Noted with minimal comment

The following sentence by J. M. Berger has been widely quoted: “If you believe that only ‘the other guys’ can produce extremists and that your own identity group cannot, you may be an extremist yourself.”

The original context of the quote provides more nuance:

“In the United States, the term extremist is frequently hurled, shorn of context, across racial and partisan divides. Many in the wider West contend that the entire religion of Islam is inherently extreme, arguing for policies that range from the curtailment of civil rights to mass internment. Within Islam itself, furious debates rage about which sect, movement, or nation is normative and which is extremist. These debates influence the study of extremism. There are perhaps three times as many academic studies referencing jihadism as there are referencing white nationalism. Pseudo-intellectuals, some in positions of political power, have argued that white nationalism is far less important than jihadism, despite the fact that white nationalism has a far longer and more deadly history. And they have shaped policies accordingly. If you believe that only ‘the other guys’ can produce extremists and that your own identity group cannot, you may be an extremist yourself. History provides ample evidence that extremism is part of the human condition and not the exclusive province of any single race, religion, or nation. Not all violence is extremism, nor are all of humanity’s countless wars, conflicts, and atrocities. Many cases are ambiguous, but some clearly align with our modern understanding of the word. The diversity and ubiquity of the problem can be seen in a review of historical outbreaks of significant violence driven by ideological belief.”

— from the book Extremism by J. M. Berger (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2018), p. 2.

A quirky timeline of UU history

Because Yvonne asked me to, I put together a timeline of UU history. Instead of focusing on White male ministers from wealthy urban areas, my timeline includes people and events from outside the mainstream of UU history.

Unitarians and Universalists in the United States

1773 Caleb Rich (White) becomes minister of a new church in Warwick, Mass., that has a universalist theology.

1775 John Murray (White), Universalist minister, serves as a chaplain in the Revolutionary army.

1779 The Independent Christian Church (Universalist) organized in Gloucester, Mass., one of the earliest Universalist congregations in the U.S.

1785 King’s Chapel is the first Unitarian congregation in the U.S.

c. 1795 The scientist Joseph Priestley (White) holds Unitarian services in Northumberland, Penna.

c. 1795 Prince (no last name), a Black man, joins the church in New Bedford, Mass., as a full member.

1838 Nathan Johnson, a Black Universalist in New Bedford, Mass., shelters Frederick Douglass on the latter’s first night of freedom

1859 Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a White Unitarian, opens the first kindergarten in the U.S.

1860 Samuel Jackson, a Black Baptist minister, asks to bring his entire congregation into the American Unitarian Association, but because he and his congregation are Black, he is ignored.

1863 Olympia Brown, a White woman, ordained by the Universalist General Conference. She was the first woman to be ordained by a denomination (rather than just a congregation) in the U.S.

1876-1878 The U.S. government invites Protestant denominations to manage American Indian reservations; the Unitarians take charge of Ute tribes in Colorado.

1883 Poet William Carlos Williams, a Hispanic Unitarian, is born.

1887 First Unitarian service is held in the Khasi Hills of India, led by Kissor Singh (South Asian).

1895 Eliza Tupper Wilkes, a White Universalist minister, is the first woman to preach in Stanford University’s nondenominational chapel

1917 Adeniran Adedeji Isola (Black) founds the Unitarian Brotherhood Church (Ijo Isokan Gbogbo Eda) in Lagos, Nigeria.

1918 Unitarian minister William Short Jr. is arrested for draft evasion, because he’s doing peace activism; when he appeals to the American Unitarian Association to confirm that he’s a minister, they throw him under the bus.

1922 Abigail Eliot (White), an LGBTQ Unitarian educator, brings the nursery school concept to the U.S.

1923 The first Flower Celebration is led by Norbert and Maja Capek, ministers at the Unitarian church in Prague, Czechoslovakia. This ritual is later wrongly called a “flower communion.”

1930s Probably a third of all Unitarian and Universalist churches close due to the Great Depression.

1932 Poet Sylvia Plath, a White Unitarian, is born.

1937 Unitarians and Universalists cooperate to create a new hymnal.

1937 The American Unitarian Association grows concerned that Leila Thompson, an ordained Unitarian minister, is running for city council in Berkeley, Calif., as a Socialist.

1942 Unitarian minister Norbert Capek dies in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

1947 Stephen Fritchman, a White minister, is forced out of his job editing the denominational magazine due to accusations that he is Communist.

1950s (date uncertain) UU ministers officiated at some of the earliest UU same sex weddings.

1956 Christopher Moore, a White minister at First Unitarian in Chicago, founds the Chicago Children’s Chorus, an interracial chorus which rapidly became one of the best children’s choruses in the U.S.

