Sunday, December 30, 2012

Someone has to say it out loud

Today's political conservatism is inconsistent with religious liberalism, and in particular, with Unitarian Universalism.

That's the first thing that must be said out loud.

It is not because Unitarian Universalism has become intolerant; it is because today's political conservatism, as embodied by the Republican Party, opposes the core value of religious liberalism: the reverence that is due to each person and the seamless reality of the universe.

Religious liberalism and political conservatism have diverged only recently. There used to be many Unitarian Republicans who were "socially liberal, fiscally conservative."  Such a stance is no longer possible in the real world.  The present Republican Party is whole-heartedly committed to reactionary social policy, especially patriarchy, white nationalism, and heterosexual privilege.  Social liberalism is being systematically purged from the Republican Party.

And fiscal conservatism? Today's political conservatism is no longer interested in avoiding deficits and minimizing debt, but has taken on the perspective of economic libertarianism.  And it must be said that economic libertarianism is not compatible with the direction that liberal public theology is taking.  A prudent concern with debts and deficits might have been, but economic libertarianism is not.

"Standing on the Side of Love" is a current UU statement of religiously liberal public theology.  It is an extension of ideas of 'the beloved community' and the 'kingdom of God': acts of imagination of a social order based on something more than a narrow and thin concept of due process and rights.  It is not a stretch to name what we want as the institutionalization of love: a social, political and economic order that is actively engaged in the nurture of every human being.  For those that say that "Love" is too grand and emotive concept to use in a political sense, I remind you of Elie Wiesel's comment that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

Indifference is a concrete political and economic value.  Indifference is the act of not caring about what is happening to someone, of denying any connection to it.  When an investor cheers the announcement that the management of a company has reduced its workforce by some thousands of employees, that investor knows that the lives of some of those employees will be ruined forever.  The investor, however, is indifferent to that fact.  He or she may feel some twinge of pity, but that pity has no practical bearing. When state-provided benefits are cut, the legislators who mandate such cuts are indifferent to the effects of those who will suffer.  Military commanders are often indifferent to the death and destruction an operation might have on civilians.

Conservative and Libertarian economic policy is institutionalized indifference.  What companies, corporations and investors do to maximize their profits is all-important; it is OK that they are indifferent to the consequences on others.  In fact, the conservative political program is prevent any requirement that economic decision-makers be accountable for what happens to ordinary people.

Yes, religious liberalism is deeply committed to individuation and self-determination.  Thinking for oneself, knowing and naming one's self-interest, resisting the pressures of conformity are strong values for us.  But so are accountability, solidarity with others, and compassion.  There is no way that one can stretch religious liberalism's defense of the right of individual conscience into a defense of institutionalized indifference to one's social interconnections.

Politically conservative Unitarian Universalists are in a difficult spot.  Their political loyalties and their religious values are at odds.  They are not the first people in the world to find that themselves in such a position. It is one of the perils of a spiritual life.   If religion is to mean anything, it should have the power to bring under judgment all of one's loyalties and practices.   What is ultimate in one's life?  One's religion, or one's political opinions, or one's economic interests?

The discomfort and anxiety that political conservatives in religiously liberal institutions is profound.  In many cases, they experience it as feeling unwelcome.  Everyone else shares an unspoken agreement, and our conservatives feel invisible and unacknowledged.  Their opinions are scoffed at, or ridiculed.  And so, they accuse religious liberals of hypocrisy: "We claim to welcome everybody, but not Republicans."

The second thing that must be said out loud is this: The discomfort of politically conservative UU's is their problem to solve.  Unitarian Universalist congregations cannot fix it.

Institutionalized Love

Elie Wiesel says “the opposite of Love is not hate, but indifference.”

This statement is the key to understanding the public and social theology of Love.

Human beings know love.  Most have experienced it.  Most can tell when it is present and when it is absent.  Because of its universality, we can use love as a transcendent point of judgement in creating a common understanding of the social good.  What enacts, embodies and encourages love is what is good.  What impedes it is not good.  This does not answer every question; there is room for serious discussion of what encourages and what discourages love, but it gives us a commonly understood premise, because we all know what love is.  

“God’s Will” and “Justice” are not commonly understood experiences, in that each requires training into a tradition to access their meaning.

