Black Lives Matter

Confrontation in Ferguson, 2014 August
It started almost a year and a half ago in Ferguson, MO, when Michael Brown was killed. Or maybe it started almost four years ago in Florida when Trayvon Martin was killed.

In any case, it DIDN’T start 25 years ago when the nation watched video Rodney King lying unmoving on a Los Angeles street as officers continued to rain vicious baton blows upon him. The officers were acquitted – a familiar pattern – and that triggered the 1992 LA riots, but the nation as a whole did not take seriously that there was a SYSTEMIC problem here.

When Trayvon was killed in 2012, that was in my back yard – I was serving in Florida at the time and I joined with other UU clergy and other groups in protesting what had happened. I preached then about the evident racial bias and injustice. Two and a half years later when Michael Brown was killed, I admit I missed the nationwide social significance of reaction to that event.

When I say “it started,” of course I’m not talking about a callous and systemic and brutal disregard of black lives. THAT has been going on for about 400 years in this country. What HAS started quite recently is a social awakening to this fact. The alarm bells which have been a constant din in our country’s African American communities began to pierce the consciousness and conscience of the nation as a whole with the Trayvon Martin killing. And then, just as the nation was hitting snooze on that alarm, came the killing of Michael Brown. And at first I was not attentive to the significance of the response.

Our neighbor UU congregation in Westport, CT was more on the ball. They held a vigil of honor for Brown and of protest against police violence. I did not seek to organize any such response here. They held that vigil within a week, as I recall, of Brown’s death, and I thought, “Why this one?” Over the seven years, 2005-2012, white officers killed a black person on average almost twice a week. Blacks constitute about 12.3% of the population, but are 24% of all people killed by police officers in the US. (These statistics on police shootings, particularly of blacks, are likely to be significantly understated. Police departments self-report the numbers, and these are based on the reportage of only 750 of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the US.) So: just going by these woefully underreported numbers, we’ve been having white officers killing a black person twice a week. So why the outrage about Michael Brown?

The better question, of course, is: why hasn’t there been outrage all along?

To answer that question, we need to look at some history. In the history of the European colonization of these continents we call the Americas there are many places we could begin. There were centuries of enslavement of African peoples and people of African descent. Then, after the Civil War, Reconstruction represented an effort to make a serious break with that past. So for our purposes now, let's start the story with the day the US abandoned the hope and promise of Reconstruction.

That day, if it can be pinned on a single day, was 1898 November 10. On that day and for the next several days after, in Wilmington, NC, white supremacists violently overthrew the duly elected biracial city government, burned down the black-owned newspaper, and murdered as many as 100 black citizens. It was not a “race riot,” it was a coup d’etat by white supremecists. Hoodlums overthrew the legitimate government. The US government declined to step in, thereby tacitly signaling to the entire South that there would be no federal protection of black voting rights. And there was none for the next 67 years. When the citizens of this country learned that the US government did nothing to defend a legitimate government against insurrection, what could they have concluded except that it must be OK because black lives don't matter?

Lynchings were numerous from 1890 through 1930, and the nation as a whole declined any meaningful effort to stop them. Some awareness that the lynchings were going on seeped through to the country as a whole. Seeing no particular effort on the part of law enforcement at any level to stop these gang murders, what could a person conclude except that it must be that black lives don't matter?

We have an ingrained national pattern of regarding black lives as not mattering. Since about 1890 and the backlash against Reconstruction, our nation’s citizens get periodic news reports about something horrible happening to people of color: discriminatory policies, acts of hate, or acts of violence against people of color. We get these stories over and over and we see that neither our government nor our fellow citizens want to do much about it.

Yes, there was a Brown v. Board decision in 1954. There were the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, since rolled back. And things got better – some. Throughout all that and since: we have been getting stories of violence and injustice, and stories about the official response. When Trayvon was killed, Zimmerman was at first not charged, and he never would have been charged were there not substantial public outrage. Sanford, Florida Police “said that there was no evidence to refute Zimmerman's claim of self-defense and that Florida's stand your ground law prohibited law-enforcement officials from arresting or charging him.” You hear these stories over and over and something in your brain just goes: “Oh, must be that black lives don’t matter so much.”

