Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
This past year has been one of the most stressful years of my life, for a variety of reasons. I, as much as any of you out there, crave a lack of tension and a sense of relaxation. In my own private world, I have to have a lot of time to decompress. I have to have time to unwind and let things just sink in.
How do I deal with stress?
I use affirmations. Not always as much as I should, of course, but enough that I know they work for me. I start by saying to myself, when I think to:
“There are a certain number of things I can control, and a large number of things I cannot. Always strive to never confuse the two”.
I’m the sort of person who always wants to be in control of his own destiny. I’ve never liked being pulled one direction or another, or ascribing to this trend or that trend…“swimming with the current”, as Thomas Jefferson put it. I often say that if the world is truly a stage in which we are all players, then I am an actor with a very limited range. I cannot play anyone but myself. However, I do play myself extraordinarily well.
I am reminded of a passage in Virgil’s Anaeid that I was forced to read my senior year of undergrad.
“Humans make plans, and the Gods laugh.”
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve gotten my hopes up, in expectation of lofty goal, only to have it crumble at my feet. Such is life.
For a long time, after each of these disappointments, I played the “what if” game.
“What if I had just spent more time on this problem as opposed to that problem?”
“What if I hadn’t said that to her or him in that situation?”
“What if I’d never taken that job?”
You can get into a bad habit of saying “what if” to the point that it paralyzes you from making any actual progress.
The fallacy in this line of thinking is that it fosters a belief in the impossible…the irrational.
IF you or I simply try hard enough, gets hurt enough, or puts himself or herself in enough life situations, we believe, then disappointment and failure just won’t happen.
That’s a nice delusion, but it’s hardly the truth.
In my own life, the times in which I have looked back and played that horribly defeatist game of second-guessing myself, I've been the most miserable.
I know that the holidays, especially, are times in which many of us try to put on a good face. We, for either humility’s sake or for a sense of following the pack, attempt to be better people for a brief time.
So this year, I resolve…this time…to reform my way of thinking about life.
I resolve that I may always remember that mistakes are inevitable. May I never forget that there lies a great distinction between the laughter of the Gods and the laughter of my heart.
And may I never forget the difference between the two.
Monday, January 29, 2007
Let's talk about anti-racism on this post specifically.
Yes, I know that as a person NOT of color I benefit more in certain circumstances than someone OF color.
I hasten to even use these terms because, as Rich Mackin points out, person of color as well as African-American are white guilt terms. In my humble opinion, it ought to be all one way or all another. I don't wish to be called a Caucasian, because it's technically not correct. A Caucasian is someone from the Caucus Mountain range in Europe--a place which likely I have not relatives or kin. I could be an English-American if I wish, as could probably half of the white population. I could be an Irish-American, as could probably more than half of the white population of the USA. I could be a Scotch/Irish-Irish-English-American, which is technically what I am--but that is quite a mouthful isn't it?
"White". "Black". Though technically incorrect, they do identify quite keenly. And in one syllable.
I tend to use black when I am referring to someone who is of African descent. And in all honesty, except for the black middle class, I see few uses of these white guilt terms amongst other Black folk. I often hear much ruder phrases instead that I will not repeat because I perceive of them, as do several in the community, as epithets rather than reclaimed terms of endearment.
Let me pose the question: why rip the scab off of the racism that each of us holds inside ourselves? We are human, thus we are racist. We are human, thus we are homophobic. I know openly LGBT people who are homophobic. But does knowing the ways in which we are subconsciously lying to ourselves help us or hurt us in the long run?
I mean, anti-racism work, while well-intentioned, is kind of like this to me: it's like saying to every human being--you're flawed inherently, and here's why. We all have flaws because we are all human beings, but I think every person should come to his/her own conclusions.
I'm beginning to believe that every person must come to his/her own realization of whatever prejudices he/she may hold and that nothing I or anyone else says makes any difference at all. At best, all it does it foster guilt. At worst, it makes a person defensive and hold fast to conviction.
In my opinion, anti-racism work runs counter to what we think as Unitarians, which is thusly: a person has a right to his/her own way of belief. Anti-racism work is dogmatic in its own way: it says we're right and you're wrong. Whether we admit it or not, there is a dogmatic quality to Unitarianism. And I shy far away from anything dogmatic.
It was why I became a Unitarian in the first place. Dogmatic religions say: we think, so you don't have to.
I'd prefer thinking for myself, thank you.
And the solution proposed towards fixing the traffic problems of Atlanta sound a lot like this. Use your turn signal. Give people at least two car lengths of space behind you. Don't tailgate. This not only cuts down on accidents but wastes less fuel and wastes less merging delays.
But as our Deist friend said: "Common sense is not so common." ~ Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764), Voltaire
Admittedly, part of the problem is that Atlanta's interstate system was, particularly the downtown sections, put together very piecemeal and on the cheap. It takes a few months of getting around here before you know the tricks. Out-of-towners cause many accidents as to do those who can't drive.
And the solution proposed:
The ethic of reciprocity or "The Golden Rule" is a fundamental moral principle found in virtually all major religions and cultures, which simply means "treat others as you would like to be treated." It is arguably the most essential basis for the modern concept of human rights. Principal philosophers and religious figures have stated it in different ways:
- "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the LORD." — Moses (ca. 1525-1405 BCE) in the Torah Leviticus 19:18 (pertaining here, however, strictly to "thy people", i.e., Hebrews)
- "This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you." from the Mahabharata (5:15:17) (ca. 500BCE)
- "What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others." — Confucius (ca. 551–479 BCE)
- "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man." — Hillel (ca. 50 BCE-10 CE)
- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." — Jesus (ca. 5 BCE—33 CE) in the Gospels, Matthew 7:12 (affirming Moses), Luke 6:31 (extending explicitly to non-Jews)
- "Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you." — Muhammad (c. 571 – 632 CE) in The Farewell Sermon.
One might call this crash course in comparative religion quite Unitarian.
Saturday, January 27, 2007
Ethan Field, of FUUSE and C*UUYAN wrote this.He has several good points. I still don't know the cut feature, but the whole sermon deserves some attention. This sermon is mostly about the unfortunate tendency to Christian bash in certain UU churches.
UUism as a Christian Faith Tradition
In the beginning – of this sermon – there were Christians. Unitarians were Christians. Universalists were Christians. Even Southern Baptists were Christians! And Unitarians and Universalists brought a radical voice to Christianity. We talked about the humanity of Jesus, more important as a human prophet of peace than as a divine personal savior. We talked about a positive place in eternity for all of us, even if you didn’t have the “right” theology.
But then something happened. Slowly, over time, Unitarianism and Universalism, and eventually Unitarian Universalism, stopped being a Christian faith. I don’t mean individual UUs stopped being Christian in their theology. I mean sometime in the last hundred years, we’ve come to a point where, if we’re asked if UUs are Christians, we’ll mumble something apologetic about history, and then say quickly, “But we’re not Christians now!!”
What happened? It’s true that lots of humanists came into our faith in the early 20th century. It’s true that as that century progressed, we came to embrace many sources of faith – which is awesome. But at some point, we kinda collectively bailed out on Christianity. Now, I would love to think that it was because we truly widened our tent until the word “Christian” just couldn’t contain what we are… but having spent my life as a UU, I’m just not buying it.
We still have “churches” and “ministers” and “sermons” and “hymns” and meet for worship on Sunday mornings, and almost all the other trappings of congregational Christian denominations. In fact, the only thing we seem to have abandoned from Christianity is the dogma, the “rules”… but with that… we’ve gotten rid of our comfort with talking positively about Jesus. As if theology were the only defining characteristic of a religion.
Maybe it’s the many UUs who’ve had negative experiences in their own churches growing up. Maybe it’s too many televangelists or clinic bombings or gay-bashings… Maybe it’s even just the increasing separation of church and state that made people comfortable even suggesting that they weren’t Christian.
But whatever the reason, we started saying, “Nope – that’s not me!” “Oh, yeah, I go to church, but I’m not religious. I mean, not like that!” Instead of defending Christianity, we distanced ourselves from it.
And let me state for the record that I have been one of those people most of my life. I did as much as possible to make it very clear that I was separate from “those people” who I perceived to be foolishly following some blind, ignorant faith. And as a young person, I was embarrassed to admit to my friends that I went to church regularly – except when I could say, “Yeah, at my church we do cool stuff like talk about SEX!”
