The Tragedy of Entitlement

January 21, 2012

What’s the worst thing that can happen to a person? More and more, I’m convinced that the worst thing that can happen is for a person to believe that bad things happening entitle them to more than others.

It’s perhaps a natural instinct in all of us – unavoidable for our souls to desire help when we fall on bad times.  We want our lives, and especially the tragic moments of our lives, to have meaning. That’s why “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is still a best seller.  It’s why the story of Job in the Old Testament is still puzzled over by those who want to believe in a compassionate higher power. But, just because it’s natural to hope for help, doesn’t mean its good to think its owed to you.

It used to be that we asked ourselves “why me?” when tragedy struck.  Now it seems the question is “what can I get out of this?”  I know I’ve even been victim of this way of thinking.  When I recognize it, I try to change the direction of my thoughts. Personally, I see that as a major problem for anyone who desires to grow as a compassionate human being, and especially harmful for a society that might encourage that point of view.

Does our society encourage it?  Well, consider TV shows like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”  That show started from a well-meaning concept.  Roll the big fancy TV bus into a town, chose a family that’s had some hard times, and make their lives easier by making their home more livable. And, rather than just put them back on their feet, the show could up their rating and the “oohh” “ahh” factor by giving these forsaken folks a home even better than the one they had before.

There have been plenty of articles written about that particular show, which I realize is old news now.  My point is, it’s a large-scale example of a dangerous feeling that can exist in any soul.

Eastern philosophy teaches that karma may result in you being punished for something in your past – whether it was this life or another.  It’s not a far philosophical jump to then say something bad happening to us cleans our slate, or perhaps even earns us something good happening.  Or maybe that’s just a typically misconstrued western-interpretation of karma.

Here are two stories that weren’t broadcast on national television.
In the months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many cities saw an influx of people who had been rendered homeless by that tragedy of nature. Even a faraway small town in the northern state of Vermont had folks looking to resettle and rebuild. Coincidentally, the small apartment above my husband and my home was vacant, and one of the applicants was a woman who until recently had called the Crescent City her home.

When she told us this, we naturally had sympathy for her.  That sympathy may have even affected our decision to rent to her over another candidate, even if our better instincts told us she might not be a long-term renter since she had no roots in our area.  However, it quickly became apparent that she expected a little more than a bump on her application.  She not-so-casually brought up stories of other “refugees” who had been given the first month’s free rent and had their security waived because of what they went through. When we asked about her possible references and housing history, she didn’t provide names of people who could vouch for her as a good tenant, she named family and friends that could tell us more about the horrible experience she had gone through.

What this woman didn’t realize is that my father and his family had also lost their home and almost all of their possessions to Katrina.  Perhaps if I hadn’t had their example of quiet gratitude rather than hands-out expectation, I would have treated her as I’m sure she expected to be treated.

What was particularly irritating was that she seemed to be completely ignoring the fact that by our giving her free rent or furniture, or so on, we’d be making sacrifices.  There wasn’t a tone of “I would be so grateful if you would help me,” and definitely not “I will find a way to make it up to you,” it was “I’ve paid my dues by living through a hurricane, someone’s got to pay up, and you’re standing in front of me, so it might as well be you.”  She saw us as potential benefactors, as soulless as a TV corporation.  She didn’t care enough to even consider the fact that we would have troubles of our own, because what could our troubles be compared to hers.

That’s the problem. We’ve stopped having sympathy and compassion for another, and instead it becomes a mathematical type of equation to determine who gets to be the center of the pity party, and who gets the booty.  We don’t see each other as neighbors who should help each other out because of a sense of community.  We see each other as competitors in a good or bad luck lottery, and everybody’s got to put into the kitty because those are the rules.

There are a few other, more recent examples I am tempted to share, but I’m honestly afraid to.  I know it’s not nice to kick someone when they’re down.  And pointing out negative behavior in someone who is having a hard time does feel like kicking them while their down. Unfortunately, negative behavior has negative consequences.  Just ask any of the people who’ve lost their homes after ABC left town.


20 Years of Buy Nothing

November 27, 2011

Have you heard of Kalle Lasn?

Twenty years ago, this former advertising executive decided to put his talents toward promoting a different message: don’t buy stuff.  This year marked the 20th Anniversary of Buy Nothing Day, which Mr. Lasn and those who have joined his cause place on what is usually the biggest shopping day of the year: Black Friday, or the day after Thanksgiving, or that extra day you get off to make a long weekend, which most employers refer to as “in lieu of Veteran’s Day.”  Which leads me to another question, if you weren’t buying nothing, did you take time out of your shopping to thank a Veteran for their service to our country?

