Archive for August, 2010

I have felt growing dismay over the news coming from a Pew survey released in early August which shows that a growing number of Americans(18%)  believe Barack Obama to be Muslim, and (separate question and response) an increasing number also believe that Obama is not Christian.  Over 40% of those surveyed do not know what Obama’s faith tradition is, despite the fact that he regularly attended a United Church of Christ congregation prior to being elected president.

And a recent CNN survey revealed that more than 25% of those surveyed believed that Obama was either definitely or probably not born in this country (the so-called “birther” movement).  Meanwhile Sarah Palin, pundit and perhaps-candidate, has urged various political conservatives and talk show hosts to “lock and reload.”  When pressed, she’ll insist she’s just telling people to not back down, but the violent language sends a shiver down my spine.

Words are powerful.  In an information age where we’re all authorities, those who have mastered the media can promote their point of view and pass that perspective off as fact.  But it’s also true that people don’t generally invent the things they believe from whole cloth.  Those beliefs come from someone, from somewhere, and the question of where we get our news from, and what we accept on face value — rather than check out before making an informed decision — has everything to do with what we deem fact and what remains fiction.

But these recent statistics and news stories are deeply troubling to me.  In an age when we were proclaimed, with Obama’s election, to have moved past racism and segregation and discrimination, the ugly truth reveals that we have so far to go.  In a time when we like to give lip service to being “one country,” we are attacking Muslims who want to build a community center in New York, and Sikhs who wear turbans are verbally and sometimes physically harrassed, threatened, and subject to firing without cause.

Years ago, the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” offered us a scene in which Lieutenant Cable sings,

“You’ve got to be taught
to be afraid
Of people whose eyes
are oddly made
And people whose skin
is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught
before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people
your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

“South Pacific” was produced in 1949, based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” and debuted in a United States recovering from World War II and approaching the dawn of McCarthyism.  Rogers and Hammerstein were attacked for putting this song in their show, but they steadfastly insisted that it remain.  Good thing, but how discouraging is it to find that, more than sixty years later, we haven’t changed all that much?   This country managed to elect an African American President of the United States less than two years ago, but the smears, the campaign of misinformation, the cheap shots and lies, have all remained and, I believe, grown.

How is it that so many in our country can continue to believe that the President is not an American citizen, despite clear evidence to the contrary?  And why would people repeatedly maintain that Obama, despite his multiple statements to the contrary, is a Muslim rather than the Christian he says he is?  “Don’t bother me with the facts, Son, I’ve already made up my mind,” was a saying coined by a cartoon character decades ago.  It seems that in the digital age where rumor now passes freely as fact, the saying remains true.  Words have power and authority, and more and more — in a time when fewer people read newspapers and more get their “news” from television or the web — the things people say can be taken for fact.

I troll social media regularly, reading Twitter feeds, posting sometimes, checking out newspaper headlines and conventional wisdom on social networking sites.  But I try hard to check out the facts before repeating them.  Otherwise I’d be subject to doing what we did as kids so long ago:  playing a game of ‘telephone’ where we stand in a line, repeat things, one to another, and then wonder how it is that the original message got so darned convoluted at the end of the line. Surely, as individuals and as a nation, we owe ourselves, and others, more consideration.

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Ever since I was a kid, I’ve remembered Norman Rockwell’s series of paintings of The Four Freedoms.  Rockwell painted these iconic images during the height of World War II and they were published in The Saturday Evening Post after the US government declined to use them as part of its wartime publicity effort.  Rockwell, so quintessentially American in his artistry, said he was inspired to develop the series after hearing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech on the four freedoms, delivered on January 16, 1941.

Rockwell’s paintings depicted Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Freedom to Worship shows people gathered in prayer.  These are traditional people, they seem to all be Caucasian, and they are praying in different ways.  But for the time in which Rockwell painted these images, he was illustrating something important about one of the core values on which the United States was founded, one of the values we hold most dear — that we may pray in different ways, but having the right to do so is a core American value.

