Reflections on the Jewel Net

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 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. 


If It Doesn't Get Better, Then What?

Today was National Coming Out Day, and all through the day my social media feeds were filled with references to it - some funny, some touching, and some inspiring.  But along with the stories of coming out, there were also the obligatory critiques.  (At least in progressive circles it seems like critique is always obligatory.)  In particular, there were criticisms of the "It Get's Better" campaign. 

As someone who identifies as a straight ally, my personal reactions to the "It Gets Better" campaign have run the gamut.  I found the first few videos to be extremely touching.  Then the criticisms startted coming in, raising valid points that I had not considered.  It gets better if you're cis- but not necessarily if you're trans.  It gets better if you're middle-to-upper class, but not necessarily if you're poor.  It gets better if you're white but not necessarily if you're a queer person of color.  It gets better if you're attractive, but not necessarily if you don't conform to the normative standards of attractiveness.  "It gets better" glosses over a whole lot of stuff.  The criticisms are valid, and important to make.  They opened my eyes at the time when I first heard them and I think they're still important now. 

But today, when I saw yet more critiques of "It Gets Better," I remembered something.  The campaign was created in the context of teen suicides.  LGBTQ teens commit suicide at a rate three times higher than for straight teens, and the point of the campaign was to give queer teens hope so that they could hold on.  So that they might choose to live long enough to get help, long enough to get through.  That is the reason why the campaign, with all its flaws, exists. 

So my question is, if "It Gets Better" is not the right message, then what is? 

I'm talking about this issue as it pertains to the LGBTQ community but really this is relevant to a larger issue among progressives in general.  There are any number of campaigns created by liberals trying to address important issues.  And for most all of these campaigns, there are progressives pointing out what is wrong with them.  The campaigns often don't go far enough, aren't inclusive enough, lack a systemic frame, and ultimately buy into the same mindset that we are trying to dismantle.  Oft times what is presented is a "kinder, gentler" version of something that is still at its root oppressive.  I get that.  I'm not trying to defend that.  But the question still remains, what do you tell the kids who are being bullied right now?  If it doesn't get better, then what?  What kind of hope do you offer to encourage them to hang on while at the same time working to address the systemic violence that is driving them to suicide in the first place?  After all, if we are encouring LGBTQ folks, including teens, to come out, then we are encouraging them to risk abuse. 

And on a more general level, when we offer our critiques, what postive alternatives to we also offer?

Unitarian Universalism as a Multiplayer Role-Playing Game

UU World recently published a piece asking Is Religion Broken?, in which the author, Doug Mulder, describes a global movement that instills participants with four enviable traits:

  • Urgent optimism - willingness to address problems immediately and maintain hope of success;
  • Tight social fabric - trust that fellow members share overall goals and willingness help each other;
  • Blissful productivity - feeling more happy and fulfilled while working hard than while not working;
  • Epic meaning - belief that we are protagonists in a grand story, in service to an awe-inspiring quest.

Mulder says this movement encourages folks to care more about the satisfaction of doing well and/or good for its own sake rather than for fame and fortune, to remain resilient in the face of setbacks, and to cooperate selflessly with others towards much larger goals.  It's everything that we would want in Unitarian Univeralism. Only, this movement isn't any religion (unless perhaps you're Paul Tillich) - it's massive multi-player role-playing online games (MMORPGs).  He challenges us to reconsider what religion is for, with the lessons of MMORPGs in mind - that is, religion isn't about describing reality, but rather about helping folks find meaning in their lives.

