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.


Thank You, Right Wing Conspiracy

Good morning, lovers of the planet and democracy (yes, we’ve been watching Thom Hartmann). To listen to Democrat officialdom and their media mouthpieces, you would think our nation faces the biggest crisis since the Civil War whose end we will commemorate next month.

Yeah, you would think that.

But let’s think, instead, like Abraham Lincoln. Let’s think, instead, like Dr. Martin Luther King. Because what the Right Wing Conspiracy — and yes, there clearly IS such a thing — has given us planet huggers all the tools we need to shut down THEIR favorite project, the Trans-Pacific Pipeline (TPP). Here we have a secretly negotiated international pact to silence local initiatives against despoliation of basic labor and ecological rights. Here we have a legally enforceable regime which makes it illegal for local government to function in support of its human citizens whenever any corporate “person”‘ — anywhere in the world — claims that local measure violates the corporation fundamental right to maximize profit.

Remember John Adams, and the long-ago “Alien and Sedition Act”? It’s back, and it’s bigger than ever.

But the trade-deal conveyor belt that is today’s federal government has learned it faces rising opposition to such deals. Hence the new device called “Fast Track,” which means the Congress only gets to vote a total bill up or down. It cannot revise, advise, or devise any alterations. Technically, this is the same requirement for ratifying  a treaty, but because a treaty requires a 2/3 majority for approval, negotiators work with a constant calculation of how to reach such a high number. Fast track happens before you know it, and calls only for simple majorities.

Both parties have sought fast track for some of their deals and opposed fast track for deals negotiated by their opponents. Meanwhile, the international left-right fringe objects to the entire regime of “trust me-hate them” secrecy and obfuscation. Unfortunately for us localists, we cannot see past the tear gas of social issues that the money lobby employs to keep us suspicious of each other instead of against them.

I recently had occasion to look at some newspapers from 1859 and 1860, prior to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Both North and South were already mobilizing troops and issuing statements about top priorities. Lincoln’s top priority was different: he intended to conduct his duties in such a way that the Confederacy would fire the first shot. This would allow him rally the North, but it would also prevent the South from claiming they had been invaded. When Sherman marched through Georgia, when Joshua Chamberlain fought through Virginia, the local population was, as the saying goes, “hoisted by their own petard.”

It is not my intention  that we abandon the injustices perpetrated as racial, gender, and generational bullying Lincoln did not intend to ignore the provocations from the South. But here is a chance to do what the Republicans say they want to do — enforce sound principles of governance, as they have articulated these principles themselves Democratic officialdom protests that these are tools they themselves need when they hold power. But the Dems who espouse these tools only want for themselves a lessened — moderated — version of the same privilege enjoyed by the greedsters. James Carville is wrong and Elizabeth Warren — and the Tea Party –Bill’s $25,000 cigars do tie directly to Hillary’s secret emails. The average American knows why Hillary is giving expensive speeches instead of eating rubber chicken and shaking hands with folks who made a real financial sacrifice to attend her event — not the price of a book, but wages foregone, babysitter paid extra for a full day.

Not for a moment do I take back my support for just jurisprudence and an end to bullying by frightened former elites. But in a tough fight, you take allies as they present themselves. The last month it has been the GOP right wing sharpening blades that we planet huggers and justice-seekers can now use to kill the TPP.

Ghosts of Old War Mistakes

We watch a lot of international news in our house, and every day gets more and more alarming. So many horrible things are happening, you don’t need me to list them for you. And why do we keep cycling through the same types of outrage? My response is that it’s because the US public doesn’t understand the patterns of engagement our country keeps choosing between.

I. Copperheads

The first pattern came up during the US Civil War, and it’s the part of the war that has gotten the least attention, even on C-Span, where usually nothing is too obscure for a book tour. Well, meet the Copperheads. Lots of folks know that General George McClellan ran for President in 1864 as a peace candidate, but don’t understand the iceberg of which he was the tip. Copperheads were Democrats in the North, a tiny minority in the party that dominated the South and mostly seceded when Lincoln won in 1860. Some of them had business interests in the South — meaning supplying or buying from the slavocracy — but many others were the first of the laboring classes displaced by rural changes but not secure in urban factory jobs. Or they were immigrants — many Irish — fearing job competition from freed slaves. While many were supporters of the racist economic regime, many others were just willing to tolerate slavery as their own best economic or personal calculation. The Copperhead movement had nothing to do with pacifism.