My experience in YRUU, which was transformative and which brought me into a new place as a spiritual being, enabled me to come out of my insulated UU shell and invite more people into that space… but only after I determined that it would be “safe” to approach them about it.
In the past three years of working here, I’ve become increasingly involved in the anti-racism work that the UU Youth and Young Adult organizations have been doing. I’ve learned about the importance of working within my own community. I’ve learned that it is my responsibility as a progressive white person to educate myself about racism, and to help other white people understand racism and white people’s contribution to it – while stressing that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with being a white person, and that everyone’s cultural heritage should be celebrated.
And through that process, I’ve met lots of white people who say, “I’m not white. I’m a human being.” “I don’t see color. I treat everyone equally.” Well-meaning or not, what they’re doing is denying their complicity in racism, and by doing so, denying their own responsibility in working for change.
You might see where I’m going with this… There’s nothing wrong with being white. There’s nothing wrong with being a Christian. Many white people behave in oppressive ways without being aware of it. Many Christians behave in oppressive ways without being aware of it. It is the responsibility of progressive white folks to educate other white folks about how racism hurts, and how celebrating culture can be liberating. And - it is the responsibility of liberal Christians to educate other Christians about the oppressive traditions that have developed around Christianity… and how rediscovering and celebrating Jesus’ message can be a liberating experience.
Now, just like in anti-racism work, I run into UUs every day who, despite their willing participation in all of the liturgy and Christian forms their congregation participates in, say, “Well, I’m not a Christian. Christains are closed-minded. Christians do awful things. I embrace all religions.” And then they proceed to make some insulting Christian joke.
What I am trying to say here is that Unitarian Universalists are the rightful and responsible stewards of the liberal interpretation of the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. AND… in the last century, we have shirked that responsibility – and just look at what’s happened. Yes, Christianity is definitely “our community” to work on. And when we deny that we are part of the Christian community, we also deny our responsibility for what Christianity does in this country and in the world. It’s the easy way out.
How can I claim that Christianity is “our community”? Well, here’s just one sign: UUs can legitimately criticize or challenge conservative Christianity in a way that we cannot legitimately criticize or challenge conservative Buddhism, or Islam, or Hinduism, or even Judaism – it’s because we’re a part of the cultural Christian community. And a challenge to conservative Christianity is much more powerful when it comes from another Christian tradition, than when it comes from some renegade, self-marginalizing outside faith tradition, which is what it seems like we’re trying to be.
So what I am saying is that we have the absolute right to claim that we are a Christian denomination, not just historically, but today. More importantly: We are a Christian denomination which believes that Jesus was human (that’s Unitarianism), and that all of us are equally special in the eyes of whatever we call divine (that’s Universalism) and that there are many prophets, many beliefs, many principles, and many sources of faith, and we can all worship together as a community (that’s Unitarian Universalism!)
The idea that a Christian church can do all that would be a powerful message, if we have the will to accept it. How many people would go to our churches if they knew you could believe those things at our churches and still be a “good Christian”? How many Christians would leave their more conservative denominations if they knew they could pursue a more liberating Christianity with us?
I have to admit, that I had a really hard time facing up to some of my personal stuff to write this sermon. But in the end, I realized that the biggest thing getting in the way was my own ego. I was just too proud to take the risk of calling myself a Christian. It’s different for everybody -- my own personal issue with the word “Christian” is the whole “Christ” thing. I don’t really get into the divine messiah bit, and I personally find it a little distasteful that the symbol for Christian faith is the cross – the instrument of death of one of my favorite prophets. I’m much more into Jesus as a bold and radical organizer, and would be much happier calling myself a “Jesus-ite” or something.
But you know, that’s really just an ego thing. Get over it, Ethan! Stop using semantics and word choice as an excuse for not facing the hard stuff! (My anti-racist activist friends know what I’m talking about!) We just don’t have the time to waste. Because in the end, I had to admit to myself that the harm done to the world by the Christian Fundamentalist Right running around unchecked and unchallenged, is far more important than my own petty worries that I might be mistaken for something I’m not.
Now, the atheists and the Pagans and the Jew-nitarians in the room have the right to say, WHAT are you trying to impose on me? I want you to understand that I am not talking about anyone changing their individual personal theologies or culture. There is a difference between our individual beliefs, and our corporate responsibility as a denomination. Understanding that difference is key to what I’m trying to get across.
The idea of having a cultural religious identity independent of individual beliefs is not at all new. There are Jews out there who have all different kinds of theologies, but who still very much identify culturally as Jewish, and who would be offended if someone started insulting Jews.
In the same way, I think that, regardless of our individual beliefs, we need to claim Christianity as our cultural heritage, and to challenge people who would insult or harm Christianity… which means the Christian Right, but it also means ourselves. Now that’s a big step. Anyone who’s been a UU for a while knows how common it is to hear Christians insulted in our congregations, even from the pulpit.
UUs who have Christian beliefs need to be given a safe space to practice our faith in our congregations, where we won’t be insulted. And, UU Christians should be outraged that Jesus’ powerful anti-oppressive message of peace and equality for all has been abusively co-opted by people who use it to justify war and oppression.
And the UU pagans and Buddhists and Jews and Atheists should care about this, because like it or not, we can’t really run away to our churches and hymns and ministers and liturgy and pretend we’re completely separate from Christianity. The rest of the world just won’t believe it, or at best they’ll just be very confused.
Let’s face it: When the hate and intolerance spewed by the Christian right puts a nasty face on Christianity, all Christian denominations -- including ours -- get put in with that stereotype. That’s why so many of us, whether or not we’re Christian in theology, are embarrassed to admit we go to church and that we really like it. And no amount of distancing yourself from Christianity is going to convince people that you’re not a part of that larger tradition.
But if we really do our job, and publicly stand up to the Christian Right from within Christianity, we won’t have to be embarrassed, because then everyone will know exactly what kind of ‘churchgoer’ you are when you say you’re UU. You’ll be proud!
UUs here in Massachusetts got a taste of that pride last year because of our public witness around same-sex marriage. In certain circles here in Mass, when you say you’re UU, people know that you’re from a progressive church committed to justice. We should be proud of that. Let’s take that pride to the nation, and the world!
To you folks who grew up Christian and had painful experiences that led you to UUism, I haven’t forgotten about you. To you I say, don’t get mad and label Christianity awful and spend the rest of your spiritual life trashing it. Instead, be upset at the people who hurt you - for not being very good Christians. And instead of spending your time holding a grudge against a whole religion because of what happened to you… do the healing you need to do, and then get out there and show the world what your ideal Christian would be!
So if you’re still not comfortable with being a part of a UUism that is a Christian denomination, I honor and affirm that, but I do want you to think about how much of that discomfort is about theology, and how much of it is about pride, and ego, and fear of association.
And if you’ve resolved that, I’d ask you… if you go to a church, and sing hymns, and listen to a minister go through the liturgy; to use all those rituals and elements of Christianity for your own personal spiritual enrichment and enjoyment… then what does it mean to you to do all of those things -- and then object to that tradition being called Christian?
And if you’re still not convinced, please at least be convinced that the unhealthy fear of association with Christians that is present in so many of our congregations, makes UUs with Christian theology feel unwelcome. At the very least, there needs to be a space for people to safely and comfortably say that Jesus… was way cool.
- THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.
- The American Crisis (19 December 1776)
Friday, January 26, 2007
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Some say gay rights--but the difference between Civil Rights and Gay Rights are that it's impossible to hide the color of own skin. It's very easy to hide one's sexual orientation.
And are crusades possible in this day and age? If so, how? Is the internet the way to go about it?
I think of Unitarians as crusading, activist people.
Where is UUism going? What can we all do to advance the faith and get it out to the unknowing?
As I've mentioned in a few comments: an ad campaign ran in the the 1980s.
Are you a Unitarian Universalist and don't know it?
If so, then I can certainly explain what we are the best way I can. I hope it's for you.
I challenge all of you to come up with your own elevator speech. We don't have to think alike to love alike, as Francis David, a Hungarian Unitarian so eloquently put it 500 years ago.
Atlanta was certainly a step up from Birmingham. I'm glad I moved here.