Remember Asch's conformity experiments of the 1950s? If not, here's a refresher from Wikipedia:
Groups of eight male college students participated in a simple "perceptual" task. In reality, all but one of the participants were "confederates" (i.e., actors), and the true focus of the study was about how this subject would react to the confederates' behavior. The confederates knew the true aim of the experiment, but were introduced to the subject as other participants. Each student viewed a card with a line on it, followed by another with three lines labeled "A", "B", and "C". One of these lines was the same as that on the first card, and the other two lines were clearly longer or shorter. Each participant was then asked to say aloud which line matched the length of that on the first card. Prior to the experiment, all confederates were given specific instructions on how they should respond to each trial (card presentation). They would always unanimously nominate one comparator, but on certain trials they would give the correct response and on others, an incorrect response. The group was seated such that the real participant always responded last. Subjects completed 18 trials. On the first two trials, both the subject and the confederates gave the obvious, correct answer. On the third trial, the confederates would all give the same wrong answer. This wrong-responding recurred on 11 of the remaining 15 trials. It was subjects' behavior on these 12 "critical trials" that formed the aim of the study: to test how many subjects would change their answer to conform to those of the 7 confederates, despite it being wrong....[In the 12 critical trials] the majority of participants’ responses remained correct (63.2 per cent), but a sizable minority of responses conformed to the confederate (incorrect) answer (36.8 per cent).... Overall, 75% of participants gave at least one incorrect answer out of the 12 critical trials.
We see the world around us acting in a particular way, and there's a lot of pressure to figure they must be right. We are social animals. We are built to adapt ourselves to our social situation. That is our glory as a species – but it can become our biggest problem. We see a society that regards people of color a certain way, and we -- blacks as well as whites -- can’t help but share, at least partially, that regard. [1]

That same society has, in the last couple generations, also taught us not to say out loud that black lives don’t matter. But something in our brain nevertheless concludes that they don’t – or else how could our government, our fellow citizens, allow the way they are treated to continue? That’s been trained into the brains of the people of this nation for 400 years. Since the end of Reconstruction, it has continued to be trained into our brains -- but we are now trained to be somewhat less overt about expressing it. We don’t say anymore that black lives don't matter. We just keep showing it. And the message gets through.

In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Authority. The FHA provided mortgage insurance, but only for high rated neighborhoods. The presence of a single African American made a neighborhood low rated. So while the law didn’t say, “No mortgage insurance for blacks,” the effect was the same. And private banks simply didn’t give uninsured mortgages to African Americans. A system of contract selling sprang up in which white speculators would buy a house cheap, double its price and sell it to a black family under contract terms in which the interest rates were high, the seller retained the deed until the house was fully paid for, no equity accrued, and if a single payment was missed, even if it would have been the last one, the buyer lost everything, the house and all money that had been invested in it.
“In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded in to the sight of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.” (Coates, 2014 Jun)
So if we have so-called “black on black” crime, it is because we had intentional, deliberate policies to herd people of color into proximity only with other people of color and equally intentional policies to prey on them to impoverish them.

Let me repeat some of the facts I have mentioned before – lest we forget:

In one study, thousands of identical resumes were mailed to prospective employers -- identical except only for the name. A black sounding name – say, Daunte Williams instead of David Williams – was 50% less likely to be called back. Fifty percent.

Bilking and plundering African Americans for profit and sport continues. Black car buyers are charged $700 more on average than white car buyers of the same car. When driving that car, multiple studies show that black drivers are twice as likely to be pulled over. When looking for a home, black clients looking to buy are shown 17.7% fewer houses for sale, and black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units.

Up until the recent move toward decriminalizing marijuana, penalties have been stiff. Blacks and whites used marijuana at similar rates, yet black people were four times more likely to be arrested for it. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created much harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine, used mostly by blacks, than for a quantity of powdered cocaine, used mostly by whites, that produced similar effects.

Overall, Blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.

Doctors did not inform black patients as often as white ones about the option of an important heart catheterization procedure.

White legislators – in both political parties -- did not respond as frequently to constituents with black sounding names.

When Black men open-carried firearms as the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and 70s, gun control legislation passed, and when that perceived threat was gone and whites wanted to open carry, those controls were rolled back, and white people heavily armed in public are celebrated as patriotic guardians against government tyranny.

Meanwhile, government tyranny, in the form of its police officers, is a more realistic threat to African Americans. According to ProPublica analysis last October, a young black male is 21 times more likely to be shot by police than his white counterpart.

How is it that this goes on? How can we know this, however dimly we might be aware of it, and also know relatively little is done to rectify these inequities, and not conclude that, well, black lives just don't matter much.

So that's why there hasn't been outrage all along. It's because our long history has trained us to regard injustices toward people of color as simply the normal and irrevocable order of things. Blacks as well as whites were inculcated with a tacit assumption of white supremacy.

But the same stories that inured this country eventually started waking it up.

We watch movies like “12 Years a Slave,” and are rightfully horrified, yet stories of the horrors of 19th-century slaveowners also function to reinforce the idea that racism is a conscious bias held by mean people. Today it’s an unconscious bias perpetuated unconsciously by people like most of us who see ourselves as nice people. What we finally started waking up to was that those unconscious biases have real and deadly repercussions.

