As many of you know, since December 14th, my free time, thoughts, and savings have gone toward the latest edition of the Star Wars film universe, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. It was a thrilling movie, which I’ve now dragged my spouse to three times. I’ll say I felt much better about my rabid fandom when I bumped into one of my local clergy colleagues having his own repeat viewing at the Jordan’s IMAX just before Christmas.
(You may be wondering, “Is Rev. Catie going to include ‘spoilers’ — information about the movie’s plot — in her public blog article?!” Yes, yes I will!)
During this month at First Parish when we delve deeper into the spiritual theme of “right relationship,” I find my thoughts returning again and again to the relationship between two Last Jedi characters: our heroine and Jedi-to-be Rey, and our villain and “murderous snake” Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren is a fallen Jedi (like his grandfather, Darth Vader, before him) who uses his gifts with the mysterious and powerful Force to support a despotic military regime, The First Order, which is modeled in many ways after the Nazis. Rey is a new and strong Force-user who intends to offer her gifts to the small but committed Resistance (led by Kylo Ren’s own mother, General Leia Organa), which hopes to restore democracy and hope to the galaxy.
Star Wars is a great love of mine, and in that love I can say it’s not a complex philosophical universe. On the contrary, it’s quite simple: there is a “Light Side” and a “Dark Side.” Though these new movies seem to be moving toward a more “gray” moral philosophy (including commentary on the complicity of bystanders), it’s easy for the viewer to know who is “good” and who is “bad.”
Rey and Kylo Ren have many encounters throughout the film as they each try to “turn” the other — Rey striving to bring Kylo Ren back to the light, and Kylo Ren striving to have Rey join him as unstoppable, Force-wielding authoritarian rulers of the galaxy. As one could expect from a “bad guy,” Kylo Ren manipulates and emotionally abuses Rey in his efforts, and is responsible for the torture and deaths of many of her comrades. It is clear he wishes to control her and her Force gifts for himself and the First Order. They are clearly not in “right relationship,” personally or politically.
So, it was my great surprise to learn there is a large subculture of people who believe that Rey and Kylo Ren should be a romantic item! Some say Rey should become “bad” too, entirely missing the point of Star Wars — others say that Rey’s romantic love (and her emotional labor) is all that will “save” Kylo Ren, disregarding or twisting his treatment of her.
This romanticization of an abusive relationship is sadly common in fiction and in life, and, horrifyingly, quite common in stories geared toward teenagers. In Twilight and its somewhat spin off series, Fifty Shades of Grey, young women are controlled and physically and emotionally abused by powerful and cruel men (one a vampire, and the other a wealthy man misusing BDSM practices to harm women). Both of these series conclude with the portrayal of “happy” marriages of the pairs, supposedly mutually transformed — though the women were fine to start with, and the men still engage in controlling, manipulative behaviors.
In a reflection on literary abusive relationships billed as “romantic,” Emerson College’s Ploughshares contributor Janey Tracey remembers the bizarre romanticization of Heathcliff and Catherine in Emily Brontë’s classic, Wuthering Heights: “There is no ‘love story’ within the pages of Wuthering Heights (at least not between Catherine and Heathcliff…). Indeed, Wuthering Heights is a story that deeply believes in evil, and aims to expose the dark side of human nature. Heathcliff himself warns Isabella against ‘forming a fabulous notion of [his] character,’ and thereby warns the reader against the naïve supposition that an abusive sadist can necessarily be redeemed. Wuthering Heights serves as a refreshing antidote for the tired love-as-pain narrative, but nearly two hundred years later, we still haven’t taken its wisdom to heart.”
(I realize all of these fictional examples include men mistreating women, which simultaneously shows how common this type of abuse is in our patriarchal world and erases the reality of abuse experienced by men and between partners of many genders. Let us not forget that abusive relationships are present in many forms across many identity groups.)
It seems Tracey is right that the wider culture is still struggling with unhealthy conceptions of relationships — the #MeToo movement shows that, too — but I pray those who are involved in our Unitarian Universalist community have. Our children participate in three age-appropriate levels of the Our Whole Lives program, learning how to apply our UU values in the context of family, friendship, and romantic relationships. Though I quip to our senior youth group to “not engage in OWL behaviors” on our service trips, I don’t mean they shouldn’t engage in healthy emotional intimacy; respect their own and others’ gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression; or remember intersectional justice and self-worth in their interactions. At all times, we absolutely should carry these values with us, holding each other and ourselves accountable to treating all people with respect and kindness.
When another person engages in cruel and unskillful behaviors, we can offer them (or accept ourselves) redirection and encouragement. We can avail ourselves of therapeutic and healing resources, both within the church and in the secular sphere. But, it is never the responsibility of one person to “fix” another; particularly between adults, we are only responsible for ourselves in maintaining right relationships with those around us. I encourage all of us at First Parish to think critically about how our Unitarian Universalist values apply to our relationships (and ones we consume through literature, film and TV, and the news), and how each of us can strive to improve the way we care for ourselves and treat those around us.
I’m delighted to announce that after three years of copious paperwork submitted to our denomination by myself, the Parish Committee, and the Committee on Ministry, I received “final fellowship” from the Unitarian Universalist Association in November. Each year, three detailed reports, a letter from my “UUA mentor,” and a specific list of professional learning goals went to the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee for approval. It is a relief and an honor to have completed the process from “preliminary” to “final” fellowship as quickly as is possible for new ministers.
