Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Liberals and "Internalized Oppression"

I argue that liberals suffer from 40 years of conservative vilification and mockery.  We second-guess ourselves, doubt our own legitimacy, try to appease our critics and speak and act with caution.

Commentator Clyde suggests that I might be talking about what oppressed people called internalized oppression.  

I am reluctant to use those words; being demonized and scapegoated by your political opponents is not really oppression.  Oppression is much more serious; let's not make that word too thin, but making it cover too much ground.

But it is internalized something.

A synergy between right and left works to make liberals doubt themselves.  

Take, for example, the charge that the anti-Vietnam war movement was motivated simply by middle-class students' fear of the draft.  It came first from the leftwing of the antiwar movement, as a challenge for us to look more deeply at the war. The war wasn't wrong because it relied on the draft, but because it was an imperialist war, being fought by the poor. The criticism was being made  to encourage us to a more thorough opposition to the war, and to hear more voices against it.

Pro-war elements, though, picked up on the criticism, and used it to drive a wedge between students with deferments and poor and working class draftees. The purpose was not to get poor and working draftees out of danger but to shame the students into silence. 

Now, the dominant narrative about the antiwar movement was that it was a self-centered, self-interested movement of cowardly students. And the unspoken implication is that the war in Vietnam was good policy.

So, the life-cycle of the criticism that liberals were privileged elitists was (1)it originated among oppressed communities and radicals as a challenge to liberal movement to push harder and broaden their analysis. (2)It was then picked up conservatives and the real elite as a way to silence the liberal movement. (3)It finally comes to rest in the heads of liberals themselves, as a generalized malaise and self-paralysis, and a weapon to be used in our little arguments with each other.

In particular, the criticism that liberals are too elitist to relate to ordinary people, and so should be very cautious about trying to, has entered that perfect state of self-defeat that can last forever.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Why We Are Cynical About Ourselves

I have made a simple call that Unitarian Universalists move to express solidarity with low-wage workers, the working poor and poor people. To be clear, I meant solidarity in a fairly conventional political sense: expressing support for, and organizing support for, reformist proposals to improve the economic circumstances of the working poor. I did use the word solidarity deliberately, because I think that the capacity to feel solidarity with others is an essential virtue of the liberal character, and one that we ought to encourage.  But I don't mean mind-melding, or thinking that we are who we are not, or telling people on the front lines how to conduct their struggle.

The pushback from some of my friends and colleagues has been to question whether Unitarian Universalists are really capable of solidarity.  Are we locked instead into our privileges?

Let's look at the situation.

UU's are mostly Democrats these days.  By what percentage do you believe Obama carried UU congregations in 2008 and 2012?  The kinds of demands that are on the agenda right now for the working poor are on the national party platform of Democratic Party.  Raising the minimum wage is a mainstream issue.  US Senators are talking about increasing social security benefits.  The Senate has passed comprehensive immigration reform.  Elizabeth Warren is proposing student loan relief. Medicaid expansion in the red states is going to be a major issue in the elections this year.

Why would Unitarian Universalists believe that somehow they were incapable of participating in political coalitions operating in the interests of low wage workers, pensioners, the unemployed and others of our fellow citizens in economic hardship?

Especially when "they" are "us", past, present and future.

Support for these demands is just good coalition work.

So why would we doubt that we could do it authentically and sincerely and effectively?

Pay attention, now.  I have said this before, but it is hard for us to hear.

Our cynicism about ourselves, about liberals like ourselves, comes from believing what our political opponents have told us about ourselves.

Do you remember that scene in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams, playing a psychologist,
shows Matt Damon pictures of himself bearing the marks of the abuse from his father.  Damon resists looking at them, laughs them off, but Williams just keeps repeating: "It's not your fault." "It's not your fault." "It's not your fault."

For forty years, the triumphant and dominant conservative movement in the United States has insistently condemned liberals as self-serving, hypocritical, elitist, and dictatorial. Every criticism of the status quo that liberals made was turned back against them.

Now, I'm not saying that liberals are not implicated in the injustices that are this nation's past and present.  I doubt that Matt Damon was a perfect child, as well.

But I am saying that forty years being caricatured and vilified by a dominant conservative movement has affected us, and made us cynical about ourselves.

We are caught up in our heads, second-guessing ourselves, doubting our capacity to take even the simplest of actions.  The way forward is to act, and then reflect, and then act again, and then reflect, and learn from our mistakes and the feedback we are getting from those around us, and then act again.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Solidarity and Authenticity

I have made a call that UU's (and other religious liberals) make a commitment to solidarity with the working poor.  I have called for us to work for a higher minimum wage, for medicaid expansion, for increased social security benefits.  We should publicly oppose food stamp cuts, unemployment benefit cuts, public sector worker layoffs.  We should publicly support fast food workers and retail workers efforts to unionize.  We should be for anything that improves the standards of living of the poor and working poor.  We should be visibly against every form of austerity that inflicts pain on them.

I am inspired by Pope Francis, I admit.  I don't think that he objects.

My fellow UU's raise objections, though.  And from what I perceive as the "left" side of the spectrum.  (I had expected to hear from the "right" side of the spectrum: people who thought that such public ministry would be partisan and make Republicans feel unwelcome and from Libertarians who claim solidarity with the poor but were willing to see them suffer before watching the government do something about it.)

The left criticism is that Unitarian Universalists are too wealthy and too privileged and too self-distancing to have any "authentic" or "sustainable" solidarity with the working poor.  It would the work of "dilettantes".  Further, Unitarian Universalism must first address the issues of class within our own house.

I think these criticisms misunderstand public ministry.  In fact, they don't even deal with the category of public ministry, at all, being unable to separate the pastoral leadership within the church (the spiritual growth of the committed people) from the public ministry of the church in society.

I am saying that the liberal religious movement, and particularly Unitarian Universalism, must take on the work of advocacy, teaching and organizing out in society.  Our message is that the workings of our economy and government are violating the worth and dignity of the poor and working poor of our country, and it is immoral.  We are on their side, and we publicly preach that it is our intention that everyone, from the workers at the local McDonald's to the highest level of government know that we are on the side of the workers.

This is a political struggle for the soul of the nation.  It is a spiritual struggle for the political soul of the country.  It is struggle occurring out there in the world of voting, and lobbying, and coalition building and arguments in the letters to the editor and in the comment sections of blogs.

Low wage workers will not have their lives changed because they have some UU friends who prove to be resolute and trustworthy allies.  But a raise to $10 per hour will make a real difference.  Medicaid expansion in 20 some states will mean health care for their families.  And those good things will come about because of two things: more poor people voting and more middle class people voting to protect the poor from the rich, rather than the other way around.

We have influence in formation of middle-class opinion.  What we say publicly matters.

Let's look at recent history.  There are lessons for both the power of our public ministry when we choose to exercise it, and for the relationship between our public ministry and our own spiritual growth and development.

A few decades ago, Unitarian Universalism declared itself to be on the side of gays and lesbians.  I think it began with some GA resolutions, which I am sure were thought to be empty posturing and dilettantish at the time by some.  Internally, we were not ready to back that up with our internal practice.  A lot of time and energy and resources were spent to make this ultra-respectable religion welcoming to gays and lesbians.  We added more initials.  We discovered that "they" were not people "out there" but "us" and always and already "in here." Old habits were abandoned. New leaders were developed.  Reluctant people were patiently brought along.  Some left.  But meanwhile, in our imperfect, incomplete and even inauthentic state, we kept raising the rainbow flag over iconic New England village greens, and showing up as the only non-MCC churches in Pride parades.  And now, our members are instrumental in coalitions of all sorts of people winning at the ballot box.