It's a city in transition, growing by leaps and bounds, but it has a sort of existential quality to it. Sort of like Unitarianism at the moment.
What are we? What do we wish to become? Where are we going? What will push us forward?
In all honesty, UUism hasn't been the same since 1968. After the falling out at GA and after the Black Empowerment Crisis--we've been stuck in this self-perpetuating crisis.
The UUA pushes anti-oppression, anti-racism work, which I am opposed to. The reasons why are a post and a half in itself so I'll state my opposition neatly as such: I believe it divides more than it does unify.
The left in general has done a damned good job of subdividing itself ever since the Civil Rights Movement, and particularly after Watergate. I suppose it was inevitable that post-modernism and all the trappings would rear its ugly head at some point in time, but it's that sort of post-modern thinking that has many Unitarian churches stuck fast asleep, basking in the embers of the past rather than moving forward into the present.
The new Left is emerging. As for what it will be, I think there are many names. I think a new spirit of unity is growing, and growing only because it has to, which is why change occurs in the first place, IMHO.
We're seeking new pioneers. Speaking from a strictly demographic perspective, most of the migration and new growth in the next fifty years will be here in the South. This requires a pioneering spirit of all, particularly Unitarian Universalists.
But we must network together. We must reach out in ways beyond our own individual cities. Is the internet the catalyst for this ever-changing-world-in-which-we-live-in? Maybe, and maybe not.
I wish I were wise enough to know for sure, but I shall conclude thusly:
"It is better to know some of the questions than all the answers."- James Thurber.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Let me correct myself a bit. I referred two posts back that Leonard Wibberly, the author was a Briton. He was actually an Irishman who immigrated to the United States and spent most of his life in California.
Again, let me remind you that this book was written in 1955 and probably refers to the Korean War with a little of World War II. Iraq is more like Korea with a bit of Vietnam included. current quagmire than Iraq in certain ways.
"Once more, it is always laid down that the defeated armies must be disbanded and never again be allowed to reform. But, a little later, it is discovered that these armies and in an oblique but nonetheless definite manner essential to the security of the United States itself.
Either the defeated enemy must have an army and navy and air force of its own, or the Americans must remain there in an indefinite occupation.
Americans, particularly American soldiers, do not like to remain long outside their own country. And in a matter of months, or at the most years, the United States is first requesting and then begging its former enemies to raise an army to defend their own territory. It is not unheard of that these defeated foes are able to state the terms under which they will raise an army for their own policing and defense.
Those terms have involved the payments of large sums of money by the United States, or the extension of generous credits, revision of trade agreements in favor of the defeated nation, return of shipping, rehabilitation of factories destroyed in the war, and even the gift of the equipment needed for the army."
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
After A Time
After a time, all losses are the same
One more thing lost is one thing less to lose;
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
Though we shall probe, time and again, our shame,
Who lack the wit to keep or to refuse,
After a time all losses are the same.
No wit, no luck can beat a losing game;
Good fortune is a reassuring ruse:
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
Rage as we will for what we think to claim,
Nothing so much as this bare thought subdues:
After a time, all losses are the same.
The sense of treachery--the want, the blame--
Goes in the end, whether or not we choose,
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
So we, who would go raging, will go tame
When what we have we can no longer use:
After a time, all losses are the same;
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
I say reading--I mean re-reading over again. It was written by a Briton named Leonard Wibberly in 1955. As I am my own sort of bibliophile (i.e. not very much of one), I have a copy that was at one point at time in the private collection of the Spokane (Washington State) Public Library. The last time it was checked out was April 5, 1966.
Begin passage of book:
"The Americans," she said, almost as if musing aloud, "are a strange people. They do not behave like other nations in any way. In fact, in many ways they behave exactly the opposite of most nations.
Where other countries rarely forgive anything, The Americans will forgive everything. Where others rarely forget a wrong, the Americans rarely remember one. Indeed they are so quick to forgive and forget that there is almost a race in their minds which to do first."
This goes to show you how quickly we can forget wrongs in this country, for some reason. Perhaps this is because we believe we are somehow always going to come out victors no matter what we do.
But despite the price drop at the pump, we are losing the war in Iraq.
Despite whatever bullshit Bush Jr. tries to pump you full of tomorrow night, we are not on the right path. We should not forgive, nor should we forget.
Monday, January 22, 2007
(Written about a certain rock star who sang lead in a group from Athens)
acts like he owns this
overgrown cow town
that started to fizzle away
ten years ago
male pattern baldness
not fooling anyone
generic rock star
drives around and around town
stopping by the coffee shop
thrusting autographs into the
hands of the disinterested
we all know him here
he is no stranger
the worst kept secret
the carnal cravings
desire for youth
it scares off many a young man
cruising the street corners
unaccustomed to the advances
of those hairy knuckles
and drooping eyelids
we townspeople say
at least he’s a native
Because I believe that, as was proposed in Freakanomics--that criminals are by in large aborted by unfit mothers, hence the reason for the crime rate drop.
Can't afford 'em! Don't want 'em! Don't even love 'em!
Because no matter how careful you are, no method of birth control is 100% pregnancy proof.
Because certain people are not biologically fit and of sound mind and body to be parents. Ever.
Because I don't want to contribute to global warming and put another human life on this world who will have to suffer through the same emotional storms I have suffered through.
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Written by David Concepcion
(Quite lengthy) Don't have cut and paste option on blogger, sorry. :-(
“UUvangelism: Spreading the Word of UUism.”
The gym was the last place I expected to get into a theological discussion, but that’s what happened to me a couple of months ago. I was working with a personal trainer at Bally’s. They have a rack of TVs set up over the elliptical riders to give some of us something else to focus on while running. CNN is almost always on one channel. At the time I think there was a news segment about gay issues, either one of the states’ decision to ban same-sex marriage or the Kansas religious group that tours the nation protesting the gay lifestyle. In any case, my trainer was upset about all of that and didn’t really understand what all the problem was about. We had a bit of a conversation about that stuff, but then he asked one of those questions we Unitarians cringe at, but always expect to hear at some point: “Are you a Christian?”
I don’t know about you but I never know exactly how to answer it. The short answer is, at least for me, is no I’m not. I have been a life-long Unitarian Universalist. My parents were married in a UU church, one of the only denominations at the time that could really officiate a mixed Jewish-Catholic nuptials. With that and the fact that I’ve spent almost my whole life in UU churches, I consider myself a Unitarian by birth. Not a Christian. However I do recognize that the history of Unitarian Universalism stems from a Judeo-Christian background. And many Unitarians do in fact consider themselves Christian UUs. We read from the Bible, and take that tradition as one of our own. But we also take from so many other religions, including Eastern philosophies and other Earth based traditions. So it is hard to say a firm no to the question “are you a Christian?” So with that murky background, I tried to explain what I am and my spirituality in between getting my already sore muscles stretched out.
“What do you believe?” he asked. I briefly mentioned the idea of the seven principles and brought up one of them, because like all good and upstanding UUs, I don’t remember all seven principles. I brought up the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, mainly because it’s one of the easier ones to remember.
“So do you guys support gay marriage?” I said yeah and that many of our ministers were the ones marrying gay and lesbian couples. I spoke about this for a bit and said it’s a fairly liberal faith. “So you guys are mostly democrats?” I of course said no, and then tried to explain the demographics a little, which is very diverse. With each question asked, I wound up giving a succinct answer at first. But then in order to have a fully rounded answer, a more accurate answer, one that tries to fully encompass our entire demographics and theologies, I had to backtrack and convolute what I had already described. When I finished my conversation, I never felt I accurately said anything about Unitarian Universalism.
This isn’t exactly the elevator speech that Reverend Bill Sinkford, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, urges us to formulate. Still it is part of the same process: the process about engaging other people and being able to explain what our religious identity is, who we are. It is about honestly and straight forwardly declaring our religious affiliation and not hiding who we are. It is about spreading the word about Unitarian Universalism. I know this is a concept that is almost anathema to many UUs, but it is a concept we need to embrace.
Now, when I started writing this sermon, it was about spreading the word of Unitarian Universalism, not necessarily about how do we as UUs explain ourselves to the world. However, it is almost impossible to talk about one without the other. These two ideas are linked. In some ways, one can argue that a big factor in telling more people about Unitarian Universalism is that we already have a hard time explaining Unitarian Universalism, either to other UUs or ourselves.
