2015-05-25

"We Were Young. We Have Died. Remember Us."

The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?

They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.

They say: We were young. We have died.
Remember us.

They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.

They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.

They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.

We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.
- Archibald MacLeish (SLT #583)

"Bullet" points, in more than one sense of the word:
  • 116,516 US servicemen died in World War I. The total death toll from that war was about 17 million.
  • 405,399 US military personnel died in World War II. That war’s death toll reached 60 to 85 million.
  • 33,686 US military died in the Korean Conflict, which claimed in all about 1.2 million lives.
  • 58,209 US servicemen and women died in Vietnam, during the American portion of what is also known as the Second Indochina War. Estimates of the total death toll in that conflict range from 800,000 to 3.8 million.
  • 4,404 US military died in the Iraq war from 2003 to 2011. Estimates of the total dead in that war range from 177,000 to 1.1 million.
  • We lost just over a thousand in Afghanistan since 2001, in a conflict that, in all, claimed somewhere between 42,000 and 62,000 lives.
Our nation, this nation, lost over 600,000 fighting men and women in the six wars mentioned. They were young. They have died. We remember.

They were apples of their parents’ eyes. Someone's brother, someone's cousin, someone's nephew and maybe someone's uncle. Someone's boyfriend. Later, they might have been someone's sister, neice, aunt, girlfriend. Increasingly, as they wars get more recent, they were someone’s spouse. They were nexus points in communities and families left torn and bereft by their loss.

And for every one of them killed, those wars also killed 100 others – allies, enemy combatants, civilians killed by war-induced epidemics, famines, atrocities, genocides. Et cetera. Let us remember them, too.

I know that our backgrounds in connection to the US military are highly varied, and our attitudes about Memorial Day are diverse. I have observed that our military dead were people who enlisted for various reasons, and they died in the service, it’s not clear why. For some of you, perhaps, it’s very clear why. They did it to protect our freedom, to defend our way of life. For others of us, perhaps, it is equally clear that there was a very different reason. They died for corporate profits, or because a political party was looking to get into a war to solidify popular support.

Both stories are told about all six of our wars in the last century. The "defending freedom" story is always more popular. The "commercial interests" story, though, is never hard to find for those willing to look. Let's go back to the first of the six US wars in the last 100 years and consider World War I, for example.

World War I

"The Great War" began in 1914 July when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Germany -- and later Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire -- joined on Austria-Hungary's side. Fighting against them were England, France, and Russia. The US entered the war in 1917 April, and was thus at war for only the last year and a half of World War I.

In the 19 teens, the US extended to France and Britain a series of loans totaling $3 billion. Had Germany won, those bonds held by American bankers would have been worthless. J. P. Morgan, England's financial agent in the U.S., Rockefeller (who made more than $200 million on the war), and other bankers were instrumental in pushing America into the war, so they could protect their loans to Europe. This was captured in a scene from the 1981 movie, Reds, in which Warren Beatty, playing John Reed, is talking to Diane Keaton, playing Louise Bryant:
“All right, Miss Bryant, do you want an interview? Write this down. Are you na├»ve enough to think containing German militarism has anything to do with this war? Don't you understand that England and France own the world economy and Germany just wants a piece of it? Keep writing, Miss Bryant. Miss Bryant, can't you grasp that J. P. Morgan has lent England and France a billion dollars? And if Germany wins, he won't get it back! More coffee? America'd be entering the war to protect J. P. Morgan's money. If he loses, we'll have a depression. So the real question is, why do we have an economy where the poor have to pay so the rich won't lose money?”
Why do we have an economy where the poor have to pay so the rich won't lose money? It was a good question then. It's a good question now.

The Unitarian minister, Rev. John Haynes Holmes, opposed World War I and urged his congregation in Manhattan to
“strike . . . at the things which make war— first, militarism; second, political autocracy; and third, commercialism." (“War and the Social Movement,” Survey, 1914 Sep 26, 629– 30)
In his 1917 sermon, “A Statement to My People on the Eve of War,” Rev. Holmes declared that the armed men fighting,
“are grown from the dragon's teeth of secret diplomacy, imperialistic ambition, dynastic pride, greedy commercialism, economic exploitation at home and abroad. . . . This war is the direct result of unwarrantable, cruel, but nonetheless inevitable interferences with our commercial relations with one group of the belligerents. Our participation in the war, therefore, like the war itself, is political and economic, not ethical, in its character.”
Rev. Holmes story is particularly pertinent to the Unitarian Universalist congregation at White Plains, NY, which I now serve. On numerous occasions Holmes traveled up from Manhattan to White Plains as a guest preacher here.

