Saturday, March 30, 2013

They say it's not real.

They say that this, which appeared yesterday in London, is NOT a REAL Banksy.


The idea that genuine-ness of a piece of unsigned, immovable, uncollectible, anonymous, unsellable graffiti is even something that needs to be established beyond a doubt is pretty nuts, if you ask me.

Genuine-ness matters in art comes from the commerce in art.  Who owns what?  And how much is it worth?

The great "they" also say that the scene depicted isn't real, either.  On the face of it.  There were no photographers at the time.  The authorities used scourges, not tasers.  And Jesus was probably shorter and not as white.

This is not an genuine image of the Christ by an artist who is not who he does not claim to be.   It is therefore worthless.  Any amount of money spent to buy it, if it were ever possibly for sale, would be wasted, because it is not real.

And being not real, it has no truth to it.  It might as well not exist.

Move along now; Nothing to see, here.

But it sure looks like the truth to me.

Friday, March 29, 2013

In Which I Show how Rene Girard might understand Good Friday

Rene Girard
In 2008, I preached a sermon for Palm Sunday, which tried to show how Rene Girard, the contemporary Christian apologist, anthropologist and literary critic, would understand the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus.

That sermon is being reprinted in the Eastertide edition of the UU Christian Fellowship's newsletter: the Good News .  There are lots of other UU Christian writings on Holy Week there as well.

It is also here.

The Night and Day of Kenosis

a fragment of a poem (The Garden of Gethsemane)  by Boris Pasternak:

At the end was someone's plot of land.
Leaving his disciples outside the wall
He said: "My heart is ready to break
with grief; wait here, keep watch"

He renounced without a struggle
Omnipotence and miracle-working
as though they were borrowed things;
And He became like mortals, like us.

It has been a struggle, but religion, liberal religion at least, has renounced omnipotence and miracle-working.  No longer do we claim to know the will of God; no longer do we claim to have his Word as close as the Help key: just click on it and know.  And Miracles happen all the time, but we no longer claim to know how to work them.  We do the work pressed upon us by the creation as it: the tilling and telling, the filing and filling, culling and the cutting, and once in a while, we witness a moment beyond; a miracle, we call it.  But we cannot call it down.

You have had nights when you know that someday, you are going to die.  And you dread it.  And the sleeping shapes around you cannot divert you.  At that point you know that you do not really know what happens next.  But you know no divine cavalry will ride in to save you from inevitability.

If Religion cannot credibly offer omnipotence and miracle-working, what can it do? I don't know, but we will try to be awake for you, and each other, and for all.

Notes: this text is a translation by Nina Kossmann, taken from "The Gospels in our Image", edited by David Curzon.  An indispensable book.
The full text of the poem, but translated by Christopher Barnes.

Kenosis is self-emptying.  A theological concept essential to answering the question:  If Jesus was divine, how could it be that he suffered and died?  If Jesus was able to perform the miracles that He did, why could He not save Himself from a few Roman soldiers.

Kenosis is the answer.  On the night He was betrayed, He emptied Himself of divinity (omnipotence and miracle-working) and fully embraced his mortality, becoming like us.  According to the story, omnipotence and miracle-working were always His.  They are not for us.

The Church has always claimed them, omnipotence and miracle-working, but they are like borrowed things.

Liberal Christianity is the reinterpretation of the Christian story in the full knowledge that human beings can only pretend to know all and work miracles.

The Kiss, a poem by James Wright

James Wright, American Poet.

Wright's poem, written from the perspective of Judas, reveals the redemptive power of the story we remember this Holy Week, how the awareness of our own inevitable participation in the evils of this world brings us, ultimately, to compassion.  

"Flayed without  hope, I held that man for nothing in my arms."

The story of the Passion can be interpreted in a way that is unnecessarily harsh about human good intentions and agency.  We are the crowd that calls for His crucifixion; we are the disciples who run away; we are Peter who denies Him three times.  We are Judas who betrays Christ that day, and everyday since.  And there is nothing that we can do, since our betrayal leads to His death, and only God can defeat death.  The story of the Passion can be told as to defeat all hope of human agency for good.  

I think such interpretations are extreme.  I am, of course, a religious liberal, and what is a religious liberal except one who re-interprets the Christian stories in the light of human agency?  

But the closer we come to the existential moment of crisis in our lives, the more our will defeats us.  Judas thought he had made a good deal to survive what seemed a climactic moment in his life.  He had followed this guy Jesus into Jerusalem and they were all going to die, and he saw the reality of the situation first and got the deal, a deal that saved his life.  