Lesson one: we know how to do public ministry.  We've done public ministry.
Lesson two: We don't change as a precondition to public ministry; public ministry changes us, challenges us.  Our spiritual development happens as we run to keep up with our intentions and commitments, and by the people we meet.

These criticisms from the "left" are good questions, important stuff, and we will have to take them up as we engage in the practice of solidarity.   But are they reasons not to do it?

Past, Present and Future

The working poor, the low-wage workers, the occasionally unemployed, the disabled, the food stamp beneficiary, the welfare recipient, the two-job part-time workers, the boomerang child who returns home, the early retired who couldn't find another job, the undocumented working without legal protection: these are Unitarian Universalism's Past, Present and Future.

Many UU's have these experiences in their Pasts: some as the persistent condition of their childhoods and some as temporary situations on their life's journey.

Some UU's are in these circumstances in the Present, or they have family members who are, and they live in communities in which low-wage workers are all around them everyday.

And for many UU's, these positions are their Future, as retirement savings turn out to be inadequate, as full employment gets redefined as 6%, as misguided austerity shreds the safety nets, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middling classes get forgotten.  The younger see it more clearly than the old.

This is not Unitarian Universalism's self-image.  We tell a self-story that denies our own reality.  It is called "false consciousness" and a lot of it is going around.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Unitarian Universalism in 2014

My hope for 2014 is that Unitarian Universalist congregations move from service to solidarity

Service and charity fundraising is great, but it reinforces some problematic mental habits of the kinds of folks UU's tend to be.   They feed the illusions of power, wealth and privilege, being used with wisdom and judgment to help people who are far away, economically and socially.  

What this country needs right now is a movement of middle class people committed to standing with the working poor.  Unitarian Universalists should be in the forefront of that movement in 2014.  I hope for more ministers, with or without their collars, showing up to support fast food workers when they strike.  Some "Standing on the Side of Love" banners encouraging Walmart workers.  More congregational statements calling for Medicaid expansion in the states that are resisting it.  More ministers who read Rev. Morales' statement calling for minimum wage increase to their congregation.  We should be loud and clear about evils of cutting off unemployment benefits and slashing food stamps.  

The idolatry of wealth and the ideology of individualism and the demonic forces of racism and xenophobia all work to create distance between the dwindling middle class and the working poor.  The middle class is urged to "kiss up" and "kick down."  Everyone is told, again and again, that it their own fault that they are where they are.

Solidarity is a prophetic message in today's America.

Solidarity is voluntary, an act of will.  It is an attitude that can be chosen, a habit that can be cultivated, a trait of character that can be developed. 

Solidarity does not come easily to people who pride themselves on their education, or their cultural sophistication, or their refined patterns of consumption.   

Solidarity is humble.  It says to the fast food worker; I may be a locavore vegan, but I will stand with you for a living wage for selling hamburgers, because you have determined that is what you need.

My hope for Unitarian Universalism in 2014 is that we are filled with the spirit of Pope Francis and moved to stand up again and again for and with the people who are being made victims of the present order, and especially those who are speaking up and fighting back.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

Collars and Kenosis

The Red Pill Brethren talked about UU ministers wearing clerical collars.  Go look at the record of
the conversation.  

I don't have any deeper insight than these colleagues.

I have been resistant to the whole collar business.   It has always felt inauthentic to me, as though we were picking and choosing how to relate to Christianity, adopting it opportunistically.  More than once, I pronounced, as is my way sometimes, that a UU minister who wouldn't wear a clerical collar to church on Sunday shouldn't wear one on Saturday down at the Federal building.

But I recognize now that I long had a little Christ-shaped chip on my shoulder.  I saw everything through the lens of the Unitarian Universalist failure to acknowledge its relationship to Christianity. Given that perspective, I saw the collar as a misappropriation, not much different that chocolate communions.

Recently, I have been more persuaded by the logic of the collar that says it has social power which we should wield wisely.  It can add social power to protest.  It can, by upending expectations, subvert reactionary forms of Christianity.  It can make certain relationships and interactions possible which were not otherwise.  Many of the stories told by the Red Pill Brethren have this theme.

But all of that social power and symbolism is derived from the fading authority of the church.

My development away from carrying the Christ Chip on my shoulder was that I observed that the church was entering (in the global North, at least) into the tomb.  Christianity is being stripped of all social power and all authority.  As the letter to the Philippians says, "he laid no claim to equality with God, but made himself nothing".  Unitarian Universalism itself is an expression of this move toward the tomb -- a church stripping itself of the claim of providing a more direct access to God.
(Christians ought not to be afraid of the tomb; it's just a rest stop on the way to new life.)

So while it is useful, perhaps, in the short term to lay claim to the social authority of Christianity by wearing the clerical collar, it is will have diminishing returns.  Our ability to inspire others will have to come from some other source: our authenticity, our consistency, our humility, our transparency.

How would we convey what we are trying to communicate with the clerical collar if we did not wear it?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Reading Francis, continued.

The Unitarian Universalist clergy is now discussing the perceived differences between parish and community ministry.  Pope Francis, however, seems to think that parish ministry is community ministry, or, at least, it should be.

Pope Francis:
28. The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters”.[26] This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few. The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration.[27] In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers.[28] It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach. We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented.  (emphasis added.)

Is our fear that our parishes have become "useless structures out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few"?

Of course, Francis is a Roman Catholic and not a congregationalist.  But our congregationalism leads us to define the local body as the financial supporters. It predisposes a UU congregation to be a self-absorbed group of a chosen few.  But we could re-think that and change, by shifting our focus from who pays to who is being served.

WAPO on Francis

I opined on Facebook that articles like this make me despair of Christianity. And I said I would explain why.

The flow of Tenety's article is this: "People think Francis is cool for some good reasons. But I am here to tell you that Francis is cool because FRANCIS IS A CHRISTIAN and that is what is important. (Even though the Roman Catholic church does some yucky things, there are still lots of cool things that go on.) So don't go around thinking that Francis is cool because he agrees with you; he's not as cool as you think because HE IS A CHRISTIAN and that is what is important."

The flow of the article flows uphill, away from the present and away from real life.

I ask the question: what is the relationship between Francis' coolness, Christianity and me? What is the point? Francis is providing a clear voice for change. The challenge to me is do I lend my voice and hands to that effort? Am I inspired by Francis? I should hope so.
But that is not enough for Elizabeth Tenety.

She wants to remind us that the Pope is really working at the "Spiritual" level which is so far above our grubby political and social aspirations. In fact, for Elizabeth Tenety, Francis' engagement with the social and political realities of the global world is just evangelical salesmanship.

If Francis is a radical, it is like this: By speaking the language of the common person in the year 2013, in his awareness of the inspirational power of grand, symbolic gestures, through his call for everyday Catholics to embrace the simple, radical mandates of their baptism, Francis is awakening a world that was becoming dead to Christianity. If he’s breaking new ground, it’s because he’s discovered an effective way to call people to Christ.

I despair of Christians when they act like "calling people to Christ" is the point of the whole exercise.

After all, what is this "Christ"? The "Christ" is a shorthand for an extensive set of loyalties, doctrines, institutions and practices. At its most basic level, it is interpretation of history: an interpretation of the life and work of a man who lived 2000 years ago.

According to Tenety, when I look at what Francis says and does, I am to take it as evidence that the vast system of Christianity is good thing. So, the present and real validate the abstract and the historical.

I hope that the Christian tradition is what is pushing Francis into his engagement with the injustices of the global economy. My hope is also that the example of Francis is pushing you into your engagement with the injustices of the global economy.

Let the present and the real inspire more of the present and real.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Francis and the Need for Religious Leadership

Time magazine chose Pope Francis as the Person of the Year.  I like it.