As someone who plays online games I agree with Mulder in his characterization of how players generally behave online, but there are significant limitations in applying this to the real world. The immense attraction of these games is precisely because we know that these virtual realities are created by developers, and thus unlike the real world.  (Unless you believe in an omnipotent God who is playing the part of game developer, which most of us do not.)  I know that the game is designed such that, no matter how challenging it might be, no matter how many times I fail, success is ultimately possible so long as I keep trying.  But there are no such guarantees in the real world.  I know that I can trust fellow players because games usually involve players uniting against a shared enemy and it’s in our mutual best interest to cooperate; it's not at all unusual to behave selflessly towards members within our perceived group. But in the real world perceived enemies are usually far more numerous and complicated making perceived groups more numerous and complicated too.  I know that in the game world there are only a limited number of goals at any given time, and that if I apply time and effort, I can take satisfaction in visible progress.  In fact, I have stopped playing games that grew so big and complicated that “progress” was no longer readily apparent, making them more of a chore than a "game."  And in the much larger real world, the number of problems and obligations impinging can be overwhelming, it’s often unclear where to focus our energies, nor can we be certain whether our efforts make a difference. I know that in the game world the "good guys" are good and the "bad guys" are bad, and that the "bad guys" are usually NPCs (computer generated non-player characters) for whom I do not need to feel empathy. I do not stop to ponder whether the monsters are really just "misunderstood" nor how it is that the bad guys got to be how they are, whereas that is something that I think about a lot in this real world, making “epic meaning” much more ambiguous.

A small, limited world where choices are constrained by design and people are united around a common enemy who is often viewed as a "monster," and morality is black and white is something that liberal religion could never re-create, nor would we want to.  (In fact, in some ways it sounds more like conservative religion, and maybe that accounts for some of the unity and enthusiasm on the conservative side that is often lacking in liberal religion.)

These concerns stated, I am actually not against trying to reframe religion to more of a gamer's mentality. In fact, I think it might be a good thing to do.  For one thing, it would certainly be great if we could get folks to stop arguing over whether Jesus “really” lived and if so what he “really” said.  As Mulder points out, no one argues over whether the world in World of Warcraft is "real." Everyone knows that it's created, and yet folks are still devoted to it, and derive meaning and satisfaction from it.

What else can we learn from online role-playing games? 

In games (unless you’re playing PvP, player-versus-player), cooperation is rewarded and competition gains no benefit.  This is built into the system.  In our social justice work I often hear activists complain about how selfish people are, how they don’t do the things that they’re supposed to do.  But if we rely solely on guilt and judgement to get people to behave in more beneficial ways, we’re never going to accomplish our goals.  Instead, it makes more sense to find the ways in which our society rewards competition and penalizes cooperation, and work to make systemic changes towards the opposite.  Create financial and social incentives that favor cooperation.

In games small successes along the way are rewarded with obvious cues - visual banners, bells and whistles - providing gratification for achievement.  Players “level up” once they’ve achieved a certain amount of experience.  They earn different titles and ensuing privileges.  Imagine maybe the real-world equivalent in our homes, congregations, and organizations in terms of small rituals of recognition.  In fact, we already have some of these rituals - for example, the 'Coming of Age' ceremony.  But maybe we don't have enought of them.  Maybe we don't take enough time to note them as a community.  And what kinds of recognition and privileges come with them? 

In games the developers maintain a careful balance between making players work for achievement so that it feels earned (and thus we can feel satisfaction in earning it), and parsing out large challenges into a progression of smaller goals such that they feel manageable and worthwhile.  I remember attending a Leading Edge Conference at Middle Collegiate Church where we addressed how to get folks in congregations motivated for change (instead of fearing it). The suggested solution was to frame the stories that congregations tell about themselves such that the change in question is the next logical step in what they've already accomplished.  NOT, “We’ve been all wrong and now we’re turning 180 degrees,” but rather “This is who we are as a people, this is what we’ve already done, and this is the change that will lead us towards being even more fully what we are.”

