Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The old misconception still misconceived

It's an undeniable fact that political conservatives are frequently uncomfortable in UU churches and congregations.  They feel their minority status.  People express liberal and radical views with complete assurance.  Conservatives feel marginalized and even mocked.  I know that this is true because they have told me.  They say things like "UU's welcome everyone except Republicans."

What are we to do about it?

The misconception is that this situation reveals something wrong about Unitarian Universalism.  We are failing to meet our aspirations.  We should be a community where all political views are made comfortable, and we are not.

It is the same misconception that says that Unitarian Universalism is the religion that lets you believe whatever you want.  And that you should be affirmed in whatever beliefs you may have.  It is a misconception that Unitarian Universalism is really only an experiment in building a completely diverse community, that we are just a protocol, and have no particular content.

Our consensus around politics, economics and social values is sign that we take our religious values seriously. We have discerned a substance in them that has real consequences for our public life. The truths about human beings, about social relationships, about morals and ethics, make demands on us, and we are trying to embody our faith in the real world.  If that were not so, our religion would be trivial.

Of course, there are great disagreements.   We should be arguing and disputing and searching for the meaning that makes demands on us.  Our religion should not be sterile.

And of course, there should be no religious, or political tests for membership in our congregations.

But there will be people who find that they are uncomfortable with the consensus that is growing.  Their political views and the public ministry of their religion are diverging and that is uncomfortable.

But that is not a shortcoming of Unitarian Universalism.  It is a sign of our growing maturity and deepening substance.  They have choices to make.

It is OK that Unitarian Universalism makes political conservatives uncomfortable.  We should not be apologizing for it, nor should we be promising to try harder in the future.

Passing Around the Monitoring Reports

Governance is no substitute for Mission

Monday, April 29, 2013

A crucial correction to My Last Post on UU Leadership

I said '

What if we went another way:  What if we gathered the wisest, most dedicated and inspirational leaders of Unitarian Universalism and asked them to articulate our mission and vision and to work with our leaders to build personal commitment for that.  Instead of turning toward expertise, we turn to inspiration as the way forward.'

What I should have said:

What if we went another way:  What if we gathered our most dedicated, inspirational and YOUNGER leaders and asked them to articulate our mission and vision for the UUism they want to spend their lives building and asked our present leaders to build personal commitment for that.  Instead of turning toward wisdom and experience, we turned to the future and let ourselves be inspired by it.

A Hundred Grand Doesn't Buy Inspiration

The bottom line: the UUA Board, led by Gini Courter, and the Administration, led by Rev. Peter Morales, have reached a point of such impasse over reporting and accountability that they have seen fit to budget $100,000 for a consultant to work out their relationship.

I say that there has been a catastrophic failure of the collective leadership of the UUA, and we the rank and file, lay and ordained, ought to be thoroughly and righteously angry about it.  In high dudgeon, in fact.

Moderator Courter has moved the UUA Board to Policy Governance.  Policy Governance asserts that the organization is led by the Board which established goals for the organization (called "Ends") and establishes "Policies" which establish the boundaries of permissible actions to achieve those ends.  The staff or administration then goes forth to do the work of the organization within the policies that have been made.  An end may be to be financially self-supporting; the policy is the staff can't rob banks to get income to cover expenses.

The administration is supposed to provide the board with "monitoring reports" in which it reports how it defines the end in practical terms, establishes measurable goals to reach that end, and reports as to whether it is in compliance with the end.  The Board can dispute whether the definition and the goals are reasonable.

It's much more complicated than that.  But our UUA Board and UUA Administration have not been able to make this work.  To the point, that a $100,000 consultant to mediate this is considered a wise investment.

You might remember that at the last election for UU President, Moderator Courter endorsed Rev. Laurel Hallman, whose experience at the First Unitarian Church of Dallas included working with policy governance.  Rev. Morales expressed much more informal commitment to policy governance.

Rev. Morales won the election.  And the Board and the Administration have been unable to agree on the reporting needed.

Is this a relationship problem?  I doubt it.  If there is anything that you can count on is that the leaders of the UUA possess exquisite interpersonal and relational skills.  It is the one trait required of leaders throughout the denomination.  After all, these same people managed to work through all the complications of Justice GA in Phoenix, when so many assumed it would be a hot mess in the desert.

I think that the problem is that the UUA has tended to view governance and organization as the effective substitutes for shared mission and vision.  Indeed, we talk about congregational polity as though it were a theology.

I don't resent the $100,000 to spent on a consultant.  It's not the money.  It's just that it continues the pattern of looking toward governance as the solution to our problems.

What if we went another way:  What if we gathered the wisest, most dedicated and inspirational leaders of Unitarian Universalism and asked them to articulate our mission and vision and to work with our leaders to build personal commitment for that.  Instead of turning toward expertise, we turn to inspiration as the way forward.

Friday, April 26, 2013

That old misconception

The last question posed to UUA Moderator candidates (Tamara Payne-Alex and Jim Key) was a familiar one.  In essence, "what can you do to make sure that those of us who are right of center still feel welcome in UU congregatios?"  (A paraphrase from memory.)

And the candidates answered in the old familiar way: "Yes, maintaining the political diversity of our congregations is very, very important."  I think Jim Key even went so far as to say that religion and politics are separate things.

They are not; they never were.

If the things that we religious liberals care about most deeply were held equally by both political parties, we could continue to act as though belonging to either party was just a personal preference that didn't much matter. But that is not true, and we know it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Perfecting Energy

I just watched the CLF's Google+ hangout to meet the candidates for UU Moderator.  The race is  between Tamara Payne-Alex and Jim Key.  I have spent time with both of them and both are impressive people.  I don't think that we can lose.  I'm not making an endorsement at this time.

