Reflections on the Jewel Net

There Is Always A Reckoning

The theme for this second week of Commit2Respond's Climate Justice Month is reckoning.  Reckoning, as in being held accountable.  Each time as I've read the word I think of another, karma.  Not karma as it is popularly known in the West – a system of punishment and reward meted out for good and bad behavior respectively – but karma as I learned it from the Dharmic perspective – the consequences of one's actions.  Karma is as natural and as inescapable as Newtonian laws (at the macro level).  For every action, there is a reaction.  For every action, there is karma, which is the consequences of action.

 

Karma is the ultimate accountability.  Sooner or later, the consequences of our actions must be faced.  There is no supernatural exemption, no way out of a mess except through.

 

This is in stark contrast to the traditional Christian view of sin and salvation, in which we are born guilty (of original sin) even before we've done anything, and yet we can escape the consequences of our guilt (even extreme guilt) via the sacrifice of another.  This second week of Climate Justice Month also coincides with Holy Week in the (Western) Christian tradition.  Today, Good Friday, we remember that Jesus was brutally tortured to death. Whether one believes that the ultimate cause was the Roman empire squashing an insurrection or a wrathful God demanding appeasement, Jesus too faced consequences for past actions.

 

The traditional (Protestant) Christian view is that because Jesus died for you, you do not have to face what would otherwise be the consequences of your sins.  Even though many people have since rejected the theology, I think that a version of it continues to permeate the Western world.  That is, people widely hold the belief that it's possible to avoid the consequences of actions, even if they no longer believe in God(s).  Somehow, no matter how dire the situation seems to be, there can be some seemingly miraculous way out, such that we don't have to make a sacrifice ourselves.  Our movies feed us this message over and over again.  A supporting character takes the bullet for the main protagonist so that the latter can drive off into the sunset. Advertisements perpetuate the same message.  A diet pill where “the pounds just melt off” rather than us having to exercise.  Is it any wonder that we hope, somehow science will find ways to magically sequester carbon, or generate unlimited energy, or take us to another planet?  We hope that something will save us so that we won't have to do it ourselves, won't have to change our ways.  Indeed, the task of addressing climate change seems too big, too daunting to accomplish ourselves.  And thus even in the undeniable face of the urgent need to act, we continue as we've been doing, simultaneously feeling hopeless and clinging to hope for miraculous salvation.

 

In the Buddhist view, however, there can be no miraculous salvation because there is karma, the consequences of our actions.  There may be seeming temporary reprieves, but such measures only delay the inevitable. For example, finding a new place to dump garbage doesn't clean up the previous place; it only means there is now one more polluted place that we'll eventually have to clean.  The use of extreme forms of fossil fuels - mountaintop removal coal, deep sea oil, fracked gas, tar sands oil - may seem like a reprieve from having to find alternative, renewable forms energy, but all these practices wreak even greater ecological havoc that we will have to address. Putting coal-burning plants in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color may seem like a way for those of us who are not living in those areas to avoid the consequences, but eventually they catch up with all of us, as they are doing now, AND we'll also have to make amends for systemic racism and classism.

 

We have cut down and burned forests that would clean our air. We have sent tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  We have filled the seas with oil spills, and the rivers with mountaintop debris. Our glaciers are melting. Our seas are rising.  And weather patterns that we've relied on for millennia and built our civilizations around have drastically changed. Our collective karma has caught up with us ad we are in the reckoning. There is no way out of our situation except through it.

 

The good news, however, is that karma goes both ways. If we dug the hole we're currently in, we can also climb back out and fill it in.  Our salvation, our liberation, is in our own hands, by our actions. And just as it was possible for us to do something as big as change the climate of our Earth, it's just as possible to do something as big as to repair it.  "Drop by drop is the water pot filled.But it will require different action on our part.

California Water Policies Show Priorities

Lake Oroville in Butte County, CA

The headline screamed across the page: "NASA Scientist Predicts California Has One Year of Water Left!" Famiglietti later said he was misquoted and that he was talking about our reservoirs, only part of our overall water supply. But it doesn't take a NASA scientist to know that, four years into record drought, California is in bad shape. The before and after pictures of lakes and snow caps show a state that is drying up.

Given the urgent need for effective action, it was alarming to see the online comments in response to the article. People blamed green lawns, swimming pools, and ultimately overpopulation. This thinking mirrors the messages from our state officials: don't water your lawn, take shorter showers, put a brick in your toilet tank. While I am entirely in favor of xeriscaping and other personal practices that lessen our impact on Mother Earth, the reality is that it isn't the number of residents nor our “water-wasteful ways” that are taxing California resources. Estimates vary widely yet still tell a similar story:

  • Depending on whom you believe, between 6-14% of California's water goes to residential use. All the toilets, showers, bathtubs, washing machines, dishwashers, lawns, and yes, even swimming pools, in residential properties amounts to about 10% of total water use.

