The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.


From the mass incarceration state: San Quentin News

The staff of the San Quentin News and its advisers.

A fascinating feature in the New York Times entitled “Inmates’ Newspaper Covers a World Behind San Quentin’s Walls” shines a light on one of the very few newspapers in the world published by prisoners.

The work they do is fantastic (check out their current issue), and even if you’ve never done time, the focus on the justice system, appeals, parole, and what it’s like to live through American mass incarceration is incredible. They are looking to expand their circulation and allow more inmates to get copies for free. You can donate to them here – $25 gets you a year of the print newspaper, one issue a month.

As someone who runs reddit’s main prison reform community (/r/prisonreform), I was ecstatic to learn about this, and pitched in to help them in their mission. It’s difficult to get one’s head around how strange and twisted the US prison system has becomes, with California constantly fighting off court rulings telling them to address crippling overcrowding and an inadequate health system. The state prison mental and physical healthcare apparatus have been under federal control for almost nine years now, and may never return until the state has less than 137.5% capacity (you think this wouldn’t be hard, but mandatory minimums have made the system burst at the seams).

Give ’em a look.


The drug war: where would Jesus stand? Who would Jesus jail?

There was a great story on Al-Jazeera America posted yesterday, regarding the push by faith leaders to end the war on drugs and establish more reasonable sentencing guidelines. The quote that ended the story hits home:

“We believe the greatest stimulus for the mass incarceration of our loved ones is the failed war on drugs that has spent billions and billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of lives, for primarily a public health issue,” said the Rev. Michael McBride, director of urban strategies at Lifelines to Healing in Berkeley, Calif. “Mass incarceration is the civil rights movement of our generation, and the faith community is at the forefront.”

Emphasis mine.

Let us remember the words of Matthew 25

34 … ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father,inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Jesus traveled with a diverse group of people, outcasts included. He told a crowd ready to stone an adulterer that if they looked deep within them, they would see their own hypocrisy. The New Testament emphasizes that no person is beneath redemption; a system that throws millions to rot in prison cannot be a just one. Yet today there are huge numbers of prisoners serving serious time, despite their crimes being small and non-violent.

When the decision comes, Jesus triumphed empathy towards prisoners, not condemnation. Those that rejected a religious duty not only damaged the prisoner that needed them, but also themselves.

It is good to see a diverse group of faith leaders come together to speak with a united voice. In some modern Christian circles there can be an undercurrent of hypocrisy- people who triumph life in one instance yet don’t find the injustice in war and capital punishment. Often I see pockets that seem more at home with the Old Testament than the New. I won’t generalize, it would be unfair of me; there are many who see the grave danger of mass incarceration, religious and non-religious.

Chart based on US Department of Justice statistics

I don’t believe in God, though I am a proud Unitarian Universalist, but I find great wisdom in the words and actions of Jesus. Often people put words in his mouth, use him like some use Martin Luther King Jr. to gain false credibility. There is a sense of power with this movement, that only comes when a group of people truly grasp the mission they need to embark on. There is not the sense of dissonance that accompanies some journeys, where the premise is twisted or unfair.

I’ve been involved in the prison reform movement for several years now- I founded reddit’s prison reform community ( and marched during the hunger strike in California prisons that opposed solitary confinement The problem truly is massive, there needs to be a mass movement to counter it. Big problems demand big solutions. I’m glad to know there are religious leaders alongside other activists and the families affected by mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, and other policies that stuff existing prisons and demand the construction of new ones.

The exonerated, the innocent, the executed.

An updated report (PDF) by The National Registry of Exonerations indicates that a record number of people in 2013 were freed after serving years in prison for crimes they did not commit. 87 people were exonerated, 40 of which were serving time for murder- including 1 who had been sentenced to die. The project, a joint effort of the Michigan and Northwestern law schools, has identified 1,304 total that have occurred since 1989. Almost half were black men.

The exoneration is the pin that pops the balloon of tough-on-crime policy, and fatally undermines the idea of a just death penalty. The report notes:

Death penalty exonerations continue at a high rate. Eight percent of known exonerations occurred in cases in which the defendants were sentenced to death (105/1281). However, since death sentences are a tiny sliver of felony convictions –less than 1/100 of 1% – this reflects a uniquely high rate of exoneration. (page 8)

When a debate about capital punishment happens, the idea that innocent people are sentenced to die- and may have already been killed- is treated too much like a hypothetical. The data is on the table, and it is chilling. Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011- since reinstatement in 1974 the state had executed 12 people and exonerated 20. There are also ten executed Americans who have strong evidence supporting their innocence. The story of Carlos DeLuna is so compelling that the Columbia Human Rights Law Review devoted an entire issue to telling the story of his conviction for murder and execution- despite a different Carlos with a violent history being a much more likely suspect. DeLuna died screaming in 1989.

Few issues give me a deep chill that percolates, and washes over most of my body and moves me near tears. Capital punishment is one of them. It offends me as a human being, a Unitarian Universalist, an American citizen. When I attended a remembrance for Troy Davis, I saw a crowd of mostly black and brown, their eyes filled with sorrow, anger, and determination.

21st century America is in some ways defined by putting the innocent in prison. A misidentified black man given a rigged trial so a prosecutor could keep his conviction rate up. An Arab man held in Guantanamo despite being declared innocent years ago. A brown woman in a detention facility because despite America being her home she is an ‘illegal’ immigrant.

Every day I have to hold that knowledge in the core of my being, and recognize that there if there is no justice for the wrongly convicted, there is no justice for anyone else. As Eugene V. Debs stated to the court before his term in prison for opposing intervention in World War I:

I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

I am not free. The racism, inequity, callous disregard for people and the truth is not someone else’s issue, someone else’s problem.

It’s my problem. It’s our problem.

Great injustice requires great sacrifice to defeat

The state of the anti-solitary hunger strike
The state of the anti-solitary hunger strike

During the height of visible Occupy activism in the fall and winter of 2011-12, several left-wing media outlets warned against co-option by Democratic front groups like, who wanted to take raw anger and direct it away from Democrats and towards Republicans. In my opinion, these warnings were correct- I witnessed meetings and attempts from small groups of activists to work with Democrats without the consent of the larger assembly. The party is sometimes called “the graveyard of social movements.” Powerful and passionate groups looking for fundamental change throw in their lot with a mainstream party, and see their demands systematically ignored.

MoveOn is well known for what you might term “armchair activism.” Most of their emails deal with online petitions that take a few seconds to sign, or real world actions in which slogans and signs are provided. Essentially, there is no cost for this type of activism- except that people may feel like they’ve accomplished something when they probably haven’t.

What has been going on since July 8th in the California prison system is the opposite. Hunger strikes are difficult and if held for long enough seriously dangerous. One inmate death has been attributed to the strike, and others may soon follow. As the status update says, almost fifty prisoners have refused food for well over a month. A legal fight over whether authorities can engage in the disgusting practice of force-feeding seems to be going against the prisons- even if they have valid do-not-resuscitate orders. Much like euthanasia, the government has forced people to die in a certain approved manner.

But great injustice requires great sacrifice. Signing a petition will not end the cruel and arbitrary practice of long-term solitary confinement. Inmates stand up for their dignity, and people outside have to stand up for them. Many people who marched and fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s felt that it was worth bleeding for. Dying for, even.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there will be a rally and march in solidarity with the hunger strikers on Saturday the 25th of August at 5:00, right next to the 12th street BART station in downtown Oakland. Please come and bring your passion and signs, if you feel this is truly important.