Sunday, July 01, 2018

The Suburbanization of Liberal Religion

Once upon a time, Unitarianism was an urban religion. Our most prominent and successful churches were in the cities, embedded in the urban culture and community where they were.

Yes, there are many exceptions of rural or small-town Unitarian, and Universalist, churches.

But in 1940, there weren't a lot of suburban Unitarian or Universalist churches, because there weren't a lot of suburbs.

Suburbanization and Housing Segregation are the same process, and could be the most important transformation of the society in the last century. We now know that it was a process driven by powerful financial and governmental policies. The white urban working class was offered the chance to buy new homes in the suburbs with subsidized and guaranteed credit, which allowed them to begin accumulating family wealth. The black working class in the city was denied this opportunity, and whole sections of cities were denied credit for new or improved housing. Vast profits were made in housing industry, the financial industry, much of which was directed back to the suburbs as local government revenue.

Some urban Unitarian churches followed their people to the suburbs. Some did not. My opinion is that it did not matter; a church located in the city, but with a suburban congregation is a suburban church with less parking.

Suburbanization affected the theology and the ecclesiology of liberal religion.  For the most part, current Unitarian Universalism is liberal religion customized for suburbanites.

Suburbanization atomizes community and demolishes culture.

The old urban church was embedded in the urban community. Its minister was a recognized leader in the city's life. Congregants not only belonged to the church, but also to many other civic organizations. They belonged to the Y and participated in local politics. Political leaders knew how many votes could be moved by an appearance at a particular church. There was even a time when a provocative sermon would be reported in the local newspaper.

[A member of the church in Worcester, who was deeply connected the civic life of the community thought it odd that he should invite a friend to come to church. He knew lots of people and he assumed that they either had a church, or chose not to go to church. Church was part of people's private, personal life, quite apart from the network of public relationships in which he lived.]

When the people of the church moved to the suburbs, they were moving from a place of rich and thick cultural connection into a place of much thinner community. There were fewer community organizations and cultural institutions. Homogenous developments and sub-developments replaced heterogenous neighborhoods. Politics were often non-partisan and obscure; elections were off-schedule, discouraging participation.

Life in the suburbs changed the role that the church played in people's lives. The church, over time, became, for many people, their primary community. In many cases, people know more people in the congregation than in their neighborhood, or through any other non-work connection. And even those connections through the congregation are weaker, because congregational friends live in other suburbs and their kids go to other schools.

Theologically, in liberal religion, the ultimate values becomes "relationship" and "community." Ecclesiologically, in liberal religion the most important purpose of the congregation becomes to create and sustain "community." In terms of public theology, the suburban church blends into the de-politicized landscape of the suburbs. Public witness becomes going into the city to participate in witness actions there.

Whereas in the past, the church was united by its general message to the community in which it was embedded, now the goal of the church was to be the community.

[Some of the elders in the church I served in Worcester were surprised that other people wanted to know everyone in the congregation. They thought that just because some other people agreed with the message of Unitarianism didn't mean that they were meant to be friends. These elders had their friends and they assumed that the others had theirs, as well.]

The suburbanized church tends to elevate the values of suburbia: focus on appearance, cultural similarity, the aspiration of a completely safe environment, convenience, good customer service, self-containment. The model is a shopping mall.

And finally, whiteness. Suburbanization, at the ground level, is white people moving away from black people. That is the practical effect of government and financial policies and it occurs without conscious racist thought. You want to buy a home in a more prosperous suburb, chances are it will be a whiter suburb. As white people move away from black people in the suburbanization process, the very presence of black people signals potential danger and downward mobility. The predominantly white suburban church will inevitably view black visitors and potential members with suspicion.

Families Belong Together: A story

There was confusion about whether the June 30 rally against family separation at the Rhode Island Statehouse was going to happen. It had been on MoveOn's list, and then it was off the list, and then an email come from MoveOn said it was cancelled. Some people thought the email was fake.

About 300 people showed up. No platform, no sound system, no infrastructure, no police presence, no official leaders.

But a couple of women took on the responsibility of leadership. They held the space, spoke to the moment of the rally's unorthodox status. They called in everybody to be close so we could hear people through a megaphone, made of a rolled up piece of ordinary paper. A speaker's line was organized: anyone who wanted to speak.

People spoke. Amazingly, speeches were shorter, more direct, and less grandiloquent than the speeches at any rally I have been.

There was some ideological struggle, when a speaker said something to the effect that "everybody has a vote." An undocumented person corrected the speaker that not everyone had a vote and that he had presumed that everyone at the rally was a citizen.

Everybody learned something from the exchange.

There was some singing.

There was a Lieutenant Governor candidate who spoke. Religious leaders, too.

One of the women facilitating the rally led us in chants that she read off the signs that people had brought.

After the line of speakers dwindled, and the crowd started to drift away, the facilitator said that she thought most rallies went on too long, and the demonstration started to wind down. It had lasted over an hour.

When I got there, I had, at first thought that it was a bust. Why stay? I mean, if I take the time to go to a demonstration, aren't the organizers obligated to hold up their end of the deal, and provide me with a shady spot, a good sound system for interesting speakers, and some tasty musical interludes?

And just around the corner, DSW was advertising a 70% off sale.

Maybe in another time and place, many of us would have gone home with new shoes.

