Friday, January 31, 2014

A New Conversation about Contemporary UU History

There have been a lot of reactions to my post yesterday about the differences in UU ministerial reactions to the death of Pete Seeger. Conversations always wander, and that one wandered off pretty quickly into the subjects of generational generalizations, American communism, and our favorite, critiques of the insufficiencies of Unitarian Universalisms of the past.

I wrote about Pete Seeger because I am trying to start a new conversation about contemporary Unitarian Universalist history. Because Seeger was a presence in so much of our history, and because there were differences in how ministers I know were responding to his death, talking about him illuminates some of the complexities of our history.

Why do we need a new conversation about our history? Because as secret Calvinists, we have a understanding of history that is first, self-centered, and two, moralistic.

Self-Centered: we believe that everything that happened in the past is the result of the drama of our internal struggle with sin.  And Moralistic: our actions in the past must, first of all, be evaluated morally. As a result, most of our discussion of UU history is an exercise of moral positioning. Who are the "good guys" from the past? Who were "the bad guys" from the past? Who are the most moral acute commentators on our history? Who is being insufficiently self-critical?

I think you have to start from the external events, the bigger historical trends. The lens through which I view UU history since the founding of the UUA in 1961 is the marginalization and demobilization of progressive forces in the United States from 1968 to 2008.   The marginalization and demobilization of progressive forces, I call the great Nixon-Reagan counter-revolution. And it was a political, cultural, ideological, and economic offensive.

It was an overall historical trend. Everyone dealt with it. The labor movement. The Democratic Party. The African American movement. The Latino/a movement. The movement among Indigenous Peoples. The Women's Movement. The GLBTQ movement. And yes, the progressive religious movements and the Unitarian Universalist movements.

And elements of each of these movements responded in different ways. There were trends of defiance, and radicalization and self-criticism and ideological struggle. Another trend was to modify and tailor the movement to fit what was possible in the new diminished circumstances. Another trend was to retreat into more supportive small communities. An overall trend was that the nascent coalitions between movements that had begun to form before 1968 broke up.

To understand the history of the UUA, we need to view everything and everybody through the lens of the overall historical situation. Just as in every other movement at the time, there were UU's who radicalized, there were UU's who tailored and trimmed the aspirations to fit the circumstances, there were UU's who retreated into smaller more supportive communities. And because we are talking about a fifty year history, there are people who bridge to the pre-1968 era, and people who never knew that era, or who only know of it through media representations.

None of this is to glorify the pre-1968 situation. They are not "the old glory days".  The political sophistication of the movements was much lower. White liberals were much more paternalistic. Male-domination was the norm. Every movement had its own closet. They did win some victories, though. But because they were weak and unformed and unready the progressive movements were in 1968, they were unprepared to fight back effectively against a corporate funded, sophisticated machine that put together a majority based on the racial resentments of whites, patriarchical conservative religion, white nationalism, and homophobia. An essential element of the Right's victory was the ridicule of the Left as unmasculine, effete, elitist, ineffective, posturing dopes. We need to be clear-eyed about the pre-1968 UUism, but it is beyond our judgement.

So here is your homework: Take any event in UU history since our founding, and try to analyze through the lens of our many and varied responses to the great Nixon-Reagan counter-revolution. Make the connections between what was happening elsewhere and what was happening among us. Why did we pass the Seven Principles? What did the Women and Religion Commission represent in terms of the overall Women's movement? (The Women and Religion Resolution was presented at the 1977 GA, the same year that the last state to ratify the ERA did so.)  Why did UU churches readily respond to the GLBTQ movements by performing ceremonies of union, and welcoming congregation programs, but were largely absent from ACT-UP?  How about the rise of lighting chalices, and water communions and our rituals? How about our growth in the South and shrinkage in New England?

Let's start a new conversation about our history....

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Civil War breaks out among UU's over Pete Seeger

OK. I'm kidding.

Pete Seeger's death has precipitated a storm of grief among most UU's, especially older UU's who remember his music and participation in the great movements of their lives. A lot of UU churches and congregations will be celebrating him this weekend in their services.

But some GenXer's and Millennials push back saying that we should be careful not to overdo it. A lot of GenXer's and Millennials are not especially fond of Seeger's style of folk music, don't share the complicated memories of the 60's protest movements, and are generally unemotional about the baby boomer experience. They are repelled by Boomer nostalgia. There is a hashtag that occasionally surfaces: #notjustboomersinthepews.

The key to understanding contemporary UUA history and culture (from merger until now) is the marginalization and demobilization of progressive forces between 1968 and 2008. I call it the Nixon-Reagan Reaction.

We have just now emerged from a cultural counter-revolution.

One element was a revulsion by GenXers toward the most rebellious strains of the Boomer culture. Much of that revulsion was real and personal, rooted in the experience of having boomers as parents. The punk movement expressed a rebellion against baby boomer leftish sentimentality in a broad cultural and musical movement. There was a political aspect; GenXers swung toward the GOP and Reagan politically, and were a crucial part of the ascendant conservative political coalition. And it was encouraged by the makers of popular culture. In the mainstream, the boomer rebels were lampooned as silly, stoned, naive, and generally pathetic. "Being stuck in the Sixties" became considered a neurological, psychological disorder; a kind of cultural Alzheimers; sufferers were objects of revulsion and mockery. Some UU churches were seen as appropriate asylums were these unfortunates could be safely confined.

The rebellious impulses of the 60's were not only politically defeated, but discredited and ridiculed.

A defeated movement not only has the endure the pain of defeat, but the shame of being thought foolish by its children.

Pete Seeger was not a boomer, but of the generation of our parents. Pictures of him as a young man show that he was of the generation where radical folk singers wore suits. He was a living link to the Old Left, the WW2 United Front radicals who survived the McCarthy era, who sang at protests through the 60's and 70's and kept going during the Reagan counter-revolution. He was no longer on the world stage anymore in the 80's and 90's, but, like so many others, went local, sailing the Hudson River. You can trace the ups and down of the progressive America by charting his career. And that he lived to sing for a President at the Lincoln Memorial the day before his Inauguration shows the turning of the tide.

That Pete Seeger kept on 'keeping on' exposes our own
discontinuous and broken history. For many Boomers, mourning Pete Seeger is a displacement of our own grief what happened in our own lives. We honor his persistence in the face of defeat as a way to mask our shame.

Some of us are adoring Pete Seeger this weekend; some are impatient, and even revulsed, by the nostalgia for the 60's, folk music and all that foolishness. Both responses are predicated on a voluntarist theory of our own history as agents of change. The voluntarist theory is that everything that happened happened because of our virtues and our faults. The thinking goes: "If we had all been like Pete Seeger, then we would not have had Reagan and Bush and Bush and 40 years of backward motion." Or the thinking goes: "If people like Pete Seeger and his crew had not been so mawkish, sentimental and uncool, we would not have had 40 years of growing income inequality, climate change and imperialist wars."  Either way, it is the thinking of process of abused children.

The best way to honor Pete Seeger is not by a sentimental tributes, but by a clear-eyed look to the history of the radical, reform and religiously liberal movements of last 50 years. Once in a while, we make history, but most of the time, history makes us.
At FarmAid in 2013

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Rising Multi-Racial Electoral Majority, Economic Justice, and the Spiritual Challenge.

Obama's original vision that was a multi-racial electoral majority could be formed, and that it could
Obama at work on State of Union Address 
break the rightwing grip on power that Reagan had consolidated. When he compares himself to Reagan, that is what he has meant: that he would be the next President who establishes a new electoral configuration that lasts.