For members and friends of First Parish who aren’t serving on the Parish Committee or Committee on Ministry, my final fellowship status will not have a noticeable impact this year. I will continue to develop annual learning goals, attend professional development events, and have my ministry evaluated by the Committee on Ministry and Parish Committee — most of which happens behind the scenes of the congregation at large. For those of you planning to attend the annual national UU conference, General Assembly, in Kansas City this June, I will participate in the Thursday evening Service of the Living Tradition — which essentially means a photo of me will go up on the big screens and I’ll process across the big stage graduation-style. I would, of course, appreciate a cheering squad, and encourage First Parishioners to attend General Assembly this year! However, beyond this, my ministry at First Parish this year will remain more or less the same.
… However! My final fellowship status does reopen one important congregational ministry: First Parish’s ability to hire an intern minister who is in the ordination process.
Before qualifying for preliminary fellowship and ordination, all ministers-in-process are required by the UUA to complete one year of full-time or two years of half-time ministry in a congregational, chaplaincy, or faith-based non-profit setting. As some of you will remember, First Parish began a “teaching ministry” under the skilled guidance and enthusiasm of our last settled minister, Rev. John Buehrens. We’ve been blessed to have had Rev. Thom Belote, Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, Rev. Maria Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa, Rev. Lucas Hergert, Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, and Rev. Christian Schmidt serve our congregation as student ministers. These ministers-in-process led worship, offered pastoral care, guided our senior youth group, facilitated adult education opportunities, and launched new programming at our congregation — and now are each beloved and respected ministers in our denomination. They gave invaluable service and leadership in our parish, and future intern ministers will do the same.
Intern ministers must be supervised by a minister in final fellowship status, so we have been unable to recruit an intern minister to our congregation — until now!
With the blessing of the Parish Committee, the Committee on Ministry and I are working to submit our congregation to the UUA’s “internship clearinghouse” website (where potential intern ministers look for internship sites) and to create an interview process for prospective interns. We hope to have an intern minister selected by spring 2018, and for that intern to serve our congregation half-time for two years beginning in August 2018.
Of course, First Parish needs three things (in addition to a final fellowshipped senior minister!) to successfully host a teaching ministry:
We need a congregation-wide commitment to both respect an intern minister in our church community and support that intern minister in their ministerial growth, knowing they will come to us with many learning goals.
We need a caring and discerning Intern Committee to help interview, select, and then support an intern minister. The Committee on Ministry is in the beginning stages of recruitment for that Committee of five persons now.
And, we need money to fairly compensate this intern. The current recommended salary for a half-time intern minister is about $10,000 a year, with another $1,000 in professional expenses (allowing them to attend professional development workshops and General Assembly). As our Budget Drive kicks off in late January, please remember in your pledge our need to add a salary for an intern minister!
I know that an intern minister would bring great contributions to our faith community, and that our church is a healthy, dynamic environment for an intern to grow into their ministerial authority and gifts. I hope all of you reading this are as excited about this opportunity as I am!
At our annual ministry theme brainstorming meeting, First Parish staff members and lay leaders discussed the desire for worship and programming addressing “whole health.” We understood the theme of “Wholeness” to mean that we would encourage church members toward self-care and communal support for each of our unique bodies, minds, and souls. Wholeness was understood in that conversation as something every person can strive for through personalized care of an individual’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual health. However, as we now enter into our monthly theme of Wholeness, I am reminded that many are belittled and discriminated against because of the so-called “brokenness” of their bodies and health status. I wanted to be sure to acknowledge this cultural problem, in case it was unclear what the intent of “Wholeness month” was.
Particularly as a woman who grew up in the United States, I am acutely aware of the damage inflicted upon those with “non-normative” bodies and health status. One need only go through the checkout line at the local supermarket or watch a video advertisement to become well-versed in all the ways human bodies are expected to display “wholeness,” when that term is misused as “normative perfection and purity.” Magazines champion cosmetics and an ever-rotating set of diets (rarely for women themselves, but to accommodate what British feminist film critic Laura Mulvey first described as the heterosexist “male gaze”), and TV ads feature overwhelming white, able-bodied, and thin models (who still need diets and cosmetics to be “beautiful,” apparently!). Around the world, young people are trained to view their bodies and mental health through a restrictive, judgmental cultural lens, leading to lifelong low-self-esteem and even self-hatred.
This false kind of “wholeness” is not what we intend to promote at First Parish!
Black queer activist and poet Sonya Renee Taylor founded the website The Body is Not An Apology and the associated movement in 2011, the name coming from her famous spoken word poem. Her movement promotes radical self-acceptance and –love, and pushes back against societal norms that devalue and oppress certain bodies and abilities. Taylor’s organization is also sensitive to the complexities of intersectionality, wherein “non-normative” bodies and minds can be denigrated for multiple “flaws” simultaneously, due to racism, heterosexism, cissexism, ageism, ableism, etc. Taylor recently spoke at Boston College, where she encouraged students to reject the dominant culture’s narrative about “good” and “bad” bodies and offered them “ten tools for radical self-love.”
