Confessions of an Evangelical UU

Is Unitarian Universalism a Prophetic Church?

Any Facebook friends who’ve paid attention to my “status” will know that the recent Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministries has been on my mind for the last two weeks. Last week, my status worried that I might not make it to a session due to winter ice. This week, I’ve spent more time pondering what came out of the discussions, such as wondering “whether Unitarian Universalism can preach to both the comfortable and the afflicted in the same congregation(s).” From talking with others who attended, I know that I am not alone in being deeply impacted by the experience. Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King School for Ministry and a presenter at the Convocation, even mentions the Convocation (and our blog) in her e-newsletter to the seminary.

At a meeting of the First UU Church of Second Life last night, I asked fellow UUs there whether they consider Unitarian Universalism to be a “prophetic church.” This question, of course, raised other questions: what does it mean to be a prophetic church? After making clear that I did not mean a church that predicts the future, but rather a church that speaks the truth of justice to unjust power structures, we moved on to other questions. Have we been a prophetic church in the past? Are we now? Will we be in the future?

Due to logistics, the Convocation was not open to everyone, but these discussions are not meant to be limited to attendees. Essays were submitted, presentations were filmed, and a book and a DVD will come out of this for others to have the same chance for reflection. In addition, this will be taken up at the social justice track of UU University at General Assembly in Salt Lake City.

But in the mean time, I am asking our readers what I asked the UUs of Second Life: Is Unitarian Universalism a prophetic church? Do you want it to be, and if so in what way?

Reflections on Pluralism and Theologies of Justice

Like Adam, I am lucky enough to be able to attend the Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministry currently being held just outside of Baltimore. It is late Wednesday night, almost Thursday morning, but I am just posting about Tuesday because it’s taking me that long to digest the rich diet of ideas being offered.

We started the Convocation by devoting the first session to our UU theological and historical background in social justice – our religious grounding. We heard from three provocative panelists – Rebbecca Parker, Dan McKannan, and Jill Schwendemn. One theme that emerged was to recognize the rich history that we have coming out of two liberal Christian traditions – the Unitarians and the Universalists, and the importance to ritual to reaffirm our values. This being a UU convocation, those of us in the audience were asked to engage in these questions for ourselves – to think about how our own faith impacts our social justice work. I thought about how both the Christian tradition of the culture in which I grew up and the Buddhist tradition of my ancestral culture were equally important to me. The Judeo-Christian stories are so familiar and emotionally powerful. Yet at the same time, I do not want those traditions to be privileged over others such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The need to recognize the religious pluralism within our UU congregations mirrors the need to recognize and celebrate diversity in all its forms in our society.

The second session took up the problem of suffering, brokenness, and evil in the world, and our appropriate response. If the earlier session celebrated our UU and American heritage, then the evening’s panelists – Taquiena Boston, Victoria Safford, and Sharon Welch – all gave beautiful, painful testimonies as to where we have been unable to fully address the challenges that arise in an imperfect world. The room struggled with the concept of evil and wondered whether it was necessary to confess complicity by making the statement “I am evil.” Dr. Welch stressed a non-dualistic approach, recognizing and addressing acts of oppression while at the same time not labeling others as “evil” in a way that evokes animosity towards them and thus perpetuates the cycle. And Rev. Safford talked about how the choices that we make to no longer do harm are not one-time events. The choice must be made over and over again. What I understood from her was that we have been conditioned to be inclined to make the choices that we make. That doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our choices but it recognizes that simply choosing once would not be enough.

As I listened to the conversations from both the afternoon and evening – discussions of “sin” and the means to “reconciliation” – I felt that it would be helpful if we UUs became conversant in other faith traditions – if we truly understood the concept of karma.