Obama is now understanding the glue for a multi-racial electoral coalition together will be policies that protect and lift up the poor and the increasingly desperate working class. The only way to keep the GOP from completely defeating him is to mobilize all of his coalition. He is like Lincoln, who fought a war to keep the Union from dissolving over slavery, and ended up understanding that the only way to win the war was to abolish slavery. The hand of a President can be forced by the people in action themselves.

Lincoln saw that African Americans were flocking to the Union lines, and wanted to get into the fight. Either he would let them, or he would have to drive them away. When low-wage workers, many people of color, started agitating for $15 wage in the fast food industry, or a union at Walmart, when the Dream Defenders sat in in the Florida governors office for the rights of the children of immigrants, it became clear that the rising multi-racial electoral majority would be led from below. Hence, the turn to the left, to economic populism, on the part of the Administration, the Democratic Congress and the liberal pundit class.

All of this matters to liberal religious institutions. We have carried the vision of a multi-racial democracy in the United States, since the days of our conversion in the 1950's and 60's. It's been a struggle to realize that you can't get to "post-racial" without being "anti-racist". Now, it will be more clear that to be "anti-racist" means that you have to be "economically populist." We have to be concretely on the side of all those who live in the mix of low-wage work, part-time work, unemployment benefits, SNAP, TANF, SSDI, Social Security, Medicaid and off the books enterprises. Otherwise, it is to become uncommitted to what we thought we were committed to.

The commentators all talk about how Obama has finally given up on the vision of a nice-bipartisan, pragmatic Washington, all that blue-sky stuff about reaching across the aisle, Tip and the Gipper knocking them back after a hard day giving and taking with each other. The GOP in Congress would have none of that. Obama will have to fight. And to fight, he has to mobilize as many of the 99% as possible.

UU public theologians should understand that we are in the same tough spot. We have been addicted to our own version of Obama's pipe dream: a safe, nice, spiritual sweet spot, where peace and harmony bloom, where harsh political divisions are left at the door, where all sorts of lions and all sorts of lamb lie down together, and where our sensitivity and skills at interpersonal relationships in here overcome all the social contradictions of the society out there. That pipe dream is how we got through the last era. It will prove inadequate for the future.

(9:45 on Jan 29 -- edited to correct disastrous typo -- "It has been a struggle to realize that you can't to "post-racial withOUT being anti-racist." )

Monday, January 27, 2014

Life lived according to Love..

A fragment of another poem by Philip Larkin: "Faith Healing"

. . . In everyone there sleeps
a sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
by loving others, but across most it sweeps
as all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures. . .

Larkin, Hotchkiss and Wilson on the Church and Time

Philip Larkin wrote a poem called "Home is So Sad" and I think he describes the situation of the declining church well.
Home is so Sad

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

- See more at:
While the poem is literally about the old home, it is also applies to the church and congregation. "It stays as it was left, shaped to the comfort of the last to go as if to win them back."

Dan Hotchkiss, writing in an essay published by Alban Institute, describes a meeting of a church in decline:
 As I looked around the room, I saw a familiar mix of people: long-time members whose
idea of progress sounded a lot like the 1950s or the 1960s; newcomers attracted by the grandeur of the building and the smallness of the congregation; and specialists (musicians, mostly, in this case) passionate to hold on to their small plots of turf. 
What bound them together? The building. A few conventionalities of faith and practice. A lot of family tradition, and some truly touching care for one another. And the music. Each person had, for the moment, a sufficient rationale for staying. But was there energy enough to drive a turnaround? I frankly doubted it. 
As congregations shrink, the members who would be the most help turning them around often are among the first to go: the energetic, outward-focused people with an urgent sense of purpose and good skills for group decision-making.
No energy for the turnaround needed, or as Larkin puts it "no heart to . . . turn again to what it started as, a joyous shot at how things ought to be, long fallen wide."

This is the contradiction in congregationalism: the freedom of the congregation to serve its own needs ties the congregation to the life-cycle of its members.

There are institutional steps that can be taken to serve the needs of the members of declining congregations, while preserving and freeing their assets to be used for a new "joyous shot at how things out to be."  I believe that every congregation that is not, right now, effectively recruiting younger members and a new generation of leaders, should write out its last will and testament, its final directives, its end of life plan. It would be an exercise to concentrate the mind on its institutional mortality. Like the monks who meditate in their graves, the congregation will savor the life it has, and use it well.

But how to break free of the life-cycle chains that bind a congregation to the life-cycle of its members? How to keep what Hotchkiss calls the "energetic, outward-focused people with an urgent sense of purpose."

I think it takes religious leadership with an acute historical imagination, leadership who can articulate the meaning of this present moment in time. Not just as sensation, but in as a moment on the clock of the world.

Flip Wilson
Have you ever noticed that "time stands still" in moments of great joy, great terror and great sorrow. If the sanctuary is the trap we build to capture that moment, so that we can revisit it again and again, the church has based itself on a rapidly receding past. Karl Barth said that the preacher mounts the pulpits with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. Today, we might say that the preacher carries the world's wisdom in one hand, and a twitter feed in the other.  Whatever. The religious institution must be what Flip Wilson, noted twentieth century ecclesiologist,
humorously called the "Church of What's Happening Now" -- a place where the deep significance of this moment is made clear: today's joys; today's terrors; today's sorrows; today's duties; today's hopes.  Not as an isolated moment out of time; but as a moment of this historical time.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Conformity 1954 and 60 years Later

Rev. Carolyn Patierno
All Souls, New London, CT
My good friend, Carolyn Patierno sent me her Martin Luther King sermon from this year.

She took as her text a 1954 sermon from Dr. King, delivered to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In this sermon, the 25 year old King, posed the question before his congregation as the choice between conformity and creative maladjustment.
Millions of people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The great ambition of the average person is to take a position that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody.
Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church.
The church has often been an institution serving to crystallize and conserve the
patterns of the majority opinion. We find it all too often blessing a status quo
that needs to be blasted and reassuring a social order that needs to be
Conformity was the presenting social issue of the 1950's. Progressive forces, which had been so active in the Depression era 1930's, had been first enlisted in the national unity of WW2 and then repressed in the anti-communist movements of the late 40's and 50's. It is remembered as "the McCarthy era". But history was turning a corner into a new era; in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional

You could make the case that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began in earnest in December 1955, was the beginning of a new era of mass-based popular confrontation with the institutional structures of oppression. In my somewhat idiosyncratic reading of our history, the Montgomery Bus Boycott started an radical era that lasts until 1968 and was repressed completely in 1980.

So, Rev. Patierno is right to identify this 1954 sermon by a 25 year old pastor, who has been called to a prestigious pulpit in Alabama's capital, as a harbinger of what is to come. This sermon which questions conformity.

Readers of my blog know that that I think that the nation is on the brink of a new period of mass movement against the structures of oppression and exploitation. The rightward drift that began in the 1968 and became established in 1980 is coming to an end.