1950s Religious liberals in the Philippines affiliate with the Universalist Church of America.

1961 The UUA bylaws have six principles.

1961 Unitarians and Universalists consolidate into one denomination.

1965 Year with highest Unitarian Universalist membership in the U.S.

1965-1970 Unitarian Universalism loses half its Black members during the Black empowerment controversy.

1977 Ysaye Maria Barnwell founds the Jubilee Singers, a gospel choir, at All Souls UU church in Washington, D.C., the first Black-led UU gospel choir.

1977 First Unitarian of Los Angeles publishes the first Unitarian hymnal with Black and working class music in it.

1980 The first Water Ritual takes place at a feminist gathering of women. Later, it was wrongly called a “Water Communion.”

1985 The UUA adopts new non-sexist bylaws with seven principles.

2004 Unitarian Universalist Association of Uganda is formed.

2005 Last year of growth in U.S. Unitarian Universalism.

2008 Carleton Pearson, a Black Pentecostal minister who became a Universalist, brings his congregation to the Unitarian Universalist church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Barred Owl

We’ve been hearing Barred Owls at night near where we’re camping. Late this afternoon, I heard a juvenile owl out in the conservation land behind the campsite. I followed it as best I could, hoping to see a baby owl. Then I heard one of the adults calling not too far away, and suddenly I became aware of two eyes staring at me.

An owl! I managed to get this photo before the own flew away.

An owl sitting in a tree behind some leaves.

Kids, mental health, and social media

Last year, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, issued an advisory report on social media and the mental health of kids:

“The current body of evidence indicates that while social media may
have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators
that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health
and well-being of children and adolescents….” — Social Media and Youth Mental Health (U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, 2023)

Since then, Dr. Murthy has called on Congress to place health warning labels on social media sites.

This is not just a public health concern. It’s also a religious concern, or should be. In a recent opinion piece, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes:

“A religious temperament might mean questioning our utter reliance on such technology: creating islands of time, like the Sabbath or Sunday, when we would liberate ourselves from technology and being more self-aware of how we use our tools, which have become our toys…. That [old] rabbinic statement that has become a cliche: ‘Whoever saves one life, it is as if they have saved the entire world.’ If regulating access to social media will save the life of one kid, it will be worth it.”

We now know that social media has serious adverse effects on adolescent and pre-adolescent health. So let’s do something about it.

Why the debate shouldn’t matter

I’ve read three or four recent news stories claiming that some large percentage of voters are going to place a lot of weight on the debates.

My personal opinion is that this seems silly. Skill in debating doesn’t necessarily correlate to skill in governing. Furthermore, a president of the United States is really only as good as their team. Debating skill tells me nothing about the ability of someone to put together a good management team. (Besides, we’ve already seen both of the two major presidential candidates govern for several years; we already know how they’re going to perform.)

But the United States seems obsessed with high stakes performance evaluations like the presidential debate. For high school kids, we love our high stakes school tests, and our SAT scores. For sports teams, we love our playoff games. For Unitarian Universalist ministers, we love our “candidating week,” seven days in which to evaluate a candidate for a years-long tenure.

We United Statesians also love our hyper-individualistic take on leadership. We love to imagine that the Great Man theory of leadership is correct. We like to believe that one person in a leadership role has a huge impact on an organization, which is why we pay Chief Executive Officers of for-profit corporations millions and billions of dollars. Even though the Great Man theory of leadership is obviously wrong, we fervently cling to our belief in it; we are leadership theory fundamentalists.

And people wonder why United States democracy is in such trouble….

Ecojustice education resource

A team at the University of California in Davis, headed by Tom Maiorana, has developed a game that models evacuations in the face of wildfires. (Apparently there was a story about this game on National Public Radio (NPR), but I don’t listen to NPR and read about this online somewhere.) They’ve set up “Prototyping Resilience,” a website for the game.

As someone who has been doing ecojustice education on the side for nearly two decades now, as soon as I heard about this game my gut response was: Wow, what a great teaching resource. Then I has to stop and think about why this would be such a great teaching resource. First, the game raises awareness of a new phenomenon, massive wildfires, which result from climate change and to a certain extent from land use change. Second, the game empowers people to know what to do in case of a wildfire (i.e., it’s akin to the tabletop exercises long used in emergency prep circles). Third, the game educates people about community cooperation. Raising awareness, empowering, building community — all key precepts for ecojustice education.

Detail of a sheet of game instructions showing game tokens representing a wildfire.
Detail of the visual instructions for the game.

