The Elephant

Americans marched last week. Across the country, millions expressed fear of a neo-Fascist in the White House, and solidarity in seeking change in our political system.

ct-womens-march-national-pg-20170121People marched for many reasons. They marched for equal rights for women, People of Color, immigrants, LGBTQIA individuals, and others. They marched for our planet, recognizing that human action harms our global climate. They marched for a fair and just society that truly offers complete access to the American Dream for all.

And many marched for reproductive freedom – the issue that represents the key lynch pin to every political discussion in this nation. People will vote against their own self-interest when it comes to taxes, jobs, immigration, schools, the environment, even national security. But the one issue on which most voters will not compromise is abortion. Any candidate claiming to be “pro-life” running against another candidate labeled as “pro-choice” can count on thousands of committed votes regardless of any other political stand they take.

The majority of white American women just voted for a President who believes women are property to be mauled, who mocks the disabled, who opposes living wages, and who casually banters about nuclear war. But, he claimed to be pro-life, and he now sits in the White House.

“Pro-Choice” is a myth

In my experience, women who support reproductive freedom do not simply support abortion on demand. In fact, many would like to see the need for elective abortions reduced to zero. However, our laws and social systems remain heavily anti-woman. Abuse of women remains at shockingly high levels. The objectification of women in the media trains girls and boys from an early age that striving toward an unachievable norm of beauty defines a woman’s worth. The continued acceptance of our rape culture leaves women living in constant, daily fear of discrimination, molestation, assault, and worse.

American men take little responsibility for sexual relations. We routinely expect women to control the use of contraception and yet men often overrule women to suit their desire for sexual gratification. Birth control is expensive, hard to access, and has many side effects. We label men who bed many women as virile and desirable role models. We label sexually active women as promiscuous sluts and whores unworthy of marriage and motherhood.

planned-parenthood-about-us-who-we-are-mission-1920x1080Even when women take every possible precaution, this pernicious double standard too often produces pregnancies where the men bail out and leave the woman alone to bear a life-long responsibility with little if any support. The legal system does little to hold men accountable as equal partners in procreation, but hurdles mountains to control a woman’s body and medical choices.

Pro-choice does not equate to pro-abortion. Many women – and I believe most women – see abortion as a tragic last step necessary only because our country lacks proper education and affordable access to birth control. Most women accept the necessity of abortion only because our commitment as a nation to the rights of men over the dignity and worth of women leaves women without viable alternatives.

In a perfect world, elective abortions would disappear because the circumstances that lead to unwanted pregnancies would not exist. What would this world look like?

  • No man would ever dream of forcing himself on a woman.
  • Women and men would be true equals from birth through school to the workplace and into retirement.
  • Beauty would be defined by one’s character, goodness, authenticity, and conviction – not body shape.
  • Every child would know the facts of human reproduction, and learn the complexities of loving relationships.
  • Government would play no role in determining what any person chooses to do with their body.
  • Individuals’ personal religious beliefs regarding personhood would be respected, but no one would be permitted to discriminate against others on the basis of those personal beliefs.

So, “pro-choice” does not mean pro-elective abortion at will. Pro-choice means supporting a society with reproductive justice – the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.

“Pro-Life” is a myth

ireland17For years, Congressman John Moolenaar has staunchly defended what he calls the “sanctity of life.” This week, Harvard researchers revealed that the repeal of the Affordable Care Act without a replacement program will result in 44,000 unnecessary deaths each year. It is irrefutable fact that more than 20 million Americans will lose their health insurance if Republicans repeal and do not replace the ACA, an action Moolenaar voted to approve.

Can a person legitimately call themselves pro-life if they only apply their moral standards of sanctity of life to fetuses? No. In fact, voting to repeal the ACA without a replacement represents an “anti-life” action. Other anti-life attitudes include:

  • Sending men and women into combat, but fail to provide them world-class mental and physical medical treatment once they return from the trauma of war;
  • Using drones that indiscriminately kill innocent men, women, and children in search of a possible enemy target;
  • Murdering prisoners convicted of crimes, given the inordinate number of mistakes that have been made in capital punishment sentencing, its inherent racism and classism, and the cruel processes used to take those lives;
  • Cutting funds for food stamps, school lunch programs, early childhood education initiatives, and public education of equally high quality for all, when more than enough is available in our bloated federal military budget to easily meet these needs;
  • Passing into law the most intrusive and medically unnecessary invasion of a woman’s body, while offering young people little realistic education about sex and obstructing their access to birth control;
  • Denying victims of incest, rape, and medical complications threatening the life of the mother with means to terminate those pregnancies;
  • Failing to speak out in opposition to “slap on the wrist” punishments for rapists and those committing domestic violence and sexual assaults on women, and excusing the behavior of beasts for violating a woman by blaming her for the crime; and
  • Failing to be repulsed that this nation has done absolutely nothing to create mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, or to limit access to weapons whose sole purpose is the mass murder of humans — and not pressuring you legislators to do so.