Speaking of stories, and framing… Lastly, in multi-player online games we know that we’re heroes of the story, and yet there are other players who are just as much heroes too.  Two GAs ago, I had the honor of presenting as part of a panel at a workshop on how to motivate people to action on social justice. The challenge that I struggled with was how to get each of us to see ourselves as the hero in our own story while at the same time acknowledging that everyone else is a hero in their story as well. Honestly, I was afraid that someone in the audience would take exception to the word ‘hero’ and remind the room of the many times that we have frankly failed to be heroic.  I know that the castigators mean well, wanting to ensure that we don’t get too full of ourselves and take up too much space. I lean towards critique myself.  But there is nothing more demoralizing than doing the best that one is capable of at the time, given the imperfect knowledge and skills that one has at the time, only to be told that “You suck.” If the goal is to motivate towards action, towards “urgent optimism,” then we as Unitarian Universalists need to tell our stories of ourselves in which we are the protagonists in an epic story, where our actions do matter, where our participation is essential, where we are heroes, and yet at the same time recognize that we are part of a massive multiplayer world where other folks are every bit as much heroes too.

The Newest Addition to the Romney Family

Romney's tweet of grandson Kieran

My facebook feed was suffering from split-personality disorder yesterday as folks reacted to the newest addition to the Romney family.  Kieran James Romney was adopted by Mitt Romney's son Ben and daughter-in-law Andelynne. Kieran is Black.  The name Kieran means "little black one" or "little dark one."  Kieran is also a relatively common name for this generation of kids, and it certainly isn't meant to be a racial epithet. 

I'm stating the facts of which we can be sure.  No one but the Romneys know whether Ben and Andelynne Romney knew what "Kieran" means when they chose the name.  Tho it does strike me as an odd coincidence.  If they had no idea what the name meant, then God indeed has a wicked sense of humour. 

Other people were more certain, however.  Some took it as further evidence of Romney's racism.  Others were just as certain that race was not an issue here and that liberals were just using silly reasons to attack the Romneys.  As one friend put it, "Unless there's a rational basis for believing the parents are unfit, the appropriate response to news of an adoption is 'Congratulations.'"

The problem is that we're focused on the name and whether the Romneys chose it intentionally - intentionally named their African American son "little dark one" - and if so, why.  But I don't need to know whether or not they chose the name intentionally to know that I am troubled by the adoption, and my heart cannot offer congratulations. I hope to God that my fears are unfounded but I am worried for the well-being of this child.

The same friend asked me whether my concern was due to the fact that the parents are Mormons or Romneys.  And I said neither. I said my concern was due to the fact that they are U.S.Americans.  He was probably a little stunned by this answer.  If the statement is taken without qualification it sounds like I'm against all trans-racial adoptions.  And I'm not.  I have friends who have adopted children of a race different from theirs and I've seen them dedicate themselves to raising beautiful, healthy, happy children.  How can anyone possibly be against that?  Not I.  But given a forced choice, I did not think it was accurate to focus concern only on Mormons or the Romneys, so I pointed to the component that I thought was missing.

In truth, my concern for Kieran Romney is additive - it includes all of the above.  I'm a little concerned whenever a U.S.American family adopts cross-racially, because there are going to be differences in identity between parent and child, and if the parents aren't aware of that it will cause problems for the child.  And I am more concerned whenever a white U.S.American family adopts cross-racially, because, frankly, in my experience white Americans are less likely to recognize racial identity as being important (in a positive way), more likely to claim they are "colorblind."  And I'm even more concerned when a conservative white family adopts cross-racially, especially if they are religious conservatives, because, well there is that whole "save the souls of the heathens" thing and for some reason they seem to focus on "heathens" of color.  And finally, yes, I am even more concerned than all that when a Romney family adopts cross-racially.  Because we've already seen how Mitt Romney responds to issues of race. And unless his son and daughter-in-law are substantally different from Grandpa Romney, and I've never read any indication that they are (different), everything adds up to me being worried for the well-being of this child. 