You should watch the video, or attend one of their many forums.

I noticed something in their discussion that I have noticed before.  I think that it has relevance beyond the Moderator election,  Watch for it in your church and congregation or any organization that you are in.

I call it Baby Boomer Perfecting Energy.

People in their 50's and 60's often carry this energy.  They (we) have been involved in running congregations for a good chunk of their lives now, service measured in decades rather than years.  They have seen congregations through all kinds of situations: success and failure and everything in between, especially conflict, crisis, and breakdown.  These Baby Boomers have learned a lot.

And now, they (we)  are ready to correct all those mistakes, apply the lessons learned and build well-run, well-managed, well-aligned organizations.  "Now, we know what we are doing.  Now, we have figured out the processes that work.  Now, we have the maturity and experience to work with conflict creatively, and find the underlying issues and engage in adaptive change.  Now, we will do this all right."

I call it 'perfecting energy' because it energy for system improvement -- making everything work right.  It is energy for perfecting the system.

I think most organizations, congregations, churches and the UUA itself is caught up in 'perfecting
energy', because of the age of many, if not most, of our leaders.

Let me ask this question: why are we so focussed on Governance right now?  There is widespread political and social ferment going on in the country right now.  The religious landscape is changing radically as people leave the churches in droves, some to the evangelicals and many to religious disaffiliation.  I believe that we are in the midst of a great awakening of the liberal spirit, of which the change in public opinion about marriage equality is only the tip of the iceberg.

But those strategic questions of our message and our mission are somehow distilled into questions of role clarity between the UUA administration and the UUA Board, and the role of the UU Moderator.  The great intellectual movement that has swept through Unitarian Universalism in the last five years has been "Policy Governance".  Is it true that Carver theory is going to be added as a seventh source, or was that just a rumor?

Focusing on governance is, I think, the clearest expression of Baby Boomer Perfecting Energy.  It is as though we think that once we become well-governed, well-managed and aligned organization, then we will be able to deal with anything that comes up, be it a crisis or an opportunity.

I think that younger leaders these days do not see everything through this lens of governance.  I hear more about mission and purpose than governance from younger leaders.

I am almost 64, and very conscious of that fact.  This temptation to indulge my perfecting energy is very real to me.  But I am trying to keep it in perspective.

Nobody gets to finish their work.  Nobody gets pass down to the next generation an organization, or congregation, or denomination that has been thoroughly de-bugged, tuned up and running smooth.  There are lots of mistakes and missteps in life that you don't get to do over.  You learn lots of lessons that you never get the chance to apply in practice.  The ancestors gave it to us in a very imperfect state, and we will pass it on still imperfect, but in different ways.  When we try to fix it, we may only make it less adapted for the future.

I am not ready to announce my preference yet, but this what I worry about.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why Heartlessness?

I made the following observation on Facebook.

Why are people so heartless? We have reached that point in the Boston story where liberals shame each other for feeling bad about something when they don't feel equally bad about everything else. It's like telling parents of a dying child that thousands of other child die every day, so why are you upset? They negate other people's emotions and think they are prophetic

As the conversation developed, my dear friend Kate Rohde wrote:

Kate Rohde You are recently from Boston. I can understand how you might take it that way. However the wall to wall media coverage of this event seems to this non-Bostonian as if it is the media pushing an agenda as it did with the run up to Afghanistan and Iraq. Why so much coverage of this particular event? Why no or little national coverage of events and situations that are also horrifying but may not fit a particular narrative? I confess I have watched a lot of it and found it interesting, horrifying, sad, but I also am aware that the choices we make on what we focus on,, in the past, has made us easy to manipulate into making some really bad choices. I have no problem with the shock of Bostonians. No doubt I would complain for months. I do have a problem with all the news being focused on this one event for a solid week without more context ... Especially without any real evidence that this is more than a horrific crime like Columbine or Sandy Hook. They got a lot of coverage too, but not this much. I thought and think Boston was great in its response to this. A response to be proud of. I don't think that the outside coverage has generally been something to be proud of and I do wish they would have been less sensationalistic and hysterical and more accurate.

This brings together a couple of points that have been bouncing around in my head recently, and even since 2001.

Liberals, spiritual liberals, political liberals and religious liberals are just now emerging from a 40 years trip through the wilderness.  Conservativism has been aggressive and the media monolithic in its amplification of conservative messages.  Liberals not only had to oppose a reactionary government, but also the media which shut us out, while all the while, conservatives complained about the "liberal media."

We have settled into a defensive crouch, in which we define our work as media criticism.

Our first great fear is that the media is misleading the people at large, and the second, and even greater, fear is that the people are, in fact, persuaded.  So our communication becomes countering what we think the media is saying and trying desperately to keep the people calm and civil.

After Boston, I have heard liberal voices wildly exaggerate the news media's Islamaphobia.  One writer said that the news "Screeches Islam, Islam, Islam".  I watch the news and I don't see it.  There is an inquiry into whether the older Tsarnaev brother had become radicalized into extremist Jihad politics.  I don't think that it is an unreasonable question to be asked.  Do you?

But we take an exaggerated view of the Islamaphobia of the news media, add in a couple of incidents of overt anti-Islamic bigotry on the street, and build our mission in reaction to that.  So, it becomes most important to us to "cool down" the people -- hence, all our messages are about how what is happening isn't as bad as we think it is (after all, lots of bombs go off around the world, and lots of children die, it's all a big media hype.)  "It's really like more Newtown."  Maybe.

