One World

Kenneth Patton was one of my ministerial heroes. At the core of his theology lay the idea that all people share a common body of symbols and concepts. These shared icons, often articulated through art, unite us in purpose and community.

16145160_10211987048219858_1759818400_oWhen people seek to divide us, they treat those symbols as inviolate.  In reality, however, art is art and the symbols all represent the same human feelings and behaviors: Love each other; Do no harm; Respect the world; Honor the gifts each of us brings.

On this eve of leadership transition in the United States, the forces of disunity seem strong, almost insurmountable.  Our President Elect seeks unity through fear, acceptance through intimidation, and equality through benevolent despotism.  The challenge looms large.  We are justifiably frightened for the future.  The course of events leaves us bewildered – how did this happen?

Our new President happened because we allowed fear to cloud our reason. We failed to take a stand when oppressed neighbors suffered intimidation.  We confused volume with truth and celebrity with competence.

And so, we march.  Tomorrow, I join hundreds of thousands on a pilgrimage to our nation’s capital.  We march to take back the symbols of universal humanity from those who would desecrate them for profit and sustained privilege. We march for love, for kindness, for respect, and to honor our inherent worth and dignity.

Patton asked the question, “What is equality?”  He answered that nothing is equal since every creature is unique and unmatchable.  At the same time, everything is equal because every creature is equally unique and unmatchable.

America is already great.  Our wondrous diversity makes us strong.  Our commitment to democracy, freedom, and equality leads the world.  And our journey toward Beloved Community and a religion for one world offer everyone hope for tomorrow in spite of any setbacks.

Dear Mr. Trump

Congratulations on your upcoming inauguration. Many of us voted for you despite your lack of experience holding public office. So, on behalf of the hundreds of millions of us you now serve, I want to take this opportunity and offer you some advice as you enter the Oval Office. Please forgive us if some of these suggestions sound simplistic, even obvious. Given your public discourse to date, however, we have confidence that you will find value in them.

trump-meryl1. Think. Our mothers taught us, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all.” We Americans can be obnoxious, even rude. But, we look up to the Office of the President largely because it stands for the highest level of decorum and class in our society. Our President should be better than us, and should model for us the best human behavior. We all understand the satisfaction derived from beating someone in a war of words. But, we need our President to rise above personal pettiness and insulting retorts in response to criticism.

2. Listen. Like many of us, you have decades of life experience. But, you can now access thousands of people with unbelievable knowledge about every topic imaginable at a moment’s notice. You are smarter than most of us – otherwise you would never have succeeded in the election. You are still a human being, however, and we do not expect you to know everything. Please listen to people the way you expect us to listen to you.

3. Review. We admire your spontaneity. In a complex world, however, every word spoken by our President matters. When you tweet without subjecting your words to careful review…you frighten us. We don’t see grammatical mistakes, factual errors, and statements revealing a lack of knowledge of basic governmental functions as amusing signs of a delightfully quirky leadership style. They scare us. They scare us because they are mistakes that we would make – but we are not President. We fear the consequences of your unedited statements, and need to see that you understand our feelings and the power your words wield.

4. Respect. We respect the Office of the President like no other position in the world. Likewise, we need the person filling that office to respect us. We elected you. So, we logically expect you to respect our intelligence and wisdom. When we feel disregarded by our President, we can delude ourselves with false hopes; we begin forming unrealistic expectations of a nation already responsible for unprecedented historical achievements; and we allow our fears to override our reason. The American people will follow your example. We need you to display the respect for us that you expect from us in return.

5. Awaken. Citizen Trump owned every privilege available. Unlike most of us, you were born a white, straight, male, Christian, healthy and wealthy American citizen. But we need President Trump to represent people of color and women; gay and transgender people; Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and Atheists; and people suffering from physical and mental illnesses. We need our President to serve all the people, whether they live in mansions, houses, apartments, or packing crates. Whether we work as executives or lawyers, nurses or plumbers, cashiers or migrant farmers, we must feel that you empathize with our lives and acknowledge our inherent worth and dignity.

