Beyond Categorical Terrorism

Kudos to Rachel Maddow for blurring out the face, and refusing to repeat the name, of the young man suspected of joining a prayer service in South Carolina for the purpose of killing the leadership of a congregation with two centuries of leadership on behalf of equality for Africans and African-Americans in this country (USA). When I say I hope other media will repeat this technique,  my hope rests not in personal repugnance, but in the deepest roots of my religious tradition.

Several decades ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association introduced a program called “Beyond Categorical Thinking,” with the intention of teaching us adherents to look beyond the superficials of race, gender, age, economic status, cultural heritage, gender identity, sexual orientation — anything you can see on the surface — in order to open ourselves to a deeper kind of listening. Heart to heart. Dream to dream. Pain to Pain. Idea to idea. Fact to fact.

Twenty years later, or whatever it has been, neuroscience underscores the role of such aspirations when it comes to social choices. Instinctively, we feel more defensive in proximity to someone who looks or sounds different from ourselves. Despite our best intentions, when someone restates a known lie in order to rebut its truth, our ears reinforce the lie and tune out the negation. And reflexively, before our rational mind can flick its switch, the dominant parts of our brain light up — these being our temperaments, our primary intelligences — whenever we engage a situation, actively or passively. “You always say that!” pouts our teenage offspring. “Why do you pull back?” inquire our therapists. So it does take work — constant self-monitoring and recommitment — to get outside our comfort zone, and, just as crucial, to shut down inner messages which say, “Here, and here only, is where you belong.”

Happily, the same neuroscience that seems to doom us to autopilot has discovered that the brain itself is plastic. That doesn’t mean it leaves nasty little fish-killing beads in our waterways, but the other kind of plastic, the one that means “constantly open to reshaping.” Researchers looking into “cures” for stroke — not unlike educators trying to help young people become the first member of their family to graduate from high school — have discovered that constant repetition of necessary practices can teach the brain to work differently. At first, the necessary practice must be guided externally. Even young people nowadays might find themselves in closely-monitored physical therapy for a month or two, pushing an ankle to point a different direction, sweeping our arms in strange directions to strengthen our rotator cuffs. Meanwhile, what’s really happening is that up in our heads, our basal ganglia are telling other parts of the brain to set up new functional arrangements. (This even works with my wife’s Stage Four Huntington’s Disease, which is why this blog has suffered from neglect: she’s had to learn to walk again after a serious fall in October. But walk she can.)

But I digress. Back to Rachel Maddow’s commendable media leadership. The first step in making room for new habits is to get out of old ones. She used her media space to deny this man the fame he sought among a particular population.

The first step we must take as a society is to remove all content labels from extremist acts. To deny them the theological, racial, cultural stature they seek is the first step in undercutting their attractiveness to a generation raised on selfies and Instagram. Whether they commit their crimes in the Middle East or Midwest, in the name of Anglo-Saxon purity or theological puritanism, let their message and faces vanish. Assign them numbers and dates, the way we mark our wedding anniversaries and birthdays. Put them on a map, yes — but say no more than “another murder in Texas” or “another suicide bomber in Ramadi.” Name their weapons and other tools — but only so peaceseekers can more clearly see a “how” that we can manage.

For most of the six decades of my life, I’ve found some kind of pleasure in studying English history. The first thing we have to learn is that the so-called English Civil War included religion-based beheadings and burnings, massive destruction of sacred artworks, and send generations of Roman Catholics into underground worship (from which they fled to Maryland). Yet at the same time, over in Africa, some tribal leaders were waging wars whose purpose was capturing prisoners to sell to English merchants anchored in ancient port cities from which scholars and monarchs had once sailed in grandeur that Europeans hoped to appropriate. Extremism finds most of its victims among its own kind.

So let us remove the faces, the theologies, the ideologies of extremism. White folks do it and white folks fight it. Members of other races and ideologies do it, and in those same communities are tireless opponents of those miscreants.

