Race, religion, and imperialism

In the past couple of years there has been a resurgence of interest in the connections between racism, religion, and imperialism. But these connections have been a topic of conversation for over half a century. Today, were more likely to talk about colonialism, but the connections are the same. Here’s theologian Benjamin E. May in 1954:

“Race and color did not count in the early existence of the Protestant church. It was when modern Western imperialism began to explore and exploit the colored peoples of Africa, Asia, and America that the beginning of segregation and discrimination based on color was intitiated. It was then that color was associated with ‘inferiority’ and white with ‘superiority.'”

— address by Benjamin E. Mays, Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Ill., August 21, 1954; quoted in Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950, p. 427

Yet another holy book

Rodney Kennedy, in an opinion piece on Baptist News Global, says:

“I’m attempting to wrap my mind around the idea of a former Army general telling me I should preach from the U.S. Constitution. I mention this only because Michael Flynn has been occupying American pulpits, recommending the Constitution as a second holy book for preachers. ‘What (preachers) need to be doing is they need to be talking about the Constitution from the pulpit as much as the Bible. They have to do that,’ Flynn has said.”

Kennedy calls Flynn’s remark idolatrous. From his Christian point of view, the Bible stands alone and does not need to be propped up by any other texts.

I don’t know if Flynn actually believes what he said, or if he just said it to draw audiences. (Time reported that Flynn made $150,000 in 2016 for speaking engagements, a strong motivation to say what his audiences want to hear.) But I do know Flynn is giving voice to an opinion genuinely held by many people in the United States. These folks genuinely believe that the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired, just like the Bible, and thus should be treated as a sacred text. These folks use short passages from the U.S. Constitution as proof texts, just as short passages from the Bible are used as proof texts, to prove the truth of a certain theological opinion or doctrine.

What a fascinating historical moment. We seem to be watching a sort of new Great Awakening, a movement which curiously adds the U.S. Constitution as a sacred text co-equal to the Bible. Like previous Great Awakenings, these folk are vibrant and adventurous and enthusiastic. My Puritan forebears would have said that enthusiasm results from excessive religious emotions that come from a deluded conceit that one is specially favored by God, and I’m still enough of a Puritan to agree. Nevertheless, what a fascinating historical moment.

Clerical stoles

In two earlier posts (one and two), I wrote about preaching gowns. Personally I’m not a fan of preaching gowns, but I understand why they can be of use. Now I’d like to think out loud about clerical stoles.

Stoles are those long pieces of cloth that clergy drape around their necks. The stole comes from the Christian tradition. I don’t remember Unitarian Universalist clergy using stoles until the 1980s. My recollection is that Eugene Pickett, when he was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, insisted that clergy should wear stoles. By the 1990s, clerical stoles were pervasive in Unitarian Universalism. And by 2003, the year I participated in the Service of the Living Tradition as a newly ordained minister, I think I was the only minister who didn’t wear a stole.

Some people understand the stole to be a symbol of ordination. But choirs that wear robes often also wear stoles, and we generally expect most of our choristers to be non-ordained persons. So I’m not convinced that the stole is a symbol of ordination, and only to be worn by ordained clergy.

Also, stoles are reminiscent of other special religious clothing in other traditions. A stole is somewhat similar in appearance to the Japanese Buddhist wagesa, though the wagesa has very specific symbolic meanings (as I understand it) which obviously differ from any symbolism a stole might have. A stole is perhaps slightly reminiscent of the Jewish tallit or prayer shawl, insofar as it’s something to drape over your shoulders when engaging in religious observances.

It seems to me that there are other cultures that drape long pieces of cloth around your neck. Think of Hindu men who wear a dupatta over a sherwani for their wedding. I feel like there are other examples, though I can’t think of any right now. So even though there’s a strong connection between the stole and Christianity, it you take the cross off a stole maybe it’s not a Christian stole any more. When Unitarian Universalist minister Hank Peirce wears his Boston Bruins stole, there isn’t much connection between the stole and Christianity.

I don’t like wearing a preaching gown, but I feel reasonably comfortable wearing a stole. I think of it as a uniform. Like when I worked at the lumber yard, and I had to wear a shirt with a “Concord Lumber Corp.” patch over the shirt pocket, and my first name embroidered on the other side of my chest. (And yes, I’ve thought of having a stole made with a patch that says “First Parish Unitarian Universalist” on one side, and my name embroidered on the other side, but rejected the idea for obvious reasons.)

