Unitarian Universalism has an issue: radical goals and non-radical tactics

I finally wrote a full post on this tension I’ve had since September 2014 when I gave a guest sermon. This is based on “Not my father’s religion”, published in 2007. The contradictions in what UUs promise to do in the world and the distance they’re willing to do the radical things required is difficult. As an impatient young UU this bothers me- lots of people who were 60s radicals but have now settled down and ditched the needed politics.

Here it goes.

May 28, 2015

“Nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines (and dead armadillos)”

This is not a lovely, soft sermon like many here. They are beautiful, but certain issues require a hardened tone. Do know that this is in the vein of Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in American history, when he told a group of Unitarian abolitionists, the UUs of their day, that he loved them all but would give them Hell for these twenty minutes.

The issue starts as the central point of “Not my father’s religion” by Reverend Doug Muder, from UU World. In it, he explains why his working-class factory worker father goes to a conservative Lutheran church, and not the one he preaches at. The article, which a masterwork of cutting through assumptions and stereotypes, comes to the conclusion that UUs have very few working-class members, and their beliefs contribute to that.

From an upper middle-class professional core, members don’t see the insecurity and danger in the world that regular laborers do, and often spend more time talking about the homeless than the near-homeless. There is always a danger of hidden elitism- when we use the term “flipping burgers” we often devalue that working at a Wendy’s is hard, unrewarding toil.

This taps into what I’d like to talk about, something that guided a 2014 guest sermon I gave called “And Society at Large”, which was about that Principle Five of the Seven Principles we cherish calls for democracy in all of society, including economic democracy. For the purposes of the sermon and the fact that “economic democracy” is a wide-ranging term, I didn’t use words like “socialism”. But the message that many got was clear- the church needs to live up to its radical talk. This is a church that, bluntly, is the radical children of the 1960s teaching a much more watered-down set of values to their own kids.

One person who sat up after the speech to make an announcement irritated me. Two things were annoying- first, she was making a regular political announcement (though I know the contradiction given my sermon) in the church sanctuary that is normally done outside. And secondly, she credited me as the inspiration to talk about how she needs everyone to go to the Democratic Party offices to work on the elections.

The biggest blow was not that I think the Democratic Party is a dead-end for the radical and religious, though I do. It’s that she took my leftist message and turned it into the kind of milquetoast liberalism that gives the Party its nickname- the graveyard of social movements. It’s the repeated appropriation- of gay liberation, of black resistance, of the mass left-wing movements that defined the twentieth century in many places, including the United States. These groups become cogs in a party machine and lose their independence. The black American experience we are seeing with police violence is clear- some leaders have long since joined the party apparatus, and thus their criticisms have evident limits. The young insurgents that I admire so much have sometimes booed Al Sharpton off the stage, because they’re too smart to be sold on a plan that doesn’t work. Smaller groups cannot influence large machines in the way that big money and white voter issues do.

The organization I am a part of rejects the two parties and sees that the only way to gain economic democracy, egalitarian society, and all these things that by the Seven Principles we are morally obliged to strive for- is to build a working class alternative that lacks the compromises that define the two big parties. And I felt our 2013 campaign in Seattle was an example of what many UUs may one day see as necessary- a challenge to liberal Democratic politics that are too tied to businesses and interest groups to achieve change.

Running under the then-insane demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage, our candidate Kshama Sawant- an immigrant woman of color, organizer, and professor- beat him out by the slimmest of margins, winning almost 94,000 votes.

And what happens with that radical alternative. The $15 an hour wage became a reality in Seattle, and now spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles, coming soon in Chicago and Minneapolis, New York and Berkeley. A ordinance was passed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 400% (!) to keep gentrification at bay. Homeless encampments are allowed to stay rather than broken up by police every week or so. And the new budget is the most progressive in the country, including record funding for homeless LGBT youth and looking to invest in mass transit. Currently the struggle in Seattle is over a large oil rig headed to drill in the Arctic- given the chance by the Obama administration- where hundreds of indigenous people and environmentalists block the way out with their kayaks and banners.

Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.
Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.

In essence, the UUs need to change their principles or change their tactics. Many UUs will support the Democratic candidate, and I understand that. But without our own political power we will never win the victories that match our moral expectations. Indeed, when Democratic clubs all over Seattle held their 2015 endorsement meetings, they all came back with an endorsement in our district of “none of the above”- since our non-Democratic candidate cannot be directly endorsed. There is a split available more than ever in recent time between the establishment and the activists.

