Thank You, Warriors

If ever American soldiers were truly fighting for freedom, it was the regiments of African American soldiers in the Civil War. “Colored regiments” began forming after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. One of them, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, featured in the 1989 film, “Glory,” was led by a Unitarian, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick in the film), whose faith in human equality accounted for his willingness to take the assignment. Another was the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment. Sojourner Truth provided them with new words to the popular tune to sing as they marched toward battle. (Though Truth claimed authorship, some historians think she may have taken almost all the words from the "Marching Song of the First Arkansas Colored Regiment," written by that regiment's white officer, Captain Lindley Miller.)

Sweet Honey in the Rock has recorded that song. Please take 4 minutes and give it a listen. You can follow along with the words below.

We are the valiant colored Yankee soldiers enlisted for the war
We are fighting for the union. We are fighting for the law.
We can shoot a rebel further than a white man ever saw.

Look there above the center where the flag is waving bright
We are going out of slavery. We are bound for freedom’s light.
We mean to show Jeff Davis how the Africans can fight.

We are done with hoeing cotton, we are done with hoeing corn.
We are colored Yankee soldiers just as sure as you are born.
When the Rebels hear us shouting, they will think it’s Gabriel’s horn

They will have to pay us wages, the wages of their sin.
They will have to bow their foreheads to their colored kith and kin.
They will have to give us house-room or the roof will tumble in.

We be as the Proclamation, rebels hush it as you will,
The birds will sing it to us, hopping on the cotton hill,
The possum up the gum tree, couldn't keep it still,

Abraham has spoken and the message has been sent.
The prison doors have opened, and out the prisoners went.
To join the sable army of African descent.
Now that is fighting for freedom.

Peace and justice must go together, and where there is no justice, the only peace there can be is the temporary peace of suppression and enslavement. When it comes to oppressed peoples fighting against an unjust system, my heart is stirred with support for them.

Are there nonviolent ways to resist oppression? Yes. But a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was not an option -- it wasn't something that US blacks in 1863 would have had any way of conceiving or organizing. Could victims of more modern genocide have responded with Ghandi-like civil disobedience? Maybe, sometimes. Always? I only know I don't have the heart to blame an oppressed person for fighting back with the only means they can think of: violent force.

So thank you. Thank you, fighters, warriors. Thank you for being unwilling to accept domination passing for peace. You died or risked death because you feared death less than you loved hope. Your example shows the rest of us that we, too, can commit our lives to a greater purpose, a purpose for which we may be willing to die.

Abstractions like “country” and “freedom” are the terms we hear from people far from the battlefields when they talk about what the fighting was for. Those in the midst of such battle have little thought of such abstractions. They are motivated in the moment by concrete and immediate loyalty to the mates fighting beside them, not to the large ideals they will later invoke, if they survive. Thank you, fighters, for embodying the value of concrete connection to the people around us right here and now.

We today are what we are because of fighters. There’s that joke that goes: "I'm in favor of sex. I come from a long line of people who had sex.” So, too, we must also acknowledge that we come from a long line of victors in battle. The victors generate more descendants than the vanquished – and even the vanquished are around to be vanquished because they succeeded as a people in previous fighting. Thus each of us has an ancestry made up of those able to fight and win. We all come from a long line of warriors – and we wouldn’t be here without their ability to fight, to kill, their willingness to die.

For most of human history, if there were any communities or tribes of pacificists, they were either under the protection of people who were willing to fight, or they were soon subsumed and conscripted or exterminated. Thank you, fighters. You entered situations more fearful than anything permanent civilians like me can imagine, yet you did not let your fear control you. Because you showed us what courage is, we are better able to bring courage to our peaceful pursuits.

The phrase “warrior mind” refers to a state of being concentrated yet relaxed, smoothly sizing up a situation and deploying strategies to overcome obstacles and challenges. Every time we confront difficulties rather than fleeing from them, we are drawing on the skills of our warrior ancestors – skills which today’s warriors continue to embody. Thank you, warriors. It falls now to us to build a way to transcend our heritage of violence, to utilize warrior mind for the creation and defense of institutions of peace.

Let us be fierce for justice. Essential for success in battle – and thus essential for the tribe's survival for millennia of human history – was the capacity for discipline and organization and courage. That capacity was also essential at Selma in 1965, and before that in Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns. Grateful for the warrior virtues, let us continue to seek ever more effective ways to bring those virtues to the nonviolent resistance to oppression.

Let us also remember this on Memorial Day. If Memorial Day can be described in two words, "thank you," it can also be described in another two words: "I’m sorry." Some of the deaths in war were not much about nobility and courage, let alone freedom. Sometimes politicians and generals made unfortunate choices when better alternatives were available. Some of that killing and dying served no purpose at all. Good people died, families were bereft, and I’m sorry.

Beyond the gratitude, beyond the regret, Memorial Day is simply remembering. Ultimately, the meaning of Memorial Day is described not in two words, but in one: Remember. The dead say: “We were young. We have died. Remember us.” For all who died in warfare or as a consequence of the war, tears.

* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "War, Peace, and Remembering"
Part 1: "We Were Young. We Have Died. Remember Us"


"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)

Some "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, some of them were someone's sister, niece, aunt, girlfriend. Increasingly, as the 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," I've said. 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. It’s a war that has a particular connection to the early years of our Community Unitarian Church at White Plains.