I don’t know why, out of the long history of abuses, a murder in Ferguson was the one that finally triggered a movement. Apparently this nation was simply due. If Darren Wilson had never shot Michael Brown, some other senseless murder would have triggered this movement of people to say, hey, wait. Black lives DO matter. So we’ve got to stop acting like they don’t.

There’s a growing recognition among white-identified people of the privileges they -- we -- are granted. A year ago, just after a grand jury announced its decision not to bring charges for Eric Garner’s killing, a hashtag “crimingwhilewhite” began trending on twitter. White people shared experiences of how they had been treated by police. Here's a sampling:
  • Arrested for DUI, cop took me to drive through ATM so I'd have money to bail myself out.
  • Friend w/ suspended license gets flat tire/pulled over in someone else's car. Cop says he will use my license (passenger)
  • Arrested for stealing street signs xmas eve back in high school. Probation waived as it would interfere with DRAMA CLUB.
  • Exhaled blunt smoke in a cop's face as I opened my door and then told him he couldn't come in without a warrant. He left.
  • Played with realistic toy guns my entire childhood, wherever we wanted.
  • My 13yo son and his friends were loitering at Walgreens recently. Only his black friend got searched for shoplifting.
  • Ticket for going 120. No license. Judge let me off. "You go to too good a school to be so dumb so I assume you aren't."
  • I dined and dashed-cop found me at the movies, I paid the bill and he left. I was rude but not arrested and not killed.
  • successfully shoplifted A LOT back in the day because nobody ever followed me around or assumed I was a risk
  • Got pulled over for a brake light out. Underage and drinking and blew over the limit. Cop let me walk to my friend's apt.
  • I was 20. Stopped by cop at gas station. Under the influence & underage. He flirted with me then let me drive home.
  • In high school I got in a 3 car wreck that might have been my fault. The cop told me it was the "illegal alien's" fault.
  • Shoplifted when I was a teenager. Was apprehended but never charged because I looked "like a good kid"
  • Someone very close to me assaulted a state police officer at a traffic stop once. Was out by 9 am and later beat case.
  • oh yeah the time I got picked up for the gun at school thing they let my mom come pick me up and take me home. No juvie.
The system cuts a lot more slack to people who look white. Breaks like these just don’t happen very often to people who look black.

We as a society have a long way to go. We Unitarian Universalists, as a people of faith, a community of conscience, have a role to play in helping that happen. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are actively making their neighbors uncomfortable. They are putting up banners that say “Black Lives Matter” on their property displayed to public view. They are doing this because if the idea that black lives matter makes a neighborhood uncomfortable, then making it uncomfortable is what we need to be doing.

Let me say that again. If the idea that black lives matter makes a neighborhood uncomfortable, then making it uncomfortable is what we need to be doing.

Are we not a people of conscience? Are we not a people who stand for something other than our own comfortable complacency?

[1]Cornel West, in his Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2015, alluded to the fact that white supremacy infects the consciousness of black folks as well as white folks:
"I've got a lot of vanilla brothers and sisters that walk with me and say, Brother West, Brother West. you know, I'm not a racist any longer. Grandma's got work to do, but I've transcended that. [LAUGHTER] And I say to them, I'm Jesus-loving, free, black man, and I've tried to be so for 55 years, and I'm 62 now, and when I look in the depths of my soul I see white supremacy because I grew up in America. And if there's white supremacy in me, my hunch is you've got some work to do too." (UUA Ware Lecture)


Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional

Acceptance and Resistance, part 2

Our thoughts can make trouble for us.

One day LoraKim told me my shirt was wrinkled. So I took it off and started ironing it. All the time I was thinking, “I wore it yesterday, and then I hung it up. I didn’t sleep in it, I didn’t throw it in a heap somewhere. What business does it have being wrinkled? Shirts shouldn’t get wrinkled just from being worn one day.” The iron was steaming, and I was fuming. It’s an inanimate shirt, and I was shoulding all over it. That’s the kind of thought I’m talking about. I was making myself unhappy when I could have relaxed into enjoying the experience of ironing. There’s a certain delight one can take in the swath of smooth warm cloth the iron makes. But I was having none of that on that day.

Accepting reality just as it is – not believing those judgmental thoughts that pop up about it – is the path to enjoying life. By learning to not identify with those thoughts that come along, by not taking them personally, we can simply find the thought interesting. Oh, there’s that annoyed thought, or Now I'm having a depressed thought. What used to be the nightmare is now just interesting – or possibly even funny.
“Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” (George Orwell)
Acceptance is crucial for our well-being. And acceptance, as I said, does not mean resignation or complacency – but perhaps the question arises, how does it not imply that? How is it possible to have both acceptance and resistance – resistance to injustice, unfairness, needless cruelty?