But he did not know what time it was.  There is a time when each of us must surrender our will to something more right, larger, more alive in that moment.  We don't schedule our time to arrive at the crossroads, we just find it in the rearview mirror and we are on the wrong road.  "without hope."

Surrendering to compassion without hope is the only way at that point.  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A simple lay-led Communion for Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday Communion liturgy.

(adapted from the Holy Communion formulary of the Remonstrant Brotherhood, 1938)

responsive reading

Leader: From olden times comes to us this meal of bread and wine. In the
night before his passing, Jesus and his friends were gathered around this table.

Congregation: He had spoken of God who wants to save the world; of the cross that must be carried; of the beaker that should be emptied; of the joy awaiting the faithful.

Leader: Now he spoke of the sacrifice that would be made; 

Congregation: Of the communion in His love, stronger than death. 

Leader: The bread, made of grain, would be broken.

Congregation: As his body would be broken and die.

Leader: The wine, pressed from grapes, would be shed.

Congregation: As his blood would be shed. 

Leader: Those who had joined the meal, knew the significance of the secret. 

Congregation: They understood the darkness of betraying love, the grief of sacrificing for love, the power of communion in a love stronger than death; the peace for those who remember his love. 

Leader: The meal of the bread and wine is the communion in this love we behold in Jesus and in which we share through him.

Congregation: The communion with the dead, the communion with those far away, the communion with those near and the communion with those who will succeed us.

Leader: Friends, in faith and love, we invite you to our Holy Communion. We invite all of you, whether or not you belong to this or any other church, or to none at all, all of you who know yourselves to bonded in the Spirit, or who long to live in the spirit of Jesus.

Congregation: Now we retire within ourselves and silently answer for ourselves:

All:  Do I long to be led by God's Love, in my love and labor, in my life and death, and to remain faithful to God's will? Do I long to open up to the gift of God, to partake in the communion of Jesus, and to enter into his spirit?

An Invisible Current of Power

Photo from  the New Yorker
How can one be alert to the presence of God?  

How does the great goodness at the heart of creation make itself known these days?  

In a world in which fundamentalists of all types claim that God is on their side, is it blasphemous and dangerous to even ask a such a question? 

The core social principle of liberal religion is that the Holy Spirit moves among humanity.  

It is called by many names, some of which are religious and some are not, but wherever people act for justice, with compassion, with generosity, and in a spirit of reconciliation, that impulse comes from something greater than themselves.  

There is an invisible current of power that runs through all the people of the world, in all of their contentious struggles and conflicts, that moves humanity toward a common future.  

Our common dreams show something common and basic in the way that we are made.  

No one owns this power, and no can claim it, and we can only to perceive it at work and move with it. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

There is a Power

There is a power at work in the universe, a creating, sustaining and transforming power not made by human hands, that will hold you when you stand on the side of love.  You can trust that power. 

There is a power at work in the universe, a creating, sustaining and transforming power not made by human hands, that mends a kitchen cut finger and revives a stressed and straining heart.  Let yourself be healed by that power. 

There is a power at work in the universe, a creating, sustaining and transforming power not made by human hands, that enables the powerless to rebel, and encourages the powerful to repent.  Let that power find you. 

There is a power at work in the universe, a creating, sustaining and transforming power not made by human hands, that shows the pilgrim’s path with a lightening flash.  Don’t blink.  

There is a power at work in the universe, a creating, sustaining and transforming power not made by human hands, that will stay with you, even after you have been wrong in every way.  It will walk back with you.

It leaves its radiant signatures everywhere, that power not made by human hands, and marks each one of us with its image, even you.  Smile when you see it. 

The mysterious power at work in the Universe, the power not made by human hands, shows up in railroad yard sunflowers, blue wheelbarrows in the rain, roads and slanted light.  Say hmm! when you hear it.

There is a power at work in the Universe, a power not made by these hands, that will be with you on the other side of where you think you cannot go.  It waits to meet you, there. 

Our Mission is to Inspire

Last weekend, I met with the combined boards of the New England Districts of the UUA.  I had been serving on the Clara Barton District Board, but have had to leave it since I moved to the Midwest. 

The Districts in New England are doing what everyone in UU-land is doing: moving toward fewer regional structures.  It's a prudent organizational step.  After all, there is nothing in our work that is especially district-sized.  The districts have a long complicated history with much ecclesiological horse-trading and turf-protection.

But regionalization raises the same question: what are regions supposed to do?

And to me, regions are better sized units to think about strategy for UUism.  A UU strategy for New England can be thought about in a region.  And so we should think about that.  

