Source: How to Get the Real News
Just a bit late getting to this, thanks to my wife’s birthday at the same time.
Henry Thoreau has just turned 200. Walden was one of my high school summer reading books, and immediately changed my life. In a fit of authenticity,I attempted to lie under my parents’ evergreens to read it. Ants and needles put a quick end to that folly! But every word aroused my spirit, even as its scope stimulated my brain. At the end, I looked around, in those pre-internet days, for Emerson’s Address to the seniors at the theological school im Cambridge. By the time school opened, that teen was a Unitarian Universalist.
These days, though, I can see Thoreau was a giant due to Unitarian shoulders beneath him. From Emerson he seems to have taken above all the model of spiritual individuality. But Emerson was too much the thinker, constrained in his passions by the urge to anchor in scholarship. From Channing Thoreau took, above all, the romantic hero worship that led Channing to study literary and political figures he admired. Thoreau’s gift — and his radical gesture — was to cast himself as the hero by embracing the experience of his passions, but basing those passions on everyday life and its items. So many religious writers fail where he succeeded: simultaneously enlarging the dimensions of one’s life while shrinking it to insignificance against its contexts.
But in Walden, Thoreau brought into Unitarian Universalism the method we use to this day: appropriation of world religious materials in support of his own contentions. It is worth reminding ourselves that the pioneering scholar of this material, Miss Hannah Adams, had insisted on capturing interfaith materials, as much as possible, in the words of their oown adhetents, and to understand their own purposes. She made clear that she had her own views on religious matters, but insisted that everyone else was entitled to theirs as well. In Thoreau’s era, this material, repackaged by Lydia Maria Child, was still fairly new.
So who was right — the anthropologist or the appropriator? Most people’s religious views change over their lifetimes. Within communities, diverse experiences, rituals, and interpretations abound. Adams might have over-idealized the very concept she sought to examine, because members within each denomination were treating their own materials the way Thoreau treated everyone else’s.
All I can say is that when UUs complain we have no single sacred text, I rebut that assertion with Walden. And for having to read it while I was still young enough to build my religious life on his model, I give thanks. Happy birthday, Henry.
My religious community seems to be replaying an experience from the mid 20thcentury by committing a great deal of time and money to eradicating white supremacy in our culture. My life nowadays does not permit me to read all the commentary, so these words cannot be considered anything more than stray responses to what little I’ve had time to read. What I can authentically say is how I feel about what is happening.
- My heart goes out to the three women mounting legitimate campaigns for our presidency. The precipitate resignation of our most recent elected president, and installation of an interim triumvirate, raises questions about the transition back to what the bylaws established. It looks like we could wind up with a “shadow cabinet” with whom it will be sensitive to disagree.
- On the other hand, as far as concerns go about the money, that’s a common complaint when it comes to redress for systemic racial injustice. Forty years after the original Black Empowerment controversy (which did contribute to financial pressures, but only in conjunction with many other things from that era) I am more aware of what my Relatives of Color (ROCs) suffered through years of living in exactly the same institutions that felt so congenial to me. While our shared family culture drew them into these milieus, the stares, and worse, somewhat pushed them out. I have had Black UU friends, and in private conversation, they honored me with how lonely our religion often felt, how careful they felt they needed to be, to “tone it down,” to “not come across as too Black.” If this pain is still how it feels, which appears to be the case, then what should we not spend? If someone in your family has deep pain, do you really begrudge them the money?
- I am not scared of losing the UU culture of white supremacy, but I do fear losing the pastoral haven of religious community. Part of my current self-definition involves being less affluent within a fairly affluent family. Yes, I made my choices, but it still hurts to not be able to capitalize on the low airfares to Europe, to read all my friends’ travel posts on FB and know that will never be me. Economic reports suggest that this is an area where POCIs can feel my pain — even remind us that their legendary family and community cohesion sprang heavily from practical considerations born of poverty– but I worry they will only remind me I’ve already had more luxury than most POCIs can ever hope for.
