When the veil dropped for white people, a recap.

In the days leading up to the resignation of Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales, white leaders in our movement were challenged to speak up.  I answered the call and developed a series of Facebook posts.  Because things fade on Facebook so quickly, I’ve gathered them here for those who have been wanting to access them.

March 30, 2017

As a white Unitarian Universalist minister I am compelled by our Unitarian Universalist living tradition to speak out about the power of white supremacy in our beloved faith tradition and why I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I not only want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions, I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color at every level of congregational and denominational involvement, particularly in leadership positions invested with decision-making authority.
In my 13 years of ordained ministry, I have sadly experienced only one situation in which I was privileged to work with a professional of color in parish ministry. In this one situation, we were fortunate to bring a young biracial woman to serve as our Director of Religious Education. She was in her last year of a Masters of Education and was highly qualified for the position. It became clear that having a person of color in a visible leadership position had the immediate result of more people of color visiting the congregation and considering membership. In one year the number of people of color participating in congregational life almost doubled.
However, from the beginning of her tenure, her ability to do the work was compromised by the attitudes and behaviors of whites in the congregation. She experienced ongoing racial microaggressions. There were comments first about her clothing and hair. Her clothing was too flamboyant. Her hair was untamed. As the year went on, she began dressing and styling her hair more conservatively, more typically white middle class, to try and avoid the comments and be able to do her job.
She often experienced being spoken to as if she were a child. Ideas she offered in committee meetings were dismissed and then adopted by others and presented as their own. When she expressed sentiments or opinions using excitement, joy, passion, or urgency, you could see the room grow quiet and uncomfortable, with many eyes averted. The approach to her shifted from patronizing to withdrawal and discomfort.
Mid-year she attended a district sponsored religious educators training and came back ready to quit. She was the only person of color in the training. The trainer’s use of story as a tool of teaching was replete with instances of cultural misappropriation. Our DRE attempted to respond to this and was shut down. Other class participants tokenized her as the only poc in the room and in one painful instance, asked her pointed questions about her racial identity that indicated assumptions about her background and life experience based on racial stereotypes.
I contacted my colleagues and asked for help. I was able to connect her to another religious professional of color to provide emotional support and connect her to other professionals of color.
After the training experience, I noticed a decrease in her work performance. Her continuous experience of being disempowered had taken its toll and she could no longer give the best of herself to the position. To her credit, she was very open with me about her experience and the two of us developed a plan to bring Building the World We Dream About to the congregation in the following year.
But it was too late. She handed in her resignation at the end of the year. As part of processing her departure, I asked those who worked with her to consider the choices made during her tenure. I provided concrete examples of racial microaggressions that she had experienced. While no one outright denied these had taken place, the preference was to focus on her diminishing work performance without an understanding of what had contributed to it. Not surprisingly, after her departure, many of the people of color who had begun attending the congregation left. The congregation was restored to its previous racial makeup.
This is one story but it is repeated throughout our association, in every congregation to one degree or another. In this way our congregations still manifest a culture of white supremacy.
It is critical for the integrity of our faith tradition to intentionally diversify our leadership at all levels. The life experiences of those outside the socialization of whiteness is of the utmost importance for Unitarian Universalism to manifest its full transformative potential. But, without deliberately engaging in counter-oppression and anti-racism strategies and consciously naming and unraveling the power of white supremacy in our liberal religious tradition, our predominantly white membership has, can and will disempower people of color in positions of power over and over. Their leadership will be questioned and deconstructed in ways that whites never have to contend with. This is why it is vitally important that white leaders who are committed to solidarity stay hypervigilant and use our privilege to counter the ongoing stream of racial microaggressions that will be directed at those leaders.
What is most disconcerting to me is the response of the UUA leadership to the challenges that are before us now in the most recent hire to the Southern Regional Lead position. There are attempts to separate the larger systemic issues from the specific hire thereby generalizing the issue, allowing the decision makers to stay in a comfortable unaccountable place and erase the real impact of the recent decision on people of color.

Those challenging the UUA to look at its practices as a manifestation of white supremacy have been labeled hysterical and reactive by our president, Peter Morales. This is troubling disempowering language. Furthermore the assumption that our congregations and our associational structures cannot be white supremacy in action because we aren’t the Aryan Nation makes the mistake of defining white supremacy as only present in explicit racism, the kind of racism that we see in footage from the Civil Rights Movement. White liberal racism is just as powerful and just as insidious. Denying its presence is incredibly damaging and sets us back.
What is taking place is no different than the silence and discomfort of the leaders in that small congregation as they systemically disempowered the DRE. All serve to continue the spiritual violence. I would demand of the UUA that they stop running from this. Stop making excuses. Stop minimizing. Stop distracting. What you have been offered in the criticism that is coming your way is a gift if you can see it as such. You have the opportunity to demonstrate in your words and deeds that people of color can take the risk of speaking the truth of their experience in the culture of the association you lead and not face continued aggression. So far you’ve fallen far short. It’s not too late to change course.

March 31, 2017

This is where I have come to regarding the abrupt resignation of Rev. Peter Morales, President of the UUA, following sustained criticism regarding racial bias in hiring decisions and his problematic response.

I wish he had not resigned but rather offered an apology and committed to the institutional work and his own personal growth as a model of leadership. But he didn’t. I am going to take him at his word that stepping aside was the right thing to do and would help clear the way for the work to be done. Our spiritual task is to accept his choice and to use the vacuum remaining to continue the work of dismantling the white supremacy culture that is alive in our beloved faith.

We have three presidential candidates, one of whom will take office in less than three months. How we engage with them and the UUA will set the tone for how we move forward. And move forward we must. Peter’s resignation should not be an excuse to stop. It should not become a distraction.

Thank you for your leadership Peter. I respect your decision. Like any minister who leaves a position under less than ideal circumstances, and many of us have, may you find peace, healing, and new life. In the years to come may you deepen through the hard lessons offered in this ministry.

April 15, 2017

There’s been a lot of talk about safety in our congregations, with some white Unitarian Universalists saying they no longer feel safe in their congregations because they don’t feel comfortable stating contrary opinions regarding race and racism.
Right now many people of color in our association are holding white people accountable for the state of our faith. They are holding our systems accountable. They are holding up the disconnect between what we say and do as a movement. A lot of white UUs are using their privilege to intentionally amplify the voices of UUs of color. All of this is making a lot of white Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Some of those whites are saying they no longer feel safe.

The cry for safety from so many whites is the cry of those who have experienced the centrality of whiteness as normal. As white experience ever so slightly moves away from the center, white discomfort is interpreted as no longer being safe. It really means that we are no longer being protected from our internalized racism and we are finding it harder to ignore the many ways that our white perspective is at the center of Unitarian Universalism.

As more voices of color attempt to come into that center, whites are likely to feel unsafe. The reality is that we are detoxing from the withdrawal of privilege. The cry for safety is really a power grab. It’s an attempt to return whiteness to the center.
For whites in our movement who want to move into this significant moment, we can’t let our guard down. If we misinterpret our discomfort as losing our safety, we will not only do harm to ourselves, we will do more harm to people of color who are taking huge risks right now. They are in a lot more danger than we are.
#faithoverfear

April 20, 2017

Let’s just get clear about something. The “crisis” we are in now isn’t because the white centering of Unitarian Universalist institutions has been unearthed. People of color, once again, spoke truth to power, for once enough whites listened and amplified their message, and that’s got a lot of other whites acting out. We are in a white entitlement controversy here. This isn’t a crisis. It’s a breaking through. And breaking throughs are messy. #faithoverfear