I first heard about “Buy Nothing Day” from a small group of do-gooders in my childhood congregation.  Around my junior year of high school that church started opening its doors to people who wanted to step out of the rat race of Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving. I remember even then, as a teenager and perhaps the height of my consumerist aptitude, feeling a profound relief that someone was saying “Don’t Buy” in the midst of all the “you must buy in order to have a merry Christmas, you must buy to let your loved ones know they are your loved ones.”  That day at church, the parishioners and their friends would gather to talk, perhaps make some crafts for gifts, bake cookies, have a nice lunch together, and think about the Western World’s penchant for over consumption.

In the decade plus since my first introduction to Buy Nothing Day, I have researched the founder and the non-profit he is connected to “Adbusters.”  Thanks to the increased accessibility to information, I’ve been able to get perhaps a broader view of each year’s efforts.  For instance, Kalle Lasn was also one of the main minds behind the recent Occupy Wall Street protests.  This year’s Buy Nothing Movement has a new tagline: Occupy Christmas.  Though I still applaud those who are performing in demonstrations or simply participating in this effort by buying less, overall I feel they have a better chance of bring down banks than stopping the average American from mindless consumption.

Ten years ago, it seemed that you heard about Christmas being over-commercialized as often as you heard Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  Today, even more emphasis has been placed on the GDP and the media’s treatment of “the economy” makes you feel like you are being unpatriotic if you spend less than you are able.  Black Friday has stretched itself so sales actually begin on the night of Thanksgiving.  Many stores don’t even bother to close.  Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who worked so hard for the establishment of a “genteel” holiday that celebrated hearth and home must be crying somewhere.

BTW, did you know that FDR tried to change the date of Thanksgiving to increase the holiday shopping season?  Do you know how he did that – by making Thanksgiving the second-to-last Thursday in November 1930, rather than the last.  There was public outcry and the next year our sacred holiday was put back in it’s proper place – the last Thursday of November.  And, in the decades since, we’ve found peace with having Christmas sales posters alongside our Halloween candy.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that in eighty years such a cultural shift could occur.  However, it still surprises me of how naive I am of other’s feelings about “stuff” that you may chose to buy.

One of my most fascinating classes in college was a course called “Material Culture.”  The course objective was to look at objects from our culture and others through various perspectives to examine conscious and unconscious messages that they hold.  Because of a long history and a very generous financial aid program, the College attracted a very diverse population of women from different racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, so it was a great opportunity to be exposed to many different ideas.  As wonderful as it was for me to attend classes with students dressed in African garb and to hear strange accents from all over the world, the most eye-opening experience I had in the class was a discussion with a woman from the to me strange place called New York City.

On that particular day, someone brought up the linguistic distinction between want and need.  This spurred the most heated debate of the semester.  When does something become a necessity?  When do we need an item, rather than want it?  However we got to that point in the discussion I do not remember, but one of these woman of my generation made the statement that she needed her $300 pair of shoes.  The class was almost evenly divided.  Was it possible to need such an extravagant item?  Nothing could convince the woman who made the comment that it was in actuality a want…she had been made to think it was a need.

I made the claim that you could only need something that met your physiological needs.  Hence, you may want the Nike’s, but a non-brand name will likely fit your needs.  Our professor, hoping to encourage more dialogue, asked me what one should do with the $100 difference on these two brands of shoes, if the shopper in question did indeed have unlimited buying power.  I did not give much thought before I answered with a shrug, “give it to charity.”  My response was met with a chorus of ostentatious groans.

The majority of my class obviously felt like George Costanza when it came to charitable giving.  Remember the “Human Fund” from Seinfeld? In one particular episode, the character of George receives a card stating that a donation has been made in his name to a children’s charity.  “Don’t you see how wrong that is!”  George exclaims.  “I gave him Yankee tickets, he gave me a card that said I’m giving your gift to someone else!”  He goes on to protest gift-giving should be an eye for an eye.  Is that what we all secretly believe now?

Today, if you Google Buy Nothing Day or Kale Lasn, you will get some articles that share his background as well as his efforts with Occupy Wall Street and Buy Nothing Day.  Very few of these are from the big-media outlets who may give a brief mention, but are much more likely to be reporting on sales figures as if they were the best or only measure of our country’s well-being.  Thanks to the many online article that allow readers to “post a comment” you may also see many people accusing him of being a hypocrite or worse attributes.  Some are general, some point to a specific statement or action that seems to prove him a hypocrite.

I’ve been thinking about how often we like to “disprove” someone’s message by pointing to something about their character or their past.  As if the truth or words is absolutely linked to the person who says them, rather than truth and positive being able to reside in the mouth of even the most horrible human being.  That will probably turn into another blog…

How I Learned Compassion for Those Opposed to Same-Sex Marriage

October 8, 2011

Of our seven principles, the one that guides me most in my quest to be a good person is #2: Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  I love the paradoxical nature of saying that you believe in these three ideals together. After all, what is equitable or just isn’t often the same as what is compassionate.

