Reflections on the Jewel Net

Solstice Rest and Reflection

Like many of you, I consider it my duty to stay well-informed, and often times that desire to be informed conflicts with the desire to.... remain hopeful about the world, and humanity.  Almost daily it seems, a new video of another person, usually black, being killed by police bullets.  On the one hand, the terrorist attacks of ISIL, on the other, xenophobic attacks against Muslims.  Desperate refugees being turned away at borders. Murders of transgender people. Attacks against women's health care providers. New laws to further burden the homeless. Poisons in our water, earth, and air.  Overwhelmed, my instinct is to withdraw –  to contract into the protective cocoon of my home and closest loved ones.  And then berate myself for exercising the privilege of being able to do that.  The question always is, is it ok to withdraw occasionally, and for how long?

Many of you may know that the traditional Chinese calendar is lunar, because Chinese New Year falls on a different day each year with respect to the Gregorian solar calendar.  In fact, almost all the major Chinese holidays are lunar – they're seasonal but don't fall on solar dates – with two major exceptions, one of which is Winter Solstice, or Dong Zhi. Historically the second most important holiday in the Chinese calendar after New Years, Dongzhi is a time of family reunions, feasting, and making offerings to our ancestors and to heaven.  In ancient times, winter solstice was the start of the new calendar year (which frankly is the only starting point that makes sense to me).  And even tho solstice marks the darkest time of year, we all know that the coldest time usually happens afterward, in January and February.  In an age before electricity and central heating and cars, winter was a time to rest and to reflect.  Not just for our Mother Earth but for her people as well.

The longest night of the year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) will be Monday night, and the shortest day Tuesday.  After that, the nights will shorten, the days will lengthen, as yin recedes and yang advances, until we get to summer solstice and the directions reverse.  The Taoist yin/yang symbol is a representation of this yearly cycle.  In Taoist cosmology, yang is male/heaven/light/warmth/active/activity/expansion/summer, and yin is female/earth/darkness/cold/passive/rest/contraction/winter.

It may be that our very earliest ancestors feared the sun might disappear. But logically, by the time people had a concept of what the winter solstice was, they clearly already knew by definition that the sun would be returning.  At least by 1000 BCE, which is the earliest known record of the yin/yang symbol, people understood the annual cycle of light and dark, and winter solstice rituals were a celebration of the resurgence of yang, of light.

I want to be careful here.  It would be unreasonable to deny that we, being diurnal creatures, have an instinctive fear of the dark.  We need light to see, to be able to move around our environments safely.  Moreover, we need light to live – for plants to grow, which provide both our food and energy. And many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder during the shorter days of weaker sunlight. So it makes sense to celebrate the return of light.  Yet I do not want to perpetuate the idea that light is “good” and darkness is “bad.”  Knowing that yin and darkness is seen as feminine in Taoism.  Knowing that many of us – whether consciously or subconsciously – see darker skin as less “good,” and how that results in the devaluing of black lives.  There is already too much of that theology out there.   We need light to live, yes, but we also need darkness.  To rest.  To dream.  One form of torture is to keep people in constant bright light so that they cannot sleep.  LIFE thrives in the balance of light and dark, yang and yin.  It isn't darkness but imbalance that is destructive.

So I want to return to the practices of my ancestors, our ancestors.  After the frenzied activities required to celebrate solstice (and other winter holidays), I want to take the following winter days to rest and reflect, trusting that the period is both temporary, and necessary.

 

Losing Face

Back in 2010, some Unitarian Universalist congregations were already deeply involved in work on immigration, but most of our congregations weren't yet aware of the escalating anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies in several states. That changed in April of 2010 when Arizona passed SB1070, which was the most punitive law against undocumented immigrants at the time. Suddenly, everyone was paying attention to Arizona, and calls went up to boycott. The UUA had previously scheduled our 2012 General Assembly to be in Phoenix, so a heated debate ensued as to whether we should honor the boycott or go to Phoenix anyway but working with local immigration activists to protest.

No where was that question more hotly debated than among UUs of color and anti-racist white allies. For some of us, laws such as SB1070 posed a direct threat to self and/or loved ones. For others of us, this was a crucial moment in which our actions would demonstrate whether we UUs really lived the values we espouse. (Much like the Black Lives Matter movement is right now.) We all agreed on the importance of the moment but not the correct course of action. A decision was to be made in June, at General Assembly 2010 in Minneapolis, and during the weeks leading up to it, arguments flared in emails, on list-serves, and on social media.