April 20, 2017

I get why there is so much pushback about using the term “white supremacy” to describe the culture in Unitarian Universalist institutions. We have been trained to see white supremacy as an overt expression of racism, replete with burning crosses, white hoods, confederate flags, lynchings and angry white people in black and white footage shouting racist epithets at black children trying to enter white schools. This allows liberal whites to distance themselves from racism and believe that we aren’t part of it. At least we aren’t calling people names, threatening their lives, or muttering under our breath.
I admit my stomach turned when I first heard the term “white supremacy” used to describe the culture of Unitarian Universalism and our institutions. But I’ve reconsidered that response.
White supremacy is way bigger than the way we’ve been trained to understand it. White supremacy is a way of thinking that devalues the experiences, insights and lived reality of people of color. The consequences of this thinking goes beyond an abstract state of mind and has the real life impact of denying people of color a real voice with real power. Rarely is this culture explicit or even conscious in liberal white communities. It is implicit and unconscious. This is why I totally believe that those responsible for the latest hires are fully convinced they did nothing wrong and were not acting out of racial bias. However they were unconsciously acting out of racial bias.
Naming this as an act of white supremacy is pretty scary but it is the right thing to do. It sure has shocked a lot of whites into paying attention. Calling what happened “implicit bias” gives it a pass. It makes it softer than what it actually is, the devaluing of people of color and the denial of authority and power to people of color.
We are being very brave to call it what it is. In fact, it sets us apart from most liberal institutions which are in complete denial about the power of racism to shape their decisions and their processes. There is not one institution in this country that is not shaped by white supremacy, and that includes institutions run by people of color. We have all been indoctrinated into white supremacy thinking. Therefore there is no reason to feel shame or fear. It is not your fault. You are not stained. We are not irredeemable. Our Universalist heritage says that no one is left behind. Let’s anchor in that promise. I implore you to resist your urge to run away or to distance yourself from the term. Stay with us. Bend into the task at hand. Dare to be vulnerable.
Are there people who will stop giving financially because we are going down this path? You better believe it. They already are. Accept their decision and move on. Are there white people who will leave our churches over this? You bet. Accept their choice and trust that they will be held somewhere else. Are there people who will choose not to visit UU churches because of this difficult road we are walking? You bet. Not everyone is up to the task at hand. Unitarian Universalism was never for the faint of heart and that is as true today as it has been throughout our history.
But if you want to journey into wholeness, if you want to live into the transformative pain and possibility of this one incredible life you are living, if you want to experience a community that doesn’t shy away from calling truth to power, then Unitarian Universalism is for you and I welcome you into this time, this place, and this faith. This is an incredible opportunity we have and I want people like you sitting at the table of compassion and justice. #faithoverfear

June 22, 2017

I’m reflecting on the difference between saying your sorry and asking for forgiveness. Just saying you’re sorry means you get to keep your power. You decide when you’re going to do it and what you’re going to say.

Asking for forgiveness means being vulnerable and taking the risk that the person from whom you’ve asked forgiveness isn’t ready to give it. It means being ready for an answer that you may not have expected, an answer that may continue to ask something from you in addition to what you’ve offered and asked for.
We have multiple people in our association who expressed apologies on their way out the door. The apology is appreciated and I’m going to trust that the apology is sincere. But there is a next part, and that is asking for forgiveness.  It means staying at the table, even if your place at the table has shifted, and taking the risk of staying vulnerable and open to the ones you have harmed and the unpredictability of their response. It means giving away your power.
Asking for forgiveness is way risker than saying you’re sorry.  This is what it means to anchor in a brave space, rather than a safe space.

#faithoverfear

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Memorial Day for Pacifists

This is the sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI on Memorial Weekend, 2017j.  Thank you to Bob who gave me permission to share his story as I understand it.

Children’s Sermon

This weekend is Memorial Day, when we traditionally remember American soldiers who died in combat, meaning they died on the battlefield.  Memorial Day started after the Civil War, when this country went to war with itself and they fought about the future of the country and the future of slavery, when Blacks were enslaved by Whites, meaning they were owned by whites and worked for free for whites.

 

The Civil War lasted a long time and was a horrible experience   America was 31,000 000 people at the beginning of the Civil War.

There are estimates that 650 000 soldiers died in that war, and that 210 000 non-military people, meaning women, men who didn’t fight, and children, also died as a result of the war, usually from hunger or disease. This means that 1 in every 36 people in the United States died during the Civil War. Everyone loved someone who didn’t make it.

After the Civil war ended, it felt really important not to forget those people and they were looking for ways to grieve them.

Do you know what it means to grieve? It means that you are hurting inside because someone you love has died. It’s a special kind of hurt. When someone dies because they were killed in war, that is a special kind of grief that hurts the same and different.

After the Civil War, everyone was grieving someone.  No one wanted that kind of war to happen ever again on American soil. When it started, no one thought it would last that long or that so many people would die.

That is how Memorial Day started, because no one wanted to forget and everyone wanted to find a way to come together and be sad together and find hope together.

Traditionally Memorial Day is a time to remember American soldiers who died in war. But we are also a nation of immigrants, and if we are going to respect all the different kinds of people who live here, it’s also important that we remember that many Americans have people they loved who died serving other countries. And, because as Unitarian Universalists, we are citizens of the world as much as we are citizens of a country, we also need to remember that people all over the world are dying in war. Every day.  We need to remember those people too.

And there’s more. The way we fight wars has changed. It used to be that the different armies met each other on a battlefield and fought each other until one army surrendered.   But in the last 100 years, most wars are fought where ordinary people live, in their towns and their neighborhoods, in public spaces, on public transit, at concerts and festivals, and that means that in many wars, more civilians are dying than soldiers.  We need to remember them too, because they are also casualties of war.

This morning, as citizens of the world, we are going to take some time to name people from our families or friendship circles – military and civilians – who died because of war. It could be people we knew personally, or relatives who died that we may have never met but whose stories were told to us so that we would remember and know who we are. Let’s take some time to honor those people. If you have more than one name, that is just fine. We will welcome all the names.

We’ll start with ringing a bell and then a very short time of silence to gather our thoughts and think about the names we want to share. Then I’ll ring the bell again and we will start. When we’ve finished, I’ll ring the bell again and we’ll have a moment of silence to honor all the names that have been spoken.

Silence and Naming

Spirit of Life, this day remembers and acknowledges loss and so do we remember those whom we have loved and lost. We hold their names and their faces in our mind’s eye. We recall the gifts they gave to us through the strength of their being, the depth of their love, the courage of their dying, and the fullness of their living.

In the Holy Quiet of this hour, their names surround us and they live with us in blessed memory. Amen

 

Adults’ Sermon

 About a week ago, on a southern Louisiana Friday morning, the last of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans was taken down. Hundreds gathered to witness and the crowd was divided, a no mans land between them. The larger group celebrated, sang, cheered, and danced because they believed that the monument of General Robert E. Lee was put up to intimidate African Americans claiming their freedom after the civil war, erected as the white south erased slavery as the central reason for the confederate cause, replacing it with chivalry, loyalty, honor, heritage and pride. This was done even as Jim Crow laws rebuilt slavery as much as possible without actually being slavery.

In the months leading up to that Southern Louisiana morning, Black New Orleanians spoke about driving, every day, by these symbols of the Confederacy honoring those who had fought to keep their ancestors enslaved. They spoke about the toll it took. There was no doubt that the monuments needed to be taken down.

The smaller group, all white, stood mostly silent, angry and bitter, anchored in the mythology of a lost golden age. They said the monuments were about loyalty and pride, honor and valor, heritage and history.

It took two years to get these monuments taken down. The bitterness, the competing loyalties, the different versions of history displayed the divisions of race and power that rule this country. New Orleans Mayor Landrieu, in a speech that went viral last week, emphasized the power of symbols to support or take down systems of oppression while emphasizing that removing symbols should never be confused with the real work.

And you might be asking, what could this possibly have to do with Memorial Day?

It actually has a whole lot to with Memorial Day.

Memorial Day began as a southern observance. There are many stories, some competing, about how it started. One features Charlottesville Virginia Confederate women going to the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers – their husbands, fathers, sons – and laying flowers. Then they also laid flowers on Union graves. The practice grew, spreading north, and Union women went to the graves of their husbands, fathers, sons – and laid flowers on Union and Confederate graves.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and became a way to foster unity in a country that was terribly divided. Everyone could grieve, together, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. In unity, they held up that every soldier who died left behind a grieving family. And, it is certainly true that every soldier who died had years of living and loving stolen from them and their death broke the hearts of those who still lived.

It is also true that this unity was sought by white America – Union and Confederate – by pushing back the overarching reason for the war and raising up that soldiers on both sides died serving their country, serving a noble cause. It supported the rewriting of history happening south of the Mason-Dixon line. Decoration Day minimized that Confederate soldiers had been fighting to preserve the right of whites to brutalize and own blacks. The history of Memorial Day is one more example of how whites minimize the suffering of people of color in the search for unity. In reality it is not unity because it continues the violence against those who bear the brunt of oppression.

So there’s a connection between Memorial Day and those Confederate monuments. North and South both whitewashed the true reasons for the war in the pursuit of unity, whitewashed that the South was fighting for the right to continue the brutal enslavement of African Americans, held up a false unity that ignored the continued brutalization of black communities and black bodies. This positioned the White South to rewrite their loss as a tragedy, with themselves as the deposed gentlemen of a lost cause, while they simultaneously enacted all those Jim Crow Laws. And the White North said nothing, did nothing, believing it had done its duty by ending slavery.

 

So why raise all this stuff on a weekend that is known more commonly as the beginning of summer? The kids are finally out of school, vacation is here, hoards of us take to the great outdoors and the rest of us get the best deals on those Memorial Day mattress and appliance sales! Very few of us actually observe the day as it was meant to be observed. It’s a time for bbq’s, family, and sunshine. So why go there?

