Arian Evangelists? How Did I Not Know This? Does Everyone Else Have This in Hand?

Perhaps it is inevitable that a historian who immerses herself in marriage will succumb to the attractions of genealogy. How much better when matters genealogical start intersecting with my ongoing recreational scholarly deep dive, which has made its way back to medieval English history. But X marked a surprising spot: not in England, but Germanic sources on the continent. Yes, most of my forebears were German, but, more amazingly, so is my religion: England was just a byway. Unitarianism came from Arianism, and it did so because the Arians sent evangelists into the Gothic and Vandal tribes who sacked Rome. Others of these evangelists found fertile ground with Constantine, the Eastern Roman Emperor, and among the Slavs who became so many of his subjects.

So much of what Harvard taught me about Unitarian history thus proves wrong. It was not primarily a religion for Western Europe’s educated classes, leaping to brilliant rejections of Roman Catholic superstition — rather, it was a superstition of its own. People learned it from others –way back in the fading years of the Roman Empire — and passed it on the same way. It survived in places to which it was driven, from whence it emerged when able. It became the language of educated English middle classes, so far as I can tell, because that’s who conducted the wool trade by which it finally crossed the English Channel. In England, I’m guessing, it settled in as a working class religion because the fabric trade engendered an industrial enclave.

I can’t help noticing the importance of this discovery to the current political plight of progressive politics. The Unitarian disdain for evangelism is best summed up in the old saw about the Beacon Bill newcomer who admired the hat of a grande dame. Where, inquired the newcomer, had the resident bought her hat? “We do not buy hats,” sniffed the matron, “We have hats.” So it is with our beliefs: if you have to ask how and where to get them, perhaps you will not fit in among us. Maybe that explains the self-conversion culture of the Unitarian Universalism of my youth and young adult years. More importantly, perhaps this explains why we do not trouble ourselves with all those lesser down-ballot and off-year elections by which the evangelism-driven conservatives have tied us up in knots. To knock on doors and introduce yourself to neighbors, to step down from the pedestal of international world peace and talk about fixing sidewalks — it turns out these are things our Arian forebears would have done — and did — which is why we have our Unitarian religion today.

II always wondered how the theories of an aged bishop in North Africa landed in North America 13 centuries later and blossomed into this imperfect but aspirational democracy. What happened in between? Was this some weird religious locust, emerging only when the climate allowed, even after so much time had passed? Historians debate two models: continuous and discontinuous. I’ve done enough gardening, tended enough children, done enough genealogy and genograms, to believe there is no such thing as radical discontinuity.So my religious roots appear to be more natural, less rebellious than my adolescent ego ever suspected. Not only does this apply to me, but to my religion itself.

 

 

 

 

Does Pentecost Have a Role in Unitarian Universalism?

Pentecost — all of us liturgical Christians know its meaning on the calendar.

But what does it mean to us Unitarian Universalist Christians who understand Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure… a rabbi, a role model, a prophet… anything except a risen Saviour?

For Trinitarian Christians, Pentecost stands as “the birthday of the church.” It marks the empowering arrival of a Holy Spirit among a finite group of apostles and friends. Fortified after ten days of devastation – the second devastation, for prior to Ascension they’d been seeing their executed friend in familiar places, doing his comforting things – this time the Apostles experienced the implanting of a formerly exterior power –a Holy Spirit. As if someone had clothed their feet in winged shoes, as if someone had wrapped their spines in solid steel, they ventured forth at last, ready to fulfill his mandate to go forth and baptize the world in his name.

Speaking for no Unitarian Universalist Christian except myself, I admit this year – after decades of trying to pretend – that nothing about that story works for me.  Entering my tenth year in a wonderful home – Vermont – which nevertheless is not the home of my heart – Cambridge and greater Boston, MA – I’ve finally got the words to express my Pentecost sadness.

When I was nine, my father got an excellent job in a different part of the country. It happens to a lot of people; this is the time of year we see relocation industry ads on tv. Your parents carefully hand you the toy your best friend gave you ten days earlier, when she swore she would love you forever. When her parents took her away for her own vacation.

