Monday, September 29, 2014

Obama's War?

Spreading Pink Ink
It's an intellectual shortcoming to not see differences where they exist. People see patterns and continuations as though nothing ever changes, especially when moral frames are being used. So, those so inclined are talking about Obama's Iraq War as though it was indistinguishable from Bush's War, and from the Gulf War, and from the War in Vietnam. And then, they are defeated, demoralized, and discouraged because "nothing ever changes." Well, if you don't see change, it will seem like nothing ever changes.

I am not a foreign policy expert but I do stay awake during the news. Further, I don't watch Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert, so I take what is said seriously on its face, as not as setups for cynical mockery.

Obama has a very different policy than Bush and Cheney. You may not like it, and you may, as do I, think it is obscure on some big issues, but Obama does have a different policy.

Bush and Cheney invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in order to change those governments whom they suspected of enabling the terrorism of Al Qaeda. It was a state oriented policy. That it was wrong in the case of Iraq is one thing. Saddam was not enabling AQ. The resulting chaos obscures the deeper error of the policy. You see more clearly the error in Afghanistan where the Taliban was protecting AQ. But, it's still impossible to put together a viable government in Afghanistan, even in coalition with the Taliban.

Obama said from the beginning that the Bush policy was stupid. The Obama policy is not directed as states and governments but at organizations that adopt the strategy of attacking the "far enemy" as a way to gain local power. Iraq is in the midst of epic civil war, and I don't believe that Obama thinks we have any real leverage or interest in the outcome that is worth our engagement. But the Islamic State had adopted the strategy of becoming the strongest Sunni force by threatening to attack the US. Per Obama, that makes it in the interest of the US to fight ISIS.

Fighting the "far enemy" has been the AQ strategy all along. It is a variation on Mao's road to victory in China by making the CCCP the strongest fighters against the Japanese.

Obama says that it would be just great if Iraq put together an inclusive government. Not said is the recognition that we have little or no influence on whether that happens. Obama, I believe, knows that.  (Actually, I believe ISIS is Iran's problem: Iran has been the greatest influence on the Iraqi government which created the conditions for ISIS by excluding Sunnis from power.)

So the Obama policy is to directly engage (bomb) groups that strategize about attacking the US, and otherwise disengage from the political struggles in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan. The US will use Special Operations and Air Power, including drones, to attack those groups, but will not create or impose political solutions on those countries. Instead of trying to create regime change through invasion, it is a strategy of sidestepping governments and going directly after radical groups. It's what has been happening in Pakistan all along. Obama said as much in one of his first debates in 2008, when he said he would attack Osama Bin Ladin in Pakistan without asking for Pakistani permission.

We are now 'at war' with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. So we bomb Assad's greatest opponents. But the US is not interested in helping Assad stay in power. Whatever we say, and whatever John Kerry is able to work out, we are leaving the political question in Syria to the Syrians. As we are in Iraq. As we are moving toward in Afghanistan. Which makes a certain sense.

None of this is hidden, but readily available information.

Sometimes, I hear progressives talk as though war in Iraq is some deeply pleasurable activity for the President to engage in, as though Obama, like Bush, has always hankered for a chance to bomb Iraq. But you have to ask yourself, "If Obama wanted a war in Iraq, why didn't he just keep the one he inherited?"

Singing in Church

Cathy Lynn Grossman reviews the plight of the church choir in the contemporary social scene and, as you can expect, the situation is not good. The church choir seems, in many cases, to be going the way of all things mainline. The choir will stored in the church attic along with the organ, the pews and the ministerial robe.

The First Unitarian Universalist
Congregation of Ann Arbor
My experience in the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor is that it doesn't have to be.

The fate of the choir should not be separated from the practice of congregational singing. If the choir is only a performing choir, which sings music as performances in the midst of the service, people will find it pleasant some of the time, boring some of the time, and in the case of more adventurous music, kind of irritating some of the time. And in our older model buildings, where the choir is in a loft in the back of the sanctuary, it's even worse. Choirs need to be where the congregation can see them.

When the choir can be seen not only helps the congregation relate to the performed pieces, it also helps when the congregation sings together, during the hymns and songs.

