Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How to Fight Classism In UU Churches -- Tithing

Right now, most of our churches depend on particularly generous givers.  Let's call them our "angels".  Often they are older people who give a larger dollar amount.  Both they and the church leadership do not like to call attention to this fact, so they are never publicized, nor honored.  It means that the most important financial relationships that sustain the church are secret.  Yet everyone knows what is going on.  They have covert power.

Yet, these people are often not the most generous givers, because while the dollar amount is higher than others, they are giving a smaller percentage of their income or assets.

This system is a class-based system, giving more power to the members of the church who have the higher position in the class system of the general society.  And like the general society, this class power is hidden and disguised.  It means that our congregations conform to the class system, not counter it.

Tithing establishes a different standard: by explicitly creating an explicit standard based on commitment to the church, not on social class, it establishes a counter-cultural norm.  That's how you fight classism.

Here is what I would recommend.

1. How to Start a Tithe System. Establish through discussion with the most committed members of the congregation a standard of tithing. Start with the 5 families who seem to be closest to a tithe right now. The ideal mechanism for transitioning to a tithe would be that 10% of the congregation makes a public statement that they have voluntarily agreed to meet a commonly held standard of tithing, and that they invite anyone else to come along.

I would avoid a general discussion.  Why have people who do not intend to reach this level of generosity have influence over the discussion?  I would certainly avoid a by-law change, which opens it up to a general vote.  Why have cheap people have a vote on the level of generosity of generous people?

2. Defining the Tithe:   There all kinds of way to define a tithe.  You can have different standards for different life stages, a lower percentage of younger people. A percentage of net worth for retired people. You can have a path for growing the congregation into the tithe, saying "this year our standard is 2%, and in two years it will be 5% and in ten years it will be 10%."  I would think that your starting definition would include some families already and be within reach of some more.
 
3. Verification:   Once the standards are clear, the enforcement is on the honor-system.  I would use the tax year as the standard unit of measure and make the designation of the tithe retroactive, and make the designation after April 15.   (If I can say that my contribution in 2012 were x% of my 2012 income, I am on the list -- even if I didn't announce that intention at the beginning of 2012.)

4.  What do I get for Tithing:  Those who meet the standard are publicly listed and honored, without dollar amounts.  Tithing does not equal membership (because that would require a by-law change!) By not linking it membership, you also avoid the equation some want to make between volunteering and contributing.  Honor your dedicated volunteers of time and effort some other way.

I used to wish the UU World would annually list everyone who meets their churches' reasonable standards of tithing.  But I rather keep it voluntary and self-directed: the churches with tithing systems should buy an ad in the World to announce their tithing members.  Why get anyone else involved in the decision? Why make the UU World staff decide?

5.  What about non-tithing members of the congregation?  They should keep giving at levels which with they are comfortable.  But as Chris Rock says, "what do you want? A cookie?"


I would like to eliminate pledge campaigns, pledge-based budgeting etc.  They are also mechanisms for giving cheap people with low commitment to the church power to act as a brake on the congregation, but that is another post in what I guess will be a series:  How to fight classism in UU congregations !

Monday, July 29, 2013

United or Untied?

When I served my previous church, I was a big extrovert in the congregation.  I knew more people's names than they expected.  I worked the sanctuary before the service like a South Boston politician at a pancake breakfast at St. Bridget's.  I was using my self to encourage a sense of community, pastor as host to the party that is the congregation.

First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor
When I moved here, I started attending a UU congregation right away.  And I found myself coming to church at the last minute and scooting out to the car after giving my heartfelt respect to the day's preacher.  I had suddenly turned into an introvert.  The question was not whether the congregation was friendly and welcoming, but whether I was ready and willing to be welcomed.

Why was I holding back?   Indeed, why does anyone hold back from entering into or committing to a community?

And people do hold back.  Organizational memberships in all sorts of organizations are down.  People are passionate about political causes but don't join organizations.  Church membership is declining.  We talk about the "Spiritual But Not Religious" and the religiously unaffiliated as a growing group.  Yet a majority of those who identify themselves as one of the "nones" still believe in God.  Maybe they just don't want to join anything.

Zygmunt Bauman
I turned to a book by Zygmunt Bauman, "Liquid Love" for help. Among the many things he studied was the fluidity of relationships in the contemporary era.  People do not want to join structured communities, but be part of "networks" where they can control when they connect and when they disconnect.  People seem to prefer asynchronous communication: emails, texts and facebook postings rather than phone calls.  People change jobs, relocate, fall in love, fall out of love and move on, their friends and social circle turn over in time.

He noticed that in the advice columns there were more letters asking when and how to get out of a relationship than how to get into one.  I verified this fact in the advice columns in the Boston Globe.

This was the clue that led him to conclude that it was fear of ending relationships and being unable to get out of communities that motivated our caution about entering into them.

I connect this with the concept of self-differentiation: ability to stay in relationship when differences arise.  Edwin H. Friedman calls it self-differentiation, but Francis David said long ago when he said that "we need not think alike to love alike."

William Ellery Channing calls it having a "Free Mind" and self-possession.  His inspired articulation of the free mind is a part of a sermon called "Spiritual Freedom" (1830) in which he equates freedom with self-possession.  Today we say that freedom is self-determination.  And that freedom is essential to having the confidence to make deep connections.

To put it simply, although we are embedded in many relationships and communities already, we can make a conscious commitment to them only when we are confident in our ability to manage our selves in those relationships.  Without self-possession, our choices seem to be only enmeshment or independence.  Enmeshment is being over-committed and feeling obligated by the relationship, unable to say no to other's demands, being dominated by the community, losing one self in a group.  Independence is just that, staying independent of the relationship, and missing all of its benefits of shared purposeful work, friendship, support and love.

My message is that you probably already have the skills and resources to manage your self in relationships and community.  When I think about it, of course, my caution about entering into a new congregation is an ingrained habit that I carry around with me.

You have within yourself the tools and skills to manage your relationships in the church and elsewhere.  

The power of saying no.  

The resilience to weather other people’s disapproval.  

You have the resilience to handle negative feedback.  You can handle the fact that if you enter into a relationship with people of another race, or religion, that you might well make some mistakes and embarass yourselves, but you can handle it.  

You don’t have to go on every guilt trip that people suggest.  

You do not have to have and you will never get a guarantee that every thing you do will turn out well, but your ability to improvise, to respond in the moment, to listen and learn are all that you need to have to go on the journey.  

As A. A. Milne writes:

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.


But you have to name and face your fears.  The problem with privilege (playing the game of life on the easiest difficulty level -- is that you don’t have to conquer your fears to have some, many of your dreams come true. -- and so none of your biggest dreams will ever come true, including your dreams of community and relationships and love. 

Liberal Religion is the way of spiritual freedom. The truth that we believe we know is that self-possession and spiritual freedom are linked and are the pre-condition of any sort of progress and spiritual growth.  

