Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Demonization of Eric Shinseki

People don't like it when I say that the signature rhetorical theme of conservative movement is demonization.  By "demonization" I mean the reduction of complex systemic issues to questions of bad intention on the part of individuals. It denies the inter-relationships of different aspects of a situation and isolates one person as the cause, or scapegoat, or solution to the problem.

Case in point: Eric Shinseki.

The Veterans Administration has been underfunded for decades, especially in the face of the numbers of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, changes in eligibility for PTSD and Agent Orange related health issues have been loosened resulting in increased applications from older veterans.

Housing Segregation

Ta-Nehisi Coates essay on Reparations (what, you haven't read it yet? Are you trying to be the
last one to read it?) illuminates the history of housing segregation in the cities after the Great Migration from the South.

If explorers came from another planet and researched our human ways, this story would make no sense to them. A great and wealthy nation voluntarily chose to cease investing in the housing stock of much of their greatest cities, cutting off the flow of capital and credit to whole sections of their cities. When those sections declined, as they would as surely as a garden never watered, nor fertilized, nor re-seeded, adjacent sections of the city were also starved.

Legislators of the World

Thank you, Maya Angelou

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman
"For [poets] not only behold intensely the present as it is, and discover those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but they behold the future in the present, and their thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time."
--Percy Bysse Shelley


Though the path be hard and long,
still we strive in expectation,
join we now their ageless song
one with them in aspiration.
One in name, in honor one
guard we well the crown they won,
What they dreamed, be ours to do,
hope their hopes and seal them true.

Friday, May 30, 2014

What the World Needs Now

I got a lot of page views and buzz off my post early yesterday on the Branding Process. Whenever I get that kind of wide and favorable response, I wonder if I just wasn't clear enough -- that people could read what they wanted to hear into what I said, and then hit that "Like" button.  Thanks a lot; I love affirmation more than just about ANYTHING in this whole wide world of numberless pleasures.

I said that I think we should ask ourselves what the world needs, and make ourselves known for being people who are trying to make that good stuff happen.

So, I am asking myself today, what do I think the world needs from us.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Re-Mapping the Ideological Landscape

Something quite important happened over the Memorial Day Weekend.  The ideological landscape of America was re-mapped. Misogyny went from being a "mental disturbance" and cultural background noise to being identified as an ideology.  It's doctrines were explicated. Its ideological centers and communication channels were exposed. The dark underworld of its adherents were brought into the sunshine. It became clear that many, if not all men, have been, at various times in their lives, under its ideological influence.

 An ideology can be renounced and turned away from, even if it has become habitual. It can be combatted. The young can be educated against a dangerous ideology. But we throw up our hands at "mental disturbances;" they seem unpredictable and very hard to correct.

The news media seemed all set to present Isla Vista as an all ready familiar narrative. Mentally ill person plus easy access to guns equals mass murder. Cue the Gun control debate.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Branding hurts a little; Ask Any Cow.

Maybe we should start at the other end? Instead of re-entering that very old, very tired debate that starts with the question: Who Are We?, we should try something different.

the #thanklesstask of "re-branding"

I am preparing my #thanklesstask hashtags for what will surely be a flurry of harsh and negative commentary on the "Selling God" article in Boston Magazine. I think the article seems like a good description of the work that the national staff is doing to find ways to talk about who we are, what we are doing and why it matters. I would like to hear Terasa Cooley's opinion as to whether the writers got it right.

I have my doubts. After all, if somehow they think that the way to sum up our re-branding is to call it "selling God", I am not sure that they have been listening all that well. God is definitely not standard equipment on most models of Unitarian Universalism. The Divine One is kind of like a manual transmission on a new car, an extra cost option for the more retro-minded.

Further, it's quite unsettling to see UUism personified by such a young and good looking guy. If I knew that young and good-looking was going to be in style in UUism, I would have not waited until I was 50 to go to seminary.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Free Speech, Poison and Masochism

 There is vile, poisonous, hateful and dangerous speech out there. Misogynist rantings, aggressive assertions of male power and privilege. Paranoid ravings of rightwing insurrectionists. The Klan and the Nazis and their racial hatreds and bigotry. Really sicko pornography. Websites that encourage and support young women's anorexia and other eating disorders. Extended first person shooter games. Many, although not all, are expressions of the conservative backlashes against the agents of progressive change.

We all know the orthodox, conventional wisdom about all these hateful expressions.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Housing Segregation in My Life

My father was a minister; both of my grandparents were ministers. We lived in parsonages.
But right between my first and second year of grade school, my father left the ministry (another story) and started working for Republic Steel. My family entered the housing market for the first time.

Not my actual house, but one of the same model.
My parents bought a house, a little Cape Cod, in Wickliffe, a working class subdivision in the suburb of Austintown, immediately the west of Youngstown, Ohio. I believe that it cost them about $12,000. It had two bedrooms, and 1 bath on the first floor. An eat-in kitchen and a Living Room.  The upstairs was unfinished; my dad built two more bedrooms upstairs and we converted the second bedroom downstairs into a den, because my mother thought a TV in the living room was an abomination.

It was a stretch to buy this house.  It was mortgaged to the full limit, I am sure, which probably meant that it was an FHA approved mortgage.

Ta Nehisi Coates, in his masterful argument for reparations, points out that the FHA redlined loans, refusing to guarantee loans for houses in some neighborhoods and not in others, often explicitly on the grounds of race. Loans in black neighborhoods would not be guaranteed.

