Time to Pull the Plug?

From where I sit, the biggest flaw I see in the US Constitution today is that it has no way to expel those who seek to undo the operations of the government put into place by its checks and balances. 

And it’s probably too late. Incredulous that adult-looking people would not agree with our worldview, liberals and moderates allowed the insertion of worms into various government agencies and offices. Heads were appointed whose mission was to “end this department.” 

We peacenik environmentalists had no way to call them out. Our temperament, our philosophies, our theologies urged us to work harder at the very make-nice, build-consensus idealism that they had already learned to exploit. Like well-meaning parents whose child brings home a ne’er-do-well fiance,  we told ourselves that “reality” would make them our kind of adult.  Once these leaders got into their offices, learned the requirements of the system, digested the facts gathered in its records, visited its clients, communed with its professionals, they would understand the importance of what we had entrusted to them. They would learn to work for this common good.

But they knew the danger in that process, had seen once-promising leaders co-opted by the system. So they developed institutions and scholars to generate their own facts. They cultivated policies that generated their own clients. To support it, they consecrated themselves to a completely separate house of communion. Thus armed, they came to their treasonous work.

From their new positions, they and their clients fostered new facts and professionals. Now, instead of touring the constituencies and field offices, visiting the workers, they called on their own self-minted scientists. What were once useful media centers, reporting on the tension between people and capital, received funding from this spider web, personal relationships with certain spiders. Local media, linked to people and businesses with less and less power, fewer and fewer resources, withered away. We who attempt to find information are now consigned to watching a puppet show between special interest networks, with no way to cut the strings of the fraud.

It is now long ago that I was trained as a parish minister. And one of the toughest things I had to learn was that sometimes your ministry will face a well-meaning, tender-hearted, violence-abhorring parishioner who is being sucked dry by a family member who will not confront their own addiction. They keep up the facade of a good pledge while privately weeping that they’re losing money to this relative who steals the cash and credit cards while everyone else is watching football at Thanksgiving. And as a parish minister, it was my job to steer this person into Al-Anon, to insist that they ought to confront their own weakness as an enabler and co-dependent.

Yes, brothers and sisters, it is time to look at these despoilers as the myth-addicted money-suckers they are. Tea Partiers take more from the federal purse than they put in it, and then have the nerve to challenge us lefties for our role in running up the deficit. 

Ever the scholar — and with family in the South and a birth certificate that says, “Atlanta, Georgia” — I am happy to have found a book that explains this myth more clearly than all the sociology and materialism in the world. I encourage everyone to take a look at Lillian E. Smith’s “Killers of the Dream,” first published in 1940 and reissued in the 1990s. Although Indiebound lists it as anthropology, it was in fact a pioneering memoir, eschewing personal stories to focus on the social formation of post-Confederate Southern white mythology. She gives far more attention to the roles of women and womanhood than was common in that era. She makes little distinction between the do-good White liberals like her own family and the worst of the racists, citing each as a component in maintaining the destructive family and social cycles. To be honest, she could have written it last week.

But we here in Vermont are not those people, at least not heavily. And like that well-meaning, heart-broken parishioner, we can only address our own role in supporting the addiction of a family member, or make a choice to quit doing so. All it takes is one look at the federal tax tables to see that our role in running up the deficit is that we keep giving money to this odd lot of parasites, ignoramuses, and traitors. We keep talking about “holding Washington together” when, in fact, it has already fallen apart. We need to “follow the money” and figure out how to cut the purse strings.

When my religion, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, looked at the cost of an excessive permissiveness for individual license during the 1970s and early 1980s, we admitted that we needed covenants among ourselves. And that covenants were not enough. We needed Codes of Right Relations, and, occasionally, the ability to expel someone who violated these right relations. We needed to know how to protect the children in our Sunday Schools if someone showed up on our grounds in violation of a court injunction. We needed to know how to secure, count, and deposit our collection plates in order that all the money got where the donors intended it should go.

