Sunday, October 07, 2007

Further on Communion

I included Levertov poem in the UUCF communion (previous post) for a reason: because it speaks to the skeptic in all of us who questions the morality of God who allows the innocent to suffer etc.

I think that this is an important question for many UU's. The poem is about the necessity of confronting the reality of suffering before it can be moved beyond, or redeemed. For over 10 years, I have reading and re-reading this poem because it shows, but does not explain, the redemption of suffering without explaining it.

The reality of the world is that there is much unjust suffering, some at the hands of human beings and some at the hands of fate.

Somehow, that suffering can, in some situations, be redeemed: creating compassion in others, gratitude. Witness the many nurses who deal with death and suffering all the time, but become even more compassionate as a result, and not more callous, which might well be a more probable result. The fact is that some suffering is redeemed -- Mandela comes out of prison not seeking vengeance -- people forgive their parents' shortcomings and even cruelty and are better parents to their children. Why does this happen some of the time and not all of the time? There is no adequate explanation for it, but that is the reality we are dealing with.

The communion story is one that says that God is present in the redemption of suffering.

I don't think (nor do I think I have ever preached) that God is in the suffering.
I don't think (not do I think I have ever preached) that believing that God is present in the redemption of suffering causes more suffering; that would be like thinking that ambulances cause heart attacks and life-threatening accidents.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

There has been some discussion on blogs and email lists about this poem that I read at the UUCF communion service in Portland, OR this spring. Much has been said about its content and tone. Read it for yourself.

Denise Levertov

St. Thomas Didymus

In the hot street at noon I saw him
a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd's buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teethgnashing son,

and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,

and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tightdrawn question,
Why,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
no one
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
the swift
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
Despite
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
known
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man --
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me --
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn't thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life

But when my hand
led by His hand's firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Democrats Debate

Watching the Democrats debate last night, two thoughts:

1. the reasons why the YouTube format worked, and I think it did, is not because the candidates cannot dodge the questions raised by ordinary people, while they can snow the professional media better. The reason is that ordinary people, even internet savvy geeks, ASK BETTER QUESTIONS than our shallow media personalities. People ask about actual issues; media types ask about candidates reactions to premises created by shallow media stories.

If CNN/NBC/Fox/ABC/etc. ask the questions, they come up with questions like this: "Senator Edwards, given the stories about your haircut costing $400, how will you overcome the perception that your concern about poverty is only a campaign ploy?"

Actual people might ask something like: "Hey how about some help down here?"

Anderson Cooper always kept trying to bring the candidates back to the question asked. Anderson should butt out, once in a while. The idea that the news departments of the networks somehow have the authority to referee the dialogue between candidates and voters is laughable.
Second thought:

Seems like there is a weird mismatch between candidate's positioning on Iraq and strategies for ending the war. It's a mismatch between past, present and future.

Obama Barack wants everybody to know that he opposed the war before Hilary Clinton. I have said this before and will say it again. What Hilary Clinton, John Kerry and John Edwards thought about the war in 2003 and 2003 was completely irrelevant. The President had a solid majority in both houses of Congress and was planning to do to war. If Hilary had immolated herself on the Senate floor in protest, it would not have stopped him. So Obama was right back then, so what?

Right now, Obama and Hilary are in an identical spot on the strategy for ending the war, along with Dodd and Biden. Continue to vote for funding for now, while pushing other measures that will, it is hoped, bring in enough GOP votes to pass a binding timetable for withdrawal. They know that the GOP is just hoping for someone to blame the disaster of Iraq on, and to be able to pose that as stabbing the troops in the back is their best hope. The Senators are not willing to walk into that trap, but insist that some of the GOP come with them.

Kucinich and Gravel argue that Congress should just vote to cut off funds. It appears that Edwards is in a similar place, though I can't tell. Of course, they are being brave about votes that they don't have to take.

In some ways, the antiwar left candidates (K,G and maybe E) are really aiming at developing a mass movement outside the election cycle to force the Capitol Hill Democrats to have the courage to cut off the funds. Their strategy is aimed at this summer and fall, and not at the primary elections in the winter, and certainly not at winning in Fall 08.

Richardson and Biden try to distinguish themselves by having a different plan for 2009 and beyond, but like the difference between Obama and Hilary in 2003, who cares?

My own opinion on how to use one's vote and political support to bring about an end to the war is this: start talking up Ron Paul, and send him a few bucks. I think that it is a good idea for you, although I can't quite get myself to do it. Right now, Bush is able to keep enough Republicans on Capitol Hill in line with him, because it doesn't appear that the Republican base is splitting away on the war. Ron Paul is the Eugene McCarthy of 08 -- all he has to do is better than expected anywhere -- even in fundraising and home page hits -- and he sends a shiver of panic down the spine of that Republican Congress Rat who realizes that the Bush administration is a ship that it is quite possible to go down with.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Parallel Argument Fallacy

It is occasionally argued that since some of the arguments against legal recognition of polyamory sound like some of the arguments raised against same-sex marriage, and since same-sex marriage is OK, then polyamory must be OK, as well.

The arguments that were used by the GOP to argue for the impeachment of President Clinton sound like many of the arguments used today by Democrats for the impeachment of President George W. Bush. Does that mean that Bush and Clinton are the same?

Extending equal marriage rights to same-sex couples is not the same thing as extending marriage rights to groups of three or more. They are, at least, different enough to require some careful analysis and consideration.

Toward a Theology of Marriage -- Equality

I'm trying to deal with important stuff without being boring. So I am going to be much more pithy in my comments.

By nature, people are small group animals, kind of like apes. By nature, alpha males dominate the sexual system, with unlimited sexual access to females and subordinate males fight their way up the pecking order.

But people developed culture, long after our instinctual nature was set. Marriage is part of human culture and marriage system try to control, channel and direct our instincts to avoid conflict and increase chances for children's survival.

In the world of culture, ideas about marriage grow and evolve. Older systems make the old instincts of male power and dominance official; but newer systems, for a whole host of cultural reasons, move toward gender equality, mutuality and reciprocity in marriage. Old systems are systems of male ownership of women; new systems are mutual obligations.

I think that monogamy arose first as a way to limit the effects of competition among males for women (instead of the alpha male having access to all the women for the brief moment that he was king of the hill, pair-bonding was developing -- almost everybody had a sexual partner -- more sex, less fighting, with the added, but unplanned bonus, of greater genetic diversity.) But in more modern times, monogamy serves the interest of women by providing a more stable source of support for periods of pregnancy and infancy. Now, the push for monogamy is linked clearly with gender equality in those parts of the world where polygamy is culturally sanctioned.

Among heterosexuals in the West, the cultural debate is between "Promise Keepers" who want continued male dominance of the marriage and the "Equal Partners" who look toward gender equality as the underlying paradigm of the marriage.

As that strand of the Western religious tradition that is most committed to the radical equality of all souls before God, liberal religion knows where it stands in that cultural debate. We have a theological commitment, I think, to marriage as a set of mutual obligations between equal partners.

So, if you have been following these arguments about the theology of marriage I have been making, you see that I am proposing, so far:

1. marriage is not a natural act for humans, but a cultural construction which channels and directs our instincts toward socially beneficially ends.
2. The first principle we uphold is commitment, life long commitment between marriage partners. It is this principle that led to liberal religion's support of same-sex marriage.
3. The second principle is equality between marriage partners and turning away from our instincts toward male dominance.

My next post in this series will further develop my point about equality, specifically the fact that in the post-industrial West, the paradigm of domination and subordination has floated free of gender, to appear in many forms in all sorts of relationships.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Why It Matters to Unitarian Universalism

Unitarian Universalist ministers, I think we can say, led the way among clergy, toward equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. It is something that we can be proud of. We took the lead on that because of the experience of our own gay and lesbian colleagues and congregants.