My new neighborhood was all white.

It was not that there were not black people around who had reached the level of prosperity of my
Republic Steel originated the Steelmark Logo which
they gave to the Pittsburgh Steelers to use
family. It was a working class neighborhood; my father was now a steelworker. And I knew from his stories of life in the mill that there were African American men who had steady union jobs in the mills. So I have to conclude in retrospect that the machinery of segregation was at work: a conscious agreement among realtors, bankers and the FHA (the government) to keep this subdivision all white.

There were black kids in my elementary school. As far as I can remember, they all lived in a little collection of houses in a neighborhood off a road that headed out of Austintown to the northwest. I was there once; it was poor. The students from there were poor.

We drove through poor, black neighborhoods in Youngstown. There was one that was along a
shortcut that we took to the First Unitarian Church there, so we went through it often. We were aware of what we then called the "slums".  My parents told us that there were slums and ghettos and that there was housing segregation. But I didn't understand how it worked. I thought that housing segregation happened at the seller and realtor level. Prejudiced people wouldn't sell to black people. And because they couldn't buy, that made black people the easy prey of the other villains in the story: the "slumlords." And as for the run-down conditions of the slums, we're were sympathetic: after all, if you couldn't buy and were being victimized as a renter, then why not let the porch sag, and the paint peel, and the yard turn to mud?

In other words, as good late 50's and early 60's liberals, we saw the results of white racism, and we were sympathetic to its victims, and we identified some of the perpetrators (realtors and slumlords). But, I don't think anyone in family was conscious of the system that was at work; it was more individual than that. And I doubt that anyone connected my parent's ability to get a mortgage on a starter home with the conditions in that little poor black neighborhood nearby.

We lived in that starter home until I was a junior in high school. They sold it for a profit and used the money for another larger house out in a more rural area. Long after I left home, they sold that house for a profit and bought a home in Arizona. But, both my parents died before they were 70. Anything they accumulated in terms of wealth, they had spent in health care costs at the end. But along the way, they had been free to live as well as their incomes and wealth would allow.  A happy circumstance that was not available to all. It was a privilege.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"The Love People"

There are reports that people who don't know Unitarian Universalism, but have observed UU's at events where we all have our yellow tee-shirts on, have called us 'the love people.'

Photo by M. Lara Hoke
"Love Person" is an identity which hints at a life's work and a life's journey.

What if you had known to answer "A Love Person" back then, when some adult asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up.

You were going to dedicate your life to the make "Love" the operating system of the world. When you were young, you would have sophomoric debates about "Love", testing its logical limits and boundaries. Questions like whether you could fight back against interstellar lizard invaders with loving non-violence. But as you grew older, the questions would change, but ethics of love would grow deeper in your life. You would practice its application in public policy and in your personal economics. You would come to understand how love fit with your personal psychological development and the history of your people and family. And when you were old, you would be wise about love.

And when popular culture and the consumption machine threw the endless stream of potential identities at you, you would relate to them like a child playing dress-up in a costume shop. Because you knew who you really were. That self-knowledge would allow you to make commitments, and to end commitments, to enter into relationships and endure differences within them, to enter into covenants with a whole heart.

Being a "Love Person" would be a transcendent identity.

I don't want to debate or dissect that particular phrase, "The Love People". But I am pointing out that category -- the transcendent identity.  It is the search for and the fulfillment of that transcendent identity that is the hero's journey.

Is "Unitarian Universalist" a transcendent identity? What is the hero's journey toward embodying that identity? It appears that it is going to seminary and being ordained. The hero's journey of liberal religion shouldn't require tens of thousands in student debt. The loss of the young is a sign that "Unitarian Universalist" does not offer that journey to a transcendent identity.

If you had to describe the journey of your life toward a transcendent identity, how would you phrase it?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Weak Identities, UU sectarianism, and Branding.

This article in Vox is about Buzzfeed, the popular internet content provider. It appears that one of
Jonah Perreti of Buzzfeed
the founders of Buzzfeed, Jonah Perreti has a background in Marxist critical theory. He, in a paper from long ago, advanced a thesis that capitalism seeks to influence people in the direction of having a weak identity -- a weak sense of self. A person with a weak sense of self is easily manipulable; identities can be proposed to the person which then they can create through consumption. You buy something to feel like you are somebody. Once I buy some skinny jeans, a fedora and some big honking wingtips, I can be a hipster of some sort.

Of course, the onrushing flow of products and sales means that someone will soon be suggesting another identity to me, which I can attain by buying something else: the shrubs and the lawn care tools that will make me a manly suburban homeowner, loading up his stuff at the local nursery. There is no conspiracy, just competitors creating and superimposing one identity hunger over another, each with its own shopping list. After awhile, I don't know who I am anymore, just an empty vessel through which popular culture flows, driving me back and forth to the mall.

Of course, the process is at work everywhere. The endless rush of emotionally potent news dissolves a person's sense of a long term narrative of themselves and their stake in the political and economic life of the nation. Today, I am upset about the VA hospital in Phoenix; the other day it was a gay football player, and before that the racist owner of an NBA team. Gone is my sense of myself as a social being, someone of a particular class, a particular point of view, engaged in a long term effort to shape the social order. There is no conspiracy, just a relentless competition for eyeballs. After awhile, I don't know who I am anymore, just an empty vessel through which flows the constant, apolitical stream of outrage, sentimentality and personal gossip of public life today.

