2018-12-28

Prophetic Call to Neighborliness

Reality Amid Ideology, part 3

The prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, et al – spoke out against the injustices of the ruling elite.
“The vocation of the prophets, in the face of enthralling ideology, is to penetrate and expose that ideology by appeal to the reality of the lived world, a reality that steadfastly refused to conform to the claims of that ideology” (Brueggemann)
The prophets called out the urban elite for their “arrogance, pride, and self-indulgence”; for imagining themselves “the center of the universe and not accountable" to anyone for anything; for failing “to regard the weak, poor, and vulnerable as legitimate members of the community.” The prophets, to the great annoyance of the ruling class, pointed out that:
“The elite have manipulated the markets, paid low wages, foreclosed on homes, and managed the economy in their interest to the detriment of others.”
Sound familiar?

The elite have, in short, said the prophets, failed at both of the two central commandments: love God, and love neighbor. In making their critique, the prophets spoke poetry. Their imagery shocks and dismays in the interest of jolting the people back to reality. Hosea imagines Israel as
  • a silly dove that flits about,
  • a pancake half baked,
  • adulterers hot as a heated oven,
  • a wild ass wandering about,
  • a stone sinking in water.
Jeremiah imagines the elite as
  • depending on broken cisterns,
  • vines with degenerate fruit,
  • a camel in heat,
  • a bride who forgets her jewelry,
  • a prostitute on a street corner,
  • a desperate mother dying in labor,
  • the only bird that doesn’t know when to migrate,
  • poor people without a doctor,
  • a pile of corpses.
The prophets spoke of YHWH as
  • a whirlwind,
  • a lion,
  • a winnowing fork.
The kaleidoscope of images shows us our lives in many ways, for the more we “see our lives in many ways,” the more likely we are to “discover that the single way of chosenness is not a reliable certitude.”

Of course, “the ideologues thought that the prophets were crazy and traitors.” But the prophets’ imagination offered the only hope of popping the bubble of ideological deception.

Then in 587 BCE, the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, burned down the temple, and deported much of the population to slavery in Babylon. The deep crisis of this defeat and 70 years of Babylonian captivity -- until the Persian King Cyrus, having defeated Babylon, permitted the Judeans to return to Judah -- produced critical rethinking who they were and their relationship to YHWH, the personified representation of their covenantal promise to live by the values of their laws: hospitality, compassion, fairness.

It was during and after the Babylonian Captivity that the Torah, as we have it, was assembled, from sources some of which were much older. The deep reflection instigated by the Captivity was also the impetus for preserving and codifying the other books of the Tanakh (which consists of the same books as the Protestant Old Testament, in a somewhat different order).

Running through American ideology is a similar exceptionalism – a sense of being God’s chosen people. It goes back to John Winthrop, the Puritan governor in 17th century New England who told his fellow Puritans they were creating “a city set upon a hill.”

Abraham Lincoln, in an 1861 address to the New Jersey senate, brilliantly, in one brief phrase, both evoked and stepped back from America’s self-understanding as chosen people. Lincoln called us God’s “almost chosen people.” He said:
“I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people.”
That word “almost” opened critical distance between, on the on hand, true justice and righteousness and, on the other hand, the reality of the ways we fall short of realizing them. But by the time we get to Teddy Roosevelt, that “almost” was gone -- the gap of critical distance closed again. Roosevelt’s imperialism acquired the Philippines and reached into Korea, Japan, and China, driven by a sense of uniquely American Manifest Destiny, and the racist conviction that Asian peoples were inferior to what Roosevelt called our Anglo-Saxon, our Teutonic – he even sometimes said Aryan -- civilization.

The exceptionalist strand in US ideology has carried through. Thus, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on the Today Show in 1998:
“If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are an indispensable nation.”
A people that imagines itself God’s chosen is at risk of becoming arrogant. Exceptionalism fuels expansionism, racism, and violence. As Brueggemann said:
“The disregard of both God and neighbor permits a predatory society to seem normal and acceptable.”
When Brueggemann urges us not to disregard God, it might be helpful for us Unitarians to remember that God means covenant -- the covenantal relationship a people may hold to each other and to the values that guide their life together. God, as Solomon declared and the Israelites understood, abides in that dark inner chamber, the holiest of holies -- and what abides there is the covenant: the ark that holds the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain. God is the covenant – a covenant to live by the principles and values handed down and constituting the historical identity of the people.

We Unitarians, too, have a covenant with something that is more powerful than you or I, something mysterious that calls us to our better selves, something that we all sometimes stray from, but that ever-beckons us back to a truer path -- something that defines us as a people. We have a covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – every being, I’d say. We have a covenant to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. The interdependence of existence, and inherent worth and dignity, are powerful. There is a quality of mystery and awe there – how could this be, this total interdependence, this inalienability from concern and respect? We sometimes fall away from our covenantal promise – and we do so in the same way the Ancient Israelites did. We fail to care for the vulnerable.

Love of God and love of neighbor are the same thing. Jesus was explicit on that point, and before him, Jeremiah said it. They are the same thing – love of God and care for the vulnerable are synonyms -- but it’s helpful to say it both ways. It's helpful to remember that that care, kindness, and compassion are, for us, rooted, after all, in a promise to uphold everyone’s worth and dignity because, mysteriously, it’s inherent – and a promise to respect the web of existence because, mysteriously, we’re an interdependent part of it.

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Reality Amid Ideology"
See also
Part 1: Some Brueggemann and Some Poems
Part 2: Imagination Shortage

2018-12-27

Imagination Shortage

Reality Amid Ideology, part 2

Our country is suffering from a lack of imagination. We have among us the imaginations of the prophetic poets, a small sampling of which was included in part 1 (HERE) -- but it takes imagination to hear, not just to speak imaginatively. As a whole, not enough of us have even enough imagination to hear these voices of our prophetic poets. To paraphrase Cool-Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure of imagination.”

Imagination is evident in poets, artists, novelists, filmmakers, musicians. Imagination also includes what Edmund Burke called “the moral imagination.” It’s the capacity to imagine where there is wrong and harm when it isn’t happening to you – and the capacity to imagine that it can be addressed – that the status quo does not have to be forever. Those with developed moral imagination don’t have to go to Yemen and be among the starving children to know, and feel, the pain, the suffering, the horror. Words, pictures, and our imaginative capacity take us there.

It was Percy Shelley who said,
“The imagination is the great instrument of moral good, and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. . . . Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
It was John Dewey who agreed, saying:
“Imagination is the chief instrument of the good....A person’s ideas and treatment of his fellows are dependent upon his power to put himself imaginatively in their place. But the primacy of the imagination extends far beyond the scope of direct personal relationships. The ideal factors in every moral outlook and human loyalty are imaginative. Hence it is that art is more moral than moralities. For moralities either are, or tend to become, consecrations of the status quo, reflections of custom, reinforcements of the established order. The moral prophets of humanity have always been poets even though they spoke in free verse or by parable.”
It was Northrup Frye who said:
“The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.”
This work is aided by the imaginative voices of our poets, but it is up to all the people to fashion a collective vision, inspired by their poets and informed by their fact-finders. This, too, is imaginative work. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said,
"Imagination is not a talent of some people, but is the health of every person."
The only way the future will, on purpose rather than accident, become different from the present is through imagination.