  • Depending on whom you believe, between 40-85% of California's water goes to agriculture. (Most estimates say about 80%.) Just the amount of water needed for the miles of almond orchards alone is the same as domestic water use for the state's entire 38.8 million residents.  Residents are fined $500 for over-watering lawns but corporate farmers are not required to use the most water-efficient irrigation techniques.

  • Despite dire drought, California continues to allow fracking, which uses billions of gallons of water per year. But that isn't the only strain that fracking poses on California's water supply. Once the water has been used and irreversibly contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals, it's disposed of underground, where it has contaminated potable ground water.

  • Despite dire drought, California continues to allow private companies to bottle our water and sell it for their profit. While residential water use is increasingly monitored, companies like Nestlé, under its Arrowhead and Pure Life brands, extract water without any regulation from local agencies.

California's water crisis is so severe that Gov Brown declared a state of emergency last year and recently signed a $1 billion emergency spending bill to address the situation. But if you look at the bill, it leaves corporate interests intact while putting ever more pressure on residential “water wasters.”  Telling residents, who collectively comprise just 10% of our annual water usage that we need to cut back, while placing no restrictions on corporate interests that make up more than 80% of water usage does not make sense. 

Some might argue that we need to support farms because of the economy and jobs.  However, Gov Brown supports diverting essential water from the smaller, family-owned farms and fisheries of the Sacramento River Delta in order to bolster the larger, corporate-owned farms of the Central Valley. These same corporate farms use chemical pesticides that have poisoned the local water supplies of the people who live near and work for them.

Some might argue that we need to allow fracking for the oil and for jobs. However, federal officials have cut their estimate of the amount of recoverable oil in the Monterey Shale deposits by 96%. (That's right, less than 1/20th of original estimates.) Yet we would poison precious water so that fossil fuel companies can squeeze out what little profits they can.

One can only conclude that despite the urgent need for change, state officials continue to favor the profits of corporations over the best interests of the people.  And in that respect, what is happening in California is instructive to the rest of the country. 

On a spiritual level, these policies also hint at the pervasive, destructive belief that humans are somehow inherently bad for the environment (ie - "overpopulation", "too many of us").  This forces us into a false choice between caring for our own welfare and that of our Earth and sibling species.  (No wonder so many people decide not to care!)  In reality, the problems caused by bad environmental policies could be remedied if we had the will to change. 

Do not accept the lie that it's California residents who are responsible for the water crisis.  Do not let corporate interests off the hook.  Please sign one, two or all of the following petitions:

 

Awe in Response to Beauty

A friend posted this video on Facebook this morning and one of his friends explained that it was created by a Russian missile gone awry.  (Soyuz-u vehicle Oct 15, 2009)  Watching it, two things came to mind:

1.  Wednesday evening I attended the second in a three-week course on Process Theology at UUSF, taught by Rev John Buehrens.  At one point, Rev. Buehrens explained how Alfred Whitehead felt that Western philosophy with its emphasis on "Truth" had veered too intellectual, and thus Whitehead tried to bring us back by focusing on aesthetics, our sense of awe in response to encountering Beauty.  The thing that engenders humilty and recognition that there is something bigger than us.

2.  Years ago I was talking with a young man sitting next to me on an airplane, and he said that nothing human-made was beautiful, that he only recognized beauty in "natural" things.  I asked him whether he'd ever seen the view of Los Angeles (which we were flying into) at night from the top of Mulholland Drive.  He repeated more adamantly that nothing human-made could ever be beautiful.  And I wondered how strong one's ideology had to be in order to not see beauty in the view from Mulholland Drive at night.

You can't get more human-made than a missile.  All metal and electronics and explosives, its very purpose is ugly, to kill.  If you asked me before I saw this video whether a missile could ever be beautiful, I probably would have said 'No.'  Yet here is this mesmerizingly beautiful video.  (Which is not to say that it might not also have created some real ugliness at the same time.)  And I am watching the video via a laptop connected to the internet.  More human-made metal, plastic, and electronics.  And it's still beautiful.

One of the main points that I see in process theology (or process thought) is that humans are not separate from the rest of existence.  We are part of the interdependent web, impacting it and being impacted by it, no different than any other part.  Together - all the parts of the web together - we co-create reality.   So if nature creates beauty, then how can humans who are an integral part of nature not also create beauty?  (And ugliness and everything in between.)  To claim otherwise is to set humans apart from nature.  It's to claim a special, exalted place, even if we claim that all we do is ugly and harmful.   Ironically, true humility recognizes both the "good" and "bad", both the beauty and the ugliness.