Channing says that the free mind is one that "protects itself against the usurpations of society and which does not cower to human opinion: which refuses to be a slave of the many or of the few."

Seen from that perspective, freedom is still a live issue, the unfulfilled aspiration of most people in the world.  For most people, the song "I Wish I know how it would feel to be free" describes a deep longing.

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free of the limited view of life that comes from my limited experience in the world. 

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free of the psychological habits, and compulsions and obsessions that I carry through life.  

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free of my silly fears and subtle inhibitions.

And so many others: they wish they knew how it would feel to be free of harsh economic necessity: they wish they knew how it would feel to be free of the boxes, the profiles, that others put them in because of their race, or appearance, or gender expression, or their physical abilities.  

For many, many, many people, they wish they knew how it would feel to be free from the threat of violence.

They wish, and I wish, that we knew how it would feel to be free: to be confident and self-empowered to enter into rich social relationships with others, into deep community. 

Freedom, a world of freedom, free people joined into free associations, communities that empower freedom:  these are still the shining goals of our movement.  Not just for the middle classes, for people like us, but for everyone, the whole human family.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Conservative and Anti-Racist?

Give up, the struggle is not worth it !

This is my message to politically conservatives who want to maintain their illusion that one can be a Republican or a conservative and not be defending racism and the racist social structure of the United States.  Yes, it might have been possible in the 1960's, but it is not possible now.

The lengths that you have to go intellectually to justify your loyalty to the Republican Party are corrosive to your intellectual powers, and they are morally demeaning, and they only get you in deeper.

Since the George Zimmerman verdict, you have been engaged in an ideological skirmish over racial profiling -- which you claim does not go on, and is only rational anyway.  I think I read someone say that it is only "Criminal" profiling.  Anyway the argument goes that since black men and youth are statistically more likely to commit crimes, good police work will see black men and youth as meriting closer watch, the occasional stop and frisk, and even, on more rare occasion, accidental shooting and murder.   None of this is racist, because of statistics.  Well, it is the very definition of racial prejudice: assigning characteristics to an entire group because of the actions of a few.

Of course, you take great offense if someone equates you with Louis Gohmert or Michelle Bachman because you are the members of the same party.

But the core problem is this: the Republican party is getting a shrinking portion of the votes of People of Color.  Among African Americans, you're down to about the share that you would get simply through accidental ballot error -- people hitting the wrong button on the machine.  You are not that low on Hispanics and Asian-Americans but you're tending in that direction.  They think your party is racist.

So, how can it be that People of Color think you are opposed to their interests, even though you are really committed to equality, fair play and the end of racism?

How can it be that so many People of Color misunderstand racism, misunderstand their own interests, misunderstand the situation?  When it is clear to you?

You're like that guy who after driving onto the wrong lane of the freeway, calls 911 to report that hundreds of people are driving the wrong way, in the wrong lane, and creating a very dangerous situation.

The only way that you can think that such overwhelming numbers of people of color can be so wrong about racism is to think that they are easily misled and not very smart.  In other words,  you have say that millions of people are stupid and racist, in order to preserve you conviction that you are not.

You're like the religous fundamentalists who decided that the Bible was never wrong, and now have to argue that whales are really fishes because the Bible said Jonah was swallowed by a "big fish".

Someday you are going to look back and be embarrassed by all of this.



How to fight classism in UU Churches

Is your congregation on the side of working class and poor people in the real world?

Is it as important to you and your church that people in your community are subject to exploitation as they are to oppression?

Same sex couples in your community may not be allowed the rights and privileges of a legal marriage.  It's an outrage.  It is great that your congregation will say so publicly, and will support every effort to change that.

Does your congregation also see it as also outrageous that minimum wage workers in your community, working for some of the biggest corporations in the country, cannot earn enough to support a family, even with two or three jobs?

Does your congregation also speak up for Walmart workers who must go through Medicaid for health care and food stamps for food?

Is your congregation willing to go to the State Capitol to lobby for Medicaid expansion in your state?  UU's organize lobby days for reproductive justice; do they do the same for poor kids' health?

Yes, our churches and congregations often have middle-class biases.  We have ways of doing things that are suitable for middle-class people.  We assume that our budgets are due to our prosperous members being cheap, rather than the limited resources of our community.  We assume a lot of things.  And we should work on those issues.

But we should also look outside at the real struggles going on in the world.  The real problem for a single mother trying to make it by piecing together a retail part-time job and a fast-food service job, neither with benefits is not that she might feel uncomfortable at First UU when people talk about their European vacations.  Many of her problems center around her low pay and poor benefits at work and cheap social services in the community.  She suffers economically because people like her have little political power, and she can be exploited at will.

Does your church still have a pro and con panel discussion and an open forum before it marches with its banner in the local Pride parade?  Probably not.  You've had those discussions and have moved as a body from the sidelines into the struggle.

We are not there yet now, but we should be moving on toward that place, where poor and working class people know that Unitarian Universalists are on their side.

Exploitation is as morally offensive as marginalization and oppression.






Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Historical Reminder

For those who forget the finer details of American history, or who content themselves with the kind of glorified secular salvation story that passes for our history, a few words about the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the present Constitution of the United States.

It was an extra-legal process: there was no way that the Articles of Confederation could put themselves out of business, nor even start a process to write a new Constitution.  It was just done; everyone knew that it was being done; the new Constitutionalists went out of their way to make a process of writing and ratification that would give the new government legitimacy.

One of the driving forces for the process was the fact that the various states had borrowed money from wealthy people, debts which it appeared that those states could not pay back. They borrowed the money in part to finance the Revolutionary War.

One of the powers of the new Federal government was that it absorbed the unpaid debts of the various states.  The states were relieved of those debts and the Federal government paid them back, or paid interest on those bonds for the profit of the creditors.  It was one of the reasons why the states liked the new Constitution, and it was one of the reasons why the wealthy appreciated the new Federal government.

You might ask why this is relevant today.  It is relevant because one of the first and most important powers of the Federal government under the Constitution was to absorb the unpayable debts of lower levels of government.

We are now in a great crisis because the city of Detroit owes, it is estimated by the creditors, 18.5 billion dollars.  A good chunk of that is owed to retired city workers, who get an average payment of $1900 per month.   All serious and reasonable people who comment on the problems of Detroit agree that this $1900 per month is an outrageous looting of the public treasury and must be reduced.  Especially if the banker creditors of Detroit are to be protected.  This is manifestly unjust.

Eighteen billion dollars is a lot of money for a city.  For the Federal government, it is slightly more than a rounding error. It is estimated that the US government lost $60 billion, much of it in cash, in the reconstruction of Iraq.  The federal government ought to guarantee the full payment of the pensions of Detroit city workers.