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 years preceding US entry into the war, American banks 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 US, John D. 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 John Reed, played by Warren Beatty, is talking to Louise Bryant, played by Diane Keaton:
“All right, Miss Bryant, do you want an interview? Write this down. Are you naïve 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. 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. For Holmes, denominationalism was divisive, while a community, based on common life, united. Holmes' described the community church as based on these principles:
  • It substitutes for loyalty to the single denomination, loyalty to the social group.
  • It substitutes for a private group of persons held together by common theological beliefs or viewpoints, the public group of citizens held together by common social interests.
  • It substitutes for restrictions of creed, ritual, or ecclesiastical organization, the free spirit.
  • It substitutes for the individual the social group, as an object of salvation.
  • It substitutes for Christianity...the idea of universal religion.
  • It substitutes for the theistic, the humanistic point of view,...the idea of present society as fulfilling the "Kingdom of God" -- the commonwealth of man.
  • The core of its [the Community Church's] faith, as the purpose of its life, is "the Beloved Community."
Rev. John Haynes Holmes' community church concept was an inspiration to the members of what was then called "All Souls Church" in White Plains. In 1920, one year after Holmes’ church changed names to "Community Church of New York," the White Plains congregation, which had been founded in 1909, adopted the name, “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, and many of our congregations were hotbeds of anti-war activism. 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.

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "War, Peace, and Remembering"
Part 2: Thank You, Warriors


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.


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


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. (See JJ Levine's "Switch" photographs)

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


All You Need Is Love?

In 2008 July, Jim David Adkisson walked into the Unitarian Universalist church of Knoxville, Tennessee during the Sunday morning service and opened fire, killing two and wounding seven others. According to his manifesto found in his pickup truck, as well as subsequent statements to the police, Adkisson was motivated by hatred of liberals, African Americans, and gays. The Unitarian Universalist “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign was launched in response, to answer hate with love. Since then, we have been the “standing on the side of love” people.

The campaign has particularly focused on issues where the national discourse is distorted by hatred – such as immigration, racism (in law enforcement and elsewhere), and LGBT rights. In honor of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which is every year on May 17 – and in honor of those prophetic women and men who have in their way, through the development of queer theory, confronted structures of oppression with transforming power of love – I want to reflect with you about our understanding of sexual preference, sexual identity, as well as race and gender.

Standing on the side of love. So simple. So basic. The heart leads us, and the heart yearns for connection in love. That's clear, that's basic. Who needs theory? Didn’t the Beatles have it right: "All You Need is Love"?

The thing is, the head is all the time cooking up one idea or another, and the ideas sometimes get in the way. Sometimes we need good theory just to clear the obstructions of bad theory so we can get back to the basic: standing on the side of love.

I propose today to lead you on a journey – a quick tour through a landscape of ideas and concepts. What we will find is that we are led back to where we started – back to a trust in the heart, back to love. It is an Eliot-esque journey, for T.S. Eliot said:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
When we come back again to no side but the side of love, perhaps, we’ll find that our journey has helped us understand our original stance a little better. Perhaps we will, in some sense, know the place for the first time.

Concept Number One: Ignore It – Or Try To.

According to this concept, the thing to do with sexuality that may be different from your own is ignore it. What consenting people do in private is irrelevant – it has nothing to do with our shared life. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with character, reliability, competence, trustworthiness – nothing to do with whether a person has inherent worth and dignity. So let’s ignore it. Let’s dispense with labels like lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and treat all people as just people. In race relations, this attitude was called being – or trying to be – color-blind.

Concept Number Two: Honoring Identity

The problem with concept number one is that people want to be seen and honored, acknowledged and respected for all of who they are.

During the four years in the early 90s that I was a professor of philosophy at Fisk University – a school with a predominantly African American student body – I saw every day how important African American identity was to my students.

Once I was a visiting faculty at Ripon College in Wisconsin. I remember being at a reception and chatting with one woman who professed colorblindness. She didn’t understand why there would be a school where all the students were African American. What difference does race make? Let us judge people, just as Martin Luther King himself said, by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. But after a few years at Fisk, that perspective had become so distant for me that I couldn’t even think of how to explain why I didn’t share it. In that moment, adrift on a sea of white, from the faces in the room, to the thick cover of Wisconsin snow outside, I was stymied.

It wasn’t until later that I thought: hey, wait a minute. What about our gender identity? If someone were to say to that woman, "I can’t tell whether you’re a man or a woman," I don’t think she would have been re-assured. More likely, she’d have been insulted.

When my name, Meredith, preceeds me, people sometimes assume I’m a woman. That’s OK – not a problem for me. If, however, they were to continue to regard me as a woman after we had met face to face, I imagine I’d find that disconcerting. Further, if I were to enter some situation where a number of people were doing that, I’d be a bit spooked, wondering what sort of Twilight Zone I had fallen into. Many of you, too, would find it disorienting if the people around you couldn’t -- or earnestly pretended they couldn’t – tell whether you were male or female. It’s not that we think there’s anything wrong with being the opposite sex – it’s just that we like to be recognized for who we are.

