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.

 

The peril of general reform

For the last two days I’ve written about the strong tendency of Unitarian Universalists to engage in political activity that addresses the emotions more than having demonstrable, desirable policy outcomes.

So, what kind of outcomes should we expect?

Perversely, I think we think too large, too grandly, and this is something we share with other churches. Our own story of our sense of mission tells us that “nothing human is foreign to us” and we’ve long suspected that if certain key ills — slavery, alcohol, and binding undergarments come to mind — systems of sin and oppression would fall. Sometimes that meant building institutions like schools, settlement houses and hospitals; at other times the actions were direct, both pious and political. But this kind of general reform only makes sense in the age before the secularization and specialization of the skills the church once kept to itself. Consider, for instance, social work and community organizing. (And I suspect Unitarian Universalists have our share or more of these professionals within our ranks.) And churches are much weaker now. Even if general reform worked — and it’s so tempting to hope it would — it’s day for churches is long over.

So, it seems to me that there are three immediate actions Unitarian Universalist churches can make.

  1. Recruit for the world-changing professions.
  2. Support and encourage those that enter them.
  3. Orient the religious lives of the people to the good that could be rather than blessing the crap out of what is.

(I think I touched my own nerve there. We really, really need a language of the world that doesn’t keep ending up in rural Vermont.)

But the mission of the church isn’t just about encouraging, orienting and commissioning, even though these roles — keeping the big view — are ideal for a church.

In our own congregational tradition, we have developed habits that help us appreciate national and global conditions while applying our own solutions to local needs. What we may have best to offer is this localizing capacity, twinned with a social capital.  I bet there are many people in Unitarian Universalist congregations today that have detailed content knowledge around real world problems, if not thousands on one issue.

And local solutions are terribly important, because these become the models — best practices, thought leadership, policy choices, leadership development, even legal precedent — for action in other localities. So we need to cultivate what we have capacity for, and promote and encourage helpful participants, even if they’re not in our congregations. That’s our mission, too. And we’re more likely to know and live with decision-makers when we work at the local level.

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.

Looking up and seeing malice

I’ve not had much to blog lately. Nothing pertaining directly to the crises in Ferguson or New York City, nor to the related demonstrations in many cities, including Washington. Nothing about Advent or liturgy—something justifiably seasonal—either, and neither lint-pulling nor crabbing seemed appropriate. There’s a time and place for everything, and I’d like to work through a couple of thoughts in the next couple of days.

One fact about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson stood out to me, but I’ve not seen anyone say anything about it. That both men were 6-foot-4. The short end of very tall. As, it happens, am I. (Later. And Eric Garner was 6-foot-3.)

Now, I know several people who are taller — two Unitarian Universalists come to mind — but I’m in the 98th percentile for height (or so). Tallness is a part of how I see myself, down to the fear of too-short pants, losing my head in family photos, a hatred of air travel (thus my preference for the rails) and a wary eye clearing the doors in historic houses.

It’s my experience that people project all kinds of attributes to me — mainly unfriendliness or least unapproachableness; scariness — and rather than fight it I use it sparingly when people trifle with me. (It also makes a good foil when people start up with their gay man projections.) You may even see this non-trifling attitude on the blog. Even so, I was left speechless when a man I know described, jokingly, another 6-4er and me as “monstrous.”

And these experiences should make me less wary of large men, but they don’t. I try to be aware of my surroundings in city settings, including anyone large enough to hurt me. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen some giant come towards me, only to see that he was my height or shorter. I never feel good about that.

Perception of harm is so subjective. Whether that’s in a life-threatening crisis, in personal relations or in the pursuit of public policy. And that’s something my scalp-scarred brethren don’t have a lock on.

Ferguson and the liberal future

I took a break from blogging and — knowing I wouldn’t want get back to writing immediately — prepared several evergreen posts to run this week. (I’ll write about a couple of things I found in Toronto next week.) Which is one reason you’ve not see me comment on Ferguson (or Gaza or ISIS) here

But since I tend not to write about current political affairs anyway, I was inclined to keep my own counsel about the killing of Mike Brown and the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri once I returned. What more could I say that many others had said? The (putative) Left was active in social media and print. And often said with a manic parroting, as if to counter and perhaps overwhelm the (putative) Right. I only went to show that Twitter and Facebook — one space-limited; the other limited by algorithm — is poorly suited for the needed discourse. It seems too much like shouting or sniping.

I figured the truth — or a reasonable likeness — would appear in time, and it was the autopsy reports and the appalling behavior of law enforcement and elected officials that signaled that Michael Brown’s death was irregular, unnecessary and suspicious. And that his death unlocked suppressed fear, hardship and resentment among black residents in the city; similar feelings and experiences among others (particularly other black Americans) elsewhere; and heightened concerns about the false-militarization of police forces.

I’m writing this in a particularly cool and formal voice, because I think that’s more respectful, and respect is important. Respect to the dead and the communities can remain even when respect to structures of authority are in tatters. While I expect we will learn more about Michael Brown’s death, I’m not optimistic that his case will have an adequately just outcome. A cool and measured tone, too, because that’s the typical liberal position of discourse. We’re not radicals, but that’s no boast.

American politics have tacked so far to the Right in the last three or four decades that liberals and the liberalish have been cast in the role of the Far Left, a position we neither deserve or can maintain. It seems to me the true Far — or perhaps more aptly, Deep — Left bases its politics out of the experience of deep, usually communal, suffering. Liberals, so far as I’ve seen, are usually separated from this experience by a generation or two. And we can admire the passion of the Deep Left, envious of its moral immediacy, and compelled by the sense of rightness it brings — but we cannot share it’s feeling. It’s out of our experience. (Though some with experiences may also want to hide it. Hidden addiction. Hidden violence. Hidden poverty. Hidden illness. That’s a matter for another time.)

