Truth and Meaning: Christmas Spirit

When my father was a boy, he considered an orange a special Christmas present. And while he grew up in relative poverty, he never considered his family poor. My grandfather was always able to find work that paid a fair wage. My grandmother was a stay-at-home mother. And my father was able to work during the summer and save up enough for college., times have changed. People like my grandfather – unskilled or skilled in outdated technologies – have few full-time job opportunities that pay enough to support a family. Fathers and mothers often work several jobs and then have to pay for child care. And young people today routinely graduate from college with massive student loan debt.

Like most of you that read David DeForest’s letter to the editor in the December 12 issue of the Midland Daily News (“No Reason to Work”), I was deeply saddened that such attitudes still exist in our community. Especially now, as we celebrate the birth of a man who loved all people and cared about the well being of everyone, the public expression of such sentiments reminds us of the pain that many feel in this country. The pain of hunger and homelessness; the pain of hate and discrimination; the pain of hopelessness that nothing we do can improve our lives.

My grandfather came to this country penniless, skilled in a trade that no longer existed. And yet, his children grew up healthy and went on to successful lives. Such is no longer the case for many of today’s immigrants. The path to citizenship is prohibitively expensive and takes as long as 10 years to complete. In the meantime, they perform the menial tasks beneath most Americans, living in constant fear that federal agents will burst into their homes and ship family members to undisclosed locations for uncertain deportation.

Especially painful was reading Mr. DeForest’s depiction of Americans living in poverty today. Jesus never asked for any justification when helping the poor or the sick. He simply helped them. Jesus never asked a hungry person, “Why don’t you just get a job?” He simply fed them. And Jesus did not tower over the poor in judgment, condemning them for their need. He simply gave them hope.

Mr. DeForest’s misplaced anger should be directed at the true parasites in this country – privileged rich people who contribute little and consume much; corporate CEO’s who are paid more in one day than a minimum wage employee can earn in a year; bankers who gamble with this nation’s economy with impunity. These leeches cost America billions of dollars each year. Every social welfare program combined does not come close to any such amount.

So, to Mr. DeForest, and to anyone who shares his sentiments, now is the time to re-examine your attitudes. Now is the time to walk among the poor and show them the respect they deserve by learning about the ravages of racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and institutionalized poverty. At Christmas time, let us all walk the path of Jesus – the path of sympathy, compassion, understanding and love.

Truth and Meaning: One Question

A crisis looms on our horizon. How we cope with that crisis will depend on your answer to a simple question.

Ignore the media hype. Disregard the irrelevant facts. Set aside unrelated events that may sway your judgment. Look at the evidence yourself and answer one simple question.

  • Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, is playing alone in a park with a toy gun. Someone calls 911 to report seeing Tamir and even says it is probably just a toy gun. Minutes later, a police car roars up to within just feet of Tamir and two seconds later he is dead. Did Tamir Rice deserve to die?
  • Eric Gardner is selling single cigarettes for 50 cents — a petty crime. A few minutes later, he is surrounded by police. One puts Eric in an illegal choke hold. Eric gasps time and again that he cannot breathe. In just minutes, he lies on the sidewalk dead. Did Eric Gardner deserve to die?
  • Michael Brown fits the description of a person reported to have stolen some cigarettes and scuffled with a clerk. Michael is walking down the street with a friend. An altercation ensues with a police officer, the exact facts of which are disputed. Even assuming the worst case scenario, Michael grabbed unsuccessfully for the officer’s gun and then ran away. A minute later Michael is 30 feet away, hands visible with no weapon. The autopsy reports show bullet wounds in his arm, two to the chest that indicate he was falling forward, and the kill shot to the head at an angle indicating that he was nearly on the ground. Did Michael Brown deserve to die?
I have skewed no evidence. I have included nothing in these scenarios about the neighborhoods, the police officers themselves, community relations with the police, national media coverage or subsequent investigations. In the case of Tamir Rice and Eric Gardner, video records reveal the events in real time for anyone to watch. Disregarding all of the irrelevant noise surrounding these tragedies, did Tamir, Eric and Michael deserve to die?
Whether you are white or black does not matter. Whether you are Republican or Democrat does not matter. Whether you are young or old, straight or gay, man or woman, rich or poor — none of that matters. Did Tamir, Eric and Michael deserve to die?
If you ask yourself that question, and your answer is no, then you are ready to explore the coming crisis in our nation. You are ready to objectively examine the research and data. You are ready to set aside the punditry and editorializing and look at the reality in America for yourself. And when you do, you will see our deeply embedded systems of structured poverty, institutionalized racism and the impacts of privilege in our society.
This is painful work. If you are white, male, straight, middle class, you will be tempted to feel shamed — your initial reaction will be that you are being accused of something you did not do. That is a natural reaction, but I encourage you to move through it quickly. Privilege is not the problem. The problem is that too many people with privilege do not acknowledge its benefits and do too little to level the playing field for all.
Once you have answered the question and read the research, imagine how you would feel if you were a black man in America today, 50 years after the Civil Right Act supposedly launched us into a post-racial society. Imagine that you are the mother or father of Tamir or Michael, or the wife and children of Eric. If you can put on those shoes and walk in them for just a short time, then your feelings of shame and guilt will quickly evaporate. They will disappear because you will want to do something. You will want to change things so that the senseless ending of young lives stops.
Yes or no?