6. Mature. To be honest, many of us voted for you because you acted like us. You said things we might say and acted in ways we might act. But we know that we don’t always say the right things, or act in the right ways. Candidate Trump was an adolescent – a malignant narcissist and expert self-promoter. And many of us loved that persona. We now need President Trump to heed the lesson we learned on TV from that great philosopher Spock of Vulcan, who said, “Having is not nearly so pleasing a thing as wanting.”

You wanted our ultimate position of celebrity and we gave it to you. But with ownership comes tremendous responsibility. Billions of lives across the world now depend on you owning every attribute of a great leader, qualities such as wisdom, integrity, and humility. Perhaps most important, we need you to show the courage to make decisions that might make you unpopular, but that are morally correct choices. Sadly, there isn’t a kinder, more gentle way to say this. Now that we have entrusted you with the most important office in our nation, we need you to grow up.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Every one of your constituents – regardless of skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, theological persuasion, ability, or legal, social and economic status – can agree with these sentiments.

His letter continued. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

7. Love. Mr. Trump, on the morning of January 20, you will gaze into that golden mirror you caress so often. Our nation, all of us living and yet to be born, and the planet Earth that sustains us need you to see the full reflection of a President. We need that mirror to reflect a thoughtful, considerate, careful, respectful, aware adult. We desperately need that mirror to project an image of love. We know you love yourself and your family. We know you love your fans and supporters. As President Trump, we need you to share that love with every person equally.

trump-reporterWe need you to love every Black man looking in the rear view mirror at the flashing lights of a police car; the woman entering the Planned Parenthood office for a cancer screening because her insurance won’t pay for her to go to the local hospital anymore; the young gay man cast out of his parent’s home because of who he loves; the woman wearing the hijab being berated for her religious beliefs; the man publicly mocked for his congenital disability; the mother living in her car because her employers pay poverty wages; and the hard-working, courageous man seeking the same American dream for his children that our own ancestors sought.

We Americans can love deeply. But we will emulate our President. If our President displays impatience, arrogance, rudeness, and resentment, we will do the same. So, Mr. Trump, please model that love for us, for our nation, and for our planet as you become President Trump.

Christmas Message for Modern Times

Billions across the earth celebrate the birth of a child. Some doubt the accuracy of factual details of the event. Others question on the nature of the child and the circumstances of his conception. Centuries of scholarship and spiritual contemplation failed to resolve different interpretations of the child’s purpose and of his eventual actions as an adult.

Nearly everyone can agree, however, on one thing. Whether you are a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, whether you follow Buddhist, Hindu, or no religious teachings at all, we can all agree on this specific aspect of the life of the man known as Jesus.

Early in his ministry, this wandering rabbi preached a message to the people. He preached from the hilltops and from the valleys. His message resonated with every person largely because other prophets had preached the same wisdom throughout the centuries. And in 21st century America, this message rings especially true.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

Jesus lived in a world where the privileged held reign over the oppressed. He foresaw a time when all their wealth, power, and military might could not prevent their eventual downfall.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

Jesus called out the hypocrites, the policy makers who dined in fine style while the poor made do with the scraps. He preached fairness and equity for all the people.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

The arrogant leaders, distant from the faith and dedication of the people, thought they controlled the truth. Jesus did not mock or threaten others to serve as an inspirational leader.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Truth is not whatever reality most benefits you. Truth is truth. Jesus showed that true leadership consists of honesty, openness, and candor regardless of the consequences.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Jesus spoke truth to power, never backing away from the challenges of scribes and Pharisees. He never sold his principles for comfort, advantage, or influence.

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

The Golden Rule is the single most universal ethical belief of humanity. Jesus lived this ethic and taught others to do the same.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.

Hold people accountable, but always do so with love and understanding. Jesus held malice in his heart for no one and yet stood on the side of love opposed to all oppressive authority.

castingoutmoneychangersNear the end of his ministry, Jesus demonstrated that we cannot achieve justice passively, and that we must sometimes meet oppression with active resistance.  Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying…he said, “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

After his active resistance to the corrupt bankers and priests, Jesus taught in the temple and healed those who came to him seeking cures. He told the crowds that the scribes and Pharisees tie up heavy, hard to bear burdens and lay them on the shoulders of others to carry. They exalt themselves, claiming great deeds and the best seats in the synagogue. Jesus called them blind guides and fools, for they valued the gold and not the sanctuary that made the gold sacred. Instead of tithing, Jesus called on the self-indulgent and greedy to practice justice, mercy, and faith.