But for most of us in liberal circles, the cares and concerns will be different. Those who need to survive will care about different things than those who have the room to improve.Improvement being that hallmark of religious and political liberalism. But the drive to improve can be burdensome, and if you’re trying to keep body and soul together, improvement is an unaffordable luxury.

The Ferguson affair is a challenge to the liberal experiment. Can we bear to feel helpless? Can we be, and not improve, when appropriate? Can we — should we — be liberal: a moderate, moderating force? Can we bear to say no to those to our Left when we’re bidden to go too far?

Lord, help us. But help the people of Ferguson first; the focus should be on them.

Watching Unincorporated Nonprofit Association Act, 2014 edition

I’ve written before how state adoption of the Revised Uniform Unincorporated Nonprofit Association Act — look; RUUNA, a UU acronym with no Unitarian Universalist reference — can make church organization easier and polity more organic, rather than always borrowing the idiom of corporations or trusts.

It is being considered this year/session in two states: South Carolina (S 552) and Oklahoma (HB 1996).

(Links are to the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States project. I work for the Sunlight Foundation, but these opinions are mine alone.)

On the Moral March

I didn’t plan to write about the Mass Moral March, (also known as HKonJ) which took place this last weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina. But I was chided by another minister for tweeting about the Olympics opening ceremony, when the Raleigh march was surely more weighty and deserving material. I demurred, but I thought I should look further into it.

I watched some videos, looked at a bunch of pictures taken by participants (good to see what’s valued) and read news reports, blog posts and official organizing material.

To be clear: I don’t dispute that tens of thousands of people participated and that many (perhaps most) found it personally meaningful and vitally enriching. Also, that North Carolina’s political climate has pushed far to the right. But if the Unitarian Universalist part — I’ve heard there were a thousand or so present — is any sign of what Movementarianism might be (or become), we should fold our tents up now and save our heirs the bother. Not only must we be careful to cultivate a sensitive and responsive character, but also cultivate shrewd and effective methods for what we must be. What must be, not just doing what we desire.

I’ll state up front that I’m not impressed by the politics of the mass march. For one, I live in Washington, D.C., where they used to be common, and have seen them deflate in numbers and influence for years. Today, they border on performance art. (See also, “Getting arrested to make a point.”) So the New York Times didn’t cover it? It wasn’t a national story. (It was well covered in the North Carolina press.)

And even when I took part in marches as a younger man, though the 90s, it was clear that their best days and staunchest advocates predated me. So the Raleigh march’s tag — “Most massive moral rally in the South since Selma!” — is a tell: wistful Boomers, here’s your second chance. And so while there are some people who honestly think they’re doing some good by marching, I can’t help but spy some Civil War Rights Era re-enacting going on. Fine if that’s your goal, but that’s not what’s needed.

This march had three problems, for which there’s no easy answer except substituting another action.

First, there’s a name for New Englanders who come South to score political points; two actually. Carpetbagger is one; legislator is another. (Did you notice how some of the marchers made their North Carolina-ness plain on their T-shirts or signs?) It’s no secret that some of quite conservative members of Southern legislatures are about as Southern as a Moxie or a lobster roll. This is not 1964; the politics have changed, and Bull Connor is dead. (But you still need to live in North Carolina to vote there. Solidarity without power isn’t worth return postage.)

Second, can anyone for the life of me describe the desired and actionable outcomes of the march, in 25 words or less? The agenda was a long menu. Easy to imagine a fence-sitting legislator to say no to all of it, rather than having to defend parts of it. (I’ve read about legislation being introduced by HKonJ but — guessing at a few titles — don’t see anything that made it to committee.)

Third, the march went to such effort to be moral and “non-partisan” (as described in the organizing documents) yet looked both under-powered and coded as Democratic. Were there advocacy trainings? Legislator visits (by actual North Carolinians)? If so, I’ll withdraw some of my objections.

The various goals of the march organizers are quite noble and praiseworthy, and so perhaps that’s all the reason some out-of-state Unitarian Universalists needed to show up. But I’d have sent cash to pay c4s to organize North Carolinians instead.

Remembering Nelson Mandela in D.C.

I live about a 20 minute walk from the South African embassy, so I went this afternoon to pay my respects following the death of former SA president Nelson Mandela.

My feelings are hard to put into words; he belongs to the ages. The world is so much better for his life and labor. The proof? Those who once denounced now try to claim him as a friend in death.

Walking up Massachusetts Avenue, a.k.a. Embassy Row, I noted how many embassies had their national flags at half-staff. At least a quarter; perhaps a third. I was not alone; there were enough people in foot — there’s no place to park, even if you have a car — to justify crossing guards.

Irish embassy
Irish embassy
Kenyan embassy
Kenyan embassy

Ongoing construction at the South African embassy made for a tight shrine. I got there just in time to sign the condolance book (inside the lobby) and then joined the small crowd, many of whom took photos or left flowers at the newly-dedicated statue of Mandela out front.

You have to do something when you make what — let’s call it what it is — a pilgrimage. You leave your signature, your thoughts (in the book, or on cards or with gifts) and a tribute of flowers. I brought my prayerbook.

SA embassy lobby, from outside
SA embassy lobby, from outside
Nelson Mandela statue and tributes
Nelson Mandela statue and tributes
Nelson Mandela statue and tributes
Nelson Mandela statue and tributes

I’m left thinking of Mandela’s legacy, but also how churches observe something like the death of a great figure, or a great and lamentable disaster for that matter. And what do you do when there’s no obvious focus of the outpouring? The South African embassy is obvious in Washington, but “how does in play in Peoria?”