Unitarian Universalism would benefit from class diversity, just like it would from racial diversity, and more immigrants, and other things we discuss all the time. But class diversity is not going to be gained by tabling outside union halls and pawn shops. Our ideas are great but their expression is biased in favor of the well-educated, and those in communities that are not in crisis. I don’t see how a black janitor in a community where young men are being shot in the back will find our progressive ideals right for him, because they’re never communicated in the way he might see things.

Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.
Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.

As the new generation, I understand that I will be on the radical fringe until I settle down, have kids, and pay dumb taxes. But since what the UU needs are people who might see my worldview as better aligned with theirs, I can’t just be flatly ignored.

We can do this. Let’s be the radical kooks that our ancestors were when they said that slavery was an abomination and rose up as whole towns to chase slave catchers out of the North. They were one moderate reformers, but they saw the Light that radical solutions were needed to serious problems. Abolition stopped being symbolic the moment it became extralegal.

From “who” to “what”, from branch to root

The Thoreau quote is famous and forever relevant: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” All public policy, all activism, all social justice effort expended lies within the tension between branches and roots. It’s a dialectic, where no answer is fully satisfactory. If the focus is entirely on roots, the branches of injustice will harm innocent people in the meantime. If the focus is entirely on branches, society can only tread water, the problem never ending.

Martin Luther King Jr. put the issue in different words, when he eulogized Rev. James Reeb (PDF), a Unitarian Universalist minister bludgeoned to death by white racists in Selma, Alabama. His death is treated with the gruesome, horrifying tone is deserves in Selma. To King, branches are the question of “who”, and roots are the question of “what”.

Hate crimes have tangible perpetrators- those that directly order killing or participate in the killing act.  Hate itself goes beyond the individual, into the very fabric of society itself. King is right- society is complicit in racism, sexism, homophobia, and inequity of all types. All evil exists within a world that we helped create. Today, as it was fifty years ago in Alabama, we are spending so much time performing triage. There is no shortage of suffering to soften if we wish to keep looking. Yet we cannot roll into bed exhausted each day, and not think about prevention. Helping the homeless is important, but not the same as preventing vulnerable people from becoming homeless in the first place. Exonerating the innocent about decades behind bars is not a substitute from preventing the innocent from being placed there.

The tension between roots and branches, between what and who, sits in a battle between past and future. Present society is habitually bailing out past society. At least a dozen times in my life, someone of an older generation has said that the world is in the hands of Millennials. They tried to save the world, failed, and there’s nothing left to due but transfer the weight. Mending past injustices has to be mixed with preventing present injustice, for each new tragedy compounds and worsens each tragedy that emerged before.

Psychologically, how does one deal with the truth that one cannot strike both the root and branches completely at the same time? How can we take both success and failure in the same moment? We cannot do everything, but the world needs saving. Tension will always exist, and each step towards justice has to be evaluated. The process encourages self-reflection, and there is always the threat of self-consciousness rising, to become overwhelming.

Between roots and branches,
between what is and who has,
between injustice, today, yesterday, and a thousand years ago, unremedied.

The San Diego cycle: First UU Church of San Diego

This is part two in my series on UU congregations in San Diego county. The first, on UU Fellowship of San Dieguito, is located here. Please note that this is a personal reflection, and I seek to be honest here.

Wooden chalice on wall of meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Wooden chalice on wall of meeting house, First UU of San Diego

What are the core elements that make a congregation the right fit for you? Is it solely the people who attend alongside you? Is it convenience within your other commitments? Is it the theological flavor of that particular minister? Maybe some, maybe all, and maybe it’s just a deep, innate feeling of belonging. When you move into a new house or apartment, there is an invisible line when it stops being a place to live and becomes a home. How that comes to be is not quantifiable, but it emerges. Well, hopefully.

First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego (website here) is the sixth congregation I have attended services at. What constitutes right for me has become clearer. Three of the congregations were mid-sized or smaller, while three, including First UU, were quite large. Some were very modern and neutral in their language, while another used quite a lot of Christian language. I encourage those who have the geographical fortune to live next to multiple UU congregations to explore and find out what they are about. As one should expect from a liberal, noncreedal religion, each congregation has their own strain of radical individualism.

Meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Meeting house, First UU of San Diego

First UU is a gorgeous campus. The chalice pictured first in this article is one of several carved wood pieces of art, with the component pieces engraved with donors. In their parlance, the ‘meeting house’ has lots of natural light from the back and with one wall stage-left being a giant window. The organ is a spectacle unto itself. Everything fits into a rich wood-tone landscape. Outside are grey and sand tones, mixed with desert landscaping. No visitor can doubt that First UU has been built on love and communal sacrifice to make it a reality.

Perhaps the greatest effort the church has made is not its aesthetics, but accessibility. The 11:30 service has a sign-language interpreter. Song lyrics and benedictions are projected on large, easy to read screens. The church maintains a separate branch to the south where the same sermons are given (on different Sundays) with simultaneous Spanish translation. One of the continual struggles UUs address is diversity, and moving towards new types of inclusion. This kind of outreach is very forward, and appreciated.

Order of Service for October 5th, 2014.
Order of Service for October 5th, 2014.

The amount of programs offered is overwhelming. Each part of the website is overflowing with tabs and sub-pages explaining the different parts of their youth program, the various fellowships for Buddhism, Hinduism, and earth-centered spirituality. Social action, community work- even without attending a service I could tell that this was a very large and ambitious congregation by standards of Unitarian Universalism.

So we reach the point where my personal preference ran up against First UU. Large meeting halls and huge arrays of programs don’t gel well with me. My previous visit in August to the First Unitarian Church of Portland gave me an initial inkling, but I did not have enough information to figure out what precisely gave me a bad feeling. Despite being very different in many ways, the Portland and San Diego churches share a sense of scale and spectacle. As unfair as it is, anytime I enter a church of a certain size I get very negative associations flowing in. Megachurches powered by money and consumerism. Those vast gilded cathedrals in Peru, side-by-side with crippling poverty on the streets of Cuzco.

Size is weird to me. I don’t seek large groups by nature. I am happy being in the political or social minority. When I enter large gatherings like protests, I do so with a firm individual (or small group) identity. On May Day I was in a San Jose immigration march, but when an organizer yelled at me for not being the right portion of the march, I left. A flaw, perhaps, is that I associate large institutions with conformity. In the end, I did not like my experience at this church.

Pulpit and chalice, meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Pulpit and chalice, meeting house, First UU of San Diego

Such a visit allows me to do serious personal reflection. It also allows me to dispense a bit of advice: one cannot think that a bad experience in one congregation means that Unitarian Universalism is just not right for them. If you know someone who was discouraged by their first visit to a UU church, or are yourself discouraged, please seek opportunities in your own area, or perhaps seek out the Church of the Larger Fellowship that can provide another perspective no matter where you live.

And ultimately I have the luxury of joining UU social action and community work even if I ultimately choose not to spend my Sunday mornings alongside its congregants. Each community is much more than a meeting house, a preaching style, a sociopolitical focus. We have much available to enrich ourselves, as long as we create a niche that is right for us.

Vista from First UU of San Diego
Vista from First UU of San Diego

The San Diego cycle: UU Fellowship of San Dieguito

Earlier this month I moved from Northern to Southern California. Exciting, a bit uncomfortable, but San Diego is a place of great promise and opportunity. Starting this week I will be a new transfer student at the University of California, San Diego; since I know very few people here, the half dozen local Unitarian Universalist congregations are a great starting place. Getting integrated into the community, both on a social level and as an activist, is deeply important. So I’ll be doing a write up of each place I go.

The fellowship's band performs in the outdoor amphitheater
The fellowship’s band performs in the outdoor amphitheater

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito (UUFSD, website here) is located in the hills of Solana Beach, just east of I-5. It typifies all things Southern California. The landscaping is arid shrubs and drought-resistant trees, the buildings are of grey stone and of the flat, pueblo style. What gives it a unique flair is the outdoor amphitheater where services are held, weather permitting. A hemicycle of benches surrounds a modest red-brick stage, its back butting up against a sandy hill. Beach umbrellas shield most congregants, though if one is quite pale and sensitive to sunlight (your truly fits the category) you may have to keep shifting in order to match the rising sun.

The centerpiece of the 11am service was the coming of age program, where youth start the transformation towards having their own ideas about meaning and spirituality. In total there were twenty-five teens moving forward to the next stage, an impressive amount given my original congregation had serious issues with an imbalance between elderly and youth congregants. Overall it felt like the “moving up” days of my early schools years; this was not a graduation but more an acknowledgment of progress and the foundation of future work.

