2024-02-11

Merit

READING/REFLECTION

The idea that the universe is a vast moral mechanism, mechanically rewarding virtue and punishing vice, has often felt appealing. According to the mechanically moral universe theory, if virtue goes in, reward comes out; wickedness in, punishment out; as if the universe were a great moral machine, a cosmic meritocracy.

We humans have, throughout our history, and probably before, been very attracted to this idea that if something bad happens to us, we must have done something to deserve it. And if something good happens to us, we must have done something to deserve that, too. Well, sometimes we have. Many times, it’s just dumb luck – good luck or bad.

Wisdom from the Hebrew Bible has for thousands of years reminded readers that life is not all about getting what one deserves. First, from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, verse 11:
“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”
Second, the Book of Job. Here is Michael Sandel’s exposition.
“A just and righteous man, Job is subjected to unspeakable pain and suffering, including the death of his sons and daughters in a storm. Ever faithful to God, Job cannot fathom why such suffering has been visited upon him.... As Job mourns the loss of his family, his friends (if one can call them friends) insist that he must have committed some egregious sin, and they press Job to imagine what that sin might be. This is an early example of the tyranny of merit. Armed with the assumption that suffering signifies sin, Job’s friends cruelly compound his pain by claiming that, in virtue of some transgression or other, Job must be to blame for the death of his sons and daughters. Although he knows he is innocent, Job shares his companions’ theology of merit, and so cries out to God asking why he, a righteous man, is being made to suffer. When God finally speaks to Job, he rejects the cruel logic of blaming the victim. He does so by renouncing the meritocratic assumption that Job and his companions share. Not everything that happens is a reward or a punishment for human behavior, God proclaims from the whirlwind. Not all rain is for the sake of watering the crops of the righteous, nor is every drought for the sake of punishing the wicked.... God confirms Job’s righteousness but chastises him for presuming to grasp the moral logic of God’s rule. This represents a radical departure from the theology of merit.... In renouncing the idea that he presides over a cosmic meritocracy, God asserts his unbounded power and teaches Job a lesson in humility. Faith in God means accepting the grandeur and the mystery of creation, not expecting God to dispense rewards and punishments based on what each person merits or deserves.” (The Tyranny of Merit 36)
SERMON, part 1

I submit to you that two words name a large part of the richness and goodness of life: grace and solidarity.

Grace: the freely given, unmerited gifts you did not earn and do not deserve. Like being alive. Like being more or less healthy – healthy enough and pain-free enough to be able to be here – or listening online right now. Like air, and the feel of breath in your lungs. Like sunlight, rain, trees, the beauty of the seasons: autumn leaves, winter snow, spring, summer. You didn’t earn those things. You’ve done nothing to deserve them. They are free gifts – grace. You might not notice them. But a life of richness and depth is one that is constantly seeing grace everywhere – the beauty all around us.

And: solidarity. We’re not in it just for ourselves. We’re in this together. We are here for each other – what else? Comradery, companionship, neighborliness, friendship – all the different ways we are in relationship, all the different forms that love takes – this is the goodness of life.

If grace and solidarity name a large part of what makes life good, then it behooves us to attend to whatever undermines the place in our lives of grace and solidarity. These days, the growing overemphasis on merit, on deservingness, undermines the place in our lives of grace and solidarity.

Merit is generally conceived as the product of two factors, called (1) ability or talent or capability, and (2) hard work or effort or motivation. We use merit, as best we can assess it, to determine who gets into the top schools, and who gets the high-paying, high-status jobs. There’s a lot of competition for school admissions and for jobs.

Now: there will always be a place for competition. I’m not going to stand here on Super Bowl Sunday and say we should, or ever could, abolish competition and the rewards of victory.

But the winners have been over-rewarded, and the losers way over-deprived, and we need to lower the stakes for that part of life that is a meritocratic contest. We just need to lower the stakes of the merit contests because as those stakes have been growing, they’ve been crowding out grace from our lives -- crowding out solidarity.

Last week I talked about Distributive Justice – how, since 1980, we’ve been distributing more and more of the wealth to fewer and fewer of the richer and richer, and that’s unjust. A more just distribution, a greater income equality, is essential to social health, for our flourishing as a people. Today I want to add to the picture Contributive Justice – the justice of everyone being able to meaningfully contribute to our city, our state, our nation, our world. Those who have been deemed not to have the merit to get into the good schools – or, indeed, those who maybe don’t want to go to college – need jobs they can feel contribute to something more meaningful than a paycheck. Michael Sandel, in The Tyranny of Merit, says of the meritocratic ethic:
“Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. These moral sentiments are at the heart of the populist uprising against elites. More than a protest against immigrants and outsourcing, the populist complaint is about the tyranny of merit. And the complaint is justified. The relentless emphasis on creating a fair meritocracy, in which social positions reflect effort and talent, has a corrosive effect on the way we interpret our success (or the lack of it).”
The meritocratic ethic produces a
“smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate, and that those on the bottom deserve theirs, too.” (25)
For those on the bottom, the meritocratic ethic means either frustration or humiliation and despair. Either they believe that the system fails to recognize their merit and denies them opportunities to use it – or, perhaps worse, they accept that meritocratic sorting has been more-or-less fair, and they just aren’t good enough to have earned any better than they got.

The grip of the meritocratic ethic has been growing through the post-World War II era.

The word “meritocracy” was coined by British sociologist Michael Young in this 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young described meritocracy as a dystopia. When he wrote in 1958, the British class system had been breaking down for some time. The old aristocracy had been giving way to a system of educational and professional advancement based on merit. In many ways, this was a good thing. Gifted children of the working class could develop their talents and escape from a life of manual labor. But the old system at least had the weird advantage that everybody knew it was unfair. Neither the Lords nor the working class believed they deserved their status – which tempered the arrogance of the upper-class and precluded despair for the laborers. The working class knew their situation wasn’t their own fault.

Michael Young wrote his book from an imagined position in the year 2033 -- projecting out 75 years, 3 generations -- into the future from 1958. That’s how long he figured it would take for meritocracy to lead to a mass revolt. He wrote, describing conditions in the 2033 of his imagination:
“Now that people are classified by ability, the gap between the classes has inevitably become wider. The upper classes are no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism. Today the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, and for their own undeniable achievement. They deserve to belong to a superior class. They know, too, that not only are they of higher caliber to start with, but that a first-class education has been built upon their native gifts.” (The Rise of the Meritocracy 106)
Meanwhile the losers in the meritocracy are resentful at the arrogance of the winners while also humiliated with the knowledge that they have no one to blame but themselves.
“Today, all persons, however humble, know they have had every chance.... Are they not bound to recognize that they have an inferior status – not as in the past because they were denied opportunity; but because they ARE inferior? For the first time in human history, the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard.” (108-9)
Michael Young’s tale from 1958 predicted that the less-educated classes would then rise up in a populist revolt against the meritocratic elites. We can now say that the revolt that Young predicted came 17 years ahead of schedule, in 2016, when Britain voted for Brexit and America voted for Trump.

While Democratic candidates, and many Republicans were intoning that everybody ought to be able to go as far as their talent and hard work could take them, and therefore we must level the playing field, Trump has never said that. His fans know that the meritocratic game casts them as the losers, that their work no longer has much dignity, or even affords much of a living any longer. Their feelings of both humiliation and resentment have proven potent.

If the game being played on the field is one that inherently has winners and losers, then leveling the playing field does nothing to revitalize civic life, does nothing to foster a sense that we’re all in this together, does nothing to shore up solidarity. Indeed, the more level the playing feeling, the more the winners may feel justified in their arrogance, and the greater the humiliation of the losers.

Sandel brings us back to grace and solidarity. He writes:
“a perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny, or unjust rule.” (The Tyranny of Merit 25)
We’ll always have some competitions, and we’ll want to make those playing fields level and fair, but when we make the levelness of the playing field the only concern, we forget that public life isn’t entirely about the competition. It’s also about recognizing that we’re in this together. It's about contributive as well as distributive justice. It’s about standing as equals with each other as neighbors, engaged in the work of citizenship (whether we are legal citizens or not). It’s not all about standing as competitors.

SERMON, part 2

As meritocracy has grown increasingly emphasized, the greater our inequalities of income and wealth have grown. Or maybe it’s the other way around: as our inequality has shot up since 1980, we’ve responded by rationalizing it with an increasingly dominant rhetoric of merit. Either way, the rise of emphasis on merit and the rise of inequality correlate.

