Saturday, May 26, 2018

When systems thinking goes haywire

"Systems thinking" is an essential component of a progressive worldview. When analyzing a difficult situation, a systems thinker sees how all of the components fit together, rather than focusing on finding the one component at fault.

Take, for example, the problem of school shootings. The conventional approach is to identify the shooter as the problem, and then propose solutions to eliminate the problem. "The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a [bigger] gun." So some right wingers have proposed arming teachers. I can't imagine, though, a more terrifying nightmare to conservatives than the prospect of an armed National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.

So some conservatives have turned to the powerful weapon of systems thinking to analyze the problem of why young, white, male students kill their fellow students. It's actually a very good question. It is a very good start to name that there is a school shooter system. It is a complex set of people, institutions, customs, and relationships, and now, it turns out school shooters as predictably as an assembly line turns out automobiles.

How does that school shooter production system work?

This is when we see that putting powerful tools like systems thinking in the hands of immature ideologues results in mayhem.

The conservatives have come up with a cockamamie analysis of "a sexual marketplace". This is no surprise in the they tend to see everything as a marketplace, in which a library is just a bookstore with a bad business model.

Their theory is that in the competition for sexual access to women, men with high status get all the girls, while men with low status are forced into a life of involuntary celibacy. The "incel," the involuntarily celibate man, becomes so alienated, and angry, and isolated, and resentful, that he turns eventually to revenge against the women who have denied him, and the men whom they have chosen instead. Well, that is their theory.

What is a surprise, in fact gob-smackingly amazing, is that conservatives want to interfere with the normal workings of this marketplace, to create a more equitable result.

It doesn't bother them that people with lots of assets live in penthouse apartments and mansions while those with the least assets are forced into homelessness. It doesn't bother them that people with lots of assets have access to superb healthcare, while those with fewer assets end up in the emergency room. Any intervention in the normal workings of the housing or healthcare marketplace would be anathema, but the plight of sexually frustrated young men demands action.

And starting from there, the systems thinkers of the right are coming up with all sorts of cockamamie solutions, but in the end, they come to "enforced monogamy", which is another name for the sexual system of the 1950's. Pre-marital sex is officially forbidden, which pushes people into early marriages, mostly to avoid the shame of an unplanned pregnancy. In order to work, enforced monogamy requires limiting access to contraception and the outlawing of abortion. Sex has to be shameful.

We all know that the 1950's didn't work out so well. It seems that the most common theme in popular culture since the end of WW2 has been the misery created by that system of enforced monogamy.

There are systems which turn out school shooters. Those systems are called patriarchy, rape culture, porn culture, and gun culture. Notice I said "cultures", not "markets." Cultures and markets are related and mutually reinforcing, but not the same.

What's missing for some young men is not the assets to successfully compete in a sexual marketplace. They lack the relational skills to function competently in the lifestage when people are forming intimate relationships. Their ability to develop those relational skills are limited by culture.

Porn culture teaches that satisfying sexual desires is the highest value in life. Rape culture teaches that the use of coercive power to compel women to satisfy sexual desire is justified, for its own sake. And gun culture ensures that a tool for expressing your rage in a public theatre of death is always available.



Sunday, May 20, 2018

Bishop Michael Curry's Homily

Bishop Michael Curry, on the occasion of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, opened his homily with an invocation to a "loving and liberating God."

Consider that theological assertion, and then consider the history of his people, and finally, consider the audience he was addressing. He is the descendent of enslaved Africans. The ancestors of his audience, which included the British Royal Family and assorted other aristocrats, were the perpetrators and perpetuators and profiteers of the Atlantic slave trade. In their house, and to their faces, set as is their custom, into bland non-committal, Bishop Curry told them that God was all about liberation.

Bishop Curry was there in the role of spiritual teacher, the one with spiritual authority. Given the protocols of Christian worship, Bishop Curry had the authority to speak as long as he needed, without interruption, and without rebuttal. All his congregants could do was roll their eyes, or grimace, or, as Prince Harry did, give an odd half-smile, as though he was aware both of his bride's frank and undivided attention to the Bishop, and his family and friends' discomfort.