I wish I didn’t have to wear any special clothes to be a minister. As a Universalist, I think all humans are of equal worth, and wearing special clergy clothing sets my teeth on edge. But I realize that people want to see their clergy wearing some kind of uniform. For me, a stole represents a reasonable compromise between egalitarianism and the need for a uniform. So on Sunday, when I participate in the Town of Cohasset 9/11 observance, I’ll be in uniform, wearing a stole.

(Getting a stole for Sunday proved to be a challenge. I have a stole that my younger sister gave me when I was ordained, but it’s still in a moving container somewhere. I just found out about the Cohasset 9/11 observance, and had to get a stole on short notice. But finding a stole without any Christian symbolism on it, that could be overnighted to me, was a challenge. I finally found Threads by Nomad, a small company that’s trying to provide clothing that doesn’t do “damage to people or the planet.” They had clergy stoles on sale and they were able to overnight one to me. Sadly, it looks like they’re selling off their stole inventory, so maybe it hasn’t been a good business opportunity for them. Their website tells me that the stole I bought was “made from a fabric called mud cloth from Mali. Mud cloth is dyed using fermented mud — a traditional dying technique in many parts of the world but notably in West Africa. Our mud cloth is not mass produced and therefore every piece is different in design.” Since I’ve been strongly influenced by African philosophy, this seemed like a serendipitous find. Plus the stole was made by an “artisan [who was] fairly compensated.”)

Preaching gowns, part two

In a previous post I outlined some reasons why I don’t want to wear a preaching gown. In this post, I’ll do my best to give some of the many good reasons why Unitarian Universalist ministers should Geneva gowns, or other types of preaching gowns.

First, women ministers are held to impossible standards of dress, and for them a preaching gown makes sense. I have heard from many women ministers about the comments they have to endure from congregants about their clothes. I’ve heard about other women giving backhanded compliments on articles of clothing, compliments that are really criticisms. I’ve heard about men making inappropriate comments on how “sexy” or “attractive” a woman minister looked. As a man, I could deal with that kind of comment by wearing exactly the same kind of clothes all the time (which is in fact what I do), but women are held to a different standards and if they don’t wear a variety of clothes they are subjected to criticism. So if I were a woman minister, I wouldn’t want to deal with this kind of bullshit, and I’d seriously consider wearing a preaching gown.

Second, ministers who are not white typically experience varying levels of racism in our predominantly white Unitarian Universalist congregations. As an example, recently I heard about a minister of color who was told that they were very well-spoken — well of course they are, they have been trained in the art of public speaking, as have all ministers — white male ministers don’t receive this sort of backhanded compliment (sadly, white women do hear similar comments). If I were a person of color and a minister in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, chances are good that I’d want to wear a preaching gown.

Third, there are ministers who are poor dressers. I’m one of those ministers. I simply don’t pay attention to clothes most of the time. On one memorable occasion, I showed up at church on Sunday morning wearing a coat and trousers from two different suits. I frequently forget to fasten collar and cuff buttons. I have poor taste in ties. I try to remember to pay attention to my appearance, but I frequently forget; it’s not that I don’t care, I’m simply not aware. Ministers like me might to do better to wear wear a preaching gown, to save our congregations from occasional embarrassment. In my case, however, I’m sure I’d find ways to look slovenly in a preaching gown; the gown might hide some of my sartorial blunders, but not all of them.

Fourth, a preaching gown is a symbolic tie to Unitarian Universalist history. It’s not a wholly bad thing to be descended from the Protestant Reformation. Some of our most cherished values — freedom of individual conscience, the priesthood and prophethood of all persons, etc. — derive from the Reformation. Ralph Waldo Emerson wore a preaching gown, as seen in Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of the seated Emerson. Wearing a preaching gown can symbolize the tie to our most brilliant Unitarian minister, and to a host of other Unitarian and Universalist and Unitarian Universalist ministers.

In short, there are very good reasons for a Unitarian Universalist minister to wear a preaching gown. There are very good reasons for Unitarian Universalist congregations to want their minister to wear a preaching gown. Perhaps most importantly, given the persistent and pernicious sexism and racism in Unitarian Universalism (which is a reflection of the racism and sexism in our wider society), preaching gowns make a great deal of sense. Wearing a preaching gown can serve as a symbol that the person wearing it is a highly trained and skilled professional. Well-meaning white parishioners, and parishioners of all genders, may need this weekly reminder. The reminder of professional competence offered by preaching gowns might also be useful for ministers who are young, disabled, LGBTQ+, etc.