Earlier, I mentioned contributive justice. Distributive justice is needed for fairer, fuller access to the fruits of economic growth and a reduction in inequality. Contributive justice is also needed: the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to others. It’s contributive justice that fosters the sense that we’re in this together. Human beings require the social recognition and esteem that goes with producing what others need and value. An adequate wage is part of that. It’s hard to feel your society really values your work if they won’t pay you much for it. But the point isn’t just distributing income and wealth. It’s that people should get a good income because they’re doing work that really matters to other people. The distributive justice and the contributive justice need to go hand in hand. As Sandel writes,
“The fundamental human need is to be needed by those with whom we share a common life. The dignity of work consists in exercising our abilities to answer such needs.” (The Tyranny of Merit 212)
Robert F. Kennedy understood this. Campaigning in 1968, he said,
“Fellowship, community, shared patriotism – these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together.”
They come from
“dignified employment at decent pay, the kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to his country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures.’” (RFK: Collected Speeches 385-86)
Politicians don't much talk that way anymore.

Meritocracy puts competition at the center of public life, instead of putting our shared civic enterprises at the center. Meritocracy also puts that competition at the center of our individual sense of who we are. Meritocracy defines us – to each other and to ourselves -- by what we deserve, what we earn. It teaches us relative disregard for all the range of life that isn’t marketable.

It may help to look more closely at the two factors that make up merit, or deservingness: talent, ability, natural gifts on the one hand and effort, hard work, training on the other.

First, let us ask: from where did the talent come? Some of it came from genes – that’s luck. Some of it came from childhood experiences. But growing up in the right sort of environment to bring out a given ability is not something the individual made happen. That’s also luck.

The other factor – effort, hard work, motivation, training -- isn’t always possible to separate from native talent. But whether you have the opportunities for training, have good coaches available, and training facilities, have encouraging people around you, and an environment that yields enough reward for hard work early on so that it develops as a habit – that’s all luck. There may also be a genetic component in predisposing some people to focused work and delayed gratification, and, if so, that would also be luck.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself motivated, and lucky enough to find yourself talented, then you’ll be said to have merit. The supposed distinction between unearned luck and earned deservingness collapses under scrutiny – so merit is always a pretense.

There are certain spheres of life where the pretense is necessary. When it’s time to ask the boss for a raise, you go in and make the case for how you deserve it. But later, when you're back home, in a moment of calm reflection where you can step back from your work life and can view it in your spiritual, holistic capacity, then you can appreciate that, really, there is no deserving. It’s all grace. You just happened to have some skills – including the skill called “motivation” – and you just happened to live in a world with market demand for your particular skills – and just happened to have the boss and the company that you do. All luck. All grace.

Now: Can you hold on to that spiritual truth even as you return again to the sphere of markets and work? It’s like the capacity to play a game -- parcheesi or gin rummy or chess -- while at the same time knowing that you’re just playing a game. Or like the capacity to watch an engrossing movie, while a part of you retains the consciousness that what you’re looking at is just lights on a screen. In the case of games and movies, it's pretty easy. In the case of merit, it takes a special spiritual maturity to resist the tendency to convince ourselves that we somehow deserve our luck. As Max Weber observed back in 1915:
“the fortunate person is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he ‘deserves’ it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others. He wishes to be allowed the belief that the less fortunate also merely experience their due. Good fortune thus wants to be 'legitimate' fortune.” ("The Social Psychology of the World Religions" [1915])
To be able to hold before you unwaveringly the insight that your good fortune really is just good fortune -- really is utterly undeserved -- to never forget that for a moment -- even when you’re in the middle of an intense round of the game called, “demanding what you deserve,” – that is a difficult spiritual challenge. I regularly bring myself back to this awareness that it’s all grace, that none of it is deserved or earned, but that bit about “never forget for a moment” is beyond me. I do regularly bring myself back to remembering, but that’s because I do regularly forget.

This might be your first glimpse of seeing through the illusion of merit – the first time it came to your notice that the distinction between deserving and lucky is illusory. If so, I urge you to hold on to that. Don’t let it slip away. Rest in that new way of seeing, and imagine what it might be like to live that way – with awareness that merit is a fiction, a game you are sometimes called upon to play, but which you recognize isn’t real.

If you imagine holding that awareness in your mind, what difference would that make for your life? For one thing, if you’re sharply aware that it’s all luck, then you’ll be less caught by surprise when the luck changes. Market shifts can make your particular skills no longer in demand. A sudden accident or disease can make your body no longer able to play the violin, or hold a scalpel steady – or can make your mind less able to concentrate. In the vagaries of fortune, if you’ve thoroughly grasped that your success is not deserved, then you’ll be prepared to see your failure, when it comes, isn’t deserved either.

And something else. Not only do you not deserve your failure, but you’ll more clearly see that other people don’t deserve theirs. Under the meritocratic ethic, my success is my own doing, so other people’s failure must be their fault. Meritocracy thus corrodes commonality. It traps me within the delusion that we aren’t in the same boat. Meritocracy says that I built my boat, and you built your boat, so there’s no particular reason I need to be concerned if yours is sinking. But if I see my situation as wholly an undeserved grace, then I can imagine a new and harsher grace that might put me in someone else’s shoes. (Ram Dass, after the stroke that left him wheelchair-bound, called it 'fierce grace.') And if I can have that clarity, then my life turns in a different direction, turns toward a different task. My task is not to out-compete others for the prizes of success and status. Nor is it to facilitate my children in out-competing others. My interest shifts from the prizes available only to the winners to restoring the dignity of all work.

There is a possible world in which everyone, whatever their talents and training, can meaningfully contribute their work to our shared public enterprise, and meaningfully contribute their voice to democratic deliberation that forms that enterprise. It will be no easy thing to get there from here. It will take, at best, several generations to reverse the effects of the last several generations.

Meanwhile, here in the microcosm of a congregation, we practice. Week in and week out, we embody a communal life without meritocracy, where we stand together on ground of equality, where everyone can meaningfully contribute to our shared enterprise, where we learn together an ever-deepening appreciation of grace and our inherent solidarity. Week in and week out, we are demonstrating to the world a better way.

2024-02-04

The Spiritual Impact of Inequality

Words of Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, from the back of our hymnal:
"The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice. It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed."
So let us unveil those bonds that do connect us – and together let our vision widen and our strength be renewed. We live in a time of great polarization – and the political polarization is itself an outcome of the income and wealth inequality.

On November 2, 1980, my daughter Morgen was born. She was born into a country that certainly had poverty, but did not see the sort of wealth disparities we have now. Two days after she was born there was the 1980 presidential election, and Ronald Reagan won it. Morgen turned 43 last November, and over the course of her life so far there’s been a massive transfer of wealth to the wealthy.

In 1979, the poorer half earned 20% of the nation’s pre-tax income. By 2014, just 13%. If the US had the same income distribution it had in 1979, each family in the bottom 80% of the income distribution would have $11,000 more per year in income.

From 1947 to 1979, we all grew. In those 32 years:
  • For the bottom 20%, income rose 116%.
  • For the second quintile, income rose 100%.
  • For the middle quintile, income rose 111%
  • For the fourth quintile, income rose 114%.
  • For the top 20%, income rose 99%.
So: all quintiles rose a comparable amount – but the bottom 20%, by a small margin, grew most of all. And the top top 20%, by a small margin, grew least of all. That was during the 32 years from 1947 to 1979. But from 1979 to 2007, it was a completely different story. In those 28 years:
  • For the bottom 20%, income rose 15%.
  • For the second quintile, income rose 22%.
  • For the middle quintile, income rose 23%.
  • For the fourth quintile, income rose 33%.
  • For the top 20%, income rose 95%.
In 1980, the richest one percent of people got eight percent of the income -- which means they were getting eight times the mean income. Eight times the mean income would seem to be plenty. Who could want more than that? Surely that’s more than enough. But in 2011, the richest one percent brought home 20 percent of all income -- 20 times the mean.
"During the 1950s and 60s, CEOs of major American companies took home about 25 to 30 times the wages of the typical worker. In 1980, the big-company CEO took home roughly 40 times. By 1990 it was 100 times. By 2007, CEO pay packages had ballooned to about 350 times what the typical worker earned.” (Robert Reich, Forward to Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.)
Modern life is tough. Living the way we do is hard on people: anxiety, depression, unsure friendship, consumerism, lack of community. Not all of that would go away if suddenly, magically tomorrow all income and wealth distribution were at 1979 proportions again. Now, I need to say that I’m always suspicious of any scenario invoked with “if suddenly, magically tomorrow” – because there are no magic wands, and HOW we get somewhere is always going to be a huge part of what it means to be there. So what would it take? It would take some massive programs to create more jobs, bills to ensure that they paid well, lots of aid and assistance, like what we saw during the pandemic, only more – and to pay for it all, a progressive income tax of the likes we had in this country in the 1950s.