Color-Blind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below are the reflections I shared with First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco for MLK Sunday service, 2015.  As worship associate, it was my task to speak (about race) from personal experience, not to preach about systemic injustices perpetuated against others.  So that's what I did. (Image from empathyeducates.org.)

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When I was a teenager, I was much smarter than I am now, judging by how much I thought I knew. All the social problems that grownups seemed unable to remedy... I thought I knew the solutions. One of those seemingly intractable problems was racism. Racism, or so I thought, was treating people badly based on inherited differences in physical traits, the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, the shape of their eyes... So the solution seemed obvious to me. Encourage people to be color-blind, to not see race. Eventually, we'd all interbreed, race would disappear, and so would racism. Problem solved.

I should mention that I grew up here in San Francisco. And while I had a few experiences of being verbally and even physically harassed over race, in general, I grew up relatively sheltered, which is what my parents had worked hard for. As I moved into academia in young adulthood, that degree of shelter only increased. In grad school at Caltech where half of the graduate students were foreign born and people tended to be pretty liberal, it was so rare to experience overt bigotry that on the few occasions that it happened I could brush it off as personal ignorance, which it is. My friends (who were mainly white) treated me just like them, which is what I wanted. Or so I thought.

But every now and then, something would happen that would disturb the cocoon around me. I remember when Michael Chang came on the scene as a professional tennis player. I was so excited, until one of my classmates chided me for celebrating Chang's success because of his race. After all, if we're colorblind, I'm not supposed to have noticed that as I was growing up there had been no one who looked like me succeeding in sports. There was the time I tried to explain to my boyfriend how my parents would argue with friends over who would “get to pay” the restaurant bill, except the argument was scripted and they would take turns “losing.” He incredulously accused my parents of being dishonest because they didn't mean what they actually said. I knew he was being unfair but couldn't explain why. After all, if we're color-blind, then everyone should conform to the same cultural norms, “our norms”, and white American culture values direct communication. And I remember the night a distressed friend confided in me about the argument he'd just had with his girlfriend. He'd been detained by police who were looking for a robbery suspect, the only feature they shared being they were both young Black men. His girlfriend thought he was making a big deal over nothing, and my friend, who'd immersed himself in white liberal circles just as I had, needed to know that someone else saw things his way. I did, but again couldn't explain why. And neither could he.  So we sat confused together. After all, if we're “color-blind,” then the only racism we can recognize is overt racial bigotry. We can't point to social patterns based on race since we're not supposed to be looking for them.  (And if you do point to them, you get accused of being racist.)

Yet even if we're not looking for patterns, our minds notice them anyway, IF we directly experience them.

In my sheltered world, the incidents of overt racial bigotry were few and far between, but I (and folks like me) were continually hurt nonetheless, not by bigots but by our friends. People who espouse liberal values and sincerely try to treat all people the same. I finally had to admit that the color-blind approach, frankly, sucks. Instead of solving racism, it perpetuates it, because it takes away the ability recognize diversity, and privilege.

The theme for this month is reconciliation, and in honor of Dr. King, the focus this week is on racial reconciliation. Usually, when we speak of reconciliation, we think of a positive outcome. But as I thought and thought about what I might share with y'all today, I could think of no happy ending with respect to race. Of course there has been progress, and I believe as Rev. King did that our universe ultimately bends towards justice. But with prisons and morgues full of black and brown bodies put there by our “justice” system, the only racial reconciliation that I can genuinely speak to is internal, between me and race itself. I once was blind but now I see.

UUism and Social Justice: Don't Make Me Choose

This morning UU World announced that the sale of mineral rights, donated over two decades ago by a generous Texas couple, will net the UUA close to a million dollars, and that money will allow the UUA to close its large budget deficit without borrowing from the Endowment.  I read the news with ambivalence. On the one hand, there is the generosity of the Carpenters, which shines through in the article.  And it is a great relief to not have to dip into the Endowment.  Otoh, selling mineral rights that allow companies to drill for oil means more carbon that is taken out of the ground and burned into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. Moreover, such drilling always comes with other ecological damage - pollution of the land and water.  These things directly contradict our values and numerous social witness statements that we've passed in recent years about moving away from the use of fossil fuels, combatting global warming/climate change, and care for the interdependent web of all existence.  The UUA supported civil disobedience at the White House to stop approval of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011 and more recently supported the People's Climate March in NYC this past Septemeber.  What's most puzzling is that this obvious conflict wasn't even mentioned in the article.

(Perhaps it should not be surprising since previous decisions such as the sale of 25 Beacon and the redesign of the UUA logo were announced similarly - with onesided positivity and no acknowledgement that some folks might find the decision troubling.)