If there’s one thing has always disappointed me about being a Unitarian it is that though I have spent my entire life as a UU, experience day to day existence around me from a UU perspective, I have not been given the tools to clearly articulate that existence to others. When I was in Sunday school, we learned about the Judeo Christian tradition, Buddhism, Taoism, a little bit of Islam and Hinduism, but didn’t really learn much about Unitarian Universalism until I was 14, which is when most of the youth enter the Coming of Age program. When I was in that program, it was good on teaching the history of the religion and helped us to formulate our own theology, in my opinion the language given to us to explain that theology, or our denomination, to others wasn’t adequate. Without that language, any conversation about Unitarian Universalism is a struggle.
For those that come to us from other religions, it can be equally tough to explain this faith. How can someone who grew up in a fairly dogmatic religion explain what it is now like to be a part of a covenantal and non-creedal religion? How do people use a language other than the language of the faith that they grew up in to explain Unitarian Universalism? When we compare our religion in relation to others, we succeed in explaining what Unitarian Universalism isn’t, but still not truly describe what it is. At best, people get the gist of us as one of my coworkers termed “some sort of all inclusive thing.” At worst, the explanation of Unitarians can come across as “you can believe anything you want” which is far from the truth.
Still there has been enormous progress in developing a language of religious explanation. When I was a teen, the seven principles were not even a concept. Now they are almost the first thing that people first thing people say—or take out of their wallets. Programs such as Building Your Own Theology and Articulating Your Faith are helping our youth, young adults and other members to gain the tools they need to express their beliefs articulately. Next year there will be a pilot testing of a uniformed Coming of Age curriculum for all UU congregations. So our ability to express what our faith is, is growing and our vocabulary is expanding.
So now having said that, why do we as Unitarians have such a hard time letting people know that we are Unitarians; and letting people know that we are out there? Like my conversation in the gym, there isn’t an easy answer. In my opinion, part of it has to do with how other religions try to grow their ranks. Historically we all know the stories of conversion by the point of a sword or of missionaries converting indigenous populations to a religion alien to their culture, and we are repulsed. But more personally, I think we have all been repulsed by people of other faiths making us feel that our beliefs and faith are worthless—for some people it is why they have come to our faith. It need not even be fanaticism that hurts us, but even the genuine belief that one way—their way—is the only way that turns us off, as if somehow our own experience is moot. So to ensure that we don’t hurt others the way we have been hurt, we choose to affirm all paths, recognize each person’s unique perspective of the divine truth. We refuse to evangelize and proselytize to ensure our respect towards others. It is very admirable to do so. However by trying to not force our beliefs onto others, we create a bind for ourselves because we inadvertently keep ourselves from even broaching the subject of what our beliefs are, keep ourselves from the potential to share, not force, our faith with others. Even, to a great extent, ourselves. A few years ago at the UU General Assembly in Cleveland, Ohio, I ran into an old high school friend outside of Kinko’s. We looked at each other startled to see each other in Cleveland of all places, until it struck us that we were both there for General Assembly. It turns out he was a life-long UU like myself, but neither of us knew it. We never talked about it, we never had any communication about such things, so it remained a secret for about 16 years. This shouldn’t by any means be a secret, but by limiting our communication with others, we lose any opportunity to define who we are and let people know that we exist.
It would be nice to believe that we only need be receptive so that those may find our doors; that if we are truly an answer for people, they will seek us out. At best, that is naïve; at worst, arrogant. How can we be a faith who actively promotes democracy and not provide people with choices? When you withhold information from people, how can you expect them to come up with the right answer? It is akin to getting people into a voting booth and expect them to make an informed decision when some of the candidate’s names are blacked out. Granted they might get the right answer, they might make a correct choice for them, but it will be more from stumbling upon it rather than knowing it. We should not let people stumble around in the dark. I remember some years ago, when involved in a discussion about people coming to Unitarian Universalism, one young woman mentioned that a man at her congregation told her, “Well, if you’ve found us, you’re welcome to stay.” This is second hand information of one anecdote, but if it even represents a small percentage of UU congregations, this religion is doomed.
The late Minister Emeritus of Boston’s First and Second Church, Reverend Dr. Rhys Williams, used to end all his sermons with a benediction using the words of the Reverend Theodore Parker:
“May ours be a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere;
its temple, all space;
its shrine, the good heart;
its creed, all truth;
its ritual, works of love;
its profession of faith, divine living.”
It is very moving and a wonderful benediction and it should be a good and genuine call for our religion to achieve its potential. However it fails to reach the level of a call. As a writer, especially a screenwriter, I know it is extremely important to always write in an active voice. Your words have to be doing something, you have to do something. Parker’s prayer, as lyrical and descriptive as it is, should not really be used as a call because it is in the passive voice. “May ours be a religion…” “its temple is…” “its shrine is…” It is not active, it simply is. Even the part about ritual, an active religious practice, is “works of love.” Where “work” should be a verb, it is used as a noun. Again there is no action, it just is. The activity isn’t on the part of our religion; action relies on the various metaphors. It reduces active participation to passive observation. Again, this is a prayer, not a call to arms; and prayer, in some sense, requires sublimation and implies action elsewhere, often beyond ourselves. But this seems to me very similar to how we as UUs approach professing our faith. We act passively, hoping people come through our doors, then later discuss why we are a smaller religion and what we can do to grow our ranks. But action gets hopelessly lost in committee. Making sure our faith, like sunshine, goes everywhere requires action on our parts.
So how do we do this? How do we spread the word of Unitarianism, even our own theologies. And I don’t mean converting people. I simply mean telling people we exist. We need to realize that there is a huge difference between proselytizing and marketing. Granted in today’s commercialized and branding infused society, it doesn’t always seem like it, but there is. Proselytizing is trying to recruit or convert people from one faith or another, often on the idea that one faith is the only true faith or religion. Marketing is simply letting people know that something exists and is out there. We need to do more of the latter, and not confuse it with the former.
Simply put, I think the most radical thing we as UUs can do to spread the message of our faith is to open our mouths. Speak to others about who we are, who we truly are. Let people know that you are a UU and proud about it, and if it comes to it, explain what you believe. We feel it is a very difficult thing to do, but it is deceptively simple. We already speak openly about these things within our own community, with each other. We debate, discuss, communicate our ideas and beliefs all the time. We just need to take it to the next step. If we truly believe in the sacred community, if we believe in widening the circle to encompass all, we need to push the boundaries outward. To do that we need to speak openly outside our boundaries.
Yes, in opening our mouths, we make ourselves vulnerable. I was taught long ago that without doubt, there can be no faith. While doubt in spiritual matters is a good thing, it is not necessarily a good public thing, and increasingly, and unfortunately, these days it is often not a good public speaking thing. So keeping to ourselves seems to be a safe option. Dennis Palumbo in the reading from his book, Writing From the Inside Out, points out that to come from a “core of who we are, is damned hard. Often the results are just painful, ambiguous, uninformed.” Certainly I experienced this just trying to talk to a guy at my gym. But since then, the conversations I have entered into when talking about my spirituality have improved. I’m talking to friends even coworkers outside of the church community about what we are and the response is very receptive. I am getting better at explaining what Unitarians are and aren’t. I am able to talk about who we are a lot more clearly than that time in the gym. It is only by working through the awkward conversations that we improve the ability to express ourselves; not even our spirituality, express ourselves. As Palumbo points out, “the most important things a writer needs is the awareness that he or she is enough.” Similarly all we need is the awareness that we, our spirituality , our theology, our faith, are enough. Armed with that awareness, who are we not to speak our faith out loud? As Marianne Williamson wrote in her book A Return to Love, in a quote often incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?”
To put it even more simply, using the Jewish philosophy, for if not us, who? We should be able and willing to let people know who we are, all of who we are, for no one else will. No one else can describe our faith better than we can, and we need to open our mouths to do it.