Indeed, white male ministers like me should probably consider wear preaching gowns to show solidarity with our ministerial colleagues. However, this must be balanced against another consideration. In my experience dealing with the aftermath of ministers who engage in unethical behavior and misconduct, I have a strong sense that misconducting ministers use all the little signs and symbols of authority to insulate themselves from being held accountable for their ethical violations. I believe some misconducting ministers have used the symbolic power of a preaching gown to allow them to hide from accountability. So white male ministers who choose to adopt the signs and symbols of ministerial power — preaching gowns, titles, and the like — must be careful to ensure that there are robust institutional structures in place to hold them accountable for their behavior. Actually, all ministers should make sure there are robust institutional structures in place to hold them accountable, but white male ministers need to be especially sure of this.

For me personally, the decision on whether or not to wear a preaching gown comes down to two competing demands. If I were to wear a preaching gown, I could express solidarity with non-white and non-male ministers. Balanced against that is my strong sense that wearing a preaching gown can serve as one of those little things that can serve to insulate ministers from ethical accountability. For me — not for anyone else, mind you, just for me — the balance is tipped in favor of any slight increase in ethical accountability. But I think for most ministers, and for most congregations, the balance will be tipped the other way.

Preaching gowns

I was trying to explain to someone why I don’t wear a preaching gown, or any other clerical vestments. It’s kind of a long explanation, so I thought I’d turn it into a blog post.

Unitarian Universalists ministers who wear gowns to preach typically wear one of two types of gown. If they have a doctoral degree, they can wear a doctoral robe. When I was a teenager, the minister of my Unitarian Universalist church was Rev. Dr. Dana Greeley. As I recall it, he wore his Harvard doctoral robe to preach: crimson fabric with black insets, and black velvet bars on the sleeves.

The other choice of robe is the traditional Geneva preaching gown. This is the gown worn by ministers in traditions that trace their lineage (to use a Buddhist term) back to the Protestant Reformation, particularly to John Calvin in Geneva. The Protestant Reformation put the emphasis on preaching the Word, and they wore gowns that resemble academic gowns showing the importance of their education, their focus on the Word.

Since I don’t have a doctoral degree, I’m obviously not going to wear a doctoral degree. My reasons for not wearing a Geneva gown are more complex.

First, I feel that Unitarian Universalism has drifted far enough away from Protestantism that Geneva gown have little symbolic value for us any more. A Geneva gown symbolizes Protestant shift from priest to preacher, where preaching the Word became central to the Protestant religion. Our worship services no longer focus on preaching as much as we used to — I remember sermons lasting for close to half the worship service, but today my sense is the typical Unitarian Universalist sermon lasts for about 15 minutes of an hour-long service. So we are not preaching as many words as we used to do. Nor is it clear to me that we are preaching the Word — capital “W” — that is, the Word of the Christian God. A Unitarian Universalist minister who is Christian might want to wear a Geneva gown. But even Unitarian Universalist ministers who are Christian need to preach to theologically and religiously diverse congregations, so the Geneva gown might be about as appropriate as the saffron robes of certain Buddhist monks. A Unitarian Universalist minister who wears a Buddhist saffron robe is making a definite statement about their religious outlook; if I were to wear a Geneva gown, I feel I’d be making an equally definite statement, and I’m not sure it’s a statement I want to make.

Second, Protestant ministers wear a Geneva gown to set themselves apart from ordinary members of the congregation. The gown is a sign of their special religious status. I’m not sure that Unitarian Universalist ministers actually have that kind of special status. I feel that my position as a Unitarian Universalist minister is closer to the position of rabbis as described by Coffee Shop Rabbi: “Rabbis are ordinary people with specialized knowledge. Unlike a priest, we do not have special powers. A rabbi is a person who has studied Torah, Jewish law and tradition. Someone, either an institution or another rabbi, has declared that they can call themselves ‘rabbi’.” As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I consider myself to be an ordinary person who has specialized training: a three and a half year graduate degree, a one year internship under an experienced minister, and clinical pastoral education. Both a local congregation and the Unitarian Universalist Association have declared that I can call myself “minister.” In my understanding, my specialized training does not give me a special status such that I need to wear special clothes to lead worship.

Third, anyone can lead a Unitarian Universalist worship service. We are not like many Christian denominations, where only a priest or ordained clergy can preside at worship services. (Nor are we like the Church of the Latter-day Saints, where only men can preside at services.) So you don’t need a special person to lead worship, and the worship leader doesn’t need special clothes to lead worship. Alternatively, if ministers wear special clothes to lead worship, then maybe ordinary Unitarian Universalists should, too.