Northerners seem to believe that Copperheadism ended at Appomattox, but for Southerners they were part of the Scourge of Reconstruction. Decimated landscapes always attract rapacious investors ready to buy up your debts for less than they’re worth but more than you’ve got. That form of Copperheadism deserves more attention, but it’s not what matters in foreign policy, my topic for today. Northern Copperheadism — “peace at any price because war has no benefit to me” — has not only never died out, it has spread like a vicious weed. When negotiations begin, the focus is on appeasement — give the aggressor whatever will get them to stop — but the prime goal stems back to Whiggism, the policy of compromising to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. The two primary goals are to “maintain business as usual” and to prevent a breakdown of known political structures. It’s worth noting that this was the party of classical New England Unitarianism.

Most of my friends and family are a contemporary cleaned-up version of Copperhead: by idealizing human nature as “inherently good” they persuade themselves that restoring equality to human transactions — economic, cultural, political — will cause both war and poverty to simply wither away. Everyone will discover the good in everyone else and be satisfied with that knowledge as life’s highest and finest reward.

Idealists are people who have not had the experience of interviewing survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, as I did in 1981-82. A week ago, I would have told you what is happening throughout the Middle East and North Africa resembles the kind of low-grade outrage that characterizes governance in Pakistan. This week, though, it looks like violence has passed a horrible tipping point. Sustained campaigns of bombing and other military violence foster society-wide PTSD, and the worst of those victims can be exploited by individuals who are either themselves completely deranged by abuse, or carrying around an evil they were born with. It might help to read “The Plague” again, by Albert Camus, but you’d do better to look at mass murderers who washed out of the military, who got fired from Postal Service jobs, who underwent years of ridicule and humiliation. These are folks who want revenge, but whose grievance has no bottom and no top.

II. Great War Syndrome

Commentator David Brooks gets a lot of things wrong, but sometimes he’s very right. Tonight on The PBS News Hour, he said that our mistake in Syria was forgetting that “It’s easier to do the little things early than to do the big things later.” The US experience in World War I led to a delusion that we are the exception to this inconvenient truism. Europeans have spent this past week commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities of which we care nothing, because we entered so much later. And when we went in, the primary reason appears to have been that attacks on shipping were starting to hurt our economic elite. And what were they shipping? Why, munitions, to be sold at shameful profit, and apparently in some cases to both sides. So this was really a variation on Copperheadism — not that one would stay out of war to maintain business and politics as usual, but that one would enter it for the same reason. Sort of like the Confederates, and their apologists remain proud of it.

For Europe, 1914-1918 was “The Great War” because of its casualties and social upheavals, but we called it that because it had elements of excitement and adventure. Remember “The World War One Flying Ace”? Remember “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm [After They’ve Seen Paree]?” Josephine Baker, and the African American discovery that the French had other prejudices, and loved American jazz? Let me be the first to say that for far too many Americans, 1918 was also a year of unprecedented death, much of which occurred because global war made our troops into victims and carriers of the lethal Spanish Influenza.

But for those U.S. troops who marched into Paris, who came home relatively unscathed, The Great War message was that our military could anticipate a fairly safe and profitable future assisting good guys who were trying hard but didn’t have our advantages. This is what led directly to Iraq in March 2003. “They’ll welcome us with open arms.” “We’ll be done in no time, once we help them establish the democracy they know in their hearts is what they want.” That might have been true in 1918 and 1945, but it has nothing to do with the way things are in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

So there we went, deluding ourselves into believing that people everywhere just want to do what we do here (which, might I point out, we are less and less sure we want to continue doing). Some folks say we have to give them guns and pocket-sized constitutions, other folks encourage more economic and educational empowerment. But today’s wars aren’t happening in Paree, they’re  not even in Weimar Berlin. This week tells me we might be looking at Kampuchea, in the hellish years before the Vietnamese finally rejected international norms and invaded their neighbor. That invasion, with its puppet government, released the Kampuchean people from agonizing suffering, but Vietnam’s primary goal was to stabilize and rationalize a neighboring country whose psychological injuries were starting to threaten the region. For this the Vietnamese suffered tons of excoriating condemnation in, of all places, the United Nations, for having invaded a country whose government had not invited them.

So if I’m right, and the Boka Haram/Islamic State of Iraq type of army really does represent a new form of Khmer Rouge frenzy for annihilation, we on the left need to look at the shadowy ghost of Copperheadism. We do the right thing by confronting conservatives with their own sad Great War Syndrome. Unfortunately, for too much of the planet, these two models have meshed into a foreign policy that lays bare the worst of both of them.