Similarly, for many people of color, racial identity may be important. It’s a part of who they are, and they don’t want that socially erased. We want to be proud of who we are, not told that a key part of our experience is meaningless.

Similarly, many LGBT folk want to be recognized and accepted for all of who they are. We are all entitled to equal concern and respect. But we don’t have to pretend that we’re all the same. We shouldn't have to hide our identity.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Queer Theory"
Part 2: Sexuality Is Not Natural
Part 3: Bearing the Unbearable Ambiguity of Sexuality


This Week's Prayer

Words of Howard Thurman:
"In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading presence of the Holy, my heart whispers: Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in good times or in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed. Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve." (SLT #498)
Dear All-Pervading Presence,

Let our high resolve be perfect love, that we may live what we see.

When we see sunrise, bright promise, the beauty of the day and the laughter of friends, may we fully connect and live what we see.

When we see the suffering of the world, the hungry, homeless, refugees, oppression, may we also fully connect with that, live what we see, bring it into our hearts and live it through compassionate response.

When we see courage, may we live what we see. In Syria, an underground newspaper, Enab Baladi, has become the most prominent independent publication in the midst of that void of order and information. It is staffed largely by women. Three of its editors have been killed, eight reporters detained and tortured, yet this this so-called “gang of girls” continues to provide the only in-depth coverage of how the war affects civilians, families, and day-to-day life for millions of Syrians.

We remember, too, the courage of the six marines and two Nepalese soldiers lost when their helicopter, on a relief flight helping victims of Nepal’s earthquake went down in the mountains east of Kathmandu.

When we see creative beauty that lifts spirits, may we live what we see -- and hear. The brilliant blues guitarist B.B. King, who died this week, lived in his music what he saw of life’s sadness and wrought a music of transcendent power that helped millions rise up from loneliness, despair, disrespect, and alienation.

When we see committed service in places of greatest need, may we, too, live what we see. The Ebola outbreak is coming under control, thanks to more than 10,000 health workers and volunteers from around the world that gradually taught people to avoid unnecessary physical contact, go to a clinic the moment they displayed symptoms, and to forgo the traditional ritual of washing corpses.

Let our high resolve be perfect love, that we may live what we see.

And keep fresh before us the moments of our high resolve.


What To Transcend


Too often we don’t notice the abundance and beauty that is around us at every moment. Rainbows, for instance. One of the questions in the May issue of “On The Journey” asks, “When was the last time you saw a rainbow and how did it make you feel?” Rainbows seem to have a power for a lot of us for pulling us out of ourselves, getting us to drop for a moment, the running story of who we are.

That story runs through our heads with ourselves as the noble hero, persecuted yet struggling on. The life of busy-ness we construct serves the purpose of sustaining the basic plot about a noble and important person carrying on amidst hardship, accomplishing worthy things. Have you had the feeling that life is the acting out of the movie about our life? We are the stars of our biopic. I’ve started to become a little self-aware of this tendency. Sometimes as I drive down a road, or walk up the path to the church, I’ll notice that this could the opening sequence of the movie about me. I can almost hear the theme music playing. The opening credits are flashing before me – only, since I’m on the other side of them, they’re backwards. Who’s the director of this thing? I wonder. I hope it’s not Tarantino. Hey, maybe this is going to be a Cecil B Demille production – whoah! There are days when my life feels like a movie by the Coen brothers. Or the Marx brothers. Where was I? Oh, yes: Rainbows.

Sometimes some of us find that a rainbow has the power to make that story about ourselves just fall away. The nearly constant playing of our inner narrative falls silent. All our busy strategizing for getting the next thing we want and avoiding the things we fear stops. There’s this thing of wonder and beauty – a rainbow – and nothing in all our busy-ness made it happen. It’s not our reward for being a good person. We didn’t earn that rainbow, and we don’t deserve it. It is a grace that is simply given. We just open our eyes and look.

If we can look at a rainbow that way, with the story on pause, then we can also look at a blue sky that way. And if we can look at a blue sky that way, then we can look at a gray sky that way. We can look at trees and buildings and one another’s faces that way. We can even look at a pile of dirty dishes and the socks on the floor that belong to children who seem incapable of picking them up that way. The invitation of the rainbow is: now look at everything that way.

Is there something more? Not more than what’s right around us right now, no. But certainly more than that storyline running through our heads about the setbacks we deserved and didn’t deserve, the triumphs we deserved and the lucky breaks we didn’t – the story about “dealing with things.”

There is something more than dealing with things. There is basking in them, loving them, being with them without any desires or fears or goals or purposes entering in. There is something more than all that we know, and that is the life of not knowing. The life of not-knowing is a receptive, curious openness to the wonder of the uniqueness of each circumstance, deciding not to bring it under the categories of your prior knowledge about what is present. It’s stepping down from the grand sweeping epic spectacle of the Cecil B. DeMille movie of your life, and into the step by step not-knowing described by his niece, the dancer and choreographer Agnes DeMille who said:
“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”
And not just the artist. The scientist, too, at her best, lives in the space of not-knowing, leaping and leaping in the dark. Someone with a scientific bent picked up that line, “the moment you know how, you begin to die a little,” and commented: “Which is to say, your wavefunction begins to collapse.” Right. Once something is determined, waves of open possibility collapse.


