Criminal? Justice?

architecture blur close up clouds
Photo by Jacob Morch on

What if instead of building our civic order around “police” and “criminal justice” we actually built it around public safety?  As a progressive faith leader, I resent the idea of any autonomous human being “policed” and the assumption of a reciprocal relationship between “criminality” and “justice” seems inadequate at best.  These terms mutually reinforce the binaries of our culture around right and wrong, good and bad and they play into the tragic racial interpretation of a binary black and white in America.

With the depth and breadth of racism in our country, strategies that can ultimately fix the overwhelming impact of police violence against black people will need to factor in the ethical, moral and spiritual violence that racism has been for over 400 years.  Even if we never teach an ignorant white male cisgender police officer to recognize the humanity of a black trans woman (although I wish to God we could) our laws must represent her full humanity and protect her equally well.  Currently, they do not.  As long as we frame justice in the black and white terms of how one is policed or how someone is a criminal in contrast with innocent justice we will never have public safety in full nuanced color.

This is not a conversation for legislators to have alone.  Nor is it exclusively up to police forces who, nationwide are notoriously bad at policing themselves.  In fact, this is not a conversation.  It is a national reckoning and a cultural reconciliation.  It is first a reckoning in that the exchange must take full accountability for the way racism has both been a motivator for and a result of policing.  In a nation that has even within my lifetime struck down laws that “policed” people’s movement based on their race[1], real change means coming to terms with the ways in which non-white Americans have been herded, punished, abused and manipulated like sub humans with no agency.  It is a reconciliation in that reform must not simply erase all efforts at public safety.  There should be a way to deal with people who commit grievous acts against one another, abuses, violence etc.  But that system must not have any trace of the racist assumptions that assign guilt based on skin color, phenotype, sexual and gender orientation and other factors that we call “marginal”.  More importantly, it must not offer varying degrees of safety solely based on the proximity one has to whiteness.  We must all have access to safety.

This type of change can be led by faith leaders.  We are people who study and interpret and untangle the ancient violent history of Roman oppression, the Ottoman Empire, the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites, and more current crimes of Jim Crow, lynching, Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment and our modern immigration debacle.  We are trained to deal with the human condition in real time.  Our perspective is unique and crucial.  Our job should not just be to pray after the fact of tragedy.  We are also called in our leadership to offer prophetic insight that points to the consequences of being out of covenant with our fellow beings.  One thing is sure, whether you identify with a faith tradition or not, the question of dismantling what we have come to accept as police and criminal justice must begin with wrestling deeply with moral and ethical questions of humanity or it simply devolves into negotiating degrees of what becomes for some, martial law.

It is time for faith leaders to raise their voices and help re-imagine and advocate for a public safety policy built on human equity not on racist misconceptions of assumed guilt and racist cultural tropes.  With the question of policing and criminal justice being an issue of human dignity and quite simply an issue of life and death, there is no faith “leader” in this moment who can afford to follow.



Will we be in danger if we open?

Danger.  This word stuck with me in a recent meeting with congregational leaders. I think it resonated with me so deeply because of all the moral implications of church being a danger…even a Unitarian Universalist one.

As we discussed the prospect of re-opening as the coronavirus pandemic changes and as government leaders focus on economic solvency, the word came up in relation to who might be in danger by coming back to our space for worship.


One of the toughest considerations in this conversation is trying to understand what it would mean to create a two tiered system of doing church where one group was able to attend in person because they were apparently healthy, non-immunocompromised, young, etc. and another group was not able to attend because they were none of the above, and/ or simply afraid.  How long would that be sustainable? Who are the haves and have not’s in this situation? More importantly, what is the equitable solution?

The only concrete thing we really know about the coronavirus at this point is the number of people it has killed; and even that is in question due to underreporting and inconsistent tracking of data and causes of death.  We do not know conclusively how it is transmitted, or how contagious it is.  As of this writing, we do not know if one is immune to it after exposure and we don’t have 100% efficacy in testing either for anti-bodies or for the virus itself.  There is no vaccine, no cure and only the most basic of therapeutics. There is the very real potential for everyone and anyone to get this disease which means we are all in danger.

Still, many religious institutions are having the conversation about what a “re-opening” strategy needs to look like. I will offer my insight as a spiritual and organizational leader and I will support my own congregation’s decision as a community regardless of my own personal opinions.  It is my job.  At the same time, I have to ask the question as part of any re-opening strategy: if our space represents a potential physical danger for some in this situation, why would we open for anyone

And then there is the existential question about what are the ways in which our church (or any church for that matter) has represented “danger” before this pandemic? Do we need to find a vaccine for those viruses as well?  How can we be sure that no one will be in danger culturally, spiritually, socially, emotionally?

In this moment, those of us with great safety and privilege in traditional church and religious settings, have an opportunity to experience a small portion of the literal danger that has prevented some people from coming into our spaces.  Dangerous histories of slavery, genocide, erasure and silence.  Dangerous messages of sin and punishment, dangerous rituals that reinforce sexism, disembodiment and fear.  Dangerously conditional salvation.

The physical church space in limbo suspends the dangerously limited physical accessibility for some and alters the danger of the one-hour worship experience, in one dominant language, seated facing one direction for others.  It eases the visible impact of the dangerous physical manifestation of ministerial power and presence as an extension of patriarchy and domination.

And what of dangerously narrow musical and worship styles?  The dangers of appropriation of both music and ritual and the dangerous re purposing of sacred texts.  How dangerous does the segregation of 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning look now when we see it from where we are today?

If by reopening, we are creating vectors for people to continue getting sick with a disease for which there is no cure or therapy, it does no one any good.   And if the spiritual practices and traditions that we are trying to return to are equally toxic, we are only compounding the infection.

For me, this feels like a pivotal moment in liberal religious life. Our faith is being called to answer the most basic question of our very existence.  Can we survive? Are we in danger?

It depends….

A truly liberal spiritual community is not open for anyone if it cannot truly be open for everyone.


UPDATE: The Unitarian Universalist Association has released guidance to its congregations encouraging virtual worship until the medicine/ science indicates it is safe for all.  Congregations are being asked to remain in virtual gathering until May 2021: Read more here: UUA Guidance for Gathering