I have been trying to inspire people to think about a New England strategy for another great awakening of the liberal spirit in New England. 

So, I presented some of my ideas in a slide show for the combined boards.  Here are the key slides.  

This question from Grace Lee Boggs, the Detroit activist, should start all of our strategizing.  

Images by the UU Media Collaborative
Everybody talks about MISSION.  Coming to consensus on mission statement words is a waste of time.  Everyone should state the understanding of our mission in their own words.  There will be enough commonality to move ahead.  This is what I say is UUism's mission.

The most important word in a mission is the verb.  So what's the verb that describes the leading that regional leaders should be doing.   Same as our mission: INSPIRE.

Four slides on what UU leaders should be inspiring others to do:

Images by the UU Media Collaborative

All the good stuff that we get from our congregations: spiritual development for children, sexuality education, opportunities for worship, contacts into the wider community, chances to engage in justice making action.  These are not the Benefits of belonging to a UU community; they are the services we offer to everyone in the community.  All the good stuff is on the inside in our congregations -- we have to turn them out.  Think of this concrete example:  OWL for ALL.

I think that it is clear that lots of people want what we offer; they just don't like the form in which we are offering it.  The spiritually hungry are not going to join our churches.  So, we have to find ways to use what we have to offer what we have and they want in a form that works for them.  Congregations and churches cannot do that themselves.  They are too inside the old form.  Leaders at other levels have to learn how to encourage the growth of new forms of Unitarian Universalist groups. 
Images by the UU Media Collaborative

Are we, the people of all of our New England communities, becoming more reverent, more open, more just and more loving?  Our end goal is the transformation of souls and the transformation of society.  Everybody has their own take on exactly how those are related, but we know that they are.  Religious Liberals are no longer in survival mode.  Our time to awaken the many is now.

A congregation is a social network.  It is one node in a much more complex and wide-ranging social networks.  Imagine all the Facebook friendships within your congregation.  Now imagine all the FB friends of those FB friends and how they cluster into other networks.   How do we operate in all those networks to inspire people to lives of reverence, openness, justice and love?

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Great Awakening of the Liberal Spirit

New England's UU leaders (if that is what the District boards of the Region are) are getting excited about a vision: a Great Awakening of the Liberal Spirit here in New England.

It is an eye-rollingly audacious vision.  Absolutely ridiculous. Embarrassingly naive.

But, why not?

After all, the region has been becoming more liberal politically and socially and culturally for a while.   40 years of national conservative cultural dominance have left the least scars on this region.  For a while, it was the only region with marriage equality.

Religiously, Roman Catholics are the plurality of the religiously affiliated.  But the Roman Catholic hierarchy have forfeited much of their authority on social or cultural matters.  A mostly-male, celibate, priesthood, mired in a scandal about the sexual abuse of children and youth throws its weight behind the lost cause of "traditional" marriage:  what are they thinking?

Religious unaffiliation in non-Massachusetts New England is at West Coast levels.  There is a widespread consensus on the core of the liberal approach to religion: (1) religions are human creations, (2) none is more true than the others, and (3) what matters, in the end, is the moral and ethical lives they encourage.

A lot of people think that a liberal approach to religion is the same thing as no religion at all, so they say that they aspire to be "spiritual but not religious."  A distinction without a difference, if you ask me.   I think that they want spiritual inspiration and guidance based on the liberal premises about religion, above.

UU's Congregations raised the rainbow flag over
the symbolic space of the Town Commons in
many a New England town, long before it was
mainstream.  It made a difference. 
The affirmation of GLBTQ people went from the unthinkable to the mainstream in a few short decades.  It started with small, courageous, even quixotic but very deliberate actions, but it has become an awakening, a self-generating, self-sustaining, movement of a new truth.

People are waking up.  They are waking up to the possibility of living a spiritual life of reverence, openness, justice and love, and such a life is worth leaving "religion" behind, if religion stands in the way -- especially if it stands in the way of a spirit of openness.  There is a great awakening of a liberal spirit already going on.

But it will sputter out if liberal religions institutions, like UU congregations, for example, do not provide fresh inspiration for the liberal spirit, in the form communities of challenge and consolation for the seekers.

A great awakening of the liberal spirit, particularly here in New England, is a bold vision.  If it is to happen, liberal religions must reclaim the boldness of its past.  Like bulbs, that boldness has been buried in the cold earth, but is now re-emerging to bloom again.