More than sixty years later, the late Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church was presented with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom Medal, honoring Church’s work in lifting up the values that Roosevelt proclaimed where essential in nurturing a flourishing democracy. Several years before being so honored, Church, in his 2004 sermon “Choose Your Enemies Carefully,” delivered at All Souls Church in New York City, focused on religious freedom as he asked, what is it to be a complete human being?  Not first “…a Jew or Palestinian. Not a Christian or Muslim first. Or an American first, but a complete human being. Seeing our own tears in one another’s eyes. Recognizing that we have so much more in common than could ever possibly divide us. We are all alike mysteriously born, fated to die, the mortar of mortality binding us fast to one another, the same sun setting on each of our horizons. We all want and need love, and security, and freedom, and acceptance. We need others’ forgiveness and understanding. All of us do. We ache in the same way. We bleed in the same way. At times, we all feel awkward and unworthy and inadequate. And we all fail at times to hearken to the better angels of our nature.”

In wading into the current controversy about a proposed Mosque to be erected blocks from the site of the tragic September 11, 2001, violence that destroyed the World Trade Center, President Barack Obama sought to affirm our freedom to worship as we choose, and to build houses of worship as we will.  He said, “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.”

Politicans caught up in tough election battles are now distancing themselves from Obama’s speech, and nearly every pundit or politico is being asked his or her opinion on the question of the Mosque.  CNN reports that nearly seventy percent of Americans polled are opposed to the Mosque being built on the proposed site.  This is deeply disturbing, and should send a shiver down the spine of every conscientious American.  Freedom to worship means religious freedom for all people – those with whom you agree and those with whom you don’t.  The 2001 attacks on our country were unspeakably horrible, and they were carried out by people intent on undermining our country’s fiber.  But the people who carried out the attacks do not represent one faith tradition.  They were a group of individuals, and their religion, and their houses of worship, must not be condemned in a wholesale manner.

It was Pastor Martin Niemöller who said, during the time Roosevelt gave his speech:  “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”  These words remind us of our responsibility to speak out, and to act in support of freedom.  Our commitment as Americans must be to uphold the values on which our country was built.  And I have no question that if Forrest Church were alive today, he would be speaking out forcefully on this topic.

We are witnesses to history now, as in earlier times.  Forrest Church reminds us: “To whatever extent we place our primary identification with creed or nation, with race or gender, with school or party, we betray our common humanity. Party to faction, we are prey to the beguiling logic of division, the logic of retribution and judgment, the logic of brotherly hate. In short, we live in a state not of grace, but of sin.”

We have an opportunity, with the question of whether a Mosque should be built in New York City, to choose grace; to choose love; to extend a hand to those who worship differently, but who are our sisters and brothers all the same.  Let us affirm this most essential freedom, and in so doing, re-affirm the values on which this country was built.

Freedom to Worship, by Norman Rockwell:

Painting of Norman Rockwell's "Freedom to Worship"

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I’ve been interested in the reactions of the media and just folks to the case of Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant who apparently went postal last week, reportedly after dealing with an abusive passenger who gave him crap one more time than he could tolerate.  After Slater got whacked on the head by the passenger’s suitcase (which said passenger was reportedly pulling from the overhead bin when he should have been buckled in his seat) and cussed out by the passenger, Slater decided he was outta there.

Since all this happened, some folks have come forward saying Slater was acting oddly on the flight, that he was the one being surly, and so on.  The media will keep following the story, at some point the ‘true’ story will come out, and eventually the latest ‘soft’ news feature will simmer down.

What all this made me think about, however, was what kind of internal guidance system people have.  What are the personal ethics that guide our behavior?  I admit that this has been a subject of interest for a while.  Ben and I have been devotees of a number of HBO series over the last years:  “Rome,” “Deadwood,” “The Sopranos,” “Hung,” and “Big Love” come immediately to mind.  All of these shows have very distinct story-lines.  But they share something in common:  they all show us characters, sometimes living in lawless communities, who are left to figure out what is and isn’t right.  Sometimes the results are hilarious (as in “Hung,” where an under-employed high school coach decides to market his best natural attribute for monetary gain), and often, they are disastrous (in “Deadwood,” if someone didn’t like what you do you were usually shot dead before anyone could blink).

