Friday, July 31, 2015

Nationalize the Police


photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

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 the power of the federal government. Integration of the public accommodations came through the application of the federal government's power to regulate interstate commerce. Most social welfare programs that have been implemented have allowed for state discrimination against African Americans to somehow continue. (Medicare is perhaps the single exception.)

Federalism is why millions of poor people still don't have Medicaid, even though it is a program funded by the federal government. It is why US food stamp benefits are so uneven across the country., even though all the funding comes from the federal government. It is why states and localities can implement restrictions on the right to vote for the US Congress. It's why state legislatures draw the district lines for congressional representation.

And, most importantly, because this is where white supremacy is enforced most directly, it is why local police are, in effect, unaccountable to any higher authority, or constitutional standard. Federalism is why the problem of killer police seems to be impossible to solve -- why we are forced to wait for some far-off 'interpersonal racial reconciliation."

Local police need to be nationalized. They all need to be under the control of the Federal Department of Justice. It is the only way to create the institutional framework that will make "equal protection of the laws" possible. All law enforcement must be accountable to the full protection of citizen's rights under the Constitution. Their wrongdoings must be investigated, not by themselves and local prosecutors but by neutral fact-finders from somewhere else. Poor police officers should not be able to bounce from one jurisdiction to another. There needs to a national system that involves local citizens in the control and oversight of the police. There needs to be one clear police union contract that does not obstruct the investigation of police misconduct.

Nationalizing the police seems like an unimaginable restructuring of our system of government. It is radical, yes. But is there an alternative that actually ends the death-dealing oppression which is now inflicted on African Americans in the USA today? 

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 government would have to either hold people for an extended period of time to allow some due process in deportation, or the government would end up deporting people on rough and ready assessments based on race and ethnicity. People will try to evade capture, escape from capture, resist capture. Many people who would targeted for detaining and deporting are embedded into communities, networks and families, who will protect them.

It would take checkpoints on the highways, house-to-house searches, the armed occupation of neighborhoods, ubiquitous challenges to prove one's citizenship. In the end it will require cattle cars and concentration camps and ethnic cleansing.

It would mean the intrusion of the police into all of our lives, or apartheid. Anglos would enjoy the privilege of not having to prove their citizenship at every turn, while others are checked and re-checked, hounded and harassed every day of their lives.

Trump says that the politicians don't do what is necessary because they don't know how to manage things. He could make this happen, he promises. And there a lot of people who seem to want him to do it.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

UUism as an ethnic religion

I heard Mark Morrison-Reed at Arlington Street Church this last week. His sermon was titled "The Perversity of Diversity" and one of his points was that Unitarian Universalism is more an ethnic religion that we recognize.

I think that we know this already; we, especially the Unitarians, are well aware of our New England roots, a heritage we are both proud of and embarrassed by.

On the other hand, we are clearly an ethnic religion with multi-cultural ambitions.

I have some questions to which someone might have answers.

Is there a Yankee diaspora? As the population of the US moved West, did New England Yankees create small outposts of New English Yankee culture across the country? Was the spread of Unitarianism tied to these circles? Anecdotal evidence of some of the largest and most established Unitarian churches in the Midwest point to that pattern.

When was the tipping point, if there was one, when Unitarian Universalism in the Midwest, South and West, ceased to be Yankee religion in a strange land? What percentage of non-New England UU congregations are of a different ethnic background than Yankee, or don't have New England connections?

If we are a Yankee religion by heritage and habit (by DNA as is now said), what was the process of that no longer defining us in the present? In other words, if we are less Yankee than we used to be, then we have already been in a process of becoming more multi-cultural. How did that work? What can we learn from it?

A final set of questions, regarding the larger context.

One of the features of the rise of conservative hegemony in the USA has been the shift in the relative power of groups within the elite. New England and New York capitalists used to be dominant, but that power has shifted West and South, especially due to the economic power of the oil industry.

The political power of New England within the US has been declining. That quintessential New England Republican is a vanishing breed. New Englanders get nominated for US President, but have not won since the Irish Catholic Democrat Kennedy. A New Englander, but not a Yankee.

Meanwhile, within Unitarian Universalism, Republicans are getting rarer. In much of the country, the UU congregation is unabashedly Democratic, or to the left of that. Those to the right are just as likely to be libertarian rather than traditional moderate Republicans.

All my questions center around this larger historical trend: what happens to a New England Yankee, elite religion as the New England elite loses political, economic and social power in the country as a whole?
Arlington Street Church, Boston: A beautiful reminder of days gone by.

Monday, July 27, 2015

the Male Body is the Site of Winning and Losing

In the airport waiting area, a hundred people watch CNN on Sunday afternoon. The story was a breathless expose of what the reporter called "trophy culture." There are youth soccer leagues where every young player gets a trophy for "participation." The reporter announced he was about to faint when he heard that in some leagues for younger children, they don't keep score and have a winner and loser.

Almost every man in the waiting room was paying very close attention to the TV.

A lot of significance was drawn from these anecdotes. Did you know that most people think that they are smarter than they really are? And they are more likely to succeed than they really are? Such delusional thinking is obviously the result of getting too many cheap trophies for "participation." Also grade inflation in colleges and universities, although the educators give the grades and not the students.

My story: Due to some strange mismatch between the Providence RI school system and the Youngstown, Ohio school system, I did kindergarten and first grade in one year. While this did not affect me academically, it meant that I was always a year younger and smaller than the other boys in my class. When it came to outdoor play, playground games, I was not as skilled or coordinated.

Even now, I flinch from that kind of external explanation of how I experienced playing with other boys, as though I making an cheap retroactive excuse for being a loser.

