Archive for April, 2012

Revelation Is Not Sealed

Posted in Editorials on April 16th, 2012
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Note: An expanded version of this post is available here.

As the years go by and my identity as a Unitarian Universalist solidifies, I feel my appreciation of my new tradition deepening all the time. At first I was drawn to a place where I could be spiritual with others who accepted me. My congregation is a community where I can share common values but also where disagreements do not mean fear of expulsion.

But something I have been thinking about recently is the UU doctrine that “Revelation is not sealed.” What this means is that while there might be some good lessons in the holy books of other religions, people can still learn truths about morality, human nature and the world in a multitude of ways. We must “be open to new and higher truths.

What this also means is that Unitarian Universalist Ministers are not limited to a single volume, written in the past during a different time and place to find the words to inspire and guide their congregations.

I think of that scene in Walk The Line where Jack says

Look, J.R., if I’m going to be a preacher one day, I gotta know the bible front to back. I mean, you can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.

To a young boy of strong Christian faith, this makes perfect sense. But in my mind, his earnestness is immediately contrasted with Julia Sweeney’s remarks in Letting Go of God about the priests who have to live this reality of trying to tell people who need their help the right story,

[L]ike a big ocean wave, the force of all that I hated about this Church welled up in me; all the pompus, numbing masses, the unabated monotony of the rituals, all the desperate priests trying to tease out something meaningful from a very flawed ancient text.

I first articulated this problem myself in thinking about a recent Sunday service at my UU congregation about Leymah Gbowee, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her activism in stopping the Second Liberian Civil War. On the drive home after service, Adam and I, and anyone else in the car usually continue the discussion. I wondered how a Catholic priest could talk about Leymah Gbowee if he wanted to. There was a priest in the parish my family belonged to when I was in high school who loved to talk about “the power of prayer.” Sometimes he quoted guests on Larry King Live or something he read in Reader’s Digest to make his point. But, as a Catholic priest, he was limited in when and how he could broach the subject – or any subject. The Catholic Church has selected Bible readings for every Sunday of the year – these are the same all over the world – on a three year cycle. So any given priest only really needs 156 homilies for his entire life. If he wants to write more than that he can – but the readings never change. Unlike Jack, who was a protestant, Catholic priests do not even have the entire Bible at their disposal.

Current events did come up during homilies on occasion. The Catholic chaplain on my university campus often spent Sundays relating that week’s gospel to the unjustness of the Iraq War. And I will always remember the Christmas Eve Mass I attended in 2001, where the priest spoke of the Olympic Torch in Rockefeller Center, on its way to Salt Lake City, as a light of hope – we should see it as symbolic of the light of Christ – and a symbol that we would heal from the horrors of September 11. Several members of our community had been killed in the attack.

But these homilies were not the norm. Most of the ones I have heard were much more generic. I understand perfectly what Sweeney is talking about when she refers to the “desperate priests trying to tease out something meaningful from a very flawed ancient text.”

When a priest wants to speak about an issue facing his community he faces two hurdles. First, how to relate that issue to the week’s Bible passages prescribed by the Vatican. Second, the possibility that the topic he wants to express is not relatable to any of that years readings or the entire three year cycle of readings at all. Aside from the Christmas Eve Mass of 2001, and every Ash Wednesday in college I cannot remember which Gospel readings went with any of the homilies that have stayed with me through the years whether they be the best and most uplifting, or the frustratingly close-minded or silly. The purpose of the homily is for the priest to relate the message of that week’s Bible passages to the community. But the two types of homilies I remember hearing most often were either interpretations which amount to vague platitudes about being a good and forgiving person, or insightful discussions which only tangentially relate to the Bible. It was very rare that a homily was both inspiring and clearly related to the text.

Unitarian Universalist ministers do not have this problem. I have heard UU ministers read from the Bible, or from another holy book. But more often than not they read a passage of poetry, prose, philosophy, or history that speaks to them. Sometimes these readings are written by other UU’s – and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes a reading not a piece of text, but a piece of music or a work of art. In this way, a congregation can address its needs and is not frozen in time. When we believe that revelation is not sealed, we are open to learning about the world and about ourselves from every source around us. In not limiting ourselves, we can continue to grow unrestrained.

Just as limits on the creation of “graven images” slowed the development of artistic techniques, and prohibitions of dissection impeded the progress of biology, when we limit ourselves to only the Bible, we stunt our spiritual growth.

