Saturday, June 29, 2013

rachel jeantel, paula deen and Truth

If I believed in an anthropomorphic god I would think he had brought both Paula Deen and Rachel Jeantel to the forefront of news this week as an example of how she laughs by mixing events together.

I recognize that I speak with a power I may not have earned, primarily because I am a man who is speaking about two women.  I can't know what went through their minds as they testified in separate instances. 

But I give Paula Deen credit.  She did not dance around the truth in her deposition, she spoke what came first into her mouth, and it was not the most considered response but it was a truthful one.  Similarly, Rachel Jeantel, who has received much flack for having said cracker is not a racial term--and while it is to the extent it refers to someone's color, it's not, certainly not on the level of nigger or spic or slant or polesmoker; at worst it's a word that conjures up a specific stereotype, the good ol' boy, but that doesn't reduce all white people to a single attribute like the other terms do--and like Deen's it wasn't the most creditable but it was truthful. 

Is it possible to speak about Truth, not an eternal but a verity we all understand, in the contexts of these instances?  Yes, it is, and we should.  For many of us who are involved with humanity, it is complex trying to navigate the places where these two women intersect.  Some of us have been here before:  we were both burned by the Tawana Brawley fiasco of the late 80s but also understood the legitimacy of Spike Lee's graffitti in Do the Right Thing (and does it say something that I had to go to, not the most black issues-friendly website, to find the above image?). It's the kind of Truth many black preachers, Biblical moralists, and American Indian storytellers are getting at when they say, "I don't know if it happened that way, but it's the Truth."

This is the Truth of the parable of the Good Samaritan which, whether it happened in the way it's described in Luke or not, is nonetheless True in its conclusion.  Small "t" truth is notoriously slippery and sometimes results in things like what I hope will be an infamous tweet from Don West, George Zimmerman's high-profile murder counsel.  The "stupidity" to which his daughter refers may not be intended as Jeantel, and I don't think he'd want to be thought of as doing that, but it's certainly been taken by many pro-Zimmerman, or they may be more accurately called anti-Jeantel, commenters as referring to her.  Rachel Jeantel speaks Creole, Spanish, and English.  How many languages do many of her detractors speak?

Brittney Cooper, writing in Salon, argues "justice should be no respecter of persons, or it isn’t justice," and she is absolutely correct.  Both women are paying in what we so euphemistically refer to as the court of public opinion.  It is one thing to argue that Paula Deen is paying a high price--the loss of some (not all) of her sponsors--for something she said 27 years ago and may have continued to say(does someone really know the time when they once used or stopped using an offensive word?  I have said "nigger" many times in my life, most often in classrooms as an example of the power we afford to language, mere puffs of air, to determine how we think of ourselves or others.  But have I ever said it when angry or drunk, aimed that word like a barrel at anyone?  I like to think not but I've lived over 50 years and I know better than to profess anything as certain), and it is something else again to blame Rachel Jeantel for repeating in court what her friend called someone over the phone.  As Jelani Cobb points out, Jeantel this week took on the role of defendent in this trial, something I'm certain Zimmerman's legal team welcomes. 

Paula Deen had an opportunity to lie and chose not to do it.  There are inconsistencies between what Rachel Jeantel told police earlier and later.  I don't have reason not to believe her reasons for doing so.  Many of the same people who would give Deen the benefit of the doubt are unwilling to do the same for Jeantel.  It may be because Deen is white or because she is successful but there are no other reasons Jeantel has given so far for them to do so.

We must not become confused:  unlike Paula Deen, Rachel Jeantel is not the perpetrator; unlike Tawana Brawley, she is not even the professed victim.  She is a witness and she is 17 years old in a society that both alienates and confuses her. 