There are various approaches to answering that question. Buddhism seems particularly promising since it puts such emphasis on acceptance. "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." The Buddha did not say that – not in so many words -- though people like me, giving dharma talks, often say that. What makes pain into suffering – at least, if it’s a relatively mild sort of pain – is that we don’t want it. “I don’t want this – I want this to stop,” – that’s suffering. But when we accept that the pain is there, when we just pay attention to it – focus on investigating the sensations – it doesn’t bother us. The Buddha did say something similar in the Sallatha Sutra:
“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.”
The thought that life isn’t what we want it to be leads us to work long hours to buy more products which inevitably fail to satisfy. In the process of many repetitions of this cycle, we internalize the idea that the best life has to offer is continual grasping after more and more, that whoever dies with the most toys wins, that there is no escape from the misery.

The single-minded devotion to producing and consuming held up to us as happiness, leaves us with loneliness and alienation. Acceptance opens up the possibility of enjoyment. Without acceptance, there can be no equanimity, no peace – only a shifting kaleidoscope of anger, resentment, sadness, and fear.

I started a Buddhist practice including daily meditation almost 15 years ago. There’s a way to handle that anger, that resentment, that hurt, that isn’t repression, and isn’t indulgence either. It’s a practice of bringing the light of awareness on what is. It might seem like a very private, personal, even selfish pursuit – make yourself happy and never mind the rest of the world. This is where acceptance might look like resignation or complacency in the face of the world’s troubles, injustices, and cruelties.

It’s true that Buddhism has a reputation of being socially disengaged rather than engaged. In this regard, Buddhism and Christianity parallel. As movements, both Buddhism and Christianity include strands of engagement with the world, and strands of withdrawal into private salvation.

Private salvation is popular. In Christianity this often plays out as: get saved, accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, and then you are assured to going to heaven. The rest of the world may be damned, but that doesn't matter. You are getting to heaven.

There's the story of a young child at a fairly conservative, and Southern, Christian church who heard the preacher proclaim, "accept Jesus Christ as yo lord and master and yo will ha-ave uh-ternal li-ife." The child thought the preacher said "a turtle life." Take refuge in the father, son, and holy ghost and have a turtle life. Which does have a certain appeal. A turtle life affords a hard protective shell, refuge behind which allows indifference to the world. In the last 2000 years, many strains of Christianity have, essentially, promised a turtle life, with salvation as a protective shell for the individual alone.

To be the sure, the message also spoke of Christian love to one another. Christian love, however, has too often been taken to mean being nice to one's own family, circle of friends, and maybe, like the good Samaritan, the occasional stranger by the road. Christian love has too rarely been taken to mean opposing the structures of oppression that are cruelly breaking and prematurely ending the lives of more than a third of the world's population.

Yet Christianity also has a socially engaged version. Buddhism, too, has a privatistic version -- and also a socially engaged version.

Next: Socially engaged Buddhism

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Acceptance and Resistance"
See also:
Part 1: Creating the Better, Accepting the Real
Part 3: What Will Save Us


Creating the Better, Accepting the Real

Acceptance and Resistance, part 1

Acceptance AND resistance? Well, consider the Buddhists. We Buddhists are big on acceptance -- and lately many of us have been orienting toward social engagement and resistance to unjust structures and policies. Consider, for starters, this passage from David Brazier, The New Buddhism:
"Buddhist training has always to be seen in the context of the wider purpose. The Buddha's message has the potential to transform the world. The world today is in the grip of an orgy of greed. The rich become richer and the poor get poorer, and this is not new. The scale of it is new, however....[T]he gap between rich and poor has never been so great in the whole of history. Reforms of international commercial and trading arrangements are having the effect of transforming the whole world into a single market. In this situation, the scope for disparities of wealth have never been remotely so great as they are now, and the process is still accelerating. Buddhism predicts that greed and hate follow one another. The periods of greed are long and the periods of hate are short, sharp and vicious. The current surge of greed contains within it the makings of war. The greater the greed, the more devastating the war to follow. It is ironic that the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the demise of communism has created in the world precisely the conditions ... in which the inherent contradictions of the world greed system would become ever more glaringly apparent. If we do not want the world to be destroyed in a blood-letting orgiastic enough to compensate for the era of greed, then we need another way forward. The Buddhist solution to this is the creation and growth of Sukhavati [the Pure Land] in our midst. To create a country without territory, however, means to create a community of values. To hold a community of values together requires steadfastness on the part of those who participate. The pressure to rejoin the greed system is considerable....As times grow more difficult and dangerous, the need for courage and steadiness become greater. Such times will come. A Buddhist needs to be prepared so that the purpose will not be lost when the going gets tough. The citizens of the Buddhist community of values ... need to be steadfast and that means that our training has to be thorough. The purpose of Buddhist training is not a kind of 'I'm all right and never mind the rest' salvation. The purpose of Buddhist training is to make Sukhavati a reality."