Guide to Holiday Conversations

You find yourself at a family gathering. On your right sits Uncle Harold, who voted twice for Nixon, Reagan and Bush (senior and junior). On your left sits your Cousin Gloria, the Prius-driving, recycling, public school teacher. You uncomfortably count the seconds before someone raises a contentious topic. In anticipation of that moment, here is your holiday guide to surviving inevitable conflicts, and to build bridges of love and understanding.

Uncle Harold starts. “We need to ship those illegals back where they came from. Emperor Obama should wait for Congress to protect American jobs and keep our borders safe from terrorists, drug dealers and freeloaders.”
Cousin Gloria retorts. “Our ancestors were undocumented aliens who came here and slaughtered the indigenous peoples. No one made them go through years of red tape and expenses. No one broke up our families and deported people without due process.”
You: “We are a nation of immigrants, and people around the world have long viewed America as a land of freedom and opportunity. We can find a way to provide a more efficient path to citizenship while still providing reasonable security at our nation’s borders.

Cousin Gloria: “This is my body and the government has no business invading my privacy and interfering with my health care. My body, my choice.”
Uncle Harold: “You are murdering tens of thousands of babies every year and I don’t want my tax dollars supporting godless groups like Planned Parenthood.”
You: “Everyone wants to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. But being pro-life also means educating our children about sex, and providing them with contraception. We should care about every child by supporting loving families that need help. Every child should receive an equal shot at the American Dream.”

Gay and transgender equality
Harold: “God condemns these abominations. I love the person, but homosexuality and the choices people make to tamper with God’s creation are sins.”
Gloria: “You hate LGBT people. You have no right legislating our bedrooms. Your bigotry just encourages bullying and violence against gays.”
You: “As Americans, we believe in freedom and equality. The research seems to show that sexual orientation is determined at birth. So while I respect people’s religious beliefs, I also support equal rights for all people on the basis of differences that we cannot control.”

Health care
Gloria: “Insurance companies are heartless and greedy. Because of them, thousands of people die from lack of adequate insurance. And now you want to take away the safety net of the Affordable Care Act.”
Harold: “Obamacare is fiscally irresponsible and forces people to pay more for their insurance, and to change doctors with which they have developed long relationships. We should let the free market do its job.”
You: “I know families who cannot afford medical insurance. If we can’t fix Obamacare, then we need to come up with a program that serves everyone, because all Americans deserve access to quality health care.”

Religious freedom
Harold: “America is a Christian nation and no one should be forced to do anything that violates their beliefs.”
Gloria: “Employers have no business discriminating against people who don’t share their religious beliefs. These so-called ‘religious freedom’ bills are nothing but legalized bigotry.”
You: “No one has the right to infringe on another’s religious beliefs. But government determines who needs protection from unlawful discrimination. Religious freedom should be a protective shield, not be a sword used to hurt others.”