I do, personally, feel on ongoing frustration with the evident failure of imagination on the part of many US citizens and the leaders they elect. Can we not do better at imagining the harm and the suffering of poverty, of war, of hunger, of inequality – of sweatshops, of prisons, of sexual abuse and harassment? This week, I was even visited by a moment of anger about this. A prison reform bill passed this week, and that’s a good thing. It only applies to the federal prison system, which is less than 9% of the 2.1 million incarcerated, but still -- a good thing: a first step, as the name of the bill says, the First Step Act. It might pave the way for further reforms, including reforms of the state prison systems. Of course, it raises the question of why we didn’t fix this a long time ago, and why we ever let our prison system be this horrible to begin with. The answer? Failure of imagination.

Our national Imagination Disability was highlighted for me when I caught comments from Senators that this bill would not have passed without the efforts of the President’s son-in-law who visited many Senators and told the personal story of his father serving 14 months for tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign contributions. I was like, “Really? You had to have another rich white guy in a nice suit tell you about their heartbreak before any kind of empathy or compassion could break through? That’s what it had to take? Have you no imaginative capacity to grasp the humanity of the incarcerated and the pointless cruelty to which they’ve been subjected? Can you not read the reports and the statistics, the stories, see the pictures, and know and feel the meaning of what the prison system does? Is your moral imagination really so impoverished that you can hear no plea unless made face-to-face and by a high elite of your party? Is your imagination so paltry that you aren’t curious to learn the stories and facts on your own?"

It’s the poets that help awaken us to reality when prose fails to break through our ideology. The poets incite imagination to see reality more clearly – and thereby to see new possibilities. Not that I have much hope that Senators will read poems, but you and I can. We can cultivate and expand our own imaginative capacity, and in that way contribute to expanding the average imagination of the populace. The poems I shared in part 1 (HERE) are a tiny sample. Seek out and read lots more. When you find one that moves you, read it out loud to somebody. Encourage them to read one of their favorites to you from time to time – maybe even daily.

The poets’ voices show us reality amid ideology. We need them to break through our ideology of exceptionalism. Exceptionalism says: “We’re unique. We’re special. And we are therefore exempt from the need to seriously examine where we may be going astray. We don’t need moral imagination, for all our doings are underwritten by our specialness.”

In what follows, I’ll look at the way exceptionalism manifested in Ancient Israel, and the parallel ways exceptionalism is in the American ideology. It’s helpful to see that the problem is not new, but very old. The antidote, too, is very old – for just as we have the prophets we call poets, ancient Israel had the poets they called prophets.

From the covenant of Abraham, and then the covenant of Moses, the Israelites understood themselves as God’s chosen people. With King David around 1000 BCE, chosenness began to be co-opted into the ideology of the ruling urban elite. Royal Jerusalem
“was deeply enthralled to an ideology of chosenness” (Brueggemann)
The ruling class took chosenness to mean divine support for their rule. With God on their side, they need not hold themselves accountable to the poor, the widowed, the vulnerable.

Under Solomon, the first temple was constructed. At the dedication of the temple, as described in 1st Kings, priests carried the ark of the covenant into the temple where it was housed in an unlit inner chamber, the holy of holies.
“Then Solomon said, 'The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.'” (1 Kings 8:12-13).
The holiest of holies could not be entered except by the High Priest, and even he only once a year. In the holy land, was the holier city, Jerusalem. In the holier city was the still holier temple. In the still holier temple, inaccessible, was the holiest of holies. This hierarchy of holy space symbolized and functioned to legitimize the hierarchy of economic class. As Walter Brueggemann argues at length, and with many references to scripture, what the urban elite were essentially doing was removing YHWH from engagement with history – no longer to speak as YHWH did to Abraham, to wrestle as YHWH did with Jacob. Instead, YHWH is now a silent power behind the powerful – the authority of the authorities.
“The intent of the liturgy is to put the residence of YHWH (and so the claims of the urban establishment) beyond the reach of historical contingency....The old chosenness of Israel has now been concretized and specified in the Jerusalem regime” (Brueggemann)
The word “forever” – as when Solomon says, “a place for you to dwell in forever” -- removes YHWH from dynamic engagement with history.

NEXT: What the prophets had to say about this.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Reality Amid Ideology"
See next: part 3: Prophetic Call to Neighborliness
See also part 1: Some Brueggemann and Some Poems

2018-12-23

Some Brueggemann and Some Poems

Reality Amid Ideology, part 1

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

This may seem a perplexing claim. By the time we get to the end of part 3, I hope it will make sense. Today, for part 1, I set the stage with some readings.

Reading 1: Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, from Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Progphetic Tasks -- adapted.
The prophetic task in our contemporary society as in ancient Jerusalem, is to counter the governing ideology – in both cases that of exceptionalism. The prophetic task is to expose the distorted view of societal reality sustained by the ideology that breeds unrealistic notions of entitlement, privilege, and superiority. Prophetic work in the wake of such exposé is to advocate and enact an alternative that refuses the illusion of the ideology and that takes seriously the reality of historical existence. From the perspective of Israel’s prophetic tradition, the ideology of exceptionalism in Jerusalem seriously miscalculated on two fronts. First, it reduced YHWH to be patron of the dynasty and a guarantor of city and temple. It failed to acknowledge that YHWH is not simply a guarantor and patron, but is a lively character and active agent with a will and purpose other than that of the beneficiaries of the ideology. In imagining its own ultimacy, the Jerusalem establishment had shelved the ultimacy of the God who will not be mocked and consequently had failed to recognize its own pen-ultimacy, its dependence upon and accountability to YHWH. This hubris, expressed as autonomy, imagined that the ones with power to do so could exploit in greedy and violent ways as they chose, taking advantage of the weak and vulnerable. The prophetic critique exposes this sense of autonomy from God and unfettered freedom -- as disregard for the neighbor. The prophets, following the covenantal tradition of Deuteronomy, identify “widow, orphan, immigrant” as the visible representatives of the socially, economically vulnerable. The prophets insist that abuse of the vulnerable neighbor is an affront to God and a violation of Torah. Moreover, such abuse is an unsustainable policy, giving rise to destructiveness and costly consequences for the body politic. The disregard of both God and neighbor permits a predatory society to seem normal and acceptable.
The next readings are all poems, or excerpts from poems. They are contemporary illustrations of prophetic critique.

Reading 2: Bud Osborn (b. 1947), from “Complaint of an Advocate”
Sad, lord
Tired and worn
And sick
So sick
Of power politics
Of turf wars
Of meetings and committees and subcommittees
Sick of everything that loses
Focus
Because every deception
Every agenda
Every meeting
Every resentment
Every control grab
Every move for money
Slams down hardest
On the most wretched human beings
In north America
Who are suffering and dying
In the streets and alleys and shit-hole hotels
Of the downtown eastside
All the pettiness and ambition
Slams directly down
On those who are most afflicted
By poverty and illness
Addiction and discrimination
Homelessness and demonizing propaganda.
Reading 3: Guatamalan poet Julia Esquivel (b. 1930), "Thanksgiving Day in the United States"
In the third year of the massacres
by Lucas and the other coyotes
against the poor in Guatemala
I was led by the spirit into the desert

And on the eve
of Thanksgiving Day
I had a vision of Babylon
the city sprang forth arrogantly
from an enormous platform
of dirty smoke produced
by motor vehicles, machinery
and contamination from smokestacks

It was as if all the petroleum
from a violated earth
was being consumed
by the Lords of capital
and was slowly rising
obscuring the face
of the Sun of Justice
and the Ancient of Days…

Each day false prophets
invited the inhabitants
of the Unchaste City
to kneel before the idols
of gluttony,
money,
and death:
Idolaters from all nations
were being converted to the American way of Life…

The Spirit told me
in the River of death
flows the blood of many peoples
sacrificed without mercy
and removed a thousand times from their hands,
the blood of Kekchis, and Panzos,
of blacks from Haiti, of Guaranis from Paraguay,
of the peoples sacrificed for ‘development’
of the trans-Amazonic strip,
the blood of the Indians’ ancestors
who lived on these lands, of those who
even now are kept hostage on the great mountain
and on the Black Hills of Dakota
by the guardians of the best…

My soul was tortured like this
for three and a half days
and a great weariness weighed upon my breast
I felt the suffering of my people very deeply!