I had my opinions but generally avoided the heat, until one day during such a debate, I was rebuked. By an elder UU of color. A minister and a long-time leader in our association. Someone whom I greatly admire and whose opinion of me mattered deeply to me. In the semi-public domain of Facebook, he sharply dismissed the points I was trying to make, and dismissed me as someone who “likes to argue.” His words were actually really mild so far as internet arguments go, but hurt deeply coming from him. Someone I admired had questioned my motivations, my character. Moreover, given his stature within a community that I treasure, I feared others would turn against me too. Hot, angry tears streamed down my face as I weighed different possible responses. What would be the most effective way to make him and everyone else witnessing the exchange realize just how wrong he was?

Luckily, I put off my retort to talk first to a friend. She asked me, “Is this relationship important to you? Are you willing to lose it in the process of defending yourself, even if you feel you're in the right?” It had never occurred to me to not defend myself, to drop the argument altogether. The idea that people might be swayed by his words against me still gnawed. But with her encouragement, I set aside both pride and the bullet point arguments I'd compiled, and told him a broader, single-sentence truth - that he has always had and will always have my deepest respect. With my friend's help, I did this even though I still felt wronged, still felt shaken, and actually had little hope of reconciling any time soon.

The response was magical. His words back to me were warm and gentle. And when we met in Minneapolis, he greeted me with a big bear hug. All ill will melted away.

As I relate this story to you now, it seems kinda silly. An online disagreement. Happens every day. But relationships do end on such arguments.

To be dissed in public constitutes a loss of face. The Chinese actually have two different phrases that can be translated in English to losing face – diu lian and diu mianzi. Diu means to lose, and lian means your literal, physical face. Whereas mianzi refers to how one appears to others. For example, when we say in English that someone is “putting on a brave face”, we are referring to mianzi. And just as lian and mianzi have related but different meanings, so too losing them respectively means related but different things. To suggest that I was causing trouble because I “like to argue” threatened my lian; it implied something about my moral character. Because it came from a respected elder in the community, it also threatened my mianzi, or social standing. Upon thinking about it later, I realized that even though I had not used harsh words, by openly questioning this elder's position, I too had inadvertently threatened his mianzi, which is probably what prompted his response. By re-iterating my respect for him, I gave back what I'd taken away – ge mianzi, giving face – and thus he was better able to do that too.

If we all hold on to the mistake, we can't see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can't see what we're capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one's own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you: when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that's rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don't have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

The Physics of Congregational Singing, Or Why I Go To Church

When I was a kid, especially in middle school, I used to love to sing. To myself. All the time. It was in junior high that my depression first manifested, tied with fears of inadequacy and failure – but the act of singing lifted my spirits, momentarily melting away whatever cares I had. Even when I graduated to high school, I still loved to sing. Until one day my mother said to me, “You have such an awful voice. I don't know why your voice is so hard to listen to; your father and I both have good voices.”

It didn't happen immediately, but over time I sang less and less, becoming more and more self-conscious about it, and eventually stopped. The things I struggle with – perfectionism, fear of failure, fear of looking foolish – these are things that I know many of us struggle with to varying extents. And sometimes, unfortunately, these fears cause us to give up things that we actually enjoy doing.

For years, I avoided singing at all except for the obligatory “Happy Birthday”, and even then I'd mumble along hoping others would pick up my slack. Better to not sing than to ruin the sound with my awful voice.

I stopped singing until the Fall of 2003. That's when I first stepped in to All Souls Church, Unitarian in DC and was so moved that I immediately committed to becoming a UU.

At first the hymns were painful. It'd been so long since I'd sung, and as y'all probably know, like everything else singing is a skill that requires practice. The less you do it, the worse you are at it. I could hear my weak voice wavering. I could feel as I ran out of breath before the end of a note. But something about doing this painful, potentially embarrassing thing in the context of a UU church made me want to persevere.

