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 a college UU: value people, not brands

Yesterday in the weekly meeting for Unitarian Universalist students on campus, our service leader gave us definitions of “personal brand.” The discussion was interesting, but I felt nobody delved into how much conflict exists between the concept of a “personal brand” and a UU worldview. Since there wasn’t a good opportunity to explore my feelings then, I’m writing a response now.

Personal branding is emphasized in business circles, particularly among entrepreneurs. Just like with a traditional brand, participants attempt to broadcast a positive portrait of themselves, that uses whatever skills and resources they have. The idea, in theory, is to have a unique profile that makes you special.

Advocates of this process say that everything you do contributes to personal brand- education, work, choices regarding romance and children. One definition says that you need to define what you really find important.

But here’s the short-circuit. One thing you can value is not being bound by business concepts like brands. Thinking of people as brands is profoundly dehumanizing, and conflates personal identity with capitalist practice. Personal identity is broken up into quantifiable traits, because brands have no need for intangibles. “Value” is given a crass, narrow definition. Emphasis on personal branding- where everything, not just work-related, is crucial- fundamentally clashes with a spiritually fulfilling life. American capitalism is many things, but it is not a very spiritual realm.

It is depressing to read my life trajectory described in five-dollar word business speak. To bring up personal branding is important- I think UU young adult groups should discuss it since it’s ever-present in the adult world- but not with a starting assumption that it’s a positive thing. That needs to be proven. Forbes is not the arbiter of what principles we should hold.

Uniqueness is an empowering trait, but the flip side should be considered. Thinking in terms of brands atomizes people- existing in tension with the collective. Collective experience, religious, social, and economic, is essential to existence. When we are together, concepts like equality and dignity have meaning. For me, Unitarian Universalist spaces allow refuge from a world where nearly everything has adopted a corporate mindset. The campus that we had this meeting on is in crisis because the administration has become more like corporate executives and less like public servants.

What I ask here is to think about identity, and then personal branding. To you, are they similar, or not? What unites or separates the two?

 

The war on day-to-day Islamic religious practice

In recent years, there has been a turn in some countries towards criminalizing basic religious practices of Islam. The ban on minarets in Switzerland passed in 2009. A huge court battle in Tennessee trying to forbid a new Islamic center. And currently, the ugly debate about a new Islamic cemetery in Texas. In all three, vague connections to extremism were made, though general ignorance was the real core. In the Texas case, there was a bogus concern that Islamic burial practices would be toxic to the surroundings- despite that Jews and Muslims bury their dead sans embalming, which gives them very little long-term danger to the environment.

How government and society should deal with extremism and terrorism is an open question for debate. What shouldn’t be up for debate, but is in many countries, is the right of people to practice their religion peacefully. If you forbid minarets, or building mosques, or burying your dead, you’re making a decision that Islam is not covered under freedom of religion. You can indeed regulate something into oblivion.

With the Texas case, I just see people fighting amongst themselves instead of standing together against genuine threats. If one day you wake up to a totalitarian state, it’ll probably not be because of a couple dozen Muslims in your town. It’ll be because the institutions of power swooped in while you were distracted.

50 years ago today: MLK eulogies Rev. James Reeb

Fifty years ago today, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the eulogy at the funeral of Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister who came to Alabama in response to King’s call for clergy to stand up for racial justice. He was murdered in Selma outside a cafe, where he was walking with two other UU ministers.

The text of the eulogy is now available (PDF), and it is as expected a textbook example of King’s grasp of imagery and lyricism.

King expertly transforms Reeb’s death from a single crime to a structural injustice by moving from who killed James Reeb, as what killed James Reeb.

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It is a fitting eulogy to a UU minister. Those with true religious courage and spirit leave their churches, temples, and places of worship, to speak truth and stand for justice. The Civil Rights Movement needed real tangible support, not idle words. Those that died in Selma saw religious obligation existing at the frontlines.

Open Mosque, and the not-quite Reformation

Vice writer Gavin Haynes has a new feature out about Open Mosque, an eclectic liberal mosque in Cape Town. I think he oversells the idea that Open Mosque is unprecedented in its views (the Alevi of Turkey are millions strong, largely secular, left-wing, and gender-equal). Otherwise, I found it interesting. The idea that Islam needs a Reformation like the one Luther kicked off in the 16th century has gained much currency recently with the rise of ISIS and their so-called ‘caliphate’. This is problematic- early Protestants were extreme theocrats (anyone living in Calvin’s Geneva would let you know that), the two religions are dissimilar in a lot of key areas, and since the Reformation global industry, culture, and politics has emerged that create complications. But taking the idea of the Reformation as a potential good, let’s go on.

Haynes gives an idea as to what a Martin Luther figure would look like- TV news tends to skimp on the details of how a Reformation would work, besides moderate Muslims creating new institutions that end the reign of hard-liners. Taj Hargey has a key thing in common with Luther- going back to the core text and using it as the moral guide to society. This is a lesson that all religious people can use- going back to scripture, what does it say, and what kind of society does it put forward? What is the gap between scripture and modern day religious authority? I don’t think Open Mosque will change the face of world history like Luther managed to, but it is offering a genuine alternative. What I worry is that violence against him and his congregation will prevent the spread of new ideas.

Saving the entire world

“whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

-Quote from the Talmud

How is humanity redeemed?

This year has brought war, genocide, disease, and conflict- religious, ethnic, between genders and sexual orientations. So grave are these social problems, it would seem that they would drag all of humankind down. Present actions and past injustice merge together and tar the seven billion people living today.

Despite the power of moral failing, there is a countering force. Our time here is justified by those that step beyond self-interest and reach out. They blow apart social barriers, help those that society would rather erase from memory.

It is typical to help a friend who is struggling with homelessness. It is transformative to do the same for a complete stranger.

It is expected that we counsel a relative in their times of crisis. It is transformative to listen to those who no relatives to hear them.

The moral universe is large, but it is sustained by tiny actions done in a concerted way. No individual can feed all the hunger, heal all the sick, bring back fathers and children from the dead. We are born into a broken world, and lacking perfection we must choose progress instead.

One life. We can all try to save one life, at some point. In doing so, all the suffering and strife is put into a new, more bearable perspective.