The United States of America Is An International Accomplishment

Watching the rebels in Libya struggle against their well-armed dictator, my thoughts return frequently to the real history of the liberation of our own country — the United States of America– from the imperial forces of Great Britain.

Mythmakers love the story of New England farmers taking their hunting guns, hiding behind walls and firing at the soldiers.  Of the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion — down in the Carolinas — leading them on soggy chases through bogs.  Of a ragtag, ill-fed group shivering through a brutal Pennsylvania winter, soothed in part by soup from the other-wise aristocratic Martha Washington.

In fact, while all these things are true and admirable, the British were not quite the sad-sacks these legends portray.  In point of fact, our war for liberation, like the one in Libya, had a long, ugly, indecisive middle.  Support for independence has been estimated at a 1/3 1/3 1/3 split, with “doesn’t really concern me” running neck and neck with support for each side.   The British Navy ensconced itself well along the Eastern seaboard (yes, Evacuation Day in Boston really is March 17, that is not an excuse for St. Patrick’s Day parades) and when they started fighting its way down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River back entrance, things looked pretty grim.

Those farmers and swamp runners could not win this war by themselves.  We needed exactly the same things that the Libyan rebels need today: military training skills (George Washington WAS good, but could not be everywhere) and foreign military assistance.

At such a moment, a few of us might be remembering Lafayette, whose name is everywhere.  But the benefactor we should remember today, when considering the Libyan situation, is Thaddeus Kosciuszko.  A Polish freedom fighter of ambivalent nationality — because in those days, there were no passports, and many of today’s nations were only cultural constructs pulled apart by warring ruling families — in other words, when European realities resembled those of the Middle East today — he came to North America to provide the endless hours of drilling and forming which turn a rebel militia into victorious armies.

Few Americans today remember Kosciuzko, in part because his name seems hard to pronounce.  Koz-eeOOH-sko is what I remember, and I’ve seen it spelled that way phonetically.  However you say it, his story today poses a challenge to us, as we debate our policy toward Libyan rebels.  His arrival and work gave us the greatest gift most of us have: a free and fairly open nation.  Are we going to treat that as something we deserved, or a Pay It Forward model to take seriously?

My mind and heart are not yet reconciled on this one.  Intellectually, I know that there is much to lose, particularly by our military, if we choose to expand our assistance to the rebels.  Here I have to praise President Obama, for he seems to have a genuine international coalition to work with, for which he worked and waited.  The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, did a great job of stating clearly to the Congress that this will not be easy, it will not be Shock and Awe and easy victory.  We have troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq, and no assurance that there will be no long-term support required in either one.   And none of the so-called “rich nations” supporting this effort has the stomach to call for national sacrifice — and taxation — required to conquer both dictators abroad and recession at home.

But on the other hand, I can’t help feeling that this might be the very thing to get our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq with better long-term effect.   Both were victims of a bad neighborhood, as much as of their own histories; in fact, both probably had better prospects before outside economic and political  parasites invaded them to support their own international goals during the 20th century.  But those invasions are rapidly being superceded by a new educated indigenous class who are ready to take back their national destinies — as nations.  They remind me (and this is no coincidence, it’s partly geography of the Italian patriots who so inspired Unitarian foremother Margaret Fuller, in the 1840s.  Just as the Italians struggled to unite as a nation by overthrowing warring local noblehouses, so these new patriots in North Africa are trying to throw out ruling clans, even sects, by proclaiming overarching values like democracy and secularism.

It sounds familiar.

So who are we in all this?  Sometimes taking care of the whole street means raising prospects for the weakest families who live on it.  Healthiness, it turns out, is as contagious as illness.  Perhaps closing that Arc of Opportunity along the Libyan coast is exactly what it will take to progress the stalemates to which our military have so valiantly worked and sacrificed — as did their predecessors almost two and a half centuries ago.

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The Courage to Do Local History

Not that I would downplay the importance of knowing our own congregational histories, but in writing one of them, I have found that local history — the context in which my forebears operated — has completely upended what I thought I knew about Unitarian Universalism.  I do not mean on the fancy level where some of my own historiography takes place, with Ivy League degrees and prominent historians as grandfathers.  Here I speak of this faith tradition as taught to me in New UU and sermons.  The stuff we repeat among ourselves and tell to others.  And after working in three different localities as a UU historian, I can tell you frankly that some of who we think we are is just plain not true.

In particular, we are NOT a prophetic religion politically.  And the reason we do not fund or enjoy learning our history is because our history does not justify an aspiration in that direction.   There is nothing unique, through most European presence in the United States, about how Unitarians and Universalists have envisioned and worked to improve society. Liberal?  Yes — in many ways.  But not radically utopian.  To promote this myth, we have abandoned the liberal faith mission in which our forebears invested their lives to create a new core mission — and thereby thrown out most of our elders.