Prophecy. Christmas celebrates a world-changing event in the past. But Christmas also commemorates the spirit of the man born under that star. Christmas proclaims the message of brotherhood and sisterhood among all people, and compassion for every person, whether poor or sick, hungry or hated.

So, honor the wonder of birth this Christmas season. May you see in every child the promise of a great life of service, a great love of others. Honor the child – wherever and whenever born – as the symbol of hope for billions born into poverty and oppression. Then, honor the person that child then grew and now grows to be; the one who then taught and will now teach the beatitudes of unconditional love; and who will always sacrifice everything to show us the meaning of justice, of mercy, and of faith. May we honor those teachings every day of the year and find the courage to stand up publicly for those principles.

The Real War on Christmas

Every year, at about this time, pundits begin the mantra of The War on Christmas. Usually, these dire warnings cite non-Christians as the source of efforts to remove the meaning of the holiday from the public arena. And while I agree that the important and wonderful meanings of Christmas are in jeopardy of being forgotten, I would posit a different source for the conflict.

Early in November, I made an online payment to a department store of $25.00. Unknown to me, my new virus protection software had a tiny bug — when in protected mode, the decimal key on the numeric pad simply didn’t work. So my $25.00 payment went through as a $2,500.00 payment.

Of course, I immediately called my bank and was informed that the payment was already in transit and that I would have to contact the store for the refund. The first two layers of customer service people told me that it would take them 7-10 business days to review the overpayment and issue a refund. Finally, the third person connected me with a different office. This person told me that if the bank faxed information about my account on letterhead, that they could process the refund in less time.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. After several different customer service people with my bank, I found myself talking to a special resolution department in Kalamazoo. He told me that the bank could not send the information because their policies prohibit dissemination of routing and account numbers. Wonderful Catch 22.

More calls and I provided the bank representative with the direct phone number and the email of the store representative. For the following week, calls to both people went to voice mails and were unanswered. Trying again, I got to the fourth level of store management. Now more than two weeks into this nightmare, she told me that the funds were earmarked for release, but that it would now take 3-5 more business days to process the check through a third party vendor. Finally, seven business days later, the money arrived in my account.

So my payment happened at the speed of fiber optic cables in less than a day. The refund took 27 days for processing. Of course, in the meantime, our family finances were a wreck only made tolerable by an incredibly patient landlord. And my money was earning interest for some parent corporation while I faced overdraft fees.

So when you ask me who is behind The War on Christmas, I will tell you. We are. We are all responsible for this war because we tolerate the delusion of capitalism portrayed by the American economic system. We turn away desperate refugees fleeing conflicts from which our military-industrial complex has richly benefited. We demonize people with different notions of God, while coveting people who worship no god but an idol of gold.

Christmas in America was long ago perverted into a commercial travesty of greed and consumer gluttony. A holiday that should bring togetherness instead forces minimum wage employees to work on Thanksgiving while we watch football and overdose on turkey. A holiday that should be about joy instead induces anxiety and the relentless bombardment from businesses telling us what we need to be happy. A holiday that should celebrate the life of a babe and his teachings as a man is instead marked by more mass shootings, more poverty, more bigotry, and more overt discrimination in our supposedly great nation.

Those who claim that the United States is a Christian nation need to wake up. Atheists are not your enemy. Muslims are not your enemy. LGBT people are not your enemy. Your enemy is your own hypocrisy, your own embracing of the privilege afforded you by the accident of your birth to benefit from inherited wealth, skin color and other advantages. Your enemy is your own corporate institutions that put profits before people, and the welfare of the few over the good of society.