The in tears, I prostrated myself
and cried out: “Lord, what can we do?…
Come to me, Lord, I wish to die among my people!”
Without strength, I waited for my answer.
After a long silence
and a heavy obscurity
The One who sits on the throne
to judge the nations
spoke in a soft whisper
in the secret recesses of my heart:

you have to denounce their idolatry
in good times and bad.
Force them to hear the truth
for what is impossible to humans
is possible for God.
Reading 4: From another Julia Esquivel poem.
The walls of the Temples of Mammon
Are like polished steel
And in their windows
Reality is distorted,
And so are the lights ignited
By the petroleum which its priests
have taken from the people
Who now struggle for life and freedom
On the other side of the Rio Grande.
Reading 5: From a third Julia Esquivel poem
And in a third poem she writes:
In the most obscure and sordid place,
In the most hostile and harshest,
In the most corrupt
And nauseating places,
There You do Your work.
That is why Your Son
Descended into hell
In order to transform what IS NOT
And to purify that which IS BECOMING.
That is hope!
Reading 6: Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (b. 1923), “Tortures.”
Nothing has changed.
The body is susceptible to pain;
it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
it has thin skin, and the blood is just beneath it;
an adequate supply of teeth and fingernails;
its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
In tortures, all this is taken into account.

Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just as they were, only the earth has grown smaller,
and what happens sounds as if it's happening in the next room.

Nothing has changed.
It's just that there are more people,
and beside the old offences new ones have sprung -
real, make-believe, short-lived, and non-existent.
But the howl with which the body answers to them,
was, is and ever will be a cry of innocence
according to the age-old scale and pitch.

Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the movement of hands to shield the head remains the same.
The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
its legs fail, it falls, its knees jack-knife,
it bruises, swells, dribbles and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.
Except for the course of rivers,
the lines of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid those landscapes roams the soul,
disappears, returns, draws nearer, moves away,
a stranger to itself, elusive,
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.
Reading 7: Ada Limon (b. 1976), “A New National Anthem”
The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National
Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good
song. Too high for most of us with “the rockets’
red glare” and then there are the bombs.
(Always, always there is war and bombs.)
Once, I sang it at homecoming and threw
even the tenacious high school band off key.
But the song didn’t mean anything, just a call
to the field, something to get through before
the pummeling of youth. And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps
the truth is that every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins. Don’t get me wrong, I do
like the flag, how it undulates in the wind
like water, elemental, and best when it’s humbled,
brought to its knees, clung to by someone who
has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon,
when it flickers, when it folds up so perfectly
you can keep it until it’s needed, until you can
love it again, until the song in your mouth feels
like sustenance, a song where the notes are sung
by even the ageless woods, the shortgrass plains,
the Red River Gorge, the fistful of land left
unpoisoned, that song that’s our birthright,
that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,
that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving
into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit
in an endless cave, the song that says my bones
are your bones, and your bones are my bones,
and isn’t that enough?
* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Reality Amid Ideology"
See next: Part 2: Imagination Shortage
Part 3: Prophetic Call to Neighborliness

2018-12-21

A Kind of Trinitarian-ish Logic Comes to Unitarians

Justice on Earth, part 3

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan that broke into national news a few years ago is another example. If I may remember with you today some key details of that story:

Flint, Michigan has just under 100,000 people, 41% poor and 57% African-American. In 2014, Michigan state authorities, to save money, switched the water supply of Flint, MI, from Lake Huron to the Flint River, known for its pollution. Almost immediately, boil advisories had to be issued because fecal coliform bacteria was flowing into the homes of Flint. Because the Flint River is polluted to begin with, water from that river is corrosive. Flint River water was found to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron. Treatment with anti-corrosive agents would go a long way to address that, and federal law requires such treatment. But the state Department of Environmental Quality violated that federal law and simply didn’t treat Flint’s water with anti-corrosive agents.

So this corrosive water, unmitigated in its corrosion, began flowing to Flint. It was coming in through aging pipes, and because it was so corrosive, it leached lead out of the pipes. Lead content in the drinking and bathing water in Flint shot so high it met the EPA’s definition of "toxic waste."

In fairness to the state of Michigan, as fair as we can be, the switch to the Flint River was always meant as a temporary measure for two years while a new pipeline from Lake Huron was being constructed. OK, good to note. But, still! It is not OK for the water in people’s homes to be toxic waste for two years – or even for one minute. Is there any doubt that what happened to Flint would never have happened to a predominantly middle-class and white city?
“African Americans making $50,000 to $60,000 per year are much more likely to live in a polluted environment than poor white families making just $10,000 per year.” (Paula Cole Jones, Justice on Earth).
These examples – and there are many more -- show us the interconnections between environment, race, and poverty.

As Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti writes in Justice on Earth:
“Lack of economic opportunity is tied to the quality of local schools and the health impacts of pollution; the inability to access clean water and healthy food directly impacts one’s ability to function in school or at work; and the intentional siting of power plants and waste facilities away from wealthier and whiter communities impacts local housing prices, affects health, and points toward endemic, structural racism. It is all linked; no single piece stands in isolation.”
Rev. Jennifer Nordstrom’s essay in the book notes that
“communities of color were exploited and poisoned through the entire nuclear fuel cycle: from uranium mining on Indigenous land and the contamination of surrounding Indigenous, Chicano, and Latinx communities to nuclear waste storage in communities of color.”
Militarism, colonialism, racism, and the environmental degradation are interrelated and mutually support each other.

And just as environmental problems – the pollution, and the climate change – disproportionately affect the poor and people of color, environmental protections offer us opportunities for addressing income inequality. Paula Cole Jones’ essay reminds us that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 30s “provided resources for renewing the land and putting people back to work. There was a great deal of environmental activity across the country, including the creation of the Civil Conservation Corps.”

Government programs can create Green Jobs that especially recruit among minority communities. Working for this requires seeing the interconnections between issues – seeing that they all flow from the same root, and coming together to address that root, rather than fragmenting ourselves into discrete silos of concern.

There is a certain theological irony in Unitarians coming around to this view – a view that many nonUnitarian thinkers and writers have been fleshing out for some years – this view of all justice issues as interconnected, as all based in conceptions of supremacy and dominance.

We Unitarians, you’ll remember, got our name from rejecting Trinitarianism. Unitarianism began around central values of freedom, reason, and tolerance -- but, in particular, what we wanted was the freedom to follow our reason in leaving Trinitarian Orthodoxy behind. Trinitarianism says that God is one and three at the same time. The Athansian Creed puts it this way:
“there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.”
Trinitarianism says God is one essence, in three persons. The origin of Unitarianism, some 250 years ago in America, lies in saying this makes no sense. "One is one, and three is three," we said. "One is not three, and three is not one. That's just being self-contradictory."

A couple centuries later, when it comes to justice, we are again Trinitarian – or, rather, not Trinitarian, but Multi-tarian. There is one injustice to people of color, another to the Earth itself, another to LGBTQ folk, another to women, another to the poor, another to nonhuman animals. But the justicehead for people of color, for the Earth, for LGBTQ, women, the poor, and nonhuman animals is one. “The glory equal and the majesty coeternal,” we might add. There is one essence of justice – the ending of all forms of supremacy and domination – but that essence presents in multiple “persons”: in the multiple forms that oppression takes.