It is no accident that little Vermont, one of the nation’s leftiest, trustingest jurisdictions, also has a high rate of embezzlement in its governments, its nonprofits, its businesses — heck, even a police officer managed to pull one off for several years. Our myth is that we know our neighbors, we trust Vermonters. That’s the illusion we’re trying to maintain, and it’s just as damaging as the one Smith describes overspreading the South.

It’s time to get serious about the embezzlers in our nation’s capital, for that is what these people are. Just as we no longer support repeated rebuilds in flood plains, we have to get serious about how certain demogogic policies are robbing our national treasuries. 

For this is really what the Tea Party’s last stand is all about: self defense efforts by those bullies who have turned our bureaucracies into a vacuum cleaner of US Treasury assets. Night and day, they are establishing programmatic decisions, implementation loopholes, and special interest contracts that we liberals are having to pay for. One of the biggest wasters is private health insurance, so it’s no accident that the medical-insurance profiteers have hoodwinked well-meaning religious individualists as the scapegoats in the fight to defeat reforms that maintain profits while killing the very loved ones these folks think they’re fighting to defend.

This country is way past the point of trying to persuade our opponents that we read the Constitution better than they do. That effort is somewhat as if the enabler asks the family addict to take DNA test before the next holiday. Debating what Jefferson and Madison intended literally is avoiding what they made explicit: the quest for a coherent, adaptable union. 

I am writing in anger, as a small coterie of parasites prepare to shut down the federal government, ostensibly over the Affordable Care Act. But that is only the tactical goal at this time. Rather like an urban street gang which uses family violence to coerce silence and recruit enablers, their real goal is the growth of their own power. When police departments face a rash of drug deaths or shooting deaths, or both, one tool in their arsenal is “the warrant sweep,” in which they identify the leaders and go after them for even the smallest traffic violation. Things quiet down for awhile.

The President needs to lay out the warrants on the states and districts whose policy follies are draining both personal and public treasuries. I want him to criticize the federal cost when families lack access to preventive care, when constituents go bankrupt due to insurance-self-protection clauses, when unhealthy practices masquerading as “culture” drive up death rates among people who should be working, raising families, fixing up homes.

Faced with the same group of myth-blinded citizens 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln found a way to get them to secede. They have no reason to do so now. On the contrary, they appear to have won the peace at long last. Lincoln said he would save the union by any means possible, knowing it meant the sacrifice of thousands of healthy individuals. Are we willing, now, to pay that price again?

The Real issue, Bare and Ugly

Thanks to Reverend Wendy von Zirpolo for alerting us non-Heartlanders to the new pronouncement out of Michigan:

“One of the paramount purposes of marriage in Michigan — and at least 37 other states that define marriage as a union between a man and a woman — is, and has always been, to regulate sexual relationships between men and women so that the unique procreative capacity of such relationships benefits rather than harms society.” — MI Attorney General on behalf of Gov. Rick Snyder. 

This is wrong in so many ways that we’re gonna have to do a little list:

1) The first issue is eugenics. That is, a dominant subgroup has decided some other group needs to be eliminated. At its worst, this means sterilization – which we tried up here in Vermont in the early twentieth century (as did many other states) and now deeply regret. It is still, generations later, one reason our genuine cultural minorities hold back on proclaiming their heritage, whether French or First Nation, unless it is one of the preferred groups. 

2) One step down from eugenic sterilization is restricted marriage, in the hope that weaker gene pools will interbreed, fade, fail, and die out. That is one reason lynchers focused not on the weakest members of local minority communities, but on their leaders, their strongest. For the success of these business people, family members, church leaders, disproved the belief that some races or cultures were inevitably inferior to the self-appointed dominant culture.

3) But most advocates of one-man-one-woman don’t have any of this in mind. They are just trying to control their own children and grandchildren. Their personal American Dream is a large house filled with loving children, successfully raised, married, and now presenting them with even-more-admirable grandchildren.  This is not just an American Dream: this hope of living through later generations are universal among species who cannot even speak the word hope. Among humans, it transcends religion, race, culture: the dream of offspring passing on one’s own best self as one defines that. It’s about that last living sermon or warning, not from one’s own lips, but through one’s grandkids.