What happened to the American auto industry between 1965 and the present is a huge and complex story, a historic culmination of several epochal transformations:  the rise and fall of mass industrial production and industrial unions, the developing globalization of heavy manufacturing, the emerging dominance of financial capital over industrial capital, the great migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial centers of the North, the transformation of the African American people from an agricultural people to an industrial proletariate,  the collision of the Civil Rights movement with industrial unionism, the racial transformation of Northern cities through white flight. the rise and fall of the ethnically white big city machines and their replacement with African American political power.  The result was the disinvestment in and the depopulation of the city of Detroit, once America's most prosperous city.  All of the processes of American history in the 20th Century finally come down to a broke city government, trying to pay the pensions of its retired city workers, who are left holding the bag, for a set of processes bigger than any decision maker to have controlled.

The feds need to make this right for those pensioners.





Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Standing on the Side of Love in Michigan

To stand on the side of love is to cut through the derp and see the people involved in what seems like complex social issues, but are really not complicated at all.

There was a time when to mention homosexuality and marriage was to trigger a tsunami of high minded honking about what was the best way to raise children and what was the proper role of marriage in the maintenance of an orderly society.  To stand on the side of love is to see people who are devoting their lives to each other stigmatized and rejected.

There was a time when to talk about immigration would occasion all sorts of public intellectuals to get up and blow 32 bars about labor policy, wage differentials, trade arrangements, outsourcing and temporary workers.  To see through the eyes of love is to see families torn apart, and people wanting to work, and people stigmatized and rejected.

There was a time when to talk about reproductive justice would invite men to bring out their soapboxes and orate about the promiscuity of women and the viability of fetuses and a culture of life and selfish feminism.  To stand on the side of love is to choose not to be indifferent to the difficult choices of real women face.

Derp, Derp, All of It Derp, sayeth the Blogger.

To talk about Detroit now, is like talking about New Orleans a few years ago.  Every policy wonk, economic analyst, financial wizard and sadistic secular theologian has a wheelbarrow full of derp to dump into the public discourse.  Mostly, it moralistic adjudication of who is really to blame, and the sadistic allocation of who should really, really, really suffer as an example to the rest of us.

Are the unions to blame because they sought a decent standard of living for the people doing the work in America's most prosperous industry?  Is it the African Americans who built the cars, but were expected to live in a white dominated city, with a white police force that saw themselves as an occupying army.  It must have been the Democratic Party, because, I don't know, those people voted Democrat.  Oh, it's all of our fault, because we bought Japanese cars.  Oh, its the auto companies fault because they didn't listen to the changing market.  Well the decision makers in the auto companies are not living in Detroit, and they, thank you, are doing fine, still.

Anyway, let the Detroiters suffer, sayeth the derpsters.  They somehow brought in on themselves.  We will watch here from the suburbs and from Wall Street and Washington DC, enjoying the spectacle of the Gods of Market punishing the wicked.   Oh, and for God's sake, get the art treasures out of the Detroit Institute Art before the barbarians take over.  The DIA can sell the art to the big museums to give Detroit the money to pay the banks, whose owners sit on the boards of the big museums.

Derp, derp, all of it derp, sayeth this blogger, even though he has rarely been in Detroit, and couldn't name a person on the Tiger lineup.  Maybe, it's just that he grew up near Youngstown, Ohio.

To stand on the side of love is to cut through the DERP and see the people involved, poor people trying to hang on in a abandoned, dangerous, underserved and decaying city, and to choose not to be indifferent to their fate.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Modest Proposal: Tax White Privilege

A very modest proposal:  If we accept racial profiling as a "racist public safety tax" -- a sadly necessary denial of African American individuality, in which African American males give up the presumption of their innocence, their 4th amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizures and occasionally, their 5th amendment right to due process in the taking of their lives by the state and vigilante forces in return for increasing white people's sense of public safety, then, a specific counter-vailing incentive should be brought to bear to keep this to a minimum, a check and balance.

So, I am proposing a White Privilege Public Safety Tax: a tax imposed on all white citizens and residents of the United States of America.  This tax would create a fund to compensate those people of color who are mistakenly profiled by state agents and vigilantes.  For example, a young black man who was stopped and frisked only to find school books and a smartphone would receive a sum of money to compensate for the disturbance of his peace, the wasting of his time and his humiliation.  How much money?  Enough to insure that city officials would put significant pressure on the training of police to minimize unnecessary stopping and frisking.  At least a couple hundred dollars.  And for a death in a situation created by profiling: how much is young life worth?  Millions.

There are a lot of details to work out.  Who decides when a police intervention in the lives of a citizen is the result of racial profiling?  It would seem that a panel of people of color would have to have that power.  A panel of whites would have a conflict of interest.  To those who would object, saying that the justice system should be race neutral -- I would reply that train has already left the station.  We have already accepted a racialized system of justice in this country; now we are just trying to make it a more level playing field.

Would the TSA be included?  Of course, people of color are profiled frequently in airports.  White people should have to pay for the ease with which we so frequently move through the security lines.

What about Neighborhood Watch vigilantes, like George Zimmerman?  I would predict that police forces would start to take more control of such groups, if they were on the financial hook for deaths that these untrained, yet encouraged, vigilantes' actions.

One other benefit of such a "white privilege public safety tax" would be that many white people would begin searching their family trees to discover the people of color in their ancestry, beginning a process of reversing the construction of "whiteness" as a racial category.  The Irish and Italians might want to go back to when they were considered "not white", and connect again with their experiences of being the shunned outsider.

A tax on white privilege might hasten the creation of a self-consciously multi-racial America.

Racial Pofiling: A Racist Public Safety Tax?

Ta-Nahisi Coates calls racial profiling "a racist public safety tax," leveled on African America.  Because of the strength made in white people's mind of the connection between black men and boys and criminality, all black males must suffer individual invisibility, police invasion and the higher danger of extra-judicial killing.

He says it, thus, in a blog post responding to Richard Cohen's defense of profiling.

They hold that neither I, nor my twelve year old son, nor any of my nephews, nor any of my male family members deserve to be judged as individuals by the state. Instead we must be seen as members of a class more inclined to criminality. It does not matter that the vast, vast majority of black men commit no violent crime at all. Cohen argues that that majority should unduly bear the burden of police invasion, because of a minority who happens to live among us.
Richard Cohen concedes that this is a violation, but it is one he believes black people, for the good of their country, must learn to live with. Effectively he is arguing for a kind of racist public safety tax. The tax may, or may not, end with a frisking. More contact with the police, and people who want to be police, necessarily means more deadly tragedy. Thus Cohen is not simply calling for my son and I to bear the brunt of "violation," he is calling for us to run a higher risk of death and serious injury at the hands of the state. Effectively he is calling for Sean Bell's fianceƩ, Trayvon Martin's parents, Amadou Diallo's mother, Prince Jones' daughter, the relatives of Kathryn Johnston to accept the deaths of their love ones as the price of doing business in America.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What do you think?

... the perception of black men as inherently criminal is what most black people really mean by “racism” when they talk about its prevalence.

