Unitarian Universalism

The Theology of the Privileged

UU World published an article called, Not My Father's Religion in its Fall edition that I didn't think much about. I didn't think much about it because I agreed with what it said and thought it fairly obvious. Ours is a religion of the privileged. It is less likely to appeal to those who are working class. This is something that we need to work on.

But the latest issue of UU World is out and a firestorm of angry letters by supposedly open-minded and enlightened UUs made me take another look. Not everyone was critical, but for those who were the gist of the argument is that UU is welcoming of all folks, and that it's the author (Doug Muder) who is biased for thinking that our message would not appeal to the working class.

This is very similar to how some people accuse us of being racist for wanting to address racial privilege. At the heart of the disagreement is the inability to see how one perspective is just a perspective, not universal. It is invisible to them, so they angrily think we are inventing problems where none exist. They think that it's the messengers who are the problem.

We who have grown up middle to upper-middle class, we who are mostly college educated if not more, we who had family who were able to assist us when we needed it, our experience tells us that the world is full of possibilities and all we have to do is be smart enough to make the right choices and work hard and we'll succeed. And if we do make mistakes there will be other chances. Our experiences influence our world view influence our theology. And our theology is based on the celebration of choice. Mine certainly is.

My theology says that when Adam and Eve chose to eat of the apple, they did not "fall" but rather opened up a world of exciting possibilities. I celebrate the story as our collective claiming of our freedom (and responsibility) to choose and to be responsible for the consequences of our choices. And in our history, early Unitarians emphasized a spiritual practice of "self-culture," believing in our potential to grow to become more and more like God by the choices that we make. Early Unitarians were also the cultural elite of New England, the "Boston Brahmins."

What does this theology mean for whom the next paycheck is the difference between a roof over head and being out on the streets? For whom contemplating a career change at mid-life because the current one "isn't fulfilling enough" is not an option - not if you want to be able to feed your kids. What does the theology of choice mean for someone whose choices are extremely limited?

I am deeply invested in the theology of choice, and yet I also know this theology has little meaning for someone like my parents, who did what they had to do so that my brother and I could be angsty about "personal fulfillment." I don't know how to reconcile these things. But I know these issues are important for us to hold.

Model Diversity

The Asian/Pacific Islander "group" of All Souls (in other words, a group of us who are of A/PI descent) had a potluck this evening and our senior minister was kind enough to accept an invitation to join us. It was billed as a purely social event, a space where A/PIs can get to know each other, but this is Washington, DC with the movers and shakers, and some stereotypes of Asians have basis, so eventually people could not resist the opportunity to get down to business. Talk turned to diversity and how to build more of it at our church. What the group was specifically interested in was how to build true multi-culturalism in our congregation as opposed to the bi-culturalism that people often mean by "diversity."

At times, being Asian in a black and white culture is like being... nothing. Persona non grata. I don't mean to play the violin of self-pity tho. I know that lots of other people are in the same boat - Latino/a/Hispanics obviously, Native Americans, a growing population of Arab-Americans, and also, something that I had not thought about until discussions within UU made me aware, people of African descent who are not "African-American." In a country that is so used to framing the discussion around the legacy of slavery and its dynamics, where do the rest of us fit in to this?

UU has many of the same problems that society has, magnified. Not because we are worse about them but because we actually talk about them. And within UU it seems to me that All Souls magnifies these problems even more. Not because we are worse about them but because we actually talk about them. So of course the A/PI community here, myself included, has not always been happy with how "diversity" has been framed. Even at All Souls, the view can become "black and white."

Yet we also recognize that this is a place that is sincerely trying, and is much better about it than most other places. So when the question came to how to increase our diversity, I was a little surprised when Rob refrained from tooting a horn he had every right to toot. He didn't talk about how great All Souls is, which it is. Nor did he point to other UU congregations, of which there are a few that are struggling with similar issues. He stated that if we really want to build diversity, we had to look outside of Unitarian Universalism. It was a statement of humility that both surprised and impressed me.

He pointed to Middle Collegiate Church, in the heart of New York City. I've heard great things about this congregation from others as well, including Taquiena. So for anyone interested in what true multi-culturalism done with intent looks like, I lift up Middle Church. It may be too Christian for many UUs, but man does it look beautiful and alive. I'm definitely going the next time I'm in NYC on a Sunday.