I believe that this leadership gives Unitarian Universalist ministers and congregations some moral and social authority on the question of love and marriage. In some ways, we have more authority on this question than any other question. That authority is the result of our ability to see into the essence of the question of equal marriage rights and see what was most important and true: that the desire of gay men and lesbians to form permanent, faithful, lifelong bonds was as worthy and commendable as the same desires among heterosexuals, and that it was a simple matter of fairness to extend ALL of the SAME rights to gays and lesbians. We were not alone, of course, among religious leaders to see this, and we did not move in exact unison, but no other denomination was so committed, so early and with as close to unanimity.

We need to be aware of our authority on marriage as we approach the question of multi-partnered marriages. It matters to other people what we think.

Having gained some authority on love and marriage, it is inevitable that we will be the objects of other people who want to use our authority to advance their own purposes. If we accede to the passive-aggressive demands of the polyamorists, we will have given away whatever authority we have gained -- we will have been shown to more concerned about avoiding a certain kind of criticism than in thinking through the issue for ourselves.

Background to a Theology of Marriage

I think that it was in Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" that I first ran across the idea that humanity had thousands of years of existence before there was much culture, in which people acted according to their genetic code, or instincts. What we are "hard-wired" to be. He summarized what I am sure is a mixed lot of anthropological theories to the point that we, probably, functioned as a small group animal with some variation of what we see in other small group animals.

I have taken this insight as the starting point of the anthropology upon which I based my theology. Rather than starting from the position that human beings are essentially good, or human beings are essentially evil, I try to start from the point that human beings are essentially small group animals, with all the virtues and vices of small group animals. What seems to us to be best about human beings: cooperation, altruism, self-sacrifice, capacity for love, compassion are all the emotional qualities that exist within the small band. What we see as human cruelty is what is often the qualities we show to the outsiders of our small band: violence, suspicion, intolerance, murder, predatory rape.

Human beings also show a persistent tendency to create ever more complex systems and structures to avoid deadly conflict. My guess is that the development of marriage was for the purpose of avoiding the endless conflict between males for social dominance and sexual access to females. (Why am I suddenly thinking back to high school days now? But, I digress.) That it also made patriarchical inheritence of surplus wealth possible is an added bonus, h/t to Frederich Engels.

So the creation of systems to avoid conflict has created a larger and larger human community and culture, which is in conflict with our hard-wired small group loyalty. Hence most of our moral issues pit some form of "widening the circle" against some from of "smaller group loyalty".
Our biological evolution was driven by survival and brought us so far. Human beings, on a biological basis have not changed significantly in tens of thousands of years. Our cultural evolution is driven by the desire to accumulate surplus wealth and to avoid conflict, and moves very quickly. Culturally, we are very different than we were 100 years ago, much less 5000 years ago.

Religion, Philosophy and spirituality are the venues in which humanity tries to consciously grasp the meaning of our common evolution and to shape the cultural evolution that is occurring today. It is bigger than science, since it deals with the meanings we draw from reality and the moral conclusions that we draw about our actual nature, and the possibilities that humanity sees for itself.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Toward a Theology of Marriage

These are more notes toward a theology of marriage.


People are not naturally monogamous. In the state of nature, before culture, we lived as herd or pack animals with a sexual system similar to apes, chimps, horses, dogs etc. Alpha males, alpha females, subordinate males and females, unequal sexual access.

With the rise of culture and religion, people developed more ordered sexual systems, including marriages of all types. Religion is also a product of the same development and, among other purposes, provides a moral and ethical authority for the new sexual systems.

The fact that we are, by nature, one way, and have chosen, by culture, to live another way is the source of our divided selves – temptation, sin, etc.

Marriage systems keep changing to fit the needs of the culture, while retaining a moral aspect – however the marriage and sexual system changes, humanity cannot go back to the state of nature regarding sexuality, hence there will remain a moral component to thinking about sexual relationships and activities.

We live in a time of tremendous cultural upheaval – the changes in global economy, post industrialism, global urbanization etc. etc. means that much is up for grabs. This is creating a moment of creative crisis for sexual relationships and marriages as we step into uncharted territory. There is more freedom about life arrangements than ever before, and hence more potential healthy and unhealthy consequences.

The downside of the present moment is seen in a wide variety of social ills. The upside is seen in a wide variety of good things happening. It would take lifetime to list them and sort them out.

Our religious perspective, the Living Tradition of liberal Religion, has one overarching direction: the replacement of a religious and cultural systems that are based on external authority and cultural conformity with religious and cultural systems based on internal sources of authority and conscious covenant making between people. To counter the natural chaos, should people rely on coercion, or on covenants? We are heirs to a tradition that consistently reinterprets the Western religious heritage as culminating in personal freedom and covenantal community formation.

I also see signs of a return to a technologically facilitated state of nature, in which no commitments must be kept. On an individual basis, the moral self-discipline to keep commitments of sexual fidelity is constantly challenged. It feels natural and liberating to act upon all of one’s sexual desires and fantasies.

As tempting as it might be, a return to a state of nature of uncommitted sexuality would be a nightmare. The highest human potential, what we seem intended to be, is the result of the process of enculturation. Love, solidarity, empathy, compassion all grow in the cultural space created by our agreements to not just live together, but to live together in arrangements that we learn, remember, teach, pass on and make into tradition.

Because we are liberals, we take a critical view of traditions and are willing to experiment and revise them in an evolutionary process of cultural development.

We are not just “on the side of love.” We are on the side of covenanted and committed love, because we know that uncommitted love does not reach its full depth and meaning.

Our theology of marriage is that we are in favor of it, because it is the current cultural form of covenanted love. We are in favor of it for not only heterosexuals, but also gays and lesbians. My critique of our weddings is that we focus, often too much on love, and not enough on commitment. People fall "in love" all the time; we honor when they move from attraction and affection to lifelong commitment, because we know that attraction and affection are not enough to last a lifetime. More perfect love comes in the aftermath of disappointment and the temptation to quit.

When it comes to extending marriage rights to more than groups of two people, we say “no” at this time. While much of the rhetoric about polyamory is full of the language of commitment and fidelity, we are not sure at all that the small polyamory movement represents a step forward to wider forms of covenanted love, or whether it represents a step back toward the state of nature from which humanity came. The crux of the problem to me is that Polyamorists seem to claim that some people are, by nature, “poly people”, and hence, unable to make successful monogamous commitments. But, my understanding is that all of us are naturally “poly people” in that by nature, we are not monogamous. If that is true, than polyamory becomes a rationale for eroding the cultural commitment to monogamy, not just for a few, but eventually for everybody. Time will tell on where multi-partnered relationships will lead. The social and culture environment in the USA these days permits almost any sort of social experimentation.

Final theological note: I am a Christian with a modern and scientific outlook. When we look at that moment in prehistory when humanity began to create arrangements that were not instinctual, but learned and taught, one might say that it was an intervention by God, that created humanity.


One could also say that humanity projected onto the empty sky a deity who directed their activities to add weight to the traditions being created. Either way, the religious traditions have provided the moral authority behind the human culture that we create. As such, they have played reactionary and revolutionary roles at different points of history. Those religious traditions speak to the most vexing areas where we have to guard against following our instincts back to the state of nature: sexuality, money, wealth, power and violence. Christianity is a vast system which explains this contradiction in our natures, and more importantly, offers deep insight about how to live with the inevitability of failures and shortcomings, of sin.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

This is How You Say No

When the issue of Multi-partnered Relationships first surfaced among the UU's, there was a high level of consternation among the ministers I know and talk with. Somebody, probably more than one somebody, said, "the problem is that we don't know how to say 'no'." This is an observation that I have heard more than once, and about more than one issue.

The reason why I have been devoting as much time and energy to a discussion of multi-partnered relationships has been to publicly engage in the practice of saying 'no' to a group of people who are trying to set our agenda for us. The liberal tolerance of the many, combined with the fervent advocacy of a few, would result in the tail wagging the dog.

A friend comments " You are awfully brave to be banging your head against this particular brick wall, LT. And during your vacation, too!"

One, I am not on vacation, since I my arrangement is that I work in the summer.