As we support each other in our search toward wholeness this month and beyond, please know that First Parish in Needham supports happiness, healthiness, and wholeness for all people, who we know are embodied in diverse and wonderful ways. I am reminded of this poem by UU minister Rev. Sean Neil Barron:
“Your body is welcome here, all of it.
Yes, even that part. And that part. And yes, even that part.
The parts you love, and the parts you don’t.
For in this place we come with all that we are
All that we have been,
And all that we are going to be.
Our bodies are constantly changing, cells die and cells are reborn
We respond to infections and disease
Sometimes we can divorce them from our bodies,
and other times they become a permanently part of us.
Your body and all that is within it, both wanted and not wanted has a place here.
Our bodies join in a web of co-creation, created and creating.
Constantly changing, constantly changing us
Scarred and tattooed, tense and relaxed
Diseased and cured, unfamiliar and intimate
Formed in infinite diversity of creation
Your body is welcome here, all of it.
So take a moment and welcome it
Take a moment to feel in it.
Take a moment, to be in it.”
Each of us will go through periods where we feel more satisfied or more frustrated (or even pained) by our embodiment, but I hope we can each practice gratitude for the many gifts embodiment brings. I encourage you sometime this month to “take a moment and welcome” your body, “to feel in it, to be in it” — and, even to strive to love it as well as you can, in defiance of whatever cultural norm has previously told you that your body is “not enough.” We shouldn’t feel that we must apologize for our bodies — instead, we should celebrate them together!
Perhaps some of you grew up in a community like the one I did: a suburb of a major East Coast city, post-Civil Rights Movement, mostly populated by “good liberal” white folks who believed that we were northwards enough not to be infected by the racist attitudes of the past and that our real goal was to stop “seeing color” at all, at which point, we’d all be friends. Does that sort of community feel or sound familiar?
Ironically, despite explicit exhortations to “colorblindness,” I was indirectly acculturated to racist ideas. I received messages from the adults of my community that rap wasn’t “real” music; that every Asian person in my neighborhood was an immigrant; that I was fortunate to go to a high school where English was the only language in the classroom; and that the black neighborhoods in the city were “dangerous,” not that anyone I knew had ever been to them.
But I was “colorblind,” because acknowledging race meant you were racist, and I was a “good white liberal.” I became a young activist against needless war and the discrimination of LGBTQ people — unmistakably worthy causes — but I paid attention to few other justice issues because, I thought, Dr. King had already solved racism and the suffragists, sexism, and frankly I didn’t really know what classism, ableism, capitalism, ageism, or colonialism even were.
When I answered my call to the ministry and attended seminary, my understanding of the world I lived in began to change. I was introduced to anti-oppressive theology and philosophy for the first time. I attended classes with people more radical than I (— people who didn’t think America was the greatest country in the world, if you can believe it!). And, I was forced by my denomination to take workshops in anti-racism as one of my ordination requirements.
I thought it was such a drag… Not just a drag, but even insulting, that I — good colorblind person who had volunteered in India, and worked in an ethnically diverse public school, and had many friends of color, thank you — it felt insulting that I had to take classes in anti-racism. But, I wanted to get ordained, so I did it. I took a class called “White People Challenging Racism” through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I was hesitant, even defensive, at first but I started to realize the class was introducing me to parts of history and societal systems that made the problems of America make more sense: the North was complicit in southern slavery; our towns and cities were forced by law to be segregated; our criminal justice system was designed to incarcerate black and brown people…
So, then, after years hints and pushes from more radical friends and colleagues and after a lifetime of believing “color-blindness” was an achievable and laudable goal… I experienced my moment of awakening. It was a photograph of our former First Lady, Michelle Obama, resplendent as always in a formal evening gown — beige lace and sequins, if I remember correctly. The caption of the photograph read, “First Lady Michelle Obama, in a flesh-colored gown…” In that moment, a paradigm shifted in my mind. Because, of course, the gown was not Obama-flesh-colored, it was my-flesh-colored, and if even the First Lady of the United States could be subjected to a racial microaggression, well… Maybe America had never been America as I knew it. I am reminded of the gay Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who wrote,
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every [person] is free.”
This strange, small, “a ha” moment opened me to reality, for which I am grateful, though I did mourn the loss of the story of our country I once believed in.
I was asked today to speak to you about teaching tolerance in an era of intolerance. Maybe some of you have heard this description of my religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism: “we’re tolerant of everything except intolerance.” That’s not quite right, but isn’t quite wrong either.
I see it as my religious duty to champion not just tolerance, not just acceptance, but enthusiasm for diversity in human identity. Any given Sunday in my congregation, you hear the message that every person has inherent worth and dignity and we are interconnected with all living beings on this precious and fragile Earth.
But, the message I want to deliver here today is that if we are enthusiastic about human diversity we cannot also be tolerant of lethal ideas. We do not have to tolerate ideas that are deadly to our own selves, or to those we love, or to total strangers whom we know still have inherent worth and dignity. We should not tolerate rape culture, toxic masculinity, “build the wall” rhetoric, “all lives matter” trivializing, legalized homophobia and transphobia for “religious freedom,” nor the consumerism that literally poisons our neighbors and the planet. We are all beloved children of God and this world is a unique and priceless gift, and any cultural messages that tell us otherwise cannot be tolerated.