She is not a witness whose lines have been written by Dick Wolf.  What she says will not fit into a neat narrative.  She is a 17 year old black girl who listened to her friend as he was followed and eventually killed.  She is scared and uncertain about her own role in all this.  She has seen the man who killed her friend already released once from police custody.  Why shouldn't she be cynical it will happen again? Why shouldn't she be concerned she could well be the victim next time?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"I may be...on the wrong side of history"

In connection with a project, I have been reading the "Faith" chapter of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope and came across the following passage.  I will be the first to admit that on many issues--following through with his attempts to close Guantanamo, continuing his predecessor's wars and predator drone programs, his recent defence of the worst aspects of the Patriot Act--he has proved to accomplish less than I would like.  But in this passage he recognizes he was wrong in a political stance and in his own beliefs, and then admits it. It reinforces my belief in the basic dignity and humanity of my president.
For many practicing Christians, the...inability to compromise may apply to gay marriage.  I find such a position troubling, pasticularly in a society in which Christian men and women have been known to engage in adultery or other violations of their faith without penalty...I believe that American society can choose to carve out a special place for the union of a man and a woman as the unit of child rearing most common to every culture.  I am not willing to have the state deny American citizens a civil union that confers equivalent rights on such basic matters a hospital visitation or health insurance coverage simply because the people they love are of the same sex--nor am I willing to accept a reading of the Bible that considers an obscure line in Romans to be more defining of Christianity than the Sermon on the Mount.
Perhaps I am sensitive on this issue because I have seen the pain my own carelessness has caused.  Before my election [to the Illinois senate]...I received a phone message from one of my strongest supporters.  She was a small-business owner, a mother, and a thoughtful, generous person.  She was also a lesbian who had lived in a monogamous relationship with her partner for the last decade.
She knew when she decided to support me that I was opposed to same-sex marriage, and she had heard me argue that, in the absence of any meaningful consensus, the heightened focus on marriage was a distraction from other, obtainable measures to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians.  Her phone message in this instance had been prompted by a radio interview she had heard in which I had referenced my religious traditions in explaining my position on the issue.  She told me that she had been hurt by my remarks; she felt that by bringing religion into the equation, I was suggesting that she, and others like her, were somehow bad people.
I felt bad, and told her so in a return call...I was reminded that no matter how much Christians who oppose homosexuality may claim that they hate the sin but love the sinner, such a judgement inflicts pain on good people--people who are made in the image of God, and who are often truer to Christ's message than those who condemn them.  And I was reminded that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided...I must admit that I may have been infected with society's prejudices and predilictions and attributed them to God; that Jesus' call to love one another might demand a different conclusion; and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history.  I don't believe such doubts make me a bad Christian.  I believe they make me human...[my emphasis]

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

[god] has teeth

I'll admit that like almost everyone else today I get the bulk of my news from the internet.  But I still keep a toe submerged in old media, maybe because old habits are difficult to break.  I buy one of the papers from the hub three days a week, partly because I like to keep up with hub-related stories but mostly for the NYTimes crossword.  I also receive a few magazines, mostly religious, to keep up with ideas currently in play. 

I also receive Time magazine.  Its usefulness as a news source was made irrelevant a generation ago, and it really hasn't had much in the way of trenchent reporting since at least 2010, when Joe Klein wrote a shocking story about the "useless war" in Afghanistan.  It continues to print controversial images, but that's PR not information.

Still, on occasion I find something that surprises me, something I hadn't heard about before, or wasn't aware of connections between events.  Such is the story "The Face of Buddhist Terror" by Hannah Beech in the current issue.  [Note that the link is not to the story itself--Time insists on a paywall--but to a story about its subject's reaction to the story.]

It isn't that I was unaware of the use by some Buddhists to read (or willfully misread) the precepts in a way that condemns or demonizes an Other.  That is an old, old story, and Beech's somewhat lackluster closer, "It's hard to imagine that the Buddha would have approved" of the violence some monks are fomenting against Muslims, could be the tagline to any story about any religion and the beliefs of its more radical adherents.  I don't think the founder of any religion today, including L. Ron Hubbard, would recognize its contemporary version.

