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.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Truth and Meaning: I Am Racist

Since erecting a "Black Lives Matter" sign, some people have called the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland a "racist church." I suppose the truth of such an assertion depends largely on the definition we apply to the word "racist." So, let me make this easier by discussing myself in this context.

I am racist. Me, Jeff Liebmann, I am racist. Now, what do I mean by that? I mean that as a person identified as white in a society where being identified as white is a privilege, I am by definition racist. I benefit from my inherent whiteness, whether I want to or not.

This does not make me a bad person. Just as I did nothing to earn my white privilege, I could not stop society from bestowing that privilege on me. Therefore, until I learned that this imbalance existed, I was not to blame for the privilege I received, even though I unknowingly took full advantage of that privilege.

That said, it did not take long for me to learn that I was privileged in this society because of my skin color. In school, I studied slavery, the Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement. I read the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and bell hooks. I grappled with the guilt and shame that I was somehow responsible for injustice and inequality that I felt might be inherent in our society.

I was racist. And I was a racist. I was a racist because I was not yet doing anything to eliminate racism. I had not yet learned how to use my privilege to create space for people of color in America to speak for themselves and to be heard. So I attended workshops on community organizing and anti-racism/anti-oppression. I practiced being an ally to people of color. And I helped other whites understand privilege and its pernicious effects.

I am still racist. Barring a radical social revolution, I will retain my white privilege for the rest of my life. So I am still racist. But I am working very hard at not being a racist. That may sound like a subtle distinction, but it is not. All people who possess privilege are by definition oppressive. But they don't have to be oppressors. I am racist because I possess privilege I did not earn. But I try to use that privilege to create a society where privilege does not exist. I am racist, but I am trying to not be a racist.

So, by my definition, is the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland racist? Yes. Because our membership happens to be predominately white in a society, and in particular in a city where whiteness is privileged, then we are racist.

Is the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland a racist church? We are trying very hard not to be. By erecting our Black Lives Matter banner, we tell our neighbors in Midland that racism is alive and well and that we are working to eliminate it. Through study and reflection, we are seeking ways to end systemic oppression of people of color in our society. And through our public witness, we hope to use our privilege to create a space for oppressed voices to be heard.

The arc of the moral universe is long, and we cannot see its path over the horizon. But we believe that that arc bends toward justice.

Monday, August 17, 2015

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.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Truth and Meaning: Black Lives Matter

America is a great nation, a beacon to the world. America represents an ideal to many people around the globe: an ideal of freedom; an ideal of opportunity; an ideal of equality.

In America, everyone’s life matters because everyone has the chance to succeed, to better their lives. Everyone’s life matters because our system of laws protects us, and our social network supports us in times of need. Everyone’s life matters because our Founders declared that we the people are created equal.

However, every life in America does not matter equally. All lives do not matter equally because all lives do not begin equally. Wealth affords some children opportunities unavailable to poor children. Boys have a better chance to earn more than girls, and to enter a greater variety of occupations. Heterosexuals face none of the legal discrimination and socially sanctioned prejudice endured by gays and lesbians.

But the single largest determinant of inequality in America is skin color. So, while all lives matter, the reality of America is that the lives of people with dark skin do not matter as much as those with pale skin.

Black people are not inherently inferior. White people are not inherently oppressive. But our history created an uneven playing field and we have yet to fully correct for the tilt.

Almost a century passed in our nation’s history until African Americans were freed from the bonds of slavery. Yet, they were still systematically denied access to homes, jobs, voting, and many other basic services and rights that Whites took for granted. Even when African American communities did succeed, Whites destroyed them through violence (e.g the Tulsa Race Riots), or through “urban renewal,” which helped create many inner city ghettos.

And yet, in spite of sundown towns, racial cleansings, red-lining and segregation, African Americans succeeded in climbing the ladder toward the American dream. Even without inherited wealth, civil rights and equal education and health care, many endured and thrived.

All of that effort, however, remains threatened still today by the evil shadow of racism. Hardly a day passes that another Black life is not taken under bizarre circumstances by police, a shameful situation that most White people would never have to consider. Imagine you are driving down the street. A police car passes you and soon makes a U-turn. The police car speeds up until it is tailgating you. You pull over, assuming the officer is heading to some emergency call.

If you are White, does the possibility that you will end up dead in a jail cell even cross your mind? Even when you are pulled over, do you worry about anything more than receiving a minor traffic citation? Of course not. But many Black people do.

Sandra Bland is dead because of her dark skin. Had she been White, the officer likely doesn’t even turn around. Had she been White, the traffic stop would have ended in a citation and “Have a nice day!” Had she been White, she wouldn’t have been assaulted, arrested and thrown in jail. Had Bland been the same vibrant, 28-year-old college graduate with light skin, odds are that she would not be dead today.

Church burnings, the Charleston 9, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and countless other stupid and senseless acts of deadly violence against African Americans tell us that Black lives do not matter as much as others in 2015 America. That is why the #BlackLivesMatter movement was created and must be understood and respected. Co-opting this message to other purposes simply tells African Americans, once again, that their lives, their creative ideas and their concerns do not matter.

Reading this paper, you are likely thinking that you have never used a racial slur. You have never supported the KKK or other White supremacist groups. You believe in loving your neighbor, and would never dream of hurting someone simply because of their skin color.

But, if you were born White in the United States, you were born with privilege. This does not make you a bad person. It simply means you were born without certain obstacles that almost every Black person must face, sometimes every day of their lives. When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered by Cleveland police while playing in a park, did you think whether that could ever happen to a White child in Midland? Probably not. That is privilege.

When nine Black people attending a Bible study group at their church were murdered by a young man with a clear hatred of African Americans, did you think whether that would ever happen in your church here in Midland? Probably not. That is privilege.

When Eric Garner died while police strangled him for selling cigarettes, did you consider whether someone at the Midland Farmer’s Market could face the same fate? Unthinkable, right? That is privilege.

When Michael Brown was repeatedly shot with his hands in the air, could you imagine facing the barrel of a police officer’s gun, feeling the first bullets enter your skin and two more crush through your skull as you fell? Michael Brown died for allegedly stealing some cigars. The White murderer of the Charleston 9 was taken calmly into custody and police bought him a hamburger from Burger King when he complained of being hungry. That is privilege.

Possessing privilege is not the problem. Doing nothing about your privilege IS the problem. When they passed the robbed and beaten man on the road to Jericho, the priest and the Levite took advantage of their status privilege to avoid helping. But the Samaritan set aside his privilege to bind the victim’s wounds and take him to safety.

Black people in America need our help. They need White Americans to understand privilege and the impact of privilege on the lives of African Americans. They need us to not pass them by on the road to Jericho. And then they need us to catch up to the priest and the Levite and teach them how people should respond to others’ needs.

All lives matter. But right now, we must focus on the need for Black lives to matter just as much as our own. We begin that journey by learning how our own privilege contributes to inequality and oppression. We will travel that journey this year at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland. We encourage others to join us in this quest for understanding and to use the power of love for all persons.