I could go further into how the sale of mineral rights allowing oil companies to drill is so problematic and at odds with our stated values, and perhaps if necessary I will at a later time, but the thing that motivated me to write today is this: Every time the UUA does something controversial the same general pattern of conversation occurs.  Party A points out that that there is something wrong with the action.  Party B criticizes party A for being critical, suggesting that party A is (pick one or all of the following) judgemental, ungrateful, lacking joy, unwelcoming, making a mountain out of a molehill, and "no wonder we can't grow." 

It doesn't matter what the issue is, whether it's a moral/justice issue or something to do with internal organization, this pattern happens within our UU community.  And I've already seen this pattern emerge within the conversation/comments following the UU World post. 

There is some truth to the claim that we make mountains out of molehills.  For example, the mini firestorms that erupted when someone created "Standing on the Side of Love" stoles and clergy shirts.  And I totally recognize that it's hurtful to start one's objections off by attacking fellow UUs who are trying to do something for the community, no matter how vehemently we may disagree with their actions.  Assumption of good faith needs to be the foundation of our conversations with each other.  There are ways to point out how an action is problematic while still honoring the inherent worth of all parties involved, and as people in religious community we should always remember that.

That said, it is irksome to read statements suggesting that any kind of disagreement is unwelcome and/or that such criticisms are the reason why our congregations are lacking joy and no one wants to join us.  The implication being that we should never offer critique, no matter how tactfully stated, no matter how important the issue, if we want Unitarian Universalsim to be vibrant and growing, even if the criticism is that we are violating our stated values, as is the case here.  First of all, let me say that I don't believe that's true - I don't believe we have to choose between critique and healthy, happy congregations.  That is a false choice.  Secondly, even if it were true (which it's not) that one has to choose between pointing out how an action does not align with our values and growing Unitarian Universalism, I will choose the values.  Every time.  If we don't live by our values, then I don't care if we don't grow.

That last sentence should not even be considered a controversial statement.  It really shouldn't. So finally the reason for this post: Growth for its own sake is not inherently good.  Unitarian Universalism for its own sake is not inherently good.  These things are good only in so far as they promote the greater good, for humankind, for our sibling sentient beings, for our Mother Earth. 

There are so many admonitions within Buddhist traditions about confusing the vehicle for the destination.  Zen warns us to not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.  The Buddha warned us not to hold tightly to rafts that might have safely carried us across waters but then become burdensome to carry on dry land.  The point is that we need to always be aware of what the true goal is and what are just vehicles that can carry us to that goal.  For me, the goal is the Beloved Community, or as my family's Buddhist tradition would put it, the Pure Land.  The Land where systemic oppression does not exist, exploitation of the Earth and her children (both human and otherwise) does not exist, where beings are unencumbered by the suffering caused by injustice and thus can reach their fullest potentials, whatever those potentials might be.  That is the goal (for me).  Unitarian Universalism is a vehicle to help us reach that goal.  A worthy vehicle that I love, filled with people whom I love, but still just a vehicle.  (The Buddha said the same thing of Buddhism, urging us to even let go of his teachings if they get in the way.)  I believe that Unitarian Universalism can help us reach the Pure Land, which is why I am a UU. And despite occassional missteps, I have faith that we will eventually always do the right thing.  But if it comes down to having to choose between UUism and a just, sustainable world where our Earth and her inhabitants are not exploited for profit, then yes, I choose the latter.  I would hope that after careful consideration, no UU would ever really demand such a choice.

Emptiness and Social Policy

The last time I was in DC, my friend Michael Roehm observed to me that UUs spend a lot of time talking about interdependency, but we don't spend much time thinking about emptiness (both are concepts in Buddhism, and related to each other, kinda like infinity and zero). I have been reminded repeatedly of the truth of his words ever since then, including today. 

This afternoon I was listening to NPR about the disproportionate expulsions of Black and Latino students from schools, and the (misguided) reasoning behind it being that if you remove the "bad" kids, that will make it easier for the "good" kids to learn.  (The article used those words, "bad" and "good," so I am using them too.)  Obviously racism is the primary driving force; how else to explain why black and brown students are thought of as "bad" for committing the same kind of infractions as white students.  But in along side the racism is this belief that people are inherently something.  Inherently good.  Inherently bad... Our social policies are based on this belief.  Hence, we focus on getting rid of the "bad" people, whether by expelling students or locking up prisoners with no attempt at rehabilitation.  (And we let "good" people off the hook with no accountability even when they do decidedly bad things, because, well, they are inherently "good" so the fact that they did something bad was just a temporary glitch, an exceptional circumstance.)  If, instead of thinking of people as inherently "good" or "bad," we focused on emptiness, then we'd see that people reflect back what they experience.  In that case, our social policy would change from that of trying to separate out and eliminate the "bad" to that of trying to create the conditions and causes that lead people to behave in more beneficial ways. 