The top marginal tax rate is now 37% It’s been in the 30s – or even briefly as low as 28% -- ever since the Reagan administration. But back during the top marginal tax rate was 92% -- then in came down to 91% and stayed there through 1963. In 1963, for a single filer, any income above $200,000 was taxed at a 91% rate. That was 60 years ago, and general cost of living then was about a tenth of what it is today, so $200,000 then was about equivalent to $2 million now. Imagine taxing all income above $2 million at 91%. What’s actually much harder to imagine is our congress approving such a change. It would take a huge and drastic popular movement that voted into office very different representatives than we have now. The building of that movement would involve substantial attitude shifts in a lot of people. It would take a moral awakening of mass numbers of people to really care about the well-being of everyone. And if THAT happened, we’d already be in a very different world, quite apart from the effects of the legislation we would then be able to pass. Just living in a world where most people really cared about the well-being of all people would itself go a long way to easing the anomies of modern life: anxiety, depression, unsure friendship, consumerism, lack of community.

The state of huge disparities of income – and the even huger disparities of wealth – make everything that’s tough about modern life is worse. What may be an even bigger factor is the practical political reality that we live in a country that allowed this to happen, that has been voting into office the leaders that made it happen ever since my daughter was born. We live in a country that is largely unmotivated to rectify it. I, for one, veer between anger and sadness at this reality.

There are a lot of different ways to measure inequality: the top X percent versus the bottom Y percent. But any X or Y we might choose reveals about the same trends, and about the same differences between nations. One common metric, which I will highlight because the UN uses it, is the ratio of the income at the 80th percentile to the income that’s at the 20th percentile. This 80th to 20th ratio is, in the US, as of 2022, at 8.6. It’s been running at about that for over a decade, though during the pandemic we had a temporary drop down to 7.1. Canada, Japan, and most of Europe are below 5. When this 80th percentile to 20th percentile ratio is less than 5, then we find a society generally maintaining some shared assumptions about wealth and about each other. Roughly, when that ratio is about 5 or less, the attitude of the populace will resemble something like this:
“If there are somewhat wealthier folks among us, that’s OK. I can accept that some people are luckier, or more skillful at work that society prizes, or they’re more driven to work hard, and they end up wealthier. That’s fine – and as it should be. The relatively wealthy serve as a reminder to me of what good schooling and hard work and a little luck might make available to my children. If the town doctor has a big house on a hill, that’s OK – ze’s smart and had a lot of training, and ze’s using that to help us when we get sick, so more power to zir. Maybe my kid can get a scholarship and be a doctor.”
That kind of thinking was still pretty much the largely-unspoken norm on the day 43 years ago when I first held my newborn daughter in my arms. But that attitude loses purchase, begins to slip away, if the rich-poor gap grows too large. That outlook that prevailed through my growing up and my parents lives up until 1980, has now come to seem quaint -- an echo of a bygone time. Few, it seems, think like that anymore.

Things changed during the time of my daughter’s growing up. The two key features of the old outlook were:
  1. the higher levels of wealth were attainable by those who weren't already rich; and
  2. those who had wealth deserved it.
These two features are connected, for when upper-class wealth seems attainable – when the perception of most people is that anyone with the right combination of talent, drive, and luck can become upper-class – then those who do make it to society’s top wealth echelons are presumed to deserve it. But when the gap becomes as enormous as it has in the US, the folks at the bottom and middle can no longer see the wealth of the ones at the top as either attainable or deserved.

By the time my little girl was graduating from college in 2002, the world she was commencing into had become profoundly different from the one she was born into. The country had become a place where we could no longer feel we were all in this together.

Now, I know that the idea that there once was, up until 1980, a halcyon time of general social solidarity overlooks the deep racism that has divided our country throughout its history. I know that, given the horrors of Jim Crow segregation, gauzy nostalgic impressions of togetherness are delusional. Even so, whites could see rich whites as attainable, and blacks could see wealthier blacks as attainable. But in this century, even that has fallen apart.

There is an argument that we should be concerned with poverty, but not with inequality. It’s our business as a society to make sure that everybody has enough, this argument goes, but not our business how much more than enough the rich have. Here’s the thing, though. What we want is to care and be cared for. We want, and need, to be in relations of mutual care. And when that need is not met, it makes anxiety, depression, and social alienation more likely. Societally, when inequality becomes great, we lose the sense of community, lose the sense that we’re all in this together.

Researchers into “social health” typically measure it as an amalgam of ten factors. The lower the rates of:
  • homicides
  • obesity
  • teenage births
  • infant mortality
  • imprisonment rates
  • mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction),
and the higher the:
  • life expectancy
  • children’s educational performance
  • social mobility
  • level of trust
then the higher a nation's social health.

Using this definition of social health, researchers have then found that a country’s wealth does not correlate with its social health. A country may be rich, medium, poor, or extremely poor (less than $10,000 per person per year). Except in extremely poor nations, more wealth has no effect on social health. Equality, however, does correlate with social health. Countries with high inequality, whether rich or poor, have low social health. Countries with low inequality, whether rich or poor, have high social health. The US is quite wealthy, but on the measure of social health we’re doing worse than most countries that have only half that much per-person income. After meeting a certain minimum, more wealth doesn’t do us any good. Equality does. In statisticians' terms, the mean income, as long as it’s above $10,000, doesn’t matter. It’s the standard deviation that matters.

Social health means a better quality of life for all of us. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write in their book: The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
“The evidence shows that reducing inequality is the best way of improving the quality of the social environment, and so the real quality of life, for all of us . . . this includes the better off.”
A relatively equal society – where the ratio of the 80th percentile to the 20th percentile is less than 5 -- can sustain a shared understanding among its members. But if, as in the U.S., that ratio is close to 9, there’s a disconnect. We lose the shared understanding of the legitimacy of things. The wealthy are beyond attainability, and beyond any credible story of deservingness. We lose the sense that we’re in this together. The wealthy become “them.” And "they" don’t care about "us" -- so we don’t care about them. Anomie and division set in; anger and alienation become the social mood. Sensing the resentment of most of society, the wealthy, in turn, retreat behind gated communities, which further increases the disconnect.

We begin to believe the game is rigged; we don’t have a chance. When we believe that, we become more likely to behave in ways that make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rich and poor alike feel the division, the disconnect. The result is that phenomenon I mentioned: everything that’s tough about modern life is exacerbated. Higher levels of depression, higher levels of consuming things that aren’t good for us: from drugs to alcohol to junk food to mindless TV shows to mindless consumer products. As I wrote in my column in this month’s issue of Connecting: When you compare nation to nation, there’s no correlation between wealth and life expectancy or mortality. No correlation. Rich countries have about the same life expectancies and mortality rates as relatively poor countries, until you get into the really poor end of the spectrum. As long as a nation has per-person income above about $10,000 a year, further increases do nothing to increase life expectancy. That’s the nation-to-nation comparison.

But when we do a zip-code-to-zip-code comparison, we get a different picture. The poorer zip codes have higher mortality than the richer zip codes. If you took several of the poorest zip codes, created a new island in the Pacific, put them all there, maintained their per-person incomes as they were, made a new island nation of them, they’d have decreased mortality. They’d be fine. But because they live near the wealthier areas, they perceive that difference. They see all around them the inescapable fact that they live in a society that is set up to work for others, but not for them. They are reminded daily that they are not in a society of mutual care. And THAT wears them down much more than relative material deprivation.

Wilkinson and Pickett write:
“At the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume, and with little or no community life.”
Wilkinson and Pickett go on to note:
“The unease we feel about the loss of social values and the way we are drawn into the pursuit of material gain is often experienced as if it were a purely private ambivalence which cuts us off from others....As voters, we have lost sight of any collective belief that society could be different. Instead of a better society, the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position – as individuals – within the existing society.”
A complex web of interrelated factors has brought us to this pass, and growing income inequality is a key node within that web. It fosters the sense of divide. If we’re going to get back to a sense of common good – where political differences are differences of strategy for promoting general welfare rather than the drawing of enemy lines to delineate who must be defeated – then it will be necessary to reduce income inequality.