So the issue again is conformity, especially conformity in our churches and congregations. But the culture has changed. In 1954, King said: "people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion." Today, it seems that the voicing of contrary opinions is accepted. Read the comments section of any online newspaper, and listen to talk radio. Nobody is bland anymore, (although ministers may lag behind the general conversation.)
Rev. Patierno embeds in her sermon another story:
The third grade classroom is pretty much feeling like it’s populated with 8 year-olds and all of their trials and brilliance and comedy. The teacher is called away leaving the teacher’s aide to manage. There is also a parent volunteer in the room when suddenly there’s a surprising fracas that cuts through the low-level din. The parent volunteer has witnessed the whole scene and is shocked that this particular little girl is being unfairly called out. The more the little girl protests, the more determined the aide becomes. Set jaw. Cold eyes. As she orders the little girl out into the hall she proceeds to call the principal’s office. The parent volunteer calmly approaches the aide determined to set the record straight. The aide will have none of it. In fact, she tells the parent volunteer to stay out of it. That it is none of her business.  
Oh, but it is.  
She leaves the room and squats down face-to-face with the now weeping and frustrated little girl. Into her eyes she says, “You’ve done nothing wrong. I know that you have done nothing wrong. I’m going to tell the principal right now that you did nothing wrong, don’t you worry.”  
And with that she proceeds to the principal’s office and makes clear that a grave injustice has been done. And mercifully, the principal believes her. 
Rev. Patierno sums it up by saying that "everything is our business". The sign of conformity in 1954 was tailoring your opinions to offend no one. The sign of conformity today is to let injustice and violence go on around you and to be so "astronomically intimidated" [King] that you don't say or do anything.

We live in a noisy and contentious culture. No one would every accuse us of being a silent society, filled with conformists. Yet, all around, the unquestioned and unnoticed machinery of oppression and exploitation function smoothly. The waitstaff is underpaid and management is stealing the tips diners mark on the credit card slips; the minimum wage workers haven't had a raise in years; the young men of color are being stopped and frisked around the corner; the jails are bursting; the rich are getting richer. Say whatever you want, but just keep moving along.

Good sermon, Rev. Carolyn! 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Who Sees the Ministerial Qualities?

A recent post (Authority in a Post-Denominational, Post-Congregational Age)
has inspired some comments and responses. Check all the comments on that thread, but I wanted to respond to these two.

Steve writes:
We have lived with this tension between an individual’s call from beyond and congregational polity for a long time, but I am not sure we can survive unless we begin putting the call from beyond before the congregation. Polity and governance are important, but they should not block our mission to help people find a religion of their own. By maintaining the centrality of congregations, we are saying the same thing to kindred souls who are seeking a religion of their own as we said to Community Ministers. As long as we affirm the centrality of the congregation we will not attract those kindred spirits.
Paul Dodenhof writes:
An interesting post for me and a growing number who minister to UU congregations but who are not in fellowship with the UUA. I was ordained in a non-traditional seminary after quite a few years as a lay minister. I have a B.A. (Magna Cum Laude) in Religion and did grad work towards a masters in American Religious History though stopped just short of completion. I've been a UU for 14 years.
For two years now, I have been ministering to a small congregation that was once much larger. Now having about 40 member with an average age of 50 or so, they are at a crossroads and we have been woking to move towards a less congregational kind of community and to attract younger members. Difficult work to be sure yet starting to move forward.
I consider and refer to myself as a UU minister. I'm UU and I serve a UU congregation. Yet my denomination doesn't recognize me as such which makes for a very frustrating and often quite painful sense of separation and non-acceptance by my fellow UU ministers and UUA leadership.

Steve and Paul are talking about, of course, two different things. Steve is talking about the resistance of the UUA structures to recognize community ministry, with fellowshipping. Paul is talking about the unwillingness of UU structures to grant fellowship to people who have not gone through their process, even though they serve UU churches in a ministerial role.

They both turn on the process of "fellowshipping" or "credentialing."

So my question comes back? What is the fellowshipping process in a post-denominational, post-congregational world?  

We know, from experience, that to claim the role of 'religious' or 'spiritual' leader is to claim significant social power. You can trade it for money, power, fame, and even sex. I want anyone who claims religious or spiritual leadership associated with Unitarian Universalism, in any capacity, to have submitted to process of evaluation to find out if they can be trusted with that power.  I am not really concerned that Paul does not have an M.Div from an accredited Div School; I think a case could be made that such is not an ironclad requirement. But I am concerned that he has apparently not had to turn in a CPE supervisor's evaluation and an intern supervisor's evaluation, and a career assessment report and a psychological evaluation to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but serves a UU church as its minister. I am very glad that he is pursuing fellowship now, and wish him well.

Steve's impression was that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee didn't really know how to evaluate him and his ministry -- even though he had fulfilled its requirements. That they were trapped in a parish-centric frame of reference. He seems to wonder if any denominational authority can evaluate "the call from beyond," the beyond being the world outside the church walls and the congregation.

Of course, nobody needs the approval of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee to devote their life to a religious vocation. But doesn't there have to be somebody who decides who is a UU minister, especially community ministers, where the structures of accountability are not usually populated with UU's?

Right now, the MFC does this work. Community ministers say that it is not quite right, because the MFC and the UUA is too parish-centric. So consciousness-raising and sensitivity training is in order.

Isn't it typical that we think we can solve structural problems by thinking better thoughts? The MFC is part of the UUA, which is structurally an association of congregations.

I think that the only way forward is for the Community Ministers, in consultation with the UUMA and the UUA, to take over the credentialing of community ministers. I also think this of Parish Ministers. As we move "beyond congregations", I believe that the only people who can systematically evaluate whether a person is embodying this tradition of liberal ministry are other ministers themselves.


I watch cable news, so I am learning about erectile disfunction. No, not electoral disfunction: but erectile disfunction. The cable news watching audience apparently suffers from this disproportionately, at least the guys who watch MSNBC. I have never watched Fox long enough to get the pattern.

There are two brands of medications for ED advertised: Cialis and Viagra. And they each have a play a different tune in advertising their product.

Cialis commercials are cute.
Cialis commercials are about that moment when a couple pass from doing something together to that moment when they are deciding to have sex. Some are playing touch football; another is refinishing lawn furniture; still another is cleaning the attic. I think that this is a very tricky moment for many couples, especially for day-time sex. Hey, we are all busy people and we're not cavemen anymore. Libido is declining as we age, and men and women relate to sex differently, or so I am told. For most middle-aged couples, unscheduled night time sex is rare enough, much spontaneous afternoon delight.
One Cialis commercial shows a wife bring snacks to her husband, who is watching a game on TV. They are wearing matching team shirts. She sits down, and then jumps up and cheers for the team at an exciting play, while he watches her with bemusement. Sexytime!
What a second! There's a game on, there are snacks, and the hometeam is winning? For many, sex could ruin a moment like that.
I watch these Cialis commercials like a hawk, sometimes frame-by-frame trying to find the exact moment in the little story in which one partner makes the approach, and is met with affirmation. As much as I go the tapes, I can't ever find the transaction. Too subtle for my eye. Anyway, after some back and forth, to and fro, too subtle for the human eye, the couple heads off for what the British tabloids refer to as a "frank and full exchange of views." Then, on to the matching clawfoot bathtubs, for post-coital soak in the afterglow. Every Cialis commercial ends with a silhouette of a couple in parallel clawfoot bathtubs, holding hands. There are some which show these bathtubs for real, like at the end of dock extending out into a lake.
The parallel bathtubs are the strangest part of sexual habits of the Cialis people. Have you ever seen a bathroom with matching side-by-side clawfoot bathtubs? I watch a lot of HGTV and I have never seen such a thing, not even on "dream bathrooms and sexy spas." And why would you drag those heavy things out to the end of the dock? What are they for? Cleaning fish? And do you think you could persuade your partner to make sweet love with you in a dead fish slop and goo bucket?
Further, can you imagine two middle-aged people, in the middle-weight division, trying to convene a sexual congress in such a configuration?
BTW, the couples in the Cialis ads are always not quite attractive. I mean, they are better looking than most folks, but in a generic kind of JC Penney catalog kind of way. They have a lovable dorkiness about them, especially the men. I suppose that is necessary for customer identification with the protagonist: "if he can score, then so can I". The men are distinctly non-aggressive looking, no unpredictable male desire there.

