Tuesday, May 26, 2020

World Convention 2012 – A Gathering in Goiânia (Repost)

What follows is a post from August 2012 in which I review the World Convention of Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ. This event tied together two threads of my life; namely, Brazil and the Stone-Campbell Movement. I even took on the role of interpreter for three of the scholars in their workshops. This was truly a capstone event in my life, as by the end of the following year I was post-theistic. I consider the first 20 or so years of my adult life my 'First Act,' and the Second Act is what I'm living now as a Unitarian Universalist. If there's a Third Act, I hope it doesn't involve yet another change of traditions. It's not a great feeling to no longer be at home in a tradition two which I devoted so much time, energy, and thought.

When I first heard that the World Convention of Christian Churches, Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ would be held this year in Brazil, I was thrilled. As part of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement and former missionary to Brazil, this came as great news. Over time, though, I began to doubt that I would make it. Fortunately, it all worked out. My family took a vacation to visit relatives in Brazil in July, and I went with a group of men from the Churches of Christ in Uberlândia to World Convention.

To begin, the positives: Friends! I saw old friends I imagined I’d never see again this side of the resurrection. People from every phase of my connection with the churches in Brazil were there, from Campinas to Belém and all points in between. I also made new acquaintances, particularly with Newell Williams, Doug Foster and William Baker, three scholars for whom I translated on different days. 

While the fellowship was fantastic, there were some rough spots with this convention.

First, the evening worship sessions were way too long. I’m not saying this as a stodgy old grandpa (heck, I’m in my mid-30s), nor as a North American (the Brazilians with me also complained). We were expecting to be out of the evening sessions by 9pm, but every night the speaker didn’t take the pulpit until around that time. Because we were staying with relatives of someone in our group and did not want to inconvenience them, and also because we were exhausted after a day at the convention, we never heard any of the evening preachers for more than 15 minutes.

(left to right) Adam Gonnerman, William Baker 

Second, the organization of this convention left something to be wanted, particularly with regard to interpreters. It seems that organizers left translation up to volunteers, and made appeals the first two days for anyone willing to interpret to show up at a certain location after the first morning worship session. In Newell Willliams and Doug Foster’s first session on a global history of the Stone-Campbell Movement the interpreter was completely lost. Although he was fluent in English and Portuguese, he was unfamiliar with the subject matter and his vocabulary was lacking. After that session I spoke with him and the speakers and arranged to take his place the next day. That was fun! This happened again the last day of the convention when I went to attend William Baker’s talk on the Book of James and was drafted to translate because no one showed up to do it.

Third, there was only one small corner near the registration booth where wifi was available. This was an international convention and they had made a point of promoting a twitter hash tag (#wccc12), but there was virtually no Internet available.

(left to right) Newell Williams, Doug Foster, Adam Gonnerman
The first two negatives are really the only two that I think count, and the first can be explained by the fact that the local hosts for this gathering were from the Pentecostal branch of Churches of Christ in Brazil, those associated with the Concílio Ministerial das Igrejas de Cristo no Brasil. These churches took their beginning from the work of Disciples of Christ and independent Christian Church missionaries decades ago, embracing Pentecostalism over the years. They are distinct from the a cappella Churches of Christ, International Churches of Christ and traditional, instrumental Churches of Christ in Brazil. From past experience I can say that their worship style tends to be long and loud in comparison with the other branches of the movement found in Brazil. The other two points above explain themselves, I think.
(left to right) Wanderson de Jesus, Marcelo Lima, Nilson Ferreira
Despite how it may seem, I actually had a fantastic time at World Convention and am very glad I was there. The fellowship alone made the entire experience worthwhile, and in the end, isn’t fellowship really the point of this convention?

Monday, May 25, 2020

Estacão Vida — The Story of One Little Girl, as Told by Her Mother

This month I began the journey to organize a non-profit to support community development projects in Brazil. To give you an idea of one of the areas in which Estacão Vida in Uberlândia works, here's the testimonial of a mother. This is only one story about one little girl. There are 162 children enrolled in the full Estacão Vida program, and a total of 210 in the Judo program. Many of those Judo students come in solely for that course, as there is limited space for the full program.

Turn on captions for English subtitles.

See: Uberlandia Development Initiatives

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Keep Alert | Seventh Sunday of Easter 2020

Public Domain
In D&D and Pathfinder, two tabletop role playing games, the adventuring party usually has to set a watch at night when traveling. The group divides up the night into shifts and keeps a lookout for wandering monsters or opportunistic bandits. Often, something will disturb their night, leading to an all-out battle to the death in the wee hours of the morning. This is, after all, a game, and extended periods of calm aren't generally very thrilling. Within the context of these games the assailants have traditionally be considered 'evil,' just like the monsters lurking in deep, dark dungeons. Since the beginning, rooted in the type of high fantasy that Tolkien envisioned and shared with the world, races of beings have been described as 'evil' or 'good.' Now, people are questioning those assumptions. In their critique, I see something of value to us for this Seventh Sunday of Easter. 
"Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering."1 Peter 5:8-9 NRSV
Kobalds are little lizard-like people, as depicted in the image above (note that physiognomy varies somewhat between editions of D&D), and are generally considered evil. In fact, here's how the Wikipedia entry about Kobolds describes them:
"Kobold society is influenced by their lawful evil alignment. They will plan and dig mines industriously, while laying cruel traps for interlopers. If they must confront an enemy, they will mass their troops for an ambush. Among the monstrous humanoids, they are known for cunning plans; unlike many, they also share those plans among the tribe. General plans and goals are common knowledge, and detailed plans are shared with all who ask, to allow them to work fruitfully for the good of the tribe. Kobolds have a natural hatred of other non-draconic creatures because of mistreatment of their race."
If you read that, hopefully you see the problem. First we're told that the lawful evil alignment of Kobolds influences their society. Then we're told that they work hard and take steps to protect their home from aggressors. Further, they're xenophobic, and that's attributed to how they're mistreated by other races (dwarves, goblins, etc). Can you really blame them? This being from Wikipedia, it's quite possible the confused description is the result of many editors. Someone described them as evil, and then others came along to justify. If anything, that only helps further my case. Any amount of reflection on the topic makes it more difficult to suspend disbelief. 

Among evangelicals it's common to hear everyone else in the world (but especially 'the liberals') described as moral relativists. It's a little pathetic, if you ask me. Moral absolutists have no patience for serious ethical reflection, because it might end up at a different place than their interpretation of a book supposedly handed down from on high tells them. Any variation from the established conclusions is viewed as a risky prospect, an opportunity for doubt to take root and topple their faith. So, what I have to say now won't settle in well with them.

Evil is not a substance. 'Lawful evil' is a concept that's useful for playing games, to an extent, but has no relevance to life. Often times the people who do the most harm are those with hardwired issues, such as sociopaths. There's no curing a full-fledged sociopath. The best that can be done is to keep them away from society and in positions to cause no harm to guards, staff, and other prisoners. They are not 'evil,' though their deeds are evil. They have a biological condition that has to be managed. 

Others do harm not for psychiatric reasons, but out of greed, panic, fear/hatred (they go hand-in-hand), or other selfish motivations. A woman murders her husband so that she can get his life insurance money and run off with her boyfriend. A teenager rapes a classmate because of raging sexual desire and an opportunity they chose to take. A man embezzles funds because he resents upper management 'getting all the perks.' Human beings are complex creatures, and there can be all manner of underlying motivations for such behavior. Abuse and other traumas earlier in life, along with neglect and related issues, contribute to people saying and doing things that harm others.