 

This is why. As Unitarian Universalists, we are a people committed to integrity and truth telling. We often say that the truth sets us free. Unitarian Universalism values doubt and questioning as spiritual practices that lead us towards truth. There is nothing that cannot be questioned except that we hold compassion and freedom as the essence of being human, and that we must live at all times with respect for that radical interdependence of all things. Everything else is up for grabs, otherwise we turn too much stuff into idols, worshiping what is transient and rather than enduring.

This resistance to dogmas, to creeds, to idols and our commitment to truth as a path to freedom creates a healthy ambivalence towards anything that we are asked to simply accept.

I have experienced, you may have as well, among American Unitarian Universalists, that some of us have a complicated relationship with patriotism. This struggle has become keener since November when white nationalism was used win the Presidency. We have experienced patriotism being used as a tool to harden people against each other. There is tremendous social pressure to adopt a patriotism rooted in American exceptionalism, which disrespects other nations and peoples by loudly trumpeting American superiority. This kind of patriotism is not consistent with Unitarian Universalist values.  It is not rooted in a deep compassion for all of life.

So I have some questions. To what are we called to direct our compassion? What does it mean to honor our Unitarian Universalist faith and love a country? How do we honor those who die in battle and hold up that not all battles are rooted in values that affirm life?

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say where I am coming from when I ask these questions. I was raised Mennonite, and in the Mennonite faith in its purest form, it is forbidden to love a country. Patriotism is a sin against God and we are never to let love of country supersede love for God. So the whole idea of asking God to bless a country? Blasphemy. Pledging allegiance to a flag or putting your hand over your heart to sing the national anthem? Idolatry. When patriotism becomes akin to religion and is then used to stoke public sentiment for military action, it is an abuse of faith. While I am no longer a practicing Mennonite, the teachings are in me and I have brought them to my Unitarian Universalist faith. I don’t believe that patriotism is a sin, I do believe you can love a country, but I firmly believe that no patriotism should ever supersede our commitment to living our principles. There is no nation higher than our core values of compassion and freedom. No nation has the right to demand blind allegiance, to define what allegiance is, or expect us to betray our values in the name of allegiance. Our love of nation should always be conditional.  Our commitment to our values should never be compromised.

At this time in Unitarian Universalism, we are in a place of waking up to how white supremacy culture is embedded in our beliefs and our institutions and our nation. Since the Ferguson Uprising, when black leaders took the streets protesting the death of Michael Brown, police brutality and a racist criminal justice system, Unitarian Universalist people of color are insisting that white Unitarian Universalists, if they are committed to solidarity with people of color, face the truth that whiteness is centered in how Unitarian Universalism happens and that this deeply impacts people of color in our congregations.

Whiteness is centered in the way patriotism happens in the United States, and the white experience shaped how Memorial Day started and what it has become. To be in solidarity with people of color means waking up to these realities and making new choices.

So to what are we called to direct our compassion? What does it mean to love a country that is rooted in white supremacy culture? How do we honor our Unitarian Universalist values, give our thanks to those who have died in our battles and hold up that every battle that has ever claimed American lives has been wed to goals that both affirm life and deny it?

I want to tell you about a man whose journey, I think, offers a way to walk into these dilemmas and find some of that truth that leads to freedom.

Bob is a member of the congregation I serve in Quincy IL where 25% of the members are veterans or family of veterans. Most of those who served in combat have PTSD. I visit Bob almost every time I’m in Quincy. He’s a Marine. He served two tours in Vietnam as a Staff Sergeant, leading his troops deep into battle. Bob always wears his Vietnam Vet cap and his Marine jacket. He runs the War Museum at the Veterans Home. His identity is shaped by being a veteran.

Bob also believes that the War was an abuse of American military power. We had no right being there. He is haunted by memories and burdened by the deaths he witnessed. He speaks of the abuses committed by his troops. He struggles with how his valuing of human life changed while he served and the choices he was compelled to make through those mutated values. Vietnam is the raw matter of his life woven into a tapestry of regrets.

Bob returned from Vietnam and served as a police chief, a CIA officer and a professor of criminology. He is convinced of the complete corruption of our government and law enforcement. He struggles to find the good in humanity.

And yet, he comes to worship every Sunday, wearing his Vietnam Vet cap and his Marine jacket. Despite his cynicism about human nature he is loyal to a religious community that celebrates the human spirit and promises itself to compassion, justice and truth. Bob is kind and generous.

What I have learned from knowing Bob is that it is a shallow thing to honor those who have served and be silent about the goals of the combat itself. To raise up Bob as a hero erases his moral struggle and the truth that thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died because America flexed its muscle and couldn’t figure out how to stop flexing it.

This is the thing. Military might cannot create peace, freedom and democracy; it cannot end ethnic hatred or racism, otherwise racism would have ended with the civil war. Military might can achieve strategic goals. Sometimes it can provide a container for change, it can stop people from killing each other, but it does not create justice.  Justice doesn’t happen at the end of the barrel of a gun . It happens in relationships of equals – in council chambers and kitchen tables, in the workplaces and schools, in our friendships and our congregations.

So let’s go back to those Confederate monuments which attempted to honor those who fought on the Confederate side by erasing the truth of their objectives.  Let’s remember that this is the original context for our modern Memorial Day celebrations which hold up the sacrifice of those who died in battle without holding up the complexity of the goals of those wars.

I propose that we continue to hold the utmost compassion for all who lost their lives in war, and that the magnitude of the loss escalates when those lives were lost pursuing objectives that defy compassion, virtue and reason. To be a compassionate people means to center the voices of those most impacted by those objectives. Think of those Confederate monuments, whose story should be centered?   The Confederate soldiers who died protecting slavery, or African Americans who had been held in the terror of slavery for centuries and who are still held in the terror of state sanctioned violence?

This is a different kind of love for country. A different kind of compassion for those who serve. It is a different kind of patriotism, which calls in rather than separates and divides, which carries us into paradox rather than a simplistic unity that erases suffering and inequality.

This is, perhaps, part of the truth that will set us free.

 

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No Longer Business as Usual

In the months of April and May, more than 660 Unitarian Universalist congregation have risen to the challenge offered by Black and Brown Unitarian Universalists to explore how white supremacy culture has shaped our faith.  This is what we did on Sunday, May 7 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL.  You may use any of my words, with full attribution.

White Supremacy Teach-In, May 7, 2017

The Unitarian Church of Quincy IL

Rev. Krista Taves

Opening Words

We are here to face the truth, about ourselves, about this faith we love, and the ways it presently serves others and the world, as well as to open ourselves to ways it can better, and more joyfully, reflect our potential and core values.

We want to know the ways we are bond to one another, as well as to the larger religious movements normally beyond our sight and vision.

We say we are open and diverse , yet it is too easy to feel stuck in old paths and stubborn habits reflecting not so much tradition as our comfort.

We want to answer the call to service, to a world that needs our message, our hope, our revived energy.

We are gathered to learn, to unlearn, to hear, and to move forward.

(Stephen Kendrick.)

 

Message:

No Longer Business as Usual

Reflection 1 – White Supremacy in Liberal Institutions? How could that be? –

Rev. Krista Taves

Unitarian Universalism is an aspirational faith. We lean into the vision of beloved community that is yet to be. If you look at our seven principles (they are in the front of the grey hymnal), they are a statement of who we are called to become and the world we believe should be. Our deep awareness of the gap between who we are now and who we wish to become, that gap provides the motivating compassion-filled energy of our collective spiritual journey.

Another defining feature of Unitarian Universalism is that we proclaim the transformative potential of humanity, that we, together, have the capability to transform the hells of this world into heaven on earth. This is what we proclaim, so we are an optimistic hopeful religion.

What this means is that we are called to a high level of integrity to look into that gap without blinders, because the gap was created by us. The truth is that we humans do unimaginable harm. We are the authors of the hells on this earth. It is sobering, the cruelty we can heap upon each other and the earth.

But to be honest, historically, this shadow side of humanity is something that Unitarian Universalism really struggles with. We have easily held up our goodness and stopped there, often shying away from looking at the ways we contribute to evil. We have a profoundly inadequate theology of sin. We don’t even like the word. And there’s a good reason why this has come to be.

Many Unitarian Universalists come from shame-based religious traditions that traumatized us. Even if we were born Unitarian Universalist, we were often immersed in a larger culture that was dominated by shame-based religious traditions. We don’t want to hear about sin.   We don’t want to hear about how we’ve fallen short because it so easily brings back those feelings of shame and guilt. This is understandable, in the short run. But in the long run, we end up running from our call to be people of integrity. By running away to protect ourselves from feeling shame, we project sin as somewhere out there and not possibly in us. When we do this, our faith becomes irrelevant and cheap and we are unable to rise to the task of looking into the gaps we have created.

