St. Mary, Mother of God, pray with us

Less a proper blog post than a thought, perhaps to amplify later.

Copy of Theotokos icon of Máriapócs
Copy of Theotokos icon of Máriapócs, (CC-BY-SA, Joejojo)

I’ve read — but forget where — that Christmas is the time when Protestants become (more) Catholic. A higher regard for the saints and the generous use of medieval images come to mind. Not just the “you and me Jesus” focus that, in its own simplified way, places the Protestant ethos.

Which, is a bit weird for Unitarian Universalists, except perhaps for a small minority of the Christians who are already looking at this religion askew. Sometimes we seem like Protestants — certainly in our forms and structures — without Jesus. Something akin to “my experience with an uncertain universe” but with Sunday meetings and urn coffee.

Christmas is one of the times that flips that. Less the art than the songs and — if you’re using scripture at all — the biblical narrative. It’s hard to talk about a birth without considering the mother, and especially so when she’s one of the world’s well-loved religious figures and objects of projection. Particularly in an era where we’re more consciously trying to hear the testimony of women.

So far, Mary’s been a safe bet as the role of Jesus’ mother. But what ought we, might we say about her — even to her — once the boy is up and walking? Something to ponder.

We are not powerless

As we approach Christmas, and before our collective attention span shrinks as short as the daylight, I want to put a concluding thought on the series of posts around Unitarian Universalist social engagement, though I expect to come back to the theme.

The big takeaway is that we are not powerless. Political and social influence are valuable, but we need to remember that our sense of self, and thus ultimately our power, does not derive from these. As human beings, we share an imprint of the living God; our hope rests on our common origins and common future. For these, our political and social actions are tools for a greater good. Tools, but not ends.

It’s no wonder that behind the recent killings of a set of black boys and men, particularly by police officers, that the theme of dignity and worth arise. And the shocking indignity of the killings, plus the overall callousness of the official response, only widened the conversation, here to include black girls and women, there to dead Gazans.

Substituting “all lives matter” for the call “black lives matter” — as sometimes happened — was a simultaneously true and false action. False because, in the moment, it was important to accent the peril that black people particularly face. And true, because of the underlying and unspoken fear that a régime of unaccountable violence can all too easily become universal, or near universal, as global wealth becomes more and more concentrated.

But I think of St. Lawrence, the early Christian deacon and martyr, who when asked to cough up the treasure of the church to Roman authorities, presented the poor. These are the treasure, he said, and for which he was tortured to death.

We are the treasure of the church, beloved by God and full of worth. Poor in this sense — for when some few have so much wealth and power, who isn’t poor? — yet not helpless. Though a cultivated will, though the blessings of mutual care and — yes — the multiplication of social and political engagement we can plainly assert our own value.

But this understanding is how we unlock this power, and as religious people we owe it to others to continually proclaim its truth.

Doing this good work on the cheap

I’ve been very touched by the comments, here and on Facebook, on the previous posts (one, two, three) on the theme of changing Unitarian Universalist public engagement. A thought or two now about resources.

The title, “Doing this good work on the cheap” has a few meanings:

  1. Recognizing that we tend to support this work as secondary and contingent, and thus not supporting this well at all. Thus, trying to do it cheaply.
  2. Recognizing that to start this work, it will have to be accomplished frugally, as its  value will not be established within the congregation, or will be a rival to our current, dominant witness mode of social engagement.
  3. Recognizing that church finances are likely to change radically, and accustomed levels and sources of funding may not be available to fund any church activities.
  4. Recognizing that people’s time is at least as valuable as a financial contribution; both are needed.

Of course, cheap has a moral value, too and I introduce the word as a warning against cheapening this work by ceding its moral dimension. As I wrote last time, much of what we bring as religious people is an orientation to the eternal.

Let’s turn to a couple of actions, both related to information. Information to choose what actions fit best with one’s talents and current need. Information that leads to the preparation of public policy. Better information that confronts misinformation that might be used to stifle a well-chosen course of action, or that might lead to a false compromise.

Here in Washington, anyway, we lean on subject content experts: their writing, their reputation and their services. But they’re not always right, their conflicts of interest aren’t always established and “good” ones don’t come cheap. And an expert may not exist for the problems that exist in your area.

Or, rather, may not be recognized. As I wrote before, I bet we have in Unitarian Universalist congregations more expertise than we appreciate. And if not in the pews, perhaps just one degree of relationship removed. And if we don’t have the talent yet, perhaps there exists someone (or more than one) who have the will and ability to learn. (I’m gathering some training links.)