And there's the real point. Harm is done, and that is the evil. It isn't that an energy or material exists that is itself by nature 'evil.' It is the injurious, damaging use of means that can be characterized as evil. For example, sex is good between consenting adults so long as they don't violate covenants. If there is a commitment between two to monogamy, or a polyamorous arrangement with set boundaries and rules, then going against the terms of those relationships is a violation, and in some degree 'evil.' While adultery is a violation, worse still is rape, which is truly violence. Different degrees of harm are done, and in different ways. They are not the same, and yet both are evil because they are misuses of things that otherwise could be used positively.  

Making certain fantasy races have 'evilness' as a trait gives people leeway to kill without compunction in games. Since they are just games, there's no direct harm in that. The baddies make everything morally less complex. It is a sad human tendency, though, to do the same with people in the real world. In gaming, it might make for a more efficient experience, but for some like myself it takes away important texture. And, as mentioned above, it is harder to suspend disbelief for people like me. Demonizing entire races goes back at least as far as Tolkien and his orcs. 
The extent to which the orcs are demonized, by the other characters if not by the author himself, can be measured by the vastly different treatment of orcs when compared to other characters. Notably, in the midst of terrible bloodshed, Legolas and Gimli maintain a friendly competition to see who can kill the most orcs. This grisly entertainment would seem almost inhuman were it not for the demonization of the enemy in the case. Contrast the positive glee these heroes express when killing orcs to the famous scene in which Sam for the first time witnesses a battle between armies of men. Looking upon the corpse of a “swarthy” Southron soldier, who had been cut down while fleeing, his “brown hand” still clutching a broken sword, Sam “wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on his long march from his home; and if he would not really have rather stayed home in peace” (Tolkien 1965c, p. 301). In The Lord of the Rings, Sam witnesses orcs both living and dead, but never does he wonder about their motivations and preferences, and needless to say, despite frequently longing for home and peace himself, Sam never considers what potential “lies and threats” have brought his own friends to wage war on diverse peoples and races of the South and East. Later, after the war had ended, Aragorn (now King Elessar) releases the Easterlings who had surrendered on the battlefield, makes peace with the swarthy men of the South, and frees the thralls of Mordor, granting them lands in that region (Tolkien 1965b, pp. 266–667), but no reference is made to any such accommodations or humane treatment of orcs. It is assumed that the orcs of Mordor simply die off after the ring was destroyed, but, as noted above, that seems rather unlikely given what the reader would have gleaned about orcs and their character from earlier scenes. Moreover, living orcs are not even taken hostage or held as prisoners of war by the heroes, who instead happily slaughter the enemy even as they recognize the baleful effects of war on men and elves. Within these pages, Tolkien’s characters may view even humans in the service of “evil” as being potentially good—note Frodo’s sympathy and kind treatment of the treacherous renegade Wormtongue, for example—but the reigning assumption is that orcs must be inherently evil, demons to the end. — Demonizing the Enemy, Literally: Tolkien, Orcs, and the Sense of the World Wars by Robert T. Tally, Jr.
We don't have to look far either in history nor the present day to find othering taking place. It was said of the enslaved people taken from Africa that they didn't feel things the same as white people do. Taking away an enslaved woman's child to sell was said to be a hard thing, but that black women would pick up and move on just fine after a few days. Horrific to think that is part of our past, but the same mentality exists in the United States today, and not just whites about blacks. When scenes of Hispanic women and children being kept separately in holding cells in completely different locations, there's something in the minds of many white people that tells them it's not that bad, because Central Americans are accustomed to hardship and don't have the same exact feelings as 'we do.' It is disgusting, but I know it to be true, and have heard its likes in years past while living elsewhere in the United States.  

The writer of first Peter may have been embodying Roman or local persecution in the form of a lion with this words, or perhaps it was about resisting 'sin' as is commonly interpreted. Kobolds and orcs could just be convenient enemies to beat down in fantasy adventures. The reality beneath such symbols is much more layered, as I see it. A starting point, which I will leave here as the end point, is considering that the roaring lion, the scheming kobold, and the raging orcs are not only among us. They are within us. And so we must understand them, and resist them.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Saint Gregory's Got Me Thinking

Several years ago I heard about St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, and I was reminded of it recently by Rev Emily M.D. Scott's mention of it in her recently-published book, 'For All Who Hunger.' This church, which meets in San Francisco, California, is at once both liturgically traditional and theologically progressive, and it was like this before such was 'cool.' From the church site: "Membership at St Gregory’s is open to everyone: you don’t have to pass any litmus test of beliefs to join. Learn how you can become a part of the community." They really mean it. Whatever your gender, sexual orientation, race, creed or lack thereof, you're welcome at this church. At the same time, they practice a 'high church' liturgy, one that is very clearly Christian in nature. In the way this church welcomes and worships, it manages to remain Christian while welcoming into participation and full membership people from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds. It's safe to assume, I believe, that hell and damnation don't play a huge role here. Still, I wonder about what the future holds for churches like this one.

In 1870 there was a great centennial celebration of Universalism in North America, held in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Reading through sermons and talks given there at that time, I see that there was already a diversity of viewpoints among Universalists. Many were traditional Christians, not much different from Baptists or Methodists, except that they didn't believe that hell is eternal. Within that group, some believed that there was no experience of hell whatsoever after death, and others held that deceased 'sinners' would be punished for a period of time to purify them before entering into glory. There were those as well who were more inclined to be welcoming of other beliefs, in terms of other world religions, and who were little concerned with either upholding specific Christian doctrines or with the question of hell. Following this event, the more traditionally-minded managed to arrange a mission to Japan, one that led them to face the reality of other belief systems, and the fundamental weakness in their evangelistic approach. 

In Japan the Universalist missionaries found that few had any concept of 'heaven' or 'hell,' and had never heard any version of the gospel, including the most common interpretation that promises heaven for faith, and hell for unbelief. They and their supporters wondered if potential converts had to be brought to understand the gospel preached by Roman Catholicism and Protestantism before being able to appreciate the Universalists gospel. Further, the Christian emphasis of the Universalism of that era suggested that being a disciple would change a person's heart and life, empowering them to do good and live well in relation to the world. Encountering very good people of other religions, well outside of Christianity, challenged that idea. 

This matters to me when thinking about churches such as St Gregory's, as I think there are parallels. With no hell, and an openness to other belief systems, there starts to be a question of 'why'? People raised in Roman Catholic or conservative evangelical homes, a theologically liberal church offers the comfort of familiarity without the unhealthy attitudes towards human nature, and in particular with regard to sexuality. At the same time, there are more and more people in the United States and elsewhere who grew up with no church affiliation, and often neither did their parents, and sometimes grandparents. Although church comes up when someone wants to get married, celebrants unaffiliated with brick-and-mortar churches get them around that, as do online ordination providers who enable a couple's friend to do the honors. When someone dies the funeral home can find someone to officiate. The civic and ceremonial functions of churches are easily circumvented.

What usually pulls a non-religious person into a church's orbit is either their own personal spiritual search, or a relationship with someone who has expectations of raising children with some religious background. That being the case, as I see it, liberal Christian churches can only coast along so far with refugees from fundamentalist backgrounds and couples with children. It may work well for even a generation or two, but sooner or later there will only be fumes left in the tank. 

Universalists also found that as the decades passed in the 20th century, the distance between them and their 'particularlist' neighbors shrunk dramatically. Mainline Protestantism minimized discussion of hell, and virtually dropped the topic altogether. This got people who cared about such things in those churches fired up and walking out, joining evangelical denominations and artificially giving them years of 'growth' that seemed to vindicate the conservative message. That is, until nearly no one who was bothered by liberal theology was left in the mainline churches to leave for hardline denominations, and children of the evangelicals began finding their way to the door of their parents' churches. With the matter of hell set aside in mainline denominations, and little else distinctive about Universalist churches, their numbers dropped. 