If we are going to be true to our aspirational Unitarian Universalist faith, we have to have the courage to approach the totality of our human condition, and that includes both how each one of us is precious and good, and how we cause incredible harm. We do this by anchoring ourselves in our 7th principle, which is that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence. The interdependent web holds the things that are beautiful and destructive. We can’t ever approach the beloved community until we are willing to engage in a full reckoning with our part in systems of evil that keep wounding all of life.

And that brings us to the subject of today, which is the power of white supremacy culture in our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. We are joining more than 660 Unitarian Universalist congregations across America who will dedicate a service this spring to this very challenging and important discussion.

This may seem like a far-fetched suggestion, that white supremacy could possibly live in our liberal religious tradition. Aren’t Unitarian Universalists the good guys? Many of our religious ancestors were leaders in the anti-slavery movement and 2/3rds of our ministers marched in Selma. In the 1960s, members of this congregation became go-betweens, buying homes in white areas of Quincy and selling to black families to try and end housing segregation. Today this congregation has a strong partnership with Teen Reach, which provides free after school programming for children in poverty. Most of their students are black. When state funds dried up because of the budget impasse, we stepped in and have provided financial and volunteer support to Teen Reach. We have a long and proud tradition of being on the right side of history.   So white supremacy couldn’t possibly apply to us, right? The thought is horrifying!

And… seems to pull us back into that shame and guilt so many of us escaped in our churches of origin.

And yet, Black and Brown Unitarian Universalists, our people, are imploring us to consider that white supremacy is much more than confederate flags and white hoods. When we confine white supremacy culture to its most offensive and overt manifestation, we can point to the problem as being over there.   Not also here. And that means we are blind to the ways that we continue the oppression of people of color right in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in our church.

There’s a different definition of white supremacy that places it along a continuum. There is a diagram included in your order of service, the one with the triangle. (See the link at the bottom of this post). At the top of the triangle is overt organized white supremacy, and at the bottom the denial of the presence of racism, with most white supremacist culture being in the bottom part of the triangle, often implicit, subtle, and unconscious. In America, it is the air that we breathe and it lives here, it lives in our city, it lives in every institution in America.

This morning, we are asking ourselves to consider that white supremacy culture lives in each of our hearts and in our congregation. The goal is not to make anyone feel guilty. The goal is not to shame anyone by saying, “This is what you are doing wrong!” There is no room in Unitarian Universalism for shame and guilt. They are the tools of oppression and are used to keep us from looking into the gap. But as Americans and immigrants, we are called to understand that white supremacy culture has been done to us. It is a form of violence that we have been taught. This means we are no lesser humans, not tainted, not dirty, not damned because it lives in us. It is a form of violation that has been done to us.

Two years ago at our General Assembly in Portland, Cornel West, an African American scholar and theologian, spoke to us about white supremacy and the work we have to do. This is a short clip from his lecture:

Cornel West.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iAHrgirE7I , 20:03 – 22:55

If Cornel West, a renowned black scholar and theologian who has been preaching and teaching for decades, can admit before 1000s of Unitarian Universalists that white supremacy culture lives in him, we have permission to approach our own white supremacy thinking without shame, without judgment, without feeling like we are guilty or tainted. White supremacy culture was imposed on us from the time we were born. It was a violation of us.

And, as anyone who is a victim of violence knows, while you are not responsible for what happened to you, you are responsible for your own healing. If you don’t take that responsibility, the likelihood that you will then turn and do violence to yourself or to another human being rises exponentially. If we don’t take responsibility for the wounding that has been done to us by white supremacy culture, we then become the bearers of white supremacy culture and we continue to build hell on earth and frustrate our yearning for the beloved community.

So, this morning, holding tight onto the truth of our preciousness and the tragedy of the many ways we fall short, let us prepare for this journey with a moment of silence and reflection:

SILENCE

Reading:

Kenny Wiley is a Black Unitarian Universalist religious educator. He has been active at the national level in our association for many years and has emerged as one of the most thoughtful and prophetic black leaders in Unitarian Universalism.

“Who are my people?” by Kenny Wiley

I am a proud lifelong Unitarian Universalist.

I am also black.

I love being Unitarian Universalist—I think.

I love being black—I know.

During college I joined a UU congregation. They were thrilled to have me, and I them. There were also only two black men active in the church, and the other gentleman’s first name was my last. Though he was older than my father, it took some folks two years to stop getting us confused. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes it hurt, but it always reminded me that I was not fully at home.

In Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue, UU minister Rosemary Bray McNatt relays the story of the time she talked with Coretta Scott King.

Mrs. King told Rev. Bray McNatt, “I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston. …We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”

Night after night I read that passage. Night after night I wept.

I cried because I understood why they would choose to root themselves in a black church, and with a suffering God who could help black people and tell them He would never forsake them or give up on them, even in death.

I teared up because I’ve often wished I could leave Unitarian Universalism. Sometimes I feel so alone because of race. I need church, though; almost by default, this faith is my religious home. I believe in God, but don’t call God ‘He.’ Unless Jesus somehow finds me, I cannot in good conscience join a Christian church.

Experience has taught me that being black and UU means feeling great most of the time, yet waiting for the next microaggression, the next moment of non-belonging. It is to feel profoundly uncomfortable in the midst of the familiar.

I [have figured] out how to navigate a mostly white society that [accepts] me quite warmly, so long as I [do] little to rock the boat. … Talking about race with many white Unitarian Universalists too often means shouldering their insecurities, patiently answering their questions, making the fight for racial justice appear warm and inviting.

It isn’t.

The harrowing truth is that I could be the next Mike Brown. My household had two parents. I have a college degree and a job. My pants don’t sag. When I’m out protesting or canvassing, though, none of that matters. I cannot opt out of blackness, and I do not want to. In the wrong situation my respectable nature may not save me—from a racist police officer or citizen, nor from the ensuing character assassination. I would go from the decent, reasonably friendly guy some of you know to a mentally deranged Harvard dropout who was “no angel” and deserved what he got.

I know some of my people—black people—would come to my defense. Some UUs and other friends would, too. But would there be a broad movement on my behalf? Or would faith members send my dad and sisters thoughts and prayers before moving on?

These questions keep me up at night.

Unitarian Universalists, you are my people. And UUs, my ‘other’ people—of which some of you are—need you. We need you to show up. We need you to listen and go beyond platitudes. We can all do something—something beyond what we thought we could do.

(adapted from the original: https://kennywiley.com/2014/10/15/who-are-my-people-a-black-unitarian-universalist-on-selma-and-ferguson/

Reflection Questions:

1) What was it like for you to hear the experience of one of our people, a Black Unitarian Universalist?

2) What needs to change in our congregation so that people of color can truly become part of the us, and claim this faith and this congregation as white Unitarian Universalists do?

3) What can you offer to make this so? What would you need to relinquish?

 

Let us enter into a time of silence.

 

Musical Interlude – “I Need You To Survive” – The anthem of Black Unitarian Universalists, video clip from General Assembly 2016.

http://www.uua.org/ga/past/2016/worship/closing 35:50-43:45

 

Reflection 2 – No Longer Business as Usual. How we build the courage to see white supremacy thinking in ourselves, in Unitarian Universalism, and in our Congregation. Rev. Krista Taves

 

What was it like for you to hear the story of one of our people? Did you know that it is very common for black and brown Unitarian Universalists to have ongoing, painful, shame-inducing engagements with white Unitarian Universalists? There are even support groups for Unitarian Universalist people of color so that they can survive in our faith. It became even more difficult for Black Unitarian Universalists after Ferguson because so many white Unitarian Universalists were in denial about the reality of police brutality which shapes black lives on a daily basis. Black UUs desperately wanted their White UU people to say, “We are with you and will go to the streets for you,” and the response was far too often to question and criticize and doubt their stories.

And again, I want to say, none of this is to create shame and guilt. Nor is it to damn us or Unitarian Universalism. White supremacy lives in every institution in America. Its presence is not the damning factor, but rather a refusal to be truthful about it. We don’t need shame and denial. We need courage and conviction.

Part of the Beloved Conversations Curriculum that we’ve just finished was to help us uncover own white supremacist assumptions so we can experience ourselves, our congregation, and our community in a new light. This is how Mike Flanagan came to uncover a different meaning in the Heritage window, one that does not center whiteness, but rather blackness and brownness. That window was intended to connect this congregation to the founding of America. And yet it sends a message to those who have experienced America as a conqueror. Maybe we need to have a plaque that offers an indigenous perspective on that picture.

