Category Archives: Uncategorized

What’s That Sound?

In my last blog, I promised further reflections on Platonic justice. That can wait. I have something more urgent to say. Yesterday I was reminded of a song from my youth:

Stop children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s goin’ down.
~Steven Stills

So what’s goin’ down? A lot, surely, but as I see it there are two things that demand attention at the moment: the increasingly stringent rules controlling the White House Press Room, and Trumpcare (which I prefer to think of as Trump-Doesn’t-Care).

First the White House Press Room. Tyrants cannot abide a free press. A free press will expose them for what they are: lying, cheating, selfish, and cruel leaders who care nothing for the people and everything for their own power, position, and prestige. And so among the first things a tyrant does is to control the press, labeling a free press “enemies of the people”. Control the press and you control the people. These onerous regulations are nothing but a step toward the destruction of our free press, with all that implies.

Second, Trumpcare. The plutocrats in power would have us believe that governments are not in the business of distributing and re-distributing wealth. Do not believe it. They are lying to us. The questions we should be asking is to whom and from whom is the wealth being distributed and for what reason. Equally, no one should make the mistake of thinking that Trumpcare is a health care bill. It is not. It is a tax bill, and taxing is on of the prime avenues governments use to distribute and re-distribute wealth.

So to whom does this bill re-distribute wealth? The already wealthy. From whom is it being re-distributed? The poor and the middle class. And for what purpose is it being re-distributed? They would have us believe that it is to stimulate the economy. Again, that is another a bald-faced lie. Do not fall for it!

Economies are not stimulated by a few people and corporations accumulating wealth. That is not even capitalism. It is the long-discredited theory of mercantilism. Economies are stimulated by sustainable consumption of goods and services. This understanding actually grounds both capitalism and socialism. They have differences, to be sure, but both understand that consumption, not wealth, is at the heart of an economy.

Wealth is about money, and money is about power. And so the real reason for this attempt to redistribute wealth upward is that it will increase the power of a few people to control the nation. They will leak it out, slowly and carefully, in ways that make them appear to be benevolent benefactors of the rest of us. But in fact they will be controlling every aspect of our lives, from our bedrooms to what we can read, from what medical care we can expect to receive to how and when we die. And woe be unto any of us who has the audacity to expose or even criticize them. The wealthy will become the tyrants of America, be it via oligarchy or dictatorship.

So what’s goin’ down? We are. America is goin’ down an increasingly slippery slope into tyranny. We have but two choices open to us: Resist or Weep for the nation that once was ours.

Advertisements

Plato? Who Cares?

We all should care. Here’s the deal. One fine day Plato sat himself down and wondered about justice. “What does it mean,” he pondered, “to say that something is just? Is it a simply a matter of strength, evenhandedness, or law, or is there something deeper going on here?” And the more he thought about it, the more complex he realized the question actually is. And so, eventually, he invoked his alter ego, Socrates, and together, the philosopher and his alter ego, wrote what was to become one of the most influential books of European philosophy ever written, The Republic.

It turns out that in order to answer the question, he had to work out his entire philosophical system, from aesthetics through metaphysics and on to politics and psychology. It was a bumpy ride, indeed. Quite clearly no mere blog can possibly do justice (snicker!) to such a monumental book. But his final definition of justice is, I think, well worth thinking about.

First, he dismissed such ideas as justice is what is in the interest of the strongest, or justice is punishment for wrong-doing. That’s not too difficult. But then he tells us that justice is not primarily a legal concept after all. Legal justice is derivative from something much more profound. Just laws are those that produce just people. Therefore, before we can think about what makes laws just, we must understand what makes a person just. Justice, Plato tells us, is first and foremost a quality, not of law, but of people.

So what does Plato think a just person is? He begins by noting that there are three aspects to the soul: a rational aspect, an emotional aspect, and an appetitive aspect. The rational aspect is that part of us that deals in argument, evaluating evidence, drawing conclusions, and the like. The emotional aspect is that part of us that deals with our feelings. The appetitive aspect is that part of ourselves that deals with our basic drives, like sex, hunger, safety, and the like. A person is just when these three are in balance and each carries out its proper function without encroaching on the others.