But a loser I was, marked early with that name. Chosen last, assigned to right field where no one ever hit, my at-bats ended with pinch-hitters, even pinch-runners called in on the odd occasion when I was on base.

I remember sharing with my mother my sad frustration at being 'not strong'. She gave me the word that it was OK, because I was smarter than them. It made me feel better at the time, but I don't think it was the most healthy advice she could have given me.

The male body is the site of winning and losing, and this body that I have is a losing body.

About middle school, the losing male body is also seen as sexually suspect, or "queer" back when that term had not even begun to be re-claimed. It is a sad fact that for the young men of my time, sex too, was a game where some bodies won and others lost, and that was as it should be.

No wonder the eyes of almost every man in the airport was fixed on the TV. This news report about "trophy culture" was an ideological recommitment to grim laws of winners and losers that governed our childhood and youth. I could see the pride and shame playing on their faces.

I am now over 65 living in a body that testifies to a lifetime of neglect. I have all the metabolic disorders that come from a sedentary life, a life in which there few moments of joy in the strength, or speed, or skill, of my body. After all, it was an inadequate body, a losing body, from before I can even remember. I am becoming convinced that the poor health of many adults of my age is directly traceable to the culture of relentless bodily competition that ruled our childhoods.

I am not sure that younger people know that there was a time before gyms, and workouts and running as we now know them. Everything like that was tied to competitive sports. Gyms were about boxing, or competitive weight lifting. The idea that you would go to the gym and exercise simply for the satisfaction of your own health and your own bodily improvement was not common.

I have very few regrets in life. This is one of them.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Another Theory about Church Past and Future

The great collapse of the church turns out to be, on closer examination, the decline in membership of the mainline Protestant and English-speaking Catholic churches from their peak in the 1950's.

Conservative evangelical and pentecostal churches did not decline. The African American Protestant church did not decline. I don't know about the non-English speaking Catholics.

Most of this decline occurred during a period of ferocious cultural conflict in the United States. There was a powerful backlash against the ideological breakthroughs of mid-century liberalism: anti-racism, feminism, the LGBTQ movement.

One aspect of the conservative backlash was a theological and ecclesiological attack on the mainline Protestant churches and denominations that had embraced (tentatively) those ideological breakthroughs.

There were several strands of the conservative attack on liberal theology, but they came down to this: liberal theology was too open to influence from "the culture" and could not defend Christian morality against the forces of cultural "decay."

In terms of the forms of the church, the conservative Christian movement was developing a new and more culturally congruent way of doing church. They stepped out of denominationalism and created the non-denominational 'bible-centered' church. And because their more entrepreneurial ministers were building many new churches, they had a greater freedom to experiment with more popular and contemporary liturgies, music and preaching.

Far-right foundations poured money into institutions like the "Institute for Religion and Democracy" which organized and funded conservative opposition groups in three large mainline denominations: the United Methodists, the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians.

The liberal-leaning mainlines froze like deer in the headlights.  They vacillated between imitations and inaction. Most of the mainline Protestant denominations entered into long struggles over the ordination of gays and lesbians and marriage equality. Individual churches got mired in disputes over contemporary vs traditional music and worship. Meanwhile, members headed for the exits: many moving toward the more dynamic conservative churches and others dropping out of organized religion altogether. But as many that left, those who were left were still divided.

Meanwhile, the now dominant conservative church ran the brand of Christianity and all of organized religion into the ground. Among the young, polls tell us, respondents associate "Christianity" and
"Religion" with rightwing politics, homophobia, moralism and hypocrisy.

It is no wonder that now the evangelicals are talking about the growing cultural irrelevance of the church, as though this is some mysterious thing. Two wars, escalating inequality, uncontrolled racist policing and mass incarceration have turned the country as a whole against the conservative project, and that includes the conservative church movement.

The tide is turning. People are angry about the economic system and have realized the terrible error of enriching the wealthy as a plan for economic growth. Social movements have been growing; progressive political forces are feeling strong and confident.  2015 will see continuing popular mobilizations about a wide variety of issues. 2016 will be dominated by the election. (Odd = Protest, Even = Vote).

The main thing for liberal religious institutions is to get connected to the rising tide of change.

You can be pews, organs and robes. Or you can be jeans, rock and sit on the floor. You can be Christian, or humanist, both or neither. How you do church will shape who you do church with, so choose carefully. But however you choose, you must be an accessible and holistic path to participation in the rising movement for social, cultural and political transformation in the country. And you must be able to explain how and why you are.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

One Nation Under God

I have been reading Kevin Kruse's history of mid-20th century religious history in the United States, "One Nation Under God."

It's an eye-opening book, and while it rarely mentions Unitarianism, or the new Unitarian Universalism, it illuminates the context in which our faith tradition formed itself .

Much of the current thinking about the position of the church (meaning organized religion, in general) in American culture starts back in what seems the Golden Age of the 1950's. Church attendance and membership was at an all-time high, and many churches were prosperous. Ministers were respected professionals and their sermons might be reported in the local newspaper.

When we compare our present situation to that, it looks like things have gone to hell since then.

There is a growing awareness that the 1950's were an anomoly, the peak of religiosity in history, not the norm.

What Kevin Kruse shows, though, goes further. The 1950's religiosity was the result of decades of effort by the leaders of industrial America, many of whom were not particular religious themselves, to turn popular consciousness against the New Deal, unionism and social democracy.