The Viagra commercials are completely different. No women appear in Viagra commercials. And the men are handsome. rugged, middle-aged men, lean scruffy guys in well-fitting blue jeans. They drive trucks, or vintage Mustangs. They have good jobs; one guy runs a power plant, I think. Or, at least, he has the jobs of turning off the lights before he goes home.
The Viagra guy is always on his way home. That's the plotline. He's on the way home, and some obstacle or another, gets in the way. His sexy vintage Mustang overheats; his beat-up old sexy trucks get stuck in the mud. But Viagra man just takes care of business. He gets out his tools and unsticks what's stuck, unjams the jelly and flips the switch on the thingamajiggit and loosens up the watchmacallit. And then he goes home to a soundtrack of lonesome guitar, like a Ry Cooder soundtrack to one of those Robert Duvall movies. Viagra man lives way on the high prairie, and the bedroom light is on in that ranch house at the end of that long driveway. One hopes that the kids, the laundry and her job at the IGA grocery store haven't driven Mom straight off sex for the night. (OK maybe it's Bruce, the accountant with the Brokeback Mountian poster collection and the cowboy fetish). Because Viagra man is coming home.

Whatever the obstacle, Viagra man overcomes it. Whatever the problem, Viagra man fixes it. When a tool is balky, he knows what to do.

What that's it from MSNBC's erectile disfunction mini-theatre. Next up, another commercial from America's Energy Industry with another clue to why MSNBC has such thin coverage of climate change.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

the Goofy Thing about Wealth Inequality

You saw it: 85 individuals own as much wealth as the combined fortunes of the bottom 50% of the world's population.

The goofy thing is that it is both not as bad, and worse, than that.

A lot of that wealth is in the form of stock in publicly traded companies, often founded by these individuals.  Bill Gates owns a lot of Microsoft Stock, probably worth billions, if you multiply his share holdings by the stock price on the current "ticker tape." The problem is that if Bill Gates decided to turn that stock into cash, the price would plummet and his networth would too. He might have to go sit at a lesser table at Davos. The goofy thing is that these wealth figures are exaggerated; all of them are largely based on what other members of the financial elite appraise their worth. When someone buys a share of Apple at $500, they aren't really buying $500 worth of actual Apple assets; they aren't even buying a good shot at earning $500 worth of future Apple profits in the future. They are just willing to spend more than another person who was willing to buy Apple at $499.

So, it's not as bad as it looks.

But it's worse. The reason that these numbers are inflated is because there is an asset bubble, particularly in the stock market. The reason why people, banks and other institutional investors are willing to pay $500 for Apple is because they have more money to invest than they have profitable places to invest it. Too much money chasing too few investment opportunities drives up the price of stocks, and the rising stock market shows this at work.

This is goofy because there are a lot of places to invest. Repairing the infrastructure. Revamping the schools. Putting highspeed wireless internet into every corner of the country. Weatherizing houses and buildings. Building new low-cost houses. Building out urban public transportation systems. Investing in better public services by creating more public sector jobs that will improve quality and quantity of those services. More teachers. More police. You could invest in our young adults by paying off their student loans. Every one of these investments would increase the total wealth of the country, improve living standards, and immediately boost the economy.

But they require government spending. And the government is "broke".  But the fact that the government is broke doesn't mean that the country is broke. It just means that the money is in the wrong hands.


Not enough money in Washington.  Too much money on Wall Street.

This is what the dominance of Financial Capital looks like, and our current situation is shows how it distorts our economy and diminishes the lives of all of us.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Maple Trees and Squash Plants

I heard a terrific sermon yesterday at First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, delivered by Rev. Dr. Cynthia Landrum, who serves the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty.

She took as her text the Marge Piercy poem "The Seven of Pentacles" which is #568 in the Singing the Living Tradition.

She used this line as her jumping off point:

"Spread like the squash plant which overruns the garden."

Rev. Cyndi contrasted the squash plant with the Michigan maple tree, as metaphors for horizontal and vertical growth in UU churches.  Many churches grow vertically, being passed down from parent to child to grandchild. Some of oldest and some of our smallest churches grow like maple trees.

But many churches grow like squash plants, horizontally, spreading laterally. Many of our UU
congregations grow this way exclusively. People leave the church they grew up in to become UU's. And sadly, many of the children of UU's leave to find another religious home, or none at all.

Growing like a squash plant is becoming the norm in our hyper-connected world. Rev. Cyndi called it "growing like a chat-room and spreading like an internet meme." You can always find "like-minded" people out there and make a group if you wish.

Rev. Cyndi drew many implications from this cultural shift for liberal religion. Our churches and congregations cannot hope to grow like maples, but have to learn to grow like squash plants. It will be hard because our investment has been in buildings and stand-alone staffs, which are the thick woody trunks of trees, not the creeping tendrils of a squash plant. (I am pushing her metaphor here.)

I hope she posts the sermon somewhere. If she does, I will post a link.

I had never appreciated the Piercy poem before. It is from a book of poems called Circles on the Water and is part of a series of poems based on Tarot cards, hence the title "Seven of Pentacles". In the Introduction to these poems (written in 1973), she says that she is making a political reading of Tarot cards. And, she of course, was of the Left and of the Radical Feminist movement.
To me, the poem is so clearly of its time.  In 1968, Nixon won the Presidency in a three-way election. In 1972, he was re-elected overwhelmingly after explicitly running against the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, the African American movement. The 'movement' was in defeat. And for the radical feminists, this was not surprising, because the 'movement' was dominated by men and mirrored the patriarchy of the ruling class.  Upstart maple trees fighting for sunshine and air with the old trees.

The Seven of Pentacles was Marge Piercy's vision of a new kind of organizing and resistance, one suited for the newly hostile environment. It would be hidden "half a tree is spread out beneath your feet" and turned inward "a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside, but to us interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs."It would be personal: "live a life you can endure; make love that is loving." It would be for the long haul, "This is how we are going to live for a long time".

It is not surprising to me that the poem is in the 1993 hymnbook. This poem expressed our late 20th century soteriology (how we shall be saved?) and ecclesiology (how we should organize ourselves?) perfectly.

For most of that time, I think we thought of her final lines as a wistful and utopian flourish: "For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes."  She ends with an eschatalogical statement (how does this story of salvation end?)

Are we approaching the harvest? Can we read this poem with 21st Century eyes, rather than with late 20th century eyes?

For all of Rev. Cyndi's declaration of the unsustainability of our grove of UU maple trees, (she assured us that our church was already dead, quoting the Matrix), she was very optimistic, that the days of harvest were upon us.

After her sermon, we sang as a congregation, 'We'll Build a Land' but the spirit was so at large in the room, that the choir spontaneously broke into 'Come and Go With Me to That Land' as the congregation headed for the social hall.