This fits with a pet theory of mine, which is that weak identities, not excessive individualism, is the barrier to religious community. We are becoming people who are poorly differentiated. The whole system works against making long term commitments because the system works to erode people's capability to make them.

So, when I listened to Terasa Cooley's presentation on the UUA's branding process, I was intrigued by the proposition that an essential piece that we needed to communicate was who we are -- not as who we UU's are -- but how throwing in with us was an essential step in being who you were becoming. It's not our hero's journey; it is theirs.

(The three things that we need to communicate more clearly, which the UUA staff is trying to get their arms around are "who are we?"  -- "what do we do?" and "why does it matter?" Someone had to ask where "our theology" fit into this. Anything that is not part of who we are, what we do and why it matters and yet still calls itself "theology" is a problem. )

So what we are doing is forming identities. But everyone is in the business of creating new identities for people. Consider the question: "are you an Apple person, or a Windows person?"

We are asking people to become something new by asking them to become a Unitarian Universalist. It needs to be clear that the new thing is not Unitarian Universalism itself. UUism is a means to an end. But what end?

I think the 1980's separation of spirituality from society limits our imaginations at this point. We are trying to be spiritually grounded, historically authentic, and socially embedded. Our history and theology will lead us to a certain social role, if we are true to them.

Words fail at a certain point. Who are we? What are we Doing? Why does it matter? The answers we need are greater than UUism -- but point to a larger social force without which the nation continues on its merry path to self-destruction. We don't know what that is. So we continue to play with words and concepts, trying to find that compelling language that describes us and inspires us.

My contribution to all that must be sifted through is the memory of Walt Whitman. It seems that when we are at our best, we channel his spirit: radical, passionate, queer, embodied, inclusive, sexy, sentimental, grandiose. A poet/nurse/clerk entirely alive to his time. His spiritual life was inseparable from his social practice.

If you offered me a chance to become Walt Whitman (not the real Walt Whitman, but the character "Walt Whitman" that speaks from the pages of Leaves of Grass), I would take it. If we were a community of people that empowered people to develop their inner Walt, we would be a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Boundaries of Unitarian Universalism

In a comment on Facebook, Heather Christensen talked about our "semi-permeable boundaries of faith identity." This got me to thinking about who we are, and who we are not, and who else is out there in the religious landscape. I like to sort things into manageable piles, at least in my mind if not on my desk.

My sorting scheme is based on the particular beliefs of Liberal Religion.  Religious liberalism is not defined by particular beliefs about God, Jesus, salvation or sin. Religious liberalism is defined by its theology of religions: where do religions come from and how do they co-exist.

Liberal Religion is defined by three distinct beliefs.  (1) The world's religions are human cultural creations (2) no one religion is more true than another and (3) the value of a religion is the effect that it has on those who practice it.

You have to be a religious liberal to be a Unitarian Universalist, but you don't have to be Unitarian Universalist if you are religious liberal. Why? There are all sorts of Religious Liberals in many religious traditions, and many of those who don't affiliate with any religion have liberal beliefs about religion.

Unitarian Universalism is a particular form of religious liberalism. We are derived from Protestant Christianity but have become broader than that and have a distinctive history, customs and set of shared attitudes. But individuals define themselves in or out of our faith identity. Our goal is to be as inclusive as possible to all persons who are religious liberals of any culture and background. We are only partially successful in that ambitious goal.

So the boundary between ourselves as Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals is necessarily fuzzy and indistinct. Other religious liberals are our closest allies and friends.

Beyond the religious liberals are the many people who share many of the social concerns of religious liberals, but who are not, themselves, religious liberals. We make coalitions with them and cooperate in works of service and advocacy. Habitat for Humanity is an organization of fairly conservative Baptists, who do not believe that Christianity is a human creation, and no more true than Hinduism. UU's will build houses with them. Many African American Christians with whom we share many concerns are not religious liberals. Many of our partners in the Industrial Areas type organizations are not religious liberals.

There are other religious people who are not religious liberals, and who do not share our social concerns. Yet, we are comfortable gathering with them for interfaith dialogue, and to represent the range of faith communities in our locality. We might cooperate on an Interfaith Thanksgiving service.

And finally there religious people in our communities who specifically reject the principles of religious liberalism, and are hostile to us. They don't want to cooperate with us in any form; some even avoid interfaith groupings with people like us. They actively oppose some of our social stances, such as marriage equality. They are adversaries

So, I have sorted out five piles: (1) Unitarian Universalists (2) Other Religious Liberals (3) Not Liberal  But Social Partners (4) Not Liberal But Interfaith Dialogue Partners (5) Antagonists.

The Religiously unaffiliated are quite possibly in any of these piles.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why "Spirituality"

This article offers a possible clue as to the history of Unitarian Universalism in the later 70's and 80's.

We speak of the turn toward "spirituality" in that era as though it was a natural event beyond human control. Like a river shifting its course after an earthquake.  But what was the earthquake that happened that caused UUism to move away from the rationality and intellectuality that had been our hallmarks up to then.

Episcopal Church Foundation 
The traditional analysis has been that the earthquake that moved the river were the two connected social and demographic events: the rise of the baby boomer and the rise of a more female ministry. (Maybe in concrete terms, they are one event in UU History: Boomer women enter UU ministry.)