4) And if that’s too abstract for you, here’s what might be the strongest motivation: people need a set of measures around which to organize their lives, measure their own progress. Despite all the brave talk of introverts, idealists, and people on the autism spectrum, for most of us, the only way we climb these ladders is in the eyes of others. How few of us can pick ourselves up without support from others, without encouragement when we’re discouraged, without praise when we’ve done well. Even more important is praise for trying on the many occasions we fail ourselves. Messing with the definition of marriage deprives many people of the only ladder on which they still believe they have any kind of foothold: a healthy, happy, self-perpetuating family.

So it is good that we who support all families have shifted our language from “same sex” marriage — which does indeed sound like a gay agenda to folks who see laws as guides for behavior — to “equal marriage.” What we need to do now is take the next step, and start referring to it as “covenantal marriage.” Some traditionalists have a different meaning for this term, which describes ways of making it harder to divorce. That is not what I speak of here. I refer to the Reformation (not just Radical Reformation) term which defines marriage as a legally binding, freely-made, publicly-honored agreement between two adults. 

For people who want to choose their own grandchildren, this is the scariest part of all: their children’s right to choose. But as anyone can tell, except in the most oppressive cultures, children DO choose. And smart parents adjust, accept, and, eventually embrace. Not because their child has necessarily made the wisest choice in the world, but because otherwise, the elder might not get to spend so much time with the grandkids. And that is what leads them to shift the approval they themselves wanted as struggling young adults — for social prestige — to the deeper, more glorious glow of love in those young people’s faces, each time the grandparent walks through the door.

Unitarian Universalist Pastoral Ministry

Unitarian Universalist Pastoral Ministry

Back when I had fantasies of writing UU history books, I spent several months in thrall to the shining idol of capturing our journey with pastoral care. The method can be summarized succinctly: we have relied on the Reformation model of a husband-wife ministry, in which the father handles the major theological issues, polity, and authority, while the minister’s sweet wife — or sometimes a talented son or daughter — handles pastoral care. It is my firm contention that the reason ministerial salaries have gone down over the past few decades is that the end of this model deprives congregations of an efficient team ministry, and they have adjusted their prices accordingly.

But what is this pastoral care minister doing? And when we describe some of our male ministers — some in every era — as models of pastoral presence, to what are we referring? They are not out trying to align people’s theologies, because we don’t do that. We are not necessarily trying to get them back into the faith, because you can’t really slide out of an all-encompassing, interconnected cosmic energy or divinity (thank you, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for giving us our visions from the Upanishads, when Professor Muller first translated them).

The best description of Unitarian Universalist pastoral care comes from the Prophet Isaiah, in the 45th chapter, beginning at 19b:

 I the Lord speak the truth,
I declare what is right.

Idols Cannot Save Babylon

20 Assemble yourselves and come together,
draw near, you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge—
those who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
that cannot save.

21 Declare and present your case;
let them take counsel together!

Here are the key elements:

1) When someone feels their life has descended into chaos, recognize that they have lost their sense of connection with God, and are vulnerable to the quest for identifiable wooden idols. We we are looking for people whose worlds are breaking down, or shattered.

2) God is Truth, not God is God. This is key. Somewhere inside this person resides a core of belief, a vision of a harmonized, self-nurturing life process.  The pastoral ministry is to support this person’s recovery of the ability to see, feel, and witness that inner vision.

3) You have such a vision (whether or not you are ordained) and your job is not to impose it, but simply to state it as yours.

4) Having presented your case, you let the person talk out their issues, work it out, with your assistance and guidance.

This, of course, is what clergy of every basically liberal faith are taught to do in Clinical Pastoral Care Education, which is why it is demanded of everyone who enters our formal ministry.

So if this is everyone’s model, why do we not claim it, use it, and pay for it?

Simple answer: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pragmatism diverted us from the ministry as a vehicle for resolving people’s problems. If they had lost their inner truth, therapists were better able to provide that special assistance. If they were struggling with real world issues, our roots in civil religious duty called us to support their political requests, or, if we were hands-on types, to build a service-delivery vehicle through private philanthropy.

So there’s the book summary. Everything else is just footnotes and stories.