And the message to the people is that the sins of the media are your sins, because you watched it.  If the media seem to be unreasonably obsessed with Islam, then the public must be too.

And it becomes our mission to try to persuade people that religion has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with this.  We think we are countering the media's message, but to most people it simply looks like we are not being realistic and closed-minded.

Because of this forty year journey through the conservative wilderness, we liberals have lost the confidence to speak directly to the American people.  We are so busy trying to undercut other people's leadership, "to disrupt the media narrative" that we don't offer leadership ourselves.

We are not recognizing the enormous change that is and has already occurred in public opinion.  Many, many people already agree that (1) now is the time for interfaith cooperation and leadership and (2) that this incident is a criminal matter and not an occasion for war and (3) careful and responsible inquiry will determine in time the motivations of these two brothers, at least to the extent possible and (4) there is no reason to suspend or limit the Bill of Rights or due process of law and (5) we now better feel the pain of people around the world who have endured similar incidents (After all, it hurts a family in Iraq no less to lose an 8 year son than a family in Dorchester.) and (6) that this surviving brother is not an animal to be put down, but a human being.

People are looking for a leadership that is humane, and balanced, and emotionally balanced, that is respectful and not manipulative.  People are looking for voices that they can trust to not be pushing an agenda.  People are responding so well to Obama's performance because he presents himself genuinely as that leadership.

In the end, it comes down to our own emotional state.  If we are anxious and afraid ourselves (afraid of the media and afraid of our fellow American who are being misled by the awful media) we will not be able to connect with them.  Our discomfort will be there for everyone to see.

We are not here to counter the Media.  We are not here to argue with the right wing.  We are here to lead by bearing witness to our grounded and realistic faith in the oneness of humanity, the power of humans to choose love and peace, and to open their hearts to each other across the globe, and do what is right.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Compassion and Judgment

 A good colleague writes in response to my posting about compassion for Dzhokar Tsarnaev:

I'll think about this Tom. My wife, who is a criminal defense attorney, often remarks of mass murderers who then take their own lives, "why didn't they just commit suicide first?" Was Bonhoeffer lacking in compassion (or less happy) for attempting to assassinate Hitler? And if we feel compassion for whoever is in front of us, doesn't that rob the perpetrator of the opportunity to repent his misdeeds and then receive pardon from his victim -- since the perpetrator is already receiving the victim's compassion? I don't think I'm enlightened enough to answer these questions.

Compassion is an emotion.  In any particular circumstance, people either feel it, or they don't.  Those that develop it as a habit of the heart feel it more easily, and more independently than their more rational sense of judgment.

Bonhoffer's decision to conspire to kill Hitler was an act of his judgment.  

Finally, my emotional response to another is just that: my emotional response. It doesn't change anything, except me.  Another person wrote that they feared that the compassion of others gives evil people peace.  

We are afraid that our emotional response of compassion will result in an injustice somewhere.  I have worried about this.  The form that worry would take would be as second thoughts.  I feel it now.  I see the pictures of this 19 year old kid and I feel for him.  Emotional response.  Then I remind myself that he built an anti-personnel weapon and put it in a public place for the specific purpose of killing and maiming people.  Second thought.  

My emotional response is true, in that I really do feel it.  

My second thoughts are true, at least by all I now know, (and will be weighed and measured by a court sometime).  

Tsarnaev and Hitler are extreme cases.  In my daily life, I find it makes me a happier and healthier person to avoid treating the people I meet as potential terrorists or war criminals.  It makes me happier and healthier to not worry about the emotional response of compassion that, on occasion, flows out of me toward the person in front of me.  My second thoughts of judgment will come soon enough.  

I have come to see a freer flow of compassion as being a liberal spirit at work within me.   


Spiritual Liberals

People ask what I mean by "spiritual liberals" in my previous posts.

Just what you would think -- people possessed by and possessing a liberal spirit.

People who are living their lives oriented around values of compassion, of justice.  People who move toward other people's pain and not away from it.  People who tend toward openness to others, to difference, to new things coming into their lives.  People who are reverent and grateful and hopeful.

I think that this nation is undergoing a great awakening of the liberal spirit.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why people feel compassion for Dzhokar Tsarnaev

People wonder why spiritually liberal people can be so quick to express compassion for Dzhokar Tsarnaev, this 19 year old boy who will never see a free moment again in his life. 

It is because he is the one in front of us now. 

Compassion is fluid; it is alive in the present and flows toward those who are suffering. It is infinite -- compassion toward Dzhokar Tsarnaev does not diminish the compassion felt for Martin Richard when he is in front of us.

Compassion is not judgment, which makes choices and priorities. Judgment weighs and measures and reasons. Judgment, which we give to the judicial system to exercise finally, will deal firmly with Tsarnaev. It's a whole other thing.

But at every moment, someone has your attention, and in that moment, you will be feeling some emotion: compassion, hatred, indifference, affection. Spiritual liberalism notices that if you build a habit of compassion, you will be happier, healthier, more able to love and receive love. 

The world will be better, too.

(I posted this on Facebook on April 20, 2013) 

Terrorism: 2013 vs. 2001. We are learning.

I believe that there is much more restraint, compassion and concern for justice in 2013 than in 2001. 

I believe that the media has learned much over the years. 

We are led by a wiser and more just political leaders now. The President asked the question that many of us are asking, "what happened that these two young men took this path?". 

Messages that remind people to not make assumptions that are based on guilt by association, race, religion, ethnicity have been heard all this week. The nation has operated on the frame of a crime, and not the frame of a war.