Our social task is to “institutionalize Love.” To create the human institutions of government, economics and civil society that operate routinely on the principles of love.  

To say so sounds like hopeless niavete, until one returns to Elie Wiesel.  The opposite of love is indifference. 

We live in a system of “institutionalized indifference.” 

Remember when Ron Paul was asked in one of the GOP debates, what should happen to the uninsured person who arrives at an ER without the means to pay for his care?  Congressman Paul waffled on the answer, but the sentiment of the crowd was clear.  He made his choice, and now he should take the consequences.  The rest of us should be indifferent to his fate.  The underlying theory has to do with the fear of the “moral hazard.”  If society is not indifferent to the pain brought on themselves by the irresponsible, then society is incentivizing irresponsibility.   Maintaining a strict boundary between those human conditions that we, as a society, care about and those we are to be indifferent to is the right wing’s battle.  If people care about others too much, there will be a breakdown of indifference and the present social order will crumble.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Barack Obama: Liberal Theologian

President Obama’s statement at the Newtown Prayer Vigil made some theological assertions that are of interest.  

He begins by quoting “Scripture” -- his quote is from 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1, a passage of consolation, in which Paul contrasts his own earthly suffering with the ultimate prospect of being raised with Jesus.  Paul’s second letter is haunted by his unnamed affliction and his sense that his life has been threatened by it.  Disease?  But the image is compelling:  our earthly tent is being destroyed, but we have a building from God, a house not made by human hands, eternal in heaven. 

Obama's choice of text suggests a metaphorical approach to these mass shootings: they are a disease, an affliction, even a sign of wasting away. 

He then tells his audience that they are not alone; the nation grieves with them.  He tells them that the courage of the school staff and the students at Sandy Hook have inspired the nation.

And then, he establishes a basic contradiction: 
In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you've looked out for each other, and you've cared for one another, and you've loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God's grace, that love will see you through.”
Violence and Evil on one side.  Love on the other.

He turns from Newtown to the nation at large.  

He starts with the love that parents have for their children, describing it.  And then, he poses the question of whether we have fulfilled our responsibilities to our children.  Have we kept them safe? 

And he makes, for himself and for the nation, a confession atypical for contemporary political speech. Political leaders pose problems that are external to them and to the nation itself.  Problems are “threats” not “afflictions”. Our leaders don’t discuss their own role in our nation’s problems, but only tell us that they are prepared to solve them.  The confession of Obama recalls the metaphor of disease, of affliction.  We are afflicted with mass gun violence, as though we are wasting away, and he, the President of the United States, is complicit in it.  

Liberal religious leaders often speak this way; we confess our nation’s faults regularly, and often sloppily, wallowing in collective guilt.  “We drive cars which use gas and so we are all complicit in Middle Eastern political violence.”  I say “sloppily” because it short-circuits concrete analysis of real culpability.  

Political leaders just don’t make confessions like that Obama made in Newtown.  I was reminded of Jimmy Carter’s naming of the national “malaise” that prevented us from grappling concretely with energy policy.  (Had he been heeded, rather than mocked, we would be in different place on climate change.)  Political leaders have since then been relentlessly positive, optimistic and unreflective about all our national problems.

Obama makes a confession and then a pledge that he is going to do all he can to end school shootings.  This pledge is the most conventional piece of his remarks, and has been criticized for vagueness and a lack of specificity. But he is making funeral remarks, not a State of the Union address. 

He turns instead to the question of ultimate purpose.  A confession implies that a standard or purpose has not been met.  For example, a confession of crime is a confession that one has violated the laws made by the state. The conventional understanding of a confession of sin means that one has violated the laws or purposes of God.

What have we failed by allowing the Sandy Hook massacre? What is larger than ourselves that holds us accountable for our inaction?  What are we measuring ourselves against?

Obama is approaching a fundamental problem in all liberal theology.  Religious Liberals get it that there is no external and divine source of human morality.  Religious Liberals know that all human understandings of God are variable and culturally determined and well, human. There is simply no reliable way to be sure of “God’s Will” or “God’s Law.”  

Religious Liberals get it that we are forced to try to sort out some source of authority for human morality, and that it has to come from within.