Here at CUUC, we have a number of Social Justice Teams, and this is central to our mission – we’re here to foster compassion and understanding and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world. If you’re not on one of our Social Justice Teams, I hope you’ll consider joining one.
My goal is 100% of the members on some Social Justice Team. What I’m saying today is that our Social Justice Teams each need to think about their interconnections with the others. Join the team – the “person” of justice that most resonates with you – but don’t silo there. Remember that there is one essence of justice uniting the various “persons” – and that all the teams here are working together for the same one thing.

Let us then increase our communication among the different teams, find joint projects if possible, and even when we are working on separate projects, to do so in a way that is conscious of the relationship to all the other issues.

What are your hopes for peace and justice in the new year, and how will those hopes affect your life?

From Justice on Earth, including Justice to the Earth, we get to Peace on Earth. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Justice on Earth"
See also
Part 1: Christmas and "Peace on Earth"
Part 2: Environmental Issues are Race and Class Issues



2018-12-20

Environmental Issues Are Race and Class Issues

Justice on Earth, part 2

"Peace on Earth," the herald angels bid us. Let us attend, as well, to Justice on Earth, for peace and justice are interdependent. There will be no peace without justice. This is because human beings systemically denied justice will agitate for it, including turning to violence when there is no other recourse. It’s also true that there will be no justice without peace. This is because for human beings under attack focus on defending themselves, not on fairness to others. Only a relatively stable regime under relatively peaceful conditions can turn its attention to improving its justice. I take this not as a chicken-and-egg insoluble dilemma, but as indicating the need to gradually build both at the same time.

The herald angels didn’t specifically mention justice. They did, per some versions of the Gospel of Luke, say "good will to all." I want to be clear that goodwill is not justice. Good will is better than ill will -- usually -- but good will is not enough. You can have the best intent in the world, but if you're negligent, you're still at fault. Citing good intentions doesn't get us off the hook for harm we've done, howsoever inadvertently.

I was reminded of this when I heard Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi apologize recently. She had praised a supporter by saying, "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."

The words evoked her state's sordid history with lynching -- and did so in the context of a campaign in which her opponent was a black man.
Her apology:
"For anyone who was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements."
My point isn’t to single out one politician for criticism. She is merely one prominent and recent example of the tendency to think that citing good intentions should absolve us of the harm we’ve done.

Sen. Hyde-Smith was negligent -- not in a criminal way, I don’t think, but she committed a moral version of negligence. Either she wasn’t paying attention enough to know what words cause harm in the context of America's past and present, or she knew but didn't care. Either way, she was negligent. The apology that I’d wished I’d heard would have gone something like: “My words were carelessly negligent of the harm they could and did do, and I’m sorry.”

The concept of negligence includes that no harm was intended, so by copping to negligence, one is still conveying that one didn’t mean it – but – and this is the important part – one is naming and owning to a wrong rather than implying that there was no wrong at all.

I’ve grown attuned to the ways people cite their intentions – their good will. Over and over, I notice white people excusing themselves by citing their intentions. It's infuriating how often this tactic is used, and how it's almost always white people expecting absolution on the basis of their intentions. The dominant US culture rarely wonders what a black person's intent might be. Peace on Earth depends on Justice on Earth, and "Goodwill among people" does not achieve justice.

“Justice on Earth,” as it happens is the title of this year’s Unitarian Universalist Common Read. Each year our Unitarian Universalist Association selects a book recommended for all Unitarian Universalists across the country to read. Our Common Read for 2018-19 is Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment. In essays from 14 different Unitarian Universalist authors, the book addresses our tendency to form justice silos. That is, we approach the different issues where justice is needed as if they weren’t interconnected, as if each injustice were a separate and distinct problem having no effect on other problems.

There’s economic justice – the need to address income inequality. There’s racial justice – the need to address the systemic ways that people of color continue to face discrimination. There’s the need to protect the environment. There’s the need protect women’s autonomy and choice, end sexual harassment and assault, and end gender-based discrimination. There’s the need to advance protections and respect for LGBTQ people. If we treat these as separate silos of concern, then they are in competition with one another – competing for our time, attention, and resources. We will wrangle about, “My issue is more important than your issue.”

But there’s one issue: and that’s the ideology of supremacy, the ideology that values men over women, whites over what people of color, straight and cis-gendered over LGBTQ. It’s an ideology of dominance that puts certain categories outside of concern and respect, that treats them as means only, not as ends in themselves.

That ideology extends to the Earth itself: we treat it as a means only, a heap of resources to be exploited, and not as an end in itself. We treat nonhuman animals as means only, not as ends in themselves. Your "door in" might be Race issues, or environment, or income inequality, or LGBTQ, or reproductive rights, or animal advocacy, but once you get in, it’s helpful to understand that there is a single shared vision at the root of all these issues, if we properly understand them.

This root is a vision of world without domination – where everyone’s needs are on the table, where all beings are accorded concern and respect, where no person is a means only, no animal is a means only, no life form is a means only -- ultimately no mountain or river or grain of sand is a means only – but is valued for what it is as an end in itself.

Justice on Earth explores, in particular, the ways income and race intertwine with environmental issues. Those on the margins are most affected by climate disasters. Those on the margins are most affected by environmental toxins because we deliberately locate our waste dumps and polluting facilities closer to areas where people of color and poorer folk live. So environmental issues are racial issues, and are income inequality issues.

Over thirty years ago, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice undertook an extensive study of Toxic Waste and Race in the United States. They found that:
Communities with a commercial hazardous waste facility averaged 24% minority. Even more striking, communities with two or more [commercial hazardous waste] facilities -- or one of the nation's five largest landfills – averaged 38% minority. Meanwhile communities with no such facility averaged just 12% minority.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Justice on Earth"
See next: Part 3: A Kind of Trinitarian-ish Logic Comes to Unitarians
See also Part 1: Christmas and "Peace on Earth"



2018-12-13

Christmas and "Peace on Earth"

Justice on Earth, part 1

A Charlie Brown Christmas was aired on ABC on Thu Dec 6 this year. Perhaps some of you saw it. I haven’t seen it in years, but I watched it every year when I was a kid – and I remember it well. Charlie Brown and that dinky little tree he gets – the Vince Guaraldi music. And the speech Linus gives to say what Christmas is all. That recitation was strangely moving to me. I didn’t believe it any more than I believed in Santa Claus, but Linus’ voice speaking those words of Elizabethan English was a wonder. I was mesmerized.

Charlie Brown says: "I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

Linus says: "Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about."

The audio goes silent for an unheard-of 7 seconds while we watch Linus walk out to the middle of the stage. "Lights please,” he says, and a spotlight forms on Linus while the rest of the stage darkens.
And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.
Then the audio goes dead silent again, this time for 10 seconds, as we watch Linus pick up his blanket and walk back over to Charlie Brown, where he says, “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”



On earth, peace, good will toward men. Our question today is: What are your hopes for peace and justice in the new year, and how will those hopes affect your life?

The first year A Charlie Brown Christmas aired was 1965 – I was 7 years old. In 1972, when I was 13, the Ms. Magazine cover of the December issue was filled with the large-print words, “Peace on Earth, Good Will to People.” So I learned to say it that way. Later, I’d say, "Peace on Earth, good will to all."

Linus was reciting from the Gospel of Luke, King James Version. Later I learned that no original copies of Luke have been preserved. The oldest surviving documents we have are third-generation copies of copies, with no two completely identical. Some of them say, “on earth, peace, goodwill toward people.” Others say, “on earth, peace toward people of goodwill.” It’s the difference between saying “Peace for everybody, good will for everybody” and saying, “peace for the good people.” The New Revised Standard Version gives, “On earth peace among those whom God favors” – with a footnote that “other ancient authorities read ‘peace, goodwill among people.”