See, I had bought in – heart and soul – into the vision of the Beloved Community that All Souls preaches, the vision that Unitarian Universalism preaches, that UUSF preaches – come, with all your imperfections, your weaknesses, and still be embraced into community. The only thing that we ask in return is that you commit to creating this community with us.

So I sang, without fear of judgment, and without judging others. And lo and behold, together the congregation actually sounded pretty good. The All Souls Choir even recorded a CD that included the entire congregation on a couple of tracts.

There's a scientific explanation for why untrained people singing as a group sound better than untrained individuals. In physics, when two sound waves vibrate in the air at the same time they get "added" together. The parts of the two waves that are in sync with one another get amplified and the parts of the two waves that are out of sync get canceled out. (As an aside, that latter part is how noise canceling headphones work.) If instead of only two sound waves, we have multiple waves, the same thing happens to an even greater extent. When a person sings, especially an untrained person, there are usually fluctuations in the pitch. But with a whole group of people singing together, all our fluctuations happen more or less randomly and thus cancel out, whereas the good, on-pitch parts strengthen each other. The over all effect is that weaknesses are minimized and strengths are amplified.

I think that is a good metaphor for a congregation in general, not just while singing hymns.

Some of my unchurched, “free-range” friends sometimes ask me about my involvement with a congregation. “Why do you bother going to church?” It's a legitimate question. After all, I can hold the same UU values by myself, and be able to sleep in on Sundays, and not have all those committee meetings....

I go to church because it's in church that we actually get to practice living those values, knowing that we'll make mistakes. If there is any place in which it is safe to make mistakes, then church is it. (Or at least it should be.)

In community, all our fluctuations – our momentary lapses and bad days - happen more or less randomly and thus cancel out, whereas our good, on-pitch parts strengthen each other. Weaknesses are minimized and strengths are amplified.

I go to church because we have the potential to be better together than apart.

Identity, Heritage, and Allyship

Thinking about Pope Francis' apology on Thursday for the Catholic Church's offenses against indigenous peoples, contrasted with the expectation that the pontiff will canonize Junipero Serra when he visits the US this September. The other big story in the news today is of course that South Carolina is removing the Confederate flag from its State House, but not before a long, heated debate in which defenders of the flag appealed to history and heritage. Gov Jindal of Louisiana supposedly even weighed in, claiming the Confederate flag as part of his own heritage (but it turns out the story is not true).

Many on the Left, including some friends, jeered Jindal for those supposed remarks. Likely they saw it as another example of him trying to erase his color and pass as white. Given other things he's done and said, I can understand why folks felt that way (and why so many of us believed the story), but I also thought I understood the sentiment.  While my parents are from China, I grew up in California and identify as a Californian - Californian heritage is part of my heritage.  So while Jindal's parents are from India, I could see him feeling that Southern heritage is part of his heritage.  Just because Jindal is of South Asian descent doesn't mean that he can't identify as a Southerner – to argue otherwise is to argue that Asians cannot truly be “American” even if we grew up here; it's to suggest that we are perpetually “foreign.” I invite my left-leaning friends who ridiculed the supposed remark to think about that.

Why am I talking about this in connection with the Pope and what the Catholic Church has done to indigenous peoples? Because as a Californian, I grew up being taught to revere Junipero Serra, the founder of the 21 Spanish missions that run up the length of our coast. We learned about him in history class. There is a prominent roadway named after him that my family frequently uses. He remains one of two Californians honored in the US Capitol Building. For better and for worse, the state that I love is in large part the result of his actions. So the first time I heard indigenous activists protest the beatification of Junipero Serra, I was deeply torn. Two parts of my identity were in conflict with each other. It isn't that I supported the enslavement and genocide of Native Americans under Serra - it's that I perceived him to be part of the heritage of my state, and thus part of my identity.

The knee-jerk reaction would have been to defend “Father Serra” (as I'd grown up hearing him called), to make excuses for him. Thankfully, I did not go with the knee-jerk reaction, and instead bit my tongue and sat with the internal conflict.  Faithful ally to Native Americans versus proud Californian.  I wanted to be both.

Of course, the world does not revolve around what I want.  While Gov Jindal may not have actually claimed the Confederate flag as part of his heritage, many people have done so this week. They wanted to maintain a symbol of their identity despite the pain that it causes others. And to them, SC Rep Jenny Hornes had this response:

"I’m sorry. I have heard enough about heritage. I have a heritage. I am a lifelong South Carolinian. I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis, okay? But that does not matter. It’s not about Jenny Horne. It’s about the people of South Carolina who have demanded that this symbol of hate come off the statehouse grounds."