Whenever we tell this story, that our tradition consists, at its heart, of a few radical progressive visionaries, we commit two mortal sins.

The first sin we commit is against ourselves.  This myth of our political progressivism de-lists a great many genuine co-religionists.  These were women and men and children who subscribed to non-radical views about the proper organization of society but sought freedom for personal freedom in matters of God and religion.  Especially in the last fifty years, as theology about God and worship as a bonding force have lost any presence among us, the exodus has been cataclysmic.  People we have known and loved simply lost interest in hearing their carefully-considered social views described as sins, week after week, with a casually self-righteous sense that “this is what all of us believe.”   I am not talking about the radical extremists of segregation by race, class, gender, age, etc, but the gradualists and the pragmatists who insist on calling attention to the flaws, costs and heartaches which are inevitable when a society undertakes fundamental change too quickly, too philosophically as opposed to proceeding carefully, with pragmatic and pastoral pauses.

The second sin we commit is to erase from the picture of secular social progress a great many people whose views of God and worship are different from ours, but whose social and political views have agreed with our radical visionaries.   Did our radicals influence their radicals?  Certainly yes.  But did that make them our co-religionists?  To say so is to insult their consciences, their genuine faith in a different type of God and worship than our forebears held, even at that time.

Selma?  If we were there in such force, who are all those other folks, in collars and dark skin, who composed the vast sea upon which a few of us bobbed?  Where were we the first week?

Abolition of slavery?  If we were such prophets, why does the North Star above the Ohio River mark the home of a Presbysterian minister?  As refugees struggled up the Champlain Valley, why were they harbored by Quakers and, here in Burlington, a Calvinist?  Why was John Brown an avid evangelical Christian?  This was no Unitarian or Universalist prophetic stance, but a community of radicals, drawn from many faith communities.

I need hardly mention that when it comes to the questions of war and opposition to war, Unitarians and Universalists have varied wildly among ourselves, as well as over time.  And in each case, we have found allies for our political positions not so much within the pews on Sunday as in meetings, rallies and political campaigns we share with other faiths.  The Society of Friends.  Seventh Day Adventists.  Even the North American Roman Catholic bishops and holy orders have often stood against war more firmly than their parishioners.  For what its worth, these are faiths whose commitment to radical political views gains genuine endurance from an unwillingness to tamper severely with the bedrock consolations of God and worship.

The only position I can see where we have truly stood prophetically is full equal rights and dignity for same sex relationships and diversity of gender identifications, up to and including equal marriage and gender reassignment.   And it comes as no surprise that it rests on a solid theological proposition — marriage as sacred covenant (as opposed to “an institution ordained by God”)– which we have held and reaffirmed repeatedly since our modern re-birth in the Radical Reformation.

This has been a hard learning for me.  Like many UUs, I came into this faith community because I needed political and cultural collegiality to feel affirmed on Sunday mornings.  To gain that community, I was willing for many years to suppress as private my more conservative views of God and worship.  So what if I was a UU Christian?  How did my petty personal spiritual needs matter as much as the injustices placed on others by a rigidly segregated and corporatized society?

And for that time and place, that hierarchy of priorities was probably accurate.  But even in Cincinnati, one of the most politically conservative cities in the nation, that is no longer a uniquely UU mission.  My mother’s Presbyterian congregation, for instance, takes great pride in national leadership as that denomination grapples with equal marriage.   There are now more gay couples openly living outside the major cities than in them.  And African Americans are moving back to the South in record numbers, undoing the Great Migration they once embodied.

These times are different.  The change process has landed us in a different space, resembling other eras, and presenting other challenges.  To do our history now, and find the forebears we need to understand to embrace this era,  our first step must be to undo the sins of those recent oversimplified denominational definitions.

And to do that, we need to re-partition those social movements in which we take such pride.  No longer is it accurate to call them denominational — which is why so many of us are now involved in interfaith community efforts which use one-on-one community organizing to cross religious boundaries.

And likewise, no longer are we served by keeping our UU forebears of different political views outside our community of faith — past or present.  Yes, there will be some who are never congenial to us, for segregations and superficial labels have no place in universalism.  They are partialisms, as fully as any other.  But few of our forebears are going to land fully inside those camps.  Most will be more ambiguous, more diverse in their personal views, once we congregational historians are able to learn their names and find enough records to learn their real stories.  In my political days, I scorned genealogy as an overemphasis on transient flesh.  Now I know it is the key to recovering the witness of souls whose good was interr’d with their bones.