Francis shows why we need religious leaders.  He condemns the stranglehold that global capital has on the day to day lives of the world's people.  He is becoming the global spokesperson for the poor. That role -- the prophetic voice of the global poor -- has not been filled in quite a while.

Only a religious leader can play that role.

So much of the hopes of the people of the world have been invested in Barack Obama, this
somewhat younger man of color who is, improbably, the head of state of the Empire.  President Obama, though, is circumscribed by his position.  He is, after all, the commander in chief of the imperial stormtroopers and drone operatives. He is also an executive fighting a constant political battle with determined opponents in the legislature.  He must fight hard even for halfway measures and watered-down compromises.  He is also under relentless criticism from a conservative propaganda machine. Every word he says, every hand he shakes, every moment of unself-conscious candid self-revelation is analyzed for signs of incompetence and treason.

President Obama who has carried the world's progressive hopes cannot consistently give them voice.

Only a religious leader can do that.  The world has missed the presence of a prophetic Pope for over 40 years.  The Reagan-Thatcher Thermidor included a two conservative Popes as well. There was no voice for the global poor and oppressed for years.  For a while, the freest voice for change was that of Bono, a rock star.

Religious leaders have the mandate to be prophetic voices.  On the other hand, they are also constrained by their institutional responsibilities.

Among the Unitarian Universalists, lip service is paid to the idea that the local parish minister should sound Joshua's trumpet, but only after the Sunday worship is meticulously (and collaboratively) planned, the staff team built and empowered, and all the secret suffering in the congregation sniffed out and soothed.  We say we want bold ministers, but many congregations are an unspoken conspiracy to make their minister nervous.

Francis has done his homework.  Read Evangelii Gaudium.  His call for justice comes from both his personal encounter with the poor of a city of 13 million people, and his theological reflection on the dignifying effect of the gospel message when presented to a person at the margins of the global order.

The only problem I see with Time's choice of the Person of Year is that it singles out one person out a much larger social movement.  What burst into the public consciousness with Occupy Wall Street is still in motion.  Francis occupied the Vatican; and low wage workers rally and demonstrate outside of their fast food sweatshops.  Get on board, there is a train a'comin.

What Child Is This?

One year, I retold the story of Jesus as a secret prince story, just to indulge my inner 12 year old. I have posted part of it here this year.  Maybe your inner 12 year old would enjoy it.  It's under the Pages column, or here.

Not Jesus

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Infinite Demand

We live by grace. We live in grace.

Amid the buzz and rattle of all that is, there is joy.  The joy is not constant, and there are pains and terrors that almost outweigh it, but joy still persists.

There is a rough grace at work. There is a grace that we can experience in ourselves. It is present in our relationships, in the pleasure that we have in beauty, in the marvel of natural world, in the ingenuity of the environments people have created.

Does it seem far away and inaccessible to you? If you never experience joy and grace, please seek help.  Constant pain and suffering is not the human condition, no matter the circumstances.

But grace hidden behind routine, behind the habit of boredom, or buried beneath our ambitions and objectives?  That we know.

To have more grace and joy in your life, cultivate the habits of reverence and awe.  It is simple: slow down, use your senses, stay in the moment, remember that everything that is does not need to be.  And yet, here it is.  Cultivate the habit of being amazed.

We live in grace. We live by grace.

Grace plays hide and seek through all that is.  If it did not exist, and life was a constant grim struggle for survival, we would not be having this conversation.  On the other hand, if it were constant presence, we would never notice it.

The inconsistency of grace, and our inconsistency in appreciating it, asks each of us: am I living in a way appropriate to the the promise of life?  Am I being dull to life: unmindful of beauty? Careless with people? Closed-minded? Ungrateful and ungenerous? Self-centered, even greedy? Am I unknowingly oppressive, or even indifferent to that possibility? Am I weaving a web of rationalizations and excuses to disguise unhappiness of a shallow and narrow life?

Grace asks questions for which there are no final answers.  We must choose everyday to summon the will to live up to life's promise.

I have spoken of grace, but not of God. I have made no claim that God has called us, or has a plan for us, or judges us.  I have only spoken of what we all have seen: that human happiness and human health seems to require some work of the will on our part, some act of conscious agency.

To try to live a happy and healthy life makes an infinite demand upon us, infinite because it can never be fully or finally satisfied.

I could elaborate either end of this equation.  We could mythologize the source of the demand:  One could say that God makes that demand on us, and that it is the impossible demand that we overcome our inherent depravity, original sin, by assenting to the proposition that God became Man in order to die for our sins.   Great religious traditions of art and story and music and architecture teach us who, why and how we are challenged.

And on the other hand, one could specify the content of that infinite demand: sexual codes, dietary laws, commandments to keep and rituals to observe, simple moral precepts to complex political and social reforms, even revolution.

Unitarian Universalism is a branch of Liberal Religion that does not care about the source of the existential and infinite demands felt by humankind.  The purifying fire of humanism burned away every mythic explanation.  We just know that we, as a species, are not living up to our potential, and the fault is not in our stars, or fate, or destiny, but in us, as a species.

Yes, it's not fair that cows get to live without second-guessing themselves about whether they are living into the fullness of the grace surrounding them, but we can't.

But Unitarian Universalism does care about the content of the existential and infinite demands.  It's what we most talk about. UU's hammer out explicit mission statements, but we also make congregational budgets, and allocate our staff time, and devote our mental attention here or there.

Unfortunately, our discussions of the infinite demand tend to center around what should "we" do -- our institutional priorities.

But what is demanded of each of us?

Each of us need to be more reverent, and allow room in life for awe.  Each of us needs to be more honest, truthful and humble.  We need to be more grateful, and more generous.  Each of us needs to be more open, cultivating an inner hospitality which lets difference in.  We should stand on the side of love, extending solidarity to those who are suffering, or excluded, or oppressed. We need to be more strongly self-possessed, able to enter relationships without fear of subordination or domination.

But each of us must decide that a life shaped by such virtues is how we want to live.  Our religious movement can witness our choice, and encourage us, and help us, and catch us when we fall. But we have to convinced that we want to live no other way.  We have to be convicted and converted.  Repeatedly.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Purifying Fire and the Infinite Demand

I suggested recently that modern Unitarian Universalism's big bang of beginning was the explosive collision of liberal Protestantism and Humanism in the early to mid 20th Century.

Liberal Protestantism since the Enlightenment had become increasingly soft on the truth claims of Christianity.  Historical criticism of the Bible and Darwinism had made it clear that the biblical accounts, long accepted as historical fact, were not, in fact, true.  Turn of the century Fundamentalism had retreated to a position which asserted that the Biblical accounts were true, modern knowledge be damned.

Humanism brought a theologically realist critique to liberal Protestantism.  Everything that was not true per modern science was really not true.  Theology had to be about truth if it was about anything; after all, it is the truth that sets us free.

Humanism was a purifying fire to liberal Protestantism, burning away everything that was being preserved out of habit, out of a desire to maintain respectability, out of sentimental attachment.

The larger part of the Unitarian movement embraced it, enough so that throughout much of the country, it became an oddity for a Unitarian to also claim to be a Christian, or even a theist.

As we know, though, liberal Protestantism hung in among the Unitarians.  There were two saving remnants: many of the New England Unitarians retained their Christianity and their theisms.  They carefully balanced the demands of humanism with Christian or theist sentiments.  Institutionally, they had great strength, based as they were in some of the most established and well-endowed churches in the Association.  Another saving remnant were a portion of the Universalists, who had not gone in the World Religions direction exemplified by Kenneth Patton.