St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, and others like it, are doing what Kings Chapel has been doing for 100s of years. The latter was founded as a a parish of the church of England, and remained so for 100 years or so, before becoming theologically Unitarian. The parish separated from the Church of England, revised their Book of Common Prayer to remove references to the trinity (aside from the baptismal formula), and carried on. Eventually they affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and to this day have services drawn from their prayer book (most recent update was made in the 1980s). What they already were as an increasingly progressive, inclusive parish many years ago, the Episcopal Church has been discovering in recent decades. That said, although Kings Chapel carries on and does its thing, it hasn't exactly been boom times for them in terms of active membership. The mix of traditional practice and progressive theology is not a guaranteed 'win' if numbers are what you count. Then again, people in pews isn't necessarily the best metric for a congregation's success at any point in time. 

Unitarian Universalism in our time has a range of expressions, from the high church Christianity of Kings Chapel, to the committed humanism of First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis. Between those two points are many congregations with very similar customs and outlooks, though with often minor distinctions that result from custom as well as adaptation to where they gather. Most UU congregations most definitely have a different 'feel' from even mainline Protestants, but it's becoming so that the liberal Christians are not much different in theological flexibility and acceptance of science from UUs. For UUism to be distinctly meaningful, I think we would do well to maintain our unique traditions, like chalice lighting, water communion, and so forth, while exploring new ways of building life-affirming communities that might not so strongly resemble Protestant churches. While I favor the Protestant style, some of our more creative folks should feel encouraged and supported in exploring other ways of being in relation as a community of Unitarian Universalists.
"Did not the Lord share the table with publicans and harlots? So then—do not distinguish between worthy and unworthy. All must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve."Isaac of Nineveh
That quote is engraved on St. Gregory's altar, and brings me to my final thought. It's not enough for Unitarian Universalists to experiment with different types of community. It is part of our calling to be truly inclusive, and to me this means welcoming, affirming, and including in the life of the congregation and the association an array of people beyond progressive, upper class white folks. We've made a little headway in this regard in recent years, but we have so far to go, and so many hard-headed folks who get defensive when they feel they might lose control. We can do better. And that's what St Gregory's got me thinking. 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Do Something | Ascension Of The Lord 2020

It was wearisome to me. My (then) wife and I had been members of the small mission congregation in the northeastern United States for a few years, and the fact that all we ever did was 'study the Bible' had been frustrating me for most of that time. There was Bible study in Sunday School, the sermon was a Bible study, and there was a Bible study during the week. Whenever a member had a social occasion at their house, somehow a Bible study or at least a prayer session was shoehorned in. Now, I was a theologically moderate evangelical (meaning I was pretty conservative by a non-evangelical Christian's standards), and had a high regard for the Bible and for prayer. That wasn't the issue. What bothered me was that we really didn't do anything else. We talked about living a godly life, and we were admonished to bring people to faith in Christ, but other than that, life rolled on unchanged. The only vices we ever seriously contemplated in all our studies were 'illicit' sex, drugs, and drunkenness. The thought of systemic oppression was far from our minds, and human rights were not a chief concern. We participated in no outward-facing benevolence or activism. Don't get me wrong though, the people were some of the best you'll find. They supported one another, checked in on each other, laughed, cried, and prayed together. We were just stuck in our little world, busy with work and raising our families. It was driving me to distraction.

It went from 'not great' to awful when, after being asked by several members, I undertook to start a youth group. The kids were in their early teens for the most part, so it seemed to be the right time. I began planning the first gathering in my home, discussed it with some of the parents, and sent out invitations. Then I messed up. I went against a laundry-list of complaints that one of the 'main' couples brought to the church, seeing most of what they said as spurious or irrelevant. They got nothing of what they wanted. I shouldn't have been surprised when the wife in that couple called, giving me a very aggressive dressing-down for even considering organizing a youth group without discussing it with the board. Her verbal abuse went on for easily 15 to 20 minutes, and that was a time in my life when I felt obligated to 'be a good Christian' by hearing her out and attempting to address her concerns. It was also before I came to understand my own worth, and I took everything she said so deeply to heart that I was left with a stutter for weeks after. In hindsight I've come to learn that a backlash to any attempt at progress should always be expected. We've seen in on a national level with the rise of Trump and his corrupt cronies. Older white folks are scared because their hegemony is being challenged, and they react instinctively in fear and hate to attempt to regain the control they feel they've lost.  

Anyway, this attitude of maintaining a status quo is something that the source-texts for Christianity tends to confront.
"Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, 'This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.' When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God." Luke 24:45-53 NIV
In this passage, the author of the Gospel Luke is recounting the miraculous ascension of Jesus into heaven. I've always thought of it like a helium balloon going up, and you strain your eyes to see it before it's lost behind a cloud or goes so high it's simply not visible any longer. And you keep looking, because who knows? Maybe it will somehow reappear. Just prior to Jesus drifting (or shooting?) up into the sky he tells his disciples the heart of what 'orthodox' Pauline Christianity later came to understand as the 'good news.' He also tells them their mission will be to preach his name to all the nations, and that he'll send them the power to do it, by which he is understood to mean the Holy Spirit. They are expected to also be conduits for miracles, and the later legendary accounts in the Book of Acts but also in extant non-canonical texts, tell us that the early church believed this was so. 

In the reading for this year's Feast of the Ascension the Lucan author wanted us to understand that the reaction of the disciples to all this was to worship in the temple 'continually.' While historically, based on Acts and also what we can put together outside of that regarding early church history, it's unlikely that Jesus' original, remaining 11 disciples did much outside of Jerusalem. Accounts to the contrary have little or no basis, and seem to contradict Acts and Pauline writings that place the apostles in Jerusalem, their base. I agree with scholarship that argues for Paul as the great universalizer of the Christian faith. Without him, it would have likely remained a little-known and soon-forgotten Jewish sect. Instead, what the canonical New Testament tends to focus on is the idea that the teachings of Jesus were always for everyone. Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male, female, and non-binary (remember the eunuch...a topic for another day), and beyond. Where this passage concludes with the disciples in the temple worshiping god, the narrative continues after with the explosive birth and growth of the church. We're to understand that while there is a time of waiting and expectation, this is only the prelude to a great deal of action. 

That little congregation that so frustrated me, and eventually broke my heart, seemed to me like a car that was running but left to idle. You could get it and pump the gas, making things slightly more interesting inside, but without taking it out of park you're not going anywhere. This is true of many churches, and I'm firmly convinced it's one reason that so many are closing. Sure, there are demographic changes in many places that are to blame, and the emptying of rural areas in particular, but there are also many urban churches that seem stuck idling. This goes for conservative and liberal congregations alike, when they don't assume a prophetic role, step out into new territory, and find the courage to take on new challenges. They worry about keeping the lights on but don't give proper consideration to actually doing something for the detained immigrant, for the victim of gun violence, or the shivering homeless person shut out of the public spaces that are the only places they can keep warm when shelters are full, unsafe, or non-existent. It's easier to plan potlucks, safer to hold a Bible study in a comfortable home, and more gratifying to feel holy by taken notes of the sermon.

Luke would have us recognize that no one else will do what we need to do, and that we already have the power within ourselves to make a difference. Our temples are fine, but not if we never go beyond them to a world that needs hope and progress toward a better tomorrow. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Agnostic Faith | Sixth Sunday of Easter 2020

via Bruce The Deus 21 April 2019 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Unitarian Universalism is agnostic; Unitarian Universalists may or not be agnostic. There is no tension there, and I'll explain why. But first, let's consider our terms.