So, against what authority does Obama measure us, and himself, and find us lacking?  

He comes down to the love that we have for our children.  We have failed to act in ways consistent with the love we feel, as parents, for our children.

He says:
“There's only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have -- for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child's embrace -- that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger -- we know that's what matters. We know we're always doing right when we're taking care of them, when we're teaching them well, when we're showing acts of kindness. We don't go wrong when we do that. That's what we can be sure of.”

He could have chosen another source of authority.  After all, shooting people in a school is against the law.  He could have just confessed that the nation fails to enforce the law and left it at that.  Of course, that is not the real issue, since the law serves to try and punish the lawbreaker.  In this case, the lawbreaker is already dead. 

No, the confession would have had to be that he and the rest of us had failed to prevent the crime.  And that goes right into all the debates that we have about gun control, mental health and whether we have trained our elementary students to sacrifice themselves by bum-rushing men with automatic weapons.  

Preventing these attacks is complex and our priorities have been elsewhere.  Preserving gun rights, for example.  Saving money in health services.  Selling video games.  Ensuring the rights of those mentally ill people who are potentially violent.  

People argue over policy priorities.  But what should have been the highest priority?  What is the priority that failure to fulfill constitutes an affliction, a sin? 

Obama could have chosen any number of ultimate values: principles of justice, simple species survival, reverence for life over death.  

But Obama says that the ultimate value that we failed was our love for our children.  

Parental is not an intellectual abstraction.  It is not a principle that we have to learn.  It is nearly universal emotion that most people feel, or have at least envied.  It is a foundational human experience.

John Dewey argued that the humanist religious liberal would be disciplined by what he called “idealized social ends.”  The humanist would be willing to make sacrifices, even put his/her life on the line, for things like “justice”, “Peace”, or “solidarity”.  

Instead of “idealized social ends”, Obama argues that we are to be disciplined by generalized, emotional processes.  We move from the love and care we have for our children to the love and care we all have for all children, and then hold ourselves accountable to create social institutions that make that love operational.  In short, we are accountable to the work of institutionalizing parental love as a governing value.

“Institutionalized Love” would be my phrase, and not Obama’s.  But I think it is a plausible extension of his argument in Newtown.  It brings to mind the Unitarian Universalist Association social justice shorthand: Standing on the Side of Love.   It is making a social principle by generalizing from our own personally felt and most noble emotional sentiments.  And it is placing those sentiments as ultimate values, to which we are spiritually accountable.  Against which, we judge ourselves and make confession.

Liberal theology is a search for that which can be placed at the center of both our personal and social lives.  At one point, liberal theologians talked about the Kingdom of God, the phrase used by Jesus.  But if one’s theological explorations have questioned God as a Monarch, and even God as a Personal Agent, then that phrase is an antique.  No one wants to live in a Kingdom anymore.  

Another phrase has been the “Beloved Community”.  To me, the phrase is fatally confusing. “Community” is a subset of “Humanity”. Is the community to attain this status of belovedness, the whole human family, or our people, the church the congregation.  

So, inspired by Barack Obama, liberal theologian, I propose that we consider the phrase “institutionalized love”. Imagine a social order built to make general and concrete our most generous and noble emotion. Imagine  everything built and governed to make love most possible. 

I have no idea where such a quest would end.  But I would know where it starts, because I have felt Love.  I have seen it, witnessed it, and known it.  It is the personal experience of the transcendent and holy, and can be the foundation upon which a life can be lived. 

I do not credit Barack Obama with first articulating a theology based on the personal experience of love, specifically parental love. Really, the fact that he has gotten us this close to Universal Health Care Insurance coverage is enough of an achievement in my book.  

But I think that his speech in Newtown shows how liberal theology might move forward.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Pushed, Fallen or Flown Away?

Pushed, Fallen or Flown Away?
December 2, 2012
First Unitarian Church, Worcester
Tom Schade


The Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Second Reading: 

"A Journey" by Edward Field

The Sermon

I like to watch police procedurals on TV -- shows like Law and Order, Southland, The Closer, Cold Case, and so forth, all the way back to the greatest of them all: NYPD Blue with Dennis Franz.  I don’t like any of the CSI shows because all the victims, witnesses and perpetrators are all very good-looking, and that rubs me the wrong way.  

