We are so thrilled to announce that a few weeks ago Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen joined Standing on the Side of Love as our Spiritual Sustenance Advisor. In her role, Elizabeth brings passion around how theology and spirituality fortify intersectional organizing and she continues work with Youth and Young Adults of Color in the YaYA Office.
We’re starting off our work with a conversation between Elizabeth and Nora Rasman talking about covenant - knowing that within UU communities, we are really grappling with the limitations and gifts of covenant and we are simultaneously excited about what covenant can offer to organizing work. Stay tuned for our second message about coming into and returning to covenant.
“Covenant is resonant for some – not all of us. Guidelines...are tools – and like any tool can be used to build or tear down. In practicing these guidelines, we’re encouraging you to use them to create space rather than shut down others." - Rev. Alicia Forde
In and Out of Covenant
Elizabeth: At Thrive Young Adult last summer, a group of UU young adults of color created a covenant unlike any other I’d every seen. It included that we would hold each other in our spiritual practices- pray for each other, hold each other in meditation, in our ancestor practices. We covenanted to bring our ancestors and our family members into the room - especially those who we may be tempted to distance ourselves from. We affirmed that our agreements are sacred work and promised to put our relationships in the hands of spirit. As we committed to these agreements, I wanted to scream - THIS! This is the covenant I’ve been waiting for!
That moment felt so rare because I am definitely am someone who sees most of the world as living out of covenant most of the time - out of covenant with our loved ones, our neighborhoods, our earth. I resonate with my understanding of Shinto purification rituals. The assumption is that we are always coming out of harmony with nature; and rituals purify us and bring us back into harmony. There is nothing wrong with being out of harmony. It’s part of the cycle. What if we understood covenant that way?
Nora: Yes indeed! We don’t have a lot of examples of breaking covenant that models humility, transparency, and accountability. In many of the social justice spaces that I’ve been part of, we often conflate a broken covenant with being a broken human. That feels really different than the way you describe the rituals of Shinto - where there isn’t necessarily value being placed on one being out of harmony with nature.
Many of the ways I have experienced and invited others to create covenant have been rooted in perfectionism: that it can never be repaired if it’s broken. I have been meditating a lot on how white supremacy relies on individual actors to uplift perfectionism as a central value. If we believe this to be true, for us as UUs, we may well be creating spiritual communities with the presumption that a covenant exists, that you are broken if you break it and with no guarantee you can return to right relationship. At the same time, we are inviting people to take risks and share their experiences with no guarantee that what is shared will be taken as sacred, intimate and without fear of retribution. In reality, us “living into it” can really just maintain and perpetuate systems of power and oppression interpersonally and systemically.
Elizabeth: This piece about if you broke it, you are broken - this all feels so connected to the state and to what extent covenant is being shaped by criminalization. Covenant has the power to be an instrument of transformative work - and it can also be used like conventional policing -if you have low power in the system and you are seen as breaking covenant, you’re cast out of community and seen as broken. And if you have power in the system and you are seen as breaking agreements, the consequences are very limited and concepts of covenant will be used to buffer you from accountability. Like our laws, our expectations of covenant are also unevenly applied. And like our laws, there is a vast gap between values and impact. Our laws say they are all about liberty and freedom and our covenants often say they are about love and service, but the application of both can have impacts that are so out alignment with those values. And when you layer the fact that, real-talk, most faith institutions are also grappling with liability and the need to be insured, I wonder if our covenants need to be liberated from criminalization and also from a culture of liability.
Nora: Yes. I have a lot of concerns about covenant being invoked as a way to shut down conversation or evade some very important questions about accountability and gatekeeping. When they are working, covenants are countercultural within white supremacy because they require a level of excellence and accountability demanded from all beings - including those of us with systemically conferred and protected privilege. I understand covenant as directly connected to consent - to this end, it feels like it both contradicts and is different than policing. When that mutuality and consent is functioning, I find it really exciting. Ideally, it makes space for people and protects people, when it’s working.
Elizabeth: Yes! When it’s working, covenant offers a way of handling harm that affirms the inherent worth of all people and also affirms our ability to move through conflict and confession and be offered assurance and an opportunity for repair. At their best, covenants are a container for our community life defined by agreements by the members of our communities - and no one else. This is the question for me right now: Are the covenants you’re part of contributing to your liberation? To the liberation of others?