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.

It’s been ages since I thought there was any point in writing about polity among the Unitarian Universalists. Nor does my return to the topic, at this cataclysmic moment, indicate either a sense of hope, or much interest. These days most of my emotional energy resided in the purely personal. Still, people who have meant so much to me would like a small bit of perspective, so here’s what I can offer.

For those who don’t know, we have had, on the same day — March 30, 2017 — not one but two earthshaking ministerial downfalls. What can’t be overlooked is that they come from the two opposite poles of polity. It’s as if God wanted to wake us up to both dangers, and to do so with enough clarity that none of us can miss it. So without commenting on the content of either event, here are my evaluations.

First, on the resignation of our denominational president over concerns about staff appointments. The problem itself is as old as we are. When we were only New Englanders, a call went out for more leaders from and in the west (a changing place over the centuries, but never a different issue). When we were only led by men, women agitated for a place at the decision-making tables. In each case, the protesters wanted their superficial differentness to harbor a deeper difference in how our congregational approach religion. The UUA, following the lead of its Unitarian forerunners, the Boston Clergy Association and the National Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Churches, instituted closed selection processes for approving clergy, always claiming their only aim was protecting the innocent and/or sacred. Yet in each case, the victors in writing the bylaws turned out to be elitists convinced that salvation for others lay in control only by folks carefully selected to resemble themselves or at least, show deference to their co-called wisdom and devotion.

In 1899, when Samuel Atkins Eliot I and his co-conspirators on the board of the tiny American Unitarian Association instituted an anti-congregational coup over the decentralized and congregationally-based National and Western Conferences, they thought they had good reasons. In particular, the rise of both evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholic political influence led these folks to believe that educated, rationalist, humanist-driven Protestantism needed to strengthen its ability to speak up in the public realm. This is the tendency which has led us to tighter and tighter staff leadership and more and more strident political advocacy. It was probably inevitable that eventually, heads would roll as that advocacy has finally begun — as once did geographic outreach — to bring in some long-desired but little known new members.

So now, if our ministers and parishioners of color want more staff members that not only look like them, but understand the spiritual ups and downs of their personal lives, I say they only continue an honorable and completely worthy line of disrupters who have always, eventually, made our denomination more rewarding for all of us. It is worth noting that part of their concern is the way racism plays out differently in different parts of the country, meaning regionally-driven leadership is the only legitimate way to truly minister to people where they live. The question raging now is whether the necessary change can be accomplished by appointing better people to the same offices — what denominationalists always have insisted — or whether there will be more folks like me, who believe the only effective answer can be systematic.

Meanwhile, from the opposite end of the polity spectrum, we have a lone wolf who wound up devouring innocent lambs. Really. This minister and community activist, now accepting charges of receiving pornography featuring violence against children, always raised the most fiery and least reasoned supports of my complaints about over-centralized denominational personnel management. It is worth pointing out that when Henry Whitney Bellows laid out the framework for the National Conference, he explicitly enumerated the duty to monitor clergy, which, to his mind, could only done by those in the same locales. Likewise, I have not mentioned our Universalist forebears, because their decentralized polity, for most of their existence, had no relevance to the new structures. Yet their state and regional conventions also included and exercised fellowshipping and disfellowshipping of clergy. The centralist shibbolith that localism means immorality has no place in either of our histories; that was a tool for the coup-plotters of 1899.

 

Of all the time I have spent in organized Unitarian Universalist activities, there are two gatherings, superficially different, geographically and racially unlike, which proved nevertheless to mirror and echo each other. They come back to me at this time, because on both ends of the polity spectrum we are going need a way to heal among ourselves. Each of these events was a gathering of sincerely-committed congregation members, usually assembled to click through meetings to manage something important to parishioners. Yet in each case, we committed to listen to each other’s voices as equals and as seekers. We were not seeking to elucidate on some topic, as small group ministries do, but to share some part of our vulnerable soul by telling our personal stories. The first occurred at All Souls in Washington, DC, when one option in our then-annual retreat was to share the spiritual journeys that brought us into that congregation. I closed my eyes to listen, and marveled at how little difference there really was around distinctions of race. Decades later, at First Church Unitarian in Jamaica Plain, MA, we met to implement the Welcoming Congregation curriculum, whose first step is to simply hear the story of parishioners’ journeys as LGBTQ individuals.

Recently one of my Facebook friends asked which was better, to be transformative or to be effective. In my experience, transformation is the only long-term effectiveness. I failed in my efforts to transform this association’s polity, although I do take credit for raising its prominence as a worthwhile general focus. As I prepare to turn 63, to help my wife (yes, after a lifetime of bisexual wanderings, I finally landed on this side of the fence) confront her revolutionary self-management of advanced Huntington’s Disease, those of you who come after are my comfort. If I made less and less effort to write, and became more and more of a lurker, in large part it is because your voices began to open parts of my mind and soul in ways too new and exciting to limit by language. Still, I do live in covenant, so if it helps, here’s my little offering.

With prayers for us all, especially the victims in both of our disastrous ministerial implosions.

Video: Revolt Against the Masses

Video: Revolt Against the Masses

The first few times this title came up on my C-Span directory, I rejected it out of hand: its hosting organization is a right-wing think tank I usually abhor. But sometimes they get something right, and sometimes there is nothing else on, so I tuned in….

… to one of the most amazing roadmaps to twentieth century left-wing intellectual culture that I’ve ever heard. Oh, I’ve heard most of it before, but in little snippets. It has often been delivered by either adherents or attackers who can’t resist the cheap shot, the snuggly rhetorical reference, the cozy wink. 

This man is a true professor. He cares that you learn, and he’s willing to tell you there’s important stuff you haven’t read, or need to read again. And hemakes points that illuminate Tom Schade’s attempts to widen the lens through which we shaped our grief — or not — over the death of Pete Seeger, by providing the scholarly and cultural context into which the Almanac Singers launched their musical darts and grins.

I’m a red-diaper baby myself; my mother and I cried together over the loss of this artist who sang the soundtrack of our sixty years together. If it weren’t for Pete, I wouldn’t have heard of Woody Guthrie, and if I hadn’t heard about Woody Guthrie, I wouldn’t now be joyously in love with a woman — a musical one, I might add — living with the same Huntington’s Disease that took down Woody and his mother. Their courage to me now is strictly personal

But their message was a two-edged sword to the denomination I love. So please, take the time to listen to Professor Siegel. What he says matches snippets I’ve seen in many uncurated congregational archives and UU letters and sermons from the eras on which he reports. He’s resurrecting thinkers, researchers, scholars, debates that laid our cultural foundations, way back in the time of World War I. In fact, when I made a study of literature, many’s the historian who noted that the Great War shattered the intellectual realm as thoroughly as it mowed down all those young men and national borders.