In a short news analysis piece, BBC reporter Anthony Zurcher says: “The recently announced formal impeachment inquiry has become all-consuming for Mr Trump — and is turning the man who likes to fashion himself as a ‘counter-puncher’ into a whirling frenzy of fists.”
Kindness has been neglected as a societal virtue in recent years. A popular catch-phrase tells us to practice random acts of kindness. While there’s nothing wrong with indulging in random acts of kindness, it’s also easy because it doesn’t require you to be kind all the time; you can just be kind when you feel like it. It is much more difficult to attempt to be kind most of the time.
Religions tell us to practice compassion, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But compassion and love have their roots in the ordinary care and respect we should show for others. We begin by caring for and respecting those closest to us: our households, our families, our children and parents. This includes care for our physical selves: parents provide food for their children to eat; members of households share in day-to-day tasks. Kindness begins with such physical needs, but it extends to a sense of respect for each other as humans. A sense of respect requires us to attempt to understand others: what are they thinking and feeling? — or if not to understand, then at least to appreciate.
Care and respect should be mutual: when care and respect are given, but not in turn received, it becomes difficult to keep on caring and respecting. Random kindness in intimate relationships does not suffice; kindness should permeate households, families, and the relations between parents and children. Indeed, kindness should originate within one’s self; if you regulate yourself with kindness, then you are more likely to be kind in your household. When those in your household are kind to each other, you will more likely be kind to others; your entire household will practice consistent acts of kindness.
Some people assume that kindness means things like cutting out paper hearts and giving them to people; or, when you’re stopped at a tollbooth, paying the toll of the vehicle behind you in line. But these acts, while well-intentioned, are not particularly kind. Kindness strengthens the web of interdependence that exists between us all, and that requires consistency in thought and word and deed. Thoughts and words do matter. I wish that all supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties would understand this. When supporters of the Democratic party refer to supporters of the Republicans as “Repugs” on their social media accounts, that is not consistent with kindness, and no number of random acts of kindness can really make up for it. When Republicans make similar comments about Democrats, once again, they are being unkind.
Unkindness weakens the bonds between us, the bonds which make us human. Unkindness makes us less than human. The Non-conformist minister Isaac Watts, who late in supposedly owned a pew in a Unitarian chapel, wrote in a poem for children:
Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For ’tis their nature too.
To bark and bite and growl and fight makes us less than human. While I feel Isaac Watts maligns dogs, bears, and lions — they too can show care and respect to their offspring, and sometimes to larger groups — it is true that their social relationships do not extend as far as those of humans. Bears are fairly solitary, lions less so, and dogs are pack animals, and none of these species is as social as humankind. In a globalized world, you or I can connect with thousands, even millions of other people. In our widespread human connections, we can bark and bite and growl and fight, or we can be kind. Growling and fighting break human connections and lead to dissolution of society.
Confucius taught: “Recompense injury with justice, and kindness with kindess.” Kindness begets more kindness, crowding out injury, and helping justice to grow and flourish. Kindness, consistently cultivated — first for ourselves, then for our families and households, then more and more widely, eventually for all humankind — strengthens human bonds, and makes it possible for compassion and love to take root as well, and to shoot upwards towards the sun, and to flower, and to set fruit that will nourish us and allow each of us to thrive and grow ourselves.
I continue to make progress in recovering from the pulmonary embolism of a year and a half ago, but I still get tired easily. And I’m finally learning that sometimes when you’re tired, you should rest a little bit rather than trying to maintain the fiction that you’re perfectly all right. So I’m resting.
If you’re looking for something to read, there are some new and thoughtful comments on this recent post.
A recent article from Religion News Service highlights the challenges for progressive Christian parents: these parents are looking for children’s books “that represent diversity — including race and gendered language used to describe God. And they want resources that stress social justice.”
This is a very similar problem to that facing Unitarian Universalist parents (and UU religious educators): how to find children’s books about religion that aren’t riddled with conservative religious thinking. Maybe you want to improve a UU child’s religious literacy by introducing them to stories from the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures — oops, too bad, nearly all the children’s books of Bible stories are heteronormative, binary gendered, patriarchal, with pronounced Euro-centric and white biases. It’s like queer theology, feminist and womanist theology, black liberation theology, etc., never existed.