The congregation in Ann Arbor is a singing congregation. Yesterday, during the church services, I counted less than 10 people who were not participating during the congregational singing, out of probably 500+ total people in the two services. (Maybe some were just lip-synching, so that number could be off.) What this does to quality of the worship experience is beyond description.

Glen Thomas Rideout
The key is a song-leader. Glen Thomas Rideout is the music director of the congregation and he is the song leader of the congregational singing. Meaning, he is in front of the congregation, and leads us in song. For the songs that are appropriate he "calls" and we "respond".  He gives us the line. He sings the line ahead. He leads us in clapping. He leads us in improvising the music and clapping. He invites, leads, cajoles, encourages and even seduces us into singing. And the congregation sings.

And the choir leads the singing as well, modeling enthusiastic participation.

You should realize that this is all pretty low-tech. Until the new sound system was installed two weeks ago, Glen Thomas stood at the pulpit and used the fixed pulpit mike. No lyrics projected on the wall. One piano and two drums. A mix of songs from the Teal and from the Gray hymnals.

Does your congregation have a song leader who leads the congregation in song? Most congregations don't have one. Usually, it is just the minister up there, many of whom lack the confidence and skill to do more than sing along. Many are even told to be sure to step away from the microphone while singing. In many cases, the minister models tentativeness and embarrassment as singers.

What the congregation sees is as important as what the congregation hears while singing.

If I were to be starting a church today, or looking for a music director or musician now, I would look first for a congregational song leader: someone who would get up in front and activate a lively musical spirit in the worship of the church. If you can get the congregation singing, I think building up a choir will follow.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Landrum Prison Files 4: The Meaning of Pop

I call this one "Still Life with Diet Coke."
I'm a pop (that's Midwestern for "soda") drinker, and am almost never seen without a can of Diet Coke in my hand.  When I head off to class at the college I usually have two or three cans in my satchel, depending on how long I plan to be there.

I'm not allowed to take pop into the prison, so for the first two weeks I asked the guards at the entry way to let me into the locked room where the vending machines are.  This felt a little awkward to be asking them to step away from their station to do this, and I also felt awkward having the pop in class.  None of my students have a soda in hand as they enter the prison classroom, so I felt it was an awkward sign of privilege.  I read back over my list of allowable items, and discovered that I could bring one unopened bottle of water, and 2 protein bars, so I started bringing those items in with me last week, and again this week.

"Where's your pop?" one of the prisoners asked me this week.  I explained that it seemed pricey in the vending, and I was able to bring water in with me but not pop.

"But that's the same price we pay," he said.

I agreed, it was, but asked "Why should I give that money to the prison industrial system or to the vending company?"

"Some of that money goes to us.  It's how we get new movies and equipment.  You're supporting us when you buy that pop."

"I didn't know that!" I said.  "I had no idea that you got some benefit from it.  I'll go back to buying it, if it supports you guys."

"We'd appreciate that," he said.

And so, I will once again be carrying my bag of quarters into the prison and purchasing my slightly pricey pop inside the walls.  For these guys, it wasn't a sign of my privilege.  It was a sign of support.

This is a good illustration for Communications Class -- what we think we are communicating isn't always what the received communication is. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Landrum Prison Files 3

I've mentioned that my students include rapists and murderers.  That's not precisely true, it was just shorthand.  Some of my students are in there for various sex crimes, including "assault with intent to commit sexual penetration," "criminal sexual conduct" (1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree), and "accosting children for immoral purposes."  And one of my students is in there for murder in the second degree.  I'll call him Jay, not his real name.

Jay is an African-American man in his fifties. He tells me he has two degrees, and is working on a third.  He's articulate and intelligent.  He worked on the first day to try to make me comfortable in the setting, and was worried that I was nervous.  He's probably my best student, if by best I mean most focused, participates willingly and appropriately, engages with material, etc. He has a sense of authority and presence in the classroom; the other students clearly respect him. 

I googled Jay's situation, and I asked his permission to share his story with you.  Here's the story as he tells it, from what he's told me personally, and what can be found in the appeals cases on the web, when I did a web search on him.

