Does God Still Work?

I have not read the full report…only seen the headlines. Frankly, I suppose at this rate it is fitting that I would choose to come back from a self imposed month long social media blackout today, and more relevant that I would come back with the question that came to me in the wee hours of this morning before whoever decided to start shooting on yet another college campus…

Does God still work?

I don’t pose this question to be provocative, or to call into question anyone’s personally held beliefs. Nor do I pose the question as a rallying cry to Atheists or Theists to offer the “right” answer. You see, I am studying for my Masters of Divinity degree and today, I have my Intro to Theology class and tomorrow, I have my Intro to Old Testament. Ironically, in both classes, we are at a point where we are discussing/questioning the many names for “God/god.”  I will hear plenty about God in the next 48 hours.

So, I will spare you technical analysis, exegesis or deep theological reflection or sources and footnotes. For the record, I can handily jab a parry with some pretty hefty brained people at this point and there is a place for that. This isn’t it. My question comes from the gut wrenching feeling that we have to question whether we (the human race) have actually got it all wrong at this point. I am overwhelmed by a feeling of sitting in a school that is not unlike the many places where it suddenly feels very unsafe to be. I am surrounded by people who are invested in the greater good and understanding of human life as a spiritual journey, yet I have the overwhelming feeling that it is simply a bunch of crap. Hundreds of thousands of hours, millions of dollars, lifetimes, spent trying to explain, justify, affirm, deny life in relationship to one word: God.

…and a shooter can walk around a school and kill innocent students. A tsunami can kill hundreds of thousands of people. Governments attempt to exterminate people who disagree. World leaders are assassinated. Cancer still spreads. Death comes to the young…

And it has always been this way.

…and a child is born, the sun still rises, illness is overcome, prophetic words inspire, art is created from nothingness, people are fed…people are freed. There is love.

And it has always been this way as well.

We no longer live in a time of intimate communication. When I went to get a coffee this morning, I watched an entire line of people with their heads dangling into electronic devices, bumping into each other, unresponsive to the barista’s cheerful “good morning!” unengaged with each other. Many would make the excuse that in a coffee shop in the morning, people are still not awake. Frankly, that’s bullshit. This zombie parade is a product of the smart phone…which has made dumb people…and the commercially driven technical age. Even sleepy people can say good morning to one another…if they aren’t texting, tweeting and obsessing about things that aren’t actually present. Eye contact is dead. The simple return of the question “…and how are you?” is met with surprise, because it has fallen out of vogue. There is too much emphasis put on what’s next?, what am I missing?, aspiration and acquisition combined with self reliance and independent spirit. An entire culture of Generals…and no one willing to actually be a soldier…no, no one willing to be daisies in the gun barrel, or better yet, a daisy among the field. Everyone is starring in their own personal reality show. In an age when we are surrounded by bright shiny things, science as the rule and capitalism as the goal, is seems in so many ways that God has been totally left behind.

Yet, we are still alive, we are still human, we still question our existence, we still search for meaning in the way time and experience unfold, we still yearn for hope and comfort…and contact.

And it has always been this way as well.

Leaving the coffee shop, I saw a friend who spends a lot of time in the street. As such, he is often outside of places where I simply breeze in and out. He asked me how I was and I replied that I was fine. I returned the question and he answered that he had a bit of a cold and a stuffy nose as a result. He asked if I could get him some tissue from inside the coffee shop. I did so without hesitation. Simple for me, not so simple for him, but if my head had been buried in text messages, or my ears plugged with my music…I would never have heard his soft voice with the simplest fillable of human needs.

…we are still alive, we are still human…we still yearn for hope and comfort and contact.

I don’t know if God still works. But I do know that everything that compelled us to speak the name of God, or not speak the name…whatever it is that caused us to deny that there is a God or to see god in our human experience of nature…whatever brings us to church or the mosque or temple…what keeps us at home watching football instead….what makes us genuflect, wear religious garments, respect symbols of faith…and even what makes us believe that the only thing is here and now…all of that does still work.

And it always will.

Mega Church

OverlakeWhen I walked into Overlake Christian Church, I half expected the walls to come crashing in.  OCC is what you would call a modern day “mega church.”  In a building that more resembles Costco from the outside than any other kind of structure, it is a teeming city within, just as any of the more ornate ancient Gothic mega churches such as Notre Dame de Paris or Chartres Cathedral were in their day.  There are legions of volunteers, several varieties of youth spaces including a youth chapel and a fully staffed nursery, a full gymnasium, meeting rooms, offices and a cafe with (this being the suburbs of Seattle) what seemed like endless gallons of coffee.