Then there is the stained glass window behind the pulpit of the Indian Burial Mound, which is in Quincy. The intent of the window, and a noble intent it was, was to indicate respect for the Native peoples who lived here. It is also true that whites came to Quincy after forced Native resettlement created the room for westward expansion. Perhaps we need to ask if this window, much less one depicting a burial ground which is all that remains of centuries of Native life here, is enough to indicate our respect? We are a faith of covenant and right relationship. Are we in relationship with Native people? What about reparations? Native Americans have the highest poverty, suicide, and unemployment rates of any racial group in America and this is a direct result of centuries of violence to make way for white settlement. This peaceful picture, despite its very noble intentions, erases the cruelty that paved the way for this church to be established in Quincy.

The answer isn’t to hang our heads in shame. That’s actually too easy because then we get to be paralyzed and do nothing. Even worse we might lash back in rejection and do more harm. The answer is to own this history, not run from it or deny it, because engaging the truth of our white supremacy indoctrination with authenticity and an open heart and mind is how we will dismantle it. When we own this history, there is one less barrier for UU people of color to embrace this as home. That is the only way for us to live with integrity.

Here are some other examples of how white supremacy culture lives in Unitarian Universalism. The fact that the first principle is the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the last is the interdependent web of all existence, is a manifestation of white supremacy culture. Whites are trained to see themselves as individuals first and part of a group second. Our privilege allows whites to experience themselves as unique and exceptional. People of color tend to experience themselves as part of a group first and as individuals second. By holding up the primacy of the individual as the first principle, people of color are being told which racial world view they have to accept to be part of us. Imagine how different the principles would feel if we reversed them and read every principle through the lens of the interdependent web.   In fact, this could bring a great deal of healing as we try to respond to a nation that is being ripped apart by rabid consumerist individualism.

Another example is our grey hymnal. Every hymn of European origin is identified only by its author and name. Every hymn from a non-European composer identifies the culture or race. The grey hymnal also privileges traditional classically-based hymns that are European in origin. This sends the message that white is the norm that does not need to be identified and tells UU people of color that they’ll never quite be considered part of the “us.” Imagine how different it would feel for all of us if every white author was also identified by their race.

Again, this is not to create guilt or shame. It’s to help us develop a new perspective and to make new choices. I don’t know that the answer is to stop singing our white hymns or stop admiring our white pictures. It’s to recognize them as a product of our white supremacy culture. This is what it means to live with integrity and love.

Let’s also recognize that white supremacy doesn’t just hurt people of color. We are all violated by it. The cost to people of color is their dignity and far too often their lives. The cost to whites is that we live in fear and shame. I asked some of our Beloved Conversations participants, all of whom are white, what white supremacy culture costs them.

From D: Loss of peace of mind. A sense of separation.  Never reaching full potential.  Limited view of beauty, grace and intelligence.  Intensified narcissism.  Confinement.

From K: My world is smaller and I lose connection to people who could enrich my life because both of us aren’t our authentic selves.

From A: White supremacy culture costs me fear. I have been afraid of black people my entire life. They have so often been portrayed as ignorant, violent, and angry with white people. It is also understood in our culture that black men often prefer white women, especially blondes, which creates more tension (I have personal experience with this). So I have often felt vulnerable and afraid when interacting with black people; I’ve usually felt that I just can’t say or do the right thing. I also felt like a target for assault because as a white woman living alone, I was quite vulnerable.”

From T: White supremacy culture … costs me my awareness. As someone who is white, I don’t always think about how things operate around me. My awareness heightens when I see someone find it difficult to navigate in a setting or situation. The positive thing is that now I am getting better at recognizing and assisting if it is needed/wanted. Earlier in my life and experiences I would have noticed that someone was having difficulty and helped, but I wouldn’t have really thought or understood the ‘why’. It’s also made evident when I am in a setting that is outside the white culture and I have to watch and learn how to operate. However, I always know that when I’m uncomfortable that I can leave and go back to my comfort zone. That isn’t the case for someone of another culture.

What are we hearing here? Loss of relationships. Limited living. Loneliness. Fear. Vulnerability. Misunderstanding the world around us.

I imagine that we are all wondering what can we do to get out of this? How do we rise above this toxic air that we’re all breathing?

We’re going to end our time together with a homily offered by Leslie Mac, who is a leader in the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective. I think she has something important to offer us:

 

http://www.uua.org/ga/past/2016/worship/closing

28:15 – 35:34

 

My friends, there is no quick fix. There is no lesson that will teach us how to no longer be hurtful. What we have is our values of integrity, fairness, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, persistence. We need to be patient but determined. Our primary value is Love. To use the words of Leslie Mac, “Love and self-love is what we should strive to practice in everything we do. Love must be the driver of our work and an indicator of its successes.” Love will give us the courage to live with integrity, the courage to stop hurting each other, the courage to move together towards that Beloved Community that we aspire to.

Amen and blessed be.

 

Closing Words

 

Hope rises.

 

It rises from the heart of life here and now, beating with joy and sorrow.

 

Hope longs.

 

It longs for good to be affirmed, for justice and love to prevail, for suffering to be alleviated, and for life to flourish in peace.

 

Hope acts.

 

It acts to bless, to protest, to repair.

 

(John A. Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker, Adapted)

 

The White Supremacy Culture Diagram can be found here, about half way through the document: https://radicalcopyeditor.com/2017/04/21/white-supremacy/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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White Supremacy in my beloved faith community

As a white Unitarian Universalist minister I am compelled by our Unitarian Universalist living tradition to speak out about the power of white supremacy in our beloved faith tradition and why I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I not only want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions, I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color at every level of congregational and denominational involvement, particularly in leadership positions invested with decision-making authority.

 
In my 13 years of ordained ministry, I have sadly experienced only one situation in which I was privileged to work with a professional of color in parish ministry. In this one situation, we were fortunate to bring a young biracial woman to serve as our Director of Religious Education. She was in her last year of a Masters of Education and was highly qualified for the position. It became clear that having a person of color in a visible leadership position had the immediate result of more people of color visiting the congregation and considering membership. In one year the number of people of color participating in congregational life more than doubled.

 
However, from the beginning of her tenure, her ability to do the work was compromised by the attitudes and behaviors of whites in the congregation. She experienced ongoing racial microaggressions. There were comments first about her clothing and hair. Her clothing was too flamboyant. Her hair was untamed. As the year went on, she began dressing and styling her hair more conservatively, more typical white middle class, to try and avoid the comments.

 

She often experienced being spoken to as if she were child. Ideas she offered in committee meetings were dismissed and then adopted by others and presented as their own. When she expressed sentiments or opinions using excitement, joy, passion, or urgency, you could see the room grow quiet and uncomfortable, with many eyes averted. The approach to her shifted from patronizing to withdrawal and discomfort.

Mid-year she attended a district sponsored religious educators training and came back ready to quit. She was the only person of color in the training. The trainer’s use of story as a tool of teaching was replete with instances of cultural misappropriation. Our DRE attempted to respond to this and was shut down. Other class participants tokenized her as the only poc in the room and in one painful instance, asked her pointed questions about her racial identity that indicated assumptions about her background and life experience based on racial stereotypes.

I contacted my colleagues and asked for help. I was able to connect her to another religious professional of color to provide emotional support and connect her to other professionals of color.

After the training experience, I noticed a decrease in her work performance. Her continuous experience of being disempowered had taken its toll and she could no longer give the best of herself to the position. To her credit, she was very open with me about her experience and the two of us developed a plan to bring Building the World We Dream About to the congregation in the following year.

But it was too late. She handed in her resignation at the end of the year. As part of processing her departure, I asked those who worked with her to consider the choices made during her tenure. I provided concrete examples of racial microaggressions that she had experienced. While no one outright denied these had taken place, the preference was to focus on her diminishing work performance without an understanding of what had contributed to it. Not surprisingly, after her departure, many of the people of color who had begun attending the congregation left. The congregation was restored to its previous racial makeup.

This is one story but it is repeated throughout our association, in every congregation to one degree or another. In this way our congregations still manifest a culture of white supremacy.

It is critical for the integrity of our faith tradition to intentionally diversify our leadership at all levels. The life experiences of those outside the socialization of whiteness is of the utmost importance for Unitarian Universalism to manifest its full transformative potential. But, without deliberately engaging in counter-oppression and anti-racism strategies and consciously naming and unraveling the power of white supremacy in our liberal religious tradition, our predominantly white membership has, can and will disempower people of color in positions of power over and over. Their leadership will be questioned and deconstructed in ways that whites never have to contend with. This is why it is vitally important that white leaders who are committed to solidarity stay hypervigilant and use our privilege to counter the ongoing stream of racial microaggressions that will be directed at those leaders.