Equality has benefits that show up all over. They show up, for example, on baseball teams. “A well-controlled study of over 1,600 players in 29 teams over a nine-year period found that major league baseball teams with smaller income differences among players do significantly better than the more unequal teams.” (Wilkinson and Picket, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, 237). When people feel like they stand on equal footing with their neighbors or teammates, there’s a cohesion that lifts spirits, heals wounds, and improves performance.

Unitarian Universalists care about our world. And it’s clear now that
“further improvements in the quality of life no longer depend on further economic growth. The issue is now community and how we relate to each other.” (Wilkinson, Pickett)
The issue is building a world in which most of us care about the well-being of all of us. The issue is not only at the economic level but at the spirit level. The wound is to our spirits, yet, wounded as they are, the resolve to heal must also come from our spirits.

“The religious community is essential,” as Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed said, “for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed."

May it be so. Amen.

2024-01-28

Liberty, Justice, and Sexual Ethics

Last week, I talked about Queer Theory and how plastic and socially constructed sexuality is. Today I want to follow up by reflecting how ethics interacts with all of that.

In my lifetime, the acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ people has changed a lot. There’s been dramatic expansion of sexual liberty. Yes, there’s still fear and hatred. As of last spring, there were “more than 400 proposed bills in states across the U.S. that aim to restrict the rights, freedom and fair treatment of LGBTQ people.” Liberty can be frightening -- and what we're seeing is the backlash against the dramatic expansion of sexual liberty. What might help address the fears is to understand that universal acceptance of LGBTQ people would not mean anything goes, would not mean there were no longer any standards of sexual ethics. But the principles of sexual ethics that serve us now are different from those in the past.

The ways that we love – with whom and how we express love – are so intensely personal and private, yet societies have always sought to regulate, to channel, the energies of romantic attraction because those energies can be destructive: violent, abusive. Human libidos can disrupt social harmony. Love should be personal and private, yet we need guidelines to define and protect that space because the drives that can express in love can also express in ways that harm and are socially disruptive.

Liberty is a tremendous good – and at the same time society has an interest in fostering stable relationships. Free ranging sexual energies – like the stereotype from earlier generations of sailors on shore leave, looking for a good time and getting into fights – can be harmful. A whole society of everyone acting like that would be miserable and unsustainable.

Love needs liberty, yet it also needs justice. Cornel West, speaking about general social justice, said that justice is what love looks like in public. We can add that romantic love needs to be what justice looks like in private.

In the world into which I was born – the world of the 1950s – the prevailing attitude was that sexuality be channeled through recognizable forms of courtship and into heterosexual marriage. Sexual ethics used to be simply: Only within marriage. And marriage was understood as a set of five tightly-linked features:
  • creation of a household of two adults;
  • sexual exclusivity to within that household;
  • production of babies;
  • raising of the children; and
  • perpetuation of the parents’ genetic lines.
That was the package deal. And, naturally, the two adults had to consist of one woman and one man because that was what producing babies required. Being married implied all five of those things -- most of the time: a two-adult household, sexual exclusivity, making babies, raising them, passing on genes. If, every once in a while, an infertile man or woman got married, or a couple past child-bearing age, that was OK. As long as that was the exception to the rule, the basic model (that those five went together), remained intact.

The sexual ethic, then, was to support the package deal, to uphold the idea that any one of those five parts ought to imply all of the other four as well. So the ethic of the time declared: don’t make babies outside a two-adult, sexually exclusive household – but do enter into two-adult exclusive households, and, once there, do make and raise children. Those were the norms. Thus, the sexual ethic included such principles as no premarital sex, no extramarital sex, and no sex that wasn’t the kind that procreates.

Over the course of my lifetime, those previously inextricable features of marriage came apart -- and with that dissolution the old sexual ethic has faded. The arrival of reliable birth control was a huge change, and that’s been within my lifetime. The year I was born, 1959, was also the year the pharmaceutical company Searle sought FDA approval for the birth control pill. I was a toddler when The Pill came on the market, and of course had no idea what that was all about or how it would change things. Reliable birth control meant that otherwise fertile opposite-sex couples could, as they chose, form a household together without producing or raising babies.

At the same time, various other social forces have brought about a rise in out-of-wedlock births and single-parent families resulting from producing and raising children without two adults making a household together.

You can have marriage without sex, and sex without marriage (which has always been fairly common but in recent decades has lost much of the stigma it used to have). You can have sex without babies and babies without sex – the former through the aforementioned new technology of birth control, and the latter through new technologies of artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. Through adoption, you can propagate your genes without raising the children, and raise children without propagating your genes. The package deal has come undone. And with its undoing, the sexual ethic that supported that package deal no longer compels.

Yet sexuality remains, as much as ever, a powerful force that can bring us into our wholeness -- or break us into little pieces. As much as ever, we need a way to say what’s OK and what isn’t when it comes to romance, and sex, and coupling.

Things that weren’t regarded as OK in the 1950s have become OK. At the same time things that used to be OK, or at least fuzzy, have become more clearly not OK. The change is illustrated by how we see a certain iconic photo taken in 1945. Amid the celebrations in America of Victory in Japan, the photo shows a US Navy sailor, in Times Square New York, embracing and kissing a total stranger, who appears to be nurse (she was actually a dental hygienist). At the time, the image was seen as a delightful expression of the ebullient celebration. What was seen then as simple joyful jubilation, we now see as sexual assault, normalized. In the 1940s, consent was not so strong a part of our sexual ethics as it is today. Along with some things becoming OK that didn’t used to be, other things have become not OK that did used to be – as our sexuality has morphed in the wake of the coming apart of the five-part package deal that used to be the meaning of marriage.

Our private relationships and our public relationships foster each other. In both cases, it’s about treating people in ways that respect and honor them to facilitate their flourishing and our own. This requires understanding, and it requires compassion, and those are skills that Unitarian Universalist congregations exist to help develop. Whether the issue is hate or the issue is love, the need is justice -- respecting and honoring personhood; flourishing by helping each other flourish; liberation from domination.

Our bodies are themselves unique vehicles of potential liberation and fulfillment. They are integral parts of our identity. When our bodies love, the first awakening of love may not be a matter of choice. It comes upon us unbidden. We “fall into” love. Yet love can be directed by choice. Even in the beginning, we can influence our loves by, as Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“choosing to pay attention to certain realities or not, putting ourselves in a position to discover lovableness...,choosing to believe (even if we do not yet 'see,'...) in the value of persons or of anything in creation....We can identify with our loves and freely ratify them....We can also repudiate, or defer, some of our loves by choosing not to identify with them.” (Farley, Just Love)
Where there is choice, there is space for ethical reflection. How shall our liberty embrace justice?

Justice means equal respect. Yet the concrete meaning of respect must be tailored to cultural differences and to individual differences. Justice is a social concern, including romantic and sexual justice -- and sometimes it is a highly contentious social concern, as we saw, for example, in Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas in 1991 and for Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

We all have a role to play in creating a favorable social context for personal integrity, freedom, flourishing – and thus for individuals to choose love that is true and also based in justice. We all have a role to play in working out sexual ethical norms. Ethics isn’t law. Ethics is a field of philosophy: a discourse in which we try to tease out from the contradictory mish-mash of culture which parts are worth trying to uphold more consistently. Its usefulness is not in settling questions, but in providing us with some tools and some angles of approach to help us think through the questions for ourselves.

A Catholic Nun, of all people, has done thoughtful and helpful work in articulating sexual ethics in this context where the old sexual ethic recognizably does not serve us. Sister of Mercy Margaret Farley was Professor of Christian Ethics and Yale Divinity School. Her book, Just Love, was denounced by the Holy See for moral views which opposed the teachings of the Catholic Church, so it's got that to recommend it. I think Sister Margaret Farley has put her finger on some excellent considerations as we wrestle with what justice requires in our intimate relationships, so let us look into the principles she offers.

First: Do No Unjust Harm.

Harm can take many forms: “physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.” In love and its sexual expression, we are uniquely tender and vulnerable -- so acute attention to the risks of harm is called for.

Sexual expression is highly variable, and just because something is repulsive to you or me doesn’t make it wrong. Pain may be a part of sexual expression, and for some folks it may be particularly central. Bodily damage may part of that. Sexuality-related cosmetic surgeries also constitute bodily damage. So we can’t simply say, "Do No Harm." What we can say is do no unjust harm. That’s the overall guideline, the overall ethic, the first rule. The other points are for clarifying what "unjust" is.

Second: Free Consent.