I am grateful for all those who have spoken out forcefully and consistently for the last 12 years to move us to a better place. 

There is another side, and they will remain active and vocal. But they no longer set the tone overall. They are not leading and they are not winning the future. 

I am grateful.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Our moral obligations today

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, progressives of all types, even just good citizens, have been advising everyone to keep calm and not jump to conclusions.  We have been talking about the misuses of identity to expand the perpetrators to a larger circle.  We are waiting to see who did this, and we are reminding ourselves in advance that individuals or small groups will be the culprit, and that not everyone who shares that ethnic identity, religion or political view is also guilty.

We have learned the lessons of 9/11, and we are reminding everyone else of them.

And from the President on down, we are using the language of police work and not the language of war to describe our response.  The perpetrators will be found, and held accountable and justice will be done.

Again, the contrast to the post 9/11 situation could not be clearer.

Our advice is relevant, too the point and sorely needed.

The country made grievous mistakes after 9/11, from the racist harassment of Muslims and Sikhs on a personal level to the unwarranted invasion of Iraq.  I do not believe that we will make the same mistakes, to the same extent, this time around.

On a spiritual level, liberal religion, including Unitarian Universalists, are calling upon people in many ways to practice the virtue self-possession in these critical days.

Self-possession is a free mind. A free mind is the thoughtful exercise of the free will, which is the gift (and curse) given to humanity by God.  And yet, the obstacles to the thoughtful and ethical exercise of our free will are many.

In days like these days, when a harm has been done to us and to people we identify with, we are tempted, in so many ways, to get carried away in group-think: scapegoating, vengeance, bigotry, hatred, violence.  We have been made to feel powerless and there are many cheap, easy and wrong ways to feel powerful in such a situation.

Liberal Religion's message is simple at this time and place: we, you and I, have a moral and ethical obligation to keep our heads, TO POSSESS OURSELVES, to hold on to what we know of right and wrong, and to be self-aware enough to know how our point of view is partial and incomplete.

For example, if we are white and European, we have a moral obligation at this time, to be aware that we see this situation differently than someone who is Muslim, or is of color, or is an immigrant.  We have to take that into account in our thinking.  Self-possession goes hand in hand with self-awareness.

We are in a tender moment right now; we do not know who did this.  Our message is to be brave in that unknowing.  It will become clear soon enough.  Guilt will be determined by the investigators, not by 140 character arguments on Twitter.  Now is the time to inoculate ourselves and everyone we know against racial profiling.

Soon, however, we will know who did this: our work will be to remind ourselves and others that the news media does not determine guilt or innocence but the judicial process.

We know this now, but will be tempted to forget it in the days ahead.  We must possess our minds enough to remember our commitment to due process.

And our work will be to remind ourselves that this crime is the work of a finite number of individuals, and that race, religion, ethnicity or any other marker of identity does not transmit the guilt to others who share it.  

For all we know, the guilty parties are overweight couch potatoes who don't like running.  If so, it doesn't mean that I am guilty too.

This is the liberal religious frame on this situation.  Let the orthodox rail on about the battle of good vs evil, or even the battle against false religions and false gods.  Let the neo-cons carry on about Munich and Churchill and appeasement.  Let the anti-Muslim bigots try to whip up a scapegoating hysteria against Islam itself.  Let the authoritarians talk like Cheney did, about going over to "the dark side" to defend the nation.

We, religious Liberals, including Unitarian Universalist, have a different message for today: you and I, have a moral and ethical obligation to keep our heads, TO POSSESS OURSELVES, to hold on to what we know of right and wrong, and to be self-aware enough to know how our point of view is partial and incomplete.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Needed Virtues

When something horrible and tragic happens, like bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, I go to a very calm, even distant and repressed place emotionally.  I am good in a crisis, but cold. I do have a catch in the throat that comes and goes randomly.  Like Roger on Mad Men, my grief comes out at odd times, as for him when he burst into tears over the death of the man who shined his shoes, after keeping it together through his mother's funeral.

I almost lost it today when reading a stupid Buzzfeed posting about 29 things to love about Boston; it was a picture of the ducklings with little red scarves tied on them on a snowy day.  

I become very observant of what others say and think.

My UU colleagues are so much more sensitive and articulate than I am at such a time as this.  And I have been reading their twitter feeds and facebook postings.  For a professional group spread far and wide across the country, few do not feel connection to Boston.  So, their collective words today came from a deep place. 

What is the message of liberal religion?  What is our good news?  Today is a day when we testify to our message, our good news, without much ornamentation, or elaboration.  

I will not quote specific people and specific utterances.  I am too tired for all that cutting and pasting and researching.  Anyway our message came through clearly today.

My colleagues in liberal religion said this today:

Stop, and hold humanity sacred at this moment.  The dead, the injured, the traumatized, the heroic, and the brave.  My colleagues are telling us it is time to pray, to sit in silence, to watch a dancing flame in the dark, to hold a hand.  Tagore calls upon us to lift our lamps to those we love who have gone on that journey and to say our last words in silence.  And everywhere I read of my colleagues organizing on line and real life vigils and prayer circles and church sanctuaries open for rest. 

My colleagues are asking you to recommit tonight to be especially honest and humble.  What do you really know, and what are guessing and speculating?  Resist the headlong rush to know, to explain, to make all of this fit into some narrative that you have already constructed.  They are reminding us that we don't know much, that much of what is said in these first 24 hours will turn out to be not true, and that the most inflammatory and shocking piece of information that shows up in your Twitter feed is more likely false than true.  Be brave in not knowing.