It took me a long time to learn, but you can often be least compassionate when you are standing opposite someone who has a different view of justice.  How hard is it to see the inherent worth of someone who you believe is treating you inequitably?  How easy is it to not choose compassion for someone who is just wrong?

The day this clicked for me was April 7, 2009.  That was the day that the Vermont legislature voted to override the governor’s veto by a very short margin, and effectively made it legal for same-sex couples to marry in my home state. How I felt when I heard the results of that vote changed how I felt about the same-sex marriage debate, and made me realize my own short-comings.

Even before there were such things as civil unions, I believed very strongly that gay couples should have the same rights and protections as straight couples.  People are people, simple as that, and I didn’t have much patience for those who saw it otherwise.  I was adamant in my arguments against whatever reasons those unfortunate enough to get into a debate with me presented.

There are some who feel that the current definition of marriage needs to be protected because studies find that children raised by a mother and a father are better off than those with single parents or two parents of the same gender.  As a child who was raised by a single mother, this defense raises my hackles as much as the ridiculous (and statistically baseless) claim that gay people are likely to be child molesters.  I want to ask those who use this logic what they are doing about all the children who are born out of wedlock.  Or, why do they insist that preventing gay marriage is helpful for children, when not allowing gays to marry means that the children of gay couples are left in limbo if one of the parents dies.  Why do they make it more difficult for these families to get health insurance?  The children who are being raised by same sex couples need to know their parents have the same legal protection as straight couples, and that the love that started their family is in no way inferior to the love of any other family.

Other denominations have made arguments against gay marriage on the basis of the separation of church and state.  Before we met, my husband had been persuaded that as soon as gay marriage was legal, all clergy would be required to perform same sex marriages.  He also felt that since marriage started as a religious sacrament, it should not be up to politicians to change what marriage is.

In one of those long and passionate conversations that define how much you will eventually love and how you will communicate with another person, we debated this point for hours. Eventually he agreed with my point of view on that particular point.  Though we all may not like to admit it, it is the government that gets to decide what marriage is.  Otherwise, opponents wouldn’t be asking the government to ban gay marriage. The definition of marriage has already changed. What was once mostly a transfer of a woman and her dowry as property to a man is now a contract between two equals.  That was a change, and it was a good one!  What was once seen only as possible between two people of the same race is now color blind.  This was a change in how we define marriage, and it was a good one!

Some felt it was not worth the fight for gay marriage in Vermont, because we already have civil unions.  I answer that point with another question I asked my husband. “Would you have a civil union, instead of a marriage?”  The truth is civil unions were never the same as marriage.  Though we thought seriously about it, we decided not to deny ourselves the benefits of marriage in order to show solidarity with the gay community. I think it is telling that our gay friends all understand why we decided together not make that choice.  None of them would want the rights of another taken away for the sake of their own beliefs.

But, I still need to explain how I was wrong.  My talons really came out for those who did not argue for the safety of children, or separation of church and state.  In fact, I had no compassion for those who felt that allowing gays to marry would somehow taint the good name of marriage, or change the sanctity of marriage.  I loved to argue that as long as celebrities continued to treat their marriage licenses as disposable, and as long as any man or woman could stumble into a Las Vegas chapel drunk to say “I do,” these arguments just didn’t make sense.  Whoever else could or did get married shouldn’t ever change the marriage you had, or what marriage meant to you.

Then came the day I stood in my living room, holding my breath as the VPR reporter announced the results of the vote.  Two people of the same gender were granted the legal right to marry each other in my state.  I exhaled and tears formed in my eyes.  As I took my next breath, I thought to myself: I no longer have to feel guilty that I have privileges others don’t because the person I fell in love with and married happened to be a man. Now that taint of injustice from our marriage is gone.

And there was my epiphany.  My marriage had changed.  It had become sweeter, more wonderful, more precious, more pure because I knew others had the same rights my husband and I did.  But, hadn’t I always argued that allowing gays to marry wouldn’t change marriage for any straight couple?  Huh.

Though I still feel it is equitable and just that gays should be able to legally marry, I have more compassion for those who disagree.  I still feel I am right, but I have a teensy bit more understanding for those I still think are wrong.  I think it’s wrong to oppose gay marriage for any reason, but if your reason is about how you feel about the definition of your own marriage, I do see a tiny bit of your point of view.

I have learned that the question shouldn’t be “how could you feel that way about gay marriage?” but “why do you feel the way you do about gay marriage.” If you do nothing else, please ask someone that question, even if it is just yourself. We must start looking into the eyes of the other and listening with open hearts.  With any luck, at some point we can all start hearing each other’s why’s.  Understanding and honoring the whys are the only way that we can begin create the how to make sure all love is honored, and no one’s marriage tarnished with the stain of discrimination.