It now seems that the Humanist tide has peaked and begun to ebb. In fact, while overt Christianity seems to remain a minority status, much of contemporary Unitarian Universalism is adopting the styles and manners of Protestantism.  We know refer to ourselves as a "faith" that engages in "worship" and "prayer."  We talk of our "mission" and are now turning toward "evangelism".  Our clergy show up at public events in clerical collars; it is how they express their "call."  While UU's often, in words, make clear that we are something different than Protestant, if you turn the sound down, and just watch us in action, it's hard to see us as anything but the most liberal of the liberal Protestants.


Our Protestant DNA is still part of us, and we turn to it when we need to express the sense that we must live life in response to an infinite demand.   Simon Critchley writes The Faith of the Faithless
"faith [is] not the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather a lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand." 

Critchley believes that faith so defined is available to the agnostic, the atheist and the non-believer.  I believe the same.  You can strip out all the concepts, but the deep sense still remains that the truth of the Universe makes a demand on you and that you must choose the better way to respond to it.

The scientific view of reality is not morally compelling.  There is no reason to let your little light shine because it is going to go out soon enough.  If you do a strict analysis, probably the stress caused by thinking about global warming is probably more dangerous to your health than global warming itself.

The squirrels in my back yard are fat and happy this fall.  I am pretty sure that they are not concerned that other squirrels somewhere else are too skinny to go into a harsh winter.  It's luck, but where in the laws of nature is it written that one should respond to good luck with gratitude and generosity beyond your own blood kin. No where.

Yes, if you do good in the eyes of your friends, self-interested as they are, you might be remembered fondly for a decade or two. A lot of good that will do you.  The evolutionary process is going to continue, and the notion that somehow we will change the future by seizing control of evolution now is scandalously naive.  And for that, you're saying I should pledge my life, my fortune and my sacred honor.  Really, it's not enough motivation to miss Modern Family on Wednesday night to go to some god-awful meeting.

But we Unitarian Universalists (and we are by no means the only ones) don't live that way.  We have made some instinctive subjective commitment to some infinite demand.  Somewhere we heard a call that demanded that we respond to good luck with gratitude and generosity and to misfortune with solidarity.  It makes sense to us that while Love may always see more than two sides to every conflict, it's a pretty clear choice whether to choose love or indifference as one's guiding principle.

Somehow the purifying fire of humanism has left that subjective commitment to living in response to an infinite demand whole, brighter and shinier than ever.  If Unitarian Universalism is to respond well to the crises ahead for our communities, our nation and our world, we will have to define ourselves more by what was revealed by the purifying fire, and less by the fire itself.

Friday, December 06, 2013

What is Uni-Q about Uni-T & Uni-V's.

Expanding on a response to a comment on the "Equations" post.

19th Century Protestantism developed in a few parallel streams as it responded to the historical situation.  We all know what was happening: the Civil War, industrialization, Darwin, Marxism, Freudianism, feminism, etc.  Protestantism became different streams: Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, the Mainline. Unitarianism and Universalism were two of those streams of Protestantism, quite distinct from the othes.

What gives the Uni's their unique character was their willing confrontation with secularism and humanism.  Instead of trying to repel them, or protect the historic faith from them, they embraced humanism.  The mainline Protestants, on the other hand, did not embrace humanism, but onlyaccommodated skepticism.  That is why they have this two-tone quality -- on the surface, they are still orthodox, but in practice and in the pews and in the pastor's study, they are much more liberal.

The Unitarians of the early twentieth century went another way.  They quite gleefully tossed out the last vestiges of Christian orthodoxy they still held.  In most of the country, Unitarianism became 'the atheist church', long before these 'Sunday Assemblies' got started in London.  Unitarianism in its non-New England religious humanist form retained the organizational structure of churches, Sunday morning services and an ethical/moral system distilled from the Christian tradition. And Christmas in most places, but not Easter.

If it were not for the persistence of New England Unitarianism (Christian-ish, theistic, culturally mainline Protestant) and the ministers steeped in that tradition, Unitarianism would have become whole-heartedly humanist.

I think most of what goes on in Unitarian Universalism are efforts to harmonize our Protestantism and our humanism: theologically, evangelically, ecclesiologically and liturgically.

Protestantism and Humanism is an uneasy marriage, an unstable combination.

Out of all its offsprings, I think that the line represented by people like James Luther Adams is the most creative and unique.  He argues that the salvation history of humanity moves into the secular realm, in which churches in concert with other voluntary organizations build the Kingdom of God.  Today, Clyde Grubbs calls us a "radical universalizing movement"; it's a similar argument.

The creative essence of Unitarian Universalism has been its efforts to respond to humanism with this move: from the closed circle of salvation history of Christianity (God creates; Man falls; Jesus Comes; Church prepares; Jesus Comes Again; Man Saved.)  to a much more open-ended process of development whose future is much more contingent.  Instead of the Church preparing for the Second Coming, the Church learns and teaches and aims toward the Kingdom, or the Beloved Community.  

There are a lot of issues that have to be addressed in this effort: how to worship, how to build our own communities, how to avoid insularity, how to escape our demographic isolation, how to define an appropriate spiritual maturity in this context, how to work pastorally etc.  And UU's are hard at work on all these issues.

But what really matters, I think, is our purpose which is not to build churches and religious communities, but to take that religious impulse into the world: to humanize the global civilization.


Thursday, December 05, 2013


A recent Facebook interaction caught my eye.

Robin Bartlett Also, if the top ten factors that millennials cite that help make up their spiritual identities include prayer, the Bible, and their relationships with Jesus, perhaps it is time we started including prayer, scripture, and ways to have a stronger relationship with Jesus in our UU churches.
Aimee Stubbs Goodson For me, "prayer, the Bible, and their relationships with Jesus" would translate into UU terms as ritual or spiritual practice, our multiples sources of wisdom, and opportunities for spiritual deepening, like small group ministry.
(To be clear, I know Robin,  but don't know Aimee personally.)

What struck me was this process of "translating".  Prayer, the Bible and relationship with Jesus "translate" into UU terms as ritual etc.

Translation is something done with words and at its most primitive level is assumes a set of equivalences: "this equates to that".   

My impression is that UU's like to conceive of theological and religious differences as "languages" and that "translation" is an important ministerial skill.

But religious experiences are not equivalent; they are the phenomena of entirely ways of being in the world.

Unitarianism, Universalism and post-merger UUism are very different ways of being in the world than contemporary Protestantism.  Yes, they have their roots in 19th century Protestantism, which was a very different thing before the rise of fundamentalism (@1900), pentecostalism (@1925) and evangelicalism (@1950).  

I think we need to understand those differences, not as oppositions, but as contemporaneous paths of development.  By which I mean that we ought to step back and just be amazed that one trunk has resulted in such different branches.  

I am reading in Robin's comment a wish to go back somehow. But there is no road back to a time when our understandings of Jesus, the Bible and Prayer would be meaningful to the most Christian-identifying young people that the survey being discussed refers to. Too much Tillich hath been spilleth.  The task is, (and I think that Robin gets this) is bring them forward into the existential realities of today.  It is unfortunate that for most of conventional Protestantism, Jesus, Prayer and the Bible are pleasant alternatives to reality, and not entries into the reality in which we actually live.

But at the same time, "Jesus, Pray and the Bible" do not translate into the UU terms of small group ministry, undefined ritual and world scripture.  It's not like that UUism is the blank and empty ideal forms of religious practice into which anyone can pour whatever content they like.

In Singing the Living Tradition #113 (Where is Our Holy Church?), a system that equated the pillar concepts of 19th century Protestantism in laid out.

Church = that point of unity where diverse races and classes unite as equals
Scripture = wherever human hearts are inspired by truth
the Holy One (Jesus?) = everyone who rise to set the captives free
the Holy Land = the human soul
Paradise = our aspirational vision of justice.