My colleagues are lifting up compassion and solidarity and gratitude now.  Today we are all Mr. Rogers, reminding everyone to look at the number of people running toward danger to help. 'Look to the helpers,' he said, and we are quoting.  My colleagues are honoring the first responders, the doctors, the nurses, the police, the volunteers, the strangers who helped strangers. When the bounds of community are broken by violences, my colleagues lift it up higher.  We know, deep down in the very marrow of our bones, that there is more good in humanity than evil.  My twitter feed is full of concrete information about how to help -- where to call to offer your couch to a stranded runner and/or their supporters.  

Above all, my colleagues are calling upon us to maintain our self-possession.  Turn off the TV news when it is repetitive and inflammatory.  Sing to yourself the centering chant: "when I breathe in, I breathe in peace; and I when I breathe out, I breathe out love."  (Or is it the other way around, I can never remember.  Does it matter?)  Our self-possession is why we must remember to be humble and honest about what we know.  We need to guard ourselves today and tomorrow against a collective group-think   that leads to bad decisions.  We need to keep clear heads and a firm grasp on right and wrong as we all process the shock, the denial, the anger, the bargaining of this violation and loss. Stay centered and grounded. 

Honesty -- Humility -- Gratitude -- Reverence -- Openness -- Compassion -- Self Possession.  These are the needed virtues on the day after Patriots Day in Boston.  

These are the virtues of liberal religion -- the gospel that is needed for this time -- the reminder we need to recommit ourselves to what is best, and wholesome, and holy and healthy when it is so tempting to be hateful, or vengeful, or tribal, or otherwise less than our best selves.  If we can commit to these ways of being in the world, we make it possible to discern the way of Love in the present situation.

I am so proud of my colleagues in the Unitarian Universalist movement for holding up these virtues tonight, although I know that they are not the only ones.  Does liberal religion have a message for times of violence, tragedy and evil in the world?  We do.  It is simple, clear and compelling.  And it is as close as your phone.

The Penny Machine

You may have seen this on Facebook.
It is an incomplete picture.

This machine allows anyone to work for minimum wage for as long as they like. Turning the crank on the side releases one penny every 4.97 seconds, for a total of $7.25 per hour. This corresponds to minimum wage for a person in New York. This piece is brilliant on multiple levels, particularly as social commentary. Without a doubt, most people who started operating the machine for fun would quickly grow disheartened and stop when realizing just how little they’re earning by turning this mindless crank. A person would then conceivably realize that this is what nearly two million people in the United States do every day…at much harder jobs than turning a crank. This turns the piece into a simple, yet effective argument for raising the minimum wage.

Why is this an incomplete picture?  Because one must imagine a hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand of these machines all chained together.  Each operator cranks away at the machine earning a penny almost every 5 seconds.  What you don't see is that as the operator cranks away, each machine is also spitting out a penny every so often, which is funneled into one bucket not shown. That bucket fills up a lot faster than the pocket of the operator at the crank.  While the penny machine above has not gotten any faster, the speed of the pennies going into the big bucket has gotten much faster over time. 

It is not that the minimum wage is low, but that minimum wage workers create vast wealth.  We all snicker at someone like Paris Hilton, a young woman who doesn't work, but is ridiculously wealthy.  Her wealth comes, in part, from minimum wage workers, cranking out a penny every five seconds.           

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Just A Minute! With PeaceBang: Episode 1

{Click on the Title to See the Video}

Peacebang and Shane Montoya talk about the economy and ministry.

PB identifies a dilemma between talking about simpler and more cooperative living on the one hand vs just helping people accommodate themselves to lower economic standards of living.

I wish that UU's would simply take a side in the conflicts over money and power that is going on right now.  The decline in the standard of living of ordinary people (poor, working poor, what Ed Shultz calls the "middle class") is not a change in the weather, but the results of policy decisions. It isn't right and it wasn't necessary.  The plight of the middle class is the direct result of all of the wealth created by the increase in productivity in the last forty years (there's that number again) going to the economic elite.  It could have been used to pay for education, or to build lower income housing in Boston, or to subsidize seminary students -- but no, it went for mansions in the Hamptons and God knows what else.

We should take a side: we are in favor of everything that improves the economic conditions of ordinary people: higher minimum wage, more (not less) Social Security, unions, more public transportation, libraries and health clinics, more health insurance, etc. etc.  We don't have to teach the poor how to be poor; we need to demand that the ultra-wealthy come back to Earth and we have to preach that those of us in the middle at least take a side.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Re-Posting "End Membership in UU Churches"

This post has gotten a lot of attention lately, thanks to a mention in the UU World.  Welcome to new readers.  It was originally posted in February 20, 2013.    

A discussion today at the SE Michigan UUMA cluster meeting brought up the question of membership.

It doesn't violate our covenant of confidentiality to report that I made several sweeping pronouncements which, to the someone who didn't know me, would give the impression that I knew what I was talking about, and had thought and studied on the matter in some depth.

So I have spent the rest of the day trying to get my brain to catch up with my mouth.

So why don't we get rid of this concept of UU church membership?

It seems to me that there are several overlapping and concurrent circles of people involved in a typical UU Church.  But, we have only two categories of people we describe:  Members and Friends.  And then, there are all the others.

Members are someone who has joined the church, signed the book and met whatever other requirements the church may require.  They get to vote in the congregational meetings, and some of them actually do.

Friends haven't signed the book, but are active in some way and are financial supporters of the congregation.