Let me start by stating clearly that I personally do not believe that Ben and Andelynne Romney adopted for sinister reasons. I believe that the Romney's adopted in good faith for the same reason as most adoptive parents, because they wanted a(nother) child whom they can love and cherish.  So the second-worst case scenario is that the Romneys love the child but still hold implicit negative assumptions about Black folks that then get transmitted to the child, damaging his self-esteem.  Why do I assume that they hold implicit negative assumptions when I just said that I believe they adopted in good faith?  Because nearly everyone holds them, especially against Blacks, even those who rail against racism (because they think "racism" means conscious bigotry).  Even so-called liberals who look upon children of color as kids to be "rescued" from their circumstances perpetuate a racial hierarchy.  But lets's asume that  Mitt Romney's son and daughter-in-law are different from their dad and hold no racial biases. The best case scenario that I can imagine then is that they attempt to be "colorblind" and treat him as if there were no difference, which is problematic for reasons I'll give below.

Of course there is a scenario better than that - one where parents are aware of the different experiences that their children of color will face, and make an effort to learn how to talk with their kids about it, and to establish relationships with folks of color who can help mentor the child. As I said, I have friends who've raised happy, healthy children of a race different than their own.  But I do not believe that Ben and Andelynne will be able to do that for their son, Kieran. Why, you may ask, am I being so obstinately negative about the future prospects for this child? 

Well first of all, I didn't just start off assuming negative things about trans-racial adoptions.  In fact, just the opposite, I assumed that everything was fine until I actually listened to the stories of people who were trans-racially adopted.  And secondly, because even under the best case scenario that I can imagine for Kieran, where the Romneys nurture him and love him unconditionally... Who is going to warn him about the police and "driving while Black" and how he should keep his hands visible at all times and even then he might get shot?  Who is going to explain to him what other white folks mean when they compliment him on being "articulate?  Or what other African Americans will mean when they call him an "oreo" and say that he "doesn't act black enough"?  (Because after being raised by the Romneys, you can be sure that he'll be culturally white regardless of skin color.)  Who is going to explain to him double-consciousness and code-switching?  Can you imagine the Romneys doing that?  Because I sure can't. 

Learned Helplessness and Thinking Outside the Box

When scientists try to study human illnesses, they look for an animal model.  That is, they try to find a similar illness in a non-human species so that they can do experimentation on said species.  (Sorry all my animal loving friends; that’s how it’s done.)  One of the animal models for human depression is called “learned helplessness” in dogs.  Essentially, psychologists would place a dog in a cage with an electrified grid at the bottom.  Then they would apply a shock.  A healthy dog will naturally attempt to escape the shock by moving to a location where it doesn’t occur.  If, however, the dog is unable to find a way to escape the painful shock - if she learns that she has no power to affect the outcome of her experiences - she will go into a state called “learned helplessness.”  In which case, the dog will not try to escape the shock even when the cage door is wide open and any healthy being would be able to see that there is a way out.  A dog suffering from learned helplessness will just sit there and take the shocks.

Not only does this behavior look like some forms of human depression, it also responds pharmacologically like it.  Thus, even tho the state was brought on by experience, it can be alleviated by drugs.  Experience affects brain chemistry which in turn affects behavior (which affects experience). Giving a dog with learned helplessness certain anti-depressants will often alleviate the symptoms and the dog will once again act as if she has the power to change her situation.  She will leave the cage - the box that she’s in - when she sees that the door is open. 

What we call depression is actually a complex set of illnesses - most likely not just one illness, even if there are similarities in outward behavior.  We know that some depressed folks respond well to some kinds of anti-depressants but not others, and some don’t respond to any of the known drugs.  This means that different people with so-called “depression” are affected by the altering of different neurotransmitters, indicating that the biological bases of their depressions are different.  (I do not mean to imply that the only way to treat depression is thru drugs - I only focus on the drugs because that’s an easier way to show that what we call “depression” is actually several different illnesses manifesting similar symptoms.) 