I have not as yet used this word, but I’ve been leading up to it all the way: Transcend -- from trans, beyond, and scandere, to climb. It means to escape inclusion in, lie beyond the scope of; surpass; climb over or beyond; surmount, overstep, rise above.

Transcendence, I submit, is not about climbing out of what’s here and now into some other realm. It is about climbing out of your story and your knowledge so that you can truly be with what’s here and now.

Transcendence is not about transcending the here and now. It’s about transcending your self -- your narrative, your purposes, your habitual categorization of things.

This month’s spiritual exercise asks, suppose you took 30 minutes to have a direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, how would you do it? That is, what would you do to get out of your story, your plans, purposes, and judgments, and be as present as you can to the surprising wonder that’s all around you. You’ll probably find it helpful to be still and quiet. Look at each thought as it comes up – watch it fade away. Then another one comes. Watch it, until it fades.

Your thoughts aren’t you, and they don’t even seem to come from anyplace you have control of. Your thoughts are just these things that happen to you, like weather or traffic. Maybe, just maybe, in the pause between them, you’ll suddenly notice things are shining – like a rainbow. And there you’ll be smack in the middle of something so much more – that at the same time is not at all more than what you’ve always been in the middle of but were too busy making other plans to see. You’ll be directly experiencing transcending mystery and wonder.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Direct Experience of Transcending Mystery and Wonder"
Part 1: This Is It
Part 2: Is There Nothing But Matter?


Is There Nothing But Matter?

There is something more” risks becoming about consumerism – if not consumerism of things then consumerism of experiences. Experience this, go there, do that -- as if life were about collecting special experiences, as if everything you did were part of a bucket list.

Kick the Bucket List

You might remember the 2007 film, “The Bucket List” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman which further popularized the idea of having a list of things to do or places to go before dying – before "kicking the bucket." Dear friends, this is a bad idea. Don’t do it. Don’t make that list, and if you have one, throw it away. The measure of a life is not the length of the list of things done once, but the integrity of things done over and over, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, until they radiate with beauty and grow fresher with each repetition.

Too often have I myself said, and too often heard, “been there, done that” -- as if everything in the whole possible conceivable world was worth paying attention to once, at most, and never again. Go back to that place you have been and that thing you have done because last time you were there you didn’t stay. Go back to what you do know, but live as if you’ve forgotten. Touch that familiar cloth, and the electric jolt of mad implication: This is it. All of it. All of it right here.

There is nowhere to go except here. When Ecclesiastes says there is no new thing under the sun, it means that that's because all things are always new beneath this sun. So hanker not for the fresh and new but open your eyes to the wonder that is always before you.

Let us be a countercultural people, standing counter to the consumer culture exerting all its might to entice us to buy new experiences, a consumer culture that would sell water to a fish if it could, for we are as immersed in constantly shifting new experience as a fish in the ocean. Nothing could be more abundant than brand-new, fresh, never-before experience. Forget about making a list of the ones you want, and notice the amazing ones you have.

If religion is a way of living, an approach to life, the film “The Bucket List” is bad religion. For good religion in film, I would mention “Ground Hog Day.” Presented with the exact same circumstances every morning, Bill Murray makes each day different by how he responds to it. He learns at last to live in the moment and finds that when he does, his life becomes one of compassion and joy – right there in the same old small town, day after day. There's not anything more.

Nothing but Matter?

Is there something more than the world science describes? I know many of us feel it’s too reductive to say there is nothing but matter. Surely there is something more profound and mysterious than matter, mere lumps of stuff. Life has got to be more than just clods bumping into each other -- even in New York!

I understand. But have you looked at how profound and mysterious matter is? For one thing, matter actually is energy. How weird is that? Chairs, tables, my body, stones, lakes, this wide earth -- they are all congealed energy. Sounds like woo-woo spirituality, and maybe it is. It's also basic physics. Every gram of matter is 90 trillion joules of energy. One paper clip is the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. One five-pound bag of flour is the electrical energy that New York City's five boroughs plus Westchester consume in a year.

Consider that:
  • Everything with mass warps spacetime -- that warping is how gravity happens.
  • The faster you move through space the slower you move through time.
  • Observing a wave, without exerting any force or influence on it, merely observing it, makes it collapse into a particle.
  • You can determine the velocity of a particle, and you can determine the location of a particle, but not both because the very act of determining one renders the other indeterminate.
  • Right now you are spinning faster than the speed of sound; you're being bombarded by electromagnetic beams flying through your body, a hundred million signals are racing through your brain; and there’s a blueprint of your bones in every single cell of you.
  • Certain quantum phenomena defy causality.
  • Reality extends through 11 dimensions (maybe; maybe more) and, according to our current best guess, is made of superstrings.
  • Black holes, of which there are about 100 million in our galaxy, are surrounded by event horizons nothing inside of which can ever be seen or detected in any way by anyone outside of which.
  • Most of the matter in the universe is dark matter, which no one has ever seen or detected, but it's gotta be there (well, somewhere).
That's some deeply weird stuff! Far from being reductive, matter turns out to be expansive beyond our capacity to comprehend. For me, I’m seeing mystery and wonder in science, not beyond it.

And it seems to me that if I experience it, then it’s in my neurons, and my neurons are physical, and any force that influences physical things is a physical force because that’s what "physical force" means.