I cannot imagine what damage I would be inflicting upon my congregation and the Needham community if I still believed that racism and sexism had been “fixed;” if I were still ignorant of other forms of oppression; if I weren’t dedicated to improving my understanding and practice as a flawed but-giving-it-my-best person. I am so grateful to my teachers, peers, and denomination for challenging and supporting me through the hard process of transformation.
So, I encourage all of us in this era of intolerance to engage in vulnerable, brave reflection so we can uproot oppressive ideas in ourselves and remind ourselves of our core, guiding principles. I encourage all of us to practice boldly celebrating human diversity out in our communities, such as at events like this one. I encourage all of us, especially those of us of privilege, to show up — by marching, wheeling, speaking, standing, or kneeling — when unjust ideas, policies, and violence break into our world and threaten marginalized people, building bridges to help transform hardened hearts. Let us never be tolerant of intolerance, in ourselves or in our neighbors, if we ever want to create the America that “yet must be — the land where every [person] is free.”
On an unusual warm Sunday in October, we conducted our third annual evacuation drill under the direction of our Safe Congregations Task Force, which has been working for two years on a set of updated policies and procedures to ensure a safer environment for all those in our congregation. Though the policies address a wide range of topics, the most visible aspect of this Task Force’s work for many in the church is our staged evacuation drills. You may recall that at last month’s evacuation drill, I ended my verbal instructions from the pulpit about how to exit and where to convene with a special note: “If there is a dangerous person on the grounds of the church, you will not exit out of specific doors nor convene on the front lawn — get out if you are able, and run to the police station on School Street.” I am truly loathe to say these words at each of our evacuation drills, but sadly, in our society today, it is a necessity for congregations to have an “active shooter plan.” Because of the awful prevalence of mass shootings in the United States, many of our local schools use the “ALICE protocol” to train staff and students to respond to active shooters, too.
As I left our Introduction to First Parish class yesterday afternoon, I was reminded why this is so. I was horrified to read the news of the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. My heart broke learning that multiple generations of families were killed, including very young children. I was also gravely concerned to learn the gunman had a convicted history of domestic violence, but seemingly did not receive any treatment to curb his violent impulses and was still able to purchase deadly weapons.
An act of violence against a faith community affects me deeply not only as a minister of a beloved congregation, but as a Unitarian Universalist minister in particular. I still remember the terrible news of the shooting at the Tennessee Valley UU Church in 2008, which left two church members dead and many others wounded. Just as after the horrific mass shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston in 2015, I have found myself struggling not to imagine — and fear — such a violent attack in our own MetroWest community, at our own local First Baptist Church or even at First Parish itself. I know much of my time in spiritual practice and with my personal therapist this week will be reestablishing a sense of safety and courage in myself, so such trepidation does not guide my actions or preoccupy my thoughts.
Perhaps some of you struggle with such anxiety after mass shootings, too. Please reach out to me or members of our Pastoral Care team if you are experiencing strong reactions to this tragedy and need spiritual support. For our families, please know that Mark LaPointe and Alexis Capen are available to offer support in talking with children and teens about tragic events, and there are resources available on the UUA website. The Needham Clergy Association hopes to convene an interfaith vigil of remembrance and action sometime this week, and I will advocate for further interfaith initiatives to promote community action for sensible gun reform (such as partnering with the local Stop Handgun Violence organization) and for peace- and healthy-relationship-building programs (such as expanding Needham area engagement with Our Whole Lives curricula and Louis D. Brown Peace Institute events). I hope by our Bell Notes on Thursday, I will have more information for you about an upcoming vigil service.
Of course, I will pray for all those killed, injured, and traumatized in their house of worship; for all those in mourning in the broader San Antonio region; and, for the loved ones of the gunman who suffer from this terrible attack, too. But, spiritual practices of compassion and remembrance are only a beginning to our faithful response. Atlanta-based Episcopal Bishop, the Right Reverend Robert C. Wright, wrote on Facebook, “Let’s not pray. As someone who convenes and commands prayer for a living, what America needs now is less prayer and more action from her elected officials. When the doers of evil are foreign-born, suggestions for policy and action flow forward. When the doers of evil are Americans with automatic and semi-automatic weapons, we are invited to moments of silence and prayer. Silence is what we use to hear God speak, not a place to hide from our responsibility. Prayer is not a refuge for cowards. Prayer is where we steel ourselves to partner with God for good. Please do not invite me to prayer in response to the horror of Sutherland Springs, Texas, unless it is to pray for courage over elected officials who intend to work for the ban of automatic and semi-automatic weapons.” May we take Rev. Wright’s words to heart, and together find the courage, creativity, and sustained commitment to stop gun violence in our nation.
On the evening of August 11th, white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly to protest the removal of Confederate memorial statues in the city; they marched with torches onto the University of Virginia campus, terrorizing students and anti-racist activists, including those gathered in a house of worship to ready themselves as counter-protesters. On August 12th, white supremacists wreaked havoc across Charlottesville, chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans including the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil!”; physically intimidating clergy members; and, assaulting counter-protesters. One white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing thirty-two-year white activist and Charlottesville-resident, Heather Heyer. White supremacists returned to Charlottesville on October 8th to again, ostensibly, protest the removal of Confederate statues. Both Rev. Catie and Zach Packard, one of our senior youth group members, have been thinking seriously about resistance and non-violence since the Charlottesville tragedy.
