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. 

Ghosts of Old War Mistakes

We watch a lot of international news in our house, and every day gets more and more alarming. So many horrible things are happening, you don’t need me to list them for you. And why do we keep cycling through the same types of outrage? My response is that it’s because the US public doesn’t understand the patterns of engagement our country keeps choosing between.

I. Copperheads

The first pattern came up during the US Civil War, and it’s the part of the war that has gotten the least attention, even on C-Span, where usually nothing is too obscure for a book tour. Well, meet the Copperheads. Lots of folks know that General George McClellan ran for President in 1864 as a peace candidate, but don’t understand the iceberg of which he was the tip. Copperheads were Democrats in the North, a tiny minority in the party that dominated the South and mostly seceded when Lincoln won in 1860. Some of them had business interests in the South — meaning supplying or buying from the slavocracy — but many others were the first of the laboring classes displaced by rural changes but not secure in urban factory jobs. Or they were immigrants — many Irish — fearing job competition from freed slaves. While many were supporters of the racist economic regime, many others were just willing to tolerate slavery as their own best economic or personal calculation. The Copperhead movement had nothing to do with pacifism.

Northerners seem to believe that Copperheadism ended at Appomattox, but for Southerners they were part of the Scourge of Reconstruction. Decimated landscapes always attract rapacious investors ready to buy up your debts for less than they’re worth but more than you’ve got. That form of Copperheadism deserves more attention, but it’s not what matters in foreign policy, my topic for today. Northern Copperheadism — “peace at any price because war has no benefit to me” — has not only never died out, it has spread like a vicious weed. When negotiations begin, the focus is on appeasement — give the aggressor whatever will get them to stop — but the prime goal stems back to Whiggism, the policy of compromising to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. The two primary goals are to “maintain business as usual” and to prevent a breakdown of known political structures. It’s worth noting that this was the party of classical New England Unitarianism.

Most of my friends and family are a contemporary cleaned-up version of Copperhead: by idealizing human nature as “inherently good” they persuade themselves that restoring equality to human transactions — economic, cultural, political — will cause both war and poverty to simply wither away. Everyone will discover the good in everyone else and be satisfied with that knowledge as life’s highest and finest reward.

Idealists are people who have not had the experience of interviewing survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, as I did in 1981-82. A week ago, I would have told you what is happening throughout the Middle East and North Africa resembles the kind of low-grade outrage that characterizes governance in Pakistan. This week, though, it looks like violence has passed a horrible tipping point. Sustained campaigns of bombing and other military violence foster society-wide PTSD, and the worst of those victims can be exploited by individuals who are either themselves completely deranged by abuse, or carrying around an evil they were born with. It might help to read “The Plague” again, by Albert Camus, but you’d do better to look at mass murderers who washed out of the military, who got fired from Postal Service jobs, who underwent years of ridicule and humiliation. These are folks who want revenge, but whose grievance has no bottom and no top.

II. Great War Syndrome

Commentator David Brooks gets a lot of things wrong, but sometimes he’s very right. Tonight on The PBS News Hour, he said that our mistake in Syria was forgetting that “It’s easier to do the little things early than to do the big things later.” The US experience in World War I led to a delusion that we are the exception to this inconvenient truism. Europeans have spent this past week commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities of which we care nothing, because we entered so much later. And when we went in, the primary reason appears to have been that attacks on shipping were starting to hurt our economic elite. And what were they shipping? Why, munitions, to be sold at shameful profit, and apparently in some cases to both sides. So this was really a variation on Copperheadism — not that one would stay out of war to maintain business and politics as usual, but that one would enter it for the same reason. Sort of like the Confederates, and their apologists remain proud of it.

For Europe, 1914-1918 was “The Great War” because of its casualties and social upheavals, but we called it that because it had elements of excitement and adventure. Remember “The World War One Flying Ace”? Remember “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm [After They’ve Seen Paree]?” Josephine Baker, and the African American discovery that the French had other prejudices, and loved American jazz? Let me be the first to say that for far too many Americans, 1918 was also a year of unprecedented death, much of which occurred because global war made our troops into victims and carriers of the lethal Spanish Influenza.

