How Much Guilt Is About Right?

What is the difference between Real Guilt and Neurotic Guilt? I shared a psychiatrist’s explanation at a Convocation of the Unitarian Universalist Multiracial Unity Action Council on November 4, 2023 and applied it to certain contemporary events happening inside the Unitarian Universalist Association and more broadly in the world.

First, I want to share a brief timeline to bring context to the personal experiences I will be sharing today. I have been engaging with race issues since 1965. That’s when I joined a Lutheran volunteer ministry called the Prince Of Peace Volunteers. I was assigned to a storefront church that served residents of the Robert Taylor Homes Public Housing Project on the south side of Chicago. Robert Taylor Homes fronted two miles along State Street. With 27,000 residents, it was the largest Public Housing Project in the United States at the time. I kept in touch with that volunteer ministry during my doctoral work at the University of Chicago Divinity School, 1966-70.

From 1970-74, I was the full-time pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in a small town 60 miles southwest of Chicago. From 1974 – 2008 I taught Religion and Sociology courses at Defiance College in Ohio.

I wasn’t a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation until 2009 when I joined the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. I now live in Jacksonville, Florida. My wife Karen and I were very active in a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Jacksonville until that congregation took a big turn toward authoritarianism several years ago.

While serving as a pastor in that small town in Illinois, I helped start a Chaplain Of The Day program at the small hospital that served several local communities. We began very ecumenically. We included all local pastors who wanted to join. The hospital was very happy for our efforts. Happy, that is, until one member of our new team, a fundamentalist Baptist, spent his first day as chaplain approaching miscellaneous patients who looked seriously ill, getting really close to them, and asking, “Are you Ready to meet your maker?” I think he was hoping his words would motivate the captive listeners to find God. Guilt can be motivating. The hospital promptly limited this pastor to visiting only members of his own church. We didn’t have anything more to do with him.

We did have a psychiatrist come and talk to us about guilt. He distinguished “Real Guilt” and “Neurotic Guilt.” Basically, he said that “Real Guilt” is feeling bad about something we’ve actually done that is morally wrong. This can include bad feelings about things we’ve not done like allowing something bad to happen that when we could have prevented it, but didn’t.

I suspect we can all think of situations where a guilty conscience motivated us to make amends for something we had done or failed to do. That is just part of life. When you slip up, own it. Reality can be hard to face. A message I heard from the psychologist John Bradford has helped me on more than one occasion. He said, “The only way out is through the pain.” Real guilt is something that can be objectively acknowledged and worked through. It can be difficult. But you know what you are working with.

“Neurotic Guilt,” on the other hand, means having the same bad feelings in a response that is all out of proportion to the wrongdoing. This could mean feeling guilty about things we have no chance of averting. Or guilt for things for which we feel obsessively responsible without there being any reasonable basis. This can lead to a lot of anxiety, negativity, self-doubt, depression, worry, fear and low self-esteem. In other words, neurotic guilt can, and often does, just plain shut people down.

We need to ask, how much guilt is about right? At one extreme some people never feel guilt. We call them psychopaths and say they have an “antisocial personality disorder.” (There are some famous examples of that.) At the other extreme some people feel anxious, guilty and depressed nearly all the time. When they are not avoiding us, they walk among us hesitantly. They are suffering from what can be called “neurotic guilt” or “toxic guilt” or “false guilt.”

I am very concerned how much damage misplaced guilt can do. From 1980 to 1997 I taught a Cultural Diversity class every semester at Defiance College in northwest Ohio. Education Majors, Social Work Majors, Criminal Justice Majors and Religion Majors all took the course. Most of the students were white and from majority white communities. My challenge was to help them prepare to work successfully in diverse settings.

At the beginning of every class, we looked in depth at the history of prejudice, discrimination and oppression in our country. It was powerful. Somewhere in the first several weeks it invariably became clear that many or most of the Caucasian students in the class were feeling a lot of guilt. Not guilt for things they themselves had done. Rather, guilt for things members of their race had done historically. Or guilt for the advantages they or their racial ancestors enjoyed at others’ expense. Typically, these guilt feelings caused them to show signs of shutting down. They would carefully parse every response they made in class discussion. They acted very unsure of themselves. Open class discussion became difficult.

I did not see this development as healthy. I could only imagine how tongue-tied these students would be at the end of the semester and how limited they might be working in their chosen profession later in life. I felt a real need to help them overcome these feelings of toxic guilt.