Fourth, I’m a cheapskate, and Geneva gowns are expensive. Yes, you can purchase a polyester Geneva gown for under three hundred dollars. But I don’t want to purchase any artificial fiber clothes any more — artificial fibers are one of the chief sources of microplastics in the environment. And a natural fiber gown will cost upwards of $1,000. I find it hard to explain to myself why I’d spend well over $1,000 on a garment that I’d wear at most 40 hours a year. Better I should either put that money into my retirement savings, or give that money to a local homeless shelter.

There are lots of arguments about why Unitarian Universalist ministers should wear some kind of special clothes to lead worship. I’ll outline some of those arguments in a follow-up post.

Don’t call it the “Axial Age,” please

If you’ve ever referred to the “Axial Age,” Jack Tsonis, lecturer at the Graduate REsearch School, Western Sydney Univ., suggests you might want to stop. “Axial Age” is a term coined by Karl Jaspers to describe a time about two and a half millennia ago when several key religio-philosophic texts emerged: the Dao de Jing, the Bhagavad Gita, the writings of Plato, the Lun Yu (Analects), the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, etc. The “Axial Age” is typically represented as a time when religion and philosophy emerged, as it were, into the light from the darkness of “primitive” thinking. This would imply that, for example, Christianity is somehow better or more advanced than Lakota religion and spirituality. Tsonis says:

“We need a full-scale acknowledgement of just how problematic this whole ‘Axial Age’ story is. So my big thing, I suppose, is that we’ve got to just stop using this term. The ‘Axial Age’ should not have credibility. It’s like ‘world religions.’ You shouldn’t use the term ‘world religions’ if you’re analytically responsible and politically responsible…. I don’t even care how we describe the first millennium B.C.E., I’m not going to use the term world religions, I’m not going to use the term Axial Age, because they’re bankrupt [and] founded in racial ideologies [Editor: and colonial ideologies]. But if you keep using them, even if you’re not aware of this stuff, you feed that discourse. We just need to starve those terms of oxygen.” Link to the Religious Studies Podcast where he makes this comment

Another way of putting this: Using the term “Axial Age” (or the term “world religions”) promulgates a theological position that sets up a hierarchy where indigenous religious traditions are ranked lower. It’s not what you’d call respectful.

Alternative democracies

Unitarian Universalists claim that one of our central principles is democratic process. As our United States democracy seems on the verge of failing, maybe it’s time to look for new ideas in alternative forms of democracy. A recent paper by Stephen C. Angle titled “Confucian Leadership Meets Confucian Democracy” explores one such alternative democracy (Journal of Social and Political Philosophy [1.2 (2022): 121–135 DOI: 10.3366/jspp.2022.0021], available free online through October: https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/epdf/10.3366/jspp.2022.0021).

Wait a minute — Confucian democracy? I always thought Confucianism was hierarchical, not democratic. Apparently Confucian democracy is now A Thing. And I found some interesting ideas in this article that might help us rethink our hyper-individualistic democracy. For example, this passage explores how individuals must balance their moral intuition (which can get self-centered) against what’s going on in the world around them:

“[T]he right way to think about Confucian leaders is as a kind of external model or authority, vis-à-vis each individual citizen, and in this way they serve as a kind of institution: one among a number of necessary external checks on the individual judgment of any given citizen. Confucians, for all their stress … on the need for people to freely ‘get it themselves’, also emphasize the need for such external checks, other instances of which are teachers, parents, ritual instructions, and classic texts. The relationship between internal, personal attainment and matching with an external model is much debated within the tradition. Often, it seems as if a pendulum is swinging back and forth, from extremes of inner-reliance, through various more balanced positions, to extremes of outer-reliance, and back again. I feel that Confucians today can learn the most from the balanced positions that recognize the importance of both sides.

“One excellent example is the Ming dynasty Confucian Luo Qinshun (1465–1547). He was concerned about thinkers of his day who advocated sole reliance on one’s own moral intuition. He calls this ‘onesidedess’, and adds: ‘If one’s learning is not extensive and one’s discussion is not detailed, one’s vision will be limited by the confines of one’s own heartmind, and however one may wish to be free from error, it will be impossible’…. What, then, is one to do? [Luo] says: ‘Thus to “seek within oneself” one must begin with one’s own nature and emotions. One then goes on to extend to other things what one has perceived in oneself, and if it is found to be inconsistent, then it is not ultimate Pattern’…. Like most of his fellow Neo-Confucians, Luo holds that the coherent Pattern of the universe is one-and-the-same, no matter whether examined within oneself or in external things. Therefore, by looking for ways in which one’s own emotional reactions tally with external models (such as the reactions of role models to similar situations), one can locate Pattern within oneself and avoid being led astray by superficial or self-centered reactions. Similarly, if external models cannot be made to tally with one’s own emotions, then this is reason to question those models. The goal is to ‘achieve corresponding illumination of things and the self’….”