She would return to familiar haunts, beloved places and people that you would not see again. There you sat in the back seat, clutching the toy and knowing it could never be enough. This is where a Unitarian Universalist Christian parts company with Partialist Trinitarian co-religionists.  The Holy Spirit for them is no mere replica, no image, no doll, no ethereal being.  For them it will make sacred the place they arrive, without which it lingers in danger of death eternal.  Not only will it find them friends, but open the eyes of those friends to what makes  a newcomer special, elevates her  even beyond all the friends they’ve had before. At least when they sit in the back seats of their Father’s car, that’s what they firmly believe.

My Unitarian Universalist theology has no part in that.  Believing in One God who lives everywhere and finds something worth saving in everyone, I come to the new scene with eyes not so much open as empty. Yes, we’re supposed to call it spiritual curiosity and rejoice that it broadens our being, but that’s not how it often feels to me.  Because why, if the new place is already sacred, if the new friends are already special, should I think we have anything to add? Not for Unitarianism the planting of churches, the preaching of good news. What is the value of our testimony—the testimony, anyway, that I came here to bring? If we come to hold up a gilded mirror, as so many deride us for doing, then why should we bother with Pentecost’s most basic mission, the founding of a church? Why should we offer support and nurture to folks already living someplace special?

After ten years in one of America’s most beautiful cities, I’ve come to learn that a new place that does not feel like home to me doesn’t even feel like home to everyone who already lives here. There is no heaven on earth, and for that reason, our gilded mirror, our open and empty eyes are just the good news  that many folks need, want, hunger, crave to receive. For the good news we bring – self-affirmation – has been denied to them despite their natural birth there.

Emerging adults need our support when they want to leave the ways and homes of their parents and grandparents to choose their own life partners.  Huge swaths of the planet deny this right not only to homosexuals, but also – maybe even more so — to heterosexuals. People cannot choose their parents, but lots of aspiring grandparents want to correct that lack of power in reverse. The world is full of parents and grandparents putting property rights and social status ahead of personal fulfillment for their own young.

Some otherwise happy families need our support as they fight to assert the value of personal and planetary health ahead of rigid economic and social structures built on unsustainable extraction.

Unexpected folks – every age, every gender, every location — need our open eyes and gilded mirror when inner energy drives them to produce new forms in music, of words, by movement, with paints and found materials.

And then are those who need our gilded mirror to fight a culture which despises or derides their very being.

It doesn’t help me much, this gilded mirror and open eyes, when first encountering some unfamiliar place and different people. Unfamiliar voices too often send me back to a corner, a book or movie that brings back memories of joy. Nothing is going to lead me anywhere. No one is going to hold me up, at least not for a long while. Maybe that’s why we’re such a performance-oriented religion: for some among us, the moment is always Pentecost, that empty, lonely interlude when nothing we can clutch or imagine will bring back the one place we’ve always called home.

 

 

 

How to make Evil Banal (Slavery and Freedom Summer, too)

Inadvertently this blog has stumbled into a little series on the function of covenant in the endless war between banality of evil and civic courage. Given that a few of us are attending to the centenary of the first engagements of what became known as The Great War, and subsequently as The First World War, it’s not a bad idea. One historian the other day asserted that the whole thing had been one big conflict, with an extended cease fire between the two major conflagrations. Does Albert Camus explain the Roaring Twenties? It looks to me like we’re probably heading into another such half century, or might already have entered into it. Not sure what the cease fires were, but they sure look to be over.

So, back to the banality of evil in its war with civic courage. Yesterday’s “Fresh Air” gave a fuller expansion to reporter Rukmini Callimachi’s expose of kidnapping for ransom as the bankroll process for terrorism. Where to start with all the ways this resonates with headlines and history stories! But when seen through the lens of making evil banal, the fit simplifies — and terrifies. For what she describes matches almost perfectly the description of Nazism’s rise to power in Weimar Germany, and Mussolini’s in Italy.

First came the thugs, who attacked brutally and publicly. Then came the ideologues, who justified the brutality with simplifying statements of how the violence fit into social possibilities for those who supported Nazism. Exploiting and manipulating free speech in a too-liberal democracy, this combination which drew out and suppressed all political and cultural opposition, by veiling with thin persuasion what it aroused with manipulative rhetoric.

Cultural opponents fell into two groups: those with different lifestyles and those with different ethnicities. Political intimidation of persons with different lifestyles, including the well-known round up of homosexuals, coincided with early round-ups of political opponents. So if rhetorical persuasion wasn’t doing the job, maybe our prisons will. These folks –many of them labor leaders and followers — suffered imprisonments that were long enough to suck out their civic courage, but short enough to allow them back into society. Here they spread the well-known phrase, “resistance is futile.”