Catie: Zach, what interests you about non-violence and resistance?
Zach: I’m interested in resistance because as a UU, an anarcho-communist, and a human being I am opposed to all forms of oppression. As for non-violence, it depends on what you mean by non-violence. A lot of people mean an absolute refusal to use violence in any circumstance, which I say empowers those who would use violence against vulnerable communities. Neo-Nazis are perfectly willing to murder marginalized people and those who fight alongside them, and marginalized communities often don’t have the luxury to abide by the doctrine of “the moral high ground” and a refusal to use violence if their lives are in danger. I don’t think you can love Hitler into stopping him doing what he did. Right now there are people like Richard Spencer actually saying things like, “Is Black genocide right?”, and leading marches around black churches chanting “blood and soil!”. When you have people like that actually trying to incite genocide in America, I’d say it’s not fair to tell a marginalized group that they can’t defend themselves. When you are fighting people who are advocating genocide, you are not the aggressor, but a defender of all the people white supremacists seek to destroy. When you decide to fight people who are attacking you every day, it is defensive, you have a right to fight back. If someone were actively advocating the death of everyone who looks like me, and they were gaining influence on a national scale, not only would I be afraid for my safety as many people of color are, but I would be pretty annoyed at the people who weren’t being targeted if they tried to tell me I couldn’t defend myself.
Catie: It’s true that we are talking about real threats against marginalized communities. Absolute non-violence can allow violent people to abuse and even kill members of such communities and their allies. However, I remember the warning of Dr. King, that “violence begets violence, and hatred begets hatred.” He came to a stance of absolute non-violence through engaging with the words of prior pacifists and reformers like Gandhi, Tolstoy, and even two Unitarian/Universalists: Henry David Thoreau and Adin Ballou. So, as a modern Unitarian Universalist minister, I take the philosophy of non-violence seriously! If a counter-protester uses violence against a white supremacist — who, indeed, hatefully advocates violent racial genocide — will violence and hatred continue to grow in the heart of that white supremacist, and in the hearts of their families, friends, and wider communities? Furthermore, if a counter-protester resorts to violence, even in self-defense, doesn’t this plant seeds of violence and hatred in that individual’s heart?
Zach: I don’t deny that violence isn’t going win the white supremacists over to our side, but I don’t think that can be our primary concern right now. The long-term solution is to persuade racists to stop believing and doing these things, but the short-term is that someone is being attacked and must be defended and how do we do that? It may involve short-term violence. Privileged white people, along with straight, male, or cis people, should not be telling people of marginalized groups what to do to resist those who would commit acts of violence against them. I think an often unchallenged example of how oppressive ideology infiltrates liberal white communities is the demonization of groups like the Black Panther Party, or Malcolm X, who were willing to defend themselves and their communities. In school and in the media, and even “social justice” oriented circles, we are taught that resistance (be it LGBTQ, immigrant, black, Latinx, feminist, worker, etc.) is only valid if it’s entirely peaceful. This ideology systematically empowers the oppressors and disarms the oppressed, and it’s this kind of ideology that allows people like Donald Trump to get away with blaming both sides equally when one side was advocating genocide and another was defending themselves and their friends from the white supremacists.
Catie: This doesn’t answer the problem of whether “short-term” violence makes the the “long-term solution” harder to reach, though. I reflect back on Universalist and Unitarian objections to abolition and the Civil War. Many of our ancestors were ardent abolitionists who fought for an immediate end to slavery, but many others feared that violent conflict over the end of slavery would lead to lasting division in our country. On the one hand, abolition was absolutely necessary because slavery is a terrible evil. On the other hand, the concerns about our nation remaining divided after the violence and death during the Civil War were certainly true; the abolition of slavery through violent means did not change hateful prejudice in the hearts of those who did not believe black Americans were worthy of freedom. We see the effects of this enduring belief still now, 150 years after the war ended. However, I can’t say that I would have told enslaved African-Americans to “wait” for freedom!
Zach: We’re getting too focused on individuals. While hateful views are certainly part of the problem, the biggest issues are systemic. As an anarchist I would say that we need to abolish all the hierarchical oppressive social institutions that uphold white supremacy and other types of white supremacy, including the police, prison system, and all of capitalism. The system we currently live under perpetuates white supremacy, the exploitation of the workers, and the heteropatriarchy. Oppression is woven into the fiber that makes up the state and capitalism. The State in itself is essentially just a mechanism through which society’s rulers — the rich, white, straight, male, and cis — enforce their own dominance over the rest of society. As we’ve seen through all of history including in the U.S during the eras of the civil rights and labor movements, when propaganda efforts fail and the people rise up to liberate themselves the state cracks down with brute force. Oppressive systems always perpetuate themselves and defend themselves as long as they exist, and won’t dissolve themselves without a fight regardless of what we as individuals or communities do. Corporations will continue to think about the bottom line financially, even if it harms the environment, people of color, women, etc., and the Police will continue to repress the people, especially people of color, and to kidnap them for victimless crimes to keep the prison industrial complex running. If we want to end white supremacy permanently, we need to dismantle the institutions that create and uphold it: and that’s not going to happen through love alone. Because these systems are designed to protect and perpetuate themselves, we need to recognize that the systems will not allow us to work within them to dismantle them. If we want to dismantle oppressive institutions, we have to be willing to take direct action from outside the systems. We have to remember that since the systems attack us all (especially marginalized people) to attack the system is a defensive action.