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Consent seems such an obvious principle that it’s remarkable how much the emphasis on consent has grown in recent years. And it’s worth remembering that there has been resistance. It wasn’t that long ago – it was in 2010 – that fraternity members at Yale University gathered outside the campus Women’s Center to chant, “No means yes.”

Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent.

But seduction is complicated. It’s certainly not wrong to try to make yourself attractive to a prospective mate. It’s not wrong to lower the lights, put candles on the table, and Barry White on the stereo. Promise-keeping and truth-telling are aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person. If promise-keeping and truth-telling are honored -- and neither party has "limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power" -- then I'd say we're in the realm of wholesome courtship rather than ethically problematic seduction.

If alcohol is going to be involved, then the consent should be clear at some point before inebriation, but does ethics require it to be clear before the first glass of wine? It starts to get a bit fuzzy. Certainly, the clearer the consent, and the more clear-minded the judgment of both parties when they consent, the better.

At the same time, one of the wonderful things about love is that it isn't coldly, rationally clear-minded. Moreover, we may be of partly divided mind when it comes to romance. Part of you may be ready to jump in, while part of you is not so sure. Yes, as we teach our children, you’re the boss of your body, but this boss is sometimes a divided internal parliament. To address these difficulties, it may help to look to the "free" part of "free consent." However swept up in nonrational feelings we may be, and however internally divided we may feel, where our liberty is not compromised, we are on solid ground. "Limited capacity for choice" means limited liberty, whether it is "because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power" (including loss of ordinary power from inebriation). Those conditions don't feel free. Exhilarating emotion, on the other hand, even if not rational, feels free -- indeed, it may feel very freeing.

Fortunately, the "consent" requirement gets some help from further guidelines like mutuality, equality, and commitment.

Third: Mutuality.

Ethical sexual expression involves mutual participation. What we’re talking about here are the old ideas of “the male as active and the female as passive, the woman as receptacle and the man as fulfiller.” That’s a violation of the mutuality principle. True relationship entails a context recognizing each partner’s activity and each partner’s receptivity -- each partner’s giving and each partner's receiving. Mutuality need not be perfect, but it does need to be present in some degree. “Two liberties meet, two bodies meet, two hearts come together” – and if they aren’t both putting heart and self into the encounter – if either partner is overwhelmingly passive, hardly participating, it isn’t mutual.

Fourth: Equality.

Justice in love means that the partners bring roughly equal levels of power and autonomy to the relationship. Inequalities of power may come from differences in social and economic status, or differences in age and maturity. Teachers and their students have an inherent power inequality, as do counselors and their clients, ministers and their parishioners. It’s not that such inequalities shouldn’t exist, just that they shouldn’t exist in a romantic relationship.

The principle of equality also “rules out treating a partner as property, a commodity, or an element in market exchange.” Thus prostitution is unethical on grounds of violating equality. Ethical sexuality may include all manner of role-playing, but if a partner is an actual element in a market exchange, that’s not playing a role. It’s an inherent inequality. Any overlap of the sphere of paying people for goods and services and the sphere of sexual relationship, any blurring of those spheres, compromises our flourishing.

Equality, like mutuality, is rarely perfect. The ethical concern is that the power be balanced enough, as Farley puts it: “for each to appreciate the uniqueness and difference of the other, and for each to respect one another as ends in themselves” – and not a means only.

Fifth: Commitment.

The important consideration is that any sexual encounter be entered into with an openness to the possibility that it may lead to long-term relationship. If it turns out to be a one-night stand, that, in itself, is not an ethical violation, as long as it was entered into with openness to the possibility that it become something more. As Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“Sexuality is of such importance in human life that it needs to be nurtured, sustained, as well as disciplined, channeled, controlled....Brief encounters...cannot mediate the kind of union -- of knowing and being known, loving and being loved -- for which human relationality offers the potential.”
The rhetoric of commitment can get overblown, and it is worth remembering that “particular forms of commitment are themselves only means, not ends.” Nevertheless, as Sister Farley reflects:
“Given all the caution learned from contemporary experience, we may still hope that our freedom is sufficiently powerful to gather up our love and give it a future; that thereby our sexual desire can be nurtured into a tenderness that has not forgotten passion. We may still believe that to try to use our freedom in this way is to be faithful to the love that arises in us or even the yearning that rises from us.”
Thank you, Sister.

Sixth: Fruitfulness.

The ethical sexual relationship bears fruit. Traditionally, this has meant procreation, but there is a deeper underlying principle of fruitfulness: that the relationship must not close in on itself. The sexual encounter occurs behind closed doors, but not in a social vacuum. Love brings new life to those who love, and that new life is to be brought outward to the nourishing of other relationships. A relationship of both love and justice strengthens the partners, and encourages them in their work in the world. Thus is the romantic love fruitful because it serves the good of all.

Finally, we should note that sexual ethics includes obligations that everyone in a society bears to affirm for its members as sexual beings. There are claims of respect that all of us are called to honor – respect for the many forms that human sexuality may take:
“single or married, gay or straight, bisexual or ambiguously gendered, old or young, abled or challenged in the ordinary forms of sexual expression, they have claims to respect from...the wider society.”
Justice in love requires not only that we bring certain principles to our own romantic and intimate relationships, but that we participate in making a society that honors and respects romantic and intimate relationships.

The principles of justice do not stop at the bedroom door. In fact, they go through that door in both directions: entering to inform the sexual encounter, and, strengthened and affirmed there, exiting to inform all our relations.

Justice, as Cornel West said, is what love looks like in public. Recognizing, however, that love can take corrupted forms – can be manipulative, domineering, and abusive -- we do need to add that love must look like justice in private.

May it be so. Amen.

2024-01-21

Queer Theory

Our theme of the month is Pluralism. Two weeks ago I mentioned the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity to help us think about how we might move beyond our tendency to minimize cultural difference, better appreciate how deep culture goes, and open ourselves to learning how to better adapt to different cultural contexts. Last week, in our Zoom service, we did some history as a subversive activity, looking at how the white landowners in the 17th century invented the American tradition of racism, and how that legacy affects and infects everything.

Understanding these matters helps us live out and live into our value, pluralism. It’s a value that Unitarian Universalists are considering codifying in our Association’s bylaws, with language that says:
“We celebrate that we are all sacred beings, diverse in culture, experience, and theology. We covenant to learn from one another in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.”
Today, we turn to pluralism of sexual orientations and gender identity.

In our free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we always confront two huge mysteries: ourselves, and other people. Whatever your sexual orientation or gender identity, just because you are or have that orientation and that identity, doesn’t mean you understand it. We remain mysteries to ourselves. And other people are also mysteries to us. We can’t clear up these mysteries, but we can help them seem manageable – we can acquire some helpful conceptual tools. So I propose today to lead you on a journey – a tour through a landscape of ideas and concepts. Our starting point is that last sentence from our description of Pluralism: “We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.” That’s our starting point. It’s also our ending point. What we will find is that we are led back to where we started – our covenant to “embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.”

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.”
And that’s what this exploration will be. We’ll arrive where we started – only, we might know the place a bit better.

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. Since sexual orientation has nothing to do with character, reliability, competence, trustworthiness – has nothing to do with whether a person has inherent worth and dignity, it should just be ignored. Let’s dispense with labels like lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and treat all people as just people.

In race relations, this attitude was called being – or trying to be – color-blind. Similarly, we might be, or try to be, sexual orientation blind, or gender identity blind. But then we get to:

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. Certainly, they wanted to be respected – and they wanted to be respected AS African American -- respected as what they were. They didn’t want white people pretending to be unable to see color.

We like to be recognized for who we are. We don’t want our identity to be socially erased. We want to be proud of who we are, not told that a key part of our experience is meaningless. Similarly, many LGBTQ 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 want to be recognized for who we are.

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 LGBTQ community worked hard for recognition of same-sex marriage, not all LGBQ 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: you have one partner, you live together and run 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. I remember years ago if I saw someone – like, at the mall -- and I couldn’t immediately tell if they were a woman or a man, I wanted to know, and I’d keep stealing glances to see if I could ascertain the person’s gender. I’ve learned to be more comfortable with not needing to know.

Sexuality is culturally constructed – and culture is constantly shifting. 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…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, characterized as a certain type of degenerate whose entire character, everything about him, was corrupted by his sexuality.

Such a viewpoint 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 to 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.

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 apt. 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 some 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.

(Are you having a hard time wrapping your mind around how it can be constrained, yet still infinite? Look, suppose I tell you to pick a number. Then I say it has to be a prime number. Your choice is now constrained: the number has to be a whole number, a positive integer, and prime. But there are an infinite number of prime numbers. So: constrained, and still infinite.)