But also like the ancient cathedrals, Overlake is serious about the business of faith.  The sanctuary put me in mind of the largest theaters I’ve performed in with capacity for some 5000+ people.  I imagined that when full, as I was informed that the space gets for the later service, this place was off the chain. This church sits in the heart of the evangelical nouvelle vague where young families in increasing numbers are flocking to a message about Christ that doesn’t judge them because they are struggling to make ends meet or because maybe they didn’t finish school or because they believe in traditional conservative values.  This is a place where these particular young people find community that offers them unconditional support and love in a language they can readily understand.  Yes, there were surely gun owners; yes, plenty of McCain/Palin supporters; probably a lot of anti Obamacare people as well…and me.

If you have read any of my other posts, you know immediately that I did not support McCain/Palin, I don’t believe in any kind of gun ownership (private or otherwise) and I am a rabid supporter of the Affordable Care act.  I am also black and very, very gay.  Walking into Overlake or any conservative community, I know that by the simple appearance of my skin, most people will assume my political positions, but the one thing they can’t and usually don’t assume is my sexuality.  This is a squirmy discomfort that I’ve lived with my entire life, whether it was as a teen meeting people who would ask me if I had a girlfriend yet or in a locker room where guys talk incessantly and rather defensively about sex with women (hmm, there’s a blog post in there) or as a cruise director where the singularly most frequent question I was asked was if I was married.  For some 35 years, I have had to “come out” to every single new person I meet.  One of the reasons I am pro marriage equality, outside of personal interest, is because maybe by “normalizing” same sex relationships it will chip away at the assumptions that force someone like myself to have to repeatedly go through this public explanation process that more than being embarrassing is just plain exhausting.  This kind of daily “coming out” is heightened even more in a church setting…let alone an evangelical one.  But, as I said, I’ve been doing this dance for many years so when I was invited by my dear friends to attend their church, it was easy to put my own disquietude aside and let myself feel deeply flattered that they wanted to include me in their spiritual experience.

After dropping off the kids, we made our way through the throngs of beaming faces to the sanctuary where the house band was already in gear.  The music was youthful guitar heavy rock.  The voices were clear and again…the beaming faces.  In the house, many people swayed and sang along (the words were projected on the largest of the flat screen monitors…a 20×30 foot jumbotron at the back of the stage) and many stood with their eyes closed and palms turned upward to receive the spirit…with beaming faces.  The music built a certain frenzy so that when the pastor, Mike Howerton arrived on stage you wouldn’t expect anything less than being inspired.  His message, “Hope Restored” was clear and hip (he wore jeans and converse sneakers) with no “thou shalts” and “wherefores” other than what might appear in specific scripture.  The service ended with a tricked out version of “Oh Come Emmanuel” that was just plain fun to sing. The experience was, in a word, thrilling and I left feeling inspired and elated.  I thought to myself, why can’t Unitarian Universalists do this?  Wanting to stay focused on my time with my friends, I didn’t stay to socialize or chat.  But on my way out, I made note of what seemed like a whole lot of nice people enjoying church the way they wanted to enjoy it, giving their families the grounding that they felt was important to being successful and balanced people.  I should have been content with that.

But after I got home the next day, I did my usual skeptical due diligence to see where this community stood politically.  It was not enough for me to see them first hand and accept them in their natural habitat.  I had to see if they would have strung me up had they known I was a card carrying ‘homosexualist!’  A simple Google search (“Overlake Christian Church LGBT”) turned up the following article from the Christian Telegraph:

Overlake Christian Church Provides Aids Test to “Remove Stigma”