Holmes’ opposition to World War I make him a pariah to Unitarian denominational leadership, which was seeking to have him expelled from Unitarian ministry in 1918 when he saved them the trouble by resigning his denominational credentials. Holmes then urged his church to follow him in parting ways with the Unitarians, which it did in 1919, changing its name to the name it has today: Community Church of New York.

One year later, in 1920, the White Plains congregation, which had been founded in 1909 as "All Souls Church," was inspired by Holmes’ Community Church movement to change its name to “White Plains Community Church.” “Community” has been in our name ever since.

Rev. Holmes many years later rejoined the Unitarian ministry. Community Church of New York returned to being Unitarian, and White Plains Community Church became Unitarian. But we carry the legacy: the word “Community” in our name, which signified an effort to transcend denomination – an effort spurred on by an anti-war minister’s finding no home in a pro-war denomination.

Two Generations Later

I grew up in a different Unitarian congregation, and a different war was going on. My grandfathers were boys, too young to fight in WWI, and I was too young to fight in Viet Nam. By 1968, when my family moved to the Altanta area and began attending the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, being anti-war did not put one at odds with most other Unitarians. Indeed, most UUs opposed the Viet Nam war. Many of my earliest memories as a Unitarian had to do with learning in church about why we should get out that war, and going from church with other Unitarians to demonstrate against the war.

If Memorial Day is for expressing gratitude to the soldiers who fought and died in wars because they gave their all for our freedom, some of us are really on board with that. Others of us have a hard time seeing US war-fighting as having any connection with any freedom other than the freedom of US companies to make exorbitant profits.

In the midst of whatever cynical exploitations may be at work, however, I do believe there is such a thing as a warrior spirit courageously defending of his or her people from the oppression of conquest.

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This is part 1 of 2 of "War, Peace, and Remembering"

2015-05-23

This Week's Prayer

Words of Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds. Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves. Let us be aware of the source of being, common to us all and to all living things. Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion, let us fill our hearts with our own compassion -- towards ourselves and towards all living beings. Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be the cause of suffering to each other. With humility, with awareness of the existence of life, and of the sufferings that are going on around us, let us practice the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.” (SLT #505)
Dear Great Compassion,

Be with us, that we may be with the heartbreak of the world.

A broken pipeline spilled 21,000 gallons of crude oil off the coast of Santa Barabara, California, with deadly effect on the wildlife there. Be with us as we seek sane energy policy that neither stifles industry nor condemns whole ecosystems.

The people of Palmyra, Syria, fell under Islamic State control extending a reign of coercion, confusion, and violence, and threatening destruction of cultural artifacts. Peace talks between rival Yemeni parties will begin in Geneva on Thu May 28, in a bid to end seven weeks of war in Yemen. Be with us as we seek peace with justice and respect.

The United Nations has established a fund of $100 million to combat epidemics such as Ebola. Be with us as we encourage further such wise preparation.

Political campaigning, now virtually continuous, is beginning to intensify. Be with us that we may remember that more than one path may lead forward and that love of country and love of community take many forms.

More than 2 million people are currently incarcerated in the U.S., nearly a quarter of them, an estimated almost 500,000, have serious mental illnesses. Even when treatment is available, it is rarely informed by the best psychological methods. Be with us Great Compassion as we seek to do better.

The Washington, DC nonprofit, Street Sense, runs a filmmaking cooperative in which the city’s homeless write, produce, and direct their own films documenting aspects of lives usually ignored. Be with us, that we may learn to see what we so often overlook.

Let our hearts be filled with compassion towards ourselves and towards all living beings.