But protest is not a picnic, or an outdoor concert, or a block party. It is people, acting on their own, to press their anger, outrage, and demand for justice on the government. It is supposed to be a bit wild, and out of control, and ours, even if it as peaceful as a church picnic.

But 300 people came to protest at their State Capitol, and they did. People are fired up.


Monday, June 25, 2018

What I See Going On in the UUA

There is a national popular movement going on. Trump precipitated it, but it is widening and deepening to challenge many linked oppressive systems. It is not a shallow, or narrow, movement. It is not fly-by-night, or a flash in the pan.

Unitarian Universalists are in this movement in many ways. Congregations are answering the call to take to the streets in demonstrations, rallies, and in civil disobedience. For the most part, and of course, there are going to be exceptions, UU's are participating appropriately, following leadership from others more qualified, and staying in their proverbial lane. 

Our denominational leaders encourage participation. They, too, are acting appropriately for their role. They communicate frequently, and with clarity and precision. They rally UU's and they provide a broad, value-driven, analysis that grounds itself in our pluralistic religious tradition. Our leaders are now no longer Baby Boomers, so they bring a more up-to-date understanding of public witness.

And, the Unitarian Universalists are doing the internal work about racism, white supremacy, and oppression. We have begun to break with our past attitudes when we saw ourselves as virtuous, and others as evil. Leadership from African American Unitarian Universalists and other UU's of Color is coming to the fore.Congregations are studying white supremacy. Painful testimony is being heard about our own practices of exclusion. The UUA has set as its goal institutional change. Is this work done? Obviously not, but it has begun. 

There is no reason for Unitarian Universalists to be depressed, discouraged, or despondent. Our religious movement is, in the imperfect way of all human institutions, doing what it should be doing, in the present moment.

It should be doing more, and faster, and with more wisdom. Of course.

As in every social movement I have ever seen, there is also judgement, rudeness, impatience, intolerance, self-righteousness, and conflict. People bring all their shit into social movements and really let it fly in the heightened atmosphere. But none of that should distract us from what is most important.

If this is not the moment we have been waiting for, then what are we waiting for?


Friday, June 22, 2018

Congregational Accountability and White Supremacy Culture

The subject of Congregational Accountability came up again at the UU Ministers Association Meeting, again. It always comes up, because the problem never changes and is never solved. What is meant by the phrase is that congregations are never asked to justify to the wider UU movement why and how they sent a settled minister on their way. It's the murkiest decision in congregational life. Why did a minister leave, was it voluntary, or were they fired? What were the grounds? What does it say about the minister? What does it say about the congregation, its leadership, and its processes. Should  a minister in search be forewarned about that congregation? Should a congregation be forewarned about that minister? Has anybody, anywhere learned anything from this experience?

Compare the process of calling a minister with the process of ending a ministry. When a minister is called, there was a democratically elected search committee, who tried to communicate everything they can to the congregation. They select a candidate who candidates for a week, so everyone can evaluate them, and then a democratic vote is taken, aiming for an overwhelming supermajority for the call.

Now, in the by-laws of most congregations there is similarly democratic process called for to end a ministry. Congregational meetings and a vote of the congregation.

That meeting, that vote, that open and transparent process just does not happen. Usually a much smaller group, centered in the leadership of the church, lets the minister know that they are no longer supported. The minister and the board enter into confidential negotiations, a settlement is reached, and then, the congregation is notified that the minister is leaving. Usually a large portion of the congregation is surprised, and many don't see the need.

This is how white supremacy culture deals with difficult conflicts and processes. Instead of open democratic processes where everyone can see what is going on, and has a voice, the way of this white world is that open processes are subverted by unofficial processes behind closed doors. Insiders decide. Secrecy prevails. The majority is just told that everything is under control. Inevitably, there are lawyers involved.

But, unless dirty linen is washed in public, it usually doesn't get washed at all.

The way that Unitarian Universalists handle the problem of conflict between ministers and congregations seems designed to preserve the status-quo. The goal is to get past this bump in the road and put this unpleasantness behind us. Because we seem to think that this conflict is the exception to what is otherwise a smoothly running system where ministers are called, serve for life, beloved of their congregation and everybody's birthday is a national holiday.

But think about the opposite proposition: if we acknowledge that most ministries are not for life, and that conflict is the norm, and the inevitable result of development, then we would want to know in detail, why ministries end. Think of what we could learn about the actual challenges facing the practice of Unitarian Universalism. We might even start to consider alternative ways of matching ministers with congregations.

Why aren't congregations held accountable for a pattern of treating ministers unfairly, or for a pattern of undercutting every minister because a significant faction doesn't want a minister at all. Why can a congregation persist in calling ministers that they will blame for not changing what they don't want changed?

But if no one knows how and why congregations decide to end ministries, they will never be accountable for those decisions. The fog of secrecy protects congregations that have unhealthy attitudes toward ministers, and by extension, their mission. That same fog also protects misconducting ministers.

So, I say let's gather our courage and insist that churches and congregations follow their by-laws in withdrawing their call to a settled minister. They should be required by the UUA is publish a report, approved by the congregation, that lists their reasons. Of course the minister could respond.
Everyone should see it.  I predict it would be painful, but I also predict our congregational life would improve.


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?