Monday, March 18, 2013

When a Free Mind is a Necessity

You're at a party.  You're in High School and you are, by definition, incredibly socially insecure.  If you are boy, you want the approval of the most popular and powerful boys. You want to show that you are a man and sexually sophisticated beyond your actual experience   If you are a girl, you don't want to  seem like an innocent or out of reach.  So, in the mix of drinking, flirting, dancing and making out, it becomes clear that some of the popular athletes are doing stuff with a girl who is drunk, out of control and who has clearly made some bad decisions.  What do you do?

Every one of us will be end up in a similar situation someday.  Most of us have already been there.  A situation when the group is going in the wrong direction, and you know it.  What do you do?

It is a moment when your level of self-possession matters.  Can you get your mind free enough from the  human hard-wired instinct to conform to the group to do what is right?  To say "stop" when the group is going the wrong way will put you in danger.  At the very least, you will be in danger of being ostracized and ridiculed by the group.  At the worst, you become the target of the group's violence and anger.

Our religious path, that of Liberal Religion and Unitarian Universalism, says that the most important spiritual strength that you must develop is self-possession.  Self-possession is the ability to think for yourself, to keep your mind free from the compulsion to go along to get along, to hold true to what you know is right and wrong.

William Ellery Channing:  "I call that mind free which has cast off all fear, but that of wrongdoing, and which no menace or peril can enthrall: which is calm in the midst of tumults, and possesses itself, thought all else be lost..."

William Ellery Channing.
Check out #592 in Singing the Living Tradition

Debt is Not Social Policy

The history of the country since Ronald Reagan has been to put off problems by letting people and institutions borrow money.   But debt does not solve problems, it only puts them off and makes them work for the benefit of a few.

Yes, debt works against in some situations.  A young family borrows money for a house -- borrowing against future earnings. People buy a car on time to spread the cost over the life of the car.

Under conservatism, when housing prices outstrip the earning power of the average family, the government does not support affordable housing,  but makes mortgage credit easier.  The rising costs of college and advanced training for good jobs?  Just let more students borrow money to go to school.  And when a major city like Detroit faces a fiscal problem because it has been abandoned by industry and its population, the solution is to have the city sells bonds to pay the bills.

In the end, the lenders and creditors control everything.  They amass huge fortunes; the rest of us are broke and we still owe them more money; and they insist on being paid.

The road not taken is to raise enough revenue that we can finance what needs to be done through the public sector.  The dominant power of the financial sector is at the root of many of our problems.  They will have to get a haircut to restore balance in our economy.

Mission means You

Question: What are 2 or 3 specific personal virtues that your religious tradition and/or spiritual path challenges you to cultivate?

How and when do you feel its inspiration?

How effective is it?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

So, is Francis a Sign of Change?

The elevation of Pope Francis is just the latest example.  Some commentators see a pope from Latin America, a pope from the Jesuits, a pope naming himself after St. Francis and they see how this might be sign of something new happening.  Others look at the tremendous historical inertia of the Roman Catholic church and assure us that nothing is really changing.

Some people see 75,000 people demonstrating against the Keystone Pipeline and see a new era of environmental radicalism dawning.  Others look at the entrenched power of the oil industry and see the same 75,000 people as making a quixotic gesture.

Some people see Obama as just another politician, the new face on the same system of Wall Street dominance.  Others see a genuine maturation of a new progressive majority.

Of course, the world is full of elements that are static, at least for an extended period of time.  The United States is not going to become post-racial one fine day, and no single event is going to bring it about.  There is a materialism about the world that cannot be wished away.  My daughter, at five, responded to the news that everybody dies, with the comment, "so far."

And of course, the world is in flux all the time.  What seems permanent melts into the air, just not most days.

The little cartoon boy, Calvin, remarked that nothing ever happened, and then one day, the world was different.

But if the world is a mix of the static and the dynamic and every moment could be either one of great change or continuity, which are you more prone to see?  Are you more likely to make a mistake by thinking that someone has changed when they haven't?  Or, are more likely to think that someone can't or won't change when they are?

When I was in CPE, I would meet people whose lives were a mess because of drinking.  And they would tell me all about it and they would tell me that they had seen the light, and that they would be getting sober.  No one thought it would actually happen.

And yet, I would meet people who would tell me that they had been drunks for years, and then 10 years ago, or 20, or 30, they realized what was happening to them and they quit, and got sober.  And stayed sober.

I tend to err on the side of seeing deeper change going on than what is really happening.  I exaggerate both the positive and negative motions of history: I see movement when there is none.  Perhaps, I just like the thrill.

