Monday, February 27, 2012

English as Official Language: Dog Whistle to Intolerance

On Tuesday February 21, Frederick County Maryland became the first in the State to make English the official language.  Some folks fall into the trap of believing that making English official will force more people to learn it, and they will therefore be better integrated into the dominant society.

As columnist Petula Dvorak pointed out in a Washngton Post/Post Local column, it is true that learning English leads to better wages, better opportunity, and better education.  But when Board Vice President Paul Smith says “a common language will build unity in the county and improve county efficiency,” what he really means is what Board President Blain Young made very clear: “I think this measure preserves and enhances the quality of life for Frederick County citizens.”  There’s the dog whistle: As the Huffington Post reports, 19 people addressed the commissioners on the measure during the meeting, but only two spoke in favor of the English-only plan, which the board president, Blaine Young, said would “deter illegal immigration.”

Members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick Maryland are organizing a protest.  An email to the Board of Trustees and congregational leaders said:  “We believe our congregation needs to publicaly oppose this action and to do so immediately.  The law violates our principles by attempting to marginalize a whole group of people.  Since immigration is the theme of the upcoming UUA General Assembly it seems particularly timely that we should take a stand on an immigration issue that is unfolding in our own front yard. . . .”

The first of seven Unitarian Universalist principles is is to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  There is no accompanying plan in the Frederick County action for providing English Second Language classes or any other assistance to Hispanic immigrants, regardless of their legal status.  In fact, as WTOP reported early Wednesday morning, part of the reason for taking this action is to assure that no taxpayer money will be spent on language accessibility, other than health and safety, and [of course] tourism and trade.

The second Unitarian Universalist principle is “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” not “enhancing the quality of life for . . . citizens.”

Friday, February 24, 2012

Whose Religious Freedom?

Zealots seldom can see outside the boxes they live in.  Virginia Republicans are now expressing distrust of Governor McDonnell because he 1) backed off the infamous “vaginal probe” prerequisite for women who need abortions; and 2) sent the “personhood” bill back to committee until after the election.  Right-wing Christian fundamentalists and Catholic Bishops are feeling oppressed because the Obama Administration has ruled that Catholic universities and hospitals that employ and serve non-Catholic (even non-Christian) people must require their insurance providers to cover birth control for their employees at no extra cost.  Rick Santorum, the current darling of the dissatisfied  GOP, is convinced that religious freedom is under attack.  He says, regarding “the freedom to believe what you want to believe and practice that belief. . . . they don’t talk about “freedom of religion, they talk about freedom of worship. . . . leaders of this country are narrowing the view of what freedom of religion is all about. . . .”  Once you walk out the door, Santorum says, the government controls what you can think, say, and do.

Because the conventional wisdom is that Santorum is completely unelectable, some Democrats are suggesting that in states with open primaries, progressives should vote for Santorum.  As the contemporary proverb says, “be careful what you wish/pray for.” 

Too often extremists are considered to be crazy, or “unelectable.”  Current polls indicate that a mentality of “a pox on all their houses” is beginning to make itself felt in the country.  President Obama is apparently in a dead heat with Romney and Santorum; at the same time, “[t]here is undeniable dissatisfaction with the field. A 55% majority of Republicans say they wish someone else was running; 44% say they’re pleased with the selection of candidates” (Daily Kos February 21, 2012).

Numbers like that mean that quite a few folks might be staying home on November 6.  Some might think this is a good thing for President Obama’s prospects.  But when reasonable people stay home, the fringes win.  Rather than rolling our collective eyes, religious progressives need to start talking about OUR religious liberty.  As Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed in 1964, “You can’t legislate morality.”  But he also said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” 

Not only do religious progressives (formerly known as “liberals”) need to speak up for our religious principles; atheists, humanists, and those who define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” must stand up for ethics and morality.  As recent humanist slogans have proclaimed, you don’t need God to love.  You don’t need God to claim protection under the first amendment.

