Social Justice and a Stiff Old Rulebook

by | Oct 14, 2020 | Reflections Blog

You might think that a suitable coming-of-age gift for an Alaska Native would be a rifle or a fishing rod. Not so. Teenagers already have hunting equipment.

When indigenous students turn eighteen, parents who want them to get into Alaska Native politics give them a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order. For people historically barricaded from power, that gift means access. Having the playbook lets them enter discussions on even ground.

White American culture, on the other hand, grows ever more casual. The rules become unwritten, unspoken, implicit. Cultural insiders know how to get results.

And though we don’t mean it, our casualness hurts our non-White siblings. Behaviors that seem friendly to us may strike them as disrespectful. Our humor—even the good-natured kind—reinforces their experience as outsiders.

Honor Systems

What’s more, many of the cultures within Los Ranchos have strong honor systems—codes for identifying who deserves respect, and formal protocols for granting respect. Our ever-changing, fluid expectations leave them second-guessing—and in second position.

That is why, I think, cultural outsiders are so eager to know our “rules.” How can they get a fair shake?

Rev. Chineta Goodjoin

What do they need to do for their concerns to be recognized?

September’s Presbytery Zoom meeting laid bare the tension between insider ease and the explicit rules around which we have covenanted. My own experience was a case in point.

On several occasions, I both knew the answer to a question and believed I should answer. I could have easily jumped in—and with a few exceptions, you probably would not have objected. You are used to people like me commenting freely.

But Robert’s Rules says we must wait until the moderator recognizes us. We all must wait—regardless of job title or church size or popularity.

So I deliberately held my tongue until recognized. And I made that practice obvious when Rev. Goodjoin was moderating—to reinforce her authority.

Making an issue of one provision in Robert’s Rules may seem petty when the conversation struggles and we have heavy business ahead. But the power imbalance in American society between a White man and a Black woman—even if both of them have similar education and comparable income—should never be ignored.

The Time, The Rule

Photo by Lan Nguyen on Unsplash

Of all the times when we should follow Robert’s, that was the time. Of all the rules in Robert’s we should follow, waiting upon the moderator to recognize us—that was the rule. Even if following that rule at that time came across as painful and cumbersome. Not just for a stiff old rulebook did I insist that Rev. Goodjoin was in charge.

After all, we have seen all too clearly what debate looks like when interrupters grab the floor. Jumping in is one of the ways the powerful in our society claim and keep their power. But many cultures find it insulting.

At that same Zoom meeting, the Presbytery received four recommendations from the summer-long Administrative Commission. Two of them included this language:

…that the Presbytery take immediate actions to address the power imbalance that preferences our larger, predominantly Caucasian congregations…

If the AC’s words are any indication, we want our church community to reflect the “great multitude” (Rev. 7) of Christ’s people.

Getting there will be slow and awkward. It will require a practice of courtesy and a leveling of the playing field that feels strained. But first steps are always clumsy, whether they be literal baby steps, or learning to debate in cyber-space, or opening our cultural doors to newcomers. And for the sake of the outcome, those steps are worth it.

Robert’s Rules isn’t perfect by a long shot. At some point, God willing, a less cumbersome set of procedures will come along. I will welcome it for its simplicity. But more than elegant, it must be just. For all its shortcomings, Robert’s is that.

Somewhere along the Way—