It's not uncommon for someone to reveal that they're atheist, only to be asked a couple of questions and then told, "oh no, you're an agnostic."

The immediate reason for this is a misunderstanding of what being agnostic or an atheist is all about. People often thing that 'agnostic' just means someone doesn't claim to know, when in truth, agnosticism says that certain things, particularly about God, are ultimately unknowable. Another popular misunderstanding regards atheism, in which people assume that atheists are claiming to have 100% certainty that there is no god. In reality, atheism doesn't require that level of certainty. An atheist is someone who, based on the evidence available to them, has concluded that there most likely aren't any gods. This understanding is open to being revisited, but only if extraordinary new evidence comes to light.

In my opinion, the overarching reason for the insistence that atheists are actually agnostics is a matter of the theist's positive feelings for that person. To many, atheism is next to devil-worship: an angry, bitter rejection of a God who is readily apparent to good-hearted folks. Atheists are believed to be people without morals or else simply untrustworthy. If a theist views someone as a decent human being it's nearly impossible to think of them as an atheist, as they fundamentally view that as a contradiction.
"For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." — Acts 17:23 NRSV
Throughout all of human history we have tried to have a relationship with the unseen. Our innate, instinctual agent detection kept our ancestors from hungry tigers hiding in bushes, but it also made them tend to ascribe sentience to rocks, trees, and so forth. At the very least they thought that were were spiritual forces in the natural world that needed to be kept happy. This eventually developed into full pantheons of deities, then mergers of pantheons as nations were conquered and absorbed, and then in the Western world monotheism became the rule of the day. A universal deity that is the one and only, to the point where 'he' no longer has a name, and is simply called 'God.' Quite a journey for a Canaanite storm god (or possibly two gods, El and Yahweh, the latter of which might have been a god of metallurgy and volcanism).

Sometimes people have simply worship the unknown.

In Unitarian Universalism we have certain Principles that we have defined and set as the heart of a covenant between our congregations. The 4th of these is "[a] free and responsible search for truth and meaning." When we gather, we often refer to our services as 'worship.' Our clergy try now and then to persuade us that the word actually means 'worth-ship' or some such, but most of us don't seem to care either way. While we do have Christian churches among us that do engage in active worship of the divine, most of us (from what I can tell) focus our services on this life, with its struggles and triumphs, seeking to improve ourselves, feel encouraged, and support one another. The 'Spirit of Life' comes up from time to time, but we don't generally define what that means. As a body, we are agnostic. Our tradition, though born out of Protestant Christianity, is itself agnostic.

We are not all agnostic, though. I am a non-theist, and there are many who believe in a force, and some in a personal God. Some of us are eclectic, seeking wisdom from many religious traditions and schools of philosophy. Others are strict naturalists, considering anything not derived from a scientific approach to be 'woo.' I know one person at my congregation who believes in the trinity and the resurrection, and just feels at home with our community. He isn't a Unitarian, but he is a Universalist, and certainly very welcome to full participation in the life of the congregations.
“Science is agnostic when it comes to God - not atheistic, as some people prefer to read that laden word wrongly - just agnostic.” Eric Chaisson, Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos
Though they are a minority, there are believers among scientists. They could be Mormons, evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or whatever else, and their research usually is not negatively impacted by their faith. Somehow, they keep it separate. For the more conservative of them that might be more of a strain, but the best scientists follow the scientific method, engage in best practices, and submit results and conclusions for peer review.

Science is agnostic, and employs the scientific method. Unitarian Universalism is agnostic, and while it is not scientific, we do have the concept of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are encouraged to test our worldviews. We challenged on matters of racism, poverty, misogyny, and more. We are empowered to do what we think best to live a good life, and welcomed to do so within covenantal relationships. We get it wrong sometimes, as individuals, congregations, and as an association. And yet we seek to hold ourselves to account, and press on with our pursuit of what is highest and best. Some might say we are seeking a god unknown to us. It's simpler to understand that what we seek may be known or unknown, and it is not the same for everyone. This is our agnostic faith, whatever else we may believe.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Uberlândia Development Initiatives

In 2014, while living in Uberlândia, Brazil, I did some volunteering for an NGO called 'Centro de Formação Comunitário São Francisco de Assis.' Before I get into that, let me tell you about this great organization. Since the educational program they run is called 'Estacão Vida,' and this also seems to be their nom de guerre, I'll use that as shorthand for the entire operation. 

Founded in 2004, Estacão Vida came together through the work of a group of people who saw a need to change the reality the Shopping Park neighborhood in Uberlândia. This is an underresourced neighborhood with approximately 40,000 residents. The people of this organization do their best for the community, and seek to be as sustainable as possible while they're at it.

In Brazil the elementary and high schools operate on a half day schedule. There is a morning session with a set of students who are done for the day by around noon. Then there's an afternoon session for a completely different group of students. When I lived in Brazil the first time, from 2000 to 2003, my daughter went to pre-school in the afternoons, meaning that often she'd sleep until late, and her breakfast was her lunch. It wasn't a terrible system. For most working class people in Brazil this means that for half the day their children are either at home alone or possibly with grandparents or other relatives. Too often children left on their own come to harm or get involved in situations easily where they're in too deep. Estacão Vida addresses this by offering classes, workshops, and activities for kids in the session when they aren't at their regular school. This means that the morning session at Estacão Vida is composed of the children who go to their normal classes in the afternoon, and vice versa for the afternoon session. While at Estacão Vida the kids are able to participate in workshops such as computer labs, guitar lessons, capoeira, ballet, sewing, and making items like purses, wallets, and so forth. All students receive a healthy meal. 

The produce for that meal largely comes from the garden that Estacão Vida operates within its walls. The water for that garden, when the clouds don't provide rain, is what went down the drain of the water fountain that the children drink from. What would have been waste water is given fresh use, requiring no additional water being consumed. As for the electricity to keep the place going, that's taken care of by solar panels on the roof that have allowed Estacão Vida to get off the grid completely. 

My role at Estacão Vida was very small. A friend invited me to help set up a computer lab there. A donation of used computers had come in from a local bank, and we set about cleaning them, setting up the hardware, and installing a user-friendly version of Linux on them all. It took repeated visits, and on the last we saw the fruit of our labor as a volunteer teacher led the children through using spreadsheets. I'm not joking. Evidently the guy kept their attention because he allowed them to play games in the last 10 minutes or so of class. 

There is a real need in Shopping Park. The families there work hard with the minimum of compensation, and now during the COVID-19 pandemic matters have been made worse. Many are out of work and have no other means of making income. Estacão Vida has undertaken to offer a food pantry, providing basic supplies to families as often as they are able. Aside from the present crisis, there's the ongoing matter of what to do for the children, at-risk in their neighborhood largely unattended. While Estacão Vida currently has over 200 children enrolled, the waiting list has over 400 on it. Each name on that list represents a child in legitimate need. Each one a human being with all the gifts with which our species is endowed, needing opportunity, encouragement, and nurture to reach for their potential and find their paths. 

One other matter that's come to my attention is that Shopping Park has been receiving a lot of refugees. Some are from Africa, while many are Venezuelans escaping the economic collapse of their home country. The finance manager at Estacão Vida told me the other day about a Venezuelan mother who received food from the pantry. Her home has no oven, so she built an improvised one out of stone just outside the house, and she cooks using firewood. Friends, that's not the norm in Brazil.  