Luckily, our denomination is getting better at spreading the word of our faith, too. Over the past two years or so, the Unitarian Universalist Association has been working hard at a media campaign called “the Uncommon Denomination.” You may have seen or even own one of the bumper stickers. The campaign was a combination of public relations work, media outreach and welcoming and hospitality outreach training for participating congregations. The successes of the campaigns in Kansas City, Long Beach, California, and Houston and Fort Worth, Texas, has led to the campaign becoming a full program along the lines of the Welcoming Congregations or the Journey Towards Wholeness. It has also led them to expand their outreach work. At this past General Assembly, Reverend Sinkford announced more and diverse approaches to community outreaching, including getting larger member churches to contribute money to major marketing campaigns in their areas, and a telemarketing strategy in some places. In all honesty, the telemarketing idea made me cringe, and it made me think that we’re willing that UU joke to life: “What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness and a Unitarian? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.” Despite that, it does prove that the UUA is serious about growing the ranks of our religion.
The Uncommon Denomination bumper stickers are one method that has gotten a lot of visibility. Bumper stickers are actually a fun way of making a statement. A bumper sticker that a friend of mine had on her car was all letters that said, “IM A UU R U?” Of course that works perfectly for our faith since we are a religion that loves acronyms. Some people have asked her about it and she has struck up conversations because of it. But a bumper sticker I saw recently had a word and its definition. It says “UUvangelism” defined as “spreading the good word about Unitarian Universalism.” It definitely made me smile and brought me to speak to you today. The comedy of the bumper sticker is fairly obvious. Using language to take back something from a dogmatic religion and apply it to our own faith tradition. What is funny to me is that it is easier for us to stick a bumper sticker on our car and advertise who we are, yet we can find it hard to talk face to face about it. I was handing our a couple of bumper stickers about family values from the UUA at my office, and as it turns out one of my coworkers is a UU. I never knew this, because once again no one ever talks about spirituality. This is an attitude that needs to shift. We need to open our mouths, for if not us, who?
I think I’ve heard every UU minister say in every sermon that our faith has a message that the world truly needs. If that is true, then we have to take the discussion of that message out from our own communal walls and to the general population. We don’t necessarily need to learn to shout from the rooftops, but we need to be willing to engage people and talk about who we are. If ours is truly going to be “a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere,” then we have to be active and open our mouths. Yes our faith has a message that this society, this country, this world needs now more than ever. So it is more important than ever to be, at the very least, willing to tell that message to others. It is both simple and not easy. A lot of times this will mean struggling to find the words to say what you mean. It will mean having to try and condense your own theology into a “elevator speech.” It will even mean having to step out of your comfort zone and try to reconcile the notions of recruiting and elucidating. But if we can learn to do this, if we can truly and openly be ourselves, our whole selves which includes the spiritual self, we can glean a little information bout our faith to people who are willing to listen and who will be receptive to hearing about a faith that is meaningful to them. If by doing this we come closer to letting people know that yes, our faith does exist, then yes, it will be worth it. So may you all have struggling, awkward conversations about your faith, and may you open your mouths to let people know who you, and we, are.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Here's one of my favorite poems. I bet it's one of yours, too.
Written by Robert Frost.
|1. The Road Not Taken|
|TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,|
|And sorry I could not travel both|
|And be one traveler, long I stood|
|And looked down one as far as I could|
|To where it bent in the undergrowth;||5|
|Then took the other, as just as fair,|
|And having perhaps the better claim,|
|Because it was grassy and wanted wear;|
|Though as for that the passing there|
|Had worn them really about the same,||10|
|And both that morning equally lay|
|In leaves no step had trodden black.|
|Oh, I kept the first for another day!|
|Yet knowing how way leads on to way,|
|I doubted if I should ever come back.||15|
|I shall be telling this with a sigh|
|Somewhere ages and ages hence:|
|Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—|
|I took the one less traveled by,|
|And that has made all the difference.|| 20|
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
The name of the series is called Tanner '88 and I find it very interesting.
The HBO series features a very young (age 22) Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City fame) as Candidate Tanner's nineteen-year-old daughter.
My lord, she looks young.
It was filmed about twenty years ago and it leaves me with two impression.
1. Boy, a lot has changed in twenty years
2. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
My favorite quote thus far stems around Tanner's rant regarding what he stands for.
You know, T.J., just before you called me last spring, Lexy and I went down to the Democratic Leadership Conference in South Carolina. The last night, we were sitting aroud with Kirk O'Donnell, and Hart, and Biden, a couple of the other candidates, who were shooting the breeze about how much the party had changed since the Sixties.
And suddenly, out of the blue, Lexy turned to Hart and she asked him who his favorite Beatle was. Now, at first, Hart laughed, and then he stumbled around trying to remember a name.
Then she repeated her question for Biden, and Biden said, well, he'd never been a Beatles fan, he was into jazz. And Dukakis answered Paul, 'cause he liked his wife or something.
Now, I don't know if Lexy knows the names of all the Beatles herself, let alone the answer to her own question, but it suddenly dawned on me that I sure as hell did.
And I knew for sure that anybody who didn't had absolutely no claim to generational leadership.
Now I must have, what, uh, ten years on Joe Biden; but, dammit, he wasn't paying attention back then, and I was. And one of the things I figured out very early on was the singer mattered as much as the song - that ideas were only as valuable as the people who got behind them. I mean people that wouldn't settle; people unafraid of honest inquiry; people who didn't mind asking the impertinent question.
God, the impertinent question. Where the hell would we be without it? It's the glory and the engine of all human experience. Copernicus asked it, and shook the foundations of his world. Darwin asked it, he's repudiated to this day. Thomas Jefferson asked it - so invigorated by it he declared it to be an inalienable right.
I'm not smart enough to know all the answers. But I do know we've got to keep asking the questions. That's what the American experiment is all about. It's at the very core of our character as a people. We owe our vigor to its constant renewal.
You know, I don't have much patience for these guys who go around saying the pride is back in America. For some of us, it never left. Vietnam may have covered some patriots in shame, but not this one. We got in there for moral reasons, and, by God, we got out of there for moral reasons.
Where else on this Earth does such debate settle on anything other than expediency?
Only in America. Watergate - triumph of the system. How could anybody watch Barbara Jordan thunder away at those House hearings and not feel a surge of pride in the miracle of this country?
And then there are those people who tell you that our noisy dissent, our raucous squabble, weakened us as a country - caused us to lose our supremacy. Don't you believe it. We are the envy of this world.
Why? Because, throughout our history, we have always maintained that we could do better. We have insisted that we could do better. We've always been willing to reinvent ourselves for the common good. And in our darkest hour, leaders, real leaders, have always stepped forward to hold the American people to the responsibility of citizenship. Well, it's time for that kind of leadership now.
[He starts to leave the room, then turns back]
Oh, and if you young people are still wondering, the right answer is John Lennon.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Fifteen days ago, before Bush made his speech claiming we were going to add troops to Iraq, I was paying $2.19 a gallon.
Now, I'm paying $2.05. But this must be a totally random coincidence, right?
And if you believe that, I have a Bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.
Monday, January 15, 2007
The picture was further complicated by the exalted roles the white romantics assigned their black partners. In effect, they turned the tables of racial dogma and opted for Negro supremacy. But it was a dubious brand of supremacy, and the flattery, as Robert Penn Warren has pointed out, was shot through with the condescension implicit in the eighteenth century adoration of the Noble Savage.
The savage was extravagantly praised and admired, but he was admired for very particular kinds of virtues.
They embraced the African-American with an impulsiveness that and fervor that must have proved uncomfortable to the so-called Negro at the times. Another turning of the tables seems to have endowed the whites with the fit of imitation traditionally attributed to the blacks, and made the latter the object of most abject cultural imitation of modern times.
Whites assiduously cultivated Black slang, Black music, Black dance, Black postures, Black attitudes--or at least he slang, music, dance, postures, and attitudes they fondly attributed to Blacks.
And they still do.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
That one was conducted across class lines and its object was the workingman, but its course was quite as tempestuous as the more recent affair. Such affairs of the heart have been in the romantic tradition that endows the object of love with exalted virtues and sublime attributes and at the same time indulges the lover in dreams of glory and self-flattery.
The passion was manifest in different forms. The White Southerner, his ardor and devotion suspect from the start, was most given to violent protestation and self-abasement. But in action he was prone to lapse unconsciously into hereditary postures of benevolent paternalism. The White Northerner, the more confident and masterful suitor, was not immune from hereditary posturing himself/herself, and could set forth on his freedom ride humming "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
The Negro intellectual, cast in the curious role of both lover and beloved, was subjected to all the temptations of narcissism and occasionally succumbed.