First, let's look at the need for acceptance in our lives -- then we'll look at how resistance fits into that. For Unitarian Universalists, the third principle which we covenant to affirm and promote is:
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
Does that seem a little at odds with itself? If we truly accept one another exactly as we are, then how come we’re also encouraging each other to change and grow? Of course, one might point out that, when it comes to spiritual growth, it’s not about becoming other than what you are. It’s about becoming more and more yourself. Even apart from that, what you are is dynamic – an ongoing process rather than a static thing. Accepting that process isn’t at odds with encouraging that process to continue.

Besides, that’s just how it works. When we feel accepted for who we are, only then can we be encouraged to growth.

Accepting our fellow congregants is a part of the process toward accepting...well, everything. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation or complacency. It means we stop denying reality.

Let me tell you something about Byron Katie. Byron Katie was in personal crisis in 1986. She was suffering from depression and was in a halfway house for women with eating disorders. Suddenly she had an experience of awakening. These things sometimes just come out of nowhere. For her it came as what she called a discovery. She writes:
"I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment."
She has written a book called Loving What Is. She explains,
“I am a lover of what is, not because I'm a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality.”
Her point is that our thoughts are so often judgmental. Our thoughts are all about what’s wrong with reality. This shouldn’t be that way, we think. This should be different; that should be different. Even when we have an approving thought – a thought judging something good – it typically comes bundled with a thought about how there really needs to be more of that something, and it needs to last longer. Even when we like things, our thoughts tend to go to its limitations.

That kind of thought is going to pop up: that is, thoughts that spring from the premise that you are a separated, isolated self filled with interests and desires. Most of our thoughts presuppose that the self is cut off from others and the world except insofar as others and the world function to satisfy or thwart those interests or desires.

We don’t make such thoughts appear. We don’t decide what to think before we think it – we just find those thoughts buzzing about in our heads. There are certain situations where you can make yourself think about a certain topic or problem to solve. You aren’t choosing the specific thoughts themselves; you are only putting yourself in a position to invite a certain subject matter of thought. Large portions of our day, however, we aren’t even intentionally selecting the topic.

Don't Believe What You Think

Things simply arise in our experience, and thoughts arise to meet them. In fact, the thoughts themselves just are one more thing that arises in our experience. Your thoughts are just something that happens to you, like the weather, like finding yourself stuck in traffic, like a telemarketer calling on the phone – or, for that matter, like a friend calling on the phone. Things just happen. Thoughts are one of them. But you don’t have to believe the thought. Don’t believe what you think. As Byron Katie put it:
“Thoughts are like the breeze or the leaves on the trees or the raindrops falling. Raindrops aren’t personal, and neither are thoughts.”
When we believe the thoughts, we are likely to suffer.

Next: Accepting reality is the path to enjoying life.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Acceptance and Resistance"
See also
Part 2: Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional
Part 3: What Will Save Us


Roots of Unitarian Resistance

Welcome to Resistance, part 3

The Unitarians and Universalists got into the 20th century and neither tribe was much for resisting war and injustice. Rev. John Haynes Holmes courageously stood against World War I, but he was roundly denounced by pretty much all the rest of the Unitarian establishment.

Then we hit the 1920s and that’s where we see the beginnings of the shift that would lead to the way we see ourselves today. The 1920s and 30s saw the humanist movement burgeon within Unitarianism and, to a lesser extent, within Universalism. Humanism dropped God out of the picture altogether, and, in order to do that, it emphasized the scientific method. Religious concepts were redefined “into human, non-magical, understandings."
"Where is our holy church?
Where people unite in the search for beauty, truth and right.
Where is our holy land?
Within the human soul, wherever free minds truly seek with character the goal.”
By the middle of the 20th century, in most Unitarian and Universalist congregations, the crosses had been taken down and the communion silver stashed in a remote basement closet.

Now we were becoming the resistors. We weren’t just a lower-demand version of the prevailing Christianity.

In the 1950s, business interests were combining with mainstream Protestantism to emphasize pro-business values and fight the Cold War. Prayer breakfasts swept the country, bringing together business leaders and church leaders to praise God and denounce communism. The 1950s so thoroughly conflated patriotism and religion that the words “under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954. It was no longer enough to be “one nation, indivisible.” We had to be “one nation, under God, indivisible” – because the enemy of both the business establishment and the religious establishment was Godless communism.