- Having been through this before, I worry our religious community lacks the inner strength to succeed this time. I wonder how much we blamed the empowerment efforts for consequences of mistakes we made ourselves and never fully, courageously examined. So what are our other activities now, and will they really do us true good? I hate Policy Governance for many reasons, but in my home congregation, it doesn’t seem to shut down communication. The denominational level might seem different, but as someone who wants to bring back the National Conference model, I don’t care which part of the Boston power-club holds the reins. Both branches hold the reins too tight, which could well strangle ourvcollective inner health. So I hope it will not become impossible for us white folks to raise institutional concerns, so long as the dialogue maintains space for racism implications.
These are personal views, not prescriptions. Today is my 63rd birthday, which ought to give me some license to look backwards, sidewards, inwards, and around.
It’s been ages since I thought there was any point in writing about polity among the Unitarian Universalists. Nor does my return to the topic, at this cataclysmic moment, indicate either a sense of hope, or much interest. These days most of my emotional energy resided in the purely personal. Still, people who have meant so much to me would like a small bit of perspective, so here’s what I can offer.
For those who don’t know, we have had, on the same day — March 30, 2017 — not one but two earthshaking ministerial downfalls. What can’t be overlooked is that they come from the two opposite poles of polity. It’s as if God wanted to wake us up to both dangers, and to do so with enough clarity that none of us can miss it. So without commenting on the content of either event, here are my evaluations.
First, on the resignation of our denominational president over concerns about staff appointments. The problem itself is as old as we are. When we were only New Englanders, a call went out for more leaders from and in the west (a changing place over the centuries, but never a different issue). When we were only led by men, women agitated for a place at the decision-making tables. In each case, the protesters wanted their superficial differentness to harbor a deeper difference in how our congregational approach religion. The UUA, following the lead of its Unitarian forerunners, the Boston Clergy Association and the National Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Churches, instituted closed selection processes for approving clergy, always claiming their only aim was protecting the innocent and/or sacred. Yet in each case, the victors in writing the bylaws turned out to be elitists convinced that salvation for others lay in control only by folks carefully selected to resemble themselves or at least, show deference to their co-called wisdom and devotion.
In 1899, when Samuel Atkins Eliot I and his co-conspirators on the board of the tiny American Unitarian Association instituted an anti-congregational coup over the decentralized and congregationally-based National and Western Conferences, they thought they had good reasons. In particular, the rise of both evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholic political influence led these folks to believe that educated, rationalist, humanist-driven Protestantism needed to strengthen its ability to speak up in the public realm. This is the tendency which has led us to tighter and tighter staff leadership and more and more strident political advocacy. It was probably inevitable that eventually, heads would roll as that advocacy has finally begun — as once did geographic outreach — to bring in some long-desired but little known new members.
So now, if our ministers and parishioners of color want more staff members that not only look like them, but understand the spiritual ups and downs of their personal lives, I say they only continue an honorable and completely worthy line of disrupters who have always, eventually, made our denomination more rewarding for all of us. It is worth noting that part of their concern is the way racism plays out differently in different parts of the country, meaning regionally-driven leadership is the only legitimate way to truly minister to people where they live. The question raging now is whether the necessary change can be accomplished by appointing better people to the same offices — what denominationalists always have insisted — or whether there will be more folks like me, who believe the only effective answer can be systematic.
Meanwhile, from the opposite end of the polity spectrum, we have a lone wolf who wound up devouring innocent lambs. Really. This minister and community activist, now accepting charges of receiving pornography featuring violence against children, always raised the most fiery and least reasoned supports of my complaints about over-centralized denominational personnel management. It is worth pointing out that when Henry Whitney Bellows laid out the framework for the National Conference, he explicitly enumerated the duty to monitor clergy, which, to his mind, could only done by those in the same locales. Likewise, I have not mentioned our Universalist forebears, because their decentralized polity, for most of their existence, had no relevance to the new structures. Yet their state and regional conventions also included and exercised fellowshipping and disfellowshipping of clergy. The centralist shibbolith that localism means immorality has no place in either of our histories; that was a tool for the coup-plotters of 1899.