Bishop Curry was there because somewhere back in time, the enslaved Africans were converted to Christianity by the enslavers. It was an unlikely event with an unlikely consequence.

At the time, Christianity was the glue that held the world together. It was the religion that undergirded European political and economic power. It was the ideology that authorized the conquest of the New World and the genocide of its peoples. It was the religion that justified the kidnapping, enslavement and ruthless exploitation of the people from Africa.

Christianity was the user manual for the operating system of the world. It was the religion of humanity's highest strata.

But then, Christianity fell into the hands of humanity's lowest: the people who were considered disposable commodities, mere property, tools by the economic, social, and political systems of this world.

The conversion of the enslaved Africans set off a slow-motion explosion that still sounds along the ages. 

The Africans turned the Christianity they were taught upside down, backward, and on the back of the beat. They turned it from the sanctification of the earthly powers over them to a source of their own spiritual power to resist their oppression and exploitation.

Out of the elements of the old Christianity of Constantine, the Africans created a new, and truer, Christianity. From the user manual for the operating system of the world, they created a guide to hack, and subvert, and overthrow "the powers and principalities."

If one is inclined to think in terms of humanity's salvation story, it was a turning point, as significant as the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh's Army, or the resurrection of the Christ to expose the rotting roots of Roman power. The conversion of the enslaved people set off a slow-motion explosion that will someday end the supremacy of the white European Empire over all of Creation. Surely, it was a work of God, the loving and liberating God whom Bishop Curry praised.

So, let's grab a screen shot of the scene yesterday, one frame in God's epic movie of salvation and the reconciliation of humanity to God's self and to each other. It is the stuff of fairy tales, as every commentator commented. So let us name the fairy tale, and tell the whole story.

An errant, somewhat rebellious prince, the younger brother, has traveled the world and met his bride, Meghan Markle, an accomplished actress and a strong, spirited, and independent woman. They fall in love and are to be married in the castle of the Prince's family, with the Queen and all her court looking on. And in the middle of this glittering ceremony, a holy man rises to speak. His message is delivered with loving grace. But just by presence, the fact that he was chosen to re-present the Gospel of Jesus to that congregation, conveyed that all of this (the castle, the chapel, the glitter, the hats and dresses, the cars and carriages), all of this was built by a power that is spent, and all of this is doomed to fall, to be replaced by the power of love, the kind of love embodied that day by the love of the prince and his bride for each other, an expansive, inclusive, adventurous, and liberating love.

And then, the choir sang like angels.

It is the stuff of fairy tales, the revelation of ancient curses, the naming of the inexorable movements of human history, the parting of the dreary veil of the present to reveal a more brilliant future. In other words, it was a wedding; and it was church.


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Electoral Strategy Beyond 2018


I wonder how many white people have never voted with the majority of black voters in any contested election. I don’t mean voting for a black candidate — there are black Republicans candidates who don’t get the majority of black votes. I mean voting with the African American voting bloc. 

15% of white voters in Alabama voted with their black fellow Alabamians to vote for Barack Obama in 2016. Obama lost the state by 28%. Doug Jones, on the other hand, received the votes of 30% of white voters in 2018; along with increased turnout by African American voters that margin allowed him a very close win. 

Political parties are racially polarized. People know that the parties have racial identities. People know that the GOP is a white people’s party. They know that the Democrats are a multi-racial coalition. When we hear that some Alabama voters hesitated “to vote for a Democrat,” we suspect that crossing the color line was the unspoken subtext. 

How you vote expresses how you understand your social place and interest. And whose interests you share. White voters who never vote with the majority of African Americans do not see that they share any significant interests with people of color. Some white voters, on the other hand, do. 

The key to political progress has to be to increase the number of the latter and to decrease the number of the former.  Others things have to happen, too, but persuading a larger number of white voters to see their common interests with people of color is essential. 