The Religion News Service article reports on one interesting book that’s due out soon, “Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints.” This book for middle grades was funded through Kickstarter, and will have stories about Maryam Molkara, Bayard Rustin, and Rabbi Regina Jonas, among other stories of “women, LGBTQ people, people of color, indigenous people, and others often written out of religious narratives.” Sounds pretty awesome; I’m looking forward to seeing it when it’s published.
“What does religion look like to you? Taste like? Smell like?” So asks Pauline Lee, associate professor at Saint Louis University (SLU) — as she and Pauline Lindsey, an assistant professor at SLU, create a digital database of lived religion in St. Louis, Missouri. A press release from SLU dated Nov., 2018, says in part:
“Our hope is to tackle preconceived notions about this thing we call ‘religion’,”Lindsey said. “What does the study of religion look like when we shift public attention from shared beliefs (be they theological, moral, or civic) to shared spaces? And more than that, what does religion do in these spaces?”
A recent article from Religion News Service (RNS) reports on the progress of the project, called Lived Religion in the Digital Age. According to the article, “Lived Religion is a method of studying religion that focuses on religious practices and beliefs in everyday life — not only those that take place in a church or during a religious celebration.”
The RNS article reports how the researchers are documenting what’s going on a Centenary United Methodist Church, which continues to house a church, but also houses a bakery staffed by ex-felons and run by a Buddhist priest. After noting that Centenary Church is LGBTQ-friendly, the article quotes Lindsey as saying, “then you have these stories of Buddhism and social justice all happening in the same place and in conversation with each other, and it’s hard to think about this using the categories that we typically use to study religion.”
This approach to religion has implications for how we teach religious literacy to Unitarian Universalist children and teens. It is tempting to teach children about religion based on the old categories we Unitarian Universalists have inherited from our Protestant past, which emphasize belief and hard boundaries between religions. However, in an increasingly multi-cultural world, those old categories are becoming less and less useful for understanding how people are doing religion today. In addition, we Unitarian Universalists are also likely to believe that, while religions may be different on the surface, they all have the same goal. Yet as the world becomes increasingly multi-cultural, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the fiction that religions as diverse as Cao Daism, Scientology, Santeria, fundamentalist Christianity, and Therevada Buddhism are pretty much like Unitarian Universalism.
These days, when I teach or write curriculum for Unitarian Universalist kids, I try to point out both the similarities and the differences between religions. For example, I’ve been developing (and am currently co-teaching) a curriculum with the working title “Neighboring Faith Communities” which invites middle schoolers to explore the emotional, social, and material dimensions of nearby faith communities. Exploring the social dimension of other faith communities can help reveal differences such as treatment of men and women and non-binary genders, differences of treatment of races (yes, we do explore just how white Unitarian Universalism is), attitudes towards various sexual orientations, etc. And another aspect of the social dimension of religion, how a faith community tries to affect the world outside it, can reveal commonalities such as a shared desire to assist people who are poor, homeless, or hungry. I have come to feel that in order to teach about other religions, the teacher must cultivate in students both an understanding of the profound strangeness of other religious traditions (Confucian priests put out bowls of celery in certain rituals), and the commonalities between religious traditions (Sikh gurdwaras provide free meals to all comers, mainline Protestant Christians are committed to helping the poor, etc.).
At the same time, the growth of digital resources allow us teachers to present students with more than written statements and religious texts. As a teacher, I can always use more resources that present lived religion digitally, because those digital resources allow students to see in new ways how people are actually living their religions. Unfortunately, there’s very little about lived religion yet posted on the Lived Religion in a Digital Age Web site — let’s hope they begin posting their video documentation, and crowd-sourced photos of religion, soon.
I have been following, at a distance, the controversy about the publication and distribution of The Gadfly Papers, a book of essays critical of the UUA’s antiracism approach, written and self-published by Todd Eklof, the minister at the Spokane, Wash., Unitarian Universalist church. Eklof distributed the books at General Assembly (GA), the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA); GA was held in Spokane this year.
As someone who didn’t go to GA, and as someone who doesn’t trust social media for reliable information, it wasn’t easy to figure out what went on. So far, UUWorld.org, usually an excellent source of information about GA, has not reported on what happened; instead, in their media round-up column, they pointed to an article from the local newspaper.
