Friday, February 05, 2016

One More Thing that UU's Should Have learned

When the first openly GLBT ministers were being considered for settlement, and even when just the first openly GLBT minister was being considered for settlement in a particular church, we learned this: Homophobic people would say this: "You want us to pick a minister just because they are gay."  Or, "I don't want a minister who keeps telling us that they are gay." 

UU's learned that these were defensive deflections to defend old prejudices.

So, why would UU's respond to the exploration of sexism as it affects how people perceive Hillary Clinton with the same accusation, "You think people should vote for her just because she is a woman."

No, I plan to vote for her because she has been a progressive political leader for decades, and because she is personally tougher than almost everyone who has run for President before, because she is great foreign policy experience implementing Obama's post-Neocon policies and yes, because she is a woman, and it is a good thing to blow by that kind of prejudice and exclusion.

I didn't vote for Obama just because he was black. I also didn't ask him to ignore the fact that he was black. GLBT ministers have many ministerial qualities and they are gay, which adds more strength to the mix.

Our theological reflections about our own experience with anti-oppressive work in our own congregation are so weak and shallow that we don't seem to be able to apply what we have learned to the larger arena of national politics. 

The Always and Already Guilty Perps

The narrative about the Clintons, spun now for nearly a quarter century, is always the same. Whatever they are doing, they are up to no good. Give us enough time, give us enough documents, we will be able to prove what they are crooks. Until then, where there is smoke, there must be fire.

The transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street Firms are the new emails. Any document not in the public record must contain the smoking gun, the moment when she condemns Chris Stevens to death in Benghazi, or the moment when gives her quids to and picks up her quos from Wall Street moguls.

I recently re-read Toni Morrison's comments about Bill Clinton as America's first black President. As an aside, she points out the cultural signifiers, the saxophone,  the single mother, the junk food, but her main point is more relevant to us today.  Speaking of the pursuit of the then President, she says,  "The always and already guilty "perp" is being hunted down not by a prosecutor's obsessive application of law but by a different kind of pursuer, one who makes new laws out of the shards of those he breaks. " 

"The always and already guilty 'perp".. Morrison points out that what we now call the "criminalization of the black body" was in the process of being applied to Bill Clinton. The Republicans, the media, and eventually the "respectable" Democrats all operated on the assumption that he was "always and already guilty." It was just a matter of time and effort until the evidence was found. It was because Bill Clinton had reached that point where his guilt of something was assumed, and it was up to him to prove his innocence, that Morrison thought him "the first black President."

Hillary is now "the always and already guilty 'perp.'  For Trey Gowdy and the GOP, she is guilty of killing the diplomats at Benghazi. They will find the proof any day now. For the Left, however, a different unproven crime awaits evidence. She is a whore of Wall Street. (Google "Hillary Wall Street Whore" if you think that I am exaggerating the ubiquity of this presumption.)

The crowd booed when she pointed out it is an artful smear to suggest a transaction without any details of it. As proof, Sanders brought forth the obvious example of the entire GOP field who while funded by the fossil fuel industry denies climate change. Both sides of that transaction are on the public record. There is a quid pro quo. The contributions are made and the candidates repeat a foolish assertion.

But where are both sides of the soul-selling of Hillary Clinton? That she accepts campaign contributions is known. But what did anyone get from it? She has a tough set of proposals for Wall Street regulation; where has she done their will in a criminal way? None of that actually matters though, because she is 'the always and already guilty perp." So much so that other-wise fair-minded progressives repeat the unsubstantiated charge to signify the depth of their radical analysis.

For 25 years, the GOP and the media has worked to shroud the Clintons in cloud of suspicion. The list of disproven charges is extensive, and some were ridiculous, but the effort shows every sign of being successful.

An entire generation of young voters have grown up with the image of the shifty, criminalized Clintons as a fixture in their political environment. Whatever she was doing, she was covering something up. That she appeared personable or charming was obviously a testament to her craftiness. Everything about her is controlled, her inner witch only slipping out when she cackles.