Some argue that all the Democrats need to so is advance race-neutral reforms that help all people: Medicare for All, or Free Public Colleges. In other words, return to the New Deal/Great Society type reform proposals. Great idea, but we know that the racial attitudes of many white voters make such proposals unattractive to them. They see them as giveaways to the undeserving. 

Some argue that we need a new, more progressive party. But such parties are, in the current moment, attracting small numbers of mostly white voters. The point is not that they weaken the Democratic Party, but they divide the multi-racial electoral coalition.

How do we move poor and white working class people who do not think that they share any politically actionable common interests with people of color. That attitude is not false consciousness. White people of all classes do have concrete and material advantages in a white supremacist system. White privilege is real. But, at the same time, poor and working class whites also share real common interests with people of color. But for many, they perceive their interests in white supremacy as the more useful, and under threat. If poor and working class white voters perceive that their interests are best served by the maintenance of their white privilege, then that needs to be confronted directly. 

In order to get the power to implement progressive reforms, there is no way around adding more white people to the multi-racial progressive electoral coalition. That takes a re-calculation of their interests.

Anti-racist education and organizing is necessary and hard, because so much is at stake. 

Liberal whites in their liberal organizations are now in the midst of struggling with white supremacy in their organizations. (I am looking at you, my Unitarian Universalist friends). The struggle agitates people; it’s tough stuff. Many people are torn and conflicted. They lurch from favoring change to wanting things to stay the same, to anger about being challenged, to self-reflection, to denial, all in a week, or depending on who they are talking to. It’s the experience of contradictions — pulled and pushed in opposing directions, intellectually and emotionally. But some people are learning, and acting on their new knowledge.

It is daunting to think that what is going in the white liberal churches and organization needs to happen in all kinds of white spaces, even with the people for whom their white privilege is all that seems to stand between them and personal disaster. 

But still, our immediate goal is not the transformation of all white people into anti-racist activists. Our immediate, pragmatic goal is to persuade a relatively small number of whites that their interests are best served by voting with the majority of people of color. Moving even a modest number of white voters into the multi-racial coalition can have large effects. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Buried Narrative in the Sources Statement

In the 20th Century, the Liberal Protestant denominations of Unitarianism and Universalism were challenged from within by a Religious humanist movement which questioned the existence of the God of the Bible and the continued use of liturgies that directed worship to that Deity. The Humanist movement reflected the theological and philosophical trends in the intellectual culture of the times.

The Humanist challenge to traditional Unitarianism and Universalism took on a geographical and historical character. The Humanist congregations tend toward the West (meaning West of the Hudson River) while the Liberal Protestants were stronger among the older and more established churches of New England, many of which pre-dated the Unitarian controversy of the early 19th century.

The conflict, which became known as the humanist-theist conflict, was sharp and protracted. Congregations split, members left, ministers lost their careers, stained glass windows were removed or covered up, hymns re-written, liturgies changed.

But before either denomination formally split, the controversy was defused by a turn toward a pluralistic agnosticism. Both sides tacitly agreed that no one knew the whole truth, and that therefore, multiple and competing theological perspectives could co-exist in the same worshipping community.

The merger of the AUA and UCA took place well into the history of the humanist-theist conflict. By 1961, Humanism was dominant in both denominations, but in a tense series of negotiations, just enough room for Liberal Protestantism was preserved in the new denomination to maintain the support and participation of liberal Christians and other theists.

Merger cemented the consensus: The prevailing theological perspective was an "agnostic pluralism" and UU liturgy was conducted, in most places, with a humanist language set. A small minority of congregations continued to use Liberal Protestant or otherwise theistic liturgies. The humanist language set became the official language of UUism at the time of merger and ever since.

The turn toward Pluralistic Agnosticism set the stage for Unitarian Universalists to be inspired a wider diversity of theological perspectives: mysticism, world religions which were included in the original Sources statement. The inclusion of the 6th Source established an institutional process by which additional Sources could become official acknowledged.