So says John McWhorter in a recent article in New Republic article.  

What do you think?

I recognize that the statement is unverifiable.  How would one ever find out what most black people really mean by any statement?  You can poll and find out what percentage of people would agree or disagree with a particular statement, but what they really mean is impossible.   But be that as it may.

McWhorter is zeroing in on what seems to be the most potent white racist tropes, which underlie not only the relationship between black men and criminal justice system, but also many public policies.  And he is making a double-sided observation.  Not only does he imply that most white people really make this connection, but also that most black people think most white people make this connection and that it drives everything else.

Is not the desire to restrict voting rights justified by prospect that black people are engaging in widespread voter fraud, what with their registration drives and buses from church and New Black Panthers enforcing party line voting?

Is not the striking down of the Voting Rights Act itself arising from the stated perception that the preclearance requirements were an undeserved racial preference?

And welfare and food stamps and every other program for the poor being systematically looted, in the eyes of white racism, by black people on the make?

After reading McWhorter's piece, I finally get the rightwing discourse about Barack Obama, this slight academic intellectual politician, as being a Chicago gangster thug straight out one of Kelsey Grammer's fever dreams.  And the birther narrative, Obama, an illicit illegitimate politician from before birth.

Conversations about race tend to broaden and broaden and broaden, as all of the aspects of Europe's brutal exploitation and oppression of all of the world's people are identified and catalogued.  (England's particular contribution: the creation of racist ideology is one key thread.)  But McWhorter suggests that a narrowing of focus might be useful: the presumption of African American male criminality.

What do you think?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Blah Blah Blah Derp Amen

For a while there, the internets were ablaze with the white hot anger of religious professionals upset with other religious professionals about who didn't say what where about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.  Too many church services about the "spirituality of gardening" and "finding the holy at the beach" and the "theology of baseball" on Sunday, July 14th.  Even Gini Courter got in her licks, criticizing Peter Morales for being late to the party with his statement condemning the verdict.

Oh, I agree with the criticism: I think liberal religious leaders have an absolute requirement to be ready to speak prophetically and pastorally in moments like this.

I learned this the hard way, on September 11, 2001, my colleague called me and we watched the coverage of the attack in New York City.  Somewhere along the line, she said that we should start to plan for a different worship service on Sunday.  I said that we should wait "to see if this was going to be big thing, or not."  Which is one of my 10 most stupid things ever I said as a minister.  So forgive me if I seem little excitable now.

But so much of what gets said could wait anyway.

What is it about religious speech that is so dull? Why are statements from denominational leaders so predictable?  Why are sermons about hot issues often so tedious, full of balance and long-views and dispassionate analysis of shades of gray?

But Twitter and Facebook were alive with anguish, anger and passion on Sunday.

Does the way that we structure authority in the liberal church mute us or dull us down?

If you want to know what a UU minister really thinks and feels about an important event, would it make more sense to follow them on Twitter, or come to church on Sunday morning?  

Shouldn't we communicate more directly?  I myself would have loved to see a tweet from Peter Morales on Saturday night "Stuck in airport. Angry/Sad about Z-man verdict. Hope UU's speak out, raise hell!"

There is a world of derp out there -- the endless repetition of unreflective assumptions, or bland platitudes, of high-minding honking and 32 bar solos -- let's not add to it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It's not just white privilege; it's white authority

White privilege comes from the decisions to color-code the working class of North America, decisions made in the very early days of colonial settlement, even before New England was settled. 

The legal system of American slavery was a new invention and codified very early in colonial history.  Slavery in England before 1600 was debt slavery, had a time limit, and was inherited father to son. A son would be in servitude until the unpaid of his father was cleared.

But slavery in America was for life, had no time limit and was a status inherited through the mother.  If your mother was a slave, then you were a slave.  (Think about the sexual violence and rape assumed by that legal redefinition.)  Laws had to be written and judicial precedents established to make this a legal system.  It was conscious and deliberate work.

Slavery in British North America was a legal system created to solve specific problems in the extraction of wealth from the colonies.  

In the beginning, it was tobacco was the most important source of wealth from Virginia.  Tobacco needed large amounts of labor which could not be hired because of the horror of its working conditions.  Labor had to be compelled, but Virginia was frontier. The native people could not be compelled to work; they could easily escape into the forested inland regions.  Europeans could not be compelled to work because they could go 50 miles down the road, change their name and start over.  Hence African slaves.  

But in order to compel African slave labor, they had to prevent slaves from escaping down the road, as well. They could be controlled by their color, that they were different in appearance.   All whites had to be and were enlisted in the effort to control all black people.  Any white person could challenge any black person to prove that they had been given permission to be in any place.  One race policing another. Community over community.  In several colonies, including Virginia, free blacks were banished from the colony as their presence undercut this system.  In short, slave America depended on universal racial profiling as a means of maintaining and controlling the slave system.

White privilege is not simply that white people were given privileges and benefits that black people were not.  It stems also from a system in white people were given authority over black people.  


That system passes down culturally and shows up in the police forces and prison guards throughout the country.  In many northern urban cities, police forces were essentially segregated.  Prisons are often located in rural parts of the state, up here in the North, were the prison guard population will be white.  It sets into the very definition of policing itself that it is a paramilitary organization whose job is to control an alien population.  They "patrol".  

When George Zimmerman is described as a "wannabe cop" -- what's that about?  

The pacification and control from above of an alien and restive black population seems to me to be the unspoken assumption behind much of our domestic political debate.  On the one hand is the hardline camp which calls for strict law and order, as much punishment as possible and short rations to ensure compliance.  On the other hand, a more liberal camp argues for more mercy and better benefits as a way to keep the peace.  It's almost impossible to escape the construct that they (those people) are our problem and we have to figure out the best way to manage them to keep this culture and society from devolving into some unimaginable horror, like a zombie movie.  




Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Who's In Charge Here? The Historical Context : the Empowerment Controversy

If "Derp" is defined as the unreflective repetition of previously held opinion, the events of 1969 in the UUA, the empowerment controversy, are the mother lode of UU derp.

As predictably as House Republicans assuring us that tax cuts for the rich will solve whatever problem is at hand, UU writers assure us that empowerment controversy is deeply relevant to whatever problem is under discussion.

I confess that I wasn't there, having left UUism about that time, because I had concluded that UUism made a lousy political organization.  It was a religious institution that couldn't make up its mind about anything; meanwhile, there was an actual movement available at the time.  (Snark alert! We have solved that problem by now, by calling ourselves a movement too, although motion is sometimes hard to detect.)

But I get it; it's an important story for understanding who we are, we think.  Unfortunately, it is a damaging and inaccurate story.

The story we tell is that after the Civil Rights Movement, liberalism failed the test.  As the COA writes " unable to engage in the more radical action needed to move civil rights from legal charter to reality."  We liberals were hypocrites.

1968 and 1969 was indeed a crisis for liberalism.