Obviously we have courts of law in the US, and laws in the towns and cities where we reside.  Some of us belong to faith communities that embrace behaviors or even laws connected to the ways in which we relate to one another and conduct our lives.  Yet the story of the passenger on the JetBlue flight, who reportedly decided he didn’t care about the safety regulations or the request of the flight attendant, is mirrored in the news on a daily basis by people who have decided to take the law into their own hands or make a decision that will benefit them, rather than the community or country in which they reside.

I have certainly wrestled in my life with what is the ‘right’ thing to do and sometimes I have gotten it wrong.  As I got older I found myself thinking more about the decisions I was considering, and in whose best interest they were being made.  I have become a fan of the New York Times column “The Ethicist,” written by Randy Cohen, which takes on some of the thornier ethical questions in life, from lying about one’s age, to using an office computer to look at pornography, to telling a friend that you’ve observed their partner in a dalliance with another.  Cohen acknowledged, in a recent interview, that he researched, studied, and deliberated many of these situations for long periods of time before he wrote about them – and still in most cases they are matters of opinion and behavior, not law.  Deciding what is right can be obvious in some cases, but in others, the lines are very blurry.

I wonder if our society, with jobs in short supply, high unemployment, and cuts in education, have caused us to feel so deprived that we more and more frequently make the decision that is focused toward “I’m going to get mine” no matter what.  The children’s song (from Walt Disney’s “Pinnochio”) called “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide,” had it right in suggesting that a little voice would speak from inside about what was right and what was wrong.  The thing is, more and more people seem to be turning the voice off, or letting it fade in the background while the “I need this, I want this, I don’t care” part of human behavior comes out.

I don’t know what ultimately tripped Steven Slater into reportedly launching a string of profanity at the JetBlue passengers before he deployed an emergency chute on his plane to escape his not-so-fulfilling life.  Yes, I can well understand the feeling he might have had, of being demeaned and abused by too many people.  On the other hand, what was he thinking?  And if there isn’t something inside that calls us back, to do the right thing no matter what, where are we, as a society, going?

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A couple of weeks ago we paid another visit to the in-laws on Cape Cod.  My sainted mother-in -law, who will be 92 on August 26th and survived a near-fatal infection this winter, kept diaries during many of the periods when she traveled.  She wrote in journals while in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Fiji, in Georgia and Michigan while volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, during the years she spent participating in Shaker Seminars, and she kept records of different vacations she went on.  She wrote a couple of entries in a book when she took a trip to Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to visit the civil rights sites Martin Luther King, Jr. had traveled to; she kept more notes during many other journeys to craft shows when she and my father-in-law were selling their Shaker boxes or exploring some new location on a vacation.

Phoebe is curious about everything and loves to read.  She’s also — at nearly 92 — experiencing short-term memory loss, which means that she forgets what she’s read or discussed recently and sometimes, she forgets where she is.  My father-in-law wants to reduce clutter in their small apartment, and he’s keen on throwing out books and papers that he deems unnecessary.  And so Ben and I found three bags of diaries behind the couch, waiting for us to take them away (because we had asked my father-in-law that they not be thrown out).

When we asked Phoebe if she was content to have her diaries taken away, she said, meekly, that she would like to go through them and re-read them.  So although my father-in-law was not happy about it, I said that we would not be taking the diaries away until Phoebe had had the chance to re-read her reflections from those earlier parts of her life.

We hold on to memories and lived experience in different ways:  through photographs, sketches and paintings, journal entries, the stories we pass on from one generation to another.  My father’s story of buying a gallon jar of mustard for his older sister’s engagement party, when a small jar had been desired, became legend:  his father, a poor man, declared, as the little boy came home with the mustard, that if the boy had paid for the mustard, the family would be keeping it.  The parable was:  if you make a deal, you stick with it, no matter what.  I’ve remembered, and told my children, and I hope they’ll hold on to it – as well as the reason why the Weiners tend to keep lots of mustard in their houses.

