Monthly Archives: March 2007

“My Sweet Lord”

I’ve been trying to sort out the naked-chocolate-Jesus kerfluffle. As you probably know, the Lab Gallery in Manhattan had been planning to show a life-size figure of Jesus, sculpted out of chocolate by Canadian-born artist Cosimo Cavallaro. Cavallaro’s Jesus was to be suspended from the ceiling in a pose of crucifixion. But the U.S.-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights deemed the sculpture offensive, and called for a boycott of the Roger Smith Hotel, which houses and sponsors the Lab Gallery. In a press release dated Thursday, Catholic League president Bill Donohue fumed:

“All those involved are lucky that angry Christians don’t react the way extremist Muslims do when they’re offended — otherwise they may have more than their heads cut off [presumably Mr. Donohue is implying here that extremist Muslims cut off genitalia]. James Knowles, President and CEO of the Roger Smith Hotel (interestingly, he also calls himself Artist-in-Residence), should be especially grateful. And if he tries to spin this as reverential, then he should substitute Muhammad for Jesus and display him during Ramadan…. The boycott is on.” Link

Today, the hotel yielded to pressure and told the gallery to cancel the exhibit. The gallery’s director, Matt Semler, told the press that the Catholic League’s demands amounted to hate speech. Outraged by this, the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue announced yesterday that even though the exhibit was off, the boycott of Roger Smith Hotel is still on. And today, the BBC reports that Semler announced his resignation as gallery director [link].

Yesterday, the U.K.-based religious think tank Ekklesia offered this slightly wry commentary on the kerfluffle:

Christians in the US have been angered by the decision of a New York gallery to exhibit a milk chocolate sculpture of Jesus Christ. The six-foot (1.8m) sculpture, entitled “My Sweet Lord”, depicts Jesus Christ naked on the cross. It was a Roman custom to strip naked those being crucified, and the Bible records the Roman soldiers dividing up Jesus’ clothes between them. Many will also note the statue highlights how Easter has lost much of its Christian meaning amidst the giving and receiving of chocolate eggs.

But Catholic League head Bill Donohue called it “one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever”…. The Catholic League, which describes itself as the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organisation, also criticised the timing of the exhibition. “The fact that they chose Holy Week shows this is calculated, and the timing is deliberate,” Mr Donohue said….

Mr Semler said the timing of the exhibition was coincidental….

It is not known whether the chocolate is fair trade. Link

So Matt Semler probably should have realized that Holy Week wasn’t the best time of year to mount such an exhibit, but who knows if he even knew what Holy Week is. As for calling this “one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever,” that sounds like an overstatement of the facts. Aside from that, I too wonder if the chocolate was fair trade.

Leading up to Palm Sunday

Twenty-odd years ago, I was in the Harvard Bookstore buying a philosophy book when I saw, there on a little stand next to the cash register, a bright red pamphlet with the provocative title “Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy.” Even though I wasn’t in law school (and had no intention of subjecting myself to that experience), I was a young left intellectual trying to make sense of the fast rightward drift of the Reagan years. On an impulse, I bought the pamphlet. I think I paid three dollars for it.

Within a few months, I had given the pamphlet to a friend of mine who was actually in law school. She needed it more than I did. But I remembered the pamphlet’s advice that students should form study groups. Stand up at the end of class, the pamphlet advised, and say that you will be forming a study group at such-and-such a time, at such-and-such a place. When I found myself in graduate school for creative writing, in 1990, I did exactly that. Not that I tried to form a left-leaning study group — by that time, almost no one leaned left in public any more — but I found that participating in any kind of small study group turned out to be a good way to fend off the crushing anonymity of graduate study. (Analogies to small group ministries in congregations would be well-taken.)

As the years went by, I drifted away from left politics, and drifted into religion. I felt that Jesus (and Buddha, and a few other religious geniuses) did a better job of articulating egalitarianism and the essential worth of all persons, than did the Frankfurt School or the New Left.