As I have wrestled with this loss — which is genuine to me, and does not, in fact, change my political views in any way — an old story has provided consolation, over again.  It makes me laugh, it makes me cry.  It tells me, above all, that there’s an acceptable human universality in wanting to locate oneself before adding in others.  I assure you, it took place in my life, and has not been embellished in any way.

Back in 1979 or 1980, on a clear sunny afternoon, fairly warm, I sat on a large but nearly empty jet airplane, riding the 90 minutes from Cincinnati, Ohio to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.  A happy-sad ride, the end of another family respite from my graduate studies at Columbia.  My fellow passengers were few: a couple of bored businessmen, and a husband and wife with a son of about five or six years and a daughter of less than one.  I could tell that this young man was the serious, self-disciplined type, for he amused himself with books and such while the parents made sure the baby had a good flight.  A nervous flier myself, I marveled at the young man’s composure, and even occasionally steeled myself to look out the window.  Sometimes on flights like this, we could see the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline.  It was always worth the shock of remembering we were up in the air.

Bummer.  New Jersey.  A sea of rooftops, neatly arrayed around streets which had character only to their residents and public servants.   The size of New York’s sprawl never ceased to amaze me.  Never ceased to bore me.  Thank God I did not live in suburbia.

And all of a sudden, this young man began to shout to his parents, with his first full-bodied excitement of the whole hour.  “I see our house!  I see our house!”  He shook them and pointed.  They politely pretended to agree.

I looked again.  What street, what rooftop, got him going?  What was this kid thinking?

Perhaps that entire community was “our house” to him.

Perhaps “our house” was to him a generic unit, details unimportant.

Perhaps he really had searched out a configuration of cul-de-sac or cross-street that made him feel at home.

A genealogist, two hundred years from now, might rejoice with such vague information about his home at the age of dawning knowledge — sufficient to establish the birth and death dates, maybe even the professional status of his family.  But a biographer or local historian would not stop here.  To us, that cul-de-sac, that network of streets and shops, would be simply a narrow passage through which, at last, to enter that family’s fuller reality.

Each congregation is full of that child, and that family, over and over again.  Each of us wants first to recognize our own home in the sea of rooftops.  But we are wrong to blot out the other rooftops which comprise other people’s whole lives — and then say we know our religious history.

Lent Means Slow Down

Somehow the Holy Spirit gave me a good look at myself the other day, and instead of the usual despair and denial, provided a bit of an answer.  My morning routine on the computer is pretty well set, but it emphasizes getting a quick look at a lot of stuff, reading and recommending a few newspaper articles, and then moving on.  It’s timed for that, and lets me get into the kitchen for breakfast at the exact moment I’ve drunk my two measured cups of tea.

But over the course of a week, this practice generates a long tail of emails marked “keep as new,” waiting, waiting for their deeper examination in a moment that never comes.  Or I get hasty and delete stuff that later I wish I had kept.  And my primary in-box keeps flashing that its queue is overloaded and likely to start blocking incoming traffic.

So it’s a system — which is good — but it doesn’t work.  And the reason it doesn’t work is because I don’t make time for filing.

Who is this Holy Spirit, who has led me not so much to see the need for filing (anyone can see that!) but to yearn for it, and now, to see some processes?  In good congregational fashion, it’s my current religious community — the Facebook friends who have been either filing or cleaning their offices or completely giving up Facebook in order to do something more meaningful.  It’s my roommate, who doesn’t consider her computer routines complete until she has filed each message in an appropriate folder.  It’s my sister-in-law once removed, who has one computer window daily, every morning, after which she goes on to other things.  (I note that she does seem to check for emergency emails from time to time in the afternoon, because she has answered one recently.)

Thanks to them, I am going to limit (not give up) my FB and other computer wanderings in order to spend time filing my messages.

I’ve already done a bit of cleaning.

My problem is figuring out the filing system to use.  Much of my research these days is online, and therefore, I am developing stray papers and folders and even bookmarks on topics of interest.  What is to be done about these?

And if it goes really well, I hope to shift some of my old Politywonk posts from Livejournal over here, deleting the rest and closing out the account.

Sounds like too much to be a spiritual practice.  But spiritual practice means taking small snippets on a regular basis, not so much to “finish” anything as to strengthen ourselves for large projects God puts in front of us.

And the reason this is Lenten work, not just office work, is because cleaning old papers is so emotional.   It brings you face to face with things you wanted to do and didn’t have time for.  People you no longer keep in touch with the way you wish you did.  Projects that fell by the wayside. Great quotes and paragraphs that got cut out of sermons or prayers and never found their way into another one.  In short, the mortality of the mind.