More from conclave

Talk is spreading that "lone-ranger" style papacy is bad for person and institution.  Talk spreading of shared-papacy model, perhaps with 2 or 3 co-popes.  Manifesto circulating anonymously saying "Heather has two Holy Fathers".

more later.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Inside the Conclave

Today the Cardinals gathered, had some snacks: coffee, tea and both sweet and savory snacks.
They had a little worship service and then someone made the suggestion that they should arrange the chairs in a circle, which they did.  That took a lot of time because the guys are pretty old and the chairs are pretty heavy.  There was an attempt to have two concentric circles because people could be closer, which would help because some of the guys don't hear so well.  That idea didn't go over very well, although there was a suggestion that the inner circle be the cardinals from Africa, Latin America and Asia, and the Europeans on the outer circle.  That really didn't go over well.  So they finally made one big circle by everybody pushing their chairs back.  Once that was done, some of the guys couldn't hear so well, so it was agreed that they would MIC Check all the proceedings in Latin so that everybody could hear well.  It promises to be a long conclave.

Then everybody checked in. Or started to; they only got about a third of the way around the circle.  So that's what coming tomorrow.

One of the things holding it up is that they decided that it was disrespectful to leave check-in to go to the bathroom, so the group is scheduling bio breaks as needed when a group of elderly men have gathered together.  Tomorrow's communion will include Flo-max.

After the check-in, there will be a discussion in which everyone shares what they hope to get out of the conclave.

Then, a brainstorming about what qualities each of them would like to see in the next Holy Father.  Qualities desired by any of the assembled princes of the church will be written on large sheets of newsprint and taped to the wall, assuming that they can find appropriate tape.  Otherwise, they will be spread on the floor.  The qualities will be listed in Latin.

Once all the hopes for the future Pope have been solicited, each Cardinal will be given several colored sticker dots and they can go around and put them next to the qualities that they feel are most important.  This will be done in silence, although it is going to be allowed that questions about the Latin translation can be asked in the case of confusion.

After that, the prelates will retire in silence and prayer as a committee of volunteers tabulates the result.  The top ten qualities will then be reduced to seven, and to five, and then to three through a repetition of the process.

At that point, which may weeks from now, there will be a day set aside for touch groups for people to process in a small group how comfortable they are with the process up to now.  A day is set aside, also, for cardinals who are uncomfortable will have a chance to address the whole group with their concern.

After that, a time has been set aside for the holy funeral mass of any cardinals who might have died so far in the conclave.

After that, the group will consider the promptings of the Holy Spirit as to how to proceed.

When there is news of the next steps, you will read it here first.

A Previously Unacknowledged Environmental Disaster

What happens when you expose a generation of kids
to high levels of lead?  Crime data two decades later
tell a startling story.
The "lead crime" theory is the shorthand for a thesis advanced by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones magazine.  This is an article that provides a link list to many of the articles he has written.

To briefly summarize the argument: The extraordinary rise in crime during the 60's and 70's were probably caused by widespread urban lead poisoning, primarily from the lead in gasoline and consequently in the atmosphere.  The arguments for the theory are quite persuasive; you shouldn't dismiss them without reading the articles and the evidence that support the theory. 

Lead contamination has effects on mental development that would diminish inhibition about anger and violence.  The densest areas of human population would have the highest lead contamination from both gasoline and lead-based paints.  Crime statistics started dropping as the young people who grew up after lead was removed from gasoline came into young adulthood, and continues to drop despite the ups and downs of the economy and the ebbs and flows of the drug problem.  The theory is borne out internationally: the same patterns exist across cultures.  

Again, read the articles.  

They say that if you live long enough, you will see most of what you thought to be true proven false, or outdated, or no longer relevant.  This Lead-Crime theory is devastating to contemporary political and social thinking, liberal, radical, conservative and centrist.  

Just consider the role that the fact of black urban crime has played in the US history over the last 50 years.  Consider the role of the urban uprisings played in shaping our thinking.

The 60's-70's wave of Black Urban Crime and the Urban Uprisings were events that needed an explanation. like the tragic death of a small child needs an explanation.

I would argue that almost every political school of thought, then and now, attempts such an explanation.  And each theory makes a projection about the character of the African American urban poor, and proposes policies in response.  The one that seems to have prevailed is that there is something wrong with "those people", and that incarceration of "their" young men is the only solution.

The Left made their own projection; they assumed that the urban uprisings showed that the urban poor were on the brink of revolution.  One of the most dated aspects of the 1969 Black Empowerment controversy in the UUA was the presumption that the Black Revolution had already begun.  Would integrationist organizations like the UUA provide material support to it? 