Being an ally means recognizing that it's not just about you and what you want. 

When confronted with the horrors of history – whether that of state, region, or country - one approach adopted by many progressives is to try to completely disavow themselves of the history/heritage. To say, “That's not my history.  I had nothing to do with that.” This is particularly easy for those of us who are not white to do, especially if our families came to America more recently. But it strikes me as overly simplistic and not entirely honest.  Unless all your ancestors are indigenous to this land, you are here because of that history. (I recognize that many ancestors were forced to come to this land.) My ancestors did not participate in the enslavement and genocide that built this country, but they could not have immigrated here without it. If Junipero Serra had not done what he did, it is highly unlikely that my family would own a home in San Francisco right now. Highly unlikely. I don't think being a good ally to Native Americans means pretending that we don't have the privileges that we clearly do have.  So... I can't control what others do, but to me it feels disingenuous to simply say that California history is not my history. It is.

And of course, one doesn't have to actually choose between being a good ally for racial justice and being a Californian (or USAmerican).  I bet that at least some of the Native Americans protesting Serra's canonization also identify as Californians.  What was required was that I rethink the story inherited from school and our state culture. I didn't have to accept the story that I inherited – painting Junipero Serra in rosy, fatherly light - in order to be a Californian. There are other, more multi-faceted ways to tell our state story. Ways that honor all our voices and experiences. We can recognize that Junipero Serra was integral to the history of what is California and at the same time recognize that he is not who we want to lift up as an example for others to follow.  He is not the best of who we can be.  And after all, isn't that what a saint is supposed to be?

When I read this morning that Pope Francis apologized for things the Catholic Church had done against indigenous peoples, my first reaction was to think, “If he's sincere, then he won't canonize Junipero Serra.”  And I am still a proud Californian.

 

There Is Always A Reckoning

The theme for this second week of Commit2Respond's Climate Justice Month is reckoning.  Reckoning, as in being held accountable.  Each time as I've read the word I think of another, karma.  Not karma as it is popularly known in the West – a system of punishment and reward meted out for good and bad behavior respectively – but karma as I learned it from the Dharmic perspective – the consequences of one's actions.  Karma is as natural and as inescapable as Newtonian laws (at the macro level).  For every action, there is a reaction.  For every action, there is karma, which is the consequences of action.

 

Karma is the ultimate accountability.  Sooner or later, the consequences of our actions must be faced.  There is no supernatural exemption, no way out of a mess except through.

 

This is in stark contrast to the traditional Christian view of sin and salvation, in which we are born guilty (of original sin) even before we've done anything, and yet we can escape the consequences of our guilt (even extreme guilt) via the sacrifice of another.  This second week of Climate Justice Month also coincides with Holy Week in the (Western) Christian tradition.  Today, Good Friday, we remember that Jesus was brutally tortured to death. Whether one believes that the ultimate cause was the Roman empire squashing an insurrection or a wrathful God demanding appeasement, Jesus too faced consequences for past actions.

 

The traditional (Protestant) Christian view is that because Jesus died for you, you do not have to face what would otherwise be the consequences of your sins.  Even though many people have since rejected the theology, I think that a version of it continues to permeate the Western world.  That is, people widely hold the belief that it's possible to avoid the consequences of actions, even if they no longer believe in God(s).  Somehow, no matter how dire the situation seems to be, there can be some seemingly miraculous way out, such that we don't have to make a sacrifice ourselves.  Our movies feed us this message over and over again.  A supporting character takes the bullet for the main protagonist so that the latter can drive off into the sunset. Advertisements perpetuate the same message.  A diet pill where “the pounds just melt off” rather than us having to exercise.  Is it any wonder that we hope, somehow science will find ways to magically sequester carbon, or generate unlimited energy, or take us to another planet?  We hope that something will save us so that we won't have to do it ourselves, won't have to change our ways.  Indeed, the task of addressing climate change seems too big, too daunting to accomplish ourselves.  And thus even in the undeniable face of the urgent need to act, we continue as we've been doing, simultaneously feeling hopeless and clinging to hope for miraculous salvation.

