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Theological Reflection

You may be here because of the commentary that arose from one of my more flippant Facebook posts.

I said: "I'm in that kind of mood when I want to tell people caught up in the spiritual significance of today being the shortest day and this the darkest time of the year to just turn on the lights and get on with their life." 

And I posted a picture of a light switch.  I would have labeled "Darkness Dispersal Device" but that would have been too much work, and probably overkill in explaining the joke. 

Anyway, much commentary ensued -- some silly, some very serious, but all missing my point, which I will now over-explain. Bear with me, please. 

We do theological reflection. It's our main duty as ministers. We think about the events and circumstances of the lives around us and draw out the connection between them and the conceptions of our highest values and ultimate realities of our religious tradition.

We have to be aware of the direction of the flow of meaning t…

The Fear of Death

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Events that vividly remind us of our mortality push people into extreme stances.

The attacks in Paris and San Bernadino inflame Islamaphobic bigotry, because people have been reminded that there is the possibility that might die at the hands of a radicalized Muslim militant. The vividness of the reminder overwhelms empirical risk assessment. We have a far greater chance of being killed by a lightening than being killed in a terrorist attack.

From what I read and hear, it appears that the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement is being driven by the constant reminders that any black person may be killed by police in any situation. I have read people who sum up their demand as simply "Stop Killing Us."

And what about the random, mass shooters? Every time we see another on the news, we are reminded of the possibility of our own death. It is one thing to think of one dying some far off day of old age or disease. It is another to think that it could come today because you were…

White, Angry, Male and Old

OK, the base of the Donald seems to be old, angry, white, and male. Not exclusively, but still.

And not everybody who is old, angry, white, and male. Me, for example, and a lot of my friends and acquaintances.

So why not?

I have to believe that my faith formation has made a huge difference.

I grew up in a UU household; my parents had converted from a liberal, social gospel oriented Baptist faith just before I was born.

I grew up in UU churches, attending UU Sunday schools, daydreaming and squirming through UU worship services and sermons.

I grew up being taught, and learning again and again, that the world was not fair, but should be, that every person should count, but does not, and that it is simply wonderful when people came together to change life for the better. These were not just my conclusions from observing events; I was instructed in them by my parents and my faith community. They were taught to me; you could say that I was catechized in them as articles of faith.

I was disi…

UU's, Microaggressions and "PC Culture"

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Lest any UU get caught up in the hysteria about "PC Culture" and other people's sensitivities about microaggressions, let's review our own experience with these concepts.

Say the city leaders put up a Nativity scene in front of the town hall. You protested. Why? Their action told you, the Jews, the atheists, the Muslims and all the other non-Christians, that you were not really part of the town. In today's parlance, you were "erased" from the town's population. They acted as though you did not exist. Or that you did not matter. In today's terms, it was a microaggression. A pretty big one, in fact, since it was in their official civic function.

If you asked the city fathers why; they would have responded that they meant no offense. They were just celebrating Christmas, which almost everybody celebrated. They would ask why you had to be so sensitive. You should get over it and move on.

You go to an interfaith event, and all the Christian preachers…

Mismatches, History, and Hope

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In the little world touched by this blog, people have been very likey and sharey and retweety with Mismatches between Unitarian Universalism and the Work It needs to do. I am touched.

Maybe it is just the shorter time period, but people have not responded as fulsomely to the second installment Why the UU Mismatches.

Which should not surprise me; my argument has been that we are out of step with  our times because the forty year period of conservative cultural hegemony turned us inward, limited our growth, and froze our development.  Many resist this line of analysis. As neo-Calvinists, we think that explanations of our disappointments and failures that put the blame on anyone other than our own terrible selves are somehow cheating.

We would rather see ourselves as uniquely awful, but powerful, than ordinary and not in control.

We don't make history as much as history makes us; that is a hard message for us to hear.

But the reign of conservative ideology is coming to an end. That…

Why the UU Mismatches?