On Thursday, February 23, the West Virginia legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  On its face the Act seems benign.  The Elizabethton Star reports:

        CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s childhood immunization requirements would not be affected by pending legislation addressing religious freedoms.  House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley made that point before delegates passed the bill 92-2 to the Senate on Thursday. The bill responds to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court opinion upholding state laws that unintentionally affect religious practices. Delegate Larry Kump called the measure necessary. The Berkeley County Republican described how fellow Mormons were driven out of other states in the 19th century. The bill applies to government. It would affirm that people could argue in court that their free exercise of religion has been substantially burdened. The government would have to show it’s furthering a compelling interest in the least restrictive way.  The bill would not prevent government from maintaining health, safety, security or discipline.  
 But next on the Republican agenda in West Virginia is “personhood” legislation, mandating that a fertilized egg is a human being with all the rights, responsibilities, and protections of adults.  Without a clear push-back from religious progressives and humanitarian ethicists, basic human rights will be up for grabs.  The fact that Mississippi voters rejected this is no reason to assume it’s so crazy it could never become established law.

As one of the Tea Party’s favorite founders is reputed to have said,“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” – Thomas Jefferson.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Two Adams: An Answer to Brooks’ “Jeremy Lin Problem”

1 Corinthians 15:42-57;Philippians 2:1-11

In a provocative essay in today’s New York Times, David Brooks raises a spiritual dilemma.  He proposes that humanity lives in a tension between two moral universes.  One is a “sporting ethos,” which pervades and defines all areas of competition.  The “primary virtue is courage – the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.”  The second universe is the spiritual/religious morality that demands self-sacrifice: the last shall be first; the suffering servant is the savior; the weak and disenfranchised embody the most powerful force for change. 

Brooks refers to Jewish theologian Joseph Soloveitchik, who “argues that people have two natures. . . ‘Adam the First,’ the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. . . . [and] ‘Adam the Second,’ the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.”  Brooks suggests that the anger people feel when either sports or politics mix with religion rises because we are uncomfortable with both the experience of invincible physical power, and the experience of transcendent self denial.  The anger arises, Brooks says, because “people . . . want to deny that this contradiction exists . . . and live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean.”

If he had ended the piece there, he would have deserved an A+.  Instead he dilutes his challenge with a cop-out: “life and religion are more complicated than that.”

In the Apostle Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, Paul lays out a theology that for centuries has made seminarians’ heads swim, and lay-folk nod off in the pews.  Now comes a new translation by Westar Institute Scholars Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt: The Authentic Letters of Paul: A new reading of Paul’s rhetoric and meaning (Polebridge Press, 2010).  This translation pulls Paul’s theology down from the mind-numbing theological stratosphere into the here and now – which according to the scholars was where Paul was in the 1st century – here and now (in his own time and place.)  So when Paul gets going about “sin” and the “perishable” inheriting the “imperishable” he is not talking about going to heaven when we die if and only if we’ve been believers in Jesus’ “resurrection.”  He is talking about the “corrupting seduction of power” [hamartia for any Greeks reading this].  For Paul, this force is so strong that it becomes personified.  Think about how power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  That begins to get at what Paul was referring to. 

He wasn’t talking about the physical decomposition of human bodies after death, that will magically take on new “spiritual” bodies in heaven.  In 1 Cor. 15:45, he was talking about that same first Adam that Brooks does in his essay when he quotes Joseph Soloveitchik: “the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world.”  The second Adam, according to the Scholars Version, “became a life-creating power . . . the body fit for life in God’s new world.”  The difference is that for Paul, that second Adam (which was Jesus, the Anointed One) is a prototype for how to bring about God’s rule on the planet.  For Paul, it is not enough to be “the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper,” as Brooks (and Soloveitchik) describes the second Adam.  Paul’s second Adam is an activist who accepts that the way to overturn the inevitable injustices that come from the seductive power of corruption is to radically abandon self-interest.

For Christians, Jesus was the person who managed to contain the supposedly conflicting paradigms of 1st Adam (warrior, athlete, competitor, entrepreneur) and 2nd Adam (self-sacrificing servant, pacifist, humanitarian).  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul says, “I appeal to all of you to think in the same way that the Anointed Jesus did, who although he was born in the image of God, did not regard ‘being like God’ as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot.”  Jesus was willing to go all the way to death at the hands of the representatives of the “first Adam,” who constructed the systems of Empire, and fell prey to the seductions of earthly power.  That is why – in 1st century Paul’s cosmology – “God raised him higher than anyone and awarded him the title that is above all others. . . Jesus the Anointed is lord. . . .”  small “l” – not a titan of Wall Street, not the Hollywood star, and not the emperor of the known universe.  An executed criminal is the model for how to save humanity from itself.