For some folks suffering from the depression, the learned helplessness model may not feel at all like your experience.  I get that.  But for me, learned helplessness is exactly what it feels like.  There are voices in my head - I call them my demons - telling me me that everything I do is worthless.  That no matter what I try I will ultimately fail.  That there is no point in even trying.  I don’t necessarily feel sad, tho there are certainly days when I do. The predominant and pervasive feeling that I experience is powerlessness.  Even the smallest things like getting out of bed, showering, brushing one’s teeth, seem to suck up large amounts of energy.  And God help me if I am asked to do something out of the routine, something that requires that I think outside the box, even a small thing. My mind goes blank. I can’t fathom how to accomplish the task, how to even approach it. Problems seem insurmountable.  I fail to see options that are right in front of me, options that any healthy human being would see.  Yes folks, depression makes you stupid. 

I totally understand how perplexing it must look to folks on the outside watching this behavior.  It’s like your friend is sitting in a cage - a box - and from your perspective there are doors open left and right thru which she can easily exit.  You try helpfully to point these options out to her.  Yet inexplicably your friend “chooses” to stay in the box. 

I understand why you are frustrated by friends who can’t “snap out of it” or at least seek help.  I understand why you can’t understand why your words of encouragement aren’t enough, how rather than be uplifting your words are actually painful.  After all, why doesn’t your friend *trust* you when you say that she’s wonderful?  It’s almost insulting that she refuses to listen to you.  I understand that you can’t hear the demon voices in my head, which are closer to me than your voice will ever be no matter how much I might care for you. I understand how you start to feel that your friend is like a weight dragging you down... for no good reason!  And that’s why I generally try to hide the box that I’m in from you - camouflage its walls so that it looks like wherever I am is where I choose to be.  Only showing my face in public when I have summoned enough energy to appear “normal.”  “Chipper,” even.  It’s not a fake me; but it is a heavily edited me. 

I have lived with depression all my life.  Or at least since the age of nine, which is when I first remember the pervasive feelings of helplessness.  And there have also been times when I’ve overcome my depression.  I’ve applied to and been accepted by top notch schools and prestigious fellowships.  I’ve gone on interviews where I sold myself as the ideal candidate, successfully stilling the demons in my mind telling me otherwise.  I know that I’ve done these things.  And yet at this moment, I cannot for the life of me imagine how I could have.  It feels like a different person, in a different lifetime. 

So why am I sharing this with you today after admitting that I generally carefully construct an image that hides these things?  It’s because I had an insight that showed me how ridiculous my situation is, and I wanted to share it with you, so that I don’t forget, and perhaps maybe you’ll better understand what it’s like to suffer with at least one form of depression.   First of all, I was asked to make a short video.  That task seemed overwhelming.  I’d never made a video before.  I didn’t know what machine to use, what format to record in, and for some reason I was unable to just sit down and try various approaches until one worked.  That would be the obvious solution, right?  But the idea of trying and *failing* filled me with anxiety.  Finally, over two weeks after the requested deadline, I mustered enough energy to just sit down and mess with things until I’d gotten a useable video. Unfortunately, when I sent in the video file, the sound did not work and I was asked to send another where the sound worked.  A perfectly reasonable request, but it filled me with anxiety. I had tried and I had FAILED.  What do I do now?  I sat on it for a day.  Then I tried emailing the original file, which played fine on my computer, but the file was too big to send as an attachment.  So I sat on it for another day.  Then I tried to download Quicktime, as had been suggested.  But there is no version for Windows 8, which my computer runs.  So I sat on it for another day.  Then I figured out a way to get Quicktime for Windows 7 to operate on Windows 8.  And the video played fine, but I couldn’t save it because I had to have the “pro” version of Quicktime to actually create videos.  So I sat on it for another day.  You might think that I just blew off the deadline and the fact that there were people depending on me to do what I had promised, but the truth is that the thought of the video loomed over my waking hours, and the fact that I was disappointing folks was just further evidence that I am a failure.  Finally, today, I all-of-the-sudden remembered that I have a Youtube account and that ordinary people like me can upload videos which can then be played, with sound.  It took less than ten minutes.  Between the time that I was asked to fix the sound and the time I realized that I could put it on Youtube was four days.  It took me four days to *see* a solution that others would have seen immediately.  Yes folks, depression makes you stupid. 

