Sunday, November 15, 2015

Truth and Meaning: What Are You Afraid Of?

Every day is a precious gift. Every person in our lives offers something of value, something to be cherished. We all have energy and abilities to help others, to make our world better.

And yet, we waste so much time, energy and potential on the negative things in life. We are obsessed with fear. We bathe ourselves in anxiety. We dwell in bubbles of doubt, breathing in the noxious fumes that only increase our unease. Even when our horizons are clear, we find a way to steer toward dismal thoughts and circumstances, as if the presence of fear somehow validates us.

Why do we allow ourselves to believe that being fearful resides in our nature as human beings? The answer is simple. Every day we are bombarded with messages through endless media of threats. Some of these threats — such as global warming — are very real. Others are manufactured notions put forth by hatemongers and radical regressives whose only goal is to scare you into thoughtless action.

And you should be scared. You should be scared that these lunatics might actually influence people; that they might convince weak-minded people to commit unspeakable acts.

You should be scared of people like Kevin Swanson, the Colorado pastor who hosted a so-called religious liberties conference in Iowa recently, attended by three current candidates for president. Among other unfathomable positions, Swanson is publicly on record frequently advocating for gay people to receive the death penalty. Yes, you read this correctly. This man actually believes that all gay people should be rounded up and executed.

Even scarier is that Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee shared the stage with this bigot in a question and answer session. By attending and participating in this event, these men have at least indirectly condoned the ravings of man who advocates for our nation to execute millions of people for the crime of being born homosexual.

Now, we can possibly dismiss Jindal and Huckabee as unelectable candidates since they consistently elicit negligible polling numbers. But Ted Cruz is somehow a viable candidate for the Republican nomination for president. And amazingly, he is running behind one man who claims that Joseph built the pyramids in Egypt to store grain and another who blithely dismisses whole peoples as murderers and rapists.

So when you listen to the news, don't let commentators tell you what to fear. Use your own powers of reason and look for the real threats to our lives and well-being. Fear is not a natural state for humanity. Fear is a weapon used by those seeking power over you by creating phantom enemies for you to hate.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Calling Bull

When I was young, we played a card game named after the defecation of a male cow. The point of the game was to lie whenever needed and to call out others when you thought they were lying. I was reminded of this child's game recently.

When John Moolenaar was in the Michigan Legislature, we exchanged a number of communications on abortion bills. His messages always touted his belief in the "sanctity of life" as his reason for wishing to make all abortions illegal.

How curious, then, when I get his response on gun control legislation before Congress, including the following. "I believe it is imperative to have an open dialogue about recent gun-related violence and how to further prevent it. It is also imperative that we strengthen the ties that bind the family, school and community. In my view, a commonsense approach can be found that helps keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and others posing serious danger, while protecting legal firearm ownership."

Sorry, Representative, but I am calling bull. Why is it that your answer to whether or not a woman should have the right to choose is to completely ban the act resulting in the termination of the pregnancy, but when it comes to mass shootings, and tens of thousands of gun deaths each year, your answer is to have an "open dialogue?"

Those of us sick and tired of the American gun culture know how to translate your language and we see through the bull. You believe in making sure that no effort to control gun sales or the types of guns one can purchase should ever be seriously discussed. You believe that guns don't kill people, only evil and deranged psychopaths kill people. And you believe that the unfettered right to own a gun matters more than anything ... ANYTHING, including life.

You posted on your campaign website last year, "I'm proud to receive the endorsement of the National Rifle Association (NRA). I believe strongly in the rights guaranteed to every American under the Second Amendment and will do everything I can to ensure that it is not weakened by efforts of liberals. I continue to believe, as I have all my life, in the rights of law abiding Americans to possess firearms." You know what, John, you can't have it both ways.

How dare you intrude on a woman's most intimate decisions, claiming a belief in the sanctity of life, when you lap up the crumbs thrown to you by the NRA to do their bidding. How dare you do nothing to help people get contraception or to teach our children about responsible sexuality, while doing everything to help those who don't hold life sacred get all the weapons of mass killing they want through gun show loopholes and Internet sales. How dare you assert that "we are endowed by our Creator with the unalienable Right to Live," while turning a blind eye to the cause of thousands of senseless and preventable murders each year.

I am an adult now, and this is no longer a card game. But I still know bull when I smell it, hear it or read it.

Sunday, October 18, 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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

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.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Idiocracy

The suffix '-cracy' comes from the Greek, meaning rule or government. We all know words like democracy and aristocracy. Now, in Michigan, we have achieved idiocracy - government by idiots.

Just when you think our lawmakers can't be more ineffective, a bill arises that is perhaps the single most stupid piece of legislation ever proposed in my lifetime. House Bill 4883 (co-sponsored by our own State Rep. Gary Glenn) will prohibit students in public schools from practicing how to use a condom with a banana.

No, I am not kidding (I wish I were). HB 4883 proposes that the current language of Michigan's current school code be changed as follows: A person shall not dispense or otherwise distribute, AND SHALL NOT ALLOW A PUPIL TO PRACTICE WITH, A FAMILY PLANNING DRUG OR DEVICE in a public school or on public school property.

So in a state with major financial crises, job losses, crumbling infrastructure, and a host of other real issues of concern, our representative has taken the time to back a banana bill.

In a state with 14,000 children in need of a home, Rep. Glenn wants to make sure that more unwanted pregnancies happen by mandating that we not teach young people how to apply a condom. Politicians who claim to be "pro-life" want to ensure that young people who engage in sexual intercourse will do so with as little education as possible. And supporters of dismantling public education will, once again, seek to institute more restrictions that will not apply to their precious private and charter schools.

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland teaches its young people about human relations and sexuality. Through the Our Whole Lives program, we teach young people about their bodies, about healthy physical relationships, and personal responsibility. And yes, we teach them how to apply a condom.

If this idiotic bill passes, we will be glad to expand the Our Whole Lives program to any families interested in securing a comprehensive education for their children without the interference of theocrats. In meantime, Rep. Glenn should confine himself to the real needs of this state, and leave the practice of religion to the individual consciences of his constituents.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

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.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

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.