Saturday, May 23, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Notoriety or Notorious?


When called to serve the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland, I was pleased to be moving to the City of Modern Explorers. I envisioned living someplace known for innovation, forward thinking and progress. People I spoke with talked proudly of Midland's notoriety as a wonderful place to raise a family, a small city filled with the amenities of a larger metropolitan area.

Lately, however, Midland's notoriety has become overshadowed. We continue to make national, even international news — but not for new inventions, or for cultural achievements. No, Midland has instead become notorious as a bastion of fundamentalist theocracy, intolerance and bigotry. And the latest addition to this sad list...hypocrisy.

The obsession of homophobic and transphobic public figures in our city is not simply disturbing, but a national embarrassment. And the recent revelation of a local minister decrying homosexuals while engaging in sexual discussions with men on a gay dating website colors the credibility of our community.

Beyond this announcement, the subsequent resignation of the clergy in question, and the unimaginable horror in the future for this family, lies another even more insidious evil that remains unaddressed. How many people have read his words, listened to his speech and felt confused and conflicted, and perhaps filled with self-hatred? How many families has this man "counseled" into dysfunction and broken relationships? How many gay teens have sunk into depression, even attempted suicide because their minister told them that they were sinful?

I feel for his wife and children. I can even find a small measure of sympathy for him. But I reserve most of my concern for the victims of his vitriolic attacks on gay and transgender people. I stand with gays and lesbians, bisexual, transgender, and queer folk and offer my support as they face routine discrimination and public shaming by public officials who lack the will to love their neighbors as themselves.

If you are gay and a minister has told you that you are an abomination, then find another minister. If you are a lesbian and have been shamed by your church as sinful, then seek out a welcoming congregation. If you are transgender and been told that your religion has no room for you, then look for a religion that embraces you. And if you are questioning and hear our representative in Lansing compare you to a pedophile, then join with us.

Midland, we should be sick and tired of being notorious for our intolerance of people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The time has come to enhance our notoriety once more. The time is now to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the class of people protected from discrimination in our city. And from now on, our religious and political leaders should know that hate speech is not free speech, and that ancient scriptures do not replace truths proven by verifiable research.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Our Twilight Zone


I grew up watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek television series. Alternative universe stories fascinated me. Contemplating different realities helps me appreciate the challenges we face in this life, at this time.

So, I invite you to the dimension of imagination, to experience the awe and mystery of a strange new world. Imagine a frontier Mid-Michigan just after the Civil War. Timber drives the local economy, but this resource will soon run low. Along comes a free Negro named Dow who invests everything he has in a dream. And his dream pays off.

Dow builds what will eventually become a major international corporation … in Saginaw. The nearest port, Bay City, thrives. And the village of Midland struggles to make lumber stretch as long as possible.

Former slaves stream to Saginaw by the thousands, building a thriving metropolis. When the Depression hits, Saginaw and Bay City ride the storm. Midland, however, loses many of its struggling businesses, and only the poor remain to hold the pieces together.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Saginaw blossoms. The city builds riverfront condos, major retailers grow downtown, and a stadium attracts a AAA baseball team. Locally-owned businesses flourish as the average income rises. Saginaw becomes the first American city to adopt full civil rights for all citizens and a guaranteed minimum wage higher than any other in the nation. Property values soar, public schools prosper, unemployment disappears and crime remains low.

Midland, on the other hand, struggles to keep schools going. The mostly white residents rent dilapidated houses and apartments and cannot find full-time jobs that pay more than subsistence wages. Drugs and violence are rampant among the vacant lots, and the mostly black police cannot keep pace with crime. After years of annual deficits and cuts to public services, the state installs an emergency manager, and the elected officials lose their authority. Residents of Saginaw driving to their summer cabins avoid Midland whenever possible. They wonder why the residents of Midland cannot do what it takes to clean up their city and get off the public welfare rolls.

One day, a white boy plays in the pavilion of Plymouth Park with a toy gun. He is alone with little to do because there are no playgrounds, no after school programs, and his family cannot afford clothes and food, let alone game systems, computers or cable television. A fearful neighbor calls 911 and two black police officers arrive on the scene. The younger officer — previously rejected by the better police force in Saginaw — jumps from the car shooting. In seconds, the boy lies dead on the ground.

In the ensuing days, the white residents of Midland explode in anger. They feel the weight of decades of economic injustice, feelings of shame and guilt because their kids lack the opportunities available to those in Saginaw, and outrage at the brutal murder of a child. They take to the streets, rioting against the hopelessness of this unfair system. They march down Main Street past the vacant store fronts and bars. Occasionally, someone throws a rock and one liquor store burns. Across the country, the news shows white Midlanders running and looting, and reports that the boy’s shooting was justified.

