Documents relating to the Ute Indians and the Unitarians

Recently, people in the United States have been taking the month of September to reflect on the wrongs perpetrated against the indigenous peoples by the U.S. government and citizens.

(And yes, the perpetrators of wrongs against Native Americans were nearly all White, which means that Ron DeSantis doesn’t want this material taught in the Florida public schools because it might make some White kids feel ashamed of their race. More than 20 other U.S. states have laws similar to Ron DeSantis’s law in Florida, which means that this blog post is officially and legally banned in schools in more than one third of the U.S. But I digress….)

After the Civil War, various religious groups were assigned to Native American groups. The Christian religion, especially Protestant Christianity, was considered a “civilizing force,” a means by which White settlers could maintain control over Native peoples by forcibly integrating them into White culture. The Unitarians were still considered Christians in the 1870s (we got kicked out of the Christian club after 1900), and as a small denomination we were assigned “the Utes of Colorado,” a group of Native nations then living in Colorado, later forcibly removed to Utah. The Unitarians considered this “mission work,” a way of spreading the Unitarian religion through good works among non-White (and therefore less “civilized”) persons; and they classed it with the Unitarian mission in Kolkata, India, and the mission work done among African Americans in the Deep South.

Apparently, the Unitarians were fairly ineffective at this mission work. Given the history of Unitarianism, I suspect our ineffectiveness was due to our usual lack of organization and unwillingness to provide adequate funding. We established a school for Ute children, which is not listed in the first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, so perhaps it was not a boarding school. Nevertheless, given what we know now about how White-run boarding schools did so much damage to Native children, it seems important that we learn more about how this school operated.

(All this makes me think: The Universalists can be thankful that we were so small and disorganized and heretical during the 1870s and 1880s that the U.S. government never assigned them a group of Native peoples.)

In any case, I’ve collected some documents from the 1870s and 1880s pertaining to the Unitarian mission among the Ute peoples. They make for some pretty uncomfortable reading. Even though the Unitarian Universalist Association formally apologized to the Utes back in 2009, we still have a lot to do to reflect on how the Unitarian religion was used as a tool of colonization.

Scroll down for the documents….

Cover page of the report of the Fifth Meeting of the Unitarians.National Conference
Continue reading “Documents relating to the Ute Indians and the Unitarians”

What is religion, anyway?

I’ve been doing a deep dive into the question: What is religion, anyway? It’s pretty clear that “religion,” as we use it today, is a concept that really arises fairly recently in human history, during the European Enlightenment. From what I can see, the concept of “religion” arose from more than one source.

On the one hand, as nation states emerged in the early modern era, there was a general cultural move to make a strong distinction between “religious” and “secular.” “Secular” meant the emerging nation states, which had control over armies, warfare, coining money, imperialism and colonialism, etc. “Religion” was a new category, or perhaps a radical redefinition of medieval Western Christianity. “Religion,” especially in Protestant nation states, was conceived as inhabiting voluntary associations (local congregations and larger groupings of congregations called “churches”), and as being a matter of personal experience. “Secular” meant public spaces; “religious” increasingly meant personal spaces, or spaces inhabited by small bounded communities.

On the other hand, at the same time that Europeans were beginning to distinguish between “religious” and “secular,” they were also sailing all over the world and colonizing other lands and other peoples. As Europeans encountered other peoples, they experienced a bit of culture shock: people in the Americas, in Africa, and in southern and eastern Asia didn’t have anything that looked at all like Christianity — nor like Islam or Judaism, the other two traditions that Christian Europeans knew best. For example, at first Europeans had a hard time knowing what to do with peoples in the Indian subcontinent; then the Europeans decided to subsume a diversity of traditions under the heading of “Hinduism,” arguing that all “Hindus” actually worshiped the same transcendent god, named Brahma, who was sort of like the Christian god; and Hindus all traced there lineages back to sacred texts like the Rig Veda. Before the Europeans colonized the Indian subcontinent, “Hindu” was mostly an ethnic descriptor, people who lived around the Indus River; after colonization, “Hindu” became an adherent of “Hinduism.” So Hinduism is, in a sense, a creation of the colonization process.