It’s time for Unitarian Universalism — a religion of the Enlightenment tools of research and reason — to step into wider frameworks with that old theme of getting “beyond categorical thinking.” Yes, we need to combat misdeeds with information about the how, the where, the what. But let our “who” be blandly demographic and our “why” couched not in terms of  theology — that most misused of sciences — but neurological and sociological verities.

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Where Did Catholic Nuns Come From?

Many of us are watching with high emotion as the Leadership Conference of Roman Catholic nuns does battle with the Roman Catholic bishops. I happened to run across a description of where Roman Catholic nuns came from while reading Norman Cantor’s Civilization of the Middle Ages, and it wasn’t what I thought. It’s probably not what anyone thought, so here we go…

I thought, probably not unlike many others, that individual women of privilege took up the veil in order to avoid marriages or other patriarchal impositions. I thought that other women — probably with personal gumption but probably without social connections pressing down on them — joined in. I saw it as personal decisions by individual women standing up against their culture.

Cantor agrees that Benedictine convents were founded by women of privilege trying to escape marriages they didn’t want. But here’s the trick: their culture was all in favor of it. Their culture was not Roman-heritage Italian, but Franco-Germanic, that is, the invaders who took over as the Roman Empire crumbled. Germanic society was organized on a more collegial and ad-hoc basis, with electoral offices even for kings, and smaller groups entering and leaving confederations according to what worked. In these societies, women had much more individual stature. Unlike the Roman imperial culture to their west, these Ostrogoths held to Arian rather than Constantinian Christianity.

The Ostrogoths made confederations with Romans along the imperial border, by which they increased their wealth through trade and a few new industrial skills. These relatively peaceful strategies generated enough largesse to pass among their own allies further to the east, from whom, in return the border Ostrogoths collected certain taxes. As the Roman state collapsed, the Ostrogoths took over northern Italy — Milan, Ravenna, Venice. As with today’s liberals,  these “conquerors” (not to be confused with a later group, the Vandals, who were not Arian and not nice) declined to impose their culture on the Roman aristocracy (which was neo-Platonic pagan), refused to confiscate enough of the old estates to cripple their power — and thereby were themselves quickly overrun by the much more numerous Franks from their immediate north.

Ah, the French… well, not quite yet. These Franks were a Germanic heritage tribe whose primary distinction was a desire to colonize (take over land for themselves and their families), but whose political culture was still Germanic. (Come to think of it, France still has a pretty strong emphasis on regional pride and powerful women…)

But there still were Italians in Italy, so the Franks needed a strategy to pacify them. The Italians, however, had given up on secular government (apparently still do) and cast their lot with the rapidly-bureaucratizing Roman Catholic Church.  This worked pretty well for Frankish men, who could easily get baptized and go to mass. For free-minded Frankish women, however, the Church was a problem.  As it built itself according to the dictates of Pope Leo I and Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, theological consolidation rejected any gnostic or heretical sect which accepted the stature of women as equally worthy of bearing God’s message to humanity.  There were men as well as women who believed in human spiritual equality, and I doubt all their conversions were joyous occasions.

And what about their womenfolk?

Here’s where I nearly shot out of my chair: Cantor says Frankish families of wealth worked as one — women and the men who loved them — to set up convent culture.  The men wanted their women to have the choice of female-led, service-focused lives.  It was not a rebellion by individual women against their fathers, uncles and brothers, but by well-beloved women enjoying support from their fathers, uncles and brothers. The Frankish men freely funded the work for which we love these women still: housing the homeless, sheltering the friendless, feeding the hungry, nursing the sick, educating children, teaching and modeling a covenant of community care for everyone.

So when we, today, admire Roman Catholic women standing up against the bishops, we join their long-ago families and friends in a well-documented cultural practice. Conversely, when the bishops attempt to shut these women down, they are also perpetuating only one side in a long-standing war theological war. Leo, Ambrose and Gregory, along with their successors, call out one interpretation of the long-ago controversial scripture (“This is Peter”); Roman Catholic women — proto-Protestants in this case — for just about as long, have been reading the Bible differently.

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since the 5th and 6th centuries of the Common Era, but some of it, apparently, still tastes of its original springs.