The Unitarian Universalists I know tend to be tough-minded. (Some may say pig-headed: fine.)  Surely we have the charism to take on wonky policy analysis, propaganda busting and democratizing expertise. Might not cost much, and dearly balance the talking heads whose interests may neither be ours or the most vulnerable members of society.

There’s nothing cheap about that.

 

Old models and new media

Before turning to the practical, following up on yesterday’s post about Unitarian Universalist functional discomfort with political power to effect good outcomes for people in hard situations. As before, I’ll keep this brief.

First, we give too much weight to “golden age” models of public witness. By which, of course, I mean demonstrations and opportunities for arrest. (Memorial vigils are a different thing, and I don’t include them here.) There seems to be something more than solidarity or justice-seeking going; something more akin to “anti-war re-enacting.”

The early to mid 1960s must have been a heady, perhaps a, frightening time to demonstrate. (I say “must have been” because like everyone else under fifty, I have no direct knowledge of any of it.) These demonstrations speak to a time of hope before it withered in the embitterment of the late 60s. Also when churches were influential and full. But those days are over and cannot return. Not only do “new occasions teach new duties” but the old idiom of social change looks quaint to younger progressives, and arthritic to the reluctant or hostile. The post-Ferguson demonstrations are the exception that prove the rule: it was the thing to do, as there was nothing else that could be done. But it doesn’t last, and without an action to follow, nothing changes and bitterness ensues. If the Occupy phenomenon shows us anything it’s that organization is hard, and all those in opposition have to do is wait for the fissures develop.

Sometimes people speak of the late 50s and the decade that followed as the “civil rights era” as if the strides made in the next two generations for women; persons with physical, developmental and emotional disabilities; and lesbians and gay men don’t have to do with civil rights. Or, to put it another way, if this isn’t the civil rights era now, what the hell are you bothering with?

The important part is something actionable. Seeking legislation, regulatory or procedural changes, public works adopted or abandoned, sincere apologies and so forth. How you gather the power to prepare and implement the plans is secondary.To paraphase: “without an endgame, the people perish.”

And that brings up social media: the new model. It’s helpful, but I’ll not praise it much, and I’ll be shorter here. Twitter and Facebook — each run by corporations that don’t give a damn about your revolution — can easily create an echo chamber. The number of heart-sick posts on each post-Ferguson told me people were spinning themselves straight from anger to despair, burning off any righteous energy that might have been applied to change. And we can’t afford that.

I’ve said enough for now; feel free to comment.

Why merely cope, when you can accomplish?

I’ll keep this brief.

I don’t know what to make of the kind of political and social liberalism that Unitarian Universalists so typically dwell in. And because this includes some friends, I don’t particularly enjoy pointing this out, but not saying something isn’t at all helpful.

But I already can feel the news cycle pivot away from Ferguson and Staten Island; perhaps United States torture practice will have its turn. And the Monday night demonstration here in D.C. was smaller than the one before. Impatience and cold weather are not friends of a demonstration-based response to a network of evils.

I’m left wondering what the end game was supposed to have been? Surely, there was (and is) a hurt that needed (and needs) to be be dignified through public expression, and it’s right to gather an empathetic companionship. But then what? It’s hard to see us moving beyond that before moving on. Activity internal to Unitarian Universalism, to my mind, counts for little or nothing. What do we have to gain by (what amounts to) an exercise in collective holiness? Less, I contend, than we have to offer by participating constantly in the nitty-gritty of public policy.

And I think we avoid this opportunity because we have grown unaccustomed to political power, and perhaps find it awkward or distasteful as a religious people. And if that’s the case, we need to get over that. So many people view governance and public policy with suspicion, but in doing so surrender their power to those who are left claim it.

I have a couple of ideas about practical actions, at least one of a scale that a group as small — another hard truth — as the Unitarian Universalists can tackle.

Speaking anonymously for public engagement

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Ken Collier blogs about civil disobedience and anonymity. A recent two-part series (first, second) by an anonymous seminarian, posted by Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Tom Schade, overlaps this and he’s just posted a defence of his publishing anonymous posts as I’m putting this post together (Sunday night). I’ll respond to these because those blog posts and comments are public, but I’m also responding to comments on Facebook and elsewhere, and these are almost impossible to reply-to here.

There’s a lot of interest — again Facebook hides much — and some denunciation, both on the content of what has been written, and by the fact that some has been published anonymously or pseudonymously. I care about the second issue, and in particular whether it’s improper to be anonymous. The logic goes thus: if you have a complaint, be bold and up front with it; this is the path of those who use in as civil disobedience. And without knowing who you are, how can we reach the goal: a discussion.