This is easy to misunderstand. Over the centuries, the idea of a soul has taken on a religious meaning that it did not have for Plato. As a result, those who may reject that religious meaning can be tempted to dismiss it out of hand. But suppose we think of this rather differently. Suppose we think of Plato to be talking of our human minds in their entirety. Then what?

Then what we are looking at is Plato’s psychology. Now, psychology has gotten a lot more sophisticated since Plato’s time, and we have many different ways of thinking about the mind. But pick your favorite psychology and grant for a moment Plato’s notion of the primacy of the just mind. What would a just human mind be?

However many aspects there are to the mind, Plato would say that in a just mind they all function well together, in balance, none usurping the proper functioning of another. For example, think about our emotions. We have evolved to have our various emotions for very good reasons, even those emotions that are sometimes unpleasant.

To be concrete, consider anger. It is not hard to understand how our ancient ancestors needed the occasional fit of anger. If you could not get angry when someone tried to steal your stuff, you would starve to death. And we still need anger to motivate us to correct social ills and oppose oppression. As Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out, there are things about which we ought to be angry. But. Anger can take over our consciousness and become paranoid, dangerous, destructive, even murderous.

Similar observations apply to all of our emotions. We need to be able to be afraid, but fear, like anger, when it takes over the mind, becomes paranoia. Even the so-called positive emotions can get out of hand. Love, when it takes over the mind, becomes obsession, the will to possess rather than the will to nurture. And so it goes. When our emotions cloud our rationality and try to take over our minds, the result is injustice.

 

Not a bad idea, eh? To be just is to live a life in proper balance. Platonic justice begins to look rather like what we have come to call self-actualization. And just as self-actualization is an ideal that is never quite within our grasp even while it calls us onward, toward it, Platonic justice leads out into deeper and deeper levels of our humanity.

 

This has a lot of implications. It carries us to law, to education, to proper relations among each other, even to environmental action. In my next installment, I want to explore some of these implications. But just to whet your appetite, let me leave you with a couple of questions: Under this understanding, what would a just penal system look like? When we call for justice for the victim of a crime, what are we asking for? What would Plato say we are asking for? Could he be right? Hmmmm.

The Legacy of Slavery Is Alive and Well

I am caught up in two difficult and painful struggles. Our nation is facing the most serious political crisis since the 1960s Vietnam War crisis, and my religious organization, The Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA), is struggling once again with its own internal racial isolation.

Our national turmoil is the result of a profound division within us, the division between those who believe that the core of life involves power and property and those who believe that the core of life involves compassion and connection. This division can be creative and constructive when each side has respect for the other. However, this mutual respect has been evaporating since the 1980s and has now all but disappeared.

Our current President is the embodiment of the power and property view. He, his administration, and much of his political base have nothing but contempt for compassion and see connection and relationship as weakness. And since contempt on one side births contempt in the other, we are now in a downward spiral of division, suspicion, anger, and cynicism. (The word “contempt” comes from a Latin word that means “to despise.”)

The turmoil within the UUA is the result of increasingly powerful calls for us to understand how it is that our organization embodies structures, processes, policies, and procedures that incarnate the idea that Euro-American culture is superior to non-Euro-American culture. This consistent and unrecognized favoring of Euro-American culture is the essence of systemic white supremacism.

Unfortunately there is no bright line that divides structures, processes, policies, and procedures on the one hand from specific actions taken by specific people on the other. As a result, when someone points to, say, a procedure that embodies white supremacism, others assume that they are being called white supremacists, thus missing the point entirely. The result is that, rather than moving toward resolution and reconciliation, more often we move toward anger and even deeper division.

This confusion is what stands behind the defensiveness that one often encounters when procedures and policies are called into question. It may be that all of this is both inevitable and necessary, but in the meantime, hearts are breaking. It remains true, though, that the work of deepening racial reconciliation is difficult, painful work that cannot be engaged without hearts breaking.