I would add two other aspects, suggested by this article.

One is that growing economic inequality was sapping the sense of agency in our congregations. Our people no longer felt in control of their destinies. Members of our congregations, as a whole, no longer exercised the same economic power as established UU's of previous generations.

The second factor was the experience of disempowerment that came with the election of Nixon, the frustrations of the 70's, and the election of Reagan. Whatever the objective circumstances of Unitarian Universalist congregants, many UU's crashed into the 80's hungry for some source of power and agency that they felt they lacked.

We turned to a source of spiritual power: the religious community. The purpose of our worship shifted from the stimulation of the mental powers of the powerful people in the pews to the invocation of the spiritual power of the religious community. Without a commonly shared theological language to support it, we invited the Holy Spirit into our gatherings with the hushed moment of the chalice lighting, the testimony of Joys and Sorrows, the spirited singing that skipped around intellectual content, the hand-holding benediction, the new-style communions.

The Holy Spirit was in that sense of community, and UU's sought to be possessed by it. I wouldn't say that we have fully evolved into an ecstatic ritual style, but we keep pushing on toward it.

There are millions upon millions of people in this country (and billions upon billions around the world) who also hunger for a spiritual source of power to strengthen themselves to survive and to challenge the powers and principalities that rule this planet. The spiritual power of our small communities are but stepping stones to connecting with the spiritual power of that world community.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

“Revisiting, Revisioning, Revising: Mother’s Day 2014” by Rev. Gail Geisenhainer

This morning, we were privileged to hear Rev.Gail Geisenhainer preach on Mothers' Day. She powerfully invoked Julia Ward Howe's original proclamation of the first Mothers' Day, as well as speaking to our evolving understanding of parenting. I especially appreciated her clarity about changing holiday practices to reflect new and emerging truths. 

If you didn't make it to a worship service this morning, enjoy this one....

“Revisiting, Revisioning, Revising: Mother’s Day 2014”
Rev. Gail R. Geisenhainer, Senior Minister
First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor
May 11, 2014

Today is Mother's Day.  For those of us raised with Mothers able and willing to love us and nurture us, spoil and guide us, Mother's Day is at worst, a benign salute to the power of the market economy to shape family habits.  At best, it is a chance to express to our Mothers the love and gratitude we hold for them.  For those of us who struggled into adulthood without either the presence of, or the concern from, a Mother who was able to offer us that kind of love, Mother's Day is another cultural nightmare, an emotional road filled with potholes.  And it can hurt.
For mothers who struggle…, and mothers who thrive with the role, we open our embrace today.  Here, in this congregation, we offer deep welcome for the full range of our experiences on this day.
Holidays, Holy Days, and cultured cultic practices are rooted in time and culture and need
Rev.Gail Geisenhainer
improvement to keep current with emergent wisdom.  The practice of honoring new or emergent truth is among the many things I cherish about Unitarian Universalism.  Here we can revere the past while placing our trust in the dawning future.  We can change what we do in immediate response to what we know.
In the spirit of this human practice of reshaping holidays, I believe it is time to reconsider today’s holiday: Mother’s Day.
Some dates for reference:
1870, Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, issued the Mother’s Day Proclamation we read earlier.   In the late 19th century, Mother’s Day rallies for peace were held in major cities around the world.
1905, An American woman named Anna Jarvis began a practice called Mother’s Day as a day of Memorial and Honor for her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who was a Peace and Public Health activist.  The Jarvis plan prevailed and in 1914, United States President, Woodrow Wilson, signed the holiday into law.  
Jarvis explained her intent for a “great day where sons and daughters could honor their mothers and fathers and homes in a way that will perpetuate family ties and give emphasis to true home life.” (Wikipedia)
By the 1920’s, Hallmark had begun selling Mother’s Day cards.  Jarvis protested intensely.  She claimed that the day was for sentiment and not for profit.  Her views did not prevail and the day has become a time for selling chocolate, carnations, flowers, cards and meals in restaurants…, all in the the name of honoring mothers.
At no time in her public statements did Anna Jarvis make mention of Julie Ward Howe’s call to establish a great day of counsel for mothers to mourn the dead, make the call to disarm, and demand peace.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Over the Edge

The pre-GA silly season is upon us. First up, is the plan by the Stewardship Office of the UUA to kick off a fundraising campaign that features folks rappelling down the side of the Rhode Island Convention Center. Read about it here. For a first person account of charity rappelling, check this out.

Fund raising gimmicks are by nature, gimmicky.

I call this the pre-GA silly season, because as our thoughts turn toward the UU annual meeting, GA becomes a screen on which UU's can project whatever they don't like about the UUA. The "UUA" is already a screen upon which they have already projected all their anxieties about being a religious liberal in a culture that is indifferent to religion and antsy about prophetic voices. A screen projected onto another screen, like a movie in a movie.
And May is the month you remember it.

If you are uncomfortable about sectarian evangelism, GA will seem like an orgy of self-promotion.

If you are uncomfortable about the prophetic function, GA seems like an orgy of self-righteous hectoring.

If you are uncomfortable about our class position, GA seems like an upper-class junket at luxury hotels and fine restaurants.

For those who worry that we are no longer serious about religion, GA seems like a bunch of pep rallies labelled worship services. For others, it's all too churchy, what with all the ministers parading around in splendid robes like cardinals in the Vatican.