While the diversity of theological perspectives has become a centrifugal force in Unitarian Universalism, it is has been offset by the centripetal, or unifying, force of our public theology. Our public theology is our theological understanding of our work in the world, or mission. Our public theology is expressed in the Seven Principles, which have also continued to be developed over time. The most important development in the Seven Principles has been the further commitment to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural religious movement.


Comment: This is what I consider to be a thumbnail sketch of the story behind the Sources statement. This history, however, is only a part of a larger history, which I think needs to uncovered. The question is this: how does the story we tell about ourselves hide the decisions that were made to keep black religious liberals out of power in the UUA?

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

More on the Sources

The main problem I see with the Sources is that they hide the theological dispute that has shaped contemporary Unitarian Universalism: the Humanist rebellion against liberal Protestantism, a historic event that happened throughout most of the 20th century.

As is true with all historic events, that Humanist Rebellion against Liberal Protestantism has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is a story. It is, to a large extent, our story.

By simply listing brief summations of Humanism and Theism as differing options on a menu of theological perspectives, the Sources statement don't explain how their clash threatened to split liberal religion, and how that clash was defused and partially resolved.

I won't retell the whole story of the conflict, but will remind everyone that it was not a silly conflict. It was a serious dispute over the nature of reality that would define the teachings and liturgy of our religious communities. A lot was at stake: churches gained and lost members, ministers lost their careers, congregations were split. Beautiful stained glass windows were covered up or destroyed.

Ultimately, Unitarian Universalists moved toward a theology of pluralistic agnosticism about the propositions of formal theology. All opinions would be welcome, as no one really knows the whole truth. (The parable that best exemplifies the retreat from the battle lines is the story of the "Blind Men (sic) and the Elephant" which seemed to come into Unitarian thought with its re-telling by Sophia Lyon Fahs in "Long Ago and Many Lands" in 1948).

The Sources statement also exemplifies that Pluralistic Agnosticism: a menu of differing theological traditions that allows each person to pick and choose their truth.

The defusing the Humanist-Theist dispute by turning to Pluralistic Agnosticism had two major effects.

1. Pluralistic Agnosticism allowed UU's to acknowledge other spiritual and religious traditions beyond the binary of humanism and theism. These newly discovered, or re-discovered, and acknowledged influences are summed in the source statements about mysticism, world religions, and earth-centered spirituality. I suspect that as time goes on, more sources will be discovered and acknowledged in a statement of the influences on our living tradition: western Buddhism, Feminism.

2. But for all the growing diversity of theological influences on contemporary Unitarian Universalism, what unites UU's (as much as that is possible) is our public theology, as expressed in the Principles list, and in the 2nd Source: "words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love."

(Isn't it interesting that the Sources statement was explicit about the powers and structures of evil" which the Principles fail to describe what stands in the way of their realization?)





Monday, August 07, 2017

The Sources of our Living Tradition: A Critique

The Six Sources portion of our bylaws needs to be examined again. I think the Sources statement are a mess, more confusing and confused than wrong.

First of all, they are ahistorical. They do not describe the actual historical process of our formation. You would think that a "sources" statement would describe an intellectual history. There is a when and a where and a who behind each of these sources, which is not explained.

For example, our historical origin is in Protestant Christianity. Indeed, many of our churches were actual Protestant Christian churches for long periods of their history. It is also true that for many current Unitarian Universalists, their personal religious history begins in Christianity. Unitarian Universalism sprouted from a specific branch on the Christian family tree and our sources statement should be able to explain that.

One of our most important sources is the humanist movement of the 20th Century. The Sources statement bows to it in the Source Five.  But the Sources statement does not describe the revolutionary character of Humanism as a religious movement. Historically, humanism makes no sense except as a rebellion against liberal Christianity. Our Sources do not convey that fact that our religious movement is rooted in both sides of what seemed to be a "zero-sum" theological conflict.

