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.