Jay was in his twenties.  His ex-girlfriend, and mother of his twin children, who were babies at the time, was in an abusive relationship with another man.  She had a restraining order on the guy, Jay says, and the guy had threatened to kill her and her children in the past.  But he was over that day, nonetheless, as was a friend of hers.  The guy started getting abusive, and the friend left.  After leaving, the friend ran into her boyfriend and Jay (who are related) and told them what was happening.  Jay went and grabbed his shotgun, and he and his relative went over, to extricate his children from the situation or to tell the guy to leave.  He entered the house or apartment, told his cousin to grab his kids, and he went into the room where the guy was, along with his ex-girlfriend and one of the children, to confront him.  The guy jumped Jay, and the gun fired unintentionally (according to Jay and his ex-girlfriend), and the guy was killed.  Jay didn't make a self-defense argument, but rather argued that the shooting was unintentional.  The jury found it to be murder in the second degree.

Jay holds no bitterness.  He thinks he shouldn't have brought his gun into the situation.  His ex-girlfriend had asked him to get her a gun to protect herself, and he told her not to get a gun but to get a restraining order, which she did.

Jay has spent half his life in jail, and will be eligible for parole in a couple of years. He will carry the label of convicted murderer for life.

My job, in teaching at the prison, is to teach.  It's not to try and help these guys' and their situations in any other way.  Just teach. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why Social Movements Seem Ineffective

Tom Hayden, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, antiwar activist, one of the Chicago Eight tried for instigating the Chicago Convention Riots in 1968, and a California State Legislator for many years, is donating his papers to the University of Michigan. He was editor of the Michigan Daily way back in the early 60's. [The fact that many of you still have no idea who I'm talking about is inevitable, and painful, but so what?]

Anyway, I heard him speak the other day, about the general history of social movements. I thought he explained a lot of what we have been through.

Social movements are unpredictable. There is nothing that will tell us in advance that it was to be the killing of Michael Brown that ignites the national movement, when African American men are killed by police or private security every 28 hours. The conditions have been there all along.

But when a social movement kicks off, both it and the elite that it confronts split into two camps.

Among the elite, there is an accommodationist wing, that wants to make small concessions to appease the social movement. And there is a repressive wing that wants to put down the rebellion.

Among the social movement, there is also a division: between a more moderate wing which seeks reform, and a militant wing, which wants longer term structural change, even revolution.

At some point, the moderates of both camps reach an agreement about the reforms that will be enacted. Think the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the result of a cooperation between Martin Luther King, Jr and Lyndon Johnson. That agreement marks the high water mark of the social movement; what it will have won, for now.

But then what happens? What happens afterwards? Just as social movements arise without warning, so also do they peak and decline. What happens in that stage?

The repressive elite does not give up, but seeks a way to continue the struggle against the reform. They minimize the reform, describe it as a mistake, reorganize to keep the fight going, to undermine or repeal the reform. Think of John McCain still arguing for more war in the Middle East.

The movement militants try to continue the movement and minimize the reform as well. So much more work to do; they are angry that the social movement seems to be losing energy and steam. Think of the common protest slogan, "I can't believe we still have to protest this stuff."

The moderate elite take credit for the reform, making themselves, and not the social movement, as the driving force of history. Who started the US withdrawal from Iraq, Barack Obama or Cindy Sheahan?

The moderate masses of the social movement move on with their daily lives. The sleeping giant seems to go back to sleep. They have no spokespeople, and no theoreticians.

The result is that vast social movements arise and win important concessions and reforms, but are never credited with any victories. A few years later, everyone with a prominent voice speaks of it as it were inconsequential, or a terrible mistake. The story gets retold as something silly and misguided.  And the attempts of the movement's militants to revive it are perceived as ego-centric hectoring by people who are stuck in the past. It's tragic, but the relationship between the militants and the moderates of social movement past its peak becomes bitter and accusatory.

A student asked Tom Hayden why the anti-Iraq War never had the effect of the Anti-Vietnam movement.

Hayden rejected the premise, and summed up the history of the Iraq War Movement this way.

In the beginning, there were demonstrations against the war; they were small, and risky; they were out of step with public opinion.

He mentioned Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9-11.

More demonstrations against the coming war -- getting bigger and bigger, really massive.

Bush wins the 2004 election. Democrats run Kerry who is not forthrightly anti-war. Demoralization.

Cindy Sheahan camps out at his ranch, reviving anti-war energy.

Democrats harness antiwar energy and sweep 2006 elections.