Of all the time I have spent in organized Unitarian Universalist activities, there are two gatherings, superficially different, geographically and racially unlike, which proved nevertheless to mirror and echo each other. They come back to me at this time, because on both ends of the polity spectrum we are going need a way to heal among ourselves. Each of these events was a gathering of sincerely-committed congregation members, usually assembled to click through meetings to manage something important to parishioners. Yet in each case, we committed to listen to each other’s voices as equals and as seekers. We were not seeking to elucidate on some topic, as small group ministries do, but to share some part of our vulnerable soul by telling our personal stories. The first occurred at All Souls in Washington, DC, when one option in our then-annual retreat was to share the spiritual journeys that brought us into that congregation. I closed my eyes to listen, and marveled at how little difference there really was around distinctions of race. Decades later, at First Church Unitarian in Jamaica Plain, MA, we met to implement the Welcoming Congregation curriculum, whose first step is to simply hear the story of parishioners’ journeys as LGBTQ individuals.
Recently one of my Facebook friends asked which was better, to be transformative or to be effective. In my experience, transformation is the only long-term effectiveness. I failed in my efforts to transform this association’s polity, although I do take credit for raising its prominence as a worthwhile general focus. As I prepare to turn 63, to help my wife (yes, after a lifetime of bisexual wanderings, I finally landed on this side of the fence) confront her revolutionary self-management of advanced Huntington’s Disease, those of you who come after are my comfort. If I made less and less effort to write, and became more and more of a lurker, in large part it is because your voices began to open parts of my mind and soul in ways too new and exciting to limit by language. Still, I do live in covenant, so if it helps, here’s my little offering.
With prayers for us all, especially the victims in both of our disastrous ministerial implosions.
Perhaps you hadn’t noticed that the pitchers and catchers of Major League Baseball have gotten back to camp, back on the field, back on tv. Perhaps you’ve been so busy with politics — and so concerned about what’s happening with our government — that you’re thinking this is the season to give baseball a miss.
Might I suggest that would be a mistake. Here’s my story: back in the day, along with attending (sometimes) high school, I spent a good 20 hours every week working against the US War in Southeast Asia. Guerrilla theater, petition drives, leafleting, training marshals for marches locally and in DC — there was plenty to get done. My other interests in those days were equally passionate: religious community, women’s liberation, poetry, love affairs, and the all-important constant criticism of my parents. Life swirled by at a fevered pace, and all of it required my firm moral judgment.
But more often than you’d expect, this radical could be seen in a regular Cincinnati Reds tee-shirt, sitting through the national anthem but otherwise carrying on like everyone else in that red Republican town. More often than you’d expect, you’d find me at home in the evening with my mom, listening to the game, chatting over each player’s contributions and errors, whether the manager was mistaken (seldom), and how the primary players on the opposition teams were faring.
Far more often than you’d expect, from my somewhat delicate feminine face, you’d hear the most vile condemnations of an organization called The Los Angeles Dodgers. They were our only serious rival for leadership in the National League West, we played them quite a bit, and not one of those innings could be taken for granted. There were other fierce rivals, of course — the Cardinals, the Pirates, the Braves, the Phillies, especially — but none of them drew our bile quite like the Dodgers.
And all those curses, those evil wishes, those boos, those hisses, and jeers, played a vital role in my successful political participation. In every demonstration, in every setting, a great many of the people who held my views expressed them by spewing hatred of someone else in the social, political, or religious realm. My aspiration, following both Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in my mind, even Jesus of Nazareth, was to hate the sin but not the sinner. To oppose the position but not the person who held it. To intervene against the policy but not demean the humanity of folks who felt that policy was best.