Another set of equations is laid out in the most commonly used covenant of our churches:

Doctrine = Love
Prayer = Service
Sacrament = Seeking Truth

Instead "translating" traditional religious concepts in broader, more sterile generalizations (Prayer=Ritual), these historic documents specify and humanize religious concepts in contemporary realities.  They move "religion" out of the church and into the street.  This move was the signature move of 20th century humanism, and it cannot be undone, nor should it be.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Reading Francis

I have been plowing through Francis's Evangelii Gaudium, his "APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION ...

It is an appealing document; many have been attracted by his condemnation of contemporary capitalism and his call to a mission-oriented church.

But the title is something like "The Joys of Evangelism," not "The Joys of Mission".  He grounds the mission in evangelism.  That connection is hard for our Unitarian Universalist movement, given our reluctance to take up matters of what we believe.

Take for example, a statement given to me by leaders of a group planning worship at General Assembly in Providence this year.
A core purpose of our faith is to help people grow in spirit and in service. We believe that our faith provides a path for each of us to unlock our transformational capacity to serve the world with love. We want to expand our faith not just to grow Unitarian Universalism, but also to better achieve this transformational purpose.
UU theologians, writers and preachers need, not so much to "unpack" that statement, as "fill it in."   It abounds in mysteries.  What is this "faith" of which they speak?  Why the word "provide" versus "show".  A "path" goes from here to there, does it not?  Where is here and where is there?  Why the metaphor of a lock?  You get the idea.

I'm not being condemnatory; but only critical.  I keep coming back to these questions: "how does the experience of Unitarian Universalism change a person's life?  What is the conversion process of liberal religion? What is transformed and how?"

Reading Francis is following a progressive Roman Catholic mind as it explores analogous questions.

But the same mysteries are there, but with considerably more detail.

The very first paragraph:
1. THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.
What happens in the encounter with Jesus and what his offer of salvation? It has been my theory that our liberal religious impatience with these phrases was once rooted in disbelief (how could we now 'encounter' someone dead for 2000 years?), but is now in their opaqueness.  What on Earth are they talking about?

But the functional definition of salvation is descriptive: "set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness."

So, working backwards and algebraically:  If X sets me free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness, what is X?

(If you are reactive to the word "sin", you can just call that "Not X", leaving: If X sets me free from not-X, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness, what is X?

More in the second paragraph:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.
The desire to do good comes from hearing X, and feeling X.  What is X?

Francis solves X as "God's voice and God's love." And the obstacle to the hearing and the feeling is that our interior life has become "caught up in its own interest and concerns."

I know that many liberal religionists can't get the "God's voice and God's love" part of Francis's thoughts here.  But UU ministers have been valiantly trying to humanize and naturalize such language for decades now.  Whether Christian or Humanists, we spend a lot of time finding ways to make those concepts meaningful to skeptical people, so I trust that those words are not an obstacle.

But I think that UUism and liberal religion question the metaphor of an interior life being a room with a limited amount of space.  In that room, according to Francis, our own interests and concerns struggle for space with concerns for others, and concern for the poor.

This is an old trope of spiritual discourse.  The Self vs God.  The Self vs Others.  It is now the fashion among UU's to talk about the Individual vs the Community.

Liberal Religion is a rare strain of spirituality that does not treat these opposites as a zero-sum game.  The 'interior life' is not a over-crowded room where someone has to leave to make room for God.  Liberal Religion does proceed down the road from ditch to ditch, first overemphasizing the self and then overemphasizing the other, but we have never whole-heartedly embraced self-negation as the path to spiritual growth.

To return to my question above: how does the personal transformation happen?  By the second paragraph, Francis begins to lay out his vision: the person mades room in his/her interior life for the voice and love of God.  I think UU's and liberal religion have a different understanding, but this will become more clear as we proceed into Francis's statement.

More reflections on Francis to come.  Gather your patience with Christian traditional language, set aside your absolutely justified impatience with the retrograde policies of the Church, and read Evangelii Gaudium.  There is much there to argue with and learn from.

Monday, November 25, 2013



I mean, there's "living with paradox" and then there's just being incoherent.

Viewed through the lens of colonialism, these celebrate opposite actions.

If Ayn Rand and Karl Marx had the same birthday, could we just call it Four-Letter-Last-Name-Social-Theorist Day?

Should Minister's Housing Be Taxed?

There is a constitutional question.  Does the ministerial housing allowance exemption establish religion?  Does it violate the equal protection as it gives one profession a tax advantage over another?

The courts will decide that question.

As a matter of policy, should ministers get this preferential treatment?  

I don't know, and I am not going to try to figure that one out.

The question presumes a neutral position of the decider. That there is someone who objectively decides what is in the best interests of society as a whole. Whether such a person exists, and why, other than being elected, any person should take on that point of view, I doubt.

I am a minister, whose first circle of solidarity beyond my family are my colleagues.  And I am a particular minister: retired, financially secure, not currently enjoying the ministerial exemption for housing, although I will in the future.

So decency and solidarity keep me from advocating a position that will damage my colleagues so directly, when such pain is more remote for me.

At the same time, I fear for our professional self-interest leading us astray.

I would not advocate for a response that would further separate us from the people that we serve.  We already claim a lot of privileges that they don't have, which they must pay for.  I am aware that my spouse works incredibly hard at a profession which demands new knowledge all the time, and a sabbatical is never possible for her.  To go to those we serve and insist that they make up what we will lose when the IRS taxes our housing allowance: is that where we ought to be?

So I say, remember the context.  The income and wealth are being concentrated at the top.  Our position as ministers of locally supported congregations will be better served if the minimum wage is raised significantly, if the social security benefits are increased and not cut, if our congregants have health security, if there is major investments in infrastructure and education, if our communities have abundant food, if we have a growing and expanding economy, if prosperity is shared.

Taxing Minister's Housing

A US District Judge has ruled that the practice of exempting ministerial housing allowances from taxable income is an "establishment of religion" and thus, unconstitutional.

There will be appeals of this ruling, which will prove that the clergy are no more willing to see a tax increase on themselves as any other profession. Anti-clericals were be delighted with this unsurprising news. The tax code is riddled through and through with special favors, dispensations, exemptions, credits and deductions for all sorts of groups. But ministers are supposed to be above all that.

A tax advantage for one profession is indefensible, except that "everybody does it."

So let's leave moralizing aside and look at this for what it will do.

The "voluntary association" religious organization is dying out. By "voluntary association" religious organization, I mean a religious organization that is created and sustained primarily by the voluntary contributions of less than a thousand ordinary people. Out of their gathered contributions, the organization has a building and a professional leader, some staff and some programs. Churches and other religious congregations are the prevalent form of voluntary organization in the country, a long-standing fixture.

They are becoming unsustainable in their present form, in almost every aspect. They ran on volunteer labor, but the role of women as necessary workers in most families has dried up that source. Paying staff to do what volunteers used to do is expensive, and underpaying them is unjust. Rising real estate costs have made the building more difficult to sustain, and new buildings often prohibitive in growing areas. The rising cost of higher education has saddled the ministers with large debts, which must be repaid with current salaries.  

But the overall cause for the decline of religious institutions: stagnant incomes for all but the wealthiest is making churches and congregations unsustainable. Imposing an additional tax burden on ministers will only make it worse. Either ministers lose income which cannot be made up by the congregation, or congregations are further squeezed.

It's a class issue. For decades, there has been a conflict over the wealth created by this economy. The wealthy have managed to accumulate most of it, and as a result, popular grass root institutions that depend on grass roots financing are withering away.

Yes, there are some churches and congregations doing well. If they have wealthy members, or well-paid professional members they will do well. If they have endowments from previous generations, they can survive. If they can accumulate enough spare capital from wealthy members to market themselves effectively, they can become large enough to succeed, but how many small churches die to make a mega-church thrive? (Remember the total proportion of church goers is dropping, so rapidly growing churches are growing at others' expense.)