For Catholic Priests, Compassion And Activism Don’t Matter

Posted in Editorials on April 12th, 2012
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Adam posted about how the Pope rejected calls from Catholic priests all over the world to allow women and married people to be ordained. What he missed was the third demand,

[A]n Austrian group called Preachers’ Initiative… has issued a “Call to Disobedience,” asking the church to allow the ordination of women, to remove the obligation of priestly celibacy and to permit priests to give holy communion to divorced Catholics who have remarried without an annulment.

I think that this is extremely important. The Catholic church cannot continue without more priests, but it could probably hobble along just fine refusing to give communion to divorced people. Like the prohibition against contraception, there are many who simply ignore this rule. Many times, in large anonymous parishes, the priest or Eucharistic Minister does not even know they are breaking a rule. The problem would be for divorced people who “out” themselves or for priests and EM’s who know the truth but feel conflicted about the rule. Technically only divorced people who remarry outside the church without getting an annulment, or are cohabiting with a new partner are excommunicated – but that still excludes many people who wish to receive the sacrament.

As I stated in my previous post about the church,

Receiving communion is a big deal for Catholics. To be told that you may not do so can feel like a devastating rejection.

This feeling of devastation may account for why some people simply ignore the rule. Receiving communion, for many Catholics, is more important than following other rules of the church – even those rules about who is forbidden and who is allowed to partake in the sacrament. The priests who signed this letter to the Pope understand this on a deep level. They understand because as Catholics themselves they can empathize with the pain people who are being shut out from something so central to their lives, and also because some may have brought their pain on this issue to them directly and the cognitive dissonance of their empathy conflicting with their desire to obey the church is keeping them up at night.

And the Pope understands this, but instead of offering comfort, he mocks their troubles,

Benedict said that although such priests claim to act out of “concern for the church,” they are driven by their “own preferences and ideas,” and should instead turn toward a “radicalism of obedience” — a phrase that perfectly captures the essence of the theologian pope’s thought.

He’s pretty much telling them that they can shove their empathy for divorced Catholics in very uncomfortable place.

This is utterly cruel. It denies the reality of divorced Catholics and the priests who counsel them. They tried obedience and it wasn’t working. That’s why they signed the petition. They signed this petition at risk of excommunication, a fate which has befallen others who advocated for the ordination of women, or for simply being openly opposed to making abortion illegal. These priests had such compassion for their parishioners that they risked the same punishment. That is a moving display of service and selflessness which the Pope ignores and perverts by simply telling them to be more obedient. Secondly, Pope Benedict will never be a divorced Catholic seeking communion, nor the troubled priest being sought out for comfort. I would almost be glad for the latter as it would mean that no one would have to be subject to his twisted advice – except that he has so mush more power to abuse. That he is not capable of the empathy these priests are speaks ill of his character and makes him wildly unfit for leadership of any kind.

Regarding the Upcoming Election

Posted in Editorials on April 11th, 2012
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So. Now that Rick Santorum’s out of the race, Mitt Romney has become the inevitable. The Republicans will go through the Five Stages of Grief, the fifth stage -acceptance- is the main stage in Tampa. Romney is the culmination of everything that’s wrong with politicians. He’s mendacious, smug, well-connected, and out-of-touch with his social lessers. Every politician has at least one of these traits, Romney has all of them.

We cannot judge this man by his words, only by his deeds. Mitt Romney has bolstered the rich, ignored the poor, and introduced the half-measure that is the Individual Mandate. There is no doubt, were he President, he would amass more power, as did every President in the history of the Republic. In terms of policy, Mitt Romney has only one difference with Obama worth mentioning: as a Republican, he is openly hostile to reproductive freedom, unless he was lying about that, too.

Yet the President is not an Emperor, there are others who hold authority. I don’t know what horrible part of the degraded human psyche wishes to be dominated by a dictator that we keep granting the President more control, but the power truly lies in the Legislature, which is elected by a fickle populace.

Sometimes, you can actually get access to these lawmakers, and speak to them about your concerns. Sometimes, they even listen! When they don’t listen, they have ways to sweep it under the rug. Senators rely on long terms and short memories for re-election. Representatives, having much shorter terms, rely on pork and populist tommyrot to survive. These rascals also depend on voters paying attention only one year out of every four. That magical year has arrived… the Presidential Election has captured the attention of the greatest possible number of potential voters.