We know from the history of the Obama presidency that the GOP and its noise machine do not consider Democratic presidents to be legitimate. In their mind, a Democratic administration is a danger quirk in the operation of the system. And so they work night and day to delegitimize it.The same thing happened to the Clintons. They are still building a story about the weak and ineffectual Jimmy Carter.  (Twenty years from now, what will be remembered about the Obamas will include a caricature of Michelle Obama, that uppity black woman who wore fabulous clothes, vacationed like royalty, and lectured us about eating our vegetables. And the children of today's millennials will believe it as being somehow true.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

New Leaders: Spiritually Grounded -- Landrum

The staff of MidAmerica Region of the UUA has put out a statement about what the "New Leader" of congregations will need to succeed, and they've begun a series of essays about their bullet points, the first three of which are currently available.  My response to the first point is available here on the Lively Tradition, and this is the second.  It's worth noting that theses are qualities of the new Leader not just the new Minister
2.  Spiritually grounded: Leaders understand what they believe or don’t believe and are aware of their need for connection to something larger than themselves; they are aware that they need to connect with a deeper core that gives them balance, intuition, and commitment.
Back when I was preparing for ministry, the suggestion that a competent minister needs to be spiritually grounded would have been met by me with frustration -- and fear.  As an agnostic humanist, I believed that secretly this meant that people believed I should believe in God.  Many people in our pews react the same way.  It was during my internship with Drew Kennedy, who described "spirituality" as a series of right relationship -- right relationship with self, with friends and family, with society, with the earth, with the cosmos or God -- that I began to be comfortable in using the word "spiritual" to describe myself.

Certainly I think a key aspect of the New Leader is understanding connection with something larger, whether you term this concept "spiritual" or not.  Our isolation as individuals and churches is often a weakness, and seeing ourselves as connected to something larger, be it God or Justice or the Unitarian Universalist movement, strengthens us.  


Our people are thirsty for spirituality.  I've done a lot of writing over the years on blogs, and have had three articles in the UU World, and out of all that writing the one piece that people keep talking to me about and writing me about is the piece about doodling as a spiritual practice.  It was startling to me that this is what people connected to most out of everything I've written, but it spoke to people on this level of a need for spirituality.  

Phil Lund draws from Gil Stafford in listing four techniques from spiritual direction:

  • The Leader as the Steward from Sacred Safety
  • The Leader as Holy Listener
  • The Leader as Advocate of Silence
  • The Leader as Wisdom Teacher
I have no disagreement with these.  I would add the Leader as Advocate of Holy Noise, too.  "Spiritually Grounded" for me is being enhanced by seeing the joy in a baby's cry during worship and the laughter and squeals of children in social hour.  It's also about the noise of voices raised in song or chant.  Many of my most mystical moments in life have been moments of music.  We need time for silence, and we need time for noise, too.

I would also add the Leader as Advocate for Multigenerational Experience.  I remember one moment in college when I saw a parent and child walking across the campus, and I realized that I hadn't seen a child in weeks, maybe months.  It's too easy for all our lives to get so tightly focused inward.  Church is one of the most intergenerational places in our lives.  Our social groups outside of church are often grouped by age, and outside of families, church is one place where the very young and the very old and all those in the middle come together.  As someone in the middle, I value these connections with the youth and the elders in our congregations.  There's a reason the Triple Goddess is not just one of the three but is Maiden, Mother, and Crone.  Seeing our lives in the patterns of the generations connects us with something larger.

Lastly a note about safety.  It is very important for our churches to be safe places, yes.  I think it's good for us to have strong policies in place for the safety of our children and our adults.  Our congregations need to be places with standards of protection in place.  But we need to know that sometimes that safety will be shattered by forces beyond our control, and when it does we stand or show up on the side of Love.  And while we strive for safety, being a spiritually grounded leader also means being not governed by fear.  We can't let fear for our safety keep us from marching in a Pride parade or hanging a Black Lives Matter banner, any more than we can let fear for our children's safety keep them from going to school or gradually increasing their independence as they grow into adults.  So being a spiritually grounded leader means stewarding safety while balancing fear with the values of independence, justice, and trying bold new ideas, as well. 

More On What We Have Learned


For 45* years now, I have been in white movements and organizations, both political and religious, that have been very anxious because black people took no interest in them. I have favored, in succession, most dead-end strategies to change that fact, and repeated every excuse and rationalization ever offered for their failure.

My experience is not special; almost every white progressive has had the same experiences over and over again. (45 years of experience or 1 year 45 times?) We have assumed a natural alliance between the movements for black liberation and the movements for progressive reform, but it's an assumption, a possibility, but not a fact.

It pains me no end to see Unitarian Universalist leaders enthusiastically endorse Bernie Sanders as he makes the same assumptions that we should know from our own experience are fatal to the cause.

Increasing the political power of working class and middle class people will not bring about an end to systemic racism. Almost every great social reform from the New Deal on has helped working class white people more than African Americans, and often increased the wealth gap between them, as a result. Its painful to see race-neutral reforms be proposed without recognition of that history.