This is what is so annoying – even enraging – about combining politics or sports or business with religious or spiritual conviction.  That second Adam insists on distributive justice-compassion for the universe s/he holds in awe and wonder.  The problem is that for the work to be legitimate requires a radical abandonment of self-interest.  Like Mr. Lin, most of us have a hard time getting past that old devil hamartia.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Heartland: Ignorance is Bliss

The next great fight in our public schools will likely be over whether climate change is related to human activity.  The New York Times reports that documents leaked from the supposedly non-profit libertarian think-tank Heartland “suggest that Heartland has spent several million dollars in the past five years in its efforts to undermine climate science, much of that coming from a person referred to repeatedly in the documents as “the Anonymous Donor.” A guessing game erupted Wednesday about who that might be.”

The scandal is not that Heartland holds anti-scientific, libertarian views.  The scandal is that in order to be a “non-profit,” an organization may not accept money in order to influence politics: 
        The documents raise questions about whether the group has undertaken partisan political activities, a potential violation of federal tax law governing nonprofit groups. For instance, the documents outline “Operation Angry Badger,” a plan to spend $612,000 to influence the outcome of recall elections and related fights this year in Wisconsin over the role of public-sector unions.       
        Tax lawyers said Wednesday that tax-exempt groups were allowed to undertake some types of lobbying and political education, but that because they are subsidized by taxpayers, they are prohibited from direct involvement in political campaigns.
In The Nation November 28, 2011, Naomi Klein reviewed Heartland’s Sixth International Conference on Climate Change.  The threat that climate change (aka “global warming”) presents to big business is the belief (fear) “that climate change is a Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism. As conference speaker Larry Bell succinctly puts it in his new book ‘Climate of Corruption,’ climate change ‘has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution.’”

These people are not denying the science; they are terrified of the change in paradigm that will happen if human life on the Planet is going to survive in any recognizable form.  Team that likelihood with Christian fundamentalism, and we have the perfect storm.  Christian fundamentalists are more interested in Biblical inerrantcy and literalism than post-modern, 21st century cosmology.  After all, the sooner “the Rapture” comes, the better.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Holy War? Obama vs. Bishops

It seems the Catholic Church’s outrage over the Affordable Health Care Act has been brewing for some time.  Now we discover that seven months before the Obama Administration made its decision to require religious employers to comply with the Act, the Catholic Bishops “had started laying the groundwork for a major new campaign to combat what they saw as the growing threat to religious liberty, including the legalization of same-sex marriage” (Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, February 10, 2012).  

Perhaps it was a bit of a hard sell for the Catholic Bishops to convince the majority of U.S. citizens that allowing GLBT people equal human rights with non-GLBT people was a violation of religious freedom.  Despite the claims of groups like Exodus International, being gay is not a choice, nor is it a pathology.  But, writes Laurie Goodstein, “the birth control mandate, issued on Jan. 20, was their Pearl Harbor.”

The Obama Administration is prepared to offer a white flag later today – and not a moment too soon.  Using language that demonizes, equates disagreement with warfare, or denigrates, and dismisses the other, obscures the common ground to our peril. This controversy is not about “church vs. state” or “good vs. evil.”  No one is requiring anyone to violate their beliefs.  The government is requiring no one to use birth control, to have abortions, to marry, or to somehow become gay against their will. The controversy is about how we can assure a sustainable, fair, and just society for everyone.

This disagreement is not a culture clash.  It is part of the psychic and spiritual evolution that has the potential to align conscious human life with how we know the universe works – the emergence of a new cosmology.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Unitarian Universalists Standing on the Side of Love, Charles Darwin, and The Wedding at Cana

This sounds like a total mash-up.  What possible connection can there be among a Unitarian Universalist call to action, the theory of evolution, and a fairy tale about Jesus turning water into wine?

I’ll start with the fairy tale.

The times were changing at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century.  Jerusalem had been sacked by the Romans; Temple Judaism had become displaced into synagogues; competition between the factions in Judaism that believed Jesus to be the Messiah and those who clung to the old tradition was fierce.  Somebody decided to write a proof that Jesus was the one chosen by God to save the world.  That person managed to get himself identified with one of Jesus’ disciples even though just about all of them were dead by then.  The gospel he created is called “John.”  It is probably the most well-known, and most loved, of all the gospels in the New Testament.

Liberal biblical scholars agree that none of the stories reported by John are true; none of the things John claims Jesus said were ever actually said by Jesus.  The whole thing was an extended argument, a last-ditch effort to keep John and his friends from being thrown out of the local synagogue. 

John’s fairy tale about Jesus turning water into wine acts as a framework around two other stories that John tells about Jesus.  First he tells about Jesus attending a wedding at Cana, in Galilee, where the wine ran out.  Potential disaster was averted when Jesus told the wine steward to use whatever he found in the storage jars that were supposed to contain water.  Instead – abra ca dabra – the jars had the best wine anyone had ever had before.

The next story is about a Jewish scholar – a pharisee – named Nicodemus. Nicodemus seems to be clueless about basic Jewish theology, but eventually comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  After the encounter with Nicodemus – which happens in the dark of night – Jesus travels to Samaria. Now the Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews.  In this story, Jesus breaks several taboos: 1) he visits the enemy Samaritans; 2) he meets a woman at Jacob’s well and talks to her – men were not supposed to talk to women, and vice versa; 3) in the course of his conversation with the woman he says he has living water to offer her in place of regular well water, and he agrees with her – an enemy Samaritan woman – that the Samaritans got it right when they worshipped God on the mountain.  But he says, it doesn’t matter any more where God is worshipped because from now on, God will be worshipped in spirit – which was what Nicodemus had such a hard time understanding.

After that, Jesus goes back to Cana, where he had turned the water into wine.

Now let’s talk about the theory of evolution. According to that famous website Wikipedia, “Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations.  Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organization, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.”  But “evolution” has jumped out of the strictly scientific box, and has become a metaphor.  According to my Oxford Dictionary of the American Language, “evolution” means “gradual development, especially from a simple to a more complex form.”  Synonyms include: development, growth, advance, progression, maturation.

Enter a theologian and Biblical scholar from New Zealand, Lloyd Geering.  Lloyd Geering has published a series of essays entitled Coming Back to Earth: From gods to God, to Gaia.  Basically his thesis is that human spirituality has evolved from the most primitive ideas about spirits inhabiting everything from rocks to animals, plants, and people, to multiple gods – such as the Greek and Roman pantheon, or gods that belong to specific tribes  – to the idea of one universal God.  While the progression is demonstrable, it is not linear.  In today’s world, there are still people who claim tribal gods, and who start wars over the definitions of those tribal gods.  Those wars are raging now between progressive and liberal religious traditions and fundamentalists of all varieties.  Similarly, in pre-modern times, there were philosophers and religious dissenters who did not buy into the idea of a separate, personal, god who could be petitioned for relief of grievances.  The discussion, to put it simply, was between theists who believed in one god, and atheists, who believed there was no god.

The Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe, was accused of being an atheist.  There was a warrant out for his arrest and torture. But before the church police could catch him he was killed in a barroom brawl over a bill.  Later came the revival of the Goddess, and feminist theology, represented by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 19th century, and the 20th Century feminist pantheon that includes Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and Starhawk.

Lloyd Geering proposes that humanity is now in the midst of a transition not from theism to atheism, but from theism to secularism.  Fundamentalists of all varieties of Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Christians, Muslims – have declared holy war on that transition. 

Now I’m going to begin to put two of the three threads of this essay together.

There is a place for the stories in the Gospel of John about the wedding at Cana and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, but only if they are seen as metaphors, and are reclaimed for an evolving 21st century understanding of spirit and cosmos.  John’s metaphor of water into wine that frames the vignettes with Nicodemus who had no clue  and the Samaritan woman at the well, represents not just “transformation,” but “transmutation.”  The fairy tale means that if we follow the teachings of Jesus, life becomes something fundamentally different from what it was before.

John was not satisfied with cleaning and polishing.  John says, whoever believes Jesus is the Anointed One is changed : Ala ka Zam! from water – even living water – into wine.  But this does not mean that your life is saved for heaven in the next life if you believe in a resuscitated corpse.  That’s not what John meant either, but that argument is for another day.

No.  When John says whoever believes Jesus is the Anointed One is changed, he means you no longer live your life in the conventional way.  You no longer are concerned only with your own well-being – with your own health, wealth, and access to power.  Instead, you are concerned with the health and well-being of not just yourself, but your community, and even the planet.  That’s the meaning of justice.  And more than that, it’s the meaning of distributive justice-compassion.  Because it’s beyond the simple idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; it’s beyond the idea that what goes around comes around; it’s beyond the idea of reward and punishment; it’s way beyond the idea of justice as payback.  And it’s for NOW, not after you die. 

It’s a paradigm shift from injustice and death to justice and life.  In other words, when you live in a condition where you are only concerned with your own health, wealth, and access to power, you are spiritually dead.  That’s called “injustice.”  For 21st century non-theists, changing water into wine means a fundamental shift in mind and paradigm from fear to love; from greed to sharing; from unjust systems that are the normal consequence of civilization’s laws to distributive justice-compassion.

And you don’t have to follow or believe in Jesus for this paradigm shift to occur.

Back to Lloyd Geering.  He suggests further that as human spiritual experience evolves from a universal “god” to secularism, as our cosmology changes because of our understanding of the nature of the universe itself, we see ourselves more and more in relationship to our own Planet Earth.  If “God” is “Gaia,” we can apply the list of injustices carried out against people to the earth itself.  With that understanding, the wrath of God that the Old Testament prophet invokes can be seen as the consequences of misplaced dominion over earth’s resources.  Until we stop mountaintop removal, deep-sea oil extraction, “fracking” for natural gas, unchecked pollutants pouring into the earth, the air, and the water; until women are educated and treated as equal in all ways with men, thereby stopping the explosion of population, until those things happen, we can expect continuing climate change, disruptions to growing seasons, famines, floods – the mythic four horsemen of the apocalypse wreaking havoc on life as we know it.

When we experience a sustainable earth as the one that provides all life-forms with “living water,” and join the work of distributive justice-compassion. . . then we will have turned water into wine.  And here is the final strand in the braid:  One way that Unitarian Universalists participate in the work to change water into wine, to change the paradigm, to evolve into a beacon of light for ourselves and others, is to stand on the side of love.  The Unitaian Universalist Association has designated February as THIRTY DAYS OF LOVE – a collective visioning process about making sense of the present moment, and what we are called to do. Followng is the reflection for Day 14 as the last word:

        There is a lot of healing left to do in this country and in the world. There is a lot of injustice and we are called as a people to do what we can to counter it. We can fight for justice as individuals, but I would rather do it as a community guided by a vision. So when someone asks us “Why are you here?” We can answer, “Because there is evil in the world. It comes in many forms ranging from brutal and immediate to the complex and bureaucratic. But evil is not the highest power. We are here because love and goodness are the highest power. We are here because love asked us to come, to sit before you and say this cannot happen any longer.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Mark 5:24-34
Mark 11:15-17

Today’s New York Times reports that the Southern Baptist Convention has scored another victory in the war against women waged by fundamentalist “christians.”
        In a decision that is inflaming passions on both sides of the abortion debate, the world’s largest breast cancer organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is cutting off its financing of breast cancer screening and education programs run by Planned Parenthood affiliates.
        . . . Anti-abortion advocates and Web sites have criticized the Komen foundation’s financing of Planned Parenthood for years. And in December, LifeWay Christian Resources, which is owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, said it was recalling a pink Bible it was selling at Walmart and other stores because a dollar per copy was going to the Komen foundation and the foundation supported Planned Parenthood.
When was the last time any of these people who claim to follow Jesus read the story about the woman with “a chronic flow of blood for twelve years,” who had the audacity to touch Jesus’ clothes because she believed it would cure her illness?  Did Jesus snatch his robes away from her dirty fingers and call her a child murderer?  No – he called her “daughter” and said “your trust has cured you, go in peace.”

The SBC is so incensed at uppity women who want affordable health care, they won’t even give them the Bibles they insist were written by God Himself!  Instead, they SELL them to the poor who shop at Walmart, but only so long as those women don’t attempt to get their mammograms at Planned Parenthood!  Ever wondered what Jesus was protesting when he wrecked the tables of the money-changers in the Temple?  He wasn’t protesting the exchange of money.  He was protesting the corruption of the religious authorities