Conforming Individualism

Happy Halloween everyone!

My first Halloween in my house, and in a residential neighborhood.  And yet I didn't get more than a handful of kids.  So sad.  Now I have all this chocolate left-over.  Oh well, more for me!

My housemate and I had an interesting discussion tonight as we waited for the kiddies.  It's not the first time that we've talked about the extreme individualism in this country, at the expense of community, and how we lament its effects.

But tonight the question came up as to "why?"  Especially amongst so many intelligent and educated people, why would they not see the limitations of this extreme individualism?  Why would they not see that such stringent adherence to the doctrine of individualism is in its own way a kind of conformity?

I had been thinking of this question earlier in the day, and I realized that it's because it's part of our collective mythology - our American identity - and it's very hard to break out of one's own mythology.  We are taught from a very early age that the sign of intelligence - the sign of being able to think for one's self - is individualism.  Independent thinking.  We don't want to be "a sheep."  That's the worst thing that one can be.  We are taught to take pride, to invest our worth, in intentionally and continually mistrusting the group in favor of oneself.  Even when such behavior is clearly at our expense.

If you buy into the idea that individualism is a mark of intelligence, then of course you're going to have a hard time seeing how individualism for the sake of individualism is conformity.

Unitarian Universalism tends to draw from people who take pride in their intellectual acumen.  And this is both a blessing and a curse.  It is obviously a blessing to have so many people in our congregations who value reason and inquiry.  But that's if we can get them to join us in the first place.  (The sad truth is that no one buys into this myth of individualism more than intellectuals!)  I know so many people who would love UU if they could get over the fact that it's a group and, God forbid, a religion.  They don't join groups.  Those are for conformists.  And they certainly don't join religions.  Those are for people who don't think.  They will be content to live with their isolated selves, thank you very much, because they refuse to be "confined" by a community.  

Unlike the chocolate that I failed to give away tonight, their not coming through our doors diminishes us all.

Fred Thompson is the Anti-Christ

Who knew?

Not long ago, someone posted a link to a quiz that supposedly helps you identify the presidential candidate who most closely matches your socio-political views. (I'm not quite sure how they weigh things.)

I dutifully punched in my positions on a range of issues such as abortion rights, the Kyoto protocol, gun control, immigration, marriage-equality, minimum wage, the Patriot Act, and torturing detainees.

According to the quiz, I should vote for Mike Gravel

1. Mike Gravel - 95%
2. Dennis Kucinich - 90%
3. Barack Obama - 85%

Thanks, but I still plan to vote for Barack.

The more interesting and more scary thing is when, just for fun, I decided to flip it around and answer the opposite of my real views. I wanted to know who, from my perspective, is the anti-christ of presidential candidates. This is what I got:

1. Fred Thompson - 100%
2. Duncan Hunter - 95%
3. Mitt Romney - 95%

AAAAAAACCKK!! 100%???!! Hey, I knew he is a conservative, but he seemed like such a pleasant old man on Law and Order.

Now is the Time

Part of the reason for Association Sunday was to raise money for the "Now is the Time" campaign, aimed at growing Unitarian Universalism in general and supporting UUs of color in particular. Because, as President Sinkford said in June, "Now is the time to grow our faith."

At Davies Memorial, Rev. Crestwell pointed out (which is great because I completely forgot to do it) that part of the outreach involves an ad campaign in Time magazine. John even had a copy right there that he waved in front of the congregation, clearly stoked about it.

The campaign will couple full-page ads with "editorial"-like comments. (Advertorials?) And the thinking is that there is nothing more "mainstream" than Time magazine. And example can be seen from the UUA homepage.

UU reaction has been predictably mixed. True to UU form, some people complained. Too colorful. Too "out there." Wrong font. (Seriously, someone complained about the font.) But seeing as I identify myself as an evangelical UU, like John, I am happy that we were "out there." As another evangelical UU said, "Finally!"

For those of you who are thinking that ads in Time magazine are a little "too mainstream" (ie - boring), the wise people up in Boston have also put out a vid on YouTube. And we here in DC are particularly excited because All Souls features heavily in it, especially our Associate Minister, Shana Lynngood.