So there I was yesterday, back in the Harvard Bookstore, when I saw a trade paperback published by New York University Press titled Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy: A Polemic against the System: A Critical Edition:– a critical edition of the little bright red pamphlet I had bought twenty years earlier. I had forgotten how turgid the prose had been, how simplistic the political analysis. But that little red pamphlet still offers good advice:

Because hierarchy is constituted as much through ideology as through physical violence, it is meaningful to oppose it by talking, by joking and refusing to laugh at jokes, through the elaboration of fantasies as well as through the elaboration of concrete plans for struggle.

Let me hasten to affirm, O Reader, that not all resistance is equally heroic, or equally successful, or equally well-conceived, or equally adapted to an overall strategy for turning resistance into something more. I propose in the next chapter that law students and teachers should take relatively minor professional risks. All over the world, workers and peasants and political activists have risked and lost their lives. There is a gulf between these two kinds of action, and I have no desire to minimize it.

But they are nonetheless parts of the same universe, and we possess no grand theory telling us that actions of one kind or the other are bound always and everywhere to be futile, any more than we can no that the most heroic behavior will be always successful.

Tomorrow, those of us who are spiritual followers of Jesus of Nazareth will remember his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. That’s always the occasion for me to wonder whether Jesus’s acts of resistance in Jerusalem were well-conceived and adequately adapted to an overall strategy for turning resistance into something more. It’s also the occasion for me to think about how far I want to go with my own resistance to the inhumanity of hierarchy, with my own personal work to promote egalitarianism.

Not that I have a final answer to that question, but it’s something to think about.


Religions have been basically clueless when it comes to dealing with global climate change. Which is to be expected, because ecological crisis is so completely new, no one has a clue how to deal with it. Being clueless myself, last Saturday, March 24, I walked on the last day of the Interfaith Walk for Climate Rescue. The walk culminated in an interfaith worship service in Boston’s Old South Church.

I know that a walk for “climate rescue” seems pointless;– certainly, the walk had enough trappings of 60’s “counterculture” (signs with slogans, chanting, etc.) to make it seem even more pointless. And like many interfaith worship services, the one last Saturday seemed more like a disjointed collage than a unified worship service. In spite of all that, interfaith worship services and pilgrimages on foot might be exactly the right thing to do right now.

I don’t know. You watch the video and see how you feel. (6:26)

Quicktime video — Click link, and where it says “Select a format” choose “Source — Quicktime”. Wait until the file downloads to your computer, and then click play. This should work for dial-up connections, and offers higher-resolution for all connections.

Note: video host is defunct, so this video no longer exists.

It’s not about belief

Recently, I’ve been bothered by ill-informed commentators and pundits like Richard Dawkins who assume that all religion is defined by some belief in a supernatural God. Those of us who are Unitarian Universalists encounter this attitude frequently;– I’ve had people say to me, “Well, you don’t belong to a real religion, ’cause you don’t even have to believe in anything.” Even some Unitarian Universalists worry about coming up with a statement of what they believe.

But belief is not the single most important defining characteristic of religion. Today I happened to be reading Introduction to World Religions, edited by Christopher Partridge, and I found some powerful examples of religions in which belief is not particularly important. For example, Hinduism:

Hinduism has no historical founder, no unified system of belief, no single doctrine of salvation, and no centralized authority.

And what about Confucianism:

Neither Confucianism nor Taoism is like Judaism, Christianity, or Islam — monotheistic religions with God at the centre. Confucianism, especially, became a religion without any great speculation on the nature and function of God. For this reason it was often not even considered a religion [by Westerners]. However, it clear that Confucianism is a religion, and that it was the dominant tradition of pre-modern China.

And this interesting bit about Judaism:

From biblical times Jews have subscribed to a wide range of beliefs about the nature of God and his action in the world… Reconstructionist and Humanistic Judaism rejected the supernaturalism of the past, calling for a radical revision of Jewish theology for the contemporary age. In more recent times, the Holocaust has raised fundamental questions about the belief in a supernatural God who watches over his chosen people….

Yes, Christianity is somewhat obsessed with belief in God. But it is wise to remember that outside a Christian context (e.g., as a post-Christian, or as a non-Christian), you can be perfectly religious without worrying one way or the other about belief in God.