I believe that the Sources statement is a like a family narrative that hides, or disguises, or minimizes, a family trauma. The falsity at the core of the narrative is the implication that to our ancestors at the time whether or not one believed in God was a mere difference of opinion without any lasting consequence. This is like thinking that Cain and Abel had an minor difference of opinion on agricultural policy.

If the humanist rebellion against Protestantism was the trauma, liberal religion survived it. But how? Because how we survived the trauma has formed us, even more than the trauma itself. Theologically, the mechanism of survival was to move to a stance of agnostic pluralism. Agnostic pluralism says that no one can really know the ultimate truth, so therefore many opinions about the truth can coexist.

The move to agnostic pluralism is the hidden, or buried, event that dictates the form of the Sources statement.

Each of the other statements refer to a historic event in our common intellectual history. Those events are presented as disconnected summary ideas abstractly stated. Hidden in those summary abstractions are the influence of the Christian social gospel, the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent liberation movements, the rise of Western Buddhism, global immigration, the women's movement and on and on. All of this social history has been our sources, and all of it is hidden when we talk about those Sources.

None of this rich intellectual history is revealed in the Sources statement. The statement is designed to blur this history in order to avoid conflict.

The Sources are, therefore, not only ahistorical; they are idealist. Movements of people and of the Spirit, are reduced to summarizing phrases and then those disembodied ideas are thrown into a pot together without explaining their interrelationship.

The result is that our sourcing statements promote a theological pluralism that is individualistic. We have a cafeteria-style history, a salad bar of memory. You pick and choose. The Source statements frequently refer to "we", to "us" and to "our". But in all cases, that collective pronoun is assumed to partial and voluntary.

Note how we assume that the Principles make a unified whole, but the Sources do not. And so, the Principles take on a normative dimension -- they describe how we should act, a set of guidelines to which we can held accountable. The Sources defeat any attempt to appeal to a common history, or to common obligations that arise from our past.



Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The 8th Principle

An Eighth Principle has been proposed.

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

The Eighth Principle brings to the level of our Principles the commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism that we first declared in a Resolution of Immediate Witness in 1994, and further as a Business Resolution in 1997.

The Principles are the statement of our common theology, which, by our many previous commitments, is necessarily a public theology. (As soon as the UU's began to say "Deeds, not Creeds" to describe our theological approach, we withdrew, as a body, from a common approach to the categories of traditional systematic theology.) Unitarian Universalist hold many diverse theological perspectives; what unites us is our public theology: our mission in the world, our ways of doing things, and our journey toward wholeness. Our Principles are our public theology, as of 1985.

The Seven Principles, as written, do not describe what opposes them. They are sunny and utopian. Their shadow side, though, is our self-righteousness, which follows directly from the Principles one-sidedness. They do not name why they are not universally practiced and why we ourselves fail them so often. After all, if we have such high ideals, then we must the good ones. And those who don't agree must, therefore, be the bad ones.

To bring anti-oppression to the Principles identifies what opposes our sunny view. We are stepping beyond the "We Good; They must be Bad" world of the Principles. We say that Oppressive Systems are what opposes the Principles, and we acknowledge, because we are talking about systems, that we are implicated in them as well. We are all implicated in the oppressive systems that rule our world, different only in angle and degree.

Anti-oppression is not a political, or sociological, assertion. Implicit in its generality (not listing certain oppressions and struggles) is a statement correcting our too optimistic view of human nature, Human beings establish relationships of domination and subordination. Human beings oppress and exploit one another. Human beings organize themselves to oppress one another. Human beings build oppressive structures. Human beings are guilty bystanders in those systems. At the root of what we have called sin is the participation as the dominant side in those oppressive relationships.

What can save us from "this body of sin," to use the words of Paul?

The proposed Principle says that Beloved Community is possible on the other side of "dismantling racism and other oppressions in ourselves and in our institutions." There is a interesting ambiguity in the word "our" here. I think that "our" must refer to the global humanity community; our goal must be more than the creation of Unitarian Universalism itself, as the Beloved Community.

I support the adoption of the eighth principle as a positive step in our theological development as a faith community.