And Liberals made their own condescending analysis, that the urban poor were victims of systemic racism, but irrational and given to temper tantrums which were "understandable, but not justifiable." Liberals managed to earn the contempt of both the Left and the Right as they tried to walk that particular line.

But the Lead-Crime theory says that the heart of the issue was not sociological, but medical.  Or more precisely, a environmentally based public health problem.  The pre-occupation of our national intellectual culture with race made it hard to see what was really going on.

The intersection of a catastrophic environmental disaster with a racist system of housing segregation and a racist law enforcement and criminal justice system set off a bomb in US cities.  The pre-occupation of our national intellectual culture with race made it hard to see what was really going on.

Politically and socially, we live in the rubble of that explosion.  Yes, the elimination of lead in gasoline may have been a major factor in the persistently falling crime statistics and the equalization of crime rates in urban, suburban and rural areas, but much of our political/social/economic thinking is still built around the explanations for urban crime and urban uprisings from the past.  Explanations that may have been much more incorrect than accurate. 

Friday, March 08, 2013

"Ethical Agenda Setters"

Rev. Nate Walker of 1st U Philadelphia offers this sermon this week.

Unitarian Universalists have made historic contributions to society by playing the role of first responders to oppressive agendas. Historically, first responders have taken bold stances against a wide range of controversial social issues: slavery, segregation, sexism, homophobia, you name it. For generations Unitarian Universalists have effective responded to oppressive agendas. Now is the time for Unitarian Universalists to align our collective assets to become the ethical agenda setters of our time.
Play with that distinction for a while in your mind:  "first responders to oppressive agendas" vs. "ethical agenda setters".  That's very provocative and inspiring, and points the way to a rethinking of UU public theology.  I look forward to reading/seeing/hearing the sermon once it is available. 

I've got a pound of bacon here that tells me that Rev. Nate and I would probably disagree about what is next on ethical agenda of the 21st Century.  That's OK, and best left for another day.

But I wonder about the issues on which Religious Liberals and UU's in particular have not been first responders.  

It is not hard to imagine the present economic situation as a long-running, slowly unfolding mugging, in wealthy thugs are systematically ripping off working people.  (A recent study shows that 121% of the income gains since 2009 have gone to the wealthiest people -- poor, working and middle class people actually losing income).  

UU's have not been first responders to exploitative and oppressive system that is the finance-driven economy.  We're standing in the back of the crowd of onlookers watching a mugging, saying that it's probably true that both are at fault and that the victim probably asked for it.  UU's have historically been diffident about issues economics, class, and labor.  

We still need to put those issues on our agenda, and by doing so, put them on the agenda of those who look to us for ethical leadership.

Black Helicopters are Old School; Real Patriots Fear Drones.

I don't buy Rand Paul as a defender of 'civil liberties' any more than I buy the argument that the right to amass enough arms for an anti-government insurrection is one of our sacred rights as citizens.

I believe that all this talk about the Obama administration claiming the power to kill US citizens with drones on US soil is grandstanding for the right wing militias who fantasize about leading a white Christian insurrection against a government that represents all Americans.

I believe that Rand Paul's filibuster is just another obstructionist tactic to embarrass Obama by jamming one of his more important appointments.

I am afraid that the Rand Paul filibuster will prove that such Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tv heroics will be seen as effective ways to shape public opinion.  After all, our political media can't help covering spectacles, and good theatre is the highest value.

So, I look forward to seeing Mitch McConnell talking for hours someday about how increasing the minimum wage oppresses the job creators.  Somehow, knowing that he really needs to go the bathroom will make his argument seem wiser.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The bondage of habit.

This video is all over Facebook.  It shows in animated form some research into what Americans really believe about the distribution of wealth (not income) in our economy.

A statistic not in this video, but in a similar presentation of the same data, showed that Americans have a mental picture in which the United States is more egalitarian in wealth right now than Sweden is in reality.  Most people don't understand real poverty, overestimate their own wealth, and seriously underestimate the wealth of the elites in the United States.


I think that white privilege is a big factor.  Or let me be more precise: white identity.

Our understanding of the economy that we live in is based on our observation of reality, either directly, or through the distorting lens of the media.  We also look at it through our own lens of identity.  A white person who stands at the exact mid-point of wealth in the country looks up the wealth curve and most of the people he or she sees are also white.  Looking down the wealth curve, not so much.   White identity is an optical illusion that makes other white people seem closer than they really are.