But their releases spread something else: false data for folks who wished to deceive themselves that the Jews, Roma, and later political opponents would also be held, subdued and released. It was the perfect complement to thugs in the streets: “This party is just doing what every government does: discouraging its enemies and rewarding its supporters. Learn your lesson and you’ll be fine.”

This is where the notorious Al Quaeda expense accounts come into it. When an organization shifts its invitation to supporters from participating in face-to-face violence to simply doing an office job, Adolph Eichmanns result. I do not doubt that for those who would like to engage in personal terrorizing, Al Quaeda still has opportunities, but for those too dainty for such work, it now has a second path to social stature. There was a point in Terry Gross’s interview yesterday when Rukmini Callimachi said that the kidnap victims are now being obtained indirectly, by social networks who have been displaced in the wars and droughts and nation-building chaos which is today’s northern Africa. Tuaregs are doing the dirty work in Mali, other Bedouins in other places. “You mean they are outsourcing terror?” exclaimed Terry, in genuine surprise. “Yes,” replied Callimachi.

Here was where my mind exploded with the “ah ha!” moment in a difficult part of African’s history with kidnapping for enslavement by Europeans. In ancient times, and at many moments throughout time – including our own — slavery was/is the fate of prisoners of war. Because this was the African tradition –as well as the well-documented European tradition — I conjured until recently that American slavery relied on some unknown-to-me interior wars for hostages for sale to slavers. That didn’t make sense: no continent can hide four centuries of warfare strong enough to produce that many kidnap victims, but the alternative was just too awful to contemplate. But recent history makes clear that some Africans were making money kidnapping and selling others, on a regular basis, in much the same way Callimachi describes Al Quaeda operating today. There was no war, at least not at this level. It was simply the most lucrative business available in a continent whose healthy young people were being siphoned out, much as gems and minerals would later be hauled away.

And here was where Hannah Arendt became and remains an incendiary scholar. The fact that some Jewish community and camp leaders “cooperated” in selecting immediate victims for Nazism cannot be denied. But the terrified submission of people at gunpoint, people who are witnessing the brutal deaths of people standing right next to them, possibly in their own families or with other close social ties, should not be equated with the self-satisfied professionalism of people like Adolph Eichmann, slave kidnappers, Al Queda career climbers. To have only a single word — “cooperation” —  is a language failing that needs to be corrected. “Cooptation ” is worse, for it implies not only grudging physical participation, but acceptance of key ideas.

People who are randomly alive in a holocaust, even by their own actions (for similar actions had no saving grace for many others) cannot be asked for civic courage. The Warsaw Uprising succeeded by recognizing the need to unify personal consciences into warfare. No, civic courage is the duty of people to stand up from within the potential professional ranks of banal evildoers, individually taking risk, from start to finish. The hard part is that to do so is to shift the holocaust from others onto oneself. To save other families is to lose one’s own. That is the function of the public violence with which such campaigns begin. You will not just linger on a lower rung of the social ladder, you will see us brutalize your children, humiliate your parents, dispatch your grandparents and suckling babies as if they were some kind of pests. Boko Haram, anybody?

So who signs up for this? The United States has been honoring Freedom Summer this year, remembering the martyrs, and noticing again how most of the folks who went — black and white — were childless, unmarried, in a stage of life devoted to detaching from family and finding one’s personal deepest meaning. Civic courage has its banality, too; such activism was made possible by families whose children did not have to send money home. But what happened in Freedom Summer — this never really came home to me until this year — is that Cheney, Schwirmer, and Goodman were killed at the very outset of the campaign. Volunteers were still arriving. The message was clear: you can turn around and save yourself now. The recognizable pattern of totalitarianism, starting out by exhibiting random brutality.

But the volunteers did not turn around. The families they came to serve were at first reluctant to associate with them, terrified of long-term consequences (already being victims of the long-term consequences of slavery’s lingering outrages). But by staying out the summer, entering into the risks, the poverty, the cultural structure of local African American communities, the volunteers modeled civic courage. This is what I mean by affirming the “dignity” of someone, once you’ve decided it is your job to stand up for their inherent worth. The truly banal participants in horrible evil can be outlasted. They get nervous when they see alternative career ladders that might be more lucrative than that offered by the monster machine. Ambitious white southerners learned to get along with integration when federal policies made it a condition for regional uplift; racism lingers most heavily among white folks left behind as The New South made progress, and frustrated northern minimum wage workers, who have adopted the region because it has a rhetoric for shifting the pain of their poverty onto “others.”