I do not mean the Westernized understanding of karma as a punishment and reward system. That comes from imposing the concepts of “good” and “evil” and a “divine judge” on an Eastern concept. Karma is not based on judgment. It is merely the consequences of one’s actions. Harmful acts have harmful consequences. Understanding this allows us to name and admit to oppressive acts without the debilitating judgment of “evil doer.” It tells us that the need to choose to end oppression is urgent for every moment that we allow it to continue (which is a choice), we generate more bad karma, the consequences of our actions (or inaction). What’s more karma reminds us that even when we choose the loving act, our work is not done. We will have to choose over and over again because the consequences of past harmful choices are still with us. It reminds us that there are no easy fixes to repair the world and build Beloved Community. But it also follows that if we act in love, steadily, that reconciliation and wholeness are inevitable.

Hold On to This Feeling

The first time that I visited Washington, DC, it was as a tourist. As I stood in awe of monuments and grand buildings, shuffled past the Declaration of Independence, and tried to take in all that the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian had to offer, I could not imagine that anyone actually lived in this city. To me as a tourist, Washington was like a marble theme park where presidents and Congress members made history of one kind or another.

A couple of months after I had moved to the neighborhood of Columbia Heights, I caught sight of the far off Washington monument down Meridian Hill and remembered how I once could not fathom being what I had become, a DC resident. I, like other staff members of the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy, live in DC. We go to work, go home, buy groceries, go to church, go out… and know a city that is not evident from vacation visits and media coverage. The Washington that tourists see is disproportionately white with a smattering of foreigners, and an emphasis on lawyers and the military, lobbyists and diplomats. The DC that I know as a resident is a mixture of ethnicities – Euro Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, and others – living in neighborhoods of varying degrees of integration… policemen and nurses, shop keeps and community organizers. There are neighborhoods of extreme poverty and despair in the same city with the marble facades and luxury hotels. I live in the capital of what is still the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth and yet our school system fails its children, some neighborhoods are plagued with violence, our residents do not have true Congressional representation, and everywhere the divides created by both racism and classism are evident.

I do not mean to give the impression that everyone walks around distrusting each other. Far from it. But just like other large cities in the U.S., there are barriers in our daily lives that are perhaps more visible in DC because of the stark contrasts. But this week we watched those barriers tumble down. On Sunday, I attended the “We Are One” concert with Taquiena Boston and her sister Mishan. We met in the neighborhood of Adams Morgan for brunch and then walked down to the National Mall, an over two mile walk. Along the way, we joined hundreds of others walking there as well. And we smiled at each other and shared stories. At the concert itself, the crowd was even more diverse than the performers on stage. The spirit of unity continued through the weekend, culminating when two million people – from all over the nation including DC, from all walks of life – converged again on the National Mall. When Barack Hussein Obama completed the oath of office, people everywhere hugged the nearest person they could find, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation…. We truly were one. This spirit of good will has continued long past that one moment. People greet each other with smiles at metro stops and chat while waiting in lines.

We live in an age where self-sufficiency is valued over cooperation. Where people intentionally avoid eye-contact when passing each other on busy city streets. Only twice in my life have I experienced the loving good will that is still embracing DC right now. The other time was in New York City after September 11th, 2001. While a lot of anger was unfairly directed at Muslims following the attack, there was also an encompassing feeling of intimcacy amongst usually gruff New Yorkers. People held doors open for each other, used their car horns less, and were generally more patient and kind. In our moment of collective grief, as a nation searched for meaning out of tragedy, we could have listened to the better angels of our nature, instead of the demons of fear and self-centeredness. People were ready to serve a higher purpose, if only we had had the leader to inspire us in that direction. Instead, our president at the time told us to “go shopping” and then took us into two wars.

The inauguration of President Obama cannot erase the harm we have done in the last seven years (and for hundreds of years before that). But at least now we have a chance. May we hold on to this feeling of unity in the trying times to come.

I Voted Today, Did You?

Unlike most of my friends and colleagues, I am not out working in an election-related capacity today. I am not volunteering to work in the polls, as is Alex, to make sure that the process runs smoother. I’m a slacker depending on the volunteer time of others. I am not out getting out the vote, or last-minute canvassing, or other activities that would increase my voice by convincing like-minded people to vote. As such, my voice will be but one of an estimated 153 million possible (registered) voters today. All I did was walk over to my neighborhood polling place, wait in line, cast my ballot, and go to work. My part in this great democratic process is small.