2015-05-22

Bearing the Unbearable Ambiguity of Sexuality

The field of queer theory, then, examining the vastly different ways that sexuality manifests and is understood in different cultures and times, raises for us the possibility that our cultural changes in the last 130 years might not be a matter of finally seeing the truth that has been there all along. Rather, they might be a matter of the contingent, accidental evolution of concepts – evolving in ways outside of anyone’s explicit control or intention, yet not dictated by something called "objective reality" either.

The evolution metaphor here is helpful. In species evolution, the objective environment establishes conditions in which many species will fail – will never appear or will quickly die out – yet the objective environment does not guide and direct evolution toward one true species. Rather, the objective environment is one in which increasingly diverse species emerge and find ways to be successful. By analogy, we might say that the reality of our biology establishes conditions in which many concepts of sexuality would never appear or would quickly die out – yet biological reality does not guide or direct our understanding toward the one truth. Rather, the array of possible ways of thinking about sexuality, while constrained by facts of biology, remains as infinite as the array of possible species.

OK. Where are we? This is all very heady – and unless you’ve spent a few of the last 30 years hanging out in university Humanities departments, it might be strange and disorienting. What have we got? Let’s review.

First level: forget about labels, categories. Just love people.

Second level: it’s not so simple. People want to be recognized and respected for who they are. We have an identity as a man or a woman – or as intersex or transgender. We have an identity as a person of color, or not. And we have an identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight. My identity in these areas is not relevant to my rights, not relevant to whether or not I may be oppressed or discriminated against, not relevant to my claim to equal concern and respect. My identity is relevant to my sense of who I am, and I want my society to recognize and honor and respect who I am. A "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy requires me to hide who I am. (Actually, it doesn’t require straight white men like me to hide who we are because under white heteronormativity my particular identity happens to be the one that is assumed rather than hidden – which is why recognizing and respecting alternative identities matters.)

Then comes a third level: the notion of identity itself is challenged. Not only are the categories fuzzy and unreliable, with people falling along continua rather than into one neat box or another, but the continua themselves are contingent social constructs subject to deconstruction and reconstruction into something different.
Sexuality is plastic, and the ways we make meaning of it are even more plastic.

Which brings us to:

Making Peace With Ambiguity

It’s confusing, it’s changing, we can’t really get a handle on the right way to think about it – because any way to think about it is one more temporary product of culture and language and power. Queer theory helps us let go of our assumptions and not replace them with new ones. Queer theory itself is not so much a "theory," as an understanding that no theory can be the one right theory. Queer theory helps us resist the temptation to resolve ambiguity, for in that space of ambiguity, we come back to where we started: simply standing on the side of love.

Tell me what’s important to you. It might be your sexual identity, your gender identity, your racial identity, or it might not be. Tell, or don’t tell. It's up to you. And I might ask, or not ask. If I do ask, you can answer, or not answer, or say it’s not important to you, or tell me that you really don’t know what category you’re in. This is what standing on the side of love looks like: the courage to stand in ambiguity and shine a warm embracing light.

There may once have been good reasons for wanting to resolve the ambiguities of sex and sexuality. It may have even felt unbearable "not to know" -- and know instantly -- who was and who was not "automatically" in the category of potential mates for reproduction. With a little practice, though, we can be comfortable not knowing.

Our journey through queer theory has led us back to “arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” What we know about this place now is just how indefinite and undefined everything is.

Our stand on the side of love is grounded neither in a rejection of, nor an insistence on, any notion of identity. Our stand on the side of love is grounded in courage: the courage to take each ambiguous moment as it is; the courage to love each ambiguous person, however he or she or ze presents.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Queer Theory"
Part 1: All You Need Is Love?
Part 2: Sexuality Is Not Natural

2015-05-19

Sexuality Is Not Natural

Color-blindness, or gender-blindness, or sexual-orientation-blindness, tries, with varying degrees of earnestness, to pretend that we are all the same. This pretense has the effect of projecting the majority’s norms. That’s how color-, gender-, or sexual-orientation "blindness" plays out.

Pretending that there’s no difference between black and white is basically tantamount to pretending that we are all white. Color-blindness allows the norms and assumptions of white culture to hold unchallenged sway.