Grappling with an Old Demon

Along with so many others, I watch in horror and disgust as Israeli rockets fall into residential areas their own policies have packed too full of all ages of people and too few resources for said residents. Gazans complain — rightfully — about all the noncombatants being killed, while Israelis object that the homes and lives of combatants and noncombatants are too closely tangled to allow for purely military targeting.

That is not what I’m grappling with. What troubles my conscience is the extent to which the current assaults justify the increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric, violence, and sentiment exhibited all over the world. Talk about tangled targets! Steven Schaama’s recent film series on the history of the Jews documented the undeniable fact that Jews all over the world have been targeted for violence and ghettoization. This has happened again and again. When Jews moved to Palestine in recent centuries, they were bowing to the sad reality that this cycle would continue so long as they lived among non-Jews. Indeed, the Holocaust arose in part as a backlash against one of the most successful periods of intermingling and intermarriage, especially and including in Germany. So two steps forward led to miles of horrific and unmendable setbacks.

Nevertheless, some of the rhetoric coming from Israel implies that the violence done to them has become the violence they do to others. Too many statements place Jewish life above all other life — especially Palestinian. Too many statements attempt to erase centuries of Palestinian life in places that Jews claim as if their presence there had not been broken, interrupted, supplanted, abandoned. When Jews place themselves above all others, it is only natural for others to lob shots intended to level things out. When Jews exact individual justice for Jewish miscreants, but collective retribution for crimes against Jews, they pretty much ought to expect the outcry they now receive.

As much as I object to Zionism, it seems not only inevitable but necessary. However, it cannot be allowed to replace the efforts we must all make to combat the cultural infrastructure of anti-Judaism which makes Zionism so desperately inevitable. We Unitarian Universalists talk often about covenants, as if it were something invented by our Puritan forebears, or — even worse — that we ourselves came up with to maintain some recent and beloved community. No, covenant traces back to God’s promises to the Israelites. The Jews. Jews, through their cycle of scriptural documents — Torah, Histories, Wisdom, Prophets — have explored more fully and more powerfully than anyone else how hard it is to live in covenant, and yet, how catastrophic to fail.

The Hebrew Bible famously rings with all kinds of explorations of thought — including many challenges to decisions God announces or unfolds.When certain Christians (and not others) appropriated “covenant” for their own particularist purposes, they twisted what had been an ethical formulation into a doctrine of thought control. Unitarian Universalism, with its emphasis on behaviors rather than ideas, along with our informal motto, “To question is the answer,” hark back to, carry forward, the Jewish model of covenant.

It would be wrong to practice the Jewish model of covenant in every relationship except the one I have with those who gave it to me. So I don’t know how to deal with the current conundrum in the Middle East, except through personal accountability. I will name particular deeds and practices that horrify me, and seek to eradicate them wherever they occur. Sometimes that will be in the Middle East. Just as often, as anyone can attest who watches the news for a solid hour, the outrage will happen elsewhere, and have nothing to do with Jews.

Poverty: A Quick call for Venn Diagrams

There’s no question that Ta’Nahisi Coates’s work at The Atlantic Magazine, on racism and economic injustice, combines solid research and scholarship in multiple academic fields with personal and community experiences and diversities. The resultant conversation, in multiple fora, leads me to wonder if we UUs need to get ourselves a social media small group ministry just to keep up with this unfolding opportunity.

But after a brief attempt at providing UU parish ministry in one of the neighborhoods where longterm poverty shelters in Boston, I can tell you that each family is a tiny Venn diagram of opportunities and challenges, in each case, both short and long-term. While history plays a role, only the most faithful commitment to Process Theology — a belief in constantly shifting, interacting, mutually-transformative micro-elements — will truly unpack every person’s best potential or safest landings. At the same time, as evidenced by the statement “A sneeze in Brooklyn impacts a butterfly in Beijing,” these micro-elements do have some combinations that endure long enough to gain shape, substance, and location, before disappearing. TNC’s genius is capturing both the dynamism and the gravitational pulls which keep reformulating these shapes, substances, and locations.

