Limits to Civility

Two posts in one day! But in these times it is necessary to clarify the boundary line of one’s tolerance for people with inhumane views. This lesson comes from my experience 1994-1996, as the UU parish minister in the midst of Dorchester, MA’s worst crime wave in ages. It was one of the worst in the nation, and it involved young people killing each other in gang wars.

The Boston Police responded with a community policing program which still gets mentioned as a high spot in policing history. Its foundation, I firmly believe, was the cops were required to live in the city’s narrow boundaries. No driving in from quiet suburbs for them. Shootings were on their streets, fights were on the playgrounds their children had to use also. Yes, that was a help.

Also, they. were good people. Mostly, anyway, often enough to make a difference in many cases. They also valued observations and analysis made by human beings, not computers.

Here’s what they came up with.

Gangs were found to consist of two layers. At the heart, and in the vanguard, stood people of genuine ill will. These leaders, selling drugs, wielding guns, hanging shoes, wearing bandanas, had no interest in community improvement alternatives or calls for civility. For them, arrest and jail was the answer. Cops drove around with warrants for these people at easy access.

The other layer consisted of folks who felt they had no alternatives for advancement in society, other than up the gang ladder. For these folks, the police urged practical educational support, jobs and job support, sports teams (remember midnight basketball?), and family support through community centers and adequate food and housing for those these young people were trying to support.

The current civility debate seems focused on the former group, fomenters not just of hate, but of cruelty and incapacity for those of whom they wish to make unwitting accomplices. I support this aspect of incivility. It is the other layer my previous post reaches out to.

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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.

Insults and Violence: A Scholar’s Analysis

The wife and I have been glued to the television this week, indeed this month, watching what were once civilizations degenerate into adolescent self-promotion networks. All I can say is that when Wayne LaPierre attempts to cloak extremisms of weaponry in Second Amendment altar cloths, he makes much less progress than do the insult-slingers who have monopolized our attention for an entire month, in the name of a sadly-embarrassed First Amendment. I neither agree nor disagree with the content of the movie called “The Interview,” nor with the little bit of Charlie Hebdo available to me. What pains me is that these two purveyors of insult and iconoclasm have been mistaken for art, for journalism.

Still, shoddy stuff gets published, printed, projected all the time, and as an ordained minister, there is no question that insult and iconoclasm push my buttons. Imagine, then, my relief, to discover, on C-Span, a scholar who dives into the cold, hard framework of communal identity-building to categorize various forms of insult that play a role in the process. Karina Korostelina comes from the Crimean Ukraine but now holds forth at George Mason University, in the field of International Relations. IR was my field before ministry, but never did I approach her analytic prowess.

So here’s the link to her 90-minute seminar at the Kennan Center at the Woodrow Wilson School. Her examples don’t mean that much to me, because she feels for the former Soviet Union in a way I have never tried to approach through study or friendship. Her questioners include challengers who disagree with her characterizations of certain disputes, which shows that they do not challenge her fundamental framework. She puts insult into six categories according to the needs of the insulter, and cautions — correctly in my view — that insult forms, shapes and can direct a dynamic relationship between two parties, groups, nations. In some cases, she says, insults can substitute for violence, but in too many, insults escalate –deliberately — the pace of impending violence. Her talk was taped on 17 December 2014, and refers to the Sony film, “The Interview,” which was, in that week, being suppressed by its corporate sponsors. But somewhere in the suburbs of Paris, the assaults on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket were taking final form. Her book, her work, could not be more topical, more vital.

So, in the spirit of David Brooks, and other folks venturing cautiously to say, “Je ne suis pas Charlie” — and hastening to add that insults should not be capital crimes — I commend this scholar to you. Her new book appears to be coming soon, and she includes, in a portion of the book covered only briefly in the question-and-answer, a first attempt to distinguish between satire and insult. Being an academic tome, this book costs $50+ on Amazon. I hope that by calling attention to her work — not endorsing every word, but by offering her clear, comprehensive framework as a starting point — we can knock down its price and lift up our public conversation.

Happy New Year. Let’s see if we can correct its errant launch.

New Shoes for New Wives

New Shoes for New Wives

About six weeks ago, my love and I got married. She has Huntington’s Disease, but with medication, physical therapy, and sheer determination, she is living with it, rather than dying of it. My mom says I should write a memoir about this, but we aren’t really that interested in it. Like anyone else who does self-maintenance in order to do the things we enjoy or have to do. Just now, we are working on the house she bought and owns, through a combination of hard work and family support. But inevitably, as the disease takes it toll, she is less able to do most of the physical work, both large and small. She no longer drives. Hence, the work falls onto me. 

And I am grateful for the opportunity to do it. Vermont pays family caregivers like me to help their dependents stay out of residential or institutional care settings, on the assumption that this is cheaper than shelling out Medicaid at that level. They are probably right. This summer, thanks to our generous wedding guests and family, we are doing about two thousand dollars worth of work on said house, as well as heading for church camp next week. We pay property taxes, we buy organic food, we take care of stray cats. In the larger sense of community, we are a good investment. I say “we” because although she cannot do very much of the physical work, she knows more about it, and comes along to mentor and support me, every step of the way.

“Every step of the way.” That’s the pivot phrase to my topic at this moment. Like my mother, I have narrow feet in a common size. Well, almost a common size — one is a seven and one is a seven-and-one-half. Many years,there are no shoes for me to buy, even if I need to, because the combination of style, fit, and availability never happens. For the past two years, that has been the case with sandals. Gladiator sandals — especially with three inch heels and dog collars around the ankles — just don’t meet my needs. But my previous sandals had fallen apart, except for two last pairs, thankfully in very basic colors. Being on a limited budget, I was racing to every clearance bin and clearance website I could find, for better colors and nicer styles.

Finally I succeeded. Black, blue and brown. I like to also have multicolored and red — and I love this year’s corals, mustards,and olives — but care-giving is not that kind of lifestyle. So, basics only.

My wife has one pair of LL Bean sandals, and would never dream of having more. She marvels at my accessories fetish. But here’s the kicker: when the shoes arrived, she asked if I had put them on HER credit card. 

“Of course not! There are MY shoes.”

“These are OUR shoes.”

“There are things that are mine, and shoes are one of them. If you were a man, you’d never question a wife buying some things on her own, with her own money.”

Okay. But what made her say that?

Is it because she has more money from family sources? In reality, our family resources are pretty equal, but I am trying not to exploit mine. I encourage her to be more cautious with hers as well.

Or — and this didn’t occur to me until much later — is it because she wants to thank me for all the work, and to treat me to something she knows I need and want, in one of the few ways she can?

I could ask her, and that would answer this question for us. But I’m writing this to say that care-giving has cast a different light on a long-held calculation.

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.