These two conflicts that seem, at first blush, very different, share a common ancestor. Both are aspects of the legacy of slavery within the United States. Writers such as Douglas Blackmon and Edward Baptist have documented how slavery in one form or another was at the heart of American industrialization. It is a moot question whether or not our industrialization required slavery. The fact is that it actually was based on cotton, and that cotton was grown by enslaved labor.

The influence of industrialization was so pervasive that every institution in the new nation benefited from it and therefore also benefitted from slavery. As a result every institution, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, was organized in ways that reflected that benefit. This was true of our government, and it was true of our religious institutions.

At the national level, consider. It is a small step from thinking that power generates worth to the idea that those without power are worth nothing except as property and as generators of wealth. And this is the essence of slavery. The enslaved, having no power, are but property and properly so. Thus was slavery justified. On the other hand, compassion and respect for relationship and human connection are what motivated the Abolitionists, even though they rarely grasped the true breadth and power of this idea. Some say there was no reconciliation of this divide until the Civil War. I would argue that in fact it has never been reconciled. Not even the election of an African American President illustrated reconciliation. Quite the contrary.

At the religious level, consider. Unitarianism and Universalism arose in the United States when the Industrial Revolution was either nascent or exploding across the land. Fortunes were made by the Industrial Revolution, and some of the scions of industry and the economic endeavors it required were attracted to Unitarianism or Universalism. Thus it was that fortunes generated either directly or indirectly by enslaved labor fueled the rise both religious movements.

Our parent organizations, The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, were not exceptions. They too benefitted from slavery. And therein lies our turmoil. There is a conflict lying at the heart of the UUA. On the one hand two of our most cherished ideals are the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the interdependence of all beings. And yet the UUA is descended from older structures that embodied slavery and the Association has inherited, albeit unwittingly, a considerable amount of that embodiment. And we are loath to acknowledge that fact. Thus the conflict.

So here we have it, two very different power struggles, one governmental and one religious. At least on the surface they may appear to be completely unrelated. And yet they both have roots in the same soil, the soil of American slavery. The lesson I take from this is that the legacy of slavery, though very well hidden, lives and breaths its poison into the soul of America at nearly every level. If we have any hope at all of solving these problems, we must address these roots, honestly, humbly, and compassionately. For, as William Faulkner told us, the past is not over; it is not even past.

A Hard Rain

Over the last few years, I’ve been watching and contemplating a revival of the Civil Rights Movement. And while I have not been silent, I have also wanted to be sure I knew my song well before I started singing, because the hard rains are gonna fall. We are entering a hard, painful, trying time in our history, religiously, nationally and culturally. We are trying to heal a divide that has existed for millennia, and the hard truth is that none of us will live to see it fully healed.

I am 72 years old. I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Jim Crow had to die. The struggle was long and hard. People bled and died in the struggle. Friendships and families were broken. Hearts were broken. And people were called upon to see their worlds differently. Not everyone could do that, though more could than couldn’t.

By about 1970, many of us, mostly Euro-American, thought that the work was essentially finished. We thought that all that remained was working out the details and correcting the oversights. We thought the world had changed. We were, of course, wrong. What was changed was the law, not the souls of the Euro-American people. And that is the task we face today: changing the soul of white America. What we are being called to do is to let go of a consciousness that we do not even know we have.

Before it will be possible for white privilege/white supremacy to evaporate into no privilege at all, the world that we Euro-Americans build out of our deep and unknowing racial consciousness, must die that a new world can be built. This cannot happen without struggle. It cannot happen without people being offended, hurt, and angered. It cannot happen without good and well-intentioned people saying things that are wrong, misunderstood, offensive.

Some will insist that things are moving far too slowly, that they cannot wait because people are dying. Some will insist that things are moving far to fast, that they cannot change their consciousness that quickly. Both will be right.

This is a time when compassion and strength will often be in conflict, because all of us will be called to do what we cannot do. Our compassion will sometimes fail, and our strength will sometimes fail.