The European Enlightenment also challenged traditional European concepts of the Christian God. As the Enlightenment progressed, various people began doubting the truth of the Christian God. By the late nineteenth century, a robust tradition of atheism emerged in Europe and in (European-colonized) North America. From what I can tell, this European tradition of atheism knew little about, e.g., much older traditions of atheism in the Indian subcontinent. That still holds true today, so that what we call “atheism” is really mostly the narrow tradition of Euro-American atheism. I call it narrow, because it was heavily influenced by Protestantism. This is not to say that Euro-American atheism is somehow a kind of super-Protestantism (although it can seem that way at times), but both traditions are clearly the product of the same broader Euro-American culture. As a result, Euro-American atheism can look a lot like Euro-American Christianity, with an emphasis on: personal belief or non-belief; conversion stories; proselytizing or the seemingly similar activity of actively encouraging people to leave religions; etc. Again, it’s not that Christianity and atheism/secularity are two sides of one coin; but rather that they’re both products of the same culture, and seem to take up much the same sort of cultural space.

That’s a brief summary of what an increasing number of scholars agree upon. My deep dive into the topic? I’ve been reading a whole bunch of books.

One book I’ve found helpful on this topic: The Secular Paradox: On the Religiosity of the Not Religious, by Joseph Blankholm (NYU Press, 2022). The book is a sociological study of people who are not religious, and who are part of organized secular groups. One of the fascinating things Blankholm finds is that organized secular groups in the U.S. seem to be dominated by older white men from vaguely Christian backgrounds. Blankholm interviews Black atheists, Hispanic atheists, formerly Jewish atheists, “Muslimish” atheists, etc. — people who often don’t fit neatly into the organized secular groups. So how come the old white guys get to dominate U.S. atheism? Blankholm has some good things to say about this.

Another book I’ve found super helpful is: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brett Nongbri (Yale Univ. Press, 2015). Nongbri is a scholar who specializes in the Ancient Near East. He also argues that “religion” is a concept that didn’t exist before the European Enlightenment. Thus, when we talk about “ancient Egyptian religion” or “ancient Greek religions,” we are using anachronistic terminology. Even when we talk about early Christianity or early Islam as “religions,” we are using anachronistic terminology. Nongbri goes into some textual analysis showing how modern translators use the word “religion” to translate ancient terms that do not carry our contemporary meaning. In other words, to say that Jesus of Nazareth (or Paul of Tarsus, depending on your theology) founded a “religion” is an anachronistic way of framing that history. Jesus may have founded something, but it was not what we mean today when we say “religion.”

If we take Nongbri and Blankholm (and many other scholars of religion) seriously, we find something rather disconcerting. The word “religion” works best to describe Western European Christianity from the early Modern period onward. That implies that “religion” does not work so well to describe the so-called “world religions.” And indeed, if we look closely, we see that the concept “religion” has been imposed on many phenomena that weren’t religions before colonialism, e.g., “Hinduism” wasn’t even a thing until after the British colonized India. Nor does “religion” work so well when applied to anything before the Enlightenment.

Which in turn implies that “religion” is not a universal concept that applies to all human cultures in all times and all places. This is something that scholars have been saying for some years now, e.g., Jonathan Z. Smith in “Religion, Religions, Religious” (1998). And if “religion” is not a timeless and universal concept, then neither is “secular.”

The practical effect of all this? Well, for us Unitarian Universalists, we are definitely part of a religion, since both Unitarianism and Universalism started out as Christian heresies. But at an institutional level, we got kicked out of the Christian club a century ago. You can be a Christian Unitarian Universalist, but Unitarian Universalism can’t really be considered Christianity. Which means the term” religion” when it is applied to us is not going to be a perfect fit. In fact, it might be argued that these days we look more like organized secularism than organized religion. And given the apparent complicity of organized religion in colonialism, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Noted with a brief comment

Josiah Royce, in his 1913 book The Problem of Christianity (pp. 213-214, 2001 reprint edition):

“No religion can survive unless it keeps in touch with men’s [sic] conscious needs. In the future men’s needs will be subject to vastly complex and rapidly changing social motives. In the future, religion, as a power aiming to win and keep a place in men’s hearts, can no longer permanently count on the institutional forces which have in the past been amongst its strongest supports. Its own institutions will tend, with the whole course of civilization [i.e., Western culture], to come increasingly under the sway of the law of accelerated change. The non-religious institutions of the future, the kingdoms and democracies of this world, the social structures which will be used for the purposes of production, of distribution, and of political life, will certainly exemplify the law of accelerated changes. And these social structures will not be under the control of religious institutions.”