But for those U.S. troops who marched into Paris, who came home relatively unscathed, The Great War message was that our military could anticipate a fairly safe and profitable future assisting good guys who were trying hard but didn’t have our advantages. This is what led directly to Iraq in March 2003. “They’ll welcome us with open arms.” “We’ll be done in no time, once we help them establish the democracy they know in their hearts is what they want.” That might have been true in 1918 and 1945, but it has nothing to do with the way things are in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

So there we went, deluding ourselves into believing that people everywhere just want to do what we do here (which, might I point out, we are less and less sure we want to continue doing). Some folks say we have to give them guns and pocket-sized constitutions, other folks encourage more economic and educational empowerment. But today’s wars aren’t happening in Paree, they’re  not even in Weimar Berlin. This week tells me we might be looking at Kampuchea, in the hellish years before the Vietnamese finally rejected international norms and invaded their neighbor. That invasion, with its puppet government, released the Kampuchean people from agonizing suffering, but Vietnam’s primary goal was to stabilize and rationalize a neighboring country whose psychological injuries were starting to threaten the region. For this the Vietnamese suffered tons of excoriating condemnation in, of all places, the United Nations, for having invaded a country whose government had not invited them.

So if I’m right, and the Boka Haram/Islamic State of Iraq type of army really does represent a new form of Khmer Rouge frenzy for annihilation, we on the left need to look at the shadowy ghost of Copperheadism. We do the right thing by confronting conservatives with their own sad Great War Syndrome. Unfortunately, for too much of the planet, these two models have meshed into a foreign policy that lays bare the worst of both of them.

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.

How Dandelions Changed My View of History


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?

In the Beginning: The Puritan Origins of Today’s Unitarian Universalist Process of rCredentialing and Ordaining of Ministers

Judging from three different Facebook threads, as well as some changes proposed to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s bylaws (on which I have absolutely no opinion), some folks would like a short, snappy, easily-shared timeline of where our polity came from.

When the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay received a royal charter to found a constellation of parishes throughout the wilderness of New England in the 1630s, they defined their vision with ample reference to the Hebrew Bible. Like Moses, they were taking God’s covenant into a wilderness (which, as in the Hebrew Bible, already belonged to somebody else, but that’s another issue; still, attention must be paid) and setting up an interlaced network of communities which would nourish, educate, and, occasionally, correct each other. The secular affairs of these communities would be run through democratic self-government by the men of the village, meeting weekly in Town Meeting. The religious affairs would fall under the purview of theologically educated, publicly supported ministers.

The mutual nurture, education, and correction would take place through free travel among marketplaces and social institutions in the best road system of the original thirteen colonies. The mutual nurture, education, and, occasionally, correction of these same towns assembled for religious purposes would be accomplished by having the ministers preach weekly not only to their own congregations but weekly to one other town as well. This system was so different from what we today call “pulpit visits” that I strive to rename the system as “pulpit rotation.” For a minister would indeed come around again — over two to four decades of service, he would come to know the neighboring towns as thoroughly as he knew his own. There were no hotels, so he would sleep, eat, bathe, and sometimes be sick in the homes of parishioners all over the colony. And there were no secrets, because someone in his own congregation would welcome a diverse but not distant collection of his ministerial colleagues, week after week.  Seminarians and new graduates took part in the rotation, so that by the time a congregation wanted to elect one to a vacant pulpit, or add him as relief for an aging pastor, the entire Standing Order had an opinion. To exercise their vested interest, delegates of neighboring congregations were called to vote on the ordination immediately before it would take place.

There were no Sundays off.