What endures in these neighborhoods, usually for only one or two generations, is a particular Venn Diagram. Separate elements I observed are:

  • Above all, mental and physical disabilities, many of them nothing more than learning or developmental disabilities for which we are not equipping families to break out of learned responses from earlier, undiagnosed generations. What I saw in white families — and am experiencing now, as caregiver for a partner with a vicious hereditary disease — is that many disability genes will completely trump so-called “white privilege.” Where “white privilege” plays out is when it allows other family members, either in previous or contemporary generations, to help the impacted nuclear group. In non-Caucasian families, lack of these disabilities is the key to advancing over time. Just listen to the protests against “affirmative advancement” as the prioritizing of the allegedly less capable over the allegedly more capable.
  • Racism against families whose previous generations had fewer opportunities than traumatic oppressions, deprivations, and displacements. A single traumatic event in a healthy family often fails to change a healthy family system, which is why immigrants, refugees, even most African-American families exhibit great capacity to recover and repair themselves. It’s also why power-hungry exploiters of racism keep coming back again and again: to disrupt the family system, not just one person. Again, as TNC points out, the assets of previous generations and contemporary relatives make all the difference in withstanding these assaults.
  • Government commitment to marginal business enterprises, including housing, which serve the radically local lifestyle of people who can’t afford cars, can’t drive, or only feel comfortable dealing with merchants they know and trust.
  • Affordable, reliable, preventive, proactive medical and lifestyle supports for families whose disabilities long ago removed the ability to partake of any market system for wellness.
  • Financial support for family caregivers, whether raising children or assisting the elderly and disabled.
  • Safe, adequate, community-based policing of the pernicious, pervasive personal crimes — theft, harassment, vandalism — in which local news has no interest, either personal or financial.

There are probably others, but these are the ones that come to my mind in a hurry.

What surprised me was the value of Unitarian Universalism in such an environment. What worked for the neighborhood included a long list of things that many Social Justice UUs disdain:

  • Critical thinking about discrete individuals, events, situations,
  • Willingness to observe behaviors rather than run toward the noisiest voices.
  • insistence that it’s best to wait for a full accounting of facts, including from institutional players like banks and cops
  • A strong message of faith in a loving God or Universe or Whatever, tempered by the humanist right to envision that Whatever in a personal way
  • Openness to the moment when someone’s discovery that there can be an open-minded divinity completely overwhelms the social issue that brought them into the meeting, and a parish-based institutional way to welcome and support that person while helping them deal with more than one element of the Venn Diagram listed above.

I didn’t have the strength to maintain a parish ministry in that environment. But what I learned in that setting made it possible for me to embrace a life partner with a major Venn Diagram characteristic.

We’ll be getting married on the Solstice, later this month, supported and celebrated by a strong combination of family, friends, neighbors, and faith community. And we’re still UUs. It can be done. We are doing it.

Emerson’s Illumination on Luke 10:25-37

“In this refulgent summer” – well, actually, hot as hell, but those first words of his Divinity School Address (DSA) so fully enthrall, after all these years, and summon up that first love experience so many of us felt when we read the DSA for our first time. Yes, figuring a summer must always be refulgent if one is spending it with Emerson, I turned myself yet again to reading his better-known essay “Self-Reliance”. It might well be the most beloved thing written by an American since The Declaration of Independence. Over and over, I see it cited by freedom fighters, artists, community activists from parts of the world I never would have expected. It’s gotten so familiar that I believe it falls to us, the clergy group to which he belonged, to subject his text to the same types of analysis we apply to scriptures of other religions.

This is not the first time I have started “Self-Reliance,” but the first sections always stop me before I get too far. A brief scan of other scholars confirms these negative impressions:

Too masculine, taking no regard of the wife’s work to maintain the home while a man is out pursuing his so-called genius;

  • Too individualistic, dismissing the benefits of covenants embodied in organized religion and traditional family;
  • Too privileged, overlooking the gift of inherited wealth (from his first wife’s premature death) as the foundation of his own opportunity to seek both higher calling and innovative covenants.

Let me start by admitting that I have read relatively little scholarship about the man; he shows up usually as a player in other folks about whom I am reading. And I’ve participated in countless conversations about him, mostly with other Unitarian Universalist clergy. (By “relatively little” I mean, according to academic standards; for an average person, it has been respectable and consistent.) My main guide into “Self-Reliance,” by far, was the late C. Conrad Wright, Professor of American Religious History at the Harvard Divinity School. This is too bad for RWE, because Conrad hated the way Emerson derided pastoral covenants and parish ministry. Secondly, Conrad scorned RWE because at least one parishioner had claimed the man was not capable of meaningful pastoral care when it was needed.

What called me to this effort was the discovery of a moment when RWE, with no public fanfare, exerted himself to support a ministerial and social justice colleague and resolve the parish conflict which threatened that colleague’s important station on the Underground Railroad. And, I defy any religion and any congregation to show me a cleric whose pastoral care satisfies every supplicant. Still, Conrad was right on the first point. “Self-Reliance” includes this quote: “I will have no covenants but proximities.” What does that mean?