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The common feature of many of the mismatches seems to be our insularity.  We build our buildings the way we like them and where we live; we talk to ourselves in the ways that we are comfortable with; we treat our religious professionals as though their congregants were their only constituency that mattered. We finance ourselves just enough to sustain ourselvesOn the local level, we spend very little on outreach. 
It is as though we think that our congregation is the Beloved Community, rather thinking of the Beloved Community as all humanity made fair and the people one. 
But why are UU's so insular? 
It is not surprising when you think about the social climate since 1970. Forty years of 40 years of conservative culture  creates and reinforces a dichotomy between the personal and the social. (Conservative culture is about the personal: individual advancement and fulfillment) Put another way, conservative culture perpetuates a conflict between the spiritual as individual growth vs. the …

Mismatches between Unitarian Universalism and the Work It Needs to Do.

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The mismatches: 

We have buildings, many beautiful buildings; but modern communications make place irrelevant. We are skilled in written words; but the world now communicates in image and music.We have spirituality embedded in a long and glorious religious tradition; and much of the world wants spirituality but actively and consciously rejects religious tradition.We have an expensive membership-based business model; the people have declining standards of living. The membership of the local congregation shares the expenses of the congregation where costs are rising. The membership, for the most part, is not seeing equivalent income growth.Our finances are first dedicated to existing local institutions which are unsustainable at our membership level; but where we need to invest is in new institutions and ministries. Our primary form of support is pledges to local congregations, which are caught in a financial squeeze. Less to give denominational bodies, too little for innovative new mini…

Humanism in Context -- Questions Arise

So many interesting questions are arising from the essay Humanism in Context -- it's on the "pages list" on the right hand side. Read the comments, please.


One question is about whether there is a difference between the overbearing Christian nationalism of the Cold War era and the overbearing evangelical culture in much of non-urban America. Especially since, it is noted, that this is where Unitarian Universalism is growing. While I think that it is a different sort of push for conformity, it probably feels the same to the people who find themselves on the outside of it. So, I suspect that it makes joining a UU congregation an easy fit. Like attracting like.A couple of comments about what a different world the new fellowships were -- how even the ministers they called came from a different educational and cultural background as the prevailing New England norms. It makes me wonder how much the Unitarian denominational leaders knew they were going to grow by diversifying wh…

"Humanism In Context" further contexualized.

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For those of you who are too impatient to read 2000 word essays on UU history, let me summarize
"Humanism in Context" for you.

That sense of the cultural radicalism that one feels in Unitarian Universalist congregations does not flow from the few radicals of the 19th century Unitarian movement, nor does it flow from our participation in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. No, our sense of cultural radicalism is the result of many of our churches being formed in resistance to the overbearing and aggressive Christian nationalism of the Cold War Era. 

I came to this insight by mashing up Kevin Kruse's "One Nation Under God" with Holley Ulbrich's The Fellowship Movement". Kruse describes the setting: the national elite (business, political and religious leaders) aggressively promoting a conformist form of Christianity as an essential element of Americanism and patriotism. Ulbrich describes what was happening in Unitarianism at the same time: the for…

Blessing the Stranger (Who happens to be a Baby)

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I was born in 1949; my father was a Unitarian minister, serving Follen Church in Lexington, MA. I was "christened" -- which, as far as I can tell, was theistic quasi-Christian step down from a Baptism, mostly involving a naming ceremony, but without the washing away from original sin. 
The 1937 Hymns of the Spirit does not have a liturgy for any form of baby blessing service, although in its index of hymns it lists four as appropriate for "Christening services or dedication of Children." 
When did the practice of baby blessing become absorbed into a congregational rite in UUism? Somewhere in my lifetime, I think. The baby blessing service became a "Dedication of Children", performed during the worship service. Its purpose was to ritually commit the congregation to the care and nurture of the child. It welcomed the child into the "extended family" of the congregation. 
This congregational understanding of baby blessings became so ingrained that …

Subject-Object Confusion

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Anderson Cooper asked the Democratic candidates to name the enemies they have made.

Hillary Clinton said 'the Republicans' among others.

Anderson Cooper did not ask the candidates whom they thought were enemies. The question was really about who considered them, the candidates, as enemies.