Two, this is not a brick wall. I concede that I will probably not change the mind of one of the persons who have been advocating for polyamory. I would not expect that; after all, they have already been pushing for something that is not popular for a while. Why would my disapproval have any real effect on their thinking?

I am really trying to speak to, by presuming to speak for, the many UU's who are concerned that our religious movement will be led, almost against our will, into taking a position on a matter of public policy and social ministry that we don't agree with.

I think that the debate and discussion here has gone long enough to reveal what is at stake with the polyamorists and the reasoning at work.

On the side of the polyamorists, they argue that (1) they exist; (2) they enunciate a fully developed set of ethical principles that are attractive; (3) they suffer from some amount of social disapproval, even in our UU congregations; and (4) they think that UU's should be more welcoming to them.

They do not explicitly ask that UUs adopt a public position affirming their agreements as equivalent to marriages, but that is their what they believe. From here, it is hard to tell what is strategic caution on their part and what is truly the result of not having thought the matter to its logical conclusions.

But once our efforts to make our congregations welcoming to multiple partnered relationships leads us to say that those arrangements ought to be viewed as socially equivalent to 2 person marriages, all the rest of the journey to advocacy of their equal marriage rights is a matter of timing and circumstance. We will pass from the pastoral to territory of public ministry and social policy very quickly.

Whenever a group comes to us and seeks to engage our commitment to a particular position of public policy, we should have the integrity to insist that that request be made explicitly, and we should consider it explicitly. That the UUPA does not ask us to call for equal marriage rights for 3+ person weddings does not mean that we should not consider whether what they do ask to do will lead us to that place.

One of the ways that we have to learn how to say "No" is that we have to learn to be upfront and explicit about social policy implications of the steps that we are being asked to take, even if the issues are presented as pastoral. We have to guard that boundary ourselves, extending ourselves pastorally wherever people look to us in that role, but being clear about when it passes into another realm.

When people ask us to take a stand on social policy, the burden of proof is on them. They need to convince us that the social policy that they advocate is warranted (it addresses a real problem in the world), necessary (that the problem at hand cannot be solved by lesser or more desirable means) and responsible (the proposal does not run a significant risk of creating more problems). Most of us wish that the Congress held President Bush to these standards when he proposed to invade Iraq. (And no, I am not comparing polyamory to the invasion of Iraq!)

In this discussion, many comments accuse me of being unfair in insisting that advocates present arguments for polyamory that meet those criteria, AND demonstrate how that will work in the real world, as we know it. I am accused of holding them to a higher standard than I hold the present system. That''s the breaks, and not just because this is my blog, but because they are asking me (and us) to do something that breaks with a long-standing, and yet, beleaguered social and cultural tradition.

I have specifically rejected the arguments that proceed from a best-case-scenario. I insist that we consider the effects of the legalization of multipartnered marriages as it would actually exist in the broken world that we know. If we affirm the equivalence of 3+ person marriages, then, it follows that we will eventually be legalizing polygamy in all of its forms -- Neopagan Polyamory, Mormon and Muslim Polygamy, and all the newer forms of multipartnered relationships that include gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people.

One of the ways that you say 'No' is to retain the right to make your own judgments about the implications of a position that someone wants you to take. The advocates might want to limit the implications to only that which they approve, but we are responsible for the all of effects of our decisions. The advocates of Polyamory now say that they are quite distinct from the advocates of Open Marriage in the 70's. That is their right to maintain, but we have to retain the power to judge for ourselves what will happen if 3+ relationships are affirmed as equally valid in our congregations. Will that change lead to an environment where open marriage is then also affirmed and then swinging and then a sexualized environment? We have to decide whether we think that is possible or probable -- we are not obligated to let the advocates of polyamory decide that for us.

Finally, saying "no" also includes retaining the right to say "I don't know." One poster predicted a day will come 50 years from now when my concerns will be seen as a petty obstacle to the eventual emergence of a society in which many-partnered relationships are seen as normal. I suppose I will be an object of as much contempt as we have for politicians who denounced race-mixing and feared the mongrelization of the white race in the past. This is a hard thing to imagine about oneself. I am already carrying the burden of eating meat, which I am also told will be considered outrageous a hundred years from now. And I am a trying to be a Christian, too. Talk about quaint.

But as frightening as those possibilities are for my future reputation, I don't think that we know enough to say that multi-partnered relationships are the wave of the future. If they are, it does not depend on UUism affirming them, any more that the hundreds of thousands long-term gay partnerships did. I have been watching for signs that M-PR's are a growing trend that brings health and stability to families and communities -- that they are, indeed, the new thing that will arise to address the epidemic of broken marriages, fatherless children, abandoned single mothers, and sexual acting out that are the symptoms of the crisis of marriage in our culture. If they do appear to be that new thing, then I will change my mind. Those who know me personally know that I am willing to recognize when I am wrong. But I have not seen that yet.

And so I have to say "I don't know" and in the absence of knowing, I think that it is proper to say that we oppose giving up the struggle to challenge people to make commitments of love and fidelity to one person, and to face down the myriad temptations to betray those commitments, and to let deeper love flower in the space and time created by those commitments.

And finally learning how to say no means that you accept the inevitable result that some people will think that you are bigoted, prejudiced, ultra-conservative, the same as Pat Robertson, or James Dobson. They will make historical analogies in which you are compared to some really awful persons in history. This is hard to take, because the great sin in UU circles is to "be on the wrong side of history." But we always face that possibility. It would mean that one could see everything all at once to never make that error, and that is reserved to God. We can only use all of our faculties to do what we are given to see to do.

Just in Case you Miss the Point

Trivium condescends and plunges to the depths of my soul.

Sorry, I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to have a serious relationship to anything difficult: race, sex, class, sexual orientation issues, marriage issues, or with anyone different than myself, I would have to conquer my fear of being called a bigot.

That didn't take long

In a recent post, I compared the best-case-scenario argument that some Multi-Partnered Relationship advocates make to the argument that the kind of argument that anti-gun control advocates make when they say that lots of people should carry guns, but they should all be well-versed in gun safety and law-abiding.

Of course, now someone is claiming that I have compared the sweet and healing love of poly relationships to loaded guns, weapons of destruction.

I am comparing the kinds of arguments being made, not the substance of the arguments, as a careful reader will readily see.

There are none so prone to see offense in the comments of others as those whose argument depends on being seen as a victim. It is an essential feature of the passive-aggressive stance that the MPR advocates are taking relative to the Unitarian Universalist movement. Prove to us that you are not bigoted and prejudiced against us! And the only way to prove that is to agree to our central claim, which we have not otherwise proven, that multi-partnered relationships are morally equivalent to two person monogamy.

Don't Bring that Bogus Game into My House

Having read over the many contributions and comments on Multi-Partnered Relationships that have come in, I want to repeat this.

I am not persuaded at all by arguments that work from a best case scenario. I am especially not persuaded by a personal testimonial which leads to a best case scenario to a conclusion that there could be no social danger from abandoning our cultural standard of monogamous fidelity in marriage. To me the argument is like this:

We keep loaded guns in every room of the house where we also run our day care center. However, we have all taken numerous gun safety courses and have instructed our children in gun safety practices. We are also Quakers and don't believe in violence and never get angry with each other over anything. We have lived our lives with loaded guns in the playrooms for years and have never had a problem. We think that it should be OK for anyone who wants to keep loaded guns in the nursery, because it has worked so well for us.

If you tell me that X number of children die from accidental gunshot wounds every year, then all I can say is that you are not talking about a situation that has any relevance to me, because we have all had gun safety courses and are Quakers. If you say that X number of spouses shoot each other with guns that they have around the house because a certain son-of-a-bitch never picked up his socks, then I don't see the relevance of that story to me because we are Quakers and we don't wear socks anyway.


Since we are good people, what we do is good, and therefore those same actions will be good no matter who does them. The same actions that result in undesirable results are not really the same actions, since they must have been done by bad people.

The argument that Multi-partnered relationships would decrease adultery because everyone who wants to have sex with more than one person would get themselves into a covenanted, faithful arrangement where all their needs would be met -- likewise a bogus argument that is based on a idealized premise.

