Wicked Mammals

The wife and I went to see “Jane” a few weeks ago, and totally loved it. We totally love pretty much all animal documentaries. But we don’t love everything these documentaries tell us about our part of the creation wheel. Lately, watching the Republican-controlled government knock the underpinnings out of so many of our lives, it’s the grim and gruesome, more than the happy-happy, that speaks to us from the animal films we see. Here are things we are seeing in the government now, that make us unhappy when we see them in animal documentaries.

1) Eugenic selection. Animals do this in so many ways. Eagles and other large birds will deliver two eggs, let them both hatch, and then either watch or help as the older or larger starves, and then drives out, its weaker sibling. Usually it’s the older one who triumphs, but if the older one has some “failure to thrive”, the younger will take over as aggressor. Among herd animals, if one becomes weak or lost, the others will often move away, knowing its frailty will attract — and distract — predators. (Indeed, this might be the origin of the human instinct to seek and join, rather than rebuking or punishing acts of bullying.) We have even seen pregnant mother animals drive off older offspring in favor of the newborn, knowing the older one has some weakness that soon will end its life.

2) Interspecies group warfare. We don’t turn out to be the only species that engages in cicil war, genocide, even cannibalism. Southern Poverty Law Center could do no better than show the episode in “Jane” when part of Jane’s tribe tries to leave, and is followed and killed off by the ones who control the original territory. And then there are the dominant males who form new troupes and move to take away the territory, possibly mates and offspring, of another male less strong. It is not uncommon in these cases for the victor to kill the loser’s offspring.

These patterns don’t take away from all the good and spiritual we see in so many species. But perhaps what makes us different is that we know these things and some of us try to build within ourselves a culture and strength to do otherwise. To heal and not to hurt. To adopt and not to kill. To house and not drive away. It could be that’s the real distinction between religions: some want to set up tribalisms in support of these horrible animal drives, while others strive mightily to build community in support of those who need help but are not ourselves.

Both of these are animal behaviors: including and excluding both show up repeatedly in these films. But lately, among ourselves, the documentary evidence is getting a wee bit scary.

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Wicked Mammals

The wife and I went to see “Jane” a few weeks ago, and totally loved it. We totally love pretty much all animal documentaries. But we don’t love everything these documentaries tell us about our part of the creation wheel. Lately, watching the Republican-controlled government knock the underpinnings out of so many of our lives, it’s the grim and gruesome, more than the happy-happy, that speaks to us from the animal films we see. Here are things we are seeing in the government now, that make us unhappy when we see them in animal documentaries.

1) Eugenic selection. Animals do this in so many ways. Eagles and other large birds will deliver two eggs, let them both hatch, and then either watch or help as the older or larger starves, and then drives out, its weaker sibling. Usually it’s the older one who triumphs, but if the older one has some “failure to thrive”, the younger will take over as aggressor. Among herd animals, if one becomes weak or lost, the others will often move away, knowing its frailty will attract — and distract — predators. (Indeed, this might be the origin of the human instinct to seek and join, rather than rebuking or punishing acts of bullying.) We have even seen pregnant mother animals drive off older offspring in favor of the newborn, knowing the older one has some weakness that soon will end its life.

2) Interspecies group warfare. We don’t turn out to be the only species that engages in cicil war, genocide, even cannibalism. Southern Poverty Law Center could do no better than show the episode in “Jane” when part of Jane’s tribe tries to leave, and is followed and killed off by the ones who control the original territory. And then there are the dominant males who form new troupes and move to take away the territory, possibly mates and offspring, of another male less strong. It is not uncommon in these cases for the victor to kill the loser’s offspring.

These patterns don’t take away from all the good and spiritual we see in so many species. But perhaps what makes us different is that we know these things and some of us try to build within ourselves a culture and strength to do otherwise. To heal and not to hurt. To adopt and not to kill. To house and not drive away. It could be that’s the real distinction between religions: some want to set up tribalisms in support of these horrible animal drives, while others strive mightily to build community in support of those who need help but are not ourselves.

Both of these are animal behaviors: including and excluding both show up repeatedly in these films. But lately, among ourselves, the documentary evidence is getting a wee bit scary.

Careful about Advent

Already it’s Laudate, and my holiday decorations have only just gone up. It isn’t just that life is busy: lots of my busier friends have already decked their halls. People have stepped up to help us, knowing my wife isn’t in a position to hang and string and light the way she used to.

What has stopped me this year — 2017 — is the open barrage of stories about sexual harassment in places of power. This year it’s media and politics, but in years past — and even now, in quieter events — organized religion has proved a fertile hunting ground for predators of both children and adults. All faiths have seen their share of proven accusations, enough that we need to ask ourselves what we are doing, as communities, to increase the vulnerability of our most vulnerable.

The theme of Advent — “preparedness” — jumps out as a synonym for grooming, thar process which is the interconnected seedbed for abuse. Numerous Roman Catholic feminists have done a better job than I can do at pointing out the lack of consent in either the pregnancy or marriage that befell Mary of Nazareth. Her entire role is to surrender her sovereignty over her body, her life dreams, even the locations she will inhabit. And put aside for what? For the arrival of a male whose character, whose ideas, whose actions cannot be challenged. Advent is a four week season of joining ourselves into her surrender, giving up our own self-direction and imagery to wait for an unusual arrival. Here it doesn’t matter whether we’re waiting for underpriced tvs at the Black Friday doorbusters at Walmart or the purest single shaft of light on the altar at midnight mass. It’s a call to give up rationality and give in to magical thinking.

In reading stories of families who’ve been victimized by religious abusers, one thing that jumps out is their lack of viable worldly alternatives for whatever the groomer has on offer. Free food? Babysitting? Summer camp and trips to the nearest big city? So many folks have no way to afford these, and then here comes someone with a collar to make it available. No one can begrudge the overburdened for seizing the only option at hand. Indeed, one reason to support effective government social programs and income supports is precisely to keep people out of these treacherous straits.

This is not about Christianity, but rather about the type of posture any particular religious community holds forth. Every tradition has teachings that abusers can exploit, along with self-empowering teachings and practices advocating exactly the opposite form of salvation. But since Christianity is what I know — specifically Universalist Unitarian Christianity — that is where I shall focus my words of caution. Even in higher forms of Christianity than mine, Jesus has a twofold nature. One part of him is human, with flesh and flaws, and another is the spirit of his holy Father breathed into him. My own more Socinian Christianity represents this as a twofold nature in all of us, a moral neutrality of good and evil in the soul at birth, either side to be developed in fits and starts by decisions and temptations along the path. Unitarian Universalists don’t like hearing this theological challenge. Looking out always to see the good in those whom society condemns or passes by, we make ourselves vulnerable to those who go overboard in giving and caring and sometimes, for making excuses, sometimes, for those who have long since abandoned the quest to live a good life.

As I write this, my wife and I are listening to “Outlander” on audiobooks while Handel’s “Messiah” plays in the next room. It’s not a cacophony, but sort of an embodiment of dual nature, forcing itself on our ears. As this religious community goes forward into this new year, as we ordain new clergy, congratulate those achieving milestones, retire, and bury those whose duties are done, let us every time use their frailty to remind ourselves that anyone who offers her or himself as a savior comes not as a person of faith but as a charlatan. They can save us — but only if we will do our share to help them get past their own weaknesses. And they can also send us to hell if we for more than a moment forget that weaknesses live within the flesh, even behind the collars, of everyone who holds out an offer that seems too good to be true.

Thoreau

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.

Scrap notes

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.