In Defense of Demonstrating

My favorite movies explore the interplay of character and ideas. If they include history, so much the better. This explains why Politywonk is amusing herself with “Hannah Arendt”, whose topic speaks for itself. It’s a German film which makes use of footage from the actual trial of Adolph Eichmann. 

Eichmann explained himself with words that jolted back to life all the times I’ve gone out to demonstrate, petition, observe a police commission, write a letter to an editor. The words were simple, as translated in the film:

“If there had been more civic courage, things would have been different.” 

Eichmann is here explaining how he lived with a split conscience. One half maintained his personal values, of which he declared the highest one was to keep his personal oath. The other half, which he suppressed, considered what was happening and calculated the outcome of disobeying orders. 

There was no part of him which contemplated that following orders and performing as an excellent bureaucrat, he sent six million Jews to horrible deaths. For that he was hung, and probably a good thing it was.

When Arendt published “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” first in The New Yorker and then as a book, her claim that evil could manifest as banality rather than monstrosity outraged many. In reality, it simply updated the old truism of Edmund Burke, “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men (sic) to do nothing.”  In the movie, Arendt says that totalitarianism has accomplished the ultimate evil, which is to build environments in which human beings feel that being human is irrelevant. Punishment does not follow crimes, rewards do not follow work. I remember being told, over and over, by my politically active family — as well as by so many others — that the first crucial step is the one taken by Eichmann, in which his humanness became irrelevant to himself.

Although I often decry the tendency of Unitarian Universalists — and other bleeding hearts of every faith — to demonstrate again and again at every outrage, these demonstrations do serve the purpose of modeling the civic courage Eichmann said might have changed his strategy for survival. I support this. But a culture of demonstration lacks the tough backbone of neighbor-to-neighbor self-exposure that characterized Freedom Summer and the majority of work that I and others did against the Vietnam War and in support of La Raza and Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers. Hours and hours every week — including every Saturday morning at a large suburban Kroger’s, leafletting every shopper — were what made these efforts successful. Equal marriage has swirled onto beachheads worldwide because individuals came out to their families and those families chose to stand with them, often in spite of social ostracism.

As much as I respect the sacrifice of time and money, it doesn’t take civic courage to jump from one media event to another on a superficial basis. There’s a phrase called “Skin in the game,” which refers to this process of positioning oneself in a vulnerable social spot. This is what bothers me about demonstration culture. People get praised. People get speaking opps. Even if they go to prison, it’s not a long, tough ride. And usually, with a fine or community service, the whole event dissolves and demonstration culture starts looking for another.

Someone as superficial as Eichmann would certainly have paid attention to demonstrations. But someone so ambitious would probably not have been swayed without more than one personal conversation, more than one individual or family who stood up and got away with it.

“Civic courage.” Thank you for that phrase, Eichmann trial. It’s good to be reminded why we do what we do. It’s important to remember what it means to do it well.

Cautious about “First Principle Euphoria”

For weeks, if not months, my historian’s heart and mind have been nervous, conflicted, about the various “Standing on the Side of Love” campaigns teeming through my denomination, Unitarian Universalism. It has taken quite a while to sort it all out. Welcoming the refugee children and reopening the books on people who have been unjustly incarcerated (and are still alive) both feel right. They follow long-established policy statements by our General Assemblies, and more and more take shape as work done by dedicated members of our faith community. Indeed, although my current life doesn’t support such offerings, it gratifies me to state that back when I had the chance, I did indeed work in a refugee camp, identifying and assisting victims of bitter war.

So what’s the problem? For a long time, I could not tell. It took the return of an old PBS program, a Secrets of the Dead about Irish railway workers, to finally finish the puzzle. The most idealistic form of patriotic Universalism deludes us into wishful thinking if we turn our backs on the harsh truth of immigration history. Sure, the Statue of Liberty called on us to open our doors and shores. But a more callous, a more vicious thread of the American Dream — what might be called The American Scheme — saw such infusions of enthusiasm differently. If the American Dream says anyone can work hard and make a good living here, if not for themselves then for their children and grandchildren, the American Scheme says that an entrenched elite can weave itself into a secretive network of social institutions by which all this enthusiasm can be exploited, sucked dry, discarded. From this enthusiasm the most talented will be plucked for a different kind of exploitation. By appearing to have succeeded by their own efforts, they will renew the social networks of power, giving false hope to some group which had begun to understand the slight dimensions of its chances for collective stability.

As to the opening of the prisons, need I mention the disaster which was the closing of mental institutions in the early 1970s? “Community treatment” it was called. “Community neglect” is more likely. Might I remind us that many of these unjustly incarcerated are exactly the same individuals, or survivors with exactly the same neurological issues, that we refused to support before? I look at cities installing those anti-homeless spikes on benches and grates, and suddenly prison looks like a better alternative for many.