Ye Economy of Little Faith…

August 28, 2011

This week my husband and I took ourselves to market to see what we were worth. Like many individuals, most governments, and for that matter, most souls, we are in debt. Like most people our age, we started our “adult lives” in debt with college loans.  Before we met, I took out debt even larger than the cost of higher education when I decided to buy a house.  Since then, we’ve acquired new debts together, first in paying for our wedding, and most recently because of expenses from the house I bought and we decided to rent after jobs took us farther away from that home than we were willing to travel.

Economists may have different opinions about the value of home ownership, but there a few who will ever tell you that renting your home from a distance is a smart decision.  It isn’t.  We knew when we first decided to rent our home it was a leap of faith that it might work, and so far it really hasn’t. We hoped to get tenants who were like us in that we treat the home we are renting from landlords literally on the other side of the world with the care we would our own.  Some did, but those who didn’t left us with legal fees and repair bills that have become to us like Sisyphus’ rock. We hoped to come close to breaking even between the costs and rental income.  We haven’t.

So, in the past few weeks, we met with a realtor about putting what we still consider our home on the market, and then, based on several factors, applied for an equity loan to consolidate our debts. Our hope was that when we could keep the rock of our financial well-being from rolling farther downhill each time we try to push it up. We put on what we thought were the right clothes and proper facial expressions, and met with a loan officer.  From her, we learned the biggest obstacle we face in trying to make this work: trying to pay the debts we currently have while keeping our current tenants happy and protecting the investment we made in the house.  The biggest obstacle is that we decided to make that leap of faith to take the jobs farther away than is practical commute and rent the house.  Banks don’t deal with “landlords” or “investors” the way they do with “homeowners.”

I’m not an economist.  If I was, I probably would have made better decisions before.  If I was an economist, the rest of this blog would probably make more sense.  The only way for me to view my financial choices, and what I witness on the larger economic scales of this country and the world, is to ask myself what I think is morally right and have faith that by doing the right thing, my husband and I will be okay.

What does any of that have to do with religion, or specifically Unitarian-Universalism?  Well, for one thing, the entire time we were reviewing economic advice online or meeting with the loan officer, I had that familiar frustration of whenever anything – monetary, legal, or spiritual – is treated as a black and white issue.  I felt that the rules that exist in the financial industry are like the early attempts of religion to see this action as “bad” or “immoral” and these as “good”, without examining the circumstances. Show me any place where someone, higher power or government agency has said “thou shalt not” and there is sure to be an example where it is morally less objectionable to break the law than to follow it.  I know it’s wrong to think of a house you’re not physically living in as your home (according to tax law), but our only other choice at the time we got jobs away from home was to abandon it, leaving it vacant and not paying the mortgage.  We chose to rent our home, and I stand by that choice, even though I understand the economists view that it wasn’t the right choice.

Meanwhile, our personal economic struggle was transpiring over the backdrop of the latest pledge drive beginning with the start of another church year and the U.S. government’s credit rating being down graded.  It seems that tough times are here in the micro and macro level, and there just isn’t enough to go around. But, the truth of the matter is that the day before I applied for a loan and the day before Standard & Poor said our government isn’t worth as much were almost identical to the individual days before them.  The only factor that had changed was that someone, somewhere, with economic power, decided how much faith a bank should have in us.  Sure, there are all kinds of mathematical formulas to give reason to the belief that the debts will or won’t be paid.  But it’s still about predicting the future, and that requires as much faith in determining whether a debt will be repaid as what may happen the to your soul after you die.

Kurt Vonnegut, the great writer who claimed to be a UU so people would stop bothering him about not having any faith, pointed his finger not at god, but evolution to the sufferings of man.  He wrote in his novel Galapagos about fictional, but familiar problems with the global economy:

“It was all in people’s heads. People had simply changed their opinions of paper wealth…This financial crisis was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains… The planet … was as moist and nourishing as it is today… all that had changed was people’s opinions of the place.” (pg 24-25)

This sums up our situation today.  The grocery stores are still full of food. There is still gas in the pumps to fill our cars.  There is still power in the grid to turn on your lights when you flick the switch. The question is not whether any of these things still exist but whether you have the resources on hand or credit with which to purchase them.  In other words, do you have access to our physical possession of those little pieces of paper that state “in God we trust,” that are really valued based on the faith we have in all manner of things, including our government?

The stuff we want is still the same as it was a day, a month or years ago.  The paper we use to get the stuff is still the same (with a few security measures added over the years, though you can still use the old-low tech bills that get handed around.)