It is undeniable that the Republicans have treated Hillary Clinton as an enemy since 1993 when she stepped out of the role of First Lady to work on health care reform. Long before ObamaCare, there was HillaryCare. And the Republicans have treated her as the personification of everything they hate and fear ever since. They invoke her first name to scare themselves.

Conservatives have a persistent subject/object confusion. It's some kind of cognitive problem. They think that what they do to others are, actually, being done to them.

Kim Davis thinks that she is being oppressed by gays, lesbians, and liberals because they protest her refusal to serve them. They think that subject (the one d…

He Kept Us Safe

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When Donald Trump questions the statement that George W. Bush 'kept us safe' he threatens one of the last remaining Republican defenses against accountability for the war crimes of the Bush administration.

If GWB did not "keep us safe" then what was all that about: 5000 US combat deaths, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani deaths, the torture, the wiretapping, the trillions of dollars spent, even the long lines at the airport?

All of which bothered people at the time; they violated norms of behavior that most  had come to expect about our country. Norms like: The USA does not go to war except in defense. The USA does not invade countries at will. The USA does not torture people. The USA is not big brother. The USA is not so fiscally irresponsible as to pretend that making war doesn't cost money.

Many people already knew that such beliefs were illusions. But for many, they were still thought to be true. They were norms, or boundaries, people thought were in…

The DIfference between Denmark and The United States

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Bernie Sanders said we ought to look at the Nordic countries, naming Denmark first, as models for what social democracy looks like. Hillary Clinton says that we are not like Denmark.

When you look at charts about the social conditions of Denmark, you have to ask why we shouldn't want to be like Denmark.


In Denmark, it appears that the lives of all their citizens matter; in the USA, not so much.  In the US, black lives have not mattered and do not matter now.

If Black Lives Mattered in the United States, we would not accept the rates of childhood poverty that we have. We would not want to punish single mothers. If Black Lives Mattered, we would not think that all proposed social welfare policies are plots and scams. We would not be obsessed with the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

The difference between Denmark and the United States is not that we are an "entrepreneurial" nation and they are not. The difference is that the USA is paralyzed by i…

The agony of imposed silence

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Mass murder done with guns.

The anguish of grief.

The frustration with the seeming intractability of the problem.

The handwringing and despair.

The liberal church, in particular, seems to become a caricature of itself. Its religious leaders make anguished and angry statements, some of them starkly poetic, ending in very earnest, yet very vague calls for something to be done. Is it the kind of institution where you would risk your life, your freedom, your time, your money to make our common life better? Does the church seem like a body that is able to create people's power and change things? Or do all of its prayers, and pious thoughts, and candles, and poetry, and righteous anger testify to its powerlessness?

Mass murder with guns is a bigger problem than "sensible gun safety" legislation, but such laws are a necessary step in stopping the slaughter.

And we know what must happen to make such laws real. But, under the rules that have been imposed on the church, we cannot…

The Pope and The County Clerk

Here's why it's important:


A crucial part of the conservative cultural and political hegemony for the last forty plus years has been the alliance between the white Catholics and the White evangelical Protestants. That alliance depended on the Catholic hierarchy prioritizing all of the issues of sexuality and patriarchy above all other issues in its public theology. While the social teachings of the church have always had a pro-worker and anti-war content, the hierarchy was far more insistent that abortion and same-sex marriage were the issues that really count. Those were the issues that they mobilized voters about. No cardinal ever threatened to withhold communion from Catholic legislators who voted for war, or who supported the death penalty, or who voted tax cuts to the rich while cutting programs for the poor.

I have personally talked with lifelong Democratic voters who have been torn about voting for Democratic candidates for President, because they thought that the Churc…

Campaign Zero

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Maybe when the pushback/conflict around a "Black Lives Matter" banner gets stalemated in a UU church, or among your family, taking a good look at Campaign Zero might shake things loose.

The campaign offers policy solutions in 10 areas. It also evaluates 2016 candidates on their public positions in each area.

The planning team includes people at the heart of the Movement for Black Lives.

