work to understand each other. But isn’t there a time when pointing out the effects of the actions of others on our lives and the life of the congregation is also important? Isn’t there a time when we have to intervene, interrupt or otherwise attempt to change what is happening both in our personal lives and in our organization lives?

If someone I know continues to behave in a way that has a negative affect on my life or on the life of someone I care about, I have a great deal of trouble letting it go, moving on or whatever other hints the self-help books suggest. I have a problem with remaining silent. It is my nature to talk back, to interrupt, to create waves. I want things to be fair and I want people to be honest.

Regardless of whether fairness enters in to our equations in any specific situation, there is another part of remaining silent or camouflaging the truth that is troubling for me. I don’t want to have to say to my congregant or my loved one; “well, you have to understand that your teacher, boss, father, mother, fellow member has many responsibilities and can’t always give you attention when you need it or follow through on promises they made.” I know this is often the case, but it is painful to make excuses to someone who needs this attention or to see a promising project fall apart because of lack of follow through. Our current practice is to look the other way, to let things go. Is this healthy? Are we really serving others when we look the other way? Where does accountability figure into a volunteer organization?

We are members and friends of a denomination whose first principle is to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Does this include ignoring the obvious? Does this include not calling people on their mistakes or urging them to get someone else to help them? Does this include allowing them to harm others in our congregation? For example, does this include letting one person dominate a meeting or a party by not letting others talk? When this happens do we assign blame to that individual or should we be blaming ourselves?

Recently I was at a small party where one person was dominating the conversation. A friend told me privately he was going to leave because he couldn’t stand it any longer. I redirected the conversation and my friend stayed. But why couldn’t he have done that himself? We are taught that interrupting other people’s behavior is not polite. We would prefer to make ourselves the victim. The lesson to be learned is that being together in community means taking responsibility for how things go. If we don’t all participate in this, can we continue to build a healthy, vibrant congregation?

I suggest that a healthy church is one where people feel safe in asking for an expecting change. I suggest that we can and should encourage new leadership, and bring new ideas to our committees. I believe our people resources can be better utilized by intentionally opening up seemingly closed groups to new leadership. We have allowed ourselves to depend on a faithful few rather than to expect involvement and support from every member and friend.

There are times when taking responsibility for your feelings, when claiming your power, means skillful confrontation of the behavior of others. This can be very tricky and takes courage.

Perhaps the best way to confront is to have support but claiming your power means biting the bullet and having the difficult conversation. Sometimes it includes setting strong boundaries, without pushing the other person out of your heart. Sometimes it means you have to say that you will not allow that person to treat you in that manner. Sometimes it means you have to say I think you need help on that project.

At this important juncture in our congregational life, I believe it is essential that each one of us is fully engaged in all that is happening. Each one of us must make our wishes known regarding the plans for our new building. Each one of us must participate in the upcoming combined capital campaign and canvass. Over the past several years we have visioned ourselves to this opportunity for growth and change. The next few months promise to be very exciting and very challenging.

Each one of us must be part of the larger Membership Committee and make everyone here and all those who enter here welcome. We must bring our friends to church next week and find ways to let people know that such a church as ours is available here in Wichita. All of us must make an effort to get to know our new members and friends. They have wonderful life stories that we need to learn and they are waiting to hear about yours.

These are several areas of responsibility that we need to keep in the forefront as we begin the process of change we now face with a capital campaign and the possibility of a new building. I believe these responsibilities and opportunities depend upon how we reflect in our lives being part of the “we” of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Wichita. Being “we” involves a lot.

Each of us experiencing this “we” feeling is essential. This church does not belong to any small group of people. It does not belong to the Board. It does not belong to the staff. It does not belong to any committee. “We” are the church, we are the congregation, we are the beloved community.

One area where blame is often placed on the minister, the board or on a committee is “why doesn’t this church?” fill in the blank. We are, however, a permission giving congregation. If you want to solve “Why doesn’t this church” – find someone to help – or be the seed that grows the program. It is said that “we have no one to blame but ourselves.” Perhaps this is the bottom line when it comes to new initiatives.

It seems to me that our natural or learned tendency is to give up our power, and let ourselves off the hook, and not do the thing that takes guts and integrity. It is easier to just blame and resent, and take the path of lease resistance. My heretical view this morning is that when we internalize being part of “we” the congregation, w ourselves become accountable for the life of the congregation. Who is to blame when things do not go well? Who is responsible for the health of our community? Each of us is.
it seems to me that when keeps us from being honest – from expressing power, compassion and truth, is our polite avoidance of conflict, and our distaste for face to face focused conversations about hard things. We can’t change our behavior overnight; it’s the work of a lifetime. Let it be said, however, that each of us values being part of the “we” for First UU. Furthermore, let it be said that choosing to use our power and compassion and truth is well worth the effort.

This church year is a key year for this congregation. Fifty years ago we moved into this building. As we meet each other face to face from this point forward let us enjoy an extended meaning of affirming and promoting our inherent worth and dignity. May that new meaning include loving honesty and support combined with a heretical view of shared responsibility.

Someone gave me a book about the third wave of church movements from the point of view of the Christian church. The first wave was our ancestors coming to this great and fruitful land and establishing the churches they dreamed about in countries where their dreams had been stifled. They were “replicating” their traditions, dogmas, methodologies and worship styles to fit the new world.

The second wave was the wave of growing mega churches, using modern entertainment techniques is called the “proclamation” wave. The current large churches are already starting to go out of style. They were based on a platform-proclaimer who gave a presentation to spectator-receivers who watched and processed the show. The emphasis was on broadcast to the masses and gathering crowds.

The third wave is what is happening now, a wave of smaller groups living in communities that reflect what was happening among the early followers of Jesus. This wave is called “demonstration” and the emphasis is not so much on gathering of crowds as it is speaking to individuals. It is highly personal and interactive. Today much of our culture is personal. The interactive relationship between the computer user and the internet has overcome the appeal of television and radio for many people. We can buy customized just about everything. All the internet business sets up personal accounts for its customers. Amazon lets me know the new books on religion that are available each time I sign on. Business is changing from appealing to the masses to speaking to the individual. The competition for our loyalties is brisk. We no longer buy a new “Ford” or “Chevy” every two years.

It appears that this third wave of churches is connecting in deeply personal ways with real people in the churches local communities. At General Assembly last June I learned of some successful churches in other denominations that were doing just this. They were setting up all kinds of social programs for their communities, including such radical things as a pharmacy that provided prescription drugs people could afford. While this book states this trend in terms that are non-UU, it reflects the needs of the world we live in. It reflects the need for religious people to gather together and do the work of healing the world in which we live. These small and large Christian churches are catching on to what Unitarian and Universalist churches have done for many years: they are doing social action work.

Another responsibility for our church, which we are working on as we speak. Outreach to the community is an important part of our responsibility as liberal religious people. We cannot sit back and blame the other people for doing what they are doing, for promoting the religious ideas they are promoting, for trying to legislate morality. We must take responsibility for speaking our hopes and dreams for justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Saying we live in a Red state and blaming the state legislature and the state school board and any other group for passing rulings that we abhor is weak as water, to quote Mrs. Slocum from “Are You Being Served.” Responsibility is just as much a part of our faith as it is of those who take the opposite view from us. They are in the trenches fighting for what they believe and would like to make their beliefs the law of the land. We must join the battle and let our voices be heard. If you are not part of the solution, you might be part of the problem.