Gun control
Gloria: “How many more children need to die to support your right to buy machine guns and to carry rifles into my grocery store?”
Harold: “The founders wrote the Second Amendment to protect us from tyranny and it is my duty to protect our nation, as well as to protect my family from harm, whatever the cost.”
You: “Everyone has a right to defend themselves from harm. Everyone also has the right to walk the streets free from the fear that some deranged gunman won’t open fire on them. We need to sit down and find common sense solutions to protect all Americans’ rights and to reduce the gun violence in our country.”

Gloria: “Fascist!”
Harold: “Communist!”
You: “Both of you stop it! Name calling will get you nowhere. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and free the prisoners. Can’t we set aside our partisan differences and agree on these noble goals — not just as Christian goals, but goals that all Americans can agree upon?”

I hope this helps you survive the holidays, as well as what is sure to be another new year of social, economic and political turmoil that will not end until the great mass of centrist thinkers takes back the moral middle of America.

Truth and Meaning: Occupy 2.0?

Sept. 17 was the three-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Whatever you thought of the movement’s strategies or success, its wondrous and flawed idealism, ask yourself this question: Has anything Occupiers protested improved in the past three years?
  • The bankers, lawyers and other white collar criminals responsible for our economic collapse have not been charged, let alone convicted of crimes. 
  • Income disparity continues to rise, with the average corporate head earning hundreds, even thousands times more than their average worker. 
  • Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other oppressions continue unabated and largely unregulated. 
  • Our diet has become more genetically modified and our environment more polluted. 
  • Labor unions continue to be assaulted, no living wage is in sight and health insurance remains a target of the “haves.” 
  • Jobs remain scarce, and students continue to graduate from college with decreasing hope and increasing debt. 
  • Corporations are being treated more like people, and people are being treated more like disposable commodities.
  • Our reckless policies regarding campaign financing have created a government owned by the tiny elite they are supposed to be regulating. 
  • Our blind pursuit of war abroad has now expanded onto our city streets as paramilitary police gun down unarmed, innocent civilians. 
  • It has become increasingly easier to buy a gun than to vote in some states.
As the original statement of the Occupy Wall Street movement said, we as one people united must acknowledge that the future of humanity requires that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to us to protect our own rights; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We continue to live in a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.
The embers of the Occupy movement still glow. Perhaps the time has come to reignite the flame. While we wordsmith and squabble over pennies to aid the poor, the wealth of this great nation is being drained by a new monarchy as trickle down economics has become flood upwards economics. A people united cannot be divided. North Carolina is showing us the way with its Moral Monday movement. Perhaps the time has come for every state and for all people to unite and exercise their rights and responsibilities as Americans to reclaim the moral center of our country.

The Path to Truth

We face a world of confusing uncertainty and contradictions. Some prosper while millions suffer. Mean-spirited sound bites drown out civil discourse. We yearn for heroes and heroines only to see them eviscerated by our cult of celebrity and our celebration of cynicism. The jesters have taken over the castle while the feudal lords plunder the people and pillage the land.

We look to our churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples for guidance, for deliverance. But we find the poison creeping into those foundations as well. Our questions are answered with irrelevant platitudes and empty satisfactions of our simple desire to be cared about, our need to be cared for. Our young people naturally look elsewhere for relief from out-of-control tuition debt, for an end to the limitless hurdles to achieving their goals, for the self-respect to resist unattainable standards of beauty and virulence and societal definitions of success. Too often, our young people see their future as a desolate plain with no harvest in sight.

We live in a nation of incredible abundance, with a wealth of resources, but we feel empty. We live in communities with boundless activities, but we feel listless. We live unfulfilled lives and seek to fill that void with the bread and circuses of the internet, with drinking and drugs, with absurd reality on the television, and real absurdity in our daily lives.

The time has come for a frank and honest conversation about religion. We must discuss our souls as individuals and our soul as a nation. The time to seek the answers to the questions that matter has arrived. Why am I here? What is the purpose of living? Can I find meaning in this insane asylum of a world? What can I do to ease my overwhelming pain?