Monday, July 09, 2007

SICKO and a health care reform Primer.

I saw Michael Moore's SICKO last night and it is good movie, well worth seeing.

I had the good fortune to work for a Benefits Consulting company during the early 90's when Health Care Reform was proposed by the Clintons. Not only did the company prepare daily briefings for our employer clients about all of the aspects of the health care reform process and the politics of it, they made these available on our PROFS internal email system for any associate who wanted to read them. So, even though I was a low level manager of computer operators, I had the opportunity to read these daily briefings. For months, I was hooked on them, partly because I am a political junkie and wonk, but because my job did not fully challenge my intellect.

There will be a lot of discussion about health care reform after SICKO.

Some things to know and remember.

There are basically four sectors of the Health Care Industry: The Insurance Companies (Moore's target), the Providers (Doctors and Hospitals), the Government (which pays for much health care through Medicare and Medicaid) and the Drug Companies.

You can tell the power relationships between these four sectors by looking at their comparable profitability. One of ways that the government generated a surplus in the 90's was that they reduced Medicare and Medicaid payments to Providers. Not surprisingly, many of the Providers had very thin margins during this period.

Insurance Companies and Providers fight every day over money. They deploy teams of progammers to code programs to look for reasons in bills to deny payment, or to prepare bills that have every "i" dotted and "t" crossed to make them undeniable. As much as Moore tees off against the Insurance companies, before the Insurance companies came along, the Providers and Doctors ruled and profited. When Medicare was first established, and the government basically paid for anything billed, the providers gorged on free government money. There are still billions of dollars being falsely billed to the government by providers for Medicare and Medicaid.

The Clinton plan was to use the Insurance Companies as a check against the Providers, much as the current system does. The difference was that their plan would have made it possible for individual consumers to have a much wider choice of insurance companies to enroll in, and to set standards that each insurance company had to meet -- no disqualification for pre-existing conditions etc. The thought was the that the if any insurance company was too stingy with benefits, they would lose enrollees to less stingy plans. Not surprisingly, the leading opponents of the Clinton plan were the smaller insurance companies who realized that they could not compete against the largest companies for individuals. They had carved out a profitable niche offering crummy insurance plans to small employers at cut-rates who gave them to employees on a take it or leave it basis. (One of those companies, Golden Rule Insurance Company of Indianopolis, devised a high deductible plan at a low cost, which they said would be the basis of a Health Savings Account. They sold this plan to the Republican Party as the panacea of all health care problems with an unprecedented wave of campaign contributions. If Moore's movie sparks a renewed debate on health care reform, expect to hear "Health Savings Accounts" touted by your local lovable conservative Republican as the great alternative. They are not.)

The Drug Companies are the most profitable sector right now and are essentially unchecked. Eventually, the Democrats will enable the Government to negotiate prices for the Medicare drug benefits, which will shift money from the drug companies to the government.

Right now, providers are chafing under the domination of the Insurance companies. They will be supportive of a single payer system, but will not want an British style system where they work for the government.

There are three or four options of Health Care Reform.

The first is universal health care insurance. They figure out a way to get the 40-50 million people the same crummy insurance that SICKO documents.

The second is a Clinton type system, where they establish a competitive system which should correct the abuses of the insurance companies.

The third is a single payer system, which would essentially put everyone on Medicare. The govenment pays for it all. It puts the Health insurance companies out of business, which requires a determined political will of tidal wave proportions. They will not go quietly. The other problem is controlling costs -- do you let the providers just bill for anything they want?

The fourth is truly socialized medicine, with a government health service. Not only do you put the health insurance companies out of business, you also get the medical community to limit their potential earnings dramatically. It would probably take air power and sustained counterinsurgency campaigns to wipe out the last remaining hold out cosmetic surgeons in Beverly Hills.

Maybe, SICKO will start a real discussion toward fixing this. The one thing that has always stopped health care reform in the past has been that there has not been a mass movement of people demanding a better health care system. If during the Clinton era, there had been marches and demonstrations of the uninsured demanding insurance, it might have ended differently. Moore gives a human face to those who suffer with the current system, and when we/they stand up, the world will change.

What makes a Person a Poly Person?

Many marriages in recent decades have ended because one partner or the other acknowledged that they were, by nature, gay or lesbian. Often part of the process that led to that acknowledgment was sexual activities that violated the marriage vows of sexual fidelity. As a general rule, many consider these vow breaking acts to be less of a betrayal than heterosexual adultery, because it is understood that the marriage vows were in some way less than fully binding because they contradicted one of the party's basic nature. We now presume that gay or lesbian sexuality is part of someone's nature, whatever that is. One can't be expected to keep a vow that contradicts one's basic nature.

Many of the arguments that the affirmation of multi-partnered relationships is warranted, necessary and socially beneficial include the notion that some people are "poly people" and that to expect a "poly person" to uphold monogamous marriage vows is like asking a gay person to uphold monogamy with an opposite sex partner; it can be done, but only at great cost and difficulty.

Floating the meme that some people are naturally "poly people" into the culture sets loose a ready-made excuse for all sorts of adultery. My mother asks "What if every person caught in adultery can point to the fact that they is coming to grips with his/her essential poly nature, and hence this affair, while regrettable, is as understandable as Jake and Ennis' fishing trips on Brokeback Mountain?"

It matters whether this "poly" sexuality is a real thing, just as it matters that our scientific understanding of gay and lesbian sexuality points to a real difference. Yet, is there any real scientific evidence that "poly" sexuality is real?

My suspicion is that human beings are neither monogamous or polygamous by nature, but are so, by culture. Certainly, by nature, humans beings are capable of, and desire, sexual relations with many different people. Cultural rules and standards say that some desires can be appropriately acted upon, and others cannot.

In the absence of any real evidence of natural difference, we can only conclude that people who are "poly" are proposing a different set of cultural rules that govern our sexual behavior. To make that argument that they are compelled to a different set of rules because they are, by some nature, different, is a deception, first of themselves and then of others. Cultural rules based on that kind of deception, and false understanding of human beings, will fail and cause more harm than any good they might do.

And the immediate harm will be setting up another reason why it is somehow acceptable to violate one's vows of fidelity in marriage. In a culture already awash in infidelity, suspicions, jealousy, controlling abuse, and the abandonment of single mothers and children by fathers, creating specious justifications for adultery is socially irresponsible.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

In defense of my mother

I have been away from my computer for 24 hours, but am working through the comments about multi-partnered relationships, and will post on the arguments that I think merit further discussion soon.

But before I begin on that, let me clarify my comment that I think of my mother's advice on "what if everybody did it?" to this question.

I follow this logical path.

Assuming that I have been discussing Chris, Pat and Lou who are members of my church and in a multi-partnered relationship, and beyond saying that they seem like nice people who are performing no harmful acts and good manners suggest that we not make a lot of judgments about things not our business, but go on to say, "Multi-partnered relationships are, in general, just as good as two person relationships."

To me, and permit me to think like a minister now, it follows that if Chris, Pat and Lou want to perform an unofficial "wedding" or "Union" ceremony, then I should perform it. And I am aware that when I perform an unofficial ceremony that looks like a wedding, I am making a public statement that I believe that the relationship in question should be, as a matter of public policy, able to receive marriage rights. I think that everyone understood that every same sex ceremony of union service is a symbolic call for equal marriage rights.

If you believe that multi-partnered relationships should be given equal marriage rights as two-person marriages, then it doesn't mean that you get to pick the composition and terms of those marriages beyond the minimal age restrictions we know place. My mothers question in my mind on this is "What if any group of three people want to get married?"

It means that the laws against polygamy must be abolished. How can UU triads be given marriage rights and not Mormans and Muslims? It means that marriages in which new and younger women are brought into the marriage on a serial basis, with the oldest wife's consent, must be legalized. It means that no standard that we would like to think of being essential -- careful negotiation, mutuality, egalitarianism, gender equality -- can be applied, unless we have the means to apply them equally to all marriages. It means, to be snarky, that we are in favor of multi-partnered relationships having equal marriage rights even if the people involved have never been in an OWL class.