 

In the Buddhist view, however, there can be no miraculous salvation because there is karma, the consequences of our actions.  There may be seeming temporary reprieves, but such measures only delay the inevitable. For example, finding a new place to dump garbage doesn't clean up the previous place; it only means there is now one more polluted place that we'll eventually have to clean.  The use of extreme forms of fossil fuels - mountaintop removal coal, deep sea oil, fracked gas, tar sands oil - may seem like a reprieve from having to find alternative, renewable forms energy, but all these practices wreak even greater ecological havoc that we will have to address. Putting coal-burning plants in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color may seem like a way for those of us who are not living in those areas to avoid the consequences, but eventually they catch up with all of us, as they are doing now, AND we'll also have to make amends for systemic racism and classism.

 

We have cut down and burned forests that would clean our air. We have sent tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  We have filled the seas with oil spills, and the rivers with mountaintop debris. Our glaciers are melting. Our seas are rising.  And weather patterns that we've relied on for millennia and built our civilizations around have drastically changed. Our collective karma has caught up with us ad we are in the reckoning. There is no way out of our situation except through it.

 

The good news, however, is that karma goes both ways. If we dug the hole we're currently in, we can also climb back out and fill it in.  Our salvation, our liberation, is in our own hands, by our actions. And just as it was possible for us to do something as big as change the climate of our Earth, it's just as possible to do something as big as to repair it.  "Drop by drop is the water pot filled.But it will require different action on our part.

California Water Policies Show Priorities

Lake Oroville in Butte County, CA

The headline screamed across the page: "NASA Scientist Predicts California Has One Year of Water Left!" Famiglietti later said he was misquoted and that he was talking about our reservoirs, only part of our overall water supply. But it doesn't take a NASA scientist to know that, four years into record drought, California is in bad shape. The before and after pictures of lakes and snow caps show a state that is drying up.

Given the urgent need for effective action, it was alarming to see the online comments in response to the article. People blamed green lawns, swimming pools, and ultimately overpopulation. This thinking mirrors the messages from our state officials: don't water your lawn, take shorter showers, put a brick in your toilet tank. While I am entirely in favor of xeriscaping and other personal practices that lessen our impact on Mother Earth, the reality is that it isn't the number of residents nor our “water-wasteful ways” that are taxing California resources. Estimates vary widely yet still tell a similar story:

  • Depending on whom you believe, between 6-14% of California's water goes to residential use. All the toilets, showers, bathtubs, washing machines, dishwashers, lawns, and yes, even swimming pools, in residential properties amounts to about 10% of total water use.

  • Depending on whom you believe, between 40-85% of California's water goes to agriculture. (Most estimates say about 80%.) Just the amount of water needed for the miles of almond orchards alone is the same as domestic water use for the state's entire 38.8 million residents.  Residents are fined $500 for over-watering lawns but corporate farmers are not required to use the most water-efficient irrigation techniques.

  • Despite dire drought, California continues to allow fracking, which uses billions of gallons of water per year. But that isn't the only strain that fracking poses on California's water supply. Once the water has been used and irreversibly contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals, it's disposed of underground, where it has contaminated potable ground water.

  • Despite dire drought, California continues to allow private companies to bottle our water and sell it for their profit. While residential water use is increasingly monitored, companies like Nestlé, under its Arrowhead and Pure Life brands, extract water without any regulation from local agencies.

California's water crisis is so severe that Gov Brown declared a state of emergency last year and recently signed a $1 billion emergency spending bill to address the situation. But if you look at the bill, it leaves corporate interests intact while putting ever more pressure on residential “water wasters.”  Telling residents, who collectively comprise just 10% of our annual water usage that we need to cut back, while placing no restrictions on corporate interests that make up more than 80% of water usage does not make sense. 

Some might argue that we need to support farms because of the economy and jobs.  However, Gov Brown supports diverting essential water from the smaller, family-owned farms and fisheries of the Sacramento River Delta in order to bolster the larger, corporate-owned farms of the Central Valley. These same corporate farms use chemical pesticides that have poisoned the local water supplies of the people who live near and work for them.