When ministers visited each others’ parishes, (King’s Chapel apparently joined the rotation sometime after its Loyalist majority absconded during the War for Independence) they kept their eyes open for “promising youths” who might fill pulpits in later years. Both Theodore Parker and Henry Ware, Sr were poor young men of good lineage who received encouragement for the ministry from their own and other ministers. Unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson, a PK many times over, Parker and Ware, Sr. simply had a chance to show their interest, and, like Emerson, receive opportunities that let them work towards and through Harvard.

They also kept their eyes open for women who would make good ministers’ wives. In the 1830s, when Henry Ware, Jr lost his first wife and was distraught that he had to house his young children with his sister until he could find another wife, his colleagues arranged that his pulpit rotation hospitality included suitable potential partners. And one of them, impoverished but able, did indeed become the wife who maintained his ministry during both his illnesses and his denominational absences.

By this social process — codified but not identified in The Cambridge Platform of 1648 — the Standing Order could both encourage the freedom of individual consciences and yet center the town’s identity in its First Parish. It is therefore a mistake to attempt to transplant the dictates of the Cambridge Platform without reference to the changes in social environment. The system lasted until October 1830.

So whence came The Boston Ministers’ Association, that forerunner of the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee? It early arose, as sort of a town meeting for ministers, and met faithfully. Still does. And you can find its records in the Massachusetts Historical Society, so don’t take my word for it.

In the Massachusetts Historical Society you can find the incessant journaling of Rev. Dr. John Pierce of Brookline’s First Parish. He never missed an ordination, dedicated many a meetinghouse (including the one where I currently worship, which required a week of hard travel in a New England January) and kept notes on practically every meeting that was held among the congregational ministers who found themselves transitioning from quiet village preachers into the leaders, thinkers, and victims of the Unitarian Controversies.  Dr. Pierce’s journals are a one-man NSA of that era.

“Mode of Introduction to the Pulpit Among the Congregational Clergy of Boston and Vicinity” Memoirs of John Pierce, Vol III pp. 483 – 493

“Till within a few years it was the practice of students of Divinity to commence preaching without any form of examination or license.  When a young man wished to become candidate for the ministry, he was invited into the pulpit of some friend; and in this way, he became known as a candidate for settlement, and was accordingly invited to preach on probation.

                “At length by the exertion of Dr. Morse and others, who wished to introduce not only the system of examining candidate, but also the Church government subsisting in Connecticut, into this state, it became a vote of the Convention of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts, that no young man should be encourage to preach, but such, as obtained the approbation of some Association.”

The Reverend Dr. Jedediah Morse of First Parish, Charlestown, MA, was the Newt Gingrich of the Unitarian Controversies: not for him the mystic chords of unity; he tolerated only — and engineered finally — the polarity of theological clarity. He combated the Unitarians’ most prominent independent scholar, Miss Hannah Adams of Medfield, who published the first dictionary of all religions, past and present, as they described themselves in their own words.

As the Great Awakening of the 1730s suffused into the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, councils before ordinations became very tense; congregations began inviting only clergy and congregations they knew shared their sympathies.  Salvation-minded parties  withdrew from formerly town-wide congregations. 

On the 15th and 23rd of October, 1830, Henry Ware, Jr, took a theological hatchet to the pulpit rotation system in his Introductory Address to the Cambridge Theological School as its first Parkman Professor of Pulpit Eloquence and the Pastoral Care. In “The Connections Between the Duties of the Pulpit and The Pastoral Office,” he called for a preaching integrity not of theological argument but settled pastoral relationships.  It was not that he disliked the pulpit rotation system — indeed, he so generous with his ministerial presence that his health suffered and he died young –but the Industrial Revolution had caused congregations to crave stable ministers, messages, and worship rituals to anchor their rapidly-disintegrating social realm.

Cut off from their neighbors by theology, now looking inward to their pulpit, modern parishes had no friendly confidants to take them aside with cautionary or tutelary information about potential ministers. If a candidate misjudged his suitability for ministry, the comforts of that stable parish could buoy him for quite some time, to the parish’s eventual detriment. Ware and his colleagues began by sending forth their own students, properly credentialed through Boston’s Ministerial Association, because there was no other guarantor for transplanted New Englanders in search of religious continuity.