At the time Luke wrote his gospel, it was about a century after the birth of Jesus – a century after that night that he wrote that angels proclaimed to shepherds, “peace on earth.” He already knew it hadn’t happened. Now it’s been over 2000 years. How’s that “Peace on Earth” thing working out for us?

Unitarians have a tradition of noticing that we haven’t lived up to the angelic promise. In 1849, Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote the Carol, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." He noticed that the angels had sung about peace on earth, but we had failed to make peace happen.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
Contrast that with "Angels We Have Heard on High," also written in the mid-19th century, but by a Catholic bishop. It is pure triumph and celebration, stretching "Gloria" over 18 bouncy syllables. Quite different from the Unitarian attention to the unfulfilledness of the promise. And Edmund Hamilton Sears was no outlier among Unitarians. The Unitarian poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's mid-19th-century carol, "I heard the bells on Christmas Day" also noticed the disconnect between the angelic promise and the earthly reality.
"For hate is strong
and mocks the song
of peace on earth,
good will to men,"
wrote Longfellow.

So I challenge you, my fellow UUs, and challenge myself, to take the words, "Peace on Earth," to heart, to reflect on what we've done in the past year to build peace, and what we will commit to do in 2019, and I do so standing in a long tradition. We do not merely stand on the shoulders of giants -- we are carried by them. We are born aloft and forward by the doings and sufferings of 200 years of Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists thinking hard and living passionately the quest to love this world, ourselves, and each other as we ought to be loved.

This year, as we come again to the Christmas season, and once more reflect on the mythic tale penned by an unknown author we call Luke and voiced by child actor Chris Shea as the cartoon character Linus, we cannot avoid noticing that another year is coming to its close, and we have still not found our way to hush the noise of battle strife – have still not harked to what the herald angels sang.

But we could. We know we could, because, very slowly, we are. Yes, the horrors continue. Fighting in Yemen is leading to mass starvation. The civil unrest in Haiti, the fighting in Syria. Even with all that, it’s better than it has been.

Archeologists estimate that in many past societies, from pre-historic times up to the birth of Jesus, more than 10% of deaths were the result of one person killing another. Now it’s a lot less. Scientific American last year reported:
“Most scholars agree the percentage of people who die violent war-related deaths has plummeted through history; and that proportionally violent deaths decline as populations become increasingly large and organized.”
The challenge to us is to take the words, "Peace on Earth," to heart. And also Justice on Earth.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Justice on Earth"
See next: Part 2: Environmental Issues Are Race and Class Issues
Part 3: A Kind of Trinitarian-ish Logic Comes to Unitarians


2018-12-08

Curiosity, the Bad Kind

Three Curiosities, part 3

The first curiosity (HERE) manifests as love of learning. The second (HERE) manifests as empathy. The third is curiosities that do more harm than good.

3. The Curiosity We're Better Off Without

There are some things better not inquired into. Here's an example from Walt Whitman, and I'm not sure I agree with him, but I can see why he might say what he does. In a part of "Song of Myself," he writes:
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
It seems to me that if he is looking at things and seeing God in all of them, then he is being curious. He's paying attention, which is the crux of curiosity.

But I can kind of see his point. If we're thinking of curiosity as wanting to know enduring truths, Whitman is saying we don't need to always be curious that way. Pay attention to what's right there in front of your face: the ephemeral rather than the forever. That's all the God you need to know about. You don't need to investigate and examine abstruse theologies and determine which one you think is true. The divine is not about amassing a list of true sentences you memorize. It's about finding letters from God everywhere, and leaving them as you find them. OK, I get that. I'm a person who has spent most of my life being curious about God -- curious about the concept of God, how it works, the different things the concept has meant through history. But, at the end of the day, Whitman is telling me, it's good to be able to set aside those intellectual inquiries and simply feel the holiness of the presence surrounding me right now.

Whatever your feeling about the propriety of curiosity about God, there is a type of curiosity that we just don't need. Being nosy, prying into business that isn't ours, chasing after gossip -- this is the sort of curiosity that doesn't do anybody any good. Here are some popular sayings that make the point:
  • "If it doesn't involve you, it shouldn't concern you."
  • “Everything in life is easier when you don't concern yourself with what everybody else is doing.”
  • “Don't worry about what I'm doing. Worry about why you're worried about what I'm doing.”
  • "Every time you feel yourself getting pulled into other people's nonsense, repeat these words: not my circus, not my monkeys."
People have privacy rights. We all need to have aspects of our lives that are off limits to public scrutiny.

The gossipy, prying kind of curiosity is usually in support of judgmentalism. That's what gossip is: the passing along of such information as supports and encourages a negative judgment about someone. The judgment of others reflects anxiety we feel about how others may be judging us -- (and how, remembering that "self" is "generalized other," as George Herbert Mead said, we judge ourselves). Trying to manage our anxiety by judging others, we thus perpetuate the anxiety. If you can remember Curiosity #2 -- use curiosity as a replacement for judgmentalism, not as a means for judging -- then you'll have an easier time letting go of the urge to pry.

And if your curiosity about someone else's private affairs really is totally nonjudgmental, then refer to Curiosity #1: the love of learning. The libraries and bookstores are full of more interesting and worthwhile things to read and learn about. You'll never get even a thousandth of the way through all the books worth reading. There are so many better ways to direct a love of learning -- and they don't disrupt relationships the way that invading privacy does.

Appreciate people. See them in their best light. Use curiosity to help with that, rather than to hinder it.
Bob fell off the wagon.
Susan lost her job.
Sally's Dan is flunking out.
That Keith is such a slob.

Sympathies and judgment
Served up over tea.
So nice to not have those folks' faults, but
What do they say of me?

So nice to not have faults like those
Except I fear I do.
I share in all those named above
And several others too.

Anxiety is thus sustained,
Throughout the system felt.
Someone, perhaps, must do that job,
But maybe someone else.
* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Three Curiosities"
See also:
Part 1: Curiosity and the Love of Learning
Part 2: More Curiosity, Less Judgment

2018-12-06

More Curiosity, Less Judgment

Three Curiosities, part 2

The first curiosity (HERE) manifests as love of learning. The second manifests as empathy.

2. Curiosity as Antidote to Judgmentalism

There's a kind of curiosity that is paying attention particularly to other people -- the living, breathing ones with whom you interact -- and being curious about them -- their feelings and needs. This is the kind of curiosity that the business consultants are talking about when they come in to teach about being curious. They aren't recommending that workers spend more time watching documentaries or reading about the House of Plantagenet. They're saying be curious instead of judgmental about the people around you: co-workers, and clients or customers -- and curious about yourself.

This is indeed a powerful use of curiosity.
"When you’re curious, you forget to be afraid. When you’re curious, you’re less attached to your ego and getting things right. When you’re curious, you’re open to new ideas and possibilities." (Sandra Possing)
Become the brilliant detective of your own life!

The opposite of this sort of curiosity is judging.
"When you default to judging things, you contract. You shut yourself off to the limitless possibilities all around you. It may feel good temporarily, because it makes you feel superior, which feeds the ego. But, in the long run it just breeds negativity." (Sandra Possing)
A judging mind obscures a broader, more realistic picture of self and others. This leads to greater emotional suffering in the form of low self-esteem, anxiety, irritability, and depression.
"Unfortunately, negative evaluation of self and others is quite pervasive in our culture here in the United States; for many, it’s their default way of relating to the world. But, the good news is that, with some practice, it’s possible to shift thought patterns in a more positive and rational direction, by cultivating more curiosity, rather than judgment." (Kim Pratt)
Of course, being discerning, thoughtful, reflective, and wise are good things. Judgmentalism, however, is the prioritizing of evaluation -- good or bad, better or worse, liked or disliked -- over open presence to and acceptance of what is.