Do you want to defeat the forces waging War on Christmas? Then practice the teachings of the man believed born on this day. Help the homeless, feed the starving and clothe the naked. Do this without expectation of benefit in return, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Fight oppression of minorities, women, gays and lesbians, veterans and others suffering from intolerance and mistreatment by an economic system with no incentives for activities that do not produce increased stock prices. And teach your children that this day is about giving, not about receiving.

But most of all, tear up your credit cards. Instead of greeting cards, write letters. Instead of gifts, give your time and attention. Don’t be led like sheep by chain department stores, consumer manufacturers and banks. Remember the true meanings of Christmas — love your neighbors, bring peace to the Earth, and join together in common purpose to make the world a better place.

(originally published December 6, 2015)

Truth and Meaning: A Call to Clergy

I know we do not agree on some matters of ethics and worldly conduct. We do not all share the same views on human development and the nature of the universe. And our churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship have varying approaches when participating in public discussions of political matters.

But, my brothers and sisters in faith, a crisis stands before us that our nation’s leaders seem powerless to resolve. The time has come for us to speak out and take the lead in the public conversation before more innocent blood spills on the ground, before we mourn another senseless tragedy of pain and death. As leaders of the faith community, we must stand united against the idolatry of guns in this country. We must speak with one voice and call for common sense laws controlling the sale of guns and the types of weapons available for ownership.

“Thus He will judge among the many peoples, and arbitrate for the multitude of nations, however distant; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks…they shall never again know war.” (Isaiah 2:4)

In recent years, many people have left our churches. Young adults in particular choose increasingly to seek spiritual inspiration outside our congregations. This trend stems from one simple fact: our message is no longer relevant in the modern age. Children slaughtered in schools; women shot in their homes by those who swore to love and protect them; and people seeking leisure in theaters facing a barrage of bullets. Our prayers for the victims are no longer enough. Our community needs to hear our voices raised in alarm demanding that decision-makers take a stand.

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:52)

Two years ago, Michigan lawmakers considered a bill making it legal for anyone with a concealed weapon permit to carry guns into pistol-free zones: houses of worship, schools, day care centers, hospitals, college dormitories, and other public spaces. We testified in Lansing and defeated that misguided legislation. Now those same legislators are back calling for the same proliferation of weapons into our sacred spaces and into the other sanctuaries of our most vulnerable people (SB 442). We must rise up again, louder and in more numbers than before. We must crush such senseless bills forever or risk turning over our holiest places to the deification of guns.

“God guides whomever follows His good pleasure along the pathways of peace. And thereby, He brings them out from the veils of darkness into the light.” (Surah 5:16)

Each of our faith traditions classify or embody Evil in our respective theologies. Each of our religions condemn killing, especially the kind of murder we see all too often in mass shootings. Whatever your teachings, our current gun policies could not be more effective in facilitating these evil acts. Anyone can purchase pistols, or even semi-automatic rifles without a single background check. Anyone can purchase as much ammunition as they please without any oversight or control. No test of competency is required to purchase or use a gun, nor does any organized system of gun registration exist. If Satan walked the Earth, he could not design a more perfect environment for mayhem, grief, and death.

“All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain or treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure unchangeable law.” Jain Sūtrakṛtāṅga 

Our fight lies not with hunters, collectors, or those who promote training and responsible gun ownership. Who is our enemy? The fear and paranoia that grips so many now when it comes to gun ownership; the modern fetish for military-style weapons and armor-piercing bullets; and the lawless actions and violent rhetoric of anti-government militias and hate groups that spread lies and mistrust. Our enemies lurk like slavering beasts waiting to dismember and devour our flocks. We can watch over our people passively and cry wolf after the next attack, or we can demand better protections from future threats.

“A man is not an Ariya, an elect nobleman, when he injures living creatures. He is the true Ariya, an elect nobleman, who practices ahimsa, non-violence.” The Dhammapada 19:15

We must end our public silence that currently helps condemn thousands to die every year from gun violence. We must unite to prevent fear from continuing to trample reason and common sense. And we must set aside our doctrinal differences so that faith, hope, and love can replace weapons of mass killing on our sacred altars. Whatever name you use for the ultimate awe and mystery of all existence, guns are inconsistent with its beauty and wonder.