My response was to share what I observed to be an empowering message. “If you have done any of the horrible things we have been studying, you need to figure out how you are going to make things right. If on the other hand you haven’t done those things, get angry about them instead of feeling guilty. Get angry at racism and oppression. Let that anger motivate you to observe what is going on in your community. Be compassionate and empathetic. Work with others to change discriminatory laws and policies. It is very rare that you can change things by yourself. But you can join multiracial coalitions that do have the power to change things. If there aren’t any multiracial coalitions in your community when you get there, you can help build one.” I found this message to be very helpful to my students. And to class discussion.

How does all of this apply now in the Unitarian Universalist Association? Like I mentioned earlier, I didn’t join a UUA congregation until 2009. That was a year after Karen and I retired and moved to Chicago so Karen could attend Meadville Theological Seminary. That’s also when I met Finley Campbell. Finley made sure I had opportunities to see what was going on in the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The first thing I noticed was the segregation between black and white participants in UUA organized events. Meetings of the Allies For Racial Equity (ARE) were all white. Meetings of the Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) included everyone not white. Several years later I researched what messages these two groups were sharing at their annual meetings. The curriculum for members of the Allies For Racial Equity concentrated on all the horrible things white people did to non-white people in American history. Everything they said was true. Members of the Diverse and Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries, on the other hand, learned about positive and empowering aspects of their cultures. Again, all true. I was amazed and perplexed at the differences.

That is when it came home to me. There are two very different ways to be antiracist. One way brings people from all backgrounds together in coalitions to change discriminatory laws and policies. That was the path used by Dr. King with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I think of this as “integrated antiracism.” Or “asset-based antiracism” where everyone from any background is considered a potential asset to the cause. This type of antiracism accomplished major changes in our country in the Civil Rights Movement. It continues to be effective when people work together for positive change. Many UUs are experiencing this today in Church Based Community Organizations.

The other way to be antiracist is to focus on white guilt. That is where the UUA landed. How we got here is a long story quite beyond the scope of this talk. Suffice it to say that beginning with steps taken at the 1968 General Assembly, “segregated antiracism” or “guilt-based antiracism” has become the official policy of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Racism is seen as a white people’s problem with white people needing to fix it. The role for black UUs is to encourage white UUs to study the history of white racism – and get white UUs to acknowledge their “White Privilege” and their involvement in “White Supremacy Culture.”

We need to ask again, “How much guilt is about right?” The leaders of the UUA Antiracism Program seem to think more is better. That is the only way I can understand their approach to “White Supremacy Culture” and “White Fragility.” I see their approach as inflicting as much Toxic Guilt as possible on white UUs. It has worked. White guilt has been a cash cow for organized Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in the UUA. It has also motivated many liberal white UUs to thoroughly doubt their own judgment on matters of freedom, reason and tolerance. These Enlightenment values are now identified as part of White Supremacy Culture.

What has been promoted by the UUA is a very Manichean picture. All black people are victims and all white people are oppressors. This assumption is reflected in the structure of “Widening the Circle of Concern,”(1) the final report of the UUA Commission On Institutional Change released in 2020. That report was based on a research study in which about 5% of the approximately 19,000 Black, Indigenous and People Of Color who belonged to the UUA at the time participated.(2)

The research questions are interesting. They were presented with the following words: “The Commission on Institutional Change requests personal accounts and stories about how racism has affected individuals and groups within Unitarian Universalism at the personal, institutional, or systemic levels … [The] Commission asks you to respond to the following questions with specific examples. Here are the questions.

* In what ways have you or your group or community been hurt by current racist and culturally biased attitudes and practices within Unitarian Universalism?

* In what ways have we, as a faith community, been living outside of our values and commitments?”(3)

These questions solicited only negative responses. No questions were asked about experiences in general or possible positive experiences.

The results of this so-called research study were used to justify recommending the complete reorganization of the Unitarian Universalist Association which is now underway. I think it is a valid conclusion to say that the current restructuring of UUA is powered in large part by white guilt, both felt and imposed.

How do we respond to this? The first task is to understand the challenges we face. Hopefully this presentation has been a step in that direction.

1 “Widening The Circle Of Concern,” Report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change, June, 2020. This report is available at

2 Allan Pallay, REVIEW OF THE CLAIM THAT WHITE SUPREMACY IN UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST CULTURE HARMS BLACK PEOPLE, INDIGENOUS PEOPLE AND PEOPLE OF COLOR THAT IS IN THE REPORT “WIDENING THE CIRCLE OF CONCERN”, a draft paper dated March 31, 2021. Pallay reports that the number 19,000 is based 158,186 members of UU churches in 2014 given in the UUA website; and 12% of UUs identifying as non-white in a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center shown in the website at

3 “Widening The Circle Of Concern,” p. xxiv.