I tell this story with sympathy for the impulse to protect these parishes from the dangers that arose with their isolation from each other. But that sympathy was misplaced. The denomination’s single, centralized Ministerial Fellowship Committee, symbolized by the late, lamented headquarters at 25 Beacon Street in Boston, followed Jedediah Morse’s secretive, judgmental model (which, ironically, has been democratized by the denomination which carries on his theological views). What Morse advocated, as Pierce explained, was not the Cambridge Platform of Massachusetts, but the Saybrook Platform of Connecticut. To remain true to Massachusetts Bay, our denomination would have done better to replicate the collegiality not only among ministers but also among congregations, on regional and local bases. It is no accident that voices clamor most strongly against the MFC and the clerisy it credentials in the wake of strong UUA efforts to enhance and empower regional organizations.

The World Turned Upside Down

At first, the Boston Marathon bombings seemed small to me. Compared to 9-11, to deaths in wars we don’t even bother to look at on television anymore, even to industrial murders resulting from deliberately unsafe management decisions — compared to all this, a lot of people went home in one piece. Had homes to go home to.

That night I went to hear Medea Benjamin speaking on the outrage of US drone policy. As a former political-military analyst of Pakistani affairs, back in another time and place, I actively despise the drones as bad policy. They are another Vietnam — which is to say, a bombing of innocent people who didn’t really care about us but wake up the next day full of hatred. On such occasions, my mind wanders idly to the question of whether our stated policy on use for drones would be different if another country — say, Russia — used the same words to justify attacks launched into US neighborhoods, in search of their own terrorists, say, Chechnyans separatists.

History teaches that the Russians have plenty of reason to use something as lethal as drones against Chechnyan separatistseven as the Chechnyan separatists have legitimate grievances against the Russians. It’s a civil war, fought out by other means, and sometimes in other places.

So, as I say, the Russians would have as much reason to launch a drone into Watertown or any other US neighborhood with a strong eastern European presence as we have to launch our drones into some of the Pakistani and Yemeni neighborhoods we attack. Signature attacks, after all, depend on nothing more than a belief that this is the kind of neighborhood where terrorism finds a foothold. Takes root. Organizes and then exports the means to attack innocents abroad.  At this moment, I trust, there are legal scholars in the Pentagon and CIA poring over every word Obama has uttered on this subject, frantically seeking the ones that might be launched back into our own faces.

But drones are not only something to fear, they are also something to understand. The reason we use drones against suspected terrorists is because those malefactors inhabit places we mock as “failed states.”  In explaining the appellation, experts do not deny that good people live there. States do not fail because they have no rich people. they do not lack for healthy religious communities, most of which are the single healthy social institution protecting their members. Failed states have arts and literature, museums and ways for people to trade and travel.

What failed states don’t have is a government with the power, the will, and the resources to control people who do not wish to live by the laws.  Patriots Day was an ironic moment for God to show the full dimensions of how much that applies to us. Worried about personal violence: the US Senate voted to let gun owners be gun owners — no matter why they want those guns — and to have all the bullets and gunpowder they want.  nervous about your jobsite and missing OSHA? An industrial chemical plant exploded next to two schools and a nursing home, all snuggled close to each other in a jurisdiction that has no safety standards nor routine surprise inspections.  Or maybe you dread the ecological apocalypse? In that case, you’re agitated that flooding has shut down a major metropolitan area and raised fears that its failed sewage exclusion system has allowed an imported predator species of fish to enter the huge, interlocked Great Lakes water system.

And in Boston, on Patriots Day, two brothers and unknown others took the step that lead to official designation as a failed state: they planned, supplied, and launched an act of violence against a public event.  It probably took someone from someplace like Chechnya to hold up the final mirror. Fugitives from failed states know immediately when they’ve landed in another one.  Maybe now, when the Pakistanis, the Yemenis, the Afghans wail that the drones kill good people with the bad, the people of Watertown, Cambridge, and Arlington — many of whom are my personal dear friends — will lead American voices insisting we take them more seriously.