Some of the whites, overcome with conviction of communal guilt, succumbed to to impulses of masochism and begged nothing of the beloved but to be publicly whipped and generally abused. And for a suitable fee there were those who were ready to oblige from the platform, the stage, or the screen.
The impulses, however, were but deviations from the white norm of neo-paternalism, a compound of philanthropy and unconscious condescension. For the underlying assumption was was that it was up to the white man to solve "the problem", to lift up the Black brother, to redeem the Negro.
Friday, January 12, 2007
You can shine your shoes and wear a suit,
you can comb your hair and look quite cute.
You can hide your face behind a smile,
one thing you can't hide is when you're crippled inside.
You can wear a mask and paint your face,
you can call yourself the human race.
You can wear a collar and a tie,
one thing you can't hide is when you're crippled inside.
Well now you know that your cat has nine lives, nine lives to itself.
But you only got one and a dog's life ain't fun,
Momma, take a look outside.
You can go to church and sing a hymn,
you can judge me by the color of my skin.
You can live a lie until you die,
one thing you can't hide is when you're crippled inside.
Well now you know that your cat has nine lives,
nine lives to itself.
But you only got one and a dog's life ain't fun, Momma, take a look outside.
You can go to church and sing a hymn,
you can judge me by the color of my skin.
You can live a lie until you die, one thing you can't hide is when you're crippled inside.
One thing you can't hide is when you're crippled inside.
One thing you can't hide is when you're crippled inside.
-John Lennon, 1971
Except Vietnam, depending on how you spin it.
In the course of their national history, Americans, who have been called a bellicose though unmartial people, have fought ten wars, and so far without so much as one South African fiasco such as England encountered in the heyday of her power.
Until now. The Boer War for England is this Iraq II debacle for us.
This unique good fortune has isolated America, I think rather dangerously, from the common experience of the rest of mankind, all the great peoples of which have without exception known the bitter taste of defeat and humiliation.
This is what the current administration is trying to avoid.
It has fostered the tacit conviction that American ideal, values, and principles inevitably prevail in the end. That conviction has never received a name, nor even so much explicit formulation as the old concept of Manifest Destiny.
It is assumed, not discussed. And the assumption exposes us to the temptation that we are somehow immune from the forces of history.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Good try, Bushie.
For from a broader point of view it is not our President but America that is unique among the peoples of the world. This peculiarity arises out of the American legend of success and victory, a legend that is not shared by any other people of the civilized world. The collective will of this country has simply never know what it means to be confronted by complete frustration.
Whether by luck, by abundant resources, by ingenuity, by technology, by organizing cleverness, or by sheer force of arms America has been able to overcome every major historical crisis--economic, political, foreign--with which it has to cope.
This remarkable record has naturally left a deep imprint upon the American mind. It explains in large part the national faith in unlimited progress, in the efficacy of material means, in the importance of mass and speed, the worship of success, and the belief in the invincibility of American arms.
Driven by these fantasies, provocations, and frustration there is the danger that America may be tempted to exert all the terrible power she possess to compel history to conform to her own illusions.
Particularly the illusions of an recovered alcoholic, born-again Christian and a bunch of money-hungry members of his inner circle.
The extreme, but by no means the only expression, would be the so-called preventative war.
This is what we have done, for the sake of fighting the War on Terror.
Doing so would be to commit the worst heresy of the Marxists and of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party: stating that by dogma and good intentions alone they can compel history to conform to the pattern of their dreams by the ruthless use of force.
Having opened Pandora's Box, where do we go now?
If we pull out now, will we embolden terrorists? Will Iran develop nuclear weapons?
Or, was 9/11 just another manifestation a state rapidly growing towards Fascism?
Was 9/11 another Tolken Gulf Incident? Was it another Harper's Ferry? Was it another night of Broken Glass?
Are Muslims our scapegoats, rather than Jews or Yankees or the Viet Cong?
Are all Muslims terrorists? Are all Jews evil? Are all Yankees out to destroy the Southern Way of Life? Or are all Viet Cong out to destroy capitalism: Mom, God, and Apple Pie?
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway
They say there's always magic in the air
But when you're walkin' down that street
And you ain't had enough to eat
The glitter rubs right off and you're nowhere
They say the girls are something else on Broadway
But looking at them just gives me the blues
'Cause how ya gonna make some time
When all you got is one thin dime?
And one thin dime won't even shine your shoes
Ha! They say that I won't last too long on Broadway
I'll catch a Greyhound bus for home, they all say
But oh! They're dead wrong, I know they are
'Cause I can play this here guitar
And I won't quit till I'm a star on Broadway
Oh, they're dead wrong, I know they are
'Cause I can play this here guitar
And I won't quit till I'm a star on Broadway (on Broadway)
On Broadway (on Broadway)
-Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann, Leiber & Stoller
Withouth further adou:
The reading I refer to is from "If White Kids Die: Memoris of a Civil Rights Movement Volunteer" by Dick J. Reavis, a white civil rights volunteeer in the mid -'60s. I'm including the reading here beacuse it was important to the sermon.
READING: "If White Kids Die: Memoris of a Civil Rights Movement Volunteer" by Dick J. Reavis.
"All civil rights workers, as far as I know, came to believe in something called 'The System.' Belief in the existence of the System became, I think, the key ideological point that held us together. The term was never defined in any formal way. It was not precisely the 'system of apartheid' that te South Africans talked about, but it wasn't distinguished from that either. It wasnt' precisely the 'capitalist system' of Marxist belief, but it wasn't distinguished from that. Each of us formed our idea of it only by piecing together things that we heard and saw; it was not an idea that came from texts or formal doctrine. The System was the rule of the people on top, all or most of these people being whites. In dozens of ways, the System profited by the oppression of blacks. Because blacks were disenfranchised, governments didn't face strong demands for wealth-sharing or welfare programs. Because the have-nots could not safely rally for democratic ends, society was run for the haves. The System thrived that way.
"The idea was that the United States was not a democracy. It was run by the System, not its people. This was, in essence, a revolutionary idea, swelling inside of an obstensibly non-revolutionary movement. In its latter years, when parts of the civil rights movement became known as the Black Liberation Movement, the idea of the System burst its reformist bonds, and the Movement became openly revolutionary. By then most whites had abandoned it, and the Movement's latter-day organizations, notably teh Black Panthers and the Republic of New Africa, were repressed. The first expressions of revolutionism from within the civil rights movement came from SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee], making their debut in the mass media during the Meredith March.
"[Stokely] Carmichael and his allies began by pointing out that Southern blacks did not need sympathetic whites to lead them. If the role of whites had been to integrat the tally of missing and murdered civil right agitators, they argued, the need for that role was passing, despite the killings of two black Alabama civil rights workers during the year that followed the Selma march.
"Whites were needed, however to take the struggle where blacks couldn't go, into white communities. the people who ran the System were white: that was obvious from the state of things. But the System didn't exempt whites from oppression. In fact, it used most of the American people agaisnt their interests. White civil rigths workers perhaps couldn't do effective agitation in white communities like Demopolis [Alabama], because we would not have been accepted. But we could agitate for racial reform in our home towns, and even if we could not do that, we could agitate against the Vietnam War, which was drafting inordinate numbers of blacks and disadvantaged whites to senseless deaths. The point of arguments to exclude us was that we were needed more among whites, where racism was stronger and the System resided. The System could be fought almost anywhere, and most needed to be fought in the communities--white communities--where allegiance to it was strongest."
SERMON/HOMILY: AR WORK IN UU COMMUNITIES
When I became a member of the First and Second Church of Boston, while we were on stage receiving our flowers and gifts, the senior minister had all everyone in the congregation read aloud the UU seven principles. It was actually a very powerful moment. While I am a life-long UU, I had never heard these principles before; they only really came into effect around 1992 and were not meant for the entire religion itself, rather a covenant for the UUA itself to work amongst themselves and the member congregations. But the principles had a powerful resonance with many member churches and congregants that it has given widespread meaning to the religion. I for one on that stage reading hearing them read aloud, felt that I had a clearer and better understanding of the religion I was born into. Almost immediately after us new members sat back down, a middle-aged white man in a navy blue suit got up, walked to the front of the sanctuary, and with the piano accompaniment began a rendition of “Ol’ Man River” – complete with broken, southern black speech pattern. Needless to say I was thrown back into confusion over our religion.