1959, the year that we Unitarian Universalists of White Plains moved into our current building, was the year church attendance in the US hit its peak. Just about everybody was in church on Sunday morning, and what was preached there was a theology of God, country, and General Motors -- albeit rather less so in Unitarian and Universalist congregations.

The 1950s were the time that we began to find ourselves in a counter-cultural place. When a plan was advanced to let kids out of public schools on Wednesday afternoon so they could attend religious instruction in their churches, it was a coalition of Unitarians and Jews that resisted.

The advertisments that Unitarians began running in the papers in the 50s and 60s had a distinctly resistant feel to them: For example:
“What's your idea of true religion? Unitarianism is a way of life, life of vigorous thought, constructive activity, of generous service -- not a religion of inherited creeds, revered saints, or holy books. Unitarianism is not an easy religion. It demands that people think out their beliefs for themselves, and then live those beliefs. The stress is place upon living this life nobly and effectively than on the preparation for an after-existence. If you have given up 'old time' religion, Unitarianism has the answer for you.”
Another advertisement proclaimed:
“Freedom is our Method
Reason is our Guide
Fellowship is our Spirit
Character is our Test
Service is our Goal.”
What kind of people, in the context of the prevailing buttoned-down “God and country” anti-communism would be attracted by ads like that? Clearly Unitarians weren’t the establishment any more. We weren’t even the slightly more skeptical wing of the respectable elite. We had evolved into centers of resistance to the prevailing conventional opinion.

Yes, the Unitarians and the Universalists go back 200 years in this country – and 400 years in Europe – but we were formed into what we are today during this phase of massive cultural conformity. The humanism that we moved into in the 30s put us in a position of cultural resistance in the 50s. Our humanism shifted us from insiders to outsiders. And that paved the way for the further cultural resistance that showed up in large-scale UU involvement in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, which set us up to be ready to resist a range of injustices.

But today another social trend has set in: people that want to resist mainstream or conservative religion feel a lot more free to just stay home. We still have the vestiges of our history of being the elite and the comfortable. And, in addition, some of the more activist inclined – people like Whitney Young, the leader of the Urban League, the type of folks that used to sit in the chairs at Community Unitarian Church when those chairs were new – now stay home.

So it’s an open question: How many of our congregations today are outposts of a culture of resistance to the mainstream culture? Here at Community UU, it is indeed our mission to engage in service to transform ourselves and our world. The world, of course, is constantly changing, but it doesn’t seem all that keen in changing in the ways we would like to see. There’s resistance to the spread of a more inclusive fairness and justice. It’s our job to resist that resistance. That’s what Unitarian Universalists do. We haven't always. We do now.

* * *
(For this angle on Unitarian and Universalist history, I have drawn on Rev. Tom Schade's blogpost, "Humanism in Context," which provides much more detail.)

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Welcome to Resistance"
See also:
Part 1: Resistance
Part 2: Personality Shows Up When You Don't


Personality Shows Up When You Don't

Welcome to Resistance, part 2

Comforts and familiarity are not bad things. The challenge is to being intentional about when we opt for change and when we stay with the familiar and comfortable. It’s about living on purpose. If at a given time in your life, you need relaxation and comfort more than exhilaration or new learning, that’s fine. But are we pulled along by unconscious preferences, by habit or inertia? Or are we consciously choosing?

Habits, of course, are a very handy thing. It would take a lot of time and energy to think through everything from scratch. Habits of thought are shortcuts that allow us to continue to be guided by conclusions we have reached without the effort of having to remember how we reached that conclusion.


Because habits are so useful – they formed because they served us well in some way – they are hard to break. Constellations of habits of thought gel into a personality. Our personalities are classifiable into a set of categories. The Myers-Briggs system has 16 personality types. According to the Enneagram, there are 9 basic personality types. They have to do with your default ways of reacting, your habits of mind. (Neither of these popular personality typologies are worth more than parlor conversation. On problems with Myers-Briggs, SEE HERE. For analysis of the Enneagram, SEE HERE. Other personality assessment instruments -- perhaps better -- include: Neo Pi-R, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, 16PF, and Eysenck Personality Questionnaire.)

Here’s the thing, though: your personality is what shows up when you don’t. You see, when you’re fully present to a situation, creatively engaged with it, then you aren’t just deploying your usual, predictable habitual reactions – and what comes out isn’t classifiable into category. It’s unique. It bears the stamp of your individual style, but it doesn’t fit into any personality pigeonhole that can predict what you’ll do. Think of Picasso’s paintings or Beethoven’s symphonies. They have a recognizable style but not a predictability. If these artists had lived and been productive for an additional year, there's no way any one could predict what additional work they might have created -- but when we saw or heard it, we'd recognize its style.