If you read the various op-eds, the difference between now and the “boom years” is that we’ve lost faith in that stuff.  Americans have lost faith that their money will continue to grow in worth.  Standard & Poor has lost faith in the U.S. ability to pay back its debts.  The red and blue sides of our political system have lost faith in whether or not the extremely wealthy will continue to work hard if we do or do not do something to their tax rates.

It comes down to faith in the things you can’t see, but affect your daily life anyway.

We may have lost our faith in our money, which ironically makes most of us want to hold onto what we’ve got as tightly as we can.  Still, some people who have the most money, including Warren Buffet, have faith in the power for our brains to get us out of this mess. Two weeks ago, Buffet wrote an open letter to the President and Congress that he should have his taxes raised, and doing so would not make those with the largest pocketbooks to lose faith or the country to collapse.  (If you have not already read it:

Where does that leave us? Apparently stuck between two sides of what is being framed as an economic issue, with clear black and white answers derived from rigid mathematic principles and infaliable equations.  But, really where we’re stuck is between those who have faith, and those who do not. The problem is, neither side sees their point of view as “faith” in that it is unknowable whether you are right.  Instead, they see their point of view on the economy and what would fix it as “truth” or “law, ” those who don’t follow their ideas are infidels and savages.  It’s those who don’t agree who are sending us all to hell in a handbasket.

Meanwhile, those of us who are not the macro-economic decision makers wish that there could be away for those with different beliefs to live and work together toward the common goals of justice and equity, plus a little compassion for those who need a hand up.  Maybe we need to all remind ourselves that when we use those funny little pieces of green paper, we’re not exercising faith in god, or even faith in the government.  We’re showing faith in ourselves, that we can continue to find a way to provide for ourselves and our family. We’re showing faith in the soul attached to the hand that receives our money: that they will treat us fairly and they have a right to be paid for the good or service they are offering us.

And, we have to have faith that somehow, Warren Buffett and the super-rich aren’t there to just swoop in with charitable donations, but have some good ideas that will trickle down.  Namely, that higher taxes on some who can afford it won’t make them lose faith and do whatever they can to avoid helping others.  That a higher tax rate on those who succeed won’t stop people from trying to succeed.  Perhaps if we had faith that those who succeed the most aren’t afraid of a little higher taxes, we wouldn’t be afraid of loosing our jobs, since many of our salaries are about equal to the “burden” being debated here.

Perhaps if we all believed the inherent worth, dignity, and compassion in all people, we could have faith in the economy again.

A Book I Wish I Wasn’t Happy to Have Read- Elite by Mark W. Harris

August 21, 2011

Sometimes we make bad choices from the wide array of information and entertainment we can receive.  My mother loves to share the story of how much scarier the film Alien was when she watched it 9 months pregnant.  Most people know better than to watch movies about plane crashes or shark attacks right before a vacation on the sea side.  But what about those more common and less obvious mistakes?  How often have you found yourself yelling at your car radio because you just couldn’t resist listening to the talk host you always disagree with for a few more minutes, just to see how wrong he/she is this time?

Why do we do things like that to ourselves?  Do we think we’re testing our emotional or moral mettle by ingesting media that is almost assured to trigger an intense response?  Do we seek some kind of enjoyment for the adrenaline rush that comes with getting angry?

Perhaps.  Perhaps that’s why the media has become so fractured between extreme left and right politics.  Perhaps that’s why only religious extremists seem to get any notice.  Perhaps we occasionally need to try to prove to ourselves that we don’t just seek out the messages we know we’ll agree with, which is it’s own kind of sin? That was the kind of trouble I knew I was headed for when I found myself reading a book called “Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History” by Mark W. Harris.

Harris has written a fine book, which is obviously well researched.  If the end result of his work doesn’t quite seem balanced, than it is at least fair. He does not condemn our faith’s followers who in retrospect said and did things shockingly out of line with our principles in the name of “bettering” society. He asks the readers to ask themselves the tough questions that are demanded when our history is examined a little more deeply than an impressive list of names of famous Unitarians and Unversalists or brief quotes from any of these people.

Take, for example, some of the historical facts presented in his most disturbing chapter, “Scientific Salvation.”  In this, Harris outlines the sad history of “eugenic science,” which taught that for humankind to progress, less desirable people should be prohibited from having children.  He described the Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell in 1927 which upheld a Virginia law that allowed the state to have a seventeen year old girl sterilized because she was, according to case documents “shiftless, ingorant and worthless class.”  (pg 85) This case was overseen by two Unitarians, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

Unitarians, the faith that say all people have inherent worth and dignity, voting for a woman’s right to bear children to be taken from her because of her social status?  Yuck.