One can argue that capitalism's "creative destruction" has come to the religio-industrial complex.  This is no different, one could argue, than the destruction of the mom-and-pop stores by the supermarkets. Within the capitalist ideology, whatever happens is probably for the best. (And they say religious people are utopian!)

But within a worldview that says what is for the best will be made by self-directed human beings working in voluntary associations, economic conditions that threaten grass-roots institutions are not "creative destruction" but just "destructive destruction."(read your James Luther Adams, clergy!)

This ruling will bring new attention to the finances of the grass-roots church of all denominations.  But let's see it for what it is: part of the destruction of autonomous and self-directed voluntary organizations for the poor, the working class and the middle classes. It's coming close to the clergy, now. We, in the clergy, might want to blame the IRS for this downturn in our personal economies, but the larger picture is growing class divide, and the impoverishment of the majority.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Religious Community is Not Enough

An article of mine, in this month's UU World.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Every Baby Should be Blessed; Every Family Affirmed

I want to urge Unitarian Universalism to go into the baby blessing ministry.  I mean UU ministers and UU churches should commit whole-heartedly to the blessing of babies, all babies, any babies.

A baby blessing is a family ritual.  How being blessed in a ritual changes the baby, I have no idea.  But it can change the family.  At least, it can strengthen all that is good in a parenting situation.  A baby blessing ritual steps outside of the routine of child-rearing and invites the parents, the grandparents, the extended family and friends to express their best hopes for this new child, and to offer their best intentions for caring for it.

There are lots of babies being born.  For many of these babies, there is not an appropriate and meaningful ritual for their blessing.  For young people who are not connected to a religious institution, for young people whose relationship status doesn't conform to social expectations, for parents who are spiritual but not religious, there is no ritual form for them to solemnize their intentions to be good parents.  

There is a spiritual hunger, and we should offer to feed it.

Our baby blessing should come right out of our core theology.  Each baby is a person, unique and irreplaceable.  The baby blessing ceremony should challenge parents and families to respect and honor that child's own soul.  A child is not a toy, a pet, a person who can use to fulfill our own needs.  A child is not here to bring you glory, or fulfill your dreams.  In all likelihood, a child will not turn out as you expect, or hope.  In every baby blessing I have ever conducted, I have heard parents promise to love their child "unconditionally."  That's very hard, and it is a good thing to have made that promise solemnly and publicly.

At the same time, children will be shaped by the networks of people around them.  Our ceremony should challenge parents and families to bring their best and most loving selves to that child, to be mindful of what they are teaching and showing.  Our ceremony should make room for parents and friends to state their best intentions for parenting.

Our religious tradition names the tension between the freedom of every soul and intricate webs of mutual responsibility that makes human life possible as does no other, and the task of parenting is performed in that tension.

I envision a time when every UU church has an extensive ministry of blessing babies and families throughout their communities.  People know us as the baby blessing people.  I imagine our churches being the site of baby blessings on weekends; while we may bless the babies of our congregation on Sunday morning, we bless more babies and families at other times in our sacred space.  There is no reason why only ordained ministers should perform baby blessings.

I can envision other ministries that surround these ceremonies: a pastoral dimension.  Our young parents can be lay ministers companioning other young parents.

We could have a community ministry of parenting support groups, and serve as a contact point for resources for more serious issues.  As we touch more and more young families in our communities, their issues will become our issues: adequate childcare, education, recreation, child safety.

For some families, their baby blessing will be a start of longer term relationship with Unitarian Universalism.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Hanukkah 2013:

Hanukkah 2013 comes around Thanksgiving, which allows preachers and worship leaders to separate it from Christmas and the solstice.  I urge Unitarian Universalists to take it up on its own terms.  It is a very relevant topic for today's culture, and one that has a bit of a bite for some of our prevailing religiously liberal thought.

You know the story by now, so I won't retell it here.

The Maccabean revolt was the revolt of a small nation against an overwhelming, globalized Empire, which was forcing a cultural assimilation onto the people it conquered.  The festival of Hanukkah celebrates a miracle that occurred as the Maccabees reclaimed a sacred site of their culture from the conquerers.  Celebrating Hanukkah is celebrating the struggle to be different, and to resist those who hold superior military and economic power from suppressing and misappropriating an indigenous culture.

The contemporary critique from African American women of Miley Cyrus for misappropriating twerking is in line with the spirit of Hanukkah.  Hanukkah argues that God is on the side of cultural resistance to conquest, colonialism and domination.

The problem is that UU's and other religious liberals, have been misappropriating Hanukkah for decades, dragging it into our "Holiday Celebrations of Light in the Darkness" as though it was just one slightly different way of expressing the same, universal impulse.

There is a stage of understanding differences in culture that minimizes those differences: A stage in which a person thinks that "we are all alike beneath our trivial surface differences."  UU's have often approached Hanukkah in that spirit.  Some UU's don't like Hanukkah because they detect within the story a message that subverts our understanding of Universalism.  In some ways, we can be more in tune with the Romans who saw no problem in filling Zion's Temple with altars to many gods and goddesses.  

This is an excellent year to upend the traditional UU understanding of Hanukkah.  It's not a quaint old story about God's supernatural powers, but a story that reveals real contemporary fault lines in culture.  It is a story that also reads us as we read it: who are we in this story?  How have we acted in regards to other cultures and religions?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Unitarian Universalism in the Age of Obama

In an informal conversation with John Buehrens at the UU History and Heritage Convocation in DC last weekend, we remarked on the 1890's as a period of inactivity in the history of Unitarianism.  He had noticed it in the history of All Souls in New York, and I had seen the same at First Unitarian in Worcester.  John suggested that periods of social progressivism were not good periods for Unitarianism or Unitarian Universalism.  The 1970's were another example of the same thing.

The hypothesis is that when there are many outlets for action for change, liberal churches are not as needed.  It seems to make sense.

But I have some questions.  One is that the 1890's was a progressive era, only in part.  The 1890's was also when Jim Crow was consolidated in the South.  Revisions to state constitutions in the Southern States formally disenfranchised African Americans, making possible the enactment of strict laws of segregation.  The 1890's saw the anti-lynching struggle of Ida B. Wells.  So, I think more historical analysis of how Unitarian and Universalist churches were positioned in that era is needed.

But if periods of progressive change (at least in the circles UU churches are tending to travel in) are not good for their growth and vitality, what about the near future?

The USA is currently in a period of extreme political polarization caused by reactionary resistance to the growing political power of reform-minded population.  All of the cultural, social and economic issues are being concentrated and expressed in an overtly partisan political conflict.  I have argued that Unitarian Universalism, as a religious movement, must recognize this, and act appropriately.  What we hope for, and have worked for, and have tried to embody is now resolutely resisted, by any means possible, by one party and its allies, and supported by the other.

History moves toward crisis and clarity.  All of the myriad opinions about slavery in the US eventually came down to the question of victory or defeat for the Union.  If the Union won the Civil War, slavery would end.  It it lost, slavery would continue in a breakaway Confederacy.

Our customary thinking about the political neutrality of liberal religion will not be applicable for the present and the near future.

But this extreme anti-reform reaction will be defeated.  The political branches of "powers that be" are not adapting well to the changing demographics of the country, and the viewpoints of the young. What political institution can the 1% rely on to protect their interests?  The GOP is too beholden to its elderly, racist, theocratic base to win and exercise power.  The 1% can also try to influence the Democrats, but there, they are trying to moderate a progressive party fueled by the votes of the One Percent's most politically aware adversaries.