The urban uprisings after Dr. King's assassination showed that urban black communities were far more angry and ready to move than all the bodies of that made up leadership of the liberal coalition: the unions, the churches, the civil rights organizations, the non-Southern Democrats, the moderate Republicans.  All across this Civil Rights Coalition, African Americans created separate formations and caucuses, creating their own "Black" leadership, which was not as enmeshed with white liberals as the established "Negro" leadership. Their charge was the white liberals did not really have the interests of the full black community at heart. White liberals were hypocrites. What was happening in the UUA was not unique, but part of a pattern.

At the same time, Nixon and the emerging rightwing, was perfecting its mobilization against liberalism. Liberals seemed to hold the high moral ground, but were attacked for hypocrisy. Liberals might oppose the war, but it was just because they did not their kids to be drafted.  They were for school integration but sent their kids to private or suburban schools.  They were for affirmative action for public universities but went to private schools themselves. They talked about the poor, but were middle-class themselves.

From both the Right and the Left, liberals were called out as hypocrites.  And a vast silent majority of people were hostile to us.  That is the way it seemed.

1969 was the beginning of a 40 year period of aggressive conservative dominance in the political and cultural life of the country.  Liberalism in every form became the enemy.  Liberalism became a dirty word that people ran away from.  White Liberals were hypocritical, silly, and ineffectual and deeply inauthentic.

It is not surprising that this 40 year narrative of hypocritical, silly and ineffectual white liberals has become a part of our self-conception.  To younger UU's, this is narrative that they have grown up with.

This was the historical context of the empowerment controversy.  By ripping it out of its historical context we make it a foundational story of our hypocrisy and failure.  Which is useful, in a way, because it counteracts the Selma story we tell ourselves. The two stories go together like before and after pictures. What was in between, what turned the inspiring before into the dispirited after, were the riots and Nixon.  Our inability to name the external reality of what was happening is like a post traumatic stress response, internalizing what was external, ending in self-blame.

As I have said before, the 40 years between 1969 and 2008 was a wilderness time for us.  The UU movement was traumatized by the bitter and ugly end of the period of liberal ascendency in which we had been founded in our current form in 1961. UU's exhibited all the signs of a traumatized and highly anxious group: hiding away, herding together, exaggerated responses to internal conflicts, self-blame, sometimes grandiosity and sometimes compete pessimism, a relentless self-focus on our own comforts.

I urge you all to read Mark Morrison-Reed's summation of the empowerment controversy in Darkening the Doorways.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Ministerial Authority and Systems of Oppression: The Intersections.

COA "Who's In Charge Here" deals with ministerial authority, power and oppression in our UU systems.

The most important fact that must be kept in mind is that institutions of liberal religion reduced the authority of the office of minister throughout the 20th century.

1. Humanism and atheism ended any thought that the minister knew something about ultimate reality.

2. The expansion of University Education that made lay members equally or better educated than the ministers themselves.

3. Unitarian growth strategy was to build lay-led formations, which led to a radical laicism, which we call the "fellowship mentality."

4.  Liberal Religion in the 20th century stepped back on questions of sexual morality.  Because more orthodox forms of Christianity had failed so completely to deal with people's sexual lives, we carved out a place as that church where no one is going to judge your sexual life, the church that doesn't do guilt and shame.  An unspoken conspiracy between ministers and congregants developed; neither would judge each other's sexual lives.  Of course, it was going to end badly as ministerial sexual misconduct proliferated.

5. All of the anti-oppressive movements ended up being in practice in opposition to the authority of the minister.  Inside UU congregations, ministers were the local embodiment of "The Man."

6. The growth of women in ministry meant that many congregations saw in them cheaper and more compliant professional leadership, and accorded them less authority.  There was a generational aspect to this as well.  The new female ministers were often Baby Boomer women entering churches with pre-Boomer leadership.  Those older women and men demanded that the new female ministers conform to the cultural styles of the male minister of the generations before them.  Whole areas of a ministers life became open to informal "congregational" review: her hair, her makeup, her shoes and her wardrobe, not only on Sunday but at any occasion.

7.  Finally, from around 1969 to 2008, all forms of liberalism including Unitarian Universalism were attacked, demeaned and mocked by an aggressive conservative movement, that said it was  morally relativistic, ethically slack, sexually libertine, "touchy-feely", politically correct, and in all ways, ridiculous.  As the professional leaders of our religion: the UU minister was the walking embodiment of all that.  Religious liberals absorbed many of those attitudes and this liberal self-doubt was especially directed against our leaders and representatives.

The overall picture is declining ministerial authority.

Those trends have not yet played themselves out.

In the end, in our current system, the minister has very little positional authority, defined as authority that is accorded them by virtue of their position as minister.  Another way to look at positional authority is authority that is given the office of minister whoever is holding it.  What ministers have instead is personal authority that comes from their individual talents and interpersonal skills.

And because the ultimate source of their authority is personal a minister will have greater and more secure authority if they are a high status person in the schemes of privilege, oppression and exploitation of the culture.

As positional authority declines in importance, personal qualities become more important to authority, and the more it is diminished by racism and other forms of oppression.

Unitarian Universalist ministers are among the most well-prepared, well-educated, and thoroughly inspected religious professionals in the world.  They are also placed in their professional position by the people that they will be serving.  Nobody gets sent from a central bureaucracy.  Nobody is imposed by some distant hierarchy.  There are packets exchanged and phone interviews and in person interviews and two sample sermons. plus all the google searches someone can imagine.

If anyone should have some positional authority, it should be a UU minister.  And by "positional authority" I mean the opportunity to do the job without constant second guessing of every detail and decision, a fair hearing on institutional matters and the benefit of the doubt.  They should also have such positional authority that when a lay leader feels that they cannot support the minister, they resign from the board and or other leadership bodies.

UU ministers should have such positional authority that ministers who don't match the cultural stereotype should not have to prove themselves qualified, or ready, or without an agenda.  UU ministers should have such positional authority that young ministers don't have to prove themselves mature, ministers of color don't have to prove that they don't have an agenda, and that female ministers don't have demonstrate their gravitas.

They should start their ministries assumed by their congregants to be qualified, ready, UU thru and thru, mature and serious.

Why? Because they are frickin' UU Ministers, that's why.

And that is the stance that all UU ministers should have regarding all other UU ministers.

We are in a good situation to change the low authority of UU ministers now.  A upswing of liberality is happening in the general culture: witness the remarkable change in public opinion about marriage equality.  UU's everywhere have a sense that we might be able to become a stronger and more vibrant religious movement in the near future.  Strength and success make sense to us.

Stronger UU ministers are the key to a stronger UU movement. The UU ministers I know are itching to empower and equip church members to go out and live our values in the world.  UU ministers want to inspire deeper spiritual growth, and greater public witness, and more profound service.  UU ministers are ready to be inspirational voices in the public square for reverence and solidarity and openness and justice.  Instead of trying to limit their authority inside the congregation, every UU should be trying to build their minister's authority in the community.  As our ministers grow stronger, we all grow stronger.