This was not as easy as it might seem, even for a detached intellectual like myself. Hatred turns out to be a human need, no different from food or water. It’s right up there with sex and an occasional sojourn in nature. It welled up inside me quite a bit, and for that, I had the Los Angeles Dodgers. I remember once watching them in a play-off game against the Phillies. My mom came in and asked who in the world I might be rooting for. “A lot of injuries,” was my answer.
I gave myself rules for this vicious baseball hatred. The world was a smaller place then, and it was possible to run into major league players downtown. If I ran into a Dodger (subjunctive mood, it never happened), I would not allow myself to spit or jeer. If one of the Dodgers actually got hurt, I stood with respect as anyone else might do. Baseball has its civility, and its function in terms of the Dodgers was to remind me that I was a pacifist.
Over the last few decades, my loyalties have traveled, but settled in on the Boston Red Sox. Then, in the late 2000s, I fell in love with a Yankee fan. For several years, I’ve had no major baseball hatred in my life. She speaks so nicely about the Sox, and indeed, I’ve gotten rather fond of many players in pinstripes. It’s all become quire low-key, this baseball rivalry in our house.
But these are trying times. As the pitchers and catchers settle in, I’m looking for a team to hate as much as I hated the Dodgers. I need it. Someone to wish into a baseball gutter, to jeer with ugly, dripping sneers when they take the field. I need them because I refuse to stoop to that level in discussing our president, his party, nor the people who put them in office. If this country is to have any future, someone has got to take the first step in modeling an admirable minority position. It doesn’t mean staying quiet on issues, it doesn’t mean keeping calm in the face of outrage. It just means remembering that most of these people are honorable, patriotic, decent in many ways, and, frankly, probably just as confused as the rest of us about what the future holds.
But if I’m going to keep this cool in what looks to be a long, hot summer, it’s going to take a scapegoat from major league baseball to keep me stable. At this point, I’m considering the St. Louis Cardinals as my fall guys. They fight both the Red Sox and Red Legs valiantly, and the weather in their river town is horrible.
Those are pretty good reasons to hate someone immeasurably — aren’t they?
Perhaps it is inevitable that a historian who immerses herself in marriage will succumb to the attractions of genealogy. How much better when matters genealogical start intersecting with my ongoing recreational scholarly deep dive, which has made its way back to medieval English history. But X marked a surprising spot: not in England, but Germanic sources on the continent. Yes, most of my forebears were German, but, more amazingly, so is my religion: England was just a byway. Unitarianism came from Arianism, and it did so because the Arians sent evangelists into the Gothic and Vandal tribes who sacked Rome. Others of these evangelists found fertile ground with Constantine, the Eastern Roman Emperor, and among the Slavs who became so many of his subjects.
So much of what Harvard taught me about Unitarian history thus proves wrong. It was not primarily a religion for Western Europe’s educated classes, leaping to brilliant rejections of Roman Catholic superstition — rather, it was a superstition of its own. People learned it from others –way back in the fading years of the Roman Empire — and passed it on the same way. It survived in places to which it was driven, from whence it emerged when able. It became the language of educated English middle classes, so far as I can tell, because that’s who conducted the wool trade by which it finally crossed the English Channel. In England, I’m guessing, it settled in as a working class religion because the fabric trade engendered an industrial enclave.
I can’t help noticing the importance of this discovery to the current political plight of progressive politics. The Unitarian disdain for evangelism is best summed up in the old saw about the Beacon Bill newcomer who admired the hat of a grande dame. Where, inquired the newcomer, had the resident bought her hat? “We do not buy hats,” sniffed the matron, “We have hats.” So it is with our beliefs: if you have to ask how and where to get them, perhaps you will not fit in among us. Maybe that explains the self-conversion culture of the Unitarian Universalism of my youth and young adult years. More importantly, perhaps this explains why we do not trouble ourselves with all those lesser down-ballot and off-year elections by which the evangelism-driven conservatives have tied us up in knots. To knock on doors and introduce yourself to neighbors, to step down from the pedestal of international world peace and talk about fixing sidewalks — it turns out these are things our Arian forebears would have done — and did — which is why we have our Unitarian religion today.