In 2008, Democrats choose Obama over Clinton. Much of the energy propelling him comes from his more forthright anti-war position.  The US policy in Iraq shifts. And stays on a policy of dis-engagement from Iraq until recently, as conditions changed.

In 2014, students talk of the anti-Iraq war movement as inconsequential. Seriously?

Friday, September 19, 2014

To Remain True

This is the time of the year when the “old school” among us call for Rank by Rank Again We Stand to start the church fall season. I like the last lines of what is now the final verse: “one in name, in honor one, guard we well the crown they won, what they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes and seal them true.” 

I am remembering all those ministers and lay members of liberal religion who have come before us. We start the year, remembering what they dreamed, and take those tasks on for ourselves, “seal them true,” a vague phrase which I guess means stamping them done well. 

What is it to be faithful and true? Fidelity is an act of memory; it is being loyal to memory. Like those who came before us, remembering them, guarding what they accomplished, remembering  today and tomorrow, the commitments we made yesterday. 

This will be an important year in the story of liberal religion in our times.

The People’s Climate March in NYC this weekend.

The emerging national movement in defense of black people from the police. Police shootings of black people which will go on and on and on. Remember this name: Darrien Hunt —an African American man killed by police in a town in Utah which is 93% white. This injustice can and will happen anywhere.

The renewed focus on domestic violence and child abuse — in the very very bright lights of the National Football League. Can there be any place more likely to get the attention of men?
Yet another war in Iraq. 

Yet another war in Iraq.

I ask my ministerial colleagues, and all those who offer leadership to the liberal religious cause: What do we have to offer now, how is it that we are true now, this year, amidst all of these unfolding crises. 

Our people are smart and well-informed. They have their political opinions and they know what they are capable of doing. Most of our elders are not going off to demonstrations; there are some exceptions, of course.  Most of our young families are not going out over bath and bedtime, no matter how great the cause. The conservatives among us are going to be conservative no matter what.

Nevertheless, I think people look to their minister of liberal religion for a signal of how serious all of this is. They look to us for guidance: Have we passed the point when they can no longer in good conscience treat their daily life as the most important thing in their world. 

They look for us for that sign that says the world's events are no longer a "tornado watch," but now a "tornado warning." And yes, they watch us even though they know that we are professionally excitable — that we are going to be concerned about things that they will think are merely interesting; or are situations that that are far away, or are just the way things are, or situations that may someday be a problem, but not today.

They build in the fact that we are more upset about the state of the world than they are; in a way, some have outsourced their anguish to us. So be it. After all, some of us have announced the apocalypse so many times that their pulse hardly quickens anymore when we mount the pulpit with our hair on fire.

Nevertheless, people who look to us want a way to participate in the events that shape this world — many of them came to our churches because they wanted to a part of a community with purpose, and vision. They look to us for a way to participate in history: a way that is appropriate to them and their life circumstances. 

Some of our people may be ready to go to prison. Some to graduate school for research and study. Some need us to bless them on a bus trip to DC or NYC or Raleigh. Some are ready for self-examination and introspection. Some can only clap along with the songs of the struggle when we sing them in church, but they need that opportunity to take a stand. As leaders, we will probably remain as we are, both too far behind the times for some, and too far out in front for others. They are still looking to us. 

We must remain true, this year. True to the dreams of our predecessors of a society where people have the confidence in their own agency to build peace and justice and inclusion. True to our promises to our people that we will never lose sight of their unique and personal situations, that we will never treat them as means to an end. True to the promises of our ordination, among which is that we speak the truth in love, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Economics is still a choice

Doug Muder sums up Michael Greer's "The Long Descent" and applies it to Ferguson, MO, arguing that car-oriented suburbs are doomed to decline, because of economics.

A key paragraph of a long and excellent article is this:
And finally, we need to figure out how to rebuild or write off the mistakes of the past. Places like Ferguson — and there are a lot of them — are not sustainable in their current form. They will never generate the capital to remake themselves, and the outside capital they attract will be mainly from vultures who want to squeeze the last bits of value out of the community’s decline and despair.
The problem with this scenario is that enormous amounts of Capital is created and invested everyday in these wealthy United States. It is not being invested in the infrastructure of towns like Ferguson, MO, that is true. But it exists.

The problem is not just that our priorities are so askew. The problem is that the process by which it is determined where Capital is invested is distorted. The wrong people are using the wrong process to choose how we plan for and invest in the future; as a consequence we are making poor decisions.