I also like to read cop stories and detective mysteries, too.  The grittier the better. 

Crime fiction, on the screen or in print, are one of the few forms which try for social realism; they try to show you life as it really is, what really goes on on the streets and the seedy bars and the backrooms of police stations that you never see. 

And occasionally into these stories, a person like yourself appears, wanders in more or less, a good citizen, middle class, educated.  And they, in the story, are not just the victim of a crime, but are a suspect, a perp: they are being arrested.  For you see, somewhere, they went off track.  Perhaps it was an auto accident and they were under the influence of alcohol, maybe they took off after the accident and were now caught.  Maybe they had crossed an ethical line at work, and now were in over their head in a criminal case.  Maybe a sexual escapade had gotten out of hand. 

And at some point, somebody, a police officer, a detective, a prosecutor says to them: “That old life of yours, the one you had this morning, with your nice house and your nice job, your nice car -- that’s over.  You’re not going back there.  This is your new life, now.”

There are moments of such radical disjuncture, even in lives as ordinary as ours.  Everything goes up in the air and when it comes down, “that old life of yours -- that’s over.  This is your new life now.”

Last week, Jessica introduced us to the word “liminal” and “Liminality” -- the space in between, the threshold, the moments in life, and the experience by which a person passes from one state to another. “that old life of yours -- that’s over.  This is your new life now.”

Do you think Mary understood that as the unspoken part of the message of the angel?

No where in the story do we hear Mary’s misgivings, and I am sure that there would have been for any young woman in her position.  As she looked into the future, she must have felt herself tumbling over a cliff, falling and hurtling through the air.  Whatever life she had thought she was living -- whether you believe that she was a quiet and innocent girl from a small town or she was the jewel of a religiously activist family -- that was then, and this was now, and her life would never be the same. 

Falling into the future... 

Was she pushed?  

Did she fall?  

Or had she taken flight?

There are days now when I wonder the same about myself.  

Most of you don’t know that my younger daughter Ann had a baby girl on Thursday night -- a little granddaughter named Hannah.  My first grandchild.  So this is a new stage of life for me.

But that is not all, of course.  I am leaving here, this ministry, and starting a life in which I will not be a parish minister anymore.  And I am making this change in response to the changing conditions in my life -- Sue, my wife’s, new job.  It was not my plan, and not my desire, but a change in life pressed upon me from without.  

I talk a good game about what I intend to do in my new circumstances -- I have plans and projects and proposals in the works.  But really, I don’t know -- and I have always had more plans and projects and proposals than ever I actually done.  I have built more boats in my imagination than ever touched the water.  I have travelled further dreaming in my easy chair than ever have I walked.  I hold my plans and projects and proposals in the same dreamers easy grip.  

I methodically check off the tasks of moving a household half way across the country in several stages, trying to keep track of where that book and that file and that sweater is among all the places they could be.  That’s what’s going on on the surface, but really, I feel like I am falling into the future, hurtling headlong through time and will at some point land with a thud in Michigan into a new life, and this one will be gone, forever.  

I am not complaining, and I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I am a very lucky man, more so than I deserve, I suppose.  I am obligated to never forget it and to respond with gratitude. 

But I bring up my own situation because I don’t think that it is mine alone.  This Advent season finds many people in a situation like Mary of Nazareth, or even mine, in that they are looking into an unknown future.  That life they had, this morning, or yesterday, or last month, is gone and is not coming back.  A new life is coming, and they, me, you, Mary don’t know the shape of it, what it will feel like, whether it will be joy or sorrow, a bearable burden or unbearable suffering.  

Last week, Jessica Gray so very bravely and so steadily and so skillfully, taught the children and all of us about her cancer.  She talked about losing her hair and she bared her skull for us.  She drove away the weasel demons of distance and discomfort and euphemism.  She modeled faith -- she engaged in her work, the ministry of faith development.  

But I know that she, too, has fallen head over heels into an unknown future.  Last week’s life is over, and this is her new life, and what it contains has not yet been made clear to her.  

Has she fallen; was she pushed; will waving arms become beating wings?

I see you out there.
I know that some of you are suffering such uncertainty about your life.  I know that some of you must take deep breaths, slow steady breaths, to hold down the fear and the terror that threatens to consume you.  