Response to Fred Wooden

In a recent post I listed several ideas that are prominent among Unitarian Universalists that I think need challenging. One was this, and the my challenge to it in italics.
The political polarization in America is a problem that Unitarian Universalism is called to try to bridge, or overcome, or ameliorate.

The present political polarization is the result of long-standing conflicts coming to the surface, sharpening and intensifying. The reason why political conflict is so heated now is because these issues are approaching a resolution. The majority of the population want a society governed by principles that reflect the basic assumptions of liberal religion. There is tremendous resistance to this by a coalition of forces that do not respect the worth and dignity of all people, who do not favor equity and justice, who are empowered by undemocratic practices, who are willfully blind to the effects of our economy on the planet. The political polarization of the country is uncomfortable, but it is a good thing, because basic issues, our issues, are on the table. This is the moment when we need to be bold and brave and engaged.
Fred Wooden responds:
I disagree with your analysis that “these issues are approaching a resolution.” One could say the same about the run-up to the American Civil War, or the end of the French monarchy. Yes they were resolved but created in their violent wake issues that haunt us now. I am also not sure that the population wants the principles you say. They want the outcomes, but I am not sure they share the values so thoroughly. In all, I think you are too optimistic in this assessment.
Now, this may seem like a quibble, but the most important thing for me is correctly discerning the historical moment.

Basic issues are never resolved. The Civil War resolved the issue of slavery, but the contradiction between the wealth created by the exploitation of a subjugated African people in the South and those people shifted and continued. And when African Americans migrated en masse from the South, the contradiction nationalized and continued.

I think that we might make new highwater mark for multi-racial popular democracy in the next decade. Previous moments in history that are similar are the New Deal, especially the creation of Social Security and the Wagner Act, and the Great Society Reform movement of 65-66 (Medicare, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act). Each moment was created by a much larger social movement, which brought about a chance for real reforms to be enacted. Each moment of reform creates a furious counter-reaction; we are in the dying days of the Nixon-Reagan counter reaction to those King/Johnson (?!?!) reforms. Those of us who yearn for the Kingdom of God have to maximize our wins, and endure the storm that follows.

The danger I see for liberal religion is that we will not see the opportunities in this moment, but stay defensive and hunkered down, as we have for decades, assuming that the population is not potentially with us.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Each year, on this date, I point people again to a sermon that I wrote for a King Day service several years ago. The sermon reminds me that even persons of world-historical significance travel a difficult path into adulthood. Even great ministers struggle to find and define their call among all the expectations of others.
I offer it as a parable that might be comforting to the young seminarians, the aspirants, the candidates, the interns, the colleagues in search for the first time. You are trying to fit yourself to the ministry, but a big part of that is the act of self-definition. 
The line that I am most proud of in the whole sermon is:
"It is the faith of liberal religion, in all its forms, that world-changing energy is released when men and women [sic] free their minds, and claim them as their own."
May this day be one of reflection, inspiration and dedication for all.

Authority in a Post-Denominational, Post-Congregational Age

Let's just stipulate that the future of Unitarian Universalism will be in non-congregational settings. The future of liberal religion is post-congregational, or "Beyond Congregations."

But congregations are the source of ministerial authority.

In days of yore, congregations themselves ordained ministers; now ministerial authority is bestowed by the fellowshipping process. In practical terms, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee says who is a recognized and legitimate UU minister. But by what authority? By the authority granted to it as a body of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. In theory, congregations have created a common system for doing what they each used to do on their own.

Our congregationally based system of conferring authority will be called upon to credential lots of ministers for post-congregational settings. It does that now, (community ministers), but awkwardly, and in small numbers. A system that is designed to produce and evaluate chicken eggs will be asked to evaluate duck eggs and ducks. A system designed to form parish ministers will have to form missionaries, evangelists, apostles and community organizers.

Training people to be a UU parish minister is an expensive and lengthy process. Is it the best way to train people to create liberal religious ministries that are not based on the parish model?

If we are to answer the call for liberal religious leadership in the society at large, we will need to deploy dedicated religious leaders in numbers we cannot imagine. How are those leaders to be formed, evaluated and credentialed? The skills and presence needed may not look like those of parish ministry.

Who decides who is a UU minister? The very category of "UU minister" becomes an anachronism if we take post-denominationalism, post-congregationalism, and laicism seriously. Look at the Sunday Assemblies: they're growing with non-professional "ministry."

The value of the present system is a process of accountability and standards of ministerial professionalism, ethical behavior, personal stability. That matters. God knows, it is an imperfect system, but I hear no one saying that we ought to get rid of it, and just let anyone claim to be a UU minister.

We are at a turning point. Someone has to discern what the essential qualities of UU minister are in non-congregational settings, and devise a process to form and evaluate future religious leaders on those qualities. The present body of UU ministers are the obvious choices to do that work. But it will require self-transcendence.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Some Ideas that Are Past their Expiration Date

Political Practice and Spirituality are two separate spheres.

The liberal critique of orthodoxy was that it valued creeds over deeds.  We countered with "deeds, not creeds." Somehow, that turned into a creed itself: a belief that liberal religion had no particular political or social implications. Nice thought, but untrue. Our spirituality is expressed in what we do, how we act, who we see as friends and allies, and who we see as adversaries. Our spirituality is embodied; we are people living in bodies, in a particular time and place, among other people. Our spirituality is how we deal with those people, just as much as how we relate to flowers, plants, stars, the invisible and the infinite. 

The imbalance in Unitarian Universalism is that we are too political. 

Not quite true. The imbalance is that our political thought is not spiritual enough. We have not thought through the political implications of the basic tenets of liberal religion, so our commitment to political causes often seems to be shaped by party loyalties, or by the attractiveness of social movements. We are in a self-perpetuating cycle in which our ministers and theologians are inhibited from thinking and speaking deeply about social issues.  Our public theology often takes the Seven Principles as the authoritative and normative texts; but they are only summary statements of a much longer and richer liberal theological tradition. We need more theological reflection on the social situation and our social practices, not less political engagement.

The political polarization in America is a problem that Unitarian Universalism is called to try to bridge, or overcome, or ameliorate. 

The present political polarization is the result of long-standing conflicts coming to the surface, sharpening and intensifying. The reason why political conflict is so heated now is because these issues are approaching a resolution. The majority of the population want a society governed by principles that reflect the basic assumptions of liberal religion. There is tremendous resistance to this by a coalition of forces that do not respect the worth and dignity of all people, who do not favor equity and justice, who are empowered by undemocratic practices, who are willfully blind to the effects of our economy on the planet. The political polarization of the country is uncomfortable, but it is a good thing, because basic issues, our issues, are on the table. This is the moment when we need to be bold and brave and engaged.

The separation of church and state, and our tax-exempt status, prevent us from political  engagement.

The separation of church and state protects us from the government; it should not inhibit our political and social activity. And we should recognize that our tax-exempt status is a financial bribe to keep religiously-motivated people from acting together in the public square. We may have to abide by it, tactically, but we should not internalize it as a moral value. Isn't it telling that a corporation has the right to instruct its employees how to vote and to donate corporate money to candidates, but a church cannot endorse a candidate as being expressive of its mission?

UU churches should be a space of civil dialogue where people who disagree about political issues find common ground. 