Some offer simple answers to these questions. You are here because God created you. Your purpose consists of worshiping him. This life offers only a path to a better world after you die. You must endure the pain as a test of your faith that God possesses all of the answers. As children, these answers can work. In the pleasant world of coloring pages and tales of good conquering evil, we need no further explanations. But, as we grow older, we learn that these answers no longer suffice. We begin to question. We fill our doubtful gaps with more complicated rituals; we desperately strengthen our commitment to blind faith and traditions; and we greedily consume more complicated interpretations to the stories of our childhood.

But, despite our valiant efforts, we still feel lost and alone, hopeless and in pain. Our faith never seems strong enough and the answers begin to ring hollow. The zealous shout louder and we assure ourselves that they must be right. How else could they be so convinced of the truth? But, how can we believe their truths when our life tells me differently?

Our own structure as a nation places the burden of resolving these conundrums on us. Our Constitution guarantees us the freedom to believe and to practice (within limits) our religions. As a nation, we declare no one religious belief to be “truth.” America does not proclaim that absolute morality resides within any one specific theology. We may consider others misguided or incorrect, and we can freely promote our particular versions of truth. But, those who profess to know “the” truth exhibit shocked indignation when refuted with facts and reason. Purveyors of divine insight claim persecution when their efforts to demonize people they consider sinful are deemed hateful and hypocritical.

Millions of people do not believe in the Christian god and live exemplary moral lives, just as many Christians do. Some people who do not hold Christian beliefs do awful things, just as do some professed Christians do. We do not live ethical lives because a supernatural agency makes it so. We live ethical lives because as human beings we make choices – choices to love and show compassion, or choices to be intolerant and selfish. A faith in some form of god that helps us live ethically is admirable. But faith in god is not required to be a good citizen, a spiritual person, or a soul aligned with the powers of the universe.

How, then, can I answer the burning questions without a belief in God? Some believe in Love. My Universalist predecessors preached that God is Love, and that works for many people. And while I often find fault with the texts attributed to the Apostle Paul, I agree with his assertion to the Corinthians that Love is patient and kind; Love is not arrogant or resentful; Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

Faith sometimes offers a wonderful power in our lives and can serve as a force for great good. But faith can also twist our perceptions and close our minds to the search for truth and meaning. So, when it comes to issues such as same-sex marriage and equality for LGBT individuals, I ache when I hear people profess their Christian faith to damn others, to sit in judgment on others, and to call down the wrath of the God they worship on others. And it pains me just as greatly when religious people stand mute while these voices of intolerance dominate the public conversation. There is no factual basis to believe that homosexuality is a “choice.” None. Therefore, if one claims the belief that we are made in the image of God, then our sexual orientation and gender identity is part of the grace bestowed by a loving deity who merely wants us to share that Love. We should practice ours faith to honor that gift and to respect its source. But Love is greater than faith. And the sharing of Love trumps any ritualistic practice or dogmatic adherence to sacred texts.

Relying on ancient passages written in another time and place, in a context wildly different than those we live in today ignores our most spectacular gifts as humans. If we are indeed children of a god, then that god bestowed upon us minds, emotions, and the capacity for discernment that raises us above the instincts of mere beasts. An active and engaged spiritual life uses our powers of reason, evaluates our life experiences, and amasses our collective powers of wisdom to determine what is moral. The spiritual life demands only that we understand and love each other. We are no longer children that need to view God as a schoolmaster beating unruly pupils, or an overseer whipping mindless drones. God is Love. It really is just that simple. And that choice lies in our hands.

And what does loving mean today? It means that we keep our beautiful and treasured traditions of spiritual practice but discard those outdated and meaningless rules that serve only to separate us. It means that we celebrate the marriage of loving people committing their lives to each other, whether they are a man and a woman, two men, or two women. It means that we say “Not One More” meaningless and stupid waste of precious life defending our obscene worship of guns. It means telling all women that they are beautiful just as they are, and telling all men that expressing kindness and gentleness does not show weakness. It means sharing the bounty in our lives with those less fortunate by paying living wages and fighting the root causes of poverty. It means providing every person with equal access to physical and mental health resources and freeing them from the crippling burdens of disease and affliction.

