A FAITH WITH FEET

How to articulate the Unitarian Universalist message more succinctly? When asked the question, “What is it you guys actually believe?”, the response is often times begun with “well”, “um”, or an occasional pontificating that renders the listener bleary eyed.

Of course, the question itself is a misguided one.  You do not have to share a certain belief or set of beliefs to be a part of our liberal free thinking faith tradition. Instead, a soundbite answer (which our culture has a penchant for) is this: “We are a faith with feet.” A cornerstone of modern Unitarian Universalism is SOCIAL ACTION.  We place great value on living out our faith in works of love and justice and efforts on behalf of the most marginalized in society. 

It is well for us to remember this. One of the major forces in 20th century theology, a tireless proponent of social action and volunteerism was Unitarian minister, social activist, writer, and scholar James Luther Adams (1901-1994).  

A Harvard and Andover Newton professor for decades, popular with his students for his unabashed passion and candor, Adams vehemently fought against the tendency of religious liberals to be theologically content with vague slogans and platitudes about open-mindedness.  He believed, having witnessed the atrocities of WWII, that liberal churches must dig a little deeper or they would be rendered irrelevant and impotent in face of the world’s evil. He stated this conviction loudly and frequently.

Adams advocated volunteerism across a broad spectrum of issues as a powerful and necessary component of an authentically free spirit in a free church.  He penned many  essays and articles focusing on the theology of voluntary associations and social ethics, on topics ranging from politics to the grotesque in the arts to AIDS. 

He spoke with his feet as well.  Adams was interrogated by the Gestapo and almost thrown in prison while in Germany under the Third Reich for his association with the Underground Church Movement.  Using a home movie camera, he filmed Karl Barth, Albert Schweitzer, and others, to spread the underground resistance to the Nazi regime.  

At home, he worked tirelessly for an independent grassroots political organization whose goal was open and honest government.  He interpreted participation in voluntary associations, whatever the character of the government, as the chief means by which beneficial social change has been effected throughout history, and as key to the meaning of human history. 

James Luther Adams described the free church as “a body of believers freely joined in a covenant of loyalty to the holy spirit of love, intentionally inclusive of dissent, governed by its own members and fiercely independent from government control, with the reign of the spirit of love among members to be seen in their voluntary assumption of responsibility for the just character of their whole society.”

His influence continues to extend to the many institutions his former students of many faith traditions now serve, some with high distinction.  He was impatient with lifeless abstraction and wanted to know what you were DOING, what are your stories, about how your service work is working or not, what are the struggles? 

This is at the heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith.  To be worthy of our rich religious history, we must strive to be nothing less than a faith which is intellectually accountable and moves the spirit to action.  Pledge to be doing something that calls to your heart and helps to heal the world.

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THE MAD HATTERS AT THE TEA PARTIES

You know, with all the ranting and raving that runs the airways these days, the predictably controversial talking heads of radio along with their shouting and outright rude counterparts on television “news” (and I do use the word lightly) programs, one would think we have become a nation of adamant nonsense. What I hear sounds more like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland and less like the lofty ideals imagined by our Forefathers (and Mothers) . The Red Queen ordered shrilly, for any provocation or for none at all, the command “Off with their heads!”… before finding out whose head or why. It was and is a little scary. 

So please let us not confuse our diverse nation with its 50 states and about 310 million individuals and their variant needs and goals with the so-called Patriots, continuing to foam at the mouth, who either:

A. Stir up the pot using self aggrandizing slander of anyone or anything that SEEMS to oppose their fanatically held sound bite views, with the nuance, subtlety, and thoughtfulness of a brick through a plate-glass window. I will not mention any of these personalities by name as I do not want to give them any more free press than they already get.

 B. This group is similar to those of the above, except for instead of making millions by being media pushers, they are politicians.  Sure, money and fame are two of their goals, but their drug of choice is power and staying in it, no matter the cost or without care to their constituency, that has  them shouting, “Foul!” to any idea that “appears” to come from the other side of the aisle.  I say “appears”, because as the non-contrarian media continues to do its job, we find many of these ideas were first proposed by them!! 

C.  Which leads us to the last, and most unfortunate of all of the screaming mimis, more than a few (although not all)  Tea Party members.  When our Boston revolutionaries threw that tea into the harbor, they too were as mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore.  Luckily for them, they didn’t have groups A and B using them as pawns and puppets for their own selfish ends.  Many of the members of the Tea Party have legitimate concerns and articulate them, if not convincingly, at least soundly. 