But my point isn’t that I’m stupid.  There are times when I can be quite intelligent.  My point is that being stuck in my own little box, the only thing that I could see was the immediate task in front of me - how I could successfully send a video file that had sound?  I could not for some reason reframe the problem to see that there were other ways to share the video that didn’t involve directly sharing a file.  At the moment when I suddenly remembered Youtube, it was as if I looked up and there was a door open that had been there all along but I did not see before.  So I stepped outside of that particular box.  Doesn’t mean that everything is ok now - I know that I’m still in a larger cage - but I’ve temporarily given my demons the slip and have some breathing room, and I do now remember that there are actually ways out.  I do now see that problems that seem enormous are actually sometimes small.  And I hope that by sharing this ridiculously embarrassing story it can encourage some depressed folks in a *non-direct*, not in-your-face, “you can do it” kind of way because trust me I know how much that sucks.  And I hope it can help non-depressed folks better understand the seemingly inexplicable behavior of their depressed friends.

Buddhist Identity and the DC Navy Yard Shooter

When the news broke that the shooter who had killed 32 at Virginia Tech was Asian, I thought what many Asian Americans thought across the U.S.  “Please don’t let him be my kind of Asian.” Well, actually I prayed that he not be Chinese, but you get the picture.  This reaction was shared by many Asian Americans regardless of our political views or how we generally felt about race in the U.S. Even when it turned out that the shooter was of not of Chinese descent, that only mitigated my sense of collective shame or guilt-by-association; it didn’t erase it.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is due to the Asian tendency to think collectively. You are never just your own person.  What you do, how you behave, reflects on your parents, your family, your village or town, your nation. It is a difficult thing to explain to folks who grew up in completely Westernized sensibilities, because obviously I know the difference between me and other family members, for example. We are different entities. But I cannot conceptualize myself, except as in relation to them, and I cannot do anything without thinking about how it impacts them.  Turning that around, whatever others in my family or nation or ethnicity do impacts me as well, to varying extents. There are no hard lines of demarcation, only gradations.

Another part of the “collective guilt” phenomenon is due to being an ethnic minority within the U.S.  Like all marginalized ethnic groups, we know that the actions of someone else in our group will be used to judge the rest of us, whether we had anything to do with that person.  When white men commit a violent crime, people seek to explain his actions as an individual (mental illness, troubled childhood, monster...) as opposed to judging his entire race. When Black men commit a violent crime it’s “evidence” that Black men have tendencies towards violence and criminality. When Latino men commit a violent crime it’s “evidence” of the perils of immigration and “gangs.” The reaction against Asians in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings were more mixed and muted. We were shielded from a stronger backlash by prevailing stereotypes. Asian American individuals (particularly East Asian American individuals) are considered too “meek” and “feminine” to be taken seriously as a threat. As a group, however, we become the Yellow Peril or Yellow Hoarde. Thus most of the attacks levied against us in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings came in the form of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

When the news broke that the shooter who had killed 12 at the DC Naval Yard was Buddhist, I felt a similar pang of shame mixed with a very different pang of guilt. The shame was similar because I felt a connection with him through Buddhism. Let me be clear. I do not for even a nanosecond believe that Buddhism influenced him towards the direction of violence. If anything, it makes more sense that he had turned to Buddhism to help him cope with violent urges likely due to post-traumatic stress from war, and in the end it just wasn’t enough. And obviously I know that Aaron Alexis and I are two separate people. Regardless, there is a sense of collective identity through something we shared.

But the sense of guilt was very different in that I knew with 99% certainty that the media and most of my fellow U.S.Americans would not focus on Aaron Alexis being Buddhist as a cause for his actions. They would not speculate about how he got “radicalized” in a Buddhist temple. Not question his association with other Buddhists to see whether they had any involvement. Not call on other Buddhists to condemn these actions and blame them for not renouncing him loudly enough. No, if anything the reaction would be / has been, “How could a Buddhist do something like this?”  “He must not really have been Buddhist.”