“This is a violent system…I don’t believe it can be defeated by violence…The system can be dismantled if we mobilize our radical imagination; if we create an alternate so inspiring and compelling that the masses of people who yearn for freedom and abundance will join us.” Starhawk

My brothers and sisters, we are not merely faith leaders. We are prophets and visionaries. We are healers and oracles. We are Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Mohammad, Gautama Buddha and Krishna, Brighid and Nanaboozhoo. If we speak as one against the senseless proliferation of killing weapons in this country, people will return to our churches. If we stand together, people will join us on this quest to make this a nation founded on the principles of love and caring for our neighbors, and not on the principle of “might makes right.” If we invoke our radical imaginations, then people will be drawn to our compelling message of inspiration.
As foretold by the prophet Hosea, that day will come when the bow, sword, and war will be banished from the land and we will dwell in safety. Let us join to make that golden age a reality.

Truth and Meaning: Hijacking God

Why do so many people drift away from the churches of their childhood? And why do so many of these individuals stop going to any type of church altogether?

I suspect the answer lies in frustration. I was raised in a Christian tradition. As a teenager, however, I found that the church of my birth lacked answers to the questions I was asking. So I went to other houses of worship — Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Jewish, Catholic, Methodist — and none provided satisfactory answers to my basic questions about the mysteries of life. The more I searched, the more frustrated I became. How could so many churches claim to have “the” truth when they couldn’t even answer my simple questions? How could each church proclaim to know the true nature of God without all of the other churches being wrong?
According to the “World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions,” there are 34,000 separate Christian groups in the world. Let us put that into perspective. There is nearly one distinct Christian group in the world for every Christian living in Midland. That means thousands of spiritual practices, thousands of Biblical interpretations, thousands of answers to great questions, and thousands of definitions of God. Major denominations, groups within denominations, sects within those groups, and an untold number of non-denominational, independent entities — and most claim to profess the uniquely correct understanding of the nature of God.
In Midland alone, there are roughly 100 Christian churches. Is it possible that each of these religious communities somehow has a different notion of God and how we should live our lives connected to that God? If so, what possible hope does the world have for peaceful co-existence?
In his song “Imagine,” John Lennon sang the words,

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try
No hell below us, above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today.
Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too
Imagine all the people, living life in peace.

Some interpret Lennon’s life and words as those of someone opposed to religion; even an atheist. But this was not the case. Lennon was quite religious; just not in the same way as many other people here in the West.
What Lennon opposed was the unnecessary fracturing of the world of God’s children into separate religious tribes. Lennon opposed the arrogance of churches claiming to know truth, when no one can know for certain the nature of God.
I have my opinions on the nature of existence. I have discerned answers to the big questions in life that work for me. Whatever your religious affiliation, I respect your right to your own opinions, to your own discernment process. All I ask is that you respect mine in return.
Because no one gets to hijack God. No matter how strong your conviction, you don’t get to define God for others. If you allow your opinion about God to justify bad behavior toward those who do not share your views, then you are responsible for your prejudice and discrimination. You are responsible for the pain you inflict on others.
In the end, we are all flawed human beings. We cannot possibly know all truth because our brains are too wired with conflicting emotions, petty distractions, and learned biases. But, like Hindus, we can come together and agree that all spiritual paths eventually lead to God, whatever its nature. We can respect the paths we are on and not use our different journeys as an excuse to hate.
And if we agree with the Universalist attitude that God is love, then we can begin by practicing that belief. Whatever name we use for God, or even if we do not use the construct at all, we can love each other. We can help each other, serve each other, and walk with each other on the path of life.

Truth and Meaning: The Irony of Narrative

“How can you be a minster and have such hatred in your heart for the white race and the nation in general?”

No, I did not receive this message. This sentence was in one of the thousands of pieces of hate mail Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received during his lifetime.

But, I have received similar expressions. People have called me a hundred different derogatory names, belittled my credentials and misrepresented my opinions. If that is the price for taking public positions and seeking to expand the discourse on difficult, even painful issues, then I accept.