May and June is when we notice that thing the "UUA" is doing at GA, instead of what they should be doing. This year, it looks like the "UUA" is jumping off of buildings, instead of solving the financial crisis of the local church, fighting the fossil fuel industry, resolving once and for all the relationship between UUism and Christianity, or washing the feet of the lepers. No, they are jumping off buildings!

I doubt that I will jump off a building in Providence, even though my screaming like a child stuck
This is not me, but it could be.
in a supermarket shopping cart would be entertaining. I know that I am afraid of heights.

But I also know, and this is more uncomfortable to admit, that I am a chicken when it comes to plunging into unknown and risky situations. When I was younger and more of an activist, things like going door to door, or leafletting on the street, or joining a picket line, or even phone-banking would make me very nervous.

So, when I look at it in a certain way, what the Stewardship Office is doing here is actually a bit of genius. Maybe Unitarian Universalism needs to make a scary leap into the unknown -- a leap into engagement with more, and more different kinds of, people. And a leap into a more passionate commitment. Maybe what we need most now is not people, not knowledge, not resources, not skills, but nerve.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Why it matters...

Ever since the conservative turn in the US political culture in 1968, Unitarian Universalists have
tried to contain their political differences of opinion by promoting a policy of political tolerance within our congregations. Liberal religion could express itself in a wide variety of political opinions; conservatives and Republicans were welcome. It was policy.

The policy had a limitation. Local congregations could not be officially segregated, but even that was controversial for a while.

The political tolerance policy was, and remains, uncomfortable. UU Conservatives are restive in that their opinions are not often reflected back to them from other congregants, or from the pulpit. (I have been amused by the number of times that I hear of my colleagues working on the sermon topic along the lines of "the glories of capitalism" because the topic had been purchased at a service auction.) Conservatives complained that everyone was welcome except them. We said we welcomed conservatives, but, in fact, we did not; we tolerated them, at best. And they may have been telling the truth.

Our policy did not match the reality on the ground. We have become increasingly politically liberal. Or put it another way, our policy, our good intentions, has not been able to overcome the political polarization that is the reality of public life in the United States today.

We will be moving toward a more political polarization in the future.

Three reasons:

One is that unless we dramatically rein in the power of the largest and most powerful industry in
the world economy, the living conditions of most of the world's people, starting with the global poor, will dramatically decline. The fossil fuel industry owns the conservative political movement in the United States lock, stock and barrel. The politics of climate change is going to become more contentious.

The second is that inequalities of wealth and income have taken center stage in our politics. Conservative politics is organized around the continuation of that inequality. Political differences over taxation, spending on social programs, and economic policies, like the minimum wage and medicaid expansion are going to get more polarized.

And third, the political polarization in the
country has already become racialized.  An emerging, multi-racial, progressive, electoral majority is being resisted by a white minority, funded by the financial and fossil fuel industries, and motivated by a white nationalist mythology. It is not just government policy at stake anymore; questions of our national identity and character are being played out.

The conservative movement in the United States is digging in and will resist change as long as they can. As they have become less successful electorally, they are moving toward violent resistance. They have already an insurrectionist wing, and have taken to armed demonstrations of their political views.

What does this mean for Unitarian Universalism?  I think that our experience over the last 40 years tells us that the chances of becoming an oasis above and beyond the political polarization of the culture are slim. (We have tendency to believe that our skill at interpersonal relationships can solve all problems.)

The reason why we have not been able to become an oasis of productive political diversity already is not because we are intolerant people; it is because liberal religion has meaning and content. The reason why political conservatives feel isolated in our churches is that the link between what they believe and liberal religion is becoming more tenuous.

Our theological evolution is leading us to one side of the political divide, and not the other.

We committed ourselves first to the inherent worth and dignity of every person. You can date that idea from the 60's and even before, among us.

Then we understood persons not to be isolated individuals but elements of an interdependent web of all life, which required that we take a systemic view of politics, economics and society. You can date that idea among from the 80's.

And then, having taken a systemic view, we had to recognize that the interdependent system was not evenly balanced and inherently just, but an organized system of oppression, exploitation and privilege. We have accepted this but have not fully grasped it.

We can't unlearn these basic propositions about the nature of humanity. Nor, can we say that they are just political opinions. Nor can we make every UU comfortable in taking political stances that are in contradiction to them.

There should come a point in everyone's life when one's political and social loyalties come into conflict with one's understanding of religious and spiritual truth. At that point, one either changes one's politics, or one's religion. I would not want to be in a religious movement that made a policy of never asking people to confront that choice, because it would turn into a mish-mash of half-hearted politics and lukewarm spirituality.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


I hear the far-off rumblings of the conservative passive aggressive victim machine cranking up to say that I "demonized" conservatives in my sermon in Baltimore. It's not that they are against someone demonizing their opponents; they don't deny that they do it. I mean, how could they? Their hero, Rush Limbaugh, is the most popular conservative commentator, and his schtick is 100% demonization. One name to prove my point: Sandra Fluke. Female law student who testified in favor of a contraception mandate in health insurance. Rush called her a slut.

No, the conservatives don't deny that they demonize. They just want to demonize me as a hypocrite because I called them out. Liberals are supposed to be nicer than they are.
Demonization is an essential piece of the conservative worldview. It's deeper than political; it's theological. And it is a part of a set of theological concepts that liberal religion has rejected. Please follow along, as we explore the conservative mind.