The article is very definitely anti-Gay (a clue should have been seeing AIDS not capitalized.) But looking past the article at the actual act of an evangelical church asking members to take an HIV test, I was blown away.  Again, I found myself asking, why can’t Unitarian Universalists do this?  At the center of this article were Linda and Rob Robertson who lost their gay son in 2009.  I did a bit more research and came across, or rather was reminded of Linda’s blog, Just Because He Breathes.  Their family story of transformation through their faith to embrace their son in all of his beauty as a gay Christian before his death is extremely powerful.  I had read her article in the Huff Post in July and suddenly felt ashamed that I was in her church and didn’t know…or feel comfortable to seek her, or someone like her out.  I immediately reached out to Linda through her blog and to my amazement, she wrote back.  I am hopeful that I will be able to continue a dialogue with her, not only to support her work, but also to learn from her.  I see a lesson for progressives and liberal church goers as well as Atheists and non believers here.  Linda is a Christian.  She lives what she believes.  From the most painful experience that any parent can undergo regardless of their faith, she learned that she cannot judge.  As a Christian, I imagine that she knows that judgment is in God’s hands.  But that is not to say that for those who are not Christian that they must play by those same rules; judgement, peace, balance are what we come to in our own experiences and we cannot require that others accept something just because it works for us…and ultimately, it is out of all of our hands.  Just as someone who is LGBT cannot be judged by the rules of heteronormativity and just as Christian evangelicals should not all be judged by the same rules of liberal intolerance.

Personally, I am tired of religious irony.  My own snarky, judgmental attitude about a Christian mega church, no matter how much in check I was able to keep it in the moment, almost kept me from making a beautiful discovery about the depth and capacity of the human heart.  Every religious leader or aspiring religious leader should be so lucky as to be able to float in the warmth of what I witnessed at Overlake, and every religious or faith community should be able to provide that warmth to whoever comes into their midst, whether it is a liberal black gay guy in an evangelical church or if it is an evangelical in a community of Pagans.  We are in the business of creating community and those communities are built on “common unities”…shared experiences of our worlds.  There is no possible way that everyone is going to have the same common unities…and we shouldn’t really want to have the same ones.  But it is the impulse to gather and share those common unities that is the same among all of us and that is something in which we can all share; that impulse is love.  I am a Unitarian Universalist and I will celebrate your joy at commemorating the birth of Christ.  You are straight and I hope you can celebrate my thriving in a relationship with the man I share my life with.  We are Jew, Gentile, Muslim, Atheist, Lesbian, Transgender, Cisgender, HIV+, black, Latino and white and we can celebrate one another and be much better for it.

Blessed be…he said with a beaming face.

Million White Man March

Obama_WhiteHouseConfederateFlagAs I watch the current state of the US Government, it is difficult to regard it without also taking in the national climate surrounding what is going on.  Mass shootings, chronic homelessness, rabid religiosity and total religious apathy, education in decline, greater wealth gap, gender and gender identity wars, the complete meltdown of information systems and above all the total and absolute disintegration of cultural trust.  Houston we have a problem.

To me, this whole thing reminds me, sadly, of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.  I’ve referenced this movie before.  In it, the director portrays a world that is thrown into chaos when black people are liberated, particularly when a black man is in leadership (at least that’s how this black man sees the movie.)  That was 1915.  What is happening right now in 2013 is exactly the same thing; we have a black man in leadership and the cornerstone of everything American is falling to pieces.  Simple, right?

No, not so simple. This is what I believe, our dear conservative tea party Bible beating white male friends would like to have us believe: that because a black man is in the white house, mayhem ensues.  He (Obama) doesn’t have the capacity to lead; he is polarizing; he is inept; he has no authority.  This story line is exactly what D.W. Griffith was preaching.  But my dears, that was a movie, made by one white man 98 years ago. This is real life.  Or is it?  Could it be that our Tea Party friends aren’t quite as simple and bumpkinish as some of us high flying, over educated Liberals want to believe?  Remember, the Tea Party created Sarah Palin.  She is a complete and ignorant nobody, yet she is in our NATIONAL media and consciousness.  She is the ultimate creation of the “gotcha media” that she so scorns.  Like the bride of Frankenstein, SHE LIVES…and it would seem that she is carrying the torch for a completely fabricated movement to make President Obama the scapegoat and to reaffirm the bedrock of what American culture was originally built upon: oppressive white male colonial power.

Now why would someone do this?  Why would anyone wish to play out the storyline of a movie like Birth of a Nation?  Well, if you are attached to the security you felt when your world wasn’t challenged by someone else’s culture, or gender expression or wealth priorities or look or smell, you might just want things to go back to 1861.  But in this modern era, we live in an increasingly unstable and erratic world.  Most specifically, from November, 22 1963, as a nation, the United States was suddenly living in a world where “if it could happen…it would.”  The President of the United States was shot and killed and unlike the Lincoln murder that took not only days but sometimes weeks for people to become aware of, the entire nation experienced the loss of John F. Kennedy in real time.  The unthinkable of losing someone who’s image we had seen repeatedly and who’s voice we had known, happened and was transferred globally within minutes.

