Friday, November 15, 2013

The Greatest Among You Will Be Your Servant

For several years I was a Unitarian Universalist. The church I attended saw itself as the hub of activism and artistic talent for the city of my upbringing. It was a dollop of highbrow culture in a Walmart, deep fried universe, and secondarily, a place for non-native liberals to congregate. Of course, I didn't recognize the history and the precedent until I began to attend, then joined myself. After several years of persistence, I became integrated into a series of interlocking cliques and was made to seem as though I truly belonged.

So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don't follow their example. For they don't practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called 'Rabbi.'
"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And don't address anyone here on earth as 'Father,' for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. And don't let anyone call you 'Teacher,' for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

My opinion about agitators and activists has been forever changed from that experience, those seven long years. Many members devoted their lives to activist causes. In particular, I repeatedly ran across one particular character who was a bonafide and admitted member of the Communist Party. I was surprised that the Party existed in any form following the collapse of the Soviet Union. While I appreciated its focus on social justice and the evils of capitalism, I was not especially keen about how its ideas played out in reality. The Communist Party USA was its own clique, one I didn't care much to infiltrate.

UU services often feature a time for sharing joys and concerns. It is known as the circle of lights, since five or so candles circle the centrally placed chalice, the more or less official symbol of UUism. It is perhaps its only remaining sacrament. The expectation present is that different people each Sunday will light the candles, one-by-one, though no one is obligated to light a single candle. Restraint and discernment is stressed strongly, but speaking Truth to power is much too irresistible for some.

Joys and concerns were meant to commemorate genuine moments of grief and euphoria. They were not supposed to be used as a soapbox platform, but the man of whom I speak ignored the rules. He could never resist an opportunity to hear himself talk. What he said I frequently agreed with, but it was the manner in which he presented sanctimonious pronouncements before everyone that got under the skin of many. Finally, a minister arrived who was unafraid to intervene, and he devised a foolproof system to reduce the chance for self-centered sermonizing.

Yesterday, the man of which I speak passed on to the next life. Much like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, he loved to be called Reverend, as he had been formally ordained a minister. He used it as an honorific title, much in the same way as the Reverend Al Sharpton does. I've rarely seen Sharpton quote scripture or mention religious concepts and the same was the case for the dearly departed. I certainly don't see it on Sharpton's MSNBC television show. Though the Religious Left is often uncomfortable with the notion of God talk, if I had a seminary degree, you better believe I'd make sure to use my Greek and Hebrew skills whenever possible.

I don't want to come down too harshly on this man, but I feel I need to make a statement. I'll let the words of Jesus in which I introduced this post be provocative enough, condemning enough. The Reverend's motives were pure, but the nature of the causes he supported, and his failure to use proper discretion often made me think less of him. He was a partisan first, and a pragmatist second. I would like to think I am too honest to resort to spin. I understand the rules of the game, but I have little to no tolerance for lies and half-truths.

He'd been an insider within the state Democratic party, and had been around long enough to achieve a measure of seniority. Because of this he was indebted to a corrupt Governor who served a largely ineffectual single term as the most powerful public servant in the state. Any impartiality, on his account, was nowhere to be found. It came across as delusional more than politically calculating. The bandwagons the Reverend jumped onto were frequently self-serving, more about political favoritism and cronyism at the expense of servant-led leadership.

Though he was a conduit for me to explore and build my own political consciousness, his ultimate allegiance I recognize now was to the system. Like many progressives of his day, he had used Civil Rights as a jumping off point to other causes and fights. That might have been the pinnacle of his life, but he worked in its shadow for the rest of his days. Some fights he won. Some he lost. But he never breathed a word about his failings. I suppose every life is a combination of thrilling victories and agonizing defeats. Never did I doubt the effectiveness of his great triumphs, but at no time was I ever privy to anything remotely resembling humility. For him, there was simply no need for that much introspection.

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