When our Puritan forebears wrote about “mutual religious edification,” this is what they meant: learning from each other’s best offerings in order to better ourselves.  To strengthen our hearts for the pain life sends our direction.  Support for our consciences, to do what is hard to do.

Thank you, democratic congregationalism.

Thank You, Holy Spirit.

Ash Wednesday

It’s that time again.  In past years, I have rebelliously attended various Christian trinitarian services — usually Roman Catholic — in the morning, to display my smudge before the UU heathen (non Christians) all day long.  One beneficial side effect of this wandering was hearing the most bizarre homily I have ever experienced for any occasion.  It was a Roman Catholic priest doing a tremendous exposition on William Faulkner in a public housing parish.  As I sat there, having had many highly educated explanations of Faulkner, and still not understanding either his literature or that homily, I mostly wondered how my fellow worshipers were doing.

But not today.  This year, I am holding before me the memory of my year in Singapore (1981-82) and the fourth week of Ramadan with my Muslim friends.  As the month of fasting wore on, they got more and more tired.  They were also isolated, forced to sit, ever more quietly, at their desks, avoiding the midday equatorial sun, and any unnecessary exertion.  I often chose to sit in with them, not eating in front of them, of course, but at least trying to lessen their social isolation. It was a leveler, as well, for regardless of their station in our office hierarchy, the hunger and resting was the same for them all.

And as their exhaustion became palpable in those office refuges, Idh assumed a different character as well.   Although they shopped and looked forward to new clothes, lavish food, decorating their houses, their plans vibrated with an undercurrent of resurrection.  They would be eating again, going out for lunch, mixing in the larger society.  Strength would return with a week of replenishing nourishment.  Neither our Christmas nor Easter has that vibration any more, unless you keep the old Lent, which so few of us do.

Such fasts have so often been derided as an enemy of liberalism, because they cut self-empowerment.  And no one has taken a bigger beating on the politically repressive usefulness of ritual than the ummah, that is, the Muslim community.

But this year, it is they who have reminded us that without practicing sacrifice among our rituals, we will not be prepared when the moment for high risk arrives.  Without practicing sacrifice among our rituals, we will have no meaning to ascribe when death claims victims in pursuit of a higher cause.  Without practicing sacrifice among our rituals, in short, we lose the very self-empowerment we claim the sacrifice eviscerates.

I’m still not quite sure what I’m giving up for Lent, mostly because my life as a caregiver seems a pretty constant sacrifice in itself.  But I do know that I can only do this because I remember all those years at King’s Chapel, washing each other’s work-tired feet on Maundy Thursday, trudging into the sanctuary for all five services of Triduum — and even gathering at the Parker House Hotel, those several years ago, to reaffirm our congregational right to choose and evaluate our minister (over and against the Trustees, who own the property and endowment).

So this year, you can’t see my Ash Wednesday.  It’s a picture before me — not a sign before you — of tired, hungry professionals, counting the days until their fast would end.  Faithfully shoring each other up, regardless of rank or gender, in the midst of a multifaith society.

The Direction of Inspiration

I’ve been using the luxury of snowbound time to catch up on the controversy over district authority in the UUA.  Should they [District Executives] be accountable to two boards, the district and the UUA?  Should they be accountable to one or the other?

Before I run out to buy more groceries for tomorrow’s snowstorm, I want to boil the whole thing down to a single question: to whom is God speaking about what this religion ought to be doing?

I am using “God” in that very loose sense to which four decades in this faith community entitles me.  It can be your still, small voice within, it can be the fortuitous discovery of needs and assets in your little corner of the chaos, it can be a benevolent parent or grandparent, it can be a pleasing hum in the atmosphere that you’ve been thinking might be medically diagnosable if you had the right doctor.

So, let me repeat the question:  “to whom is God speaking about what this religion ought to be doing?”

If  God is speaking directly to the people, it seems to me that communication would be flowing up, not down.

If God is speaking directly to the UUA Board and our President — in a way that God does not speak to the rest of us — then perhaps we need to make that more clear in our Bylaws, which says that their sole purpose is to serve the congregations — whose purpose, in turn, is to provide a democratic habitat in which their spirits might thrive.

The model behind current proposals from the UUA Board used to be called “republicanism,” that is, governance by emissaries (elected or appointed — if they are elected, it is called “democratic republicanism”) on behalf of those less capable or available to manage their own public affairs.  Historically it has been associated with a patronizing concern that the average person cannot make good decisions on big questions, reinforced by a determined denial of all resources by which said average person might show their capabilities.

It is not what I support, advocate, or believe about our own, or any other faith community.

How soon can we set up our own Tahrir Square?  Where is our place to gather, not for others, but for ourselves?