But too many have joined a movement, fiery and passionate, that perhaps gives them a sense of purpose and connection, but it is more like a “loud gong signifying nothing.”  They are being used by those feeding them alarming bits of information WITHOUT CONTEXT. The somewhat sly and charismatic rabble rousers, rich and powerful, know that it is Fear and not Fact that motivates a mob.  

Mark Twain cleverly defined a Patriot as “The person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.” How true, wise words from our favorite American humorist. Let’s heed them.  Except for the unavoidable and universal childhood stage that we all must go through and that hopefully passes with age (not dubbed “the terrible twos” for nothing), NO should be something more than a knee jerk reaction to any new idea. Might it be more patriotic, never mind more helpful, to learn to curb our childish impulses to respond to anything, reasonable or not, with NO? 

We may very well be a nation of natural-born contrarians. I love that we can argue about things that matter, in private and in public.  It’s sometimes fun to argue just for argument’s sake to pass the time with friends and family. (Although it’s annoying to be with those who seem to take the opposite opinion in every discussion).  Just the same, we are blessedly free.  With that comes the responsibility to think, to openly weigh both sides of an argument, to be willing to change our opinions. 

So, let’s go to our tea parties and leave the mad hatters with Alice; they may be exciting but they are too damn exhausting.

Healing America’s Soul

After my March 24 and 26th posts, I was feeling frustrated by my inability to find a cool head in the middle of this turbulent and sometimes scary time in our country as we to try to discern what National Health Care will REALLY mean for each of us individually and collectively as a nation.  Then I  happened on this wonderfully timed article in Margaret Benefiel’s Executive Soul monthly newsletter entitled, “Healing America’s Soul“.  Dr. Benefiel was a favorite professor of mine at Andover Newton and is currently CEO and Founder of Executive Soul.  Part of Margaret’s mission includes leading workshops and lecturing around the country to companies, organizations, and conferences who are looking to nurture spiritual values and leadership in the workplace.  In addition, she has published two books, Soul at Work and The Soul of a Leader.  It is my great pleasure that she has allowed me to share her thoughtful voice of sanity amidst the cacophony of  fear and frenzy.  

HEALING AMERICA’S SOUL”  by Margaret Benefiel  (published in its entirety):

The American healthcare struggle culminating in Sunday’s vote brought out the best and the worst of legislators’ and citizens’ behavior.  The worst of the behavior inflicted wounds that not only hurt individuals, but also damages the nation’s soul.

In some ways, the heat and polarization generated by the healthcare debate can be viewed as an opportunity, an opportunity to expose old wounds that have been festering and need to be healed. When Rep. James Clyburn received a fax of a noose along with racial slurs, when Rep. Emanuel Cleaver was spat upon by a protestor and called “ni–er”, when Rep. John Lewis was called a “ni–er”, it became clear, in ways that perhaps it hadn’t been to all Americans, that racism is alive and well in America and needs to be addressed.  When a U.S. Representative shouted “baby-killer” during Rep. Bart Stupak’s speech on the floor of Congress, it became clear that slanderous speech is alive and well, even in the sacred halls of Congress.  When pro-choice advocates, characterized pro-life advocates as anti-women, it became clear that intolerance and inability to hear the good will in others’ positions is alive and well.

Racism, slander, and lack of respect for differing views damage the soul of the nation.  America was built on the foundation of mutual respect and rigorous debate.  When all positions are heard and seriously considered, the nation is richer for it.  When some positions are shut out, the nation is impoverished.  When people are demeaned because of their race or political position, the nation’s soul is damaged.  As Fannie Lou Hamer reminded us, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

The healthcare struggle revealed gaps between America’s espoused values and her lived values.  America is not a “post-racial” society.  America is not a tolerant society.  America is not a society of mutual respect for differing points of view. 

This is an opportunity for healing the old wounds that have been exposed, for closing the gap between espoused values and lived values.  Will Republican leaders step forward and challenge their followers (and colleagues) on their racist and slanderous speech?  Will Democratic leaders step forward and challenge their followers (and colleagues) on their intolerance and blind spots?

It’s time to heal the nation.  America faces problems of huge proportions.  If Americans can step up to the challenge to address and heal the wounds, the health and energy that will be liberated to engage the problems will be immense.  If we can’t, we’re destined to limp along when we need to run.

Amen, Margaret.