The current iterations of the game are specific to actual communities in California. But the game developers plan to have a generic “Evacuation Boardgame” ready by October, 2024. I signed up for the generic game using the “Game Request Form” link at the bottom of this webpage.

Well, that was ugly

I ran into Mary P at the Sunday service here in Cohasset. She’s the other delegate from our congregation to General Assembly. She asked me if I’d been following General Assembly. I said that I had, but added that it was painful to watch at times. She agreed.

We both were repelled by speakers (on both sides of various issues) who were mean-spirited, unkind, willing to mistake opinion for facts, and so on. We both agreed that we were not seeing these kind of behaviors in our local Unitarian Universalist congregation.

I suspect the online format tended to encourage bad behavior. But whatever the cause, I felt frankly embarrassed by some of my co-religionists. Mind you, it was people on both sides of the issues being debated. For example, in the discussion of the bylaws revision, after legal counsel for the Unitarian Universalist Association gave her professional opinion that the bylaws revision would not reduce the freedom of individual congregations, at least one speaker said the bylaws revision would reduce congregational freedom. In another example, one speaker who supported the revision of the bylaws relied on what I considered to be ad hominem attacks; I wound up muting the audio.

This online General Assembly was one of the few times I felt embarrassed to be a Unitarian Universalist. To me, it felt like hyper-individualism had run amok. Sadly, the whole thing was livestreamed on Youtube, so anyone could watch it.

Oh well. Who am I trying to kid? We live in a horribly polarized society. Why should Unitarian Universalists be immune from polarization? And a huge driver of polarization is people doing way too much social interaction online, instead of in person. If we hold General Assembly online, I guess we have to expect the same bad behavior that has driven me from Facebook, Twitter, Mastodon, and other social media platforms.

And the problem may well be my problem. These days, the only thing I use social media for is finding out about Sacred Harp singings; I’m no longer accustomed to a daily dose of mean-spiritedness, unkindness, and misinformation. Maybe if you use social media a lot, General Assembly seemed tame and well-behaved. But it’s not for me — and I’m not enthusiastic about ever attending another online General Assembly.

Things that you’re NOT liable to find in the Bible

Louisiana state law now requires that the Ten Commandments shall be posted in every classroom. But if you compare the Ten Commandments found in the Bible with Louisiana’s Ten Commandments, you quickly see that they are not the same Ten Commandments.

Where did Louisiana’s Ten Commandments come from? Apparently, in the 1950s “representatives of Judaism, Protestantism, and Catholicism developed what the individuals involved believed to be a nonsectarian version of the Ten Commandments because it could not be identified with any one religious group” — Anthony Flecker, “Thou shalt make not law respecting an establishment of religion: ACLU v. McCreary County, Van Orden v. Perry, and the Establishment clause”, St. John’s Journal of Legal Commentary, vol. 21:1, p. 264 footnote 136. (This Patheos post gives another take on the same story.)

In other words, the Louisiana version of the Ten Commandments may be inspired by the Bible, but it is not Biblical. If you’re a Biblical purist, you could say that Louisiana’s rewriting of Exodus 20:2-17 is actually a type of graven image or idol — something that seems like it comes from God, but is actually made by fallible humans.

Below the fold, I’ll include several translations of the relevant Bible passages so you can compare them.

Continue reading “Things that you’re NOT liable to find in the Bible”

Two brief thoughts on online GA

I was finally able to retrieve my delegate credential for the online General Assembly (GA). Which prompted me to log in to the Whova event management portal for GA.

As I poked around, two things caught my eye.

(1) There’s a friendly prompt to answer an icebreaker question. Great idea for an online space, so I clicked through. The first icebreaker question that appeared was “What’s your favorite place of all the places you’ve travelled?” and you are given a list of countries around the world to choose from. This is a classic question used to establish your your socio-economic class: choosing, for example, Papua New Guinea places you in a higher socio-economic class than choosing, say, Canada or the United Kingdom. There are other icebreaker questions you can choose from, of course, but choosing this question is a good way to establish yourself as being part of the upper middle class.

Anyway, I decided to skip the icebreaker question.

(2) I noticed that there were quite a few online sessions aimed at teens. Given that increased screen time correlates with decreased mental health in teens, I’m not sure how I feel about this. It’s great that GA organizers are trying to serve Generation Z. But it’s more screen time….

Actually, screen time has been associated with depression among adults, too. Depression is actually one of the biggest health risks for clergy (substance abuse is another). I check in periodically with a psychotherapist, so I don’t believe I am currently suffering from depression. However, I do find that the thought of spending much time with online GA leaves me feeling — well, depressed.