I like that Luo Qinshun wants to ensure that we aren’t led astray by self-centeredness. One implication: democratic leadership should maintain social structures that will help us avoid self-centeredness. That’s going to be a tough sell in the United States today. But it could be a bracing corrective to the hyper-individualistic self-centeredness that currently rules us.

I find Angle’s academic prose to be tough going. Still, lots of thought-provoking material in this paper.

Quoted without comment

From Ursula K. LeGuin, from her science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness:

“To be an atheist is to maintain God. His [sic] existence or his non-existence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof. Thus ‘proof’ is a word not often used among the Handarata, who have chosen not to treat God as a fact, subject either to proof or to belief: and they have broken the circle, and go free.”

Out of the mouths of Scots

Sometimes another blogger says what you want to say, but better, and more concisely. Earlier today, Scottish blogger and science fiction author Charles Stross wrote about how the Supreme Court of the United States intends to overturn Roe v. Wade, saying in part:

“It is unwise to underestimate the degree to which extreme white supremacism in the USA is enmeshed with a panic about ‘white’ people being ‘out-bred’ by other races. This also meshes in with extreme authoritarian patriarchal values, the weird folk religion that names itself “Christianity” and takes pride in its guns and hatred of others, homophobia, transphobia, an unhealthy obsession with eugenics (and a low-key desire to eliminate the disabled which plays into COVID19 denialism, anti-vaxx, and anti-mask sentiment), misogyny, incel culture, QAnon, classic anti-semitic Blood Libel, and Christian Dominionism (which latter holds that the USA is a Christian nation—and by Christian they mean that aforementioned weird folk religion derived from protestantism I mentioned earlier—and their religious beliefs must be enshrined in law).”

That just about covers it, doesn’t it.

Next, let us discuss how Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale is about to jump genres, from science fiction into historical fiction….

Is your identity set in stone?

If you’re reaching sexual maturity today, you have a wide array of sexual orientations with which you might identify. There are the old categories of straight, bisexual, gay, and lesbian. There is a continuum from asexual through graysexual to allosexual, though it’s not a linear continuum since it also includes demisexual and aspec and other identities. The old continuum of gay/lesbian to straight (where if asked “how gay are you?” you might reply “a Kinsey 6”) now must include more than two binary genders. Thus, in addition to gay or straight, we now have pansexual, omni sexual, polysexual, etc.

In my observation as a sexuality educator, this plethora of sexual orientations can be both freeing and confusing for young adolescents. Some young adolescents, including the ones who have felt they are somehow different than the norms shown in popular culture, are relieved to find that there are other people out there like them. Other young adolescents, including those who may feel that they don’t fit into pop culture norms, may not see themselves reflected in any of the existing categories, or may see themselves reflected in more than one category. Even young adolescents who fit into one of the old categories (one they don’t have to explain to their parents) find the need to understand the new plethora of sexual orientations, as friends and acquaintances identify with other sexual orientations.

I think it’s helpful to introduce young adolescents to the concept of sexual fluidity. Back in 2014, social psychologist Justin Lehmiller wrote:

“Over the last decade [i.e., prior to 2014], the concept of sexual fluidity has drawn great attention from both scientists and the general public alike. In case you aren’t familiar with it, the basic idea behind sexual fluidity is that some of us have the capacity for a ‘flexible’ erotic response, which can lead to significant variability in one’s pattern of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity over time. In other words, someone who is sexually fluid may experience fluctuations in who they are attracted to, who they sleep with, and what labels they identify with multiple times over the lifespan.”

In other words, your sexual orientation can change over time. I feel this is a useful corrective to a culture that seems to want to put us into a limited number of essentialist categories — we are gay or straight (but not something in between), black or white (but not biracial), Democrat or Republican (but not socialist or communist).

There’s a theological point here. Existentialist theology suggests that humans don’t have a pre-existing essence. We define our essences ourselves, through our actions in the world. By contrast, essentialist theologies insist that humans have defined essences from their beginnings. Essentialist theologies include both conservative Christian theologies (“man is sinful”) on the one hand, and atheist theologies (“humans are programmed by their biology”) on the other hand.

While some Unitarian Universalists do espouse essentialist theologies, mostly essentialist atheist theologies, I’d like to think that most of us do not fall into the essentialist trap. Instead, we assert that humans can change over time. Where others try to place humans into little boxes of essentialist identities, as existentialists we know that we have the ultimate freedom to define our own essence through our actions.