What jumped out at me in this summer’s reading is its comment on his era’s debate – still relevant today — on Luke 10:25-37, The Parable of the Good Samaritan. As in our own era, traditional institutions of care and order were overwhelmed by changes in both the quantity and quality of population, technology, and economic power. People of all faiths were uniting across congregational lines to form philanthropic societies. These forerunners of today’s 501(c)3s attempted to provide services far beyond the reach of traditional Town Meeting arrangements. Some deliberately erased religious, ethnic, or racial divisions to assist folks simply on the basis of need. The Good Samaritan was the guiding passage of Christian scripture, then as now. I doubt I need to summarize it here, for even today, it motivates many folks who otherwise claim no Christian affinity at all.

So why was Reverend Emerson objecting to a culture of Good Samaritans?

“Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom  by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”

Several years ago, I began feeling in this passage less of a rebuttal to The Good Samaritan and more of a contradiction to the assertion of C. Conrad Wright that Emerson had neither heart nor talent for pastoral care. In this paragraph I see a pastoral approach to social justice:

  • Emerson here rejects the use of categories of need, in favor of seeing everyone as individuals.
  • He derided the indirect goal of legislative redress, in favor of providing personal assistance.
  • Even more impersonal, to RWE, was donating to funds for ameliorative relief, rather than personally undertaking a relational empowerment of the object of one’s concern.

Reverend Emerson excelled in Christian scholarship, so his rebuttal stood on solid scriptural ground. In Matthew 26:6-10, The Woman Who Anoints Jesus with Oil, the disciples deride a poor woman for selling a precious object to buy oil to place on Jesus. The disciples’ criticism is that “She could have given that money to the poor.” Jesus dismisses that concern, saying, “The poor you have always with you, but you will not always have me with you. She is preparing my body for burial.”

Usually people cite this passage as a cynical excuse to avoid giving money to charitable causes. By no measure could Reverend Emerson be called callous, selfish, insensitive. He provided financial assistance to friends whose eccentric brilliance cast their families into constant poverty. He helped organize and fund radical measures for freeing African-Americans. In so doing, he used a standard he called “The Law of Consciousness.” He did not seek covenants of heritage, but assembled kindred spirits into enough cultural presence to form a critical mass that attracted others. The Transcendentalist community at Concord, Massachusetts was the both the tangible evidence of his generosity and the enduring evidence of his method. Find your own genius and then seek others who share it. Indeed the Parable of the Good Samaritan begins with just that criterion: “A man was journeying along the road to Jericho.” Emerson might be referring to that phrase – usually such a throwaway line – when he says charity begins not with the suffering of another person, but in choosing one’s path in life. It is natural, in concern for that road, to address any crisis affecting a person who shares it with you. It takes courage – for which  Emerson openly still prays – to accept the callous consequence of this criterion, which is to overlook the suffering of strangers within what other’s consider one’s own community.

“Know yourself,” is considered the takeaway of “Self-Reliance”, just as “Know God” is the catchphrase of “The Divinity School Address”. In our pressured era, most of us are wondering how to set criteria for donating our too-few dollars, hours, tears. Emerson’s “The Law of Consciousness” says, “Don’t ask your television. Don’t even get it from your congregational Social Justice network. Do what promotes the calling you follow, and if you know yourself truly, work with concentration, people of all descriptions will happily do it with you. You will naturally help each other, not as charity, but as part of working together toward some difficult dream.

Can personal interests really lay a path to diversity when we live today in such a socially segregated culture? It depends on how we define what we are doing, stepping back from social justice and pursuing what I here call Radical Proximity? The social justice workers of PICO – following on The Highlander Center – have found it useful in what they call the One-on-One technique. And in our house, yesterday, I tried it for myself. Instead of demonstrating in memory of Trayvon Martin, Lynne and I listened on C-Span to a panel of geeky African American social historians talking about the history of medical injustice for African Americans. Later we headed out to a meeting for caregivers like myself to obtain a union. In a room of about twenty, our family of three were the only non-Nepalis; the translator was for us, not for others. These are folks I see in our neighborhood every day, walking, chatting, catching the bus; I sometimes even shop in the local Nepali market. But it was only in sharing our stories, baring our needs, that we quit passing each other and joined on a road to Jericho. Reverend Emerson would be forgiven for gloating, in whatever Heaven he inhabits, when I conclude from this little experiment that focusing selfishly on my own interests guided me toward other covenants and reduced the tensions inherent in unfamiliar proximity.