So what’s a good liberal to do? People are dying in place, struggling to find safety and freedom; we hardly can turn our backs on brutal bloodshed. And our troubles — what we derisively call “First World Problems” — truly do pale next to theirs. Surely we can adapt our lives to come up with some greater generosity?

Well, maybe not. Unitarian Universalists need to take a second look at our First Principle. My attention has lately shifted to the second part of its affirmation of everyone’s “inherent worth and dignity.”

How do we affirm and establish everyone’s God-given dignity in the current world of shrinking resources? Politywonk — and I bet this is pretty common in my faith family — spends a lot of time studying the news and hissing at screens bearing bad news. Then I turn my attention to the quest for structural reforms at macro levels. Single Payer Universal Access Health Insurance. A higher national minimum wage. Access to family planning for all families everywhere. When it comes to covenants, my focus makes a huge jump: covenant is for family and congregation; the next level is universal civic religion.

But now that I’m old — sixty, which is, you have to admit, more old than young — reality advises that intermediate covenants are what supports life’s frail intervals. Neighborhood and congregation caring for others, not just in the abstract, but at the ready, over and over, the same faces, the same voices, the same stories, over and over and over. This takes my mind back to the refugee program at the end of the Indochinese war. By sending an advance guard of “pre-screeners” — of which I was one — and finding out who everyone was (and verifying with endless hours of document-sharing by means of modern electronics) and where they had a reason to settle successfully, the international community achieved what might have been the most successful relocation program in history. Yet when President Obama suggested this a few weeks ago — “let’s go down to Honduras and sort people out” — he was hooted off the stage.

The key to that program’s success was not bureaucracy, it was covenant. No one got released for resettlement until someone at the destination had agreed to provide shelter, financial support, educational and job mentoring for each applicant, one by one. Congregations and social welfare agencies mingled with families in making and fulfilling these commitments. Neither federal bureaucracy nor civic religion — both ultimately impersonal and depersonalizing — has ever accomplished what these highly partialist (the opposite of universalist, meaning, “only part is saved”)  structures achieved with particular commitments. (For what it’s worth, the same held true of organized labor — which is why it ultimately failed. Its success lay in nurturing certain ethnic and family networks; it failed when those same groups — wrongly, as it turns out — believed they no longer needed its power against impermeable secret networks of exploitation.)

For several years now, I’ve watched our yellow-tee-shirt brigades pop up in place after place, hoping always to discern not just a fireworks of caring but a network of mentoring and nurture. Maybe it’s happening. But there’s a painful moment — which I’m going through now — of grieving that idealistic universalism and exposing my heart to all the aches and pains of personal relationships. It’s so much more fun to demonstrate, and there’s always another outrage. But how many folks in need will watch my car drive past them as I head for that next media event? Maybe it’s time to remember the starfish story and hold up these little beachheads as the real places where our yellow teeshirts can build a better world.

Gardening as Racism

The neighbors catty-cornered from one of our lilacs have a beautiful grapevine growing against our common fence. For about two weeks, I’ve been noticing that their grapes have twined and vined over and through my lilac, first where it overhangs their property, and now, way into my yard. Today’s late afternoon gardening task was to cut these vines (on my side) and pull them off the lilac.

Makes sense, eh? But I live in the part of Burlington where Jews and Italians cultivated grapevines during the half-century of prohibition my people imposed on theirs. So while my clippers trimmed and pulled, my heart mourned the injustice this simple act of gardening would once have been.

Grappling with an Old Demon

Along with so many others, I watch in horror and disgust as Israeli rockets fall into residential areas their own policies have packed too full of all ages of people and too few resources for said residents. Gazans complain — rightfully — about all the noncombatants being killed, while Israelis object that the homes and lives of combatants and noncombatants are too closely tangled to allow for purely military targeting.

That is not what I’m grappling with. What troubles my conscience is the extent to which the current assaults justify the increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric, violence, and sentiment exhibited all over the world. Talk about tangled targets! Steven Schaama’s recent film series on the history of the Jews documented the undeniable fact that Jews all over the world have been targeted for violence and ghettoization. This has happened again and again. When Jews moved to Palestine in recent centuries, they were bowing to the sad reality that this cycle would continue so long as they lived among non-Jews. Indeed, the Holocaust arose in part as a backlash against one of the most successful periods of intermingling and intermarriage, especially and including in Germany. So two steps forward led to miles of horrific and unmendable setbacks.