To me, this story illustrates why anti-racism work is so important for all UU congregations to examine, and it gives insight into how we as UUs can get in our own way of that work. First of all, while the story might seem innocuous and even oddly funny, the fact is it did hurt in some way. It hurts more so because unlike a visible (or blatant) wound, it isn't a discernible injury. I know that whatever feelings the event brought up for me at the time was all internal, it doesn't mean that it was no less real. Racism is like that. I once described to a friend how hard it is to explain to white people how certain actions can be racist. I said it was like trying to show someone a wolf that can change itself into a tree: I know it's a wolf, but all they see is a tree. Many people find it easy to label things racist when it is obvious—the KKK, Skinheads yelling “White Power,” hate fueled web sites. What people have trouble with is equating subtle, everyday actions, statements, etc. as potentially racist. I'm sure the church leaders thought the song at the membership service was appropriate and meaningful, and the singer is a great singer. But what if the church audience was of a different color? Would that have changed things? Would they have thought that the image of a white man singing song in a “black” dialect be appropriate? The problem is these questions never come to mind. While it may not be an overt act of racism, it is the fact that it might be hurtful never came to mind. If we want ours to truly be the beloved community, if we want to live out our principles, we need to work on making our UU community an anti-racist community.
So here's a question for you: why ruin our time today talking about racism? It's a topic that we already struggle with daily; so why do we need to worry about it here at church? There are a few pertinent reasons to talk about it now. Right now the biggest one I can think of is at our recent Spring Business meeting, Reverend Hank suggested that we as a church need to work on our mission statement, and one of the ideas he threw out to us was being an anti-racist church. An absolutely very noble goal for us, to be sure. However I'm not sure we the congregation knows what dedicating ourselves to that task would entail. I am here today to, in my own way, lobby to make that a part of our mission as a church, but I am also here to explain what doing so within a UU context means, and illuminate some of the pitfalls we face.
The first thing to know is how the UU community is working on becoming an anti-racist community. The Journey Towards Wholeness program is our anti-racism effort to help transform the UUA and member congregations into an “anti-racist” community. The main thrust of it is to combat and dismantle institutional racism. This is the idea that while prejudice is a huge part of racism, it is when those prejudices are upheld by an infrastructure that supports the subjugation of another group of people based on arbitrary guideposts, that racism exists and thrives. The easiest explanation of that definition in that sense is racial prejudice + institutional power = racism. It is a guideline the Journey Towards Wholeness has been given by Crossroads Ministry, an outside interfaith consultancy group that deals with anti-racism efforts. So the mission is to dismantle racism from its base.
This is illustrated a bit in our reading from Dick Reavis' book “If White Kids Die.”He talks about “the System”that upholds racism itself. While it remains a little amorphous as to what the system actually is, it is what actually controls America, not the people and not democracy. If racism is to be defeated, what needs to come crashing down and be dismantles is this system that “prevents the have-nots” from safely rallying for democracy” leaving society to be “run for the haves.” Of course the big question is how do we do this. Unfortunately, there is not one definitive answer. In his book, Reavis points out that Civil Rights revolutionary Stokely Carmichael's philosophy was to take the struggle into the white communities, having whites agitate “where blacks could not go.” In fact the book's title “If White Kids Die” comes from Carmichael's comments to a group of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers in New York that if black people were to be killed for the civil rights struggle, whites would die with them. The idea was to use racism against itself in a way. If no one gave a damn about black people dying, they would care more when it started happening to white people.
Oddly this is evident even through our recent history. In the mid to late 1980s, Black and Latino inner-city schools were becoming battlegrounds and areas of violence. It got notice when large spurts of it happened at once, but generally people accepted it as what happens in public schools in the city. Then on April 20, 1999, two teens armed with automatic weapons slaughtered 12 people and took their own lives at Columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado. That's when white America started to demand “zero tolerance” policies to end the violence in our schools. Now this is not to say that solving violence in inner-city schools earlier would have prevented Columbine, but where was the huge outcry when it was happening there? As Civil Rights activist Ella Baker said “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until the killing of a black man, black mothers' sons, are as important to the killing of a white man, white mothers' sons.”
So yes, our mission is to take down the system itself. As such, this is a struggle that is ongoing. I know will never see such a day when racism as we know it (or even as we think we know it) will end, but it is important to take those first steps. This mission then becomes a generational one. It will not end with me or even my daughter, but each generation has to make sure each one has an easier time with the struggle than the one before it. We have made strides. We UUs have made strides.
We have a long history of having abolitionists among our ranks, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, and four of the “Secret Six”—men who funded John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry—including Reverends Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth. During the Civil Rights era, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were killed fighting for the civil rights for southern blacks. The Unitarian Universalist Association started to work in earnest on anti-racism work in 1997, when the UUA resolved to “urge Unitarian Universalists to examine carefully their own conscious and unconscious racism as participants in a racist society and the effect that racism has on all our lives, regardless of color.” At this year’s GA, there was a resolution passed that congregations should “hold at least one program over the year to address racism or classism and to report on it at next year’s assembly.” We know that racism violates our first and seventh principle: affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. Even if they weren’t against those principles, we must say that we cannot have a strong and blessed community if part of that community is left out of full participation. This means, that yes, anti-racism work is spiritual work for us (and many other faiths) as well.
Because of that, it seems that anti-racism work is right up our alley. We should be a church that leads this fight. It seems like we are a church who should be in the forefront of anti-racism work. If we are on the forefront of the Gay marriage issue, another societal oppression, why would we not be on the forefront of fighting racial oppression?
However that effort to own up to our principles has had rough spots. If you notice in my listing of our credentials, you'll see many individual efforts, but not a lot of backing from the institutions. While preparing this sermon I checked out a timeline of anti-racism work among UUs in history. The only institutional action taken against slavery was a Universalist resolution in 1790 calling for the “gradual abolition of slavery.” At the General Assembly in 1969 in Boston, there was a famous walkout by black Unitarians after Black Affairs Council (BAC) after the previous commitment of $1 million to the group was reduced. In many ways we haven't recovered from that incident as far as African American membership. It is this institutional problem that threatens the work we do. It is what we need to work on the most. Yet while we are addressing it, we can find ourselves behind the curve in these efforts, in my honest opinion.
Now you can argue with me that these events were in the past, and occurred in times of great turmoil and struggle—times when not knowing the right actions to take can be excused. Certainly we've learned from them and are improving. Well I will address that with this example. In 1992, the UUA General Assembly asked the governing body to work on anti-racism within the UU community and formed the committee that would eventually become the Journey Towards Wholeness committee. The next year, 1993, the General Assembly was held in Charlotte, North Carolina—the Thomas Jefferson District. Since it was also the year of electing a new UUA president, they had an idea for a special event. Delegates were invited to a Jeffersonian-era ball in which everyone was asked to dress in period costumes. Sounds appropriate and fun agreed? Now ask yourselves this: if you were black, what would your period costume be? Many black delegates actually considered showing up to the ball in shackles. Needless to say there was a lot of controversy. Much like the choice of “Ol Man River” this was an idea done in good faith but one that had unintended consequences. And that's where the tough work of anti-racism comes in. It is the unconscious, ingrained learned behavior and beliefs that are the hardest to combat, yet are the ones that are not only the hardest to lose, they are often the most reinforced by societal forces. Accepting that violence will occur in inner city schools lead to abandonment of the schools themselves rather than making the efforts to solve the problems at their source. Failure to understand how the song “Ol Man River” fits in a historical context and how and who performs it, leads to misunderstandings at best. While we believe in polity of the congregations, the governing bodies of the whole church should also provide leadership. When they don’t, we lose direction of the religion as a whole. In the case of anti-racism work, there is often a disconnect between what individual members are doing and what the leadership does.
Yes, we have improved but often we are playing catch up. This most recent resolution from GA on racism and classism comes one year after an incident at the end of the Fort Worth General Assembly hurt many young people of color at that time. There are also many faiths out there that are working on anti-racism work and have been doing so for a longer time than we have been. The fact that we had to approach Crossroads Ministry, and Episcopal based group, for an anti-racism training and model says volumes about where we are in the struggle.