For some time now I've been giving thought to how I might be able to help Estacão Vida from here in the United States. It's bothered me that the NGO's website is only available in Portuguese, leaving much of the world in the dark about their good work. Further, the donation button on the site takes the user to information on where to deposit contributions. The problem there is that to make a donation the individual has to have a knowledge of how the Brazilian banking system works, and how to send money securely and economically from the United States. Additionally, since Estacão Vida is not a registered, tax exempt charity in the United States, any such contributions will not be tax deductible in the eyes of the IRS. 

Since last year I've been enrolled in the Master of Arts in Management program at Avila University, and if all goes well I should be able to finish the degree requirements by the end of this year. During the summer semester, from now through the middle of August, I'll be working on my 'Capstone Project.' Since my concentration is in project management, I have to arrange a project with a defined scope and client, and go through the steps to bring this project to completion. I'll document this project along the way, perform a literature review, and deliver what was in scope at the end of the semester along with the paper describing it. 

My Capstone Project is to set up a US-based non-profit, complete with tax exemption, website, and a means to receive donations, all in support of the work of Estacão Vida. I'm calling this non-profit 'Uberlândia Development Initiatives' and will use 'UDI Brazil' as the trade name. Once everything is in place, we'll be open to receive contributions, and when the dollar amount in the bank account reaches a certain point (the board will define this in a future meeting) the treasurer will transfer the money to Estacão Vida's account. Nearly 100% of the money received will go to the NGO in Brazil, with only transfer fees and any administrative costs deducting from it. There will be no paid staff, and the board will be composed of volunteers. Estacão Vida will also have a seat on the board, with a representative from the NGO being a voting member. 

Frankly, I'm excited. This is more than a project to fulfill an academic requirement. It's the first steps toward realizing a dream I've had since I moved back to the United States in 2015. I hope that I'll be able to see it through to success that makes a real difference in the lives of people. It's about supporting the excellent people who are working every day to make their corner of the world a better place.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

For All Who Hunger | Book Review

This book has been a long time coming. It was sometime last year that I pre-ordered 'For All Who Hunger: Searching for Communion In a Shattered world.' Written by Rev. Emily M.D. Scott, it's her telling of the story of the birth of St. Lydia's, a 'Dinner Church,' and both its growth and hers along with it. 
"I have told you this story. A story is different from the truth. The truth has rough edges and loose threads. The truth has days that are messy or boring, where nothing works and everything's wrong." pg 211
'For All Who Hunger' hangs together beautifully, demonstrating the care Emily put into this book, along with her incredible skill in painting a picture with words. Her descriptions of places have a quality that makes them seem 'realer than real,' like a passing mention she made of a desk phone with tangled cord and blinking voicemail light. I actually paused to enjoy the stage she set with that scene, and how she put it together. The entire book is like this, with people's depth and humanity appreciated, and locations that are at once vivid and glowing with warm reflection. 

Rev Scott manages to carry forward multiple story threads and shift around in time without confusion. This is something I've seen many writers attempt, with varying degrees of success, but none so seamlessly as what I found here. She talks about the struggles of dating as a pastor in New York City, the history of her family, the conception and evolution of St. Lydia's, and the struggles and victories of her parishioners. The story moves from present to past and back again without a hiccup, filling in gaps with information from whenever things that happened at whatever points they become relevant.  

Finally, the humility and vulnerability Rev Emily Scott demonstrates in this book doesn't feel at all like a confessional, something I've had the displeasure of encountering elsewhere. Instead, she grounds the story in her own humanity. It's the honest accounting of her loneliness, frustration, joy, sorrow, and general awkwardness at times that forms the foundation of everything she has to say. I came away from this book feeling as though I'd gained a level of understanding of another person that usually doesn't come easily. Although I don't share her specific faith, her story is so relatable despite its difference from my life that it doesn't matter what either of us believe. We share a common human experience, and that is good.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Doubling Down | Fifth Sunday of Easter 2020

'San Esteban,' Workshop of Luis de Morales (1509–1586) 
Museo Nacional del Prado
The adaptations that made us work together as a species also had some unintended consequences. Figuring out how to get around at least one such characteristic seems both tricky and terribly necessary.

Human beings are social creatures. I'm convinced that even if our ancestors had evolved to attain sentience, without our sociability there would be no society. The species from which domesticated cats were derived (a population of which still exists) are solitary. They meet only to mate, and then the females raise the kittens, which subsequently go of on their own. Our friendly felines are derived from stock that adapted to life among humans. Not only are they sociable, adult cats are able to purr, while the wild variety only purrs as kittens. If humans were unsociable, the earth would be a wild and humans scattered and relatively few. At least, that's what I think.

The problem I'm writing about here is that of how people double down on what they believe, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. We see it most clearly in our times with QAnon, Flat Earthers, and Trump supporters. No matter how much evidence is offered to these, they reject it in favor of their 'alternative facts.' This is nothing new. We've been like this for as long as we've existed as a species. Part of today's reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter illustrates the point. 

A man named Stephen is depicted preaching to Jewish people in the very earliest days of the movement that became Christianity. This was at a point when Saul of Tarsus was not only not yet converted, but was actually present during the events described here. So far as we know Christianity was at this point still a weird new sect of Judaism. Stephen's rather long-winded sermon covered the history of the Jewish people and culminated in the condemnation of them for the crucifixion of Jesus. He then claimed to see into the heavens, with the Son of Man at God's right hand.
"But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him." Acts 7:57 NRSV
They stoned Stephen to death, and he's considered by the church to be the first Christian martyr. Look at how they reacted when Stephen uttered what, to them, was absolute blasphemy. He was proposing to them that Jesus was the Messiah, and with God (the 'Son of Man'), and by implication it sounded as though he was saying that he could see God. That is said within the Abrahamic tradition to be well-nigh impossible . 

Having heard something that challenged what they believed and who they were as a people, those gathered saw to Stephen's death. Granted, he hadn't provided any real evidence for his claims, but the same resistance is found in full force, and mostly with less violence, even when all the facts go against a belief.

In a 2018 article for Psychology Today, Steve Rathje wrote about The Enigma of Reason, a book by cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.
"According to their theory of reasoning, reason’s primary strengths are justifying beliefs we already believe in and making arguments to convince others. While this kind of reasoning helps us cooperate in a social environment, it does not make us particularly good at truth-seeking. It also makes us fall prey to a number of cognitive biases, like confirmation bias, or the tendency to search for information that confirms what we already believe."
Shared beliefs and customs are what tie a group of people together. It certainly worked well for humans when we were tribes scattered across the world, though it caused people to consider those not like them inferior, and thus subject to raids. It's still in play today with our nation states, sports teams, and elsewhere. Its the root of a lot of racism and xenophobia. It's what keeps even seemingly unlikely people wearing MAGA hats and praising a dangerous buffoon for his 'leadership,' as he commits one embarrassing or illegal act after another. 

Continuing with Steve Rathje's article:
Why does political identity shape our thinking and perception so dramatically? NYU psychology professor Jay Van Bavel explains the results of studies like these with his “identity-based” model of political belief: Oftentimes, the actual consequences of particular party positions matter less to our daily lives than the social consequences of believing in these party positions. Our desire to hold identity-consistent beliefs often far outweigh our goals to hold accurate beliefs. This may be because being a part of a political party or social group fulfills fundamental needs, like the need for belonging, which supersede our need to search for the truth.
One of the more uncomfortable things about the evolution of my thinking over the years is how it has put me out of line with certain people who I still hold dear. There are people I simply don't contact any more, or keep conversation at a minimum, because I don't want the inevitable conflict to arise. I've gone from theologically conservative and politically libertarian to about as theological progressive as a person can go (and still call it 'theology') and politically aligned with social democracy and social market capitalism. That's quite a journey, and not one that many have made with me. That gives me some sadness. 