Who are our dialogue partners? If we choose to engage the largely middle-class, white, political conservatives in dialogue, we will shape the results. We should remember our experience with the Welcoming Congregation programs: gay and lesbian people should not be expected to engage in continuous debates about their right to exist with people who do not respect them. The terms of such discussion had the impact of excluding them, even though the invitation may say otherwise. Apply that lesson to current issues: who would be excluded, in practice, from a discussion in which we seek the common ground with those who believe that there ought to be no minimum wage and that unemployment is caused by laziness? The very terms of the discussion are so disrespectful of the working poor that none would want to be in that dialogue. Better to have dialogue with the working poor over the conditions of their lives, than to prioritize making peace with a handful of Libertarian ideologues. 

UU Republicans are uncomfortable in our congregations because UU's are intolerant of opinions with which they don't agree. 

Yes, UU Republicans are often uncomfortable in our congregations. They are a minority and the majority is not reticent about expressing their views. Yes, there are some rude people among us, just like in society in general. Almost everybody has had the experience of being on the receiving end of someone's insensitivity or insulting assumptions in a UU coffee hour. But the discomfort that arises from grasping that most of your co-religionists have a different view of a political or social issue is a moment that Dr. King called a "creative tension." If some UU's find a contradiction between their political loyalties and the demands of their religion (particularly as their covenant partners have understood it), it is their problem to work out. May they grow spiritually from it.

Mass Moral March in Raleigh, NC -- Why I am Going...

I am joining a significant number of my colleagues in Raleigh, NC, as the Unitarian Universalist contingent of the Mass Moral March on Saturday, February 8, 2014. 

Peter Morales has responded to the invitation from the leaders of the North Carolina movement to assemble a UU contingent. His statement is here.

The NC NAACP, led by Rev. William Barber has pulled together a powerful coalition of African American organizations and white progressive organizations to oppose the imposition of Republican governance on their state:voting suppression, drastic cuts to the safety net for the poor, draconian restrictions on abortion,  and regressive taxation.

It is the same GOP agenda that is being implemented in many states, including Michigan where I live, Ohio, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.

But in the North Carolina, a vigorous movement has been mobilized to take a stand against it, using some of the protest tactics of the Civil Rights Movement: repeated mass marches, and civil disobedience.

It is not clear what will come of this, but that does not matter. We should engage now and sum up later. One of the lessons of Justice GA, in Phoenix in 2012, is that engagement with others in their struggles for justice breathes life and vitality into our religious movement. Let's do this.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Lens

In my last post, I wrote:
The demobilization of reform forces is the historical context in which we have to look at UU history since 1961.
By "demobilization of reform forces," I mean the Nixon-Reagan Thermidor, the mobilization of a conservative counter-movement to all the reformist movements which surfaced in the 50's and 60's.

To tell the story of Unitarian Universalism since merger is to tell the story of the many UU strategies for resisting, escaping, accommodating, subverting and ignoring this counter-revolution.  It is the most useful lens through which to view this now 50+ year history, just as we now view the story of Unitarianism in the antebellum period through the lens of abolition and slavery.

It is not our preferred lens. We tell other stories to organize our history. We tell the story of our ever-increasing inclusiveness and openness, as women, gays and lesbians, bisexuals and trans people entered our ministry and congregations. We tell how we created an interfaith solution to the humanist/theist divide which dominated the pre-merger times. We tell a story of courage in Selma and cowardice in Boston and Cleveland, repentance in Calgary and the slow journey since then. You could trace our history along the lines of our youth ministry: LRY and Common Ground, and YRUU, and AYS and OWL.

None of these story are false, and still stand on their own, as histories. I am saying that the overall narrative which brings these together is the story of our attempts to deal with the rising tide of anti-liberalism.

Telling our story in a different way, around a different theme, or in a different key, does not change what happened. It does shake up our thinking, offering different ways to view the present and to see a different future. We are shaped, but not determined, by our history.  The first step to changing ourselves is to change how we understand who we are and how we got here.

Such a view, de-centers us. The Nixon-Reagan Thermidor affected every institution, culture and subculture in the country. It gets us out of thinking that we make our history, and in touch with the fact that history makes us, as well.

Too Political and Not Spiritual Enough

Clyde comments on the last post:
When we [were] new to the ministry some said we were too political and not "spiritual enough."
I am not sure each of the "we"s were that Clyde is talking to, but I read the first one as Clyde himself, and maybe me, (although I came in later than Clyde) and the second one as all of us in the UU movement.

But I am sure that he would be correct in including me, Tom, in the "some said".  

I was one of those who was convinced that the UU's were terribly weakened by too much political activism. Not enough spirituality. Too much anger. Too much blaming "the other" for everything that was wrong with the world. All because we had no theology of evil that recognized that it existed in us, as well as others. All because we had no faith, except faith in our own works. 

I also thought all the indignation and earnestness so tiring, and embarrassing, and hopeless. and kind of pathetic. I had been that person and I didn't want to do that anymore.

Obviously, I am not in the same place, anymore.

What happened is that I woke up to the social history of my own life. I made the connection between what was happening in my life and larger social and political movements.

I thought that my lack of interest in political/social causes grew out of my own experiences and my growing theological sophistication. I did not name it, though, as part of a general neutralization of progressives in the United States. The demobilization of reform forces is the historical context in which we have to look at UU history since 1961.

It is a huge and complicated story, as multi-faceted as all of historical reality.  One aspect of it was that within liberal religion, "spirituality" was separated from "public theology" over the last 40 years.  Both have been trivialized as a result.  The "spirituality" that was left had no soteriology, nor eschatology, as one of my twitter followers pointed out. Soteriology and eschatology is how theology deals with history and hope.

Re-connecting spirituality with public theology is the work before us.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Pastoral Side of History

Darryl Dyke comments on facebook:

My tiny campus-town back in Maine has a transient population of young people and a well-educated, stable group who stay in the frigid North for what can only be called spiritual reasons (it certainly isn't the money or the growth potential). It is a warm-hearted place to both raise a family and to retire.
When I ask, I'm told they want that covenant of extended family, as Louise says, those instant families, Sunday dinners and warm memories for their kids. Throw in social witness and some after-school homework, etc, and maybe we can forget some of the old-school metrics of success. I've seen enough growth-for-growth's sake.
Tell me more, before I return, I will listen and learn.

I think that if you ask lots of UU's, you would hear the same thing. What they want is actually quite modest -- a warm and comfortable circle of friends, a good place to raise children, enough shared values and perspectives to make social interactions supportive. Many UU congregations do that well for the people who are there. After all, we have the people who want what we have to give. The ones that want something else are somewhere else.

But why do people want what they want?

In an individualistic, ahistorical culture, people's desires appear to them to be their own, springing up unbidden in their consciousness. Freedom consists of being able to act on their desires, within the limits of the social order.

One of the tasks of religion is to help people get their desires into perspective. One task is to help understand the consequences of their desires on others. (This is the effect of a gas guzzler on the climate) But another is to help people understand where and how their desires come from, what led to them. Freedom is not being the unreflective pawn of one's own desires, to have some perspective on them.

We are used to the psychological dimension of pastoral care -- suggesting to someone that perhaps they are projecting their father onto someone else, suggesting that they try to free themselves from compulsive thoughts that arise from their personal experiences.

I think that social historian is also one of the roles of pastor. For example, whenever we find ourselves trying to explain white privilege to someone, we are engaging in the pastoral application of social history. We are asking to them to consider how the whole history of this country (indeed the world) has shaped how they view the social order, other people, themselves.

We are all pushed and pulled by the history of our time; it is the idolatry of individualism that hides that fact from ourselves. Our work as pastors is to help people see themselves as part of a larger whole -- you could even call that whole, the interdependent web.