What is most disconcerting to me is the response of the UUA leadership to the challenges that are before us now in the most recent hire to the Southern Regional Lead position. There are attempts to separate the larger systemic issues from the specific hire thereby generalizing the issue, allowing the decision makers to stay in a comfortable unaccountable place and erase the real impact of the recent decision on people of color. Those challenging the UUA to look at its practices as a manifestation of white supremacy have been labeled hysterical and reactive by our president, Peter Morales. This is troubling disempowering language. Furthermore the assumption that our congregations and our associational structures cannot be white supremacy in action because we aren’t the Aryan Nation makes the mistake of defining white supremacy as only present in explicit racism, the kind of racism that we see in footage from the Civil Rights Movement. White liberal racism is just as powerful and just as insidious. Denying its presence is incredibly damaging and sets us back.

What is taking place is no different than the silence and discomfort of the leaders in that small congregation as they systemically disempowered the DRE. All serve to continue the spiritual violence. I would demand of the UUA that they stop running from this. Stop making excuses. Stop minimizing. Stop distracting. What you have been offered in the criticism that is coming your way is a gift if you can see it as such. You have the opportunity to demonstrate in your words and deeds that people of color can take the risk of speaking the truth of their experience in the culture of the association you lead and not face continued aggression. So far you’ve fallen far short. It’s not too late to change course.

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An Act of Mercy or Malice? The AHCA and the Republican Mindset

When Paul Ryan introduced his health care bill to the American people, he called it “An Act of Mercy.” US Representative Joe Kennedy III challenged Ryan, saying that the Republican Health Care proposal was an “act of malice.”

Most liberals and progressives implicitly understood the moral underpinnings of Kennedy’s criticism. It’s why the story was retweeted and shared millions of times on social media and has become the subject of countless memes. Here’s how the argument goes:

The Republican Health Care Bill is bad because it will leave 24 million without health insurance.  It will strip away subsidies for health insurance premiums, limit Medicaid funds, and take away many of the price controls and protective regulations imposed by the ACA. 24 million people without health insurance is a bad thing. Increasing premiums for older people is a bad thing. Allowing insurance companies to offer poorer quality health insurance (often called catastrophic health insurance) rather than the high quality health insurance provided through ACA is bad. Having a higher mortality rate because fewer people have insurance is a bad thing. These things are bad because more human beings will suffer and die.  Therefore it’s a bad bill.

For progressives, holding up the inevitable suffering that the Republican Health Care Bill will cause is sufficient and seems obvious.  But, our arguments largely fall on deaf ears and it baffles us.  How, we ask, can Republicans be so blind? How can they be so cruel, we charge?  To use Kennedy’s criticism, how can they be so filled with malice?

The thing is, they aren’t blind. Republicans knew the impact of their health care bill before the CBO crunched the numbers. They knew millions would lose insurance, they knew premiums would rise, they knew the quality of insurance for poor and middle class people would decline, they knew that removing the mandate to cover pre-existing conditions would lead to pre-mature deaths, and they knew that morality rates and medical bankruptcies would rise. But they don’t see these realities as cruel.   In all likelihood they see a bill that strips 24 million people of insurance as a true act of mercy.

The most important thing to remember about the conservative mindset is that most suffering is considered the result of moral failure, especially when that suffering is a result of poverty and financial hardship.  Once you understand this , the basis of their immovability before pleas of compassion becomes clear.

Republicans and conservatives range from ambivalent to outright hostile about social programs aimed at alleviating poverty and inequity because in the conservative mindset, social programs bail out the poor for their bad and immoral choices. This continuous bailing out creates a reward for immoral behavior. It keeps people from facing the consequences of their moral failings.

 

Personal wealth, on the other hand, is a sign that you are of higher moral standing. You are wealthy because you make good moral choices. You should be rewarded for your moral superiority. When you are taxed to pay for social programs, your money is being stolen to support the lazy people who make poor choices.

Let’s play with this moral framework by looking at some of the legislative issues before Congress right now.

  • 24 million people losing health insurance because of the AHCA.  If people need help paying for health insurance, obviously they have made mistakes. The sooner we stop bailing them out, the sooner they will face the consequences of their poor choices. If they can’t pay for medical bills, it’s because they made poor choices. If they can only afford catastrophic health insurance, it’s because they aren’t working hard enough. If they die because they don’t have insurance, the death is acceptable because that person was facing the consequences of their poor choices.

 

  • Cutting funding for Meals on Wheels. Obviously these seniors didn’t save enough money for retirement. It is not our responsibility to pay for the mistakes they made. If their family is not helping them, then that person did a poor job of raising their children. Hunger is the consequence of poor choices. Perhaps the experience of hunger will lead them to make better choices and then they won’t be hungry anymore. It may also shame their families into taking care of them.

 

  • Cutting funding for free school lunch programs. These children are hungry because their parents made poor choices. If we feed these children the parents will be rewarded for their poor choices. Even worse, the children will watch their parents being rewarded for poor choices and will probably make those choices themselves as adults. When parents see their children go to bed hungry they will be shamed to start making better choices so that they can feed their children. When children understand that their hunger is their parents’ fault, they will be motivated to make better choices when they are adults. Child hunger can be a good thing.

 

  • Tax cuts for the wealthy. Inequity in wealth is a sign that there is a moral order at work in society. It is inevitable that some people will be rich and some will be poor. This is not a problem.  The moral order, in which those who make moral choices are rewarded with wealth and those who make immoral choices face poverty, is exactly as it should be.  Tax structures that reduce inequity therefore are immoral.  They punish the morally superior and reward the morally inferior.
  • Citizens United.  Wealth as a sign of moral superiority means that those who are wealthy should have the moral power to make choices about those who are poor.  Any controls on that power simply punish the morally superior.  Those without wealth are already morally inferior and thus are less equipped to lead.  Furthermore, it is the moral right of the successful to hold the fate of those below them in their hands. Any complaints from those who are less financially secure is simply another indicator of their moral inferiority and their addiction to getting others to pay their bills for them. Nothing they say has any value. It is only a function of their poor choices and consequent immorality.

 

  • Cutting funding for public schools. Public schools are for those who cannot pay for private schools. Those who cannot pay for private schools have made poor choices. The less money is put into public schools, the more parents will be motivated to make better choices to avoid sending their children there. Vouchers will help do that. By destabilizing funding for public education poor parents are no longer rewarded for their bad choices. We can instead direct that money to private schools and reward parents who make good choices.

 

By now you probably get the point. Conservatives view most legislation that aims to create equity and equality of opportunity as an immoral bandaid that allows people to keep making poor choices. As you strip away these bandaids, suffering will absolutely increase and is a sign that those who made poor choices are finally facing the consequences of their moral failing. Their suffering, even when it leads to death, is a moral cleansing necessary to create a morally just society. It is, to use Paul Ryan’s words, an act of mercy.

So what can we learn from this?  Holding up human suffering as a indicator that legislation is bad is not going to move most Republican legislators to change their minds. We might as well be talking to a wall.   They see their job as putting in place the mechanisms that help people face the full consequences of immoral choices. They see our complaints as an indicator of our moral inferiority and interpret our anxiety as a sign that we are resisting the moral responsibility to face the consequences of our poor choices.

How then do we lobby Republican legislators about legislation that progressives and liberals find morally abhorrent? At this point, I believe it is about changing the minds of the American people, not Republican legislators or their base. They have become so extreme that reasonable engagement is not an option. The only thing that moves them is the fear of losing political power.

We have to find a way to damage the Republican brand so that voting Republican comes to mean voting for cruelty and selfishness.  They are, unwittingly, providing a lot of fodder for us to do this if we have the courage to really play that hand.   Republicans are seriously overplaying their hand and deeply wounding those who voted for them.  They could face intensive anger at the polls.  If we can channel that anger into a moral framework that helps the American people truly understand what malice is and what mercy is, we have a chance to bring the current political nightmare to an end.

Most Americans are neither far-right or far-left. They are somewhere in the middle. In that middle, fairness is important. Kindness is important. Caring for each other is valued. Human suffering is our shared responsibility.   Only by inviting ordinary Americans into this moral framework can Republican cruelty be unmasked for what it is and stripped of its political power.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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No room for complacency. We have a puppet in the White House.

It’s become pretty clear that Russia interfered in the American presidential election in the hopes that Donald Trump would win.  Russian intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee emails for the purposes of damaging Hillary Clinton.  The effort succeeded, peeling off just enough votes to help The Donald pull ahead in key swing states by a mere 80,000 votes.  While Clinton won nationally by almost 3 million votes, those 80,000 votes in the right states landed Trump in the White House.  The Donald, of course, is downplaying this, even denying it, despite the fact that 13 federal agencies have confirmed Russian interference.  Most Republicans are wishing the story would go away because, after all, the interference helped them gain control of all three branches of government.  A few brave Republicans, like John McCain, are raising the alarm bells.  While McCain sold his soul for the chance to become president back in 2004, he is not backing way from this issue.  I am thankful for this.  If only Democrats demand answers, the Republicans could easily say that this is about sour grapes and Democrats licking their wounds from the drubbing they received in November.