Once I make the statement that multi-partnered relationships are in theory morally equivalent to 2 person relationships, I step beyond the pastoral (where my care for people does not presume approval of what they are doing in every aspect of their lives) into public ministry, where I am advocating public policy, where what I advocate will be operative not in some ideal world, but the world in which we actually live, with the human beings we actually see around us.

I have exactly the same problem with "assisted suicide". You say to me, "why can't it be legal for a member of my congregation -- well-educated, moral, loving, conscientious -- help his terribly suffering father take the pills that will end his life with dignity?" You offer a best case scenario. My mother asks "what if everybody could do that?" In this world, where we live, society does not protect elders from physical abuse and neglect in private homes and nursing homes around the country. And you want to give out the right to give fatal overdoses to their parents on an equal basis to all adult children of elderly parents? It is not enough to say that we give those rights only to people who follow the letter of the law about where and when and what conditions. We have laws against physical abuse and neglect of elders now -- we just can't enforce them, even in nursing homes which are publicy regulated, much less in private homes.

We live in a world where domestic violence, the coercion of women, the rape of underage female children by family members, sexual abuse of all types are occurring -- most of it stemming from the sense of entitlement given to husbands and fathers.

When you ask me as a minister to say, because it will make Chris and Pat and Lou, feel really welcomed and affirmed, that Multi-partnered relationships are just as socially beneficial and useful and moral as two person marriages, this is where I have to go in my thinking.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Starting a Discussion about Multi-partner relationships

Voicing the suspicion that the Independent Affiliate disaffiliation has actually been an institutional and administrative dodge to the question of polyamory and the UUPA has, as could be expected, kicked off a discussion of the same subject on this blog. So be it.

Some of where I am coming from.

1. Monogamy has been the norm in this culture for a long time. It is a restraint in that it does not come easily to everyone. It chafes. It calls for self-discipline.
2. Other cultures practice various forms of polygamy, and that is usually to the detriment of women. How this works out in the new global culture coming is anyone's guess.
3. There has been, also, a bohemian rebellion against monogamy among the more privileged sets for quite a while under a variety of names: free love, open marriage, and now "polyamory". Polyamory is a neologism -- a new and made up word which carries within itself a loaded message. Who is against more and many loves? The question is not how many people we love, but how we structure our relationships.

In my view, those who advocate Multi-Partnered Relationships are proposing a significant change in the way that our culture has understood the bonds and covenants that make families. Changes in those norms have occurred in the recent past: the widespread acceptance of divorce, the widespread acceptance of pre-marital sex, the still-unfolding movement to legally recognize two-person same-sex relationships as legally and morally equivalent to heterosexual unions. So, a further change is being proposed.

Should Unitarian Universalism support and advocate for this far-reaching change in the cultural mores of the society who looks to us for guidance about these matters? And we do have some cultural authority on these matters of sexuality. We have shown to have a pretty good grasp of what is not only good for individuals, but also healthy for the society, in these areas over the last half century, with one exception. Our experiments with "open marriage" in the 60's-70's proved to be not prophetic of a liberated future, but an exercise in self-indulgence.

I believe that those who propose changing our collective position on two-person marriage bear the burden of proof that such a change is warranted, necessary, and socially responsible. One of my tests is a question that my mother used to ask me when she objected to some aspect of my behavior, "What if everybody did that?" It is that test which separates the self-indulgent from the socially responsible policies.

The advocates of multi-partnered relationships within the UUA have taken a passive-aggressive stance toward the association, its churches and especially its ministers. Rather than trying to demonstrate that the widespread, and eventual, legal recognition of multi-partnered relationships is warranted, necessary and socially responsible, they have asked UU's to prove that they are not prejudiced, ignorant and backward by advocating for them. Their most specific request, when you get right down to it, is that UU ministers protect them from the potential disapproval of other congregants. Nothing stops multi-partnered folks from joining our congregation -- I have never heard of them being denounced or condemned by any church body or official or minister -- nothing stops them from being as open as they wish about their relationships -- except that they are fearful that many of their fellow congregants would disapprove.

They have adopted the stance that the potential disapproval of their fellow congregants is a prejudice against them, similar to homophobia, or racism. But there is no convincing evidence offered that being in a multi-partnered relationship is anything other than a choice that they have made. Republicans, gun-owners, and drivers of Hummers also claim to be victims of prejudice in UU congregation, but having to live with the fact that some people will disagree with the choices you have made does not constitute prejudice.

The shaky claim to being the victim of prejudice is the defining characteristic of a passive-aggressive stance toward others, because it shifts the burden of resolving the difference to the other party. Prove to me that you are not prejudiced against me.

Read the comments on the blog post where this has arisen and see that almost every pro-polyamory posting starts with an accusation of prejudice, immaturity, ignorance, suspicion and uptightness. Round two starts with the concern that failing to respond properly to the suggestion that one is prejudiced shows one's defensiveness and anger. To which I say, "Don't play that game in my house."

I invite comments that seek to demonstrate that the widespread and eventual legal recognition of multi-partnered relationships is warranted (solves a real problem), necessary (no other path will correct existing problems) and socially responsible (will increase the stability of families for the benefit of children, women and the social order.)

Guest Posting from Robert Jordan Ross

A report from a meeting held at GA which indicates Meadville Lombard's plans for the future in the new and unsettled field of Unitarian Universalist Theological Education. I pass it along as a way to provide a forum for discussion about that subject. My thoughts and approach in a separate post.

Power, centralized? [Written 23 June, A.D. 2007]

I was a guest today at perhaps the best development presentation I have
have ever witnessed. The leaders of Meadville Lombard Theological School
(MLTS) held a breakfast presentation at the Doubletree Hotel in
Portland, Ore. Although it was at 7:00 a.m., a large banquet hall was
nearly filled. The program began on time, with excellent singing, clear
words of welcome, a good invocation and a step-by-step message of the
school's planned future. Interspersed video presentations gave life to
it all and the morning closed with a request for pledges that left most
of us wanting to sign the family farm away to them.

All this was one event at the General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian
Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA). Most such conventions
are occasions by many groups for fund raising. The morale is high, the
sense of being strong is present with perhaps five thousand four hundred
people attending, and there's an exhilaration in the air, a confidence
in our future.

Listening carefully is important. Subtexts of messages are as important
in some cases as the primary words themselves. Here are some of the
things I think I heard at the breakfast presentation:

1) The goal of our liberal religion is to be a primary and effective
political influence worldwide. [This is similar to the statements in the
newly begun The Time is Now campaign being run by the UUA.] Through our
understanding of religious and cultural diversity and our training in
working with this melange, we will be able to influence the directions
that humans as a whole take, moving them into adopting ways consistent
with our collective take on justice and equity in human relations.

2) Thomas Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) in Berkeley Calif.
was invited to discuss ways of 'cooperation' with Meadville. They have
chosen, for now, not to pursue that further. MLTS wishes them well and
is surging forward. There may be no SKSM in three decades if MLTS
succeeds in becoming, as I believe I heard said, The Center for
theological training and development for the UUA. Harvard Divinity
School, as a University school, is outside this realm of parochial
training,

3) A Chicago Alderman is dealing with MLTS with regard to making
'available' a larger piece of land than the school now has. MLTS would
move from the center of the University to a location south of The Midway
at the edge of the black community. This would serve to increase MLTS's
knowledge of and skill at dealing with diverse peoples.

4) Much money will be needed, perhaps some $30,000,000, to meet these
goals. More than a million has been pledged or given thus far.