On Logos and Symbols, and Marketing Our Faith

It's been about a week now since the UUA announced its new logo, resulting in many opinions shared and some hurt feelings. I've questioned whether the UU universe needs yet another blog post on the matter, but it's been a week and I am realizing that regardless of the answer to that question, I need to share one.

While I worked for the Unitarian Universalist Association I was constantly surprised that proposed initiatives were so often met with assumptions of ill-will, mockery and ridicule. People seem to forget that the UUA is made up of people, mostly fellow Unitarian Universalists, who work in earnestness for the benefit of our faith community and the larger world. At the time, the explanation that made the most sense was that our UU anti-authoritarian tendencies cause us to react reflexively to any new initiatives with suspicion and hostility.

Now, on the outside for over a year, I also realize how often one can feel blindsided by UUA decisions, and how hard it is to not react in frustration. Obviously, the administration has to make decisions and not every decision can be discussed and voted upon – that is part of leadership. But when these changes are announced in language that suggests that the only possible emotions are excitement and joy, and when many of us don't necessarily feel that way about it, the explanation that makes the most sense is that the UUA is “out of touch.”

Thus, when the UUA announced a new chalice last week, familiar patterns arose. Many who dislike the new chalice dismissively accused the administration (and by extension the staff) of lacking vision. Analogies such as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” spoke to that effect. And those who like the new chalice in turn dismissively accused critics of being resistant to change (ie – standing in the way of progress) and being hostile to leadership. Both of these types of responses absolve us of having to actually listen to the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, because we think we already have an “explanation” for the positions they hold. Of course it is not true that the administration lacks vision. It clearly has a vision and is acting on it. That vision just may be different from our own. Nor is it true that everyone who is upset by the new chalice is resistant to change and/or leadership. No one dislikes change in and of itself; what we dislike is change we don't agree with. Similarly, it's much easier to follow leadership when we agree with the direction it's heading; much harder to follow when it's not. So can we, on both sides, skip these particular kinds of comments and arguments.

One of the main lines of disagreement centers around whether the UUA chalice is a religious symbol or an organizational logo. If it's an organizational logo, then it stands to reason, why shouldn't it be updated every few years? And why shouldn't a marketing firm be hired to design it? And why would the UUA need to confer with UUs about changing the UUA's logo? Indeed, several people have pointed to the fact that other denominations such as the UCC, the UMC (Methodists), and the PCUSA (Presbyterians) all have their own organizational logos that get updated from time to time. They may incorporate versions of, yet are distinct from the Christian cross itself, which has remained a pretty constant symbol for Christianity.

The problem with that argument is that while the distinction between organizational logo and religious symbol works for other religious denominations, that line is blurred in Unitarian Universalsim for a number of reasons. For one thing, unlike Christianity, there aren't several denominations of Unitarian Universalists in the same country. Thus, functionally speaking the UUA is seen as the official voice of UUism in the U.S. Second, the UUA itself blurs that distinction in its own messaging. Look at this image taken from the front page of UUA.org. It uses the symbols for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Wicca, and in the center is the (old) logo for the UUA. So even the UUA uses its logo as the symbol for UUism. (Would the UCC or PCUSA use their own organizational logos to represent all of Christianity?) Lastly, even though we're told that this is the UUA's logo and congregations don't have to use it, clearly the hope is that congregations will. In fact, the success of the initiative depends in large part upon them doing so, for it would be very confusing to visitors if the UUA were “branding” Unitarian Universalism with its new chalice and yet UU congregations refused to use it. Functionally speaking, the distinction between corporate logo and religious symbol doesn't much exist in UUism.

So my initial reaction to the new UUA chalice, without even taking into account whether I "like" it or not, was to ask whether we would be getting a new one with each administration from now on. I have no doubt that the current administration thinks this new chalice as a vast improvement over the old, and I may even agree so far as corporate "logos" go. Regardless, it's distressing to see the image used to represent my faith to the wider world replaced about every eight years with each new administration. And from the looks of things that's where we're headed. I'm sure that the current administration thinks the new chalice will serve us well for a long time. But I'm equally sure that's what the previous administration thought too. Even if you point to the effectiveness of the iconic Apple or Nike logos in terms of “name brand recognition,” a large part of that is due to their having remained unchanged over the decades regardless of who is the CEO.

My second reaction to the new UUA chalice and particularly the language used to announce it was that the UUA and I are 180 degrees apart in how we view our shared faith. Let me be clear here that this complaint is not only with the current administration but with the last one as well – the latest “new logo” just brought up these issues once again. And it is nothing personal against either administration – I continue to respect both for other ways in which they've led us. Yet the very idea of hiring “a top-notch branding agency” to create a sleek new logo to attract new members, and proudly announcing it as if it was clearly the right thing to do, shakes my confidence in the Association's leadership. (I do not say that lightly; in fact I've wrestled for over a week on whether to say it at all.)