Biology gives us some constraints – but the possibilities for cultural constructions of what to do with those constraints are infinite.

OK. Where are we? 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 nonbinary. 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. No matter how enlightened our attitudes may be, no matter how up we are on LGBTQ literature, the latest books on gender and transgender biology, psychology, and experience – no matter how conversant we are in heteronormative critique – it’ll all be different in 50 years, if not sooner. And your currently enlightened attitude will seem to people then benighted.

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 embracing our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.

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 – though keeping up, amid the constantly shifting cultural landscape, with what questions are inappropriate is part of the ongoing task. If I do ask, you can answer, or not answer, or say it’s not important to you, or tell me that you really just don’t know. This is how “We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.” It requires 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. Embracing our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect requires neither a rejection of, nor an insistence on, any notion of identity. What it does require is 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.

May it be so. Amen.

2024-01-14

Seeing Race

On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, as we celebrate what would have been Dr. King’s 95th birthday, race-based distrust, prejudice, and bigotry continues to bedevil and rive our nation. Our world, too – but I must say especially our nation.

The first balm for the wounds of division is truth. The bandages of programs, the splints of institutions, and the sutures of social justice will all fail without the salve of truth: the awareness of what is so, shared knowledge of how things are. Let us begin with the truth about our history, for that will help us understand why racial harmony is so particularly difficult for this country. Some of us know the history in, at least, the broad outline that I will recount – but perhaps not all of us do. In these times when simply teaching African American history is being banned and restricted in some states, simply to tell this history is a subversive act. Come, let us be subversive together.

America did not invent prejudice, or discrimination against people that, in any physical way including skin color, looked different. Indeed, as I mentioned last week, anxiety about people who are different appears to be an innate condition in a certain percent of the population, and it can certainly be a learned condition in many more. What America did invent was the modern conception of race, and the racism based upon that conception.

The word “race” used to mean any other group of people. If you lived in northern France, the people a couple hundred miles south of you were a southerly race. Protestants referred to the Catholic race, and vice-versa. Nobles spoke of the peasant race. The emergence of the modern sense of race was a deliberate device of the wealthy landowners in the colonies in the 1600s. They invented racism as we know it in order to co-opt the poor whites into helping sustain slavery.

The first enslaved Africans on soil that became the US were brought along with Spanish exploring expeditions. They came and went from what is now the US starting in 1526. The first Africans held in slavery by settler colonialists in the English colonies were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 – one year before the Mayflower. They were brought on a ship called (ironically? aptly?) The White Lion.

By the middle and late 1600s, much of the manual agricultural labor of the colonies was being done by what we would now call white indentured servants. England’s anti-poverty program of the time was to make poverty a crime punishable by deportation to America essentially as slave, but with the provision for earning one’s freedom after 10 or 20 or sometimes as much as 30 years of labor. From what we can tell, when enslaved people from Africa appeared to work beside them in the field, the darker skin color aroused no particular animosity. Whether you had paler skin or darker skin, you were kept in separate quarters, supervised by an overseer, whipped as a means of “correction,” often underfed and underclothed, and stereotyped as vile and brutish and subhuman. The two groups, both despised objects of the contempt of the bourgeoisie, saw each other as sharing the same predicament. As historian Edmund Morgan notes:
“It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.” (American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, 1975, p. 327)
And sometimes European servants combined with enslaved Africans to rebel against the ruling elite.

In Colonial America of the 1600s, the main difference between indentured servants and enslaved ones was in the economics for the landowners. The workers that came from Africa cost more, but they paid off in the long run because the landowner didn’t have to release them after a certain period of time – and because any children of an enslaved woman were also enslaved. For that reason, the slave demand brought a steady increase through the 1600s in the population of enslaved African.

As time went by, the trend of increased numbers of African slaves combined with more and more of the indentured serving out their time and more and more European-born poor freedmen in the population. Only then did the landowners begin to draw the sort of race line that today is so familiar to us. They did it as a strategy against rebellion.

The freedmen were persons without house or land, rankled by unfair taxes, the greed of legislators who then, as now, were in the pockets of the wealthy, and land use regulations that made it very difficult for them to ever own land. Freedmen with “disappointed hopes” and enslaved people of “desperate hope” were joining forces to mount ever more virulent rebellions (Thandeka, Learning to Be White, p. 45). The landowners strategy was to invent American racism as we know it. Whereas previously the big divide was between the vile rabble over there and the landowners over here, the new way of grouping people encouraged the European-born part of the rabble to think of themselves as “white” – as sharing something crucial with the landowners which the African-born did not. Thus the freedmen were co-opted into betraying their own economic self-interest to support the landowners’ interests with which they identified by virtue of their shared whiteness.

It was a brilliant divide-and-keep-conquered strategy “to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt” (Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, 1975, p. 327). The trick was accomplished by such means as passing new laws offering some protections to whites even while still indentured. As of 1705 in Virginia, any enslaved person of African descent could be given 30 lashes on the bare back, but it was forbidden to whip a Christian white servant naked. The whipping happened, but the extra indignity did not – which helped the indentured begin to learn to be white, to identify with their oppressors against the even more oppressed.

That same year, 1705, horses, cattle, and hogs were confiscated from enslaved people and sold to benefit poor whites. Any white was given the right to whip a black servant. Land owners were urged to bar the people they enslaved from learning the skills of a trade in order to preserve that work for white artisans. In ways subtle and obvious, a dignity based on whiteness alone was created where nothing of the sort had been imagined 50 years before.
“The gap between the wealthy and poor widened as a result of slave productivity. Thus the sense that poor whites now shared status and dignity with their social betters was largely illusory.” (Thandeka, p. 47)
But that illusion was powerful. Being white meant despising blacks, which afforded this illusory dignity that kept poor whites from agitating for economic reform on their own behalf and instead adopting attitudes and behavior to assist the landowners in keeping the blacks down.

We carry that legacy today. Many of the whites among us, if we think back, would be able to tell a story of how we learned to be white. For me, it was on the school bus when I was in first-grade. A big third-grader, sophisticated and worldly-wise in my six-year-old eyes, asked me if I liked President Johnson. I shrugged. He said he didn’t like Johnson ‘cause he lets – and here he used the N word – go to our school. The look of contempt upon his face made me feel such a relief to not be the object of that contempt.

I learned to be white on that day. I was whited by a system invented in this country two and a half centuries before by landowners who wanted to suppress rebellion, a system that took on a life of its own and long outlived its original purpose.

If you are white, when did you learn that? If you are not, when was your earliest significant lesson about what your race was, and what it meant? We are all wounded by the race line that slashes across our psyches, whatever side of that line we may think we’re on.

Once the race line has been established, there’s a projection that occurs. Learning to be white means learning to project upon darker-skinned people everything in the white person that feels low, vile, or shameful. A constant, nagging sense of unworthiness is part of the deal. Here, you get to be white, like the rich folks, but you can’t help noticing that you’re still poor, so maybe you’re not really worthy of your whiteness. The more whites were made to feel unworthy, the more they projected unworthy qualities on the group they were allowed to, and told to, despise. The more whites internalized that message, “You’re white, so if you just work hard enough, you’re bound to be OK,” the more they projected upon blacks the laziness they feared in themselves.

White racism against blacks is always a version of self-disgust adopted in a desperate attempt to hold onto worth and dignity in the face of exclusion from the upper classes. This begins to explain a few mysteries. Martin Luther King brought his war on slums to Chicago for his 1966 campaign for open housing. He encountered greater hostility in Chicago than he had ever seen in Atlanta, growing up, or in Montgomery, leading the bus boycott, or anywhere. Rocks and bricks were thrown. As King marched, someone hurled a stone. It struck King on the head. Stunned, he fell to one knee for several seconds. As he rose, aides and bodyguards surrounded him to protect him from the rocks, bottles and firecrackers that rained down on the demonstrators. King was one of 30 people who were injured. The disturbance resulted in 40 arrests.

He later explained why he put himself at risk: "I have to do this--to expose myself--to bring this hate into the open." He had done that before, but Chicago was different. "I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today," he said (Chicago Tribune).

What could account for this intensity of hostility from whites whose every economically-visible interest was unthreatened? Why were the lower and middle-class whites more virulently racist than the upper-class whose interests were more directly challenged? Because if worth and dignity didn’t come from whiteness, they just weren’t sure where it could come from.