Policy proposals and campaigns are not the same as protesting in the street, nor is it like posting a banner on the front of a church. It is not the kind of detailed and relentless exposure of white privilege that is going on in the public square today. But it might be persuasive to those with a different learning style: those that can't quite get the bold statement that "Black Lives Matter" without some concrete steps around it.


Banners Show All Lives Matters' Racist Truth by Cynthia Landrum

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The common response to “Black Lives Matter” has become “All Lives Matter.” And, absolutely, as Universalists, we believe in each and every person’s worth to God, that all are savable and all are saved. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in each person’s inherent worth and dignity. Each person. All. Of course all lives matter. So this leads some people to believe that there's some confusion about what we mean when we say, "Black Lives Matters."  And liberals often try to address the "All Lives Matters" by doing just the sort of explaining I just did above.  Another example is a Facebook meme that says:


But are we having a misunderstanding? Tom Schade wrote recently on the power of banners.  And the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign also speaks to the power of these banners.  One power that Black Lives Matter banners are having is to make it clear there is no misunderstanding here at all.

 Here’s the thing. I don’t think that the people who are resp…

The power of banners

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Unitarian Universalist congregations are discovering the power of banners.

They have been putting up banners on the outside (some on the inside) of the buildings proclaiming that "Black Lives Matter".

They are breaking through the shell of ineffectuality that has surrounding progressive politics for a generation: that sense that no one notices, and no one cares, when progressives stand up for social justice. It is as though the world says, "what else is new?"

But hang a controversial banner on the outside of a church, and you get a reaction. People steal them. People deface them. People modify them. It takes bravery and courage to persist. Other people are encouraged and supported by the church's persistence in the face of opposition. The congregation is communicating.

The history for Unitarian Universalist congregations is long. For decades the Wayside Pulpits were our primary tool for evangelism. Short pithy quotes that challenged conventional religious think…

Denali

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Most Americans will never see Alaska. Most will never see Denali.
Most Americans couldn't report a single fact about William McKinley beyond that he was assassinated. If that.

Most Americans don't live in Ohio. I lived in Ohio and William McKinley was rarely on my mind. (I did live near the Warren G. Harding memorial in Niles, Ohio, and Harding too was rarely on my mind.)

McKinley was just about the last of a long string of Republican Presidents who held office as a result of the Party of Lincoln selling out the freed slaves in 1876 and ending Reconstruction. They were aggressively pro-business.


This is about whiteness. President Obama took something that was symbolically white and gave it back to Native America. And "someday President in his mind" Donald J. Trump promises to give it back.

This is about the Doctrine Of Discovery -- that ancient principle from the dawn of the European conquest of the Americas. The Pope said that the European Christians had full power …

Can't Have One without the Other

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The Black Lives Matter Move-ment has brought the question
white privilege to the forefront of white America's consciousness.

For most, it has been profoundly disturbing, blowing up cherished family narratives. Thinking about white privilege challenges the mythologies of US history that support the white nationalist ideology: the assumption that this country was made by and for white Europeans, while other peoples have only bit parts in our history.

The people are in the midst of intense ideological struggle, and it has implications for how every person thinks of themselves and their family and their community and their country. And so we see all these reactionary movements stirring: the intimidating gun movement, the defense of the confederacy, church-burnings, the pro-police funding campaigns which reward killer-cops, the anti-Latinx anti-immigration campaigns, even the scapegoating of foreign countries as the source of economic problems in the USA, the Trump campaign, the shri…

Black Pain -- White Distance: What Katrina taught me about myself.

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This article makes clear the relationship between the flood in the aftermath of Katrina and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Its thesis is that African Americans were forcefully reminded that white America was largely unconcerned about their suffering. Their lives did not matter, in so many words, although Kanye West expressed at the time by saying that "George Bush does not care about Black people."

Those days brought home to me all the ways that I used to separate myself from the suffering of black people: all the mental tricks, all the ways that I turned away, all my denying and distancing habits.