Similar to ethnicity, people who hold marginalized religious identities in the U.S. do not get to be judged as individuals. Here in the U.S. (and in other “Western” countries), when someone who is Protestant Christian commits a violent crime, their religion is rarely considered relevant. People again look to other clues to attempt to explain the person’s behavior.  But if a person who is Muslim commits a violent crime, their religion seems to be the only thing that is considered relevant.  Nevermind evidence of mental illness or that the person may have been motivated by political reasons that are not religious. Where religious identity differs from ethnicity, it's in that people can more easily convert into and out of religious traditions. And in the U.S., the folks who convert into Islam tend more to be African American/Black, whereas the folks who convert into Buddhism tend more to be Euro American/white. That difference makes it even easier to demonize Muslims, more difficult to demonize Buddhists.

The media are not blaming Alexis’ actions on Buddhism because that does not fit the prevailing narrative of an inherently peaceful religion full of exoticized stoic Eastern monks and more familiar looking white adherents. Perceptions of Buddhists are filtered through positive stereotypes and contradicting data are ignored or explained away.  Whereas perceptions of Muslims are filtered through negative stereotypes and contradicting data are patently ignored.  Neither stereotype sees adherents of the respective religions for who they are with all their complexities.

This is, to put it simply, UNFAIR. And that is where the pang of guilt comes from.

And so I feel like it’s my obligation, to my Muslim sisters and brothers, and to fairness and justice, to say to everyone that yes, Aaron Alexis was Buddhist.  He didn’t just kinda sorta attend a Buddhist temple, nor did he lose his “Buddhist membership card” by committing an act of violence.  He was Buddhist.  And if you don’t blame Buddhism for his actions (which of course you shouldn’t), then you shouldn’t blame Islam for any violent actions of its adherents either.

Why I am no longer an Evangelical UU

I used to have a blog called ‘Confessions of an Evangelical UU.’  This was back in the early days of my “conversion” to UUism, when I was still enthralled with what I’d found and would talk to anyone about it. At a party on a Saturday night, there I’d be talking about my church.  Obviously, it wasn’t because I thought that people who aren’t UUs “need to be saved.” I was just so excited and happy to have found this faith. 

Two things happened to change my attitude about evangelizing UUsm.  The first is that someone actually decided to visit their local UU congregation because of me.  When faced with the reality that I could actually influence other people to join us, I then felt responsible for their UU experience.  I started to wonder what they’d find in the congregation(s) nearest them, and how much of what I loved about Unitarian Universalism might actually be more specific to my particular congregation than our religion as a whole.  (You can read about that experience here.)  At about the same time, I'd become increasingly aware of WASPy middle-to-upper class cultural biases within Unitarian Universalism, and that too made me wonder whether the folks I sent through our doors would find us to be welcoming to them.

The second reason why I stopped evangelizing UUism is because I realized that growing the roster of avowed Unitarian Universalists per se was not really my ultimate goal. What I ultimately want is to help build a world that is more kind, more just.  If you are a Christian or a Buddhist or a Pagan or a secular humanist and you share those values, then it doesn’t matter to me whether you wear the label of Unitarian Universalist or not. 

When I realized that I could no longer call myself evangelical, I stopped that blog.  And for reasons too long to go into here, I never really started another one, until now.  But I am still a UU – having flirted (not very seriously) with the idea of leaving for various other traditions from the UCC, to (progressive) Catholicism, to Pure Land or Ch’an Buddhism, I still remain a UU.  What initially convinced me to join, was the invitation that UUism offers to help co-create our shared faith.  Unlike some (not all) other traditions where if you don’t agree with something you just have to suck it up and change yourself to fit the religion, here in Unitarian Universalism we have both the freedom and the responsibility to share our lived experiences to help shape a more just and inclusive faith.  So my more modest goal now, instead of evangelizing UUism to the world, is to help create a faith community where all souls will indeed feel welcome (while still promoting our shared values of justice and compassion in the world). This new blog, and this new website, are part of my attempt to do that.


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