Friday, October 02, 2015

The agony of imposed silence

Mass murder done with guns.

The anguish of grief.

The frustration with the seeming intractability of the problem.

The handwringing and despair.

The liberal church, in particular, seems to become a caricature of itself. Its religious leaders make anguished and angry statements, some of them starkly poetic, ending in very earnest, yet very vague calls for something to be done. Is it the kind of institution where you would risk your life, your freedom, your time, your money to make our common life better? Does the church seem like a body that is able to create people's power and change things? Or do all of its prayers, and pious thoughts, and candles, and poetry, and righteous anger testify to its powerlessness?

Mass murder with guns is a bigger problem than "sensible gun safety" legislation, but such laws are a necessary step in stopping the slaughter.

And we know what must happen to make such laws real. But, under the rules that have been imposed on the church, we cannot say what needs to be done, and we cannot directly organize people to get it done.

The obstacle is the Republican Party. We all know that. For even the most mild gun control legislation to be passed, the Republican Party must be voted out of power, or so threatened with the loss of power that it chooses to break its dependence on the NRA.

No objective observer of politics in this country would deny the truth of that analysis.

But religious leadership sees itself as forbidden to say it out loud.

No wonder we are anguished. Silence has been imposed on us.

Religious leaders cannot tell the truth that they know.

A gun manufacturing corporation, under the present understandings of the law, can contribute corporate funds to a PAC that supports political candidates that protect its corporate interests. (Yes, there is supposedly some non-coordination between the candidate and the PAC, but that is pure fiction. We all know that.)

A church or a religious organization, on the other hand, cannot endorse a candidate, or even use its facilities to enable a political campaign.

The CEO of a corporation can endorse a candidate for office in a letter to the employees, but a minister, or rabbi, or imam, cannot endorse one from the pulpit.

Supposedly, this is because of the tax break given to churches, but all the tax breaks corporations receive do not limit their political expression.  The corporation may even selling its products to the government itself; it still has virtually unlimited freedom of political expression.

No wonder corporate leaders are not anguished by their powerlessness, but merely peeved because they don't always get their way without question.

No wonder, religious leaders have to resort to poetry and lofty language and vague calls for unspecified but doomed  legislation  to express in words the desires that they are not able to act upon.

Of course, I have said all this before, and maybe better. But it is so on my mind today.

The Pope and The County Clerk

Here's why it's important:

A crucial part of the conservative cultural and political hegemony for the last forty plus years has been the alliance between the white Catholics and the White evangelical Protestants. That alliance depended on the Catholic hierarchy prioritizing all of the issues of sexuality and patriarchy above all other issues in its public theology. While the social teachings of the church have always had a pro-worker and anti-war content, the hierarchy was far more insistent that abortion and same-sex marriage were the issues that really count. Those were the issues that they mobilized voters about. No cardinal ever threatened to withhold communion from Catholic legislators who voted for war, or who supported the death penalty, or who voted tax cuts to the rich while cutting programs for the poor.

I have personally talked with lifelong Democratic voters who have been torn about voting for Democratic candidates for President, because they thought that the Church wanted them to cast their vote against abortion.

Pope Francis has not changed the any of the teachings of the church. But he argued for a different priority in the public political practice of the church: away from the 'culture wars' and towards immigration, climate justice and inequality.

Pope Francis' priorities drive a wedge into the conservative coalition in the United States.

If Roman Catholic voters were inclined to vote their faith's values, working class Catholics might be persuaded to come home to the party that stands with the poor, in all that implies in the current issue environment. (I know, I know: to say that the Democratic Party "stands with the poor" is a generous characterization to be sure.)

That is why the purpose and meaning of the Pope's meeting with Kim Davis is important.

Davis' and her legal representatives want it to be a signal that the Pope is still committed to the conservative Evangelical/Catholic alliance in the US. It is clear that they have exaggerated the meeting of the minds that they claimed occurred when they met.

The Vatican appears to be downplaying the meeting: first just not denying that the meeting took place, then confirming that it did, and now issuing a statement that it was not a statement of support for Davis.

The conservative era in the United States was built on the casting of spells, delusions and deceptions: an ideological fog. That fog is lifting. In the end, delusions are maintained by cheap tricks and sleights of hand. The "great summit" between Kim Davis and Pope Francis is such a trick, another conservative con, now being exposed.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Campaign Zero

Maybe when the pushback/conflict around a "Black Lives Matter" banner gets stalemated in a UU church, or among your family, taking a good look at Campaign Zero might shake things loose.

The campaign offers policy solutions in 10 areas. It also evaluates 2016 candidates on their public positions in each area.

The planning team includes people at the heart of the Movement for Black Lives.