Kruse talks about two stages of their history. Under Roosevelt and Truman, industrial leaders subsidized and encouraged clergy who developed a theological position that Kruse calls "Christian Libertarianism." Christian Libertarianism combined the Protestant emphasis on individual salvation, Christian liberty, with an analysis of the state as a form of pagan idolatry. It was a very exalted form of individualism in which each person should be self-sufficient. To turn toward collective effort, through the government or in a union to secure one's interest was to turn away from God, and to violate the first commandment. Christian libertarianism successfully recast the industrialists' chafing at New Deal regulation and fear of rising unionism as a spiritual struggle for each person.

Prior to the emergence of this elite sponsored Christian libertarianism, Protestant public theology in America had been a struggle between the turn of the century formulation of fundamentalism and the Progressive era's Christian social gospel. Christian libertarianism co-opted the fundamentalists and combatted the social gospel.

Dwight Eisenhower and Billy Graham
However, Christian Libertarianism was remade into Christian Nationalism with the election of
Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Now that the government was in hands of pro-business officials, the religious analysis of the state was reversed. When led by religious men, like Ike, the state served God's purposes of freedom and self-sufficiency. Once inaugurated, Eisenhower led a comprehensive effort to invest the American government with religious and spiritual authority. He described himself as a spiritual leader leading a spiritual renewal of society. It was during the first Eisenhower term that highly symbolic steps were made to identify the government with God. "In God We Trust" was added to the currency. "One Nation Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, which became, for the first time, recited by millions of school children every day. The National Advertising Council, which combined the efforts of the nation's leading advertising agencies and was funded by the largest corporations in the country, ran public service announcements urging one and all to attend religious services. By 1960, church attendance shot up to its peak: 69%.

A powerful alliance was developed between the leading industrialists of the country, the government and the churches, especially the mainline churches. It successfully imposed an established religion of vague theism, pro-government, anti-communism and individualism on the American people. Huge gobs of cash flowed from coffers of the largest industrial concerns into this effort to mold public opinion.

The Cold War was a part of the motivation. But one of Kruse's contributions is to show how this flowering of religiosity was built on organizational foundations and theologizing more aimed at Roosevelt than Stalin.

What I take away from Kruse's history is that the rise and fall of popular religious trends in the US are not isolated events, nor the product of sociological developments, but are created by the deliberate interventions in the religious sphere by the wealthy and powerful.

Kruse does not concern himself with Unitarian Universalism, but questions arise.

What are we to make of the fact that Unitarian Universalism was created through merger at the very peak of this flowering of state-supported and state-flattering religiosity? Certainly, all churches were then being helped by public expectation that everyone was a church-goer. It was a good time to be in the religion business. And, Unitarian churches had been the refuge for years for non-believers who needed somewhere to go on Sunday morning.  And, some U or U churches fit right into the profile of a successful mainline church, even though the doctrine preached was not quite orthodox. But other UU churches and fellowships were in active resistance and defiance of the elite sponsored popular piety. They were not part of "one nation under God."

As I read Kruse on the expensive and ambitious efforts to promote a elite-sponsored religion among the people, I began to see mid-century humanism (and the Fellowship movement) as a form of cultural resistance.

And so, right from the beginning, there were competing aspects within Unitarian Universalism: the cultural respectable liberal end of the establishment but also a center of counter-cultural resistance to the official piety.

And if these contradictions were not enough, at the same time, the Civil Rights Movement was re-asserting the power of the social gospel. The social gospel would divide Unitarian Universalism, and even most of the more liberal mainline. And as the sympathies of the mainline churches turned toward the social gospel, the wealthy and powerful would break their alliance with the mainline churches and turn their efforts toward the support of the evangelical movement.

I am currently reading up on role of financial elites in destruction of Mainline Protestantism during the Reagan era.  I will be telling that story soon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Black Lives Matter AIW, Part 3 - Landrum

So almost everyone wanted a Black Lives Matter Action of Immediate Witness to pass at the UU General Assembly this year.  And there were some factors leading into the debate and vote on the AIWs that indicated that this might not be the smoothest process, despite the fact that many of us would have loved to come in and vote quickly and cleanly to affirm that Black Lives Matter.  But there are also things that happened on the floor of the General Session that made for a difficult time in passing this important AIW.  After AIW C passed in six minutes and AIW B in 20 minutes, what led to it taking almost two hours for the General Assembly to pass something that almost everyone wanted passed?  I have a few factors that I can determine: first, a procedural quagmire, caused partly by fear that we were not together on this; secondly, a confusion about "prison abolition" and what it means; and, third, a conflict between our rules of procedure and what needed to happen resulting in a second procedural quagmire.  And then, I have some questions: What does it mean to be a good ally?  How could our rules be better shaped to make us better allies or to make us more anti-racist?

Procedural Quagmire:  Amendments at the General Assembly fall into four categories -- incorporated amendments, in this (A) case incorporated by the Commission on Social Witness (CSW) into the AIW; (B) unincorporated amendments that get moved and passed; (C) unincorporated amendments that get moved but don't pass; and (D) unincorporated amendments that don't get moved either because they're moot or clearly don't have enough support or because we run out of time.  Because time is precious and because sometimes amendments clearly will be falling into category C, it's not uncommon to move to call the question early in debate on amendments.  If we get through the amendments quickly, that leaves more time to talk to the main motion.  With a huge amount of support from people of color, youth, and allies lining up for the AIW, and that large support moving to the Con microphone while dealing with amendments, it looked to some of us like these amendments were more in the (C) category of amendments without much support, and not the (B) category of amendments that will get incorporated.  Therefore, the question was called on the first amendment.  But then the vote passed, and the amendment was included.  When I moved to call the question on the second amendment, that's when the system bogged down.  The support wasn't there to call the question -- there were those on the one hand who wanted to better understand the issue of "prison abolition" that would be struck by the amendment, and those on the other hand who didn't want the amendment to pass but feared there was too much confusion in the house to go straight to the vote to support the writers of the AIW.  They were right -- the house was still divided.  That wasn't clear to me in making the motion -- I was ready to stand with the authors and vote for what the people of color were saying was an important phrase to be included.  What usually would have been a quick no vote on calling the question somehow became a very long process, with a called count.  While it happened, singing broke out in the hall; more singing in was led from the microphone while the vote was being counted.  Finally, the vote failed, after 23.5 minutes, over a sixth of our time, spent on the question of whether to call the question.