There may be window of time when the GOP can no longer win, and the 1% don't yet control the Democrats.  In that window of time, serious reform is possible.  Just imagine what would be happening if the Democrats win the House in 2014, and if the Senate Democrats end the filibuster.  Comprehensive immigration reform, ENDA, better gun policies, raising the minimum wage, ending the war on drugs, national marriage equality, nationwide federal election and voting rights reform, Wall Street regulation, retirement security and more could be possible.  A tax on carbon?  Reproductive Justice?

Would Unitarian Universalism, then, still be relevant?  Or are we where socially progressive white middle-class people gather for strength and solace when and where the culture is hostile? Who are we going to be when most churches are welcoming, when marriage equality is universal, and when the general culture reflects the values of the millennials.

In the 1970's, some Unitarian Universalists looked for the cutting edge.  We embarrassed ourselves.

I do not think that we can be relevant purely on the basis of our "religious" ideas.  "Religious" ideas don't matter anymore in and of themselves.  On the other hand, people who seem to have clear ideas about important matters and appear to live by them seem to matter.

In both the time of greater conflict to come, and in an age of social reform, what matters most for Unitarian Universalism is whether we provide a path from humane thought to humane practice.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Federalism and Institutionalized Racism.

First, go and check out this article  at Talking Points Memo.

It show the 25 states that have refused to implement the Medicaid expansion provisions of "ObamaCare" and the number of people who are, as a result, still going to be without adequate health care.  It's about 5 million people.

It boggles the mind to imagine that this is a sustainable political position, but that is another question.

Non-cooperation with Obamacare's Medicaid expansion is one of the tactics that the Republican Party has adopted, so the map is close to the political map of the USA -- the familiar L Shape of a solid GOP South and then a vertical slice up the plains and mountain as well.

The slave economy of the South made all of the consumption done by the slaves a direct expense of the slaveowners.  The slaveowners could control the quality and quantity of food, clothes and housing that the slaves used.  There was no return from those expenses except the bodily continuation of the slaves and their families.

The wage labor system elsewhere put cash in the hands of workers, who then spent the cash.  That money circulated.

One of the legacies of slavery is that there is a whole section of the country which assumes that wages and benefits given to those who work, and consequently those not working, should be minimized to the greatest extent possible.

As soon as the Supreme Court said that states did not have to extend Medicaid to the working poor, those states took the opportunity to minimize another benefit to their workers.  That benefit would disrupt the whole low-wage, low-benefit economy of the region.

Whenever a federal program is implemented and administered by the states, the program will end up reinforcing the local systems of exploitation and oppression.  And that is usually the price of getting legislation through Congress.  Very few programs have benefit levels not set by the state: Social Security is one, although workers in low wage states will have contributed less over their working life and will therefore receive a lower benefit, no matter where they live.

"Federalism" is a crucial institution that makes up institutionalized racism.  Although it appears "race neutral" and motivated by the high principles of "decentralized democracy" and "local control", it reinforces racial inequality and empowers disproportionately those who lead local systems most successful in subjugating African Americans and other populations of color.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

A Different Tribe for a Different World.

Rev. Thom Belote
Minister of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian 
Universalist Church in Lenexa, KS

Rev. Thom Belote preached recently about Unitarian Universalist identity.  He was inspired by an essay by Sharon Hwang Colligan about people raised as UU's:  Children of a Different Tribe

Belote writes:

Colligan writes that when the children of a different tribe reminisce about their cultural experience of having grown up UU, they talk about being in an environment marked by realness, honesty, friendship, and truth. I might unpack those just a bit.

Realness is the same thing as authenticity. It is the ability to be open with others without armor or defenses. It is the result of having a safe environment, a community that sings the “How can anyone ever tell you, you are anything less than beautiful?” song to each other.

Honesty is an inner commitment to follow the dictates of conscience. It is made possible only when acceptance is assured.

Friendship is a warm embrace of one another. It is the embodiment of welcoming and acceptance.

Truth is a method of exploration. It sees unquestioning faith as an oxymoron. It holds that revelation is not sealed and that our understanding is always evolving.

I grew up Unitarian and then Unitarian Universalist (the border moved; I didn't) and so that makes me also a child of this different tribe, in the geezer division.

Without taking anything away from Colligen and Belote's thoughts about the differences within the UU movement between those raised in the faith and those who come in later, I would expand the scope of this discussion.

It is an unfortunate result of our inward-looking anxious sectarianism that we see all the big questions as being about ourselves and through the lens of barriers to our own inclusivity.

Thanks to our religious education program, Colligen argues (and Belote agrees) that those who grew up in our faith are shaped by a culture of realness, honesty, friendship and truth.  This "tribe" rubs up against those in our churches who came in from elsewhere and were formed around different values and stories.  It's an uneasy interaction which raises the question of how our congregations can become shaped more by the mostly younger people who grew up UU, rather than by people who are adult converts.   An interesting question, for sure.

But step back and look at in a larger context.  It describes the interaction between Unitarian Universalism and the wider culture, as well.  Our goal is to humanize the culture: to make everything a culture of "realness, honesty, friendship and truth."  In other words, this is not just about our internal power dynamics, this is also about our evangelical work.

Sounds ambitious, yes?

Two points:   (1) we know how to do it.  The fact that we are even having this discussion means that we are already doing it some of the time.  (2) we are not doing this alone; there are already many others in this culture working to transform our culture into one one realness, honesty, friendship and truth.  

Monday, November 04, 2013

Why the "Lively Tradition"

Welcome to new readers, who may be visiting from the UU World.

 A religious tradition, like Unitarian Universalism, stays alive by looking at the present moment with fresh eyes whenever it can.   It asks itself, again and again, what is happening now?  How have conditions changed?  Are we speaking to what is happening now?  Are we offering yesterday's nostrums and platitudes?  How can we see the future if we cannot even comprehend the present?

The overriding concern of this blog is that Unitarian Universalism is not so much a fresh and relevant voice for today.  This is not a generational argument on my part.  I am a boomer through and through, and only a half a year out from choosing my Medicare supplemental insurance.  But I can see that we UU's are lagging behind reality.

I am most concerned about our public theology: the implications that we draw from our liberal religious theology about the state of the world and public policy.  I know that most UU's are more afraid that we lag behind in worship style and in community creation.  I think that these are secondary questions.

The primary questions are "Who are we?  What do we stand for?  What are we embodying in our social practice?"  The perceptions about us that we should be most concerned about are the ones that go like this:  "Unitarian Universalism: there's no there there" and  "Unitarian Universalism: nice people who have mastered the arts of inoffensiveness".

One of my starting points is my perception that contemporary Unitarian Universalism is still recovering from the 40 year dominance of anti-liberal conservatism in this country -- a period that started with Nixon and finally began to break up with the election of Obama.  (Presidents are only the tip of the iceberg of public thinking.)   UU's operate on the assumptions that we have little social power and that the majority of people would be angry with us if they knew about us.  I think that those days are coming to an end.  A new progressive majority is rising and the presumptions of liberal religion are at the heart of the new social system.

The questions about which this blog is trying to stimulate discussion and change:

1.  The state of our democracy and liberal religion: I point to all the ways that I think it is clear that the Tea Party/Republican/Libertarian/Conservative Christian coalition is actively seeking to thwart the power of the emerging progressive majority.  I think Liberal Religion should fight to expand government of, by and for the people.  Now.  But Unitarian Universalists are stuck in nostrums of the past: the supposed differences between Liberal Religion and Liberal Politics, the necessity of political neutrality in congregations, the need to not offend anyone.

2.  The conditions of poor and working class people in our economy and the incredible power and wealth of the 1%.  What's happening now out there are fights for a living wage, and to improve the conditions of fast food workers, and what will be a big fight to expand Medicaid in red states.  What's happening in here, in UULand, is a focus on "classism" as a type of exclusion within our congregations, making "class" an "identity" which matches our old ways of thinking.  Are we willing to be allies of the working poor and poor out there?