The Soules are known for what they don’t say — that is, if you don’t ask the right question, you might not find out something pretty important.  But if you ask, you find out about Phoebe and Dick’s Sunday School classes taught by Jimmy Carter, about their travels to Tibet and other exotic locations, about rebuilding Star Island after the war had ravaged the old hotel and cottages.

If we are lucky, our lives are built from our own lived experience and from that of our elders and beloved family members.  We pass on the stories, both true and mythical, to our children, and they to theirs.  This is the way I got my grandmother’s Chili Sauce receipt (from the 1880’s) and my Aunt Estelle’s Chopped Liver recipe; this is how Ben learned about his great-grandparents’ experience when the Confederate Army burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania,  where the Gillan family lived.

The text of the old Quaker hymn says, “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation, I hear the real, though far-off hymn, that hails a new creation.Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing, it sounds an echo in my soul — how can I keep from singing?”

Phoebe’s diaries sound such an echo.  By holding on to them — even if she never does get to reading them all — she maintains a connection to her past, and to all the journeys that have shaped her life.  They are like gold, and like other pieces of a life well-lived, are worth our protection.

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Some of us who are a certain age remember the Eddie Albert/Eva Gabor sitcom which aired from 1965 to 1971, called “Green Acres.”  In it, a New York City couple decide to run off to the country and take up life on a farm.  Hilarity ensued as they tried to figure out how to run a tractor, cook, and breathe in that clean country air.

For a few days, a tiny part of that country life is mine, for I’ve run away to northern Vermont …to the lovely home of our friends, Rod and Sally, that has no TV, some patchy internet access, iffy cellular service, and a view out the front window that can take your breath away.

Although I have lived most of my life in suburban or urban areas and for a long time have resided just west of Boston, I love life in a setting that takes me this far away.  True, I can’t jump on the “T” to go to a Red Sox game or go shopping at a large mall (not that I really like that).  But here I can go to the Vermont Lake Monsters Class A baseball game, as I did last night, and get a reserved seat for $8.00.  For no extra fee, Champ the Lake Monster mascot, dances on top of the dugout with the kids and between innings, children dressed as ketchup and mustard bottles run around the bases to see who gets to the hot dog the fastest.  It is small town America at its best.

Here there are winding country roads with poplars, evergreens, and birches waving in the breeze.  And while there’s no TV, I’ve had a pretty good show out those windows:  wild turkeys walking around in the yard, two pre-adolescent white-tail deer and rabbits playing in the field, monarch butterflies and a hummingbird, all fluttering around.  At night, standing on the steps of the house, I look out to Lake Champlain and later, in the dark, I can stand in the front yard and see the Milky Way with definition that you just don’t get in an urban area.

Pretty damn nice.  Farmers set up stands along the roads, and when there’s an offer of “fresh chicken – 24 hours notice,” you know it’s because the chicken you buy will really be fresh and local, just like the eggs and the squash and corn.  The water comes from the lake, the neighbors are far away, the grocery store takes 1/2 hour to get to, and time moves more slowly than at home.

The feeling I get when I come here is similar to the one I had as a child, visiting my grandparents in New York state.  Life allows me a chance, here, to slow down and savor what I see and hear, to appreciate the sights, sounds, and smells (organic as they may be, with a farm every 1/2 mile or so).  It is a good life here, marked by the simple pleasures of a Maple Creamee (maple soft-serve ice cream) bought from the local orchard and farm store, or a canoe rented from the Sand Bar State Park that also offers swimming and kayaking at a discount.

Last night I fell asleep listening to the peepers in the pond in the back yard, and I awakened to the sun streaming in the window and illuminating the fields that stretch down, past a stand of trees, to the lake.  I love these Green Acres, and bless the ways in which they offer me, and my family, a chance to pause from the life we usually lead, and just breathe.

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In May, I posted on this topic with thoughts on why the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should not to action to pull its General Assembly (GA) out of Phoenix (2012) in protest of the repressive Arizona law, SB1070.  In June, the General Assembly did vote to gather in 2012 in Phoenix for a GA that will be different from others and acutely focused on social justice issues and partnership-building with organizations including Puente.