It’s been that month when a death in the family puts everything else into an extremely last place in line. My partner’s mother was 86 1/2, did not suffer long with her cancer, and died with a happy family gathered. Still upsetting. And now we enter the little-discussed zone of uncertainty, while we wait for the will to be probated and read, or whatever happens in real life. Since we are basically a disabled person and a full-time caregiver, there’s a lot riding on this one…

Wizard of Oz

back when Politywonk was trying to gain fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister (never succeeded), one of the complaints was that working in foreign policy had made her cynical, too quick to overlook the good in even the most evil player.

Cynicism would be the proper response today, to Syria’s assurance that it wishes to place its chemical weapons under international control.

Why? Because the narrative here is not about war and peace, but about maintaining the power of the Military-Industrial-Big Union Complex. (I include Big Labor because they like large corporate employers; military exporters are some of the last ones still standing.) And to the Complex, whose main sales are in small scale and tactical weapons, this whole week has been one victory after another.

First, by drawing the line at chemical weapons, the administration has signaled that we’re fine with conventional weapons attacks on one’s own population. Indeed, as has been pointed out by many, US state and local governments sometimes do the same themselves. And small, conventional weapons are the main exports of the Complex.

Second, the history of these apparently quick diplomatic initiatives is that the US taxpayer is paying a bribe to someone we would rather not support to give us the appearance of doing what we want. The long range missiles out of Turkey being the truth behind “Russians blinked.” Five decades of propping up the Egyptian military elite after the Camp David Accords — reaffirmed this spring when the military overthrew the democratically-elected government. For you humanities majors, refer to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Wickham marries Lydia because Darcy pays off his debts and increases her dowry.

Either way, the Complex wins. It is not only Assad whose behavior requires a change. The United Nations points out — again and again — that the United States far outranks any other nation — including Russia — as an exporter of military supplies. And our customers are overwhelmingly either developing nations, i.e., regimes with shaky footing at home, or nations in regions with long-term conflicts propping up military regimes. Perhaps one reason Latin America has been so successful at shaking off military regimes is that they shook off the USA. Some of them do some arms exporting, but by and large, they have shifted to domestic priorities, with stellar results for their populace.

It is not for us to call for a world without war.

It is not for us to call for a new standard in human-to-human relationships.

It is our task now to look at our own communities — town by town, county by county —  and begin to figure out what we have at stake in the Complex. We have to challenge the morality of “good-paying, manufacturing jobs” not only for what they pay, but for what they produce. And for whom.

And then, we have to face all this in the context of our national debt, our standards of living.
  Our government may not be killing us with chemical weapons, but it’s talking about starving a lot of us, withholding medical care for economic reasons, passing off a lot of industrial drek as acceptable food.  So each of us has to examine our own home economy and figure out how to shift the sources our prosperity into endeavors that build our tax base by adding healthy services and products to the members of our society.


Can Southern Baptist Ministers Serve God and Country?

Can Southern Baptist Ministers Serve God and Country?

You might dismiss the debate about Shariah law in the US, but it’s not a minor point.  We just aren’t experiencing the imposition of religious fundamentalism via legislative action; we’re experiencing it through lack of regulatory protection.

The problem, as illustrated above, is not the government establishing a particular code, but rather, refusing to protect the full range of citizens exercising our legal rights to personal choice when the professional arm of a faith-based organization moves to become the sole service provider in an area.

The Baptist chaplains are one example, but the real issue is the Roman Catholic medical-educational complex. While individual practitioners — many of whom are rebellious-spirited nuns — might not agree with the bishops’ pronouncements, they accede to such terms in order to receive funding, advertising, prestige. But sadly, whereas the medieval tradition of Roman Catholic nuns, with their hospitals and orphanages, was often highly universalist, today’s medical-educational complex has had to give that up to keep the big bucks.

This article talks about service to all women and men in harm’s way, but really, if your wife is in an emergency room with complications to a pregnancy you both wanted, if you and your same sex partner want your child to be treated equally in the nearest medical trauma center, you are just as much in harm’s way. You, like the men and women of our military, assume equal access, equal support, equal care.

