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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“Church History” and Trayvon Martin

The day just closed marked the anniversary of Reverend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s invited address to a small collection of students, recent alumni (Theodore Parker), and community members (including Elizabeth Peabody) at what was then known as the Theological School at Cambridge. The Divinity School Address, (DSA) as it is now known, has been called the foundational document of Transcendentalism, not so much a shot across the bow as into the powder magazine of the nascent congregational Unitarianism struggling mightily to hang onto respectability, power, and cultural relevance in a fast-changing world.

Today on Facebook, one scholar chose to highlight a theme which comes up many places in Emerson, that is, the primacy of instinctive religion over received religion. I am currently reading Self Reliance, where, if anything, church history takes a much more sustained hit than anything Emerson says in the DSA. But when I put down my Emerson to take in several hours of MSNBC commentary on the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, church history jumped out from every word.

I agree with Emerson, this is no time for quarreling over whose congregation was established first and whether or not so-and-so was ordained by such-and-such a congregation or by some other. But this IS a time for remembering the very church history made by Emerson and his allies of many faiths in reacting to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. For I heard commentators tonight, speaking about New York City’s stop and frisk policy, as well as about the acquittal (not exonoration) of a self-appointed neighborhood vigilante. For me it all came together in this video, when Joy Reid and Rev. Al Sharpton explained that this says to African Americans  that any white person, civilian or official, can challenge the presence and conduct of any black person — child, youth, adult, senior, anyone — for any reason.

These are the words of the Fugitive Slave Law, that is, to empower every white person to put every black person in the place that white person considers to be that black person’s place. The law’s intent was to institutionalize every African American in slavery, or scare them out of the country (it spurred a HUGE increase in flights to Canada via Underground Railroad). Today there is no slavery to send them back to, but perhaps our penal system has taken over that function.

And when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, states like mine (Vermont) moved immediately and officially to disqualify our officials from taking part in it. This little-remembered fact led the South to abandon — until now — its push for a strong central authority supporting slavery, moving back to states’ rights as the fallback. (This explains why liberal religion needs to focus is social justice not at national television cameras, but at state legislatures.)  A Vermont lawyer in Missouri helped a family who had been living as free people despite official slave status to appeal this law. It was the Dred Scott Decision which took the question of citizenship out of the hands of states and federalized it, by declaring that Africans had no right to citizenship, no matter what state they inhabited and whether or not they were free.

And here is where church history — not omitting Rev. Emerson’s own works — becomes relevant. Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, and other liberal religious stood up against this pervasive persecution  to say we would not participate. Moreover, as Caucasian religious organizations, we would do everything in our power to protect African-heritage individuals from every form of second class citizenship, beginning with this omnipresent fear of persecution and endangerment.

I’ve been wrestling for over a year with the Transcendentalist conviction, which Emerson states in Self Reliance, that a person should not be distracted from the work to which they are called by anything, not even pleas from philanthropies, charities, and neighbors with whom we have no other exchanges. Does this mean we UUs ought to limit our commitment to social justice? By this definition, Emerson’s life contradicts his writings. But tonight what it means to me is that since I have brother and sister Americans who feel, in effect, that the Fugitive Slave Law is still in effect, then as an American, this is my genius, this is my locality, this is a neighbor with whom I have business. If we have to retool our focus to state-to-state emphasis, in order to counter the current strategies of oppression, that does not mean we are pulling back, but moving forward.