Spiritual Grounding


Ours is a Theology of Engagement

(From Inspired Faith, Effective Action by the UUA Witness Ministries)

We draw inspiration and truth from experiencing each other and the world around us. In doing so, we necessarily witness both the beauty and brokenness of our larger community and environment. We are here because we want to help heal the brokenness. We have chosen to do social justice work in our Unitarian Universalist congregations; in our religious community. Therefore it is important to remember that:

  • Unitarian Universalist congregations are religious communities, not secular activist organizations. Seeking social change may be a major part of what we do, but fostering personal growth and building relationships are also critically important.
  • How the work is done is as important as the end goal of promoting justice. If the justice work we do fails to build community—or worse yet, destroys it—then we will not have served our congregations or Association well.
  • Any congregational decision can be divisive if done badly, which typically means that it was done too fast and congregants felt that their voices were not heard. The solution is not to avoid the decision, but to use an appropriate, healthy process that gives everyone a voice.
  • This is about personal transformation. Our ability to create social transformation is linked with our willingness to go through personal transformation in the process. How can we expect the world to change if we’re not willing to?
  • We learn from reflection. Educator and writer Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, argued that we learn not from action, but from reflection on action. The cycle of action-reflection is often referred to as “praxis.”
  • We need strong relationships. The more we are in relationship with each other, and approach social justice in ways that value this relationship, the better off we’ll be as a community. This type of sharing, namely personal, ethical, emotional, spiritual, and/or theological, is necessary both for effective justice work, and for personal and congregational development.
Five I's of Oppression

(Adapted from The Four “I’s” of oppression, © YouthBuild USA, 58 Day Street, Somerville, MA 02144.)

Ideological Oppression

First, any oppressive system has at its core the idea that one group is somehow better than another, and in some measure has the right to control the other group. This idea gets elaborated in many ways–more intelligent, harder working, stronger, more capable, more noble, more deserving, more advanced, chosen, superior, and so on. The dominant group holds this idea about itself. And, of course, the opposite qualities are attributed to the other group–stupid, lazy, weak, incompetent, worthless, less deserving, backward, inferior, and so on.

Institutional Oppression

The idea that one group is better than another group and has the right to control the other gets embedded in the institutions of the society–the laws, the legal system and police practice, the education system and schools, hiring policies, public policies, housing development, media images, political power, etc. When a woman makes two thirds of what a man makes in the same job, it is institutionalized sexism. When one out of every four African-American young men is currently in jail, on parole, or on probation, it is institutionalized racism. When gay or lesbian couples are banned from the military, it is institutionalized gay oppression. When young people are excluded from decision-making in almost every area that affects their lives, it is institutionalized oppression of young people, or adultism.

Interpersonal Oppression

The idea that one group is better than another and has the right to control the other, which gets structured into institutions, gives permission and reinforcement for individual members of the dominant group to personally disrespect or mistreat individuals in the oppressed group. Interpersonal racism is what white people do to people of color up close- -the racist jokes, the stereotypes, the beatings and harassment, the threats, the whole range of personal acts of discrimination. Similarly, interpersonal sexism is what men do to women–the sexual abuse and harassment, the violence directed at women, the belittling or ignoring of women’s thinking, the pornography, the sexist jokes, etc.

Most people in the dominant group are not consciously oppressive. They have internalized the negative messages about other groups, and consider their attitudes towards the other group quite normal.

No “reverse racism”. These kinds of oppressive attitudes and behaviors are backed up by the institutional arrangements. This helps to clarify the confusion around what some claim to be “reverse racism”. People of color can have prejudices against and anger towards white people, or individual white people. They can act out those feelings in destructive and hurtful ways towards whites. But in almost every case, this acting out will be severely punished. The force of the police and the courts, or at least a gang of whites getting even, will come crashing down on those people of color. The individual prejudice of black people, for example, is not backed up by the legal system and prevailing white institutions. The oppressed group, therefore, does not have the power to enforce its prejudices, unlike the dominant group. For example, the racist beating of Rodney King was carried out by the institutional force of the police, and upheld by the court system. This would never have happened if King had been white and the officers black. A simple definition of racism, as a system, is RACISM = PREJUDICE + POWER. Therefore, with this definition of the systemic nature of racism, people of color cannot be racist. The same formula holds true for all forms of oppression. The dominant group has its mistreatment of the target group embedded in and backed up by society’s institutions and other forms of power. Women cannot be sexist.