And that was just the beginning.  Footage of race riot brutality, Viet Nam, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy.  We spent the 1960’s being emotionally raped by a serial sickness of “if it can happen…it will.”  We emerged assuming that if a public figure was out in the open, they would be shot; if world finance was on the rise, sooner or later it would come crashing down; if there was a conflict between nations somewhere in the world, it would escalate into a convoluted political quagmire with unthinkable loss of human life.  And then, just as we were starting to show a few signs of emotional healing…September 11, 2001.  The attack on the World Trade Center in New York, more than the 50, 100, 200 years of tragedy leading up to it, sent us nationally over the edge.  Regardless of the political motivations of the attackers, or their connections to international networks or global terrorism, 9/11 meant that we were locked in the cycle of abuse once again.  If it could happen it would.

Suddenly we have Homeland Security, border control, language like “Islamist Extremism,” “freedom fries,” and cries of U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A! We entered an age of chronic national post traumatic stress disorder.  Our first thought is fear.  Our world is shaped by laws that, despite the language of law (innocent until proven guilty) assumes the worst.  We put people in prison for assumption; we have insurance we don’t need nor could ever use; metaphorically, we are shuttered away in our minds and our attitudes so that even if it is good for us to be in the sun, we don’t want any part of it because we might develop cancer.  Our reaction to learning of the abuses in the Catholic church is a classic example.  We assume now that everyone who interacts with children is predatory and thus we’ve created boundaries and walls and assumed guilt and an environment of suspicion. There now little Johnny, you’ll be safe!  Of course you won’t know what to do with yourself when you need comfort and you won’t think you could ever trust an adult, and you will develop attitudes that present no sense of community or interdependence on your peers or cultural identity and you will develop into someone who is more likely to perpetrate a mass shooting because of your disconnectedness and mistrust of others…but you’ll be safe! 

The current state of affairs is not just about the assumption of privilege by white men.  It is about the assumption of privilege being played out in a culture of trauma.  The million white man march of the tea party is reactionary; it is a symptom, it is not the problem.  Certainly, we need to fix the symptoms: racism, homophobia, classism, sexism, ageism, etc., but we need to go to the root of a national consciousness that is in deep and excruciating pain.

I am frequently asked about God and religion.  This is a constant for anyone who is in seminary.  I always reply with “I” statements, because I deeply believe that faith is entirely personal and that although we can unite as people who experience faith, the expression of that faith is as variable as the people involved, even within faith traditions.  For me, I believe that that breaking the cycle of trauma is dependent upon faith, for the sake of a better word.  My “faith” is rooted in my interpretation of Christian teachings and Unitarian Universalist principles. For others, it may be in Islam, or Judaism, or Humanism or Hinduism.  It may be a “faith” that is not god centered at all.  But trauma, any trauma, can only be healed by the distinct belief that one is unconditionally safe and loved, where the cycle of anticipating harm or loss is broken and put to rest.

The Tea Party and the Million White Man March are not the enemy. Instead, it is very clear that in a changing world on shifting ground they do not believe that they will be safe and cared for as they had been in the mythical pre-Birth of a Nation past.  As a result, they are trying to create this safety just as they created Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz by elaborately and deliberately fabricating a world where Obama will ultimately be a scapegoat and everything will magically return to the “way things were.”

And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. (Matthew 8:26 – NRSV)

I see you Tea Party; I see who you are and I will not let your fear bring us all down.  I will acknowledge your pain, for we all share in the trauma; but I will call you out on your crap.  Just remember that ultimately I will love you all the same, as I ask you to love me, because ultimately that is the only way this cycle will end.

They Have a Way of Shutting That Whole Thing Down

I think a lot of us are reeling at the ineptitude of our Government right now.  Regardless of your party affiliation, it is a gross act of egotism to allow ones “agenda” to take precedent over ones actual job. Sojourners Magazine published a letter from faith leaders yesterday that speaks well to this issue.

This morning however, I was reminded that people have faced this kind of crisis before and faith leaders have written about it in an earlier time.  I read several tweets and comments last night on the Huffington Post that blamed “religion” for what’s going on right now; ironically, Psalm 37 was part of the Morning Office today.  Somehow, I think “religion” might have gotten this one right.  For goodness sakes, I’m a Unitarian Universalist and this Psalm even seems appropriate to me!  However you consider the Lord, God, the Spirit(s) or humanity in general, please read and take comfort…this too shall pass.