I know that some of you have undertaken major changes in your life -- new jobs, moving to a new city, planning for an addition to your family.  You are in that Advent space of waiting expectantly for a new stage of life to begin, unsure of it.

And this church itself.  We are going through this Advent season in a state of great uncertainty and anticipation.  I have heard everything from “the place is going to fall apart” to “this ministerial transition is going to go very well.”  I even suspect that there are some saying “free at last, free at last” but they are polite enough to do it out of my hearing.  

A thick cloud of uncertainty settles over the church, and every thing that is unsettled, or in process, or in dispute, about the church seems to come to the fore.  Now is the time to change everything that we don’t like about the church.  And now is the time to protect and perserve everything that makes us special, unique and successful.  But in this period of waiting, and falling into the future, we are not sure which is which, and each person is beginning to get the picture that not everyone agrees what is the wheat and what is the chaff.  What is the baby and what is the bathwater.

Were we pushed?  Did we fall?  Are we learning to fly?

Our colleague in this congregation: Jay Lavelle, frequently reminds me that there are really just two basic stories:  Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.  I would add to that most stories combine these elements in some way, in plots and subplots and scene settings. 

Overall, the story of Jesus, as told in the gospels, is one of the greatest  “stranger comes to town” stories ever told.  What a mysterious stranger !  He turns out to be a hidden prince of another kingdom and he changes everything before he leaves and promises to return.

But this “stranger comes to town” story contains many “someone goes on a journey” subplots.  The gospels are in the form of journey stories, following Jesus as he moves about the country, preaching and teaching and healing, and eventually making a final fateful journey to Jerusalem.  

And the Advent story contains some journeys.  Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth and ultimately, as the Advent story turns into the Nativity story, Mary and Joseph undertake the visit to Bethlehem where Jesus is born.  

So, the Advent story is more than waiting in the dark for the light to come.  Often the conventional spiritual message of Advent is the lesson of patience.  Our salvation is coming, but it is not here yet.  Be patient.  And somehow that slops into the whole story of children waiting for Christmas.

But I don’t think that this conventional story is the whole story.  Advent is the story of a journey from what is known and familiar but dead and dull, through the unknown and falling through that unknown space into an unknown future.  Not only waiting, but waiting without knowing, of sensing that everything is changing around you, that the old is falling away and the old forms and structures are twisting into new shapes, and nothing will be the same again.  

Like our country.

Like our church.

Like so many of our lives. 

The Advent season suggests to us, invites us to consider the possibility, asks us to believe that whether we have been pushed, or fallen, or tried to fly away, that we will land safely, that there is a power at work in the Universe that will catch us as we fall, that we are waiting for something better and that we will be ready and able for the next stage of the journey once we land. Advent is a journey through the dark and into the light, to use that metaphor.  It is a story that begins with “the people in darkness” and ends in Bethlehem, with angels and kings and a new baby.  

Oh, I am not saying that every story has a happy ending.  That every illness will be cured.  And that every transition is going to be a step forward.  There is a line in one of Paul’s letters in which he says that “everything works for the good for those who have faith.”  If you take that to mean that believers get only happy endings, its a pretty dumb statement, and one that has been disproven again and again and again.I think that it means that for some people, those who have great faith and trust in life and the universe and God, something good and useful and healthy can be found in almost any situation, no matter how dire.  

Edward Field’s poem this morning struck me as apropos to Advent, and our fall into the unknown liminal space:  we do not know the buried narrative of the poem, we just find a man on the way to the train station, fighting back to the tears of some great sadness all the way, and then he takes a journey on a train, and on that train, he, hemmed in by social expectations and his own emotional reticence, gives way to his grief, fully expressing it, and that when he arrives he has somehow transcended it.
“And at the end of the ride, he stood up and got off that train:
and through the streets and in all the places he lived in later on
He walked, himself at last, a man among men,
with such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.”

That is us.  That man is me. That journey and that train are one dimension of the process we are going through.  

We will arrive at that far station, and we will be healed of the grief and anxieties of this unsettling period in life   For as Mary says in her Magnificat: He has helped his people in remembrance of the promise He made to our ancestors.