Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Can't Have One without the Other

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 shrinking of the GOP to its most reactionary core.

These are all signs of how troubled the waters of white America's consciousness are. Revolution and Counter-revolution. Upsurge and Backlash. Rebellion and Repression. You can't have one without the other.

Because theology and ideology are so close, religious leaders have to be crystal clear. To see life through the lens of whiteness is idolatry; most would agree with that. But it is not clear to most that the assumptions of whiteness shape what white people think of everything else. The America that white people revere is not the same America that people of color know, and so therefore, it is not the real America. The Bible that has been read through the lens of whiteness is a distorted Bible. The Christianity practiced by white people has already lost touch with the gospel. The Unitarian Universalism of today is a pale and bleached version of what liberal religion is really. And the same could be said of music, art, yoga, and food.  To use the language of salvation, you will not be saved by your faithfulness to the forms of whiteness; you can become a citizen of Heaven's republic only by turning away from them.

The country has been here before, but the future has not happened yet. Reconstruction was defeated and Jim Crow won. The liberating movements of the 60's were turned back in the backlash of the 70's. Will this time be different?

It seems as though the movement has gotten much smarter, much more self-aware, much more steely in its resolve. It seems as though the popular and political expressions of reaction have become more childish and amateurish. Comparing the present Republican field to Nixon and Reagan brings to mind that adage that history repeats tragedy as farce.

It is a time for courage.

Monday, August 24, 2015

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

The New Orleans Superdome surrounded by flooded streets.
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 public stadium, where you spend days and nights, surrounded by strangers, in conditions of anarchy, with nobody in charge, nobody to keep you safe.  Imagine the fear of losing track of your children in a crowd, of becoming separated from everyone you know.  Imagine standing in a line for 24 hours waiting for a rumored bus to come, unsure as to whether you should give up your place in line to go to the bathroom. Imagine watching the patients and staff of Tulane University being evacuated, while the patients of the public hospital were told to wait.  Imagine being turned back by armed policemen when you try to walk across a highway bridge toward dry land.  Imagine coming the suspicion that your government had abandoned you and was leaving you to die, just as the government had to hundreds of black men during the floods during the 20’s. 

It is terrifying to try to imagine yourself, you, your spouse, your children, those children we so lovingly send out of here on Sunday morning, your mother, your father helpless and infirm.

I can hardly grasp such terror and such pain.  

Here is my confession.  

It is calming to think that those people are somehow more used to suffering, that they are tougher than we are, less sensitive, that somehow the experiences that they have gone through in these past three weeks have not hurt them the way that they would hurt us. I  can pity them; I  can want to have mercy upon them, I want to help them, but it very  painful to imagine myself in their situation.  To calm my panic, and to soothe my pain, I entertain the racist thought that somehow they are different than me. I do not think that I am alone in this.

 And because we cannot, we will not, fully imagine ourselves in their situation, we find their anger unfathomable.  Kanye West, a popular recording artist, says that he thinks George Bush does not care about black people.  Oh me O My.  People are shocked.  How could he think that?  If our moral imaginations were not stunted by the effects of racism, No, let me say it this way, if our moral imaginations were not tranquillized by the narcotic of racism, we might understand how such a conclusion would make perfect sense to him.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Accessible and Holistic....

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:


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 them; you can watch TV about them; you can sign up on an email list and get an email a day from them, an email sent by a robot that asks for money.

The local Unitarian Universalist church should be a point of access to the movements, a place where you can make the connection. At least, it should be a community of people who share your interest, where you can hear about things going on. It should give you a chance to sing a song and clap along if nothing else. At most, it should be able to connect you to people across the country who are doing great things and who will support you in testing the limits of your commitment.

If you are already in the Unitarian Universalist orbit, especially in a professional role, you can become overwhelmed by all the connections offered through the movement. Ministers wonder how they can do the work of Black Lives Matter and Commit2Respond and Reproductive Justice and Immigrant Rights and lift up the T in the LGBTQ struggle and support the fast food workers and more. But most people are not blessed with these invitations in their lives. We should fix that.


A Unitarian Universalist congregation is holistic: a transformational community that deals with all aspects of your life. Its not a movement organization, but a transformational community. Move On does not teach progressive values and ignite wonder in the children of the people on its email list. The ACLU does not provide all ages sexuality education for its members. The Green Party will not visit you in the hospital when you are sick. No one from the Bernie Sanders campaign will conduct your mother's memorial service. None of those organizations intend to help you make meaning from your life. They do not have a spiritual dimension, but Unitarian Universalism does. None of those organizations will offer you an weekly opportunity to join with others to learn more, go deeper, and be inspired.