On occasion, some evaluation is called for, but these occasions are a lot rarer than we seem to think. Living in "should" instead of "is" is a recipe for discontent. Curiosity, on the other hand, imparts the clarity of a more rational view and fosters inner peace and better emotional and interpersonal functioning. Curiosity helps us tap into compassion and kindness -- for oneself and others. When we have greater understanding and compassion, we're
"we’re smarter human beings that can take more skillful internal (self-talk) and external action." (Kim Pratt)
In fact, you won't even learn very much about the House of Plantagenet if your main focus is on blaming Henry VI instead of understanding the historical forces at work.

So here's a good exercise for moving out of judgment into curiosity. At the end of the day, write down the most judgmental thought you had that day. The write some related more curious thoughts about that.

Suppose you found yourself self-judging: "I'm not smart enough to do well on that exam." Write that down. Then think of some ways to be curious about that subject. "I wonder what will actually happen when I take the test. I wonder what I'll learn from preparing for this exam. Where did my drop in confidence come from? What factors help me feel more confident? What are some study and preparation strategies I could look into?"

Or suppose you saw a Mom who brought her kids to story time at the library, and while the other parents there were engaging with the story along with their kids, this one was off to the side looking at her phone. Suppose you had the judgmental thought: "Look at her! She's not even paying attention to her kids! What's so important on her phone that she has to look at it right this second?" Write that down. Then think of some ways to be curious about that subject. "Could she be waiting for an important email from a family member or friend? Is she using he phone to search for a new job? Did she have an incredibly rough morning, and just needs to zone out for a few minutes while her kids are in a safe environment? Maybe she talked over with her kids that it was time for them to exercise just a little bit of their own responsibility for paying attention by themselves. Is it any of my business if she's looking at a gossip website or texting her friends?"

The point here is not to satisfy the curiosity, but to merely think of possible explanations. Perhaps you've heard the slogan, "Assume best possible motive." That's an excellent way to approach people and situations. The problem is that we're often not very good at doing it. I don't mean that we forget to assume best possible motive, I mean that our imaginations get so clouded over by judgment that even the best possible motive that we can imagine isn't a very good motive. In order to assume better possible motives, we have to be able to imagine better possible motives -- and that requires exercising and strengthening our imagination. Doing this exercise at the end of every day for a month will help expand your capacity to imagine reasonable explanations for why good people would behave in the ways that you had an impulse to judge.

Every time a feeling of annoyance, irritation, impatience, or anger arises, right there, I've got two questions to be curious about:
  1. About the person that is the immediate trigger of my feeling, what conditions would lead a person to act that way -- and, in those conditions, what are they feeling and needing?
  2. What's going on in me that would cause me to have the reaction I'm having?
When judgmentalism catches you, imagining possible answers to these two questions is typically enough to open you to a more rational, peaceful perspective. Often, the first step of an investigation is to imagine possible answers to the question. You don't need to reach satisfaction that you've ascertained the truth of the matter -- but you do need curiosity to spur you to this first step.

Next: The Curiosity We're Better Off Without

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Three Curiosities"
See next: Part 3: Curiosity, the Bad Kind
See also: Part 1: Curiosity and the Love of Learning

2018-12-05

Curiosity and the Love of Learning

Three Curiosities, part 1

Curiosity killed the cat, the saying goes. Shakespeare didn’t say that. In Much Ado about Nothing, there’s a line that care killed a cat – meaning worry or sorrow. The earliest known appearance of the phrase "curiosity killed a cat," replacing Shakespeare's "care" with "curiosity," is in an 1868 newspaper. It must have been in use before then, since by 1873 “curiosity killed the cat” was included in a handbook of proverbs.

The image conjured up is of a cat – a naturally curious animal – investigating something and getting into fatal trouble from messing around in something better left alone. The idea is to warn us about dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. Leave well enough alone. But that’s often not an option. Life is ever moving on, and keeping up with it means investigating.

By the 20th-century, it seems some folks were getting tired of being warned against investigation and experimentation. A newspaper in 1905 added a phrase: “Curiosity killed a cat, but it came back.” The cat, you see, is such a useful metaphor because not only is it a animal whose curiosity is particularly obvious to humans, but it is also said to have nine lives – giving proponents this natural rejoinder: it may have been killed, but it comes back anyway.

It wasn’t until 1912 that the earliest know inclusion of the word “satisfaction” appears: “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” The new proverb is a push-back against the “leave well enough alone” argument. There may be risks from investigating into the unknown, but the satisfaction of finding out new things is so powerful that it will resurrect the dead.

And indeed curiosity does make us feel alive, resurrected from the walking death of not investigating what’s going on, or, anything.

Curiosity has been the subject of a lot of psychology research lately. We’re confirming that curiosity makes the mind active instead of passive, makes us observant of new ideas, opens up new worlds and possibilities, and brings excitement into life. Curiosity might kill you – but you won’t die bored.

And, anyway, as best as we can determine, the incurious also die – and probably at about the same average age. Possibly younger, on the principle that active engaged people are healthier, though that hasn't been established.

The business world seems to have started paying attention to the virtue of curiosity. A popular book a couple years ago was called The Power of Curiosity: How to Have Real Conversations that create Collaboration, Innovation and Understanding. And I discovered that there is now such a thing as "The Curiosity Institute" which consults with businesses to help workers improve communication skills by reducing reactivity and increasing engagement through: curiosity.

So that’s great. Yay for curiosity. As Bill Maher said, “Curious people are interesting people; I wonder why that is.”

In my own wonderings, it seems to me there are three kinds of curiosity to look at.

1. Love of Learning

First, there’s simply loving to learn. Wanting to know stuff. These are the folks who read nonfiction books voraciously and magazines like Scientific American. They go to museums. Their taste in films runs toward the documentaries. They are curious to know about medieval Chinese history, or the life and times of Sigmund Freud, or the basis of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or how quantum entanglement works, or why people are having less sex these days. They just want to know.

I can relate to that. I was a guy who would not stop going to school – I just loved sitting in graduate seminars, doing the reading, hashing over sophisticated concepts. I didn’t stop going to school until I was well into my 30s and had five college degrees in four different fields. I also had, by that time, an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, and really couldn’t put off any longer that curiously unreal-to-me world that people insist on calling “the real world.” And even that wasn’t the end of it, because I went back to seminary in my 40s – to learn some more interesting stuff.

There are a couple of pitfalls in this sort of pursuit of knowledge, but in my experience falling into either is relatively uncommon. The first is the danger of merely amassing factoids. The goal of education and learning, of course, is not merely to be able to recite long lists of tidbits of information, or even to become a champion of trivial pursuit or quiz shows. The point of the information is the meaning made of it – the integrating the separate factoids together into an overall, more-or-less coherent, yet very detailed, sense of how things are. And in my experience, this is indeed what people who really want to know stuff do: they but it together in meaning-making ways.

The second pitfall of loving to know stuff is the lure of thinking that you do. If you become certain that what you’ve found out is the permanent truth, and now that you know it, you will never have to revise that knowledge – that’s a problem. What begins in curiosity leads to knowledge, which then kills the curiosity. But curiosity shouldn’t be like hunger. The aim of hunger of is to get you to eat so you won’t be hungry anymore. The aim of curiosity is not so you find out stuff and aren’t curious anymore. The true aim of curiosity is to always be learning, but never knowing -- full of possible explanations but always looking for new ways to understand anything, or new nuances to add to one’s understanding – always holding what has been learned as a maybe-useful-maybe-not tool for approaching what is unique in the given situation.