Wisdom is for another day. Right now, I’m still reeling from the numerous naked emperors running wild on my cable television: a town blown off the map in Texas, my own friends locked in their home, losing income and serenity in Greater Boston, and Asian jumping carp chomping their way into Lake Michigan from the DesPlaines and Chicago Rivers.

God has called our bluff. Pride goes before a fall.  Monday night, I mused with disinterest how useful it would be for the Russians to launch a drone against the US, using our own legal language to justify a simply decision to protect their own people against terrorism.  Today — Friday — I just pray they don’t.

How to Get Out of the Woods

I came into this association in 1969 full of social justice passion. Opposition to the war in Vietnam, admiration for the established commitment to racial justice through leadership participation in the Civil Rights movement. Instantly I had a community of like-minded individuals. If those who disagreed with us departed, well, so much the better for our effectiveness. Either they’d see the light and come back, or they’d wallow in some wilderness of their own making.


In those first years everything we seemed to do was about social justice. Hunger feasts for La Raza, pastoral and liturgical support for the first feminists and gay rights activists. And always, opposition to violence. My LRY met in a room displaying the name of Mahatma Gandhi, and we were quick to respond to accusations of excessive force by the police, let alone the military. Don’t even mention ROTC chapters: these we considered little better than indoctrinators of evil.

That’s what happens when you enter a passionate relationship: you can’t wait to get into the weeds. Upstream you plunge, hacking at low-hanging branches, wallowing in sudden clearings, wiggling your toes in clear water when mud starts to ooze into your shoes. New plants and animals fascinate you. Your hiking buddies support you. As teamwork builds, you sense a collective power to lay a path.


But weeds have a price. You get too far away from other folks finding the same joy on other paths. Your jubilant blossoms are weeds to them. The branches you hack away were brush from which they build enduring structures. If by chance your paths cross, these discrepancies make it impossible to converse, to rejoice together. Far from settling in on common ground, you turn away, back to the path whose flora and fauna, practices and pitfalls you know best.


But if you stay on this hike long enough, and your paths cross with different journeyers often enough, the team which once felt so strong will start to weaken. One by one—or even in small groups – folks will find other descriptions of this environment intriguing. Maybe even more persuasive.


You worry for them, but instinct means you’ll fight even harder for yourself. This is the path you have followed, these are the details you know. Here in the thickest woods, you cling to what you know, treasure the details by which you hope to free yourself. Louder and more stridently other hikers strive to shake your confidence. They call for a general redefinition. They hold out the hopefulness of recreating, reframing.

If dialogue fails, they feel no other choice but to remove. If they can’t remove you and your details, they’ll remove themselves from you.

The first great removal of UUs came as early as 1970, removing UUs who supported the war in Vietnam, or at least the government’s right to make such decisions. Many, I’m sure, left because that era refused to affirm the rights and dignity of those who wound up fighting, either through the draft or – shudder—voluntarily.

Other social forces thinned our ranks as well, in particular the lessening of social pressures to espouse formal religious membership as part of the corporate career path. Theological issues complicated life among those who chose to stay. Which plants were the good ones to eat? God or not God? Weekly worship or outside spiritual self-expression? But these are old questions, and they didn’t hurt us more than they hurt other religions.

In the deepest woods, we started to listen to those who wanted to redefine. We lightened up on theological language issues, even agreed on a symbol for our faith community. Our best thinkers and listeners, ordained or non-ordained, helped us set up processes for clarifying what we truly believed, hacking off the weed-making process of distilled collective liturgy. For if ethics can be summarized simply, God, or whatever you experience as the ultimate, can never be nailed down. (Yes, that’s a deliberate pun: I’m a Christian UU preparing for Holy Week.)