As if there was an etiquette for this sort of thing. I’ve found an article I read before called “Is Snowden Obliged to Accept Punishment?“, by Michael J. Glennon, persuasive. In particular, accepting punishment has been, for most of the people who conducted it, non-optional. To be present to resist is to be present to be prosecuted, or at least known. Given the sacramental esteem a protest arrest has among some Unitarian Universalists — one that never gets the white privilege treatment, by the way — little wonder that rules might be assumed.

And we are talking about more than integrity, but about punishment, real or suspected. The kind of thing you can’t get bailed out for and be praised as a hero. Standing up by name sounds noble, but only if you think a world without whistleblowers is worth having.

Part of the problem comes from our own self-conception: as family of faith with close bonds, rather than a network of persons and institutions that have competing priorities and values. Like all people, those with authority (including well-established ministers who may not think of themselves so) think their actions are fair, and don’t appreciate being challenged, or sometimes even having their authority pointed out. Money and settlements are insufficient, so it pays to not be identified as a problem in a structure built on relationships and policed by covenant, a concept that gets expanded and abused as convenient. (I’ll be coming back to this some other time.)

I mentioned whistle-blowing before, and inasmuch as the testimony of an anonymous complainant is a disclosure, this is also a kind of whistle-blowing. It’s certainly a call of alarm. The value of an anonymous disclosure and complaint is to get the item in public discourse, something that’s easier in the Internet era than ever before. It tests the general merit of the complain, pulls out disputants who don’t wish to be anonymous and flushes out devil’s advocates. And this testing and discourse shows if it’s safe to be more public and candid. People who have less to lose go on the record about something they would have never otherwise chosen. (And accordingly my opinions of some people are much lower now; others, much higher.)

For the record, I require signed comments unless there’s a good reason to keep an identity hid from others. But I demand a working email address and some evidence that the person is who she or he claims to be, and I did (and) allow anonymous commentary about Starr King School for the Ministry and the credentialing process.

Why I only write about Christianity in the UUA

It’s a bit of an overstretch — after all, I have an interest in Stanton Coit and denominational data generally — but I only write substantively about Christianity in the UUA. I write about worship in Christian terms. I write about mission in Christian terms. I write about connections among Unitarian Universalist Christians, and in ecumenical settings. I write about problems Christians have.

What about everyone else?

Well, for one thing, I know more about Christians than other Unitarian Universalists. There are fewer Christians, so there are fewer people to write. Many are personal friends. I am a member of a Christian church that’s a member of the UUA. And Christians make up a small minority among Unitarian Universalists.

For another, much of what I write applies to other Unitarian Universalists, especially since our habits and opportunities rest on a common foundation. If you’re willing to apply it to your own situation, you might discover some insights. (Christians are asked to translate meta-narratives all the time; it can be done.)

But the most important reason, is that I want to cultivate a particular voice that speaks consistently and predictably to and from the faith situation I dwell in. Unitarian Universalist Christians, while often spoken of as a singular group, really is remarkably diverse in theology, applied polity, politics and life situations.

There’s enough of a there there to give it some focus, to support the faithful and upbuild the body. I hope to do this by writing. I hope many people find this valuable (including non-Unitarian Universalist Christians) and it seems to be the work God has set out for me. It’s enough without planning to speak for or about those with whom I have a too-thin understanding.

My sympathy

Last night, the Unitarian Universalist ministerial college openly lamented the death of Unitarian Universalist minister Jennifer Slade, who died on Tuesday and who was discovered Thursday.

I want to express my sympathy to her family, and to her congregations. I am praying for you and her, and for others — including a number of ministers — shaken and feeling vulnerable by her death. I trust the “better angels” to mutual care and the communion of the churches to help.

The news of her death was reported by the Unitarian Church of Norfolk (Virginia) (Unitarian Universalist), where she was the development minister for about a year. There are, to date, few details and none about any service.

Before that, she served ministries in Clinton, North Carolina and (for more than a decade) at Greenville, S.C. I knew her, or rather of her, in passing and by reputation when I lived and ministered in the South.

Be good to one another.

Why "take your punishment" falls flat

Disclosures! Principled disobedience! Angry words! Someone in hiding! Legal threats! Not coming forward!

Starr King School for the Ministry? No, Edward Snowden, of course.

This article, “Is Snowden Obliged to Accept Punishment?” (Just Security) by Michael J. Glennon, Professor of International Law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University — you know, a college founded by Universalists — takes apart the presumption that Snowdon has a duty to hand himself over for punishment. In short, the presumption of a punishment-accepting civil disobedient is not a uniform or customary behavior; that it was often unavoidable (rather than a choice); and there are good reasons — unjust state power — to reject it. Really worth a read.