Rev. David Miller, who like many in the UU tradition has the ministry as a second career, gave a speech entitled “The Edge of Reason: Faith in an Unreasonable Age”. It dealt with the great clash in society and within all UU congregations- how does reason interact with faith, science with mysticism? He called attention to the waste that comes with hair-splitting and semantics, and that ultimately what science and religion do for individuals and the world is more important than whose ideas are better.

Walkway between amphitheater and building complex.
Walkway between amphitheater and building complex.

 

His point regarding the ‘edge of science’ and what can and cannot be proven was well taken. It reminded me of an article recently put in a Scientific American compilation called “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?” by George F.R. Ellis (PDF here). Multiverse- the idea that there are other universes outside of our own, in some structure- reaches the edge where physical theories become metaphysical conjecture. Ellis points out that if there is no way to test for a multiverse, and the theory is not provable nor falsifiable, there is no place for science. Rev. Miller illustrates that we must not lean on science for everything, because its method has only so many uses. But also, implicitly, that superstition and dogma cannot creep into the territory that science can explain.

As one hopes, the congregants were very welcoming. I was offered the chance to introduce myself early in the service and took it. Rev. Miller pointed out that given my shirt (this one from Northern Sun, only with the old logo) I was probably not a stranger to the religion. Several people came and talked about their history at UU of Palo Alto, where I came from. It was nice to talk to people from Southern California and get a sense of what the community is like down here. Members were also helpful about other congregations in the area.

View towards the Pacific from the campus.
View towards the Pacific from the campus.

I plan to visit all the congregations in the county (five of them, with the largest one in downtown having a branch with overlapping content), and this was an encouraging start. The low-70s weather was perfect for outdoor worship, and the campus itself has character. What the amphitheater had was character- not run-down, but also not sparkling and impersonal.

Given that I only have one class this week, I should be ready for a new congregation next week- Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

Edit: I ended up going to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego for that Sunday. The piece on that visit is here.

 

Money I didn’t ask for: a UU Sunday quandary

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Sunday I received a Presidential Dollar coin. Andrew Johnson, one of the most incompetent and ineffectual executives in American history. Everyone else in the congregation received their own coin- Washington, Adams, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant. Some of the older Sacagawea designs as well.

This was an attempt to drive home the sermon’s main point on money- that money is just another name for power. And in the current economic system, using money is exerting power. It buys goods and services. It influences people’s emotions, ideals, and motivations. It separates groups of people into classes and castes.

So I still have this coin, despite having options to use it. I’ve paid for transactions in cash, passed tip jars and fountains. But it’s still here. Even as just one dollar, there is something profoundly unsettling about being given money you did not earn or ask for. Since the coins were provided by the lay member giving the sermon and not the church, I can’t view it as a rebate or credit for my church giving.

How do you deal with random money? Randomly, I suppose. It’ll end up with the first homeless individual I encounter. This dollar is not only unearned and unasked for, but unneeded. Money gains its greatest value when it’s used to meet clear needs for people. And there are always those in need.

A history of outside agitation: the role of UUs

Marker for Viola Liuzzo, murdered by the Klan, March 25, 1965. Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
Marker for Viola Liuzzo, murdered by the Klan, March 25, 1965.
Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer; with it, a chance to reflect on the history of outsider agitators. That term gained currency in reaction to movements like the Freedom Rides and the Summer, where northerners of all races came to break down segregation and Jim Crow. This was portrayed as dangerous, much like the old antebellum South and its fears of slave insurrection. In March,1965 a UU minister, James Reeb was killed while working with Dr. King, Jr. Two weeks later, another UU named Viola Liuzzo was murdered by Klan thugs. In every way they were different than the communities and people they were trying to help, but their sacrifice was important. That is because they were agitators, and agitators help justice triumph- no matter is they were ‘outside’ or not.

Marker remembering Rev. James Reeb, murdered March 9, 1965.
Marker remembering Rev. James Reeb, died March 11, 1965.

 

The role of outside forces, especially white leftist activists, has been hotly debated. I’ve shared some discussion on the matter. What we have is an old quandary- how can you help, without making things worse? The sandpit that makes outside agitators difficult, and even dangerous, is one of selfishness. If outside forces pour into Ferguson, or Sanford, Florida, or indeed Mississippi and Alabama fifty years ago, their level of self-interest helps determine their use. Put bluntly, joining a protest in St. Louis and throwing rocks at the police is a great way to get on TV. That kind of behavior sabotages local efforts to press for change, and draws attention to a small minority, to the detriment of larger grievances.