But many of us, and I would include myself, tend to endow Buddhism with the simplistic notion that it's all meditation, rice, and peace.  But that's to infantilize a religion.  We forget, or maybe never know, about the 1999 South Korean brawl between rival Buddhist factions over control of a major temple.  Or the importance of Buddhism to the actions of Aum Shinrikyo.  Or the role of Buddhists in Sri Lankan nationalist violence.  It is easy to forget, in our contemporary metropolism, that for many spiritual people, God, or inifinty or reality or the universe, has teeth.  And is not reticent to use them.

However, I have been aware of all those things, but I wasn't aware of the growing influence of Ashin Wirathu, the self-identified "Burmese bin Laden" who leads a group called 969. His group's violence has been felt in the deaths of many Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, but may be poised to become more influential.  That is, at least, what I think Wirathu would like.

[On that last link, I think that Dr. Muang Zarni lets off Buddhism too gently by describing the adherents of the 969 movement as "Burmese men in monks’ robes."  This is, again, to infantilize the religion, to suggest that there is nothing in Buddhist history or scripture that can be interpreted as Wirathu does.  This is simply not true.  Zarni's attempt is equivalent to saying that Fred Phelps is merely pretending to be a Christian, that the Taliban merely put on the garb of clerics, or that Baruch Goldstein had merely emigrated to Israel in order to kill some Arabs.  Similarly, in my own faith, it is to pretend that the eugenics movement had no important Unitarian popularizers.]

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"fuck that shit"

A post on a friend's Facebook page has given me pause to think since last night.  It's not that she wrote something with which I disagree or that is offensive, but the situation she describes, and the comment I made about it, has gotten under the thin skein of fluid housing my cerebellum.

She is a Unitarian Universalist minister on a flight to Kentucky where our faith's General Assembly is being held this week, and she noted that, shortly after takeoff, she was belted in and two men seated behind her started talking and dropping f-bombs one after the other.  She said she ended up huffing and grimacing like the Church Lady in hopes they would stop.

Several friends chimed in with suggestions about the rudeness of their remarks and ideas for her to turn the responsibility back onto them to end their constant "fuck" repetition.  My favorite was one friend's suggestion that she out-"fuck" them:  "Fuck!  Someone already fucking did the fucking crossword in the fucking in-fucking-flight magazine.  Hey, you fucking guys got a fucking magazine that isn't fucking filled-in?" turning around while wearing her collar.

My comment, after some reflection:  "Think on this:  this is the way American men talk today.  If we're going to be a viable faith in the future we need to speak their language."

Now I have admittedly made some major assumptions, among them that these were young, white men who either don't have children or who are luxuriating in their freedom away from family.  Young men, especially young men without children, are disappearing from congregations, if they ever appear there. But perhaps my greatest assumption, and one I'm loathe to give up, is that Unitarian Universalism or any liberal religion, has anything to say they would want to hear.

This isn't another post about the decline of congregations.  This is one about the concern I have that, in becoming something that so many of us are surprised we became--religious people, spiritual people, people of faith--we have either lost a sense of why it was that we avoided organized religion or we have gained an appreciation of what our younger, coarser selves would have scoffed at.

My friend's reaction is telling, because I know she is someone she is surprised she's become.  That she would have a Church Lady reaction or recognize in herself that she's embarrassed to admit having that reaction comes from her younger, wilder, less-ministerial years.  And many of us have that:  I think I am more astonished at the role I've taken on than a lot of my friends from earlier in my life (funny how others seem to see what we ourselves may have refused to) and do my best to counter the stereotype of who I am now with reactions I think my 25 years-ago-self would approve of.  When someone on finding out I'm a minister half-jokingly suggests he'd better watch his language around me my automatic response is, "Fuck that shit."