But I do agree that there’s something beyond science in this sense: there is the poetic.

T.S. Eliot says,
“I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
Shakespeare says,
“life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour on the stage and then is heard no more.”
Walt Whitman says,
“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
Jacob Trapp says that worship
"is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal." (Singing the Living Tradition #441)
These are important claims. They express vital truth, but they are not claims for science to assess. So, yes, there is something more than science – in the sense that there are important ways of talking beyond scientific ways of talking. There are insights that are not scientific insights.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Direct Experience of Transcending Mystery and Wonder"
Part 1: This Is It
Part 3: What To Transcend


This Is It

There is something more.

What a fraught statement that is!

There is something more.

Really? That perilous thought has seduced so many down dark paths -- indeed, all of us, I dare say, to some extent.

When you hear that inner voice whispering to you, “There is something more,” be careful. And when you don’t hear it, be more careful, because it may be an assumption so buried you don’t even hear it, but it’s at work in your life. “There is something more” is a truth that is in so many ways false.

Something more? More than what? Is not the path of wisdom, of peace, taken step by step in each moment, nothing but this. As the poet James Broughton says:
This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That
and He is It
and She is It
and It is It
and That is That

O it is This
and it is Thus
and it is Them
and it is Us
and it is Now
and Here It is
and Here We are
so This is It
This is it, the whole thing, right here – there’s not some “more” to come later, right? Everything is given, nothing is lacking. Later, James Broughton wrote ‘This is It #2” to say it even more explicitly:
“This is It
This is really It.
This is all there is.
And it’s perfect as It is.
There is nowhere to go
but Here.
There is nothing here
but Now.
There is nothing now
but This.
And this is It.
This is really It.
This is all there is.
And It’s perfect as It is.”
The world's religious teachings agree, saying it in various ways. When Moses asks the burning bush, “who is this I'm speaking to?” the answer is, "I am who am." (Exodus 3:14) -- I am what is. God is what is. There's nothing more than that.

Later, Jesus teaches, "the kingdom [or kindom] of god is within (or among) you" (Luke 17:21). It's all right here.

“All the verities and realities of your existence,” as Kalidasa said, are now -- not yesterday, which is a dream -- not tomorrow, which is only a vision -- not any other time but now.

This “something more” talk is a trap. That voice that whispers there is something more has lured people down the theological paths that say this world, this life in relatively unimportant. There’s something more than this life, some theologians have said – there’s the eternity of hell or of heaven, for which this life is merely a testing ground. Our history as Unitarian Universalists is one of emphasizing this life.

Listening to that seductive whisper, we may be lured into consumerism. "Something more? Well, let me buy it. What’s it called? I’ll Google it right now and order it online."

But the voice keeps whispering, “There is something more.” So you buy more and more stuff, and, what happens? Either you use it or you don’t. If you don’t use it, well, that was a waste. I’ve got stuff I haven’t touched in years, except to pack it up for moving. What good is that?

And if you do use it, then it’s a convenience. But conveniences are double-edged swords. The fact that something can be done quicker is a convenience only if you want to do it quicker -- and the more you want things to be done quicker the more you find yourself living as though the purpose of life is to get as many things done as possible.

A dishwasher, for example, saves a little bit of time over washing dishes by hand – but it’s harder to enjoy loading a dishwasher than to enjoy hand washing them. And that’s only partly because you’re distracted by all the other tasks you’re rushing to get to.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Direct Experience of Transcending Mystery and Wonder"
Part 2: Is There Nothing But Matter?
Part 3: What To Transcend


This Week's Prayer

From the poet Roberto Juarroz:
“The bell is full of wind though it does not ring.
The bird is full of flight though it is still.
The sky is full of clouds though it is alone.
The word is full of voice though no one speaks it.
Everything is full of fleeing though there are no roads.
Everything is fleeing toward its presence.” (SLT #487)
Dear love and light and life,

We bear powerful compassion, though the demands of everyday life sometimes overtake us and we forget. We are fiercely committed to each other, to justice, to the care of our planet, though we sometimes neglect all of these.

Thus do we forgive ourselves and begin again.

We are thankful for this day, this breath, this community – the people sitting around us right now who, just like ourselves, are caring and loving and sometimes self-absorbed; wise and insightful and sometimes clueless; helpful and resourceful and sometimes needy.

We are thankful for all of them.

Our hearts especially go out to all mothers everywhere today: wealthy and poor; lesbian and straight; married and single; beginners and experienced; the mothers of large broods, the mothers of only children; the mothers who have lost children, the mothers with estranged children; the mothers who gave their child up for adoption, and the adoptive mothers; the mothers raising children in the ways their mothers and grandmothers showed them how, and the mothers following the latest books of one or another mothering movement; the helicopter moms and the free-ranger moms; the smotheringly present, the neglectfully absent, and the good enough moms; the working moms, the unemployed moms, and the don’t-have-to-work-outside-the-home moms; the abused moms struggling to break the cycle; the moms in shelters, and the moms who have always been sheltered and protected; the scared moms and the relaxed moms; the moms all wrapped up in their kids’ achievement, the moms all wrapped up in their own achievement, the moms without prospect of notable achievement, and the moms who just love, moment to moment, without concern for achievement.

Bless all the moms.