Over and over, a substantial portion of white lower and middle-class voters vote against their own self-interest and in favor of wealthy interests. Why? Because learning to distance oneself from the interests blacks would have – even if, in reality, one shared those interests – was part of learning to be white. "White" has meant identifying with the wealthy, identifying with a shared paleness over and against shared economic needs.

Why is the US unable to enact a fairer, much more effective, and even cheaper health-care system – a single-payer government National Health Insurance – while Europe and Canada and Japan have this eminently sensible system? It's because the US's specific heritage of racism taught us to identify with the wealthy, and the wealthy don't need national health insurance.

Why is the US unable to provide adequate public schooling, affordable housing for all, and progressive taxation? It's because the US's specific heritage of racism taught us to identify with the wealthy, and the wealthy send their kids to private schools, aren't at risk of homelessness, and don't want to be progressively taxed.

Why is it that 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 and freedom loving? Why is it that 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? It’s because the national psyche has developed the longstanding habit of projecting upon dark skin color everything it is scared of, and is unconsciously convinced that black people doing a dangerous activity is much, much more dangerous than white people doing the same thing.

Why is it that the percentage of African Americans who are incarcerated is nearly five times higher than the percentage of European Americans who are? Why is it that otherwise identical resumes yield a 50 percent greater chance of being invited for an interview if the applicant’s name is stereotypically white than if the name is stereotypically black? Why is it that black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units and black homebuyers are shown about one-fifth fewer homes? Why is it that blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate, but a 2016 study found African Americans are arrested on drug charges at a nearly three times higher rate? Why is it that from 2010 to 2012, according to a study analyzing data of that period, a young black male, age 15 to 19, was 21 times more likely to be shot by police than his white counterpart? Well, we know why.

And what is the Unitarian Universalist history, along with the race history in this country? We should know, too, how our Unitarian Universalist story intertwines with the American story, because we need to know what we inherit if we are to know who we are.

Unitarian Universalists have struggled with the legacy of racism created in Colonial America as a way to co-opt indentured servants and minimize rebellion. On one hand, yes, Unitarians were among the leaders in the movement for abolition of slavery. Unitarian minister Joseph Priestly, then in England, preached a sermon denouncing the slave trade as early as 1788, and continued to preach against it after coming to America. Unitarian minister Rev. Charles Follen was a leading abolitionist in the 1830s. (This, by the way, is the same Rev. Charles Follen that I mentioned in the Christmas Eve service as having brought the Christmas tree tradition to America.)

On the other hand, monied interests in the North supported the slavery in the South – and Unitarians have been well-represented among monied interests. So Rev. Follen’s abolitionism led to his dismissal from the New York City congregation now called All Soul’s Unitarian. When Follen died in 1840, pro-slavery members of William Ellery Channing’s Boston congregation refused Channing’s request to host a memorial service for Follen.

In 1836, Rev. William Henry Furness, minister of First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia preached an abolitionist sermon to his congregation. Reverend Furness had begun serving that congregation when he was 22-years-old, and had been serving it for 12 years the day he stepped into their pulpit to preach abolition. He knew it would be divisive. One of his most prominent members held 300 people enslaved. Furness’s stance split the congregation in half. Membership plummeted. Furness thereafter had armed guards at his side as he preached. Later, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker encountered considerable controversy when he also began speaking against slavery and became a leading figure in the abolition movement. Parker took to keeping a pistol in his pulpit for his protection.

Many Unitarians – clergy and layfolk – committed their lives and fortunes to the cause of abolition. Yes, Unitarians were rancorously divided over the issue of slavery. Yet we were at least divided: while some other churches of the time were unified in support of slavery, many Unitarians were leading this denomination and this country toward a new moral awareness. We can be proud of that -- a little.

A century later, many of us were likewise in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Among the 30,000 who marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965 were
“about 500 UU lay people and about 250 UU ministers. The ministers who went to Selma represented a quarter to a third of all UU ministers in full fellowship. Add to that the dozens who spent time with the Mississippi Summer Project, the Delta Ministry Project, and other efforts in the South afterward; those who led their communities’ response; and the dozen ministers who participated in the UU presence in Selma through the summer of 1965. It isn’t a stretch to estimate that half of the 710 UU ministers in full fellowship were actively engaged in this struggle.” (Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, “Selma’s Challenge,” UUWorld, 2014 Winter)
We can be proud of that, too. Yet let us also grieve that our moral awareness was not greater sooner.

In the 1920s the first two African American Unitarian ministers, Rev. Ethelred Brown and Rev. Lewis McGee both encountered continual discouragement and resistance from the denominational leaders at the time who saw no place for a black man in the pulpits of their predominantly white congregations.

In 1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and just three years after so many UUs had transformative experiences in Selma, our General Assembly was torn apart over race issues.

And so, another half century on, Unitarian Universalists, and America generally, today continue our stumbling struggle to heal the hobbling wounds imposed on us by 17th-century wealthy landowners. As we celebrate the birthday of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, junior, may we renew our commitment to find a path toward healing. Knowing that a better future requires an honest acknowledging of our past, and that history itself is a subversive activity, may we attend to our histories that we not perpetuate the worst in them. That would be the birthday present that is due to the memory of Martin Luther King – and that is due to all of us. May it be so.

2024-01-07

Opening to Pluralism

Happy New Year! What are the chances of that? I mean, what are your prospects for 2024 being happier – or, if last year was great for you, as happy - as 2023? I am mindful that there will be health challenges for some of us in the year ahead. And health challenges come, eventually, for all of us including, eventually, inevitably, the one we will not surmount. Connected to our physical health, there is the matter of our social and spiritual health. Put simply: We need each other. We need community. We need our peeps. A happy new year means a connected new year, a caring new year. A joyous new year means a loving new year. And a more liberated new year means steps taken not just toward your individual liberation but toward collective liberation.

Natural selection made us into hyper-social beings. Not merely social, like other apes are, like wolves and elephants and dolphins are, but able to connect our brains and see through each other's eyes at a level beyond any other species. I've mentioned before, no single human knows everything necessary to build a cathedral, or an aircraft - yet we can build them because we can connect our brains in shared enterprises. That's an amazing and beautiful thing. We were built to do that, and to want to do that, and to need to do that.

Natural selection also made us highly competitive at the group level. One key reason that bonding with each other has been so important to our species' survival is simply that it allows us to care for each other and carry out cooperative ventures that benefit all of us. But another key reason is that by bonding together we can fight better against that tribe on the other side of the hill.

Throughout our history as a species, the cozy warm feeling of US has been inextricably intertwined with hostility to THEM. Early human and proto-human groups didn't merely band together, they banded together AGAINST other groups. If they hadn't, they wouldn't have survived to pass on their genes to us. We are a deeply cooperative AND a deeply competitive species - cooperative within our group, so that we can better compete with other groups.

The trick is to expand our circle, to train ourselves, in this complex multicultural, multi-ethnic world we live in, to comprehend more and more difference as nevertheless part of US rather than indicative of THEM. Fortunately, this expand-the-circle impulse is also embedded in the human history we inherit.

If there were only two groups - us and them - that would be fairly straightforward and stable. But from the dawn of humanity, there have been multiple groups. So then our earliest ancestors started seeing if they could work out ways to be more cooperative with group B, so that together they could outcompete group C. So along with a very strong tendency to bond with our in-group and compete with out-groups, we are built also with a somewhat more cautious readiness to welcome the stranger; to appreciate, not merely be suspicious of, difference; to want to expand our circle.

This openness to pluralism is, among humans, a variable trait. Some of us are more open to difference and others more interested in protecting the given US. Unitarian Universalists tend toward the appreciation of diversity side of the spectrum. We tend to score high on openness to difference. Some of our fellow humans are instead wired to feel a need to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness. Difference scares them.

The work of Australian political scientist Karen Stenner helps us understand this. Stenner argues that underlying racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia is something more fundamental: difference-ism. The various forms of harmful prejudice are all variations of a basic anxiety about difference, an anxiety that produces, in Stenner's words, "a fundamental and overwhelming desire to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness."