Thursday, July 11, 2013

Who's In Charge Here?: Historical Context

The COA summarizes the historical context of the relationship between ministry and authority as being about the "granting or revocation of authority to ministers" as a result of "the tension between religious principle and popular national sentiment."

How this is the context for Rev. Hitchen and the East Lyndon Fellowship conflict over sermon talkbacks I don't know.

The Commission went off track back in the discussion of the Cambridge Platform.  Because they did not unpack the meaning of the authority of the minister over the "ministry of the word", the only thing that they could take from the CP was that congregations hired and fired ministers.  Starting from there, they followed a "hiring/firing" thread through UU history, but ignored the hundreds of cases in which ministers were fired, forced to resign, or beaten into submission over the content and conduct of worship.  What is left in our history are the cases of ministers who aroused controversy through their public ministry.  And those conflicts were often with denominational officials and other ministers.

The way that the Commission uses the phrase "granting and revoking authority" to describe three different kinds of conflict is confusing.  Conflict between a minister and congregation over roles is not the same as conflict between a minister and the denomination over credentialing.  And neither conflict is the same as the struggles for recognition, reputation and power among the ministers as a group.

We love our self-image as a movement of heroic radical ministers challenging the powers that be.  And we certainly don't want to be those prosperous Boston textile manufacturers and cotton merchants who cramped Channing's style.  Nor do we want to be those awful denominational officials who tried to repress John Haynes Holmes.

But our weakness is not in our public ministries.  Our weakness is inside the walls and on Sunday morning.  I hear intense frustation over our worship styles: too limited, too mono-cultural, too formal, unable to connect with the real life struggles of real life people.  The ministers I know are even more frustrated than everyone else.  Yet, each one works in an environment where their authority over worship is so diffused that it is difficult to change even something that most people aren't happy with.  The watchword among ministers is 'you have to go really slow at changing worship.  There are all kinds of mines buried in that field.  You can lose your job there.'

The historical context I want to know about is how that situation came about.


Who's In Charge Here? WW1: Taft and Holmes

In its historical context section, the COA recounts the story of World War 1.  William Howard Taft, the ex-President and Moderator of the Unitarian General Conference, declared that "it was the duty of the church to preach the righteousness of the war and the necessity of our winning it in the interest of the peace of the world."

The AUA also voted to deny financial aid to any church that did not support the war.

The Rev. John Haynes Holmes of the Church of the Messiah (now Community Church of New York City) took a public pacifist position against the war for which he got into trouble with the AUA, even to the point of risking his fellowship.  In the end, Holmes, the Community Church and the AUA were reconciled.

My question is why is this story relevant to the question of ministerial authority? No reference is given about any conflict between Holmes and the congregation he served.  The conflict was between a local minister and the national denomination.  The question was whether the AUA could enforce a political position on a national issue on a local minister who opposed it.

I think that we know that they cannot.  That seems fairly well-established at this point.

So why is this story important?

It is now a beloved story among us.  It helps to establish an alternative ancestry for us today.  We now consider ourselves descended from Parker with his gun, and Holmes the pacifist, and the martyr James Reeb, and the revolutionaries of 1969.   And against them we oppose Channing's congregation, and William Howard Taft and the integrationists in 1969.

We continue to be in the grip of an anti-authoritarian fervor. Even our most serious inquiry into the "complex relationship between ministry and authority" cannot resist telling the beloved stories of ministers resisting authority.  But those stories undercut any thought that there is a legitimate structure of authority through which we all engage in a ministry together.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Who's In Charge Here? Another one-sided historical anecdote.

The COA contrasts the situations of Channing and Parker regarding their anti-slavery stances, and the effects on their ministerial authority.  Channing, it is alleged, was prevented from making a strong anti-slavery stance by the economic interests of his congregation.   When he did make that stance, it caused his authority in his congregation to be challenged.

The Commission then turns to the case of Theodore Parker. "In contrast, his friend Theodore Parker led a thriving congregation in the same city while being an ardent and vocal abolitionist."

Some facts are missing in the story:

Channing's reticence about joining in the anti-slavery movement is a complex and somewhat mysterious.  It can be tied to his romantic racism and to his distrust of power, especially his own.  It is misleading to reduce it to his economic self-interest and the self-interest of his congregants. But, I do think that his congregation circumscribed his freedom of action in this case.  I think that it is true through UU history that the political and social stances of ministers are often limited by the congregations they serve.

However, the attempt to draw the contrast with Parker is also misleading.  Parker's greatest period of anti-slavery work was while he was leading the 28th Congregational Society of Boston, which was not a congregation in a traditional sense of the word.  It was more of an audience, who gathered to hear Parker preach.  It did not have the same powers of hiring and firing that congregations have, and misuse, to discipline their minister.  Parker could have such a prominent role because he did not have a congregation.

The lesson to be drawn from the contrast of Channing's and Parker's anti-slavery is really this: congregations limit the political freedom of ministers; Channing's congregation was one factor in Channing's weak abolitionism.  Parker's strong abolitionism was possible because he made himself independent of congregational oversight.

But the lesson implied by the COA's version of the story is this: A bad (wealthy) congregation stopped Channing from being a strong abolitionist.  Another good congregation supported Parker in being a strong abolitionist.

What makes me uncomfortable with the COA's telling of the tale is that it allows a happy, but false, ending.  "You see, the problem of ministerial authority is not so hard: Look, Parker made it work."

I think that the lesson is much harder and more disturbing: The one-sided way that we understand congregational polity has had the effect of diminishing the leadership of our ministry, inside the church and outside the church.  We can see this self-defeating trend at work within the lifetimes of the founding generation of Boston Unitarian ministers.  

"Who's In Charge Here?" One-sided view of the Cambridge Platform

The  Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) Commission on Appraisal (COA) has written a report on the question of ministry and authority.

The 3rd chapter is "Historical and Cultural Context".  It's not a particularly helpful summary.

It starts with the Cambridge Platform, of course, as it should.  The summary foreshadows the problems with the analysis to come.

It summarizes the authority of "Preachers and Teachers" to 'attend chiefly to the Ministry of the Word.'

Contemporary UU's, for the most part, have no idea what the phrase 'the Ministry of the Word' means.  This antique phrase never appears in any list of competencies expected of UU ministers.  The COA report also mentions that congregants were to 'most willingly submit to their (preachers and teachers) ministry in the Lord.'

The other aspect of the Cambridge Platform mentioned in the COA report is that congregations have the power to ordain and remove ministers from their office.

If I were a contemporary UU, without any theological or historical education, I would read this summary as saying that the Cambridge Platform gives ministers authority to preach the Bible as the Word of God and that I was to "submit" to them as somehow representing the Lord.  Of course, none of us believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and none of us should submit to anyone, as representing God on Earth.