But in reality, there are multiple relationships:

1. There is the Worshipping Congregation:  people who attend the church on a regular basis for worship.
2.  There are people who active in various congregational programs -- teach in RE, sing in the choir, come to forums and programs.  Call them the UU Activists.
3.  There are people who financially support the congregation. Call them Supporters.
4.  There are people who take an active interest in the governance of the institution -- they do come to the Annual Meeting, listen carefully, vote thoughtfully and stay to the end.  They serve on administrative committees and task forces.  Call them the Institutionalists.
5. There are people, we hope. who are allies of the church in the community.  They could be mobilized by the church for a cause, a program, a concert.  Just say they are in our Network.
6. There are people in the community  who identify as Unitarian Universalists but who choose, for one reason or another, not to be active in this particular church.  I don't know what you call them: the Beyond Congregationalists, the Lost Sheep, or Free Range UU's.
7.  There are elders who used to be very active in the congregation but who are no longer because of age and infirmity.  Call them our Alumni.

Stating the Intention

Nothing changes itself without intending to do so.  Otherwise, it is changed by outside events.  More likely, it doesn't change even though it should.  It just gets obsolete and dies.    

Churches and congregations too.  Without making a statement of intention, a church or congregation will not change.  Stating that it intends to grow is not the same thing.  What does it intend to change in order to grow is the question that must be answered.

Here is a statement of intention that many congregations should make:

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The VUU -- huh? when? where?

Salvation, Transformation UU-Style

Our discussion on the debut of the VUU (the CLF sponsored gabfest and hangout) this morning turned for a while to the question of salvation.  Like what do UU's mean by salvation?  Why can't we use that word? (Keith Kron reminded us that one reason may be that it freaks a lot of UU's out).

If you're going to talk about salvation, you need to think through your soteriology:  by what and from what are we saved?  Or more broadly, from what unsatisfactory state of being to what more satisfactory state of being does the spiritual move us?

It is my opinion (and the comment section below is for your opinion) that UU's operate along a "virtue-based" system for moral theology.

A virtue based moral theology says that the best I can hope for morally is that I have habitual ways of acting that are morally appropriate.  There are no rules or principles that can be fully defined in advance

Prayer of Confession From Afghanistan

Read this story of a UU chaplain, Chris Antal,  and the prayer of confession he offered in Afghanistan.

An investigation resulted, and the affair is unresolved, but here is the prayer:

A Veteran’s Day Confession for America
November 11, 2012
On this Veteran’s Day Let us confess our sins before God and neighbor.

Most Merciful God
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed by what we have done,
and what we have left undone.

We have become people of the lie
out to tame the frontier wilderness
while the beast within lurks hidden in shadow
paralyzing us in a perpetual state of denial.

We have made war entertainment
enjoying box seats in the carnival of death
consuming violence, turning tragedy
into games raising our children
to kill without remorse.

We have morally disengaged
outsourcing our killing to the one percent
forgetting they follow our orders
the blood they shed is on our hands too.

We have insulated ourselves
from the painful truths veterans carry
our bumper magnets proclaim, “support our troops”
but for too many, suicide is the only panacea
our insulation is their isolation.

We have made our veterans into false idols
blood sacrifice on the National Altar of War
parades and medals perpetuate the hero myth
glorifying those who kill and die on our behalf.

We have betrayed the dead saying,
“they will never be forgotten”
yet how many among us
can name a single war casualty
of the past decade?

We have sanitized killing
and condoned extrajudicial assassinations
death by remote control
war made easy without due process
protecting ourselves from the human cost of war.

We have deceived ourselves saying,
“Americans do not kill civilians; terrorists do”
denying the colossal misery our wars inflict on the innocent
the national closet bursts with skeletons.

We have abandoned our Afghan allies
luring them in with promises of safety and security
then failing to follow through with promises made
using them and leaving them to an almost certain death.

Almighty God, on this Veteran’s Day
help us to turn from this wayward path
deliver us from indifference, callousness, and self deception
fill us with compassion for all who bear the burdens of our wars.

Grant us the courage to pay attention,
to stay engaged so we may listen without judgment,
restore integrity
accept responsibility,
keep promises
and give honor
to whomever honor is due.
Rev. Chris J. Antal, Kandahar, Afghanistan November 9, 2012

Trying to Put Back Together What We Separated

In the 1970's, the social issues (which are really just cultural resentments moralized) coopted the conservative Protestants and the Roman Catholics for right-wing politics.

Faced with an aggressive and ascendent conservatism in the 70's and 80's, Liberal Religion separated the personal and pastoral from the public and prophetic.  To bear witness to public liberalism got to be too hard, too frustrating, too dispiriting.  The progressive movement was caught up in internal conflicts between liberals and radicals.

In a silent refutation of the understanding that "the personal was political", the liberal church accepted a compartmentalization of the human being into individual and social spheres.

As individuals, each of us needs to become better people, more skilled relationally, more at peace within, more sophisticated observers of our emotional response to the world and more skillful at regulating ourselves.  These concerns were called the Human Potential movement and the New Age movement but later on, it was just called "spirituality." The liberal church accepted it as its most important work.  It was a turn toward the pastoral, toward building safe, warm, welcoming and nurturing communities.

It was a turn away from public ministry, a turn away from prophetic ministry.

Turning toward the pastoral de-emphasized political differences within our congregations.  Religious liberals who were also politically conservative could also come to work on their spiritual development.  After all, personal spiritual development and political practice were two separate spheres.   (The minute you step back from this, it becomes instantly absurd and grotesque.)

To state it sharply, the liberal church reduced its work to producing men and women of the qualities of Lord and Lady Grantham on "Downton Abby" -- liberal, kind, compassionate, responsible people who saw no contradiction between their social and economic position and their personal qualities.