Some might argue that we need to allow fracking for the oil and for jobs. However, federal officials have cut their estimate of the amount of recoverable oil in the Monterey Shale deposits by 96%. (That's right, less than 1/20th of original estimates.) Yet we would poison precious water so that fossil fuel companies can squeeze out what little profits they can.

One can only conclude that despite the urgent need for change, state officials continue to favor the profits of corporations over the best interests of the people.  And in that respect, what is happening in California is instructive to the rest of the country. 

On a spiritual level, these policies also hint at the pervasive, destructive belief that humans are somehow inherently bad for the environment (ie - "overpopulation", "too many of us").  This forces us into a false choice between caring for our own welfare and that of our Earth and sibling species.  (No wonder so many people decide not to care!)  In reality, the problems caused by bad environmental policies could be remedied if we had the will to change. 

Do not accept the lie that it's California residents who are responsible for the water crisis.  Do not let corporate interests off the hook.  Please sign one, two or all of the following petitions:

 

Awe in Response to Beauty

A friend posted this video on Facebook this morning and one of his friends explained that it was created by a Russian missile gone awry.  (Soyuz-u vehicle Oct 15, 2009)  Watching it, two things came to mind:

1.  Wednesday evening I attended the second in a three-week course on Process Theology at UUSF, taught by Rev John Buehrens.  At one point, Rev. Buehrens explained how Alfred Whitehead felt that Western philosophy with its emphasis on "Truth" had veered too intellectual, and thus Whitehead tried to bring us back by focusing on aesthetics, our sense of awe in response to encountering Beauty.  The thing that engenders humilty and recognition that there is something bigger than us.

2.  Years ago I was talking with a young man sitting next to me on an airplane, and he said that nothing human-made was beautiful, that he only recognized beauty in "natural" things.  I asked him whether he'd ever seen the view of Los Angeles (which we were flying into) at night from the top of Mulholland Drive.  He repeated more adamantly that nothing human-made could ever be beautiful.  And I wondered how strong one's ideology had to be in order to not see beauty in the view from Mulholland Drive at night.

You can't get more human-made than a missile.  All metal and electronics and explosives, its very purpose is ugly, to kill.  If you asked me before I saw this video whether a missile could ever be beautiful, I probably would have said 'No.'  Yet here is this mesmerizingly beautiful video.  (Which is not to say that it might not also have created some real ugliness at the same time.)  And I am watching the video via a laptop connected to the internet.  More human-made metal, plastic, and electronics.  And it's still beautiful.

One of the main points that I see in process theology (or process thought) is that humans are not separate from the rest of existence.  We are part of the interdependent web, impacting it and being impacted by it, no different than any other part.  Together - all the parts of the web together - we co-create reality.   So if nature creates beauty, then how can humans who are an integral part of nature not also create beauty?  (And ugliness and everything in between.)  To claim otherwise is to set humans apart from nature.  It's to claim a special, exalted place, even if we claim that all we do is ugly and harmful.   Ironically, true humility recognizes both the "good" and "bad", both the beauty and the ugliness.

Color-Blind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below are the reflections I shared with First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco for MLK Sunday service, 2015.  As worship associate, it was my task to speak (about race) from personal experience, not to preach about systemic injustices perpetuated against others.  So that's what I did. (Image from empathyeducates.org.)

----

When I was a teenager, I was much smarter than I am now, judging by how much I thought I knew. All the social problems that grownups seemed unable to remedy... I thought I knew the solutions. One of those seemingly intractable problems was racism. Racism, or so I thought, was treating people badly based on inherited differences in physical traits, the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, the shape of their eyes... So the solution seemed obvious to me. Encourage people to be color-blind, to not see race. Eventually, we'd all interbreed, race would disappear, and so would racism. Problem solved.

I should mention that I grew up here in San Francisco. And while I had a few experiences of being verbally and even physically harassed over race, in general, I grew up relatively sheltered, which is what my parents had worked hard for. As I moved into academia in young adulthood, that degree of shelter only increased. In grad school at Caltech where half of the graduate students were foreign born and people tended to be pretty liberal, it was so rare to experience overt bigotry that on the few occasions that it happened I could brush it off as personal ignorance, which it is. My friends (who were mainly white) treated me just like them, which is what I wanted. Or so I thought.