It is not true that curtailing the political power of the billionaires will empower African Americans. Systemic racism has a powerful constituency among white people of all classes. Its painful to see that ignored, or discounted.

It is not true that the character and personal history of a leader will determine the character of those the leader leads, anymore than a fired-up UU anti-racist minister will determine how a particular congregation acts. Its painful to see that ignored.

We know that white movements (and churches) rarely become multiracial by attraction, no matter how shiny they are. Building a cross-racial entity takes very deliberate and race-conscious efforts at building new leadership structures. It is painful to see UU's seem to forget this, and assume that large numbers of black voters will be attracted to Bernie down the road because of his anti-billionaire rhetoric.

Frankly, it is painful to see UU's who support a Sanders campaign that doesn't seen to understand intersectionality at all. The gap between black voters and the Sanders campaign is not because black voters don't understand class politics in the USA; it is because the Sanders campaign doesn't understand the politics of race in the USA.

I am not saying that Clinton is superior to Sanders about these progressive illusions. But I take seriously that it seems that African American voters are more inclined to support her than Sanders. They know their interests and options better than I do.

Now, I am told by some people that I trust, that the Sanders campaign might well overcome these problems. After all, Obama started out as a candidate with a base most in the white progressive movements, and then attracted the enthusiastic support of African American voters. Of course, Obama is black himself. There may also be a generational split among African American voters as there has been among whites Democrats. Time will tell; the great thing about the future is that it has happened yet.

*I am not counting from birth, but from when I graduated from college.

Monday, February 01, 2016

The Bernie Sanders Type


I am not saying that Bernie Sanders is a bad guy. If he is the nominee, believe me I will work for him. But if he wins the nomination without the support of African American voters and middle aged women, it won't be worth much, and it won't matter what I do.

I know Bernie by type, because I ,too, am Bernie: a white male radical who has
labored in the vineyards of progressive change in the USA since the days of college. There were quite a few of us. Some of us became academics; some of us went into local politics (like Bernie); some of us became ministers; some of us went into software; some of us became farmers. Some of us were scoundrels,, but most of us were good guys.

But we all had a blind spot. We were powered by our passion and by our analytical ability. We had an analysis. We could get to the core of the problems with our government and economy and we could describe them in crushing detail.

We could explain why half-way measures and milquetoast reforms would never solve them.

We were very, very good at being able to explain how voting for a Democrat wouldn't do any good. (You're welcome, Richard Nixon.)

No, our analysis was that we needed a Revolution. We could not see, though, that our analysis was not anywhere near enough to actually organize anybody.

Our Blind Spot: We thought if we could fit the oppression and exploitation of African Americans, women, gays, and everyone else, into our analysis, those people would see us as their leaders.




Sunday, January 31, 2016

Some Things UU's Have Learned.

Unitarian Universalists have been in school about race and racism for quite a while, now. As we have confronted what seems like the unbearable whiteness of our being, we have learned some things that I think are useful to apply to the Clinton/Sanders divide. We have direct experience with the questions and controversies at the heart of the most vexing issue in the 2016 Democratic nomination fight: how to unite people of color, especially African Americans who are the most loyal Democratic voters, with white liberals and progressives, both female and male, into a winning electoral coalition.

1. Marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. is not a verification of one's anti-racism. Unitarian Universalism could not believe that after Selma and the death of James Reeb, that anyone would not immediately see our steadfast commitment to racial equity, or would experience racism in our churches and congregations.

2. Racism is not a secondary issue which will get solved along the way of dealing with other issues. Racism in UULand was not going to go away because we energized our music programs, or started saying "amen" when we liked what the preacher said. Racism does not go away in congregations that have more working class white people in them. Racism must be confronted directly.

3. You confront racism in part by amplifying the voices of people of color. You respect what they say in that you listen carefully and openly. You build relationships. You building new circles of leadership. White people do not know best how to fight racism.

4. It doesn't matter what the preacher says if the people in the pews enact the same hierarchies in their social interactions. The number one way that white people assert dominance in social interaction is by assuming that they already know what people of color want, and why they want it.

5. When people of color avoid a white-led organization, the problem is with the white-led organization, not with the people of color. How long did white UU's explain away the whiteness of our congregations by saying that African Americans were "too emotional" for our kind of worship?


Friday, January 22, 2016

Report from UUA Task Force on Covenanting to UUA Board

I have been serving on a little task force called forth by Jim Key and chaired by Susan Ritchie on reimagining the UUA organizing principles and methods. It's all very blue-sky and out there, but it has been a chance to step back and re-think that which seems permanent and unchangeable. The task force has met a couple of times and read some things together.  Yesterday, Rev. Ritchie presented our very first report to the Board, a kind of progress report showing what we are thinking about.