The recent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement has given rise to some interesting and ironic arguments. Many Americans take tremendous pride in the manner by which our nation was founded. As oppressed peoples, we rebelled violently against our oppressors, even resorting to nontraditional tactics in that day to kill our enemy. We rebelled against unfair taxation, under-representation, restraint of our livelihoods and the excessive militarization of the government’s law enforcement agents.
Does this sound familiar? In the wealthiest nation in the world, we still have aggressively systemic poverty that disproportionately affects people of color. Our criminal justice system detains and convicts African American suspects to a far greater degree than those with light skin. The voting rights of minorities are under constant siege. And hardly a week passes without another brutal and almost completely avoidable execution of a black person by police.
We fund a war machine to the tune of trillions while we cut funding to school lunches and early childhood education. We call welfare recipients freeloaders and leeches while candidates for president brag about declaring bankruptcy and defaulting on their debts to hard working people who performed services for them in good faith. We begrudge people a living minimum wage while corporate CEO pay exceeds the cost of a minivan for one day of work.
If Tamir Rice had been your son playing in Plymouth Park, wouldn’t you be angry? If the police pulled you over routinely for “driving while white,” wouldn’t you be frustrated? If your child got sent to prison for the possession of marijuana while bankers who destroyed our economy received a bailout, wouldn’t you feel hopeless?
If so, then you feel a fraction of what most Black people in America feel every day.
The American narrative rightfully evokes a spirit of pride and patriotism. Like hundreds of millions, I love America. But, I have trouble loving America when it resembles 18th century England in its treatment of those it treats as lesser citizens. I cannot meld the theory of American freedom and justice with the current reality faced by our poor, our people of color, our gay and transgender people and other oppressed Americans.
The Founders of our country were religious men and women, people of faith. They had faith that their cause was just and that they had the right to self-determination and fair treatment. Americans today have those same expectations. But the promise of our Founders remains unfulfilled because of racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism, xenophobia and many other forms of intolerance.
I support the #BlackLivesMatter movement because it serves as a wake-up call to those who love America. This movement reminds us of those left behind by the American dream, those still abandoned by our lofty principles. The time is long overdue for us to make good on the promise of the American Revolution to free all of the prisoners, to feed the hungry and house the homeless, and to give hope to those without hope.

Truth and Meaning: Mold in the Cellar

The first time I exited Business 10 onto Patrick, I saw the sign: “Midland: City of Modern Explorers.” I remember feeling hopeful that my new home would be progressive and warm. Since then, I have met many friendly and caring people in Midland. I have befriended future-oriented, justice-seeking people in the area. Midland offers amenities of a city many times its size, and is a great place for parents to raise their children.

But under the foundation of the City of Modern Explorers grows a mold. It spreads during the cold dampness of night in the sickly detritus of decay. It eats away at our compassion and understanding. It mocks our modern, forward focus and stifles our exploring nature with fear and bigotry.
Unless we explore our own cellar, we might live unaware of this destructive cancer. If we dismiss the stench of hate and the foul erosion of community, then our City of Modern Explorers may well become a hollow shell of platitudes build on the sandy ground of empty promises.
Recently, a thief vandalized the flag pole in front of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship that I serve, and stole flags representing our public witness. This was the third time in recent months that someone has taken flags from our property. One flag was the flag of our faith – the chalice of Unitarian Universalism. The others were symbols of our support of equality for gay, bisexual and transgender people. The police shrugged the act off as random nuisance. I do not.
Since moving here, I have inspected Midland’s basement and exposed the mold growing in its shadows. This malignant rot wants to stay hidden and so it attacks in the only way it knows – through intimidation, bullying, insinuation, and taunts. The mold tells you what you want to hear – that everything is alright and that you don’t need to change anything.
I ask you to ignore this lie, because we do need to change something in Midland. If we care about this city, then we need to confront this infestation in our cellar and see it for what it really is. Corruption. Hypocrisy. Arrogance. Evil. If we want Midland to remain a bastion of science and reason, of education, and of family activities and love, then we need to put on our haz-mat suits and enter the basement.
After our flags disappeared, the Midland Daily News published an article about the crime. It did not take long for the mold to spread its spores, suggesting that my congregation had committed this act ourselves as a public relations ploy. I challenged the author to offer proof of his allegation, which of course he could not. In response, however, he posted this black and white image on my Rev. Jeff Liebmann public figure page on Facebook.

