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.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Movie Review: "Fifty Shades of Grey"

For this blog post, I've chosen to do a video blog. And why not? What better way to review a movie than by using a similar medium?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Why I'll Be Watching "Fifty Shades"

One might think that I’d be avoiding the motion picture version of Fifty Shades of Grey with some ambivalence. On the one hand, the response of many in the BDSM/kink/fetish community has been to dismiss it as “trash”, either because that’s how they see the book, or because they expect Hollywood to misrepresent us, or a combination of both. On the other hand, there are Unitarian Universalists like myself who are at least curious about this, and avoidance is the least likely way to satisfy one’s curiosity.

The fact is that I had long ago planned to see the movie. I already acquired a ticket via Fandango for an early showing here in Boston, and scouted out the area around the theatre for restaurants.

But I’m not going for the reasons many people might think.

Yes, I’m overly critical of this franchise. There are books and films which represent kink far better, and with greater artistry. The trailers I’ve seen so far do not inspire me much, especially the acting of Jamie Dornan.

For me, it’s a question of fairness. My personal experience has taught me to mistrust anyone who critiques something – whether it’s artistic, scientific, or simply the reality of another’s life – without striving to know about it first. It’s that commitment which led me to Unitarian Universalism, especially the principle of a free and responsible search for meaning and truth, with an emphasis on the responsible.

Already there is a movement to urge a boycott, even before the movie has been shown. There is a presumption about its “message”, and about BDSM generally. I admit being critical of how Fifty Shades misrepresents BDSM, but that’s a far cry from presumptively denouncing the film from a similarly superficial understanding that sees any representation of BDSM as inherently bad.

Aside from being a UU and a kinkster, I consider myself a movie buff, almost a “cinematic anthropologist”. Motion pictures are a major sources of narrative for our culture, perhaps even displacing the printed word. Given that the book is written primarily in the first person, and with a great deal of internal dialogue on the part of Anastasia, I’d expect the film version to present this story very differently. Not to mention the tendency of screenwriters, directors and actors to put their own mark on any work in which they are involved.

I’m not saying that I expect the film to be better than the book. Truth be told, I admit to being skeptical about that. But before I say either way, I’d need to know more. And given the impact Fifty Shades has already had on the kink community to which I belong, the sooner the better.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Love I Grew Up With

We use the word "love" a great deal in UU circles. Standing on the side of love. Loving the Hell out of the world. Love being greater than fear. Love, love, love.

And I've begun to wonder just what kind of love it is that so many UUs are touting here.

The love I grew up with was demanding, calling on us to do our best, to rise to our potential. It didn't demean by labeling the other person "worthless" or "stupid," but it did challenge by expecting better.

The love I grew up with was responsive, listening and adapting to needs. It started by setting boundaries, then allowing those boundaries to be tested and stretched, and options to be made available. When my brother and I asked a question, for example, my parents didn't just give us the answer, or dismissively bark at us to "go look it up"; they’d walk us over to the bookshelf and say: "Let's find out."

The love I grew up with was trustworthy. When my parents said something was so, you could rely upon it. When they said: "You'll get desert when you finish dinner," or: "We're leaving the house at six to see that movie that just opened," that's exactly what happened. Likewise, if we made promises or commitments, we were expected to keep them.

The love I grew up with was also a love of language. I was raised to believe that words have meaning, just as people have value. Language was important for conveying feelings, exchanging ideas, or asking for help. If we said something that was vague or incomplete, we were asked to make it more clear and precise. Yet we also learned to appreciate the dance of prose and poetry, and the sideways logic of a good joke.

The love I grew up with said: "Don't put anyone down just because they’re different." And my parents meant anyone. If you shouldn't put down someone for having another shade of skin color, you don't put another person down just for being white. A person's attraction to one or the other gender, or none at all, has nothing to do with their ability to be a good friend, do a good job, or hold public office. When I learned in college about how racism, sexism and other oppressive "isms" permeate our society and culture, my mother responded by saying: "Yes, but cultures change as people change, and your task is to ask yourself what kind of society you want to live in, and set the example."

The love I grew up with was many things – and not many things. It was not sentimental. It was not overly indulgent. It was not about surface politeness.

The love I grew up with led me to see in the principles and values of Unitarian Universalist how my parents wanted me to live. And yet, when I see other UUs use the word "love," I sometimes wonder …

Monday, December 29, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: A Long Time Ago ...

I was fourteen when my parents dragged me to see a movie which, from viewing its TV commercials, I was convinced would be a schlocky excuse for science fiction. When we got to the mall where the theatre was located, the line for tickets went across the parking lot. We managed to get in, the theatre completely crammed – admittedly my least favorite way to watch a movie.

And then, it started …

It’s hard to watch a film like Star Wars in a crowded theatre and not get caught up in the excitement, which is why I insisted on seeing it on my own in a matinee when there were few people around. Something about the film resonated in me, and still does. Roger Ebert, in his initial review, praised it for its “pure narrative” – but there was more to it.

Star Wars and its two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, give a remarkable balance of elements that transcend traditional storytelling. The characters are archetypal, the conflict elemental, and the setting both distant yet relatable to a modern audience. The trilogy is not just epic narrative, but mythic, so much so that when Joseph Campbell discussed it with Bill Moyers in their PBS special, anyone who had seen the films instantly connected with what he was saying.

But this trilogy isn’t just about heroics and hyperspace – it’s about redemption, about summoning our better selves to bring about what is good and right. The most obvious example is that of Darth Vader, born Anakin Skywalker, enslaved to the “dark side” yet able to throw off his chains to save his son and the Rebel fleet. Yet there are other examples as well. Han Solo, the seemingly amoral smuggler, comes back into the fray to save Luke, then joins the Rebel cause. His friend Lando Calrissian first betrays him and Leia, but then turns against the Empire to bring Leia back to the Rebel fleet, rescue Han from Jabba’s lair, and then lead the charge in the final battle.

But ultimately, this is Luke’s story, and his path from ordinary farm boy to leader and redeemer is all too familiar to us. Consider his response when Obi-Wan Kenobi asks him to come to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force:
Listen, I can't get involved! I've got work to do! It's not that I like the Empire, I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now. It's such a long way from here.
How many times have we been called as he was, and responded as he did? And while the slaughter of his family is an extreme plot device to set him on his quest, it underscores how the injustices which seem so remote to us ultimately touch our lives as well.

The Star Wars saga also demonstrates that redemption is not merely individual. Communities and societies have been and continued to be called to set things right. Often this process is begun by a mere handful who fearlessly question why things are as they are, envision a better way, and strive to bring that vision to reality.

So, as the New Year approaches, consider renting all three movies for a marathon session. Set aside time to watch them back to back. But don’t watch as escapist heroic adventure. Watch mindfully, as a prophetic narrative. And … May the Force be with you!