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.

Using William Ellery Channing to Counter the Hobby Lobby Decision

It has long been my position that if Unitarian Universalists were required to read, study closely, and learn to quote from one single document from our history, it would be William Ellery Channing’s Slavery (available online through Google Books.) While its history is well known — that it alienated the affections of major figures in the congregation which long had revered his service — we cheat the fundamentals of our faith by not focusing on his assertions rather than his courage. The intention he states — to ground equal rights in a philosophical argument that makes no reference to, and recognizes no distinctions, of race, wealth, religious — is just what we need today. For despite Channing’s usual elevation of God, this document joins the lectures on Self-Culture as the groundwork of our humanist values. Much of today’s political breakdown rests on the inability of secular and free-range left wing leaders to articulate a comprehensive philosophical counter to conservative religious arguments. Happily, William Ellery Channing has provided here, in one document, everything we need to lift our stature in current debates. A person, being made in God’s image (according to Channing; you might have a different explanation of our common forms), is plainly an End in himself, purposed by his Maker to pursue the moral law implanted as part of creation and birth.

Here is Channing’s value in the Hobby Lobby, and similar, situations: “Man has rights as a moral being.” Not as a naturally occurring accident which manifests scientific inevitability, not as a servant to even the holiest institutions, not as a covenanted social animal. We are each a moral being and is therefore our inherent right to exercise personal morality.

Pause for a moment to recognize this distinction. It first of all refuses to restate the Locke/Jeffersonian formula: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness [Jefferson]/property [Locke]. Instantly it has value to avoid a pitfall where the current political poles have set themselves and gotten stuck. Yet just as he has not called out Locke/Jeffersion, neither does he call out those who see moral self-improvement in terms of a particular religion or doctrine. Perhaps that explains why Dr. Channing stood alone among Unitarians of his day in fellowshipping with Roman Catholics on terms of mutual respect. In today’s realm, his argument offers as much to libertarians as to covenanters, and, more importantly, states a limit which applies as greatly to radical individualism as to corporate power.

Channing sets this definition against extremist uses of the Locke/Jeffersonian right to pursue, to hold, and to alienate [sell] personal property. Before money, before land, before even clothing and shelter, Channing says there is a basic property inherent from birth, and it is the right to exercise one’s physical, intellectual, and moral capacities for one’s own ends. When we say a criminal forfeits such rights, we are affirming that he or she had them. When a worker signs a contract to provide labor, he hands over only such rights as the contract enumerates, and only for such time as the contract designates. It is the duty of the contractor to assure that implicit rights — human rights — are not by the terms of the labor removed.

Back in the day, schoolchildren studied a play from William Shakespeare called “The Merchant of Venice.” It reeks of anti-Semitism and is therefore no longer so highly esteemed, for its climax used to teach us, in graphic terms, exactly what Channing laid out with such philosophical loftiness. A young man, whose name I forget, has contracted to provide, if he fails to repay the money, a pound of his own flesh. Dim memory hints that this repulsive requirement arose from distaste from the young man’s courtship of the merchant’s daughter, but in any case, this is what the merchant demanded. The young man trembles in fear and turns to legal redress. The judge announces that this aspect of the contract can only be performed if the merchant can find a way to carry it out without removing a single drop of blood, for blood is not something the young man contracted to surrender. So our language came up with the term, “exacting a pound of flesh” for unreasonable requests piled onto what started reasonably.

How valuable this dispassionate assertion as a way to throw cold water into the hot tempers of our current political dysfunction! Whether it’s about unions or family or money itself, Channing has given us a powerful tool. Here are the sentences I would have all of us offer on a regular basis::

“As every human being is bound to employ his faculties for his own and others’ good, there in an obligation on each to leave all free for the accomplishment of this end; and whoever respects this obligation, whoever uses his own, without invading others’ power, or obstructing other’ duties, has a sacred, indefeasible right to be unassailed, unobstructed, unharmed by all with whom he may be connected. Here is the grand, all-comprehending right of human nature. Every man should revere it, should assert it for himself and for all, and should bear solemn testimony against every infraction of it, by whomsoever made or endured.”

I write this post in part to explain my assertion yesterday that the Hobby Lobby case can be turned against its victors by embracing their claim that a corporation has moral duties. Let the Supreme Court assert that human rights apply to corporations, whether set up for profit or social good: what our religion’s greatest founder taught is that moral beings have moral obligations. And the first of these is, to maintain the moral independence of all others.

An Expected Opportunity — If We Can See It

There was never much doubt that the Supreme Court would take the side of Hobby Lobby’s owners, in favor of their “religious freedom” to refuse to pay the birth control portion of their employees’ mandatory health care. I am not a lawyer and have not read the decision, but the headline summary on Al Jazeera America makes clear that there are limits to what an employer can refuse to provide. Blood transfusions and vaccinations — procedures where life and death stand more immediately at risk — fall outside religious liberty. (If only this latter applied also to parents…)

Why would this case divide the for-profit business community, as it has done? On the surface, the Court has made a decision which increases capital’s arbitrary powers. But look again. The logic advocated by Hobby Lobby is that even for-profit corporations have moral obligations. And since moral obligations can only apply to beings with the capacity to make moral decisions, this decision can be used to vitiate the most killing assertion of the twentieth century’s drive for corporate power: that corporate management’s highest and single duty is to make the most possible money for its shareholders.

Let me say that again: the Supreme Court has articulated that because corporations are legally persons, they have the right to exercise their consciences. 

“What consciences?” you’re asking. And that’s just it: in matters of employee treatment and environmental depredation, our whole experience has taught us to believe that corporations have no consciences. They tell us that all the time. It’s at the heart of what Mary Barra asserts when she says that she (or, more accurately, her predecessors) has no personal accountability for the deaths caused by the General Motors “culture” of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”  It’s also at the heart of her strategy to fire particular individuals in order to avoid incurring a trial and penalty against her corporation, based on its culture — i.e, its moral code.

Corporations suffer these trials all the time, in civil suits. But if corporations are moral actors –as this decision dictates — voters can also require corporations to exercise the self-education and foresight that every individual has to display toward protecting the lives and property of others. It is illegal to receive stolen goods, to vandalize other people’s property, to poison their children’s food. In the hands of creative lawyers, this ruling opens a path, finally, to start cutting back on the corporate First Commandment for externalizing (avoiding) as many costs as possible. And if something bad happens, well, that’s just collateral damage, sacrificed to the virtue of maximizing shareholder income.

I have no doubt that leftist political orthodoxy, completely rejecting the idea that insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over, in hopes of getting different results, is already ginning up protests about “the war on women.” Advocates of birth control long ago lost public support when they persisted in separatist rhetoric, rather than offering personal testimonies about how much men, especially those in established family commitments, require options for, and participate in decisions about, using birth control. Instead, gender warriors in both sexes bring constant delight to superficial headline writers by playing up these age-old zero-sum fallacies.

This mistake would be more than a shame; it would be a lost opportunity. The Supreme Court has taken a major step toward humanizing the personhood of corporations; it’s now up to us to demand that corporations subscribe to the responsibilities imposed on the rest of us — as humans.