Knowledge can become an excuse to not pay attention. You say, “I had a botany class, I know about oak trees, that’s an oak tree, don’t need to look at it any further. I know what needs to be known – I’ve got my category for the object, and don’t need to investigate this object.” The true botanist, instead, uses knowledge of oak trees to frame and focus the way she looks and curiously investigates the particular uniqueness of the oak tree in front of her.

If we use knowledge of general truths as an escape from curiously engaging with the unique particulars we face, that’s a pitfall. Paying attention to the unique particulars of the situation you’re in right then, right there is the segue into the second kind of curiosity.

Next: Curiosity #2

This is part 1 of 3 of "Three Curiosities"
See next: Part 2: More Curiosity, Less Judgment
Part 3: Curiosity, the Bad Kind



2018-11-23

Thanksgiving: A Parliamentary Tale

ACT I: PROLOGUE

Religion is stories, and music, enacted in ritual.
Our ancestors gathered around campfires.
There would be drumming and dancing, chanting or singing.
And there would be story-telling.
The stories helped them make sense of themselves.
The stories told the people’s history.
They would tell of how the world came to be, and how the plants and animals came to be, and how they themselves, the people, came to be.
They didn’t know how the world, and life, came to be so they guessed, using imagination to fashion a tale that seemed to them credible.
We do the same thing today.
Our story today says that there was a singularity 14 billion years ago that expanded into the universe as we know it.
Our story today is continually revised by the results of experiments that we designed for the purpose of learning to revise in our story.
Our story today has a lot more math in it.
But our story, like the ones our first story-telling ancestors told, has, at its heart, mystery.
We don’t know what made the singularity happen, and our early ancestors didn’t know what force had brought forth the soil, mountains, rivers, sun, moon, stars, plants, animals – and themselves.
It all began in mystery.
And then it unfolded.
When the unfolding involved something that didn’t seem to fit what people could do, what animals or plants could do, what earth or sky or wind or fire or water could do, the story-teller brought another character into the story – with an agency that could do what otherwise couldn’t be done.
We might translate the name of that character as spirit, or Great Spirit.
It was something mysterious, and there were a lot of very different stories about it, but what the stories had in common was: it knew things and wanted things.
It had intentions.
How else could mountains, or people, come to be, except through the intention of some creative force?
(There is an answer to that question. But there’s a lot of math in it.)
The stories and the music and the dance were done in a ritualized way – or were done together with ritual.
These were ways, maybe, our ancestors sought to influence the mystery that had powers, knowledge, and desires.
They were ways to help them feel connected to this mystery with powers and intentions.
It helped them be at peace with the mystery they could not control or influence.
We continue today to gather – have music, a little ritual, and tell stories about where we come from, to help us know who we are.
Different religions have different stories, different rituals, different moral codes, and play different music.
They aren’t so much different paths all headed up the same mountain as different paths headed up different mountains.
But they are all religions – which means they have stories, music, and ritual to convey a sense of who we are, what is our place in the family of things, what is ours to do, what we are here to try to be.
Who are we? Where do we come from? And why do we share in practices of Thanksgiving?
Therefore, let the ritual story of Thanksgiving be told.
And because Unitarians are a story-revising people, continually updating our story in light of new evidence, new understandings, and new sensibilities, the floor will be open to amendments as we go.

ACT II: IN SESSION

STORYTELLER: Our story. The Pilgrims were not the first people to land on the shores of New England. The area was first discovered in 1524 by Giovanni de Verrazzano, who explored the Atlantic Coast from Florida to New Brunswick.

[Delegate 1 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _______

DELEGATE 1: Mister Chair, I move to amend. Giovanni de Verrazzano did not discover New England. There were people already here. Say instead, “Verrazzano was the first European to explore the Atantic Coast.”

CHAIR: Those in favor of incorporating the amendment, raise your Order of Service. . . . The amendment is incorporated.

STORYTELLER: Let’s back up further, then, and say who did discover this region. This region between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware River, was discovered by peoples who came over the Bering land bridge about 16 thousand years ago. As they split into branches and spread across the continent, one of the branches of these people discovered our region about 14 or 15 thousand years ago.

[Delegate 2 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 2: Mister Chair, move to amend.
These people did not discover this region either. There were animals already here. I might mention in particular the Carolina Parakeet, extinct since 1918. I’d nominate them for discoverers of our region.

CHAIR: Perhaps we should remove the word “discover” altogether?

DELEGATE 2: Yes, that’s the amendment I propose.

CHAIR: All in favor of striking the word discover, raise your Order of Service. . . . The amendment is incorporated.

STORYTELLER: As they split into branches and spread across the continent, one of the branches, about 14 or 15 thousand years ago, became the first humans to inhabit our region.
Then in 1524, Giovanni de Verrazzano explored this area.
John Cabot and Jacques Cartier also charted in the vicinity.
In 1609, Henry Hudson made his way up what we call the Hudson River.
These explorers sometimes captured and enslaved natives – and they brought diseases.
Europeans had developed immunity to these diseases, but the natives had not.
The Wampanoag, for instance, in 1600 numbered 50,000 to 100,000, occupying 69 villages scattered throughout the region that is now southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island.
The plague from Europe killed up to two-thirds of them.
Many also were captured and sold as slaves.
In 1614, a Wampanoag boy named Tisquantum was abducted from his village, Patuxet.
Tisquantum was sold as a slave in Spain, then escaped to England.
After several years, Tisquantum was able to get back to Turtle Island (what we call North America).
When he returned to his village, he discovered there were no other surviving Patuxet -- the rest were either killed in battle or died of disease brought from Europe.
In 1620, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth rock bringing 102 Pilgrims.

[Delegate 3 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from ________

DELEGATE 3: Mister Chair, point of factual clarification.
Did these people call themselves “Pilgrims”?

CHAIR: Fact checker?

FACT CHECKER: They did not. Not until the 20th-century did Pilgrim come to refer to the people who came over on the Mayflower. They called themselves “Saints”.

DELEGATE 3: It’s disrespectful to them to call them something they didn’t call themselves. I move we call them Saints.

[Delegate 4 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from ________.

DELEGATE 4: Mister Chair, I oppose this amendment.
It may be disrespectful to them to call them Pilgrims, but it’s disrespectful to us to call them “saints” – because we’re pretty sure they weren’t.

CHAIR: Fact checker, was there some other name?

FACT CHECKER: They were Puritans.

CHAIR: Will the delegate accept an amendment to the amendment, to call them Puritans.

DELEGATE 3: I will.

CHAIR: The amendment is to call the people on the Mayflower “Puritans.” All in favor, raise your Order of Service . . . the amendment is incorporated.

STORYTELLER: These . . . Puritans settled in an area that was once Patuxet, the Wampanoag village abandoned because of the plague.
The English did not see any Wampanoag that first winter at all.
They only caught a rare glimpse of a fleeting shadow of the land's inhabitants until March 1621 when Samoset, a Monhegan from Maine, came to the village.
The next day, Samoset returned with Tisquantum.
Tisquantum had learned English during his abduction, so he could talk to the settlers and serve as a translator.
Tisquantum showed them how to plant corn, fish and gather berries and nuts.
The crop seeds the colonists had brought with them failed, so without Tisquantum – also called Squanto -- help, there probably wouldn’t have been a harvest to celebrate that fall.

[Delegate 5 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____

DELEGATE 5: Mister Chair, I move to include what the Puritans wore.

CHAIR: Which was?