I have reprinted the report below, with some trepidation. My observation is that most UU's are very much in favor of changing the UUA in general, but respond to even the smallest suggestion of a particular change with great suspicion. Even redesigning a logo can generate a lot of negative reaction. I think lots of people really want a well-hidden and barely noticeable change that will generate a lot of money, plenty of new members, and a way to resolve the humanist-theist debate that brings peace and lets them win.

So, take a deep breath, remember that this is just some exploratory thinking, and think about this:





Monday, January 18, 2016

Implications of the UUA Presidential Search Process

1. UU Populism should be over.

Previous UU Presidential elections have often been framed in populist terms. UU Populism imagines that some group of UU's are the powerful insiders and the rest of us are on the outside looking in. The reason why UUism is somehow failing is that the "insiders" are clinging to old ways, old methods, and old theologies. So, once it becomes clear who is the candidate of the "insiders", then you know who to vote for. The Morales/Hallman election was eventually cast in such terms.

That populist frame for the election assumes that the powerful elite feels entitled to the UUA Presidency and has put forward a candidate out of that entitlement. The process by which the candidates come forward is hidden.

[The irony is that lots of people have lots of opinions about who that elite really is. Is it the big donors? The large church ministers? The UUA staff? The old New Englanders? The Humanists? The Social Justice Warriors? The self-selected GA Junkies?]

The Presidential Search Process refutes that populist assumption about where the candidates come from. Everybody you could think of, and many you would not, was suggested, invited to step forward, and then carefully vetted by a group of conscientious UU's in a long process that resulted in these two nominees.

No hidden cabal of elitists put forward one candidate; no plucky band of rebels put forward the other one. This isn't episode IV.

2. Representation at the top is no longer the key issue. The theme that "we never had a UUA President of this identity" is closely linked to the populist view of UU politics. The thought has been that the hidden leadership development process of the elites fails to bring forward leaders of diverse identities.

But that isn't the way it works now. The nominees have been chosen by a conscientious and diverse group of respected people. I think that we can trust, at least for now, that they have done their best to be open to all potential sources of leadership.

Unless there is a self-nominated male candidate who emerges, we will have the first female President. I don't think that is the result of the Search Committee alone. There has been a widespread consensus on that for while. My impression is that many men stepped back. We won't know whether that was true until the Search Committee makes public its process after the election is over.

The result of the Search Process is that we have two qualified candidates. We have the opportunity for an extensive discussion of the future of Unitarian Universalism. The candidates have the opportunity to start to show leadership now in casting their vision, uniting people behind it and challenging us to focus on the far horizon.

The election should turn on how they lead us now, not on our projections about who they are and who they represent in our imagined UU landscape.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Slowing My Roll

The Rev. Sue Phillips (Left) and the Rev. Alison Miller (Right)

The UU Presidential Nominating Committee has announced its two nominees: Sue Phillips and Alison Miller. I know Sue well and worked with her when I served a church in New England. She would make a great UU President.

I only know Allison Miller enough to embarrass myself by confusing her and her name with other UU ministers who have the same first name. Would she make a great UU President? Probably. After all, nearly everyone you would think of (and many you would not) was recommended to the Search Committee, given a chance to step forward and given careful consideration if they were interested. After a judicious process these are the two they chose. So I have to assume the best.

I urge my friends to take it easy on endorsements too early. I am not criticizing anyone who has made one, but I think there is little value in them at this point. I suspect that they mostly reflect the networks of affection and experience that are already in place.

We have a long time to decide, and a long campaign in which the candidates, and ourselves, have a chance to talk about the future of Unitarian Universalism. I hope that all of us will grow through the discussion.

How are we to respond to the inevitable divisions that will occur in our congregations as the social movements of the day: Movement for Black Lives, Climate Justice, Reproductive Justice, Immigrant Justice, GLBTQIA rights and recognition (especially the T), Minimum Wage etc. call us forth?

What's the UUA supposed to be doing? What do the candidates think about the possibility of the UUA providing more practical services to congregations?

How do they define the job? Inspirational leader? Administrative Supervisor? CEO?

What's economic and financial strategy for liberal religion given that our understanding of congregational polity has created structures that cannot produce the income we need for expansion and growth?

You know that there are more issues than this. And this election is a time when we will discuss them all, I hope.

I'm slowing my roll. I'm not choosing until real and substantive differences between the candidates become clear.

Let this season of discernment begin.....

And Good Luck and Good Will to both Rev. Phillips and Rev. Miller !