The only relevant thing left about the Cambridge Platform is that it says that the congregation hires and fires the minister as it sees fit.  Or in the real words of one of the 1st case study characters: "the minister is kind of like an employee more than in a Christian church."

Without unpacking the phrase "ministry of the Word" in its historical context, and its meaning down through the centuries since, the COA's summary implicitly editorializes against ministerial authority.

The Protestant reformers contrasted the ministry of the Word to the ministry of the Table.  The liturgical Christian traditions (Catholics, Anglican, Lutheran) argued that God was present in the church service (and in the world) as the consecrated host of the Eucharist.  The believer encountered God at the communion rail.

The ministry of Word refers to the Reformers' belief that God was present in the Bible, in his Word.  The task of the preacher and teacher was to make that Word come alive, to re-present it to the believers so that they could encounter the Word of God directly.  The sermon, rather than communion was the central event of worship.

The liberal religious tradition, particular the Unitarians, redefined that encounter with God in the sermon to an awakening the already present spirit within the listener, using texts from anywhere.  Now, we include movies, video, songs, poetry and photos as texts/the word which the preacher/teacher uses to inspire the spirit within.   Almost every contemporary UU worship service is an extension of what the Cambridge Platform called "the Ministry of the Word."

One of the most common disputes over ministerial authority is over who has authority over the worship service.  The Cambridge Platform could not be more relevant to those disputes.  It is not simply a statement that congregations get to ordain and fire their ministers.  The Cambridge Platform says that congregation ought to choose someone through a democratic process to lead them in worship, and that they ought to let that person do so.  If the phrase "most willingly submit to their ministry" sounds too subservient to you, then try this phrase: 'grant the minister authority over the worship life of the congregation.'

Monday, July 08, 2013

"Who's In Charge Here" Case Study One.

The UUA's Commission on Appraisal has issued their report: "Who's in Charge Here; the complex relationship between ministry and authority."

A group of ministers are reading the book together.  My colleagues can identify themselves as part of the group as the wish in the comments.

The following is my take on the first case study they present: a fictional, composite study of a composite church.  I was inspired by our conversation together, but this is not a summary or consensus statement of our discussion: just my take.

Making sense of Case Study #1.

The first case study -- a composite, fictional situation -- is stereotypical of conflict over authority in a church.  

My take is that it is the congregation in question ("the UU Fellowship of East Lyndon")  has confused “authority” with “informal power”; it has no clear understanding of “authority”. 

The case church is pre-merger, formerly a fellowship, with a varied history of settled and interim ministries, none of them particularly long lasting and successful.  The current minister, a Rev.Hitchens is female and has served three years.

There was a congregational faction that didn’t want a minister.  One of the board members makes it clear that the reason why the faction opposed the minister was because they wanted power themselves.

The church is led by a Matriarch, who has the informal power to make or break any ministry.  (I assume that the matriarch wants the church to have a minister, since Rev. Hitchens was called despite a faction that did not want a minister at all.)

Friday, July 05, 2013

What We Carry Into the next 50 years.

We are "voices in the wilderness" preparing the way for humanity to proclaim itself the Indigenous Earth People.

"People-hood" is either imposed or self-proclaimed in the midst of struggle.  We see this in micro-ways often and in larger ways less often.  It is the creation of a collective identity -- a community.  50 years ago, there was no LGBTQ community.  Now there is.  

We are Universalists.  Our theological construction imagines a single humanity equally beloved by God. A single humanity exists as a theoretical concept, but does not in consciousness.  Humanity as a whole has very little self-awareness of itself as Humanity.  Everybody has multiple identities, some which are nurturing and some of which are imposed and limiting.  We are all sorting out which of our multiple identities we will claim and which we will set aside and which require some work on our part.  And somewhere among those identities is "I am a human being" but it is not now really known.  We see only glimmers.

There will be a day when we all see ourselves as one Earth People.  Our consciousness of who we are will catch up with the reality. Global climate change is bringing this about.  Global immigration is bringing this about.  And the global economic system which centralizes control under a global financial elite will bring this about.

Identities are usually created in opposition.  If any one of the many science fiction scenarios of alien encounter with the Earth would come to pass, we would know instantly who was and who was not part of the Earth people.  We cannot see how a single humanity will come to know itself -- whether it will over and against the aliens, or the economic elite, or against the relent water at our knees and/or sun on our heads, or the barren seas, or the inhospitable baking Earth, or an asteroid -- that is for the future.

But we carry from our theological forerunners the seeds of an emerging consciousness -- that we exist as the people of the Earth and we are in this together.  One of our missions for the next 50 years is preparing the way.


Channing: a speculation about psychology

Back in 1997, Dr. Pat Davis at Perkins school of Theology assigned to write a paper inquiring into the psychological development of a religious leader.  It was an exercise, and we were all aware of the difficulty of doing that long distance analysis.  But we were reading Erik Erikson's analysis of Martin Luther at that time, so we were already deep in those waters.

I chose Channing as my subject.  There is a lot written about Channing including several biographies, mostly hagiographic, that are based on Channing's own journals.  And I chose as my focus the often observed discomfort that Channing had with power.

This subject returned to me after Ministry Days this year: Rev. Parisa Parsa's sermon on our Calvinist roots and Rev. Lillian Daniels who chided us for blaming Calvin for all our anxieties and stuff.  Channing was on the front lines against Calvinism; how did that work in his life?

And the issue of power is perplexing to us now.  How shall we use our power?  There is a curious contradiction between our lofty goals, especially in social justice, and our sense that because of our privilege, we are not quite qualified to think what we think, or our experience is not quite applicable to the rest of the world.

So, I have posted my 1997 paper, unimproved since then.  It's summertime reading for UU history geeks.  Please don't take it too seriously.

Our 50 year mission

At the heart of all great struggles against oppression and exploitation are individual persons struggling to lay claim to themselves.

All religions are religions of revelation.  Each knows a particular truth, whether from its own experience, or from on high.  They have a core teaching that they embody and advance in the world.  

Liberal Religion started in skepticism; a core belief was in the right of every person to determine their own beliefs.  That has widened and blossomed into an affirmation that every person has the inalienable right to determine for themselves who they are on the most fundamental level: even in categories (sexuality and gender) that seemed iron-clad a century ago.

The 21st century will be a world of often violent competition for resources, ruthless exploitation, power centralizing to financial capital, and ever-changing patterns of oppression.  There will be great struggles against oppression and exploitation and powerlessness.

At the heart of all great struggles against oppression and exploitation are individual persons struggling to lay claim to themselves. 

Where ever there is struggle, there are persons who are sitting up at night, choosing who they will be in their moment in time, in their place.  As I write this, they are numerous persons doing so in Egypt, or Texas, or North Carolina.  By the time you read this, it will be other places.  People will be deciding who they are: are they a person who goes to Tahrir Square, or are they the person who stays home.  To be who you are supposed to be is to stay home, but to be who you really are is to go.