But I left the polling place with a huge smile on my face that has not receded yet. First of all, the atmosphere at the polling place (my neighborhood junior high school) was festive. Colorful banners for different candidates decorated the chain link fence leading into the gymnasium from all sides. People, positioned well away from the actual polling place, handed out fliers and chatted with us as we walked up. Cardboard cutouts of candidates of choice, also well away from the polling place, stood on the sidewalk, as if to shake your hand. The impression that I got was that of a party.

Inside the actual polling place, courteous volunteers showed me which line to stand in and where to go next. Everyone was smiling. It was contagious.

As I stood in the booth – just me, my ballot and a number two pencil – the momentousness of the occasion hit me. I don’t mean that regardless of the outcome, this election will have made history. Of course there is that. I don’t mean that the choice between men who want to take this country in very different directions will determine our future. Yes, there is that too. But what I felt in the polling place was simply the awe of getting to make a choice.

Each one of us who is a citizen of this country (and not a felon in some states, but that’s for a different blog post) gets to make this choice. We get to participate in this sacred process of self-determination. On equal footing with each other. Standing in that booth, I felt empowered, and a part of something much bigger than myself.

I left the polling place with a huge smile on my face, and it hasn’t dimmed yet. And so I’m saying to you out there, “I voted today, did you?” I’m not going to lecture you on how it is your duty and responsibility (even though that’s true). I am telling you to get out there and vote, because it will make your day.

Gulf Coast Anniversary

Three years ago, on August 24th, a tropical depression became a storm in the Atlantic ocean. Meteorologists named it Katrina. It would become the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. When it made landfall for a second time in Louisiana on August 29th (after pummeling Florida), it was the third-strongest recorded hurricane to reach the United States, and became one of our five deadliest. It laid waste to large swaths of both Louisiana and Mississippi.

Natural disasters cause wide-spread misery by definition, but the tragedy following hurricanes Katrina and Rita was largely human-caused, and revealed the devastating impact of systemic racism and classism. The levees protecting New Orleans had already been flagged as dangerously unsafe, yet these warnings were ignored. The flooding from broken levees caused more deaths than the storm itself.

Before Katrina’s arrival, evacuation plans relied on individuals to make their own way out of the hurricane’s path, ignoring the fact that many did not have access to private transportation. Fleets of buses lay unused, and then submerged. And in the hours and days following Katrina, our government failed to respond to the disaster. The lack of clean water, food, and shelter, and the violence that ensued from this chaos, claimed many more lives.

The media showed us images of white Americans and told us they were “searching for food.” The same media showed us images of black Americans doing the same thing and told us they were “looting.” We saw members of communities that were less hard hit forcibly preventing desperate people from entering their towns. For almost two days, American citizens were referred to as “refugees” in their own country. And in the analysis afterwards, it was starkly clear that the areas most affected corresponded to neighborhoods that were predominantly poor and of color.

Three years later, the misery wreaked by Katrina and Rita continues, as government bureaucracy and apathy slow the rebuilding process. Casinos and luxury hotels were rebuilt relatively quickly, but much of the old neighborhoods where the tourists seldom venture are still waiting. The Gulf Coast disaster is at least as much human-created as it was “natural.”

Free Hawaii!

Whenever the subject of Tibetan independence from China comes up, my father almost invariably says that if Americans think that China should free Tibet, then the U.S. should free Hawaii.  The first time I heard him say it, I laughed.  "But Dad," I protested, "Hawaiians don't want to be independent from the U.S."  I very soon found out that asumption was not necessarily true.

A little history about our 50th state that you may or may not know (summarized from the mighty wiki):

American missionaries arrived in Hawaii in 1820. In 1887, a group of primarily American and European businessmen forced King Kalakaua to sign the "Bayonet Constitution," which stripped the king of administrative authority, eliminated voting rights for Asians and essentially limited the electorate to wealthy elite Americans, Europeans and native Hawaiians.

