REA: Peace Experiments

The text of the formal presentation portion of my workshop:

Let me begin by telling you about the context in which I do religious education. I’m minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, a mainline congregation founded in 1947. Like so many mainline congregations founded in the post-World War II era, today we struggle to adapt to new and different demographic, economic, and theological realities. In particular, we’re trying to figure out what the end of Christendom means to us as a post-Christian congregation, and we’re adapting to an intensely competitive nonprofit landscape.

Four years ago, I suggested to our lay leaders that we might do a six-week spring curriculum unit in peacemaking for K-5 Sunday school classes. That program, which I based on an old 1980s curriculum called “Peace Experiments,” was described by Geez magazine — a magazine subtitle “Holy mischief in an age of fast faith” — like this:

Continue reading “REA: Peace Experiments”

REA: “My God, what have we done?”

Leah Gunning Francis opened the first plenary session of the Religious Education Association 2014 conference. She introduced the plenary speakers, and informed us that unfortunately Gabriel Moran was not able to be present. Francis lives in St. Louis, Missouri, and given that the theme of this year’s conference is “Religion and Education in the (Un)Making of Violence,” she showed some of her photographs of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri — to the great interest of the conferees.

The first “speaker” was Andrea Bieler, Professor of Practical Theology at the Kirchliche Hochschule in Wuppertal/Bethel, Germany. Bieler did not appear in person; her presentation was a video, in which she spoke, and showed various works of art and other material.

Bieler’s video began with a statement by Theodor Adorno: “The principal demand upon all education is that Auschwitz does not happen again.” Bieler extended this to other instances of systematic violence, including systemic racism in the United States, the state terrorism and “disappearances” in Argentina and Chile, apartheid in South Africa, etc.

In the video, Bieler laid out a nuanced argument, beginning with theories of memory and winding up with a discussion of remembering violence through aesthetic art. I was most interested in her analyses of several site-specific art works in Berlin, particularly the Chapel of Reconciliation, built near the site of the Berlin Wall.

Continue reading “REA: “My God, what have we done?””

UU political priorities

I long ago figured out I’m not one of the UU cool kids. Here’s one example of what I mean:

My local UU congregation is participating in a week-long nationwide peacemaking campaign from September 21-18, sponsored by Campaign Nonviolence, a “new movement to mainstream active nonviolence and to foster a world free from war, poverty and the climate crisis.” Beginning on Sunday, Campaign Nonviolence will have events in all fifty U.S. states; they are one of the sponsoring organizations of the People’s Climate March, a nonviolent action taking place in New York City.

In Silicon Valley alone, our local organization Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice is organizing a forum on poverty and structural violence, a youth workshop exploring conscientious objection, a film on climate refugees, a class on ecojustice and peacemaking (which I’m leading), participation in the Northern California People’s Climate Rally, a forum on gun safety with representatives from police and religion, a talk by the mayor of Sunnyvale on the city’s new gun control law, a nonviolent action against Lockheed Martin, and more.

But if you search the Web sites of the UUA or UU World, you will find no reference to Campaign Nonviolence. Because, you see, all the cool kids in the UU world are going to the People’s Climate March. I’m all about reversing global climate change, and environmental justice work more generally. I just wish Unitarian Universalism had a broader vision of social justice work.

Peacemaking and the REA

I just learned that the “Call for Papers Committee” of the Religious Education Association (REA) has accepted my proposal to present a workshop on our Peace Experiments program at the annual REA conference in November, 2014. The REA is an international, interfaith association of scholars and practitioners of religious education — it’s exciting that this prestigious association is interested in what our UU congregation has been doing with Peace Experiments.

While I’m all too well aware of the weaknesses of our “Peace Experiments” program, I think what we’re doing does have some interesting features. In particular, while most of the peacemaking curricula that I know about these days tend towards an essentialist educational philosophy (i.e., there are certain essential peacemaking skills that children must learn), our peacemaking program is grounded in an existentialist educational philosophy: we are trying to get children to define themselves as peacemakers, and to help them realize that who they are and the choices they make will shape the world around them.

How to be a peace activist

The fall, 2013, issue of Geez magazine is all about being a peace activist, and there’s a short eight-paragraph piece by James Wilt on the Peace Experiments program we did in Sunday school in our church (“Playing with peace,” p. 68). There’s even a nice picture of the peace quilt that the kids made under the direction of quilter Kathy Swartz. (Unfortunately, this short piece didn’t make it up on the Geez Web site so I can’t link to it from here.)