How, though, to deal with someone who differs from us? Right or wrong, how can we get them to see our side? If we have evidence, how can we get them to consider it?
"When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true."Blaise Pascal, Pensées
In other words, Pascal is suggesting that we can agree with someone that from their perspective, what they are saying makes sense. If the other party involved feels comfortable that they have been heard, then it might be possible to then share with them how you see things from your perspective. It's a question of feeling safe and understood.

This could be a rather optimistic idea on Pascal's part. I can imagine how it might work out, but there are many instances where success could be rather difficult. In any case, it certainly wouldn't have helped Saint Stephen. 

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Gatekeeper | Fourth Sunday in Easter

People's sense of ownership over shared experiences can be quite frustrating to deal with.

There's a rule in my son's youth group that you shouldn't "yuck anyone's yums." In other words, if someone says they like Nickleback, you aren't supposed to mock them. It's a good rule, and one that would be nice to have more widely accepted. It's one thing to express your displeasure with something. I, for example, despise the texture of coconut in candy, and loathe the artificial coconut flavor. It's an automatic reaction I have to either, and in a friendly conversation where it comes up, I  mentioned it. However, if someone were to say that they love coconut, I wouldn't disparage them for it. They can have my portion!

There is another level of this attitude that is even more viscous, that of gatekeeping. Here's a quick explanation of the term:
The term ‘gatekeeping’, for those unfamiliar, refers to selective entry into a space, enforced by the occupiers of that space. Gatekeeping is women being interrogated on obscure comic book knowledge for daring to express an interest in comics, or black cosplayers being told they can only cosplay black characters. It can be as blatant as a black woman in a games store being condescendingly spoken to by a group of all-white all-male TTRPG players, or as subtle – relatively speaking – as the exclusion of black and brown bodies in a fantasy genre for the sake of "historical accuracy." Whatever the shape or form of the gatekeeping, the message behind it is "This is what a TTRPG player looks like. You don't belong here." — Nick Masyk, Decolonizing the Dungeon: Gatekeeping, May 2019
Gatekeeping exists in pretty much every area of shared human experience. As I've noted elsewhere, it even exists among advocates of business and engineering management models. Perhaps the area where it is most universally obvious is in religion. According to Wahhabist Islam, most of us are infidels, just as if you listen to Independent Fundamental Baptist preachers you'll be equally assured that most of us are going to hell. Beyond such altogether too common forms of religion we find barriers between groups. To some extent this makes sense, because a specific religion can't exist without distinctive language, rituals, and beliefs. Superficially Presbyterianism and Methodism look practically the same to a lay person, but within each of those denominations exists a unique continuity of history, liturgy, and doctrine.

Some Christian denominations seem to do nothing better than split up. While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives the impression of being a single monolith, the truth is that since their founding prophet's death in 1844 the tradition has experience hundreds of schisms, with splinter groups about as numerous through time and diverse as that of US Protestantism. One schism leads to another, since people cantankerous enough to leave a majority group usually have more than their share of alpha males wanting to run the show. They want control, so they magnify differences and draw lines. 
"'Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.' Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."John 10:1-10 NRSV
The Gospel of John is different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke because it was written later than they were, and reads more like a theological treatise in narrative format (because that's what it is). The author had a very high christology, placing Jesus right up there as God. I've always found it a bit disingenuous of scholars to claim the Bible does not teach about the Trinity, just because that specific word isn't mentioned. With the 27 canonical books of the New Testament as a reference, there can in my opinion be no other conclusion than that it teaches some form of triune divinity. I write that comfortably as a Unitarian Universalist, as I question how later writings and forgeries can be accepted as standard works of a religion that claims to be anchored to history.

The passage above is rather odd if you give it much thought. The actors in the story are the gatekeeper, the gate, the Shepherd, and the sheep. Which one is Jesus? A careful reading leaves me concluding that the writer meant Jesus to be gatekeeper, gate, and shepherd, which makes the metaphor break down completely for me. However, the shepherd terminology hearkens back to the words of Hebrew prophets.
"Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord." Jeremiah 23:1-5  
"For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God."Ezekiel 34:11-15 
Like many others, I've noticed that Jesus is sort of a Rorschach test. How someone describes Jesus can be a window into their soul. The right wing in the United States consider Jesus as American as baseball, mom, and apple pie. Progressives read the Gospels and find a Jesus who loves everyone and overturns traditional religion and inherited taboos. Both are exclusive in the hands of their adherents, with the progressives condemning the immigrant-fearing ways of conservative Christians, and conservatives questioning the salvation of anyone who doesn't hold to their purity regulations. Granted, I favor the ethics and morality of the progressives, but that doesn't change the fact that they have like Christians of all stripes have varying concepts of Jesus.

To some extent, all have Jesus as the gatekeeper. He defines through teaching and example who is 'in' and who is 'out.' The trouble is that no one agrees on what exactly his teachings and example meant. There must come a point at which we stop looking to someone who was probably an apocalyptic prophet situated in a very difficult period, and who has been mythologized, interpreted, and reinterpreted countless times through history, when we should be looking at one another. The Jesus idol in all his forms cannot be the standard for what is acceptable, since people will always use him to confirm what they already want to think.

Now, we don't have to throw the baby Jesus out with the holy water. The Gospel narrative can give a certain rhythm to the church year, for traditions that use a lectionary format. Engaging with texts describing the legends of Jesus can stimulate us to think carefully about what loving one another means. What I'm suggesting isn't anything new. In fact, it goes back into the history of Unitarianism, when people began to think more about the religion of Jesus, than the religion about Jesus. We can renounce gatekeeping, thinking that we can tell people living in peach how they can live their lives, and we can still be on watch for the thieves and bandits who through fear and hate would cause harm to others. None of us should think we have a claim on controlling the destiny of any life other than our own.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Three Rules

 The cornerstone of human civilization is our ability to work together. We are capable of complex communication with our languages, and we have the physical build to make and work with tools. What ties communication and tool-making together to make civilization possible is our sociability. It's no wonder then that going well back in human history, and present in belief systems that evolved separately, we find what we refer to as 'The Golden Rule. Expressed in Western terms, it is: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

 The principle is simple enough. Children readily understand the concept. Little Dion is told that if he doesn't like having his hair pulled, he shouldn't be doing that his kindergarten classmate Sally. If Sally likes it when people share their candy with her, then she should share hers with others as well. All very straightforward, except that it doesn't always hold true. That's why we need the Platinum Rule as well, which tells us to "do unto others as they would have you do unto them."

Shaniqua loves it when men hold the door for her. She considers it 'gentlemanly' and respectful. Anya, on the other hand, absolutely hates it. She feels as though she'd being coddled and pressed into a gender stereotype, and she doesn't like it. When Anya patiently tells a male co-worker that it bothers her how he always holds the door for her, he's annoyed. He suggests that she's overreacting, that his mother taught him manners, and points out that Shaniqua seems to have no problem with it. Inwardly, he decides she's 'being a bitch.' That reaction isn't fair, particularly since Anya has calmly stated her preference. She have him an opportunity to practice the Platinum Rule, and he failed. To be clear, this rule only works when someone has expressed a preference that might seem to some out of the norm. When someone's preference is unknown, we fall back onto the Golden Rule until told otherwise.

Sometimes, in certain circumstances, neither of those rules will be the best fit. And so we come to The Electrum Rule, summarized as 'Do unto others as their loved ones would have you do unto them.'