Pat Robertson leads a largely-ignored march in Washington, D.C., with the families of the slain boy, and of other white men gunned down by black police officers across the country. But the media call him an opportunist. The lone white commentator on Fox News opines about how welfare keeps the white people unmotivated and poor. A black sports writer in Saginaw pens an editorial calling on all people to simply engage in hard work; commitment and perseverance; effort, energy and sacrifice; respect for others; serving others; helping others. And a black Unitarian Universalist minister in Saginaw responds, calling the sports writer’s piece racist and an example of privilege.
http://www.hulu.com/watch/440892
Is this scenario difficult to imagine? Perhaps. This alternative reality might be especially difficult to imagine if you were born privileged and cannot dream of such patent unfairness. If you were born white, understanding institutionalized racism is challenging. If you were born male, the economic impossibilities facing poor, single mothers are unfathomable. If you were born financially comfortable, you think that anyone who works hard enough can accomplish whatever they want in life. And if you were born straight, you might simply assume that heterosexuality is the norm for all people and disapprove of the gay “lifestyle.”

Open your eyes. Nothing is as simple as the pundits want you to believe. Our problems do not derive from poor people believing they are entitled. Our problems derive from privileged people — people who did nothing to earn their privilege but be born that way — doing everything possible to skew social systems and maintain their own sense of entitlement.

At the end of the episode titled “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” Rod Serling stated: “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs, and explosions, and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, ideas, prejudices. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy. A thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is, these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

In this reality, Black Lives Matter.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Truth and Meaning" Religion as Abuse


Spiritual practice provides us fulfillment in a world of chaos and sadness. Like an intimate relationship with a partner, spiritual practice connects us deeply with the awe and mystery of existence. Whether you pray, meditate, worship, study, create or provide service, your spiritual practice protects you and fosters within you joy and love.

All too frequently, however, intimate partners become abusive. We suffer from an epidemic of domestic abuse and violence no less harmful than a divine plague. We suffer from abuse not only within our homes, but in our society as well. Just as an abusive partner uses coercion, intimidation, and threats to control another, some people seek to coerce, intimidate, and threaten others with their religious beliefs.

This religious intolerance represents a particularly insidious evil. By robbing us of a pure source of joy and enlightenment, these zealots seek to control our actions, our choices, even our thoughts. Through physical, emotional, and economic routes, religious bullies seek the power to limit our freedoms and cancel our basic human rights.

Beyond the obvious reasons, this behavior is immoral because it chases people away from religion entirely. As fundamentalists seek to increasingly tighten their grip on our laws and our freedoms, more people leave organized religion to carve their own moral code in the secular world. This saddens me because there are religious communities that do not preach hate and intolerance. There are religious communities that welcome everyone as they are and that help people along their spiritual path.

If you are the victim of religious abuse, look for the welcoming congregations. Whatever your reason for being battered by theocrats — different theology, sexual orientation, attitudes regarding women's health, climate change, gun violence, etc. — there are religious communities that accept you as you are.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Hope


Nepal.  Baltimore.  Marriage Equality.  Black Lives Matter.  Deportations.  Bomb Trains.  Benghazi (again?!).  The list goes on and on.

Anger. Frustration.  Exhaustion.  Helplessness.  Betrayal.  Hopelessness. We feel them all because we are human and because we care.

I remain convinced, however, that each and every one of us can take these emotions and constructively turn them into actions to address every one of these issues. All of these emotions save one — hopelessness.

Hopelessness is a terminal disease that destroys our ability to get up each morning and face the realities of life. Hopelessness blocks our spiritual immune system from facing the fear and dread of catastrophe, ignorance and hate.

But there is a cure for this disease. For while we might be unable to cure our selves, we can cure each other. We can promise to devote ourselves to each other, come what may and whatever our differences.

But if your church tells you to judge others, to be intolerant of our differences, then hopelessness will win. Only through respect and love can we rid ourselves of the viral epidemic invading the social body today.

In 1770, Universalist minister John Murray had lost everything — his wife, his child, his financial means, and his faith. He gave up his ministry to lose himself in America. Thanks to a farmer with a dream, Murray overcame his hopelessness and rediscovered his calling. Later, he wrote: 
"You may possess a small light. Uncover it, let it shine. Use it to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women."

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Elephants in the Room Interfaith Presentation

I led this presentation at the Mid-Michigan Interfaith Dialogue Symposium in Freeland on April 19, 2015.  The topic was how to make "church" more relevant, especially for Millennials, by rationally addressing difficult moral issues, such as abortion and homosexuality.  My contention is that many religions are declining because of dualistic thinking on these issues when, in fact, the sacred texts are ambiguous at best.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Religious Freedom Amplified


The Founders of the United States were religious people. Our second President John Adams, a Unitarian, epitomized a sound partnership between State and Church. He wrote, "... it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand." Adams experienced in his time a movement similar to what we face today — radical fundamentalists bullying their way into office and forcing their particular brand of religion on others. To this movement, Adams said,
"We have now, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James's Bible through all nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious subscriptions to purify Christendom from the corruptions of Christianity ... I see in every Page, something to recommend Christianity in its Purity and something to discredit its corruptions ... The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion."
Critical to understanding Adams, however, was his view Christianity was not the only viable religion. Adams was well read and had enormous respect for Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and other world religions. Adams even supported nonbelievers, when he said that "Government has no right to hurt a hair on the head of an atheist for his opinions." What Adams could not abide was the pompous priesthood of organized churches that stifled free inquiry. He wrote to Thomas Jefferson of his disgust with the use of the Cross as a tool for war, torture and oppression. "... knavish priests have added prostitutions of it, that fill the blackest and bloodiest pages of human history."