Why hadn’t I ever heard about this I wondered?  Sure, it makes sense that our youth curriculum is more focused on the positive like Susan B. Anthony speaking for her rights to vote while on trial.  But, why even in my more in-depth research of Unitarian and Universalist history had I never even come across the word eugenics? Especially when, as Harris notes, “Chief Justice Taft, who would soon serve as president of the National Unitarian Conference, … played a prominent role in the publication of How to Live, a booklet that … recommended every state have eugenics boards with the goal of preventing ‘reproduction by the markedly unfit,’ and the sterilization of ‘gross and hopeless defectives.’ “(pg 85) Double yuck.

Reading about this dark time in our nation’s and our faith’s history in some ways gives me previously unknown sympathy for the Right to Life campaigns.  It also shows how danagerous the human language is when we try to use it to describe things as indescribable as the value of any human life and the morality of any choice. I suppose there is a bright side that even the most extreme of the “shock talk” radio folks out there would dare to use such language as “hopeless defective.”

There is a bright side, too, in that, even if it may not have been assigned reading for me, I had the choice and the ability to read Harris’ book because Skinner House Books, an imprint of the UUA, was bold enough to publish it.

However, it is unfortunately ironic that likely the only ones who may read it are those who want to delve most fully into both the positive and negative of our faith’s history.  And though his book is written to be as accessible as possible, it’s highly unlikely that anyone without an advanced education would give it a try.  That’s ironic because Harris himself argues that we may be inflicting potential damage on our denomination by making our services and congregations unwelcome for anyone without an advanced education.

I am encouraged that there is at least one UU voice asking the important questions that Harris poses, “Can we change? … It will require personal connections. It will require sharing power and control. It will require changed perceptions of status and education.” (pg 128) He argues effectively that congregations made up of comfortable and well-to-do parishoners are the most difficult to change.

I would go further that it will require a majority of UU’s to fully accept that we have not been fully accepting.  We have made and continue to make mistakes in our efforts to live up to our principles.  Too often, we (and I include myself here) unconsciously tack on a few conditions when we say that all people have inherent worth and dignity.  We love to say that you can believe whatever you want to be a UU, but really we mean that all UU’s can believe what we believe.  And, in the process of putting on the blinders to the conditions that we put on our theology, we also allow ourselves to blithely ignore how unwelcoming our congregations are to those with perhaps less education, less access to transportation, less mobility, and less money (Harris’ arguments, but I agree whole-heartedly).

So, in a way I am grateful for Harris raising these important issues in his book.  I am grateful that we are not to the point of having prominent members of our faith arguing that portions of our society should not have the same rights as others in the name of the betterment of mankind, as there in fact were less than a hundred years ago. But, I wish I hadn’t read it.  It plays to my deepest and most primal fears in a way that we still bolt their doors against Norman Bates before entering a hotel shower.

Harris’ is one voice asking us to face a dark time in our history and continuing trends that make our congregations only welcoming to a certain type of societal group. Perhaps the other questions about how we worship, and whether anyone is interested in church of any type are the more pressing.  But, if the question of whether all are truly welcome is not addressed by every congregation and every member of the UUA, then our principles are hollow, and whatever we build our churches on, they are likely to fall away as so many have.

Like I said, sometimes we make bad choices.  Perhaps I should be focusing my extra-curricular reading on more sunny messages about the past and future of my faith. But, our fears haunt us for a reason (ask my therapist). Anger can be a valuable tool if it provokes action.  If you are reading this you may be angry that anyone would have bothered dredging up such a dark time in our faith’s history as when such prominent Unitarian and Universalists promoted eugenics.  I guess the tool I’m trying to pass on is the knowledge that sometimes an idea that makes perfect sense at a point in history, is downright shameful in retrospect.  The greater shame, however, is to keep on making similar mistakes for lack of perspective.

We thankfully do not have any prominent UU’s telling society who is fit to have children. But do we, quietly or subtly, tell visitors, friends and neighbors who are “fit” to be UU’s?  Will that definition be worth defending a hundred years from now?

How I’ve Failed the Seven Principles

July 3, 2011

When I was younger, the beginning of July marked the start of me missing church.  Even though I may not have attended services for months, being wrapped up in end-of-school business or family events, the first Sunday I realized that I wanted to go to church, but couldn’t because church wasn’t there, I felt a real loss.  Many Unitarian-Universalist congregations close for at least a month or two in the summer, and for the most part congregants don’t complain. Instead, they appreciate the additional time in their too-short summer days to be outside or traveling.

This July is different in that I have been purposely not going to church for several months.  So, the fact that there are no services this morning shouldn’t really make any difference to me. I’m not really sure that it does make a difference, to be honest.  I think that I’m missing the feeling of missing church more than I actually have any real longing to be back there.

Yet, even in rejecting the idea of personally participating in congregational life, I have a deep desire for UU congregations to continue to exist and thrive. I still believe that our faith and our principles have a great deal to offer people.  I believe that groups of people can work together for social justice, and doing so as part of a Unitarian-Universalist congregation can be a holy thing. I believe that diverse thinkers, believers, and sceptics can explore life’s great questions together and be benefitted from each other’s company in their questioning.