It is a sad truth that for most people, the one opportunity to feel a part of a larger body that aims to transform this society has been to watch John Stewart on TV and share the snark with an imagined community. Or maybe watch Rachel Maddow take down the myths and lies that buttress the status quo. Audiences are not communities. Unitarian Universalism creates holistic communities.

"Manifestation of the Movement for Social Transformation."

Unitarian Universalist congregations already do many of these functions. Where they fall short is that they fail to clearly identify themselves in the public square as manifestations of the movement of the spirit of liberation. They say that they are inclusive and that they are holistic, but what gets communicated is only that. They appear to the outsider as small, tight, caring communities whose highest purpose is taking care of themselves. It can seem like "there is no there there."

The social movements that are emerging are not one movement, but they share a common spirit, a spirit of liberation and justice and solidarity. The good news that we ought proclaim says that spirit is just about the most precious and holiest thing that ever can be. It is a great transforming, sustaining and creating power and it holds us together. It leads us, and we follow.

The goal of our work is to make sure that every person knows that their local UU congregation is a place where they can bring their whole self to touch and be touched by the rising spirit of resistance and liberation.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Public Theology and the Social Gospel

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."

My desk
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 middle of the story. There are thousands of years of human history that happened before we were born. That history touches and shapes every aspect of our lives and we are not conscious of it, at least at first. It turns out that the life each of us leads is one small part of much larger events and stories.

Theology has always been the telling of human history: who are we, where did we come from and where are we going. What does that story require of us in the present. What is the good news of that story?

For religion to be helpful to the human condition, it must tell the true story, which means that religious leaders must be skilled historians, able to both know what happened and be able to tell what happened. They must also be skilled at deconstructing false narratives, mythologies about the past and present.

Most religious leaders fail at history. They spin sentimental tales, self-serving narratives, and moralistic anecdotes. They interpret ancient texts and create midrashes to extend those texts when they don't say what is needed. But they rely on the conventional wisdom to understand the story of their own people.

So, when I try to explore #uupublictheology, I have to start with history. Not "UUHistory" that sentimental story-telling that places 'us' at the center, but US History and world history. Who are we in that context?

I marvel at the values we hold, and frankly wonder how we came to learn them, given the reality of our particular history. UUism was the essence of an establishment religion and the direction that it is slowly moving into an oppositional stance? What is it that we have learned, and is that the fragment of good news that we have to share?

Public theology is the search for the good news, the real, the true, the unsentimental hard-as-iron good news in the midst of human history. There are so many easy answers, but we can't accept them if they are not really true.  There is so much justified despair and pessimism, but while we acknowledge it, we are not its prophets.

If the sense of a social gospel is weak among Unitarian Universalists, if all  our prophetic preaching does not seem compelling, then we need to talk. We need to talk some more; we also need to act; but mostly we need to reflect theologically together. We need to talk about the world's people, their past and their future from the largest possible perspective. We need to engage in public theology.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

How to Renew the Church -- My takeaway from NCLI15

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.

Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder,
City of Refuge Church, UCC

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis,
Middle Collegiate Church, NYC
But the most excitement was generated by two presentations by black female church leaders: Rev. Jacqui Lewis and Bishop Yvette Flunder. They didn't talk about "cultural trendlines" but spoke prophetically about a church at the forefront of the struggle against white supremacy, sexism, heteronormativity, and the gender binary.

Are the most important cultural trendlines, instead:

The Black Lives Matter Movement
The Reproductive Justice Movement
The Immigrant Rights Movement
The LGBTQ movement, especially lifting up the "T"
The low-wage worker Movement
The Climate Justice Movement

To me, the contrast could not be clearer. Does the church renew itself by adapting itself to the new/old ways of working and organizing that have been made possible by new technology, or does the church renew itself by allowing itself to be re-shaped by the emerging social movements?

(I know, I am posing this issue as a "either/or" and many of you will remind me that it is really "both/and". I get it, but bear with me.)

Are the social movements the workings of the Holy Spirit in this day and age?
Can the church be renewed by any process other than by following the promptings of the Holy Spirit?

I am not a particularly critical person. I generally appreciate the experiences that I am having. I don't criticize movies while I am watching them. I don't argue with preachers and speakers in my head, until I am on the way home. So, there was much about NCLI15 that I appreciated, enjoyed and was informed by.

But now that I am home, I find myself thinking that maybe we should just stop trying to fix the church from within, by reforming our processes. I mean this especially for Unitarian Universalists, for those who don't think of UUism as part of what I am calling "the church." Maybe we should take a couple years off from our endless self-improvement projects and just go "all in for the social movements." Lead our congregations into finding their voice with which to proclaim the gospel of good news for the poor, freedom for the captive, bread for the hungry, water for the thirsty, and safety for the endangered. Throw ourselves into the struggle, by every means possible, for a few years, and then see where we are.