Beyond what I think I heard, there are implications of this that are
interesting, I think that some of these might be:

a) The now 39 year old pattern of encouraging all new theological
students, from UU schools and from a diverse range of schools to get on
the track for coming into our ministry may be sidetracked. The older
pre-1968 pattern, of shepherding and supporting just those going to
'our' schools and asking the others to apply for fellowship when they're
ready to graduate might be re-introduced. The development of a well
regulated training center would encourage consistent education.
Diversity, especially Christian theological education, might be sharply
reduced.

b) The ethos of the New Theological Center and the UUA might be more in
line with one another. The core interests would perhaps be less the
congregations, and more the overarching purpose of what is increasingly
being referred to as "our movement".

c) MLTS cooperation with the City of Chicago might be seen as being in
conflict with our opposition to faith based initiatives.

d) The perhaps $600,000 annually available through the UUA for
theological development, which goes now, and is planned to go in the
future as well, to students from different locations, might be
concentrated for study at MLTS and continue this way, with none of the
70% attending Christian or University schools benefiting appreciably
from it.

Overall, one is reminded that power is the enemy of diversity in so many
instances. [Democrats tend usually to be united in their national goals,
Republicans usually at odds with one another. Democrats are better at
controlling diversity.] From a UU Christian standpoint, this might not
have too erosive an effect on UU Christian ministry and theology, since
the preferences at MLTS and SKSM have long been pointed away from that
direction. But the concentration of attention and effort on a single
emerging school could make graduates of Union, Claremont, Andover-Newton
(currently this school has our largest UU student body) and other
schools feel more like step-children than 'joint heirs with Christ of
the Kingdom'.

N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, England, is fond of saying that realizing
and using our freedom are the two greatest gifts of a life lived in
Christ. So how can we ensure that we can help MLTS and SKSM, our
ministerial candidates and our churches without compromising our liberty
-- and our fairness.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Heretics long ago, but now, not so much

Is Unitarian Universalism heretical in any real sense today?

Unitarianism and Universalism were originally defined by "heretical" doctrines: anti-trinitarianism and universal salvation. And during the 19th century especially, the disputes between the heretical Unitarians and the heretical Universalists against the orthodox were potent and real issues.

But one of the consequences of modernism is that almost all of Christianity has made the move that Tillich made in that Christian doctrines are now understood to be not as actual descriptions of physical and historical realities, but as a set of metaphors which are interpreted as describing the existential realities of human life. Almost all Christians understand almost all doctrines as subject to existential and psychological reinterpretation.

The liberal and mainline Protestant churches are quite open about what they are doing. And even among the Barthian proclamationists, there lurks the same remove from actual reality. The differences between the liberal Christian and the fundamentalist Christian is that the Liberal says, "Let us live as we though believe that these doctrines are true" and the Fundementalist, "Let us speak, think and act so convincingly that we believe that these doctrines are true, that we ourselves and others forget that they are not."

Back to Unitarian Universalism: if all doctrine is being existentially and pyschologically reinterpreted in a creative, current process, does our supposed differences with Christian orthodoxy matter anymore?

For example, suppose one were to reinterpret the divinity of Jesus as a metaphor for the divinity of all humanity -- it is a quite modern and liberal statement to say that "all are children of God". Does that "all" include Jesus of Nazareth? Is it our position that all men are the sons of God, except Jesus of Nazareth?

Or, to work the other side of the street: If we reinterpret salvation as coming into a healed relationship with God and others and the self, in this world, in this history, does it make any sense to say that "all are saved?" Obviously, there are many people who will not come into that healing? If we make our own heavens and hells, then it is pretty obvious that it is not true that there is "no hell."

What I am saying is that in the current theological climate, any aspect of doctrine, or any Biblical truth, can be and will be creatively reinterpreted to speak to any aspect of our shared existential realities. Almost every sort of Christian preacher does so routinely. UU's, to the extent that they deal with Christian, Jewish or biblical themes, do not do so much differently. We are not, in practice, very heretical, or more precisely, our old heresies matter less than we think they do.

It would be subject for another post, but I think that much of the Christian world also agrees with us that all world religions are cultural productions of particular cultural circumstances, and that no religion is more true than the others. We differ from others in that we are more willing to modify our liturgy and worship practices to reflect this reality.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The most obvious theory about the IA mystery and what it means

One thing that Gini said at the meeting was that the UUA board did not want to have to ride herd on 60+ IA's, and so it would be a good thing if there was a Council of Theologically based Organizations to handle its own membership requirements. In other words, the proposed Council could decide who was in and who was out.

A long time ago, a friend of mine, who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons, and I had a good laugh about starting a UU affiliate of Devil Worshippers, complete with our story of exclusion and oppression by mainstream religion, to satirize what we saw as the UU inability to set any sort of boundaries. (We even had a name, "the LUUciferians"). We abandoned the plan because we were afraid that no one would get the joke. (And we hadn't been through the MFC yet.)

Well, apparently, the Council of Theologically Based Organizations will be the body to guard the door against the LUUciferians.

Now, the recurring suspicion is that all of this is the Board's response to the UU's for Polyamory Awareness. (They can disband, they have met their goal in that all of us are aware of Polyamory, even though we are now pretending that it does not enter our thoughts or considerations at all. And that it certainly has nothing to do with whole question.)

Oh, another clue! Gini said at our meeting, to answer the critique that this was a sudden thing, that the board had been working on the new IA policy ever since the Long Beach Convention. The Long Beach convention was the height of our collective Polyamorous Awareness. Much hand wringing.

OK, let's just stipulate, for the sake of argument, what all the cynics say: that the IA mystery is really quite simple. It is the way to set up a structural block to having to say "yes" to an application from UU's for Polyamory Awareness.

There is no evidence which contradicts that theory.

But consider the implications of it being true.

It means that our elected leadership is not being honest with us.

It means that the elected leadership is finessing and not confronting an issue that is right before us -- an issue that is not only significant for Unitarian Universalism institutionally, but is actually right below the surface of our culture. The issue arises out of the cultural redefinition of marriage that our congregations have been closely associated with for years, long before same sex marriage was ever an issue. UU ministers did lots of marriages for people who could not remarry in the Roman Catholic Church after a divorce; our acceptance of divorced people as not "less than" is a longstanding tradition.

We have been in the conversation about marriage for a long time. And we should think about whether the recognition of polyamorous relationships is good ministry. And I think that we have the moral authority to address that question in way that can lead the culture.

But our UUA board apparently prefers to not address the issue. And so a whole tissue of evasions, false flags, misapplied principles, bureaucratic and administrative doublespeak and other forms of timorous gumwaddery is packed into the already ponderous machinery of our internal discourse.

We deserve better than that. Religious movements grow and prosper through the process of continuous self-definition in the rapidly changing cultural environment in which they find themselves. If they can discern properly what is essential and permanent to themselves and what is transitory, they can lead others. That is what the culture is calling for from us: what are the essential purposes of marriage, of covenants between persons, for children and for the stability of the social order? If we don't have something to say, who does? And if we are divided and disunited on what to say in this moment, wouldn't you rather have that discussion than go to interminable meetings of the Council of Hyphenated UU's and their role in the Lowest Common Denomination?

The Independent Affiliate mystery deepens

Along with a couple of other leaders of the UUCF, I went to a networking discussion convened by Gini Courter, UUA Moderator, about the Independent Affiliate question. Also at the meeting were leaders of the UU Buddhist Fellowship, one or more the Humanist organization, a leader of CUUPS, a leader of UU for Jewish Awareness, some from the Psi Symposium and a leader of the newish Mystics group.

While the Board was not meeting to vote on most of our IA statuses, it was pretty clearly telegraphed that they would be denied. And it was made abundantly clear that the meeting did not have the purpose of discussing, defending, justifying, or explaining those pending decisions of the Board. In fact, Gini Courter made it clear that given the demands on her time at GA, just convening this meeting was a powerful act of generosity and graciousness.

I like Gini Courter and think that she is doing a good job. Sometimes doing so requires a significantly greater degree of intentionality than other times, but I do my best.

So, without that discussion, clues as to the actual real motivation behind the decision to cull the herd of IA's were not thick on the ground.

Gini's strong suggestion was that we in that room ought to join ourselves into an umbrella organization and apply as that body as an IA. (Various names for such a group have been suggested by wags and visionaries since: my suggestion was that it would be called, "the amalgamated organization of hyphenated, and therefore, not real, UU's" Excessively snarky, I suppose. Another person, much wiser, suggested calling ourselves "The Council of the Sources" which has some real merit.) Gini seemed to think that this organization of organizations could play a positive role in providing some of the content for lay theological education.