Let us look at the worldview and assumptions that we buy into when we talk about “branding” our faith and when we compare the most publicly recognizable version of our chalice with corporate logos such as McDonald's golden arches. The purpose of so-called “brand recognition” is to create a “story” that is associated with an easily recognizable image (the logo) so that when folks see that logo they automatically associate it with a certain feeling they get from the stories told about the product (advertising). All of which is to convince consumers that one type of sneaker or fast food is cooler than another kind of sneaker or fast food, when really there isn't that much substantive difference between the products. When we approach denominational growth with a marketing mentality, what we're saying is that: 1) Our religion is a “product” to be bought and consumed; 2) We think of potential Unitarian Universalists as consumers; and 2) Our product is really no better than any other product but we're hoping you'll be swayed by our marketing.

Not only do I disagree with all those assumptions with regards to our faith, but I reject the underlying mindset. Such a mindset reduces everything, even our highest aspirations, to a commodity to be bought and/or consumed. It views humans as consumers rather than co-creators.  In my view, the dominance of capitalism and the destruction it causes underlie many of our most important social justice issues, including environmentalism, immigration, sexism, and racial and economic justice. These are the things that we as a progressive faith community have been trying to engage in active resistance against. And yet we use this same type of thinking in our efforts to bring new people to our cause. 

Some people have asked: What is the difference between evangelism and marketing? (And don't we want to evangelize?) I hope from the previous paragraphs that the differences are obvious. The original idea of evangelism was to "spread the good news." The idea being that we actually have a “good news” to share, and that if we share it other people will recognize it as such and join us. I'm certainly not averse to that. But the most effective way to evangelize has always been by visibly living our values in the world, not by talking at people about what we think we stand for. Thus our Unitarian forbear William Ellery Channing said, “May your life preach more loudly than your lips.”

As I said above, this complaint is not new. I hated the previous “new logo” as well as the “Uncommon Denomination” campaign. But I was never prouder to be a UU than when the UUA took out an ad after the Knoxville shootings announcing “Our doors and our hearts will remain open.” The former is us telling folks how different (ie – special) we think we are. The latter is us demonstrating how we live in this world. Obviously, we do not wish for any more attacks against our churches, but there are any number of ways in which we can show who we are. I have never – not once, ever – met someone who said that they joined a religion because the logo caught their attention. But I have repeatedly heard folks say that they joined a particular congregation because they saw its members marching in a Gay Pride parade, and that's when they knew it shared their values. Or joined because the UU minister happily officiated over their interfaith wedding, and that's when they knew they'd be welcome. Or joined because the UU church hosted a local jazz concert for the wider community, and that's how UUism first picqued their interest.

Ironically, the new campaign of which the logo is a part is supposedly geared towards the Millennial generation. I'm not of that generation, but everything that I've read and personally seen says that the current generation, on the whole, is distrustful of advertising/marketing and relies on word of mouth from their peers. (Witness the popularity of sites like of Yelp.) Everything I've read and seen says that as a whole today's young adults are distrustful of top-down, hierarchical initiatives and value grassroots movements that spring up from local needs. Ironically, this is the very thing that our congregations (and other types of UU groups) should be good at – responding to the particular needs of the communities in which they exist, openly as people of faith. This is the kind of thing that the Standing on the Side of Love campaign was designed to help congregations do, and not-for-nothing that it's been one of our most successful campaigns.

The Kitchen God and Grace

Zhao Jun the Kitchen God and his wife

Today is the fourth day of the first lunar month, the day that Zao Jun the Kitchen God returns from heaven. In Chinese tradition Zao Jun the Kitchen God hangs out in the kitchen of each home, because the kitchen is the heart of the home where all the juiciest gossip can be overheard. There he observes the family's good and bad doings throughout the year, with the faithful help of his wife who records them. Ten days ago, a week before the New Year, Zao Jun ascended to heaven to file his report with the Jade Emperor. Before his departure (via burning of his effigy) his lips were smeared with honey. Some say that the honey is a bribe. Some say that it sticks his mouth shut. Either way, the hope is that only sweet things about the family make it to the Jade Emperor's ears. Now, ten days later, Zao Jun returns. Each year I wonder, what about the ten days while he is gone? Are they a time when folks can do whatever they want? Or does the Kitchen God's wife keep an eye on things in his absence?