Catie: Zach, you’re right that we have to think bigger than individuals or even individual communities. Can you think of a time when reformers have successfully taken down and reformed a system? I mean that as a genuine question! I’m struggling to think of such a time in history.
Zach: No full social revolution like the kind I’m talking about has ever taken place only through peaceful reform. The closest example we have of a full social revolution is the transition from feudalism to capitalism, which was definitely not peaceful. There has been some progress without revolution, like in the Civil Rights and labor movements, but these movements did not bring the people total liberation and we still live in an incredibly oppressive society ruled by the same people who ruled then. We also have to remember that these movements weren’t all reformist and peaceful: they’ve been heavily whitewashed. The State simultaneously co-opted Dr. King’s movement to take away its teeth, while flooding the segregated neighbors with drugs, stepping up police brutality to a new level, and just changing the nature of their oppression to create the illusion of great progress. We have to remember what the State did to the Black Panther Party, and various other organizations and movements at the time with COINTELPRO, and that the U.S. Government was found guilty by a civil court of having ordered the assassination of Dr. King. It’ll be hard to change hearts of fascists or even modern day “white moderates” about the big issues of racism, sexism, capitalism, etc., if the average person still believes in prisons, police, and other white supremacist institutions. You can’t eliminate one form of oppression without eliminating all of them, because they’re all connected and uphold each other. If you dismantle capitalism but not racism, economic oppression will just recreate itself. If you try and erase white supremacy without opposing capitalism, again, the hierarchies will just recreate themselves. I’ve seen a lot of white communists fall short because they refuse to talk about race or gender, calling it “divisive to the proletariat,” but I’ve also seen a lot of liberals fall short by coming out strong against racism, sexism, etc. while refusing to acknowledge the systemic structures that created those things or the problems with capitalism. We must radically oppose all forms of oppression if we want to eliminate any form of oppression.
Catie: We definitely agree on the need for intersectional resistance. We are indebted to scholars and revolutionaries like Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks who realized that all justice is interconnected and interdependent; as poet Emma Lazarus put it, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.” That, in fact, includes those “of privilege,” who are trained not to acknowledge the full humanity and value of those who are oppressed, which creates real barriers for genuine relationship and even self-worth. Privilege and oppression of all varieties is rooted in the idea that some people, by their mere identities, are “better than” others. You mentioned this before about our systemic structures of hierarchy. Until all of these “better than” ideas — which exist both systemically and personally — are swept away, the roots of oppression will keep nourishing new growth. We must all work together to challenge every form of supremacy, as to unroot them all: racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, imperialism, colonialism, ableism, nativism, religious hegemony, etc. There are many ways we can resist and advocate: some of us are gifted at changing individual hearts, some at legislative advocacy, some at active protest and civil disobedience. We all have to follow our calls and do what we can do for justice.
Zach: Absolutely. Others say we must remain entirely peaceful because violence is a “PR problem” for progressive causes — but we have to think about who our “target audience” is for our actions. A large portion of the population gets more angry about property damage or people defending themselves against Nazis than they do about black people being murdered by the police, I don’t think that we’ll get anywhere by only using tactics approved by these people since these people are the “white moderates” that uphold the system itself. We also have to keep in mind that these people are the same sorts of people who don’t even find peaceful protest acceptable and condemn Colin Kaepernick for peacefully kneeling. There is also a sizeable group of people who view more militant actions against Neo-Nazis positively, they’re just not often the kind of voices you would here on a news station targeted towards centrist middle class white people. Love should be our motivation, but love is not enough to stop oppression; we need action, and that action cannot be held down by public opinion. We have to do what’s right no matter what, and it has to be done now because people are dying. The systems of oppression will defend themselves, and we have to do what’s necessary to end systemic oppression. When some people try and tell other people who are fighting for basic human rights that they have to conform to a certain standard of “respectability” or peacefulness, what they’re really saying is that their comfort is a lot more important to them than the lives of oppressed people. If oppressed people based their activism on the opinions of their oppressors, they wouldn’t be activists at all. Respectability politics are essentially the idea of liberating yourself by conforming to all your oppressors’ standards. While it’s certainly not wrong for targeted communities to use respectability politics to try to keep themselves safe from violence and discrimination, it will never end oppression, and just reinforces the social pressure to conform to the whims of the oppressors. We can’t abolish oppression by only using methods approved by the oppressor.
Catie: The Civil Rights Movement definitely capitalized on “respectability politics” (i.e., wearing “Sunday best” to protests and putting relatively privileged activists up at the podiums) and I’ve heard critiques of the marriage equality movement doing the same (e.g., centering LGBTQ rights on marriage and love and ignoring issues impacting other “letters” of the LGBTQ community). I wonder if many of us have bought into respectability politics as normatively good and effective because of the successes in the Civil Rights and marriage equality movements, even though “respectable” activists aren’t the only ones who have moved our country forward… And thus, we’re quick to dismiss activists who aren’t “respectable” enough in our estimation. Audre Lorde declared that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” — we have to be careful that our tactics for justice are intersectional so we don’t, through our ignorance or negligence, further the oppression of any marginalized group.