But 2012’s a long way off, and it would be easy for an organization, or individuals, to lose focus around these issues.  Fortunately the enactment of SB1070, and the commitment to witness for justice shown by Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, and others, has not allowed this to happen.

On July 29, responding to a call put out by Frederick-Gray, Sal Reza of Puente, and others, more than 200 UU leaders and lay people committed to social justice went to Phoenix and other cities to put their money, and in many cases, their bodies, where their mouths were.  29 UUs were arrested in Phoenix, dragged off to the jail of the repressive Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and given a taste of the Sheriff’s form of justice.

UUA Moderator Gini Courter and others had helped to prepare those who would be arrested by writing the phone number of a lawyer on their arms in black marker, so that when all possessions were taken away, the phone number would remain.  From what I could observe, everyone present was prepared for a long seige.  UUA President Peter Morales was one of those arrested, and during the night, while he and other protestors sat in jail awaiting arraignment, those who remained free stood outside the jail, holding vigil through the night.

All this is a far cry from the kind of public witness the UUA used to engage in.  Although a successful “Back Alley March” was held in Milwaukee, WI in 1990 as part of the GA to lend support to the efforts of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other groups to ensure the right to safe and accessible abortion services, the next year (1991) brought a paltry gathering down to the beaches of Hollywood, FL where a few placards were raised and waived — with no press in evidence — in support of ecological protections.  By 1993 an event to oppose North Carolina sodomy laws and support the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people had been organized, with a great deal of UU support — but the timing of the event was so late that the daily news cycle had ended before the demonstration began and mostly, those demonstrating were talking to themselves.

Thanks to the continuing work of UUA’s public witness team, the expert coaching of communication consultant Helio Fred Garcia, and the deep commitment of many people of faith, things have changed over the years.  A shout-out is due to Susan Leslie and Audra Friend of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness staff group, who have had primary responsibility for organizing the GA public witness events of the last several years.  Leslie and Friend were in evidence in Arizona as well last week, along with the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love (SOSL) team, helping UU leaders select gathering spots, making sure that word got out to the outside world.  The SOSL bright yellow T-shirts were everywhere, ensuring that when people protested or were dragged away, the media and Unitarian Universalists would know that it was one of ours being hauled off.

Effective public witness, as Garcia frequently says, “needs to be both public, and witnessed.”  While that makes for one of those “duh” moments – how literal do we need to get here? – it’s not always easy to pull off.  Too many times, multiple agendas and good intention have served to undermine the desire to make an impact in the Public Square.  Effective witness calls for deep grounding in the fundamental principles of faith, the opportunity to make something happen that will be noticed, and a natural fit with the organization engaging in action.

This time, the UUA got it right from one end to the other.  The partnerships formed with Puente and other organizations have been intentional and healthy.  I believe that organizations on the ground in Arizona know that they can count on the Unitarian Universalists, and others of faith, to stand with them as they fight for justice.  Opinion pieces from UU leaders showed up in The Huffington Post and elsewhere prior to July 29.  Those involved in the demonstrations were tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, producing videos, taking photos that they uploaded to the web immediately.  Reporters (print, radio, internet, TV) were present.  The story got out.

This is not an end, it’s a beginning.  There will have to be much more…more relationship-building, more education, more demonstrations and almost surely, more arrests, all leading to the 2012 Phoenix GA.  But this is what witnessing the faith is about.

The UUA is preparing to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.  Early in the UUA’s history (borne out of the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America), Rev. Dana Greeley, the first UUA President, asked ministers to respond to the call of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma and witness their commitment to civil rights and justice for all.  Many went and marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, arm in arm, and one died for the cause.  In 2010, ministers and lay people responded to Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s call and went to Phoenix to stand for the civil rights of those who come to this country in search of a better life.

From where I sit, it seems like the UUA has come full circle in its understanding of how to witness the faith.  As UU minister Kendyl Gibbons wrote, “the time is now, the place is here…[there is] no other world” but this one, calling out for effective witness in support of simple justice for all our people.


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