Policy proposals and campaigns are not the same as protesting in the street, nor is it like posting a banner on the front of a church. It is not the kind of detailed and relentless exposure of white privilege that is going on in the public square today. But it might be persuasive to those with a different learning style: those that can't quite get the bold statement that "Black Lives Matter" without some concrete steps around it.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Banners Show All Lives Matters' Racist Truth by Cynthia Landrum

The common response to “Black Lives Matter” has become “All Lives Matter.” And, absolutely, as Universalists, we believe in each and every person’s worth to God, that all are savable and all are saved. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in each person’s inherent worth and dignity. Each person. All. Of course all lives matter. So this leads some people to believe that there's some confusion about what we mean when we say, "Black Lives Matters."  And liberals often try to address the "All Lives Matters" by doing just the sort of explaining I just did above.  Another example is a Facebook meme that says:

But are we having a misunderstanding? Tom Schade wrote recently on the power of banners.  And the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign also speaks to the power of these banners.  One power that Black Lives Matter banners are having is to make it clear there is no misunderstanding here at all.

 Here’s the thing. I don’t think that the people who are responding saying all lives matter are really confused about this at all.  When the River Road UU Congregation put a Black Lives Matter banner in front of their church, it was twice vandalized – the vandal cut the word “Black” out of the sign, and then it was stolen.
Banner at River Road UU Congregation from

 Lake Country UU Church in Wisconsin also had the word “Black” cut out.
Banner at Lake Country UU Church from
Cutting out the word "Black" isn’t saying that "all lives matter" – it’s a violently cutting out the "Black" from "Lives Matter." It’s saying that Black lives don’t matter. First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee also had their sign vandalized, with the word "Black" written over with “All” and then the banner stolen.  The UU Congregation of the South Jersey Shore also had "All" written on top of "Black on their sign.

Sign at UU Congregation of the South Jersey Shore, photo by Betsy courtesy of Rev. Cynthia Cain.

When you cross off "Black" with "All," you’re again not saying "All." You’re saying “Not black—all other.” It is saying "All" -- it's saying "All except what I just deleted: Black." If there was really just a desire to clarify, it would be as simple to put a little caret in that said “And ALL” after "Black," without the violent reaction to the word "Black."

But just in case it’s still not really clear, in Reno Nevada they made it really clear. The UU Fellowship of Northern Nevada’s Black Lives Matter banner had the world “Black” written over with the word “White.”

UU Fellowship of Northen Nevada from
The symbolic violence is not just limited to physical banners, either.

On the Facebook page of the UU Congregation of the South Jersey Shore where people were writing “All Lives Matter” and Unitarian Universalists have been responding with clarification and engagement, the response has gotten as extreme as one person threatening to shoot a Unitarian Universalist minister for saying that "Black Lives Matter."  There's simply no way that people can simultaneously be truly believing that all lives matter and at the same time be threatening to kill someone.

The banners have made it clear.  There’s no confusion here what we mean when we say, “Black Lives Matter.” This push-back of “All Lives Matter” isn’t about clarification of a misunderstanding. It’s about an angry response to anti-racism challenging the white cultural supremacy. It’s as simple as that.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The power of banners

Unitarian Universalist congregations are discovering the power of banners.

They have been putting up banners on the outside (some on the inside) of the buildings proclaiming that "Black Lives Matter".

They are breaking through the shell of ineffectuality that has surrounding progressive politics for a generation: that sense that no one notices, and no one cares, when progressives stand up for social justice. It is as though the world says, "what else is new?"

But hang a controversial banner on the outside of a church, and you get a reaction. People steal them. People deface them. People modify them. It takes bravery and courage to persist. Other people are encouraged and supported by the church's persistence in the face of opposition. The congregation is communicating.

The history for Unitarian Universalist congregations is long. For decades the Wayside Pulpits were our primary tool for evangelism. Short pithy quotes that challenged conventional religious thinking were right there where other churches put their dull and expected messages.

Then came the Rainbow flags that communicated our support for GLBTQ people.

And then the Standing on The Side of Love banners.

And now, Black Lives Matter.

For many of our congregations, our buildings are our most important means of communicating who we are and what we stand for. Some of our buildings are extraordinarily beautiful, and some are very prominent in their community.

Isn't it ironic that in these times of social media and the explosion in ways of communicating, Unitarian Universalists are finding the most impactful way they communicate is by hanging a banner on their building.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015


Most Americans will never see Alaska. Most will never see Denali.
Most Americans couldn't report a single fact about William McKinley beyond that he was assassinated. If that.

Most Americans don't live in Ohio. I lived in Ohio and William McKinley was rarely on my mind. (I did live near the Warren G. Harding memorial in Niles, Ohio, and Harding too was rarely on my mind.)

McKinley was just about the last of a long string of Republican Presidents who held office as a result of the Party of Lincoln selling out the freed slaves in 1876 and ending Reconstruction. They were aggressively pro-business.

This is about whiteness. President Obama took something that was symbolically white and gave it back to Native America. And "someday President in his mind" Donald J. Trump promises to give it back.

This is about the Doctrine Of Discovery -- that ancient principle from the dawn of the European conquest of the Americas. The Pope said that the European Christians had full power over the non-Christians they encountered in the New World. Naming mountains was the least of it.