I am interested in this question:  In 1961, at the GA of merger/consolidation, the delegates sang "As Tranquil Streams" as a theme of merger. The last verse is "Prophetic church, the future awaits your liberating ministry; go forward in the power of love and proclaim the truth that sets us free."

What happened to that movement? What transpired to all of us, our parents and our children, so that now 50 years later, it is the default position that a UU church is a smallish circle of people, covenanted to intimacy, 'an instant family', a comfortable circle.  What is the social history of our people for the last 50 years that such a conception of ourselves is our safest aspiration, what we think our members really want.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Theological Dispute and Institutional Distrust

Image by UU Media Works

The image above was on a UU Holiday card sent out en masse through social media.  It has come under a lot of criticism for being classist and ableist. Much commenting has gone on, including the escalation to the argument about who is too easily offended and who is being defensive.

My comment on Facebook:
Leaving aside the question of offense, inclusion and exclusion; is the sentiment a transformative spiritual message? There is a strain of liberal spirituality which is argues that what already is is good enough, and that our spiritual work is to unlearn dissatisfaction -- to wake up to the wonder that is, and let ourselves be happy. Think of that Julian of Norwich fragment that says "all will be well." Julian placed her trust in God, but the humanist variety is that WE humans have all that we need to do whatever we define as our "salvation." But in the late 20thC, liberals also asserted that oppression/privilege was pervasive to the human condition. The two thoughts are in contradiction, and it takes very careful wordsmithing to avoid the gap. Our personal disputes over who is legitimately offended and who should lighten up are actually signs of a deeper theological disagreement.
I should be clear: I don't think that these contradictory spiritual impulses are, in fact, bridgeable by careful wordsmithing.  It's just that wordsmithing is all that we have at the time, just as we are now practiced at wordsmithing our way between the theological proposition that there is a God, and the opposing view.  Just as the Council of Chalcedon managed to wordsmith its way between the proposition that Jesus was divine and that Jesus was human.

But wordsmithing aside, we should recognize this as a real live theological issue, about which we disagree. And none of us know with any certainty where "we", meaning the Unitarian Universalist movement, is eventually going to come down on it. So we read the signs.

When the UUA sends out a holiday card with such an image and such a quotation, it seems a signal of a deeper theological position: that the barrier to happiness is our habits of unhappiness and acquisitive desire -- that the Universe is ultimately OK; we're ultimately OK, but are blind to the vast cosmic OKness that surrounds us.  It doesn't say that whatever one thinks of the Universe, human beings are not OK because we oppress/exclude/disrespect and that we ought to temper our gratitude with that understanding.

I have written elsewhere, (just today), my sense that our religious movement is tentative, amorphous, enervated and uncommitted.  More or less, I think we are all jammed into a waiting room, waiting for something to happen.  In the meantime, we don't really know where each other is at, and what each other are, in fact, waiting for. It's nerve-wracking, isn't it.

Question for 2014

Is Unitarian Universalism exhausted?

I don't mean without energy, because that is clearly not so.  There's lots of hustle and bustle, meetings, trainings and conferences. Most local congregations are busy places, maybe even too busy. And, I am sure that there some exhausted people out there: staff people, over-committed volunteers, religious professionals.

No, I mean exhausted, as a seam of coal might be exhausted in a mining operation. No more coal there to profitably dig. Or exhausted, like a topic of conversation; nothing more to be said on that particular subject.

Are we drifting? UU leaders have identified some of the great issues before us: we are organized into autonomous local congregations, which do not serve many of the people who might be  sympathetic to our opinions and work. Many of our local congregations have no real possibilities of growth; they are aging, not attracting new and younger members, and they are financially stretched. From the stories I hear, many of our congregations are profoundly conservative about themselves. It is unspoken, but they would really like to be left alone to do what they are doing now, free from the demands of "The UUA" and the ambitious plans for transformation from their minister. If only they could easily pay for what they are doing now....

We don't have a growth strategy and we are not planting new congregations, although new congregations are being formed, on their own. No one expects, however, that a new congregation is going to have any more success than the present ones. If successful, it will top out around 100-200 members, with a building, a minister and chronic sense of financial anxiety.  

Our priorities, concretely, are, in order, (1) buildings, (2) staffs, (3) internally focused programming and lastly, (4) community oriented programming.  The trend is to fund our community involvement with voluntary Sunday collections, under the "share the plate" method. My sense is that "share the plate" works because we are too exhausted with our the decision making process to try to fund community projects through the budget.

I wrack my brain trying to think of some structural reform that would create new energy for the project of liberal religion. I can never think of one.

So, what I hope for is for a reviving energy to come from participation in the class politics of the country. Take up the issues of low-wage workers, the unemployed, the vanishing middle class, the declining social service and public sectors, the immigrants, the underinvestment in infrastructure and public education.

We need to name our personal and institutional financial anxieties as part of a larger economic situation which is not inevitable, but conscious policy. We need to throw ourselves into something larger than ourselves, taking our place in the larger social movements of our time. Yes, we have to find a way to do this that is authentic, honest, respectful of others. We need to be working for ourselves as well as others.

There is more to the engaged spiritual life than building small communities that maintain good boundaries and healthy conflict styles, that encourage self-care, and take care of real estate and buildings.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Checking the Time: The Clocks of the World

What time is it on the clock of the world? (Grace Lee Boggs)

Politically, in the short term, it is high noon.  Today, as I write, the Senate is considering the most basic measure of anti-recessionary stimulus, and simple human decency: the extension of unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed.  If it can pass the Senate, its prospects are still doubtful in the House.

National policy is being fought way over in conservative territory (should we have unemployment insurance?) because of the power of a very conservative faction of the Republican Party.  This is what we see every day: government shutdowns, abortion restrictions, voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, the Koch brothers and the superwealthy creating political power whole cloth with money. Everyday, somewhere it is a showdown.

But in longer term politics, it is the dark before the dawn. The demographic base of this ultra-
conservative movement is rapidly declining. The young are more liberal; the nation is less white; women are becoming more independent politically; GOP reputation among Latinos and Asian-Americans is declining; the GOP is losing the elders as the more liberal baby-boomers replace the elders of yesterday. In terms of the long-term trend, it is easy to see that the current power of the GOP is built on sand, particularly the sand of the lower voter turnout in mid-term elections. That lesson is being learned. Their power is built on redistricting, which is temporary, and voter suppression, which does not work, and that strain of cultural resentments which started in the late 60's and has about run its course as a majority maker. In the long term, the spread of marriage equality is much more a sign of the future than many of the measures now being passed by reactionary state legislatures. The latter will be reversed when the balance of power shifts; the former is permanent.

But politics is only the surface. The processes of wealth accumulation at the top and the monopoly of economic power in the hands of financial capital (the 1% who direct the flow of capital and credit in the world economy) continues unabated. The routine operation of the world provides an unlimited flow of capital to invest in fossil fuel. There is plenty of capital to invest in moving productive capacity and jobs to Mexico and China. Stock prices go up when when workforces are reduced. Against the routine operations of the world, government policies, regulations and taxes are tiny and shrinking counterweights.

At this level, the clock is reading a few minutes to midnight. The routine operations of the world, the way that economic decisions of the world are made, is resulting in two things.  One is the baking of the planet. The other is the impoverishment of the world's people. The two are inextricably linked.