Image Continue reading

I would argue t…

I would argue that almost all of the internal developments within UUism, both in local congregations and as a larger institution are the expression of differing strategies for surviving the political and cultural wilderness.

I am writing this on the day of Barack Obama’s second Inauguration. His election confirms my suspicion that 2008 marked the end of the cultural hegemony of conservatism in the politics and culture of the US. Our wilderness days may be coming to an end.

It is time to consider new possibilities.”

Tom Schade in “The Lively Tradition.”

At The Lively Tradition, Tom Schade has been rocking the question of what lies ahead for Unitarian Universalism, if we have, in many ways, won some significant victories in making our vision more widespread and even incarnate in the world we inhabit and our offspring will inherit.

On his particular points, I have posted several comments, along with other valuable thinkers. My function here is to raise the question to which this blog is dedicated: “What is the best polity for us to achieve our fullest potential?” For if Tom is right, and our fullest potential has expanded so very much — a suspicion born out by all the talk about Free Range UUs and lapsed UUs, etc — then the question is not 9to use my old language as a military analyst)  “what are we here to deliver?” but “what is the best system or structure to deliver the payload we have chosen?”

I have come to believe that antiquated polity is the greatest danger to ourselves and to what we care about. Nor am I alone: the denomination is regionalizing, the Society for Community Ministers and UU Ministers Association have held talks about how to expand our vision and missions for ministry, and ministers with parishes are displaying websites that offer independent consulting or other services. Some folks conduct their ministries completely on line, and others are still making do with old-fashioned word-of-mouth connections and anchoring services such as books, classes, chaplaincies.

I believe we have a fundamental stumbling block, with an history of deliberate origins and therefore, an option for us to choose differently. I’ve been doing lots of scribbling at home to figure out how to talk about it.  There’s a role for history, there’s a role for debate. But Tom has achieved the fundamental first step: he has pointed out we stand at a moment of existential crisis, and asked us where we want to go from here.

Applying the Lens of Congregational History to the UUA-UCC Meeting

One way UUA President Reverend Peter Morales explained his recent meeting with his UCC counterpart was by rightly noting their continuing presence with UUs in various social justice campaigns. The UCC caught a lot of UU attention with a television outreach campaign that welcomed same sex couples, and got censored in several major markets. They’ve also taken the most fundamental theological tenet of the Reformation “God is still speaking” and made it look, to our ignorant eyes, like some special form of religious progressivism. As a lover of the Reformation, and living in a same-sex couple, these are certainly good things.

But here at the local level, in 2012, we’d be sadly remiss in believing that the UCC is unique among Protestant faiths in either of these positions. I bowed for ashes last night at the local Episcopal Cathedral, where the homilist was a victor in the long, slow legal campaign for the right right to marry the man he loves. Just as we do at the UU congregation, they include on their order of service — even on Ash Wednesday — a reminder of what they’ve committed to provide for our local food shelf. When I went down to chaplain after a shooting at our Occupy Vermont-Burlington camp last autumn, my call came from a Lutheran Youth and Young Adult Minister serving a coalition of liberal Protestant congregations: Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian. As both our state mental hospital and prisons reach out for spiritual support in new locations, we get updates and plan responses in large part around our local interfaith clergy table.

Which brings us back to the question, in these hard but hopeful times: If God is still speaking, is the voice coming into each humble local heart and ear, to be shared by reaching out and reaching up — or is it being parsed out in scant, broad instructions, vouched safe to special leaders for us to carefully handle with the guidance of these leaders’ most trusted emissaries?

Local history teaches that there’s a bumper sticker truth for our religion as well as our society:

If the People Lead, The Leaders Will Follow.

And maybe that’s why the Association’s top levels don’t invest in lots of academically solid congregational histories: the evidence suggests liberal religions doesn’t really need with a Moses or a College of Cardinals. God is still speaking, and the Universalists were right: God speaks to everyone, with clarity, energy and an emphasis on local practical service to neighbors.