Though there are moral principles at stake here, the question those who wish to help need to ask is “if we can, how can we help you?” versus “I know what can help you.” Respect for autonomy, whether in the black community, or indigenous peoples fighting Chevron and mining companies, or whatever group is engaged in struggle, is important. Part of the Freedom Summer was allowing the oppressed to gain political tools to use against their oppressors. Supplying power to others, not using your own power in their name.

What do religious institutions provide in the 21st century?

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Yesterday, an article in The Atlantic was published on “mix-and-match spirituality.” Recounting a Saturday panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the thrust of the article is that individualized spiritual experiences may be a bad thing. Certainly the two panelists quoted, Leon Wieseltier and Molly Worthen, find the crumbling of firm institutions as harmful. Unitarian Universalists  can certainly be accused of mix-and-match religious practice; the criticism in the article is worth reading, if only to get a feeling of what others think about 21st century religion.

Two major issues I have:

  1. the depiction of religious institutions as being places of diversity, in people and in doctrine. This is from Worthen.
  2. invoking tradition, perhaps in an uncritical light. This is from Wieseltier.

The first shows up in the subtitle of the article, “Religious institutions force members to grapple with hard ideas, to interact with different kinds of people, and to receive the wisdom of the ages.”

That sentence is a minefield of dubious claims. Religious bodies don’t always force members to grapple with difficult topics, they often shield the membership from outside doctrine and the diversity of ideas. There are plenty of churches and temples where having a radical new idea leads to ostracism, if not outright sanction.

Continuing, Worthen states that religious institutions “[force] you into conversation with people you might not agree with.” This is just as problematic as the previous quote. Any group with rigid criteria will filter out a large portion of the total population. If you go to a conservative Baptist congregation, where will the serious differences be? Are there a lot of people there who don’t think Jesus is the Son of God, or propose there’s nothing wrong with LGBT individuals?

Finally, people are forced to receive the “wisdom of the ages.” This doesn’t hold up if the point is that individualized or non-traditional spiritual choices are a bad thing. Going to a Catholic Mass, you will get one take on the wisdom of the ages. If you are confined by that institution, that means other groups with hundreds if not thousands of years of accrued wisdom- Jews, Muslims, Hindus, freethinkers, and all the different flavors and denominations within- will not factor in. If one has read A Chosen Faith, you may remember Forrest Church’s allegory of the infinite Church. Each institution and individual sees the light of truth a bit differently. Each has their own window with different characteristics. A good way to get the most out of truth (the wisdom of the ages) is to look through many different windows.

This idea of tradition leads into Wieseltier, who states about 21st century takes on Judaism, “What worries me is that the new forms will be so disconnected from the traditions that something called Judaism will survive but that the tradition in its richness may not.” Now this is a very real concern. Ditching the past has led to some very serious crises, both political and personal. At the same time, sects that claim to be the most “traditional” have serious issues with gender equality and free speech. Though Wieseltier is right that there is much to appreciate and keep alive, it should be viewed through a frame where tradition is not inherently a good thing. Tradition is practice plus time, with a little magic that keeps it going over many years. The practice may not have been good even then, and time has done it no favors. And of course new traditions are being made each year, a process that “mix-and-match” worshippers are a part of.

Passions flare in the debate over the current state of religion, and its trajectory in future decades. That’s not unique to religion, far from it. But is this article fair to liberal religion and the nebulous “mix-and-match spirituality”? Related, does it accurately describe what a traditional religious institution provides? It would seem that if a diversity of opinion is sought, one would be more likely to find it in the liberal branches of mainstream religions. Any denomination that places a high value on creed is not going to have a wide diversity of ideas and congregants. Are the new generation of believers, non-believers, and sorta-believers perverting vital tradition, or dismantling ideas that have reached their expiration date?

I do agree with Wieseltier: religion in recent times has sometimes merged with consumerism. There is always the threat of belief becoming a fashion statement, nothing in the modern capitalist system is immune from hype and fads. Mobility in the spiritual realm should not be viewed as intrinsically bad though- those that move from faith to faith, read books on the Dalai Lama one week and the Dead Sea Scrolls the next, are exercising a freedom of religion that vast populations across the world do not have. The dynamic behavior of the newest generation may be a move past the sense of obligation and communal pressure to conform and stay in one religious institution.

To end, it is important to not oversell traditional religious practice, and to dismiss 21st century spirituality. The two have much to teach each other, if they will listen. And if this article believes that religious institutions force difficult conversations, then such institutions must be active in engaging those that hold radical and unorthodox views.