Association Sunday

Today was Association Sunday. The UUA has encouraged congregations across the continent to set aside this one Sunday to devote to strengthening the association as a whole. This includes giving sermons about being a UU and making donations to help our denomination grow. Being the ragtag crew of radical individualists that UUs are, the concept is a bold and novel one. Today was in large part due to the leadership of our President, Bill Sinkford. I don't think that even five years ago we could have contemplated the idea of doing anything as such a collective identity.

Having said that, my congregation, All Souls Church, Unitarian, chose not to participate. Instead, I got in my truck (yes, I drive a gas guzzler; if someone wants to buy me a new fuel-efficient car I would be very grateful.) and drove down a little ways to Davies Memorial UU Church in Camp Springs, MD. Davies Memorial was named after A. Powell Davies, one of All Souls' most influential ministers. Like All Souls, it is racially diverse and had recently won a "breakthrough congregation" award signifying notable growth. I had been meaning to pay them a visit.

A a representative of the UUA, I explained what Association Sunday was for, made a pitch for money (I hate that!), and then sat down to hear the Rev. John Crestwell preach. And John was on fire!! He preached a sermon that warmed the cockles of this evangelical UUs heart - talking about how he is sick of listening to the radio and only hearing the conservative Christian message as being the voice of religion, he is sick of driving by conservative Christian mega-churches and seeing the packed parking lots. Why aren't our parking lots packed? Why aren't we growing at the same rate? Why don't we, as Unitarian Universalists, let others know about us? The fact is that we have a saving message, a message that the world needs to hear. Go out, he exhorted his congregation, and spread the word. Identify yourself as a UU and invite people to church. Let them see for themselves what we are like.

Can I get an Amen?

Sanity and Insanity

On the same day that the Supreme Court refused to listen to a case of wrongful abduction and torture by our government, the president of the UUA, Bill Sinkford, delivered over 13,000 signatures to Congress from UUs from all 50 states (and DC) calling on them to end the unjust war in Iraq.

Rev Sinkford joined Rev John Thomas, president of the UCC, our much larger cousins who delivered over 60,000 signatures for a combined total of more than 73,000 signatures. (The competitive part of me must point out that we got a higher percentage of signatures from UUs given our size.)

The response was incredible. We got positive emails from UUs all over the country stating how good it felt to be finally making our voice heard. People printed out the forms and took them to their congregations and faxed in signatures. We were swamped by success. The truth is that if we had somehow gotten our goal of 25,000 we would not be able to handle it. All day long for the last week faxes have been pouring in. Our sad little fax machine broke, a casualty of the war. And we had to hire temps to enter all the data in electronically. And Adam worked like a maniac, but he got the job done and our signatures were delivered by Sinkford to Congress, in a neatly bound 398 pages, organized by state, city, last name, and zip code, and "covered with an awesome cover letter."

I am told that they were impressed that it was a liberal religious voice calling for peace.

Meanwhile, just a sort distance away, by refusing to hear the case, the Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling that the "state secrets privilege" made it ok for our government to kidnap, hold, and torture innocent people all in the name of "fighting terrorism." Khaled el-Masri is a German citizen of Lebanese descent who was mistaken for a terrorist because of a mix-up in names. He was detained while vacationing in Macedonia in late 2003, shipped to a secret U.S. run prison in Afghanistan, and tortured for five months before they finally realized they had the wrong guy.

Mr. el-Masri is not alone. There have been numerous cases where our govt in its zeal has imprisoned and tortured the wrong person. There is debate over whether it's justifiable to use torture to extract information that might keep civilians safe (despite the fact that it's never been proven effective). But surely we can all agree that it is wrong to torture innocent people! Surely, if we are a just and civilized society, as we claim we are, then we can recognize this, instead of arguing that it's ok to harm innocents in the pursuit of our own protection.

As proud as I am of UUs today that's how ashamed I am of the U.S. government.

Witness for Peace!

I haven't (until now) plugged what happens at the UUA's Washington Office.  I feel the need to keep some semblance of separation between my personal opinions as a UU in this blog and my status as an employee of the UUA.  But this is just too exciting to not mention.  While I was away on vacation in Alaska, the UUA took on it's biggest online advocacy campaign ever.  We are attempting to collect 25,000 signatures witnessing for Peace.