The appearance of alternative professional options is the moment when the terror campaigns click into high gear: other millions — political, religious, and social rebels–  join the Jews and Roma in the gas chambers, roadside trenches, anonymous forest graves, on the gallows. These other millions died — and still die– defending personal consciences. When their numbers are high enough, pacifism has no prospects. But “just war” is not the right description of taking up arms at this point. The “just war” would have been earlier.

But would it have been by equally ugly methods –drones? renditions? plowing over houses? Or would it have been by establishing, nourishing, and defending a banality of civic goodness? Something like our Great Compression, when unions and corporations (yes, they did that then) fought like crazy not only to enrich their members but especially to provide life long security for families who joined their ranks. Something like what Europe has now, with its regulations against quack science in the name of profit and its protections for personal integrity against corporate expansionism. Something like what Singapore practices, with its mandatory savings accounts and educational oversights.

I began this series by complaining about mistaking media events for civic courage, and my assertion remains the same. Civic courage means living in the long haul. It means entering uncomfortably close quarters and making yourself vulnerable to folks who won’t get what you’re saying, doing, living. At least not at first. But if what you do there is show them your covenant, and show them how they, too, can fulfill their dreams by accepting you in their covenant — not for transformation or imitation, but just at the level of mutual toleration and respectful communication — only then will you have smothered evil’s incipient banality.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

How Dandelions Changed My View of History

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When Unitarian Universalists sing our beloved hymn, “Spirit of Life,” one of the lines of its prayers is, “Roots, hold me close.”

And what we’re probably picturing is the shallow, wide-reaching structure known as “Grassroots.”Image  Note that the fibrous, or grass root, system spreads widely, equally, but also, fairly fairly close to the surfaces. Its new growth springs up pretty readily on a side-by-side basis. That explains why my recent lawn-recovery technique, of raking out all the old dead blades, leaving aerated soil bare to the sun, has resulted in fresh patches of cheery green.

Note, also, that this is completely different from a tap root. At first glance, of course, if you’re working at shallow depth, you can’t tell one from the other. But any lawn-keeper can tell you that pulling up a dandelion from just below the surface doesn’t work. Removing the branch roots is at best, temporary, and at worst, productive of new growth.

One of the first gardening jobs my father ever taught me was to get a pitchfork, or a taproot trowel, and dig them out, one by one, from way deep inside the earth.

Watching the news lately, as certain patterns of both oppression and response spring up from place to place all over the landscape, I got to looking past evil gardeners (the Koch brothers, the NRA) and asking if Aljazeera was showing me tap roots. They crawl along under ground, unseen, drinking from deep layers, and popping up where no one realized conditions might apply.

And the only conditions that apply is a soil, light, air, and water combination that suits this tap root.

What are the tap roots of our oppressions and responses?  My first thought was, “family systems.” Generation after generation doing what it learned as grandparents played with new babies.

And where did the grandparents learn it? Of that, I am not sure. But my guess is this: the original culture from which your grandparents issued. My fiancee and I get along so well in part because we both come from the Germans and Quakers of a certain part of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We don’t spend a lot of time explaining ourselves to each other, we just naturally tend to do the same thing. She loves the leaven of my English paternal line — but that, in itself, reflects a Germanic outgrowth.

So here’s my curiosity: where have German roots — the largest, and least discussed part of the US European mosaic — blossomed or poisoned (it depends on where you try to poke through) our regional patterns of behavior?

Captivities at Sixty — and Releases

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel…”

So far this Advent I haven’t been called to join formal worship, but this song — and the prophecies of Isaiah — ring strong in my heart and soul. My life, as I turn sixty, has so many worldly captivities, but my soul finds freedom at this rickety old computer, where I connect with kindred spirits on Facebook and blog rolls, where I read newspaper articles, even where I yesterday had a pleasant day managing recent photos. No, my body may be trapped by my partner’s illness, but my soul is rooted, a firm, strong tree lifting wider and wider branches to greet the snow.

So why was this phrase coming to me? The captivities that bother me are those that bothered Isaiah: the poor, the disabled, the encumbered, all suffering rejection from those whose assets — financial, physical, social — could make them whole. No, those whom God has given the means to provide completion have instead diverted these gifts into a system for grotesque self-fattening. I get angrier and angrier about this; I hope Isaiah is right.