We live in a region of great wealth, knowledge, and potential. We can become a model of modern living by pioneering prosperity for every person. We merely need to heed the call to seek our own truths, to enable the search for truth by others, and then to come together in Beloved Community. It is possible and we have the power to do it.

Truth and Meaning: Mythic Struggles

Every religion has its mythic stories. We teach our children in Sunday School classes and we share them during worship services. Our stories inspire us to want to act, and instruct us on how to act.

The mythic stories of my religion involve resistance. But our resistance has not been against tyrants or kings, but against ideas and prevailing social norms. Katarzyna Weigel and Michael Servetus were burned at the stake resisting the idea that every person had to believe what the majority of people believed. When Edward Everett Hale and Lydia Maria Child helped lead the abolition movement, they resisted the dominant paradigm that accepted that some persons can be treated as property. And when Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb died at the hands of racist cowards in Alabama, they resisted the notion that all people do not have the same inherent rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Some generations don’t have the chance to write a mythic story. The great causes arrive only occasionally, and are often not recognized until they are past. But I believe that we are living through such a period right now — a period in which a shadow hovers over the land and whose minions march on many fronts. That shadow is Regressivism. That shadow is the delusion held by some that we need to return to a time that never actually existed — a time during which the masses lived contentedly under the thumb of a benevolent and privileged few.

The Regressive is a cunning adversary. He poses as the polite academician, the well-groomed politician, the business owner from humble roots, the preacher of a loving god. The Regressive promises freedom from fear, freedom from government interference, freedom from immorality. And you pay for these freedoms with sacrifices to the altar of gods of Regressivism. The price? Sacrifice the Other. Sacrifice LGBT folk because they are abominations. Sacrifice women because they cannot be trusted with the responsibility of reproductive choice. Sacrifice the poor because their labor has no value. Sacrifice people of color because they are inherently inferior. Sacrifice your safety because guns matter more than people. Sacrifice the sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, the homeless, the immigrant, and the poor because they are not worthy.

And who resides in this godhead of Regressivism? Greed. Ignorance. Complacency. Power. Lust. Hate. Arrogance. Intolerance. These modern day golden calves demand sacrifices of blood and life and will settle for nothing less. And in return, they offer the banality of cable television, Twitter triviality, and the narcissism of a bloated America that wallows in wealth while half of the world starves.

But how can we fight these gods, whose resources to oppress us seem endless? We start locally and we start small. Throughout Michigan, towns are passing ordinances to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in nondiscrimination laws. Bay County adopted one small piece and Saginaw continues to wrestle with a much broader ordinance. Each time we take up this struggle, the shadow of Regressivism sends forth its soldiers armed with bigotry, a strategy of misinformation and the tactics of fear. The time is coming for Midland to enter the fray. The forces arrayed against us here will be strong, but we will prevail — we must prevail.

The Beloved Community: Justice

As Jody and I drove the 750 miles from Midland, Michigan to Raleigh, North Carolina last Friday, we knew that we were engaged in a pilgrimage.  Just as those called to Selma in 1965, we were called to the South again to march for the moral rights of all people, of our society.
So, as we passed into each new state (and went from -7 degrees to 50 degrees!), we stopped to record a sermon for my congregation back home to watch on Sunday morning.  This is part of an ongoing sermon series I have been delivering this year on King’s idea of the Beloved Community — what are the attributes of the Beloved Community, and how can we get there.

Truth and Meaning: The Call for Moral Dissent

As you read this, my wife and I are driving back to Midland from Raleigh, N.C.. Why did I preach my sermon via Internet video and not from my pulpit this morning? I preached from the road this morning because my predecessors did. Because I can. And because I must.

For centuries, Unitarian Universalist ministers stood at the forefront of change movements: abolishing slavery; developing public education and public health systems; securing civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women, LGBT folk and other marginalized people; defending our religious liberties; promoting peace and disarmament; and protecting our representative democracy. I stand on the shoulders of great men and women who have struggled, sacrificed and even died defending our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And I have the tremendous good fortune to serve a congregation in Midland that supports my work. It is my duty to carry on our legacy of activism.