Personality surveys ask a long list of questions about how you usually do things, what you do in various situations – and from your answers you can be identified as fitting within one or another pigeonhole characterization of your traits. What we find is that people who have engaged in a long, deep, and intentional spiritual development – whether Catholic monks or Sufi adepts or Buddhist practitioners – are harder to peg. The survey results are ambiguous. Such people can’t be categorized by habitual reactions, usual ego defense strategies, because they’ve trained themselves to be attentive to the details of each situation rather than categorize situations according to the features deemed most relevant. Such spiritually mature people each have their unique style, but, since they tend not to categorize their experiences, they don’t have categorizable responses to them. In other words, they are more often fully present. The whole self shows up, not just the personality type. Your personality is what shows up when you don’t.

When you do show up, your usual patterns of resistance are disrupted. When we really show up, we might find we have indeed been resisting something it’s time to stop resisting. And when we really show up to the wider world around us – stop ignoring injustices and cruelties that aren’t directed at us – we might find we have been complicit and complacent about some things it’s time to start resisting.

UU Resistance

We Unitarian Universalists are typically proud of our resistance. Our congregations often have an air of social rebellion. We like to think of ourselves as standing against the status quo and the powers that be. We have members that are active in social justice, and we sing songs like “Standing on the Side of Love” and “We are a Gentle Angry People.” Our version of our history highlights our activists, our slavery abolitionists, our women’s suffragists, our marchers at Selma, our anti-Vietnam war protesters, our congregations’ early open-ness to same-sex marriage, our welcoming of LGBT ministers into our pulpits. What a bunch of righteous, resistant, radicals we are!

The truth, of course, is that our history is, as history tends to be, a mixed bag. For most of our history, Unitarians have been the denomination of choice for the economic elite. We are known for making the least demands on our members. We don’t tell you what to think, don’t tell you what to do. For 200 years now, anyone wanting a church that would leave them alone has found the Unitarians the place to be.

Nor have the Universalists, during the time Universalism was a distinct denomination, before consolidating with the Unitarians in 1961, had much inclination to rouse any rabble. In the 19th century, the Unitarians and the Universalists did have some abolitionists, and we did have some women’s suffragists. But they were in the minority of our membership, and their activities tended to not have the support of the congregations. From our beginnings in the late 1700s up until the early 1900s, the Unitarian attitude may be characterized as: God doesn’t tell me what to do. The Universalists attitude may be characterized as: God does have suggestions for me, but I'm not going to hell if I disregard them, so God's guidelines are not altogether mandatory.

Next: So how did we get from there to seeing ourselves as cultural radicals?

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(For this angle on Unitarian and Universalist history, I have drawn on Rev. Tom Schade's blogpost, "Humanism in Context," which provides much more detail.)

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Welcome to Resistance"
See also:
Part 1: Resistance
Part 3: Roots of Unitarian Resistance



Welcome to Resistance, part 1

Resistance. When is it time to stop resisting? When is it time to start resisting?

Resistance. If we can see it more clearly, name it more accurately, we are then in a position to decide what to do with it. Sometimes resisting is just what we will decide we want to be doing. Other times we’ll decide it’s time to let go of resistance.

But to live intentionally rather than pulled along by unconscious impulses, to live with integrity rather than the reactivity of the moment, is no easy thing. That is why, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “We shall not cease from exploration – and the end of all our exploration will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Resistance can take the form of confrontational energy: “Oh, no, you don’t. I’m not having it.” Or it might take the form of withdrawal: “Oh, forget it. Whatever.” And I understand. Protective resistance protects us against change.

Everybody says change is a good thing. “Status quo” has become a bad word. The left and the right both want to get rid of the status quo. They have different ideas of how, and what to replace it with, but these days the poor old status quo has no friends. Everybody is in favor of change.

The business world is all abuzz these days with talk not just of innovation, but of disruptive innovation. If your innovation isn’t disruptive enough, well, go back and try again. The more change the better.

Think outside the box. Whatever the box is, think outside it. Make a new box: which, of course, will compel you to think outside of it as soon as possible. Be a change agent. The highest aspiration a human being can have these days is to be someone who makes change happen.

And I get it. Change is a good thing. I’m down with that. Life is a process of continuous learning, continuous growth – at its best, it is continuous flourishing. Whatever is static, stunted, stultified is deadening – or dead.