Unitarianism in Nigeria

On Monday, I wrote a post about new and emerging Unitarian and Universalist congregations in central Africa [link]. Janice Brunson, member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, has given me permission to reprint her account of her recent visit to a 90-year-old Unitarian congregation in Nigeria.

Her (fairly long) story appears after the jump….

Continue reading

Just saying…

The string section of the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra needed a place to rehearse tonight, and we arranged to have them come to First Unitarian. I said I’d volunteer to serve as sexton for them, which meant I had to be up at the church from six to eleven tonight.

Carol brought her laptop down to the church to keep me company, and a woman from the South Coast Sustainability Network arranged to drop by so I could show her how to administer the Network’s Web site. Showing her the Web site didn’t take long, and she and Carol and I wound up talking for a couple of hours.

Now as it happens, this woman, a grad student at U Mass., is about twenty years younger than Carol and I. We had a great conversation, the three of us. In one sense, the age difference between us made no difference at all; but at the same time she really is in a different stage of life than we are, and she is part of a different generational cohort.

I like talking with people who are in a different stage of life, or a different generational cohort, than I am — it can be fun and even exciting (and once in a while frustrating) to get that different perspective. Which is my selfish reason why any congregation I belong to has to include people all ages:– it’s because I get bored just hanging out with middle aged folks like me.

Unitarian Universalism emerging in Africa

My cousin Nancy, another lifelong Unitarian Universalist, is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya, doing research. About a month ago I got an email message from Nancy asking if I knew of any resources for people wanting to start a Unitarian Universalist congregation. While living in Nairobi, she had met some Kenyans who were interested in our liberal faith.

I did some quick research for Nancy and discovered that the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) was already making connections with emerging Unitarian Universalist groups in Africa:

In recent years there has been a growing interest in Unitarianism in… African countries. New fellowships have been established in Bujumbura, Burundi and Brazzaville, Congo…. More recently there has been a growing interest in Unitarianism in Kenya and Uganda.

With these factors in mind, the ICUU Executive Committee decided recently that ICUU President, Rev. Gordon Oliver of Cape Town, South Africa, should visit Central Africa to meet with Unitarians and Universalists in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Congo (Brazzaville). This visit is scheduled to take place from 19th March to 5th April 2007.

The purpose of this visit is to explore the culture and vigour of Unitarian and Universalist groups in Africa, to explore with them their needs and goals, and to move toward development of strategies for support, self-sustainability, and growth.

Link to full notice. Even as I write this, Gordon Oliver is touring central Africa meeting with these groups.

Now I find myself engaged in email correspondence with Nancy and ICUU officers, and learning quite a bit about emerging Unitarian Universalist congregations in Africa. As you would expect of our liberal faith, these emerging congregations are not the result of proselytizing, but the result of Africans discovering liberal religion on their own.

If you’d like to read more about the emerging Unitarian congregations in the Kenya countryside, click the link below to read a report by Janice Brunson, a United States Unitarian Universalist who has recently visited Africa. In a few days, I plan to post another report from Janice about her contact with the two Unitarian congregations in Nigeria, one of which has been in existence since 1915.

If your congregation is looking for a unique partner church relationship, you will be especially interested in reading more.

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Roadkill revelation

If you live in the city, looking at roadkill is a good way to figure out which larger animals live nearby. Mostly, the only roadkill I see is dead gulls. So I was surprised to come across a dead rabbit out on Pope’s Island. The carcass was fairly old — most of the flesh had been picked out, and it was pretty dry. I hadn’t seen it before because I usually leave the road and walk through the small park.

How had the dead rabbit gotten there? I imagined it must have come across the bridge at night, when there weren’t many cars. And how long had it lived on the island? Were there other rabbits living there? I have never seen a rabbit on Pope’s Island, and it didn’t seem possible that rabbits would want to live on a small island that is mostly parking lot and industrial buildings, with only a small park.

About two minutes later, I saw a flash of a white tail out of the corner of my eye:– a rabbit running across the grass into a clump of bushes. Obviously the rabbits have been living there all along and I just haven’t noticed them;– it took roadkill to make me notice.