II always wondered how the theories of an aged bishop in North Africa landed in North America 13 centuries later and blossomed into this imperfect but aspirational democracy. What happened in between? Was this some weird religious locust, emerging only when the climate allowed, even after so much time had passed? Historians debate two models: continuous and discontinuous. I’ve done enough gardening, tended enough children, done enough genealogy and genograms, to believe there is no such thing as radical discontinuity.So my religious roots appear to be more natural, less rebellious than my adolescent ego ever suspected. Not only does this apply to me, but to my religion itself.
Today I did something I haven’t done for a year or more — I read the UU (Unitarian Universalist) World soon after it landed in our mailbox. I did not read it out of duty or professional commitment; for the first time in months, it beckoned my heart. Strange confession from someone officially categorized as a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, but an honest marker that perhaps my life has completed this latest circle at last.
Just over two years ago, as the sun marked its longest day in the northern hemisphere, I sat in front of an invited congregation and altered the very polity of my life. In short, I got married. Till that moment, polity changes were something I suggested, cajoled, imposed on others from an autonomous and somewhat superior detached position. From that moment on, polity changes rewrote my life so radically that for most of the time I wondered who I would be when the ride was over. for in taking the spouse my heart chose, I surrendered my life not only to her, but also to whatever her Huntington’s Disease would cast upon us together.
Marriage has been a wonderful polity advancement, except for this disease. She galloped up the aisle already in the grip of Stage Four, but with disciplined athleticism has pounded into every achievement physical therapy can offer. She doesn’t speak much these days, and not clearly when she does, but her mind and guts ring as strong as ever. Yesterday she reminded me that I had promised to take her to see the latest Star Trek movie in a theater. We spend lots of our time consuming news stories and listening to author talks and history lectures on C-Span, which ramps up my long ago international studies pursuits.
Pouring myself into her care, in order to continue enjoying her companionship, redirected the polity of my life into the community of people struggling with this and similar movement disorders/neurodegenerative diseases. For a long time, this diversion scared me. Could I retain my ties to UUism — especially without the means to attend Sunday worship (which I deeply, passionately miss)? If I spent so little time discussing UUism, imbibing its culture and habits, would it fall away from disuse?
Much to my amazement, UUism retained its ties to me. The Care Network checks on us regularly, and can be relied upon to keep her cheery and valued on the few occasions I tear myself away. Our contact visitor even came over and weeded one of our gardens one hot summer day, asking nothing in return! Meanwhile, a project I worked on years ago has become relevant again, and a small self-appointed subcommittee of the Women’s Alliance (my chosen small group ministry) has rallied to keep me either motivated or urged, while still respecting the challenges of the disease.
What completed that circle has been the addition of a marvelously self-reliant and highly-trained caregiver. My wife plans to stay at home for her entire journey with the disease, but having 34 hours a week of support and even replacement lets me get out of the same house. Mostly I just go into a separate part of it and read catalogs, watch Netflix documentaries and BBC murder mysteries. These I choose for their filming locations, and call them “scenery stories.” It turns out that lots of people do this, because you can go online and find out exactly where these places are, should you choose to visit. What I like is being able to visit them by going into another room, bringing my wife along, as it were, without leaving home.
But in this, our third year of marriage, when August brought its turn toward autumn and the back-to-school sales splashed over the screens, something familiar connected inside my circuits. Our Huntington’s Disease Support Association Walk takes place October 1, which means I have work to do in my new community. But there’s a Women’s Alliance meeting the first Wednesday of September, and this year, that feels like another place my new/old self belongs.