Yet for all the championing of change, there’s still this resistance thing. This is not because some people just haven’t yet clued in to how great change is. If you want to create change by having more of something and somebody else wants to create change by having less of something, you each see yourself as working for change, and you each see the other as resisting change. So resistance is not just a matter of being pig-headed or dim.

Resistance is the voice that says, no, not THAT change. There really is a lot that’s good about the way life is right now. And if you’re wondering why people resist your brilliant ideas for new ways to do things, it’s because they sense – as we all sometimes sense – that change is spelled L-O-S-S. What one person wants to change is what somebody else can’t bear to lose.

Learning and growing – transformation – does mean loss. The butterfly has to leave behind what was great about being a caterpillar.

The question of resistance is always those two questions. Is there something you’re resisting, and it’s time to stop resisting it? Is there something you haven’t been resisting, and it’s time to start resisting it?

Doctor Seuss’s most famous story is a story about resistance: Green Eggs and Ham. "No, no, no. No green eggs and ham. Not in a house, with a mouse, in box, with a fox, here or there or anywhere." Why such resistance? If he were resisting the mass-scale cruelty to pigs and chickens that industrial production of ham and eggs entails, that would be a worthy resistance indeed. But that’s evidently not the ground of this resistance. It seems he’s just not used to that color.

It’s natural to not like what we aren’t used to, and Dr. Seuss’s little story has helped generations of children be just a little more open to a new experience. As adults, too, we sometimes can use a little reminder that it’s often worth it to set aside the comforts of what we’re used to for the sake of open-ness to a new experience.

Next: Being intentional about choosing familiarity or choosing change
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This is part 1 of 3 of "Welcome to Resistance"
See also:
Part 2: Personality Shows Up When You Don't
Part 3: Roots of Unitarian Resistance


This Week's Prayer

Words of the poet Denise Levertov:
“An awe so quiet I don’t know when it began. A gratitude had begun to sing in me. Was there some moment dividing song from no song? When does dewfall begin? When does night fold its arms over our hearts to cherish them? When is daybreak?”
Dear Beginnings, poised, yet already begun -- incipient yet eternal,

We are a week and a half into a New Year, and we are challenged already on many fronts.

The year just ended – 2015 – was the 19th straight year in which US temperatures were above the 20th-century average. Atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 400 parts per million, is still climbing, and, perhaps relatedly, record floods have racked the Mississippi basin. With human activity altering the planet in unprecedented ways, what is ours to do?

Fear grips our nation, prompting hateful reactivity. Some of our candidates for president are so hateful that Al Qaeada has used footage of them in recruitment videos. Wheaton College is seeking to fire political science professor, Larycia Hawkins because she said Christians and Muslims worship the same God. What is ours to do?

Our nation suffers under a scourge of gun violence. We know how to reduce it and save thousands of lives every year, but we cannot elect the politicians that will do it. What is ours to do?

Saudi Arabia executed 47, including a Shiite cleric, touching off heightened tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran – a further destabilizing element in a highly unstable region. What is ours to do?

Fourteen states saw a minimum wage go into effect in 2016. The federal minimum wage, which has not seen an increase in six years, stands at $7.25. As earnings gaps continue to widen, oppressing some and rending the social fabric, what is ours to do?

Armed ranchers occupy a Wildlife refuge in Oregon – placing themselves above the law. What is ours to do?

Our consciences continue to weigh how to respond to December’s grand jury finding not indicting police officers who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The prosecutor clearly wanted no indictment and acted more like a defense attorney than a prosecutor. We know that police face a very difficult job, that most officers are fair and reasonable, yet we see that some have been abusive, that young black men bear more than their share of that abuse, and our justice system resists punishing abusive officers. What is ours to do?

In the Mexican city of Temixco, mayor Gisela Mota was killed 1 day after taking office, evidently by a drug gang. No doubt some of the drugs that flow through Mexican cities end up in Westchester. What is ours to do?

Meanwhile, political extremists are on the rise in Europe. Migrants are pouring in and Britain may drop out. North Korea claims it successfully tested its first hydrogen bomb, though US analysts say it was a less powerful atomic bomb. The Chinese stock market has been plummeting so fast that authorities there keep shutting it down. U.S. market indexes dropped in the worst 4-day start to a year ever. The stable world of peace and prosperity we yearn for confronts dizzying difficulties and setbacks. What is ours to do?

Let us seek the "awe so quiet we can’t tell when it began." Let gratitude sing in us. The turn from hate to love, from fear to compassion, from defensive self-protection to hospitality has already, mysteriously, begun somewhere -- and everywhere.

Let our eyes, our ears, our hearts be open. It is ours to keep turning -- keep turning toward understanding, toward kindness and respect, toward connection, toward the day that is breaking though we did not detect its beginning.