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.