Nevertheless, some of the rhetoric coming from Israel implies that the violence done to them has become the violence they do to others. Too many statements place Jewish life above all other life — especially Palestinian. Too many statements attempt to erase centuries of Palestinian life in places that Jews claim as if their presence there had not been broken, interrupted, supplanted, abandoned. When Jews place themselves above all others, it is only natural for others to lob shots intended to level things out. When Jews exact individual justice for Jewish miscreants, but collective retribution for crimes against Jews, they pretty much ought to expect the outcry they now receive.

As much as I object to Zionism, it seems not only inevitable but necessary. However, it cannot be allowed to replace the efforts we must all make to combat the cultural infrastructure of anti-Judaism which makes Zionism so desperately inevitable. We Unitarian Universalists talk often about covenants, as if it were something invented by our Puritan forebears, or — even worse — that we ourselves came up with to maintain some recent and beloved community. No, covenant traces back to God’s promises to the Israelites. The Jews. Jews, through their cycle of scriptural documents — Torah, Histories, Wisdom, Prophets — have explored more fully and more powerfully than anyone else how hard it is to live in covenant, and yet, how catastrophic to fail.

The Hebrew Bible famously rings with all kinds of explorations of thought — including many challenges to decisions God announces or unfolds.When certain Christians (and not others) appropriated “covenant” for their own particularist purposes, they twisted what had been an ethical formulation into a doctrine of thought control. Unitarian Universalism, with its emphasis on behaviors rather than ideas, along with our informal motto, “To question is the answer,” hark back to, carry forward, the Jewish model of covenant.

It would be wrong to practice the Jewish model of covenant in every relationship except the one I have with those who gave it to me. So I don’t know how to deal with the current conundrum in the Middle East, except through personal accountability. I will name particular deeds and practices that horrify me, and seek to eradicate them wherever they occur. Sometimes that will be in the Middle East. Just as often, as anyone can attest who watches the news for a solid hour, the outrage will happen elsewhere, and have nothing to do with Jews.

A Death in Summer

Last week a colleague I knew in seminary took her own life. She was younger than I, ministering steadily in stable congregations, but beyond that, I knew nothing of her life since graduation. Mostly, those who knew her are declining to speculate what might have happened, draping her death in the dignity it deserves.

My new wife and I are having a blissful first month of marriage (one month today), but my colleague’s death prompted me to reflect on what July has been at different stages of my life. As an elementary school child, I remember looking forward to summer vacation because school had not provided me with the hoped-for playmates. My family’s intellectual focus meant we did not — and do not — play well with others. We ask too many questions, most of them being, “Why?” But during long summers on our little foothill in Colorado we could indulge in all manner of history-based fantasies. We reenacted novels and movies, sang along with our mother at the rickety old basement piano. It is this epoch of life that my current newlywed July brings most to mind; it goes far to explain why Vermont felt so instantly like home.

Around ten years of age something inside flipped this formula of program-year agony, summer bliss. School got better that year, fourth grade, thanks to a caring teacher and a solid friend. When classes ended, my parents consented to my first self-initiated foray into the outside world: Vacation Bible School at a nearby Methodist church. Then we moved to a more congenial neighborhood and I began making friendships that sustained themselves twelve months a year.

After two years of this came magnet school. Once again, social isolation cloaked summers in pain and dread. Until I could drive (I hated bicycling, and it would not have supported my careful fashion statements anyway), the days dragged in hours of reading, listening to records. My father took us on long camping trips in places I treasure, but “roughing it” was never my style. Mostly I counted the days until I could reconnect with friends. It is instructive that on our camping trips,I would be looking as much at the other campers as at the scenery. What I remember most from those years is a night some strangers invited me to join them at their bonfire, and we laughed into the night.

The news of my colleague’s death, at the height of a beautiful summer, thrust me back into the longing, the dread, the agony of the decades when the waning of school and church opened into a dark season of loneliness. Through the 1980s and 1990s, I did my part in a strident group of UU Christian leaders who insisted on holding worship every Sunday in summer. We couched our commitment in theological terms, insisting that God does not take summers off. Many UUs heard it as liturgical arrogance, and on some occasions, I’m sure that’s what I intended. But the underlying purpose was pastoral. All summer long, there are people whose personal lives deplete rather than restore their hearts and souls. Economic and social dislocations often erupt in summer, as northern hemisphere families use the long, warm days to move house. Many of those moves are unhappy ones: divorces, job loss, house loss. These things might actually feel worse when flooded with sunshine, surrounded by flowers and green leaves.