But it gives me an excuse to flag a few things in the current SKSM scandal:

  • It shows how small we are as a religious fellowship, and dependent upon personalities and friendships to manage our organizational relationships.
  • We still haven’t heard the version of a single student, in public. Do they feel as free to speak as the leadership?
  • Nobody so far has challenged the holding-documents=theft claim, with the follow-on threat of criminal penalty. I’d love to see how far that would go. Especially in the Bay Area.
  • Nobody has said a word, apart from the unspecified fear of lost donations, about money: the UUA’s grant, for one, or the cost of litigation, if it goes that far.
  • That the affair, in the national climate, will become a Rorschach test for our political opinions, perhaps losing the meat of the crisis. If the general public ever learns it…
  • Unitarian Universalist will have to re-assess how culturally exceptional we (think we) are.
  • We’ve not heard much from the laity in the pews: what opinions come out of their experiences? Will anyone care if they do?

Heaven, help us!

This blog post is not about Starr King School for the Ministry

January 17, 2015. I’m not writing a new post about the Starr King School for the Ministry crises, but the newest blowup has driven traffic to this article, first published on June 2, 2014.  I do have some added questions:

  • Who benefits from the status quo?
  • What is the role of money — paid out, raised and possibly withheld — play in these crises?
  • What named, tangible benefits, other than the emotional, does Starr King provide to the Unitarian Universalist community?
  • What is the role of SKSM’s prior reputation? The role of a (possibly) over-professionalized ministry? The different approaches to ministry in different generations? West coast vs. East coast vs. “North coast”? 

Feel free to comment.

So, the Unitarian Universalist-o-sphere is blowing up around a crisis at Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist-related graduate seminary in Berkeley, California.

I would go into detail about the crisis, but there aren’t many details to be had, and much of the commentary — including an appeal letter from incoming president, Rosemary Bray McNatt, lately the minister of Fourth Universalist, New York — takes place on Facebook, and that’s hardly a reliable archive.

The nut is, or seems to be, this: someone gave confidential documents about the presidential search process to those outside the process, including other Unitarian Universalists, the press and the theological seminaries accrediting board. (I have no idea what these documents say.) The Starr King board has made an inquiry. Two graduating Starr King students have not been graduated (a contingent graduation) pending further investigation. Unsubstantiated reports tell of two board members resigning. Past UUA moderator Gini Courter has established a legal defense fund for the students, who are being represented by lawyers. Talk of ethics, boundaries and leadership abound, with a predicable amount of expressed horror and people supporting their friends.

Rosemary Bray McNatt’s open letter is here. A statement from the lawyers representing the students is here.

Not suprizingly, web searches have brought readers to a post I wrote about Starr King in 2007. My basic opinion about the school hasn’t changed, and (plainly) I have a hard time caring if it prospers or dies. This blog post is not about Starr King School for the Ministry. It’s about Unitarian Universalist self-conception.

  • This is the second time in a year (or so) that an unnamed consultant has been brought in to handle major Unitarian Universalist institutional conflict. Who is the consultant? A forthcoming introduction would go far to instill confidence that the consultant is qualified and has no conflict of interest.
  • The lawyers refer to ‘an investigator for the board’s law firm’ which, if true, is alarming. But is very much in character with Unitarian Universalist culture which claims to create bold leaders yet makes the formation process a gauntlet of circumspection, wildly uneven power arrangements and keeping your head down. You have to pass to play. But you can’t build bravery though fear. (So no points to Gini Couter for “doing the right thing.” I’ve never seen so many good people sigh relief as when she stopped being Moderator. For some reason, people are afraid of her. If this is Unitarian Universalism, you can keep it. But she’s out of office and the rest of us are still here.)
  • Which is, I believe, why Unitarian Universalist ministers are so deeply conformist, at least in public, and why ministers close ranks with the speed and force of a bear trap. Can you think of another denomination that avoids public fights so hard? It’s particularly bitter when you consider the brave souls we lionize, say, like John Haynes Holmes.
  • When you spend all you time being “revolutionary” expect revolutionary justice. As in, innocent blood on the guillotine. But we aren’t that revolutionary, and weirdness is not a substitute. I’ll take sober, thoughtful leadership any day. Our rhetoric doesn’t match our reality, even a reasonable aspiration.
  • There’s a Yiddish word you should learn if you don’t know it. Mishigas. Crazy-nonsense. Boy, do we have it. Good, self-differentiated people smell it and they stay away or leave. Remember that the next time you hear someone mew about the Millenials being our future.

As I said, this is far past a Starr King issue, but it is a test for Unitarian Universalist leadership, and we should all be watching.