And while that's always good for a laugh, and as shorthand for where I stand and what I stand for, it says something too about who I can talk with.  As my friends and students know, my conversation is peppered with a lot of gratuitous swearing.  I love to swear.  It's both a release and a signal that I am not afraid of saying something offensive.  Sometimes I think it has led to my being passed over for promotion or positions, especially when I reference conversations with students, particularly convicts, and repeat them verbatim.

I'm pretty certain it isn't just me who likes to swear.  I hear a lot of people doing so in casual conversation, on their cell phones, in talking with their kids and friends, and sometimes in expressing anger or surprise.  It's like a freedom our society has granted us, and whether that's good or not I can't say.  But I think I can guarantee it's not going away.

By the same token, while we don't like to hear profanity in our churches and temples and mosques, it's coming there too.  It has to.  It's a nature of the beast.  I don't mean to suggest we should swear in our sermons, although I've been known to draw a mighty fine line, but conversations at least are becoming less formal and that's reflective of what our places of faith are becoming.  The same idea is reflected in our informality in dress:  at least in the congregations I attend, there are very few people dressed in what used to be called their Sunday Best.  And while there aren't many who are coming in sweatsuits, that line is also being touched on.

This greater informality of peoples' speech and dress is the future.  They will raise their families in our congregations if we give them reason to attend, and for that to happen we will have to let them talk the way they talk and be able to respond appropriately.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

surprised by holiness

We were driving home Sunday afternoon from Detroit Lakes on the far northwestern edge of Minnesota where I had performed a beach wedding for some friends the day before when we came across a sculpture park along the highway.  We stopped to gawk and were astonished to find, among the metal dinosaur skeletons and Eiffel Tower and impressionist take on a woman staring into the north sky, a place of incipient holiness.  At first we took it to be a clump of rocks disbursed unevenly on the ground and then my wife, who has become an afficianado of them, recognized it for what it was:  the outline and borders of a labyrinth.

We shucked off our sandals and walked it slowly and deliberately.  It was obvious from the overgrowth that no one had mowed it more than once this season (hard to see in the above photo), and it was entirely possible ours were the first feet to travel it for a while.  On the way in I could see the impressions left by my wife's big feet on the grass and weeds, and on the way back out mmy smaller, jerkier impressions were beside them.  Larger rocks were interspersed at switchbacks and I took a moment to sit on them and look at the sun, the grass, the rocks, the path, the road within spitting distance, the woman trimming around the sculptures. 

I have trod many labyrinths in my time in different parts of the country.  One of the ones I remember most fondly was the reamains of one that had been assembled and then discarded two years before on the site of a Rainbow Gathering in Pennsylvania.  A few minutes into our practice, my wife, who had vetoed going to church that morning in favor of getting an earlier start, shouted, "I've been to church now!"  Her excitement, commenting how this was only the fourth labyrinth she has traveled--one at her church (and that was responsible for her enthusiasm), one at our school, and the one we built in our front yard (below)--reminds me of the sanctity to be found between these narrow paths that go in and then back out, the journey into and out of oneself, the holy path we follow intently.  It was a good reminder of the sudden appearance holiness can make in the midst of ordinary experience, the way liminal events poke their way into banality. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

uu ichurch

Many of us were drawn to Unitarian Universalism because it seemed to be the church of Emersonian individualism.  We are the iChurch...[My] thirty-seven years in the UU ministry have convinced me that historian Conrad Wright is correct:  "[O]ne cannot build a church on Emerson's dicta: 'men are less together than alone...'"
For all its appeal and its influence in American culture, individualism is not sustaining: Individualism will not serve the greater good...There is little or nothing about the ideology and theology of individualism that encourages people to work and live together, to create and support institutions that serve common aspirations and beloved principles. 
These paragraphs, from Frederic Muir's essay "The End of iChurch," reflect an important trend many of us have seen in UUism: I suppose I'd call it the adolescent tendency of UUs.  We want to be unique, to be individuals, to stand out from the crowd, what Muir calls "UU exceptionalism."  And that's great for individuals.  But it makes for a lousy congregation.