I believe that having an organization, a building, a community, committed to nothing more than ideas, most importantly that all people are good, is important.  So important, that it’s worth struggling against all those other thoughts like raising money and setting agendas for meetings and not really caring for the sermon on a particular Sunday.  It’s worth the extreme efforts it takes to build and maintain a community.

I just haven’t had the personal strength to make myself fit in the community in which I once belonged.  I haven’t had the energy to do anything but feel frustrated by my congregation.  I haven’t been able to challenge myself or challenge my community by putting into words all that I find is lacking and harmful going on.  It’s unfortunate because I know that if I don’t have the energy and strength to at least share my true thoughts and feelings with my congregation, than I can’t even call myself a good Unitarian-Universalist.

It’s against all seven of our principles for me to say: I just have to walk away.

1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.  
I tried to deny this at first, but by giving up on going to church, I am spitting in this face of this key idea.  Not only am I failing to continue to struggle to see the worth and dignity of all the people I don’t see eye to eye with in my congregation, I’m breaking off friendships with those I find it easiest and most joyful to be with.  Also, I am denying my own worth and dignity by acting as though the church would be better off without me.

2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
Perhaps I think I’m being compassionate to myself and my congregation by removing myself from the Sunday morning experience. It’s so easy to imagine these three concepts blend naturally together, but they don’t.  To be just is not always equitable. To be compassionate is often the exact opposite of acting according to the laws of justice and equality. I once mused that this principle instructs us to rip off the blindfold of justice and stare deeply into each others eyes.

But, really the most important part of the principle is the final word: relations.  We have to relate to people, we need to connect. Removing yourself from a situation may feel like a kindness to yourself, but it is only just to yourself and others when you can honestly say you’ve done everything you can to be compassionate and ask for compassion.  It doesn’t mean hiding your feelings, but giving others and yourself room to think and feel differently.

3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations.
No denying the failure there.  Though I have been trying to accept other’s different directions and feelings, while finding my own way to growing my spirit, it hasn’t been in a congregation. Accepting isn’t the same as encouraging, just as justice isn’t the same as compassion.

4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
I’ve given myself the freedom to search for truth and meaning, but I haven’t been responsible about it.  I know that I need to communicate in more than this one-sided way of blogging if I’m ever going to achieve.  Also, the more I separate myself from my congregation, the less I’ll know about them.

5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
As they say, democracy is ruled by those who show up.  I have participated in a fairly important vote within the past couple of months. I can also say with a clear conscience that I lived up to the principle of democracy because it was a vote I educated myself about, and thought deeply about. I asked questions at the congregational meeting before the vote. I weighed the pros and cons and I made what I thought was the best choice for the congregation.

But is that enough?  I have voted, but I have kept deeper questions to myself about questions that were not on any ballot.

6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.
Okay, perhaps it’s a stretch to compare my microcosmic situation to this principle, or the next.  But, it does give me a shiver of terror to realize who easy it is for me to stop working toward community and justice within my own congregation, with people that I consider wonderful human beings and friends.  It’s hard to then imagine that world community is possible with the much greater differences that others face.

7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.   
Another stretch.  But, I think about the Sundays when my husband or I would “go rogue” by taking the paper cups off the coffee table and staying later than we planned to wash dishes because no one else had volunteered. Maybe we’re failing the earth by not showing up on Sundays, too.  Maybe if we could fully commit ourselves to the community that community could do more in the way of creating educational programs to inspire others to respect the interdependent web. Or maybe would work together to find a way to afford solar panels as part of the upcoming renovation project, only…

The real truth that I’ve been avoiding saying bluntly is this.  I have stopped attending services for a multitude of reasons, including the fact that I find it stifling to be told how to breathe and what I think during the sermons.  But, the greater reason is that I have felt too often and too strongly that the only way I can belong there is if I put enough money in the collection plate. And, with temporary lay offs, unexpected house expenses, new and old debts, there wasn’t much we could give. Certainly nothing like what we were being asked to give.

So, though I miss my friends, though I miss the feeling of being part of something larger than myself, I can’t accept that any of us can be measured in dollars and cents. And until I can find the strength and courage to deal with both the internal and external forces telling me that the money matters more than anything or anyone, I can’t be a part of my church.

I know I need to find the strength and courage to be a Unitarian-Universalist.  Luckily, I have the time of summer months and the room of cyberspace to work on that.

My Universalist Response to This Week’s News: Osama and Obama’s Souls

May 8, 2011

It seems truly inevitable that anyone with a blog will end up writing something about Osama Bin Laden this week.  I am no exception.

