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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On Contracts, Covenants and SexUUality

One of the major elements of the "Fifty Shades" story is the contract Christian presents to Anastasia. Some people have praised it, as an example of the level of communication expected in BDSM from which many other folks could benefit.

I'm not so sure.

The whole process comes across to me more like a one-sided business acquisition – he wants her, he sees she’s attracted to him, he imposes a ready-made list of rules, he insists he knows what’s best for her.

Then again, the same could be said for many vanilla relationships …

Religious people often talk about the "marriage covenant"; indeed, such covenants existed well before governments required couples to obtain a license at some official location. Among many conservatives, such "covenants" seem as one-sided as the Fifty Shades contract, even if the rules are not as detailed. In both cases, one person presumes to have power and authority over another, and any negotiation is over what the former will grant the latter.

Some may talk about "equitable" contracts or agreements, but in my opinion there's a much more foundational issue here. Not the same way conservative Christians see "covenant" as a completely different category, but that covenantal agreements have a different basis and approach from other forms of contractual arrangements.

Business contracts and other such arrangements tend to be transactional; they focus on an exchange of resources, of what the participants are expected to do – "You give me X, and I give you Y." Covenants, on the other hand, tend towards the relational; they focus on a sharing of resources, intangible as well as tangible, and on who the participants are and what they bring in coming together. While this is not a strict dichotomy – covenants may include transactional arrangements – I see this difference as essential in the formation of any agreement between two or more people, whether in an intimate relationship or an intentional community.

Christian seems to view his potential relationship with Ana almost entirely in transactional terms: He gets to control her, do all sorts of things to her, and she in return gets him. (If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I'm not oversimplifying; it's explicitly put that way in the dialogue). He doesn’t seem to care what she wants or has to offer, and even pushes her away (literally as well as figuratively) when she offers or seeks genuine intimacy with him.

Both my own experience, and that which I've heard from others in the BDSM or kink community, would tend more towards the covenantal. Before any play begins, there is a sharing of desires and expectations. Prospective partners begin with the premise that each has power, and that the flow of such power from one to another relies upon trust and understanding. Even when there are breaches of such agreements, it’s not merely "she did this thing that I didn't want" or "he told me he wanted this but he really didn't"; the transgression is described in terms of miscommunication, crossing boundaries, and violating trust. Sometimes, the breach is enough to cause estrangement – but other times, it leads to coming together once more to restore and strengthen right relationship.

Too often, our consumer culture reduces sexuality to what we do – from conventional intercourse to role-playing in fetish garb. We forget that what we desire to do is inextricably linked to who we are as unique persons, and how the doing may affect our being. May we remember who we are, and what we have to bring, whenever we come together.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Guest Post: You're Talking About My Dad

The following is a post from a fellow UU blogger, who wishes to remain anonymous. It was written in response to this UU World article "Offenders Among Us", and as part of the #sexUUality initiative taken up by UU bloggers. It will be difficult for some to read … but it also deserves to be heard, which is why I have given it space here.

When you say that those monsters shouldn't be allowed in the doors of the Church, that you would never shake the hand of someone "like that", please remember that you are talking about my dad. My dad who started out the same as all of us – feeling attracted to kids because he was one, and who didn't ever grow out of it. Who kept those feelings a secret and felt he had no choice but to manage it all on his own. Who was unable to find resources … any resources… that offered him anything more useful than vitriolic and unequivocal condemnation. My dad who rejected that story, and had nothing to replace it with other than a determination to just have enough will power.

You are talking about my dad, who lived with urges that most of us cannot judge or understand because we don't have them. My dad who thought he could be strong enough to overcome it on his own.

My dad, who fought a hard fight. And who mostly succeeded.

Who kept his struggle (and mine) a secret because he was afraid. Who rationalized his actions and convinced himself he wasn't harming me, because it was too easy to discredit the dominant voices of the day that painted him as a monster. My dad, who I protected. And am still protecting.

I have always been so jealous of the children of alcoholics, of orphans, or even of those who were beat up as kids. They can tell their stories – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inspiring. I can't tell you mine. Not with my name attached. I can't tell you about the damage, or about the redemption. About how common it is for abusers (particularly non-violent abusers molesting children they know well) to be able to come to understand the damage and learn new skills and never offend again. About abusers who come forward voluntarily, and about all that they endure to find the help they need. About potential abusers who have never abused because they recognized their urges early on, and sought treatment.

I want to tell you about my father, who was a good man who failed and was failed, and the damage of it. But I will not, because I don't believe he deserves what you would do to him if I told the truth.

I am not at peace with this choice. It breaks my heart. Because I am aware every day of the children out there who desperately – desperately need to hear a story … any story … that is not dominated by a villain who is an evil, ravaging monster. The vast majority of children who are molested are not molested by force – they could speak up, they could say no, they could tell someone. And they don't. We need to start asking why that is.