In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani announced plans to establish a new constitution that would have replaced the "Bayonet Constitution" and restore power to the monarchy.  But a group of American and Europeans formed a Committee of Safety and seized control of government. The U.S. Government Minister summoned a company of uniformed U.S. Marines to "enforce neutrality," but what that really did was subjugate the monarchy.

With the monarchy overthrown in January 1893, it was replaced by a Provisional Government composed of members of the Committee of Safety.  Hawaii was run as a republic until it was annexed by the U.S.  The vote for statehood, therefore, was cast in large part by foreign settlers, businessmen.

In 1993, a joint Apology Resolution regarding the overthrow was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, apologizing for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

 

Over the years, I've subsequently learned about native Hawaiian hostility towards immigrants on the islands.  Epithets and violence directed at those seen to be invaders.  I do not mean to make it sound like native Hawaiians are not justifiably angry.  Nor to make it sound like all native Hawaiians are angry.  My point is that Hawaii is not necessarily the happy member of the Union that we paint it to be.

All of which is leading up to this news story, a native Hawaiian independence group occupying the Royal Palace in Honolulu.

The group is one of several in Hawaii that reject statehood and seek to return to the constitutional monarchy that effectively ended in 1893 when a group of politicians, businessmen and sugar planters -- aided by the U.S. minister to Hawaii -- overthrew the kingdom's government.

The monarchist groups say the kingdom was overthrown and annexed into the United States illegally.

Interestingly, this story has gotten little play, while coverage of the Tibetan resistance movement has been widespread.  If we truly believe in the right to self-determination, what does that mean?

Do UU Congregations Support Us?

Such is this digital age that there are people whom I've never met in real life of whom I'm nonetheless fond.  They are people I've interacted with in online forums and such on a regular enough basis that I think I know just a little about them and they about me.  And I want for them to be happy as much as I want that for anyone.

It's also the case that one of my motivations for going onto these forums is to evangelize Unitarian Universalism.  That doesn't mean preaching at people that UU is the right faith and that everyone should come.  Of course not.  But I am mindful of being "out there" openly as a Unitarian Universalist, to (hopefully) make a good impression, and to answer any questions that might arise.  Every now and then someone tells me that they are going to check out their local UU congregation and I say, great!  (If it turns out that it's not for them, that's fine too.)

But this week I had a pang of conscience.  An online "friend" of mine, after relating several substantial stresses that are going on in his life, said:

"I've decided I need to go to church. I need a support group."

And my initial reaction was not "Great!"  What I actually thought to myself was, "Huh, I'm not sure you're going to find what you need in a UU congregation."

I do think that UU is wonderful and worth sharing; otherwise I wouldn't be a part of it.  But when I'm "evangelizing" about how great UU is, I'm more thinking about our "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" and our commitment to social justice work.  If you come to us, you will be met (for the most part) with respect and acceptance of differences.  If you are part of a marginalized group, you will find understanding and encouragement.

But what if you just want comfort and support when you're going through a rough spot in your life?  I searched my brain for the experiences I'd had at church and most of what I could come up with was people engaging me in interesting conversations and giving me opportunities to engage in social justice issues.  I could not picture - and I love my UU church very much - fellow congregants giving me support when I was stressed or down.  I've sought and received it from my ministers, yes.  There is a caring table where people sign cards, yes.  And we share joys and concerns during the service, yes.  And there are always those few people who seem to know and care about everyone...  maybe it's just me that's making too big a deal out of this.

I of course didn't talk him out of going to visit his local UU church this Sunday.  For all I know he'll find exactly what he needs there and I worried for nothing.  But knowing that we are not always the friendliest bunch when it comes to welcoming strangers, I asked him to let me know how it goes.  And in the meantime, I am disturbed by the fact that a friend told me that he wants to join a UU church and I experienced reservations on his behalf.

