The current issue of Geez magazine (“Contemplative Cultural Resistance”) just arrived in my mailbox from Canada, and the issue opens with a quote from Walter Brueggeman’s 2005 essay “Counterscript.” Geez had to abridge the quote, but here’s the original:
“The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.
“I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.
“I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved.
“I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that ‘if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: ‘It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.’
“The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.
“It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.”
Later in the essay, Brueggeman goes on to say that this script has “failed,” for “we are not safe, and we are not happy.” He points to the complicity of the Christian church in “enacting” this script, adding:
“It is the task of the church and its ministry to detach us from that powerful script.”
Unitarian Universalism got kicked out of the Christian church more than a century ago (a fact we’re now kind of proud of), but like many Christian churches we too are enacting the script of therapeutic technological consumerist militarism. We firmly believe that we can find ways to live our lives with no inconvenience. We firmly believe that we can find a fix for every problem.
The next two points may not be as obvious, and will require some explanation.
We may protest that we fight consumerism, but we live our lives as though resources are ours to exploit. We cut down on our oil use, but we firmly believe that the sun and wind are ours to exploit for energy. We say we are anti-racist, but the financial health of many of our congregations can be traced back to seed money accumulated through exploitation of people of color: land appropriated from Native American peoples, labor appropriated from persons of African descent, etc.
We may protest militarism. Many of us may be peaceniks, and some of us have been arrested protesting militarism. But in the end we depend on systems that protect therapeutic technological consumerism, and so we protest that upon which our livelihoods depend.
Brueggeman goes on to say:
“We have become so jaded in the church — most particularly in the liberal church — that we have forgotten what has been entrusted to us. We have forgotten that the script entrusted to us is really all alternative and not an echo. Liberals tend to get so engaged in the issues of the day, urgent and important as those issues are, that we forget that behind such issues is a meta-narrative that is not about our particular social passion but about the world beyond our control. The claim of that alternative script is that there is at work among us a Truth that makes us safe, that makes us free, that makes us joyous in a way that the comfort and ease of the consumer economy cannot even imagine.”
Obviously, in the Christian church, that Truth is the Triune God, and the narrative of liberation that can be found in the Bible. The liberal Christians, products of the Enlightenment as much as are Unitarian Universalists, find God to be an “embarrassment.” Yet Brueggeman argues that the counterscript of the Christian church could be — could be, though it is not now — could be a powerful alternative script that would enable us to fight violence, racism, patriarchy, and classism.
Do we Unitarian Universalists have an alternative script, a counterscript that could stand against therapeutic technological consumerist militarism?
Most Unitarian Universalists congregations do not have a counterscript. Most of us have bought into therapeutic technological consumerist militarism, and we hope to fight it from within. We believe that we can find a treatment or process that will counter therapeutic technological consumerist militarism — thus trying to impose a therapeutic solution on the world (and that imposition of a solution on others is in fact a form of militarism). And we believe with even more religious fervor that we can fix the world through our human ingenuity — just as we fixed our transportation problems with the ingenious solution of internal combustion engines, just as we fixed the problem of disease-carrying mosquitoes with DDT, and on and on. We believe with religious fervor that treating and fixing are enough.
And maybe treating and fixing are enough. Maybe we can fix racism with ingenious processes that counteract our discomfort. Maybe we can end patriarchy with improved institutional structures, or even a new smartphone app, easily enough that we can live our lives without inconvenience. We better hope that treating and fixing are enough, because we don’t have much in the way of alternatives.
We do have one alternative from our Unitarian heritage, which is encapsulated in Theodore Parker’s statement that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. However, Parker did not mean to imply that we humans can perfect ourselves. Nor did he mean to imply that justice was going to happen tomorrow, or even next year. Nor did he say that the moral arc of the universe was a smooth line always tending upwards.
And we have another alternative from our Universalist heritage, which is encapsulated in Hosea Ballou’s statement that God is love. Note that Ballou did not state that humans can be equated with love; he located love somewhere outside of us. Note too that Ballou was deliberately vague about who God was, for he knew that the Universalism of his day included a great deal of theological diversity, from the Biblical Christian Universalism of someone like John Murray, to the emerging pantheism of Abner Kneeland; so Ballou equated God and love.
Unfortunately, instead of serving as powerful counterscripts, Unitarian Unviersalists tend to subsume these two alternatives into therapeutic technological consumerist militarism. We think we’ll find something to counteract every little ache and inconvenience we have. We think we’ll fix everything ourselves. We think we can find the resources to do this without bothering our neighbors. And we believe we can impose our solutions on the rest of the world.
No wonder, then, we are failing to address our own racism and patriarchy.