I didn't know, when I was a child, that I was a victim of sexual abuse. Because the monster paradigm was not something I was able to recognize as applying to my loving, kind, witty, and creative dad. I knew he could not possibly be a child molester because they were all evil, conscienceless creatures – so I thought it was me that was broken. I wanted him to stop touching me, I pleaded and begged for it. I told my family – who didn't believe me, because my dad is a good man – and endured their vitriolic responses. When I couldn't stop what was happening, I left. I endured foster homes and homelessness and many things that were much worse than the family I could have had if my cultural context had been different.

My father was born the way he is. But the rest – the not having the support or treatment that was needed, the years of silence, the torturous discrediting when I spoke up, the years without a family – all of these things could have been prevented.

I am not saying that evil, sadistic abusers do not exist. That story absolutely happens, and we need to validate it. But we need to leave room for other stories – stories like mine. In my case – and in many cases like it – the pattern was evil. The man was not.

I beg you – on behalf of the child I was, the adult I am now – to have the courage to attack the pattern. I beg you on behalf of the child who is in your congregation right now watching your reaction and measuring your level of compassion - to have the courage to be part of something better. I beg you to stop acting based on what alleviates your own suffering – making you feel safer or like you have taken a stand – and to start acting in research based, carefully thought out, empathetic ways. To center your response and your narrative unequivocally on a single priority – the kids. And that means we have to interact with that abuse in whatever way protects and heals the most kids. Part that is that we must stop asking these children to choose between enduring abuse and shattering their families. It means we need to provide treatment options. It means we need to make it possible for pedophiles to come forward and be treated before they abuse. It means that we need to acknowledge that social support reduces recidivism and start providing whatever we need to provide to protect and heal the most kids. And it means we need to do these things wisely – recognizing the genuine risk of reoffending, and also the need to be in constant conversation with those people in our congregation who have histories of abuse so that they understand our motives and our process.

The world is not divided into two options: Take abuse seriously by demonizing and quarantining abusers … or be "soft" on it by allowing them to seek treatment and reintegrate into society. Validating the pain of abused children does not require demonizing abusers. It requires direct validation of the pain – by taking recidivism seriously and putting safeguards in place, and by acting on the potential that any person has to molest. By telling stories in which a person comes forward and the outcome is something other than shattered lives. By preaching about why you must never say to your child "Oh, just kiss Uncle Harold – he’s a nice man", and teaching parents real skills. By role modeling in tiny ways the idea that boundaries get crossed, and demonstrating that being remedied. By living this stuff out in day to day examples right in our congregations. Observing "Actually, I’m not a hug person" followed by "Oh, I’m sorry, I won’t do that again" can open the door in a child’s mind for a non-adversarial way of coming forward and finally protecting themselves.

We validate the boundaries of children by directly validating those boundaries. Not by attacking abusers.

Do not think that by refusing to shake my father's hand, you are fostering my healing. You are not. You are walling me into silence. You are forcing me to relive and remake all the unspeakable choices that filled my childhood. You are preventing healing – of abusers and their victims by oversimplifying a whole spectrum of complex and nuanced situations.

An abused child does not see you punishing a monster, they see you punishing a person. A person who is very similar to someone in their own life. Maybe someone they love, maybe someone they are afraid of. Maybe someone who is the only person who has ever made their mom smile like that, or the person who helps them with their homework and takes them to swim class. And they don't see you punishing that person because they are a child molester.

They see you punishing that person because somewhere, at some point … some kid told. They see one thing: "This is what happens when you tell". They see "this is what we will do to your father, your mom's boyfriend, your sister … "

Make no mistake: What feeds sexual abuse is secrets, and what feeds secrets is fear and shame. What feeds fear and shame is us.

Let's starve it, instead. Let's create a better story. Something a kid could reach for, rather than live in fear of. Let's let go of the idea that by letting acknowledged offenders in, we lose our safe and quarantined congregations, and acknowledge that we never had them. Let's let that go, and focus on what we stand to gain.

We stand to gain an awareness of the potential for abuse in every situation. You cannot quarantine abusers out of any congregation – they are always there – and gaining that awareness is part of the process of putting necessary safeguards in place. We stand to gain a role model for the people in your congregations who are abusers and are looking for a way out – by modeling effective treatment. We stand to gain a role model for people who were abused, and who cannot quite accept the story that all abusers are evil – but at the same time need to heal from the deep pain inflicted by their history. We stand to gain a validation of the pain of abuse – by having active, alive conversations about prevention that focus on the needs of children. And, we stand to gain a new kind of hope.

On some level, the congregation that proceeds with caution and compassion in this area speaks to, on behalf of, and in defense of the child who is currently choosing between silent endurance and shattering the life of a loved one. That congregation embodies another option – a hopeful vision in which the child can speak up and see their abuser treated and their abuse ended. That congregation trailblazes not just respect for the worth and dignity of abusers. They trailblaze for the abused. They are part of creating a new option for kids everywhere. A safe way out. A real way out.

That's something worth reaching for. It's time to extend our hands.