Where does evil come from? If God made the world and it was good, but humanity fell because Satan tempted Adam and Eve into sin, then evil enters the world through human beings who succumbed to the temptations of evil. One can secularize the myth and say that evil enters the world through the actions of human beings who give themselves over to baser motives, like greed, anger, lust, sloth, pride, gluttony and envy.

Conservatives, in general, believe that the world is OK, but people fail it. If everyone behaved properly, everything would work out fine. The invisible hand of the market would balance our needs and our contributions such that the common good would be met by each person pursuing their private good. The virtuous, the industrious, the prudent would rise in a meritocracy. Logic and reason tell us that this is how it could be, if everybody exercised personal responsibility.

But even conservatives recognize that world is not like that. The problem is that some people have evil intentions. Mythologically, they are agents of Satan, or you could just say that they have weak moral characters. They want to eat without working, they want sexual pleasure without the responsibility of raising children, they want what others have worked for.

Chief among these are the liberal reformers, who out of pride, greed, envy and sloth, seek to gain the social power to redistribute the goods of the world to themselves and to those who are unsuccessful and resentful.

Such is the conservative mind. If one has been successful, then it is a very satisfying worldview. Your success affirms your virtue.

Liberal Religion operates on a different set of understandings.

Systems of social domination and subordination have existed as far back into human history as we can see. Humanity is not fallen, but rising, developing new ways of being together that are more fair and just. Liberal thinking, then, is systemic, not personal. We will rise together as we fashion new ways of being together. Everyone is embedded in a network of mutuality; everything, and everyone, is being shaped and conditioned by everything and everyone else. We know that we cannot isolate evil into one person or group. Our view of persons are that each has dignity and is worthy of respect, and that are all interconnected, such that their actions and attitudes are mutually dependent.

The conservative tendency to demonize is part of their denial of the realities of the world we live in. Their worldview is inaccurate, and doesn't work.  But to maintain it, they have to blame individuals for all of injustice and failings around them.  Why are some people poor? Because they are lazy, they say.  So, why did the economy shed 800,000 jobs a month in the end of 2008? Because there was a sudden explosion of laziness among the working class?

Liberals try to understand the actions of individuals by understanding their social context. Conservatives try to understand social conditions by generalizing from individual morality. As a result, when confronted with unjust or cruel social situations, they have to find someone to blame: they are driven to demonize.

As a political and religious liberal, I do not blame conservatives for the problems of immigration, homophobia, poverty, racism and exploitation of the working poor. These are, in some sense, inexorable workings of an advanced capitalism built on white supremacy. I do fault conservatives for being in denial about them, and for obstructing efforts to change them, and for being unwilling to risk their own moral self-satisfaction to look at the broader realities.

I will also resist all their efforts to blame the victims.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

What I Think I'm Doing? Part Eleventy heaven

Another answer to the question people ask me? What on earth do you think you're doing?

What do you think you're doing?
I am trying to develop the language, the words and music, the poetry and prose, of why UU's do what we do, why we believe what we believe.

My assumption is that people see us in action first. They see our social practice in their communities. They see the messages on our buildings. They see our online presence over the shoulder of their friends. They are following people who follow some of us. So they get the picture that we are a group of well-meaning, committed, ethically driven, genuine people who do good things, support good causes.

But why? Why do we set these aspirations for ourselves?

We need fresh and contemporary language to explain ourselves, our missions, our goals, our methods. Assembling that language is what I am trying to do.

Occasionally, I turn a phrase that works well. Sometimes, I get out a well-crafted and meaningful sentence. I invite you to use it, modify it, polish it up and make it yours. I am not writing to make money. I am not writing to be frequently quoted with footnotes. I am writing to change the way we talk.

Monday, May 05, 2014


Last weekend, I traveled to Baltimore to give the sermon at the Union Service at First Unitarian Baltimore. The Union Service, which is a cooperative effort of 7 or 8 area UU churches, celebrates the Baltimore Sermon of 1819. That Sermon, also called Unitarian Christianity by William Ellery Channing outlined the basic theological perspective of Unitarianism, as it was at that time. It was widely reprinted and is claimed to be the second most widely pamphlet in the United States before the Civil War, outsold only by Thomas Paine's Common Sense. My host was the Rev. David Carl Olson.

The text of my sermon follows, along with some pictures of the Baltimore Church:


First Unitarian Church of Baltimore
I write a blog I call the "Lively Tradition,” which is a slight play on calling ourselves a “Living Tradition.” What good is our tradition if it is merely alive, but not lively?  What I blog about mostly is Unitarian Universalist Public Theology: that space where our theology intersects with what is going on in the real world.  My starting point is that theology and religion, are public subjects, made by people in society, and are responses to what is going on in the world at the time.  So, I am interested in questions like "How did the founding of the UUA in 1961 fit into that time of the Southern Civil Rights Movement and the election of John Kennedy? Why did we choose to write down our seven principles in the middle of the Reagan Administration? And conversely, what do our UU theologies say to us about the world we face today? And this world we live in, of grotesque economic inequality and cataclysmic climate change, how does our theological tradition respond. 