We also have other handicaps when it comes to anti-racism work, and a lot of those handicaps come from within. This is a very white religion, let's face it. Most of you suck at gospel, most of you don't dance, and you can't clap on the beat and/or in unison very well. Trust me. As such we don't have a large black population. At First and Second church, our historian told a group of us that the largest attendance of Black people in that church was 50 or 60 people, but this was in the year 1780. My response was “God help us if we have to rise to the challenge of the 1700s.” So is the answer to bring in more people of color? Many people believe that; I don't. It only provides “window dressing” and is just a form of tokenism, and like any token effort, it doesn't address the critical institutional racial problems within the religion, and it will cause people of color to never attend our services. An all white institution can be anti-racist. It is possible. And to do that shows us to be more sincere than trying to recruit Black members.
Another issue: because we are focused on institutional racism, we get too caught up in that fight and can sometimes have blinders on for any other model that doesn't include institutional power analysis (which is too large a concept to get into here now). Oddly this is a very UU problem. I have often spoken on the need to reach both the head and the heart with worship and spirituality or lose both. We can't stop at only fighting personal prejudices; but while institutional racism supports the entire structure, it is the personal prejudices that help feed the institutional side. They both feed off each other. In anti-racism circles, they talk about getting the proper diagnosis to treat the disease correctly. And yes racism is a disease, a cancer. But if to ignore the suffering of the patient from the subsequent illnesses while fighting the tumor, the doctor is only doing half the job; and vice versa. If we are a religion that can house so many different spiritual paths, surely we should be able to harbor different models of fighting racism.
Another uniquely UU problem is where our fascination with semantics rears its ugly head. I have heard personally from people (a majority of whom are white) who say that it is wrong for us to be anti-racist because we as UUs shouldn’t be “anti” anything; we need to be pro something—though I’m not sure they know what the something would be. Some of these people aren't just congregants; ministers and administrators have also stated this as well. This is one thing that drives me crazy and crazy enough to voice my opinion about it. As a Latino, as a Black man, as a person of color, I need white people to be anti-racist. Racism is something that is ever present in my life and in all facets of society that I deal with. As such it is impossible to be pro-something else until racism is taken out of my way. In my opinion, asking a person of color to try and focus on a positive is like telling someone living in a locked from the outside basement apartment with no windows to look at the sky. If you can help me out of the basement, only then will I be willing to think more positively. Malcolm X was famously asked by a young white student what can a non-racist white person do to help his struggle. His answer was, “You can do nothing”—an answer he said was one of his biggest mistakes. Later he said he would have asked her to go tell white people to stop hating black people. This echoes what Stokely Carmichael eventually said as I recounted earlier.
This leads me to probably the biggest problem in dealing with anti-racism in UU circles: how we stumble over the concept of white privilege. The reading from Reavis' book is probably the clearest explanation of white privilege that I've heard the six years of anti-racism work that I've been involved with. However we never explain it this way. Part of it I think comes from the model we use. Like I said Crossroads is an Episcopal based group; Episcopals believe in the concept of Original Sin. Therefore white privilege is explained with, again in my opinion, all the guilt and mea culpa of dealing with Original Sin. Since UUs don't believe in sin much less Original Sin, we have a ridiculously hard time with the concept of white privilege as explained to us in the model and therefore we resent being made to feel guilty for being white. If that's the way it's to be explained, we will be losing any opportunity to get people to fight against institutional racism, which is necessary. If we can explain it in the way Malcolm X wanted to, or even in a uniquely UU way—possibly either that if white people are to help maintain the strength of the beloved community, they need to be willing to give up power in order ensure equality among all members; or that maintaining the interdependent web means to ensure that all the links need to be of a base strength in order for it to stay intact—we would have a better chance of fighting a unified front against racism.
The problems seem insurmountable. We have individuals who are active in the fight but the institution can be lacking or at least stumbles. There is no short term solution; it is an ongoing fight that has no end in sight, or at least has no end that we have been able to definitively discern. So why talk about racism today? Why do it? Why fight it? Because it is a necessary and worhthy fight. These various stumbling blocks are the growing pains to fully live out our religion's potential. Yes, racism affects every strata of our society including our spiritual lives. As such the need has arisen to think about anti-racism work as spiritual work. How can we be connected to each other if some of those we are connected to are being held back? How can we not feel it if one we are connected to is being held back? And how can we allow this to happen and not act, when our principles tell us that this is what we struggle for. If our principles are to mean anything, this is a mission, a life mission that needs to be undertaken. We have covenanted these principles among us, and now it is time to do so for the entire human community.
African American writer/philosopher Richard Wright wrote in his 12 Million Black Voices “We black folk, our history and our present being, are a mirror of all the manifold experiences of America. What we want, what we represent, what we endure is what America is. If we black folk perish, America will perish. If America has forgotten her past, then let her look into the mirror of our consciousness and she will see the living past living in the present, for our memories go back, through our black folk of today, through the recollections of our black parents and through the tales of slavery told by our black grandparents, to the time when none of us, black or white, lived in this fertile land. The differences between black folk and white folk are not blood or color, and the ties that bind are deeper than those that separate us. The common road of hope which we all traveled has brought us into a stronger kinship than any words, laws, or legal claims.” We have a long road ahead of us. If this is to be the mission of our church, let us do it with eyes wide open. Let us do it with sincerity. Let us fight with ferocity, let us learn humbly from one another, and let us look forward to a day when sermons like this will be completely unnecessary.
Monday, January 08, 2007
Leanne talked to her toes. "Oh toes, I love you!" she proclaimed, to anyone who would listen. "I love you so! I love my beautiful, cute, piano toes".
They were, indeed, the most beautiful toes everyone had ever lain eyes upon. They routinely won prizes and exposure in such contests as "Toes of Washington State" and "Miss Toes Universe". Her toes were so famous, in fact, that they were mentioned in an article of Cosmopolitan, dated June 2004, titled "Ten Tips For Perfect Toenails".
Recently, however, Leanne and her toes had fallen upon rough times. It seems that her toes believed that they were not receiving the high quality pedicure treatments they believed they had deserved, after winning so many important accolades. Her toes came forward with a list of demands. First, they were to always have access to the finest pumice scrub. Next, they were to never be painted by anything followed by high quality, fast drying, no smudging toenail polish. Lastly, Leanne's toes included legal language that read that if at any time their needs were not meet, then they had every right to refuse to perform their duties.
Leanne was furious. Since when did she owe her toes anything? In fact, if he hadn't been for the skillful manipulation of other parts of her body, in particular, her brain, her toes wouldn't have been anywhere. They would have been just another pretty bunch of toes, scraping by, trying to make ends meet.
"You are nothing without ME, toes!" she spat. "Toes! I feed you, I wash you, I paint you, I rub you, I sing to you, I talk to you when you are lonely, and THIS is the thanks that I get!
At that point, Leanne's toes refused to straighten out so that she could walk. Their toe demands were not being met, and as promised Leanne was forced to cancel a photoshoot with a prominent periodical called Playtoes, that would have netted both of them several thousand dollars. Leanne hobbled along on toes that would not fully bend and on the remnants of their life savings.
Leanne was also one of extraordinary beauty. I forgot about that.
Leanne reached a settlement with her toes after six weeks of antagonizing stalemate. An outside negotiator was called in, and it was agreed that Leanne and her toes would make a clean break. Leanne retained the right to all previous photography and media ventures in which they were both attached. In return, her toes were allowed to go free-lance and find another pair of feet who would agree to their demands. The deal was rumored to be somewhere around $31 million dollars. Leanne's toes signed the contract agreement then wriggled off her feet. . Leanne then found a pair of temporary toes, which were not nearly as beautiful as her previous set, but were willing to learn the ropes of professional toe modeling and didn't complain.
Leanne's original toes called her up one day, out of the blue. Things had not worked out nearly as well as they'd intended. They wanted to reconcile. They missed her. They missed it when she talked to them, rubbed them when they hurt, sang to them when they were lonely. In short, they wanted to get back together.
Leanne had missed her original toes, too. Things had never been quite the same without them. So, she forgave them and they returned to the top of the toe-modeling career where they have been ever since. I'm sure you've seen them everywhere.