What I’ve noticed, though, is that a lot of Americans, especially young Americans, aren’t really sure why this is a big deal.  There are the expected alt right (read “white supremacist”) and Trump supporters who are convinced by their own propaganda that reports of Russian interference is a big lie.  They are beyond reach and are believing what they want to believe.  But it’s people my age and younger who are my concern, Gen Xers and Millenials, right of center, moderate, liberal and progressive people who don’t seem to get how serious this is.

These are young people who have no memory of the Cold War, who didn’t grow up with the fear of being vaporized by a nuclear attack.  They didn’t grow up with school drills where you practiced huddling under your desk in the event of a nuclear attack (as if a desk could protect you, but if you were far enough away from the blast you wouldn’t be cut to shreds by windows blowing in over your head or be blinded by the flash of the explosion).

In the spirit of transparency, I didn’t either.  I was 20 when the Soviet Union imploded.  But what I have is family history.  My family are Mennonite and at the time of the Russian Revolution lived in Mennonite colonies in Southern Ukraine.  After the Russian Revolution, their status as landowners, as German, and as religious did them no favors.  Between 1917 and 1939, 75% of Mennonite men died, either at the hand of executioners, in prison, or in Siberian hard labor camps.  My great grandfather was sentenced to five years of hard labor in the 1930s for being a minister.  My grandfather and his brother were shipped north to Siberia in advance of the approaching German army with other Mennonite men, destined for labor camps where most would die.  They jumped the train figuring it was better to die fighting for freedom than to die imprisoned.  My family experienced starvation in the man-made famine in Soviet controlled Ukraine in the 1930s where 10 million died, in addition to collectivization, bread lines, Communist schools, and relatives-turned-informants.  To this day, my one surviving grandmother shudders when she sees a black car with tinted windows.

When the few Mennonites who survived came to Canada as refugees, most contact with relatives was cut off.  The odd letter was sent and received.  Some letters arrived with heavy black lines indicating that the letter had been read and censored.  Mostly, my family did not initiate contact, knowing that contact with the West could be mean surveillance, unemployment, prison, even death.   My mother’s family came in 1947 to Canada.  It took 12 years for my grandfather to receive notice that his mother had starved to death in a labor camp.  That’s just how it was.

With Gorbachev coming to power in the 1980s, and with the period of Glastnost he ushered in, my grandfather was able to bring his half brother over to Canada for a visit.  I will never forget my grandfather’s tears of joy and how they savored their shots of vodka before dinner.  They hadn’t seen each other in 50 years.  When the Soviet Union fell, the doors opened fully.  Some family relocated to Germany and there was much visiting between countries.  When I spent a summer in Germany as a young adult I was under strict orders to visit family in Bielefeld.  We began receiving regular letters from family who lived in Russia proper.  It was wonderful to be in touch.  There was so much hope for the new Russia, a Russia moving towards democracy and open markets.  These were good years.

It was also clear that we were very different people.  There was a haunted look in the eyes of family members who had lived under Communist rule.  There was often a hardness in their emotion.  Even once free, they were still careful not to feel too much and always to control their speech, their bodies, sometimes even their thoughts.  It’s hard to turn around a lifetime of conditioning ushered in by the reality of living under constant surveillance.

The transition to capitalism was hard and for some their standard of living fell.  We would get reports about the state of their gardens.  A good garden meant a good winter.  A bad garden meant a lean winter.  The open market hadn’t guaranteed food supplies or the income to afford groceries . A letter saying, “The potatoes did poorly this year,” would spur my grandparents to send money.   We learned that a cousin had served in the cleanup of Chernobyl and that he died of cancer within a few years.  We learned that relatives who worked in the mines sometimes weren’t getting paid.  Again, my grandparents would send money.  They were so thankful to be able to send money after years of no contact.  Family was everything to them.

Then Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official, rose to power.  Internationally, we heard about murdered journalists and opposition politicians and the imprisonment of Pussy Riot.  Privately, our family has experienced a gradual cooling in the communication from our relatives. The emails and letters first became more cryptic, less specific and detailed, less frequent.  Then they asked that my family stop sending money.  Now all communication has ceased.  We don’t know who has died, who has married, who is working where, who has children, who is living where, all the normal things that families share with each other.  We are once again separated.

A few years ago an uncle and aunt visited the Siberian village where my paternal grandmother was born.  They received subtle clues about the changes in politics and culture.  Academics are told certain research subjects are no longer appropriate.  There are certain books that have disappeared from the shelves.   This is not just happening because of edicts from above.  Ordinary people are proactively self-censoring to protect themselves from what could come.  This is being harder on the young than the old.  The young have no training to survive this and are having to learn how to curb the normal things that go with living free.  But for the old, they know what this means and they are resurrecting old survival skills.

News that Putin annexed Crimea was chilling.  After the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine, many of my North American family members joyfully returned to Ukraine to visit the former Mennonite colonies.  Tours took Mennonites through the old villages, schools, churches, cemeteries, and factories.  For many of my first generation immigrant relatives, going back was a way to finally say good bye properly to the country they fled in haste.  It gave many of them peace.  These visits have now virtually ceased.  It is no longer safe to go.

This is the Russian nation that is interfering in American elections.  And lest you protest that we are a long way from the atrocities of the Soviet Union to the Russia that exists today, I tell you, the signs are all there.  The same people are in charge.  We should be aghast that Russia attempted to sway our election and even more horrified that it succeeded.  We should know without a doubt what Russian support says about the man they favored for the White House, a man who uses the double speak typical of a fascist state, who hides his assets and his business connections, who has threatened to deport millions from American soil, who is questioning first amendment rights while valorizing second amendment rights, who wants to build a wall, who declines intelligence briefings and rejects those that he doesn’t like, who is the beneficiary of voter suppression unparalleled since Jim Crow, who surrounds himself with white supremacists and billionaires, and who has given his children security clearance.

If you are Gen X or Millenial, I strongly encourage you to pay attention.  We need to know what we are up against.  Under no circumstances should we minimize the significance of Russian involvement in Trump’s rise to political power.  We need to pressure our elected representatives unceasingly to continue the investigation into Russian involvement.  We need to watch the Republicans who claim to be pushing for investigations very carefully.  They may very well make it look like they are doing something concrete while actually creating a diversion from the truth.  We have to keep the heat where the heat needs to be, on the Russian-supported administration that will soon gain access to the White House.  We need to draw on all hallmarks of our democracy to shine a piercing light on those who have taken power.  We need to keep repeating over and over that Donald Trump does not have a mandate.    There is no mandate when your power is secured using the illegal resources of a foreign power with a terrible track record on human rights.

To use the words of Hillary Clinton, we have a puppet in the White House.   It’s up to us to cut the strings animating that puppet.

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Christmas, Hannukah, Solstice: A Thousand Years (give or take) of Resistance

I know from my facebook and twitter feeds that a lot of us are finding it hard to connect to the holiday spirit this year.  I am one of those white women who was shocked that Hillary Clinton lost the election, and while I know part of this was my own ignorance and my underestimation of the power of racism and xenophobia in our nation, I’m still often overcome with disillusionment, I struggle to sleep at night, and find myself having to withdraw from social media because it triggers me into bouts of anxiety.

Where we are is not normal.  I think it’s important to name things correctly and not be lulled into false complacency.   We are in a tenuous time and there is a legitimate hesitancy for many of us to join the revelry for fear that we will take our eye off the ball and lose traction in the resistance that is calling us to its name.

So I uncharacteristically put off decorating for the holidays.  I live in the reddening Midwest and I didn’t want to add my lights to those that voted for the President Elect.  Petty, maybe.  But it’s how I felt.

This is the thing though, Christmas is one of my favorite holidays.  I love the music, the food, the decorations, the tree, the lights.  Our family has rich Christmas traditions that I continue to follow.   I’m the girl who goes into the basement in July and opens the Christmas boxes so I can look at my decorations. So what am I doing on Thanksgiving Day, when normally I would be hanging up my outside lights?  I’m watching the Macy’s Day parade, which I dislike for a whole lot of reasons, and I say to my partner,

“You know?  I don’t think I can decorate for the holidays this year.  Can’t we just skip Christmas?”

And my partner, who barely tolerates Christmas, and only for my sake, freaked out!  “No!” she said.  “No we can’t!  Not this year!”  Then she started talking about the article Toni Morrison published in The Nation.  Morrison talks about sitting listless, depressed after the 2004 President election. She calls her friend to say that she just can’t work on her new novel, and her friend says, “No!  No, no, no!  This is precisely the time when artists go to work – not when everything is fine, but in times of dread.  That’s our job!” Morrison goes on to talk about how dictators solidify their power by going after the artists.  Artists must keep creating beauty and truth to resist tyranny.