Psalm 37

Exhortation to Patience and Trust

Of David.

1 Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,

2 for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.

3 Trust in the Lord, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.

4 Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

5 Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.

6 He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.

7 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.

8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.

9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.

11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

12 The wicked plot against the righteous,
and gnash their teeth at them;

13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that their day is coming.

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to kill those who walk uprightly;

15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

16 Better is a little that the righteous person has
than the abundance of many wicked.

17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
but the Lord upholds the righteous.

18 The Lord knows the days of the blameless,
and their heritage will abide forever;

19 they are not put to shame in evil times,
in the days of famine they have abundance.

20 But the wicked perish,
and the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

21 The wicked borrow, and do not pay back,
but the righteous are generous and keep giving;

22 for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,
but those cursed by him shall be cut off.

23 Our steps are made firm by the Lord,
when he delights in our way;

24 though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,
for the Lord holds us by the hand.

25 I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.

26 They are ever giving liberally and lending,
and their children become a blessing.

27 Depart from evil, and do good;
so you shall abide forever.

28 For the Lord loves justice;
he will not forsake his faithful ones.
The righteous shall be kept safe forever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.

29 The righteous shall inherit the land,
and live in it forever.

30 The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,
and their tongues speak justice.

31 The law of their God is in their hearts;
their steps do not slip.

32 The wicked watch for the righteous,
and seek to kill them.

33 The Lord will not abandon them to their power,
or let them be condemned when they are brought to trial.

34 Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on the destruction of the wicked.

35 I have seen the wicked oppressing,
and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.

36 Again I passed by, and they were no more;
though I sought them, they could not be found.

37 Mark the blameless, and behold the upright,
for there is posterity for the peaceable.

38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.

39 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their refuge in the time of trouble.

40 The Lord helps them and rescues them;
he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.

 

God or “whatever”

I have frequently heard liberal preachers speak of religious inclusion and at some point in their discourse, they offer up a list that goes something like this: “whether you believe in God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever.”

Whatever? I know many Christians who would take issue with anyone who called Jesus a “whatever.”  There is a great deal of privilege that goes with being able to reduce every faith expression from the vast expanse of unnamed, or personally unfamiliar in the Western religious experience down to a “whatever.”  It is the same impulse I believe that lets the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” actually have traction among the some of the religious “nones” (those who are unaffiliated despite acknowledging a spiritual force.) Now, as a writer, I fully understand the casual grammatical placement of the word “whatever” here, but I’m more concerned with the intention behind the use of the word and the telescoping in a list like this from familiar to foreign.  I believe it is worth asking ourselves if we really are committed to inclusion if we’re not willing to complete the list…or at least to try.

Monday night, I was in Pastoral Care class at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, listening to a great lecture and interaction with our esteemed professor from the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Herbert Anderson.   Class was focused around how stories fit into our idea of pastoral care and what story telling, particularly the God story can mean in the pastoral context.  As a Unitarian Universalist who is in no way exclusively bound to the Bible, I was acutely aware of the Christian framing of this whole scenario: God, Jesus and the Bible applied in a deliberate way for healing, but regardless of my own spiritual framework, I still got a great deal out of the class.  I explained to a classmate afterward that I took this as just one mechanism for applying communication in a pastoral way.  I may or may not use Biblical scripture; it may or may not come when someone is in crisis.  No matter what, having the ability to help someone connect a shared human narrative to a lived experience can be a valuable tool.  But I was also reminded by another classmate that in some other traditions, this business of “pastoral care” is not something that one needs to learn or do as a separate skill.  In many ways (as it has been communicated to me by some of my Jewish colleagues) religion is the story; God is the lived experience; ‘pastoral care’ is entirely what it means to be a religious leader.