If these apply to you, then stop calling yourself pro-life. You are not pro-life – you are pro-birth and anti-woman.

Reclaiming American citizenship

The seeds of America spread wide through the soil of injustice and tyranny. Our ancestors fought for a host of freedoms and civil rights. They proclaimed those rights publicly in documents central to our national core. For the Founders, being American meant supporting the full American agenda, a social system unmatched in history.

How long would America last if citizens based their vote solely on a single issue? That kind of thinking led to a bloody civil war that decimated our nation. That kind of thinking condoned the genocide of millions of indigenous peoples whose descendants still suffer our oppression. That kind of thinking normalized the incarceration of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent, along with the theft of their property and livelihoods. That kind of thinking supported segregation, lynching, Sundown Towns, and continues supporting a racist criminal justice system.

Make no mistake; Donald Trump is unfit to serve as President of the United States. If you voted for him because Hillary Clinton supports a woman’s right to choose, then you have contributed to the possible decline of our nation and our way of life. I understand your feelings about the unborn. Most people do. But electing a President already committed to destroying our environment, eliminating key safety net programs for the poor, taking health care away from millions, and dismantling industry regulations is an act of social suicide.

If you marched last Saturday, I implore you to reach out to those who oppose abortion. Engage in dialogue with them on the realities of conception, fertilization, fetal anomalies, and religious belief. Help those seeking to defend the rights of the unborn understand that you agree with their cause as part of a larger package of social programs that defend the right of all persons to life.

2013-02-08-perezIf you opposed the march last Saturday, I implore you to look at the broad picture of what it means to be an American citizen. Standing up for the rights of those who cannot defend themselves is courageous, noble work. But the defenseless include not only fetuses, but refugees, children of undocumented parents, innocent people dead due to excessive police violence, and victims of institutionalized racism, gender bias, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry.

Whether you consider yourself pro-choice or pro-life, you are an American. Our American principles demand of us a high standard of citizen participation. We are called to resist authoritarian rule and defend the civil rights of all. We are called to expose acts of foreign agents seeking to undermine our most precious liberties. We are called to hold our elected officials accountable when they lie, obstruct the search for truth, hide pertinent information, and behave in foolish and reckless ways.

Resist those who would divide and conquer us. Refute the false dichotomy of pro-life/pro-choice. Replace stereotypes and unfounded generalizations with facts and grounded beliefs acceptable to all. Let us unite as Americans, agreeing to disagree when needed, but in solidarity regarding the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I Am…

As a Unitarian Universalist, I draw ethical and spiritual inspiration from the wisdom of all religions. One gains an insight when studying comparative religions; the world’s major faith traditions share most of the same fundamental principles. Love your neighbor. Care for the sick, the poor, the oppressed. Do not kill. Love your enemy. Speak the truth. Do not steal. Love unconditionally.

“Do not wrongfully consume each other’s wealth, but trade by mutual consent. Do not kill each other, for God is merciful to you.” Sura 4:29

Sacred texts of the world’s major religions vary widely. Some combine history and theology. Others resound like lyric poetry. Most include mythic tales, riddles and parables. All provide instruction on mindfulness and spiritual practice.

Most important, religious writings challenge readers to think, to feel and to act. Possessing only right belief does not make one truly religious. Empathy and kindness alone cannot produce complete salvation. And correct action without knowledge and belief is like a foundation of brick without water and cement. Spiritual growth requires exercise of the mind, the heart and the hands as one.

“Be good to your parents, to relatives, to orphans, to the needy, to neighbors near and far, to travelers in need…God does not like arrogant boastful people, who are miserly and order other people to be the same, hiding the bounty God has given them.” Sura 4:36-37

Studying religious texts presents a special challenge to the student. Each work resides in a past time, reflects ancient contexts and suffers human frailty in translation and interpretation. Subsequent to the writing of every major religious work, questions arose causing scholars to amplify, clarify and even correct previous understandings. Out of this expansion of spiritual insights emerged countless denominations and sects within all the major faiths.

The metaphor of stone tablets ignores the reality that every religion represents a living tradition, ever changing, ever growing. For religions to remain vital, spiritual practice must recognize changing times and adapt to each new generation’s capacities and needs.

Underlying these swirls of change, however, lie immutable principles — rules of decency, goodness and basic common sense — to which we all can agree. Despite our human history of violence and war, we possess the ability to dialogue, to compromise and to reach mutually acceptable rules for living.

“Repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend…only those who are steadfast in patience, only those who are blessed with great righteousness, will attain to such goodness.” Sura 41:34-35

The shadow of fear now cloaks America. Some use fear to divide us, to set us against each other, and to maintain historic systems of oppression. America must strive for better. Our greatness does not lie in our wealth; the world does not respect us because of our power. America endures because its arms embrace the refugee, its blood pumps the beat of freedom and its eyes see a future of equal opportunity and equal reward for all dedicated to its principles. We must never look backwards for our greatness. America’s greatness lies in its future — a time during which all people will be treated with inherent worth and dignity.