There is a love that surrounds us though we do not know it. And healing happens though we remain broken.

Thus do we, too, flee toward our presence.


Drawing Muhammad, Burning CVS: What Is Ours to Do

Two wrongs don't make a right.
So what do we make of two wrongs?

When there are two wrongs, one of which provokes the other, which one draws more of our attention, energy, and emphasis? Two recent events raise the question: the shootout in Garland, TX over an anti-Islam event that featured a contest of cartoon drawings of Muhammad, and the recent riots in Baltimore.

I think it's wrong -- not illegal, but still wrong -- to deliberately insult a group of people for no reason other than to insult them. I'm not going to use "the N word," display a swastika or confederate flag, burn a US flag, or make a drawing intended to represent Muhammad. I will urge anyone contemplating doing those things that they not do so.

I also really don't think people should be shot or arrested for doing any of those things.

On a different issue, I think our police culture is a problem.
"In many places, a self-supporting and insular police culture develops: In this culture no one understands police work except fellow officers; the training in the academy is useless; to do the job you’ve got to bend the rules and understand the law of the jungle; the world is divided into two sorts of people — cops and a — holes." (David Brooks, NYTimes, 2014 Dec 9)
This police culture encourages police abuse, especially toward the poor and minorities. In Baltimore, poorer and predominantly African American neighborhoods have been oppressed for decades by police with the tacit (at least) encouragement of politicians. I think that's wrong.

I also think looting and setting fire to drugstores is wrong.

So which wrongs should get more of our attention, energy, engagement? Whether our focus goes to the provocation or to the reaction does not always depend on the magnitude of the harm wrought. I offer no answers or formula. I offer merely that we view all such questions in the light of two calls: the call to understanding, and the call to inclusion in moral community.

We Are Called

We are called to the work of understanding: the work, that is, of understanding others and the needs we all share that lie behind the strategies they choose. Even if we believe they choose unskillfully, we must understand how it is that they have the skills they have and lack others. We can never do this perfectly, of course -- we cannot even understand ourselves perfectly. Nevertheless we are called to construct the most charitable interpretation of others' behavior that our imaginations can make at all plausible. This calling entails an obligation to "assume best possible motive," and also an obligation to learn about -- and thereby strengthen our imaginative capacity for putting ourselves in -- very different situations from any we have directly experienced.

We are also called to the work of inclusion within moral community: the work, that is, of engaging in moral discourse with a wide variety of others and including others, to the furthest extent their capacity allows, in relations of accountability, for accountability and belongingness entail each other. Much of this work, too, is imaginative: We may never encounter members of certain groups face to face, yet we may nevertheless reflect on what we would say, and on what they might say, and on the ways that social structures (which legislatures -- and therefore we, as voters, influence) may facilitate accountability. Part of what we do in moral discourse is assess culpability. Exclusion from accountability, that is, exclusion from moral community, places the excluded outside of possible culpability -- which gets them "off the hook," but also dehumanizes them. Moral discourse that over-relies on blaming slides into demonizing, but discourse that places a person or group outside of accountability, and therefore outside of possible culpability, also denies essential aspects of personhood.

The work of understanding and the work of inclusion in moral community are often mutually supportive. Sometimes, however, as when culpability assessment is in order, the work of understanding and the work of inclusion pull, or seem to, in opposite directions. We are then called to negotiate that tension creatively.

(If you're asking, "Called? By whom?" then take your pick: by God, by our true self, by the angels of our better nature, by our intrinsic aspiration, by the still small voice of conscience, by faith in the possibility of beloved community, by the onward urging of the universe, by our yearning for wholeness.)

The Cases

To understand the operation of these callings, consider these cases. The first three are included in order to expand and illustrate the concepts before applying them to the last two.
  1. Two children, siblings Rob and Susie, squabble. Rob teases and provokes his sister until she overreacts and whacks him with a stick. Rob's cry brings parental involvement.
  2. Outside a bar one fine New Hampshire evening, Jack levels a virulent insult at Red, who slugs him. A police officer, witnessing and overhearing the entire altercation, finds Jack's words so harshly insulting, offensive, and degrading that he arrests Jack, but not Red. Jack is charged under a New Hampshire statute making it illegal for anyone to address "any offensive, derisive or annoying word to anyone who is lawfully in any street or public place ... or to call him by an offensive or derisive name." The officer in this case decides to let Red off with a warning: "I ought to arrest you also, but I'm not going to because if anybody said that to me, I'd slug him too.".
  3. On 2001 Sep 11, hijackers commandeered airplanes and flew them into, among other places, New York's Twin Towers.
  4. On 2015 Jan 7, at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, Islamists Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi opened fire, killing twelve, and wounding eleven, four of them seriously. The brothers took umbrage especially at Charlie's cartoons of Muhammad. On 2015 May 3, Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi attacked an event in Garland, TX featuring cartoons of Muhammad. The men fired assault rifles at police and were slain in the shootout.
  5. Riots in Baltimore on 2015 Apr 27 included looting, the burning of a CVS drug store, destruction of two police cars, and a number of injuries to police and others.
Sometimes our moral deliberation follows the paradigm of a court judge deciding whether to rule in favor of plaintiff or defendant. The kind of discernment involved in the above five cases is quite different from that. We are not dealing with who is right and who is wrong, but with two sides that are both wrong. We must discern which of two wrongs is more salient -- which one gets more of our emphasis or attention.