But why cull the herd of IA's if that is the goal? The UUA could fund and encourage IA's developing materials for lay theological education in the current situation if they want to.

Another point was made that many of the IA's do the same kind of work, and so could benefit from consolidation in that it would reduce duplication of effort. A parallel was drawn between the many IA's devoted to political or social causes, which could benefit from "making connections between contradictions" as we used to say, back in the day. But providing specifically Jewish, or Humanist, or Pagan or Christian content is not an interchangeable function, done by the interchangeable people.

And why does the Board care if IA's are duplicating efforts between themselves and not being maximally efficient with our resources? Don't they have enough to do managing the UUA itself?

These supposed benefits of consolidating the theologically based IA's into one body may or may not be true, but I think that it is clear that they are not the Board's underlying motive, which has still not been explained.

The UUCF will survive and thrive no matter what its official status is. I raise this issue, and raise it again and again, because of the lack of honesty and transparency that surrounds this issue. It is a mystery, and there should not be this kind of mystery at all.

Friday, June 15, 2007

It really happened

So, I am presiding over a religious service at GA this year. And my lovely and faithful co-officient is a well-known blogger famous for her savvy advice about fashion, beauty and the importance of making the small sacrifice of looking like a religious leader.
So I mention that we will be robing for this event, inasmuch as it is a religious service. She says, in that little voice "Do I have to?" Sigh. Another Sigh. O, I guess so."
I swear it really happened. If I hadn't summoned a semi-stern look, but told her that a stole, a mu-mu and some crocs would have been OK, I think that she would have gone for it.
The meaning that I draw from this tale is: we all struggle with temptation, even those who lead.

Mercy Mercy Mercy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Don't try this at home

Michael O'Hare, at a site I like to read "The Reality Based Community" hits the perfect level of sarcasm in this post about today's political/media climate.

Once upon a time, people made their own music in their living rooms with friends, or went out in the park to throw a ball around. The music they made required a lot of practicing and was still never really good; no-one I knew could play any ball game as well as even a middle-rank NFL player. Now, thank God, we have a few certified specialist experts making wonderful music for our iPods, and playing superb ball for us all to watch, and we can do it alone, which saves no end of taking care of other people's feelings. How could anyone want the art, or sports, of a great nation to be mostly made ineptly, by anyone and everyone, taking a lot of time that could be spent on the job? Surely it's better for all of us to leave this kind of thing to the few stars who are better than we could ever be. Kids used to have to make their own stuff with blocks, and pretend a rag doll was crying, laughing, talking, etc., but now every kid can have brightly colored, really complicated electronic toys that each do one amazing thing as soon as the batteries are put in, toys that are made by real professional designers and engineers instead of clueless six-year-olds. How are kids supposed to know when a doll should cry? With today's toys, they don't have to.

In politics, opinions and judgments made by amateurs, looking with untrained eyes at actual phenomena, are as bad as the home-made piano-playing we used to suffer. Why would we do this when we have famous and (usually) attractive people to do that for us? A few paid professional conservatives and liberals can give their tribes really good opinions, cunningly packaged in quick witty hits with super production values. It's just truculent and wilful to want to read a book, or watch a debate, when real pros have already done that so much better than we can, and are happy to give us really excellent opinions and judgments. Why would anyone want to hear views about the surge, or Social Security, from some friend who's not at all famous, badly lit, unrehearsed, with home-made makeup - or none! - and with some random office or restaurant background and dirty dishes on the table?



Friday, June 08, 2007

Phil is perceptive again but what is next?

Philocrites puts a name to the long standing "parties" in UU politics: the "denominationalists" and the "congregationalists." These have been evident to me ever since I came back into Unitarian Universalism in 1989, after a 20 year absence. But this understanding of the competing groups is an elaboration and outgrowth of older contradictions.
I rejoice in the apparent victory of the "congregationalists". I think that it is super that the Board, the officers and the staff now remember that the role of the association is to serve the congregations. I have been pleased to see that the Commission on Social Witness process gives much, much, much more weight to the participation of congregations in developing our public stances and public ministry.
What comes next? Two things: one is looking beneath the rhetoric to where the power actually goes as processes change. The second is understanding how "congregationalism" means empowering the lay leaders of congregations in the national sphere vs. developing the leadership in the national sphere of the ministers of successful congregations. The rhetoric of "congregationalism" could and does mean both and either.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

One meaning of the Independent Affiliate mystery

Henceforth, all things, great and small, done in the world of official Unitarian Universalism will be done in the name of the "congregations." Just as every time the Secretary of State goes to a Mideastern capital, they do so "to advance the peace process", so will all decisions be done to "serve the congregations."

The disaffiliation of Independent Affiliates is between the UU Board and the Independent Affiliates. The concrete resource in contention comes down to the presumptive program slot that an IA has at the General Assembly. Just below the surface is the ability of an organization to claim some sort of official relationship with the UUA simply by mailing in a few words and a hundred bucks. The Board realized that was an invitation to potential embarrassment, a wise perception.

But I cannot see for the life of me how the congregation I serve has a dog in that fight.

Congregational Power has been on the banner of most of the people who have been critical of the path of the Unitarian Universalist Association since shortly after merger. This loyal opposition was centered primarily in Christian/Theist churches and many were aggrieved by the fact that they were humiliated by the fact that the founding documents of the UUA gave only the most grudging and stingy affirmation to our Christian background and the worship traditions of some of our churches.

After it became clear that the defense of Christian/Theist theology on the national level was a dead issue through the 60's - 80's, many of this traditionalist caucus took up the theme of "congregational polity" as defining their movement. It had many meanings.

It defended the local church and its worship tradition, which is where Christian/Theist theology endured.

It meant the local church did not have to go along with everything that came out of 25 Beacon Street, whether it was demands for funding, chalice logos, whatever new hymnal was coming out.

It was a powerful rhetorical brake on what was seen as the politicization of the Unitarian Universalist movement at the national level, asking whether the positions of the Washington office were actually representative of the congregations' concerns.

Over time, it became the overarching theme of a traditionalist caucus within Unitarian Universalism. It had a powerful history, was understandable by one and all.

Within the last 5 years or so, it has won the day. I think that such a circumstance came about because of the successive Free Church Conferences, the publication of Rev. Alice Blair Wesley's enormously persuasive Minns Lecture on congregational polity, the presidency of William Sinkford and the elevation of Gini Courter to Moderator. (I think that the pre-Sinkford anti-racism effort showed the limits of trying to change Unitarian Universalism by the national staff organizing to "train" the congregations; these events were part of the change, too.)

The result is that a rhetorical unity has been reached that "serving the congregations " is the highest level value of National Unitarian Universalism. And this is good, but it raises a lot of questions.

Alice Blair Wesley's argument was that first the AUA, and then, the UUA was and is organized, in fact, as a non-profit corporation, governed by its board. It is not really an association of congregations and the General Assembly is not truly a representative body of the congregations doing the work of the association. It appears to be, but it is not.

So, what happens when the Board and the National officers and staff adopt the language of working always on behalf of the congregations? The temptation will be that it will become an all-purpose slogan, and a language that justifies anything and everything.

I think that IA controversy indicates that we have reached just such a point. The language about engaging congregations seems to be so vague and elastic that it cannot point to a real meaning in anyone's head.

Evaluating IA's on the value that they provide congregations would be quite easy. Just say that in order to get affiliate status, an organization would have to turn in letters of recommendation from 5-10 congregational boards, with a check for hundred dollars from each board. You would find out real soon which have relationships with congregations and which ones don't. Tinker with the details all you want, but the Board went another way. A statement is being asked for, and the Board will decide on whether Party A is serving the needs of Party B. Who has the power in that situation? Party B? I don't think so.

Language that defines discourse has power. It has the power to clarify and it has the power to obscure. When it is obscuring the reality of what is going on, then people have to ask deeper questions, and the first one to start with is "what is at stake here?" and "where is the power going?"