Another term for this is: authoritarian personality – because these folks see authoritarian structures as the best way to keep us safe from those different people who are, in a recently exhumed turn-of-phrase, “poisoning the blood of our country." In one of Stenner's studies, people scoring high for authoritarian personality
"were told that NASA had verified the existence of alien life -- beings 'very different from us in ways we are not yet even able to imagine.' After being told that, the measured racial intolerance of authoritarian subjects decreased by half.”
In other words, they are afraid of whatever is most different. If there are space aliens out there, then suddenly all humans are "us" because the authoritarian personality's animosity focuses on whatever is the most different. Stenner writes: "black people look more like 'us' than 'them' when there are green people afoot."
"Under these conditions, the authoritarians didn't only become kinder to black people, Stenner noted; they also became more merciful to criminals that is, less inclined to want a crackdown on perceived moral deviance." (Friedersdorf, Atlantic Monthly)
Stenner's book, The Authoritarian Dynamic, concludes that not everyone can learn to respect and value difference. She writes:
"All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference...are the surest way to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors."
Journalist Conor Friedersdorf estimates that, "perhaps 15 percent of humans are psychologically ill-suited to dealing with difference." He doesn't indicate where that 15 percent figure comes from; it seems to be his impressionistic guess. As a rough, ball-park estimate, maybe that's about right. Whatever the number might be, we're never going to “fix” every individual - never going to train our way to universal understanding and embrace of diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. And that's OK, because pluralistic inclusion has to also have a place those who don't like difference. We just need systems that neutralize the authoritarian personalities from inflicting their phobias on others.

It's a point increasingly recognized. Lily Zheng, a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion strategy consultant, for instance, said:
"We should design organizations that are equitable and inclusive whether or not every single person inside those organization is inclined the same way.”
That's something to keep in mind as this congregation considers how we might move toward greater inclusion and pluralism. If, as Friedersdorf conjectured, "perhaps 15 percent of humans are psychologically ill-suited to dealing with difference" - the percentage of Unitarian Universalists who are is lower than that, but it isn't zero.

A happy new year means a connected new year, a caring new year. But there is variability among us not only in how much difference we are comfortable including in that circle of care, but also variability in how much difference we ever could learn to be comfortable including. Still, pluralism is our overarching value, as a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It is our Unitarian Universalist covenant, as the proposed language for revising the UUA bylaws expresses, that:
"We celebrate that we are all sacred beings, diverse in culture, experience, and theology. We covenant to learn from one another in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect."
Our watchword shall be: everybody belongs. And everybody belongs here. We know that there are other churches, other faith communities, out there, and that some people will prefer those, but we are determined that we would welcome any of them, whatever their culture or beliefs, and that our welcoming pluralism be so conspicuous that is widely known that we would welcome them, and that any who do walk through these doors will quickly perceive that they belong and are appreciated – even those who aren't quite able to appreciate difference as much our congregation as a whole does.

So our task in this new year - as in every new year - is twofold: (1) to cultivate our capacity to embrace and appreciate ever greater difference - And, (2) given that this capacity itself is and will be variable among us, to seek ways to better ensure that our congregation as a whole is equitable and inclusive anyway.

And a more liberated new year means steps taken not just toward your individual liberation but toward collective liberation. Freedom is relational. It really is true that none of us is free until all of us are free, for freedom, to whatever extent it is achieved, is a collective achievement. The master is as enslaved as the slave, even if not subject to the physical abuses, and that does matter.

We are all in this together, and what we do to another we do to ourselves. Because freedom is relational; because every interaction we have with every other person can function to restrict ourselves and them or it can help liberate us and them; because we all have some kind of power, and we can use it against itself to diminish itself, or we can use it to nourish and expand shared power, what we call power-with rather than power-over; because power-over is always at the same time powerlessness-under; because freedom is for most of us the half-won, half-discovered blessing, and we need each other to proclaim the further emancipation - we have work to do.

Because faith without works is dead; because it will not do to simply say, "go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill," go, be emancipated; because we need each other to reach the promised land; because the kingdom of god is within us, yes, but equally it is between us and among us, we have work to do.

Because otherwise identical resumes today yield a 50 percent greater chance of being invited for an interview if the applicant's name is stereotypically white than if the name is stereotypically black; because black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units and black homebuyers are shown about one-fifth fewer homes; because blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate, but African Americans are arrested on drug charges at a three times higher rate; because 14 percent of nonhispanic white children are growing up in poverty while 40 percent of African American children are - we have work to do.

Unitarian Universalists have been struggling with how to do the work of dismantling racism for as long as I can remember. We have been noticing that our congregations usually look a lot whiter than their surrounding communities and have been trying to figure out what to do about that for as long as I can remember. I've been occasionally participating in Unitarian Universalist efforts at anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multi-culturalism efforts, workshops, programs and readings for thirty years, and, sadly, haven't seen much progress.

I was given a new hope for the possibility of congregational anti-racism work about 10 years ago by the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity - DMIS. It's an approach that doesn't call anyone a racist. It's not really about unconscious prejudices so much. It deftly bypasses any temptation to detour into squabbles about such things as whether members of oppressed minorities can be racist themselves or whether "racism” only applies to certain members of the privileged majority. It gives us a way to talk about important issues of cultural difference without bringing up the word “racism” at all. I think we do need to confront actual racism, recognize it and call it what it is, but we can work our way to that point more effectively with a stronger foundation - which it seems to me the DMIS (Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity) provides.

It's a developmental model – that is, it says that people develop through stages - like Piaget's stages of cognitive development of children, Kohlberg's stages of moral development, or James Fowler's stages of faith development. The model was created by Milton Bennet and Mitch Hammer - who had been going to anti-racism trainings and noticing just what I had been noticing: that about a third of the white people were annoyed rather than enlightened. They began to wonder why. Why do some people react this way and other people react a different way? Perhaps they're at different stages in their development! Perhaps every stage is an important, helpful, and adaptive response to certain conditions - it has values which we can recognize.

It's true that whatever is identified as a later stage of development will unavoidably seem to be judged "better," but Unitarian Universalists with our third principle ought to be able to handle this. Our third principle says we affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. Notice the two aspects at work here: Acceptance of one another - exactly where they are and who they are -- while at the same time encouragement to growth, encouragement to grow into something other than what they are now. Is this a contradiction? Can we truly be accepting people just the way they are if we're also encouraging them to change, to grow? If you've ever been a parent or ever had a moderately loving and effective parent - then you know this is no contradiction. We love our children for just what they are - while also encouraging their growth and development because a growing, changing being IS what they are, and that process of development benefits from guidance.

Many of us carry that same approach into our relationships with peers, with friends. We accept them for what they are, while also, when the time is right, call them on their stuff, offer them guidance, encourage their growth, as they do for us. So I'm hopeful about the prospects for UUs to work together to guide ourselves to greater levels of intercultural sensitivity – while also understanding, welcoming, and appreciating those who may happen to be at an earlier stage.

Development of intercultural sensitivity happens in stages. There are five stages, which I will briefly describe. There is more detail in this month's Pluralism issue of "Connecting" - and still more detail available on the internet - just search DMIS.

Stage 1: Denial.

There is a lack of awareness of diversity. It's not possible for adult members of minorities to be entirely unaware of diversity, but some members of a majority can exist within a bubble such that they rarely encounter a cultural difference.

Stage 2: Sometimes called Polarization, sometimes called Defense.

This comes in two versions, and both versions involve an "us" vs. "them” mindset. The first version is straight defense. We bunker in, defensively protecting "us" and demonizing "them" - those who are different.

The second version is reversal. This is where one romanticizes and privileges a culture other than one's own. In reversed polarization, one privileges “them” while demonizing "us." But it's still polarization of good culture and bad culture.

Stage 3: Minimization.

This is kind of a return in the direction of denial except that people at this stage do recognize cultural differences, but they downplay their importance. Cultural differences are all seen as superficial because deep down we're all the same. Minimization over-emphasizes commonality.

Stage 4: Acceptance.

We might also call it openness and curiosity. At this stage there is an understanding the cultural differences are real and profoundly meaningful. This much was also understood at the Polarization stage, but whereas polarization involved demonizing one side or the other of that difference, the acceptance stage involves curiosity and openness about differences. Difference is recognized as important, but difference is explored without judgment or evaluation.

Stage 5: Adaptation, also known as intercultural competence.

Intercultural competence is the ability to shift cultural perspective and adapt behavior to fit with the other person's culture, recognizing both the similarities and differences of their culture with yours. It's not assimilation. Assimilation is a permanent change from your original culture to a new culture. Adaptation, intercultural competence, involves the ability to make temporary shifts into a different culture in order to be more effective in a particular situation.

At what stage do you think you are? Most Unitarian Universalists are in the middle: at the minimization stage. We love to say people are basically the same - minimizing the powerful difference that culture makes. And there are commonalities. Yet let us not diminish real difference.

The path of liberation leads ultimately beyond minimization to acceptance and adaptation -- and many of us, if not all, can joyously take that path. May it be so. Amen.