Zach: Absolutely. What we really need to hammer home is that people’s lives are at stake. Every day people of color are murdered by the police, harassed by white supremacists, thrown in prison for victimless crimes by the cops; LGBTQ kids are bullied into committing suicide, threatened, and often murdered; working class people are having their wages stolen and life saving healthcare taken away; and indigenous people are having their land stolen and their water poisoned; and sooner or later climate change is going to seriously impact us all. A lot of people don’t have the choice to resist or not, it’s resist or die. If we aren’t one of those people, then we have a choice: we can either sit back and let others die, or we can be willing to put our own lives on the line and stand up for the people who are being targeted. So long as the Klan exists or anyone is advocating genocide, or the police are using violence to keep systems of oppression in place, we have to be willing to fight if we believe in a free and equal society.
Catie: I have realized that a commitment to absolute non-violence requires a willingness to be severely harmed, or even die, for our values. Absolute non-violence means we don’t depend on someone else’s violence (such as expecting the police or Antifa to defend us from white supremacists’ violence) and thus we put ourselves at real bodily risk. I honestly don’t think I can say that for myself yet, that I believe in nonviolence so much, even though philosophically it makes sense to me. I’ll be reflecting on my wavering personal commitment to this, while remembering to refrain from snap judgments about how others choose to resist.
Both Rev. Catie and Zach are curious to hear how other members and friends of First Parish are thinking about resistance and nonviolence. Are you committed to nonviolence in protest, and what does that mean for you? Where have we seen judgment of marginalized communities and individuals in their forms of counter/protest against injustice? How do you remind yourself of the intersections of all forms of oppression, and how will you work to help everyone “get free”? You can comment here on the blog and you are welcome to reach out to us at an upcoming worship service!
Often in the year after a loved one has died, we are particularly pained during certain holiday seasons and special familial moments: it is heartbreaking to live through the first Thanksgiving, first birthdays, first annual family gathering, without our loved one. And, then, of course, we arrive at the first death anniversary, which can feel tender, surreal, and melancholy.
I remember during one month, I lost both my maternal grandfather and one of my beloved professors at Harvard Divinity School, Rev. Peter Gomes, and officiated my first funeral as a student minister at the Winchester Unitarian Society. It was February, and for such a short month, it seemed like it dragged on and on with grief. A year later, I was not fully conscious of the grief my body still held onto: the following January, my heart was a bit more tender — I had trouble focusing on my work — and, I did feel a bit blue. It took a reminder from loved ones that I was approaching this hard triple-anniversary of three deaths in my life for my consciousness to catch up with the grief my body still carried.
Last November after the presidential election, many members and friends of First Parish told me they felt like they were grieving a death. Some were shocked by the results; some made fearful by them; and, some were disappointed that our country had met their low expectations. I write this brief missive to all of you in the church, because I wonder if any of you have felt tender-hearted, unfocused, or even sad coming up to this anniversary in our country’s history. I wonder if any of you have begun to reflect on the last year, which has brought unease and suffering to so many as new harsh policies have been instituted and established human rights have been threatened and denied. I wonder if any of you are in need of a reminder of the hard anniversary we are approaching, and are in need of some encouragement to self-care and courage.
If you are in such need, I encourage you to take time for rest and revitalization this upcoming week, potentially reviewing the ideas in the “election anxiety”- and “inauguration anxiety”-relief blog posts written by Mark LaPointe and myself. Please do take care of yourselves, your family members, and your friends during this time, and know that your friends and staff team at First Parish are available for conversation and comfort.
As the leaves finally begin to change color and fall, I’m reminded of this piece by New England poet Mary Oliver:
“When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, ‘Stay awhile.’
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, ‘It’s simple,’ they say,
‘and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.’”
May we remember that no matter how tender, surreal, or melancholy we may feel at one moment or one season, we have come into the world like trees and all living beings — to go easy on ourselves, to be filled with light, and to shine out.
As promised, Rev. Catie has finalized a “director’s cut” of Ed Lane’s eulogy, with help from Helen and Ed’s sons Michael and John. This version of the eulogy has about 50% more material about Ed’s life than the “short” eulogy delivered at his memorial service.
I am devastated to write to you, yet again, in the wake of a major national tragedy: the mass shooting at a Las Vegas outdoor concert that has already claimed nearly sixty lives, with five hundred more people injured. Though we will not forget the lives at risk from ongoing flooding, infrastructure damage, and insufficient government assistance across the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas, our hearts are always torn apart whenever any individual unleashes such terrible violence. And, “whenever” is far too frequent in our country. Painful as it is, we keep all the victims of this violence in our hearts and pray for solace for the Las Vegas community.
Please know that the Pastoral Care team and I are available for spiritual support during this difficult time; please feel free to reach out to us by email or phone. Also, the Congregational Church will host an interfaith vigil in remembrance of all those killed and injured in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 7pm.
I know one of our most difficult tasks after a tragedy is to respond to questions from the children of our congregation. If you are struggling to explain what has happened to your children and to comfort them, please know that Mark LaPointe and I are available by email and phone to support you and that our denomination has a website full of resources for parents during these tragic and all-too-common times. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times about Charlottesville includes a list of advice for parents for talking to both younger kids and teens.