Achieving this future will take a revolution of the mind, the heart and the body. In other words, America’s future depends on a spiritual awakening that respects all religious voices and rejects any notion of dogmatic truth. Joining together in unity and cooperation, our faith traditions can tear down the walls of separation and break the chains of conquest, manipulation and cultural invasion.

“There is no cause to act against anyone who defends himself after being wronged, but there is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice…” Sura 42:41-42

I am not a Muslim or a Christian. I am not a Jew, a Buddhist or a Hindu. But I find much of worth in each of these religions and in their writings. As such, I am to some degree a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist and a Hindu. I am a Sikh, a Jain, a Taoist and a Confucian. I walk the path of Shinto, the Goddess, the Creator gods of all cultures and the Oversoul by all its names.

If our president-elect pursues the registry of Muslim Americans — an idea he repeatedly suggested during his campaign, and which his transition team continues to discuss — then I will be the first in line when the government officials come to Midland. I will stand with my Muslim brothers and sisters not simply because it is the just action. I will stand with my Muslim neighbors because I believe in what they believe and I love them as kindred souls.

By whatever name we use, each of us experiences transcending mystery and wonder during our lives. Regardless of our culture, each of us faces opportunities to renew our spirits and guide us on our path toward enlightenment. Our current national climate will test our resolve to love unconditionally, and it is up to each of us to rise to that challenge.

The Heartbroken and the Heartless

People of faith across mid-Michigan feel heartbroken over the plight facing refugees fleeing the violent destruction of their homes in Syria. Fortunately, many nations have responded with open arms to these victims of war. Germany, once the producer of refugees decades ago, has accepted tens of thousands of Syrians, displaying a vigorous national relief effort.

In the United States, however, fear too often overcomes compassion. Prospective candidates for the presidency spew the same kind of vicious venom that helped turn away Jews, condemning millions to Nazi concentration camps. The rhetoric has even progressed to the horrific level that led us to erect our own concentration camps to inter American citizens without just cause. Such flagrant ignorance runs counter to every religion teaching us to love our neighbor, to care for the homeless and hungry, and to free the oppressed.

And our own state representative contributed his personal xenophobia to a Japanese television news team. Shamelessly purporting to report the concerns of his constituents, Rep. Gary Glenn failed to acknowledge that many mid-Michiganders would welcome war refugees who are fleeing exactly the violence he presumes them capable of. Rep. Glenn has brought international shame to our region by revealing the same heartless bigotry toward desperate Syrians that he usually reserves for the members of the gay and transgender community.

In fact, Rep. Glenn’s fears are groundless. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, “The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since Sept. 11, 2001. In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities — and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible. In fact, refugee resettlement is the least likely avenue of infiltration by foreign enemies bent on causing us harm.

Rep. Glenn also fails to realize that the true danger facing our citizens comes not from outside our nation, but from our own politicians. Imagine this scenario. An ISIS terrorist infiltrates our nation and poisons the water supply of a major city. Every one of the hundreds of thousands of residents is affected. Rather than killing, however, the poison instead causes an entire generation of children to suffer irreparable brain damage. The outcry would blow the roof off every government building. Our media outlets would talk of nothing else for weeks. People across the nation would call for the immediate execution of this terrorist.

And yet, that is exactly what has already happened right under our noses, and few of Michigan’s citizens even know about the attack. In a series of reckless, monstrous choices, Gov. Rick Snyder, his emergency manager and other appointees made decisions that destroyed the water infrastructure of Flint, resulting in catastrophic levels of lead poisoning of its citizens. In spite of governmental attempts to discredit them, only the diligent research of individuals uncovered this act of domestic terrorism for the world to see. Cover-ups are slowly coming to light, making it clear that high level government officials knew exactly what was happening, and that they did absolutely nothing to prevent it, or to warn the innocent citizens of Flint.

Just one hour away, thousands of families face the prospect of raising children whose lives have been shattered by the government they trusted to look out for their interests. People you might know, or work with, or go to school with have been affected. And now that they know their water is poisoned, there is little they can do until the damaged infrastructure is replaced. People lacking the resources to move away must bathe, wash clothes, and do other household chores in poisoned water. But Gary Glenn tells us to worry about women and children from Syria coming here to harm us.

Where is your concern for the people of Flint, Rep. Glenn, who did not need religious extremists to launch a heartless attack on their city? The violent assault on our families is happening right now on your doorstep, and the culprit is our own elected officials. If you care about these citizens at all, then you will demand a complete and thorough investigation of Gov. Snyder and his appointees responsible for this crisis.

In the meantime, keep your xenophobia to yourself and stop shaming us before the world audience. America is a nation of immigrants, most of whom came to this land in search of the same safety and freedom that Syrians want. Who are we to deny them the same opportunities our ancestors had? Instead of fear mongering, we should be welcoming these people to their new land and showing the world that compassion and understanding will always triumph over hate and violence.

(originally published January 17, 2016)