Whatever

My broader point may not be entirely clear yet.  This class was, by the professor’s admonition, Christian focused and framed.  But even in stripping away the Christianity, we must be mindful of where this understanding of a religious practice comes from because it may sit completely outside of the way and purpose of another faith tradition.  This is the ‘whatever.’  It would be so easy to say of pastoral care practices that they apply to all religions, Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, whatever…when in fact that is not the case.  But then our modern sense of ironic, tongue in cheek, media scripted humor says that we have an ‘out’ when we get to the end of our specific knowledge and our bulleted lists: Whatever. I say that if we reduce each other, even those we do not know about to ironic, witty or worse, snarky reactions and careless dismissive bucket phrases, we are as good as saying to them “you don’t matter and I don’t care.”  We face a similar dilemma in the LGBTQQI2S world; in an awkward attempt to create inclusion, we have created a trap for ourselves by attempting to reduce our beautiful tribe of gender fluid, sexuality affirming humans to a labeled container that will always be too small.  Coming back to religion, I’m well versed in the origins of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I’ve all too often heard liberal religious folks use it as a bucket to mean “all those other faiths that I don’t have time enough to find out about or are too ‘out there’ for me to wrap my head around but I think they should be mentioned somehow because I want to protect my liberal cred.”

So what is the solution?  First, we in the progressive/liberal traditions need to take our religion more seriously and not be afraid of asking those around us who may not believe our way, or may not believe in anything at all to give us the respect of acknowledging that we do take it seriously.  We’ve all heard the talk of “recovering Catholics,” “bitter ex-Baptists” and “former Mormons” and their situations and feelings are real; but so are our feelings about a life that is shaped and guided by our faith in positive ways.  Common respect.  Second, we need to be careful of making light of those who come from more conservative camps than we do.  Although I think teaching creationism in school is dangerous work, particularly if it is the only thing being taught, I do not think parodying it is the answer.   All parody serves to do is bully the ones we don’t agree with into submission.  We will get much further in coming up with real solutions to keeping schools out of the battle over religion by understanding and being able to actually communicate with those from whom we differ.  We don’t have to learn how to be Evangelical or Pentecostal, but we do have to learn how to live along side those whose beliefs differ from our own.

Finally, I would ask that we make a commitment.  A commitment to real inclusion where when we get to the end of the list we acknowledge that our experience is limited…or better yet, that we don’t speak in lists at all.  Rather, we speak always of the greater body of faith traditions and expressions and that we don’t single out our personal practice as somehow standing above or first in line.  Real inclusion means everyone is at the table and that miraculously, no one is served last.

I will take your faith seriously and not mock your faith in any way whether it be by exclusion, assumption or dismissiveness or invalidation.  My faith is not yours…even if we share the same practice and tradition…nor is your faith mine…our faiths are personal and our experience of community and spirituality are unique…as are each of our stories and each of our lives.  We all own the freedom to live our faith as we feel necessary.

I will take time and care to speak of all spiritual practices with sensitivity, awareness, intention, Grace…whatever.

Colonial Fool Part II: Let My People Go

“Have they ever hung from trees?” … “Were they ever slaves for 500 years, then I don’t think so. I don’t think [the issues are] equal … Simple as that.” – Rep. Monique Davis

[Rep. Jehan] Gordon-Booth said [same sex marriage] has “really taken a toll” on her and she will keep her religious background in mind when she takes a position. “I’m a Christian before I’m a black woman before I’m a Democrat,” she said. “Before all of that, I’m a Christian.“I have to live with what I do or don’t do. And so it’s a vote I have to take that I can be comfortable with the rest of my life. This is history.” – The Chicago Sun

“Today our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has won!” [Bishop Larry] Trotter wrote. “Pastor James Meeks, Bishop Lance Davis and I are so proud of the God fearing Black Caucus members who withstood the pressure of the LGBT forces and allowed God’s word concerning marriage to remain between one man and one woman in Illinois.” – Chicago Tribune

What the f**k?!

I have spent the last couple of weeks diving into research on what I consider to be the primary issue facing America today: Colonialism.  We are still living in a society that is defined by the conquest of a privileged ruling class where people who aren’t part of that ruling class are either enslaved by their position in society or they are systematically and deliberately eliminated.  This isn’t just about black and white, because America is much more than that at this point, although, it still very much has those shades; this is about cultural power and perceived wealth and concepts of everything from self esteem to personal identity…and yes, freedom.  Sadly, by the statements above by certain black leaders in the Illinois battle over same sex marriage, we once again see how the echo of colonialism, like the waves from a far off storm, have come ashore, yet again.

I love the depth of faith that some people in the black community share.  The commitment to a life lived in community and equality and to a life that is not just about what we ‘have’ but who we are.  In fact I applaud anyone who lives by what they believe, and I will not ask them to change their beliefs.  But a belief is just that; it is not a rule of fact for anyone other than the person who holds that belief.  We cannot experience life in other people’s beings; we cannot tell one another what is ‘truth’.  This is the most difficult part of being human…co-existing.  So when I read statements like those above I have to ask myself “what went wrong?”