Funny story about how Zao Jun the Kitchen God got his job. He was not always a god. Once he was a human being named Zhang Lang. He was a handsome and wealthy man and rather full of himself. Zhang Lang was married to a devoted wife. In typical Chinese patriarchal fashion, even though people praise her for her virtue no one ever bothered to record her name. But she was dutiful, we know that. Nonetheless, Zhang Lang's roaming eyes landed on a pretty, younger woman from whom he left his dutiful wife. As punishment, the gods struck him blind, and the younger woman left him. Zhang Lang was reduced to begging door to door. One day he happened to knock on the door of his abandoned wife; only he didn't realize it was her because he was blind. She, on the other hand, recognized him immediately and saw his condition. Taking pity, she invited him in and fed him. Warmed by the roaring kitchen fire and with a belly full of food, Zhang Lang began to relate his story, tearfully regretting the poor choices that he had made. When his wife heard his remorse she said, “Zhang Lang, open your eyes. I am your wife whom you wronged, and I forgive you.” At that moment, Zhang Lang opened his eyes and he could see again. He saw that it was his wife, whom he had abandoned, who was his benefactor. And he was overcome with shame. Unable to face her, he flung himself into the kitchen fire and perished.

As the story goes, the gods took pity on him and made him into the Kitchen God, with his (again unnamed) wife as his aid. Together again, forever. I'm not entirely sure that this was a mercy though... always having to listen to the petty foibles of families, year after year, being smeared with honey and then burned, only to return and do it all over again. And his poor wife – what did she do to deserve her fate? Secretary to the man who twice did her wrong due to his pride. Yes, I said twice. Once, when he left her for the younger woman. And once again, when he could not accept her forgiveness and instead punished himself, and her by extension. Zhang Lang felt shame. And shame comes from pride, not humility. Shame comes when you are caught not being as great as you think you are. If Zhang Lang had truly learned his lesson he would have gratefully accepted his wife's forgiveness.

But I am not writing this to condemn Zao Jun the Kitchen God. I'm writing this because I know how he feels. I too have felt shame for hurting others with my bad behavior. And I too have been unable to accept forgiveness. In fact, I remember once telling my minister that I knew that God loved me because I could feel that love, but I could not accept it. I did not feel worthy. That may on surface sound humble but talk about arrogance! It is arrogant to think that you are the one who can decide. Forgiveness, like love, isn't based on merit, and you can neither decide that you deserve it nor decide that you don't.  Forgiveness is a gift, a blessing, grace.  I know that, I do, and yet at times there is part of me just can't let go.  So pity poor Zao Jun.

Maybe the Kitchen God is doing penance even now. Caught in a purgatory of sorts in which he'll stay, condemned to be burned again every year, until he learns true humility and accepts his wife's forgiveness. Maybe the Kitchen God's wife isn't his secretary, but rather just patiently waiting for that day to come.

The P-word: What's Your Excuse?

What's Your Excuse?

A few weeks ago, stories started popping up on my feed about a fitness buff, Maria Kang, who'd posted the pic (to the right) on her facebook page, which elicited angry comments from women who felt that Ms. Kang's "in-your-face" question was demeaning to women who did not look like her. Let me state up front right now that (aside from us both being Asian) I do not look anything like Maria Kang, and I don't have children as an "excuse."  Nevertheless, I didn't care about the story one way or another.  She neither hurt my feelings nor did she goad me into hitting the gym three times a week.  Days passed and I saw more women posting things critical of her, and I still did not comment. But then I saw this story, On Maria Kang, Fitsperation, and The Problem With Fitness Privilege, and yeah, I just had to respond.  Because the author had used the P-word.

Of course, almost any kind of success comes with a certain amount of privilege.  I agree.  Those of us who can boast advanced degrees or successful carreers or recognition for some kind of achievement or another, usually came from upbringings that allow access to the resources that facilitate such successes.  Even in the rare cases of people who started with no wealth and access and got to the top by talent, if you think about it from the Buddhist perspective, it's a fluke that we have whatever talents that we have - we could just as easily have been born without them.  So that too is a kind of privilege in that it's not something that was "earned." 

So I'm not disagreeing with women who say that there was privilege involved in Ms. Kang's fitness success.  My question is: Had she been bragging about some other kind of success, a profitable real estate business, a degree in physical chemistry, an invention of some semi-needed gadget, would the reaction have been as angry as it has been?  There would have been just the same amount of privilege involved regardless of the type of success, but would folks have felt the need to point that out?

My guess is no.  Because her sucess as a real estate agent doesn't make you feel bad if you're not a successful real estate agent and you don't want to be.  It's only because the critics on some level wish they could look like her that they accuse her of lording it over them. 