This is the point of contact between liberal theology and all of the movements to come.  This is our human connection as religious liberals with everybody else.  We are engaged in the same struggle to lay claim to ourselves.  Yes, the terrain in every life is different.  And Yes, the privileges we have  make it all the harder to see ourselves and the world we live in clearly.

Our 50 year mission is to carry the truths of our movement into the much more conflicted and dangerous world of the 21st century.  It is to create communities where individual persons can lay claim to themselves, become the subjects of their own lives, and choose to live by the virtues of liberality: honesty, humility, solidarity, openness, gratitude/generosity, and reverence.  It is to invite people into communities where they can Behave, Belong and Believe in some order or another, but first to Be Real or to Be Themselves.

Everything else flows from that.

e.e. cummings

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is 
doing its best, night and day, to make you 
everybody else means to fight the hardest battle 
which any human being can fight; and never 
stop fighting.


Mary Oliver

The Journey
 One day you finally knew 
what you had to do, and began, 
though the voices around you 
kept shouting 
their bad advice—
though the whole house 
began to tremble 
and you felt the old tug 
at your ankles. 
"Mend my life!" 
each voice cried. 
But you didn't stop. 
You knew what you had to do, 
though the wind pried 
with its stiff fingers 
at the very foundations, 
though their melancholy 
was terrible. 
It was already late 
enough, and a wild night, 
and the road full of fallen 
branches and stones. 
But little by little, 
as you left their voices behind, 
the stars began to burn 
through the sheets of clouds, 
and there was a new voice 
which you slowly 
recognized as your own, 
that kept you company 
as you strode deeper and deeper 
into the world 
determined to do 
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.



Martin Luther King, Jr
“One night toward the end of January I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off the telephone rang. An angry voice said, ‘Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.’ I hung up, but I couldn’t sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I had heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and tried to go to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered, and then I got up. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. I started thinking about a dedicated and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, ‘You can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t even call on Mama. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.’ With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak right now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I’m afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’
It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.’

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

50 Years?

Gini Courter said that we need a 50 year vision.

Some of my friends think that 50 years is an impossible planning horizon.  One even called it "oppressive" in that it imagines one generation imposing its will on the future. 

I have no idea how seriously Courter meant 50 years.  Maybe it was the equivalent of the Biblical 40 years -- meaning a long time.

I also don't know what she meant as a "vision".  All these re-organization words -- mission, vision, strategy, objective, plan etc. -- are vague and often interchangeable.  People can project what they want, or don't want, into the words as a method of argument.  People describe "visions" as words on paper signifying nothing or as Stalinist masterplans enforced by bureaucratic terror, and everything in between.

But everybody I know thinks that there is something missing in Unitarian Universalism as it is a practiced, some passionate purpose that is beyond shared belief, greater than religious community, and not fully expressed in our public ministry.  

I think that it is remarkable that a UUA moderator, in her last report, would so freely admit that even people at that level know that there is something missing.  It was a confession that they are bouncing around from tactic to strategy and back again with goal no greater than growing.  And while the absolute numbers are holding, there are no new plants.

So what's missing?  Call it vision, call it shared theology, call it mission, UU-ness, call it the X-Factor.  

More than it, we need to think about it, and in ways that penetrate the thick clouds of derp that cloud our view. 

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Uncommon Denomination

Gini Courter said that the UUA lacked a 50 year vision, but bounced along with 4-6 year visions that were based on denominational elections and were tactical and strategic only.  She said that the problem was that congregations and the General Assembly and the Board were not doing their job in developing that vision.

I suggested we should look to two sources for that vision-casting: first, our ministers, especially the ministers most respected by other ministers as visionary.  The second was to people already showing visionary leadership.

Regarding the ministers -- well, this is where I got out of line and where I need, apparently, to be hammered back into my proper position.  Sorry, I am unrepentant, and I am willing to argue about this at length.

Here's the incident that got me started on this track.

Remember the Uncommon Denomination advertising campaign.  As Gini said that it came and went, no one ever knew if it was successful.  Whether it moved people out there or not, I don't know.  I do know that if there was a body of ministers who thought it was great, I never met any of them.

It wouldn't preach. Most were not enthusiastic about making that the theme of a worship service.  It might have been resonant with some newer UU's, in that first flush of UU identity, but for everyone else it would have been a bust.  For people really outside of us, it would sound arrogant and triumphalist.  And for more mature UU's,  it was a message that was actually not good for their spiritual development.  It did not invite them deeper, but reinforced a sense of our own specialness. It did not point to a deeper truth

How could the UUA come up with such an inappropriate and unhelpful advertising campaign?  I asked, and I was told that it had come about through a consultation between UUA staff and a very respected outside marketing consulting firm, who were not UU's.

A light bulb moment, for me.

Here were over a thousand people, UU Ministers, whose life's work was to explain Unitarian Universalism to people and they were not asked about this.  These were people who got up in the pulpit every week to explain our faith to the visitor, to the new UU, to children, to youth, and to the elder, loyal faithful.  They were charged to make our faith alive and relevant at the birth of a child, at the death of a child, at a house blessing, a wedding and a memorial service.  They were asked to explain UUism at Board meetings of community non-profits and at city council meetings and at rallies and picket lines and vigils.  They were ready to pick up the phone at any time day or night and account for their hope to random strangers who got their number out of the phone book.

There were not part-time UU explainers; they did it full time, all the time, and at any time.  Explaining this faith was what they signed up to do, what they went to school to learn how to do, what they practiced at the internship and applied in CPE and why they submitted themselves to an inspection by the MFC to prove that they were capable and responsible enough to do.

You would think that a group of them could handle evaluating billboards and bumper stickers.  Well, we know the results.

I have gotten feedback that somehow I am slighting, or disregarding, or even disrespecting the contributions of lay people in the visioning process.  Of course, I have said no such thing.  We live in a world where people take every positive assertion, and read it as an aspersion on everything else.  To say I like orange juice is to imply that I hate cranberry juice.  To question a war is to say that I hate the troops.  To say that we should look to the ministers, especially our most respected ministers for help in visioning is not to say that they should have all power and the laity be ignored.

It is evidence of a deep and abiding anti-clericalism that clergy and laity are imagined on a see-saw, that for one to rise, the other must fall.  If you think that we are passed that stage, just look.

I have gotten feedback that ministers are well-represented in our governance and visioning already. True enough, but not as ministers per se.  And not as ministers chosen by their peers and accountable to them.  In most cases in our governance, ministers and laypeople are interchangeable.  And in most cases, that is appropriate.  But in the imagination and articulation of our religious and spiritual mission, I don't think that it is.

Do we think that our ministers are religious and spiritual leaders, or not?

Now, the question is whether Gini Courter has it right or not.  You cannot both passionately agree that Unitarian Universalism has a missing vision in its future, and that our processes for developing mission and vision are working just fine.