I don’t think we’re going to put this article up on the church bulletin board where kids can read it, only because I’m quoted saying: “Dan Harper, a long-time peace activist in California, calls the idea of of getting more conservative with age ‘bullshit.'” It’s a true statement, I’m not ashamed of saying it, but eight year olds don’t need to know I said it.

But it is true; I find myself getting more radical with age. The older I get, the more I realize how foolish and unproductive and morally bankrupt war is; the more I feel we have to protect our kids from war and violence. And increasingly I think most radical thing we can do is turn our kids into peaceniks. As James Wilt puts it in the article: “Now, however, instead of going to peace rallies, [Harper] hangs out with children. ‘I really think it’s the way to change the world,’ he told Geez….”

So — you want to be a peace activist? Go teach Sunday school.

Peace Quilt

A summary of the curriculum we used for Peace Experiments in online here. If you want to run Peace Experiments in your congregation, feel free to contact me for ideas.

Portrait of a religious education program

This is a portrait of the religious education program at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), where I am the Associate Minister of Religious Education. While I focus on religious education for children and youth in this portrait, I also look briefly at religious education for adults.

While this is way longer than the average blog post, nevertheless I thought some of you might be interested in reading this portrait — both to see what another religious education program looks like, and as an example of one approach to describing religious education programs. I wrote this portrait based on questions asked by Dr. Mark Hicks for the course “Religious education in a changing world.” Continue reading “Portrait of a religious education program”

May, 1980

The truck drivers at the lumberyard listened to classic rock, the yard foreman listened to Paul Harvey, and for all we knew the salesmen listened to Frank Sinatra or something. But a couple of us younger guys — me, the hardware stock clerk, the part-time stock clerk who worked in the paint department — we listened to WBCN, the progressive rock station that broadcast from downtown Boston. The morning DJ on WBCN was Charles Laquidara, known for his leftist politics, and one day he announced that there would be a big action to oppose the Seabrook nuclear power plant over Memorial Day weekend. I decided to go.

That day, I ran into John, an old friend from my church youth group, and he said he’d go up with me. I was working six days a week at the lumberyard, but somehow I managed to get that Saturday off. Charles Laquidara had given contact information for getting rides up to Seabrook, and John and I got a ride up. Several hundred of us camped out on an old farm owned by a Seabrook resident who was opposed to power plant. John and I strung a plastic tarp over our sleeping bags, nestled in among all the other tents in the woods on the farm. Continue reading “May, 1980”

Conscientious objectors

Although it seems unlikely that the United States will reinstate compulsory military service any time soon, there are people who are so opposed to any form of military service that they may want to establish themselves as a conscientious objectors for personal and/or moral reasons rather than for practical reasons. Then too, the political climate in the United States could change very quickly, all young men are required by law to register with Selective Service at age 18, and it is not unreasonable to want to establish conscientious objector (CO) status now just in case you need it later.

When I had to register for the draft upon turning 18, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) provided counseling and resources that helped me, but the CCCO died in 2010. And the big concern for most organizations in the present political climate is supporting people already in the military who discover that they are COs.

However, I have found some good online resources for non-military COs. Most important is the Center on Conscience and War (CCW) Web page titled “Advice to Youth Facing Selective Service Registration” which offers three main suggestions:

Print in legible black ink on the face of all Forms sent to Selective Service (not on the edges): I am a conscientious objector.

Make a photocopy all forms for your own records before you submit it to the postal clerk for date stamp and initials. Send all mail return-receipt requested.

Prepare a statement of your beliefs. Get it on file with your church or a reputable peace organization such as CCW. Such a statement could be helpful in getting the government to recognize your CO beliefs.

You can read the full article here. You can find a PDF of “Basic Draft and Registration Information,” a more comprehensive article, here.

What about Unitarian Universalists and conscientious objection? The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) offers a brochure titled “Conscientious Objectors and the Draft,” available online here. Unfortunately, this brochure is somewhat dated, but it’s still worth reading. According to this brochure, the UUA maintains a registry of conscientious objectors; with the demise of the CCCO registry, this is good news for UU COs.