Serving Congregations?

Well now, it seems that just everyone buys this new mantra that the purpose of the UUA is to 'serve congregations' and therefore, it makes perfect sense for the Independent Affiliates to show that they 'model interdependence by engaging congregations' or some such pile-up of verbified nouns and nounified verbs that pass as UU-speak. Everyone is buying the basic stated premise of the "Massacre of the Independents."

OK, I am being a bit strident, but I am feeling so ironic that it is causing narcissism in that all compasses point to me.

My point: organizations are complex environments and an interdependent web in which each part and parcel may have many roles and results. Precipitious change in the environment can throw the whole balance of nature out of whack.

So what role do the IA's play in the overall environment of the UUA?

1. They are intellectual centers. Congregations are not intellectual centers in which new ideas are developed, and old traditions reclaimed and revived. Congregations are united around their worship and tend to gravitate toward their own center. A GA in which there were unlimited congregationally developed workshops would have 500 sessions on how to grow and 500 sessions on how to avoid unnecessary theological controversy. IA's are portals in which new ideas, new perspectives and new associations come into our association. The former would document hopes and failures; the latter successes.

2. IA's play a role in developing the next generation of ministerial leaders. It's an entry point for seminarians who follow their interest into an IA, and then meet ministers already in fellowship. IA's give new ministers an opportunity to be involved in developing programs and presentations at GA.

3. IA's are content providers to the association -- turning out papers, position papers, pamphlets, programs, curriculums etc. Some of them are useful to congregations and some are not.

Who was it who first drew the distinction between foxes and hedgehogs. Maybe Isaiah Berlin? Anyway: hedgehogs know one thing -- the hedge that they live under -- and they know it very well. Foxes, on the other hand, know lots of things because they travel far and wide.

The whole "everything for the congregations" raises the banner of "All Power to the Hedgehogs." But we need foxes too. Bloggers, Independent Affiliates, the seminaries are all foxy people and organizations that bring in the new, cross-pollinate, spread ideas around, and keep things fresh.

I am afraid that the board is damaging our ecosystem by this large scale purge of our IA's.

BTW, I think that the focus on "congregations" and "congregational polity" -- which I have always been a fan of -- mis-states the central problem in Unitarian Universalism -- so almost anything can be done in its name. But that is for another post.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Henry Louis Gates' Bag Party

Jfield comments on how recent the use of the brown bag as a measuring rod has been, saying that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. experienced it in the Ivy League.

Here is Gates describing the incident on Book Notes, in an interview with Brian Lamb.

When I was at Yale, for example -- I went there in '69 and...


LAMB: Undergraduate?


GATES: Undergraduate.


LAMB: Studying what, by the way?


GATES: American history, though I took a lot of Afro-Am courses on the side, but I was a history major. I remember the first year I was there -- the first month I was there, we had this special meeting of the Black Student Alliance to talk to the black men -- young black men from New Orleans, some of whom were very light complected. And they wanted to have something called a bag party. So, you know, what's a bag party? They wanted to put this paper bag over the door and anyone who was darker than the paper bag couldn't get into the party. So, you know, I looked at them -- I was secretary of the Black Student Alliance -- everyone from the North and everyone who had any kind of sense and was not from New Orleans said, "We've never heard of a such a thing. You guys can't do this. I mean, this is some sort of antiquated, sick relic of the past. I mean, you can't do that."


And that practice stopped, and then I later found out through black history classes that that sort of thing had been going on in New Orleans for a very long time. The point is that you can internalize your own oppression. You can take on the forms of sickness, through which oppressors try to control you, whether you're a woman or a gay person or a person of color. And our job, in part, as academics is to fight against those sort of tendencies within those respective groups. That's not sufficient reason -- I mean, reasons of self-esteem are not sufficient reasons to justify the existence of, say, women's studies or gay studies or African-American studies in the academy by any means. But that is an aftereffect of the kind of work that we do in the academy if you're in, say, ethnic studies.

Jfield says "that's good enough for me."

Good enough for what?

No one doubted the information -- what was questioned was whether the information called for the consequences that were stated as having happened in the original Mummert sermon: that SKSM would change the name of the brown bag lunch to something else, and the unmistakable implication that this was what good people ought to do.

Now, it appears that the consequence was stated inaccurately -- that nobody took this that seriously because they still use brown bags and go to brown bag lunches throughout the GTU.

So what happened? It's all quite unclear. Under critical questioning initiated by Peacebang, who gets reviled in the process, the thing becomes misty and vague. But the surviving message is that "don't ever question the important work that the SKSM is doing."

Brown Bags

Ok, I will get into this one as well.
For those who stepped out briefly: here is the backstory.

Melissa Mummert, in a sermon reprinted in Quest, describes Starr King School for the Ministry's decision to cease using the phrase "brown bag lunch".

Peacebang comments on this, and not in a supportive way.

Much commenting ensues. Most of it is a defense of SKSM's curriculum's focus on anti-oppression.

My interest was piqued by the blog entry of the Left Coast Unitarian.

Key paragraph:

For me the actual matter of dispute is fairly simple. If a person of color, especially an elder, suggests that a particular term is not the most inviting way to title or describe a gathering, I will take them at their word absent a good deal of evidence.


On a very small scale, herein lies the weakness of much of the anti-racism and anti-oppression work that has been done among Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century. This paragraph describes an asymmetrical relationship and a lack of mutual critical accountability. It goes far beyond the small things -- titles of gatherings -- but extends to highest levels of analysis.

Read over Melissa Mummert's sermon again, which describes in detail, how she learned that the phrase "brown bag lunch" was unacceptable at SKSM. It was just announced. She was silent, but did not understand. Someone else cautiously raised the question as to why this change was necessary, and Mummert internally cheered. A brief explanation was given, and that was sufficient to end the discussion.

Why? There are so many questions unanswered here, which require a critical spirit to raise. Just from my knowledge of history:

  1. My understanding is that the brown bag test was a means of enforcing color lines within the African American community in New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century. Was it used by whites as well? (Whites in the South did not distinguish between light-skinned and darker African Americans when it came to segregation.)
  2. Is this practice in the current memory of African Americans, or is it a recovered historical fact?
  3. Was the phrase "brown Bag lunch" itself used as a code to describe who was and who was not welcome at lunch?
  4. Are brown paper bags themselves objects that are avoided in African American communities because of their role in the racial history of the US.
  5. What attitude should white people take toward color prejudice in the African American community?
  6. What does knowledge of this piece of US racial history require of us? So what? Does it follow that we ought to not use the phrase "brown bag lunch"? Should we not use brown bags at all?
In order to raise these questions, which could conceivably require more research and reflection, one has to be able to hold as a possible answer: this fact about brown bags is interesting, but essentially unimportant. But in an intellectual environment where the value of information is determined by who provides it, such criticism is not welcome. The only question really allowed, is "Please, I don't understand and it troubles me, explain some more, so I can be reunited with you."

Such an attitude, as so briefly summarized by the Left Coast Unitarian, leads first, to intellectual laziness, secondly, to relationships of domination and subordination and finally to the abuse of power.

What the Left Coast Unitarian describes is, in compressed form, is a theory of the sociology of knowledge, an essential piece of the whole construct of Dialectical and Historical Materialism, as developed by Lenin, Stalin and Mao. It has a history, and has been put into practice, and the consequences have been made clear. It is a theory of knowledge that does not advance understanding and greater knowledge, but subordinates knowledge to the acquisition and maintenance of power.

When I talk about this, I am not talking about far away places and times gone by. The attitude toward knowledge, criticism and mutual moral accountability that the Left Coast Unitarian describes explains why our Unitarian Universalist movement has been studying racism and oppression for about a decade now, and is less sophisticated in its understanding of it than people were in 1975.

A final self-advertisement. Click on my longer paper "Anti-Racism Decoded" in the right column for a much longer analysis of anti-racism in the UUA, as I saw it at the time of the Nashville GA in what? 2000?