Internalized Oppression

The fourth way oppression works is within the groups of people who suffer the most from the mistreatment. Oppressed people internalize the ideology of inferiority, they see it reflected in the institutions, they experience disrespect interpersonally from members of the dominant group, and they eventually come to internalize the negative messages about themselves. If we have been told we are stupid and worthless and have been treated as if we were all our lives, then it is not surprising that we would come to believe it. This makes us feel bad.

Oppression always begins from outside the oppressed group, but by the time it gets internalized, the external oppression need hardly be felt for the damage to be done. If people from the oppressed group feel bad about themselves, and because of the nature of the system, do not have the power to direct those feelings back toward the dominant group without receiving more blows, then there are only two places to dump those feelings–on oneself and on the people in the same group. Thus, people in any target group have to struggle hard to keep from feeling heavy feelings of powerlessness or despair. They often tend to put themselves and others down, including their own children, in ways that mirror the oppressive messages they have gotten all their lives. Acting out internalized oppression runs the gamut from passive powerlessness to violent aggression.

It is important to understand that some of the internalized patterns of behavior originally developed to keep people alive–they had real survival value. For example, many a slave mother had to systematically beat her male child in order to break his strong will, so that he would “submit” to the horrors of the slave master and not be killed. Some claim that the practice of “the dozens”–a game of exchanging ever-sharper insults without losing control–is a direct descendant of the slavery conditioning to survive brutal insults.

Intersectional Oppression

At all levels of oppression, different -isms or systems of oppression (racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, adultism, cissexism, etc.) intersect and operate in conjunction with one another. These systems, which grant privilege and penalty to people based on their social position, shape the multi-layered and multi-faceted identities and experiences of all people. Effective activism and organizing will recognize that every person is positioned at the intersection of their many identities, and are affected uniquely by the privilege and penalty granted based on identity.

Pyramid of Hate


The Pyramid shows biased behaviors, growing in complexity from the bottom to the top. Although the behaviors at each level negatively impact individuals and groups, as one moves up the pyramid, the behaviors have more life-threatening consequences. Like a pyramid, the upper levels are supported by the lower levels. If people or institutions treat behaviors on the lower levels as being acceptable or “normal,” it results in the behaviors at the next level becoming more accepted. In response to the questions of the world community about where the hate of genocide comes from, the Pyramid of Hate demonstrates that the hate of genocide is built upon the acceptance of behaviors described in the lower levels of the pyramid.

(from the Anti-Defamation League)

Tips for Doing Religiously Grounded Social Work

(From Inspired Faith, Effective Action by the UUA Witness Ministries)

Do some relationship building and personal, theological discussions before jumping into the work. Discuss the differences between working in a Unitarian Universalist congregational setting and secular one. Talk personally about why you’re passionate about the given issue, and why it’s an important issue for Unitarian Universalism.

Examine how systemic power, privilege and oppression impact the issue. Find out if there are groups who are the most affected by the issue that are active; act as allies and take your leadership cues from them.

Be the change you wish to see. Model being centered, passionate, open-minded, and welcoming. Ask personal questions and share personal stories. Talk about your work in religious terms.

Present your arguments using this model: I believe ____________ (theological statement) therefore________ (impact). Example: I believe in the interconnectedness of all life; therefore, if we hurt  our planet, we are hurting ourselves.

Identify yourself as a person of faith/Unitarian Universalist: make references to your congregation, minister, congregants etc.

Include rituals in your activities: start with a chalice lighting, reading, and/or meditation. End with a closing reading or brief sharing. Always plan time for reflection and discussion following significant activities or events.

Participate in a small group ministry such as a covenant group to help stay centered/grounded (i.e., do an activity that just meets your self-care needs).

Hold “one-to-one” meetings with fellow members of your social action group to discuss personal and spiritual motivations for why you are involved. You might be surprised by what you share!