In the same way, sexual-orientation-blindness amounts to projecting heteronormativity. Now we start getting into areas that are going to be for many of us a bit more challenging. You see, while many in the LGBT community have worked hard for recognition of same-sex marriage, not all LGBT folk have unalloyed enthusiasm for the spread of acceptance of same-sex marriage. Marriage itself is heteronormative, they point out. Marriage takes the heterosexual model as the norm: one partner, living together and running a household together, for life – or at least starting out with the intention that it be for life. But maybe that model should be challenged rather than pursued. Some queer theorists criticize the traditional family as a deeply problematic institution that ought to challenged and called into question.

Concept Number Three: Identity -- and Everything -- Are Shifting Cultural Constructs

Some queer theorists also challenge the very idea of identity. Concept one was, "let’s ignore it." Concept two was, "let’s recognize identity as a way to respect who a person is." Now we get to concept three: identity is a problematic notion.

Starting with gender, let us acknowledge that the clear black-and-white categories “male” and “female” aren’t really so clear. Some people are born intersex, where the biological sex cannot be clearly classified as either male or female. The practice of forcibly resolving the ambiguity, forcing the child into one box or the other, sometimes using surgery to help resolve the ambiguity on one side or the other, has been harmful and traumatic. Let us learn to accept ambiguity. In fact, suggest some queer theorists, more gender ambiguity might be good for us all. We might all dress and style ourselves in ways designed to make it harder instead of easier for others to categorize our gender at a glance.

Cultural studies professor Nikki Sullivan writes in A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (2003):
“Sexuality is not natural, but rather, is discursively constructed. Moreover, sexuality, as we shall see, is constructed, experienced, and understood in culturally and historically specific ways. Thus, we could say that there can be no true or correct account of heterosexuality, of homosexuality, of bisexuality....Contemporary views of particular relationships and practices are not necessarily any more enlightened or any less symptomatic of the times than those held by previous generations.” (1)
Queer theorist David Halperin describes three very different cultures in which sexual contact between older men and boys has been acceptable: the ancient Greeks, some Native American tribes, and New Guinea tribesmen. He asks: Is this the same sexuality? Such contact has some superficial similarities, including acceptability, in all three cultures, yet the social contexts and meanings of that contact was so varied, the cultural understanding of what was going on so diverse, that we can’t call it the same sexuality.

The brilliant French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, pioneered new ways to think about and understand ourselves. Foucault is a founding figure for a number of kinds of study, including queer theory. His three volume History of Sexuality revealed how sexuality has been culturally constructed in Western civilization. In Britain, and much of Europe, prior to the 1880s, Foucault points out, “sodomy” meant any form of sexuality that did not have procreation as its aim. Using birth control counted as sodomy – and penalties against sodomy were severe.

Analysis of the time reveals that the laws were directed against acts, not against a particular type of person. There was no understanding of sexual orientation as an identity – any more than we have an understanding of adulterer as an identity -- or, say, “person who parks in a no parking zone.” It wasn’t until the later 1800s that “particular acts came to be seen as an expression of an individual’s psyche, or as evidence of inclinations of a certain type of subject” (Sullivan 3).

Certain forms of sexuality moved from being seen as horrible acts to which anyone might succumb, to being seen as the expression of a particular type of person. As Sigmund Freud expressed and magnified the new way of thinking, sex was at the root of everything about us. Thus, “the homosexual” became a personage – a life form, a certain type of degenerate whose entire character, everything about him, was corrupted by his sexuality.

That hardly seems to us like progress. Yet, as traumatic and disastrous as that cultural phase was for many, it paved the way for our later attitudes. Once we saw sexual orientation as an identity – subject to treatment rather than criminal or moral judgment -- the ground was laid for the next step. Only then could culture move to seeing that identity as not harming anyone else. From there to: not harming themselves either. And then: to being tolerated, to being accepted, to being welcomed, to being celebrated as a worthy and beautiful part of the diverse spectrum of human expression.

That’s a huge change – a series of huge changes – all within the last 130 years or so.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Queer Theory"
Part 1: All You Need Is Love?
Part 3: Bearing the Unbearable Ambiguity of Sexuality