Do you see the contradiction developing here? We are approaching a time when the political situation in the United States will result in a political movement that might challenge the financial power that sustains the routine operations of the world. Not a revolution, for sure, but a movement that articulates a different vision: a US government that wrestles more capital away from Wall Street, a government that loosens restriction on the flow of labor across borders, a US government that regulates carbons, a government which supports the political and economic empowerment of the poor and the working class.

What would happen next? Who knows? The future is not written yet; it is barely perceived. But there are times, short periods of time, when reforms get made that change the power dynamics for a while.  Surely, the Wagner Act during the Depression which enabled mass unionization changed the country for 50+ years; surely the Voting Rights Act in 1965 changed the country for quite awhile. If they were unimportant, they would not have been targets all this time. Such a time of reform is possible in the new future.

I am not saying anything terribly new here. I am weaving together analyses that are commonplace, with more hope than many of the analysts who have read the times. I am mostly concerned with Unitarian Universalist public theology.  What does liberal religion have to say about this moment in time?  What do we say to ourselves and to the people who listen to us?

What time is it on the clock of Unitarian Universalism? I think that it is late afternoon.
  My sense is that we are exhausted and about done with the day's labor. I think that we have reached our full potential in the way that we have conceived and organized ourselves. The work of building multi-generational religious communities around and through "congregations" with buildings and ministers and Sunday morning worship services and Sunday schools has been done as well as we are going to do it.  You can tell that the work is done because we have no real strategy to create anymore. Our creative energy is mostly directed at perfecting what we have, and most of our energy is devoted to just sustaining what we have. But the work has been good; we see the fruits of that work in the number of young leaders our congregations have grown and nurtured, and who are ready to carry the work forward.

We are already beginning to think of the work that we might do tomorrow. After all, it is only late afternoon on a Tuesday. It seems to me that the work for tomorrow is bring ourselves to this moment of potential reform that is opening up. We have the opportunity to make our theological approaches concrete in the midst of history.

We should make our humanist realism concrete in a hard-headed analysis of the powers that be, and the world's routine processing.  We should make our Emersonian idealism concrete in the faith that the imagination of a better world is as powerful as the status quo. It matters how we see the world. We should make our universalism concrete in the broadness of our loyalties, coalitions and alliances. We should make our affirmation of worth and dignity concrete in our ability to "respect, include and empower".  We fight for the democratic process and equity and peace in the concrete world.

Unitarian Universalism is a very small, but influential, denomination that is a part of a middle class that is being squeezed out by forces way beyond our control.  The chances of clawing our way up into the safe and protected upper strata, becoming a religion of the upper classes, are frankly small. Mostly likely, we will go out with a whimper, as unsustainable churches close as more and more of the nation is abandoned as poor places to invest.

But we could jump down.  What would James Luther Adams have us do?

It is late afternoon.  Let's spend this evening planning new tasks, and new ways of working for tomorrow.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Continuing Saga of the Sunday Assembly

"The continuing saga of the Sunday Assemblies"

Really, people should talk to Unitarian Universalists before they try to do what we have been trying to do for decades.  We might have something to teach, you know.  On the other hand, there are things that we UU's can learn from their experiments.

The Sunday Assemblies growth strategy is a franchise model.  Local leaders apply to become part of the Sunday Assemblies, get the rights to use the name and the materials, and are expected to use them.  This is quite different than Unitarian Universalists which used a locally autonomous affiliation model, where each new local group is free to shape itself however it wishes, as long as it has a democratic structure and conducts regular "religious services." Within those very broad guidelines, a new UU group can choose its own liturgy, theological perspective, and style.

A group in New York has sought the Sunday Assembly franchise but disagrees with the London leadership about where to hold services and how "atheist" the group should be.  New York has broken off and formed another group the "Godless Revival".  New York wanted a bar venue and a more militant atheism.

The franchise model has produced a schism where the UU model would have accepted the difference between the two groups as diversity within the single movement.

It could have been a useful conversation had they called and asked for our experience. Not that we necessarily know better.

The franchise model is better if the conception of the movement is sectarian.  In UU terms, if we are trying to build a distinct UU religious entity with UU identity, it would be better if there were consistency in all localities.  And it makes starting new groups easier; there is more or less a kit.  A new group can be planted with fewer people and with less reliance on local creation.

If you are trying to build a more amorphous movement, then how we do things now, maybe better.

Another thing we might have warned them about: you can never be "atheist" enough.  The New York group -- "Godless Revival" -- thinks the Sunday Assembly group is soft in their atheism, entertaining a broad range of skeptical views, instead of propounding a doctrinal atheism.  The London leaders counseled against focusing on atheism, per se.  

Atheism is a religious word, a theological position which makes no sense without theism.  Therefore, to be doctrinally atheist means that the content of programming in an atheist church will be polemics against theism. This is too much religious disputation for most people.

And if you structure yourself, however loosely, on the model of a church, some people will always find it too 'churchy'. You can eliminate as many evidences of churchiness (robes, ministers, the word 'church', worship, faintly visible crosses, the color burgundy, sermons etc.) as you can, but there will always been something that triggers 'church' to the ecclesiologically sensitive.  Someone will always want 'something more irreligious.'

Unitarian Universalists, if they are at all candid about their experience, could have passed this along, if asked. Doctrinal Atheism and Church Allergies are not easily contained within a more diverse religious movement.

Another lesson, we are learning, which the article showed: Someone voiced the complaint that they found the Sunday Assembly talks to be not sufficiently intellectually stimulating. I can imagine every UU minister shuddering a bit at this complaint. Intellectual stimulation in sermons is a no-win situation.

The example cited was what the complainer said was a shallow 'wikipedia' based talk on particle physics. Skillfully presented, I might find such a talk very stimulating, as I know absolutely nothing about particular physics. The physics teacher I know who makes it a point to boycott any sermon about "quantum physics and its implications for theology" would not agree, I am sure. On the other hand, I find most most sermonic summaries of US History to be too simplistic to engage me.

 It's simply impossible to be consistently intellectually stimulating to a large number of people. People know too much different stuff, and are engaged in too much different stuff, with different levels of experience for it to work. They should have called; we could have steered them clear on that.

The Sunday Assemblies look a lot like Unitarian Universalism, or what Unitarian Universalism would look like if it were younger and more media savvy. I am not sure that is enough to avoid being beset by the same internal conflicts that Unitarian Universalism is.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Turn Your Hand and the Flow is Changed.

Happy New Year !

Where I am, it is a cold and somewhat snowy day.  A good day for a special breakfast, and staying inside, except for a trip to the gym, as I do almost every day now.  We stayed up late last night, laughing.

If you are the sort who likes to read something a little longer on a day like today, can I recommend one of my own posts? I wrote it a couple of years ago when asked to respond to Kim Beach's book about James Luther Adams.  There were about 75 people who heard the essay as read at the forum.  Less than 100 have read it since on this blog. If you are trying to figure out where I am coming from, it will tell you.

I think that we UU's should be reading James Luther Adams these days.  I think that we need to re-ground ourselves in the present moment, when the larger society is changing inexorably.

You have put your hand
 in water flowing
have you not?
Water from a pump gushing, 
muscled up from the Earth, 
or magically flowing in the kitchen
when you were learning to wash dishes.
Or maybe bathwater flowing around your toes.
Let your hand go limp
 and your fingers flow away, 
down the stream.
Turn your hand and 
the flow is changed.

--January 1, 2014