But at sixty, I’m well aware that I cannot save the world. All I can do is turn my waning talents to strengthen my own group of assets toward the stewardship for which God intended them. At sixty, I have put aside the lifelong demon of curiosity. My next transition will not be a new career, a new home, but, as this one has been, to deeper zones of soul, higher zones of relationship. 

The tree, in other words, has finally found its patch of ground. My crown will reach up to higher suns, but my roots with thirst or thrive with their current ground. That ground might not be physical, but rather, the family, the friends, even the congregations and cultures, that turn out to have been my succor these closing decades already.

So last year’s experimental abandonment of The New Yorker and The New York Times were failures; nothing replaced them, despite my good faith efforts to graft and fertilize. My research and writing will stick with polity, history, civil religion, and Unitarian Universalism. My centerpiece remains Christianity, although my branches have spread far past it now.

It is telling that when I sat down to plan the spiritual and social observances of this season, which for me now begins with Canadian Thanksgiving and reaches to Epiphany’s opened light, I could see themes for the first month — friendships — and the second one — closing the garden and changing over the fall clothes to deep winter warmers. And then I stopped. What comes next?

It was a Homer Simpson moment. Doh! 

That third month is December. Its focus is Advent.

And so, despite so many and eclectic faith sources, the trunk declares its species. 

The leaves trust in the warmth beyond the snow. We will all be free. 

Different Music for the Halloween/Thanksgiving/Hannukah/Christmas/New Year’s Part of the U.S. Year

My reaction to Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving — much less before Halloween — has been changing. A lot. This is an attempt to get a handle on what’s going on inside.

First, the facts:

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister not working in ministry, but caring for a fiancee with a serious medical condition. We live far away from my family of origin, and her illness has prevented me from seeing my aging parents and blossoming nephews and nieces — not to mention my siblings — for over a year.

Because it can be confusing to accept that all religious traditions have spiritual meaning, I have pretty much settled my liturgical life around Earth-centered paganism and the Jewish/Christian religions. This directly ties me in with my ancestry, which is Anglo-Saxon (NO Celt or Gaelic). My family has Asian and African-American members, and their traditions inform me deeply as well.

And here’s a shout-out: to Doug Shaheen, who gave me probably the best spiritual advice I ever got. (It could be that people go into ministry because the laity has the lion’s share of spiritual wisdom and we want to gather it for ourselves, eh?) We were talking one October, and he said the next thing was Halloween and then starting the Christmas cards.

“What?” I rebuked.

“Yes, I’ve got a lot of cards to send. So I get them out in October, and start addressing envelopes, writing cards, just two or three a night, while we’re watching tv or something.”

Obviously, that stayed with me. It took root. It has blossomed. And now I know what he was talking about.

All Saints and All Souls are not two days on the highway to Jesus, they are, for a true humanist, the high point of the year. (Thank you, Universalism, for liturgies about this. Boo, Unitarianism, for trying to level it away.)

And like any high point, they need a season coming and going, and this season needs its story and its music.

It turns out the wider wisdom is way ahead of us clergy on this one. When I googled “Music for All Saints,” the playlist was all about friends. Lost friends. Living friends. Friends in the family. Friends we wish we’d treated differently. Friends we know we want to see again.

Having worked retail for many years, I appreciate the strategy of using music to prod latent shopping impulses. But “Christmas” music has gotten harder to find, because it has to be scrubbed of theological content, and family/regional/cultural traditions vary widely.

But, boy, what if November 1 became the day all the stores started playing songs about friends? Because that’s who we shop for most passionately, our family and friends. And that’s something that no culture denies or devalues. There are tons of songs about friends. All generations. All volumes. All rhythms. All poetry styles.

When I first listened to this playlist, due to my isolation, due to my commitment to my partner (who has just walked in asking for breakfast), it hurt too much to complete. And I HATE to fly, so I dread the new unfriendly skies that await.

But that didn’t last. The focus now shines. It wiggles its toes in deep soil and tickles my innards.

So here’s what I want to put together: A calendar of readings — scriptures, poetry, whatever — that will start mid-October and carry through until American Thanksgiving. Needless to say, it will have lots of Hebrew Bible, because that’s where the Bible most fully talks about human relationships. It will have Christian longings about being together again.

And it will have much better music.