My partner was telling me not to let the threat of tyranny take away my love for Christmas and all the traditions that mean so much to me, because that’s what tyranny does.  It separates us from love and beauty.  It separates us from history and hope.  It separates us from celebration and joy. Tyranny needs me sitting in front of the TV watching the Macy’s Day Parade in despondency.  My depression is its tool.

So my partner, bless her heart, went to bat for kind of Christmas I treasure, and what she was really going to bat for was me.  She was going to bat for us and this nation and the millions who are struggling to find joy and hope right now.

That’s what we are called to do right now, go to bat for each other.  As Toni Morrison said, “there’s no room for self pity, there’s no room for fear.” (https://www.thenation.com/article/no-place-self-pity-no-room-fear/)

So in let’s spend some time going deep into the kind of counter cultural and resistance-based hope offered by Solstice, Hannukah, and Christmas, because if you look beyond what they have become in our consumerist individualistic society, we have at our fingertips rich traditions of dissent that speak to the challenges we face today. Each of these traditions gives us strategies of resistance against empire.

Solstice – A Thousand Years of Resistance

Let’s start with Solstice, born of the pagan traditions, those forms of tribal religion existing in ancient Europe before the Roman conquest in the first and second centuries C.E.   Paganism is highly incarnationalist, meaning it understands the spirit as working through everything – every plant, every stone, every body, in water, in fires, in earth and sun and the light of the moon.  The Pagans had countless gods and goddesses, anthropomorphic projections of the human spirit moving through humanity as both struggle and joy.  There was a prominent place for priestesses, the goddess incarnate.

Not unlike other religions, paganism could be used to further political agendas.  Tribal kings curried the favor of the gods and goddesses.  Victory meant they were on your side.  Defeat meant they weren’t.  When the Roman empire arrived, bearing Christianity corrupted as a tool of empire, it felt as if the gods and goddesses had turned away.  Over the centuries, Pagan traditions were absorbed into Catholicism, the priestesses transformed into women religious under the control of the male priesthood.  Paganism was at first tolerated, then harshly suppressed, and in the burning times of the 1500s actively destroyed.   To survive this thousand-year repression, the pagan folklore, the traditions, the practices, the wisdom, went underground.  Passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter, coded in fairy tales, carried forward through midwifery, hidden in seemingly Christian rites through a long fall equinox, waiting for the time when the sun returned and it would be safe to emerge.

Some saw that return in the 1960s and 1970s.  Second wave feminism was born and with it, a desire to recover spiritual practices free of patriarchal corruption.  Environmentalists sought a spiritual base for respecting the earth.  Paganism had been taken underground to survive empire, and many saw its resurrection as a way to resist empire, the empire of America as colonial patriarchal militarized and ecologically plundering.

Imagine the patience, the persistence, the intentionality in protecting the sacred ways for centuries.  Every single person was needed – their memory, their stories, the herbal lore, their courage.  Every person bore the truths they held dear so that they would be preserved for the generations to come.

Hannukah – Never Compromise with Evil

Hannukah is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that has gained significance in America as Jewish parents sought to help their children weather the pressure to do Christmas.  It has become a way of affirming your peoplehood when most of the western world is draped in red and green.

But the story of Hannukah is 2100 years old and is another great example of resisting empire.  The Greek Empire controlled most of the ancient world including Judea.  Like the Roman one that overtook Europe centuries later, the Greeks were convinced of their cultural superiority. When they conquered a people they used complete assimilation as one of their weapons.  They used enticement backed up by brutality. They set about destroying the Jewish religion and culture piece by piece.  The rewards for accepting assimilation were life itself, some hope, maybe a future, a bit more income and status, a voice in your life.  The punishment for refusing to accommodate was brutal –  death, poverty, powerlessness, eradication.

A small band of Jewish warriors, the Maccabees were not fooled.  They did not accept the new normal and refused to accommodate in even the smallest ways.  This small band of warriors took on an Empire.

Mythology says they went at it on their own.  History tells us they gathered allies – the Egyptians, the Romans.  They also knew not to take their eye off the prize and no where is this made clearer than in the story of the temple flame.  History tells us the Greeks had closed all the Jewish temples.  This band of warriors took one of them back.  They wanted to light the sacred temple flame, which indicated the presence of God.  It would would be a powerful sign that God was with them and that they would prevail. Mythology tells us there was only enough oil for one day, it would take 8 days to make more oil.  They dared to light the flame and miraculously it burned for 8 days until there was more oil.

What does Hannukah tell us about resistance?  Don’t compromise your values.  Don’t be lured into accommodating to what is wrong even in the slightest because you’ll lose the whole temple. Don’t try and resist alone. Cultivate partners.  Celebrate the small wins.  And when you have a chance to light the flame, light it, knowing you take the risk that your heart will break once more if it goes out.  You have to take risks when there is no guarantee of the outcome because there is more to lose by not taking the risk.   You never know, your flame may burn 8 days instead of 1.

Christmas – See the Signs, Dare to Celebrate

History tells us that a man named Jesus of Nazareth was born, about 3 BCE and that he died around 30 CE. This time it’s the Romans who are the occupying force.  They don’t use cultural annihilation to control the Jews.  They use an upper class of Jewish leaders who are willing to work with the Romans in exchange for political power.  This is a time of major divestment of wealth from the lower classes.  They lose their means of production as wages are falling (sound familiar?).  History tells us that any resistance resulted in crucifixion, a brutally slow way to die.  In Jesus’ time they crucified Jews by the 1000s.  Crosses lined the roads as examples of what happened if you dared resist.

The Jews were hungry for a Messiah who would save them from this horror.  This is where mythology kicks in.  Mary consented to bear a son who would be that Messiah.  Her fiancé was Joseph, a carpenter.  He got over himself and accepted both her and the child she carried, virtually unheard of at this time. Around the time of his birth, they were on the road.  Mary went into labor. An Innkeeper had pity on them and offered them his stable. Jesus was born. An angel appeared to the shepherds, considered the lowest of the low, herding sheep in fields they used to own (again, sound familiar?).  The Angels told them a savior had been born and to go see. The shepherds showed up at the stable.  So did the wisemen who come from the east in their rich robes bearing gifts most Jews would barely have believed existed in their harsh world.

The Christmas story is filled with people who dare to love.  A young woman dares to have a child in a world where it’s life is pretty much guaranteed to be filled with suffering.  Her husband dares to stand by her as she bears a child that isn’t his.  An innkeeper dares to offer sanctuary to those most vulnerable to brutal systems.  The shepherds dare to leave their minimum wage jobs to honor an unknown child.  The wisemen dare to follow a star into foreign lands.  And while they don’t yet know it, they offer their respects to a child who will grow up to be a scrapper, a master of civil disobedience that infuriates the powers of empire.  The Romans will try to squash him the way they’ve squashed everyone else and their brutality fails them because like many great leaders, Jesus instilled such empowerment in those who followed him that after he is gone, they go underground, reorganize, and come back out ready for Act 2.

So what do these rich traditions of resistance have to offer us?

  • Gather your people. We don’t journey alone.  We must organize our hope and our passion and our compassion.
  • Know when to retreat. Retreat is a time to restore, not a time to withdraw. Retreat is a time to gather our energy, reconnect with our people, strategize, and prepare for the next action.
  • We need everyone for the struggle, from the shepherds to the innkeeper to the wisemen, young and old. No one is left behind.  Everyone has wisdom and strength to offer.  We can’t afford to consider some more worthy than others.  Even those who appear to benefit from evil systems are hurt by them.
  • Do not compromise on your values. Hold them tight. Do not accommodate evil.  Learn how to see how evil is disguised to look like your friend.
  • Dare to hope. Dare to create life.  Dare to love.  Dare to trust.
  • Always be ready to celebrate. Light the temple flame.  Dance around the fire until the sun returns.  Follow a star.  Visit a child.  Accept the gifts of strangers.

So here we are in 2016, some of us reluctant to let go of the year because of what we know is coming.  Whatever you do at this time of year to celebrate, do it.  Rest, sing, gather with family, prepare and eat foods that give you comfort, follow traditions that bring back memories of earlier times and loved ones no longer with us.  Just do it. Now.  Tomorrow.   Don’t let your traditions fall by the wayside.  Let’s not underestimate how strong we are going to need to be.  We can’t afford not to take care of ourselves.  As Toni Morrison said, no time for self pity, no time for fear.

Whatever tradition is yours, Solstice, Hannukah, Christmas, know that when you celebrate, you are anchoring in traditions of resistance thousands of years old.  Let them teach us, guide us, and give us resilience and courage.

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