The image sickened me. I hope you can forgive me for feeling the urgency to share this foul drawing with you. In particular, I hope that my Jewish brothers and sisters will forgive sharing such an all too familiar drawing. But, I have read much about propaganda and the growth of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. The image clearly intends to mimic similar posters created by the Nazis to rile up Antisemitism among the German people, posters like the one shown, which was printed by the Nazis for use in Russia. Look at the two images. Compare the features of the figure, unmistakably meant to mock Jewish people and make it possible to hate them and blame them for social problems. One is more than 80 years old. The other is barely a toddler.
This is how propaganda works. The message attacks people at the fringes, those whose numbers are too small to defend themselves effectively – the Other. Propaganda blames all social woes on the Other, shouting that the Other is inferior and therefore undeserving of our compassion or sympathy. When we see these messages, we might be tempted to write them off as perhaps objectionable, but mostly harmless. Perhaps we discuss the limits of free speech and how we define hate speech. But, in the end, we avoid the conflict and wait for the event to blow over and be forgotten.
Unfortunately, such images are not harmless, nor are they forgotten – and they ARE hate speech. They are not harmless, because some people actually believe the message. They believe the message and the mold slowly takes hold of their souls. They are hate speech because they are cowardly lies fabricated by people raised to believe that they are superior and that their interests matter more than the welfare of others. They are lies because they perpetuate discredited stereotypes and shun facts and evidence like sunlight.
As a religious person, I love my neighbors – all of my neighbors. I seek justice and equality for all people, whatever their culture or ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, immigrant or veteran status, level of ability, or religion. I do this because this is a principle of my faith, to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. So I witness publicly against expressions of hate, prejudice, and bigotry. I witness for the oppressed who cannot change the oppressive paradigms of society themselves. And I witness for you, so that you will know the nature of the disease infecting the foundation of our community.
The late social and civil rights activist Julian Bond once spoke at the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist Congregations at a lecture I was privileged to attend. He told this story. 

Two men are sitting by a river and see, to their great surprise, a helpless baby floating by. They rescue the child, and to their horror, another baby soon comes floating down the stream. When that child is pulled to safety, another baby comes along. 

As one man plunges into the river a third time, the other rushes upstream. “Come back!” yells the man in the water. “We must save this baby!”

“You save it,” the other yells back. “I’m going to find out who is throwing babies in the river and I’m going to make them stop!”

I am rushing upstream and ask you to join me. The mold eats away at Midland’s foundation every day, but we have the power to stop its spread. We can do this by proclaiming that all people should have equal rights regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Not special rights; equal rights. We can do this by proclaiming that Black Lives Matter; of course all lives matter, but right now we need to show that Black lives matter as much as our own. We can do this by loving our neighbors – all of our neighbors – whether they are Christian or Atheist, Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, Buddhist or Agnostic.
Most of all, we need to stand up to bullies and reveal them for what they are – damaged and insecure people nurtured with the stagnant waters of ignorance, the stifling heat of fear, and the cold oppressive brightness of privilege and prejudice.

Truth and Meaning: A Top 10 List That Matters

Last week, I talked about our love of top 10 lists. So, this week I offer my list of the top 10 things Americans need to do to restore sanity to our nation.