The effect of the long counting time in the calling the question vote is that the tension in the room skyrocketed.  The people at the con microphone left to go to the back of the hall.  There was wondering whether people would walk out of the vote entirely.  There was a feeling that if we called the question at this point, the amendment would succeed and the cost would be a weakened AIW that lost the support of the very people who created it.  The hall responded to the tension with song, but it didn't cut it entirely.  Eventually the chaplains came to the microphone in response to the tension, as well.

Prison Abolition: At the root of the debate was the term "prison abolition" in the AIW. Three different unincorporated amendments had this term deleted in various ways.  There were basically four groups of people in the hall in relationship to this term.  (1) People who understood the term, supported its use, and believed it should be left as-is.  (2) People who understood the term and supported the concept, but worried that its use as-is would alienate people reading the AIW who didn't understand the term, and who wanted it defined.  (3) People who didn't understand the term and wanted it defined.  (4) People who either did or did not understand the term, and wanted it removed.  There was frustration on many sides -- some who thought AIW should be left as is were frustrated at people who seemed to want to strip the AIW of its power for action; some who thought the term meant something different at face value than it seemed to mean in the BLM community were frustrated at the resistance to defining it and the procedural problems with doing so; some people more deeply invested in the BLM movement were frustrated with others for not doing their homework and understanding this better; some people at the mini-assembly were frustrated that this hadn't happened there; some people not at the mini-assembly were frustrated that this hadn't been solved at the mini-assembly; some were frustrated at what seemed like racism prevalent in the discussion; some were frustrated that we were being asked to be allies in a way that meant not wordsmithing and we were refusing to do so; some were frustrated that we were being asked to vote for something without the wordsmithing we always do.  This frustration in the process was in no small part due to the frustrations from the mini-assembly, where a better process might have found the solution that the delegates would finally achieve. 

The Rules of Procedure: What eventually became clear is that there would be enough people comfortable with including the term "prison abolition" if a definition was also included in the AIW for those who didn't understand.  However, this solution had not been found at the mini-assembly, and so was not one of the unincorporated amendments to be suggested.  It's against the rules of procedures to allow any amendment that wasn't proposed at the mini-assembly.  Amendments can be amended, however, and this was tried, but the amendment to the amendment was substantive, so still not allowable.  Finally we were brought to the conclusion that we had to first vote to suspend the rules of procedure for the purpose of making this amendment, after which the rules of procedure would go back into place.  This awkward process was put through, the clarifying amendment went through, and most people in the hall were satisfied with this result, with the exception of people who still disagreed with the term at all, and people who were still frustrated that any amendment at all had been handled.  A strong enough coalition had been forged, however, for the AIW to finally pass.

Questions and Thoughts: At the heart of all this, I found two questions: What does it mean to be a good ally?  How could our rules be better shaped to make us better allies or to make us more anti-racist?

It was clear that we were being asked to be a specific kind of ally here to people of color -- the request was made clearly and strongly to pass this document as it was, without adaptation.  To do so, however, would be a move highly unusual in Unitarian Universalist general assemblies, for a document with this many unincorporated amendments.  Does being a good ally mean not questioning and not seeking explanation?  Or does it mean that we were not good allies for not having done our homework on the terms ahead of time?  My own answer is confused.  On the one hand, I think it would be a sign of being a strong and good ally for us to have come in and just passed the BLM AIW.  On the other hand, I think it would have left us with a document that would have a term in it that would upset and deter some people in our congregations and communities who might not understand what we were saying.  I want to be a strong ally, and I want a strong document.  I think it's true, however, that the strong document might alienate some potential partners.  The work of clarifying and building bridges doesn't have to fall on the document, however, it can fall on the allies to do that work.  We can be challenged to dig deeper and confront our own misunderstandings.  In a way, I think we did do that through this strange procedural process.  I think we saw a group of delegates hit a learning curve and tackle it.

What can we do to improve our process?  I think there are ways our Rules of Procedure can be adapted to improve the process.  First of all, the pro/con process of the AIWs is currently designed for debate, not education.  We can include a time in the plenaries where proponents of an AIW spend some time educating the delegate population -- time that's not included in debate time.  Secondly, by the time we've winnowed the proposed AIWs down to three, we're almost guaranteed that these have enough support to pass.  Instead of spending time debating pro/con on the AIWs themselves, let's spend more time on just the pros -- let's hear from the different constituencies affected by each AIW.  Let's hear what the youth think.  Let's hear what the leaders in our movement think.  And if we want to be an anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural association, let's specifically ask to hear from groups about how each AIW impacts people of color and impacts oppressed groups.  Finally, let's have some time specifically for question and answer before the mini-assembly to get those clarifications we need handled through that process better. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Black Lives Matter AIW, Part 2 - Landrum

Given that so many of us arrived at General Assembly assuming that a Black Lives Matter Action of
Immediate Witness (AIW) would and should happen, why was the process of passing it so painful?  To answer that question, there are some background pieces that should be understood.  First, there is what happened earlier in the General Sessions (Plenaries) at this year's General Assembly.  Secondly, there's the mini-assembly for the AIW and what happened there.  Lastly, and most importantly, there's the UUA's history, and in particular the "Empowerment Controversy" and walkout of 1969.