In each case there are provoking conditions and there is a reaction. We may try to attend equally to each, but often one or the other rises to a greater salience, warrants more of our attention, or tugs more strongly for our moral engagement.

Case #1

In the first case, the parent, responding to this incident, will likely agree that both of the following are true:
(1a) Rob should not have teased his sister so unkindly.
(1b) Susie should not have reacted as she did by whacking her brother.
The parent might give equal attention to both points, and issue equal chastisement to both children. Or, for various reasons, one or the other statements might seem more salient. If the whack is slight, the parent's emphasis might be on the provoker: "Rob, stop harassing your sister." If the whack is more disturbing, the parent might focus on the reactor: "Susie, I don't care what he said, you can't hit him."

A significant factor in judging salience between two such statements, both acknowledged to be true, is whether one of the agents is seen as more susceptible to one's moral suasion than the other. If there's a notable age difference between Rob and Susie, then parental ire will likely be directed more toward the older child: "You're old enough to know better" ("... than to tease and provoke," if Rob is older; or "... than to so overreact," if Susie is older). Parents may treat the older child as more susceptible to moral suasion, which is to say, more responsible, more firmly within the community of those with whom the parent can reason. The older child's greater culpability is a product of the older child's greater inclusion within moral community of shared discourse and reflection. The younger child may also be included to the furthest extent her or his capacity allows, but the capacity, at a tender age, for participation in all levels of moral reasoning is more limited.

Case #2

The second case is a grown-up version of the first. This one is also hypothetical, though the New Hampshire statute quoted is real. (In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire [1942], the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that statute and upheld Chaplinsky's conviction under it.) The officer. let us suppose, agrees that both the following are true:
(2a) Jack should not have insulted as he did.
(2b) Red should not have slugged Jack.
Though he assents to the truth of both, the officer clearly finds (2a) the more salient truth. It is the provocation rather than the reaction in this case that commands this officer's greater attention. The officer understands Red, sympathizes entirely with Red's situation and his behavior. Jack, however -- to his chagrin in this incident -- is included in a relation of accountability. He may rue his arrest, but this very accountability also affirms his moral agency and personhood. If the system works as it should (which, alas, too often, it doesn't) the relation of accountability is mutual, and Jack's testimony about any police impropriety during the arrest will be taken seriously. Red, on the other hand, though extended the blessing of understanding is, by that very understanding, placed outside of the accountability to which most of us would agree he ought to have been held (except insofar as the officer's warning is one way a relation of accountability may express).

Case #3

I include this case because the US response to the the terrorist attacks on 2001 Sep 11 exemplifies failure to heed the call to understanding. In the months following the attacks there was in many quarters outright hostility to the very idea of trying to understand what made the hijackers do what they did. Even today traces of that hostility linger, along with, in most of the population, a lack of any interest in grasping the social and psychological sources of violent extremism. Most Americans labeled the attackers "evil" -- which labeling absolves the labeler of any responsibility to look into the matter any more deeply. "Evil" has become a word we use when we cherish our hatred so much that we're afraid that if we understood the hated thing, we wouldn’t be able to hate it anymore.

Something provoked those terrorists to their action. If evil it were, that evil was nurtured and brought to disastrous fruition by some combination of forces interacting with the human needs we all have. The US has responded to the 9/11 attacks by building up its security apparatus, but doing very little to address the conditions that turn normal healthy children into young adults willing to be walking bombs. Few Americans have regarded the provocations to terrorism as salient, but only the terrorism that is a reaction to that provocation.

We come now to the two cases that started me on this reflection:

Case #4

Two common reactions to the violence directed at cartoonists who drew pictures of Muhammad are:
(4a) I know people have a right to make offensive drawings, but it would be better not to draw pictures of Muhammad.
(4b) "It is not OK to shoot other people because you are offended by what they draw. Even if they drew it to offend you, no shooting of them."
The (4b) answer is, in fact, a quote from Jon Stewart (Daily Show, 2015 May 4).

Perhaps you would agree with both (4a) and (4b). But one thought or the other is likely to be more primary for you. Though both may be true, one is more salient. For one funny man, Jon Stewart, it's (4b). For another funny man, cartoonist Garry Trudeau, it's (4a).

In remarks delivered on 2015 Apr 10 at the Long Island University's George Polk Awards ceremony, where he received a Career Award, Garry Trudeau argued that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were abusing satire by "punching downward."
"Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean. By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech." (Gary Trudeau, "The Abuse of Satire," Atlantic Monthly online, 2015 Apr 11)
Writer and photogapher Teju Cole also saw (4a) as the point that needed making:
"It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullyingly racist agenda, but it is necessary to try....The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not mere gadflies, not simple martyrs to the right to offend: they were ideologues. Just because one condemns their brutal murders doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology.” (Teju Cole, "Unmournable Bodies," New Yorker, 2015 Jan 9)
The subsequent shootout in Garland, TX centered on a contest of Muhammad cartoons. The event was organized by Pam Geller, who heads the American Freedom Defense Initiative and has run virulent anti-Islam advertising on buses and subways. If the Charlie cartoonists were Islamophobic ideologues, then Geller would also qualify.