But every now and then, something would happen that would disturb the cocoon around me. I remember when Michael Chang came on the scene as a professional tennis player. I was so excited, until one of my classmates chided me for celebrating Chang's success because of his race. After all, if we're colorblind, I'm not supposed to have noticed that as I was growing up there had been no one who looked like me succeeding in sports. There was the time I tried to explain to my boyfriend how my parents would argue with friends over who would “get to pay” the restaurant bill, except the argument was scripted and they would take turns “losing.” He incredulously accused my parents of being dishonest because they didn't mean what they actually said. I knew he was being unfair but couldn't explain why. After all, if we're color-blind, then everyone should conform to the same cultural norms, “our norms”, and white American culture values direct communication. And I remember the night a distressed friend confided in me about the argument he'd just had with his girlfriend. He'd been detained by police who were looking for a robbery suspect, the only feature they shared being they were both young Black men. His girlfriend thought he was making a big deal over nothing, and my friend, who'd immersed himself in white liberal circles just as I had, needed to know that someone else saw things his way. I did, but again couldn't explain why. And neither could he.  So we sat confused together. After all, if we're “color-blind,” then the only racism we can recognize is overt racial bigotry. We can't point to social patterns based on race since we're not supposed to be looking for them.  (And if you do point to them, you get accused of being racist.)

Yet even if we're not looking for patterns, our minds notice them anyway, IF we directly experience them.

In my sheltered world, the incidents of overt racial bigotry were few and far between, but I (and folks like me) were continually hurt nonetheless, not by bigots but by our friends. People who espouse liberal values and sincerely try to treat all people the same. I finally had to admit that the color-blind approach, frankly, sucks. Instead of solving racism, it perpetuates it, because it takes away the ability recognize diversity, and privilege.

The theme for this month is reconciliation, and in honor of Dr. King, the focus this week is on racial reconciliation. Usually, when we speak of reconciliation, we think of a positive outcome. But as I thought and thought about what I might share with y'all today, I could think of no happy ending with respect to race. Of course there has been progress, and I believe as Rev. King did that our universe ultimately bends towards justice. But with prisons and morgues full of black and brown bodies put there by our “justice” system, the only racial reconciliation that I can genuinely speak to is internal, between me and race itself. I once was blind but now I see.

UUism and Social Justice: Don't Make Me Choose

This morning UU World announced that the sale of mineral rights, donated over two decades ago by a generous Texas couple, will net the UUA close to a million dollars, and that money will allow the UUA to close its large budget deficit without borrowing from the Endowment.  I read the news with ambivalence. On the one hand, there is the generosity of the Carpenters, which shines through in the article.  And it is a great relief to not have to dip into the Endowment.  Otoh, selling mineral rights that allow companies to drill for oil means more carbon that is taken out of the ground and burned into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. Moreover, such drilling always comes with other ecological damage - pollution of the land and water.  These things directly contradict our values and numerous social witness statements that we've passed in recent years about moving away from the use of fossil fuels, combatting global warming/climate change, and care for the interdependent web of all existence.  The UUA supported civil disobedience at the White House to stop approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011 and more recently supported the People's Climate March in NYC this past Septemeber.  What's most puzzling is that this obvious conflict wasn't even mentioned in the article.

(Perhaps it should not be surprising since previous decisions such as the sale of 25 Beacon and the redesign of the UUA logo were announced similarly - with onesided positivity and no acknowledgement that some folks might find the decision troubling.)

I could go further into how the sale of mineral rights allowing oil companies to drill is so problematic and at odds with our stated values, and perhaps if necessary I will at a later time, but the thing that motivated me to write today is this: Every time the UUA does something controversial the same general pattern of conversation occurs.  Party A points out that that there is something wrong with the action.  Party B criticizes party A for being critical, suggesting that party A is (pick one or all of the following) judgemental, ungrateful, lacking joy, unwelcoming, making a mountain out of a molehill, and "no wonder we can't grow." 

It doesn't matter what the issue is, whether it's a moral/justice issue or something to do with internal organization, this pattern happens within our UU community.  And I've already seen this pattern emerge within the conversation/comments following the UU World post. 