There will be times when we want to throw up our hands n despair and give in to the violence that lurks with the hearts and souls of all of us, kept in check only by our commitment to a greater love and a cleansed world. And sometimes we will question that very commitment.

Each of us will falter and stumble sometimes. When that happens, may we have the humility to reach out to those strong hands and hearts walking beside us. And each of us will sometimes be the strong and the faithful. In those times, may we reach back to those who falter and stumble.

The newer, cleaner, just world call us, though it is over the horizon. The journey to that world is long and hard and filled with stumbling blocks. And the hard rain is falling. It stings our eyes and threatens to blind us. But that world is there. Its song calls us onward.

 

Murmuration

Stiff with death, last summer’s corn
Rattles as a breeze invites it to dance.
As aimless as fog, I wander through the field
To a marsh at its edge. My heart is empty.

The marsh is cold and lonely, the color of fall.
The breeze drifts through broken cattails.
A flock of starlings has settled into the rushes,
Each bird speaking its own complaint.

All is silence except for the rattling corn,
The shaking cattails, the complaining birds.
Afternoon falls, silently and deliberately,
Carefully into evening. My heart shivers.

Shattering the silence, a distant dog barks.
My heart stops like music reaching a cadence.

Shards of birds explode out of the marsh.
They gather into a flock that comes alive.
It turns on itself, each bird knowing
What to do and when to do it.

Obeying unspeakable commands from no one,
The flock whirls and weaves, twirls,
Makes undulant patterns in the sky,
Birds moving together, many and one.

I stand on the edge of the marsh watching:
This living flock, these birds,
This air, these unspoken patterns.
The dog barks again. The flock returns.

The gateless gate opens.

On Unearned Privilege

Something happened Thursday within Unitarian Universalism that has the potential to shake our foundations. The President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA) resigned just three months before the end of his term of office. Now, this might appear to be no big deal. “So? The President of the UUA resigned a little early. So what?” The big deal is that this resignation is actually the tip of a much larger iceberg. It is an expression of something that has been a wound in our religious body politic I assume for as long as there have been Unitarian and Universalist churches, but certainly since 1961 when the two denominations merged to form the UUA.

The issue behind the visible issue is unearned privilege: unearned white, male, straight, cis-gendered privilege. Like so many institutions in America, especially churches, unearned privilege seethes in our ranks. It is usually barely noticed and unaddressed. The controversy that led to the President’s resignation centered on unearned privilege in hiring UUA staff. This, though, is only one expression of unearned privilege in our movement.

I have spent the past 10 years researching slavery and my family’s involvement in it, and in the course of that research, I have learned a lot about unearned privilege. Among other things, I have learned that unearned privilege is nearly invisible to the privileged but painfully obvious to unprivileged. As an example, unearned privilege is part of the sea we Euro-Americans swim in. As a result, it is very difficult for us to see this water. For some, it is impossible. But people of color swim in a different sea, and they see our privilege every day of their lives.

The typical reaction to being called out on unearned privilege is first to be defensive, denying any privilege and trying to point out why it can’t possibly be true. Then we try to explain everything we have done to counter the oppression in question. And finally, we start to attack the person calling us out, using increasingly aggressive language. And finally we walk away angry, mystified, feeling misunderstood and unappreciated.

How do I know this is how people react when called out on unearned privilege? Because I have seen it in myself more often than I want to admit. This is how I have reacted over and over, and this is what I constantly struggle to overcome. And, struggling with it in myself, I have learned to see it in others.

So what happened at the UUA Thursday? Precisely this drama was acted out over a period a few weeks. A top leadership staff position came open, and the short list contained two fully qualified candidates. One was a white, male, minister; the other was a Latina, female, lay Director of Religious Education. The white male minister was hired. Reaction to this hiring was been loud, careful, and articulate.

It was clearly pointed out that the reaction was not at all about the person who was hired. He is fully qualified, and he will do a fine job. No one has any qualms about that. The reaction was about how this hire perpetuates a pattern of discriminatory hiring, especially at the upper levels of the UUA staff. The UUA was being called out on unearned privilege, and discussion swirled for a couple of weeks. And then the UUA President joined the fray and acted in exactly the manner I described above. The response to his behavior was quick and sure, and Thursday he resigned.