10. Labor – Establish a minimum wage that is a living wage. The endless attacks on labor undermine our economy and our democracy. No one should suffer wage or job discrimination for any reason and anyone willing to work should be able to live above the poverty line.
9. Health Care – Provide a basic level of medical and mental health care to every American once and for all. We should demand that politicians stop using our health and well-being as a political football.
8. Corporate Responsibility – Demand that the private sector pay its fair share of taxes and be held accountable when it misbehaves. Congress should overturn the Citizens United decision. The idea that a corporation has the rights of a person is not only illogical, it is social suicide.
7. Election Reform – Guarantee the unencumbered right to vote for every citizen by removing all restrictions to voting rights and making Election Day a national holiday. Enact comprehensive campaign finance reform and abolish all partisan gerrymandering, replacing current redistricting tools with common sense and reason.
6. Environment – Stop making the irresponsible assumption that petrochemical resources are unlimited. We should plan for a future where all people have access to food and clean water, and where we live sustainably.
5. Racism – Judging people by their skin color, ethnicity, or culture is a concept that has overstayed its welcome. Our mass incarceration of people of color in increasingly profit-oriented prisons is obscene. Immigrants need a clear and affordable path to citizenship.
4. Stupidity – People are free to ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence on any given topic. But we should keep such people out of positions of authority and decision making. We have tolerated know-nothings and deniers in our public discourse for too long. The Earth is round and circles the sun. Climate change is real. Sexual orientation is largely determined at birth. Evolution occurs. The world is billions of years old.
3. Guns – End our insane worship of guns. We have allowed violence and killing to be our number one national priority for far too long. We should make universal background checks mandatory and impose strict limits on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Open Carry and Stand Your Ground may have worked on the 19th century frontier — they do not work for 21st century America.
2. Life – We should become a truly life-sustaining nation. That means no more war, an end to capital punishment, zero tolerance for police brutality, and contraception and comprehensive sex education for all so that every child is wanted. More important, it means caring about the born — eliminate hunger, provide equal education opportunities, and provide jobs, housing and social safety nets for everyone.
1. Revolution – We cannot accomplish needed changes through incrementalism. We should seek nonviolent ways to catalyze large-scale changes quickly and effectively. That means grassroots movements for policy change, boycotts, dissent and other tools the people have at their disposal. And it especially means voting for the highest quality candidates and not just for anyone who happens to have a “D” or an “R” next to their names.

Truth and Meaning: Love and Marriage

In a few weeks, I hope to begin officiating weddings for all couples here in Mid-Michigan. When (not if) the U.S. Supreme Court rules Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, I will be running to the Midland County Courthouse to greet happy couples. Nothing would make me more jubilant that to be bombarded with requests to preside over glorious ceremonies of love and life.

As we have seen in dozens of other states, the earth will not stop revolving on its axis; the “traditional” family will not crumble; and people will not want to start marrying their dogs. All that will happen is that thousands of loving couples will finally have the rights and privileges that heterosexual couples take for granted.

These rights are not some dreaded “gay agenda.” In fact, when people learn about the injustices faced by gay and lesbian couples, they often wonder what took so long to break down these irrational barriers.

For instance:

  • In a same-sex marriage if one partner dies, the other partner is not entitled to bereavement leave from work, to file wrongful death claims, to draw the Social Security of the deceased partner or to automatically inherit a shared home, assets or personal items in the absence of a will.
  • Unlike heterosexual spouses, same-sex partners are usually not considered next of kin for the purposes of hospital visitation and emergency medical decisions.
  • Same-sex partners cannot cover their families on their health plans without paying taxes on the coverage, nor are they eligible for Medicare and Medicaid coverage. 
  • Same-sex couples are denied the automatic right to joint parenting, joint adoption, joint foster care and visitation for non-biological parents. In addition, the children of gay and lesbian couples are denied the guarantee of child support and an automatic legal relationship to both parents, and are sometimes sent a wrongheaded but real negative message about their own status and family.
  • Same-sex couples are excluded from special rules that permit married couples to buy and own property together under favorable terms, rules that protect married couples in their shared homes and rules regarding the distribution of the property in the event of death or divorce.
  • Gay and lesbian couples cannot file joint tax returns and are excluded from tax benefits and claims specific to marriage. In addition, they are denied the right to transfer property to one another and pool the family’s resources without adverse tax consequences.
These are just a small sampling of thousands of federal, state and local barriers faced by same-sex couples. Any reasonable person can look at these and see that denying these people the same rights and privileges of heterosexual couples is not only wrong, it is immoral.

In time, these injustices will not only go away, but we will wonder why we ever enforced them at all.