This is what I preached on September 18, 2005:

Let’s start here. I suspect  that when we think about the people of New Orleans, especially the black and the poor, it takes courage to imagine ourselves in their present situation.  Imagine watching your home flooded, and that you lose almost everything you own.  Imagine making your way through the flooded streets to pu…

Accessible and Holistic....

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I have said that Unitarian Universalism must become the most accessible and holistic manifestation of the movement for social transformation.

Somebody has asked "what on earth does that means?"

Let me break it down:

"Accessible"

How can people access the social movements that are bubbling up all over the country? If you live in an all-white suburb, how do you access the Black Lives Matter movement? If you live in Kansas, how do you respond to the inspiration of the young adults who suspended themselves off that bridge in Portland, Oregon to stop a Shell icebreaker needed for Arctic drilling? Indeed, if you live in Portland, and are of an age that hanging off of a bridge is not something you are up to doing, how do you participate in that movement?

If you are not a young adult, if you are not living in a major urban area, if you have limited free time and unlimited family responsibilities, how do you connect to the transformative social movements? You can read about …

Public Theology and the Social Gospel

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A friend on Facebook bemoaned what they saw as a lack of a social gospel in Unitarian Universalism.

Because she had made this comment in a response to my earlier post on the National Church Leadership Institute 2015 (NCLI15), I felt the need to speak, but my first response was "Just Shoot Me Now. Please."

This blog, which is the bulk of my work for the last two and half years, has been all about encouraging and participating in theological reflection from a UU perspective on the condition of the world as we know it.  I use the hashtag #uupublictheology for this work.The word "public" comes from the Latin "populus" meaning people and the word "theology" is from the Greek words "theos" and "logos", meaning "talk about God." Public theology is talking about the life of the collective people and of God. And as Universalists, we now understand the "people of God" as the whole human race.

We wake up in the middl…

How to Renew the Church -- My takeaway from NCLI15

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Just back from the National Church Leadership Institute, a conference put on by the Center for Progressive Renewal. What you need to know about the CPR is that their tagline is "We believe that your church's best days are ahead." They are working for the revival of the progressive mainline Protestant church.

The tagline for NCLI15 was "The Headlines tell a story of decline and despair, but cultural trendlines paint a picture of possibility." The trendlines of which they speak are summed up as Local, Do-It-Yourself, the Cloud, the Shared Economy and Crowdsourcing. Read down the linked call to the NCLI15 conference for their summary of these trendlines.

Conference participants were challenged to think about how these new/old ways of working and being could invigorate the church's work of building community and embodying the gospel in the world.


But the most excitement was generated by two presentations by black female church leaders: Rev. Jacqui Lewis and Bis…

Nationalize the Police

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Police and criminal justice reform has to be a priority in our political actions now, and into the future. We cannot wait for interpersonal racial reconciliation to act to legally remedy systemic racial inequities.  (Charles M. Blow  -- NYT, July 30, 2015)




Federalism has utterly failed to protect the lives, rights and interests of people of color, especially Black people. I say "federalism" because while the police are agents usually of local government, local governments are the creations of, and given powers by the states. Or to put it more accurately, Federalism is a key factor to how white supremacy is preserved.

This is how it was intended. The US Constitution was written with the purpose of creating the strongest possible national government that would not have the power to interfere with state systems of slavery, and later, segregation.

Every protection of African American rights that has been won has been implemented institutionally by placing state functions under t…

Cattle Cars and Concentration Camps

People like Donald Trump will say the darnedest things. They pride themselves on being uncensored, on just saying what they think, which often results in saying what they have not yet thought through.

But we should stop and think about his statement that he thinks that the US government should deport all of the "illegal immigrants" and then re-admit the good ones.

It's an eliminationist fantasy: wishing some people away, some simple scheme by which people just disappear.

We should stop and think about what deporting 11 million people would actually require. Game the process out in our heads.

Do you think that 11 million people will go stand on the street corner and wait for a bus from the Immigration Service to come and pick them up to send them home.

Deporting eleven million people means sending a vast police force out into every community in the country to check people's papers. It means detaining people without papers in detention centers and camps. The governme…