There are two giant pools of Capital that is looking for opportunities: the pool in the hands of Finance Capital, on what we call "Wall Street" and there is a pool in the hands of the governments. The first pool is all the money held in the form of stocks and bonds and other financial interests. A lot of that money, by the way, is money owned by ordinary people in the form of 401K's and IRA's etc. The second pool is fed by taxation, and by the sale of government bonds. Where and how these pools of money are invested determine our future.

The taxation system has over time, impoverished the state sector, so its investment pool is small. In
addition, the political choices we have made have prioritized military spending over other forms of investment. We have seen the numbers of what the country could be investing, if we chose not to have a military as large and as capable as we now do.

An ideological choice has been made that the lion's share of investment in our future will be made through the capital markets. But capital markets work on short-term goals of profit and loss. Investment opportunities compete against each other for the capital. Of course, investing in Apple stock will be smarter, in that context, than in buying bonds to build out a St. Louis mass transit system. Investments in Apple will pay off now. Mass Transit will never pay off directly. That is why we have 21st century pocket sized computers with which to call home from our cars when we are stuck in traffic jams on potholed streets through dying inner-ring suburbs. 

Economics, and the workings of finance capital, seem immutable, unchangeable, like the weather or acts of God. They are not. We could radically change the course of our country by putting more money in the hands of the government, and investing it wisely, and less money in the hands of Finance Capital to be invested in the capital markets. We could choose to not make towns like Ferguson generate enough capital to maintain themselves, but supply that investment from other sources. We could choose to make inner ring suburbs more attractive places to live, making our cities more dense and sustainable. There is the money in our economy to do all of that, and more. 

Oh, if only there was a way to gather money from the general population, especially the wealthier members, and use it for the common good. 

Oh, if only there was an institutions that could fairly represent all of the conflicting opinions and interests of the people, and then make decisions that carry out their will for the future. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Motivation Toward Ministry, Part 3

In Parts #1 and #2, we created this chart and defined external/internal and history/future as dimensions of our possible call or deepest motivations.

Let me place myself on this chart and explain my deepest motivations, how I experience my call.

I put myself above the line in the "external" area. I experienced it as a "Call" from outside of myself. For the most part, I heard that call from  members of the congregation where I was a member. They kept telling me that I should consider ministry. When I audited a Winter Intensive class at Meadville Lombard (it was Ethics of a Democratic Faith, taught by Ron Engel), I was told by my classmates that I should not be auditing the class, but to jump in and go to seminary. 

I have to say that I never experienced this call as coming directly from God. I rebel against the thought that God does career planning. Jobs and careers all over the world are distributed along gender and race lines that are signs of oppression. If God is choosing our careers, then He should be sued. 

I do think that the proverbial "hand of God" is at work when a religious people call out one of their own for religious leadership -- some sort of spirit-filled discernment happening there. 

On the other hand, and this may be why I put myself so close to the line separating the internal from the external, is that I am aware that ministry is part of my family's traditions. I felt that pull when I was young. As I review my family's history, I can see that I carried the genes that favored public leadership, and that usually took the form, for men, of ministry. So when I was "called," it was no surprise.

I never engaged in that story of how I resisted the call as long as I could, and came to it reluctantly. That story seems a part of the standard narrative for many of my Methodist friends in seminary, a sign that their call was authentic, and not their ego talking. Sure, my ego is involved.

I place myself on the History/Tradition side of horizontal continuum. I think of entering the ministry as stepping into a long line of liberal ministers, marching rank by rank, out of the past and into the future, each generation with its own work to do. Just look at the name of this blog. I remember the men of my family who came before me, their mentors, and my own mentors within Unitarian Universalism. The strongest influence on me was my late mother, who was not a minister, but a devoted churchwoman and community activist. I still often check with her for what I should be thinking about.  

However, I have come to focus more on what the future requires of us who carry on this tradition. Earlier in my ministry, I think I was focused more on what it would take to keep old school Unitarian Universalism alive. Now, I try to think more about what the future demands of us -- what specific truths do we carry out of the past and into the future. 

That little star on the grid above is only where I place myself. Obviously, there is lots of room there for the stories of other ministers and religious leaders. Where would you place yourself?