We must take care of our emotional and spiritual health after a tragedy like this, but we cannot be complacent and believe we are powerless to end gun violence. My friend and United Church of Christ Andover-Newton graduate, Casey Guet, wrote this in righteous anger about our national ambivalence toward gun violence:
Why do guns grow from the ground, oh Lord?
Why did you make something, which kills so quickly?
Why do you allow these killing machines to be plucked
From our gardens?
And sold in our gun markets?
We will not take any responsibility.
We never do.
In the beginning, God created the gun and the bullet.
There is nothing we can do, nothing to stop these tragedies.
Perhaps, if we created guns with our own hands,
Perhaps, if we could use our system of laws,
But there is nothing we can do.
The guns will keep cropping up.
The guns will keep growing.
I wonder, is there a way to destroy these flowers of death?
But cash crops are so hard to burn.
Indeed, “cash crops” like the gun industry are hard to burn — yet, we must not succumb to despair, we must keep trying. People’s lives depend on our efforts! The Unitarian Universalist Association is committed to proactively respond to the epidemic of gun violence in our country. Our congregation actively supports the local anti-homicide, pro-peace Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, and I encourage each of you to learn more about organizations like Stop Handgun Violence, the Brady Campaign, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Our beloved member of blessed memory, Ed Lane, gave a Lyceum in January about gun violence, adding a supplemental blog article to emphasize that strong gun control laws (like those we have in Massachusetts) significantly reduce gun violence. If you feel passionate about reducing gun violence and mass shootings in Massachusetts and across our nation, I encourage you to call to your state and federal elected officials and tell them how you feel!
As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to the ethical principles affirming that every person has inherent worth and dignity and that we must work together for a world community of peace, liberty, and justice for all. We will pray for all those impacted by gun violence, and we will work to be peacemakers locally and nationally.
It’s a strange time of year to be thinking about seedlings. In our backyard, an old apple tree is filled with small red fruits, the hostas’ flowers have gone for the season, and some of the trees are just beginning to yellow; we are approaching the autumnal equinox, not the vernal.
Yet, I am thinking about seeds planted at First Parish that are growing into seedlings this season. Many years ago, the Trustees of Invested Funds and other finance-minded members of the congregation offered an idea of developing a formal legacy giving program at First Parish; a seed was planted to offer a meaningful and effective way for First Parishioners to help grow our endowment. Two and a half years ago, we read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior as a congregational common read, and our interest was piqued by the café option at the main character’s church; a seed was planted for an alternate style of worship that could afford us dozens more seats during Sunday worship. Last year, many members of First Parish and our surrounding community learned about congregations across the country reviving an old model of civil disobedience — sanctuary — to faithfully push back against harsh immigration and deportation policies; a seed was planted for further discernment and conversation about how we could contribute to that effort.
Now, this fall, our new Legacy Giving team is launching just in time to participate in our denomination’s Wake Now Our Vision challenge — the Worship Café is set to open in the Parish Hall on (we pray!) September 24th, thanks to the efforts of our Worship Café Working Group — and our social justice teams are hard at work planning opportunities for all First Parishioners to learn more about the new sanctuary movement and how we could serve as a “Level 2” supporting congregation. And, this is not to mention that we retired the Bellman this summer and we are in our second year of major changes to our children’s religious exploration curricular map, both ideas that took years to germinate into seedlings!
As we “ingather” again this month for another incredible year at our church home, I am filled with excitement for these seedlings to flourish and to nourish our spiritual community. I recognize I have some trepidation, too; for me, it’s anchored partly in discomfort with change and partly in my old personal pattern of freezing in the face of possible failure: “How will the Worship Café change how we do common rituals? What if no one wants to participate in the legacy giving challenge? Will we ever have enough information to feel comfortable supporting another congregation offering live-in sanctuary to a family in need?” There’s much one could choose to worry about!
When I feel such fears, I shore up my courage with words like these from Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Robin Tanner:
Blessed are they who fall in the mud, who jump with gusto and rip the pants, who skin the elbows, and bruise the ego,
for they shall know the sweetness of risk.
Blessed are they who make giant mistakes, whose intentions are good but impact has injured, who know the hot sense of regret and ask for mercy,
for their hearts will know the gift of forgiveness.
Blessed are they who have seen a D or an F or C or any letter less than perfect, who are painfully familiar with the red pen and the labels as ‘less than,’
for they know the wisdom in the imperfect.
Blessed are they who try again, who dust off, who wash up, who extend the wish for peace, who return to sites of failure, who are dogged in their pursuit,
for they will discover the secret to dreams.
Blessed are they who refuse to listen to the naysayers,
for their hearts will be houses for hope.
Blessed are they who see beyond the surface of another,
for they will be able to delight in the gift of compassion.
Blessed are they who stop running the race to help a fellow traveler, who pick up the fallen, who stop for injured life,
for they shall know the kindness of strangers.
Blessed are they who wildly, boldly abandon winning,
for they shall know the path of justice.
Even when we feel unsettled or afraid, I pray we find our courage together to move forward with both our most bold and our most simply-sensible ideas. May we rejoice that we are on this communal journey together, with our faith to guide us and our deep love for one another to sustain us!