That local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., published an article on June 25 titled “Unitarian Universalist minister in Spokane stirs controversy for calling church too politically correct.” The article gives a basic outline of the story. Unfortunately, while they interviewed Eklof, they didn’t interview anyone opposing him, relying instead on public statements issued on social media platforms. (The simple, non-conspiracy-theory, explanation is that the reporter was under deadline pressure, interviewed the local guy, and relied on public statements to fill out the opposing side.)
If you want to see some of those public statements, UUWorld.org provides links to statements from Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUM), and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Assoc. (UUMA) People of Color and Indigenous Chapter, and an “Open letter from white Unitarian Universalist ministers,” as well as a letter from the Board presidents of the Liberal Religious Educators Association. Elswewhere, I found a statement from the Allies for Racial Equity, and most recently a UUMA letter formally censuring Eklof.
What about the book itself? Well, I refuse to buy a copy: Eklof self-published the book on Amazon, and I won’t buy books from Amazon because they reduce the already meager incomes of working authors. I haven’t talked to anyone who has actually read the entire book. And most of the online reviews of the book that I have found simply state that it represents a white supremacist point of view, but don’t offer critiques of the actual arguments of the book.
However, Scott Wells did read the entire book, and posted a two-part review of the book on his blog: part one and part two. Scott reports: “It might surprise non-readers that he [Eklof] has ideas for dismantling racism, and to continue to work on not being racist. … You might think them hogwash (or wonderful) but they’re there. ” However, says Scott,”some terms Eklof uses, such as political correctness and safetyism, are used by other authors to dismiss or belittle critics,” meaning that Eklof’s sugestions for anti-racism probably aren’t going to be heard. The book also offers at least one solution that I can only characterize as bizarre: in one essay, Eklof proposes splitting the UUA back into separate Unitarian and Universalist denominations, which Scott sums up as “Swiftian fancy, or simply romantic misreading” of Unitarian and Universalist history. Scott does not seem to care much for the book; if I were to pick one statement from his review to sum up the book, it would be this: “This is a work of controversy.”
After Scott’s dismissive review, I concluded I won’t spend my limited free time reading this “work of controversy.” And if I haven’t read the book, I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. But I do feel qualified to comment on the controversy surrounding the book, from my perspective as a religious educator.
Progressive religious educators like me spend a lot of time thinking about how to move people to a place of greater understanding; how to get people to change their perspective; and how to get people to act in more humane ways. While a confrontational approach utilizing a “work of controversy” might work in a few educational situations, if the goal is to move people towards greater understanding and more humane action, then there are many situations where a confrontational approach will not be effective. One such situation is when you, as the educator, are talking about racism and anti-racism and the U.S. today, and your auditors include people who have been rubbed raw by racism; in that situation, a confrontational approach is less likely to lead to greater understanding or more humane action, and more likely merely to piss people off. Thus, speaking as an educator, passing out a “work of controversy” on the subject of racism seems to me to be a waste of everyone’s time.
So where do we go from here? As a religious educator, I’d say it’s fairly obvious we in the U.S. all need to deepen our understanding of how racism has affected us, and continues to affect us. And I believe we would all like to figure out a more humane way to act with one another. The Gadfly Papers has proved yet again that controversy is not a particularly useful anti-racism strategy here in the U.S. — but that doesn’t mean we should give up.
Still speaking from an educator’s perspective, I would suggest that race is such a difficult topic here in the U.S. that we are going to need a wide range of strategies to address it; no one strategy is going to work for everyone and in every situation. But how do we judge what is a good strategy? I would propose a pragmatic criterion: if an educational strategy reduces systemic racism in a measurable way, then it is a good educational strategy. For example, for a religious educator working within a majority-white local congregation, if an anti-racist educational strategy leads to an increased proportion of non-white people in the congregation without a decline in absolute numbers of white people (beyond the usual losses to death or moving away), that strategy has succeeded quite well indeed.
Speaking from my own experiences in several local congregations, I believe that educational strategies based on behaviorist models (where we modify external behaviors) are generally more successful than therapeutic models (where we attempt to influence the way people feel). Similarly, educational strategies based on progressivist models (where we work together to confront or reduce racism in the wider world) generally work better than models based on logic or rhetoric (where we try to get people to think differently about racism). While I am not good at creating educational strategies at the denominational level, I suspect the same will hold true there; in which case, books about racism, or blog posts about racism, or social media chatter about racism, are not going to be particularly effective, except where they show us how to change behaviors and increase external action.