The other side had its stalwarts as well:  people who saw the church as an instrument of mobilization. Often, the same folks were suspicious of "spirituality" as diversions from the work of learning about the critical issues of the day and asking everyone, "But what should we do?"  Some ministers defined their ministry around activism.  There are offices and task forces in the structures.  Plenaries to be held, and resolutions to be voted on. And churches have their social justice committees.  But these are on the side; not the main work of the church.

My point: The split between the personal and pastoral vs. the public and the prophetic comes from the attempt to separate the personal from the social or community.  Liberals made that division because we felt weak and powerless against an aggressively conservative culture.  It was of a particular time, place and condition.

We have been arguing over how these fit together ever since.  Mostly we defend the decisions we have made in our own lives as though we discovered some eternal principle about the purpose and nature of the spiritual life.

It's time to re-think all of it.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Remembering the Flawed, the Mistaken, and the Destructive

Margaret Thatcher is dead.  Some people are quite loyal to her and to her memory.  Being a follower of Margaret Thatcher was an important decision in their lives, and they remain loyal to her and to that earlier version of themselves that supported her.

On the other hand, a lot of people recognize that Thatcher-Reagan Thermidor against the possibilities of liberalism as a tragic mistake, one that had profoundly negative effects on millions of people's lives.

A little kerfuffle has broken out about how to remember someone like Margaret Thatcher.  The little subservient loyal subject in all of us wants to offer tribute to the great and powerful who made the world that we live in.  Others keep pointing out the obvious and unmistakable historical truths of her life and work.

There isn't a parish minister who doesn't know this situation.  Each has been called to create a memorial service for someone flawed, mistaken and even destructive, someone both loved and hated in the community. The great civic leader who beat the children and flew into drunken rages at the spouse.  Those with secret lives of betrayal.

I've been there, so I have some words for the present moment regarding Mrs. Thatcher, the Baroness of the Bourgeoisie.

First of all, the fact that she died changes nothing about her historical legacy.  If she is praised now by those who remember her, it will not change what she did, nor change her legacy for longer than a week or two.  This period of time is the least useful time to conduct an autopsy on her policies and politics.  If you are so inclined, you may wish to represent those who didn't like her this week, but do not expect a substantive response.

I assume that people who reach high political office are driven in some way.  There is a personal element to that much determination and will.

The most interesting question about Margaret Thatcher is "what is the motivating struggle in her life?"  What drove her?  What was she trying to prove with her life, and to whom?  In a way, a person is an attitude, an energy, that seeks a way to express itself in the world that it finds.

I don't know her biography, but one obvious area to inquire into is being a woman in what had been a man's profession when a woman has to disprove any suspicion that she might be soft.  She was also the daughter of shopkeepers, an ambiguous class position.

A person's life is never reducible to crude interpretations based on just class, or sex, or race.  These are generalities, and every life is lived in the particular.  And when called upon to remember someone in ritual, finding out and remembering that person's particular life struggle is the key.

There is a gospel story, good news, in almost every human life story, some way in which this particular life shows God's grace, or to put in more secularly, a redemptive healing power at work in the world.   To say that takes nothing away from the historical judgments that will be made about her work.  I cannot begin to guess the gospel that was revealed by Margaret Thatcher's life, but there is one, I am sure.

This week, that might be what we focus on.

It didn't work...

It is time to declare the Thatcher-Reagan experiment over.  It was a failure.  It didn't  create a better society.  In fact, what has emerged at the end of this forty years of history is an obscene maldistribution of wealth, a new aristocracy, and a general decline in the lot of the poor, the working poor and the middle class.  Our new aristocracy is the nobles of the financial sector, who control the movement of capital in the economy, and take a little bit on everything, despite adding little in value.  The other beneficiaries of the last forty years has been the fossil fuels industry which plans to take the whole planet down with them as the approach the end of the resource that they have been exploiting all along.

Morally decent people everywhere see the individual pieces of this social policy disaster, but are only now connecting all the dots.

What we have experienced was a forty year Thermidor -- a furious counter-revolution to the

progressive vision of a better society which emerged in the early 60's.  Thatcher-Reaganism started out as successful merger of corporate capitalist lobbying with a Nixonian exploitation of cultural resentments, sweeping to power here in the USA in 1980.  Now, it lingers on as desperate manipulation of every anti-democratic gizmo of our system by the GOP's legislative branch to stop, delay, and eviscerate any break with St. Ronald's reactionary legacy.

The institutions of moral decency, especially the churches, have been coopted or silenced or marginalized during the Thatcher-Reagan Thermidor.

Now, the Liberal Church should take up the cause of improving the living standards of ordinary Americans.

1. The minimum wage should be increased.
2. Social Security benefits should be increased, not diminished.
3. The right to unionize needs to be extended and implemented, especially for low wage service workers.
4. Undocumented workers should be mainstreamed into the conventional labor market.
5.  National health care reform needs to be pushed forward -- the expansion of Medicaid in the states, but ultimately a single payer system.
6. We should improve the general standard of living for all by reinvigorating the public sector: better public transportation, better public schools, better libraries, better parks, clean and safe streets, better policing, better criminal justice administration, better mental health services.
7. We should make public investment in energy efficiency in homes, buildings, and energy infrastructure, lowering energy costs for all.

These ideas seem crazy now.  They seem crazy because the Thatcher-Reagan counter-revolution declared them crazy.  They would not have been crazy in 1965, but part of a broad liberal consensus.

We went another way in 1968, and doubled down on that choice in 1980.  At this point, I think we can say that overall, it didn't work out the way that was promised.