Emma loves her dad, Bill. He's always been there for her and has been a source of strength and encouragement for her and her siblings since they were born. Bill's a pretty all-around good guy. He was always a good neighbor, helping anyone out who needed it. He was part of the volunteer fire department in his town for years, until he realized his back wasn't what is used to be. He was always an attentive husband, right up until her death a year ago after a long battle with cancer. He's learning to make do on his own, and enjoys staying connect with people through social media. One day he posts out of the blue that 'illegal aliens' should be removed from the country and made to 'come back legally.' His post was set to public, and a firestorm of hate rains down on him. He's called a bigot and told he's an ignorant buffoon for thinking that there's any way an average person from Central America could ever get a visa without extraordinary circumstances. Those were the nice comments.

Seeing this, Emma is upset. She knows her dad, and remembers how upset he was when she was little and the factory where he worked closed, being moved first to Mexico, and then later to China. He and his wife struggled for a time, but managed to start their own business. She imagines this must have something to do with his attitude, because he's always been friendly with everyone, including the time she dated a Puerto Rican boy in high school.

Tom sees the post and the ensuing shitshow. His first reaction is to want to pile on, but then he thinks about Bill, someone he's known since childhood, growing up across the street from him. He knows Emma and her siblings very well, and they've stayed in touch. In the intervening years he married an Argentinian woman while working in her country, and they have a family. Thinking about how Emma and her siblings must be taking the abuse being piled on, he decides to stop by Bill's house.

Bill is visibly agitated about what's happening online, and doesn't understand how what he said was racist or otherwise wrong. He's genuinely pleased to see Tom, though, and invites him in. They chat for a while, and Tom brings it around to the social media situation. He shared with Bill some issues he and his wife faced when they came from Argentina. She struggled with the language, culture shock, and homesickness. Bill's wife had kindly come over a few times to help her with the children, take her to the store, and even helped her learn to drive. He then explains how difficult it was to get the visa for his wife, even though they were married, and describes the complexity and near-impossibility of coming to America nowadays, unless you're a skilled professional. Bill gets it, and he never would have if it depended on the online haters. He had been very wrong, and now could see it.

This is an idealized situation. Most of the time it won't play out like this. And yet, sometimes when I see someone post that people of color and lgbtq+ folx in my denomination should not be 'so thin skinned,' decrying 'political correctness,' I think about how someone who loves that person would want them treated. Let them off the hook? Absolutely not. Respond with clarity, patience, and kindness? Certainly. Between love and hate there is room for friendly admonishment. Without it, the polarity, fear, and hate in our world will only grow.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Methodism Decolonizing

by Fungus Guy, Gore Street graffiti mural, Decolonize, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
You might have heard that the United Methodist Church is preparing to split into two distinct groups. In this struggle I believe I see how efforts at decolonization have played into this process.

Hopes and spirits were high when the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church came together in 1968. Rev. Joseph Evers, who had been a delegate to the Uniting Conference, said in 2018 that “[i]t felt like the restoration of the Methodist movement.1 In the following years that did not prove to be entirely the case. Losing members in the United States from then until now, in a similar fashion as all mainline Protestant churches have, they also gained membership overseas. This was particularly true of growth in African nations.

As a global church, delegates come together from around the world for a periodic General Conference. While the North American church was becoming increasingly progressive, accepting critical scholarship on the Bible, and pushing to welcome and affirm ltbtq+ folx in all aspects of church life, including ordained ministry, the church in the developing world was continuing with a very conservative frame of mind. Meanwhile, conservative evangelicals within the UMC ranks in the United States were pushing for a more traditional set of values and understanding of scripture. Between the US conservatives and the delegates from developing nations, it was assured that no official move in a progressive direction would be made legislatively.

Before I continue, here's how Wikipedia defines and describes colonization:
Colonization (or colonisation) is a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components. Colonization refers strictly to migration, for example, to settler colonies in America or Australia, trading posts, and plantations, while colonialism to the existing indigenous peoples of styled "new territories". Colonization was linked to the spread of tens of millions from Western European states all over the world. In many settled colonies, Western European settlers eventually formed a large majority of the population after killing or driving away indigenous peoples. Examples include the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. These colonies were occasionally called 'neo-Europes'. In other places, Western European settlers formed minority groups, which often used more advanced weaponry to dominate the people initially living in their places of settlement.[1] 
When Britain started to settle in Australia, New Zealand and various other smaller islands, they often regarded the landmasses as terra nullius, meaning 'empty land' in Latin.[2] Due to the absence of European farming techniques, the land was deemed unaltered by man and therefore treated as uninhabited, despite the presence of indigenous populations. In the 19th century, laws and ideas such as Mexico's general Colonization Law and the United States' Manifest destiny encouraged further colonization of the Americas, already started in the 15th century.
Missionaries are often viewed as instruments of colonization, whether unwittingly or otherwise. From this perspective, any Methodist missionaries that went to Africa starting churches and hospitals were participating in colonization. The Methodist interpretation of Christian doctrine as well as the influences of Western culture were imposed through persuasion, enticement, and coercion. The Methodist missionary project was fairly successful, resulting in millions of members throughout the African continent. The extension of Western culture through missions is historically characteristic of all such efforts, across denominations and around the world. Colonization is more than the taking of land and imposition of laws and religion.

For an explanation of 'decolonization,' consider this from 'What Decolonization Is, and What It Means to Me,' by Tina Curiel-Allen: 
To talk about decolonization, people need an understanding of what we are decolonizing from. Colonization is when a dominant group or system takes over and exploits and extracts from the land and its native peoples. Colonization has taken place all over the globe, through the stealing of lands; the raping of women; the taking of slaves; the breaking of bodies through fighting, labor, imprisonment, and genocide; the stealing of children; the enforcement of religion; the destruction—or attempts to destroy—spiritual ways of life. All of these things have left a psychological, spiritual, and physical imprint on indigenous peoples, and a governmental ruling system that we did not create, that was not made for us. These are the things we need to heal from, where we need to start reclaiming. This is where organizing and decolonizing comes in.
Later in the same article she adds, '[d]ecolonizing is about reclaiming what was taken and honoring what we still have.'

One of the features of progressive Christianity has been an attempt, albeit far from perfect, to decolonize theology and practice. This is the case throughout the mainline Protestant denominations, with varying degrees of success. It's also a matter of deep concern within Unitarian Universalism, where issues have arisen pointing to a continued culture of white supremacy within the association. In an unfortunate and ironic twist, progressive Christians, including United Methodists, have been guilty of infantilizing their African brethren, suggesting that they hold to traditional values out of ignorance or, worse, as the result of very mission work that brought them into the fold. It's difficult not to interpret the condescension shown by progressives to Africans and others from developing nations regarding the direction of their church and over theological and social issues as anything other than a colonialist mindset.

At the same time, ltbtq+ rights are human rights, and uncritical acceptance of people with homophobic and transphobic views certainly looks like endorsement. I feel confident that if theological issues were the only point of contention, the UMC would not be planning to split up. As it is, as an outside observer I don't see any way the two parties could come together again without either an acceptance of lgtbq+ folx, or a compromise that devalues such people for the sake of outward 'unity.' So, while the progressives have work to do on decolonizing their attitudes towards people of other nations, people of whatever nationality also don't get off the hook either.

There is something else to be considered about decolonization: white conservative evangelicals don't like it. The very concept puts them on the defensive, as though they were guilty of the sins of their ancestors, when in fact this is the water in which we all must swim. Additionally, it exposes the violence and greed of Manifest Destiny and all such similar doctrines, something that white evangelicals can only understand as unpatriotic and even 'anti-American.'This sends them reflexively into a tizzy, blustering that anyone who thinks this way should move to another country. When brought even closer to home, to their religion, they are certain that someone has to leave.