Conversely, poverty among people of color is a politically charged issue.  White identity often leads those white people on the 50 yard line to defend themselves against true knowledge of it.  Many believe that the poor are not really that poor.  Some believe that government programs allow the poor to actually live a middle-class lifestyle, free from the inconvenience of work.

Because white people at the midpoint over-identity with people up the wealth curve, they also under-identify with people down the curve.  Their mental picture shifts to an imaginary world in which wealth  is more evenly distributed than it is.

William Ellery Channing
 To the right is William Ellery Channing, the early 19th century Boston minister who was one of the first to imagine a liberal faith in the United States.  He came from a politically prominent family; his father was a politically active attorney in Rhode Island.  His wife was wealthy, and Channing served a wealthy Boston church.  He was not a populist or a labor organizer. He was not a fiery preacher. He did, however, have great influence in the entire country, because he was respected for his "spirituality".  One pillar of his spiritual life was his belief in the benevolence of God.  Another was his belief in the capacity of people to do good.  And another was his thoughtfulness and deep introspection.  He showed an awareness of how we think.

In one of his most famous sermons, he said "I call that mind free which resists the bondage of habit, which does not mechanically copy the past, nor live on its past virtues." 

White Identity is a mental habit that comes from the past.  It seriously limits our ability to see our present situation clearly.  It makes it harder to live out our values in the present moment.  How can we when the "bondage of habit" keeps us in a fantasy world?

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Shaping History or Crushed by History......

Twice, Unitarian Universalism made a significant intervention in national affairs.  We had an immediate effect.  And now, as history moves on, the effects of our most significant interventions are being washed away by history, with hardly a note of recognition from us that it is happening.

The First Intervention

Rep. John Lewis
In 1965, the UUA Board of Trustees cancelled its meeting and called up on our ministers and laypeople to go to Selma to support a campaign for Voting Rights for African Americans.  Our ministers went by the hundreds;  the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were killed.  And the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was proposed and enacted.  When you consider the number of people jailed, beaten, and lynched to get the right to vote in the old Confederacy, the deaths of two UU's are not statistically significant. But we had a role. 

Justice Antonin Scalia 
And now, the key enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act is under the very skeptical review of a very conservative Supreme Court.  Justice Scalia dismisses it as a 'racial entitlement' and offers the novel constitutional theory that the Supreme Court should strike down laws that it does not like if they have too much political support to be repealed.  And the review of the VRA65 comes amidst ongoing efforts at voting suppression.  

The Second Intervention

Daniel Ellsberg
In 1971, the UUA's Beacon Press published the Pentagon Papers, providing the public with first easily accessible complete version of what had been only published before in newspapers.  We did not bow to the demands of government censors.  Beacon Press rejected the claim that the government could hide its internal thinking from the public by stamping it TOP SECRET.   The publication of the Pentagon Papers made the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg that much more difficult.

Bradley Manning
And now, Bradley Manning is held for months in solitary confinement because he, like Daniel Ellsberg, released TOP SECRET information about the diplomacy of the United States government around the world.  

In 1965 and 1971, Unitarian Universalism saw itself as part of a powerful liberalism, ascendent in 1965 and defiant against a rising conservatism in 1971.  Now, after 40 years in the wilderness of being the most liberal denomination in an aggressively conservative culture,  we accept a more limited view of our power and influence.  Would we be accused of partisanship if we were as forthright now about expanding the electorate as we were in 1965?  Are we more cautious of defying the national security state now?  

In these two cases, we have gone from "shaping history" to "being crushed by history."  

Monday, March 04, 2013

Not From Quincy....

My colleague, Rev. Josh Pawalek offered this quote from James Luther Adams in his excellent sermon Sunday.  I urge it upon you all.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Wake Up About Detroit

Today, we are hearing about the Republican governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, appointing an Emergency Financial Manager to take over the city of Detroit, one of this country's great cities.  Emergency Financial Managers, under Michigan law, have almost unlimited powers and effectively replace the democratically elected city government.  The city cannot pay back the money that financial institutions have lent it in the past, so it faces "bankruptcy".  The Emergency Financial Manager will, predictably, end the union contracts of city workers and further cut city services, in order to pay back these loans, in full, if possible. The city and its inhabitants will suffer more to minimize the losses borne by the bankers.

Detroit is the shell-shocked survivor of last 40 years of rule by the conservative capitalist worldview, a 'logic' that gained power in the 1970's and has governed this country and culture ever since.  And that worldview was born in the counter-revolution against the last flowering of the liberal spirit, the social progressivism of the 1960's, which had been fueled by the African American movements.