Earlier in the General Assembly, there was a controversial set bylaws amendments that would dramatically change the nature of the Commission on Appraisal.  In that discussion, much of the time allotted for discussion was eaten up by procedural questions and their responses.  After I moved to add four minutes to the clock, citing the need to hear voices of people who hadn't been represented yet, particularly people of color, the entire four minutes was eaten up by procedural questions.  Another amount of time was added to the clock by Jim Krawarik-Graham (CLF delegate), and the same thing happened again.  Still, there was the problem that after the procedural questions were handled, we were spending time on unicorporated amendments when people still hadn't had the opportunity to speak much to the main motion, which was a much larger issue.  After Krawarik-Graham added time again and pleaded with the delegates not to use it on further unincorporated amendments, we finally got to hear one or two more pro and con voices.  Based on the frustration of this experience, the delegates voted that for the remainder of the General Assembly procedural questions and the time spent answering them not be deducted from the time on the motions -- the clock would stop for procedural issues.   

On Sunday afternoon before we got to the AIWs, we had an explanation from Susan Goekler, chair of the Commission on Social Witness.  Without naming which one, she said they acknowledged that "some were particularly frustrated with the way things went in one mini-assembly in particular" and said "We recognize that the process did not go as smoothly yesterday as we hope it will in the future."  The hand-outs we received of the AIWs and unincorporated amendments made it clear which one she was talking about, for those whose ears had not already heard the rumors that the BLM AIW mini-assembly hadn't gone well.  Whereas AIW B on climate change had four unincorporated amendments and AIW C on Immigrant Dentention had only one, the BLM AIW had a total of fourteen.  Six of them were similar to other edits that had been accepted, but that left eight amendments, three of which were about the line referencing "prison abolition."  It would become clear over a difficult General Session that the delegates were essentially mirroring and recreating the mini-assembly in the AIW approval process, both in the attempts to wordsmith the document and in the breakdown of process that would happen.  The "frustrations" experienced in the mini-assembly would lead to frustrations in the General Session. 

This year we've been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the marches in Selma.  The anniversary was very present in the General Assembly at several points.  Rev. Gordon Gibson received the Presidential Award for Volunteer Service for his work on the Living Legacy Project the morning of the AIW vote.  But only four years after Selma, our General Assembly had its most divisive moments, culminating in a walk-out of 200-300 Black delegates and additional White supporters. Other good sources exist about this controversy, but its impact on the delegates today can't be under-emphasized.  The high degree of tension in the room was not in small part caused by the earnest and fervent hope that history wouldn't repeat itself.   There was a moment when the rumor -- whether true or not I do not know -- that the Youth Caucus, DRUMM, and ARE were considering leaving and/or pulling their support for the AIW if it got further amended.  There was tension that the entire AIW would end up not passing, creating a glaring example of lack of real commitment to our anti-racist rhetoric.  Or, worse yet, that it would pass but without the support of people of color in our movement, becoming a living symbol of white folks doing arm-chair activism without real commitment to being true allies and engaging in this work.

Between the high tension from our divided past and the frustrations of the week, not to mention the heat index, in retrospect it was no surprise that things got difficult in the BLM AIW.  But even so, there are things that went wrong in the General Session that we can learn from, and things that can be done differently in the future. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Finding Our Voice

Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout
The Minister of Music at the Ann Arbor UU Congregation, Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout, frequently talks about our congregation "finding our voice."

At first, I thought it was just the usual high-minded wordplay typical of those who get to include "minister" in their job description; you know, the sort of talk that invokes the seven seas, the five great lakes, the imperiled groundwater, amniotic fluid and a mother's tears at a water communion service.

But I am beginning to get it; maybe not the way he intends, but a way that makes sense to me.

The Ann Arbor congregation is a justice-oriented, activist congregation. And they have done a lot and do a lot for the great causes.

Or do they? Actually, most of what gets done gets done by some of the congregation, while the rest of the congregation supports them and encourages them, we presume. The congregation does its justice work while in its "ungathered" state.

The congregation in its "gathered" state, gathers for worship on Sunday morning. And then, it is mostly passive, or speaks only in ritual. The congregation says its ritual words, and then it listens to readings and sermons. And then, with the words of benediction in their ears, it ungathers.

Even when most congregations sing, they sing as in a ritual, the prescribed verses, in order, with somewhere around half of the people singing. The congregation is singing, but they have not  yet "found their voice."

But, there are moments when the congregation sings, not as in a ritual, but in the present moment. In those moments, our song leader, Dr. Rideout has led us beyond the box, and we are singing outside of it. We are repeating verses; we are singing without accompaniment, we are singing improvised verses, we are improvising rhythms with our clapping and improvising new harmonies and countermelodies.

We are doing the singing in the moment as a congregation, not as ritual. Ritual has led us beyond ritual. Whatever we are singing, we are now singing those words, and the meaning of those words, directly into the world. We are not singing Holly Near's song anymore, we are proclaiming ourselves, at that moment, in that place, as "an angry, gentle people, singing for our lives." We are not singing songs of some far-off, long-ago freedom movement, we are a freedom movement, one tiny and limited embodiment of that justice movement, but we are singing in our own voices.  We have found "our" voice.