Of course, people in liberal religious traditions are capable of similar responses. In reaction to moves to address white supremacy culture within Unitarian Universalism a cadre of Boomers and some GenXers within the UUA have spoken out about the supposed evils of 'political correctness.' I'm not certain how expecting people to be treated with respect within a voluntary fellowship is asking too much, but here we are. I won't go on about this here, as I've already said my piece in The Igneous Quill Essays.

The reaction of white evangelicals is more telling, however, in that it ends up laced with nationalistic concepts, a sense of cultural superiority, and an expression of desire that their particular beliefs and values be adopted around the world. The traditionalists that divide off into a new group will surely be engaging in recolonizing efforts, as have evangelicals ever since the religious right was born.

Note the way Mark Tooley phrases it in "New Methodism's Inevitable Challenge,"and particularly in the lines I've highlighted:
As Watson rightly warns, we must heed yesterday’s lessons. How was once great Methodism in America brought low by spiritual, cultural and moral compromise? Its century or more of theological retreat must never be forgotten. But the lessons are not all negative. What became United Methodism was in many ways a mighty force for Gospel influence, where genuinely godly leaders often sought to remain faithful to doctrine and to be responsible stewards of American culture, to the extent they were able. Millions were blessed by their exertions, despite their mistakes. 
In the new global Methodism we will need established leaders to exert wider societal and cultural influence in America and other nations. And we will need prophetic voices to challenge their human temptation to prevaricate in pursuit of worldly acclaim. The church cannot be fully itself without both this public witness and simultaneous internal challenge to it.
The close link described here between an idealized America (MAGA, anyone?) and the theology and work of the church is no accident. The two go hand-in-hand in most white conservative evangelical circles, and the possibility that they could be wrong is never entertained among them. Regardless of the size of the departing group, they will most certainly be committed to maintaining and extending the hegemony of conservative Western culture and values. Up to now within the United Methodist Church they've been distracted by internecine conflict. Once gone, they will be able to turn their view outward. Then again, will they? Schismatic groups tend to continue to suffer schisms. If we're lucky, they'll break apart into groups too small to make any real difference. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Muddled Polity

When I was in Brazil as a missionary in the early 2000s I had occasion to talk to some Mormon missionaries. They showed me a simple outline of a church on paper that had been cut up and laminated. Each part of the church represented a role, and as you put them together you built the church. There were quite a few pieces, from general members at the bottom, up through bishops, stake presidents, quorums, and eventually to the First Presidency at the top, which includes the 'President and Prophet' of the church. I liked the idea of the little organizational puzzle as a teaching tool so well that I made my own. Except in my case, I went from what I believed the Bible taught on the topic.
"The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ." — Ephesians 4:11-13* 
From a more traditional wing of an already conservative stream of the Stone-Campbell Movement —that is to say, within the independent Christian Churches — I had become persuaded that while apostles and prophets are no longer present, local churches should be led by an evangelist (or more), and by a plurality of elders, with deacons administrating the physical maintenance of the church building and with things like food pantries. This is what I saw being described in the letters to Timothy and Titus, the 'Pastoral Epistles.' The 'pattern' I saw there is what I just described. Presybters/bishops/elders/overseers/pastors/shepherds (all interchangeable terms for the same role) followed by deacons/servants. I took it so deeply to heart that my ordination certificate even said 'Evangelist.'

It wasn't just Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles that persuaded me. There were also some writings from the early church that backed up my belief.
"And this they did in no new fashion; for indeed it had been written concerning bishops and deacons from very ancient times; for thus saith the scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith."1Clement 42:4-5 (J.B. Lightfoot) 
"Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not lovers of money, and true and approved; for unto you they also perform the service of the prophets and teachers. Therefore despise them not; for they are your honourable men along with the prophets and teachers." — Didache 15:1-4 (J.B. Lightfoot)
It's an inescapable fact that to whatever extent the plurality of elders organization was ever used, it fell very quickly out of favor.
"Since therefore I have, in the persons before mentioned, beheld the whole multitude of you in faith and love, I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed." — Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 6:1 (Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson)
"In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church."Letter to the Trallians 3:1-2 (Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson)
The 'monarchical episcopate' was the commonly accepted polity of what became considered orthodox Christianity from a very early date. In it, the church has a bishop who rules over presbyters (thereby splitting one role into two), and below them, deacons. It went from being a method of local church leadership to covering entire towns, with a single bishop running the show, and presbyters leading individual assemblies of Christians. It is now the format for Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and several other communions of Christianity. Bishop, priest, and deacon.

Here's the problem I see with all of the above. The majority of New Testament scholars agree that the Pastoral Epistles were not written by the apostle Paul, and the authorship of Ephesians is debated and doubted as well. These were forgeries prepared by people with specific agendas. Given the content they seem to have meant well generally, but they faked authorship to gain wider acceptance of their writings. Although some still say that this was an acceptable practice in those days, it most certainly wasn't. Forgeries were as loathed by the educated of Roman times as they are by scholars in ours. Like conspiracy theories among right wingers in the contemporary United States, writings like these were accepted fairly uncritically by most Christians in those times.

It makes sense that we don't find record of widespread acceptance of the plurality of bishops/elders model in the early church. It's unlikely that most were planted with any notion of such a form of leadership, and it's doubtful that those Paul himself started received any such instruction. Acts describes him setting apart 'elders in every city,' but lays out no criteria for those elders. Comparing the short length of time it took him to appoint elders with the detailed standards of the Pastorals, which seem to assume some length of time as a Christian for consideration, I get the impression that Timothy and Titus were written at a time when the church had been around for perhaps a generation or more.

What Paul actually wrote about roles in the church has less the feel of formality and more of description. He was simply observing what he saw in the life of the church.
"And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. So preaching everywhere in country and town, they appointed their firstfruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe." — 1 Corinthians 12:28 
Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement churches have the Timothy/Titus model in their DNA. Among contemporary independent Christian Churches we tend to see pastors hired by churches that have boards composed of elders, and deacons as a secondary role to elders. Most a cappella Churches of Christ eschew the practice of referring to their hired ministers as 'pastor,' instead preferring to use the term 'pulpit minister.' I always found this funny when I was at Harding University, because you certainly don't find 'pulpit minister' — or even pulpits for that matter — in the Bible. As for the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, they use the nomenclature found in independent churches, but more often than not welcome women into all roles.

As a Unitarian Universalist and former Stone-Campbellite I find this all every interesting (obviously), but unnecessary. From our congregationalist roots we've inherited the practice of hiring a minister or more and running the local church through an elected board. Generally there's a congregational meeting at least once a year, where members can vote on matters considered important. Aside from that, there's some variety in how UU congregations operate. Many don't have full-time ministers, or are entirely lay-led. Others have ministers and trustees, but also lay ministers. The UU congregation where I'm a member has a triad in leadership, composed of two ordained ministers and an executive director, with a board of trustees. We also have volunteer roles for chaplains, RE teachers, small group facilitators, and more. We aren't bound to a particular model, and can adapt as circumstances require.

Over the long haul we see Christian churches doing the same. Timothy and Titus haven't stopped denominations with an episcopal system from carrying on with their tradition, and even claiming deep antiquity for it reaching back to the apostles. These books also haven't persuaded that many other churches to follow their 'pattern.' Like most of the Bible, they are understood in whatever way seems most convenient, or neglected altogether. After all, if someone took all of it seriously, they really wouldn't know what to think at all. 

* Unless otherwise noted, Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.