So, I ask when approaching Channing's Baltimore sermon 'how is this a theological statement of its time?' Why was it given in in 1819? I am less interested in Channing’s thoughts on how to read the Bible, or the main points of Christian doctrine than I am in what was the thinking of that time.

In 1819, engaged people were still influenced intellectually by the American revolution. The Revolutionary War ended in 1781, 38 years earlier. The Constitution was written 32 years earlier. The Revolution was closer to Channing than the radicalisms of the 1960's and 70's are to us. 

The American Revolution saw the emergence of a new political ideology: Republicanism. And at that time, Republicanism was against the system of aristocracy. European society was traditionally governed by a titled nobility, the aristocrats. They had titles: Lord This, and the Duke of That etc. You've all seen Downton Abbey. The American colonial revolutionaries rejected that whole system. They believed that all men were created equal. Not in any sense that we now conceive of equality, of course. But they rejected the though that there were certain noble families, a sort of subspecies of human, that were entitled by birth to wealth and power. Indeed, one of the most far-reaching and significant provisions of the Constitution of 1789 was that it expressly forbid the granting of titles of nobility by both state and federal governments. That was a decision. Further, US Citizens could not accept any foreign titles of nobility. That was a decision to prevent the English or French Monarch from exporting their system here. This was Republican political theory.  No, they did not believe in equality, but they resisted and ended aristocracy.

It doesn’t seem radical now, but it was then.

I believe that Republican theory helped cause the intellectual collapse of Puritan Calvinism in New England. I think that this is hard to trace, because theologians do not readily admit that their theological speculation is being driven by social events and political ideology. Yet we know they are.

But consider this: the theological justification for an aristocracy is the same as the theological justification for the pre-destined elect, which central to Calvinism. Why were some people destined for Heaven while the rest of us head for Hell? Why? The Calvinists answer was “Because God made it that way, and His ways are beyond our judgement and question. God ordained it for God's own purpose, and the test of our faith was to accept the present state of affairs as being God's intention”. Why is there an aristocracy? God only knows, which was exactly the point. Only God knows and that should be good enough for us. Same logic. 

The Last Supper Mosaic in the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

Slowly, and we all know this story, some of the Standing Order clergy of New England fell away from Calvinism and its theory of the pre-ordained elect, and the utter depravity of humanity. It started a whole process of deconstructing the Calvinist consensus. If we have read our Conrad Wright, we know the story of how each domino fell: If we were not all condemned, then we didn't need to be saved, and so then why would we need a Savior, and if Jesus was not a Savior, then why did he need be divine? But the core issue was this: What makes more sense? What is more moral? That God draws these distinctions in this life and in the next? Or that each one of us has within us the power to cultivate our selves, to educate ourselves, to teach ourselves everything to become noble and refined and sublime ourselves. 

I suspect the religious liberals of the late 18th century Boston were applying the political theory of the American Revolution: its revolutionary republicanism to theology. 

In 1805, the orthodox Calvinists struck back against the emerging liberal theology (which was the theological application of Republican political ideal of equality.) They opened up an aggressive campaign against the liberals. They would not exchange pulpits; they would not enter into common organizations; they applied theological tests to the selections of professors at Harvard. It was a typical conservative attack against liberals. Liberals are too permissive. Liberals are undermining long standing traditions. Liberals are questioning the eternal truths. Liberals are no longer Christian. 

Typical conservative attacks met by typical Liberal responses. Face it, we are just  shocked that anyone could be so mean to us. We are not doing anything wrong, just thinking thoughts and saying a few obvious truths out loud. It was all unfair, and not really true. Why can’t we all just get along? 

Flipping the Script
But here in 1819, here in Baltimore, William Ellery Channing flipped that script on the conservatives.  He said to the conservatives: You call us Unitarians, like that is a bad thing. 
He said to the conservatives: You say that we read the Bible relying on reason, like that is some sort of bad thing.  There is no other way to read it, and you do it as well. You say that we think God is too loving, as though that’s a bad thing. 

He also stood up to the charge the liberals had a watered down and deficient form of Christianity.  He flipped that script by arguing that Unitarian Christianity was more true, more biblically based, and more in the spirit of original Christianity than our Calvinist opponents Channing argued that liberal Unitarian Christianity was, in fact, pure and simple Christianity. 

Do single sermons change the course of history? Much as I, and all my preaching colleagues, would like to think so, probably not.  But it is true that when Channing flipped the script, what followed was known as the golden age of Unitarianism. For the next few decades Unitarianism in New England moved with confidence: growing, planting new churches, creating new institutions, spawning new religious and philosophical movements, nurturing thinkers and writers and authors. Channing himself became one of the leading spiritual voices of his day, and the Unitarian religion had a profound impact on the social order.

Flipping the script: Going from Defense to Offense. Going being apologetic to being self-confident. 

I believe the time has come for Unitarian Universalism to flip the script in contemporary American religious culture. 

Let's put this moment into historical perspective. 

The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961. At that time, it seemed that Unitarian Universalism was a religion made for its time. It was a new expression of older traditions; it seemed in tune with an optimistic liberalism that was personified by John F. Kennedy, who pointed out that the "Torch Had Passed to a New Generation."  And for those first years of our existence, Unitarian Universalism was creatively challenged by and stretched by the African American movement in the South. It was a heady time for us. The early 60’s were a time of growth and vitality for the new Unitarian Universalism. We were in tune with an ascendent liberalism and filled with hope and confidence. 