Yes, we are proclaiming ourselves a movement in the safe space of our own sanctuary, but it is a step. If we sing like that on Sunday in church, could we sing like that in front of the courthouse?Suppose we were to gather our courage and sing our songs, in our newly-found collective voice in the public square? Suppose we invited all others to join us, and to find their voice in the chorus we are trying to call into being?

We are black and white, gay and straight, young and old, men and women (and all others)
 together and we are singing for our lives.

It may be that before we can write laws, we must make demands, and before we can make demands, we must make speeches, but before we can make speeches, we must sing who we are, and to do that, we must find our voices, and we will find them in song, singing together.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Grace and Revolution by Tom Schade

To me, "grace" is not in the explanation of how "Good" is somehow drawn out from the most "Evil" events and actions. "Grace" is the name we give to the human capacity to try to do so. "Grace" is the turning of the will away from despair to hope. And because, we humans are made in God's image, it is not just a quirk of the human personality, but something fundamental about how all of this is put together.

There's been a fair amount of discussion about President Obama's assertion in his Charleston eulogy that God was using Dylann Roof and his evil act for a greater purpose: to awaken the nation to the evil of white racism and specifically to move against the confederate flag as an entrenched symbol of that racism.

Let's speculate neither about the purposes of God, which are unknowable to us, nor the nature of killing nine people at prayer, for it is unquestionably evil. And it happened. And it is not unprecedented, and it will happen again. White supremacy kills.

When people object to Obama implying that God had a divine plan at work it is because it makes God out to be a monster, or that it justifies evil, which is really the same thing. And we are against evil. So if not the plan of God, then Dylann Roof's evil act was his own human evil act, and the rest of us should stop it from happening. And perhaps God will help us.

It follows then that it does not matter how entrenched, systematic, and ruthless the system of evil that spawned Dylann Roof, it comes from humanity, and it is our job to end it. Some of us stare unflinchingly at the situation and mutter the word "revolution."

When confronted with the reality of systemic, entrenched, lethal, self-replicating evil (anti-black violence, mass incarceration, climate disaster, rape culture, mass poverty, anti-woman violence), the human mind leaps beyond the realistic and rational to find hope.

Really, the notion that an all-powerful God is playing some eleven dimensional chess game in which Dylann Roof is pawn on God's side is not much more magical than the belief that there will be a mass uprising and moral transformation that will end white supremacy.

I am not here to judge between types of magical thinking. I am emotionally committed to the power of social movements; my life has been organized around my hopes for them and my faith in them. But I recognize that they are my own subjective circuit breaker.

Follow your own thoughts: think deeply about any of the evils of the world as presently structured. What are the chances for change? It's depressing and you can follow your thoughts down a cycle of despair, until a thought arises which will act as a circuit breaker to that cycle. "Perhaps this is all God's Plan." "We will rise up together and set things right." "Jesus will come back." "84 million reincarnations from now, we shall escape earthly plane of sorrows."

Grace is that we are blessed with a mental circuit breaker which pulls us out of cycling despair. And as it is that our yearning for God is the best evidence we have for God, and  that our capacity to forgive is a sign that the forward motion of time means that reality allows for second chances, so too, our dogged efforts to find hope in the worst situation signal to us grace.
from the beach. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Refuse to Let them Fail -- By Greg Dubow


"Greg DuBow is a Unitarian Universalist 
minister who is currently serving as a Chaplain 
with the USAF. He graduated from Meadville
 LombardTheological School in 2011 
and has worked in the fields of disaster response
 and critical care ministry before joining the military."
At this year’s Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in Portland, Oregon I kept hearing about the changing landscape of religious experience. If there really is some Promised Land that exists beyond congregations, do we possess the willingness to financially, emotionally, and spiritually support ministries that are ready to fulfill that dream?

New ministries, especially ministries that exist along the road less often taken need specific care if they are to survive. For all the talk of reaching the “nones” and the “dones”, who are growing at a prolific rate , we have to reconcile that this demographic is made up of young people who by and large are not the body which makes up an economically self sustaining religious community. We must look inward and ask if ministry of this sort is something we are truly called to or just a symptom of panic in the face of a world in which organized religion generally is declining. 

In 2014 the UUA welcomed one new congregation, Original Blessing, and at the 2015 annual meeting we saw it close. Hearing its eulogy was heartbreaking. 

When I asked Rev. White Maher what he thought could have changed Original Blessing’s fate, I expected him to cite external or logistical factors – funding panels, better advertising, a flawed business plan – any of the things one would expect as challenges in building a church plant from the ground up.  His response disarmed me but was not altogether surprising: “I wish that I had been able to sit with other ministers monthly,” he said, ”and have them lay hands on me to pray for my ministry.”  

A simple response that speaks volumes about the power of connection in our work - connection in words, in face-to-face showings of support or mentorship, and in how we choose to discuss (positively or negatively) new endeavors with our personal networks.  Whatever flaws may have been at play, Original Blessing deserved more, Rev. Ian White Maher deserved more, and Unitarian Universalism deserves more. Having formally welcomed only one new community into our fold we had an obligation to see that it would succeed at all costs.

Our connections to and with each other matter.  Indeed, for new ministries they are bread and butter, life or death.  And without it, regardless of your place in Unitarian Universalism, our siloed actions and voices can only go so far in changing the landscape we are called to change, be it attractionally or missionally.  

Perhaps in response to Original Blessing’s closure or due to the inevitable pressure of culture the Association has launched a pilot program for UUA Recognized Communities which “seeks to find new ways to be in relationship with expressions of our faith that look different from traditional congregations.” 