It was really only hours after Barack Obama made the announcement before the media began its own tug-of-war between covering the story itself and finger-wagging at the pundits who covered the story from too biased a perspective and even their own audience’s response to the news that an almost unanimously vilified human being was now dead.

Here is a real-life, immediate example of the kind of moral questions we begin to ask ourselves when we challenge the black and white nature of good and evil.  And, as often the case when we try to apply hard and fast judgments onto real-life circumstances, the results are much more grey.  The AP’s Brock Vergakis has published an article on how both Christian and Islamic clergy are addressing this topic:

My own response took me somewhat by surprise.  Somewhere in the hours following hearing the news that a Navy seal shot and killed Osama, the conscious thought came to me in an unanwerable question: “I wonder how Osama will get into heaven – what will it take?”

As quickly as the unbelievable thought came into my mind, I did not treat it lightly once it was there.  I wondered if I could have thought such a thing if I had personally known anyone who died on September 11th.  I wondered how those bizarre words could come to me when I still cannot bring myself to fully believe that god or heaven exist.  I wondered if I was just being over-congratulatory to myself in thinking perhaps I am morally above those who chanted “USA” at the news that a human being died.  I wondered how many would hate me for just applying the word human to a man who committed such atrocities that it is questionable how much humanity he had left.

Our Universalist forebearers taught that all are saved.  No exceptions.  In the past, we may have challenged this concept will historical figures such as Hitler.  In Bin Laden we had an example in living color and recent memory, someone who stole away the futures of so many with loved ones whose lives were forever altered one autumn day in 2001. A person who not only seemed unrepetent for that crime, but committed to doing it again – all for the sake of dolling out what he felt was punishment for the way some lived.

Unrepentent, unremorseful, jubilant.  It is how Osama bin Laden appeared in the video in which he claimed responsibility for the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.  It is how many Americans seemed in their celebration after the news that Osama bin Laden was dead.

And there was my question: “how in the world can such a person ever enter heaven?” And the question that came later: “how will there ever be peace in the world when any of us are able to celebrate the death of another?”

Perhaps it is impossible in this world.  But if there is something after this life, it has to be better than that.  As I noted before, real life does not often present us with yes or no questions or black and white realities.  So, it is probably not that surprising that the only way I could wrap my head around these questions was by remembering a fairy tale.

JK Rowling invented two pieces of magic that relate to this question. The first is a charm to create a horcrux: a magical object that gives one immortality but can only be created by murdering another person, by tearing one’s soul in half.  The second is the method of repairing one’s soul after doing such a heinous thing.  In the word’s of Rowling’s character Hermoine Granger: “it would be excruciating painful … remorse. You’ve got to really feel what you’ve done. There’s a footnote. Apparently the pain of it can destroy you.” [Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows]

Osama bin Laden tour apart the souls of many, but hopefully he did not damage any beyond repair. If there is anything we can wish for the survivors of that horrible day and the friends and families of those who perished, it is that they are still able to find meaning and love in their own lives that go on.

As for Osama’s own soul, the only way I can imagine it becoming whole again is as Rowling describes.  He must feel what he has done.  Drop for drop the pain he inflicted on not only those who died, but the loved ones he left behind.  Do I imagine Osama suffering in the afterlife as he witnesses and experiences the pain of his crimes?  Yes.  But it would be more merciful than what he wanted to do to his own enemies.  It would be pain with a purpose, the pain of transformation.

In the Christian tradition, they may call this purgatory.  That is another concept I rejected long ago because I could not accept a god that required us to suffer in order to be reconciled in the afterlife.  But, perhaps that was because the idea was presented as pain for punishment.  I may not have been so quick to reject the concept if instead it had been described to me as C.S. Lewis explained the problem of pain in our lives: “we’re like blocks of stone, out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt so much, are what makes us perfect.” [Shadowlands]

It is not how we treat our friends and allies that defines our morality, but how we treat our enemies.  In this way, I agree with those who say that killing Osama bin Laden was its own crime.  I believe that those involved in that event, from the President who gave the order to the Navy Seal who pulled the trigger, will have their own debt to repay to the damage to their souls.  But, I also believe that even in the moment of apparent triumph in when President Obama announced Bin Laden’s death, part of him felt remorse as well. I believe that Mr. President chose the path of action that he felt would inflict the least harm on the world, and willingly took on damage to his own soul for the sake of saving others.

Osama bin Laden was killed because it was judged that he was incapable of finding the remorse that would save him in this world.  One can question whether that judgment was fair or whether it was any individual’s judgment to make. One can question if there is anything beyond this world that is waiting for any of us.

For myself to have hope in this world or the next, I must believe that the painful truths of his own actions are waiting for Osama bin Laden to feel, and that there is some purpose to that pain as well.