3.  Who are we? Beyond our sectarian and denominational identity, who are we and who are allies in what social struggles?  I am trying to shift the discussion from "what do our UU Principles demand of us as social practice?" to "what are the social implications of the centuries old liberal religious tradition?"  The former is sectarian, self-serving and isolating.  The latter makes us part of a larger historical movement, where there are numerous allies.

4.  And everywhere, on questions of theology, worship and church practice, this blog hopes to look beneath the self-satisfied conventional wisdom and happy talk of contemporary Unitarian Universalism: the atomization that prevents discussion. (One of the reasons people say there is no "there there" in UUism, is that UU's avoid saying that there is "we here".)

And it is equally dissatisfied with all the oft-repeated "old school" griping about UUism: that we need to return somehow to being the most liberal wing of mainline Protestantism and a happy wildlife refuge where the soon to be extinct moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats mix and mingle.

If none of this is clear, stick around.   I hope that it gets a little livelier around here.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Competing Moral Foundations.

Jonathon Haidt, the author of "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion" presents this graph.  

He calls values listed horizontally (harm, fairness, ingroup etc.) moral foundations.  He measures how people, presumedly self-identified, with different political loyalties use these moral foundations in their moral reasoning.  His point is that the Right and Left have differing moral compasses, and so they go in differing directions.

I couldn't even begin to make a rigorous critique of the social science involved here.  I don't even know what the vertical axis is measuring.  But I can tell what's bigger and what's smaller.

A couple of things stand out:  liberals are more likely to be motivated by concerns about the harm to people in any situation; liberals are more likely to be concerned with fairness.  They are less likely to be concerned about maintaining the boundaries between the ins and the outs, less concerned about authority and less motivated to maintain the purity codes that are the basis of the moral test of "ickiness".

I am especially confused about these last two categories of "lifestyle liberty" and "economic liberty" since they seem to be derivative of the other five values.  If you are not concerned about the harm that might flow to others and you are not concerned about fairness, then "economic liberty" seems to follow logically, if you define "economic liberty" as the freedom to make and spend money as you wish.

I do not think that these moral preferences are determined by brain chemistry on an individual level.  They are, I think, culturally produced.  They are values handed down through families and reinforced through the culture, including religious institutions.

This graph connects with one of my concerns about Unitarian Universalism.  Liberal Religion is not good at defining its pastoral mission on a social level.  We get pastoral ministry on an individual and personal level, but on a social level, we are tongue-tied and reticent.

Where are we trying to take people?  How are we proposing to change them?  How are we proposing to "convert" people in any deeper sense than getting them to join one of our congregations?

This chart is as good an explanation as any, although differing language could be used, and there is one thing missing.

Here's the question: how would we bring people to operate out of the particularly liberal cluster of moral values: compassionate, fair, open, and less deferential to authority? How could we make them the moral foundations of our culture? We will not, of course, be entirely successful at this; we are one strand of culture among many.  But this is who we are and what we stand for and it should be what we are trying to spread.

What tools do we have to do this work?  We have congregations, and buildings and religious professionals.  Most of work we do is the creation of worship experiences, mostly for ourselves, but theoretically for all.  We have programs, including our work to try to shape the moral universe of our children.  These are only our assets; but assets are not purposes.

To pull this together, the question that I have is this: How are we to use our ability to create worship experiences and to put together programs for children and adults to influence the people around us to count compassion and fairness more heavily than authority, tribal loyalty and "ickiness" in their moral reasoning? 

An Easy Fifth Principle Application

The fifth Principle that our UU congregations covenant to affirm says this:

  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
That would include, I believe, two things: a return to majority rule in procedures of the US Senate and making it possible for legislation supported by a majority of US House members to get a vote on the floor.  After all, "democratic process" includes majority rule. Right now, Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which managed to get a 60 vote supermajority to get through the Senate, cannot get a vote in the House even though a majority would be vote for it.  It is only one of many pieces of legislation supported by a majority in both houses which has not only been 'slowed down for deeper consideration', but stopped outright by a minority.

Ed Kilgore, at the Political Animal blog at the Washington Monthly website, makes the point yesterday that the 'partisan gridlock' in Washington is the result of undemocratic procedures in both Houses of Congress.  Minorities have the power to stop the process, and then make demands for concessions, which thwarts the will of the majority.  Both of these obstacles (the filibuster and the so-called Hastert rule, which derives from House Rules which now give the Speaker the sole power to determine what gets a vote) are not in the Constitution.

This raises a point about UU public theology and preaching, and the way that we understand the implications of our theological commitments for the events of the day.

I suspect that many a UU minister has preached a sermon over the last few years which decried the political polarization in Washington and in the general political order.  And I suspect that most of those sermons identified the cause of that polarization in a set of personal shortcomings in the population at large: we need to listen more to each other; we need to have more compassion for each other's experience that lead to our political positioning; we need to learn better conflict resolution skills; we need to stop to listening to advocacy news sources; we need to see how we are all implicated in this behavior.  Oh, for the days of bi-partisanship and sensible centrism. 

I suspect that most of those sermons were considered acceptable UU sermons; after all, they would offend no one in the pews. 

But I doubt that many sermons straightforwardly called for majority rule and democratic processes in our national legislature, a position which is the clear implication of the phrase "in the society at large" of the fifth principle.  But such a sermon would coincide with the political interests of the Democrats in Washington right now, and that would make it offensive to politically conservative minority in our congregations.   

As I inquire into the state of UU public theology, I become aware that different congregations have different standards, and those standards are different than for the resolutions that GA passes.  In some congregations, straight forward advocacy on political issues is acceptable, and even expected.  A GA resolution can advocate explicitly, as well.  In our larger congregations however, I suspect that more caution reigns.  

Either we take our agreements to affirm certain principles seriously, or we don't.  I think we need a serious debate among UU's on the state of democratic governance in the United States today, and what role liberal religion, and the Unitarian Universalist movement, should play in its defense and revival. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Humanist Pilgrimage

We went to Paris.  No reason, except for fun and relaxation.  Sue, my spouse, works incredibly hard.

When I say that travel is now the great humanist pilgrimage, I am not referring to humanism as atheism, but as the great humanist turn in Western thought when ordinary life was placed at the center of consciousness and thought.

We looked at the Italian, Spanish, Flemish and Dutch paintings in the Louvre.  Most of the Renaissance paintings were about Christian subjects, depictions of Biblical scenes and the lives of the saints.  They were theologically rich; they illustrate doctrine.

An explanation of the Eucharist in oils.
You could, if you wanted, classify and curate these paintings on the basis of their theological content.  You could sort them into Protestant and Catholic paintings, or paintings about Mary in one room and paintings about the Passion in another.  The title cards could have learned commentary about the doctrine the paintings illustrated, and even where the paintings had heretical content.

But that is not how we look at paintings from the Renaissance anymore.

But now we see those paintings primarily as paintings, interesting in the way that they illustrate the history of painting itself, and European art in general, and the cultural productions of humanity as a world-wide species.  What amazing things people are capable of creating!  We read them through humanist lenses, and they are icons to contemplate on a humanist pilgrimage.

How to illustrate this great turn away from the divine toward the ordinary and human?  Consider the Cathedral at Rouen, begun in 1200.  It was built to last, a place to worship the everlasting God by His everlasting church.  In 1890, Claude Monet painted a series of paintings of the Cathedral's facade, each one capturing the impression on his eyes made by the ever shifting light shining on the unchanging stones.

What has this to do with religion, aside from everything?  This is why I say of UU's -- we are all humanists now.