I don't look anything like Maria Kang, and I don't have children as an "excuse."  But I don't need an "excuse."  It isn't that I lack the resources to get into better shape.  It's that out of the resources at my disposal, I have different priorities. I can see that she spends hours a day maintaining her body and in the number of hours a day that I have, there are other things that take a much higher priority. However, I don't see the point in being offended by her pride in her fit body. She had a goal to maintain her fitness. She devoted time and energy in pursuit of that goal and has achieved it. Good for her!  I have different goals, some of which I've achieved, others not (yet).  I feel bad about the goals I have that I've not achieved yet due to my not putting sufficient effort into them.  But I don't feel bad about not having achieved goals that weren't a priority in the first place. 

More importantly...

When we talk of privilege we need to be moderate in our use of that word lest it come to mean nothing.  There is a difference between the privilege that gives you access to the resources to help you succeed at whatever you set out to do, and "privilege" being thrown as a weapon against someone who has succeeded at something.  When people blame others for the latter's marginalization, and especially when they try to shape public policy around denying access to resources that can help folks get out of the margins, then we need to talk about privilege.  But when folks are bragging about their success in something, anything, us talking about "privilege" just makes us sound bitter.  (Especially when that talk of "privilege" is coming from fellow middle-class folks.)  Privilege isn't something that only occurs when we don't like what the other person has achieved.  If we use the word in what way, we cheapen it to mean nothing more than spite and envy.  A little mudita (happiness for the success of others) is in order.  Be happy for Ms. Kang's success, decide what you want to be successful in (with whatever amount of privilege you do or do not have) and go for it.

Happy Indigenous Peoples Day

No to Columbus Day

October 12th has been designated as "Columbus Day," and the Monday closest to it is traditionally a national holiday in observance.  I grew up with the story - I'm sure that many of you did too - of how in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and discovered the New World, which eventually led to the founding of America.  And it was such a brave thing to do too, since in those days people believed the earth was flat.  But Columbus knew better and he risked a ship mutiny in order to show us all how the earth was round, and between that and the founding of America, that's why we pay homage to this man every year.  Great story - the problem is that 95% of it is untrue.

Others have discussed this in far more detail but essentially:

1n 1492, every educated person already knew that the world was round.  Columbus was sailing in order to find a new/faster trade route to Asia.  He was not the first to "discover" what would come to be known as the Americas.  Other explorers such as the Vikings and the Chinese had been there before him.  And other people had already settled on that land, namely the ancestors of the people Columbus met.  Columbus himself never set foot on land that is now considered part of the U.S.  And... Columbus was a horrible, horrible person, even by the standards of the 15th century!  In addition to systematic murder, rape, and mutiliation, he founded the cross-Atlantic slave trade.  All with the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church. (I love Catholicism but this was not one of their finer days.)  Columbus' horrific practices were in line with and set the precedent for how the Doctrine of Discovery would play out in the Americas, a world view that continues to influence policy against First Nations peoples even today.

If Columbus did not "discover" the "new world" and found the Americas, why is there a national holiday in the U.S. named after him?  Long story short, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Italian American organization, wanted a day on which Italian Americans could express their ethnic pride.  So they lobbied for Columbus Day, and that's how it came to be. 

I totally understand the desire for a day in which Italian Americans can express pride in being Italian.  Other ethnic groups in the U.S. have their days and so should the Italians.  But Columbus is a horrble choice to honor as an Italan icon.  Is he really whom you want to represent your culture?  Why not Galileo, or St. Francis of Assisi, or Verdi, or Michelanagelo, or Da Vinci, or Dante, any number of amazing Italians.  Moreover, Columbus was not even Italian.  Most scholars now believe that he was Spanish. 

So, NO to Columbus Day.  YES to Indigenous Peoples Day.  (And yes, I know that Indigenous Peoples Day is reactionary, since it's on the exact same day as Columbus Day and exists because of it. But I have no problem with reactionary while we're in the beginning stages of resistance.)

But the main reason for my blog post today, aside from spreading the TRUTH about Columbus, is to address some pushback I've been reading. It's pushback that sounds so much like what I hear about First Nations issues in general.  Namely, "What happened is in the past."  This is followed by, depending on how friendly or hostile the speaker is to First Nations causes, "Why can't you just move on?" or "There are more important things to be fighting for."

The fight around Columbus day isn't just about Columbus the man - and in fact most of the popular stories told about him are made up anyway - nor is it about what happened in "the past."  What we are working for when we oppose Columbus day is the heart and soul of our shared society *today.* Holidays influence the way that we see the world. When we set aside a day each year to honor a man who colonized and conquered (and raped and maimed and committed genocide), then what we are saying is that these are the traits that we *continue* to value. When we repeat his fabricated story, we reinforce these values in our children. Opposing "Columbus Day" is not about the past or about a single man - it's about here and now and who we are and what we stand for.

So, NO to Columbus Day.  YES to Indigenous Peoples Day. 

 

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