One of the nicest guys in major league baseball is retired catcher and newscaster David Ross. “Rossie” to everyone. But he has a saying, which others like to quote:

“Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.”

This is a saying that resonates with my reverence for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his adherence to nonviolent action. But how does it work with either Nazism or Universalism? This is no minor issue, but the fundamental challenge to my religion at this time.

Growing up in Cincinnati, I learned early about two great Kentucky natives: Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay. They were the two great nice guys of the 19th century, who struggled to reconcile the safety and expansion of the nation with the hardline evil of slavery. It helps to remember that Kentucky began as an extension of Virginia, and lots of great Ohioans also came from that beautiful but evil-doing commonwealth. In the case of both Clay and Lincoln, it made them nice to the point of moral error.

Clay’s great sin was to negotiate extensions of slavery with 50-50 admission of slave and free states, above and below certain lines of latitude. Lincoln’s sin was to move too quickly and widely with forgiveness for the traitors of the Confederacy. Had Lincoln lived, his benevolence would have suffered withering challenge from the Radical Reconstructionists of his own Republican Party. As many costs as there were to Lincoln’s premature death, the worst was to lose the sharpened arguments and anti-racist organization such an intra-party quandary would have caused. For what it’s worth, in those same years, Cincinnati, the lynchpin of North and South, played a prominent role in spreading Universalism throughout the Great Lakes region. It makes me wonder what we really wanted out of all that generous forgiveness.

This brings me back to the distinction among gang members laid out by the Boston Police in those bloody nineteen-nineties, and expanding it a bit to open a path for dialogue among potential people of good will on both sides of the current political aisles. In the current nationwide situation, I have to expand that distinction a little. Here I call out the local leaders of evil — and of good — as fundamental lynchpins to the spread of any political philosophy or platform nationwide.

Currently, leftwing activists have begun disrupting the private times and spaces of national leaders who foment racism and promote false narratives in its support. These are exactly the right moves to let these criminals experience life without their White Privilege bubble. I only wish we had more of this being done to leaders of corporate robbery in various localities and industries. I would also like to see it spread to local leaders of evil, which at once is more effective, and therefore, more personally dangerous. As to God’s forgiveness of them, that is something I’ll leave for God.

National hate-mongers rely on two types of followers. For sheer numbers, they need genuine victims, misguided by virtue of childhood teachings and narrow social outlets. These are the people among whom I believe left and right can build common cause.

The other day I posted a suggestion on Facebook, calling on progressives to show up at Republican rallies with signs saying, “You don’t like me, and I don’t like you, but can’t we all agree to like Social Security?” It is my genuine belief that many of these folks have no idea that their own family budgets are being gutted by the very folks their false prophets have talked them into sending to Congress.

And what about these “false prophets”? Here is where nationwide, top-down (unitary) organizational models on the left cannot succeed. False prophets are the local enablers of the national hate-mongers. Local hate-mongers and wage-stealers rely on rhetoric that plays off childhood messages about who a follower can rely on. But local evil-doers have the face-to-face contact that allows them to offer personal affirmation to folks feeling lost, rejected, or insulted by ways they feel society is hurting them.

The left’s current insistence on total conversion by political allies plays right into the power of these false prophets. As much as I try to cleanse myself of old racist and corporatist trainings, I know that in my lifetime it will never happen. If people have to achieve these impossible puritan standards before left and right work together on definable issues and goals, we might as well get out our yellow stars and pink triangles right this minute and start walking toward the cattle cars.

Every week, innocent African Americans, queer folk, and immigrants suffer hands-on harassment all over this once-great nation. To eradicate these practices will require sustained local oversight, publicity, and repercussions. Law enforcement knows that the most effective form of punishment is not necessarily the toughest, but the least random. What frustrates me about the “Say Her Name” movement and its equivalents is the way it hopscotches all over everywhere based on viral social media postings. The left needs to reorganize around that principle. We need to stay constantly in the face of local leaders, preventing them from functioning as enablers to national (and international) human rights violators. Only by this means will we break each local link between large-scale evildoers and their mass followers.

But it is also only by this means that we will start to forge effective alliances with local folk who could, on many issues, become pragmatic allies. There is now, for instance, a rising movement against clergy sexual harassment among evangelical church women. If traditional feminists insist on these women changing their stances on abortion rights or marital idealism (gulp! I’m in a gay marriage!) we will not be able to roll back statutes of limitations or persuade victims that hospital rape kits can be neutral tools for safety. We cannot assure them that in cases of same-sex harassment, we have no agenda other than health and justice for their victimized loved one. Yes, freedom to choose and right to marry are fundamental to safety for us all, but only by getting together on initial tiny bits of common ground will wider circles start to see them function in our lives.