There are one or two problems with Royce’s argument here. His use of “civilization” really means those parts of the world dominated both by Christianity and by persons of European descent. So there are some colonialist assumptions baked into his argument. His use of “men” to represent all human beings reveals his assumption that male human beings are the most important ones. When he talks about “Christianity,” he assumes a monolithic Christianity of which the largest English-language Protestant denominations in the United States in his day serve as the paradigm.

Nevertheless, he got two important things right. Religion is now very much under the sway of the law of accelerated change. And religion that doesn’t meet the conscious needs of people doesn’t survive.

Noted without comment

“In the United States, Protestantism has been both the privileged religious discourse and the discursive frame privileged in efforts to define both ‘religion’ and race,’ alongside a host of other modern categories. Such was the case even as race, framed as secular, modern discourse, was hailed as the principle of social organization that trumped religion — as an umbrella term for a host of ‘primitive practices’ associated with a previous epoch — under the sign of modernity. In short, to become a modern subject was not simply to become secular or to lose one’s religion. Rather, it was to acquire ‘good religion,’ which meant ascribing to a particular sort of Christianity (read: primarily ethical, literate, and reasoning). Good religion took on the form of white Protestantism. In contrast, black religion was ‘bad religion” in that it carried, by definition, evidence of earlier, African ways of being in the world….”

Josef Sorett, “Secular Compared to What?”, in Race and Secularism in American, ed. Johnathan S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd (Columbia Univ. Press, 2016), p. 50

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

Protest songs

At the end of August, “The Ongoing History of Protest Music” website had a blog post titled “A Month of Protest.” The first song they featured was “Black AF,” by Crystal Axis, an Afropunk band from Kenya. (Before you crank up the sound be aware that, like a lot of punk rock, “Black AF” is Not Safe For Work.)

I didn’t even know that leftist punk rock still existed. But Crystal Axis are keeping the tradition alive with some really hard-hitting songs. As I started listening to their music, I was particularly struck by their 2017 song “Leopold,” an anti-colonialist song about King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold led Belgium in the brutal exploitation of the Congo, and Crystal Axis’s lyrics provide a concise summary of the king’s self-justification:

“I’m the king and it’s all mine
Under Force Publique and Christ
Your hands are mine tonight
Fingers up one time!”

Leopold was especially notorious for ordering the amputation of the hands of workers if work quotas were not met. Theologically he, like other Western colonial rulers, used the Christian religion both as a cover and as a justification for his crimes against humanity.

“Take the Throne,” a song they released last year, also has some leftist theological comment. First, the lyrics call out the injustice caused by gross economic inequality, where the rich are literally starving the rest of the world:

“You eat, we watch; a revolution’s born
We’ll tear down the walls and then we’ll take the throne”

Now comes their theological commentary:

“The voice of the people is the voice of God
Too many lies, deities we can’t applaud”

This is a theology in direct opposition to King Leopold’s theology. Leopold claimed his God gave him the power to do what he liked to those who had less power, less wealth, those who were not white. By contrast, Crystal Axis are saying that God is in the voice of ordinary people — which is pretty much what Jesus said when he pointed out how difficult it would be for rich people to get into heaven. This is also a theology that’s consistent with an African ethics that privileges the social over the individualistic.

As someone who loves punk rock, I really enjoyed hearing leftist theology in the context of topnotch music. For more, visit their website or their Facebook page.

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.

“Whitened Buddhism” and the opiate of the masses

Carolyn Chen, a UC Berkeley sociologist who studies religion, spent the last few years studying religion in Silicon Valley. She’s especially interested in the way work has become a religion for the tech workers of Silicon Valley — and in the way tech companies use religion to keep their workers in line.

Not surprisingly, given the stark realities of Silicon Valley, Chen finds that White supremacy is alive and well in this toxic mix of work, religion, and corporate control. In her book Work Pray Code, Chen writes about how tech companies co-opt Buddhism in service of making workers compliant and more productive:

“Most White Westerners don’t realize that the Buddhism they know is a particular brand of Buddhism that has been repeatedly altered and adapted to appeal to them…. This brand of ‘nonreligious’ Buddhism, however, has racial implications. It associated Asian Buddhism’s ‘rituals, robes, and chanting’ with ‘the complications of religious tradition.’ It dismisses the religious reality of most Buddhists who are Asian and is therefore a form of White supremacy….”