During the Mid-Term Election of 2010, while many people were watching the new season of whatever lurid TV show has been going on for too long, or were keeping their head down, grateful they had a job, others were engaged in participatory democracy. The Tea Party candidates of 2010 made quite a lot of proud talk about freedom and justice, when they actually meant “Freedom for just Us”. Since they were sworn in, we have not benefitted in the slightest, as they affirm the horrible powers wielded by George Walker Bush. They truly believe the government may intervene in every aspect of your life, unless it would actually be helpful.

Public safety is so important, strip-searches are permitted for the slightest infractions, yet the government cannot provide affordable care in the name of public health. Women should not have abortions, yet cannot get enough assistance to raise their children. People should have to live with the consequences of their actions, unless these “people” are corporations. There’s never a cop when you need one, because they are all conducting a full-body cavity search on a stoner. Our priorities are screwed-up thanks to the efforts of screwed-up people. Power lies in Congress.

The point is this: the Presidential race is no longer important. Rick Santorum, the possibly-deranged fool we must keep away from the Nuclear Football, is out. In January 2013, regardless of who we vote for, we will have a President who wants war with Iran, protects the rich, ignores the poor, and desperately wants to be liked. President Obamney. Mitt Romney will not touch reproductive rights if the poll numbers tell him not to. Seriously, ladies, just say “I wouldn’t date Mitt Romney” and he’ll ask “Why not?!”, then you can tell him. He’s that pathetic. Vote for whoever you like. Power lies in Congress.

You can make a bigger difference working to dislodge the Tea Party crazies. They have not yet cemented their bases, though incumbents are hard to beat. Democrats, vote Democrat -those bastards are the only hope you’ve got, even if it’s a fool’s hope. Power lies in Congress.

Any Republican reading this… please, primary the Tea Partiers. I know you won’t vote Democrat, I accept this. Just vote for someone in the primary that isn’t out of their goddamned mind, and they’ll beat the Democrat, come November -if your district is red enough to elect a Tea Partier, your district is red enough to elect a conservative who understands “compromise” is not a synonym of “sell out”. Power lies in Congress.

Don’t let the Presidential election distract you from what goes on in the true halls of power, where men skulk and hide their actions because we focus all our attention on the man in the hot seat. We don’t need more men who would shred the Constitution and insist they saved it. We don’t need more men spouting populist phrases while scraping before the wealthy. We cannot endure another two years of a do-nothing congress, nor a do-nothing-right congress. Power lies in Congress. Consider carefully who represents you in Congress. Watch what they do in Congress.

The Internet Ruined 1984

Posted in Editorials on April 9th, 2012
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With all the hype around the Mega Millions record jackpot, I found myself with the urge to reread George Orwell’s 1984. As I walked around New York City and saw the lines outside stores, listened to my co-workers excited chatter, and even bought a few tickets myself – I couldn’t help but think of the part of the novel that discusses the proles fascination with the lottery and the way it was rigged and used to control them.

This must be at least the fourth time I’ve read this book, and this time I am having trouble with a part of it that always seemed to be one of the best parts. Orwell writes of a language called “Newspeak” which the government creates. The goal is to eliminate as many words as possible from language and therefore making rebellion impossible because people won’t be able to think or express objectionable thoughts. Ayn Rand also plays with this idea in Anthem. As my high school English teacher taught me, this is based on the “Sapir-Wharf Hypothesis.” However, according to Wikipedia, this isn’t exactly what Sapir or Wharf had ever written. And while there is some evidence that the language a person speaks can have some influence on their thoughts, there’s nowhere near enough proof to support the idea than an experiment like Newspeak would ever work.

The reason I looked into this was because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the internet has changed the way I communicate. After a day on reddit, I occasionally find myself wanting to communicate in Advice Animals. I love the way that hyperlinks shape and color an article or blog post, providing a richer experience than mere footnotes. The way that twitter allows people to have a conversation on a hashtag delights me. And the vocabulary! Last week I was rolling my eyes on an article about Gloria Steinem which “discovered” the feminist blogosphere for about the fourth time in the past two years:

The big political issues of yesteryear have been supplanted by messier sociocultural questions that a new generation debates in its own patois of activism, with terms like “rape culture” and “slut shaming” and “fat positive” and “cisgender.”

The author forgot mansplaining, and hippie punching.

But while the jargon of feminist blogs or any internet culture might be confusing to a newbie, it’s not impossible to learn. That we continue to find and create the language we need to express our ideas and that these neologisms are understood fairly quickly is enough for me as a lay person to doubt the idea that Newspeak would gain any traction.

While the nightmares of a police state or constant surveillance still seem startlingly possible, I will rest easy knowing that the versatility of language will probably frustrate the efforts of those who would try to stifle thought.