Miley Cyrus

The first I heard of the controversy over 15 year old Miley Cyrus posing topless in Vanity Fair was when a colleague blogged about it.  I thought Grace's piece was well written and kinda took it for granted that most people would agree that the picture was indicative of our culture, which sexualizes our youth in order to sell products.  So I was rather surprised when later, I came across a slew of comments in blogs and online news articles where people thought that the picture was "no big deal."  Mothers of daughters wrote in to say that they found nothing wrong with the photo, that girls expose more with their daily fashions, and that those of us who thought the photo was sexually suggestive were either prudes or had sex on the brain. 

After some consideration, I put up the photo in question so that readers can decide for themselves whether it is sexually suggestive or not.  I would argue that it's misleading to focus on the quantity of skin exposed.  Of course there are fashions that show as much skin.  But the combination of the bare back and the tousled hair and what looks like a satin bed sheet all suggest a post-coital moment with what we must remember is a 15 year old girl.

Sexualizing our youth in order to sell products is nothing new.  That doesn't mean it shouldn't be controversial.  Saying that it's been done before or even that it's done all the time doesn't make it right. 

Moreover, I agree with the blogger at Gothamist, who said that the fully clothed pic of Miley with dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, was even more disturbing. (It's rare that I agree with bloggers on the metro "ist" sites as they seem to take pride in their cultural elitism.)  It leads one to wonder whether Mr. Cyrus has his daughter's or his own interests in mind.  It seems he would prefer to project the image of a cool stud with a hot chick hanging on his arm over being a middle-aged father of a teen-aged daughter.

Personally, what bothers me most is that these photos were taken by Annie Liebowitz, someone whom I think has great talent for making social statements through portrait photography.  It would be easy for me to believe that Liebowitz was making a statement here precisely about the sexualization of our youth.  In that respect it is a brilliant photo. 

The problem, however, is that the statement is made at the expense of a 15 year old girl.  If dad is not looking out for Miley.  And if the photographer is not looking out for Miley.  And we know that Vanity Fair and Disney are looking to see product.  Then who is looking out for, guiding and nurturing this young soul as she ventures toward adulthood?

Boo, Burger King

Well this ought to make the company look really good PR-wise.

Burger King VP Stephen Grover used his daughters email address from behind which to slander the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group trying to gain fairer wages for migrant farm workers.

At one point, Burger King Vice President Stephen Grover told reporters he was concerned the coalition was pocketing the extra money. After several independent groups that verified the agreements dismissed the allegations, Burger King officials stopped repeating them.

But the allegations were repeated on blog posts, according to a story published Monday in The News-Press in Fort Myers. The paper traced those posts to the online user name of Grover's daughter. The girl, who is in middle school, later confirmed to the paper her father had used her online screen name.

Well, I don't eat a Burger King to begin with so it means nothing to boycott, but I can blog about it and let people know that in contrast to Burger King, both McDonald's and Wendy's have agreed to the wage increase of 1 cent per pound of tomatoes picked.

More about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers...

March for Women’s Lives Remembered

Four years ago, when I was still relatively new to DC and All Souls Church Unitarian, an amazing thing happened. UUs from all over the country converged on Washington DC to participate in the March for Women’s Lives, a demonstration in support of women’s rights. I mean literally – almost every state was represented. Many important events have happened in DC and at All Souls since then, but still nothing like that. After a Sunday worship service with Dr. Rebecca Parker giving the sermon, we spilled out on to the streets and made our way to the National Mall to join other demonstrators. Estimates vary but anywhere between 800,000 and 1.15 million people participated. I can’t count that high. All I know is that I have been in many protests in my life but had never experienced anything like that peaceful, joyous, yet determined sea of humanity. A multitude of women, men, and children all together.

The other thing that I remember quite vividly about that march is that it was the first time I had ever protested as an identifiable part of a faith tradition. I had been a UU. I had gone to protests. I had never protested as a UU, as a person of faith. And it was extremely empowering.

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