All this makes me think back to how I documented my own conscientious objection to war as a Unitarian Universalist youth. The first thing I did was talk with Rev. Pat Green, the associate minister at my Unitarian Universalist church, about my religious objections to war and the military; he helped me sharpen my arguments in favor of pacifism, and find a religious basis for them. Pat also helped me to understand that although Unitarian Universalism does not have a specific peace witness (unlike, e.g., Quakerism), our religion nevertheless calls on us to follow our conscience in the face of difficult moral and ethical decisions. Thus I learned that as a Unitarian Universalist I could remain firmly opposed to participation in war on religious grounds, and other Unitarian Universalists could remain firmly committed to a career in the military on religious grounds. And Pat also pointed out that because of this, it was much harder for a Unitarian Universalist to convince a draft board that he was a CO than a Quaker (and yes, I do mean to use the word “he” here, since women have yet to be subject to compulsory military service in the United States).

I also registered with the CCCO — if I were doing this today, I would register with the UUA, my local congregation, and the Center on Conscience and War (CCW). I have vague memories of writing out a statement of my pacifism, but I don’t remember what I did with this. I got involved in the peace movement, specifically in campaigns to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal, attending demonstrations in Washington, etc. Before I turned 18, I found a qualified counselor who could give me advice about registering with Selective Service — the man I saw was trained by the CCCO, but as I understand it the CCW still trains such counselors. I also knew my Unitarian Universalist church would back me up if I ever needed to establish a claim, and I suppose that’s one thing that kept me involved in Unitarian Universalism.

If I were to give advice to a Unitarian Universalist youth today on how to establish CO status (and one recently asked me for just such advice), I might refer them to the Web page “How To Compile a CO Claim,” which suggests the following:

  • State that you are a CO when you register with Selective Service
  • Write a statement of your CO beliefs
  • Get three people who know you well to write a letter supporting your CO claim
  • Get active in peace work, and document your activity
  • Document other ways in which your pacifism has affected the way you live your life (at the very least, give money to CCW!)
  • Collect all these documents, and get them notarized
  • File copies of these documents with the UUA, your local UU congregation, and find out if the CCW will keep them on fiel as well
  • Keep the originals in a safe place

If you have any other suggestions or resources for UU youth who want to establish their conscientious objection to war, I’d love to hear them — leave them in the comments below.

Peace Pilgrim and universalism

Peace Pilgrim, the woman who achieved some small measure of renown for traveling “25,000 miles on foot for peace,” was a pacifist deeply rooted in Western religious traditions. Not surprisingly, she held a universalist theology (note the small “u”; I’m speaking of her theology, not implying she was a member of the Universalist denomination). In the collection of her writings, I find this brief response to a correspondent who asked her, “Do you believe there is both a heaven and a hell?”

Heaven and hell are states of being. Heaven is being in harmony with God’s will; hell is being out of harmony with God’s will. You can be in either state on either side of life. There is no permanent hell. — Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, 5th compact edition (Shelton, Conn.: Friends of Peace Pilgrim, 2003), p. 150.

In the first two sentences, Peace Pilgrim expresses sentiments that can be found in such classic Universalist writers as Hosea Ballou; really, this is a notion that extends back in Western thinking at least to Plato.

The third sentence is at odds with Ballou’s Universalism; for Ballou, God’s power is such that you get saved and put in heaven after death whether you want to be there or not, whether you’re worthy of it or not. By contrast, for Peace Pilgrim your freedom of will continues after death, and remains strong enough to go out of harmony with God’s will. In a sense, Peace Pilgrim is somewhat like the Restorationist Universalists who allow for a time of punishment after death; at least, insofar as moving oneself out of harmony with God can be considered a form of punishment.

The final sentence is a clear statement of universalist theology: “There is no permanent hell.” Whatever denomination they may belong to, universalists all affirm this truth.

War and peace

This is mostly for my dad, because he and I talk a lot about the war in Afghanistan. I happened to preach two Sundays in a row, once on war, and once on peace, and I’ve now put those sermons online:
On May 20, a sermon about a program we did with kids called “Peace Experiments.”
On May 27, a sermon about how we might memorialize the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I find the ongoing war in Afghanistan to be very difficult to talk about, and consider both these sermons to be inadequate. At the same time, it’s one of the top three moral problems facing us in the United States today; we have to talk about the war, we have to try to sort through the moral issues it raises.