As a financially secure, straight, white male in a society that privileges all of these things, I can march and be noticed, speak and be heard, protest and be acknowledged. I went to Raleigh because of the injustices taking place in North Carolina affecting our most vulnerable citizens. I went to Raleigh because of the young black man in prison serving time that a white man does not; because of the woman living in a domestic violence shelter with no car, no time off from work and inadequate child care; because of the students in school with no voice and no political influence regarding their future. I went to Raleigh because I can be in Raleigh and they cannot. It is my duty to march, to speak and to protest on their behalf.

When the call from the North Carolina NAACP went out for clergy to come to Raleigh, I remembered a similar call that was answered by the Rev. James Reeb and 100 other Unitarian Universalist ministers 40 years ago when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to stand with him in Selma. Reeb was later killed by racist cowards on the streets of Selma. The circumstances have changed, but the issues very certainly remain the same. I went to Raleigh because I must do whatever I can to stand with my brothers and sisters in justice, equity and compassion, and in defense of the democratic process we hold sacred.

The situation in Michigan today is no less serious. Our legislature continues its war against women by cutting their access to medical treatment and ignoring their voices in Lansing. Our government continues attacking LGBT folk by sanctioning discrimination and limiting the civil rights of loving gay couples. People with inordinate wealth are funding efforts to destroy organized labor and maintain a permanent and growing underclass by suppressing wages and cutting necessary benefits. Gerrymandering and emergency managers have stripped voting power away from half of our state’s African Americans.

Michigan is better than this. We are better than those who would turn our state into a feudal theocracy. We are better than this because true people of faith love their neighbors without regard to their race, creed, identity or gender. True people of faith care about the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the helpless and the hopeless. True people of faith will unite to overcome greed and power lust. We will unite fearlessly, hand in hand, to live in peace because the truth will set us free. And, until that time, those of us who can will rise in moral dissent against injustice wherever it arises. We will march because moral dissent is our calling.

Truth and Meaning: The Legacy of Nonviolence

With today being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I remember once again the massive work remaining before us to achieve King’s vision of Beloved Community. Last week, I spoke to sophomores at Meridian High School about pacifism and the failure of the institution of war to ever resolve any problem without creating new ones. War in the 20th century was a colossal failure of human interaction with more than 100 million war-related deaths, and even greater misery and destruction. The scale of human conflict may be declining, but our capacity to kill and to cause harm only increases.

How long will it be before someone poisons our water, our air, our food to the point of near extinction of the species? How long will it be before fundamentalists push everyone to the brink because of their intolerance? How long will it be before oppressed peoples rise up out of frustration against modern day imperialists and tear down everything humanity has built?

Were he alive today, Dr. King would advocate for peace; he would advocate for acceptance and understanding; he would advocate for a sharing of the earth’s bounty equally and fairly among all people. But, most of all, Dr. King would remind us that peace begins not at tables of nations, not in legislative halls, not in town meetings, but in our own hearts. Dr. King would tell us that peace begins when we live and love with peace in our own lives every day.

The Beloved Community is a dream, but it is an achievable dream. And the price of admission is really quite small — we simply must adapt and accept new ways of thinking.

  • We must accept that any good derived from violence is far offset by the damage. We must, therefore, forsake violence forever.
  • We must accept that all roads to enlightenment and salvation are valid. We must, therefore, forsake religious intolerance forever.
  • We must accept that we are divine creatures full of the capacity for love. We must, therefore, recognize and embrace love in all of its forms.
  • We must accept that money is also violence; greed is a slave owner to which we bind ourselves. We must, therefore, bridge the chasms of economic disparity that create poverty and inequality.
  • We must accept that tyrants will take whatever we give them and that they cannot succeed if we take charge of our lives and our communities. We must, therefore, empower ourselves to change the world and to conquer the forces of ignorance and hate.

Dr. King would tell us that if you see an injustice, speak out. If you see an act of oppression, support the oppressed. If you see an act of violence, stand up against it. Live and love with peace in your heart.