The United Church of Christ (our religious cousins, the UCC) has been collecting signatures against the war in Iraq and they've invited us to join them.  On October 10th, both Rev. John Thomas, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and our UUA President, the Rev. Sinkford, will be visiting Congress to deliver a stack of petitions.  The petitions we have signed.  

Given that Congress is demonstrating an appalling lack of  moral backbone with respect to funding this war, our liberal religious voice calling for peace is more important than ever.  Together, we are not just a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.  Together, we have power.  Let Congress know what you think of this war.  Sign the petition today!

 

 

Vick Revisited

Whoopie Goldberg has joined the crew of "The View." I think I've seen a minute part of one episode of that show. It's continuing staff changes would normally be of no concern to me, except that Whoopie has apparently stepped immediately into hot water by "defending" Michael Vick. People across the political spectrum are outraged that she could defend what they consider to be such an obviously heinous man.

Well, what exactly did she say? These are the quotes I could find:

"He's from the South, from the Deep South ... This is part of his cultural upbringing..."

"Instead of just saying (Vick) is a beast and he's a monster, this is a kid who comes from a culture where this is not questioned."

What Whoopie is drawing attention to is cultural context, and it's a valid concern. It was something that nagged at the back of my mind as I posted on Vick last week. The truth is that many cultures think of animals as nothing more than a resource to be used...and discarded when no longer useful. My own parents - while they would never do what Vick did to those dogs - think that cats and dogs are pretty much replaceable. If your pet gets sick, the idea of paying a vet money in order to make it well is preposterous to them. You simply get a new one. Any indignant ranting about animal rights would be met by bemusement and/or befuddlement.

And this makes sense. If you grow up in a culture where resources are scarce and how you chose to use them meant the difference between life and death for humans, then animal rights is a non-issue. While my parents no longer live in that culture, it's through that lens from which they see. And that may be for Michael Vick as well.

I thought about this and wrestled with it last week. Was my own outrage nothing more than cultural imperialism - trying to impose my cultural norms on another?

But in the end, I believe that cultural context only goes so far. Understanding and taking nuance into account cannot lead to complete relativism and the inability to make any kind of moral stand. Slavery is always wrong, even if the current culture allows it. And torturing animals is always wrong even if in some cultures it's condoned. And I'm not sure that torturing animals was condoned in Vick's culture. There's a difference between thinking animals are expendable and thinking it's ok to torture them. To assume that the latter is considered ok in the "deep South" may be yet another kind of bias on our part.

I disagree with Whoopie *if* her intent is to excuse his actions, but I think the concern she brought up is valid. And I certainly agree that we should not just write Vick off as a monster.

So Much for Peace III

One Unitarian Universalist was so disgusted by the recent disruption of a Hindu Senate prayer by conservative Christian activists that she blogged about it, calling the protesters "intolerant and ridiculous." Another Unitarian Universalist was so put off by the first UUs characterization that she blogged about that, calling the first UU an "asshole."

In the interest of full disclosure let me say that the first UU is a colleague of mine. Even so, I don't think that it's purely the bias of proximity that makes me think ChaliceChick's comments were not only inappropriate but highly ironic.

She titles her post "Is this who we want to be? Seriously?" and then goes on to say how she had intended to make fun of the Washington Office's blog "but got busy and forgot." More than her issue with my colleague, that line really struck me. Is this who she wants to be?

We, as Unitarian Universalists are supposed to respect everyone for their inherent worth and dignity. We're supposed to engage each other with justice, equity, and compassion. Sometimes, when the issues are heated and the "other side" seems unreasonable - as was the case with these hecklers disrupting a Hindu prayer while they were in town to protest the hates crimes bill on the pretense that it would impede their freedom of religion - it might be hard to remember that. The protesters were clearly intolerant, but calling them ridiculous may not have been the most constructive thing to do. On the other hand, what about a UU who, when she disagrees with a fellow UU, calls her an "asshole" and for her to be fired? Is that ChaliceChick's idea of a path to a better world?

And what about the comment about intending to "make fun of" fellow UUs but forgetting? I can't get over that one.

Conflict and disagreement are inevitable, but escalation is not. If one thinks that someone has crossed a line, calling them names and insulting them is not the way to bring us back towards peace.

Is this who we want to be? Good question.

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