Whether (4a) or (4b) rises to greater prominence in your mind will depend on who you regard as moral agents. Shooting people is a greater wrong than offending them, yet your attention may gravitate toward the provokers if you regard them as more susceptible to moral suasion. As David Frum writes of Trudeau's speech:
"Had the gunmen been 'privileged,' then presumably the cartoons would have been commendable satire. The cartoonists would then have been martyrs to free speech. But since the gunmen were 'non-privileged,' the responsibility for their actions shifts to the people they targeted, robbing them of agency. It’s almost as if he [Trudeau] thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better." ("Why Garry Trudeau is Wrong about Charlie Hebdo," Atlantic Monthly online, 2015 Apr 13)
If dogs, or violence-prone Muslims, are not within the community of those with whom we can reason, then our attention goes to those who are -- those who "should have known better." Frum's critique, in essence, is that Trudeau, in his effort to extend sympathetic understanding to the Muslim community has excluded them from moral community, denied them moral agency, set them outside of relations of accountability, rendered them ineligible for culpability -- and thereby denied them an essential part of personhood.

Stewart's response to the Garland incident -- "no shooting of them," delivered in the slow emphatic tones of an exasperated parent -- treats the shooters (or, rather, potential future shooters) as worthy of directing moral (moralizing, perhaps) discourse to. He thereby affirms their membership in moral community.

Case #5

With news of the looting in Baltimore and burning of a CVS broadcast into TVs in living rooms (and airports and a number of bars and restaurants) across the nation, two reactions were typical:
(5a) Theft, property destruction and injuries are certainly unfortunate, yet, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "A riot is the language of the unheard."
(5b) It is not OK to burn and loot. Even if you have been wronged, no looting or burning.
Again, you might, as I do, agree with both assertions. For many of us, though, one or the other is primary. Some of us find our moral energy focusing on the "provokers": the police and politicians who have allowed, and sometimes actively facilitated, decades of oppressive conditions in Baltimore's poor and minority neighborhoods -- that is, the leaders who failed to hear the legitimate complaints of those now rioting. Others of us find that condemnation of the "reactors" -- the looters and burners (a small minority of the total demonstrators) -- seems more salient.

The call to understanding in conjunction with the call to inclusion in moral community brings us to an appropriate regard for both truths, (5a) and (5b).

We are called to understanding. It behooves us to know what is going on in the poorer and predominantly minority sections of our cities; how the poor and minorities are treated by the police, politicians, civic leaders, media, and fellow citizens; what they experience in their schools and neighborhoods.

We are also called to inclusion in moral community. Our understanding of how a young black man might be prompted to ignite a drug store must not function to excuse, which is to say dismiss, him from culpability and thus from the ranks of moral agents. Recognizing all the factors that have disempowered him, it may be tempting to hold him blameless, let him "off the hook," -- that is, set him outside of moral community of accountability. Let us resist that temptation, for it only adds another level of dehumanization and alienation to that already in evidence. Respecting his personhood entails holding him responsible. If there is to be a path from disempowered alienation to empowered belonging, that path must be one of inclusion within relations of accountability.

For providing that accountability, our society relies heavily on a counterproductive retribution-based justice system. Even when arrest, trial, and sentencing are as fair as they are supposed to be, our system of retributive justice almost always does more harm than good to the interests of moral inclusion, empowerment, and reduced alienation. Instead, methods of restorative justice offer the sort of healing accountability that we all need. (See restorativejustice.org and my blog series that begins HERE.)

Those who riot, as King said, speak the language of the unheard. We must find ways for broader society to better hear the voices of poor and minority youth. They must be heard. Inclusion within the broader moral community, however, also requires that they, in turn, hear others, and are thus brought into relationship of mutuality where true accountability -- the accounting for ourselves to one another -- becomes possible.


This Week's Prayer

Source of healing and wholeness we call by many names,

We pray in order to cultivate gratitude, for gratitude makes life’s beauty and glory present to us.

We are thankful for the longer, warmer, greener days of spring, for the flowers blooming, for gorgeous days.
We are thankful for our youth: their wisdom surprises, and their promise delights.
We are thankful as well for our elders: their wisdom is no surprise, and their fulfillment of their promise delights.
We are thankful for the eradication of Rubella from North and South America, and that child and maternal mortality rates in Rwanda over the last 15 years have declined by 50%.
We are thankful that in Mexico, drug-related murders are significantly down for the third year in a row, and that 460 Nigerian captives have been rescued from Boko Haram camps.

We pray in order to articulate our hopes, for the yearning of the heart should not be silent.

We hope the 300 schoolgirls still missing from Boko Haram abduction may yet be alive and be released.
We hope for recovery and healing for the thousands in Nepal, India, and Afghanistan struggling to deal with the results of the earthquake.
We hope for relief for the people from the Middle East and North and Sub-Saharan Africa seeking refuge and facing violence, hunger, disease, and death.
We hope for a new and serious commitment to address the many causes of conflict between police and minority communities.
We hope our country will awaken to pay attention to poor and minority communities not just when they march and demonstrate but all the time, as our president said, "because we consider those kids our kids."

We pray in order to orient our minds and hearts toward joy in all that is beautiful and good, and toward service that makes us instruments of the realization of our hopes.