The reason that this has the potential to shake our foundations is that there is a pattern in our congregations when controversy arises. The pattern is quite simple. Someone is offended or hurt by something they see happening and speaks out. In response, there is a flurry of expressed concern, breast-beating and promises to deal with the issue. But then the flurry dies down; the breast-beating stops; and the promises are forgotten. And nothing happens. The congregation has managed to ignore the issue by pretending to address it.

Essentially the same thing happens at every level of our structure. But this time we have the opportunity to change that pattern. Our Bylaws state that when there is a vacancy in the Presidency, the Board will fill the vacancy until a new President is elected. The Board’s next regular meeting is in about three weeks. So a new President will be appointed by late this month. Since the next regularly scheduled election for President will occur this June, this appointed President, whoever it is, will be a caretaker. On July 1 we will have a newly elected President.

Both the appointed interim President and the new President have the opportunity to open a genuine conversation about how unearned privilege is expressed in our movement and to act to correct it. And that would shake our foundations to a fair-you-well. One of the Presidential candidates has already published what she would do about this were she elected. I call on the other two candidates to do the same.

We have an opportunity to make major changes in the ways that we Unitarian Universalists carry out our mission. Let us not simply fall back into to old patterns that do nothing to heal injustice within our own ranks.

無 Thoughts on Joshu’s Dog

The first koan most beginning students are given is Joshu’s Dog: two monks were arguing about whether or not the dog has Buddha-nature. Unable to reach an agreement, they decided to ask their Roshi, Joshu. Joshu looked at them and grunted “Mu!”

A koan is not so much to be understood as it is to be grasped, and that is a matter strictly between the student and the Roshi or Sensei. And so while an intellectual analysis can be helpful it is not the same thing as grasping the koan. This, for what it is worth, is my understanding.

To begin with, this “Mu” is untranslatable into English, because it is not really a word since it has no independent meaning. Rather it is what linguists call a negating particle, because it turns a positive statement into a negative. Some Indo-European languages have such a thing. Russian is a good example. But, alas, English does not. At least formal English does not. Perhaps the very informal version of English that allows double negatives has something similar, as in “He don’t know nuthin’.” So how are we to understand Joshu?

At one level, he appears to be agreeing with one of the monks that the dog has no Buddha-nature. But how could that be? A basic Buddhist teaching is that the only thing that is real is Buddha-nature. So either the dog is not real, or it must have (or is nothing but) Buddha-nature. Surely Joshu knew that perfectly well. So what is he saying to his monks?

I ask myself what it is that Joshu is Mu-ing. Is it that basic Buddhist doctrine? Seems unlikely to me. What then is it? Let’s go back to those hapless monks. Seems to me they are falling into an unfortunate dualism on at least two levels. First they are assuming that one of them must be right and the other wrong. Dualism. But suppose right and wrong are both equally beside the point. Suppose being right is irrelevant. What then? Mu!

Now, consider the two monks separately. The one who claims that the dog does not have Buddha-nature clearly thinks that there is Buddha-nature and there is the dog, two different things. Dualism. What about the other, the one who says that the dog has Buddha-nature? This monk also assumes that there is a distinction. Why? Because to have something that thing must be different whatever it is that has it. I have an eye; I have a nose; I have a house; I even have a lovely little dog. They are all different from me. But I do not have myself; I am myself. So both monks are assuming there is a distinction between the dog and Buddha-nature. Dualism. But suppose there is no such distinction. Suppose the dog and Buddha-nature are the same thing. What then? Mu!

I suggest that Joshu is mu-ing the whole argument as pointless, not an effective means of achieving Enlightenment. Forget about right and wrong. Forget about the dog. Forget about the monks. Forget everything but Mu. And learn to Mu whatever appears to be this and that. In fact, Mu even Mu.

Into my own pond,
Old Bashō’s frog—
Plop!