Our Founders would have found current efforts to impose so-called religious freedom laws as repugnant and un-American. Jefferson would clearly have seen these laws as an attempt to impose Christianity as a State Religion on all by sanctioning discrimination by the majority against the religious minorities. If they were alive today, Adams and Jefferson would rail against such attacks on the peoples' right to be free from the religious practices of others. Jefferson wrote,
"Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness ... that the impious presumption of legislature and ruler, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time ... that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry."
What basis would Adams and Jefferson have relied upon to ensure religious freedom? In a letter to his young nephew, Jefferson recommended reading the sacred texts of religions and using his own powers of reason as guide.
"Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love."
Adams agreed, saying that "The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue." The incitement to virtue is the true path to religious freedom. Loving your neighbor, helping the needy, freeing the oppressed. Religious freedom is not about your right to do as you please. Religious freedom is not about imposing your beliefs on others you have committed yourself to serve. Religious freedom is about inciting the virtue in every person to love all people and to respect all their glorious diversity.

When government passes laws protecting discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs, it condones theocracy by indirectly permitting the establishment of a state religion consisting of the doctrines of the religious majority. But freedom of religion is a civil right and must not be subject to popular opinion. Our Founders understood that the best manifestation of religious belief was through the inculcation of virtue among the people. Let us remind our elected officials that they cannot legislate honor, trust, respect and dedication. Those traits of the people derive from virtue built from Love and Understanding.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Religious Freedom Simplified


You run a business in a small town in Indiana. You have lived in this town your entire life and you know everyone who lives here. You are a devout Christian and you live your life according to the teachings of Jesus. How can you know if your Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of religion is being violated?

Let's say that one day, 10 different customers enter your store. Now that your state has passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, you might decide to not to serve certain people because doing so violates your religious beliefs. Which of the following customers would you turn away?
  1. A teenager that spent time in a juvenile facility for petty larceny.
  2. A homemaker who needs help with her drinking problem.
  3. The local state representative who used incendiary mailers to defeat his last opponent.
  4. A Muslim who attends a mosque in a nearby town.
  5. The loan officer at the town bank.
  6. A local pig farmer.
  7. The town fortune teller and expert on horoscopes.
  8. A man who is sleeping with his neighbor's wife.
  9. A woman who has not been baptized.
  10. A gay man.
If you picked #10, then you believe that your religion preaches that homosexuality is an abomination. If, however, you did not also pick ALL of the other nine, then your judgment about the gay customer is not truly based on religious beliefs, but on prejudice. If you do not refuse all 10 of these customers, then you are condoning either stealing, drunkenness, giving false witness, heathen worship, usury, eating impure foods, wizardry and magic, covetousness, and unrepentance - all sins according to your Bible.



So the very simple question is this: Are your basing your decision to serve any particular customer on your religious beliefs, or simply on your personal bias against certain groups of people you feel are sinful?

Here is another way to look at it. Let's say that these same 10 customers enter your store. What possible actions that you could take would you deem inappropriate according to your religious beliefs?
  1. Looking the other way because the teen is just acting out.
  2. Selling the homemaker a flask of whiskey.
  3. Printing the incendiary flyers for the state representative.
  4. Selling the Muslim a rug that might be used for prayer.
  5. Co-signing a loan for a friend.
  6. Buying bacon and homemade sausages to sell to others.
  7. Asking what is in store for Aquarians today.
  8. Selling the man a box of condoms.
  9. Selling the woman a gun.
  10. Taking an order for a rainbow-colored wedding cake.
Again, if you picked #10, then you believe that your action would facilitate homosexuality and offer tacit approval of marriage equality. But if you did not pick ALL of the other nine, then you are discriminating not on the basis of religion, but because of your bias against gays.

You are not God. It is not your task to sit in judgment of others. You are not pouring the whiskey down the woman's throat. You are not defaming a virtuous candidate. You are not forcing people to perform acts of ritual impurity. You are not condoning adultery. And you are not giving a sociopath license to kill. Neither are you putting two men in a bed and telling them to have sex. You are baking a cake. That's it.

If you want to run a business according to your religious principles, fine. But, you don't get to pick which rules of your denomination you will follow and which you will not, because that is not faith - that is discrimination and a violation of basic civil and human rights.