One of these Recognized Communities is Sacred Fire Unitarian Universalist), which is essentially a small group ministry plant that acts as a mutual aide society. They describe themselves as, “an experiment with different forms and manifestations of Unitarian Universalism” that “grapples with methods that are accessible to those who do not see a home for themselves in our current models, and takes cues from the powerful traditions of the Black church and from religious justice movements in Latin America.” 

This young ministry is poised to meet the unique needs of those who make up its body.  It’s members, who are overwhelmingly new to Unitarian Universalism and many of whom do not identify as Unitarian Universalists, join together to do the work of creating the condition necessary for our vision of the Beloved Community. They organize ride shares, child-care, and food cooperatives for one another. To paraphrase theologian Dwight Hopkins on Being Human; one cannot love the body of the Church but despise human bodies. 

Sacred Fire is a religious experiment in helping humanity thrive. To me, this act – that of sustaining human endeavors at self-actualization and supporting the micro-movements it takes to create macro-level change - is the bread and butter of liberal religion.  Although the ministry is just two years old, it has grown wildly every time large donors or the Association have provided monetary support, mentorship, or social promotion. 

Unitarian Universalists have a strong desire to grow our faith and its people, but our polity and history have made the practice of church planting problematic. Lacking a system to intentionally develop and support new ventures, we have to leverage personal relationships, an entrepreneurial spirit, and utilize political savvy. I remain on the fence as to whether these are important gates to pass through or needlessly difficult barriers.

My intention in this short entry is not to position Sacred Fire or Original Blessing (or any other new approach to ministry that hasn’t come to fruition yet) as inarguably superior or the path for our future engagement as a movement; however, we as a collective body cannot afford to continue to fail these grassroots attempts at addressing critical challenges to the progression of our cause.  

For new ministries to succeed there must be a critical mass that refuses to let them fail. I ask you to pray for Sacred Fire and for all of our emerging ministries – but more than prayers, we need to use our hands and our voices to reach out and help where we can, to literally lay on hands.

The simplest way to do this is to connect with leaders of new ministries and speak the words they most want to hear: “How can I help?”  If you or your congregation is able, donate money or resources to a new ministry in your area.  Use your networks of colleagues and friends in or outside of the UUA to spread the word about what these organizations stand for and why they’re exciting.  Each person doing their part - most importantly those who do not have an obvious stake in the fight - is what all of us need to do to be architects of a new landscape for our faith.  

Friday, July 10, 2015

Inside Out

Inside Out is the newish Pixar animated movie; I saw it yesterday afternoon. I do enjoy the quiet of a movie theatre on a weekday afternoon, and the senior discount on top of the already low matinee ticket price.


Inside Out takes place "inside the head" of Riley, a young girl. The five characters are five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear) who take turns running the control panel for Riley's emotional life. During most of her childhood, Joy runs the show and Riley's life produces lots of happy memories. But when Riley's family moves to San Francisco when she is 11, her life becomes much more complicated. Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust are in control more often, and the memories accumulated are much more varied. A great adventure ensues.

The movie is a primer in emotional literacy. There is a great power in being able to sort and name the feelings that a person has. And to be wise about how they inter-relate, how they take and let go of control of us over time. The movie depicts many aspects of our complicated mental processing: the accumulation of memories, the process of remembering and forgetting, how memories of past are changed by present emotions, how memories feed aspects of personality. It's quite detailed.

My daughters are now adults, but I learned some things about 12 year old girls from Inside Out. And, as I often do these days, I wept as a witness of the clear expression of another's profound emotion.

But we have to remember that none of it is actually factual. The idea that there is a control panel in our head, and that five emotions take turns at the panel, and that memories stack up like bowling balls in a huge complex of racks and shelves; all of that is a model, an extended metaphor, a way that smart observers of human beings have created to describe consciousness.

The ancients looked up into the night sky and saw constellations. Those constellations don't really exist. If one studied the sky enough, one could make an entirely different set of constellations, perhaps seeing the faint outlines of the symbols of each of the NBA teams, or the badges of car manufacturers. The stars are not moved by our reimaginings.

The metaphors of Inside Out take their place along side of the other imaginings of our internal consciousness: the  medievalist's theories about the "humors", church's division between our angelic, human and animal natures, the distinction between the soul, the spirit, and the psyche, the three story house of the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious minds. All true to some extent, in that they are perceptive metaphors for human thinking and feeling.

When scientists pursue consciousness in the human  brain, that matter that thinks, it seems like it gets lost somewhere in little squirts of brain juice and tiny electrical currents.

It is important to remember that people are great mysteries to others and to themselves. We feel so deeply, at least some of the time, and are able to express those feelings so incompletely. Most show more of themselves than they can ever say. And we all communicate with each other in an unspoken and inarticulate language of presence more than we can ever know. It is not accurate communication, in that cultures create barriers to communication, but it is quite amazing how people can read the emotional state of a room as soon as they enter it, or how we can tell how another rider on the bus is feeling.

This is why I choke up so often. I see other people; what they feel is so visible and yet so hidden from themselves, hidden from themselves because they cannot express what they feel in words and language. I include myself in comparing people to dogs; we have a richer emotional lives than our limited menu of barks, growls and whines can express. And so I tear up in the moment of emotional deep witness.

Go see Inside Out; it will make you think, and feel.




Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Black Lives Matter AIW, Part 1 - Landrum

This is part one of three of a report on the passage of the Action of Immediate Witness passed by the UUA General Assembly in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Cindy Landrum was a participant, and a careful observer. Here is her account of what happened.

The final text of the Action is here.