If we wanted to start a softball team or a band we'd have to make considerable changes to our individual wishes if it was going to be successful.  Not everyone can have solos or riff every time we play.  Some congregations practice what they call "birthday" Sundays:  This Sunday is your birthday and you have the kind of service you want; the next couple Sundays are other people's birthdays.  The problem is, with individualism, there's no reason to show up on anything except your birthday, indeed there's ample incentive not to show up on other birthdays.

Unitarian Universalist anxiety about power and authority makes it hard for us to welcome and listen to a diversity of interests and passions without being distracted and immobilized.  It makes it hard for us to move forward, "promising our mutual trust and support" for the common good while walking as a community with space for those who disagree.  We cannot grow and deepen and shape a healthy future when we distrust each other and our leaders so deeply.
Sometimes, of course, the distrust of power is legitimate.  Many of us are currently on the fence about the Obama administration's collection of our everyday data without a warrant or even reasonable suspicion.   Many of us would have protested it under the Bush administration, and did when it was initially proposed as part of the Patriot Act but are having a difficult choice because it's easy to fall into the us-vs-themism of radical politics in which our side can't withstand internal criticism.  Similarly, we can't kick too much against the individualism UU worships.  After all, it's worked for us.

It simply will not any longer.  I'm not convinced Muir's prescription--greater emphasis on covenanting and a vision of the beloved community as, in Shirley Strong's formulation, "a society that radically transforms individuals and restructures institutions," is either the answer or even a dam against the erosion we're experiencing.  That may be because I see too much of the problem and, not having a solution myself (although I have ideas), I'm not invested in finding one.  But I am certain that what we have done and what we are doing no longer applies and the longer we keep doing it the less time we will have.  Muir writes:  "Twelve years into a new century, knowing that a storm of social transformation is coming, we are in danger if we continue with the story of iChurch.  But that story is over; it won't take us where we must go." 

Not where we want to go.  Not where we think we should go.  Not even where we should go.  Where we must go if our gospel of inclusion and dignity are going to have any effect.  People will continue to be good and noble without attending UU services, of course, but good and noble individuals are not going to do a damn thing when the rest of society have given them up.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

unambiguous inclusion

I led one congregation that grappled with, prayed about, and tried to discern whether they should join the More Light movement of the Presbyterian Church (USA), an advocacy group striving for full inclusion of LGBT...persons in our denomination.  An elder entered my office, heartsick over the decision.  He was progressive in his views on LGBT persons, but as a part of a small church, he was afraid that a couple of members would leave, and he grieved over that loss.  He tried to work it out, saying, "But we are an open and affirming congregation--just look at our membership.  Do we have to become part of a particular organization to prove it?"
With this question in mind, I had lunch with John Gage, a young and extraordinarily gifted UCC pastor who left the Presbyterian Church (USA) because of their exclusion of LGBT persons...and now his denomination's first openly gay senior minister...I posed the question to him, "John, we're an open and affirming congregation, why do we need to become a part of a particular organization to prove it?"
"Because," he answered firmly, "gays and lesbians have been rejected by the church time and time again, and if we want to minister to our whole community, we need to confirm our stance as clearly as possible.  We have to welcome them time and time again."
--from Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt (my emphasis)

This is too important a step to be allowed to be glossed over by inattention.  Insert any oppressed or ignored population into the start of that italicized pair of sentences--"Women," "Immigrants," "The disabled," "Former convicts," "The poor," "People with mental illness," "The homeless"--and the sentences retain their meaning and their strength.  Howard Merritt writes, "In this crucial point in church history, we are called to drown out the centuries of denials, dismissals, and refusals with unambiguous inclusion. The decision to include [otherwise rejected people] entire generation."  She is right.  In Unitarian Universalism we call it Radical Hospitality but I would be glad to call it what she names it:  unambiguous inclusion.  If we would practice unconditional love--and that is what every religion calls itself to do--then we must practice this too.