But then, after less than a decade, the tide turned in this country. Conservative politicians, theoreticians, and theologians had found a way to knit together all the strands of discontent and resentment with the changes going on into a conservative majority. And just as in the post revolutionary world in which William Ellery Channing worked, conservatives began a campaign to demonize all forms of liberalism in American culture. Somebody said, we intend to make liberalism a dirty word, and for much of the culture, they were successful.

Their critique of liberalism was simple: Liberalism was too permissive. It had naive view of human nature and, as a result, failed to fully understand just how evil, and how committed to evil or demonic, some people were. We did not grasp the danger that the demonic posed to all of us. Where we saw the condition of poverty, they saw the sin of laziness. Where we saw the circumstance of an unwanted pregnancy, they saw the just punishment for lust. Where we saw the cruel stigmatization of gays and lesbians, they saw perverts demanding sexual license. Where we saw poor people crossing borders to work, they saw greed and theft. 

Conservatives, whether political, economic, social or religious, believe that our problems come from bad intentions, bad behavior and sin. Liberals, in their eyes, aid and abet the sinful. Our permissiveness just makes everything worse. So their work is to forcefully point out the evil that people do, in the hope that we will stop trying to help them. The result is that the conservative cultural project is to demonize people.

Let me say that again, because I mean this quite literally. The signature gesture of modern conservatism is demonize: to assign to someone purely evil intentions. And to blame them for what has gone wrong. 

And liberals have been demonized as well.

Liberals were jokes.  

We were latte-sipping, chardonney drinking, cheese-eating, volvo-driving, politically correct, humorless, faddish, overly-privileged, romantic, radical chic, tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping, birkenstock-footed, unattractive, bra-burning, hairy-legged lesbian and limp-wristed faggy, tax and spending, draft-dodging, dope-smoking, LIBERALS.   And UU churches were full of them.  

Can I say that to some extent or another, every Unitarian Universalist I know has absorbed this toxic message and internalized it.  We have allowed a self-hatred to grow up in our hearts.  Please notice how much contempt we shower upon our UU churches and on other UU's.  

Notice how easily we accuse each other of bad intentions, and the grossest hypocrisy.  How easily we say that we don't walk the walk, even though we talk the talk. How we condemn checkbook activism, even while we are writing the check.

I want you to understand that the reason we talk like this, and act like that, is not because we are morally deficient people.  It is because for our entire lives, we have been part of a cultural population which has been ridiculed, vilified, demonized, but mostly ridiculed, mocked, minimized, and made a joke of.  

For most of us in this room, this has been our experience –to be religious leaders in a religious movement that feels like it is in exile, that feels like a saving remnant rather than a vanguard, where our churches feel like  refuges rather than like launching pads.  

For my entire adult life, Unitarian Universalists have been obsessed with the question: “What’s wrong with us?  There must be something wrong with us that we are not as successful as our rivals.  What’s wrong with us?

 It is time to flip that script. 

It is time to go from being hunkered down and defensive to being clear and forthright. It is time to state our purposes and goals, and to make some clear distinctions that separate us from our opponents. 

If the mark of a conservative theology and politics is demonization, the purpose of liberal theology and politics is humanization. 

Unitarian Universalism’s mission is to re-humanize this culture, to break the grip of demonization and blame.  

We are not looking anymore for a safe corner where we can be left alone, a sheltered haven from a conservative culture. We can no longer be content with forming loving communities of like-minded people. It is not enough for us to be a little nicer to visitors, and to be more welcoming to people who come to us. 

No, our purpose is humanize this culture: to bring back to the center of our thinking.human beings, those images of God, each one worthy, and each one caught up in web of mutuality, embedded in a world that is full of oppression and privilege. 

We will humanize this culture we live by calling each other, one at a time, and as a whole people, to the virtues of liberality: honesty, humility, generosity and gratitude, reverence and awe, openness, solidarity, self-possession. 

Liberalism, the virtues of liberality, are not the problem. They are the solution. 

 Those virtues make for happy and healthy people, and societies. 

They are the antibodies that resist and reject the language of demonization.

William Ellery Channing came to Baltimore to ordain Jared Sparks. Today, I ordain you all into a great struggle to detoxify our society, to meet the poisons of demonization with the balm of humanization, to meet dismissal and contempt with solidarity, to meet indifference with generosity, to counter prejudice with openness, to answer judgement with truth and humility, and the contain the contagion of blame and fear with bravery, with reverence for each other and with self-possession. I ordain you into a gospel of love, to not only believe in love, but to work for the institutionalization of love as the foundation of all human civilization, to stand by its side. 

Preach Love more loudly with your lives than with your lips. 


My friends, 
there is a power at work in the Universe, 
not made by human hands,
 a creating, sustaining and transforming power, 
known to William Ellery Channing and Jared Sparks 
as the One God, the Benevolent Father. 
I know that power, not by the light it gives, 
but by its heat which warms my heart. 
I feel my way toward that creating, sustaining and transforming power 
only by my stubborn faith that there is 
a great goodness somewhere at the heart of all that is 
that will redeem us. 
I know it only by the hope it brings me. 
But I say this to you: 
You can trust that power; 
it will sustain you, 
it will encourage you, 
it will stand you up again when you falter and fail 
whenever you risk yourself for love, 
for justice, for the testimony of our faith, 
for love.