Back when slavery was introduced in the Americas (1500’s) the first people bringing slaves to this country (Spanish) were overthrown by their captives. There is a long history of slave rebellion that gets very little airing.  We seem to be sadly content to think that captive Africans were docile and subdued relatively easily by the slave traders…but that’s another blog altogether.  On the contrary, slaves and indentured servants were not easily subdued by any  means.  There were three primary tools used to keep slaves enslaved.  First, it took the physical threat of guns and shackles to “keep them in line” although that didn’t always work.  Countless people died attempting to escape slavery.  This was a constant problem for slave masters and one look at the history of the Constitution of the United States makes it very clear just how big a deal this issue was/is.  The Constitution is the second tool.  The system of “government” that created this great land both embraced and promoted slavery and the classification of slaves as not holding full personhood rights.  This is most notably evident in language of the “Three Fifths Compromise.”

But one tool was more effective than the gun in making space for slavery to continue as long as it did: Christianity.  Christianity was forced on the slaves as much as the shackles and the unwanted advances of horny slave masters.  Slave masters, who were first reluctant to let slaves engage in worship, found that by imposing the Christian religion on them, they could in essence control their minds.  But being far more intelligent than they were given credit for, slaves learned to use Christian worship as a tool for communication, and sustaining themselves as a community.  The black church today owes its continued success entirely to the ability of early Africans in this country having the ability take poison and turn it into a poultice.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Christianity, for all of the good it does some people in the black community today, was unwillingly forced on the slaves.

But we are not living in the 1600’s.  We are not fighting the battles of oppression the same ways.  Specifically for black Americans today, the shackles are frequently financial and the guns we fear are those we turn on ourselves; and sadly the Christianity of the black church serves, in this case, to divide us more than bring us together.  In a twisted way, we have learned to do the work of the slave master to ourselves.  I think the three statements that begin this post exemplify ways in which the black community has turned the tools of colonial oppression on itself and is sinking fast.

Guns – Rep. Monique Davis sounds like a child who is using words she doesn’t understand.  If she doesn’t know or remember that Matthew Shepherd existed, that gays and lesbians have been beaten to death in this country this year, that trans-women are shot at point blank range for no reason, that the Holocaust targeted gays, that laws still exist worldwide that support murdering people for having sex with the same sex, then she probably doesn’t know about how well she fits the model of black people that D.W. Griffith portrayed in Birth of a Nation.  Ignorance like this kills.

Government – Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth doesn’t understand separation of church and state.  Truth be told, I’m not one to really make a big stink about this particular argument because I don’t think we can actually claim that there ever was or will be a truly secular system of government in America unless we chuck all of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and all of our legal procedures and our monetary system that use Abrahamic language, symbology and ethics.  However, If Rep. Gordon-Booth heard someone in the Middle East make this same statement in the name of Allah while quoting the Hadith in the Qu’ran where it makes reference to being stoned to death for sodomy, she might think again.

God – Bishop Larry Trotter hasn’t read a Bible. Last time I checked, Jesus Christ wasn’t fighting any battles and had nothing to “win.”  Language like this is straight out of that other great movement that oppressed people of color…the Spanish Inquisition.  He might want to take into account that the “LGBT(Q) forces” he is so afraid of are not outside of the church and that the same word of God that he’s referring to, saw Lot sleep with his daughters (Gen. 19: 30-36) and allowed (enforced even) slavery.

My point is twofold.  We cannot impose our beliefs on anyone.  The Marriage Equality Movement is not asking to impose anything on anyone, it is only asking to be released from restriction.  My favorite quote about marriage equality is: “if you don’t like gay marriage…don’t get gay married.”  Equal protection under the law, is not forcing people to do anything they don’t want.  We do not live in a society of restrictions.  If we did, we wouldn’t have the KKK or the Nation of Islam or free blacks in America.

My second point is, when are black American leaders going to wake up to the fact that we continue to see ourselves in relation to our colonial past.  The reasons that some black American’s cling to their religion is damaging our own success.  It is time for black American faith and faith in general to grow up.  Our faith can do remarkable work in building bridges, in giving hope, sustaining people through tragedy and helping us explain an inexplicable world…if it is faith that we want.  But faith and religion can and have done unthinkable damage.  No matter what, faith and religion cannot force us to love someone we don’t love; nor can it forbid us from loving someone we love.  Love is basic, and according to my beliefs (and I only take responsibility for my beliefs) love is God given as part of being alive.