In that long-ago Vacation Bible School, I learned to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” at a moment I needed a friend. For decades, that conviction was enough to console me in hours of loneliness, not because of the song, but because I could open one of my Bibles to the Sermon on the Mount and recover that blissful personal presence. The volunteer ladies who taught us, fed us, played piano to our scraggly singing. The minister whose own kids probably wished they were on a camping trip like the ones my father arranged. These are the sacrifices of faith that brought a real Jesus into my life.

Where were we, these emissaries of that Jesus and his community of healers, prophets, teachers, when our colleague needed someone for a summertime vacation? Where were we, these friends and classmates, when her soul hit its long, dark night on a bright summer day? My Facebook feed reminds me that UU clergy treasure our summers as “time away.” We need tp recharge our batteries and our families need our undivided attention. But with the oversupply of trained and credentialed clergy, with the difficulties of our downwardly mobile, planet-grieving social milieu, may her death call us outward, a second, deeper layer, ready to steady those whose pain increases when regular — rhythmic — life subsides.

(I notice I cannot bring myself yet to say her name; it is too painful to shift her identity away from the bright young woman I knew to the one she must have become. RIP.)

Not Too Late to Move UUA to Detroit

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a feature about folks who have begun investing in Detroit. They’re bringing skills and business ambition, cooperating to create infrastructures that will meet their immediate needs. They’re employing Detroiters and, by virtue of their presence, providing some support for what’s left of Detroit’s former social structure.

So far as I can tell — Scott Wells and Patrick Murfin are going to have to check me on this — when Unitarians left New England in the 19th century to pioneer new lives in new places, many of them also innovated religiously, whereas Universalists tended to be more nostalgic. But I write here ONLY about Unitarians, because my knowledge of Universalist history is limited to its institutional leavings. Folks like Barbara Coeyman are daily confounding old stereotypes, so I dare not claim this applies to both denominational parents. My expertise, such as it is, covers only Unitarians.

Unitarian church plants — official attempts to replicate new England congregations and liturgy — succeeded in a few places, but only as the new cities matured. When Samuel Atkins Eliot, fresh out of seminary, arrived in Denver to plant the Unitarian flag, he spent most of his energy of water systems, schools, denominational start-ups in towns with even fewer assets than could be found in Denver. (Note: Politywonk spent her childhood in the foothills outside Denver, and the roads were still abuilding even then.) Eliot departed this situation and left a void: his style of religion had no place amongst the hardscrabble.

Half a century earlier, the same thing had happened in the Great Lakes region, but with more success. There the sort of Unitarians who ventured into nascent cities had less affection for old religious forms, but managed to organize new ones. For the entire seventy-five years of its existence, the Western Conference grated and festered as a thorn in the side of Boston’s cultural homogenizers. Issues that began in 1867 — class concerns about polity structures, the role of God (if any), individualism versus congregationalism — were carried forward most strongly out of Chicago, and not completely resolved until almost one hundred years later, when the last individual member of the American Unitarian Association went to their grave, and we became an “Association of Congregations.”

After leaving Arvada, Politywonk became a Unitarian Universalist in Cincinnati and still has family and friends in the Heartland. Politywonk now lives in Vermont, an area where Universalism developed more along Western Conference lines, due, again, to harsh winters, widespread homesteads, and an inability to float on top of financial bubbles. So Politywonk is well aware that calling for a relocation to Detroit means far more than cheaper real estate prices. To snap up Detroit real estate now — which might make more sense, given the “unexpected” deficit in our denominational budget — is to enter a realm finding on-the-ground answers to the issues our Boston-based denomination has spectacularly failed to conquer. How to connect with Free Range believers. How to balance public witness and pastoral presence. How to speak to a generation of young adults growing up with none of the optimistic abundance that made our religion so relevant to the post-World War II era. How to present established denominational theological heritage as a range of well-developed options rather than a single, piercing laser.

Detroit is the place where the 20th century has failed with its most jaw-dropping drama. And if there is one thing that unites UUs — from the most Christian of us at King’s Chapel to the most radically individualist lurkers on Facebook and CLF — it is that we object to what the 20th century tried to do. So why are we sticking on the East Coast, with bitchers and moaners stuck in 20th century polarities? Detroit has replaced Silicon Valley as the place where pioneers will create the real 21st century. Religion is about creating new worlds out of old chaos: let’s pull up our stakes and get busy.

Great Report from O.T.

Now that you’ve seen my beautiful bride, there’s more good news. Today we returned to the Occupational Therapist, who confirmed that despite the month off from official appointments, Lynne’s self-discipline maintained momentum on the tasks we were addressing. And now,there she sits, content in her Adirondack Chair, swigging water, munching chocolate, and watching the Yankees beat Cleveland. Or, more accurately, the Cleveland pitcher has secretly been playing for the Yanks.

And yanked he is… Francona takes him away. Yankee fans watch with interest.