There is some truth to the claim that we make mountains out of molehills.  For example, the mini firestorms that erupted when someone created "Standing on the Side of Love" stoles and clergy shirts.  And I totally recognize that it's hurtful to start one's objections off by attacking fellow UUs who are trying to do something for the community, no matter how vehemently we may disagree with their actions.  Assumption of good faith needs to be the foundation of our conversations with each other.  There are ways to point out how an action is problematic while still honoring the inherent worth of all parties involved, and as people in religious community we should always remember that.

That said, it is irksome to read statements suggesting that any kind of disagreement is unwelcome and/or that such criticisms are the reason why our congregations are lacking joy and no one wants to join us.  The implication being that we should never offer critique, no matter how tactfully stated, no matter how important the issue, if we want Unitarian Universalsim to be vibrant and growing, even if the criticism is that we are violating our stated values, as is the case here.  First of all, let me say that I don't believe that's true - I don't believe we have to choose between critique and healthy, happy congregations.  That is a false choice.  Secondly, even if it were true (which it's not) that one has to choose between pointing out how an action does not align with our values and growing Unitarian Universalism, I will choose the values.  Every time.  If we don't live by our values, then I don't care if we don't grow.

That last sentence should not even be considered a controversial statement.  It really shouldn't. So finally the reason for this post: Growth for its own sake is not inherently good.  Unitarian Universalism for its own sake is not inherently good.  These things are good only in so far as they promote the greater good, for humankind, for our sibling sentient beings, for our Mother Earth. 

There are so many admonitions within Buddhist traditions about confusing the vehicle for the destination.  Zen warns us to not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.  The Buddha warned us not to hold tightly to rafts that might have safely carried us across waters but then become burdensome to carry on dry land.  The point is that we need to always be aware of what the true goal is and what are just vehicles that can carry us to that goal.  For me, the goal is the Beloved Community, or as my family's Buddhist tradition would put it, the Pure Land.  The Land where systemic oppression does not exist, exploitation of the Earth and her children (both human and otherwise) does not exist, where beings are unencumbered by the suffering caused by injustice and thus can reach their fullest potentials, whatever those potentials might be.  That is the goal (for me).  Unitarian Universalism is a vehicle to help us reach that goal.  A worthy vehicle that I love, filled with people whom I love, but still just a vehicle.  (The Buddha said the same thing of Buddhism, urging us to even let go of his teachings if they get in the way.)  I believe that Unitarian Universalism can help us reach the Pure Land, which is why I am a UU. And despite occassional missteps, I have faith that we will eventually always do the right thing.  But if it comes down to having to choose between UUism and a just, sustainable world where our Earth and her inhabitants are not exploited for profit, then yes, I choose the latter.  I would hope that after careful consideration, no UU would ever really demand such a choice.

Emptiness and Social Policy

The last time I was in DC, my friend Michael Roehm observed to me that UUs spend a lot of time talking about interdependency, but we don't spend much time thinking about emptiness (both are concepts in Buddhism, and related to each other, kinda like infinity and zero). I have been reminded repeatedly of the truth of his words ever since then, including today. 

This afternoon I was listening to NPR about the disproportionate expulsions of Black and Latino students from schools, and the (misguided) reasoning behind it being that if you remove the "bad" kids, that will make it easier for the "good" kids to learn.  (The article used those words, "bad" and "good," so I am using them too.)  Obviously racism is the primary driving force; how else to explain why black and brown students are thought of as "bad" for committing the same kind of infractions as white students.  But in along side the racism is this belief that people are inherently something.  Inherently good.  Inherently bad... Our social policies are based on this belief.  Hence, we focus on getting rid of the "bad" people, whether by expelling students or locking up prisoners with no attempt at rehabilitation.  (And we let "good" people off the hook with no accountability even when they do decidedly bad things, because, well, they are inherently "good" so the fact that they did something bad was just a temporary glitch, an exceptional circumstance.)  If, instead of thinking of people as inherently "good" or "bad," we focused on emptiness, then we'd see that people reflect back what they experience.  In that case, our social policy would change from that of trying to separate out and eliminate the "bad" to that of trying to create the conditions and causes that lead people to behave in more beneficial ways. 

Pages

Subscribe to Reflections on the Jewel Net

Forum Activity

Fri, 10/31/2014 - 08:11
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 07:09
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 22:01

Acknowledgments

wizdUUm.net is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative