Tuesday, October 27, 2015

This is Goodbye

Fifteen years ago, a growing awareness of my sexuality led to my embrace of kink and polyamory. Ten years ago, I began to reconnect with Unitarian Universalism as a home where my sexuality and my values intersected, and where I was convinced that others would be able to do so as well. Indeed, many other kinksters and polyfolk are found in UU congregations and organizations, and shared with me the hope that the radical hospitality they had provided to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks would be extended to us. Now, after much effort, and some serious reflection on recent events, I've come to another conclusion:

I was wrong.

I've often talked about the difference between "UUism" and "UU-dom" with others, much like when some radical Christians distinguish their values and ideals from the practices of institutional Christendom. I had thought that the discordance between the values of UUism and the practices of UU-dom would somehow decrease. Instead, I've seen them grow much worse.

UUism is presented as being centered on love and reason, but UU-dom is more fixated on money and image. UUism is presented as being a community seeking common ground and radical transformation, but UU-dom is run like a business conglomerate which plays off various factions like checkers on a game board. UUism is presented as extending radical hospitality for all, but UU-dom cherry-picks who is really welcome while squirming with discomfort in reaction to the rest.

I still believe in the values espoused under UUism. I am no longer able to put up with the practices of UU-dom.

At the beginning of this journey, I would have enthusiastically told anyone identifying with kink and/or polyamory to check out their local UU congregation. Over time, I've heard from too many such people who have either fled or been driven out, sometimes because they were met with hostility, sometimes over other problems. I've heard from too many leaders within the UUA who will praise my work and encourage me to keep going, but only in private and off-the-record, and with no meaningful support beyond that. As for the pushback experienced in recent months, I won't burden you with the details. Suffice it to say that, with all the dysfunction and dissembling I have witnessed, my only honest answer to what I thought of UUism would be: "Great in theory, but far too few real-life examples."

Perhaps, one day, UU-dom will come closer to UUism's values. But I don't see that happening in my lifetime. So it is time for me to take a different path, and to say ... Goodbye.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Thoughts on "Atheist Churches"

Ask many Unitarian Universalists what they think of Sunday Assembly -- the growing network of communities offering "all the best bits of church, but without the religion, and awesome pop songs" -- and the response will seem politely dismissive, often wondering why these folks don't just join us instead of "reinventing the wheel."

You're about to read a dissenting view.

Yes, there's much that Sunday Assembly (and another US-based movement, called the National Oasis Network) could learn from UUs. But I would contend that the relatively rapid growth of these so-called "atheist churches" also shows that UUs might learn more from them. Such as ...
  1. Keeping the message simple: The Oasis Network holds to five basic principles, beginning with "People are more important than beliefs." Sunday Assembly's philosophy is expressed even more succinctly as "Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More."
  2. Including without diluting: Both of these networks were started by committed secularists and atheists, yet they also welcome and include the full range of people who would not fit into a traditional religious communities. The emphasis is less on bashing religion (like the "New Atheists") or mimicking it, and more on building an alternative community around shared ethical concerns and psychological needs.
  3. More egalitarian: Linked to both their inclusion and freethought roots, the communities in these networks are less reliant on professionals and experts, even drawing on models from Quakers and more radical "emerging" church groups.
  4. Meeting people's needs: Atheist and Humanist groups have previously focused on intellectual needs, almost to the exclusion of emotional and aesthetic ones. Sunday Assembly and Oasis are attempting a more holistic approach.
If the rate of growth for these groups is any indication, they would appear to be doing something right. And, if they are to be accused of "reinventing the wheel," allow me to contend that there are times when that is necessary.

People will find ways to meet their needs, even if it means sidestepping "official" channels. I've seen it in my work as a medical equipment specialist, where families are willing to pay out of pocket for walkers or electric beds rather than wait for doctors to fulfill the cumbersome requirements of Medicare, or endure the waiting lists of our competitors. When you need a wheel, you find a way to get one, even if the only "legitimate" supplier tells you to fill out a form and wait for their staff to get to it. Same thing for the kind of "alternative" community offered by Sunday Assembly, Oasis Network, or UUs.

Where the efforts of these newer groups will lead, I don't know. But my impression so far is that Unitarian Universalists will not learn from what success they've garnered so far by ignoring or dismissing them.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Are We Becoming "the Protest Church"?

As I was recovering from surgery recently, the friends I was staying with introduced me to someone who would seem open to Unitarian Universalism. An openly gay African-American man, progressive and well-educated, interested in spirituality but not committed to any single tradition.

And yes, he'd heard of UUs. "Oh yeah – the Protest Church."

That led to a couple of conversations during my first week of recovery, followed by another last night. I don't know if Carl's perspective of is typical of the "Nones" who avoid UU churches, but it's worth considering.

Carl generally agrees with our principles, and our non-creedal approach. But how he sees us currently engaging the world bothers him. While he's glad to see UUs on the picket lines on various issues – immigration, voting rights, Black Lives Matter – he still has reservations about what he considers an "overly reactive" approach. To him, UUs seem to "jump into" a movement, and then into another, and then another. He does admire the commitment and compassion around this, and he also remembers our leadership around LGBTQ rights, especially marriage equality. But when I consider his career path, I begin to understand where he's coming from.

Carl took a master's in psychology, and would employ it in diversity training and conflict resolution. He made an effort to help build bridges – and mend fences – between the LGBTQ community and people of color, then with police and other first responders, and so on. He took the time to learn more about the kink and polyamory communities, and had begun efforts to educate others as well. From one-on-one mentorship to speaking in front of groups, what struck me the most was he didn't wait for disaster to strike, or for a particular issue or cause to make the headlines.

I'm sure many UUs, especially ministers and other leaders, will respond with a sense of indignation. "Hey, we do that, too! We do all sorts of things like that!" But I had to remind myself that this wasn't about Carl not knowing these details. It was about what he was able to see of UUs engaging the world, by marching in picket lines with matching yellow shirts and attention-getting banners – "the Protest Church."

What Carl told me has prompted a good deal of questions. I'm still struggling with the answers.

Friday, July 3, 2015

SCOTUS and the Rest of Us

As Americans waited for the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, most who knew and watched the court anticipated that the final outcome would rest with Justice Anthony Kennedy. During oral arguments, he had posed some challenging questions to Mary Bonauto (attorney for the plaintiffs seeking marriage equality), revealing that he might still be wrestling with the issue. In the end, the majority opinion he wrote included a thorough survey of precedent, analysis, and history in arguing that, just as the institution of marriage had evolved to assure greater equity and individual choice, so it must do so again with regard to same-sex couples.

Antonin Scalia, on the other hand, wrote the most scathing dissent of the four submitted, garnering about as much attention and commentary as the majority view itself. Not only did he dismiss the careful analysis that Kennedy presented, his tone was more scolding than scholarly. Perennial court watchers mused that, had a liberal like Ruth Bader Ginsberg written the opinion, this would not have been the case – but to have a supposed conservative like Kennedy break ranks was too much for him to take. And while Roberts and Alito raised the question of whether the court was moving too far too fast, Scalia seemed to be saying that the court had no purview at all to decide such a matter. To him, the issue is settled, and how dare anyone disagree.

It has often been said that the Supreme Court frequently reflects the larger society. The difference between Kennedy and Scalia – not only in their opinions on this issue, but the approach and attitude of each – likewise reflect the divisions we see in America today. Some people will summon the ability to question, reflect and come to a new understanding; others hang on desperately to the comfortable and familiar, regardless of the consequences.

Yet even we Unitarian Universalists are not immune to such foibles. How often do we resist change or cling to tradition within our congregations, then wonder why our membership numbers stagnate or shrink? How many causes have we embraced as soon as our leaders call for it, yet balk at reasoned appeals for similar issues? How many times do we denounce the zealotry of the Christian Right, only to mirror their militancy when committing to our own "just causes"?

When I studied philosophy in college, a professor once told us: "Epistemology precedes everything, because when we assert our certainty or doubts about anything, we must ultimately ask and answer the question: 'How do we know?'" For this reason, I've come to believe that our fourth principle – the free and responsible search for truth and meaning – is the linchpin upon which the rest are held. Our search must be free from the shackles of dogma and bias, yet responsible in avoiding the pitfalls of fallacy and hypocrisy. Yes, when pursuing justice, we need the fire of passion – but tempered so that we don't find ourselves consumed as our own burnt offering.

Anthony Kennedy is to be lifted up, but not merely because he agreed with us on marriage equality. It is the manner in which he came to that position, and the reasoned eloquence with which he put that position forward. As we move forward, both in engaging the world and searching our own souls, may we follow his example.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Taking Down Flags ... and Other Obstacles

The horror at Emmanuel AME Church has stirred a wave of reaction, including efforts to get rid of the old "stars and bars" flag of the Confederacy. Would seem like a simple step towards progress, to consign this symbol of a racist regime to history displays, yes?

Well, I've been reading some who have argued that this "purely symbolic" act would do little or nothing to address more fundamental issues around racialized identity. Others has commented that the growing list of companies choosing to pull Confederate flag merchandise from their shelves is only doing this to avoid boycotts and appeal to a growing segment of the marketplace.

I've observed this tendency a great deal among UUs and others seeking a more just and inclusive world – the deprecation of partial solutions, especially when done out of expediency or pragmatism instead of enlightened principle. This is not to say that we shouldn’t continue to call for and strive towards something better. But I do thing we need to ask: Does it make sense to demand perfect motives and perfect actions from imperfect people living in an imperfect society?

I've seen such perfectionism tear movement organizations apart, as their members schism over which solution they consider the "correct" one to follow. I've seen once idealistic friends become hardened cynics because the process of change failed to follow their best-laid plans. And I've seen once promising groups become paralyzed, wondering and worrying which course to take.

When I find myself witnessing such, or slipping into that mode myself, I think of one of my favorite films … Miracle on 34th Street. Yes, Kris Kringle is the seemingly hopeless idealist, trying to revive the spirit of Christmas in an age of growing commercialism and cynicism. But he manages to succeed, not because everyone else suddenly adopts his worldview, but comes to see some practical reason for doing supposedly selfless acts, from the department stores helping people find what they want at another store, to the tired postal workers sending eighteen bags of "Dear Santa" letters to a New York City courthouse.

And in the end, that's ultimately how life works. People don't always do the right thing for the right reasons, or even for the same reasons as others who do them. Actions which may seem trivial to some may be transformational to others. Republicans like David Brooks and John Huntsman, for example, didn't come to support marriage equality for the same reasons as Evan Wolfson or Margaret Cho, nor does the average person commit as much time and energy in expressing their support as a politician or celebrity. But we still welcome them into our movement – don't we?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Courage to Commit, and Yet be Free

"If we commit ourselves to one person for life, this is not, as many people think, a rejection of freedom; rather, it demands the courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession but participation." ― Madeleine L’Engle

I want to thank Jordinn Nelson Long for bringing attention to a conservative Christian blog called "Biblical Gender Roles," and in particular the May 23rd entry: "8 steps to confront your wife’s sexual refusal." When the link was first posted on the UU bloggers' Facebook page, there was an immediate visceral reaction.

Yes, there's reason for Unitarian Universalists and other spiritual progressives to be concerned about this. It's easy to say: "Well, if that's how these couples want to live their lives, then so be it." Unfortunately, the mindset behind this author's prescriptions isn't limited to the bedrooms of conservative Christian couples, or their churches.

First, here's a summation of what this fellow (and, I'm sure, many more like him) believes:
  1. While he makes it clear (in huge red letters) that he draws the line at violence and outright coercion, he believes it's justified for men to browbeat and intimidate their wives into "willingly (even if grudgingly) yield[ing]" to their demands for sex.
  2. While he acknowledges that women may have "legitimate physical or mental health reasons" to refuse to have sex with their husbands, he also asserts that husbands have a right to sex, and wives have a duty to provide it.
  3. A husband should "discern" whether his wife's reason for not having sex is "legitimate," not by listening to her or consulting a trained professional, but by prayer.
  4. If a husband determines that his wife's sexual refusal is not "legitimate," then he has the right to "discipline" her in escalating steps, from "rebuking" her to denying her date night and other "little things," and finally divorce. Mind you, our author makes it clear this is not "manipulation" because that's what you do to an equal or an authority figure, but since "husbands have authority over their wives" this is therefore Godly "discipline."
Now there's the obvious issues around linking authority with gender, and using religious faith to justify male privilege and entitlement. Is it any wonder how marriage equality – not just same-sex marriage, but the paradigm of equal partnership which it exemplifies – remains such a palpable threat to this brand of Christian? But this model of hierarchical authority has tainted their worldview much more broadly.
  • There are no equals. - God has ordered people into a chosen few with authority over others.
  • Do as you're told. - God wants us to obey those in "rightful" authority; to question said authority is rebellion, and rebellion is sin.
  • Right for me, not for thee - For the sake of preserving the order of God's plan, double standards are justified.
Of course, you wouldn't expect an organized group to blatantly admit: "Yes, we believe that some people deserve more authority and rights than everyone else." Nor would you expect the vast majority to assent to such an approach. But, with enough obfuscation, manipulation and deception – including self-deception – just about anything is possible.

What is more insidious, however, is the persistence of these attitudes within so many of our institutions, even in our progressive faith. Yes, we're proud of how we establish "checks and balances" in our governance systems, and our legacy of skepticism and heresy. But do we know when and how to use those systems wisely? Do we fully understand and consistently apply the principles of critical thinking which we so often praise? Most importantly to our covenantal faith, are we able to debate and disagree with respect and the goal of right relationship?

It’s easy to recoil from that which is our opposite. The true challenge is building authentic alternatives. Many people have created such paradigms of equitable relating in their marriages and intimate partnerships. These give me hope that our broader covenants may similarly evolve into something better.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sermon: Tending the Sacred Fire of Eros

Sermon delivered May 3rd, 2015 at First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts

As we move towards summer, and life and love abound, so we kindle the fires of Beltane, spreading warmth and light to all.

Fire is a powerful and primal symbol, often evoked to represent both spiritual energy and sexual passion, two vital elements of human experience often seen as diametrically opposed to one another.

But what if religion and sexuality are not so opposed? What if we heeded the words of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, and sought to reclaim Eros as a spiritual urge?

It seems fitting that I propose this here, in a Unitarian Universalist church, during the pagan festival of Beltane. Both UUs and contemporary pagans are known for an openness to new ideas, and for challenging conventional wisdom. The Wiccan Rede prescribes: “An it harm none, do what ye will”; while the Charge of the Goddess proclaims: “Behold, all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.” Yet even heathens and heretics may find ourselves struggling to live up to our own hopeful ideals and vision. Even today, for example, some pagans insist on attributing special significance in their rituals to male and female identities, unaware how they exclude people who don’t fit into the gender binary.

This is but one example of the dualistic mentality we must challenge if we are to embrace the spiritual significance of sexuality. From the earliest days of European civilization, the division of reality into polarized categories – often with one category deemed “superior” to another – is a construction we find ingrained in our thinking and behavior to this very day. Other examples of this hierarchical dualism, specific to our religious traditions, include: God versus Satan, angels versus demons, Heaven versus Hell, saved versus damned, saint versus sinner, orthodox versus heretic, and, of course, spirit versus flesh.

This carries over into our view of sexuality, gender and relationships: male over female, procreation over pleasure, heterosexual monogamous marriage over every other form of loving relationship. Even love itself is dissected and sorted, with a purely “spiritual” agape on top, and eros relegated to the bottom. And while most are quick to blame European Christendom, in fact the roots for this dualism may be found in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, and other religious movements like Manicheanism, all of which influenced prominent theologians like Augustine. You may remember the famous prayer attributed to him: “God grant me chastity and continence, but not yet!”

How, then, do we overcome this construct of dualism, and learn to embrace more fully the diversity of our sexualities, gender identities and relationship patterns – queer and straight, monogamous and polyamorous, vanilla and kinky, male, female, genderqueer, intersex, asexual, and more – in unity with the creative spirit of Eros? To meet this challenge, let me suggest that the principles and values of our Unitarian Universalist faith may guide us in this path of transformation.

If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, then let us affirm in word and deed alike that each of us is deserving of love, joy and pleasure. Sounds easy enough, but how often we forget to affirm this – including for ourselves.

If we believe in justice, equity and compassion, then let us speak out against both discrimination towards sexual and gender minorities of all kinds, and sexual abuse and exploitation; let us further temper our attitudes and actions with compassionate concern, not only for the victims of these wrongs, but for their perpetrators as well.

If we believe in accepting one another as we are, then let us affirm each person's self-determination in how best to fulfill their desires, encouraging one another in a sexual ethic governed by honesty, respect for oneself and others, mutual consent, awareness of risk, and the affirmation of pleasure. In her book Sensuous Spirituality, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott recalled that one of the greatest gifts of inspiration she received was the advice to avoid condemning any other person's attempt to relate, however imperfect we may find it to be.

If we believe in a free and responsible search for meaning and truth, then let us continue to speak up for comprehensive education on sexuality, not only for our children and youth, but as part of a continuous and lifelong process of growth, as a way of furthering our understanding and appreciation of the myriad ways of loving human relationships and erotic pleasure.

If we believe in democracy and the right of conscience, and the goal of a just community with liberty for all, then let us provide safe spaces for people to discuss their questions, concerns and desires regarding sexuality, whether with an intimate partner, or in the context of community.

And if we believe that we are a part of an interdependent web of existence, then let us be mindful that our erotic selves are an integral part of our whole selves, and as such, one with a vital spiritual component. Let us not only infuse our respective sexualities with spiritual values and practice, but in return enliven our spirituality with a celebration of the sensuous and erotic, recognizing and affirming as the late John O'Donohue noted, the "secret relationship between our physical being and the rhythm of our soul," that "[t]he body is the place where the soul shows itself."

Above all else, my friends, let us not be complacent. It is easy to compare ourselves with those holding more conservative and puritanical approaches, patting ourselves on the back for being so much more welcoming and open-minded. But the challenge of our progressive faith is that we must constantly question and challenge one another. We must not only speak our truths in love, but listen when others do the same, and be mindful that doing so also means speaking truth to power – including the "powers-that-be" amongst us.

Beloved friends: As we celebrate Beltane, let us tend the sacred fire of Eros ... that its warmth may comfort us, that its light may guide us, that its energy may empower us to forge new ways of relating, and that we may – all of us – dance together in the circle of life. AMEN, ASHÉ & BLESSED BE