Let's face the facts and change.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Red Equal Sign

Some definitions:

The Human Rights Campaign is, to use the language of the Left, a Right Opportunist organization.  It can be successful because it asks for so little.  Its demands are the demands of the people closest to the system.  Marriage Equality is not a particularly radical demand; it's actually a conservative demand.

A lot of people are angry at the Human Rights Campaign, especially after it inspired 2-3 million people to change their facebook profile picture to a red equal sign.  Those angry folks are Left Sectarians, again, in the language of the Left. They are angry and frustrated at the Right Opportunists leadership of the movement, and angry that the less involved (the masses seem to prefer the wrong leaders.

I know that this is mansplaining, but it's also a geezer lecture.  This is not a new story, but a long-standing pattern in radical politics in the United States.  As the right opportunists get close to winning some reform, the left sectarians raise more and more pointed critiques of it.  It is how the msovement moves to new stages, formulates new demands and reaches new understandings.  But along the way, great damage can be done to the overall conditions in the country.  The fragmentation of the reform movements into liberal and radical wings blunts the progressive movement and opens a space for the Right to regain the initiative.

In the period of 1968-1972, the great liberal upsurge of the 1960's (culminating in the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and as it wound down even the EPA and the ADA) broke apart along this liberal/radical lines.  One the one hand, increasingly reformist, water-down advances and on the other hand, a deeper, more far-reaching critique.  In the UUA, the Black Empowerment Controversy was our little piece of this larger story.

In that moment, the rightwing rose to power, and inaugurated a 40 years backward march.  They were able to do so because the progressive movement could no longer lead.  It could not formulate a program that improved the lives of people and that they could mobilize people to demand.

I would suspect that we are about to enter a similar period.  The success of the Obama coalition in ending the Nixon-Reagan-Bush counter-revolution sets the stage for a new progressive movement, more radical and far-reaching than the reforms now considered.  After all, we want more than just same-sex marriage, some 'common-sense' gun safety legislation, an orderly end to the wars, and a chance to buy health insurance.  The Occupy movement was a harbinger of what is to come.

But is the Left of the Left ready to lead?  Not just critique the present leadership, but take the lead of the whole movement?

I put up my version of the red equal sign.  I would have gladly put up another sign or symbol, or take some other action, to intervene in the struggle for marriage equality, an action that pointed to a more radical understanding, or even the emergence of a more radical leadership.  I just heard crickets.  Yes, I heard some complaining about HRC, but there was not the sound of a different leadership, one that spoke to the historical moment.  Not one that offered millions of people a way to be a drop of water in a tidal wave.  Not yet, but maybe someday.

Monday, April 01, 2013

After Easter

Aside from going to the Easter service at the UU congregation of Ann Arbor, which was not especially Christocentric, I didn't do anything particular for Holy Week.  Yes, I posted some blogposts from the privacy of my study, and in the dead of the night, but I didn't go to any of local church services.  There is a very nice small, progressive Methodist church around the corner, complete with rainbow flags and folk singers.  They had a Good Friday service -- short, 30 minutes and repeated three times.  They had a service and a potluck on Saturday afternoon.  I didn't go.

I didn't expect this response to Holy Week, now that I am out of active parish ministry.

Mostly, what I feel is relief; I allowed myself to be aware of the frustrations and resentments I had felt in active parish work during this season.

I never felt the work of Holy Week was burdensome.  I enjoyed writing newsletter articles re-telling the story of Jesus' last week in Jerusalem.  I enjoyed thinking about all the strange nooks and crannies of the gospel story.  I enjoyed engaging the differing perspectives of the characters in it.

Every year for 12 years, I conducted a communion service on Maundy Thursday. I prepared the liturgy, arranged the flowers, gathered the church's most beautiful objects to set the table.  I cut up the bread and poured the wine.  It was a labor of love, and I felt my most priestly.  A small group gathered.

On Easter Sunday, we had a chilly sunrise service.  On Easter morning, the congregation would come down front, and join the choir.  We belted out the Hallelujah Chorus, from the Messiah.  We sang "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" with the old words.  The sanctuary smelled of lilies. All great stuff.

I never resented one task or duty of the season.  I get the Easter story and I know its saving power.

But every Spring, it felt like pushing a peanut up a hill with my nose in the rain.  I think many of my colleagues in ministry know what I am talking about.  There is a lot of resistance out there to directly engaging the story of resurrection, indeed, the gospels in general.  Holy Week is when most liberal ministers understand Paul's description of the work as being a fool for Christ.

I am stopping myself from describing every kind of resistance that smart and sophisticated people put up to Easter.  I am stopping myself from describing every caution and disclaimer and historic contextualization we ministers go through before we get down to the story.  I am stopping myself from enumerating every metaphor for resurrection I have invoked over the years.  I am stopping myself from describing every way that I used to contain the resurrection within the world as we now know it.  If I did not stop myself, it would sound like I am angry with our people.

I have heard too many UU ministers with Christian leanings vent about the uninterest that UU's have in Christianity.  I want to ask, "and what did you expect?"

What makes UU's wonderful is that they are impatient with all the old forms. Maybe, they instinctively know that we ministers are working through some unfinished business from seminary.  Or maybe, they don't need to know the story of Jesus to know that springtime proves the resilience of hope, or that Empires screw over the little folks, before they vanish into oblivion.

And yes, it is weird that they all show up on Easter Sunday, but don't really want to talk about it.  But hey! Go figure.

I see my colleagues out there almost drowning, nose down, pushing that peanut up the hill.  God love you all.  This year, I was just glad to be on dry and level land.