We are asked to somehow accept a gold prospector's naming of Denali after a US political candidate as a legitimate naming exercise. By what authority? By the authority of being the first white person to suggest naming the mountain that already had a name. The authority of whiteness.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. It is possible for people who are descended from Europeans, as most UU's are, to learn to look at the world without relying exclusively on the lens of whiteness.

Denali is a beautiful mountain, named "the Great One" in the language of the human beings who have known it longest. It never needed any other name.  Our faith calls upon us to resist the power that claims the right to give it another name.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Can't Have One without the Other

The Black Lives Matter Move-ment has brought the question
white privilege to the forefront of white America's consciousness.

For most, it has been profoundly disturbing, blowing up cherished family narratives. Thinking about white privilege challenges the mythologies of US history that support the white nationalist ideology: the assumption that this country was made by and for white Europeans, while other peoples have only bit parts in our history.

The people are in the midst of intense ideological struggle, and it has implications for how every person thinks of themselves and their family and their community and their country. And so we see all these reactionary movements stirring: the intimidating gun movement, the defense of the confederacy, church-burnings, the pro-police funding campaigns which reward killer-cops, the anti-Latinx anti-immigration campaigns, even the scapegoating of foreign countries as the source of economic problems in the USA, the Trump campaign, the shrinking of the GOP to its most reactionary core.

These are all signs of how troubled the waters of white America's consciousness are. Revolution and Counter-revolution. Upsurge and Backlash. Rebellion and Repression. You can't have one without the other.

Because theology and ideology are so close, religious leaders have to be crystal clear. To see life through the lens of whiteness is idolatry; most would agree with that. But it is not clear to most that the assumptions of whiteness shape what white people think of everything else. The America that white people revere is not the same America that people of color know, and so therefore, it is not the real America. The Bible that has been read through the lens of whiteness is a distorted Bible. The Christianity practiced by white people has already lost touch with the gospel. The Unitarian Universalism of today is a pale and bleached version of what liberal religion is really. And the same could be said of music, art, yoga, and food.  To use the language of salvation, you will not be saved by your faithfulness to the forms of whiteness; you can become a citizen of Heaven's republic only by turning away from them.

The country has been here before, but the future has not happened yet. Reconstruction was defeated and Jim Crow won. The liberating movements of the 60's were turned back in the backlash of the 70's. Will this time be different?

It seems as though the movement has gotten much smarter, much more self-aware, much more steely in its resolve. It seems as though the popular and political expressions of reaction have become more childish and amateurish. Comparing the present Republican field to Nixon and Reagan brings to mind that adage that history repeats tragedy as farce.

It is a time for courage.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Black Pain -- White Distance: What Katrina taught me about myself.

The New Orleans Superdome surrounded by flooded streets.
This article makes clear the relationship between the flood in the aftermath of Katrina and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Its thesis is that African Americans were forcefully reminded that white America was largely unconcerned about their suffering. Their lives did not matter, in so many words, although Kanye West expressed at the time by saying that "George Bush does not care about Black people."

Those days brought home to me all the ways that I used to separate myself from the suffering of black people: all the mental tricks, all the ways that I turned away, all my denying and distancing habits.

This is what I preached on September 18, 2005:

Let’s start here. I suspect  that when we think about the people of New Orleans, especially the black and the poor, it takes courage to imagine ourselves in their present situation.  Imagine watching your home flooded, and that you lose almost everything you own.  Imagine making your way through the flooded streets to public stadium, where you spend days and nights, surrounded by strangers, in conditions of anarchy, with nobody in charge, nobody to keep you safe.  Imagine the fear of losing track of your children in a crowd, of becoming separated from everyone you know.  Imagine standing in a line for 24 hours waiting for a rumored bus to come, unsure as to whether you should give up your place in line to go to the bathroom. Imagine watching the patients and staff of Tulane University being evacuated, while the patients of the public hospital were told to wait.  Imagine being turned back by armed policemen when you try to walk across a highway bridge toward dry land.  Imagine coming the suspicion that your government had abandoned you and was leaving you to die, just as the government had to hundreds of black men during the floods during the 20’s. 

It is terrifying to try to imagine yourself, you, your spouse, your children, those children we so lovingly send out of here on Sunday morning, your mother, your father helpless and infirm.

I can hardly grasp such terror and such pain.  

Here is my confession.  

It is calming to think that those people are somehow more used to suffering, that they are tougher than we are, less sensitive, that somehow the experiences that they have gone through in these past three weeks have not hurt them the way that they would hurt us. I  can pity them; I  can want to have mercy upon them, I want to help them, but it very  painful to imagine myself in their situation.  To calm my panic, and to soothe my pain, I entertain the racist thought that somehow they are different than me. I do not think that I am alone in this.

 And because we cannot, we will not, fully imagine ourselves in their situation, we find their anger unfathomable.  Kanye West, a popular recording artist, says that he thinks George Bush does not care about black people.  Oh me O My.  People are shocked.  How could he think that?  If our moral imaginations were not stunted by the effects of racism, No, let me say it this way, if our moral imaginations were not tranquillized by the narcotic of racism, we might understand how such a conclusion would make perfect sense to him.