Rev. Cynthia Landrum serves the Universalist Unitarian
 Church of East Liberty, MI.
I entered ministry a month before the September 11, 2001 attacks.  That year, suddenly, everything changed.  Our churches, and ministry itself, I think, changed.  It's hard for me to know if this is entirely true, because I was so new.  But I know that for me the most important work of our churches was suddenly all about being allies to Muslims in our community, as well as the issues of war, personal liberty, and more that came out of that time. 

The situation this year has been entirely different, but it reminds me of September 11th, only the call, the imperative, to respond has been even stronger.  This is the year that suddenly our movement has awoken to the work of anti-racism after being in a slumber for as long as I (a Gen-Xer in my 14th year of ministry) can remember.  It was a coincidence that we honored the fiftieth anniversary of Selma this year, a time when so many in our movement awoke to the call of the Civil Rights Movement.  I wasn't alive for that call, but have heard about that time all my life, and about how our movement responded.  And now it was time for us to respond to a new movement.  In my church, Black Lives Matter became the theme of our year, as we held worship service after worship service where the names of those who were killed were lifted up over the course of the year.  I built new relationships with African American ministers in my community, and worked with them to build new organizations where we could come together in partnership and respond to the needs of our own community.  We held town halls with civic and law enforcement leaders.  And we prayed together for our community and our world.  One of the local pastors in this area has a son who went to Ohio State University and was brutally beaten by Columbus law enforcement (for committing the crime of littering).  Our General Assembly will be in Columbus next year, by the by.  The incident was two years ago, but Joseph Hines' civil rights case against the city will be finally be heard this month.  Working with his father, I got to know better a man who is a powerful preacher, an important local leader, and a loving father who is trying to do the best for his son who will never be the same again. 

I have no doubt that across our country, our ministers and our lay people in small towns and areas out of the spotlight have been doing similar things.  In Baltimore, St. Louis, Charleston, and other areas where the killings of black men have gotten media attention, our ministers and lay people have been doing much, much, much more.  Across our movement, without a denominational directive, our movement has been slowly and steadily changing itself and responding to Black Lives Matters.

So it was no surprise that when we got to the General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, that while the announced theme of the year was "Building a New Way" and our Local Service Project was on prisoner reentry, and our Social Witness project was on "Commit2Respond to Climate Change," the real theme of the General Assembly was Black Lives Matters.  The hottest swag in the exhibit hall was Starr King School for the Ministry's Black Lives Matters bandanas and the Black Lives Matters buttons from Allies for Racial Equity and DRUMM, although many of us arrived already wearing the buttons.  The hottest workshops were those on anti-racism, with the crowd for Chris Crass' workshop pouring out the doors into the hallways.  The week reached a high point with the Ware Lecture by Cornel West.  And it was absolutely assumed by many of us before we even arrived that the week would end with a Black Lives Matters Action of Immediate Witness.  And it did.  But the process of getting there was surprisingly painful.  

Thursday, July 02, 2015

It's Not Your Fault



Buffy Boke asked me to elaborate on why I chose to include this scene from "Good Will Hunting" in a blog post about UU history.

For those who don't know the movie, Matt Damon is the protagonist of the movie, an extremely smart kid (Will Hunting) from a Boston working class neighborhood now in college. Robin Williams is a counsellor or therapist. The folder that Williams waves contains photos of a younger Matt Damon bearing the bruises and wounds of the abuse he endured as a child by his father.

Will Hunting moves with a cocky bravado that masks much deeper insecurities. He is unable to sustain relationships and cannot fully seize the opportunities that his prodigal intelligence has put before him. He is underperforming his potential.

Unitarian Universalism is obsessed with the perception that we, too, are underperforming our potential. Given our aspirations, we should be larger than we are. We should be more spiritually and theologically clear than we are. We should be more diverse than we are. We should be more active and more resolute activists for social justice than we are. We should be more family-friendly than we are. We should be more welcoming than we are. We should be more generous than we are.

We cover our sense of inadequacy with externally directed bravado and internally directed competitiveness. We present ourselves to the world as smarter than we are, and as more unique. And among ourselves, we distrust each other's motives and sincerity. The friendships that we form among ourselves are often alliances against other UU's.

Like Will Hunting, we cannot form sustaining relationships and we cannot really grow into our potential.

Our animating question is "what is wrong with us?" Our presumption is that we are somehow failing.

I want us to consider, for just a moment, that "it is not our fault."

For the most part, we have not ever considered our history from that angle of vision.

Liberal religion, in all its forms, has taken a beating for the last forty five years. The conservative backlash to the social movements of the 50's and 60's included broad challenge to religious liberalism as too permissive, too activist, too politically correct, and too secular. Conservative churches claimed to be counter-cultural, and painted liberal religion as the most romantic and idealistic branch of the liberal establishment.

Millions of people left the mainline churches, some for the evangelicals, and others left organized religion altogether.

Unitarian Universalism did well to maintain itself during this difficult period. But, we are not aware, however, of how this adversity has changed us, the bruises we carry. Like Will Hunting, we know only in a glib way, but have not really grieved. We lost the thread of our own story and our confidence in our own tradition. We were growing toward a holistic contemporary form of liberal living in the 1960's, and we lost that wholeness. History happened to us, and it was a particularly hostile time for us. It's not all our fault.

Of course, I don't mean that we should not engage in critical self-examination, and that we should not be accountable for our actions and attitudes. We make lots of mistakes and have some bad practices. I am not trying to change what we know about ourselves. I do want to place it into a different context, to embed the incidents of our history in a larger and more generous narrative.

Of course, I will have more on this subject as time goes on....