DELEGATE 5: Beats me. I was wanting to find out!

CHAIR: Fact man?

FACT CHECKER: The Puritan colonists did not wear black, large hats with buckles on them, nor buckled shoes.
The 19th-century artists who painted them that way did so because they associated black clothing and buckles with being old-fashioned.
Actually, their attire was bright and cheerful.

DELEGATE 5: I move to include that information in the record.

CHAIR: All in favor raise your Order of Service . . . The information is incorporated. Pick up from there.

STORYTELLER: The harvest celebration on 1621 was not a solemn religious observance.
It was a three-day festival that included drinking, gambling, athletic games, and even target shooting with English muskets -- a not-so-subtle way to warn the indigenous peoples that these colonists could shoot them.
The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, and 90 warriors made their way to the settlement in response to the sounds of the gunfire.
They thought the colonists were under attack, so they came prepared for battle to help defend the colonists.
The Wampanoag were probably not invited, and the settlers were probably rather nervous having them around.

[Delegate 6 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 6: Mister Chair, I have a number of questions, and I move to go into Q&A format.

CHAIR: That’s quite and extraordinary parliamentary procedure.

DELEGATE 6: This is quite an extraordinary story.

CHAIR: Very well, there’s a move to suspend the rules for a round of Q&A. All in favor, raise your Order of Service. . . . The motion carries. The delegate may begin questioning.

DELEGATE 6: We’ve heard what the Puritans wore. What did the Wampanoag wear.

STORYTELLER: They were not wearing what is often pictured: woven blankets on their shoulders and large, feathered headdresses.
They wore breechcloth with leggings -- and perhaps one or two feathers in their hair in the back.

DELEGATE 6: How long did the Wampanoag stay?

STORYTELLER: The Wampanoag stayed for three days, during the course of which they contributed a large portion – perhaps most – of the food.

DELEGATE 6: Was the 1621 harvest celebration in November?

STORYTELLER: November would have been much too late.
It was some time between late September and the middle of October.

DELEGATE 6: So the first Thanksgiving, then, was in September or October?

STORYTELLER: The colonists celebrating in 1621 did not call their event "Thanksgiving."
For them, “thanksgiving” was a day of fasting – and this was a feast -- the opposite of their thanksgiving observance.
Calling any event involving white settlers in North America "the first Thanksgiving" overlooks the fact that, for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island (North America) celebrated seasons of Thanksgiving.
'Thanksgiving' is a very ancient concept to the first nations of this continent.
The 1621 celebration was a one-off that was not repeated -- and, in any case, wasn't thought of as a "Thanksgiving."

DELEGATE 6: Last question: What is the source of the misinformation we about the 1621 harvest celebration?

FACT CHECKER: Everything we know about that 1621 feast came from a description in one letter by colonist Edward Winslow. That letter was lost for 200 years.
After it was rediscovered, a Boston publisher, Alexander Young, in 1841 printed up the brief account of the feast.
Young dubbed the episode “The First Thanksgiving.”
White Americans, craving a romanticized story of their past, latched on to it.

CHAIR: Thank you. We conclude our Q&A section, and resume the regular story.

STORYTELLER: The first European-recognized Thanksgiving came in 1637, when Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving.
The proclamation focused on giving thanks for the return of the colony's men who had traveled to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they had gone to join in battle.
The thanks that was foremost in Winthrop’s proclamation was thanks for their “great victory”.
The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday are a celebration of a massacre of hundreds of Native people.
It grew into a general celebration of genocide.
For example, a Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1676 thanks god that the "heathen natives" had been almost entirely wiped out in Massachusetts and nearby.
Thanksgiving proclamations a century later continue to be connected with war.
In the midst of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued Thanksgiving Proclamations each year from 1777 to 1784.
Thus was the way paved for Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, to make Thanksgiving a US National Holiday.
Lincoln set the US National Holiday of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November.

[Delegate 7 raises hand]

CHAIR: The chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 7: Mister Chair, I move to include how the holiday moved from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of November.

CHAIR: Would the Assembly like to hear how the holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday? All in favor, raise your Order of Service. . . . Opposed?
The motion carries, so tell us.

STORYTELLER: Five times out of seven, the fourth Thursday in November is the same thing as the last Thursday.
The other two times – like this year – November has five Thursdays, and then the fourth one is not the last one.
The holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday in 1941.
Franklin Roosevelt made the change because November 1941 had five Thursdays, and by moving the holiday up a week he gave merchants a longer Christmas shopping season every year with five Thursdays in November.

[Delegate 8 raises hand]

CHAIR: The Chair recognizes the delegate from _____.

DELEGATE 8: Mister Chair, I move the following resolution.
Resolved: That those present at this worship service of Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation give thanks for all the good in our lives and all the blessings we enjoy,
That we remember also the pain and loss of the Indigenous people.
And that our list of gratitudes include thanks that we have the capacity to face the truths of the past, to learn from them to love others better, and love the rich diversity of humanity and of life.

CHAIR: The motion is [repeats motion]. Motions of this type require a second. Is there a second?
All in favor of the motion raise your Order of Service.
Opposed?
The motion carries. Next on our agenda is the reading of the gratitudes.

ACT III: AFTERWORD

Sometimes you feel happy.
Sometimes you feel sad.
Those are opposite feelings, and life brings them both, though usually not at the same time.
It can happen.
It is possible to be both happy and sad at the same time.
Have you ever felt happy and sad at the same time?
It can happen, but it’s unusual.
Usually being happy means not beings sad, and being sad means not being happy.
How about these two: being grateful and remembering suffering?
These are not even opposites at all.
They are the natural extensions of each other.
There is much to be grateful for.
Air!
Take a breath, and be thankful for air!
Thank you air.
And we have trees and sunshine to be grateful for – the beauty of this world.
We have cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks.
Thank you, trees!
Thank you, sunshine!
Thank you, cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks!
Gratitude chases out loneliness.
You can’t be lonely when you’re feeling thankful – because as soon as you say, “thank you,” you have company, companions, friends.
The air, trees, sunshine, birdies and wee beasties: your company.
Compassion also chases out loneliness.
Caring about other people, caring about whether they suffer are treated unfairly, also chases out loneliness.
Compassion brings other people into our lives, even if only in our imagination.
We have company.
Thankfulness recognizes the companionship that is all around us.
Compassion reaches out to extend our companionship outward.
For as the world is our good company, it makes us want to be good company for the world.
So gratitude and compassion – thankfulness and remembering suffering and unfairness – are not opposites.
They naturally go together, for they are both about: having company in our life.
We are not alone.
We have the companionship of everything that we are grateful for and everything we have compassion for.
I remember when I was a kid, the extended family and always a few unrelated guests gatherered around the table for Thanksgiving dinner each year.
My Mom found a recipe for oyster stew one year early on, and liked it so much she made it every year thereafter, so, I know it’s weird, but in my mind, Thanksgiving is associated with oyster stew.
Thank you, Oysters.
Thank you, Mom.
And we’d go around the table and talk about what we were thankful for.
I don’t remember if it ever came up at the Thanksgiving tables where I was, but it seemed a common thing around Thanksgiving to talk about being grateful for how well we’re doing when others are doing so much worse.
That seems weird to me.
I suppose the point is to remind us not to take our blessings for granted, and that’s a good point, but the even better point is to be reminded that our blessings are limited.
As long as anybody isn’t free, none of us are free.
As long as any being isn’t treated fairly, none of us has the blessing of living in a world where everyone is treated fairly.
We have company – we aren’t alone.
We have the great good fortune to be able to care, to have compassion.
Gratitude and compassion are dishes best served together.