For this last insight, Chen cites Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation by Joseph Cheah (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011); looks like I’ll have to add that book to my reading list. Chen then goes on to detail the ways in which Whitened Buddhism ignore the religious realities of Asians:

“For the vast majority of Buddhists who reside in Asia, Buddhism is a devotional faith that involves the veneration of deities and beliefs in the supernatural. For example, in Chinese, the phrase that describes practicing Buddhism, ‘bai Buddha,’ translates to ‘worship Buddha.’ Most lay Buddhists in Asia orient their devotional practices — offerings of incense and fruit, ritual chanting, praying, bowing, donating money to temples and monasteries — to the attainment of merit or a favorable rebirth….”

Of course, for Silicon Valley tech companies enamored of Buddhism, what Buddhism is really all about is things like meditation. And meditation is supposedly a value-neutral “technology,” not a religious practice. Whitened Buddhism focuses on things, like meditation, that can increase worker productivity and worker compliance. Whereas non-White Buddhism is deliberately ignored:

“Whitened Buddhism tends to protray the ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans as burdened by unnecessary accoutrements — ‘complications,’ ‘culture,’ ‘folklore,’ ethnicity,’ baggage’ — that distract from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, Mandy Stephens, whose company runs a meditation app for corporate clients, explains that they distill medication to ‘the fundamentals,’ ‘the part that isn’t religious or spiritual.’ Her company gets to ‘the fundamentals’ by getting rid of teachers who are ‘zany gurus’ [i.e., non-White] and replacing them with ‘strait-laced [White] trainers’ in [Western] business casual clothes. The chanting at the local Asian temple is ‘folklore,’ says former tech executive Pierre Beaumont, irrelevant to ‘what’s good for me in meditation.’ Mandy and Pierre dismiss the very elements of Buddhism that tens of millions of Asians hold most dear.” [my comments in brackets]

Because if you’re White, it’s apparently OK to co-opt whatever you want out of other religious traditions, and use it for whatever you feel like. And then you can say it’s not even really religion: “This Whitened Buddhism becomes a ‘universal philosophy’ and ‘science.’ It become ‘White’ — floating above context, invisible, and normal….” [Chen, excerpts from pp. 165-167]

I find the entire Silicone Vally Religion of Work to be repellent. But I find this especially repellent: co-opting a non-White religious tradition, perverting it from its original purpose to stop the endless cycle of rebirth, and instead using broken bits of it to control workers.

Indeed, as Chen notes elsewhere in her book, when tech companies offer things like meditation and mindfulness training to help tech workers deal with the overwhelming demands of Silicon Valley overwork, these companies are merely offering “therapeutic interventions, Band-Aids lovingly applied to deep and gaping wounds. Their programs might not be too distant from the ‘opiate of the masses’ that [Karl] Marx wrote about.” [Chen, p. 85]

Coloniality and gender

I seem to have very little time these days, as the Omicron surge winds down, and as our congregation opens up again (or maybe re-opens up? — or is it re-re-opens up?). Nevertheless, I’m slowly making my way through some essays by Maria Lugones, and I’m currently reading “The Coloniality of Gender.” In this essay, she critiques Anibal Quijano’s theoretical work on global capitalism for his “complicity with the gender system.” In other words, many males who write about colonialism ignore how women are dominated.

But Lugones is also laying out another way to analyze gender, a model which she calls “the modern colonial/gender system”:

“In Quijano’s model of global capitalist Eurocentered power, ‘capitalism’ refers to the ‘structural articulation of all historically known forms of control of labor or exploitation, slavery, servitude, small independent mercantile production, wage labor, and reciprocity under the hegemony of the capital-wage labor relation.’ (‘Colonialidad del Poder y Clasificacion Social,’ Festschrift for Immanuel Wallerstein, part I, Journal of World Systems Research, V. xi, #2, summer/fall 2000). In this sense, the structuring of the disputes over control of labor are discontinuous: not all labor relations under global, Eurocentered capitalism fall under the capital/wage relation model, though this is the hegemonic model. It is important in beginning to see the reach of the coloniality of power that wage labor has been reserved almost exclusively for white Europeans. The division of labor is thoroughly ‘racialized’ as well as geographically differentiated. Here we see the coloniality of labor as a thorough meshing of labor and ‘race.’”

Lugones connects colonialism, capitalism, gender, and race. This has some interesting implications for the way we Unitarian Universalists think about anti-oppression work.