A few sources:

Slave Rebellions

US Constitution and Slavery

Holy Qu’ran

Christianity and Slavery

Too Quick to Covenant

“Should we create a covenant?”  These are familiar words to Unitarian Universalists.  I’ve found that in UU circles covenants are as common as coffee and dounts.  Bless our bleeding, left leaning hearts, it seems that UUs more than any group are always determined to be in “right relationship” with one another, and we frequently begin any kind of process or group exercise with a “covenant.”  Although I admire this eagerness to have level playing fields and understand how this can be a useful tool for helping groups stay on point, the specific use of the word “covenant” is a bit of a hot button to me.  As I delve deeper into understanding faith traditions and magnify that understanding in the lens of our modern world, I caution us all not to miss the point of true covenant or how the assumptions built into social covenants can actually harm us.

The covenants that most people are familiar with are those from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament.  The covenants entered into between God and Noah, God and Abraham, the Mosaic covenant, the covenant beween Jonathan and David and the Covenant of Christ are those which inform much of our modern interpretation of the word in Judeo-Christian culture.  I do not have the scholarly or linguistic heft to venture into a sufficiently deep explanation here of each of these examples, but suffice it to say that these are solemn agreements with God that assume two important absolutes: a) that one believes in God; b) that one believes in a God that believes in them.  Again, this is a much longer conversation…

I believe, however, it is useful to explore how in modern relationships, we take for granted a certain culture of covenant that has its own built in assumptions.  One of the basic definitions of a covenant is as an agreement.  It is first and foremost an agreement that two parties will fulfill certain obligations to one another.  One could call a covenant a “contract” of sorts.  One key difference however, is that a covenant is entered into between people or entities, or groups who know one another and hold a common goal or purpose, whereas a contract is generally between people who only have that agreement as their primary means of relationship.  A covenant serves to bind or enhance an already existing relationship.

The Biblical agreements that I mentioned before are definitely not just contracts. Often involving blood commitment, God (for those who believe and/or follow Abrahamic scripture) surely “knows” mankind.  God “knows” Noah, Abraham and Moses.  David and Jonathan “know” one another intimately and because of that intimacy, enter into their covenant.  The Covenant of God made through Christ, giving his Son for the forgiveness of man’s sin is one made based entirely on God’s omniscience, Jesus’ knowledge of his predestined mission and the acknowledgement man is willing to make in recognizing Christ as savior.  There is a lot of “knowing” going on here.

In today’s environment of deep political and social divide, it could be argued that we are in need of a covenant.  We are in need of an agreement that obliges us to protect one another and serve a common good.  Of course, we already have many agreements that are intended to do this, from the US Constitution to the Kyoto Protocol to NAFTA…and certainly the Judeo-Christian  covenants I point to should serve the purpose of making our world safe and nurturing.  We put on a good show in treating these agreements like covenants.  We see entire governments shaping the course of history based on some of these agreements.  We watch people protest for their rights based on their spiritual covenants.  But in a world that stumbles along on fractured social relationships…fractured by inequities and ignorance and fear and broad assumptions…even these solemn agreements with God become merely contracts that are too easily broken.

We all know what assumptions make….

The conservative LGBTQI hating Christian assumes that the world should want to function in their paradigm of truth.  The rich American capitalist assumes that everyone wants success in the way they see it.  Likewise, some of the the best ultra liberal Unitarian Universalists assume that the most damaging force to people of color is white privilege. These are just examples.  The point is that “right relationship” cannot happen until you are actually IN relationship with the other party. How well do you know me?  How well do I know you?  How deeply do our communities of trust actually engage one another in today’s world? Are we willing to sublimate our personal desires, agendas, guilt, etc. to acknowledge the world as it is seen through the eyes of others long enough to offer them the respect and love that would allow us to enter into a true covenant of human dignity?  A covenant is not a contract, so much as it is a commitment.  It is a commitment to be not just in right relationship, but to be in genuine relationship with one another.

Pardon the mixed cliches here…love your neighbor, but do not suffer fools.  If your neighbor is not willing to genuinely know you, and you are not willing to genuinely know your neighbor, you never stand the chance of embracing the true covenant of peace.