Detroit was the "Promised Land of the Working Man". People from all over the country came to Detroit to build cars.  In the 1960's and early 1970's the explosive power of Black Militancy was stirring up with the United Auto Workers, pushing that union out of its accommodation to the auto companies.

The auto companies decided to disinvest in Detroit and Michigan and move their operations into more white and non-unionized parts of the country.  And after the 1967 uprising, whites stampeded out of Detroit, and African Americans came to dominate city government.  

Detroit did not "decline" or "suffer hard times" or any such euphemism.  Detroit was divested; all forms of capital withdrew from Detroit because there they faced a sophisticated, experienced, industrialized and militant African American population.  Detroit is one of the largest abandoned places of the Empire.

Who pays for this?  Who pays the bills for the city that has been wrecked and abandoned?

Under the logic of the conservative era of the last 40 years, the people who didn't leave Detroit pay for it.  After all, "the poor shall pay their debts to the wealthy" is the first commandment of finance capitalism, and "thou shalt have no other obligations before us" sayeth the 1%.

According the prevailing conservative logic, we are to draw a little mental line and place the people of Detroit on the other side of that line.  They are beyond our care and we must steel ourselves to their suffering.  After all, they deserve it; they asked for good jobs and good wages and good benefits and good health care and a city government which was on their side and police that didn't act like an occupying army.

So now, the people of Detroit stand in the same hard place that the union workers in Wisconsin stood, and all union workers in Michigan stand, and every young adult crushed by student loan debt and every  homeowner facing foreclosure, and every employee in every business who works under the threat of outsourcing and offshoring.  Not only are the wealthy insanely more wealthy than we are, but we still owe them money and they insist on being paid.  (Indeed, all of us are in the same position as the wealthy agitate to reduce our future Social Security benefits to keep their taxes low now.)

And whatever mechanisms we have for fighting back, unions, local government and even our vote, must be limited to keep us from resisting.  Economic exploitation requires political oppression.

That is the logic of the last 40 years.

But a Great Awakening of the Liberal Spirit is underway.  It will come as each of us moves that little mental line separating the people we care about and the people about whom we are indifferent.  William Ellery Channing, that great spiritual teacher of the American liberal tradition, reminds us that the free mind "sets no bounds to its love."  We will wake up to the situation of the people in Detroit, and imagine how it must feel to them to be told that they must suffer more to pay debts to the wealthiest among us.  Imagine how it must feel to hear the grotesque shadefreuden, the patronizing sympathy of those who see the plight of  Detroit as confirmation of their own racial and class bigotries.

Move the boundary of your love to include the people of Detroit in your circle of care, for today, it is not an overstatement to say that we are all Detroit.

The Coming Great Awakening of the Liberal Spirit

"I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are seen, delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering: which recognizes in all human beings the image of God and the rights of God's children, and offers itself up as a willing sacrifice to the cause of humankind."  
--William Ellery Channing

There are people that you care about their suffering; there are people you don't.  That mental line that you draw between those two groups are a bound[ary] that you set.   No one else, although all of history and society will fool you into thinking that it is a natural and unchangeable boundary, a part of the ways things are.

There is a coming great awakening of the liberal spirit.  It will come when people reconsider where they have drawn that line in their own minds, and in the hive mind of their community.  And then, they decide in that way that people decide things all at once, each and together, to move that line.

There was a time not long ago when nobody beyond those directly involved cared about the suffering of those whose love lives did not fit into the one-man-one-woman model.  It wasn't as though people were ignorant; people knew.  They did not care; because gay people were on the other side of the bound that they had set for their love.

Look how it has changed.  So many little battles, so many small symbolic actions; so much legislation; so litigation; so many difficult conversations.  There is a huge history to tell, but it was also an awakening, a great change, self-sustaining, self-replicating, self-directed.

The rapid, massive, shift in this culture around GLBTQ people is a rehearsal of what is coming: a great movement of the bounds we set on our love.  Crossing that boundary and leaving it in our rear view mirror.  Put it another way: a great awakening of the liberal spirit.

We see it gathering around the people who are undocumented.  We see it gathering about the suffering of people who lose loved ones to gun violence.  We see it gathering to the people who work hard and are still poor.  Someday, we will feel the boredom, the terror, the abandonment felt by those who are incarcerated.

There is a Holy Spirit at work.  And like the wind, we cannot see the point where it originates; nor can we see it as it passes by.  We can only feel it.  And we know it by the changes it has wrought, the evidences of which are all around us.