It is time for our legislators to limit their support for faith-based organizations. Certainly the dominion-based religions do much good, and deserve enough funding to be available for those whose souls need what they offer. But at no time, through any mechanism, should they be allowed to become the sole or dominant provider, in terms of real-time access, for any part of the population.

Trying to Remember My Alternatives

When my idealistic anti-war activism came up against the face-to-face life stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, the intellectual result wasn’t pretty. It disconnected me — and still does — with the leadership of my otherwise beloved religion, Unitarian Universalism. To tell the truth, though, these final few steps away from Gandhian pacifism were no Robert Frost “Two roads diverged” moment. That had happened long ago.

And what had happened to shake my idealism? Not a new view of human nature — that came much later, with personal maturity and theological education — but a decade of studying the ways that local histories are not all the same. The differences are not national, but regional, ethnic. What explains so many wars, so many famines, so many human rights violations, began with failures in building local community. By the time national and international elites take notice, it’s way too late to stop the group that has bullied its way to the top of a small local power hierarchy. They’ve done in their critics, moved against their enemies, and, sadly, have only caught our attention in the final round of mopping up.

So if you want to know what we can do about these folks, I would say, we need to learn from community policing and policies to thwart domestic abuse.

Community policing says that the police need to be part of the community they are protecting, in order to know, constantly, the difference between the brute leaders and the brutalized or befuddled followers. The former you strike early, strike hard, strike specifically. The latter you provide with alternatives for immediate activities and long-term opportunities.

Prevention of domestic abuse says that you start way before the first blow ever falls. Unlike community policing, where a single event can mark a target, the signal here is entry into a pattern of excessive control of one person by another. You hear “I don’t like that woman you always hang out with,” and immediately wait to see if the next statement is, “I don’t like you out with people I don’t know. I don’t like. You need to be with me, with my people.”  And at that point, you see you’ve got a partner on the path to abuse, and you get out. You find places and people who can keep you safe, because this person might well come after you with murderous intent. No shot has yet been fired, no strangulation attempted, knife drawn. But it can be. It will be. And if your family, your friends, the communities of authority in your life, do nothing at this time, they have only themselves to blame when, later on, the police find themselves on your door.

International analysts are bitterly divided between those who believe all international acts begin and are guided by regional details, and theorists, who see it in grand terms, impersonal forces whose actors are only coincidental. These folks might see an ideology at work — communism, radical Islam — or they might see some deeply evil, inherent national characteristic. The Russian self-selection for a powerful leader who makes them proud by overpowering others on the people’s behalf. The Shi’a drive to control everyone, or, the Sunni drive toward same, or both. The Manifest Destiny of Northern European civilization to populate and thereby develop the North American continent. The German insistence on power over European neighbors, if not militarily, then economic.

You can probably add to this list. Many Americans have spent the last quarter century learning that Native Peoples, Africans, Asians, and Africans have versions of their own.

These myths have roots in local realities. They started with regional imbalances of power, in which no outside equalizer intervened. Now those imbalances are so badly exaggerated that the question of how much intervention an outsider would need to exert, to reestablish some idyllic original balance, yields only the most terrible results.

That is why the best thing we can do is not to send in some kind of fancy weapons, way after the damage is done, but to constantly help local activists, regional rabble-rousers, as they battle the attempt of local bullies to shut them up. To send them away. In fact, it is the military-industrial complex whose credibility is most on the line. Not the President’s. Not the nation’s. Certainly not the men and women of our active military. 

But neither does our growing industry of philanthropic-cultural development funds have any real role to play. This well-meant (sometimes) attempt to justify the radical imbalance in our own income distribution is just as foreign, just as meddlesome, as military intervention or political deals with ambitious local power-brokers. 

If we got anything at all out of the brief, shining moment of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, on the left, and the Tea Party and its national debt obsession, on the right, it was the shared idea that hard work begins at home. Yes, so it does, but it doesn’t end there. We need to be ready to slap down emerging bullies, whether here or abroad, before they become regional powers and international hegemonists.

I’m not holding my breath about this, but it is what I believe. And the more I preach it — one reason I left foreign policy for ministry — the more likely I am to contribute to making it real.