Bracketing. It’s not only the key to successful foreign policy negotiations, it’s a vital tool in pastoral care for people who have done wrong. (I didn’t make that up, it was taught to me in divinity school.) Set aside issues of justice until the person can start to feel strong. Then gradually, and with sensitivity to pain, start introducing questions that probe the individual’s potential to understand and correct the error of their ways. With sustained support, most folks can tap and unleash a better being inside.

I realize this is written from the safest little haven of gay white privilege in our nation, good old Burlington, VT. I realize this can be seen as rejecting Dr. King’s assertion that “we have waited too long.” But widening the circle of justice requires a complex community of actions and activists. I am a reconciliationist by nature and there are ways for me to put this in the service of long-term peace and justice. Others are fed up and will keep on the necessary pressures.

And yes, I am very tempted to perform acts of “Justice Incivility” among miscreants even up here, because yes, we have them. My reconciliationist tendencies extend only to those who genuinely seek new paths, new common ground, and are willing to turn their backs on evil. For true evil-mongers and their local allies, I, like others, hold out no handshake. When people hear me talk about God’s forgiveness and ask how I can say that it encompasses people I fear and loathe, my answer is always that, “This is the difference between God and me.”

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Sides and Circles

Hello, again.

In the current climate of both religion and politics, I cannot refrain from reaffirming my loyalty to historic Universalism, as opposed to historic Unitarianism. Looking back to the late 18th and 19th century, these are the elements that clarify my call.

Pre- and post-Civil War America were very similar to the era in which we live now. Generations of European Americans had worked the stolen land and settled into a non-immigrant, non-capitalist lifestyle. In other words, high ambition no longer fired their souls. Instead they wanted quiet, stability, safety, and security, for themselves and their descendants. They were local folk, artisans and farmers, whose highest passion often resided in their local Bible-based faith. When it came to keeping local order, most of them relied more on a fear of hell than a confidence in law.

Sound familiar?

Unitarians of the same years were forming the earliest industrial class, and educated management, such as they could devise, was big with them. In greater Boston, they owned textile mills and relied on the daughters of these settlers for cheap, well-behaved, unambitious labor. Others were pure capitalists (author’s note: this part references my own forebears) whose business relied either directly or indirectly on the kidnapping, selling, and bonding of Africans, or the slaughter of ocean-going mammals. In any case, they wanted to get ahead, stay ahead, and position their offspring ahead. Education was a major weapon in both their definition of character and their toolbox for oppression. This led them to dismiss what we would now call the working class and small farmers as “uneducated.” What began as denigrating slurs in the 19th century (with the occasional anti-immigrant violence) had by the 20th century become a lethal combination of eugenic science and anti-evangelical liberal Christianity.

Universalists approached the challenge of settler comfort completely differently. Overwhelmingly, Universalists bubbled up within this very milieu, and what motivated them was concern for the peace of mind of their family and friends. Far from disrespecting the Bible’s call for strong Christian faith (Unitarians preferred Biblical passages extolling the doing of good works), Universalists found in faith their own key to calm and character. In Boston, at least, Unitarians would have no more to do with Universalists than with any other evangelicals.

But Universalists did not show their conversion by turning away from traditional evangelicals. When you find something this wonderful, you want to share it with those you love the most. Those with whom you identify. So Universalists declined to denigrate evangelical preachers, for either their intelligence or their faith. Instead, Universalists would ride from town to town asking evangelicals to name their most distinguished preacher. Offering no insult to this cleric or his (always) followers, nor ridicule of the foundations of their religion, the Universalists would invite this person to share a public platform for public debate on whether the Bible did or did not call for eternal damnation for sinners.

In most cases, having achieved at least a few conversions, the Universalist would eventually set up a riding circuit, supporting adherents with worship and pastoral presence to sustain them in an often-hostile home turf. As early as 1837, Unitarians were smart enough to realize that in areas such as these, liberal religion would fare better through an alliance with local Universalists than attempting to plant a socially elitist brand of religion. From alliances such as these (called “fishing agreements”) arose a distinction between historically Unitarian and historic Universalist congregations.

The assumptions behind these debates and their congregations are the ones to which I now feel called to shape this blog. My family has plenty of dirt under recent nails, and grease on recent hands. I work these days in the most traditional woman’s role, which is caring for a disabled family member full time. I’m on the left of the political spectrum, but identify with many well-meaning Trump voters.

Yes, I believe there are such people.

Yes, I believe their stories, their circumstances, their ideas have merit in many cases.

Yes, I believe that the only successful change issues will be specific, limited, consistent, and self-interested in ways we all share in public areas.

I do not believe all Trump voters are good people, but many of them are. So like those old-time Universalist preachers, I will ride these electronic waves wherever they reach, to see if I can help us find some common ground on which to rebuild our nation.

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.

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.